Dealing with the Media in the Science Textbook Controversy


by Judith Anderson

John Wiester, Chairman
Science Education Commission
American Scientific Affiliation

The National Association of Biology Teachers [NABT] in their 1995 Official Statement on Teaching Evolution stated the following: "The diversity of life [all life] on earth is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments." 1

As any rational person can see, the belief that all life is the result of "unsupervised, impersonal process" is not science. It is naturalistic Darwinian philosophy disguised as science.To those who claim this is science, the appropriate scientific question is, "What is the evidence?"

Many parents realize that their children are being indoctrinated into a Darwinist philosophy. Darwinism teaches that the process of evolution is random and undirected; that humans are the products of chance events and matter in mindless motion. Parents understand that this naturalistic philosophy is incompatible with all theistic religious views. They are tired of having this philosophical worldview presented to their children as scientific fact in textbooks and in local and national science curricula.

As parents rally to confront the public education system, another group becomes involved...the media. The media smell a good controversy and they know they can capitalize on the divisiveness of the issue. Instead of presenting the real issue behind the debate, the media invoke the "Inherit the Wind" stereotype.

"Inherit the Wind" is a highly acclaimed, highly fictionalized account of the Scope's trial. The play pits an idealistic young Biology teacher (in reality a track coach recruited by the ACLU) against the bigoted, ignorant Bible-thumping townsfolk. The teacher is arrested for teaching evolution. The townsfolk have the teacher thrown into the poky and prosecuted for telling "the truth."

In 1995, the media imposed this stereotype on the Alabama Board of Education as they attempted to improve the quality of science education in their state. The Board recognized that important material was omitted from many science books (e.g., the omission of the Cambrian explosion from most biology textbooks), that some definitions in biology textbooks were sloppy at best, and that the books indoctrinated children in Darwinism. The Board decided to approve an educational aid to be pasted in the front of each biology text to correct the problems in their biology textbooks, and to encourage students to study hard and think for themselves.

The media descended on the Board and supporters of the insert, asking for and receiving interviews. One reporter, from National Public Radio, wrote an honest report which was returned to her with the notation from her boss that she had to go back and get religious statements from those interviewed; the story as she wrote it was not the one they planned to use!

By invoking the "Inherit the Wind" stereotype (the anti-education, ignorant, religious right vs. the enlightened educator), the real issue becomes clouded. The public believes that those opposed to indoctrination are opposed to education. If science education is to be improved, concerned parents need to apply a new strategy.

In the past, debates about science education have been presented in terms of science vs. religion or as science vs. the Bible. The real issue is that our children are being taught a mixture of naturalistic philosophy and scientific fact; this dishonest and misleading blend is not good science. We want our children to know the difference between scientific fact, scientific theory and philosophy. We want them to be free to ask questions and trust that their questions will be answered.

A very good example of confusing science with philosophy involves the definitions of the term "evolution." In a popular high school biology text (Biology, Miller and Levine, Prentice-Hall, 1993-2000 editions), the term evolution is defined as "the process by which modern organisms have descended from ancient organisms; any change in the relative frequencies of alleles in the gene pool of a population." In the same biology book the authors instruct that "evolution is without plan or purpose" and "evolution is random and undirected" (p. 658).2 One word is used to encompass three vastly different concepts.

The second use is properly termed "microevolution." These are the small changes one sees in breeding dogs or cattle or grasses, in finch beaks or moth coloration. Because microevolution is observable and its mechanism (genetic change) is fairly well understood, it could be considered as (or close to) scientific fact.

The first use refers to what is properly known as "macroevolution" or the production of major body plans, such as those found in the 35 or so modern animal phyla. Macroevolutionary change is not observable and its mechanism is not known; therefore Darwinists must infer that, given enough time, small scale changes (microevolution) will accumulate and produce large scale changes (macroevolution). Macroevolution rests on much shakier scientific ground than microevolution. By using the unmodified word "evolution" to refer to both processes, the line between fact and theory is blurred.

The third use of "evolution" crosses the line from science to philosophy. The statements that evolution is "without plan or purpose," and "random and undirected" are not scientific statements. They are world view assumptions lacking any scientific evidence to support them. These statements can not be tested or falsified and form the belief system underlying Darwinism. Darwinism is presented as "scientific knowledge" in most high school textbooks, and many grade school books, but it cannot be proven, tested, or observed. The NABT statement that all life is the result of "an unsupervised, impersonal natural process" is also philosophy masquerading as science.1

As parents and taxpayers, we want to encourage our educators to teach science honestly. We want our children to know the difference between scientific fact, scientific theory, and philosophy. We want them to ask questions and to trust that their questions will be answered honestly.

How can we change the focus of the debate from retrying Scopes to what is good science education? First we must educate the media. If you are asked whether or not you "believe in evolution", use the opportunity to educate the reporter. Ask him to explain what he means by the term; then teach him the differences between microevolution, macroevolution and Darwinism. Explain that not all aspects of "evolution" merit the same scientific and evidential status. When asked about your religious views, explain to the reporter that you have no interest in discussing your religion; you want to discuss the quality of science education. Remember it is essential that the media understand the true nature of this debate.

Here are several suggestions to help you:

  1. Educate yourself. Do your homework. Become knowledgeable about "evolution" and all its definitions. You may not have a science degree but you may look at more textbooks than most experts will.
  2. Know your terms. Insist that the appropriate scientifically accurate terms be used. Make sure your opponents (and the media) use the terms microevolution, macroevolution and Darwinism precisely. Never accept the catchall term "evolution." Definitions of these terms are provided at the end of this article.
  3. Review your child's textbooks. Look for errors, for sloppy definitions, for misleading illustrations (check the scales on geological time scales for accuracy), for broad statements made without corroborating evidence. Is any important scientific data omitted from the text? Are unanswered questions and perplexing problems, especially questions concerning the mechanism of macroevolution, discussed? An excellent review of textbooks is provided in the booklet "Education or Indoctrination" by Norris Anderson, available through Access Research Network.

Be savvy when dealing with the media. Do not discuss your religious views. Be aware that the reporter needs outrageous sound bites and that your comments may be heavily edited. Be interested in his point of view: does he want the truth, or has he been told to rewrite Scopes? . Stress that your concern is the censorship of unsolved problems, and the shell games played with terms (like evolution) to protect Darwinian ideology. Don't give the media the opportunity to stereotype you as a Bible-thumping fanatic who is trying to suppress academic freedom. If the reporter can see you as the reasonable party, he will be more inclined to understand and communicate your point of view.


Suggested Terms for Clarifying "Creation" and "Evolution"

Instead of "creation" without clarification, use:

Intelligent design: The earth, life, and humanity owe their existence to a purposeful, intelligent creator. Darwinism (see below) is usually held to be incompatible with intelligent design; other theories of evolution may be compatible with it.

Young earth creationism (Creation Science, Scientific Creationism): The earth, life, and humanity were created in a single week no more than 10,000 years ago.

Instead of "evolution" without qualification, use:

Microevolution: "Evolution at and below the species level."3 Generally refers to relatively minor variations that occur in populations over time.

Macroevolution: "Evolution above the species level; the evolution of higher taxa and the production of evolutionary novelties such as new structures." 3 Generally refers to major innovations such as new organs, structures, or body plans.

Darwinism (Neo-Darwinism, Evolutionism, Blind Watchmaker Thesis): The belief that undirected mechanistic processes (primarily random mutations and natural selection) account for both microevolution and macroevolution, and thus for all the diverse and complex living organisms that exist. A key philosophical component of Darwinism is the assumption that "evolution works without either plan or purpose" (Miller and Levine, Biology, 1993, p. 658) and that it is "an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process" (National Association of Biology Teachers 1995 Position Statement).

Common Descent: The theory that all organisms have been linked in the past by common ancestors.


Endnotes

1.In response to intense public and professional pressure the words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" were deleted by action of the NABT Board on October 11, 1997. return to text

2.In spite of author Kenneth Miller's pledge to the American Scientific Affiliation in August of 1995 to remove the phrases that "evolution is without plan or purpose" and "evolution is random and undirected" because they represent ideology masquerading as science, this identical language reappeared in the 1998 and 2000 editions. return to text

3.Mayr, Ernst. 1991. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. return to text