Thursday, June 14, 2012

Two Quick Links about Why the Fight over Evolution Matters

So, apparently Kevin Drum, a political commentator I don't read but who is apparently somewhat well-known, has written an article for Mother Jones declaring the fight over how whether biology is taught in public schools an irrelevant sideshow. 

I was nonplussed by this. Obviously, it's not the most important issue in the world --- it doesn't pose an existential threat the way climate change, peak oil/peak everything, overpopulation and hunger do, and it doesn't have the dire social consequences (or moral urgency) of, say, restricting access to contraception, the mass incarceration of people of color and poor people, increasing economic inequality or the deliberate demolition of the welfare state --- but I still felt like it had some importance that went beyond mere cultural border-policing*.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon and PZ Myers at Pharyngula both responded to Drum's article, and each of them made points that rang true for me, and helped explain why his statement bothered me.

I have to admit, I'm boggled at Kevin Drum's reaction to the news that nearly half of Americans are young Earth creationists ... . He completely misreads the situation and frankly does so in a way that I personally felt thrown under the bus.
Kevin takes it as a given that fights over what's taught in high school are strictly about symbolism and have no real importance. I suspect that's a much easier view to take if you're the beneficiary of a good public school in a blue area or lucky enough to have gone through or been able to put your own kids through private school. For someone who went to a rural high school in Texas, the notion that high school doesn't matter strikes me as ridiculous in the extreme. 
The reason conservatives target high schools (and junior high schools and elementary schools) isn't because they're playing for peanuts. On the contrary, conservatives understand something liberals don't, which is that if you get people while they're young, you usually have them for life. This is also, incidentally, why conservatives pay more attention to pop culture than liberals. Liberals are great people --- I'm one of them! --- but  we have a tendency towards preening individualism and therefore discount the importance of things like what's in the classroom and what's on TV because we personally feel we're iconoclasts who aren't affected by it. Which can, in this case, cause us to neglect to remember that in fact this is the air that most people breathe, and the quality of that air matters
I also had strong feelings of no you're wrong when I read the paragraph in Drum's article where he dismisses "a 10th grade understanding of evolution" as something so piddling as to be dispensed with entirely, so much does it pale in comparison to the understanding of evolution one gets (presumably) in college, or in books on evolutionary biology. PZ, along with a slew of other biology professors in his comments and at Mother Jones, takes him to task for this; they write that, no, actually, they have noticed a change in how readily their students grasp what they have to teach. Almost as if high school curricula were geared toward preparing the students for college ... 

Anyway, what felt unfair to me was his assumption that, if people needed the knowledge, they could always pick it up elsewhere. This made me angry, because for many people there is no "elsewhere," or at least not one that is immediately accessible without guidance. 

(Who has tried to teach themselves a completely novel subject by checking out books on it from the library? Isn't it hard to figure out which books will be the ones you need? Technical books are often overly specific and assume you've already got a grounding in the subject, and are interested in exploring a particular question within it, and books for laypeople might not be thorough enough, and also might not be trustworthy). 

As for college, well, not everyone goes there, most of the people who go there will never encounter evolution in the classroom --- I didn't, and I majored in a biological science! --- and, again, college professors have enough to do without having to burn up lecture time with remedial material and correcting misinformation. Plus, not all colleges are created equal; some 

To top it off, what you know before college helps determine where you go, whether you go at all, and what you study! College is expensive, and for many prospective students (I know I felt this way when I was applying to colleges) the size of the scholarship you can get makes the decision for you. Scholarships for merit, as opposed to need (and there will always be more people who can't really afford college than there are people officially deemed too poor to afford college on their own), depend on how one performs on standardized tests. And what does standardized test performance depend on? What you learned in high school.

There's more: as Amanda also points out, what you're exposed to in high school shapes your interests and aspirations:
[M]y high school biology course didn't teach evolution. Without evolution, biology actually doesn't make sense, and instead it's just an anatomy class. ... I had no idea how fascinating biology actually was until I was an adult, and long past any chance of starting on that as a career path. Not that I think I would, but you can easily see someone like me making that choice as a young woman, but not really being able to because I was never offered that option in a realistic sense to begin with. 
(As someone who did study biology, and who loves Amanda's writing about science- and skepticism-related topics as much as I do her feminist writing, I can see it. Her interest in the subject is obvious, as is her commitment to find out what's true and how we know it's true. While she won't --- can't --- go into the kind of technical details I sometimes do here, her grasp of general, foundational principles is firm enough that I can easily forget she does not possess a biology degree herself.)

To shift to another aspect of why Drum's assessment is so horribly, horribly wrong, I quote PZ:
[T]his is going to be the century of dependence on the sciences. Climate change is going to hit us all; environmental crises are going to rise up all over the place; we're going to face shortages of energy and fresh water; emerging diseases will be a major concern; new biomedical technologies will cause cultural shocks; the whole world is going to change. Most people, I agree, will not be doing the research that leads to changes, and most of these problems will require political and social changes to correct, but how are you going to convince people to, for instance, change their fuel consumption habits when they're in complete denial of basic facts? How can you expect people to appreciate the importance of ecology and global interactions when you tell them that evolution doesn't matter? How will you get them to make rational decisions to control pandemics when they can't comprehend probability, epidemiology, and viral/bacterial evolution on even the most basic level? 
Most importantly, though, this utilitarian attitude that all that matters is what people can directly use in their day-to-day life is a denial of the Enlightenment and principles on which our country was founded. It's a rejection of the liberal idea that human beings should be well-rounded and informed individuals --- the informed citizenry that should be the foundation of a democracy. We can't expect everyone to be biologists or poets or political scientists, but we should expect that one outcome of a public education is an appreciation of the breadth of human endeavor, and at least a smattering of the fundamentals of a wide range of subjects, sufficient that, to make it practical again, students can make informed career decisions and understand a basic argument from evidence from an expert. We lack that now. And to wave away a simple but essential starting fact about our existence as unimportant is deeply offensive.     
I would add to his first paragraph that you don't have to wait for some futuristic nightmare scenario for these things to affect people's lives. Disease-causing bacteria are already becoming resistant to a whole lot of the antibiotics we use to fight them; lots and lots of species have disappeared or are disappearingsensitive ecosystems are already being stressed, some to the breaking point by human activity, and humans are already failing to see why they should care***.

The picture he paints in that first paragraph has already come to pass, in the way that the proverbial camel is already in the tent, he just needs to take a few steps forward before it becomes obvious to everyone.

I would also add something else that I think denying evolution does: it makes it easier to think of humans as separate from, and above, the natural world and all those other animals. It allows us to think that what we do to it, to them, will never get back to us. 

(You don't have to deny evolution to get to that mindset, though: I see it arising just as readily from the erroneous view of evolution as a teleological process of development from simple to complex organisms, with humans sitting triumphantly at the apex. I've posted before about my annoyance with this picture of evolution.)

*This is what Andrew Sullivan, another famous political commentator whom I know to be obtuse, thanks to driftglass, an obscure political blogger who is quite acute**, has called belief in creationism a "cultural signifier" that describes the group membership of the believer rather than what that person actually believes about reality. That whole line of reasoning makes me queasy, but even if he is right that no one actually believes the Earth is six thousand years old and every animal species living on it was molded from clay and animated with the breath of a god, if that is what they decide shall be taught to children as fact, in place of the full history of life on Earth (as much of it as we know, anyway) and an explanation of how life on Earth has changed as Earth itself has changed, then those children grow up with a much poorer understanding of the world around them. An idea can have consequences in the real world whether people truly believe it or not; all they need to is act as if they believe it. Also, Andrew Sullivan is dumb.

**Hee. I made a geometry pun.

***This is not, at all, meant to be an exhaustive list, or even a primer on any of those subjects. I just put a recent news/research story in every link to make the point that, yes, this stuff is happening, and it's not just one or two isolated incidents. 


Anonymous said...

Although the length of the post made me think "woah" and my eyes glass over, there is one specific point I wanted to share with you.

I do not know how much it has changed since I was a boy, but when I was in school, the subject of evolution was never really approached all that much. Especially not in a manner concerning whether the theory was sound (which it very much is). In pre-high school, children are taught about things like germs, virii, and other aspects of DNA such as why this person has that "unusual" feature. The smartest children in the class generally work out that evolution is a fact because otherwise it would be impossible to explain why half the class is always coming down with some ick, bug, or flu week after week.

I think this is why giving children certain basics of science (evidence, how to spot a poor claim, and so on) is important. Because I do not know how old Kirk Cameron was when they got to him, but he was clearly older than high school level. Just teaching children how to spot a poor argument (eg. that proving evolution false will somehow mean creationism is automatically correct) would make an enormous impact.

Lindsay said...

"Although the length of the post made me think 'woah' and my eyes glass over ..."

Yeah, I can't seem to keep them at a manageable length. If it's a rant, there's always more to rant about, and if it's me waxing pedantic about something ... well, those are the longest.

Lindsay said...

What I remember most from elementary-school science are ecology lessons, learning about different places and kinds of animals, and how all the different species that share a place depend on one another in some way.

I don't remember getting into evolution, or genetics, until high school, but it was taught pretty well there.

I totally agree about teaching kids critical thinking and how to investigate things on their own, though! We're actually in the process of adopting national science-education standards here in the US, and they mostly focus on that: not so much memorization of facts as being able to set up and carry out an experiment to answer some question you might have about the natural world. I'm excited about that, even if it means successive generations of schoolchildren will know less at a given age than I did, they'll be well equipped to find it out on their own.

Ettina said...

"Who has tried to teach themselves a completely novel subject by checking out books on it from the library? Isn't it hard to figure out which books will be the ones you need? Technical books are often overly specific and assume you've already got a grounding in the subject, and are interested in exploring a particular question within it, and books for laypeople might not be thorough enough, and also might not be trustworthy)."

I actually learn best this way. I think one thing that desperately needs to change about schools is to teach more kids the research skills I figured out on my own. School shouldn't be about spoon-feeding knowledge as much as it should be about learning how to learn. After all, there's always more to learn, and many jobs require ongoing training.

Incidentally, what I usually do is start with the layperson stuff for an overview, and then read the more technical stuff. For example, when I decided I wanted to learn particle physics, my first stop was Wikipedia. I read a bunch there, and then took out some books about the subject and talked it over with my Dad.

Lindsay said...

@Ettina - I definitely agree about schools teaching you how to research things on your own; one of the things I picked up at one point during my formal schooling (I have no idea when) was how to evaluate sources. Especially on the Internet, this is a crucial skill for the would-be autodidact.

Your method is actually pretty close to the one I follow in acquainting myself with something I'm not all that well versed in.

But for a lot of science, I don't see myself having learned a lot of the things I know half so well if I had tried to teach myself; the math, especially --- how to set up the equations as well as how to solve them --- I'm not sure I would've understood it as well without having a teacher there to help walk me through the more intractable problems.

Your dad might play that role for you; mine is able to do that to some degree for me, but he's not the best teacher. It was lucky for him that my brother and I find math so intuitive generally, that all he had to do help us was work a problem for us to see, and not have to rely so much on his not-so-great verbal explanations.