If Science Teachers Want to Help Students, They Won’t Teach the Controversy When It Doesn’t Exist

I’ve said on this site and in public talks that my job as a math teacher is relatively easy compared to science teachers. No parent ever calls me up to complain about the truth of the Quadratic Formula. No students are challenging me on the Pythagorean Theorem.

But science teachers who actually know what they’re doing have to put up with arguments from the ignorant. They deal with students and parents who are, simply put, anti-science — people who oppose science because they see it conflicting with their religious beliefs.

In Tennessee, educators are speaking out about this very problem:

From the theory of evolution to climate change, teachers are becoming wary of teaching basic scientific consensus because of the potential backlash they can face, [biology teacher Beth Adler] said.

“This leads to intimidated and capitulating teachers,” she said. “We need courage. It is scary,” Adler said. “We need to hear ‘Thank you for teaching the scientific consensus.’”

Adler said she’s faced 14- and 15-year-old students, some of them in tears, “ready to argue basic scientific principles,” and other students “thinking that climate change is a liberal hoax.”

Sadly, it’s the science teachers who know the least who are probably not challenged as much. It’s not just a “Southern” problem either, though I suspect it’s more pronounced there. Science is under attack everywhere. And instead of facing that challenge directly and teaching actual science, many teachers are unfortunately choosing to step away from conflict altogether by just avoiding “controversial” topics:

[Adler] said 28 percent of those educators said they taught evolution as a “well-supported fundamental idea,” while 13 percent openly supported “intelligent design.”

Some 60 percent of those teachers are in a gray, in-between area, she said.

They either avoid using the “e” word and refer to evolution instead as “change over time” or tell students “they can believe what they want to believe.” Other teachers in that majority simply tell students they are teaching evolution “because it’s on the state exam.”

Imagine if every teacher just said, “This is the scientific consensus and it’s the most accurate information we have” when discussing these topics. I know teachers who have suggested that students are welcome to believe whatever they want (i.e. The Bible), but they have to know what scientists understand to be common wisdom. If they want to refute it, they can do it on their own time (and collect all those Nobel Prizes along the way…).

Don’t bother reading the comments on the news site — the commenters, in many cases, are no better than students who think they know everything because they watch FOX News and trust their pastors.

(Thanks to Will for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • C Peterson

    No parent ever calls me up to complain about the truth of the Quadratic Formula. No students are challenging me on the Pythagorean Theorem.

    That’s because you don’t teach math in Kentucky or Tennessee… where even Pythagoras might come under attack.

    But you’re right about the challenge of teaching science. I’ve had [middle school] students leave the school I mentor science at, simply because of the discussion of ideas related to evolution.

  • Good and Godless

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher/2008/01/schools_monday_notsoliberal_te.html

    Teachers make up the largest group of Americans in any one line of work, about 3.5 million people teaching kids in primary and secondary schools. Despite the vast changes in the nation’s workforce over the past couple of generations, teachers are still overwhelmingly women–about 75 percent of the nation’s teachers. And teachers are smack in the middle of the nation’s income spread, earning an average of $43,000 a year, slightly below the U.S. average of $44,000 for people with bachelor’s degrees.

    Robert Slater, a professor of education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, delved into the National Opinion Research Center’s fabulously detailed database on social perspectives, one of the most reliable and widely-used research sources in the social sciences, and compared teachers both to non-teachers and to Americans who, like teachers, have completed college.

    Here’s some of what he found:

    Teachers are more likely than Americans as a whole to go to church on a weekly basis and to want to make pornography illegal. And teachers are more likely–14 percentage points more likely– than other well-educated Americans to oppose legal abortion. And teachers are between 10 and 15 points less likely than their fellow highly educated Americans to believe that homosexual relations are “not wrong at all.”

    About 37 percent of teachers say they attend church weekly or more often, while only 26 percent of other Americans do so. Teachers also are more likely to pray daily than other Americans–by a margin of about 9 to 11 percentage points–a finding that’s been consistent in the research over three decades.

    The pornography finding may point to a political polarization among teachers, as Americans on both the left and the right have been moving away from support of the Constitution’s nearly-absolute guarantee of free speech and toward greater comfort with squelching socially unaccepted speech. In 2006, the NORC numbers show, 50 percent of teachers favored making porn illegal, compared to only 38 percent of non-teachers and only 29 percent of highly educated non-teachers.

    There is an alternative explanation for that tendency among teachers: They may be especially wary of material that they believe can and does hurt children. Keep that possibility in mind as you consider a different batch of ways in which teachers differ from the rest of the population:

    On student prayer, teachers break sharply with the rest of the nation, and in a more liberal direction. While 57 percent of non-teachers oppose the ban on school prayer, only 36 percent of teachers share that opposition. They have enough problems on their hands without adding religious controversies to their daily routines. But Slater notes that this may be a difference of education more than classroom experience: Other college graduates who are not teachers share teachers’ opposition to school prayer, in almost identical proportions.

    Whatever their political leanings, teachers tend to be more trusting and hopeful than the rest of us, which to my mind is a very good thing. Looking across data from 1985 to 2002, Slater found that about 69 percent of teachers believe the world is more good than evil, compared to only 53 percent of all Americans. In general, optimism tends to be higher among better educated people, but teachers are even more optimistic than their fellow college graduates–by about six percentage points, the research indicates.

    Asked whether they believe that most people can be trusted, teachers are more than twice as likely to say yes than non-teachers who are not college graduates, by 47 percent to 23 percent.

    Slater concludes that teachers “are both progressive and conservative,” that they are more liberal than non-teachers when it comes to school prayer, yet more conservative than most Americans on abortion and homosexuality. Interestingly, teachers track the rest of the population almost exactly on whether government should help the poor (a number that has dropped like a stone since the 1970s, from 40 percent to 28 percent among all Americans and even more dramatically, from 48 percent to 24 percent among teachers.)

    “People need to be disposed to learn and appreciate the values of freedom and equality, the importance of trust, and the priority of reason and law,” Slater writes. Therefore, “we should want and expect our teachers, more than others, to be disposed to think and feel in ways supportive of a democracy.”

    That makes good sense to me, and certainly there’s cause for pride in the findings that teachers are trusting and optimistic and want to protect the church-state divide. But some of the other attitudes Slater reports indicate a tradition-bound rigidity in the teacher corps. Some of our best schools and teachers are deeply grounded in very traditional and highly principled foundations, and surely there’s value in both the progressive and traditional approaches to education. What these findings don’t tell us is whether teachers’ attitudes point to the kind of traditional thinking that thrives on open inquiry or to a more fearful and defensive traditionalism.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      That is incredibly depressing but, in my experience, not very surprising, especially the bit about government helping the poor, which (in my opinion) is one of the ways that we could actually improve education in this country. (Who can learn when they’re worried about their next meal or where they’re going to sleep tonight or whether they can afford the medication or other treatment they desperately need?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/travis.myers.102977 Travis Myers

    I wouldn’t be so sure that you’re safe from controversy as a math teacher. Here’s a quote from the ABeka website (http://www.abeka.com/Distinctives.aspx), a Christian textbook publishing company:

    “Unlike the “modern math” theorists, who believe that mathematics is a creation of man and thus arbitrary and relative, A Beka Book teaches that the laws of mathematics are a creation of God and thus absolute. Man’s task is to search out and make use of the laws of the universe, both scientific and mathematical. A Beka Book provides attractive, legible, and workable traditional mathematics texts that are not burdened with modern theories such as set theory. These books have been field-tested, revised, and used successfully for many years, making them classics with up-to-date appeal. Besides training students in the basic skills needed for life, A Beka Booktraditional mathematics books teach students to believe in absolutes, to work diligently for right answers, and to see mathematical facts as part of the truth and order built into the real universe.”

    • TheG

      Who is teaching set theory to high school students? Maybe I was just a horrible student (or had a horrible AP Calc teacher), but that kind of teaching would have driven me away from high school math forever.

      Sounds like they copy-pasted a good high school math textbook verbatim and then justified after the fact why it was “Christian Math”.

      • C Peterson

        My first exposure to set theory was in elementary school, where it was part of the mainstream math curriculum, probably around 5th grade, and I never stopped seeing it from there through high school. It didn’t drive me away from math.

      • Drew M.

        As C Peterson said, set theory was taught for a while in primary/secondary school in the US. I’m glad I wasn’t around then, myself.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Math

    • Willy Occam
    • http://profiles.google.com/brotheratombombofmoderation Steve Caldwell

      For conservative Christians, there are some problems with set theory:

      http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1917#comic

    • cipher

      Why do Christians want to teach their kids set theory? They only need to know how to count to three.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      There still are a lot of loons out there who ask about why the contemporary math curriculum emphasizes more abstract understanding than in their day. Fortunately, most of this more common level of loon seldom has a literally religious zeal to their objections, making the “Beka Book” caliber anti-math religious zealot a rarity.

  • NY Bio Teacher

    I’ve been lucky, teaching biology in New York. Evolution is an absolutely-required unit (NYS Standards, Standard 4, Key Idea 3) and I’ve posted the state standards in my room as a CYA measure but have only ever had minor issues twice with parents in 11 years (each time, the parent was a pastor of a fundamentalist church).

    I’ve found that it helps to lay a foundation of the nature of science and evidence-based understandings and then weave evolutionary concepts and terminology throughout the course before I even get to the formal evolution unit. By the time I get to that unit in the spring, my students have become so immersed in the proper terminology and thought process that there has literally never been a problem in my classes.

    • Laura D

      Evolution is absolutely required if you expect to pass the Regents and biology class. If you’re a “committed Christian”, like a high school friend of mine, you’d rather fail the Regents and biology class than listen to that evil devil-speak. I still don’t understand why she couldn’t just learn it as something that the scientific community says and then dismiss it like so many Christians do with other things they don’t agree with…but she decided she’d rather fail biology.

    • C Peterson

      It’s required in most places. Of course, that doesn’t stop the weak-of-intellect and those too insecure in their beliefs to allow their children to be challenged with different ideas from fleeing for private schools or home teaching, both of which are largely or completely unregulated in terms of curriculum.

  • Kelsey

    On the off-chance you haven’t already seen it: if history classes were like biology classes… http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=2703

    • Cortex_Returns

      Actually, I’ve had religious history classes that felt a lot like that when it came time to cover Islam. After everything the professor said, there was always that one student who’d blurt out, “Jesus WARNED us there would be false prophets blahblahblah…”

    • Tobias27

      Kelsey,
      Thank you. i laughed out loud. This is definitely going up in the teacher’s lounge on Monday. Absolutely briliant.

    • baal

      I have a problem where my son’s American Studies teacher says she values Fox News for providing ‘another perspective’ and suggests it’s a shame that the fedgov is constantly trampling ‘State’s rights’.

      We’re having to be a little careful between letting him make up his own mind and suggesting this teacher is full of shit.

  • Rain

    They either avoid using the “e” word and refer to evolution instead as “change over time”

    How about just calling it “lollipops and sunshine”.

    or tell students “they can believe what they want to believe.”

    How about “We don’t have time for this, so STFU and sit down and do your damn homework too”.

    • NY Biology Teacher

      I absolutely despise cowardly biology teachers who use the cop-out line: “Look, you don’t have to actually BELIEVE an of the stuff in this unit, just so long as you can regurgitate enough of it to pass the Regents exam in June.” These weak-kneed an weak-minded simps should grow a frigging backbone and teach the nature of science as evidence based, teach ALL units with the equal amount of confidence and rigor, and stop treating evolution as something that is up for politically-correct negotiation. If a parent or administrator demands otherwise, contact NCSE, NABT, FFRF, and the state education department fo backing.

    • Kelsey

      Just to play devil’s advocate here, “change over time” isn’t a horrible description of evolution. I had a wonderful physical anthropology professor at the University of Miami who regularly used the language of “change over time” while teaching us about the hominid evolutionary tree in great detail. She clearly accepted evolution and was not using “change over time” as a cop-out in any way. It really comes down to the intent of the individual teacher, whether or not they are trying to undermine evolution to their students.

      I’m less sympathetic to the “believe what you want to believe” line, although it may have the happy side effect of pacifying the creationist students so that other students don’t have to hear creationist BS *from their classmates.*

  • KT Teacher

    First let us teach tolerance of differing opinions. I am an evolution supporter but I think that climate change is natural not man made. I do however support a persons right to a well informed choice of opinion.. And freedom of religious conviction. Teach evolution in school by all means, and climate change too .. But teach them as scientific theories.. Which is all they are .. And stop putting down those who have the strength to make up their own minds with an opinion that doesn’t conform with mainstream.. Without the ability to tolerate different people and opinions, you will stifle free will and independent thought .. Which are the foundations of every new scientific theory.

    • Stev84

      *yawn*

      The word “theory” in science means something very different than the colloquial “wild guess”.

    • Jason Loveless

      There are biologists with multiple doctorates who are not conversant with most of the evidence for evolution. The idea that the Ken Hams themselves know enough to reject evolution outright, let alone that even the most well-read high school student can even begin to assess it, barely qualifies as ridiculous.

    • CanuckAmuck

      I completely agree that both evolution and anthropogenic climate change should be taught strictly as scientific theories and nothing else.

      I would also make sure students are taught the difference between a scientific theory and the everyday colloquial usage of “theory”.

    • C Peterson

      If you believe that our current climate change is natural, you are not scientifically competent, and therefore have no business teaching any science at all.

      When scientific theories reach a certain degree of support, when they have been extensively tested, they are essentially facts. While any good science teacher will make sure her students understand just what constitutes a scientific theory, it is also the case that certain theories no longer engender any debate or controversy- including evolution and anthropogenic climate change. There are no alternate views to these subjects that should be taught in any general science class, any more than we would teach an alternative to the heliocentric model.

    • coyotenose

      a scientific Theory ranks ABOVE a fact. It collates and explains facts. The known facts -that is, carefully collected data – about both Evolution and Climate Change simply do not make any sense without the overarching theories. The data we have would be gibberish.

      Teaching students that the information they’re being taught is all up in the air does them no service. It confuses them before they know the basics. It prevents them from even grasping HOW to look for holes in the goddamn theories.

      Trying to present the passing on of basic scientific knowledge with “stifling young minds” is obnoxiously disingenuous, as is suggesting that ignorance of scientific theories is just having an alternate opinion. You’re actually siding with Creationists, because you are arguing that science is an opinion. It is not. That is the dishonest game that IDers try to play.

      Are you aware that the entire basis of Climate Change Denialism lies in Biblical literalism? They claimed that it had to be false because God wouldn’t allow it, and made up scientish rationalizations after the fact. That’s it; that was the whole reason for the counterclaims.

      Well, that and oil companies funding bizarrely obviously false “studies” to protect public image and profits.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Biblical literalism is not the entire basis for Climate Change Denialism, though it does appear to have some correlation. The “mitigating this disaster will hurt my economic standing, which would be bad, therefore it must be wrong” crowd is not limited to just oil companies.

        • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

          Not to mention the “I fucking hate Al Gore” basis.

    • Willy Occam

      “I am an evolution supporter.”

      WTF does that mean? I guess it’s a good thing I’m a gravity supporter, or else I’d probably fly off into space against my will.

      This idea of “tolerating different opinions” is exactly what the above article is mocking. Reality doesn’t need “different opinions.”

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      If you’re a climatologist who’s actively studying climate change, then you’re entitled to your differing opinion. If you’re a lay person (even a scientist in another field) and you have a ‘differing opinion’ about something that 99+% of the scientific community in the field agrees on, then you probably suffer from confirmation bias. Sure, those 99% could be wrong, but the fact is we don’t have the background knowledge to make that distinction.

      A really good way to detect your own confirmation bias is to ask yourself- “what evidence would change your mind?”

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        You’re entitled to your differing opinion, regardless. However, the opinion is not necessarily due any marginal respect merely because you hold it.

        Or, more crudely (and ROT13 therefore), “Bcvavbaf ner yvxr nffubyrf; rirelbar unf bar, naq zbfg bs gurz ner hfhnyyl shyy bs fuvg.”

    • The Captain

      I changed one thing in your post to show you how ridiculous what you are saying really is. See if you still agree with it as I have posted it, and if not then admit everything you wrote was really just a over to proposes that YOUR special beliefs that scientist do not believe should be held as special over everyone else’s.

      “First let us teach tolerance of differing opinions. I am an evolution supporter but I think that the germ theory of disease is wrong. I do however support a persons right to a well informed choice of opinion.. And freedom of religious conviction. Teach evolution in school by all means, and the germ theory of disease too .. But teach them as scientific theories.. Which is all they are .. And stop putting down those who have the strength to make up their own minds with an opinion that doesn’t conform with mainstream.. Without the ability to tolerate different people and opinions, you will stifle free will and independent thought .. Which are the foundations of every new scientific theory.”

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Florida Benchmark SC.3.N.3.1: Recognize that words in science can have different or more specific meanings than their use in everyday language; for example, energy, cell, heat/cold, and evidence.
      Florida Benchmark SC.6.N.3.1: Recognize and explain that a scientific theory is a well-supported and widely accepted explanation of nature and is not simply a claim posed by an individual. Thus, the use of the term theory in science is very different than how it is used in everyday life.
      Florida Benchmark SC.912.N.3.1: Explain that a scientific theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence concerning a substantial range of phenomena; thus, a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer.

  • JoeBuddha

    2+2=5 for sufficiently large values of 2. Teach the controversy!

    • http://www.facebook.com/travis.myers.102977 Travis Myers

      Or sufficiently small values of 5.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Now with T-Shirts. (Though personally I prefer the sex ed one.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Luciferadi Adi Rule

    Teach the controversy T-shirts! That are awesome. https://controversy.wearscience.com

  • MariaO

    I understood 1+1=10 already in fifth grade – someone’s father was a very early computer fan, at that ancient time when you had to actually understand what computers did. Our teacher was ignorant in math and science. She never understood that you can use other bases than ten. To her math was a set of incomprehensible rules that you had to follow…

    So, 2+2=4 is wrong in base 3, were of course 2+2=11.
    Now, you can teach all sorts of math controversy!

  • northierthanthou.com

    I don’t teach science, but it does come up in my history and my anthropology classes. When I was teaching in Indian country, we had the parallel problem of people who rejected the bearing-strait Hypothesis. Fully half my classes then saw that as a theory cooked up by white people to deny Indians their land claims. Now that I just live the Bible hat of the country, I have evangelicals in my classes who don’t want to hear about evolution.

    For me, it’s also a question of how the subject will affect my rapport with the student(s). I am less willing to compromise than most of my colleagues, but if I press the case to hard I lose the student, and it affects my ability to reach them in subsequent lessons. I’m fortunate enough in that it isn’t central to my classes. The subject comes up here and there; so I can generally take a matter-of-fact approach to the issue and then move on. If students actually want to discuss it, then it’s on them to open the debate, and to do so in a constructive manner. If I think they can handle it, then we have the discussion; if not I move on.

    I am always conscious of the possibility that it could get ugly. I know my classes have already been discussed in one of the local churches. It’s a small town, full of believers, and gossip is a serious weapon in such communities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjcano Benjamin Cano

    I also feel that I’ve been lucky. I teach 6th grade science in a low-income part of Maryland. Both climate change and “change over time” are parts of the curriculum at various points over the year. Well, I dispense with change over time and just teach the basics of evolution instead. But the point is, I’ve taught this curriculum two years now and never gotten any pushback by either teachers or students on it.

    I do name my lab groups after some of my favorite scientists, and on back to school night I did notice some parents looking upset by the picture of Charles Darwin over their heads. I figured there would be a response this year to evolution, but nothing so far.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      Maryland is traditionally a heavily Catholic state, and the Catholics tend to be more accepting of evolution than most religious groups — but not perfectly, and there are non-Catholics in Maryland to boot. You should expect trouble sooner rather than later. It’s probably worth making sure the state standards “change over time” material is all included within your material on evolution, as a CYA measure.

      That doesn’t look too hard, though; from what I can make out, the MD bio standards are crap in their evolution coverage.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    reading stories like this are the reason if i’m ever responsible for a child, i’m homeschooling her. i’m sorry, but i have totally lost faith in public schools. i’m not dissing you teachers here, obviously you’re fighting the good fight. but for every one of you, there is some fantasy believing teacher undermining science education and pushing religious belief. i really pity parents who don’t have any other options.

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      For me it just means that I want to be aware of what my child is being taught in school. We are fortunate enough to have other options, but I’m not going to plan B before we give plan A a shot.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I think I have a new t-shirt idea:

    TEACH THE CONTROVERSY

    How much of the correlation between recombination rate and nucleotide diversity comes from adaptive variations spreading, or from bad mutations being eliminated from the population.

    And maybe on the back, quote bubbles:

    There is no convincing evidence that background selection is a significant factor in Drosophila genome evolution!

    — David Begun

    Bullshit! Look at the paper by Vera Kaiser and me in the 2009 Trends in Genetics … I think we make a reasonable case that the reduced variability on the … Y and the [fourth] chromosome can be explained by background selection.

    – Brian Charlesworth

  • Seth A.

    I am an advocate of I.D., just to get this out in the beginning. I found it astonishing that Hemant Mehta could actually make the claim that those who appose evolution are ignorant. I am certainly no scientist, but I have read plenty of literature of well-qualified scientists who oppose evolution on scientific grounds. In fact, for those willing to balance the scales, Thomas Nagel, an atheist and evolutionist, just published a book entitled, “Mind and Cosmos: Why The Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception Of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.” In the book, Nagel exposes evolutionary theories inability to explain much of reality. To be fair, he advocates that evolutionary theory needs to look for new explanations because the current theories are not doing it. What he is sensing in the book, however, and he admits this, is what I.D. proponents have argued all along.

    Mehta argument is not an argument at all against I.D., it is rather the fallacy of character assassination. When you want to discredit somebody as ignorant because they disagree with you. In the case of I.D. and evolutionary biology, there is much reason to call into question the dogmatic claims of evolution, and many well-qualified scientists, religious and non-religious, are doing so.


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