weird things talks to the ncse

Science is under attack in classrooms and pop culture. The NCSE is trying to change that.
teach the controversy 10 percent brain
Illustration by Amorphia Apparel

Over the last month, as debates about scientific literacy and who’s to blame for the lack of it, raged across numerous blogs, one organization was mentioned more than any other; the National Center for Science Education. The NCSE promotes comprehensive evolution curriculums in public schools and is one of the key groups in advancing scientific literacy and understanding in the U.S. Earlier this week, I had a chance to talk to NCSE’s Steve Newton about some of the issues being raised in the popular science blogosphere and what the organization is doing to advocate and promote science education.

Q: A recent NCSE study found that only 7 states provide what you would consider a “comprehensive treatment of human evolution.” Why is the subject getting so little attention?

A: In some states’ curriculums, the subject is being glossed over to avoid debate and angry letters from parents. In other cases the standards are simply bad, just bad all around. In other cases still, and this happens more in the mainstream, there are some standards which have good parts and bad parts, and there’s a lot of disparity between subjects. Texas, for instance, is a good example. We’ve downgraded Texas from a C in our 2000 Learner Report to a D- in our more recent reevaluation in 2008 and one of the main reasons for this is because Texas took some pretty good standards and then proceeded to insert all kinds of creationist material into those standards. Now, the original standards were written by experts who knew what they were talking about and had a good sense of pedagogy, but the State Board of Education decided they wanted something different and revised the standards to put in the principles of creationism and intelligent design in there.

Q: What are some of the current initiatives being undertaken by the NCSE to improve the quality of evolution education in schools?

A: Our initiatives are something we do every day in talking with teachers and principals, and even legislators about how to promote the study of evolution, how to address evolution as the foundation of modern biology, and how to bring science to the forefront of education in general. This is just something I think we’re doing on a daily basis so when you have parents that come home and have their child tell them that their teacher was discussing creationist ideas and they’re alarmed by that, they know who to call. NCSE is the place that can help them out.

Q: In their recent LA Times editorial, Chris Mooney and Sheryl Kirshenbaum say that the NCSE has to defend itself from “the New Atheist wing of science” referring to Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers. Is there any truth to that statement? What is the NCSE’s relationship with atheists and atheist communities?

A: Our relationship is one of wanting to promote the teaching of evolution in schools as our main focus. Religion does not enter into it. We deal with people who are atheists, we deal with people who are quite religious. We all have a goal to put evolution at the forefront of science education. Now Chris Mooney and PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne have been battling in the blogosphere, but we have an understanding that all of them agree that creationism should not replace evolution in public schools. And moreover, all of them think that the NCSE does valuable work.

Just last week PZ Myers was writing in response to Mooney’s piece “Chris Mooney says I hate the NCSE, but I love the NCSE” and he’s explicitly stating that. Our friends can disagree with our tactics and they can offer us advice in that regard, but I think that the long term strategy is that science is under attack, we need to defend it and the NCSE is one of the main places to do that. This is something all of us agree on.

Q: There have been several efforts, including the NCSE’s Faith Outreach Project, to reach out to religious leaders, get a mutual endorsement for teaching evolution and a formal statement that science and religion are compatible. Do you think any of these projects worked? Why or why not?

A: I know they worked because of the work I do for the NCSE. Let me tell you what I’m going to do after talking to you. I’m going to be making phone calls, I’m going to be writing e-mails to teachers and parents, and in some cases students and school administrators. These people may be very religious but object to the imposition of someone else’s religion on their children in public schools, and for most of them, it will be comforting to know that it’s not just a bunch of California atheists who are just pushing this agenda.

It’s very useful to be able to point to people like Ken Miller, or Francis Collins, or Michael Dowd and say that these people are religious and they understand that evolution isn’t some atheist issue, but it’s very well substantiated science. It really diffuses the creationist claim that “oh evolution is just some atheist thing” when you can point to people of religion and use them as example to say that it’s not a scientific question but that the attacks [on evolution] you see are really coming from a religious point of view. Here are these scientists and they see no conflict between evolution and religion.

Q: Dr. Collins has been very outspoken about his religion and participated in a project which tries to convey the message that evolution is a means to know God. Is that a valid assertion for a scientist to be making, especially someone in his position?

A: He is a person of faith and he has a right to make that opinion. And he is a scientist and he has a right to make comments about the science as well. Each individual person needs to make that call of how they see that connection and present that as ideas so they can be discussed. I don’t have any particular issues with anyone coming up with these ideas and expressing them. People like PZ Myers may disagree with that, but the point is that creationist attacks on evolution have to be countered. How we do that can be debated.

Q: As an expert on the subject, what is your take on the creationist statement that Nazi atrocities can be directly linked to Darwin?

A: I obviously disagree with those conclusions which we’ve seen propagated most recently in Ben Stein’s movie Expelled. Stein also made a remarkable statement that “science leads to killing people” in a publicity interview. We’ve also seen this claim from historians such as Richard Weikart, who is a fellow of the creationist Discovery Institute. His recent book From Darwin to Hitler, proposed that there was a philosophical link between evolution and National Socialism.

I think that blaming Darwin for Hitler is a bit like blaming the Wright Brothers for 9/11. Yeah, you can by a real stretch of imagination say that planes were used in the 9/11 attacks and the Wright brothers invented airplanes, therefore they must be responsible. But it’s just a ridiculously stretched out line of reasoning. And even if it were true, it still doesn’t speak at all to the validity of the science. Saying that just because Richard Weikhart links Darwin to the Nazi movement, evolution isn’t true, is like saying that because the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima was a terrible thing, the physics that went into making the device are all untrue. It’s just a terrible argument.

I think Darwin is being misused in the way that Nietzsche is being misused. The Nazis were not a very educated bunch. Out of their ranks, only Goebbels had any sort of serious education so their conception of what Darwin was saying came to them second and third-hand. If you read Mein Kampf, you won’t find anything about Darwin. If according to Weikhart, Darwin was such a big influence on his thinking, I wonder why didn’t Hitler mention him. The Nazis weren’t scientists. They were actually very occultish and ritualistic. If you look at what was going on in Nazi Germany and how Hitler was being built up as this messianic figure, it wasn’t atheists replacing religion, but [the National Socialists were] more like a quasi-religious order was taking over.

# politics // creationism / evolution / ncse


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