Monday, August 25, 2008

Teaching Evolution in Florida and About Pseudo-Science in India

New York Times science writer Amy Harmon has a long article on the day to day reality faced by biology teachers as they try to explain evolution to students hostile to the very idea of evolution as the unifying principle for understanding life. The articles focuses on Florida because of a recent Florida Dept. of Education decision to make teaching and testing students in evolution mandatory in public schools.

This is eye-popping unbelievable:

With no school policy to back him up, he spent less time on the subject than he would have liked. And he bit back his irritation at Teresa Yancey, a biology teacher down the hall who taught a unit she called “Evolution or NOT.”

Animals do adapt to their environments, Ms. Yancey tells her students, but evolution alone can hardly account for the appearance of wholly different life forms. She leaves it up to them to draw their own conclusions. But when pressed, she tells them, “I think God did it.”

It's impossible for students to receive good science education if the teacher doesn't understand what science is in the first place.

Most of the article follows David Campbell a biology teacher who played a role in determining the new evolution standards, as he tries his best to explain evolution as theory and fact. Many students are not convinced. How can they when:

But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God’s individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Some come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out.

There is serious indoctrination of children in dogmatic beliefs by church and at home. It's an uphill battle but one that science must win to prevent an entire generation growing up without a proper understanding of how the natural world works and how humans are an integral part of it.

On a related but different note, Selva asked in response to my post on astrology and earthquakes

Why do so many seemingly educated people - people who have been trained in the scientific method - have a soft spot for astrology in India.

The article was about an engineer and aspiring astrologer and if by educated people Selva meant engineers and doctors, my answer would be that it is so because many educated people, often those with higher technical degrees have never really received an education in the scientific method. You may well receive a degree with distinction in Engineering or even Medicine but that does not necessarily mean you have a training in the scientific method. Technical degrees don't spend any time on this kind of education.

Add to that is the pervasive influence of religion and mysticism children experience in our society. The rot probably starts at school level. We just don't have a systematic, aggressive science education programme to combat beliefs like astrology. I won't be surprised at all if many teachers in India express an "Astrology is a science" opinion similar to the "I think God did it" belief of Ms. Yancey of Florida. We may not teach astrology in school but we don't provide students with training to critically analyze pseudo-scientific claims either.


  1. Suvrat, indeed, I did mean doctors and engineers who presumably know the scientific method.

    I do not think we'd ever have 'aggressive' science education in India. Hope lies, however, in the many free and accessible avenues that have now opened up for educating oneself rationally.

    What could be persuasive is to show the economic advantages of being rational and scientific. Writing, talking about how astrology destroys families is a good beginning.

    Final thought: if Bollywood can be recruited to push science, nothing can stand in the way.

  2. Bollywood for science. I like that!! except that most Bollywood stars are ardent followers of astrology and crystal therapy and stuff like that :-)

    But I agree with you, the benefits of science is not being "sold" to the public. There are astrology call-ins on TV, but not a single show on exposing pseudo-science or highlighting the benefits of a good science education and a critical mind.

  3. Astrology, particularly the predictive kind (yes, there are many types and categories in astrology if you did not know), is a bane in our society for the most part. However, science education as an antidote is just not enough. People have to be empowered, through constructive means, along with a sound scientific education, and a strong ethical code (need not be merged with religious dogma) are needed to combat these things. On a side note, I wonder how many people who criticize, say, astrology, really know about it. What are its main texts? what are its propositions? I wonder how many 'scientific' critics actually apply scientific rigor to their own criticisms.