June 12, 2014

Teaching to the Controversy:
Why is teaching evolution still a controversy, anyway?

A 2011 survey of 926 public high school biology instructors revealed some startling truths.

Only 28% consistently introduced evidence that evolution occurs, while a full 13% of public high school biology instructors explicitly advocate creationism. A full 60% or more try to avoid the controversy all together by deploying a variety of strategies, like only teaching evolution as it pertains to molecular biology but not humans or animals, tell students they only need to learn it to pass the test, and teaching it alongside creationism, or "teaching the controversy".

The real question that I have is: Why is teaching evolution in a public high school's biology classroom still so controversial when we have so many reasons that it needs to be taught?

Here's a quick survey of the most compelling (in my humble opinion) reasons that there should be no controversy in teaching evolution in the classroom.

Separation of Church and State Is a Thing

This is the most compelling reason for teaching evolution without controversy. You see, evolution is a secular scientific theory. As long as it is readily accepted by scientists, its place is in public education.

Creationism, or intelligent design, is not a secular concept. It is a tenet of religious belief. It has no place in a public classroom, as long as the Establishment Clause is still valid.

This is not up for debate. It's a matter of federal legal precedent:
In the landmark 2005 case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a federal judge found the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) in public school science classes to be unconstitutional. Judge John Jones III wrote in his decision, "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory… Accordingly, we find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to be a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause."
A Myriad of Practical Applications

Evolution's principles are applicable in many different disciplines.

For instance, in agriculture, "the principles of evolution underlie improvements in crops, livestock and farming methods." We've used it to explain pesticide resistance and to adapt our technology to it.

Applications from evolution are being used to adapt plants and other species to polluted environments, where they can "replenish lost vegetation and to clean up toxic environments".

Evolutionary medicine has "developed over the last 20 years", which applies evolution to "understand the origin of disease, why we have certain kinds of disease, and how we can fight them using evolutionary principles". Massimo Pigliucci explained in an interview that it has been applied to antibiotics and HIV.

Other applications in medicine include:
Concepts such as adaptation and mutation inform therapies and strategies to combat pathogens, including influenza. Models developed by evolutionary biologists have shed light on genetic variation that may account for an increased risk of Alzheimer’s and coronary heart disease. Knowing the evolutionary relationships among species allows scientists to choose appropriate organisms for the study of diseases, such as HIV. Scientists are even using the principles of natural selection to identify new drugs for detecting and treating diseases such as cancer. 
An Introduction to Scientific Inquiry and Processes

Because evolution is studied by such a variety of disciplines, it allows for a thorough look at how the scientific process is conducted. In the classroom:

Evolution offers countless and diverse examples of the ways scientists gather and
analyze information, test competing hypotheses, and ultimately come to a consensus about
explanations for natural phenomena.

The National Center for Science Education explains that teaching evolution is important on these grounds:
There are two main reasons that biological evolution is mandated in science educations standards. First, it is the fundamental, unifying theory that underlies all the life sciences. It has formed the basis of productive and active research for over 140 years and continues to do so. This is why evolution is universally accepted among professional biology researchers. 

The second reason is that science education standards emphasize learning the process of science and especially scientific inquiry. The first step in this process is to develop testable questions that can be answered by scientific investigation. These questions are guided by scientific theories and their answers continue to show the value of biological evolution as a theory for forming useful, answerable questions in biology.
Obviously, evolution serves a key purpose--besides basic knowledge--in the biology classroom. It's a fundamental piece of crafting a solid base for more advanced scientific learning.

Not Teaching Students Evolution Correctly Does More Harm Than Good

While it's highly unlikely that evolution is going to undo a lifetime of religious teaching, and while many find ways to reconcile their religious worldview with evolution, the failure to teach it does not have the same lack of consequence:

“Understanding science is essential for making informed decisions and has become increasingly important for innovation and competitiveness in the 21st century workplace. It is critical, therefore, that students receive a sound science education including evolution.”
Teaching to the controversy--teaching evolution along with creationism--promotes a false equivalency. This can "[lead] to an undermining and distrust of science, at a time when the United States is falling behind in science and math education when compared to other nations." Furthermore, "teaching non-scientific concepts in a science class will only confuse students about the processes, nature, and limits of science."

Another key problem with the idea of false equivalency:
Critical thinking does not mean that all criticisms are equally valid. Critical thinking has to be based on reason and evidence. Discussion of critical thinking or controversies does not mean giving equal weight to ideas that lack essential supporting evidence.
By implying that both "theories" are on equal footing, a serious disservice is done to students, especially given the amount of evidence that supports evolution.

It can also confuse students on the concept of scientific theory and what it actually means. The idea that evolution is a theory, and creationism is a theory, is one that is consistently touted by creationists as proof that they are equal schools of thought. However, this is a misrepresentation of what the word "theory" means in scientific fields:
A scientific theory is a framework that guides research, not an idle speculation or a "hunch." These theories are systematic, well-tested explanations that account for a broad range of observations. Biological evolution is a scientific theory that explains the pattern and process of variation and similarity among living things in terms of the common ancestry of living organisms. It is a widely accepted and applied theory because it continues to guide useful research and answer new questions even after 140 years.
For instance, gravity is, technically, a theory. If you would like to test its validity, I invite you to throw yourself off of the nearest building. Please report back with your results.

The simple fact is that the instruction in the field of evolution is paramount and critical to a well-rounded science education.

So why, exactly, is this still so damned controversial?

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