Beyond the Evolution Battle: Addressing Public Misunderstanding
Misunderstanding of Science:
The Evolution Challenge
By Martin Weiss
On December 20, 2005, Judge John Jones III, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, issued a blistering 139-page memorandum opinion in favor of the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. In this decision, the judge referred to the "breathtaking inanity" of the school board's decision to require an anti-evolution disclaimer in the ninth grade biology class. He also forcefully noted, "in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial," that intelligent design (ID) is not science.
The defendants, members of the Dover Area School Board, had required that a statement referring to "gaps" in the theory of evolution and suggesting "intelligent design" as a viable alternative be read to biology students. The plaintiffs were 11 parents who alleged that ID was in fact a religious construct and that presenting it to their children in a public school science class violated the "establishment clause" (regarding the separation of church and state) of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.
Although Judge Jones' jurisdiction encompasses only his own district, his decision is so clearly reasoned that it is hard to imagine other federal district judges ignoring it. In the battle between religion and science—a conflict eagerly promoted by the media since Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce first debated Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1860 with biologist T.H. Huxley—is this the final salvo? Not likely.
Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a Berkeley, California-based organization that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools, says she has seen the anti-evolution movement rebound from such setbacks before: "It's like a waterbed," Scott says. "You push it down in one place, and it bounces up in another."
Only a month after the Kitzmiller ruling, parents sued the El Tejon School District, in Lebec, California, for proposing to offer a course on "The Philosophy of Intelligent Design." The proposal, a thinly disguised attempt to challenge evolution by promoting ID and creationism, was withdrawn. Surprisingly, this outcome was backed by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a leading promoter of ID and a previous supporter of the Dover school board, citing concern for further damage to the ID cause.
Total victory may be long in coming, however, as there are thousands of school boards across the United States making decisions about curriculum. In Kansas, the State Board of Education voted in November 2005 to allow ID to be taught in public schools. Critics fear this decision will encourage other state boards to make similar moves, distracting and confusing teachers and students. A member of the Kansas science standards committee, a math teacher who opposes the changes, told London's Guardian newspaper last year, "They believe that the naturalistic bias of science is in fact atheist, and that if we don't change science, we can't believe in God... This is really an attack on all of science. Evolution is just the
A communication crisis
It is clear from recent opinion polls that most Americans simply don't understand science in general, much less evolution. Part of the confusion arises over the definition of terms like "theory," but there is much more about what science has discovered that educators are failing to convey.
Leonard Krishtalka, Director of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum & Biodiversity Research Center, in Lawrence, put his finger on it when he told a Chicago Tribune reporter last October, "We have done a terrible job of explaining what science is. I would imagine to nonscientists a lot of science and technology sounds like so much magic. Is it any surprise that people are choosing one kind of magic over another?"
In science centers, where evolution is traditionally viewed as the province of natural history museums, it is unusual to find an exhibit or a program on the topic. Evolution is also not commonly addressed in zoos, aquaria, or botanical gardens—institutions that consider conservation their primary mission. And even in natural history museums, label writers have resorted to euphemisms like "biological change over time" when describing the evolution of species.
Why is evolution avoided in science museums? In an online survey of science center and museum staff conducted by the New York Hall of Science in April and May 2005, the barrier to presenting evolution cited most often was concerns about negative reaction by the community, followed by questions of marketability, misalignment with mission, lack of staff training, and cost of programs. Museums may also fear losing local and state government funding along with community support.
The result of this abdication of responsibility is public confusion, even among those who regularly visit science centers and museums. When the New York Hall of Science polled visitors at seven museums on this topic in 2005, nearly a third said evolution "might or might not be accurate, you can never know for sure."
An educational opportunity
As often happens, what initially seems to be a difficulty may in fact be an opportunity. Evolution needs better representation to the general public, and science centers and museums are in a unique position to do this. Our institutions are respected as impartial presenters of science and technology; we know how to present scientific concepts in an engaging, free-choice atmosphere; and we already support teachers in their efforts to make science more accessible to students.
We have also shown that we can address controversial topics effectively. Consider What About AIDS?, a 1991 traveling exhibition developed by a consortium of museums to demystify the science of HIV and AIDS, gather local support, and help staff successfully deal with non-supportive visitors, or A Question of Truth, a 1996 Ontario Science Center exhibition that explored the idea of bias in scientific theories and research. We have the tools, the audience, and their respect; we just need the will.
Fortunately, most museum visitors are interested in learning science, and the general public may not be as antagonistic as we think. In an October 2005 CBS News poll, 67 percent of U.S. respondents said they thought it was possible "to believe in both God and evolution." And although less than half (48 percent) of British respondents to a January 2006 BBC poll said they accepted evolution as the best description for the development of life, 69 percent still wanted it taught in the science curriculum.
Visitors may listen if science museums make it clear (1) that we consider religion and science to be two different but valid approaches to understanding the natural world—one philosophical, one experimental—and (2) that the absence of religion in our programs means not that we are anti-religion, but merely that science limits its investigations to what can be measured, tested, and possibly disproved. There is no way to test for the cosmic intelligence that ID proponents posit. Speaking at the 2005 ASTC Annual Conference, NSCE's Scott made this point when she told her listeners, "No one has yet invented a theometer."
What can museums do to combat misunderstanding? A review of evolution exhibitions by Judy Diamond and Judy Scotchmoor in the forthcoming journal Museums & Social Issues suggests that museums should adopt new approaches to presenting evolution that will make the science more accessible to visitors. Several institutions are attempting just that.
At the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, the Darwin traveling exhibition shows how the 19th-century naturalist's personal journey of discovery led to his theory of natural selection and evolution becoming the foundation of modern biology. The University of Nebraska State Museum, in Lincoln, has worked with five partner museums to develop the interactive Explore Evolution Exhibition. Aimed primarily at visitors to university museums, Explore Evolution picks up where Darwin leaves off, expanding audiences' awareness of modern evolution research in readily comprehensible terms.
Human Evolution, at the Museum of Science, Boston, uses live animal displays and hands-on activities based on genetics to highlight the similarities between humans and other species. And at Chicago's Field Museum, the former Life Over Time exhibit reopens March 10 as Evolving Planet, with the museum's marquee dinosaurs now repositioned in the context of 4 billion years of evolution on Earth.
A major challenge in all informal science settings is how to present basic principles to young children in ways that will help them understand and assimilate more complex scientific concepts as they develop cognitively. In recent years, cognitive science researchers like E. Margaret Evans have begun to study and understand more about the ways that children develop intuitive theories as they grow and move toward adulthood, particularly in terms of their reasoning about evolutionary change in the natural world.
If we are to be successful in helping children accept evolution as a description of change in the natural world, we need to understand how to incorporate these new findings into museum exhibitions on evolution. In 2006, the New York Hall of Science, with funding from the National Science Foundation, is beginning a study to explore how we can best translate this cognitive research into the informal learning environment. The project has the potential to create a paradigm shift in how science centers and museums present evolution and other complex science to children.
Martin Weiss is vice president for science at the New York Hall of Science, Queens, New York.