Critics of mainstream science frequently dispute evolution or climate change. Whatever their target, a common tactic is to challenge how well mainstream scientists accept these ideas.
When the anti-evolution Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington, began a project in this vein, creating lists of scientists who doubt evolution, the pro-evolution National Center for Science Education (NCSE) responded in kind. It collected responses from PhD-level scientists who agreed that there is “no serious scientific doubt” that evolution occurred — but only those who were called Steve or a variant. This light-hearted list of Stephens, Stephanies and similars now dwarfs the list of doubters, making a clear statement about where mainstream science stands.
That statement does not, and is not intended to, inform scientists. But it buttresses their long-term futures. To ensure that the supply of competent young researchers and policy-makers does not fail, the public should be educated in a vital, unifying principle of biology. Yet teachers are often pressured to keep evolution out of the classroom or to teach it as a scientifically controversial theory, particularly in the United States.
The NCSE, which is based in Oakland, California, is committed to tackling such attacks. It is perhaps most famous for organizing plaintiffs in the 2005 case Kitzmiller v. Dover, in which parents in Pennsylvania sued a school board for requiring that intelligent design be taught in public schools. The case was decided in favour of the parents, a ruling that is credited with keeping intelligent design out of classrooms across the United States. But the NCSE has probably had a similar impact in its quieter battles: it provides resources for science advocates, so that they do not have to reinvent the wheel when helping teachers who are told to skip evolution, to misrepresent it as controversial or to teach it alongside unscientific ideas. And the centre adapts to current needs: last year, it branched out to include climate change in its education efforts.
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the NCSE for the past 26 years, announced her retirement last week. The scientific community has much to learn from her example in the fight against pseudoscience. Too often, scientists are ignorant of how students outside their own labs are being educated. In the worst cases, scientists can actually hurt the cause for science education by alienating the people whom they hope to persuade: in their attempts to engage, they may seem condescending or use arcane arguments that fail to connect with teachers, parents, students and other community members.
“Too often, scientists are ignorant of how students outside their own labs are being educated.”
Science is necessary to defuse anti-science efforts, but not sufficient. Rather than simply deploying artilleries of scientific facts, the NCSE addresses the motivations and tactics of those who would misrepresent research. These individuals and groups are driven not by facts, says Scott, but by ideologies and identities such as ‘fundamentalist Christian’ or ‘political conservative’. Scott’s strategy is to attack what she calls dichotomous thinking: false assumptions that a churchgoer cannot believe in evolution or that a scientist cannot believe in a higher power. When, in 1995, the US National Association of Biology Teachers issued a statement describing evolution as “impersonal” and “unsupervised”, Scott and others called successfully for those words to be removed, arguing that science could not address such questions.
Another strategy is to put together coalitions of people from diverse backgrounds to provide multiple perspectives. Faith-based communities can express concerns about one religious view being favoured over another. Parents can argue for their children’s clear thinking and academic futures. Scientists can talk about the scientific process and why accuracy in schools matters, but should also participate, where applicable, as parents, community members or people of faith.
Scientists and their institutions can encourage public outreach. Articulate researchers are no longer frowned on for being able to engage with a broader public, but they are not always supported; their institutions should consider how to recognize those who communicate science to society.
Scientists will need to learn to shift gears. As professionals, they must advocate for their own research, explaining why their grant should be funded or their papers published. When it comes to celebrating science more generally, they should bring the same passion to describing the work that is most likely to engage the public. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (honoured in the NCSE’s list of Steves) established his professional reputation through accounts of his own gritty field work, but popularized science more through his discussions of the work of others. With support from the NCSE and similar efforts, scientists can further not only science education, but science itself.
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