My coteacher and I are administering the unit test on evolution starting in two days. Thus, the unit which entails treading on thin ice is almost over...but not without a snag. Over the past two years, my coteacher and I have fielded many questions and endured many explanations about such things as gaps in the fossil record, how evolution could produce such complex things as humans, and general disbelief that we are related to simians.
And today, another such comment occurred. During a brief video on transitional forms - "fishibians" to be exact - a student suggested that scientists stop "making stuff up." I treated this comment like any other - with a brief reiteration of the various lines of evidence for evolution.
But, unlike many other times in the past, this comment really bothered me. Generally, I can "brush off" such comments as made by students that are simply in disbelief that evolution could produce such varied and complex creatures (didn't we all experience a twinge of disbelief when first exposed to the theory?)
Her comment got me thinking about the low state of science education in this country and our underperformance in conveying how science arrives at its conclusions. To me, it is as absurd to ask whether one believes in the theory of evolution as it is to ask whether one believes in the theory that the holocuast happened. There is a difference between whether one believes it and whether it happened. But when we ask whether someone believes in evolution, it makes such a question sound like evolution is a story that depends for its validity on our assent. Of course, what is true is true regardless of whether someone mistakenly ignores evidence and chooses not to believe the theory.
What I and other science teachers try to do is to get kids to understand that scientists would not simply state a theory and write about the theory if there were no evidence for the theory. Scientists do not make things up, and the rare ones that try are quickly called out by the peer review and "open disclosure" policy in sceince that demands replicable experiments and that findings be made public for examination. (Anyone who wants to see how quickly science sniffs out frauds can examine the piltdown man hoax
But the crucial issue, to me, is how little we spend in our science classes talking about (a) the scientific process and how it works, and (b) how scientists come to know things like the theory of evolution from employing that process. We talk a lot about facts to do with cell biology, genetics, macromolecules, and evolution. But what we forget to talk about is how the scientific method was used to get these facts. We talk about the double helix model of DNA but neglect to talk about how Francis and Crick came to the theory, and how the theory survived the scrutiny of other scientists. We talk about genetics, but do not emphasize (or underemphasize) the magnificence of Gregor Mendel's experiments (and later experiments by folks like Hershey and Chase).
If we did this more - focused on science as a method used to solve problems and adduce evidence to suppport conclusions - then we might not get as many comments about how scientists are "making all this up." Stduents might better understand not only that there is evidence for evolution, but how that evidence points to evolution (and how evolution has survived test upon test).
So, my coteacher and I are almost done the unit on evolution. But everything seems to indicate that we as a nation are nowhere near done teaching people about evolution.