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Survey Misclassifies Darwin-Doubting Teachers

As we’ve been discussing, Ann Reid, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), recently published an article in the world’s top scientific journal, Nature, reporting on apparent successes they have had in preventing teachers from teaching “creationism” in public schools. Citing her recent study in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, Reid claimed “teachers who present creationism as a scientifically valid alternative to evolution fell from 32% in 2007 to 18% in 2019.” 

Keeping in mind that the NCSE always lumps intelligent design together with “creationism,” there are reasons to be skeptical of that purported large drop. As we explained, the details of their survey show that the number of teachers who agreed that they present ID as a “valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations” was precisely unchanged between 2007 and 2019. 

But teaching intelligent design in public schools isn’t even what Discovery Institute recommends. Rather, we recommend that public schools present students with the scientific strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinian evolution and theories of chemical evolution, and not get into intelligent design. If we take Reid’s article at face value, the percentage of teachers who reject this approach is very high:

This week’s results are from a similar survey, which the NCSE commissioned last year. They show a rise not only in the time spent teaching evolution, but also in the proportion of educators emphasizing the scientific consensus (now 67%). 

However, a closer look at the survey shows that because of the questionable criteria and definitions it employs, a teacher that is claimed as an “advocate of evolution” and teaches evolution as “settled science” could actually be teaching the controversy. 

Ignoring Doubts about the Mechanism

One of the main weaknesses in the modern theory of evolution is the lack of a mechanism to account for many of the complex features we observe in life. Traditionally the explanation has been natural selection acting on random mutation. But over 1,000 PhD scientists have signed a statement agreeing that they are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” Of course there are many other weaknesses in modern Darwinian theory. If we look at this these two surveys from 2007 and 2019, how many teachers do we find are teaching the scientific controversy over evolutionary biology? Turns out the survey doesn’t address this question.

The survey’s methodology either labels teachers as “advocates of creationism” or “advocates of evolution,” and anyone else is placed in an ambiguous and poorly defined group they have called “ambivalent,” the “cautious middle” or teachers who send “mixed messages.” Based upon their survey’s methodology, it’s impossible to say how many teachers are teaching the controversy over evolution because it does not interrogate that question.  

In fact, their survey’s methodology almost seems deliberately designed to misclassify teachers who are potentially teaching the controversy over evolution as if they are “advocates of evolution” who teach evolution as “settled science.” According to their methodology, a teacher is an “advocate of evolution” who pushes evolution as “settled science” if they:

(a) Agree with the statement: “When I teach evolution (including answering student questions) I emphasize the broad consensus that evolution is a fact, even as scientists disagree about the specific mechanisms through which evolution occurred.” 

(b) Teach evolution as “the unifying theme for the content of the course.

(c) Disagree that “excellent general biology course” could make “no mention of Darwin or evolutionary theory.” 

None of the above criteria are incompatible with a teacher who teaches the required curriculum but also wants to go beyond that curriculum and inform students about scientific weaknesses in evolution. In fact, the way they designed their survey, a teacher could be explicitly critiquing the adequacy of the “mechanism” of natural selection acting on random mutation (plus other forces like genetic drift), and teaching students that standard evolutionary mechanisms cannot build many of the complex features we see in life, and yet still agree with statement (a). 

By including the caveat, “even as scientists disagree about the specific mechanisms through which evolution occurred,” it seems almost as if the investigators intentionally created a survey that made it appear that teachers who are teaching the controversy over evolution are actually “advocates of evolution” who push evolution as “settled science.” A teacher could literally tell students, “Credible biologists such as Michael Behe accept common ancestry but doubt that evolutionary mechanisms such as natural selection, random mutation (and genetic drift, etc.) can produce complex molecular machines and other irreducibly complex features,” and by the NCSE’s survey’s standards that teacher could still be considered as teaching evolution as “settled science.” 

Thus, the irony is that a teacher could honestly affirm all of their pro-“evolution” criteria —  (a) noting that the scientific consensus supports evolution, (b) teaching everything in the prescribed curriculum which makes evolution a central theme, and (c) agreeing that a good biology course needs to cover Darwin — and yet still actively teach students about scientific weaknesses of evolutionary biology, such as doubts over the ability of natural selection acting on random mutation to generate the complexity of life. In fact, Discovery Institute supports teachers who take exactly this approach. 

Definitions May Define the Results

There’s another reason why Darwin-doubting teachers might be misclassified as “advocates of evolution”: the survey mentions support for “evolution” but never defines exactly what it means by that term. Teachers are thus free to interpret the term and assess their support for it however they want. Teachers may define — and agree with — evolution understood as (1) “change over time,” or (2) “common ancestry,” but they may have doubts about evolution defined as (3) natural selection acting upon random mutation (plus genetic drift, etc.) serving as the driving mechanism to generate the adaptive complexity of species. Even a so-called “creationist” teacher might agree with evolution definition #1 — “change over time.” Teaching “evolution” as “settled science” might not always mean what the survey’s authors want it to mean. 

But even if a teacher did understand “evolution” to mean the full-blown modern neo-Darwinian model (which incorporates all three definitions above — change over time, common ancestry, and natural selection acting on random mutations as the driving mechanism), he or she could still meet all the criteria of an “advocate of evolution” and yet teach students about the theory’s weaknesses. 

Authors Admit Undercounting Darwin-Doubting Teachers

The study therefore undoubtedly underreports the percentage of teachers who instruct students about weaknesses in evolution. We discussed this back in 2011 when the survey was first published in the journal Science in an article here on Evolution News, “Evolution Education Survey Underreports Darwin-Doubting Teachers.” We noted that the study has sources of error and bias that would lead to underreporting teachers who doubt modern evolutionary theory. The authors of the study actually seemed cognizant that many teachers might be teaching the controversy over evolution yet the survey would never uncover this fact. They wrote in Science:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

Or, as Berkman and Plutzer wrote in an article, “Enablers of Doubt: How Future Teachers Learn to Negotiate the Evolution Wars in Their Classrooms,” in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science:

We found that some teachers are strong advocates of evolution, that a smaller but meaningful number were outright creationists, but that the majority fell in the middle — being somewhere between strong advocates of evolution and outright creationists. This middle group is, in some ways, the most intriguing (Berkman and Plutzer 2012). They do not teach creationism, which would, of course, go against state standards and a good deal of constitutional law. But they clearly allow doubt and uncertainty into their teaching of evolution and are weak advocates for evolutionary science. In their instruction, they often entertain the notion that evolutionary science is scientifically controversial and that nonscientific alternatives may have a valid place in the classroom.

Last year Eric Plutzer, lead author of the 2020 study, admitted that his survey methods might miss large numbers of teachers who “have doubts” about evolution, but don’t necessarily admit to teaching intelligent design or creationism, as David Klinghoffer observed:

Some educators in this ambivalent 60 percent tend to teach evolution only as it applies to molecular biology, Plutzer said, but not the macroevolution of species…. Others distance themselves from the material even as they tell students it will be on a standardized test. “Their primary concern is not offending the students or their parents by characterizing the science in a way that seems to be challenging religious faith,” Plutzer told me. “I think that in some cases, the teachers themselves have doubts.” 

Of course, words like “enablers of doubt” or “hindering scientific literacy” or “undermining” the teaching of evolution are their pejorative, censorship-driven code words for simply mentioning to students that there are scientific weaknesses in modern evolutionary theory. Yet as we showed above, even teachers who aren’t in this “middle group” and are deemed “advocates of evolution” might still be teaching students that modern evolutionary theory has weaknesses. The point is that whatever this survey is reporting, it isn’t reporting anything about the degree to which teachers inform students about scientific weaknesses in Darwinian evolution. 

The NCSE’s Observer Effect

There’s another major reason to expect that the survey undercounts Darwin-doubting teachers: Teachers taking the survey were expected to self-report whether they taught favorably about intelligent design or “creationism.” But other surveys have shown that teachers who teach on these topics are fearful for their jobs. Asking teachers to self-report on whether they are teaching intelligent design or “creationism” would undoubtedly have a selection effect, discouraging such teachers from truthfully admitting that they don’t support Darwin. 

The key phrase is “self-report”: teachers in this survey got to choose what to report or whether to answer the survey at all. Because of a climate of intolerance that pervades academia, many teachers fear for their jobs if they were to merely mention intelligent design, and would likely be highly reticent to admit to talking about it in the classroom. These teachers would be most likely to throw the surveys in the trash and simply not respond.

If you’re skeptical, consider this hypothetical scenario. Imagine that you are a public school science teacher who teaches your students about scientific weaknesses in evolution or maybe even mentions “intelligent design.” Now imagine that you receive a survey from Penn State University asking if you teach intelligent design or “creationism,” or asking leading questions about if you teach evolution as “fact.” No authors are mentioned on the survey, but because you’re a diligent teacher, about five minutes of Googling reveals that this research was directly connected with the NCSE. You’re aware of this group, which sometimes shows up at science teacher meetings pushing Darwin-only views, and is internationally famous for opposing, censoring, and even persecuting those who aren’t full-blown “advocates of evolution” in the classroom. You may even read that researchers affiliated with this survey did not want students to be able to “make up their own minds” on evolution and insultingly suggested Darwin-doubting teachers should “pursue other careers.”

It’s not hard to predict what would happen next: You would conclude that the people behind the survey are extremely hostile toward you, and you would not feel safe participating in their survey. If you did fill it out, you might be highly reticent about self-reporting how you teach intelligent design or “creationism,” and might even overstate your agreement with “evolution.”

One More Thing

Oh yes. A year after you received the survey, when the results are published in the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach, you then read about the survey here on Evolution News and discover a startling fact: two of the three authors of the survey study are leading NCSE activists — Glenn Branch and Ann Reid. You even learn that the NCSE’s executive director Ann Reid admitted in Nature that her group “commissioned” the survey! Your immediate response would be: “Thank goodness I listened to my instincts and made the smart move to not participate in this survey!

Indeed, the survey’s authors reported a response rate of 37 percent, with only 28.5 percent of surveys apparently being “complete.” It’s not a terrible result as far as surveys go, but it does mean that a very large percentage of teachers chose not to participate. If there was a selection-effect that discouraged Darwin-doubting teachers from responding. then the results could be highly skewed. 

Our 2011 response to the original survey noted this observer-effect as a major reason why the survey underreports the percentage of Darwin-doubting teachers: many teachers would likely fear participating in the survey:

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.

Although it’s impossible to know the exact numbers, the survey likely does indicate that more teachers are teaching evolution dogmatically than they have in the past. This is at least partly attributable to the dogmatic Next Generation Science Standards that have been adopted by many states. But given the pressures that teachers may feel to report toeing the party line on evolution, and given that even teachers could still be teaching about scientific weaknesses in evolution and yet still qualify as “advocates of evolution” under the survey’s methodology, it seems likely that the actual percentage of Darwin-doubting teachers is higher than what is being suggested. Unfortunately, because of the survey’s design, this project cannot tell us how many students are taught evolution dogmatically and how many are studying it scientifically, learning both its strengths and weaknesses.