Happy Birthday Charles Darwin!

Evolution can’t catch a break.     

     Today marks Charles Darwin’s 203 birthday. It’s been 153 years, since On The Origin of Species was published and yet according to a 2009 Gallup poll only 40% Americans “believe” in evolution (more on this poll in a moment). Of particular concern, four states are considering legislation that would impact or limit teaching evolution in highschool. Kimberly Winston reports

“One of the bills, New Hampshire’s House Bill 1148, not only singles out evolution, but would require teachers to discuss its proponents’ ”political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.” 

— In the Indiana Senate, a bill would allow school districts to

‘’require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of

life within the school corporation.” That bill has already passed a statehouse

committee and was scheduled for a vote on Jan 31.

— The “Missouri Standard Science Act” would require the equal treatment of evolution and “intelligent design,” an idea that the universe was created by an unnamed “designer.” A second bill would require teachers to encourage students “to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution.”

— A bill in the Oklahoma Senate would require the state’s board of education to help teachers promote “critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning” if a local school district makes that request.

— A second bill in the New Hampshire House would require science teachers to instruct students that “proper scientific inquir(y) results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established.”

— A bill in Virginia would make it illegal for state colleges to require a class that conflicts with a student’s religious views. Critics say that would enable a student to receive a biology degree, for example, without studying evolution if he or she objected to it.

     As Brown University Professor Ken Miller points out, “Our Darwin problem is really a science problem. The easier it becomes to depict the scientific enterprise as a special interest immersed in the culture wars, the easier it becomes to reject scientific findings. We see this everywhere in American culture and politics today, from the anti-vaccine movement to the repeated assertion that global warming is a deliberate “hoax” rather than a straightforward conclusion driven by reams of scientific data.” 

What’s in a Question?

The problem with polls is that it’s all in the way the question is phrased. The 2009 Gallup poll posed the question as such:

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By framing the question in the context of belief, it places evolution in the realm of faith and by extension equates the theory with religion. This makes it easier for the religious community to reject evolution. However, the currency of science is not belief. Science deals in knowledge ascertained by testing proposed explanations (hypotheses) of phenomena. Where faith is essential for religion, proof and evidence is required for science. Furthermore, the poll assumes that the respondent knows or understands what the theory of evolution is. Without properly defining it, it doesn’t take into account misconceptions or preconceived notions that the public often has in regard to the theory. Practically speaking, it would be impossible to properly define the theory in the context of a poll, but a more honest attempt could be made.

The question should be posed this way:

I don’t know that rephrasing the question would necessarily change the outcome of the poll, but I do…believe think we should be mindful of the language we use when discussing science.

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