The findings are not surprising to me, but I think they raise some essential points about the nature of the fight.
Numerous studies have shown that students hold highly systematic misconceptions about evolution. … In particular, most people construe evolution as the simultaneous adaptation of individuals rather than the collective adaptation of a population. On this view, populations evolve because the environment increases the probability that organisms will bear offspring with adaptive traits rather than increasing the probability that organisms with adaptive traits will bear offspring. This misconception could result from a poor understanding of random processes coupled with a tendency to overgeneralize properties of artifact design to evolution.
This is linked to a broader class of problems that people have with any sort of statistical data.
Understanding the difference between talking about the emergent properties of a population and the individual properties of members of that population is a genuinely tricky concept. I’d guess that 50% of a student’s success in a statistics class comes from that concept alone. If it makes sense, all the tests and analyses make more sense.
The same is true of evolutionary biology. When you understand how populations can change, there’s nothing mysterious about how large morphological changes could take place over enough time. If you don’t understand that, it might seem like those large changes need a very different explanation than smaller changes, like antibiotic resistance. In that case it’s a matter of understanding the dynamics of a population of organisms, and then understanding the dynamics of many successive populations. Since most discussions about science in public rest ultimately on the audience’s intuition (presenting numbers just bores your audience), that difference in understanding can present a massive barrier between a scientist and the audience.
The other barrier is how people perceive evolution as a theory:
Brem, Ranney and Schnidel found that the overwhelming majority of their participants believed evolution to have negative social consequences, such as justifying racism and selfishness, and negative philosophical consequences, such as denying free will and a purpose to life. These views presumably stem from mistaken beliefs about biology (e.g. that race is a biologically meaningful category or that ultimate explanations reveal proximate intentions) coupled with the naturalistic fallacy (i.e. the belief that one can derive how we ought to behave from a description of how the world actually is). … [S]tudents who accepted evolution … were also more likely than creationists to believe that evolution has no social or moral consequences, positive or negative.
This has certainly been my observation. At public comment hearings during last year’s creationism bonanza, these sorts of arguments against moral consequences were probably the most common reasons given for opposing teaching evolution. And in the IDNet organized “expert testimony,” the moral implications of “materialism” were a bigger target than “Darwinism.”
Science is a tool, not an ideology. Like a hammer, science has no moral implications, it just tells you what works.
I fully endorse the authors’ conclusion:
A proper understanding of evolutionary theory and its consequences requires more than a few lessons in biology. It also requires lessons from philosophy of science about what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test, and lessons from moral philosophy about the difference between empirical claims and moral claims. Perhaps this is what ought to be taught alongside evolution in America’s public schools.
I think schools should incorporate a philosophy class into the senior year of high school. Cover the philosophy of science, moral philosophy, political philosophy, and a little comparative religion. Give students a forum for hashing out how all the material they’ve covered relates, and let the teacher in that class be someone with relevant background. Most scientists have never taken a philosophy class, and relatively few know anything about the formalized philosophy of science. They just practice it, and let philosophers worry about what it means.
That means that biology class is decisively the wrong place for that discussion. It muddies waters needlessly, and requires science teachers to lead discussions that they are not trained to handle. I’ve argued for this before, and I hope the new Kansas Board of Ed will have time to at least put forward standards for an elective course covering this material.