Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Anti-science in the science classroom

In a recently released study, 13% of high school biology teachers in the United States admitted that they advocated young-earth creationism in class.

The study, conducted by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer of Penn State, surveyed 926 biology teachers from a variety of areas, and asked them questions about their approach to teaching the topic, how strongly they advocated for its factual basis, and their own (personal) views.  To quote a Minnesota teacher, "I don't teach the theory of evolution in my life science classes, nor do I teach the Big Bang Theory in my [E]arth [S]cience classes.... We do not have time to do something that is at best poor science."

It is not necessarily a coincidence that you can receive a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota without taking a class in evolutionary biology.  Randy Moore, a science and education specialist at UMinn, was quoted as saying, "We let that go in the name of religious freedom."  (Advocating, apparently, the "freedom to remain ignorant.")

A full 60% "don't take a stance on the subject."  Berkman and Plutzer call this the "cautious 60%" who are either conflicted about teaching a topic that they themselves have doubts about (or don't fully understand), or are anxious to avoid controversy with students and parents.

This leaves somewhat under 30% who teach the topic as valid science.

Guess which slice I fall in?

What it boils down to is, to quote Daniel Moynihan, "You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts."  The theory of evolution is supported by a vast amount of incontrovertible evidence, from every sphere of science even vaguely related to biology.  In fact, we know far more about the mechanisms involved in evolution than we do about the mechanisms involved in gravity.  If you are a young-earth creationist, you simultaneously have to discount the following:
  • our understanding of the physics of radioactive decay, which is how rocks and fossils are dated.
  • pretty much the entire field of geology, which has demonstrated the antiquity of the earth in about a hundred different ways.
  • the field of genetics, which has provided evidence of common ancestry between (for example) birds and reptiles.
  • all of astronomy, for a multitude of reasons.
Which leaves you in a bit of a quandary as to how to explain:
  • how we developed nuclear reactor technology.
  • why Iceland is getting bigger, why California is an earthquake zone, and why there are extinct fossil animals on the top of Mount Everest.
  • why the DNA of chickens has a gene, now inactive, for producing teeth.
  • why, if the Earth is only six thousand years old, we can see things that are more than six thousand light years away.
The objection to evolution is not based on any concerns about its being "poor science," as the unnamed Minnesotan biology teacher claimed; it is, pure and simple, a conflict between verified science and the desperate adherence of 13% of biology teachers to their views about how the world works, despite the fact that those views are themselves anti-science and have no basis whatsoever in fact.  Let's face it; there is no objection to evolutionary theory except the religious one.

Oh, and don't even start with me about how "evolution is just a theory."  They call it "music theory," and that's not because they think that music may not exist, okay?

Science is a way of knowing.  It requires the ability to draw inferences based upon facts and evidence.  If a particular hypothesis does not fit the available evidence, it must be discarded.  The religious way turns this on its head; it gives you the conclusion, and asks you to discard any evidence that doesn't fit the conclusion you've already accepted.  Much has been made of the idea that "there is no necessary conflict between science and religion," but as far as I understand it, I don't think this is possible.  They are, at their basis, mutually contradictory algorithms.

Note that by this I do not mean that you can't both trust science and believe in a deity; simply that if at some point these two different worldviews are in conflict, you have to choose one or the other.  There is no reconciling them.

And therefore, the 13% of biology teachers who advocate young-earth creationism have no business being in a science classroom.  What they are teaching is not science.  It is at its basis a non-scientific viewpoint that ignores a quantity of evidence which would be overwhelmingly convincing in any other realm.  If they cannot accept this, they should keep their views confined to the proper venue -- Sunday school.


  1. Oh, and don't even start with me about how "evolution is just a theory." They call it "music theory," and that's not because they think that music may not exist, okay?
    (The anger in this is very enjoyable, along with the rest of this.) it is just so sad that someone that calls them self a "science" teacher and say they don't believe in evolution, like Tim Michin says "When you leave your house use your trust to walk on the door or use the window on your second floor"