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Engaging the Controversy in Science Education

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Engaging the Controversy in Science Education: Scientific Knowledge and Democratic Decisions
Rebecca P Lewis
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Looking at the headlines of newspapers around the United States these days, it is clear that there is a controversy waging over one of the key concepts taught in science classrooms. Evolution, a scientific theory that has long been a source of contention in the United States, has become a target once again. In the 1920s, the teaching of evolution was contested in the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial. Although it put an end to most of the pending antievolution legislation at the time (Linder 2002), the Scopes trial neither led to a clear decision on the violation of the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution nor ended the debate over the teaching of evolution.

The current challenge to evolution is different from that of the Scopes Trial era,however. Proponents of "intelligent design" (ID) argue for a fundamental change in the way biology is taught in the United States, especially in high school. They propose including materials "challenging various aspects of neo- Darwinian theory . . . developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design . . . [and] exploring the impact of scientific materialism on culture" (Discovery Institute nd). In fact, they assert that American school children should learn about the evolution "controversy", further asserting that teaching evolutionary biology alone (that is, evolution without reference to ID or other alternate "theories") is bad science because it does not include the skepticism that is essential to all scientific research.

The reality is, of course, that no real debate exists in the scientific community about the veracity of the theory of evolution; in fact, most scientists accept the theory of evolution (Witham 1997). What does exist, however — as it always should in science — is a healthy amount of skepticism and questioning of hypotheses based on the theory of evolution (Isaak 2005). In contrast to the lack of debate about evolution in the scientific community, there continues to be a major controversy over the science curriculum. This is played out as states make decisions about science standards, local school boards make decisions about what will be taught in science classrooms, and both decide how to present information to students.

The fundamental question facing the scientific community today is what happens when experts in a field on the one hand and large numbers of citizens on the other reach a stalemate concerning knowledge. What happens to the rest of the population, caught in the middle of the conflict, especially high school students and their teachers? This article explores the controversy over the teaching of evolution in the science classrooms of the United States, as well as how decisions concerning who acts as decision- makers and what is right will be decided, and the effects of these decisions on science education. Because this controversy is about making decisions about what knowledge is of most worth — indeed whose knowledge is accurate and whose knowledge is not (and who decides both about accuracy and about what should and should not be taught in school), it is fundamentally a debate about democracy and educating people to participate more fully in a democratic society. Indeed, in a country like the United States all curricular debates are eventually political debates, and unless they are recognized as such many important curricular reforms will fail for lack of political sophistication on the part of their advocates.

In the United States much education policy is made at the grass roots level. In addition, each of the fifty states makes many of its own decisions about curriculum and academic standards for its schools. This is true despite the fact that since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal government is playing an increasing role in school politics both in terms of regulations and in the bully pulpit available to educational leaders. Nevertheless, unlike the situation in many other nations, curriculum decision-making happens in the United States at many different levels and with many different constituencies.

This debate can only be won in the court of public opinion, not in the scientific journals, and the scientific community (researchers and educators) must effectively demonstrate several points: scientific theory need not diminish religious beliefs or interfere with what children are taught in the home or in faith-based communities; schools are expected to teach the knowledge needed for full participation and in the US economy and in a democratic society, but not all knowledge; and changing science education for religious purposes fails the larger goals of a democratic society (and this is perhaps the proper order for addressing the chief concerns of the general public). If the scientific community refuses to engage in this public dialog, if it remains "above politics," it should not be surprised if it loses in the court of public opinion and particularly in the electoral process, both of which will affect policy and curriculum because local, state, and federal governments are where these decisions are made. The cost of failure is that we could easily end up in a situation in the United States — or at least in many communities within the United States — in which the democratic system created a school curriculum that teaches very bad science.

While there are actually many different kinds of creationism or religious theories about the origins of life, the current educational debate pits those who support ID against most of the scientific community. Some might see this dichotomy incorrectly as one between religious ID proponents, on the one hand, and secular evolutionists, on the other. Certainly those who oppose evolution on religious grounds will find comfort in ID. However, the central claim that ID proponents make to the public at large is that they have a scientific alternative that is being discriminated against. To understand the current debate better, it is important to look closely at what each "side" is saying — both about itself and about the other side, including both the assertions each side makes and the assumptions that underlie their arguments.

Proponents of ID

Creationists offer a long list of arguments against evolution, ranging from claims that evolution is not testable to attacks on various hypotheses related to the evidence of evolution, to moral and religious attacks on scientists and the scientific community. However, proponents of ID often distance themselves from past concepts of creationism (West 2003) — particularly distancing themselves from "young-earth creationists" who believe that the earth is 6000 years old and was shaped by the Noachian Flood. Instead, proponents of ID contend that evolution does not account for the complexity of life as we know it. ID proponents state that life is too complex to have evolved randomly, so there must be an intelligent being that directed or began the design. Advocates of ID dispute critics' assertions that ID is religious in nature and that the intelligent designer identified in this theory is God. They claim that while ID, like evolution, might have "implications for religion ... these implications are distinct from its scientific program" (West 2003). Some proponents have asserted that the changes to science curriculum they seek would simply allow for the teaching of other theories besides evolution.

Its proponents have asserted that ID is in fact a scientific "theory" for which evidence can be detected in the natural world and used to explain scientific facts and they cite a range of "evidence" for ID. One claim is that "the ID argument is 'based on biological and physical data generally accepted in science' ... [but it disagrees] with the evolutionists that life could have begun and developed all by itself from undirected material" (Zehfus 2006). Proponents accuse critics of ID as being hypocritical in denouncing ID as pseudoscience, while accepting other branches of science that "depend on drawing the distinction between intelligent causes or intelligent agents and physical causes" (Trobee 2006). For instance, proponents claim that ID is similar in nature to fields such as archaeology and forensic science. They argue that attributing the development of a tool to a certain group of people based on carbon dating or deducing who committed a crime based on DNA evidence is based on a leap of faith that it was an intelligent, identifiable human being who created the tool or committed the crime — much as proponents claim that an intelligent being must have created life.

Proponents of ID claim that evolutionists have stacked the odds against ID through efforts to block the publication of evidence of ID in scientific journals and through efforts by lawmakers and science organizations to promote teaching only "'testable' scientific theories and those okayed by the National Academy of Sciences" (Trobee 2006). These claims assume that the "scientific"concerns that proponents of ID have related to evolution represent a valid scientific inquiry, which the larger scientific community and the professional organizations that support the work of the community reject.

ID proponents claim that the very existence of challenges to evolutionary theory "should be sufficient reason"for teaching ID in schools (Dixon 2006). In other words, since evolution cannot (in their view) explain all of the diversity and complexity of life, then we should teach that there are other theories that do fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Most of the 44 fellows who work for the Discovery Institute do not have advanced degrees in biological sciences, and the Institute conducts "very little ... research into the weaknesses of Darwinism ... of the experimental, laboriented, peer-reviewed kind" (Downey 2006). The evidence and arguments of ID are of a more theoretical nature and thus have been presented in creationist- leaning journals and in books. The scientific evidence for ID has not been published in peer-reviewed journals in the larger field, proponents say, because of the snobbery of the scientific community and its refusal to look at evidence that contradicts accepted notions (Morris 1998; Derbyshire 2003).

Instead of conducting original research that could be written about in peer-reviewed scientific journals, the Institute focuses its work on a public opinion campaign aimed at having public schools teach both the "strengths and the weaknesses" of the scientific theory of evolution and about the "evolution controversy", which they claim exists. The purpose of this campaign, according to the Institute, is to get the message to the people that the truth about evolution is being suppressed by "Darwinian fundamentalists" (Discovery Institute nd). The Discovery Institute characterizes the majority of the scientific community in this group, because they refute ID despite the "missing links and other problems"of evolution that ID proponents see (Zehfus 2006). Judging by news coverage and popular opinion polls, it seems the ID movement has succeeded in getting its message out and persuading some people to support changing science education to fit religious views.

Critics of ID

Critics of ID claim that ID is simply creationism "camouflaged in scientific language"(Anonymous 2006) or is "parallel but not identical to creation science (Scott and Branch 2002). In addition, the former director of the Vatican Observatory stated that the Catholic Church views the teaching of ID alongside evolution in the science classroom as confusing for students who would not understand that these two contrary ideas are not on equal footing in the scientific community (Anonymous 2005). Even among scientists of Christian faiths who have been surveyed, the idea of ID seems at least partly religious in nature.A survey of scientists at universities in Ohio, one of the states in which the debate over inserting ID into public education has been very prominent, showed more than 90% agreed that ID was a religious notion, that evolution and religious belief were not mutually exclusive, and that understanding ID was not necessary for students to understand the natural world, while knowledge of evolution was (Bishop 2002).

Other critics of ID contend that ID is a philosophical idea, not a scientific theory, and not a replacement for the theory of evolution or for explanations of the natural phenomena that it offers (Gingerich 2005). Since ID is not a scientific theory, they claim, it does not have a place in the science classroom.

It is important to note that all the critics of ID do support the theory of evolution, even if there are disagreements among them about details. Scientific challenges to evidence supporting a theory or the fact that the theory cannot answer all of our questions does not require the immediate acceptance of any alternative — the alternative itself must be supported by a chain of evidence. On this point, the scientific community must undo the ID movement's obfuscation of this fact to achieve success in the public debate. However, the scientific community often does not join in this public debate, worrying that doing so would give more credence to ID than it deserves.

Critics of ID often note that the evidence cited by proponents of ID has not been accepted by the larger scientific community and is not published in any of the widely-accepted peer-reviewed journals of science. Critics defend against claims of biased publication criteria by noting that most ID proponents do not actually perform scientific experiments, which would lead to the types of articles published in scientific journals. And of course some of the scientific work on ID done by proponents has been rejected as "bad science", even by supporters of ID.

Critics of ID assume that good science follows agreed-upon steps and rules in the scientific community. This framework filters out bad science, such as ID. Following this agreed-upon format for inquiry is a fundamental value within the scientific community that represents a mindset difference between scientists and non-scientists, and it is this difference that makes this controversy so difficult for many non-scientists to grasp. This mindset means that the scientific community faces difficulty in representing the strength of its position in the court of public opinion. Proponents of ID try to portray the critics of ID as close-minded and unwilling to accept evidence that does not fit their world view.

What Scientific Debate?

The two sides of the controversy over evolution and the teaching of evolution in schools cannot really be debated in the scientific arena because the two sides view the world differently: science never claims to do more than describe and explain the natural world of science while ID proponents look beyond nature for answers, answers which — by definition — cannot be "science"even if they represent "truth"by some other definition. As stated by one ID critic, the potential conflict is "our definition of science . . . [which] explains the world with hard, observable evidence" while ID proponents consider that science "is not limited to the best 'naturalistic' explanation, but rather to the best explanation, period" (Foley 2006). Within this framework, there is simply no way to have a dialog about what is seen as scientific knowledge.

However, this controversy about science education is taking place in the public arena — in schools, and courts — as though there were a scientific debate between science and ID. To succeed in this cultural controversy, the scientific community must enter the public arena with a clear and succinct message that evolution need not conflict with religious beliefs and evolution is a sound theory overwhelmingly supported by the scientific community, since these are the successful talking points of those who oppose evolution (currently by promoting ID).

Determining What Is Scientific Knowledge and Who Decides

The cultural controversy over the science curriculum is not really about evolution, but rather is a debate about what knowledge is and who decides. It is a controversy over what knowledge is considered valid or of most worth and whose voice(s) are heard (or not heard) in the decision-making about education and knowledge. It is a controversy about the nature of science and scientific knowledge. And it is a controversy about religion, policy, and the contradictions and problems with such debates in the United States. It is difficult for this matter to be decided once and for all in a democracy in which there is widespread popular support for local decision-making. On the one hand, we have experts in the field — including the vast majority of high school biology teachers — who support the scientific theory (and many of whom strongly disagree with teaching it as a controversial theory). On the other, seemingly popular support for the teaching of an alternative idea — ID — also exists in spite of a scientific consensus that it is "bad science".

It is essential to understand that, as curriculum theorist William Pinar and his co-authors point out in Understanding Curriculum:

The history of American education is linked with religious movements and controversies . . . [for] despite the constitutional separation between church and state . . . there has been a keen curricular interest in the matters associated with religion. (Pinar and others 2004: 606)

The genius of the "ID debate" from its proponents' perspective has been its successful appeals to public opinion, and then its convincing government officials to take up the cause in light of claims that the majority of Americans support ID (Trobee 2006). In fact, religious groups and advocates of a more theistic society have long worried about what is taught in public schools, and "school curriculum is now scrutinized carefully by religious groups concerned over values embedded in it ... [which] represent a religious belief system called 'secular humanism'" (Pinar and others 2004: 614). Of course, it is a perennial (and popular) argument that teaching evolution promotes the "religion" of "secular humanism".

At its base, this is a controversy about liberty in a democracy — pitting the liberty of parents and religious groups against the liberty of other parents and against the US Constitution, which holds that there will be no establishment of religion by the government nor any suppression of citizens' religious beliefs. In Deborah Stone's Policy Paradox (2002), the noted policy analyst and scholar offers a theory of policy analysis that helps us understand that the goals of policy decisions, such as liberty, are ambiguous concepts that mean different things to different people. Thus, policies enacted to meet ambiguous goals such as promoting liberty and equity (like mandating the teaching of the "evolution controversy" to be "fair" to different constituencies) can be supported by the majority of people, only to have people be upset with the consequences of these policies because the results of the policies do not meet people's differing conceptions of the goal. This means that a policy in education that is meant to promote a critical stance towards evidence, which is healthy and necessary in science, can be used to criticize science itself in the name of "academic freedom". Academic freedom has, in fact, been the rallying point of the ID movement, which has demanded that public opinion should be listened to and that academics (whether university-level or at the K–12 level) should be given the freedom to present the challenges to evolution.

In 2005, a federal court ruled that ID is a religious belief and that teaching ID violates the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.Yet school boards and state legislators from Minnesota to South Carolina to Kansas have heard about ID and want to introduce the notion that evolution is disputed and does not answer "all of our questions" or that ID can answer questions of origin that evolution cannot.Despite past court decisions (and all the scientific evidence), the public debate will continue because it is neither a legal nor a scientific one.

We live in a political environment in which "the people" will ultimately make decisions about curriculum — either through school boards or electing officials — including the officials who appoint state and federal judges. Therefore, the scientific community must engage in the public dialog to make it clear that policies promoting criticism of evolution or the teaching of ID will not help us to achieve our goals of liberty and prosperity. For example, Margaret Spelling, Secretary of Education under President George W Bush, emphasized the administration's contention that US ability in math and science is not up to par with the rest of the developed world — leading the administration to fund "an ambitious program intended to boost the quality of math and science instruction in the nation's schools"(Murray 2006).People do not need to understand all the arguments relevant to evolution to understand that diluting the science curriculum with ID is simply not compatible with this goal.

Distorting science education to match the religious worldview of a small part of the population does a disservice to our democracy and our country in its global economic pursuits, ill equipping students to participate in the scientific world economy that is seen as key to our national interests and prosperity.However, the remedy for the attack on evolutionary science is not more pronouncements from on high (for example, the National Academy of Sciences 1998 — or other professional or even religious organizations), it is engagement in the democratic process that shapes the science education that our public school provides. This is a strategy that anti-evolutionists have understood and mastered.


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About the Author(s): 

Rebecca P Lewis
Education Development Center, Inc
55 Chapel Street
Newton MA 02458-1060

Rebecca Lewis is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. A former science and mathematics teacher with an undergraduate degree in horticultural science and a master's degree in teaching biology, Lewis now works on curriculum development and teacher professional development projects at Education Development Center, Inc.