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- April 2011
We Love Science! Er...Most of It.
   April 10th, 2011, 6:51 pm

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My last post ended on an optimistic note about how much Americans really do love and respect science. It seems that current events needed to retaliate and cut down my offensive enthusiasm. Last week, the results of a survey of public high school biology teachers were published, showing that over half of our country's biology teachers "fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments."

I cannot entirely blame teachers for this; last week I heard an evolutionary biologist describe how her husband, a high school science teacher in Tennessee, does not want his school or his community to know that his wife studies evolution. I have no doubt that many teachers face incredible pressure from parents.

There have also been several news stories in the past week about state legislatures passing or attempting to pass laws about what to teach in students in biology class. Perhaps Americans do appreciate science....just not all of it. And/or the "loud mouths and heavy typers" I discussed in my last post are particularly aggressive when it comes to certain topics. There is something about evolution that makes it far more divisive than physics or chemistry or mathematics or even molecular biology.

At this point you may be thinking, "Ummm, 'something'? You're actually wondering why? Isn't it obvious to all of us?!?" Yes, religious beliefs are the first blush answer. But I personally feel it is strongly related to a lack of knowledge about science. Though some people would disagree with me on this. In particular, Matthew C. Nisbet, whose viewpoint I usually agree with. I'm sure he would say, now that is an appeal to the "deficit model"!

Matthew C. Nisbet wrote:Historically, a prevailing assumption has been that ignorance is at the root of social conflict over science. ... Once citizens are brought up to speed on the science, they will be more likely to judge scientific issues as scientists do and controversy will go away. In this decades-old "deficit" model, ... facts are assumed to speak for themselves and to be interpreted by all citizens in similar ways.

... As we explain in this essay, continued adherence to the deficit model only likely fans the flames of science conflicts. Condescending claims of "public ignorance" too often serve to further alienate key audiences, especially in the case of evolutionary science, when these charges are mixed with atheist critiques of religion.

... a recent meta-analysis shows that science literacy only accounts for a small fraction of the variance in how lay publics form opinions about controversial areas of science. Far stronger influences on opinion derive from value dispositions such as ideology, partisanship, and religious identity. In addition, no matter how accurately communicated and understood the science, policy decisions cannot be separated from values, political context, and necessary trade-offs between costs, benefits, and risks.


Now, excepting the case of extreme biblical literalists (which I think are in the minority), I still feel that a special case of the "deficit model" applies to peoples' resistance to evolution. Teaching the facts of evolution is just one important cornerstone. I think teachers and scientists also need to address the implications of the facts of evolution, and in that vein the implications of scientific findings in general.


Among langur monkeys, it is perfectly natural for new males to try and commit infanticide. In fact, this is common to many primate species. But that doesn't mean primatologists are trying to teach your children that infanticide in humans is OK.

This is the important lesson: 'is' does not equal 'ought.' Just because something is 'natural' does not mean that it is 'right.' Yes, the scientific study of the evolution of life forms tells us that we descended from animals not unlike modern day monkeys, it tells us that organisms are selfish gene replicators. But that does not mean that scientists think humans are monkeys or that being selfish is good.

Teaching your child about evolution will not make them think that humans are monkeys or that being selfish is good. Especially if teachers include the is/ought lesson in a general teaching module about the scientific method. As scientists, we are only trying to understand why the world is the way it is. We are not trying to find the rules for how the world ought to be.

No, policy decisions cannot be separated from values and political context. But evolution does not teach values and scientific findings (in the purest sense) do not have a political context. And I think making this clear could go a long way towards healing the anti-evolution breach.

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