The Brights' Bulletin

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Issue #209

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Spotlight on a Rather Unusual Situation (USA)

The United States maintains a global reputation for achievements in scientific enterprise (e.g., it’s tops in Nobel prizes) and is generally counted somewhere among top countries for its educational systems overall. Nonetheless, when it comes to its citizens’ comprehension of evolutionary theory in the scientific sense, the national picture is baffling.

The issue: Why is the United States such an outlier among developed nations regarding its citizens’ comprehension of human origins and evolution?

Nationally, the populace’s comprehension of evolutionary change has long been weak overall and notably muddled. Regionally, there are huge disparities. In some localities, well-informed science teachers must pursue their efforts amid a local culture or even within a state regulatory framework that mixes in religious accounts. Many educators live where local cultural pressures run so counter to scientific explanations that teachers themselves fail to comprehend, let along teach, authentic science.

Brights, with their naturalistic worldview, do not require explanations of human origins and change across time that mix in supernatural elements or agency. Nor do they admire such accounts. Most Brights regard science as the best route for humans to grasp how the world works and would hope for education in science to be education in science. So, the situation of the U.S. citizenry not being fully aligned with science on this fundamental building block of contemporary science is perplexing. (With its Evolution Poster Project, Brights play a small role in addressing this problem.)

This Brights’ bulletin focuses primarily on a state of affairs of considerable concern to American Brights, and to many Brights elsewhere as well.


Intuitions Disadvantage Evolution Education

Although science itself is built on conventional reasoning, the discipline’s processes often yields counterintuitive results. This is but one of many difficulties faced everywhere by educators teaching science to students and also by those communicating its outcomes to the general public.

In the face of the simpler and more intuitive explanations offered by creationism or intelligent design, the task of science teachers guiding students toward comprehending evolutionary theory is not easy. Journalists and those whose role in society involves communicating science are similarly challenged in rendering to the public authentic explanations of the origin of life’s diversity and complexity and how homo sapiens came about by means of evolutionary change.

Furthermore, humans (all of us, our species) seem to be prone to accepting irrational beliefs and pseudoscience. Scholars who seriously study that particular vulnerability recognize the many challenges confronted when developing and sustaining multifaceted scientific concepts and complex theories such as evolution.

One particular challenge, say some scholars, is that religion’s biases hinder an understanding of evolution. Religion⁠—not creationist religion, but religion per se⁠—appeals to precisely those intuitions that leave students “…more inclined to reject evolutionary theory when they are presented with alternatives deeply anchored in their intuitive theories.”


Hindering Evolution Education, A Recent Chronicle (USA)

Teachers can perhaps surmount the difficulties of teaching about evolution if they are actually permitted to engage in the attempt to do so. In the United States, though, there is a history of making such efforts illegal.

The early efforts to outlaw the teaching of evolution in the U.S. brought forth the notorious Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 and, for those interested in a very brief account, PBS has constructed a useful timeline of the trial, while also outlining some subsequent legal activities leading up to the present century.

Some of this history is recalled and amplified in a quite recent New Yorker article, “Why the School Wars Still Rage.” In the March 2022 piece, an American historian notes how recounting some “origin stories” of American history (e.g., African American, Latino American, Asian American) has not only set fire to a number of contemporary controversies, it is a continuance.

Although current cultural uproars in public education may focus a great deal more on the teaching of history than the biology curriculum, America’s “evolution controversy” has not disappeared. After the 1925 trial, the anti-evolution legal campaigns did eventually dwindle. Nonetheless, efforts to hinder teaching of evolution have apparently continued to the present day. The broad cultural controversies described in this historian’s article include among them, evolution.

As regards the origins and development of life on Earth, most biologists and other scientists find evolutionary theory to be convincing. However, culturally, there appears to be a different story. Looking at developed nations today, it appears that the desire to outlaw evolution education remains an almost uniquely “American” endeavor.


The Ongoing Evolution Debate (USA)

As a Brights’ Bulletin remarked when the Pew Research Center first published the “Darwin in America” essay by David Masci, that 2019 piece is valuable because its author delved deeply into the cultural currents regarding evolution in the United States. The treatise remains instructive for readers today, whether they are looking askance at fellow Americans or with bafflement from abroad. Masci explains how it is that, so long after evolutionary theory gained wide acceptance in science (excepting a small number of working scientists), there endures no broad concurrence among Americans themselves. 

And it isn’t just evolutionary theory alone. In the U.S., many scientific explanations fail to obtain wide acceptance in the general public. As Pew noted in a 2015 report on public attitudes in the U.S., it is as if scientists and American citizens see “through different sets of eyes.” (This goes for things like food science, climate change, bioengineering and vaccines, as well as evolution.)

When contrasting science with the views of the American citizenry, Pew reported a “33 Point Gap” on the topic of evolution, with only about two-thirds of Americans in agreement with 98 percent of scientists that “humans and other living things have evolved over time.” That’s a pretty big disparity! Also: although roughly half of the U.S. adult population does accept evolutionary theory (in the scientific sense of natural processes and natural selection), about a quarter will accept a notion of change having taken place over time as only due to guidance of a Supreme Being.

The cultural contrast can also be viewed as it was described in the aforementioned essay: “Nearly a fifth of U.S. adults reject the idea that life on Earth has evolved at all. Yes, Americans are still arguing about evolution, while in most other developed nations the general public has accepted the fact of evolutionary change.”


Any Hopeful Changes in Evolution Education?

>>The Plutzer, Branch and Reid Study

These coauthors report a noticeable change over the dozen years between a 2007 national survey report and their June 2020 report on the quality of evolution teaching.

The former report is titled, “Evolution and Creationism in America’s Classrooms: A National Portrait” and the latter, “Teaching evolution in U.S. public schools, a continuing challenge.”

As the three coauthors explain, the earlier survey had revealed disquieting facts about evolution education in the United States. At the time, the earlier nationally representative study had found that only about one in three public high school biology teachers presented evolution consistently with the recommendations of the nation’s leading scientific authorities. Furthermore, 13% of teachers were voicing creationism as a valid scientific alternative to modern evolutionary biology.

The newer investigation of quality did show constructive change in the intervening 12 years, at least as measured by teachers’ reports of their teaching practices with regard to evolution and creationism. There were substantial reductions in overtly creationist instruction and also in the number of teachers who send mixed messages that legitimate creationism as a valid scientific alternative to evolutionary biology. (Such messages could lead students to consider creationism as a scientific perspective.)

Noting a large reduction (in teachers’ claims) of both the creationist instruction and mixed messaging, the authors credit adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards, along with improvements in pre-service teacher education and in-service teacher professional development. They also note teachers at the high school level devoting more hours to evolution instruction – including on human evolution – since the prior national survey.


Some Educational Groups Buttress Quality (USA)

Teachers’ professional organizations have fortified their stance in support of a solid science model. This is helpful to bolstering evolution teaching practices. Organizational positions, publications, conferences and additional educational opportunities for teachers offer hope that generational replacement will produce classroom teachers better equipped to stand strong for scientific explanations and ensure firmer student understanding of them.

>>The National Association of Biology Teachers
A strong NABT Statement about teaching evolution urges teachers to maintain the integrity of their courses and, in the process, best serve their students.

A 2018 article abstracted here in an NABT publication directly addresses what its coauthors describe as “forces at the local, state, and national levels that have worked to delegitimize and obstruct the teaching of evolution and, in some cases, to legitimize the teaching of religious ideas. Despite scientific evidence, public opinion, and even legislation, these forces have continued to influence, and in some cases block, the teaching of evolution in public schools.”

The article itself (“The Fight to Keep Evolution Out of Schools: The Law and Classroom Instruction”) notes that proponents of teaching religion under the guise of science may have been defeated in the courts, but they are continuing to find ways to insert their ideology. The piece outlines for subscribers some strategies for confronting misinformation, for telling science from non-science, and for avoiding controversy.

>>The National Science Teachers Association

The NSTA provides its own firm statement about the teaching of evolution and offers teachers some excellent background as well. One highlight of NSTA's rather lengthy webpage is its inclusion of a summary of past legal cases on the topic. This background context can fortify teachers in confronting contemporary cultural currents that are at work against their attempts to engage in authentic science teaching. (Another overview of legal cases from the past has been written by an editor of NABT American Biology Teacher.)

>>The National Center for Science Education

The NCSE is a smaller organization, but its members have been at work for four decades directly confronting the cultural pressures to teach “creation science” rather than evolution. NCSE is known for its effective activism on the issue of evolution, having spearheaded the landmark legal case that barred teaching of covert creationism in public school science classrooms.

NCSE’s services are most helpful to teachers in local communities that have erected barriers to the teaching of evolution. Despite creationists having lost every legal challenge, there are biology teachers who continue to insert religious explanations in their classrooms, and more would do so if allowed. (NCSE has expanded its activism to be inclusive of helping teachers address climate change topics in communities where support for authentic science is less accessible or amenable.)


How Different U.S. States Handle Evolution (Data)

In public schools, the established curriculum overrides teachers’ personal speech rights as citizens. If the curriculum asks that science teachers present evolution in the manner prescribed by the curriculum, a teacher may not teach classes in ways that circumvent the prescribed course curriculum established by the school board. That much is legally clear.

The teaching of creationism in science classes of tax-supported schools has been shown to be unconstitutional. Furthermore, public schools may not adopt creationism-based textbooks. (Recall that private and religious schools, though, may bypass many measures that public schools have to follow.) Today, looking at the reality of United States’ K-12 educational programs and curricula, it appears that science has won the day, but barely.

Really: just barely.  The data regarding the overall picture of school curriculum shows science’s evolutionary explanation to still be confronting the alternative explanations offered as creationism and/or intelligent design. Across fifty states, each state maintains its own emphasis.

A current 2022 tabulation of the “teaching evolution controversy” by the World Population Review is revealing. According WPR’s status descriptions for what is going on in the fifty American states, in just slightly over half of the states can it be stated simply and clearly that evolution is required to be taught full stop. That is, the evolution requirement stands alone, absent some surplus phrase such as this one WPR affixed to another 16 states “creationism may also be taught”.

For Wisconsin, the add-on is “…but districts may determine their own science curricula”. For Colorado and Wyoming, the status is: “Evolution is standard; however, several schools teach creationism.” Louisiana explicitly “offers freedom to question scientific theories like evolution”.

In Tennessee, where the notorious Scopes trial took place, the 2022 WPR Status Report’s full descriptor reads: “Evolution is required to be taught; teaching creationism may be allowed. State offers freedom to question scientific theories like evolution.”

California appears to be the state with the most rigorous requirement that evolution be taught, adding this warning: “classes not teaching evolution may be deemed insufficient for college”.


Experiential Teaching / First-Hand Learning

For the general public, there has probably been no better provider of concepts of evolutionary change than the over-two-year saga of the SARS-Co-V2 virus as it has mutated and spread. That’s about as close to direct experience learning as ordinary citizens come.

By tracking widely reported news of the features and effects of the versions over time, people for once could essentially be living out this evolutionary story of a virus. First, the wild type. Then a series of variants: alpha, beta, gamma, delta… etc., each to be outdone in prevalence by another version. People were introduced to new variants, one by one, and had an opportunity to consider what was being said by experts about what was going on.

The virus has infected all sorts of animals, from pets (dogs and cats and ferrets), spread to zoo animals and ravaged mink farms. And now the lineage is moving onward past omicron with its particularly wide-ranging array of variations to which so much of the world has already been introduced.

While scientific experts were being surprised, and learning along the way, from the virus’s behavior, the world’s population has been learning, too! People have been directly encountering the natural changes and soaking in, direct from scientists’ attempts to explain the data, the explanations of what was causing them. In this sense, the coronavirus has likely proved itself to be an excellent teacher.


Cluster of Thanks, and One More Point

More thanks to roll out the door to the individual Brights who have, in this current year, emailed to friends or mentioned this initiative or provided a monetary contribution or arranged with an employer a matching donation to support the nonprofit organization, The Brights’ Net.

You folks are the people who are enabling people from across the world to find a web-based “home” where they can discover online that they really are not alone in having a naturalistic outlook on life! Instead, they become part of an internet constituency of like-minded others! 

New enrollees often remark on their feeling so remote from friends or family who do not share their outlook. (Living amid those who draw on supernatural agency when natural explanations instead are your thing can be difficult.) 

Besides the wealth of information installed on the website, BC also issues bulletins to share with constituents topics of likely interest or concern to persons whose worldview is free of supernatural/mystical elements.

For example, the topic featured in this very bulletin may be of some interest to Andrew, in Illinois, who enrolled just last month, stating at the time: “I am a high school science teacher. I got a job in a new school, and 2 of my colleagues are young earthers. They are mixing their beliefs in with science, and I want it to stop, but I live in the Bible Belt.”

This new Bright’s situation is illustrative of the challenges faced in the United States, and however it is that he addresses his local situation, Andrew should know that we science-leaning folks out here are at his side. Here’s hoping the resources of organizations just mentioned above will be useful. In particular, if he is not aware of the NCSE, it is versed in the “young earth creationists” predicament for authentic science educators.


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