Sunday, June 10, 2007

What Neutrality Gets You

Biology is the science of living things. A central question in that field is why species are so diverse, in other words, how to account for the differences among species. Why does the rabbit have big ears, why does the fox have such a repertoire of tricks? Why are flowers colorful, why do cicadas sing, why do humans use language? There is a theory that ties it all together, the theory of adaptation of populations of organisms. This theory was proposed in its current form more than a hundred years ago, and has been central to the science of biology since at least the 1930s.

The theory of evolution has been studied at many levels. Some look at genes, the pattern of DNA on the cell chromosome that provides the mechanism for evolution; some look at statistical measures of change in populations; some look at the specific characteristics of specific species. The various operators have been studied -- natural selection, mutation, sexual recombination, and other features of living things that allow the generation of variation and bias the reproductive process toward higher average fitness.

The theory is not in question. It isn't new. It isn't that hard to understand, at least a simple version of it is accessible enough. There is no controversy about it among biologists.

And humans are not exempted -- one thing the theory of evolution does is to explain the place of human beings in nature. Yes, we are primates, there's no question about it. It might not be flattering, it might not fit easily with our inherited mythology, but once it's said, once you look at the form of our bodies relative to other primates, the structure of our DNA, there's just no question about it.

We find that Americans lag behind every other country in the developed world, except Turkey, in their understanding and acceptance of this foundational scientific concept. Why would that be?

The answer can be seen by looking at American education. A recent article in Science reviewed the developmental psychology of Americans' backwardness at understanding science, and concluded:
These developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and it will be especially strong if there is a nonscientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are thought of as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States, with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and evolutionary biology. These concepts clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals, and (in the United States) these beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence, these fields are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest. Childhood Origins of Adult Resistance to Science (requires subscription)

This is a direct challenge to the American educational system -- we're losing our place in the world because other countries take the trouble to educate their young people, even where the state of contemporary knowledge contradicts the popular common sense of tradition. Schools in the US though have been intimidated by fundamentalist finger-waggers, and back down from the difficult task of bringing real knowledge to students.

Even where schools don't have laws blocking the teaching of mainstream scientific theory, educators often devise policies to play it down so they don't offend anyone's religious views. An American kid will learn how to dissect a frog, they'll learn what those guts are called, but they won't learn that in the context of evolutionary theory, they won't learn why the frog's part are arranged the way they are. School administrators don't want controversy, they don't want to upset people, they don't want their names in the newspapers all the time, sounding like atheists or worse, trying to teach kids science even when it contradicts fundamentalist Christian assumptions.

Americans don't know basic science because educators have neutralized our science teaching. In order to avoid controversy, in order to pander to those who believe traditional biblical myths over the hard evidence of science, the topic is dumbed down in the classroom. This is what puts the USA second-to-last in science knowledge.

USA Today/ Gallup just released a poll about how Americans consider evolution.

Here are some results:

A. Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over
millions of years from less advanced forms of life
Definitely Probably Probably Definitely No Total Total
true true false false opinion true false
18 35 16 28 3 53 44

B. Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings
pretty much in their present form at one time within the last
10,000 years
Definitely Probably Probably Definitely No Total Total
true true false false opinion true false
39 27 16 15 3 66 31

If a presidential candidate stated that he or she DID not believe in
the theory of evolution, would that make you -- [ROTATED: much more
likely to vote for that candidate, a little more likely, not make a
difference either way, would it make you a little less likely,
(or) much less likely to vote for that candidate]?

Much more A little more Not make a A little less Much No
likely likely difference likely less likely opinion
voters 8 7 53 14 15 3

adults 8 7 54 13 15 3

Educators should be appalled by these numbers. Americans have little respect or appreciation for science. Big woop, more than half believe that human beings might have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life -- 53 percent, that's pathetic. That means 47 percent got through our school systems without learning this basic scientific truth.

Two-thirds of Americans believe that God put humans on the earth in their present form within the past 10,000 years. What can that mean? That means that Americans have no conception of ourselves in the web of nature. We don't see ourselves as part of life on Earth, we see ourselves as having been dropped here by a special hand, we're something different and better than other living things. Other policies follow from that belief. Americans don't care if the guy they vote for trusts in science, just don't care. Believes the facts or believes whatever he's told -- hey, why would that matter? Let's just vote for the guy we'd like to hang out with.

The superintendent of MCPS and his staff told a Post reporter this week that they want the new sex-ed classes to be "as neutral as possible." They have rejected recommendations from the citizens advisory committee to include materials from the leading scientific and medical research groups of our time -- the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association -- because they might not be "neutral" enough.

True that, the recommended articles take the side of science.

We don't need "neutral" educational policies, we need to channel the experts' knowledge into the classroom. Silence is not a compromise between traditional bigotry and modern science, it is permission for bigotry.

"Neutral" just means more of the same. Montgomery County isn't a "more of the same" kind of place. People here want the world to be a better place, not the same place. If we're going to change the curriculum, we should be making it better, not just different.

On Tuesday the board will vote on the new classes. The material passed on a unanimous vote, going into pilot testing, and I don't doubt that it will pass again. But this is a last chance for the school board to follow up on the citizens advisory committee's recommendations. All it takes is for one board member to move that the materials be included, and five members to vote aye. It's a last chance for Montgomery County to lead the country toward excellence -- let's not pretend that neutrality is our goal.


Anonymous Christine said...

Schools in the US though have been intimidated by fundamentalist finger-waggers, and back down from the difficult task of bringing real knowledge to students.

Tomorrow Superintendent Weast and the members of the MCPS Board of Education will have an opportunity to show that they are not going to allow themselves to be intimidated, but are going to stand firm against fundamental fear and hatred. The new health education curriculum is a wonderful improvement over what's in place now, but it still lacks a few simple statements from the AMA, APA, and AAP that will go a long way to reassure our students that LGBT people are healthy.

I encourage both Dr. Weast and the MCPS BOE to do the right thing: incorporate the statements recommended by the Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development into the curriculum, either formally in classroom instruction or as simply as a handout. These statements are:

1. Children who have fleeting same-sex attractions may assume incorrectly that they are gay or lesbian. Mere fleeting attraction does not prove sexual orientation.

2. All mainstream medical and mental health professional organizations have concluded that homosexuality is not a disease or a mental illness.

3. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that most experts have concluded that one's sexual orientation is not a choice; that is individuals do not choose to be homosexual or heterosexual. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, sexual orientation is not a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed. Similarly, the American Medical Association opposes "therapies" that seek to change sexual orientation that are premised on the assumption that homosexuality is an illness and that people should change.

4. Homosexuals can live happy successful lives; they can be successful parents.

5. Children raised by same-sex couples do just as well as those raised by heterosexuals, and are no more likely to be homosexual.

Our students need knowledge, not neutrality. All MCPS students should be made aware of these statements and conclusions that have been approved by the American Medical Assocation, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Teaching all students these facts will help reduce bullying, harassment, and depression, and and will help increase empathy, tolerance, and respect. I can't think of any more worthy goals for high school health education classes.

June 11, 2007 10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...Americans have no conception of ourselves in the web of nature. We don't see ourselves as part of life on Earth, .....we're something different and better than other living things."

Is this the next step, Jim?

Are you joining PETA?

June 14, 2007 9:46 AM  

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