As many of you might know, Turkey has just rescinded teaching evolution in high school. Theocracy has now come to a country that has often merged some of the best influences from the west and east. Now however, this formerly vibrant country at the cross roads of Europe and the Middle East is hewing to a more rigid path, becoming more like a fundamentalist dictatorship every day; Saudi Arabia also prohibits the teaching of evolution. The question, which I’ll get to in a moment, is whether what happened there can inform us about what we may expect here. Will the US follow the course set by Turkey?
Student sophistication- a false issue
Turkey’s Minister of Education argued teaching evolution is too controversial for high school students because they lack sufficient intellectual sophistication. As a scientist and an educator, this strikes me as peculiar thinking. I’ve always believed that our job is to teach others how to productively examine controversies, not avoid them. Although some detailed knowledge is needed, understanding evolution does not require much beyond basic genetics, biology and earth history. After all, the essential theory developed by Darwin, and accepted today, was arrived at when we knew very little about the mechanistic details. For instance, it was nearly a 100 years later that scientists determined DNA was the underlying force conferring heritability. Darwin’s brilliance was his capacity to observe, create and synthesize without being blinded by his assumptions. Thus, I fail to see why high school students (or even younger ones) are not sophisticated enough to grasp Darwin’s thinking.
Undermining education through “controversy”
More alarming than Turkey’s turn towards theocracy is seeing this same tendency here in the US. We now have an administration where the heads of important agencies do not understand the basic science behind their agency’s mission. A tragic example is Rick Perry’s completely fictitious views on climate change, which in no way corresponds to accepted science. A stronger parallel to what happened in Turkey might be Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who seems to believe that churches should take a central role in education. Prior to her present position, DeVos has supported a number of groups with clear hostility to promoting basic factual understanding of evolution in lieu of religious indoctrination. Thus, it’s hard to see her support for church-based schooling as anything other than a deliberate erosion of educational standards.
These two miscreants, and others, are perfectly happy to substitute ideology when factual understanding is inconvenient or opposed to their personal world view. But, they use a common strategy to inject this poison into the classroom or the laboratory. Both Perry and DeVos have stated that dealing with controversy justifies their efforts push us back to the Dark Age. Or, as I think about it, to usher in a new era that we might call the Stupid Age*. Similarly, one can look at any of the state efforts to suppress science teaching and see the same arguments. Roughly 20 such bills exist or are being considered. As shown here (TX) , and here (IN-Pence’s home state!), these bills profess concern for fostering critical thinking even as they attempt to justify and support delusional thinking.
Accurately identifying a controversy equals critical thinking
For perhaps the 1000th time, let’s be clear: one cannot simultaneously foster critical science thinking while at the same time suggesting evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial. That is because science controversies have a specific form. They depend on identifying critical mistaken assumptions, essential knowledge gaps, significant sources of uncertainty, or compelling and authoritative counter observations. Despite countless studies, nobody has identified such issues. Thus, scientists overwhelmingly accept that humans have evolved from primate relatives, and we are now changing the Earth’s climate. While our knowledge of these areas is not, nor will ever, be complete, there is simply no controversy surrounding basic principles. Since we cannot teach what does not exist, “teaching the controversy” is simply code to promote scientific illiteracy. In fact, teaching why scientists universally accept evolution and human caused climate change is teaching critical thinking; we call it the scientific method.
Yup, it can happen here
To those of us who say it can’t happen here, I say, it already is happening here. A large segment of our population still falsely believes evolution and climate change are scientifically controversial in a fundamental sense. Our understanding, particularly with respect to evolution, is more similar to countries with strong theocratic rulers, like Turkey, than to more pluralistic societies. Significantly, there are more direct and distressing parallels between the US and Turkey. Of the 34 nations examined, only one country scores lower than the US in terms of the percent of people that do not accept evolutionary processes as an explanation for human origins than the US (roughly 40%). That country is Turkey.
I don’t know how to balance concerns for religious tolerance with acceptance of science. Neither can I say how to negotiate the competing interests in our society that will be affected by strategies to mitigate climate change. These issues are beyond strictly science, but must involve a vigorous public discussion informed by science. However, I do know that ignorance does not lead to enlightenment, but only to more ignorance. Perhaps the best summary is simplest one: the world does not care what you believe. The conclusion, of course, is that we can’t solve our problems when we pretend that ideological blinders lead to clear thinking.
*Deliberate ignorance is just another form of stupidity.