Evolution and religion: New insight into instructor attitudes in Arizona

May 20, 2016

By Phys.org

Evolution can be an emotionally charged topic in education, given a wide range of perspectives on it. Two researchers from Arizona State University are taking an in-depth look at how college professors handle it.

In a first-of-its kind study, scientists from ASU School of Life Sciences have found that a majority of professors teaching biology in Arizona universities do not believe that helping students accept the theory of evolution is an instructional goal. In fact, a majority of study participants say their only goal is to help students understand evolution.

According to the study’s authors, this finding was surprising. The exploratory research, published in the scientific journal CBE—Life Sciences Education, looked at how instructors perceived their role in helping students accept evolution. It also looked at the extent to which professors address the perceived conflict students may have between religion and evolution.

“Evolution is one of the key concepts in understanding biology,” said Sara Brownell, senior author of the study and assistant professor with the school. “My own view is, ‘Why would we want to teach evolution, if we don’t want our students to accept it? We teach them that cells have membranes and we expect them to accept that. Why should evolution be any different?’ Yet instructors in our study don’t see it that way. For most of them, evolution is separated—first, in understanding and second, in accepting the concept.” Brownell studies biology education, in particular how undergraduate biology students learn and how instructors can develop more effective ways to teach.

In biology education, evolution and religious beliefs are often “hot-button” topics that play out publicly in the media as an “either—or” scenario, in which one side wins and the other loses. This, according to the ASU researchers, may negatively affect students who have religious beliefs. Previous outside studies show that more than 50 percent of undergraduate biology students identify themselves as religious.

Yet, this study shows most instructors in Arizona neither acknowledge their students’ religious beliefs, nor discuss that there are a variety of beliefs about science. And, the study shows a majority of instructors are hesitant to discuss the topic in class.


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18 comments on “Evolution and religion: New insight into instructor attitudes in Arizona

  • @OP – Yet, this study shows most instructors in Arizona neither acknowledge their students’ religious beliefs, nor discuss that there are a variety of beliefs about science.

    “Beliefs about science” are irrelevant! Science is not based on beliefs. It is based on testable evidence, knowledge from the work of intellectual giants of the past, reasoning to make testable predictions, and systematic methodology.

    Anyone who wants to bring “beliefs” into science is destined to fail as a scientist.
    This has been demonstrated many times in religious pronouncements about science and theistic evolution.
    Thinking from preconceptions, is a formula for failure and self-deception!

    And, the study shows a majority of instructors are hesitant to discuss the topic in class.

    So some religious students start with a handicap!! This is old news!
    Get over it or fail – as an instructor or as a student!



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  • In a first-of-its kind study, scientists from ASU School of Life Sciences have found that a majority of professors teaching biology in Arizona universities do not believe that helping students accept the theory of evolution is an instructional goal. In fact, a majority of study participants say their only goal is to help students understand evolution.

    According to the study’s authors, this finding was surprising.

    I really don’t see why this is surprising. I taught evolution to first-year undergraduates for many years and never saw acceptance of evolution by students as an “instructional goal”. I was more than happy if my teaching resulted in a demonstrated understanding of evolution and its processes, and my assessment of students was aimed at testing understanding, not acceptance. Indeed, it is hard to see how acceptance could be reliably assessed and I’m not sure that I would want to test it anyway.

    Over the years many students came to me with the concern that while they understood what I was saying, they did not believe it, and would this affect their results? My response was always aimed at reassuring them: I didn’t care what they believed – I was only interested in what they had learned.

    I like to think that as their knowledge of biology grew over the years, some of them came to accept evolution, not because acceptance was an “instructional goal” but because their ever-increasing understanding of the living world led them inexorably in that direction.



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  • Hi Macropus [#2],

    Thank you for your post. Until I read it I couldn’t understand what the Arizona researchers were talking about.

    … it is hard to see how acceptance could be reliably assessed …

    I don’t see how simply asking the students in an anonymized questionnaire wouldn’t work?

    I’m not sure that I would want to test it anyway

    Why?

    Over the years many students came to me with the concern that while they understood what I was saying, they did not believe it, and would this affect their results? My response was always aimed at reassuring them: I didn’t care what they believed – I was only interested in what they had learned

    Assume, for the sake of argument, that one of those biology students goes on to become a medical researcher. Would you prefer that they identify the fact that the cleaning product they’re testing is being undermined by the evolution of the targeted pathogen – or that they apply their belief that an unknown and unknowable force has intervened?

    Beliefs shape our thinking. Thinking, and the lack of it, shapes our World.

    Why and how we shape and sustain our beliefs is what these researchers are trying to focus on.

    I like to think that as their knowledge of biology grew over the years, some of them came to accept evolution, not because acceptance was an “instructional goal” but because their ever-increasing understanding of the living world led them inexorably in that direction.

    Cute.

    Does wishing for things generally make them happen?

    If I may; I ask you to consider an alternative angle: How about teaching based on the idea that truth must come first?

    The researchers are trying to say that this is what matters. If the Teacher’s goal is only to instruct then most biology teachers in Arizona are doing even less than the volunteer Evening Bible Studies Leader at the local church – read the instruction book, believe what you like. Whereas the EBSL says: Read the instruction book, then I’ll tell you why that should shape your beliefs.

    I don’t believe that is true education. I think Arizona’s teachers should be aiming much higher than that – especially at Universities.

    Universities are not schools.

    A University worthy of the name is an institution dedicated to the study of, and expansion of, our understanding of truth. By definition a University challenges the beliefs of faculty and students together to always ask the questions: Is that right? Why do I think that’s right? I know that’s right but, come to think of it, how did I come to think that? Am I sure? Perhaps I should check my assumptions. Maybe I ought to go back to my sources. Perhaps I did come to that conclusion a little hastily.

    Rather than the wish, and wait, in your philosophy of education a good University challenges its members to explore, study, think, debate, experiment, challenge, question, structure and conclude clearly, concisely and consciously.

    Society is so much better today than 400 years ago because a small minority learned to think like this. Imagine what the World would be today if every University was turning out graduates of that quality.

    Peace.



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  • Macropus #2
    May 21, 2016 at 12:33 am

    I taught evolution to first-year undergraduates for many years and never saw acceptance of evolution by students as an “instructional goal”. I was more than happy if my teaching resulted in a demonstrated understanding of evolution and its processes, and my assessment of students was aimed at testing understanding, not acceptance.

    Science is a hands on practical subject which works in the real world. Tests are supposed to indicate competence in managing this.

    Perhaps we can get a clearer view if we apply your approach by applying it to driving instructors!

    Would we be happy if driving instructors were satisfied that their training resulted in a demonstrated understanding of the rules of the road (stopping at red lights, observing speed-limits and priorities at junctions etc.) along with its processes, for the purpose of qualifying on test: – but trainees then went on to drive in a manner they believed was OK (as learned on “Grand-Theft Auto” perhaps), prior to attending the learners’ training course?

    my assessment of students was aimed at testing understanding, not acceptance.

    I would expect acceptance of the rules of the road, proper vehicle maintenance and management, competent prediction and anticipation of traffic movements, with consideration and courtesy toward other motorists, and applied on an everyday basis, to be a key training element!

    This is the difference between “education for the practicalities of life”, and “teaching to the test”!



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  • Creationists would give their right arm for evidence this good of their case for a creator. The lesson here is about what is good evidence and what we can reliably say we know. Common descent, the DNA/genetic tree, copying thats not quite perfect that makes it perfect. You will never elsewhere meet facts of this interlocking quality. If this is in conflict with your religious sentiments then the work is to be done on the religious side. Religious folk do this all the time.

    My own favoured approach to the religious is to move them on to the new areas of evolution under investigation. These are the transistion to eukaryotes (cells full of machinery and cleverness) from prokaryotes (Trump-voter-simple) and the huge and mesh like nature of the viable protein solutions in their possible solution space. The first needs people to work diligently on showing how it could possibly be achieved, the second requires us to consider why evolution should be so astonishingly facilitated. To engage with these issues the student must fully accept all the demonstrated aspects of evolutionary theories to date.

    The old god gaps are filled long ago now.

    Your best chance of finding God is to diligently seek to fill these new God gaps just discovered. This doesn’t mean pointing to them and saying, “beats me”. It means fully accepting the new science like the uber religious Newton or Faraday did, and passionately pursuing it as the way to reveal what you wish for and trying your hardest to fill the gap. If you know you have honestly tried your very hardest to fill that gap, your failures become your success, and you will have done the best science anyone could.



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  • Macropus #2
    May 21, 2016 at 12:33 am

    I really don’t see why this is surprising. I taught evolution to first-year undergraduates for many years and never saw acceptance of evolution by students as an “instructional goal”.

    At what level is evolutionary biology competently taught in the us?

    How did these students get on to a university biology science course, without being educated in school science lessons – or do the failed graduates “with beliefs” who are too incompetent to do practical biology go into teaching?

    To those familiar with English school science teaching this is incredible!

    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study#year-6-programme-of-study

    Year 6 programme of study (10 – 11 year olds)

    Evolution and inheritance

    Pupils should be taught to:

    recognise that living things have changed over time and that fossils provide information about living things that inhabited the Earth millions of years ago

    recognise that living things produce offspring of the same kind, but normally offspring vary and are not identical to their parents

    identify how animals and plants are adapted to suit their environment in different ways and that adaptation may lead to evolution



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  • English secondary education science – national curriculum requirements.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/335174/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_Science_220714.pdf

    Genetics and evolution

    Inheritance, chromosomes, DNA and genes

    heredity as the process by which genetic information is transmitted from one
    generation to the next

    a simple model of chromosomes, genes and DNA in heredity, including the part played by Watson, Crick, Wilkins and Franklin in the development of the DNA model

    differences between species

    the variation between individuals within a species being continuous or discontinuous, to include measurement and graphical representation of variation

    the variation between species and between individuals of the same species means some organisms compete more successfully, which can drive natural selection

    changes in the environment may leave individuals within a species, and some entire species, less well adapted to compete successfully and reproduce, which in turn may lead to extinction

    the importance of maintaining biodiversity and the use of gene banks to preserve hereditary material



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  • Alan (8 & 9) OK……so no mention anywhere of Adam’s rib then? ;o)

    I would like to see a government sponsored scheme to encourage ADULTS to learn about evolution and the sheer amount of evidence backing it! Too many still consider it just an ‘idea’ that can be dismissed through basic ignorance. This inevitably leads people to retain their religiosity which, of course, plays a big part in the world’s current problems.



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  • Macropus #2
    May 21, 2016 at 12:33 am

    Over the years many students came to me with the concern that while they understood what I was saying, they did not believe it, and would this affect their results? My response was always aimed at reassuring them: I didn’t care what they believed – I was only interested in what they had learned.

    But if they did not believe it, had they really learned, or had they merely learned to sound more credible when disputing it?

    I like to think that as their knowledge of biology grew over the years, some of them came to accept evolution,

    Coming back to my “driving test” analogy, is it really acceptable that SOME of them MAY become competent drivers over the years?

    not because acceptance was an “instructional goal” but because their ever-increasing understanding of the living world led them inexorably in that direction.

    On the other hand those remaining in denial of evolution and scientific methodology, like Ham an Co., can use sciency words to sound plausible to the uneducated, and wave paper science qualifications over their pseudo-science, as badges of authority!

    Some of them may even use the (diploma-mill quality?) paper qualifications to obtain work in teaching!

    https://www.richarddawkins.net/2016/05/ken-ham-really-doesnt-understand-science/#li-comment-203612



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  • Alan4discussion #1
    May 20, 2016 at 12:05 pm: Anyone who wants to bring “beliefs” into science is destined to fail as a scientist.

    True enough. But surely a teacher’s role is to change peoples’ thinking, not just pump the facts into them? For the record I passed Physics (49%, pass 45%) and Chemistry (55%) at O level, so I reckon that I’m a pretty hot scientist.

    Macropus #2
    May 21, 2016 at 12:33 am: My response was always aimed at reassuring them: I didn’t care what they believed – I was only interested in what they had learned.

    I can’t understand this! If I were teaching say Ulysses and were dealing with all the psycho-sexual undercurrents of the novel, and a student came to me and said that they understood what I was saying, but didn’t accept that Joyce had such a dirty mind, and furthermore didn’t accept that it was a pretty fair description of how human sexuality works, and broadly in line with the insights of a whole string of authors going back, though usually less blatantly, through Hardy, Austen, Sterne, Dr Johnson, Shakespeare and beyond; then I would think that I had wholly failed as a teacher.

    I would think that I had given the student some facts and techniques, but not a clue of what literature and the arts were really about. I would point out the evidence I had produced, and ask them to show me how I was in error. If they produced something or other relating to God and his Divine Plan for human beings’ sex lives, I would try not to tell him to f*@!k off, and I would persist in my efforts to show him what serious writers were at.

    More important than techniques, facts and figures, is the attitudes we produce in the classroom. If were to teach science ( I was called upon to do so once in Norseman, which will give you some idea of the standards to which the poor kids in the Australian bush were subjected), I would consider that clearing out the old shibboleths, based on faith, old wives tales and new-age woo, was the first, continuous and most important job. To produce people who can think scientifically, rather than merely being able to operate as scientists. It doesn’t even matter if they will never make scientists, as long as they understand the need for evidence-based research and belief, and how to distinguish solid fact from unsubstantiated nonsense.

    I have said before that I think that ordinary students would benefit more from a teaching methodology in science predicated on a substantial content of history of ideas. Most people are never going to work as scientists and most of the facts and techniques we learn in class are soon forgotten, if not used; but the attitudes remain.



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  • eejit #12
    May 22, 2016 at 8:39 am

    To produce people who can think scientifically,

    I have made the point in earlier discussions, that thinking scientifically as scientists requires respect for scientific methodology and the results it produces.

    rather than merely being able to operate as scientists.

    These people who simply “operate” with technology or products of science, are not scientists.
    They are technicians, or production-line operatives, who do not follow research, but simply follow instruction books and leaflets which are written by scientists and engineers, who DO understand WHY those procedures are required. to produce a functional outcome.



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  • Alan4discussion #13
    I have made the point in earlier discussions, that thinking scientifically as scientists requires respect for scientific methodology and the results it produces.
    These people who simply “operate” with technology or products of science, are not scientists.

    I know these things Alan. My point is that your job is to turn out scientists, not mere technicians. Few of my students were ever going to become successors to James Joyce, just as few of yours would ever rival Galileo. Most of mine would never even become writers or literary critics, most of yours would never be bottle washers in a lab.

    I have the greatest respect for scientists and their amazing unravelling of the secrets of the Universe and human kind. I know what they have discovered (more or less), I know what it means for humanity, it’s just that the arcane features of their quest don’t particularly interest me, or millions of other people for that matter, but I’m not so illiberal a man that I cannot respect the importance, commitment and work of others.



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  • Eejit #14

    it’s just that the arcane features of their quest don’t particularly interest me,

    But the grand features?

    Can I recommend Professor Richard Holmes book “Age of Wonder”

    https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Age_of_Wonder_How_the_Romantic_Gener.html?id=75Ttp8Sn5dkC&source=kp_cover&redir_esc=y&hl=en

    This is a book about how wrapped up the Romantic Poets were with the great discoveries at this fantastic time. No C.P.Snow two cultures for them. Coleridge was a regular fixture at Royal Society meetings. (He approved Whewell’s term Scientist as it matched Artist, sealing its acceptance…) That this (science) is the very stuff of dreams, of new vistas, and new perspectives on the human condition, this is why they had new fabrics to weave.

    Gerunds and their proper treatment could leach from many a scientist the will to live but poetry remains. The great accounts of scientists’ adventures inwards and outwards need to find their ways far more into everyday culture in the mouths of folk who can talk to all.



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  • eejit #14
    May 23, 2016 at 6:04 am

    These people who simply “operate” with technology or products of science, are not scientists.

    I know these things Alan. My point is that your job is to turn out scientists, not mere technicians.

    I agree!
    Where the problem lies, is that if students reject the multiply confirmed (thousands of times) evidence based conclusions of science, either they DON’T understand the reasoning and the evidence, –
    OR they they DON’T understand that when confirmed evidence and the competent reasoning and mathematics of scientific methodology derives a conclusion from this evidence, you cannot credibly claim to be a scientist, while arbitrarily deciding to reject the results on the basis of unevidenced preconceptions or wish-thinking.
    Rejecting a properly derived conclusion, is a rejection of logical reasoning and scientific methodology. People who reject scientific methodology, are not scientists.

    Such people should not be awarded scientific qualifications, just as those who fail the video hazard-perception or practical driving test, should not be awarded driving licences, even if they know how to tick boxes on paper!

    At university level, we are talking about professional qualifications, not inconsequential personal opinions.



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  • a majority of professors teaching biology in Arizona universities do not believe that helping students accept the theory of evolution is an instructional goal. In fact, a majority of study participants say their only goal is to help students understand evolution.

    If they do their job well those that have honestly attended and listened will be convinced. Those that are stubborn, brainwashed or just not terribly bright will not and there isn’t a great deal you can do about that. Teaching high school (as I am not teaching adults and as education is mandatory I stand in place of the parents – hence have to have a little respect for their discomfort) I pull my punches a great deal. I’ll tell those religious students who object (I have one at the moment from a Jehovah’s witness family) that they don’t have to believe this however society expects them to be educated as it is essential to being a member of a society that can vote sensibly on issues regarding medicine, agriculture, science etc. and they need to at least have an understanding of what the actual theory they disagree with actually says.

    I also encourage them to come up and argue with me about it on my lunch time playground duties. I had one student in year 8 as a fundamentalist Christian who would walk with me and argue with me about evolution and cosmology almost every lunchtime duty I had. He’d bring me books to read which I promised to read if he promised to listen to my rebuttals. Over the years position after position had been shot down and eventually he accepted first evolution within kinds, then after challenging him to explain what mechanism would allow natural selection to cause some change but suddenly stop at some invisible barrier he eventually admitted that while he still believed in god he did accept evolution in full (must have taken some courage). A former student in his year level and a friend came back to say hello to a few of us last week and he informed me that the student in question had just received a scholarship in marine biology to a University in the UK to study marine biology. I’m taking some credit for that one 😉

    What I becoming increasing convinced of is that a bit of gentle ridicule and peer pressure from society at large is needed here to make it embarrassing to not understand the basics of science. We live in a technological world driven by scientific discoveries of the past, we surely should feel some social pressure not to become scientists ourselves but at least to understand enough to be able to support those that are and not vote for ridiculous beliefs. Peer pressure, if it works for smoking we need to make it work for us.



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