On Monday, January 25, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Biology Education (NCBE) spoke at CSU (promo blurb). A panel discussion followed on the state of science education with Dr. Scott, some CSU profs, and some local science teachers participating. I also had the opportunity to have breakfast with Dr. Scott the following morning. Here are a few reactions.
Dr. Scott went out of her way to distinguish between religion and science. Surprisingly (to me), she from the outset made room for religion. When asked explicitly about her religious faith later in the Q&A, she distanced herself from the question and claimed that it had no place in this forum. This was a talk about science education and not about her private religious beliefs. It seemed clear to me that the questioner was pushing for a “Darwinian evolution leads to atheism” type position and Dr. Scott refused to go there. The talk was sponsored in part by a new student group at CSU, Leaders in Free Thought (LIFT), who were probably disappointed with all of this. I was glad to see it and it clearly set the tone of the rest of the talk. Given this I could have seen a local ASA chapter (not yet existent) or our CSU Christian Faculty Network help sponsor this talk.
Interestingly, during the panel discussion this thread was continued. The question of religious belief came up again and all of the panelists were quick to say that education about evolution had nothing necessarily to do with religious belief. One panelist was a self-admitted religious person but from a non-Christian perspective. During the panel Q&A a couple of apparent evangelical questioners asked about how the teachers handled or should handle students who were convinced young-earth creationists (YEC) or intelligent design (ID) advocates. Somewhat shocking to me, all agreed that the issue was not whether the students agreed with what they were being taught, but whether they understood the material. Frankly, I was pleased to hear this and was glad that public school educators respected the private opinions of their students and their families. Their goal was to teach science (at least the content side–there was a significant emphasis on the importance of teaching scientific methodology) as what scientists currently think.
There was a certain inconsistency, however, and I attempted to raise this in the Q&A time. I’m not sure I was clear, because the responses were somewhat generic. Both Dr. Scott’s talk and the panel began with a reference to surveys that indicated that most Americans don’t accept evolution and that this indicated a failure of American science education. The inconsistency that I see is that “accepting evolution” doesn’t seem to be the goal of science education if all that is important is that students understand what scientists think. Thus, the framing of the question is critical here. Is the question “Do you accept evolution?” or “Do you understand evolution?” The only answer I got was that in polls the framing of the question is critical.
I’d be curious about what ASAers think about this issue. Is the goal of science education (at least the content side) merely knowing what scientists think or is it accepting it as true (within the limitations that all scientific knowledge has a certain tentativity to it)? At what point in the science education or science practice process does the requirement that scientists accept the conclusions of science kick in? Granting of the Ph.D.? Granting of tenure? Peer review? Obviously, the answers differ depending on the institution and the nature of the research journal.
The title of Dr. Scott’s lecture was “Not Over After Dover” and was a review of the various court rulings forbidding the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in the public school. While in general I am not very sympathetic with demarcationist arguments and I’m not at all convinced that the current views of separation of church and state are the right interpretation of the Constitution, I was nearly in total agreement with the scientific arguments presented (critical of YEC and ID). Her clear definition of evolution, her distinction between common ancestry and various mechanisms of evolution, and her rebuttals of Dembski and Behe were all things that I agreed with and have used in my own presentations. In general, I would call NCBE a friend of ASA.
I had two pieces of advice for Dr. Scott.
1. That she recognize that the search for and recognition of intelligent agents is scientific. After all, her background is physical anthropology. Anthropology, archaeology, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), forensics, etc. are all scientific. Social and human sciences all deal with intelligent agents. Admit it, and then explain why ID is different. When I mentioned this, her response was positive. Her explanation had to do with the identity and scientific accessibility of the designer. We recognize ID because we are familiar with designers that design similar things. All the disciplines mentioned follow that pattern. I think this is close to what Randy Isaac is getting at in his review of Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (most recent post in that series). God as designer is unlike any designer we know. Not only is his handiwork designed, he upholds and controls the very substances things are made of, the laws that govern it all, and any evolutionary history that may have led to their being.
2. That she appeal to evangelical supporters of evolution (ASA, Francis Collins, Denis Lamoureux, B.B. Warfield, John Stott, perhaps Tim Keller, etc.). Appeal to Roman Catholic or even mainline Protestant thinkers, doesn’t really help convince an evangelical. The evangelical needs to see fellow evangelicals that they trust in order to move ahead here. Appeal to Catholic or possibly theologically liberal theologians does no good. Even appeal to ASA, Collins, Lamoureaux, and others willing to “give up” a historical Adam and Eve or a historical Fall will not be accepted. While I’m not questioning anyone’s evangelicalism in saying this, it is largely the case that once you have given up a historical Adam and Eve that many (maybe most) evangelicals will suggest that you have moved significantly in the direction toward the theological liberal. The fact that there are examples of thinkers on this issue who don’t do this (Warfield, Stott, Keller, myself, etc.) will enable some to accept evolution. Dr. Scott agreed with my assessment here but pointed out that her motivation was primarily to show that accepting evolution was not inherently atheistic. In other words, it was part of her setting the context that being pro-evolution is not to be anti-religious.