On losing an individual battle on the educational frontier of the evolution-creation culture war!

Its an odd coincidence that I got a message from Atheist Nexus today, causing me to log in after a long time. Not that I put much stock in coincidences, but I feel distinctly odd. Odd because the email came right after I got out of a meeting with my born-again devout christian graduate student who announced they were quitting the biology graduate program after a prolonged struggle, and much prayer, to try to reconcile faith with evolution!

I won't go into all the details of the back and forth dialog and argument we've had for over 6 months on this question: ever since this student emailed a bunch of faculty over the winter break about how good that Ben Stein movie was! My own graduate student, working in a lab focused on evolutionary ecology!! Took me a moment to get over the shock of discovering this. But, after some sleepless nights worrying about the the best way to educate such a student, and given how touchy the whole subject can be in this country, especially here in the San Joaquin valley of California, I've tried my best to engage this student in constructive dialog about the scientific method and the weight of evidence that has led us biologists to accept the theory and fact of evolution as the paradigm for our science. All to no avail in the end, apparently!

I started by offering some resources I usually point "faithful" students towards when they struggle with this issue: books by eminent biologists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins who somehow apparently have reconciled their christian faith with the successful practice of biology within the evolution paradigm. Didn't work: I was told these scientists were not true believers because they were picking and choosing elements from scripture and misinterpreting the word of god!! So I had a biblical literalist on my hands (who evidently has no trouble reconciling the many contradictions within scripture, but can't handle contradictory scientific evidence!). The student then started pushing an alternative view of the scientific method itself, claiming that the way to reconcile biology with faith was to simply reinterpret all the scientific evidence (even if it defied logic) to make it fit the biblical story! I had to insist then that one cannot simply do this and keep calling it science, or hope to have a successful career in science / science education. I strongly encouraged a critical engagement with the primary biological literature, rather than the version filtered through the creationist media (O how well organized those are, I never knew!).

Eventually I got an email, after I pointed to a recent astronomical image of four galaxies colliding 5.4 billion li..., saying that actually being exposed to some of the cosmological evidence had made the student realize that the world couldn't be a mere 6000 years old - and I thought we were making progress at last! At least the YE part of the faith was weakening even if the C was still very strong. But the arguments continued, and the insistence on a peculiar selective view of the scientific method became a bit more vehement - causing considerable consternation for me, the students' other thesis committee members, and colleagues in the department as a whole! What was I going to do with an otherwise quite intelligent and diligent student (with near 4.0 GPA as an undergrad bio major in this very dept. - albeit before I came here) who was so resistant to really understanding and applying critical thinking and the scientific method? What is the educational and communication strategy in engaging with such a student? What does one do when even the example of the Millers and Collinses—i.e., established reconciliationists (if not accommodationists)—fails to impress? While struggling with this, I received a copy of Jerry Coyne's new book "Why Evolution is True" and decided to pass that to the student, with a challenge to engage critically with that book and the evidence it compiles, and critique it.

A month or so passed, with the end of the semester, final exams, field work, and grant writing intervening, and I didn't hear much from the student. Then, in the midst of grant writing frenzy, I noticed Coyne's book had been returned to the lab, and all the field gear used by the student was also back! And today the shoe dropped and I discovered that I had lost this student. That in the emotionally intense struggle involving much reading, soul searching, and prayer, faith had trumped the evidence compiled by thousands of scientists over a century and a half (or more) - and the student decided not to pursue the graduate degree in biology any more!! Sigh...

Had Coyne been too much, too soon? Would some other flavor of accommodationist approach have worked better? I doubt it because I did try all the ones available to me. Not being a christian I had neither the background experience nor the time nor inclination to debate the theological arguments which evidently carried more weight. So I called upon good friend, practicing christian, and vocal evolution teacher Scott Hatfield to try and engage the student - but that didn't work either. And as part of the campus activities marking this bicentennial year of Darwin, I even attempted to get a discussion group going to address these conflicts of faith for students struggling with scientific evidence. All approaches that respected the student's faith, highlighted the student's intelligence, and asked only that that intelligence be applied to learning the scientific method, and evaluating the evidence rationally. Surely even Messrs Mooney/Kirshenbaum can't have much to complain about how I tried to "frame" the subject? (Or maybe they do - and I may have to read their kerfuffle raising book to find out!) In this case, however, everything I tried only intensified the emotional/"spiritual" conflict, and the non-rational forces won that particular battle leading the student to conclude that biology was not the field for them! And so, for now, I have failed. Although I was told that working here in my lab was a valuable learning experience, especially because it turned out to be such a strong test of faith!! Not sure how much comfort to draw from that - because that's the least I could (and should be expected to) do as a teacher! If I don't make my students question what they think they already know, how can I teach them things they don't know? So is that a partial success? At least I seem to be doing my job, even if I can't change any minds!! Hmm...

What other lessons can I draw from this failure to reach one student for the broader goal of communicating science to the public in order to improve scientific literacy? I don't know - I'll be pondering that for a while, as I share this case study with fellow scientists and teachers engaged in the evolution/creation 'culture war' to get their feedback. And I welcome any thoughts you may have!

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Comment by David Costa on July 21, 2009 at 6:57pm
Well Dr. Katti, you have done more than many others would have. Sometimes there is no appeals to the rational that will succeed. The story of Kurt Weiss comes to mind most readily.

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