Casualties in the New Science Wars: The Nation’s Children

Recent surveys suggest that nearly half of all American adults do not accept human evolution and an even larger majority is open to the teaching of nonscientific alternatives in our public schools.

There was a time when such statistics could be accepted without much alarm. After all, one need not accept or even understand evolutionary biology to become an excellent aerospace engineer, a computer scientist, or even a heart surgeon. And besides, isn’t society in the midst of a period of secularization such that advocates for creationism will be an ever-shrinking and increasingly marginal minority?

These two arguments are undermined by recent research on the teaching of evolution, and recent trends in the politicization of science in America. As a result, scientific illiteracy with respect to evolution is better viewed as a symptom of broader weaknesses in science education and we can expect that the tactics used by evolution deniers will soon be applied to other issues such as climate change.

Our recent book on how evolution is actually taught in the nation’s public schools reveals a broader undermining of science that has the potential to breed distrust of sound science in mainstream American culture.

  • We estimate that at least 13 percent of all public high school biology teachers flout U.S. federal court decisions by explicitly endorsing creationism or intelligent design in their classrooms.
  • We find that even in states with very rigorous content standards with respect to evolution, teachers’ coverage of evolution is largely dictated by their own personal values and their desire to accommodate local community sentiment.
  • To avoid controversy, many teachers disassociate themselves from the material — explaining that students need to learn it simply to pass the test.
  • Other teachers who themselves accept evolution nevertheless encourage students to come to their own opinions about the validity of evolutionary biology — conveying the idea that it is just a matter of opinion.
  • Still others focus only on microbiology. Not only do most avoid human evolution entirely but many omit fossil, genetic, and anatomical evidence of common ancestry of vertebrates — leaving high school graduates open to the common creationism argument that there is no real evidence for the emergence of new species.

It is not hard to see how these practices produce new generations of citizens who lack an appreciation for the nature of scientific inquiry and whose distrust of science will make them easy marks for those who see the findings of mainstream science as a threat to their profits or ideology (a phenomenon well documented by Oreskes and Conway in their book, Merchants of Doubt).

In sidestepping potential controversy, teachers are missing opportunities to explain how science actually works. For example, the field of evolution has many great examples of how scientists gain increasing confidence in hypotheses as replications and convergent evidence from disparate approaches cumulate in favor of the same conclusion. Teachers are missing opportunities to explain how modern science moves forward through the efforts and integrity of thousands of highly competitive individuals, all operating under the scrutiny of peer review.

In short, the current teaching of evolution represents an opportunity lost — the opportunity to prepare the next generation of citizens to play an informed and meaningful role in public debates that hinge on scientific evidence.

If this missed educational prospect was not cause enough for concern, it seems clear that instruction in earth science is likely to become embroiled in similar politics. Increasingly partisan and ideological politicians and activists are linking the two topics. Consider Ken Mercer, a former member of the Texas Assembly and current two-term member of the Texas Board of Education. When asked a question about his stance on evolution, he stated, “what we do have is the right for our kids to raise their hands in class and ask honest questions, especially in the areas of evolution and global warming.” As reported in a recent New York Times article, the joining of these two issues offers tactical advantages to each camp. Evolution deniers can claim that their skepticism of mainstream science is not rooted in religion because they also ask for teaching of “gaps” and “weaknesses” on climate change research, while climate skeptics can gain strength by allying with well-organized networks of socially conservative Christians who seem predisposed to doubt the conclusions of mainstream science.

These two trends — the cultivation of distrust in science generally and the convergence of interests of evolution and climate change deniers — signal a new chapter in the politicization of science. We can expect that mainstream science will be under attack in several venues. These include state boards of education that approve curricular standards, and local school boards that make choices among state-approved textbooks and instructional materials. But our research suggests that the most consequential arena will be the nation’s classrooms and the key players will be the nation’s science teachers. Moreover, the surest way to ensure teachers will not bow to political pressure is to arm them with a rigorous science education to complement their expertise in pedagogy and classroom management. If our research on high school biology teachers generalizes to science teachers more broadly, we can expect that many lack confidence in their ability to respond to politically motivated pressures with cogent explanations rooted in scientific research. Lacking such confidence, the sensible choice is to downplay scientific conclusions that generate controversy.

In this light, policymakers should review the rigor of science education that is typical of newly minted science educators and, where appropriate, elevate the expectations of what background is necessary to be considered well qualified. Such reforms have the potential to reduce the number of children who become casualties of the new science wars.


Podcast interview with Dr. Eric Plutzer conducted by Diana Epstein, a Policy Analyst at American Progress. Article by Dr. Eric Plutzer, professor of political science, and Dr. Michael B. Berkman, professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Penn State University Political Science Department. Dr. Plutzer and Dr. Berkman are the authors of the new book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms.

This post was originally published by Science Progress.

Related Stories:

Understand Climate Change or Go To Jail! (Video)

Waxman: GOP Is “Party of Science Deniers”

Republican-Controlled Committee Legislates That Climate Change Does Not Exist


photo courtesy of via flickr
Written by Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer


Robyn O.
Robyn O7 years ago

To all you religious folks out there: What proof do you, individually, have of god's existence. Tell me about it and how I can get it too. I just don't believe what anybody tells me. I like to find out about everything by myself. Do you believe everything screamed at you in a TV commercial? If you do, we can't communicate. And, as stated so many times, we didn't come from monkeys -- we on a branch off the main mammal tree like other primates. If you're uncomfortable being a primate and a mammal, then don't touch daily products because they might involve the milk of an animal mother. Perhaps you'd prefer god-given human mother's milk in your ice cream?

Lindsey DTSW
.7 years ago

Jami - because humans didn't evolve from monkeys. Humans are one of the Great Apes - and we, and the other apes, descended from a common ancestor. Who wasn't a monkey.

Jami Winn
Jami Winn7 years ago

if humans came from monkeys why aint monkeys still evolving into humans answer me that and i might buy that evolutionary bullcrap

Zulima C.
Zulima Morton7 years ago

Dear Roderick: By the way that you express your self in writing,
I can tell that you do not display any respect for us who have a different opinion than yours, I will say that is the conversation or debate will be in person you will be screaming like a maniac, and that only shows, insecurity, anger, hate and lack of peace,my prayer for you is that Our Maker heal your mind, your heart and grant you Peace.

Zulima C.
Zulima Morton7 years ago

Dear Kathy: I recent your comment to April, when you said if you and yours, you do not have any idea what us do for the planet,
let me just say that when you love the Creator, you love his Creation and that along take you to be a good steward of the planet, it is very simple.

Zulima C.
Zulima Morton7 years ago

April, I'm with you, and I feel sorry for those that think they know it all, only because they bielive in Evolution, and think that us who
believe in Creation, they are missing the Truth, The Bible, and I'm not forcing religion on any body, because it is not about religion, rather is a relantionship with Our Maker.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson7 years ago

Just because some of us believe in evolution does not make us bible bashers. And April, I get that you "believe". There is nothing wrong with those beliefs and in fact your faith is commendable... however, trying to force your thoughts and beliefs on others is not what Christianity is all about, and I can assure you that the Jesus of the bible would not argue and dispute this way, he would tell his side and leave it at that, allowing his message to be HEARD, not forced.
Personally the evidence as I've seen it so far points towards evolution. I am no scientist (or expert in any field) but it is my personal opinion. I was raised Christian and though I have taken a different path as I have grown, I can see how the two thought processes could coexist, not necessarily negate each other. Perhaps, April, if you and yours put more energy and time into helping the planet and less time on debating how it got here the world would be in a much better position

Roderick M.
Roderick M7 years ago

To April L;

The 98.9 % number for the similarity of human DNA and Chimpanze DNA does not come from research. The genome was sequenced some years ago. All you need do is count. Oh, pardon me, like most bible thumpers you probably believe the world is 4,000 years old and the value of "pi", the relationship of a circle's diameter to the circumference is only 3.

I don't understand what you possibly could mean about a chimp's DNA being a rough draft. You compared it with the finished version? Or you have some reason to know revisions are intended to come to the final copy? Do the chimps know that more revisions are in line for them by the great Architect? Or does the Creator tell you these things privately?

And where exactly are these "dissimilarities" in the chimp DNA located? How does 98.9% of similarity, almost exactitude give rise to "dissimilarities"? You think 1.1% is "great dissimilarity"? What exactly are you talking about when you say "critical sequence"?

Where do you get this idea of Gene function and "regulation" whatever that is supposed to mean. The function of the DNA is the production of all proteins, enzymes, energy transfer and all things necessary to the function of the cell. I suppose you mean RNA, but you don't say.

Humans, for instance have large areas of dissimilarity in their DNA, that is why we are able to use it to identify people. Of course that has to do with noncoding DNA, which I suspect you confuse with "regulation". Just as you find i

Kris Allen
Kris Allen7 years ago

To Roderick. Don't waste your time on April. I know many like her and facts will not make a dent.
I am a Christian who continues to read, learn and develop my knowledge about our world and universe. I do not find the two paths at all conflicting. In fact, learning more from scientific study has allowed me to separate dogmatic fundamentalism from true spirituality.

wooddragon xx
wooddragon xx7 years ago

Cor, blimey mate!! Can ya Adam and Eve it, the World 'as gone flat!!