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Does ‘Teaching the Controversy’ on Evolution and Creationism Ruin Science Class?

When should we expose our children to scientific controversies — and when should we thoroughly indoctrinate them, for the benefit of society?

School districts in 14 states now use taxpayer money to teach Creationism in biology class, having all but ripped natural selection and evolution out of the textbooks. Their justification is summed up in a three-word argument: “Teach the controversy.” Eventually, proponents of exposing kids to religious doctrine in science class argue, kids will discover that real people have opinions that run counter to scientific evidence. They’ll meet Creationists, anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, and GMO conspiracy theorists. Why not teach them that people disagree? It turns out that there are scientific answers to those questions — answers that creationists are likely to ignore.

The question of when we should expose children to anti-scientific teaching — and if we should actively expose them at all — can be approached from a moral angle, but not resolved. From a scientific angle, things are clearer because there is actual evidence in play. Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch of The National Center for Science Education collected that evidence for a study published in 2003. They determined that a scientific controversy is only worth teaching if it’s of interest and understandable to students, and fundamentally scientific. 

Scott and Branch point out that the interest and understanding parts sometimes go overlooked, but warrant a mention. “There is a raging scientific controversy over whether maximum likelihood or parsimony ought to dominate in phylogenetic interpretation,” they write. “But we suspect that few students will be fascinated by the controversy.” Fair enough.

Their suggestion that educators stick to scientific controversy rather than social controversy is similarly salient. There is no scientific debate as to whether stem cells can be taken from embryos, for instance. The question is whether they should be. That’s an important question but, since it’s not a scientific controversy, it’s not for science class.

Using this model, parents and teachers can figure out whether it’s worth teaching any given scientific controversy to their curious little nerds. Should we tell our children about Creationism? Well, it sure is interesting and the sides are easy enough to understand. But it fails on every other metric: The controversy is not remotely scientific (there is no scientific argument that the world is 6,000 years old; there’s a religious one) and there’s no evidence that Creationism is correct (faith is fine, but it isn’t defensible in an evidence-based debate). So it does more harm than good to “teach the controversy” when it comes to Creationism, at least according to Scott, Branch, and The National Center for Science Education.

There was, however, a later addition to these criteria. Tom Langen of Clarkson University published a subsequent paper that argued that there should be one more litmus test on the table—any controversy that clarifies the demarcation between science and other ways of knowing about nature should be taught, regardless of whether it fails on other metrics. Langen argues that teaching the Creationism controversy may be worth it, if only because it demonstrates clearly how science is based on evidence, as opposed to articles of faith.

“Students are skeptical of professorial dogma, especially on a subject of popular controversy, such as organic evolution, and consider it disingenuous when a teacher avoids presenting popularly held beliefs that differ from the instructor’s own. To ignore antievolutionary theories in the science classroom because they are not accepted science begs the question of what, indeed, is accepted science?” Langen writes. “Examining antievolutionary theories in relation to the assumptions and ideals of standard accepted science can help to clarify on what ethical and epistemological grounds most scientists come to vehemently reject antievolutionary claims.”

Put simply, it’s actually possible that it makes sense to expose children to Creationism in science classes, but only to explain why Creationism isn’t science. It’s important to also note, that this means teachers probably shouldn’t be spending class going out of their way to knock down Creationism. There is a fundamental agreement — among scientists, anyway — that science classes are most effective when they are about science. The same is likely true of religion classes.