It is of course a wonderful thing to receive an honorary degree from the University of Missouri, an institution that many years ago I called home.
I’m extremely grateful to all of the people who supported my candidacy for this high honor, particularly Frank Schmidt.
At the NCSE, we focus on two subjects: the nature of science and evolution. The US stands out among developed (and even some underdeveloped) nations with a high rate of rejection of the idea that living things have had common ancestors, and that the earth and universe are ancient and have changed over time. Only about half of Americans accept the idea that evolution has occurred, whereas the percentage of scientists who accept this is over 95%. Scientists vigorously debate details about how evolution occurred, not whether. Nonetheless, there has for over fifty years been a growing movement to try to persuade our fellow citizens that what is routinely taught at the university level in astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology is without a scientific foundation.
The question I am most frequently asked is “Why do we have this problem (of creationism) here in the US and they don’t have it elsewhere?” The second most frequently asked question is “if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes?” The third question — after someone gets to know me — is “How did you end up in this job, anyway?”
For my remarks tonight, I thought I would talk about that third question and tell you a little bit about how I got into this rather peculiar line of work of mine. It starts here, after all, because it was at the University of Missouri that I first was introduced to something called “creation science.” One day, in 1971, my professor, Jim Gavan, handed me a stack of small, brightly colored, slick paper pamphlets from the Institute for Creation Research. “Here,” he said, “Take a look at these. It’s called ‘creation science’.”
Wow. Here I was studying to be a scientist, and here were people calling themselves scientists, but we sure weren’t seeing the world the same way. Creationists claimed to be looking at the same data as mainstream scientists, but were concluding that all living things had appeared in their present form, at one time, a few thousand years ago. I and the rest of science was concluding that living things had branched off from common ancestors over scarcely imaginable stretches of time.
They were concluding that the entire planet had been covered by water, and that all the present-day geological features of earth had been determined by this flood and its aftermath. I couldn’t see any evidence for this at all, and much evidence against it. Why were we coming up with such different conclusions? The data sometimes were the same (although I found many errors in creationist literature), but the biggest differences were in philosophy of science and the approach to problem solving.
I began collecting creation science literature as an interesting problem in the philosophy of science — and because of course it was just inherently interesting. Due to the pressures of graduate school and later my first teaching job at the University of Kentucky, I wasn’t able to pursue it especially deeply, but students would occasionally bring up the topic. I would tell them that even if proponents of creation science claimed they were doing science, one cannot claim that one is doing science if one is doing something very different from what scientists are doing. Creation science was a good foil to use to teach students about the nature of science. Nowadays, “intelligent design” — a more recent form of creation science — can be used in the same way.
As executive director of the National Center for Science Education, I regularly encounter the public’s misunderstanding of the most basic elements of science. I deal with people who nod in agreement with a typical creationist statement that “neither evolution nor creationism is scientific because no one was there to observe it.” I deal with a public that agrees with creation scientists stating that “evolution isn’t scientific because evolutionists are always changing their minds,” and perhaps most disappointing, with people who contend, “well, if science is a search for truth, why can’t we just tell students ‘God did it’ in science class?” All of these are misunderstandings of what science is all about, which gets us into the question of what is science, and of course the fundamental question of what do you teach in a high school science class.
Of course, philosophers of science vigorously debate the definition of science, but at the level that the public understands these issues, their concerns are more like debating the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Doubtless to the frustration of my colleagues in the philosophy of science, my job requires me to simplify — probably beyond what they consider acceptable. But in doing so, I can make a little progress in helping the public to understand why science works, and also why the various creationisms aren’t science. Maybe down the road the nonscientists I encounter can tackle falsification and the demarcation problem; right now, I’d be happy if they understood two basic rules of science that I believe the majority of scientists would agree upon:
Science requires testing of explanations against the empirical world, and requires explanation through only natural causes.
The reason for the restriction of science to natural causes is related to the importance of testing in science. We can only test an idea if we can hold constant some of the variables under consideration. If God is omnipotent, He is unconstrained, and His actions cannot be held constant. As such, any experiment that postulates God as an actor could have any possible outcome. Therefore there is no way to scientifically test explanations that involve God or any other supernatural force. We are stuck with using only natural causes in science, because those are the only ones we can test. If we ever invent a theometer, maybe then we will be able to test hypotheses involving God.
And that is why creationism isn’t scientific, despite the claims of its proponents. It ultimately invokes the direct hand of God to specially create, whether Adam and Eve, or the bacterial flagellum, and whether true or not, invoking God cannot be deemed science. Furthermore, in my study of creationism, it became clear that the way they carried out their “science” was fundamentally flawed. Starting with a conclusion (God specially created) and looking for evidence to confirm it, is not doing science. And confusing students about what is science and what is outside of science is educational malpractice.
My interest in creationism changed from a casual concern about philosophy of science the year after I left Missouri. In October 1975, Jim Gavan unwisely accepted an invitation to debate the ICR’s Duane Gish. Gish had skillfully-honed debate skills that were highly effective in persuading the public that evolution was shaky science, and that folks should really consider his “scientific alternative”. I and some of my Kentucky students drove from Lexington to Missouri to attend the debate, and it was an eye-opener.
I counted thirteen buses from local church groups parked outside the huge auditorium, and after seeing the enthusiasm with which the audience received Gish and his message, the cold water of the social and political reality of this movement hit me for the first time. It was no longer just an academic exercise. People were taking this pseudoscience very seriously.
The late Jim Gavan was an excellent scientist, a former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, a smart and articulate man well-grounded in philosophy of science. He had done his homework: he had studied creationist literature for several months, and came as prepared as anyone could be expected to be. Clearly, his scientific arguments were superior, but judged from the perspective of who won the hearts and minds of the people, the folksy, jocular Gish mopped him up.
So I realized that there was a heck of a lot more in this creationism and evolution business than just the academic issues. I went back to Lexington and my job of teaching evolution to college students with a new appreciation of a growing movement that had as its goal the undermining of my professional discipline, to say nothing of the scientific point of view. But still — there were papers to publish, and a high teaching load, and I was still learning my job, so I didn’t take an active role in the controversy quite yet.
My true baptism into realizing the depth and extent of the social and political importance of the creation science movement came in 1980 in Lexington, Kentucky, when the “Citizens for Balanced Teaching of Origins” approached the Lexington school board to request that creation science be introduced into the curriculum. Because I had collected creationist literature over the years, I became a focal point for the opposition to this effort. I learned a lot: lessons I have applied in my current job. Scientists of course are major stakeholders in this controversy, but we are not alone, nor do we succeed alone.
Teachers are concerned about maintaining professional standards, and parents want their children to get a decent science education. People who care about church and state separation are very concerned about the teaching of creationism in science class. But stakeholders often not recognized are members of the mainstream clergy, who do not want someone else’s religion (biblical literalism) taught Monday through Friday and then have to straighten out their congregants on the weekend. In my experience, evolution is more likely to be taught in Catholic schools than in public ones.
In Lexington, we formed a coalition of scientists, teachers, civil libertarians, parents, and clergy, and after over a year of controversy, we persuaded the Lexington Board of Education to reject the proposal to bring creation science into the curriculum — by a scant 3–2 margin. The fact that the mainstream clergy stood up and announced that they thought evolution should be taught in school, and that they preferred to teach creation their own way, thank you very much, swung the community and thus the elected school board members to our side.
What happened in Lexington has happened in community after community across the US, and — I’m happy to say — when my staff and I can get input into the situation, the evolution side more often than not prevails. But the creationism controversy is not a problem that will be solved merely by throwing science at it. Of course, creationists — whether traditional creation science proponents or “intelligent design” proponents — contend that their views are supported by science and thus should be taught in science class, a point that has often been, and continually needs to be, refuted.
Scientists are the best equipped to make the point. Showing that evolution is solid science, and that creationism is unscientific is necessary — but insufficient. Ironically, the most effective argument creationists have used over the years is not a scientific one at all, but the “fairness” argument: that it is only “fair” to “teach both” — as if there were only two choices. Of course, even within Christianity there are a half dozen varieties of creationism, and if we add other world religions — much less Native American and other tribal society versions of creation — we quickly escalate into the thousands. “Both” indeed.
Yet fairness is an important part of American culture, and appeals to fairness and democracy have a resonance beyond the appropriateness of their application to science. Science is not a democratic process; it’s a meritocracy. We keep the ideas that work, and discard the ideas that don’t. If I’m speaking to a group of biologists I’ll sometimes joke, “How many of you would vote in Lamarckism over natural selection?” and almost all the hands go up! But however much nicer it would be for the diversity of life to be caused by Lamarckian processes allowing for the inheritance of acquired characteristics, rather than the painful, wasteful, and brutal process of natural selection, we have to go with how the world works, rather than how we’d like it to work.
In Missouri, you have had legislation introduced over the years which attempts to capitalize on this American enthusiasm for fairness to both sides. Bills once stressed giving equal time to creation science, and more recently, to “intelligent design”. Within the last decade, the focus has shifted to bills that direct teachers to “critically analyze” (read: criticize) evolution, or to teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution. We call this the “evidence against evolution” strategy, and it arose from a dissent from a Supreme Court decision that I won’t bother you with here. But the purpose of these bills in Missouri and elsewhere is to encourage teachers to cast doubt on the validity of evolution, and to introduce creationism through the back door.
And ultimately, what we are talking about with the creationism/evolution controversy is “what do you teach in a high school science class?” And clearly, what you should teach, sensibly enough, is science. Not something outside of science, like a religious idea, no matter how popular it is.
Of course, it’s impossible to teach all of science. What a high school teacher does is take the consensus view of science and choose from the topics that are most important for a beginning learner. The skill of a pre-college teacher is figuring out how to break down these topics into a sequence of learning so that a young person can build an understanding of the science that would allow additional study.
What the creationists want is for us to abandon the consensus view of science and introduce materials into the curriculum which are not only outside of the consensus, but not even science at all. Ironically, although anti-evolutionists are quick to accuse opponents of unfairness, theirs is ultimately the most unfair position. It miseducates students and handicaps them for further understanding of science.
Those of us concerned about public science literacy should indeed be concerned about the attacks upon evolution, because fundamentally such attacks are attacks on science itself. And if the United States loses its scientific superiority, it can hardly expect to maintain its international superiority in agriculture, medicine, energy, or any of the many other areas which science informs.
I also would hope you would be concerned that many young people are not learning one of the most profound discoveries in human history: the genetic connection between human beings and all other living things on the planet. And the more that evolution teaches us about the connections among all living creatures, from the simplest singlecelled organism to creatures capable of leaving the planet itself, the more we will understand how very precious life is, and hopefully, we will apply these lessons to preserving and enhancing our lives and those of the organisms with which we share our planet.
Evolution is an important scientific idea. It’s too bad so many students are not being allowed to learn it in our public schools.
[Delivered at the University of Missouri, Columbia, on May 15, 2010.]