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Survey Suggests Students Should Not be Allowed to “Make Up their own Minds” on Evolution

Casey Luskin

As we reported, the journal Science recently published a survey which underreports the number of Darwin-doubting science teachers, instead finding that 28% of teachers are “Advocates of evolutionary biology,” 13% are “Advocates of creationism,” and 60% are “Advocates of neither.” (Strange that their percentages add up to 101%.) Discovery Institute in fact does not support mandating intelligent design, and does not support teaching creationism. Rather, we think teachers should teach the scientific controversy over neo-Darwinian evolution.

What’s ironic about the survey is that someone who follows the advice of a different paper published in Science last year could never qualify as an “Advocate of evolutionary biology.”

Last year Science published a paper by Jonathan Osborne titled, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” which found that students learn science best when they learn “to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive) or that is simply indeterminate.” According to Osborne’s paper, it’s vital to teach students what scientific critique looks like:

Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.

(Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science, Vol. 328 (5977): 463-466 (April 23, 2010).)

In fact, Osborne’s paper warns about presenting science as a “monolith of facts” or an “authoritative discourse”:

Typically, in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised. Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent. Students then emerge with naive ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself….

All of this of course flies in the face of the teaching method endorsed by the survey, which recommends authoritatively telling students that “the broad consensus” is that “evolution is fact.” If a teacher qualified as an “Advocate of evolution” by the criteria used in survey, they could never take the scientific approach recommended by Osborne’s paper

Incredibly, this new Science survey claims that teachers who “teach the controversy” will “fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry.” The reality is precisely the opposite: teachers who teach evolution dogmatically as fact will fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry.

The authors of the survey even go so far as to criticize a teacher who felt that “Students should make up their own minds” on evolution “based on their own beliefs and research.” Their reasoning is that students would not be able to think through the issues:

But does a 15-year-old student really have enough information to reject thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers? This approach tells students that well-established concepts like common ancestry can be debated in the same way we debate personal opinions.

(Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer, “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom, But Not in the Classroom,” Vol. 331:404-405 (January 28, 2011).)

Here are just a few reasons why their argument for dogmatism fails:

  • It’s false to pretend that dissenting from the Darwinian consensus requires “rejecting” all peer-reviewed science or that dissenters simply have “opinions” but not evidence. There are peer-reviewed scientific papers which dissent from the majority viewpoint on topics like the efficacy of natural selection or the tree of life.
  • Evolution education deals with a fundamental question of humanity–“Where did we come from?” Yes, modern neo-Darwinian evolutionary biology is the majority viewpoint and students must learn about this viewpoint. But there are significant numbers of scientists who dissent from that viewpoint. From a purely humanistic standpoint, it seems unconscionable to withhold from students the fact that there are credible scientific views that dissent from the majority viewpoint on this fundamental question of humanity–even if those views happen to be in the minority right now.
  • If students can learn the evidence for a particular proposition of modern evolutionary theory, there’s no in principle reason they could not learn about evidence against it. Students don’t have to sift through thousands of scientific papers to learn about the debate. A well-trained teacher can synthesize the material, spend a couple weeks explaining the standard neo-Darwinian consensus view, and then cover the scientific controversy over neo-Darwinian evolution in one or two lectures. If Osborne’s educational theories are valid, students will understand the topic better under this approach.

As we’ve seen, science education theorists find that students learn science best when they study different sides of a scientific debate. Scientific elites praise the importance of inquiry-based science education — with all of its critical thinking, skepticism, and consideration of alternative explanations — but unfortunately jettison such beneficial educational philosophies when it comes to teaching evolution.


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.