While recent studies show a resistance to some feature of science, the fact remains that this resistance goes back hundreds of years to the birth of science. Today, it is primarily in biology — then, it was in astronomy. A newly released study by two scholars at Penn State University of 926 high school biology teachers in 49 states and the District of Columbia shows some troubling results.
Twenty-eight percent replied that they consistently taught what was called for about evolution. Thirteen percent said they would rather teach creationism or intelligent design. A startling 60 percent admitted that they avoid taking a direct stance on the topic of evolution because of a fear of backlash from the community.
In addition, the directors of the study concluded that many high school science teachers lack a solid grounding in evolution. They charged the cautious 60 percent with failure “to explain the nature of scientific inquiry,” of undermining “the authority of established experts” and of giving legitimacy to creationist arguments “even if unintentionally.”
Resistance to scientific findings, methods and philosophical underpinnings has a long history. An arbitrary starting point could be the early 17th century when Galileo announced that, with the aid of his telescope, he could affirm the existence of the moons of the planet Jupiter. Later, when he challenged the traditional geocentric view of our solar system with the correct heliocentric picture, he was forced to recant his view and was placed under house arrest until he died.
Opposition to science, its methods and its assumptions comes from more sophisticated sources than mere creationists. The Danish theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, a sometime famous essayist, was very harsh in his misguided attempt to discredit the objectivity required by science. He describes a scientist as a madman who “has eyes of glass and hair made from carpet rags. That he is in short, an artificial product. If you meet someone who suffers from such a derangement of feeling, the derangement consisting in his not having any, you listen to what he has to say in a cold and awful dread, scarcely knowing whether it is a human being who speaks or a cunningly contrived walking stick.”
In 1930, another objection of significance was directed at another feature of science: specialization. Spanish philosopher, José Ortega Gasset, made a recognized complaint that scientists were splintered into minute divisions — each with a limited range of expertise. Indeed, it was asserted that it was difficult for these specialists to communicate with each other.
The problem with the specialist, for Gasset, was that, “He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty; but neither is he ignorant, because he is a “scientist” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, not in the fashion of ignorant men, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.”
This is a worthy and serious charge that scientists are bound to recognize. Specialization was inevitable because of the time, energy, preparation and even relative isolation needed to master what is required before advancing a discipline such as physics. This problem is managed to some extent by requiring students to take several courses in the “civilizing subjects” in the liberal arts.
We must return to the study of the way teachers in our society actually approach the teaching of evolution day by day. What was reported is not — nor should not — be accepted as desirable for science education. Evolutionary biology — like it or not — is not under suspicion by the great majority of scientists around the world. Some thought must be given to the consideration that it is a disservice to students to do less than a first-rate job in all science classes.
Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.