Historical truth, creationism, and fighting

Adam Laats (whose blog you should be reading!) wonders how historians should respond to textbooks that peddle neo-confederate falsehoods:

So what’s an historian to do?  Do I have to swallow these insults in order to build bridges across culture-war divides, as I have suggested mainstream scientists need to do [w.r.t creationism]?  Or is it more important to fight back, to take on neo-Confederate historians and activists on a point-by-point refutation?

I can understand why both historians and scientists get angry and feel they must fight. But to fight or not to fight is not the only question. How we fight matters as whether we fight. It’s possible to fight fairly and treat your opponents with respect, something sorely missing with creationists.

Scientists and educators themselves disagree which topics in science are critical for people to learn, and especially non-scientists. Moreover, pretty much everyone agrees that there are many paths to science literacy. Since the experts don’t think evolution is absolutely necessary, and since there are many different ways to cultivate science appreciation and literacy, “fighting” over evolution seems particularly inappropriate.

History is different. Adam can comment more authoritatively, but I get the impression historians agree on a canon that everyone should be exposed to. There also aren’t easy substitutions in history education. You can’t legitimately teach mid-19th century US history and avoid the civil war. But as medical schools all over the world demonstrate, you can teach biology and avoid evolution. “Fighting” might actually be a more appropriate response for history. And even then, we can make sure to to fight fairly and respectfully.

Living in a democracy requires us to draw these types of lines. When it comes to public education, it may be okay to concede on evolution but not history.


  1. “But as medical schools all over the world demonstrate, you can teach biology and avoid evolution.”

    Given the vast majority of doctors in politics (particularly in the United States) demonstrate a lack of scientific understanding, this does not help your cause.

    Can non-medical schools demonstrate that you can effectively teach biology and avoid evolution? Why be so particular?

    Much in the same way that the peddling of neo-Confederate falsehoods can provide cover for particular policy choices, the advocacy of creationism allows for the undercutting of science and science education in support of other fields that threaten particular policy choices. This stealth advocacy needs to be called out, and it’s hard to do that and be nice.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Sorry for the slow reply…I was traveling for work. Why do you think the “vast majority of doctors” don’t have scientific understanding? I would say any definition of scientific understanding that excludes medical doctors isn’t very helpful. Both of my parents, a few of my cousins, uncles, and countless family friends are doctors. My mom and dad, e.g., are very knowledgeable about biochemistry, human anatomy, pharmacology, etc. If this knowledge and its practical application don’t count as scientific understanding, then maybe it isn’t that important!

      I picked on medicine because it is a profession that is clearly very important and steeped in biology. As for another example of teaching biology without evolution, check out here to see Stanford’s Bioengineering program. There is a single optional that lists evolution as an elective. I know many people from Stanford’s BioDesign program…and I know that evolution isn’t a big topic. When you’re focused on a discrete, actual problem, evolution and an abstract idealization of “scientific understanding” isn’t apparently useful.

      As for policy choices…I don’t think it’s about “undercutting science and science education.” I think this really is a core disagreement about the relative roles of parents and society in science education. I think it’s a legitimate and important debate to have. Thanks again!

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