Why do we teach science?

The Lt. makes an important point I’ve been meaning to address in his response to my suggestion that much of biology can be taught without the theory of evolution (emphasis added):

You may not need evolution to teach biology, but you pretty much do need it to teach biology well. I don’t know if you saw the new AAAS report on revamping the undergrad biology curriculum. The focus is undergrad and not high school. But they identified core concepts and the very first one was evolution. I guess it all depends on the class and what you’re hoping to accomplish.

In grad school I took a class on “Science Education for Scientists and Engineers.” Perhaps the most interesting discussions we had centered on the justifications for public science literacy. That is, why do we teach everyone science? Surely society’s need for scientists and engineers can be satisfied by training a small elite. But we clearly care about more than just that. The endless exhortations for more science education reflect, I believe, the belief that science must mean something for everyone.

And here is where it gets a little tricky. From my light reading in the field, there really is no expert consensus on why or how we foster a general public understanding of science. Scholars generally agree that science education should leave people with some content knowledge, some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But specifically what content, and how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation is a mystery.

From my standpoint, if we care even a little about the last goal (and I believe we should care a lot), then we must tread carefully around thorny topics like evolution. It doesn’t mean that evolution is not important (it surely is), or that the theory should be avoided (it shouldn’t). But a strident, narrow defense of evolution may undermine scientific literacy writ-large. Do we really want to tell people that they are unwelcome in physics and chemistry if they don’t believe in evolution? And do we have to do it so angrily?

In evolution and in politics, I wish we could all just try a little tenderness.


  1. Well, as for why scientific literacy generally, there are lots of reasons, including economic and just the general ubiquity of science and technology in our lives today. There is sometimes an undertone of “if people were smarter, they’d think more like me” to some of it, but despite that, there seem to be only a very few who disagree that science literacy is a good thing for individuals and for our nation.

    For evolution specifically, people have come up with all kinds of work-arounds for the issue (=accommodationism). But the fact is that evolution truly is a core concept in biology. If people can somehow separate their thinking in the biological sphere from their thinking in the religious or other spheres, or say they are consistent with one another, that’s great…but it is difficult to do.

    I think what frustrates a lot of people, including me, is when the “disbelief” in evolution is founded on outright misinformation (a lot of creationist stuff that focuses on attacking legitimate science), and also when the disbelief is simply the result of concern about what acceptance would mean for their other beliefs. We know some climate change denial is because people conclude if they accept the science they will be forced to make changes they view as detrimental, expensive, and undesirable. (This may or may not actually be true.) The same phenomenon is at work with evolution.

    I always like to say that the issue is really not about the science, and if we’re going to talk about evolution and creationism, we should talk LESS about science and MORE about faith.

    1. I agree that science literacy is a good thing for both individuals and the nation. I think some people contest that SL is any more special than, say, civic or economics literacy. I have mixed feelings about that point. I think I’ve argued here that historians and economists should do as much outreach as scientists if they feel SL is unfairly being prioritized.

      I agree we should talk more about faith…but in this case I don’t think there’s any real solution. If for whatever reason you hold a literal belief in the Bible, then evolution will definitely contradict your views. There is no way to work around that. It’s for these people that I am willing to be more accommodating because in the end, you can still engage and appreciate science without evolution.

      Part of my evolution (pun intended!) on this topic–from fire-breathing Dawkins admirer to my present stance–has been my interactions with several young-Earth creationists. I went to Penn State for college (in the middle of nowhere PA), and my senior year I was an academic mentor to about 40 honors kids. These are the kids who got into the “smart” schools but chose PSU instead. Almost everyone had over a 1400 on their SATs, and over 50% were in technical majors. And yes, a big chunk of them were also young-Earth creationists. So I now have a hard time with blanket assertions about them.

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