May 21, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Should Darwin Get a Pass in Science Class?

In many public school science classrooms today, Darwinism is taught uncritically as a scientific fact.  Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) defends that practice, and Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute (DI) contests it.  This month the two in their own venues argued their points of view, and another educator weighed in on a larger issue about science education.
    In Nature,1 Scott wrote a book review of How Science Works: Evolution. A Student Primer by R. John Ellis (Springer, 2010).  The phrase “How science works” is often one of her own catch-phrases, so it would seem she would warm up to this pro-Darwin book, but she had some criticisms.  “The public misunderstands and mistrusts the scientific explanation of evolution more than any other branch of research, particularly in the United States,” she began.  She thought Ellis did a pretty good job explaining how science works: “Students learn about testing multiple hypotheses, reliance on natural causes, the open-endedness of science, its lack of dogmatism and the function of peer review and replicating results.”  But she got a little nervous when he went overboard on his naturalism: “

He contrasts naturalism – the ideology that only the physical universe exists, operating “according to inbuilt, unvarying regularities” – with supernaturalism, the view that non-physical “active agents” interact with the physical world.  Religion, “the belief in some superhuman controlling power or powers”, is a subset of the latter, he writes.  Ellis distinguishes between the methodological and philosophical aspects of naturalism, but regularly conflates it with science, which is not an ideology.

Scott also had problems with his “uneven” definitions of evolution.  She thinks he gave short shrift to common ancestry.  He defined evolution as “change in genetic composition of populations with time,” hardly a phrase pregnant with images of bacteria to man.  She thought his definition of homology also left the reader with the “wrong impression that homology is merely anatomical similarity.”  This book review, therefore, shows Scott’s views remain the same as when she debated Phillip Johnson in the 1980s: Science is not an ideology, the rules of science require methodological naturalism, the only methodologically naturalistic view of biology available is Darwinian evolution, because it does not involve supernaturalism, therefore we must teach Darwin in the schools and keep out creationism and intelligent design.  Scott’s last paragraph says all the reader needs to know about her views, by the company she prefers.  “It is welcome when scientists explain evolution to the public.  But for a better introduction to the topic I would recommend Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True (Viking, 2009), Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth (Free Press, 2009), Donald Prothero’s Evolution (Columbia University Press, 2007) and Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish (Pantheon, 2008).”
    Casey Luskin begs to differ.  Students benefit from hearing Darwinism taught scientifically, he said (i.e., with critical thinking), and he wrote a new paper to support it.  The paper, based on a presentation he gave last fall at the University of St. Thomas, has been published in the university’s Journal of Law & Public Policy,2  The paper made three points summarized by Luskin on Evolution News & Views:

  1. The inquiry method of teaching science stresses process over content.
  2. There are no legal obstacles to teaching scientific critiques of prevailing theories.
  3. There is ample evidence of controversy in evolutionary literature.

The full paper can be downloaded as a PDF file from the Discovery Institute website.
    Luskin got support for his thesis from an unexpected source – Science magazine, usually a staunchly pro-Darwin, pro-NCSE source.  Last month, Jonathan Osborne (School of Education, Stanford University) wrote a review article entitled, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,”3 in which he said basically the same thing: students benefit by learning the process of debate about controversial subjects – including evolution.

Argument and debate are common in science, yet they are virtually absent from science education.  Recent research shows, however, that opportunities for students to engage in collaborative discourse and argumentation offer a means of enhancing student conceptual understanding and students’ skills and capabilities with scientific reasoning.  As one of the hallmarks of the scientist is critical, rational skepticism, the lack of opportunities to develop the ability to reason and argue scientifically would appear to be a significant weakness in contemporary educational practice.  In short, knowing what is wrong matters as much as knowing what is right.  This paper presents a summary of the main features of this body of research and discusses its implications for the teaching and learning of science.

Osborne goes on to say that argumentation is not peripheral to the practice of science, but “core to its practice, and without argument and evaluation, the construction of reliable knowledge would be impossible.”  In education, however, scientific explanations are given with the presumption that they are true.  Students are not being given the opportunity to experience how claims are supported by evidence, warrants, and qualifiers, and subjected to counter-claims, rebuttals and counter-arguments.  “Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent,” Osborne lamented.  “Students then emerge with na�ve ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself,” even though the AAAS and National Research Council endorse the value of argumentation in learning science.
    This is all fine and good, but surely Osborne is not referring to evolution, is he?  Aren’t all educators and scientists insistent that evolution is a scientific fact, about which there is no reason to argue?

The study of reasoning also offers an opportunity to explore the types of arguments used in science, which may be abductive (inferences to the best possible explanation), such as Darwin’s arguments for the theory of evolution; hypothetico-deductive, such as Pasteur’s predictions about the outcome of the first test of his anthrax vaccine; or simply inductive generalizations archetypal represented by “laws.”

Osborne pointed out that students find classroom teaching that emphasizes argumentation skills much more engaging, too.  He ended by arguing that science education cannot be separated from matters of epistemology: “research has demonstrated that teaching students to reason, argue, and think critically will enhance students’ conceptual learning.  This will only happen, however, if students are provided structured opportunities to engage in deliberative exploration of ideas, evidence, and argument—in short, how we know what we know, why it matters, and how it came to be.


1.  Eugenie Scott, “Back to basics by way of evolution,” Nature Volume: 465, 164, 13 May 2010, doi:10.1038/465164a.
2.  Casey Luskin, “The Constitutional and Pedagogical Benefits of Teaching Evolution Scientifically,” University of St.  Thomas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. IV(1):204-277 (Fall, 2009).
3.  Jonathan Osborne, “Arguing to Learn in Science: The Role of Collaborative, Critical Discourse,” Science23 April 2010: Vol. 328. no. 5977, pp. 463 – 466, DOI: 10.1126/science.1183944.

The problem with Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education is that she never received a good science education.  She got a defective education from the triumphalist Julian Huxley era when logical positivism was in swing and Darwinism was presented as a done deal.  That was before Quine and Kuhn and Feyerabend upset all the applecarts; Lakatos, Laudan, van Fraasen and many others undermined everything we thought we understood about “how science works.”  Even Osborne’s short list begs many questions about scientific reasoning – i.e., what is meant by a law of nature?  Scott is living in the 1940s and needs a refresher course in how science works.  She needs to learn about abductive reasoning (used extensively by Stephen Meyer in Signature in the Cell).  She also needs a refresher course in logic so that she does not make self-refuting statements, like stating the ideology that methodological naturalism is not an ideology, or claiming that science cannot refer to the supernatural, but then employing reason to make that claim, when reason is not made of particles or forces, and refers to logical truths that are universal, timeless, necessary and certain.
    Eugenie Scott needs to go take classes in Philosophy of Science and Elementary Logic, particularly in how not to be inconsistent.  Her definition of science includes testing multiple hypotheses, as long as the hypothesis selection process can exclude ones she doesn’t like.  Her science is fine with natural causes, as long as she can dip into the supernatural causes she needs, like logic and reason.  Her science is open-ended, as long as she can close off the ends she doesn’t like.  Her science lacks dogmatism, as long as she can be dogmatic about the parts she wants to be dogmatic about.  Her science is fine with peer review, as long as the pool of peers is protected against the peers she doesn’t like.  Her science is fine with replicating results, as long as she doesn’t have to replicate the parts she can’t, like universal common descent.  Her science believes in following the rules of “how science works,” as long as she and her totalitarian Darwin Party hacks get to make the rules.  Is this the kind of shallow, uninformed, na�ve, partisan, illogical thinking that should be representing science education at school boards?  Do a good deed for your country: send the NCSE back to school.

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