By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
For nearly 150 years since Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859, the controversy has continued. Despite mountains of evidence collected from many branches of science, some still fight vigorously against teaching evolution in our school science classes.
I maintain that those fighting against this teaching are harming our society but may just be helping out science education. I refer here to what’s happening in the United States, which seems to be the country most affected by this controversy as well as being the one in which I live.
Answering why the anti-evolution forces are harming our society and how they might end up helping improve science education requires some digging. Society depends on technology to support our standard of living and on the creation of new technologies for export to fund our ability to buy technology. More and more of these technologies are biological in nature. Research into biology and medicine moves forward best when we understand the underlying principles of life. A framework upon which to set ideas and to imagine new ideas helps immensely in both research and development of new technologies and new products.
If you study well the advances in biology and medicine in recent decades, you will see that the concepts inherent in evolution have played an important role. If our students leave school without this important framework, then they are ill-prepared to participate in the advancement of science. If, even worse, they leave school opposing science and its precepts, then they may work to retard scientific advances. Evolution, as a concept and framework, has become the underpinning, tying together previously disparate aspects in all of our life sciences.
Right now, the world is on the verge of eradicating polio. One of three strains has already been destroyed, and only a few countries still harbor reservoirs of the remaining two and possibly only one. While this effort has been largely one of vaccinating everyone, development of new vaccines rests on medical research that depends on understanding how life works. Evolution is a crucial component. The speed with which we find cures for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease are likely to depend on scientists who use evolutionary theory in their work.
Our society suffers directly from not having more scientists who understand and use evolution in their work. It also suffers indirectly from a populace in which many have been educated to be suspicious of science. Science is just a way of thinking, of going about the business of finding out. No one should be suspicious of science. You can suspect individual scientists as they’re just as human as the rest of us, but do not lump all who seek enlightenment in our natural world through time-tested processes together. Know that most scientists seek knowledge, not power.
Before discussing the impact on science education, I’ll detour through some thoughts about the evolution controversy itself. Too many people characterize it as science against religion. They have it exactly backward. Science does not fight religion, although some scientists have seen fit to do so. They do not represent science. Actually, no one does.
Science is a process, a way of thinking that has been proven to work well when we seek to extract nature’s secrets. Finding out about how the universe works is hard work. We are often fooled by our desire to see patterns even when they don’t fit all the facts. Changing attitudes and long-held beliefs can take a long time. Few people realize today that in 1980 half of geologists did not accept the theory of plate tectonics. Yet, this theory is routinely taught in today’s classrooms without controversy.
What actually happens in the evolution-religion controversy is that religion attacks science, never the reverse. Science does not attack — it explains. Some scientist makes some discovery and publishes it. Some person somewhere reads about it and decides that the discovery is a heresy. It’s not as though God speaks to us and says that. It’s a fallible human being who makes the decision. Generally, it involves the interpretation of some sacred work. We wouldn’t have so many denominations of Christianity (most of the anti-evolutionists in the U.S. are Christians) if the sacred works were unambiguous. Indeed, we see many different translations of the Bible, which also indicates a certain ambiguous nature to this work.
A small minority of Christians have decided that teaching evolution undermines their religion. They have become very vocal and very influential. Many say they agree just to avoid the wrath of those few who are so incensed. Many actually are swayed by the fervor of those who have taken it upon themselves to interpret their Bible.
But science doesn’t care. The words of Sergeant Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am,” are all that science cares about. Like good detectives, scientists follow the evidence and are not supposed to allow their prejudices to interfere. They’re human, too, and do get confused on occasion by what they expect. However, the system of science is self-correcting. When scientists publish, others check their publications. They can review the evidence. They can even collect their own data for comparison. Science is not dogmatic, cannot afford to be dogmatic. Science has no sacred works that cannot be challenged.
Some say that evolution is “just a theory.” Yes, but it’s a scientific theory. What they miss is that, in science, a theory is the pinnacle, the top level, to which an idea can be promoted. Once a scientific idea becomes a theory, it has no higher level to achieve. Over time, such theories will be buttressed by more and more data, evidence that the denotation of theory is appropriate. Sometimes, as with Newton’s theory of universal gravitation and the precession of Mercury’s orbit, data do not match up. The error, in this case, was very small and required many repeated measurements with improved precision before scientists were certain something was awry. They sought many explanations within Newton’s law without success. Only Einstein, with his general relativity theory, was finally able to explain the discrepancy. However, Newton’s theory is still used widely for almost everything.
Simply, we base theories on data that necessarily originate in some domain. Scientists collect more data from within that domain and also seek data from outside of the domain to see whether the theory holds there too. If so, all’s good. If not, then, as with Mercury’s precession, some new theory must be found to explain the new data. The old theory still holds for data in the old domain. However, the new theory may profoundly affect our view of the universe.
If theories are at the top, what’s a scientific law? It’s a horse of a different color, a totally different concept. A law is not an explanation but rather an inductive result that tells us how to predict. The universal gravitation law tells us that the attraction between two masses is proportional to each of the masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers. The universal gravitation theory says that all masses, whether on the Earth or in the heavens, obey the same law. We cannot be sure that this theory is correct for extremely distant objects, billions of light-years away, but it seems to be. Some data suggest that it may not be so, but without more data and more precision, we cannot be certain one way or the other.
Plate tectonics attracted much opposition. So did the meteor theory of dinosaur extinction. Yet, these now have become accepted, although much science is being done to ferret out the details.
All of these ideas lead naturally to the nature of science. Some statements above hint at it. Science uses data from the real world to induce ideas. These ideas then are used to deduce conclusions about what will happen in a given situation. The process involves much cross checking among scientists because they are taught to trust no one when it comes to scientific data, hypotheses (what an idea becomes before becoming a theory), and theories. Use your own brain and, if possible, your own data before accepting any idea.
All scientists know, as a part of their very being, that measurement is imprecise. No matter how well you make a measurement, you can always do better. You never reach absolute precision. You also never reach absolute certainty. This is an enormous strength of science. However, as with Jiujitsu, people seek to use it as a weakness. You’ll hear some say that scientists don’t know everything, and scientists are the first to admit it because they’ve learned over long experience that it’s true. This, however, does not mean that they know nothing. Others say that scientific measurements are subject to error. Of course, they are. Scientists are trained to estimate and report the errors inherent in their measurements. These are included in their analyses before making conclusions. And so it goes.
All of these ideas lead to my initial statement regarding the evolution controversy possibly helping science education. Today, many recognize that our science classes are doing an inadequate job of teaching the nature of science. It’s not really possible to discuss the theory of evolution in the face of religious objectors without understanding the nature of science. Students in the classroom must be acquainted with the nature of science before discussing the major theories — including evolution.
After all, I’m sure that an excellent case could be made for a religious objection to plate tectonics. Some would maintain that it’s simply contrary to the Bible. Others would sidestep the issue by saying that continents may move, but God moves them or decides how they’ll move.
Evolution controversy could help science education by convincing teachers, and those who teach them, that learning about the nature of science is crucial to learning science. Bringing the nature of science into every discussion of scientific theory and every laboratory investigation will improve the quality of science education considerably. You may not find questions on state tests about it, but understanding the nature of science comprises an important part of scientific thinking skills that will become, for those who have them, a valuable thinking tool throughout life.
For more on this topic, look up Carl Sagan’s “baloney detection kit” on your favorite search engine.
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