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In Nature, NCSE Downplays Critical Analysis of Evolution

Sarah Chaffee
Photo by Monkey Business at Adobe Stock

Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, published a piece in Nature last month entitled, “Good news: US classrooms are warming to evolution, thanks in part to scientist outreach.” Her article celebrates a rise in time spent teaching evolution and a decline in teaching “creationism.” (The NCSE generally uses the label “creationism” pejoratively to refer to anything that expresses doubts about modern Darwinian theory.)

The rosy picture she paints for advocates of pro-Darwin-only education is not quite accurate.

First, it’s important to note that Discovery Institute opposes teaching creationism in public schools. In fact, we don’t even recommend teaching intelligent design! Rather, we suggest teaching the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution. Our Science Education Policy page explains this position:

As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to require teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively.

Instead of recommending teaching about intelligent design in public K-12 schools, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in curriculum. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

Discovery Institute believes that a curriculum that aims to provide students with an understanding of the strength s and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian and chemical evolutionary theories (rather than teaching an alternative theory, such as intelligent design) represents a common ground approach that all reasonable citizens can agree on.

Science Standards in Texas

Second, Reid highlights successes from 2007 to the present in advancing one-sided teaching of evolution. But there have also been policy decisions that favor objective presentation of the scientific controversy over biological evolution. For example, Reid cites the 2017 Texas science standards. In fact, these updated science standards called for objective examination of scientific data on evolution, including requiring “critical thinking and scientific problem solving” when studying evolution, such as requiring them to “compare and contrast scientific explanations for cellular complexity” and “examine scientific explanations for the origin of DNA.” On specific evolution-related standards, students are to use critical thinking when studying evolution, including:

(A) analyze and evaluate how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies, including anatomical, molecular, and developmental;

(B) examine scientific explanations of abrupt appearance and stasis in the fossil record;

(F) analyze other evolutionary mechanisms, including genetic drift, gene flow, mutation, and recombination.

More generally, students are to “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student.” The chair of the Board, Donna Bahorich, said this about two of the evolution standards in question (4a and 6a):

It was clear from testifiers that many who had varied concerns found the compromise language chosen by the board to be acceptable, addressing both the need to streamline content while still encouraging critical thinking by students.

Furthermore, in 2008 Louisiana passed an academic freedom law which states that Louisiana public schools should “create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” In 2012 Tennessee passed a similar academic freedom law which states that public schools shall allow teachers to “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.” In 2017, Louisiana reaffirmed its science education act by placing it in the introduction to its new science standards.

No Child Left Behind

Alabama and the Indiana Senate also adopted academic freedom resolutions in recent years. In 2017 Indiana’s Senate resolution recognized language from the Santorum Amendment in the No Child Left Behind Act conference report:

The Indiana General Assembly further understands the recommendation by the U.S. Congress, as stated in the report language of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, namely, “Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), that the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics can generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society”;

They therefore resolved “That the Indiana Senate urges the Department of Education to reinforce support of teachers who choose to teach a diverse curriculum.”

In Alabama a similar resolution was adopted recognizing that “the teaching of some scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the State Board of Education may cause controversy including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” and therefore teachers should be permitted to “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course.”

Dogmatic Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are generally dogmatic when it comes to evolution. They do now inform the majority of states’ science standards — Reid is correct on this. Unfortunately the NGSS’s approach to teaching evolution probably contributes to a lack of scientific objectivity when evolution is taught.

It’s also worth remembering that education standards are typically viewed as a floor rather than a ceiling for what must be taught. Provided that a teacher covers the required elements of the NGSS, she may still have freedom to discuss additional evidence. A variety of authorities support the well-accepted view that teaching students about scientific controversies is good pedagogy:

  • According to a paper in the journal Science by Stanford science education theorist Jonathan Osborne, “Critique is not, therefore, some peripheral feature of science, but rather it is core to its practice.” He explains studies show that best understand science when learning “to discriminate between evidence that supports (inclusive) or does not support (exclusive).”
  • The U.S. Congress declared in the Conference Report to the No Child Left Behind Act that: “[A] quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist…”
  • The United States Supreme Court has stated it is legal to teach scientific critique of prevailing scientific theories: “We do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught.” (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987)
  • Charles Darwin famously said: “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

Who Loses? Students

Unfortunately, the NGSS rejects this wisdom when it comes to teaching evolution. The losers here are students who are forced to learn a one-sided version of evolution that fails to mention where the evidence is weak.

But again, the news isn’t all bad. There is NGSS language that encourages critical thinking and could be used to justify supplementing instruction with evaluation of the evidence regarding evolution. The Science and Engineering practices encourage “engaging in argument from evidence” and “analyzing and interpreting data.” And there are encouraging words in  the National Science Teaching Association NGSS document “Matrix of Connections to the Nature of Science”:

“Scientific inquiry is characterized by a common set of values that include: logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, replicability of results, and honest and ethical reporting of findings.”

“Science depends on evaluating proposed explanations.”

“Scientific explanations are subject to revision and improvement in light of new evidence.”

“Science findings are frequently revised and/or reinterpreted based on new evidence.”

“Scientific argumentation is a mode of logical discourse used to clarify the strength of relationships between ideas and evidence that may result in revision of an explanation.”

“Scientists and engineers are guided by habits of mind such as intellectual honesty, tolerance of ambiguity, skepticism, and openness to new ideas.”

Even when teaching evolution, the NGSS emphasize that “If new evidence is discovered that the theory does not accommodate, the theory is generally modified in light of this new evidence.”

Reason for Hope

I believe there is hope. The current pandemic, tragic as it is, is pushing us as a nation to reject dogma about science and follow the evidence where it leads, and I hope that science instruction will follow. Reid links her previous study of virology to the pandemic and to the importance of evolution. But as scientists at Evolution News have noted, the pandemic teaches us about the destructive nature of natural selection, the differences between small scale and large scale evolution, and the centrality of information. It would be most unfortunate if students could not learn about these facts because of a highly flawed pedagogical philosophy.

I do appreciate one point that Reid makes: scientist volunteers in schools make a positive impact on student learning. However, this should not be confined to life and diversity origins issues — there are many areas of science where professionals can inspire children with a vision for discovery and STEM careers. I hope that more and more scientists take initiative to become involved in schools — especially working for equitable opportunities for women and students of color.