Saturday, January 15, 2011


Learning Conclusions

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño C., an assistant professor of biology at UMass Dartmouth, has an Op-Ed piece at South Coast Today that is ... interesting.

He and Dr. Avelina Espinosa, a professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, did a survey of university professors in New England (where public acceptance of evolution is highest in the US), which has been published in Evolution: Education and Outreach (behind a paywall):

We surveyed 244 faculty — 90 percent Ph.D. holders in 40 disciplines at 35 colleges and universities widely distributed geographically in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. ...

Our study revealed that 91 percent of the New England professors were very or somehow concerned about the controversy of evolution versus creationism versus "intelligent design" and its implications for science education. In fact, 96 percent of them supported the exclusive teaching of evolution in science classes and a 4 percent minority favored equal time to evolution and creationism (the latter declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1987). And 92 percent of the faculty perceived intelligent design as not scientific and as proposed to counter evolution, or as doctrine consistent with creationism.
Let's stop here for a clarification. Giving equal time to evolution and creationism has only been declared unconstitutional in primary and/or secondary public schools. While I'm unaware of any cases on point, it is highly unlikely that college-level courses at public universities that gave "equal treatment" to evolution and creationism would be deemed unconstitutional. Of course, any such college-level course would more likely be studies in comparative belief systems than actual courses in "creation science" but public universities can give courses in, say, Catholic theology, and there's no automatic bar to classes in "scientific creationism" or ID. It's possible that the minority were considering equal time to evolution and creationism in university classrooms.

Although 92 percent of the professors thought that evolution relies on common ancestry — or that organisms can be traced back in time to ancestors that reproduced successfully and left descendants — one in every four faculty did not know that humans are apes, or relatives of primates. Worse, 30 percent of the faculty were Lamarckian, or believed in the inheritance of acquired traits during an organism's lifetime, like longer necks, larger brains, or resistance to parasites, which are passed on to the progeny, a hypothesis rejected a century ago.
This comports with the anecdotal evidence recently discussed in an Editorial by Niles and Greg Eldredge in Evolution: Education and Outreach. The simple fact is that misunderstandings and ignorance of evolutionary theory cross political and educational lines.

But what interested me is the conclusion Paz-y-Miño C. derived from his study:

Because attitudes toward evolution correlated positively with understanding of science and negatively with religiosity and political ideology, aspects examined in our study, we concluded that science education combined with vigorous public debate should suffice to increase acceptance of naturalistic rationalism and decrease the negative impact of creationism and intelligent design on collective evolution literacy.
Assuming the survey is correct (as I do) and university faculty and students are more likely to accept naturalistic rationalism (which I think likely) the question is: does that translate to "science education combined with vigorous public debate" increasing acceptance of evolution. It seems to me that there is a crucial step missing. I think it is also likely that people who bother to go to college (even if it is only to improve their earnings potential) and, particularly, those who make a career of education, have already self-selected for a respect for knowledge. That's not necessarily the case with most Americans. As a nation, we have had a long tradition of a love-hate relationship with learning. On the one side, it is often extolled as the way out of poverty and to build a better country but, on the other side it is frequently derided ("academic elites in their ivory tower") and even used as a political bludgeon (as with President Obama). Learning is okay if it is practical and economically oriented. Learning for learning's sake is effete and dangerous.

I think it'll take more than teaching people about evolution or science in general, and debating the subject, to really change American's attitudes. It'll take making them love learning.

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