Evolution Victory in Louisiana

Originally posted at NeuroLogica: Steven Novella writes on the decision to present a “reasonable” view of evolution without including the words “only a theory.  A small but sweet victory the battle against anti-science views.

Today the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) will have a final vote on adopting a biology textbook that includes a reasonable treatment of evolution, but does not include a disclaimer that evolution is “only a theory.” A preliminary vote to accept this carried 6-1 two days ago. The final vote is expected to uphold the preliminary vote.

This is the same fight science educators have been having with creationists for decades. The  creationist agenda is simple – to fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools any way they can. The courts have not been their friends – they failed to gain “equal time” for “creation science”, the inclusion of disclaimers in textbooks has been overturned, and their latest farce of “intelligent design” failed spectacularly at Dover. Their latest strategy – using the concept of “academic freedom” to introduce creationist pseudoscience into schools, has been somewhat successful (specifically in Louisiana) but has not yet faced a legal challenge.

Unfortunately, this relentless creationist attack against the teaching of one of the most solid and central theories of modern science has been successful in watering down the teaching of evolution and the public understanding of evolution, especially in regions of the country where literalist Christian belief is popular. This feeds on itself, as a populace ignorant of evolutionary theory is not equipped to defend against crafty attacks against it.

So it is heartening that in Louisiana, which has been a front line of this struggle, there has been such a solid victory for the teaching of science. The vote to accept a quality science textbook, and by extension reject alternate watered down versions, was solid; 6-1. Part of the impetus for this favorable vote was  the realization that the eyes of the country and the world are on Louisiana and their school system – they do not want to be a laughing stock nor have their students at a disadvantage because of the reputation of their state.

But of course the hard-liners are not relenting. The lone dissenting vote, Dale Bayard, is quoted as saying:

“I am an open-minded person, and I challenge anybody to come and tell me — and I’ve asked a couple of educators that are friends of mine — can you do me a favor and tell me, can you swear on a stack of Bibles there’s no other refutable data that provides an objective other approach to Darwin’s theory?”

This approach is very revealing. It reflects a misunderstanding of science, that there are facts that are “proven” and everything else is “just a theory.”  But no one who understands science would say that any theory is proven 100%, or that revisions or alternatives are impossible. But literalists tend to have a certain mode of thought – steeped in authority and certainty, which is anathema to the process of science. Science must be comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, and evidence holds sway (ultimately) over authority. This way of thinking, however, seems alien to those raised to believe in the authority of one reference absolutely, an authority that must be 100% correct in every detail or else it crumbles into worthlessness.

It is an insidious and difficult problem, when a person or group is engaging in a thought pattern of which they are not aware. The statements of creationists reflect this unstated major premise that facts and authority must be absolute. I think this is also why one of the common strategies of creationists is to quote evolutionary biologists as if they were quoting the Bible – they take one sentence (always out of context) as if it absolutely establishes something about the evidence or evolutionary theory. Rather than citing the evidence itself, they cite one authority – because that is what they are used to doing.

They also misinterpret dissent over some of the details of the mode and history of evolution as if it calls into question the fact of evolution itself. Again this reflects black and white thinking – any chinks in evolutionary theory bring the entire thing down.

But science does not operate that way. No theory is absolute, and no one person can act as a definitive authority. Perhaps that is the greatest failing of science education, and (at least partly) a legacy of the creationist movement – fostering a misunderstanding of how science works. Science deals with evidence, falsifiability and probability. Ideas are always subject to revision. But some ideas can be verified to such a degree that they can be treated as established facts, and evolution falls into that category.

The conflict over the teaching of evolution seems to have no end in sight, but we can savor these small victories, and keep vigilant as the creationists search for their next strategy.


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