Last night, at the monthly meeting of the Washington Association of Professional Anthropologists, a panel addressed “Teaching Evolution in Science Classrooms.” Despite the bland title, the discussion focused on dealing with the controversies over teaching this topic.
Perhaps the biggest revelation that I experienced during the proceeding was that controversies over teaching evolution rarely erupt in the classroom. Students might dislike the topic, disagree with the teacher, dislike the teacher, and so forth. But, if the collective experience of those attending the meeting last night is representative at all, students rarely initiate organized protests and legal challenges or even disrupt class in a noteworthy fashion over the teaching of human evolution. Instead, dissidents seem to suffer quietly, participate with a relatively open mind, avoid the course, or challenge received wisdom openly in a respectful fashion. This has been my experience, and no one offered a contrary example.
One of the high school teachers on the panel had faced a controversy over the presentation of non-scientific accounts of human origins, such as intelligent design, in a textbook. But the protest had come from an adult with little or no connection to the school system.
Much of the discussion last night revolved around why so many Americans distrust scientific accounts of both human evolution and global warming. Suffice it to say that no one enunciated a simple and clear explanation.
I think that one aspect of this problem is that most non-researchers have little idea of the conditions under which professional researchers produce their results. They have no idea of the competitive organization of researchers’ careers; they have little empathy with most researchers’ willingness to be wrong – in other words, with their desire to continue learning about the same topic throughout life; and thus they don’t understand the depth of expertise and the amount of care that successful researchers usually have to demonstrate to earn the lasting respect of their peers.
When students take in-depth courses on topics such as global warming and human evolution, they begin to see the amount and quality of evidence that has convinced so many specialists. Without this exposure, it is easy for ordinary folks to believe that pundits, politicians, and professors in unrelated disciplines deserve attention equal to that of lifelong researchers within a field. (It would be nice if science shows depicted the slow toil and sometimes painful peer review inherent in professional research.)
This doesn’t mean that scientific consensuses are infallible – far from it. But it does mean that far-flung conspiracies are extraordinarily unlikely and that, lacking similar expertise or a veto from their spiritual beliefs, most people would be better off trusting a widespread scientific consensus than not.