A summary of the MnCSE Science Education Saturday

My day was spent in the Twin Cities attending the inaugural public meeting of the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education (MnCSE), and I can safely say now that Science Education Saturday was a phenomenal success: a good turnout, two top-notch talks, a stimulating panel discussion, and an involved audience that asked lots of good questions. You should have been there! I expect that, with the good response we got today, that there will be future opportunities to attend MnCSE events.

I’ll just give a brief summary of the main points from the two talks today. I understand that outlines or perhaps even the powerpoint files will be available on the MnCSE page at some future date, but give the organizers a little time to recover from all the effort they put into this meeting.

Mark Borello confronted the “teach the controversy” slogan so beloved of the Intelligent Design creationists. He offered several strategies for dealing with it. One was to point out that it is more appropriate to call for teaching the controversies, neutralizing their attempt to make their idiosyncratic guess one of only two alternatives. Another is to say that what the creationists offered was a sociocultural controversy, not a scientific one; it doesn’t fit into the framework of real scientific arguments, even while it is fair to admit that it is a genuine controversy. He also offered a taxonomy of scientific controversies, illustrated with historical examples.

  • The controversy of new questions represents a scientific response to the accumulation of new data. His example was to describe how the work of Darwin was a synthesis of the ideas of Cuvier and Lyell, and I think generated a volley of new questions to pursue. I also think that this is what ID aspires to be, but fails miserably.

  • The controversy of fraud is a legitimate problem, and he mentioned Piltdown as an example, but focused mainly on Ernst Haeckel. He showed some of Haeckel’s gorgeous illustrations, and also the obvious fudging that he had done and that Wilhelm His had rightly objected to; where scientific illustration drifts from an objective representation of a datum to a reasonable emphasis on points of interest to inappropriate insertion of forms that aren’t present in the specimen is a difficult one.

  • The controversy of persistent questions is the normal and ongoing process of using science to assess questions that are not fully addressed in the current theory. For example, the questions of whether evolution is gradual or by jumps, or at what level natural selection operates, are all issues brought up by SJ Gould, but Borello pointed out that these are actually long-standing questions, and as a historian of science emphasized that there is much fruitful work that can be done by examining these kinds of persistent problems—there is value in examining what scientists were pondering a century ago, as well as in last week’s issue of Nature. What drives science forward are these kinds of foundational/persistent questions.

What the creationists suggest as “controversies” that ought to be taught in the classroom are not necessary, and we have more than enough real controversies to keep our students aware of the provisional and ongoing nature of scientific research.

Randy Moore (who has a new book out, Evolution 101 (Science 101)(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)—I’m ordering it) gave a very pragmatic talk, one that the audience of teachers found useful, I’m sure. He described some of the results of his surveys of U of M college students, and of high school teachers across the state. The most worrisome statistics were that 20-25% of Minnesota high school teachers teach both creationism and evolution, and about 30% teach neither. Some years ago, his survey of high school teachers revealed that 20% were pressured to teach creationism, and that has gone up to 50% in a repeat survey done two years ago.

What he then did was give teachers a tool to oppose that pressure: a quick tour of the history of major court decisions involving creationism, with short explanations of the meaning of each one. He started with the Scopes trial, which had no legal consequences at all, even if it did stir up that sociocultural controversy; then he discussed Epperson v. Arkansas, which made bans of teaching evolution unconstitutional (he also showed us a newly unearthed photo of Susan Epperson meeting John Scopes…very cool); then many other cases, each one adding their little bit of significant precedent, through to McLean v. the Arkansas Board of Education, Edwards v. Aguillard, and Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education. The end result of it all: it is the law of the land that teaching evolution is allowed and even required if it is part of a mandated curriculum, that creationism and intelligent design have no scientific merit or education value as science, that you are legally prohibited from teaching creationism in the public schools (and no, you are not allowed to teach it if you also teach evolution, a common misconception), and that schools can tell a teacher to refrain from teaching creationism and can require the teaching of evolution—and they can fire or reassign you if you don’t fulfill those requirements.

You could tell that the handout Moore had given out that described all these cases and their consequences is going to find use in schools around the state. There were quite a few questions, and attendees described examples of poor teaching practices that they’d experienced…and here was this wonderful leverage they could use with administrators and school board members. Moore’s talk ought to be required listening for all Minnesota science teachers, it spelled out their rights and requirements on the issue of evolution so clearly.

One of the questions did bring up one difficult point, and one I’m concerned about, too. Do we really want judges deciding what is science? I don’t think we do, and what I worry about is that we could get a court decision someday that gives the other side ammunition in these school board wars. Two answers that help reconcile me to the current solution, though, is that what we see in the case law is actually judges deferring to the decisions of qualified scientists on what is science, so it isn’t a situation where judges are inventing science on the spot and by decree. Another is practical: teachers are being pressured to teach pseudoscience, or to leave out a critical element of modern biology, and their opponents never seem to respond to explanations about evidence, so having a clearcut answer such as that they are required by law to teach evolution and not allowed to teach creationism is handy. That kind of simple argument probably also has weight with the kind of nitwits we too often end up with on school boards, who at least understand that they don’t want to be responsible for their school getting sued.

The panel session in the afternoon is a bit hard to explain simply, since it ranged over a lot of topics. Dawn Clawson, Bruce Leventhal, Tom Meagher, Dawn Norton, and Mark Peterson are all experienced teachers who teach good science that includes evolution, and they discussed some of the difficulties they’ve encountered and how they’ve dealt with them. They are terrific role models because they show that yes, you can teach evolution without compromise in Minnesota schools. They set the standard, now we just have to get all the teachers to reach it. We had nonstop questions and comments for about an hour afterwards, so I think we have a lot of enthusiastic aspirants in that crowd.

MnCSE is off to a great start, and I think our state now has a wonderful resource in the evolution-creation wars.


  1. Great White Wonder says

    Thanks for the summary PZ.

    One of the questions did bring up one difficult point, and one I’m concerned about, too. Do we really want judges deciding what is science? I don’t think we do

    Of course, it doesn’t matter what you or anyone else thinks. In a society which respects the rule of law, judges will decide whatever issue needs to be decided, provided they have jurisdication over the controversy and the issue isn’t a purely subjective one (a decision that will also be made by a judge!).

    As for myself, I do want judges to decide what science is, at least to the extent they need to show that creationist twaddle is not science. They’ve done an excellent job to date.

    What I (and you, I assume) really don’t want is fundie idiots deciding who gets to be a Federal judge. If we and other people keep doing our good deeds (i.e., pointing out the idiocy wherever we find it) we should be able to keep moronic judges and idiotic decisions to a minimum.

  2. MReap says

    Crikey you’re fast PZ! It was a good session and I will have a summary of the questions asked posted to the MnCSE website by Monday.

  3. ed hessler says

    I think we are off and running, too. What a great way to spend a Saturday, a remarkable day in many ways with everyone from the front of the room and the audience engaged throughou. I appreciate the summary since I was in and out, helping in the lobby and missed a few points. You made a comment that helped me think about something I’ve overlooked, namely how the IDeists don’t mind one bit enhancing the photographs that they use to support their claims. Thanks for this. I’m glad you had a safe trip home. Cheers.