An Evolving Controversy

Most of the critics of evolution no longer directly challenge the idea of teaching scientific concepts in science classrooms, Pennock noted. Instead, they proclaim that teachers should “teach the controversy.” For example, a bill introduced in Michigan a few years ago requires teachers to “(A) use the scientific method to critically evaluate scientific theories including, but not limited to, the theories of global warming and evolution,” and “(B) use relevant scientific data to assess the validity of those theories and to formulate arguments for and against those theories.”1 As Michigan Representative John Moolenaar said, this language leaves it up to local school boards whether to require the teaching of intelligent design (ID)—the idea that living things are too complex not to have been created by a divine or supernatural intelligence.

Pennock noted that this approach was soundly repudiated in the federal court case Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District. As the judge in that case wrote, “ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard.” Yet critics of evolution continue to try to insert religious ideas into science classes using this approach. When intelligent design creationists proposed to the Texas Board of Education that students be required to analyze and evaluate “strengths and weaknesses” in evolutionary theory, the board voted against the proposal, after which creationists proposed that students study “evidence supportive and not supportive of a theory.” The board again voted against the proposal, but when creationists next proposed that students study “the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record”—which are all buzzwords for intelligent design creationism—the board accepted the proposal. “It’s never quite over,” said Pennock. “You have to pay attention to the way that words are used, and language makes a difference.”

Using Language Carefully

Especially in teaching evolution, teachers need to be very precise in the language they use, said Pennock, because students and the public are very attuned to the nuances of particular terms. “The way in which we frame these issues can make a difference in terms of whether they’re going to be accepted.”


1 Almost identically worded bills have been proposed during the past several years in the legislatures of several other states.

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