Until now I have glossed over scientists’ main complaint on this issue: creationism in science class. I’ll start addressing it now. But let’s leave aside whether creationism is or isn’t science (remember, we don’t do that!), or anything about the First Amendment. Somewhat counter-intuitively, let’s completely ignore creationism and ID for now. I want to ask a different question: why should we teach evolution in the first place?
Imagine a world where the theory of evolution was not the lightning rod that it is. Even in that world, we could–and should–ask some broad questions about science education and public science literacy: Who needs science education? What does it mean to be scientifically literate? Are there different definitions for scientists and non-scientists?
We can start by dividing children children into two groups: future scientists and engineers, and everyone else. Obviously these are not hard boundaries, and academics disagree if and where to draw lines. But from what I’ve read, it’s generally agreed that these groups don’t overlap and that it’s tricky to balance the needs of both. Science literacy for a budding physicist is clearly different than for someone destined for sales or marketing.
Let’s focus on the latter because the first case is in some sense easier. Gifted students clearly need the opportunity to learn advanced material. But why should everyone be forced to learn natural selection if they’ll never use it after high-school? Before answering this question, and before attempting to define public science literacy, it’s helpful to first reflect on what we want non-scientists to do with their scientific knowledge. What purposes do public science literacy serve?
You can spend a lifetime reading the scholarship just on this one question. My personal favorite is a 1975 article by astrophysicist Benjamin Shen. Shen outlines three categories of science literacy: practical, civic, and cultural. Science in the first category helps people in their daily lives, and includes topics like nutrition, health, and agriculture. The second would help people make informed civic decisions, while the third is in the same spirit as Shakespeare or Greek mythology.
To Shen’s categories I’ll supplement my own three-legged stool. Science education should leave non-scientists with some content knowledge (i.e. scientific facts), some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But I’m not sure specifically what content, how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation. As far as I know, the experts aren’t sure either.
We’re now ready to return to evolution. Let’s adopt Shen’s framework for the sake of argument, and remember that we’re focusing on non-scientists. I’ll repeat my initial question: why teach the theory of evolution in the first place? It has very little, if any, practical value. (Quick: when’s the last time you used the theory of evolution to help you decide anything?) It has almost no relevance to public policy. (Quick: when’s the last time the newspaper covered the theory of evolution outside of creationism or intelligent design?) We’re left with the cultural value of evolution, admittedly a powerful justification and one I’ll address in my next post.
Until then, please think deeply on why you want non-scientists to learn and be engaged with science. While Shen’s categories are just one approach, keep in mind that most people will have no practical use for most scientific knowledge. So why should they be forced to learn it?