Monday, March 22, 2010

Evolution education in Tennessee

While attending an SMBE conference a few years ago, someone asked me where I was from. When I said Tennessee, she smirked and said, "Do they still let you teach evolution there?" Ha ha ha. I just brushed it off. "For now," I said with a smile. I guess the negative stereotype inspired by press coverage of the Scopes trial and the pseudohistory of Inherit the Wind is still alive and well.

But how fair is that stereotype? The latest issue of Reports of the NCSE has an article on teaching evolution in the anthropology classes at UTK. It's written by Kramer et al., two profs at UTK and one at Texas Tech. They surveyed 1079 students in their anthropology classes for a decade. Their results were mildly surprising, and their methodology was a little peculiar. At least one of their conclusions was downright strange.

They used a simple survey of true/false questions (and one short answer) to assess student's ideas about basic science related to evolution. The questions were:

1. Science has proven that evolution is true.
2. Evolution is not science; it is just a theory.
3. Creationism is a legitimate scientific alternative to evolution.
4. If you believe in evolution, you cannot believe in God.

The fifth question asked them to define evolution.

I was a bit surprised by these questions. I thought the first one would backfire: I thought students would be caught by the word "true" even though the question seemed to be about the word "proven" (a concept that's not scientific). Students who are inclined to believe evolution would agree, while students taught that evolution was wrong would disagree. The authors noted this themselves:
Interestingly we have noticed ... that students often answer this question correctly (False) for the wrong reasons and incorrectly (True) for the right ones.
The second question also seemed to be aimed at two slightly different ideas, whether evolution is "just a theory" or whether it's science at all. The last three questions seemed fairly straightforward.

Here's the fun part: Kramer et al. found no support for any difference in responses between students who went to high school in Tennessee and those who went elsewhere. They did find a difference between students from the northeast and those from the southeast, but on average, Tennessee students scored as well as any other students. So maybe they're not so backwards after all? They also found no difference in students from rural or urban high schools, or between younger (17-18 yr) and older (20-21 yr) students. Nontraditional students (30 yrs or older) and students in advanced anthropology courses were more likely to score better.

What I found most interesting was the answers to question 4. Overwhelmingly, nearly everyone disagreed with the idea that belief in God was incompatible with evolution. Since this is such a common claim of antievolutionists ("evolution leads to atheism!") and the "new atheists," I was fascinated to see that most young people just reject it. That seems like a really, really important thing for those in creationist ministry to recognize, and it's definitely worth independently confirming that result.

Predictably, the definitions of evolution were poor. I didn't really expect otherwise. The best definitions came from graduate students.

I did find their recommendations a little surprising. Their "primary recommendation" was to include a session on science and evolution in introductory anthropology classes. No surprise there. Their secondary recommendation:
...we would encourage instructors of introductory university-level biology courses to integrate evolution as a central theme throughout their courses if they have not already done so. This apparent deficiency was made clear by the subset of introductory physical anthropology students who had completed at least a semester of college-level biology and yet performed no better on the true/false statements than did their classmates with little or no high-school biology.
Call me crazy, but I'm not sure how that would help. I'm sure they intend to communicate the idea that evolution and philosophy of science should be major themes in biology courses, since students could easily be conversant with the basics of evolution and still do lousy on the survey.

In any event, it's interesting stuff, and it's nice to see that Tennessee isn't as bad as people seem to think.

Kramer et al. 2009. Teaching the "E-word" in Tennessee: student misconceptions and the persistence of anti-evolutionary ideas. Reports of the NCSE 29(6):18-22, 27-28.