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Eugenie Scott in Cell

A few weeks ago Cell published a commentary by Paul Nurse, president of Rockefeller University, on US biomedical research under siege from people with political motivations. Nurse’s intentions were noble, but his language was sloppy. The issue of Cell published today has a commentary by Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. Scott’s article provides an excellent review of American policy, education, and the anti-evolution movement — if you’re lucky enough to have access to Cell, go read the entire thing. If you don’t have access, I have a few quotes and comments after the jump…

Scott does an excellent job of putting the anti-evolution movement in an historical context. She writes:

“The US constitution codifies the separation of church and state partly because the founding fathers knew the bloody history of religious warfare that had scarred so much of Europe. Religious history in the US is marked by a strong current of religious dissidence, having been colonized originally by members of sects with quite specific–and different–ideas about salvation…

“The decentralization of religion arises partly from the dissident tradition and partly from our frontier tradition. For much of early American history, there were no central governing bodies, and, if a frontier settlement desired police stations, fire houses, schools, or other community services, they had to devise ways of providing them; outside help from territorial or state governments was generally unavailable or ineffective, and the federal government was too weak to extend services to frontier communities…

“In the United States, education is decentralized to a degree not seen in any other developed nation. This may reflect America’s frontier history, in which local control of education was a necessity that became enshrined as an ideal. Americans are fiercely protective and defensive of local control of education, even when it results in great inequities of educational opportunity.”

The American educational system developed out of necessity, not design. Ideally, we would have experts in their field producing the educational standards in each discipline. But, because standards are determined on a district by district basis, and we cannot have experts in each district, some districts construct curricula that are far from adequate. The National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards laid out guidelines for science education in 1996, but individual states still had the option to incorporate those standards into their state wide standards. And even if a state chose to incorporate those standards, individual districts could chose which aspects of the standards they would like to include. The only power the states could wield over districts was their ability to withdraw funding to districts that did not comply with the standards.

One common complaint about the media’s treatment of the anti-evolution movement is the way it is presented in a “he said, she said” manner. Scott correctly points to the American tradition of free speech as a major reason for giving creationism too much credit:

“Another important reason that has enabled antievolutionism to take root is that America has a tradition of free speech, fairness, and letting everyone have their say. This admirable cultural quality is a great advantage when making political and social decisions about which opinion should be considered. It is, however, irrelevant in science. Whether the earth goes around the sun or the sun goes around the earth is not a matter of opinion. Whether living things descended with modification from common ancestors or were specially created at one time is not a matter of opinion, though some Americans would like to think so.”

Scott also describes America’s fundamentalist Christian tradition and lists it as a major reason for the anti-evolution movement’s traction in the US. This is not strictly an American problem, but Scott believes that America has a far larger creationist problem than other nations. A recent case of anti-evolutionism in Serbia and the British independent schools that receive government funding are given as examples of state funded anti-evolution education, but Scott believes that these are exceptions rather than the norm in these nations. She argues that the US creationist movement is far more deeply entrenched in American culture than in any other society.