Education Icon Education
Evolution Icon Evolution

Evolution Education Survey Underreports Darwin-Doubting Teachers

A new paper in the journal Science reports results of a survey of how science teachers cover evolution. Titled “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom,” the paper laments that more teachers aren’t pushing neo-Darwinian evolution in a dogmatic fashion, even attacking one teacher who dared to suggest, “Students should make up their own minds” on evolution.

The survey forces teachers to fit into 1 of 3 categories: “Advocates of evolutionary biology,” “Advocates of creationism,” or “Advocate of neither.” According to the survey, 28% of teachers are “Advocates of evolutionary biology,” 13% are “Advocates of creationism,” and a full 60% are “Advocates of neither.” (These are the percentages reported in the survey–odd how they add up to 101%.)

According to the Supporting Online Material, to qualify as an “Advocate of Creationism” under the survey, teachers had to meet two criteria:

(1) They had to report devoting at least one hour to creationism or intelligent design, in answer to the following question: “Thinking about how you lay out your Biology course for the year, please indicate how many class hours you typically spend on each of the following areas.” One of these areas was “Intelligent design or creationism.” (2) Teachers had to respond “agree” or “strongly agree” to at least one of the following questions: “When I do teach about creationism or intelligent design (including answering student questions), I emphasize that this is a valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species.” Or “When I do teach creationism or intelligent design (including answering student questions), I emphasize that many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to Darwinian theory.”

To qualify as an “Advocate of evolutionary biology,” teachers had to adopt a “pro-evolution stance” including calling evolution a “fact” and the “unifying theme” of the biology course:

Advocates of evolutionary biology had to adopt the pro-evolution stance on all of the following three questions [by responding “agree” for questions (a) and (b), “disagree” for question (c)], and adopt the strong pro-evolution stance on at least two [by responding “strongly agree” for questions (a) and/or (b), and/or “strongly disagree” for question (c)]: (a) “When I do teach evolution (including answering student questions), I emphasize the broad consensus that evolution is fact even as scientists disagree about the specific mechanisms through which evolution occurred.” (b) “Evolution serves as the unifying theme for the content of the course.” (c) “I believe it is possible to offer an excellent general biology course for high school students that includes no mention of Darwin or evolutionary theory.”

To qualify as an “Advocate of neither,” the teacher had to respond to the survey but not fall into one of the other two categories.

The researchers want to push many of the “Advocates of Neither” into the “Advocates of evolutionary biology” category, stating:

Outreach efforts such as webinars, guest speakers, and refresher courses–the types of efforts currently aimed at secondary school teachers–could be tailored and targeted for both preservice teachers and for biology and science education professors at teaching-oriented colleges. This two-pronged effort may help increase the percentage of new teachers who accept and embrace the fi ndings of evolutionary biology.

This will be more difficult than they realize, and here’s why:

The paper seems to miss the two obvious sources of error and bias which would underreport the number of teachers which they shoehorn as “Advocates of creationism.” One error comes from artificial selection, and the other stems from natural selection.

Artificial Selection: As noted, the authors of the study are so ardently pro-Darwin-only that they criticized a teacher who dared to suggest that students should be allowed to “make up their own minds” on evolution. Given that this survey was conducted by investigators who are apparently hostile to Darwin-doubters, it’s likely that many pro-intelligent design teachers would be hesitant to participate in the survey and risk outing themselves. Thus, many streetwise teachers which the survey would otherwise shoehorn as “Advocates of Creationism” would choose not to participate. They might view participation akin to turning yourself in to the thought police.

Natural Selection: The survey purports to report the mental states and behaviors of teachers as regards evolution and intelligent design. But mental states and behaviors may be very different things. The Darwin lobby works hard, with some success, to make it illegal–or at least very dangerous–to favorably teach intelligent design. Thus, few teachers are bold enough to spend an hour on, say, teaching intelligent design. Likely, there are far more than 13% of teachers who would like to favorably mention ID, but they are naturally afraid to do so out of fear of their jobs.

There is a very high chance that a good portion of the 60% who are “Advocates of neither” would favorably mention ID if the legal environment were not so hostile towards such pedagogy. This survey fails to take into account that its surveyees exist in an environment that makes it very costly to choose some of the survey choices. It thus naturally underreports the number of teachers who would like to engage in behaviors which the survey would call “Advocating Creationism.”

The survey did not identify these sources of potential bias or error. It does not note that the legal environment may have a significant impact upon teacher choices. It does not note that many teachers may be afraid to report their actual or preferred behaviors due to fears for their job caused by that legal environment. Given that the survey’s combined response rate of valid returned questionnaires was only 48% (926 out of 1942 teachers), it seems that a lot of teachers chose not to respond. It also seems likely that nonresponsive teachers were more likely to fit into their category called “Advocates of Creationism” than would be “Advocates of Evolution.”

Much to the chagrin of the researchers, it seems likely that there are far more teachers who are partial towards intelligent design than the survey reports. If the authors wish to push “Advocates of Neither” into becoming “Advocates of Evolutionary Biology,” they probably have a lot more work cut out for them than they realize.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



aaasAmerican Association for the Advancement of ScienceNationpollsscience