Why Not "Teach the Controversy"?

The results of the Second Panda Poll, PP2, show that the readers of this blog overwhelmingly think that the case against evolution should not be taught in the public schools. In response to the question,

The arguments against evolution are unsound and should not be taught as science in the public schools,

nearly 90 % of respondents strongly agreed or agreed. Approximately 10 % disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Here are the results in more detail:

Strongly Agree457(79%)
Strongly Disagree51(9%)

The sum, 101 %, is not 100 % due to round-off error.

PP2 is very precise: No appeals to fairness, no teaching the controversy (as if the controversy had not been manufactured by those who want it taught), no mention of so-called intelligent design. Instead, PP2 has 2 or 3 parts, depending on who’s counting:

  1. The arguments against evolution are unsound.

  2. They should not be taught (a) as science and (b) in the public schools.

To “strongly agree,” you have to subscribe to all 3 parts, yet approximately 80 % of our respondents did precisely that, and 8 % “agreed,” if not “strongly.” Only 3 % were neutral, and 11 % disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Our readers and our respondents are self-selected, so it is perhaps not surprising that, on the whole, they strongly agree with the statement. But why? Why not “teach the controversy”?

I can’t speak for our readers, but I remember standing up at a Skeptics’ conference many years ago and asking, roughly, “What are we afraid of? We teach inheritance of acquired characteristics as an example of a failed theory that was supplanted by natural selection. Why don’t we similarly teach about creationism in biology class and expose it as the bunk it is?”

Then I read Randy Moore’s article, “Educational Malpractice: Why Do So Many Biology Teachers Endorse Creationism?” (Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2001, pp. 38-43). Moore is a professor of biology at the University of Minnesota and, when he wrote the article, was editor of The American Biology Teacher. The thrust of Moore’s article is to examine why evolution is poorly taught in US public schools, but along the way he notes,

  1. Most Americans do not believe that humans evolved from earlier species, and approximately half believe that humans were created 10,000 years ago.

  2. In 1997, after the emergence of intelligent-design neocreationism but well before its eruption onto the national stage, many Americans wanted to teach creationism alongside evolution or instead of evolution.

In addition, Moore reviews research on the beliefs and practices of high school biology teachers and administrators in a half-dozen states, only 2 of which may be considered deep south or Bible belt. It is hard to extrapolate to the country as a whole, but you might guess from Moore’s analysis that

  1. Possibly 1/3 of high-school biology teachers believe in creationism or do not think evolution is central to biology.

  2. Possibly 1/5 of high-school biology teachers teach creationism in their classes.

  3. Many of the remaining biology teachers do not teach evolution because it is controversial and they are afraid of pressure groups.

Moore’s article was written in 2001. Since then, neocreationists have mounted a public-relations campaign that includes significant efforts to mandate teaching intelligent-design neocreationism in the public schools in several states or, failing that, to undermine the teaching of evolution. The surveys Moore cites are even older, and almost undoubtedly “creationism” means “young-earth creationism.” If the surveys were taken today, with “intelligent design” replacing “creationism,” the results might be worse.

Too many people, including biology teachers, put the cart before the horse, belief before evidence. Moore quotes one biology teacher, in particular, as saying, “I don’t use the word evolution [because I’m] a Christian … so I don’t think I evolved.” As the king says in Alice, “Sentence first–verdict afterwards.”

Why should we not teach the arguments against evolution, not teach “the controversy”? Because the arguments against evolution are bunk, but too many teachers will take them seriously, and too many people will accept them. We should not teach something that is demonstrably wrong when there is danger that someone will be taken in. That is why I was right about teaching acquired characteristics but wrong about teaching creationism.

Acknowledgement. Thanks to Glenn Branch and Gary Hurd for helpful clarifications and suggestions.