Canadian controversy in review


Brian Alters is on the cover of the Summer 2006 issue of Humanist Perspectives, which devotes a full eleven pages to discussing the controversy that arose in the wake of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada's deciding not to fund Alters's research project to study the effects of the popularization of "intelligent design" on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers. Alters's proposal was rejected, according to a letter from SSHRC, in part because it failed to provide "adequate justification for the assumption ... that the theory of evolution, and not intelligent-design theory, was correct." Philip Sadler, director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, quipped to Nature (August 4, 2006), "If he was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularization had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000 ... He found the evidence without doing the study."

Hundreds of scientists in Canada and abroad protested what seemed to be SSHRC's crediting "intelligent design" with scientific legitimacy on a par with evolution's. Letters of protest were sent by the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the American Sociological Association. Under pressure, a spokesperson for SSHRC suggested that Alters misunderstood the rejection letter and stated that the rejection of the proposal was not due to SSHRC's having "doubts about the theory of evolution"; subsequently, SSHRC issued a statement [Link broken] acknowledging "the theory of evolution as one of the cornerstones of modern science and of our understanding of the world." But both SSHRC spokespeople and members of the committee that reviewed Alters's proposal were quoted in the press as vaguely expressing doubts about evolution and sympathy for "intelligent design"; these statements have been neither explained nor retracted.

Contained in the issue (PDF) of Humanist Perspectives are a report by the journal's editor, Gary Bauslaugh, reviewing the situation and concluding, "The fact that one of our most prestigious research-granting agencies fails to understand this suggests that the only thing wrong with Dr Alters' grant proposal is that it understates the problem"; an interview with Alters, in which he notes, "This SSHRC matter is so ridiculous on so many levels, that one cannot help but laugh. However, at the same time it's extremely worrisome because it illustrates that problems with science education have reached academic funding levels in this country"; Peter McKnight's opinion column condemning SSHRC, reprinted from the Vancouver Sun; a letter from a physicist to the president of SSHRC; and correspondence between Humanist Perspectives and public relations officers at SSHRC and members of the review committee responsible for evaluating Alters's proposal.

Alters is the Tomlinson Chair in Science Education, director of the Tomlinson University Science Education Project, and Sir William Dawson Scholar at McGill University, where he also directs the Evolution Education Research Centre. In 2003, he won both the Principal's Prize for Excellence in Teaching and the Faculty of Education Award for Distinguished Teaching. He is the author of several books, including Defending Evolution -- of which the late Ernst Mayr said, "This book should be in the hands of every educator dealing with the subject of evolution" -- and the textbook Biology: Understanding Life, both coauthored with Sandra M. Alters, and Teaching Biological Evolution in Higher Education. He testified as an expert witness on science education for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. Alters was awarded NCSE's "Friend of Darwin" award in 2005, in which year he also became a member of NCSE's board of directors.