Teaching Evolution in Florida August 24, 2008

Teaching Evolution in Florida

There’s a great article by Amy Harmon in The New York Times today about trying to teach evolution to students, many of whom have been raised to believe in Creationism.

Here’s a typical conversation between teacher David Campbell and Christian student Bryce Haas:

The morning after [Campbell’s] Mickey Mouse gambit, he bounced a pink rubber Spalding ball on the classroom’s hard linoleum floor.

“Gravity,” he said. “I can do this until the end of the semester, and I can only assume that it will work the same way each time.”

He looked around the room. “Bryce, what is it called when natural laws are suspended — what do you call it when water changes into wine?”

“Miracle?” Bryce supplied.

Mr. Campbell nodded. The ball hit the floor again.

“Science explores nature by testing and gathering data,” he said. “It can’t tell you what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t address ethics. But it is not anti-religion. Science and religion just ask different questions.”

He grabbed the ball and held it still.

“Can anybody think of a question science can’t answer?”

“Is there a God?” shot back a boy near the window.

“Good,” said Mr. Campbell, an Anglican who attends church most Sundays. “Can’t test it. Can’t prove it, can’t disprove it. It’s not a question for science.”

Bryce raised his hand.

“But there is scientific proof that there is a God,” he said. “Over in Turkey there’s a piece of wood from Noah’s ark that came out of a glacier.”

Mr. Campbell chose his words carefully.

“If I could prove, tomorrow, that that chunk of wood is not from the ark, is not even 500 years old and not even from the right kind of tree — would that damage your religious faith at all?”

Bryce thought for a moment.

“No,” he said.

The room was unusually quiet.

“Faith is not based on science,” Mr. Campbell said. “And science is not based on faith. I don’t expect you to ‘believe’ the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks.”

“But I do,” he added, “expect you to understand it.”

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

“I refuse to answer,” Bryce wrote. “I don’t believe in this.”

The last section of the piece, by the way, is fantastic.

What really stands out is how well this science teacher understands evolution. He doesn’t shy away from students’ questions. He knows his stuff.

The problem isn’t always students who are taught to oppose what their science teachers teach. Often, it’s that the teachers are unwilling or unable to teach the material in the first place.

If the teachers know what they’re talking about, it makes it much more difficult for students to find any rational reason to oppose them.

The way to combat ignorance is to just face it head on.

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  • Read the NY Times article. Great!!!

    The biggest problem is what to do with “bad” science teachers. They have flown under the radar for many years pretending to teach the “curriculum” while imparting their “religious” views on the class. Their views usually are revealed by their “marking” of assignments.

    Back in the 40’s I strenuously appealed a mark given by one of these types who believed the world was only 6,000 years old. The school board eventually transferred him to another school where he taught mathematics. No controversy there.

    My congratulations, also, to all the “great” science teachers who have persevered through these “dark ages”! Our world is not totally “illuminated” yet, but it is coming!

  • Aj

    The God Delusion is about how the existance of God is a question for science, a universe with a creator is a very different universe to one without. Not all beliefs, all gods, are scientific hypotheses, but this Anglican was talking to creationists

    To say it for all my colleagues and for the umpteenth millionth time (from college bull sessions to learned treatises): science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists.

    This sounds terrific, right up until you give it a moment’s thought. You then realize that the presence of a creative deity in the universe is clearly a scientific hypothesis. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more momentous hypothesis in all of science. A universe with a god would be a completely different kind of universe from one without, and it would be a scientific difference. God could clinch the matter in his favour at any moment by staging a spectacular demonstration of his powers, one that would satisfy the exacting standards of science. Even the infamous Templeton Foundation recognized that God is a scientific hypothesis – by funding double-blind trials to test whether remote prayer would speed the recovery of heart patients. It didn’t, of course, although a control group who knew they had been prayed for tended to get worse (how about a class action suit against the Templeton Foundation?) Despite such well-financed efforts, no evidence for God’s existence has yet appeared.

    Why There Almost Certainly Is No God by Richard Dawkins

  • Epistaxis

    That’s extremely depressing. What good can a teacher do when the student is immersed in denialism at church, at home, after school at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and even at other schools? This must be why so many well-meaning teachers just don’t go there.

    I know a thing or two about evolution, but nothing about teaching. I’ve always been bothered by the fact that evolution was just one “unit” in my high school’s curriculum – they saved it for last, so my well-meaning teacher squeezed it into two days, but the creationist down the hall invariably ran out of time and skipped it. That’s bass-ackwards. Evolution is literally biology’s Grand Unified Theory; a much more logical way to approach the whole class is to teach it first, and then use it to explain each new concept afterward. Or so it seems to this non-teacher. And maybe it’s just my bias, but I find molecular evidence (i.e. DNA) even more compelling than fossils, so I’d be tempted to use substitution rates and chromosomal rearrangements rather than jawbones.

    To make an analogy that might appeal to Hemant, it would be like teaching a calculus class but saving limits for last, and making that more of a philosophical discussion than a lecture, just because students in the region learned in church that God hate infinitesimals.

  • cipher

    Campbell is a rare and devoted man, who has much more patience than I could ever muster. I’d just throw up my hands and walk away.

    I’d like to believe that he’s sowing seeds that will bear fruit in their adult lives, or in the lives of their children – but I don’t really think it will. Fundamentalism is simply too seductive and ubiquitous.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I’d like to be more optimistic than that, but…let’s just say I hope they simply wallow in their ignorance and don’t impart it to the society at large or – Nothing forbid – take it out in the form of violence and discrimination.

  • Vincent

    There was a Time Magazine article a few months back about the failings of US public schools.
    It said the most significant factor in a child’s ability to learn and succeed is a good teacher and the most reliable indicator of quality of teacher is *expertise in the specific field*.

    It then went on to point out how few teachers have a degree in the subject they teach and how it’s even worse in sciences where, if I recall correctly, only 6% of science teachers have a degree in their subject.

  • Great article! It’s nice to hear about science teachers actually teaching science every now and then.

  • cipher

    It then went on to point out how few teachers have a degree in the subject they teach and how it’s even worse in sciences where, if I recall correctly, only 6% of science teachers have a degree in their subject.

    I keep saying it – the Europeans are right about us. This is a nation of idiots. Our idiot-in-chief graduated from Harvard – and look at him.

  • Max

    “What is it called when natural laws are suspended — what do you call it when water changes into wine?”


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