Saturday, March 01, 2008


Test Cases

I don't know what they have to say,
it makes no difference anyway -
whatever it is, I'm against it!
No matter what it is
or who commenced it,
I'm against it!

Your proposition may be good,
but let's have one thing understood -
whatever it is, I'm against it!
And even when
you've changed it
or condensed it,
I'm against it!

The Marx Brothers, Horse Feathers, 1932

So, I'm puttering around on a Saturday morning and there is this article by Geoff Pevere in the book section of the Toronto Star that, among other things, mentions a 1993 international social survey that ranked Americans last among a group of nations, including those scientific powerhouses Bulgaria and Slovenia, in knowledge of the basic facts of evolution. That prompts Mr. Peveve to quote Groucho Marx, which sends me off in search of that, which turns out to be from a song probably not written by Groucho.

So then I start to hunt for the survey but I can't find the original within my allotted attention span. But there is this article, "What Americans Really Believe, And Why Faith Isn't As Universal As They Think" by George Bishop, that has the results in table 8.

And I also found this article, "Accepting Evolution" by Anusuya Chinsamy and Éva Plagányi, about the attitudes of college freshman toward evolution in South Africa, where evolution has not, up to now, been taught in high schools and will only commence in 2008. Since, at least in many areas of the United States, evolution goes functionally untaught, it may have a great deal of relevance to our situation. Some recommendations by the authors are similar to those made in America and sometimes derided as "framing":

Our survey agrees with Lord and Marino's (1993) findings that entry level students have very little understanding of evolutionary concepts. We also found that the majority of these students held deeply religious views that make acceptance of evolutionary concepts difficult (Sinclair et al. 1997; Miller et al. 2006). Alters and Nelson (2002) found that prior conceptions, particularly religious beliefs often lead to misunderstanding of evolutionary concepts. Our study confirms the results of previous studies that adults' views on evolution are remarkably impervious to instruction (Short 1994, Sinclair et al. 1997; Alters and Nelson 2002, Lombrozo et al. 2006). Clearly then innovative thinking and planning, broader than just teaching evolution, are required, and the question is what can evolutionary biologists do about this?

One of the biggest challenges evolutionary biology faces is that evolution is often equated with atheism (Antolin and Herbers 2001), and students often feel that they need to choose between religious convictions and the credibility of evolution (Sinclair et al. 1997; Sinclair and Pendarvis 1998)—for example, student 5 in Table 1. It is therefore important that students recognize that science and faith have separate domains, and that there are many scientists who are theists, and accept evolutionary theory as an explanation of the natural world (Brickhouse et al. 2000; Antolin and Herbers 2001). ...

[F]or the successful teaching of evolution, it is essential to actively engage with students preconceptions (Demastes et al. 1995; Sinclair et al. 1997; Sinclair and Pendarvis 1998; Alters and Nelson 2002). Lecturers need to provide opportunity to discuss and interrogate these prior conceptions. Given the large class sizes, this is often a problem. However, Alters and Nelson (2002) suggest that some student–student interaction can be creatively incorporated into a 50-min lecture. They propose that discussion about a graph or table or reading of a piece of literature can facilitate interaction in a lecture. Multiple choice questions have also been found to be effective in stimulating student interaction. It is important that educators heed Hillis' (2007) view that the teaching of evolutionary biology must be made relevant and exciting.....

We further suggest that because students seem amenable to changing their views when presented with "facts" (Fig. 2), lecturers should ensure that they give examples of experimental evolutionary studies, and there should be strong emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry. Dagher and Boujauode (1997) also found similar results in their assessment of Lebanese students' acceptance of evolution in the light of their religious beliefs. It may be equally important to simultaneously focus discussion on what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test (Dagher and Boujauode 1997; Sinclair et al. 1997 Brickhouse et al. 2000), thereby equipping learners with the necessary tools and understanding to appreciate where ID fails and evolutionary theory holds from a scientific standpoint (Wise 2005; Lombrozo et al. 2006; Sissenwine 2007).

Now, most of the time I make some effort to hide the messy, catch-as-catch-can process by which I wind up posting something here. But there's a reason I called it "Thoughts in a Haystack" in the first place.

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