I wanted to share with everyone a recent op-ed letter that I submitted to local and state-wide news media in Alabama following the continued approval of anti-evolution textbook disclaimers in Alabama textbooks. This year marks a decade since the last textbook adoption year in the state of Alabama, and as teachers around the state are surveying the books they feel best fit their 21st Century students, the Alabama State Board of Education has voted to maintain their position that evolution is a dangerous subject that requires a warning that is both scientifically inaccurate and unnecessary.
Textbook evolution sticker hurts children’s understanding of science but also their faith, by Dr. Amanda Glaze, AL.com (Birmingham News/Huntsville Times/Mobile Press Register), March 31, 2016
I am Alabama proud. I was educated in Alabama and I teach science in Alabama schools. I love my home state and I am proud of many things that we are doing right in our science education, including the adoption of the new Alabama Course of Study for Science. But I am not proud of a recent decision by the state board of education. I am heartbroken.
Evolution is a fundamental and unifying principle of the life sciences. There is no controversy about evolution within the scientific community. As the National Academy of Sciences observes, “The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.” Every year, thousands of publications appear in the scientific research literature that apply, refine, and extend evolution.
The new Alabama Course of Study for Science reflects the scientific consensus on evolution, describing it correctly as “substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence.” But the board recently chose to flout the consensus and the standards, instead retaining the scientifically inaccurate and pedagogically inappropriate disclaimer about evolution stuck into the state’s textbooks since 2001.
The disclaimer describes evolution by natural selection as scientifically controversial and it suggests that doubt about the importance of natural selection in evolution is scientifically justified. These are simply mistakes. Just as problematic, however, is the implicit message—that evolution is something so horrible that it is necessary to warn students about it.
As a science teacher and as a science education researcher in Alabama, I can definitely say that the disclaimer’s effect is uniformly negative. The mere presence of the disclaimer often discourages biology teachers from presenting evolution forthrightly or at all—even though, as a famous scientist once observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
It is Alabama’s students who are the victims here. Students who have little chance to attain a proper understanding of evolution are at risk of not attaining a basic level of scientific literacy. And because understanding evolution is practically important, in such fields as medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture, they are also at risk in their future careers.
But it’s even worse than that. Although the disclaimer is evidently intended to protect the faith of students and teachers alike, I am convinced that its effect is both negative and detrimental to both science and religion. By encouraging the idea that faith and science are at loggerheads, the disclaimer forces students to make a choice between the two. There is no need to do so.
Francis Collins, the co-leader of the Human Genome Project and the director of the National Institutes of Health, once said, “The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming. I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.”
In short, the disclaimer is a failure from the scientific point of view, a failure from the educational point of view, and—on the testimony of a distinguished biologist with a deep Christian faith—a failure from the religious point of view. And the state board of education’s decision to retain the disclaimer was a failure to serve the education of the students in Alabama’s public schools.
If we in Alabama could come together to insist that our students deserve to be taught science, including evolution, properly, as the scientific community understands it and as our state’s science standards now present it, free from censorship, ideology, and disclaimers, then it would be easier for those of us who care about science education here to say—as we would like to say—that we are as Alabama proud as ever.