Scientific literacy

The Board of Education

My first, and ultimately enduring thought about the Kansas Board of Education's decision to drop evolution from its curriculum was "This is news?"

Since when have Midwestern states adequately covered the theory of evolution? Certainly it was completely glossed over when I went through the public school system in Kansas. Polling the people I know from the Midwest it appears this is the rule, not the exception: anyone from the Midwest who knows the theory of evolution learned it on their own time. A recent article in Education Week supports this impression -- the theory of evolution is hardly taught consistently in this country, if it is taught at all.

In the high school I attended it wasn't the case that the teachers believed there was a better theory, or that they were ignorant of the theory and the data that supports it. In conversation, one stated categorically that he felt there was not a theory in any field more broadly supported by evidence than is the theory of evolution. I can only surmise that the Bible Belt being what it is, most teachers felt safer in their jobs by not dwelling on the subject. 1

What did strike me about the board's decision, and about a subsequent discussion on Slashdot (a "News for Nerds" site) was the degree to which the American public is scientifically illiterate.

The creationist arguments posted on Slashdot were not new to me -- they were the same tired nonsense I'd heard years ago. One post proclaimed that it would reveal the "TRUE" theory of evolution: if an organism lost a limb, its offspring would be missing the same limb. While in Kansas a creationist had insisted that "if you really trace it to its roots" the theory of evolution was based on a mystical notion of mind-over-matter: a fish swimming near the shore "wishes" he has legs, and by some supernatural (and no doubt demonic) force he wills legs to start growing.

Of course both of these ideas are completely wrong, and have nothing to do with the theory of evolution at all. Darwin specifically argued against the will of the organism having anything to do with mutation, and the theory of acquired traits did not survive long in the face of evidence. If either of these creationists had ever cracked a single book on the subject of evolution (written by someone besides the folk at the Institute for Creation Research) they would have known this.2

The rest of the comments by creationists on Slashdot were similarly informed (i.e., not at all). There was, however, one enduring and worthwhile thread to the creationist posts, which I hope will serve to direct the course of education in America. By far the most common post was "well it's just a theory. It's always taught as fact." This argument ignores what the words "theory" and "fact" mean in scientific circles -- gravity is a "theory", in this sense. However there is a larger point. These people were fundamentally expressing dissatisfaction with being given the results of science without the methods of science -- the data which supports the theory, how it was gathered, what it means, etc.

I couldn't agree more with this point. Results without methods are ultimately (and should be) unconvincing and uninteresting. This is at the heart of the problem of scientific literacy. Too much of American education is focused on memorizing results, rather than understanding process. A broad view of scientific method is never presented in most high school curricula. Ultimately, the student would be better served by understanding the methods of science (the discipline of critical thinking) than by being able to recite a long list of established scientific results -- in the same fashion that it is more useful to learn to fish than to be given a fish to satisfy an immediate hunger.

How do we distinguish what is true from what is false? How do we collect valid data? How do we correctly interpret statistical data we have collected? These are fundamental to science, but seldom formally discussed in the classroom. In a highly technical society these questions become increasingly important. We are daily bombarded by disembodied "scientific" data in the popular media, but never given the tools to evaluate that data. Frequently the data pertains to matters of great importance, and matters of public policy. Frequently the data concerns our personal health. (Sadly, the medical community seldom holds itself to the same high standards of research that are used in the scientific community.) Never has there been a more pressing need for a scientifically literate population.


Unfortunately, at the same time that religious conservatives complain about the way evolution is taught they are leading the charge in the latest madness in education: the "back to basics" craze, and the closely related "tougher standards" movement. With "back to basics" rejecting any more cerebral curriculum in favor of rote memorization, and "tougher standards" requiring students to spew volumes of trivia without a hint of understanding, there is little time for teaching process, for learning to use the tools of scientific method to distinguish fact from fiction.

If their desire is merely to quash science and its methods, then this combined strategy will, of course, work: critique evolution because the data is never presented, and simultaneously push for curricula devoid of the inquiry-based techniques where one might introduce the data.

When I began this page I was reluctant to attribute such motives to the board members, and the fundamentalists they represent. Since then, however, I have noted in the San Jose Mercury News that the board also removed Big Bang theory, and any reference to radio-isotope dating methods -- in effect attempting to refute modern physics in its entirety.

We can safely say these are people to whom evidence is irrelevant.

Further Reading

1: Amusingly, my own interest in the subject was sparked more by the fundamentalist community than by the public schools. Where the public schools were almost completely silent on the subject, the fundamentalist community was quite vocal -- inviting Duane Gish to speak at a local church, and organizing a debate on the subject. I became familiar with the arguments of creationists at a very young age, and first realized there was a problem when I discovered (a few years later) that Gish didn't understand high school physics. I heard him first hand voicing the nonsensical "second law of thermodynamics" argument against evolution, and a few years later learned the law myself. This lead to more reading on the subject, and the realization that none of the arguments I had been taught made any sense.

2:This sort of loud, head-strong, gross ignorance never fails to catch me off guard, though it seems to be ever more popular in the aftermath of the Reagan/Gingrich/Limbaugh conservative revolution. Reagan was the master of the boundlessly ignorant statement, always spoken with tremendous conviction. Trees cause pollution, cars are no less polluting than busses, a few hundred welfare moms are bankrupting the country, etc., etc. It is largely that skill which Limbaugh has modeled in his career, always giving reality a wide berth (claiming volcanos have caused the hole in the ozone layer, etc.). Having correct data in America today means nothing compared to the ability to speak firmly, with sincerity and conviction, and preferably blaming everything on some powerless scapegoat -- blacks, the poor, the emasculated labor unions of the 80's and 90's, etc.

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