The field of science is familiar to threats and challenges. Be it the Earth revolving around the Sun, the practice of vaccination or even the existence of a God, scientific discovery has almost always stood in opposition to the beliefs and culture of its time. The theory of evolution is no exception to this rule. Scientists have been at loggerheads with religious leaders about the origin of life on our planet ever since Charles Darwin first posited his theory.
Evolution is the process by which life is thought to have developed and diversified to create complex beings, like humans, over centuries. Creationism and intelligent design are the beliefs, inspired by religion and spirituality, that living organisms originated from the specific design of a divine being, rather than the natural process of evolution.
Evolutionism and creationism have always been in direct conflict with each other, and now evolution faces a new challenge: a weak American education system.
A 2007 national survey of biology teachers reveals that 13% of teachers endorse creationism or intelligent design in their classrooms, 21% present it as a valid alternative to evolution and around 22.5% spend more than an hour of (unconstitutional) class time to discuss these non-scientific theories. In short, close to 60% of teachers take a cautious approach towards teaching evolution in classrooms, since a majority (as high as 77%) of people in most states want creationism to be included in science curricula.
This is alarming, since evolution is biology’s central concept, and every other concept builds upon it. High school students may plan to pursue biology as their major, while still failing to understand its underlying concept. Even more disturbing, researchers in the field of biology – people who will push the boundaries of our understanding in the field, and who will create the next set of treatments to fight newer forms of microbes – may not learn the basics of how these microbes change and mutate.
This is not a simple problem. It is one thing to present different theories – after all, science is the practice of investigating different theories to pick the one that best fits the evidence. Still, the active endorsement of a theory that has no scientific basis in a science class is inexcusable.
An effective system of education helps students understand how to separate their personal beliefs from established theories. This is an important ability in many factors of life, and now educators are allowing students to graduate without developing this skill. According to the National Science Teachers Association, “twisting and abusing core pedagogical principles, such as critical thinking and scientific inquiry, is another strategy designed to open science classroom doors to non-science.”
Allowing opinion to win over fact percolates through to the lives of students in later years as well. After all, when students are taught to dismiss scientific studies and facts in favor of beliefs, they can apply this habit to every aspect of life, rendering the field of science useless.
There is one area where this stands eerily true today: the vaccination debate. Insurmountable data is useless when people refuse to look at it; they believe the science behind vaccinations to be untrue, and nothing can convince them otherwise. For children, this disbelief can be life-threatening. Recently, countries previously observed to have eradicated polio have seen outbreaks of it, as more parents refuse to vaccinate their children. Vaccinations depend on herd immunity – the immunity of the community is as strong as its weakest member, and when members refuse to vaccinate against a disease, they endanger the health of everyone around them.
The solution? We need to empower our teachers, starting in elementary and middle schools, by providing them with the resources and the confidence to teach scientific theories and reject non-scientific ones, even if they face opposition from their communities. Scientific skills prepare adults to be more capable of differentiating between religion and provable facts. By depriving students of these skills, we are only doing them a disservice.