Column #7, posted 8/17/99

Evolution of the Times

You gotta love the New York Times. Always on the side of truth, justice and the American Way. This time it's evolution. It seems that the Kansas School Board is against it. The New York Times is for it. Simple as that.

The fact that some state school board finally got taken over by religious zealots is hardly surprising, but I suppose it does constitute news. The fact that the New York Times thinks this is a bad idea is hardly surprising and would not be worthy of commentary except for two things. First, in an editorial, the Times said something curious about what's going to happen in Kansas. Second, an op-ed piece on the same day said something so surprising that one wonders if the editorial writers actually read what they printed. Let's start with the middle of the Times' editorial:

The Kansas school board did not explicitly ban the teaching of evolution, but it did its best to discourage it. The board adopted new statewide science standards -- the basis for statewide testing of students -- that eliminate biological evolution as a way to explain the emergence of one species from another. That action makes it likely that many schools and teachers will spend less time on evolution and more time on concepts that will be tested. That seems a tragedy, given that evolution has become one of the best established of all scientific theories. ...
The Kansas action is a victory for creationists. Blocked by the courts from forcing creation theory into science curriculums, they are now working to drive references to evolution out of the schools and textbooks. They will be repelled only when the advocates of sound science mount an equally vigorous campaign to keep evolution in the curriculum.

You might ask why I find this so curious. Rather than addressing the teaching of science, the Times is more concerned about how students will be tested in science. They are worried that evolution won't be on the list of "concepts to be tested." Am I worried that Kansas students won't be tested on evolution? Oh horror! One less set of facts for the kids to memorize. No, of course that isn't it at all. I'm more bothered that "the advocates of sound science" will repel the creationists with another onslaught of tests. The Times isn't worried about science, it is worried about fact retrieval.

Suppose Kansas went all the way and eliminated science tests altogether. Would this be a problem? The tests are for the teachers and school boards to feel good about themselves. What if Kansas decided simply to debate science ideas without any tests? What if scientific controversies were dealt with via discussion and not testing? To focus my point here we have the op-ed piece written by Michael J. Behe, a professor at Lehigh University. In his article, Dr. Behe says that a great deal of the evidence for evolution is tenuous and that some was even faked. He is not a creationist, just a scientist, doing what scientists do, questioning theories with evidence. He concludes:

Emotions run very deep on the subject of evolution, and while the morality play generally casts religious people as the ones who want to limit discussion, some scientists on the "rational" side could fit that role, too. But if we want our children to become educated citizens, we have to broaden discussion, not limit it.
Teach Darwin's elegant theory. But also discuss where it has real problems accounting for the data, where data are severely limited, where scientists might be engaged in wishful thinking, and where alternative -- even "heretical" -- explanations are possible.

Poor, naive Professor Behe. Do you really think anyone is going to discuss "real problems accounting for the data?" He may want to teach science, but the Times doesn't. The Times wants to test students for scientific concepts, which is not the same thing at all. Professor Behe wants to teach science, as do most scientists. Sorry, ain't gonna happen.

But I still find it amazing that the Times can print this piece on the same day with its editorial, and not make note of the Professor's point of view. Professor Behe wants students to learn about the importance of questioning evidence. The Times worries about testing. This reflects a big problem in our society. Newspapers dwell on the "what students should know and be tested on" idea ad nauseum. Politicians, who have power in the educational arena, agree with the newspapers because the papers will in turn approve of them when they do so. As a result, no one in power advocates what any scientist would advocate about science. In case you are wondering what that is, let me oblige:

The goal of most scientists is not to make sure that children know scientific facts, or that they can quote Darwin or any other scientist, or that they can demonstrate their knowledge on multiple choice tests. The goal of scientists is to teach students how to reason in a realm of scientific information so that they can determine with logic and evidence if the world was created in seven days or if man descended from the apes. No scientist believes these things without evidence. Scientists ask: "What is your data?"; "How do you know your data is reliable?"; "What conclusions can you draw from what you know to be true?"; "How would one find out what might support or refute a given theory?" Asking these questions is critical to sensible thinking. They are not about science per se, they are about reasoning. Science makes its appearance in the data itself, in the realm of the content and ideas being evaluated and discussed.

The problem is that the Times and the Kansas school board are on the same side on this one. They both agree that there is a body of facts to be rammed down students' throats and tested until everyone is sick of the whole process. They just disagree on what particular facts need to be digested.

Scientists, on the other hand, are happy to examine any evidence and conclude what they can. But, to do that in school, we would have to allow that the teacher might not know the answers and, heaven forbid, that the school board might not know the answers and even that the New York Times might not know the answers. The deadly question, "How would we test it?" kills off real scientific inquiry on the part of students in school.

I hope the Times is happy agreeing (implicitly) with the Kansas school board. They agree that serious debate is not what school ought to be about. I find the idea of creationism patently absurd, but I would rather see students have to assess such ideas using the scientific method than have them memorize the "right" answers that the Times approves of.

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