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 Ruth Anthony-Gardner on November 30, 2013 at 7:55pm

As a biology teacher I always hated that so many others in my field failed to grasp science, and promoted a veneer of learning.

Comment by Madhusudan Katti on July 23, 2009 at 5:36pm
The new discoveries about how our brain works are fascinating, indeed - and we are still in the early days of understanding! And people who reject science for whatever reason are closing themselves off from these marvels - that's what saddens me about these students!

The inherent irrationality of our minds, part of our evolutionary package, is what keeps me from being to vehement or militant about faith or lack thereof, especially when talking to students who are (be definition) still (supposed to be) figuring their own worldviews out.

And on your side note - language does trip us up, a bit too much sometimes. And then you have intentional use of such words, as in the naming of the new Darwin biopic, "The Creation"!! Not sure what to make of that - marketing decision? irony?
Comment by Calladus on July 23, 2009 at 5:26pm
In my opinion, most of us are "wired" for belief. I think belief is a spandral (in the Stephen Jay Gould sense of the word) in that it is an "unintended consequence" of our evolved ability to imagine and predict the future.

I think we need to seriously study and understand this aspect of humans. We need to find ways to address it. Nero-theology might be what Michael Shermer calls a "borderland science" right now, but I think we're really starting to explore the many amazing ways in which our brain fools us.

In much the same way that our senses have quirks and blind spots that are removed or hidden by our brains, our brains also have quirks that are covered over by the way our brain processes information.

Richard Wiseman's vanishing head illusion is a great tool that shows us our visual blind spot, and just how our brain "hides" it and processes it out of existence.

Wouldn't it be great if we had another obvious illusion that we could use to show people that blind belief is not rational?

On a side note...
The English language is just loaded with words that presume that we are created. Which is why I'm forced to use terms like "wired" or "unintended consequence".
Comment by Jim DePaulo on July 22, 2009 at 6:34pm
We had a teacher in the department that was very religious but she took the view that Darwin expressed "God breathed life into one or a few creatures from which all creatures have so wonderously evolved." (Not sure that's exact but it's essential right)

With that view she had no real problem teaching correct evolutionary biology. A Deist viewpoint - God started the whole thing with a few crawlies and let evolution take it's course.
Comment by Madhusudan Katti on July 22, 2009 at 1:00pm
Many of our students (incl. this one) aspire to be teachers! Which is another reason why I spend so much time trying to inculcate in them a proper understanding of science. There already are too many creationist science teachers in schools around here as it is!
Comment by Jim DePaulo on July 22, 2009 at 12:36pm
I had a student teacher assigned to me some years ago, in high school biology. When the unit on evolution was to began I noticed he was doing the botany unit. When I questioned why he wasn't doing the correct unit he responded that he would let me cover it when his student teaching was over. That evolution was contrary to his religious belief and he couldn't, in good conscious, teach false belief.
After an hour or so of discussion I recommended he drop the assignment and I would recommend he be given an incomplete.
He refused. I took it to my principal and explained the situation - he contacted the student's supervisor - the student teacher was gone the next day.
I can only hope he never got a job teaching his version of biology.
Comment by Madhusudan Katti on July 22, 2009 at 2:21am
Felch - I'm not sure I consider it a waste of time, especially if it didn't take time away from someone else. More importantly, note that this is a Graduate student, doing research towards a dissertation under my supervision! I surely have higher obligations to mentor grad students to help them become good scientists - much more so than towards the average undergrad enrolled in my Evolution class.

I have to add that having never been this close to a young earth creationist before, I wanted to also see how far I could go in establishing a dialog to try and change their mind before giving up! And I can't be sure yet if I failed completely...
Comment by Madhusudan Katti on July 21, 2009 at 8:41pm
I do think that some seeds of doubt may have been germinating in this student's mind even as s/he quit the program. I was told, for example, that following discussions with me s/he's been forced to raise questions about things that were earlier thought to be inerrant, and one of the big difficulties was in not knowing how to handle uncertainty of knowledge. I had explained that science has taught me to always question certainties and take knowledge as being provisional - I even found myself saying, wryly, that I have "faith" in doubt more than anything else!

I think that for this student, faith was a deeply emotional matter, perhaps connected to whatever experience led to being born-again. S/he even said that now (after going through this struggle with biology) it was more strongly a matter of faith in one person (Jesus) than in scripture. I also appreciate that s/he was honest enough to speak out and engage with me in this discussion; I know many others prefer to go through the motions to get the degree, never bothering to think about the material - if not actively cultivating opposite perspectives. So I'm thinking that we journeyed together as far as we most likely could at this point, and hope that some seed of doubt will lead this person to greater self-reflection and re-evaluation. That's the best I can hope for with any student, really, not just this one.
Comment by Calladus on July 21, 2009 at 7:29pm

I was baptized at 14 and spent about 20 years as a Christian - although I had no problem with evolution (or geology, or science in general).

In my experience I felt as if I was a member of an oppressed group that was forced to huddle together against those who meant to endanger my eternal soul. I tuned out those people who spoke against Christianity – they were proof of our oppression. Like Daniel Dennett said, "in groups" are more cohesive when they protect themselves from outsiders. And the tactics groups use to insulate themselves can become very cultish.

Even the most progressive, least aggressive Church uses cult-like tactics on its membership. They discourage members to stay away from or disregard people who might "lead you astray".

I'm not sure what you could have done to keep your student in Biology. You may have tried to accommodate him further - but that's not what a good teacher does. Maybe you could have pointed out that Jonathan Wells believes in an old universe based on "punctuated creationism". (Where God created Merychippus as a wholly new, but slightly different creature from Mesohippus, and then allowed Mesohippus to die out.)

That might have allowed your student to hang his learning on a framework that approximated biological evolution - but it would probably have crippled him as a potential scientist.

You are also contending with a support group that allows him to reaffirm his beliefs. Earnest efforts to educate would be reinterpreted as “haranguing”, and directly pointing out flaws in his beliefs would be seen as attacking. You would reinforce his belief that Christians are oppressed and would insulate him further.

I think it is better to raise questions that make a religious person ruminate about belief, and then step away and wait to see what happens. I guess this is called "planting a seed of doubt". It is what worked on me - the questions piled up too high to be ignored.

I think that you are better off in presenting the facts and then letting the student to come to terms with his beliefs. He had 3 choices - faith alone, faith and science, and science alone. Two of those choices would have allowed him to stay in school.
Comment by Madhusudan Katti on July 21, 2009 at 7:16pm
Thanks, David. I went as far as I could, but the gulf was apparently still too wide... oh well!



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