Back To School: Your Letter to you Child's Life Science Teacher

You have to tell your child's life science teacher (or, any science teacher for that matter) that your family does not support creationism, does not want to see anyone "teaching the controversy" and that you know that "Intelligent Design" is a form of creationism. I promise you, the creationist parents of your child's peers, and some of the creationist kids in the classroom, are not keeping their mouths shut. Why should you?

So, pursuant to this, I have composed a template for you to use as an email or letter to send to your child or ward's life science teacher:

Dear [Fill In the Blank],

My child/ward [Fill In the Blank] is in your class, [Fill In the Blank], and s/he and I are both very excited about the prospect of learning a great deal of new things about the natural world, as well as how to approach problems scientifically. Whenever you are looking for parent volunteers for help in your class, or seek spare or recycled materials that we may have at home, we will be the first to volunteer, so don't hesitate to contact me ([Fill in best way to contact]).

I am very much aware, as I'm sure you are as well, that teaching science can be controversial, and that there are people and organizations, and even some of your students and some of their parents, and perhaps even some of your colleagues on the faculty, who would prefer you to either teach creationism or, at least, give creationism (or, as it is sometimes called, "Intelligent Design") some sort of "equal time." However, I'm sure you are also aware that the Federal Courts have decided quite firmly that "Intelligent Design" and "Teaching the Controversy" are nothing other than novel forms of the same old creationism, and that it is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution to do so. I and my entire family are fully in agreement that no form of creationism or anything like creationism should ever be taught in a science class in a public school.

It is not uncommon for a teacher to hear from creationists that they don't like evolution, or Darwin, or that they want their religious beliefs to shape your curriculum. Those individuals, be they parents or students or someone else, are wrong, and they have no legal, ethical, or moral basis to make such an argument. Nonetheless, they can cause trouble, and that seems to be their intent on occasion. I want you to know that I am a member of the National Center for Science Education as well as our local equivalent, [Fill in the blank with name of state or local group], and if you ever have any pressure from any source to hold back on teaching excellent science, including and especially evolution, you can count on me and those organizations to lend you support in a thoughtful and professional manner.

Also, I should say this: I'm sure that you are not a creationist and that you yourself would never feel moved to introduce creationism into your classroom in any form. But, it is only fair to indicate that my son/daughter, who is taking your class fully understands the dog-whistle clues that creationists often use, and has an excellent understanding of the nature of this "debate" and will thus be able to identify any such antics in any or all of his/her classes.

Finally, I would like to recommend the following resources for you.

Membership in The National Center for Science Education provides useful publications and a periodical. (Click here to join.)

Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction, by Eugenie Scott.

The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, which is about the effects of the Dover Trial on the people and school.

Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Forrest.

Also, you should read Greg Laden's Blog.

In fact, I've gone ahead and purchased one of these items for you [Fill in the blank indicating NCSE membership or book].


[Fill in the blank]

More like this

Excerpts from:

In 1999 Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, said on CNN: "I think we should teach a lot about evolution. In fact, I think we should teach more than the evolutionary science teachers want the students to know. The problem is what we're getting is a philosophy that's claimed to be scientific fact, a lot of distortion in the textbooks, and all the difficult problems left out, because they don't want people to ask tough questions."


I wonder how many students in schools, colleges and universities would say they have the academic freedom to critique evolution in their science classes? There should be school district and state polls of high-school and college/university students studying evolution, asking two questions:

In this class:
a) Is evolution taught as fact, theory, or both fact and theory?
b) Do you have the academic freedom to critique evolution?
[Students should answer anonymously.] The same questions should be asked of their instructors.


The following suggested Origins of Life policy is a realistic, practical and legal way for local and state school boards to achieve a win-win with regard to evolution teaching. Even the ACLU, the NCSE, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State should find the policy acceptable:

"As no theory in science is immune from critical examination and evaluation, and recognizing that evolutionary theory is the only approved theory of origins that can be taught in the [school district/state] science curriculum: whenever evolutionary theory is taught, students and teachers are encouraged to discuss the scientific information that supports and questions evolution and its underlying assumptions, in order to promote the development of critical thinking skills. This discussion would include only the scientific evidence/information for and against evolutionary theory, as it seeks to explain the origin of the universe and the diversity of life on our planet."

Never discussing scientific information that questions evolution is to teach evolution as dogma.

Luckily, I send my children to a Catholic school, so I don't have to worry about creationism polluting the science classes as you parents of public-school-educated children have to.

Ironic, really.

By Vince whirlwind (not verified) on 06 Sep 2011 #permalink

Anybody has the right to critique evolution. However, to offer an honest critique, they need to learn the fundamentals not only of evolutionary biology. You go to school to learn those fundamentals.

It is a fact that evolution occurs. We can observe it in action in the natural world and replicate it in the laboratory. Evolutionary theory seeks to explain how evolution works, and as is the case with any scientific theory, is held to be provisional, and subject to revision or rejection if that is what the evidence demands. It provides the only scientific explanation for much of the science of biology. As one famous biologist, who was also a devout Christian put it "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" (Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1973, American Biology Teacher, volume 35, pages 125-129). Scientific theories set constraints on possible outcomes - i.e. there have to be potential observations or measurements which cannot be explained by the theory. That's what makes them testable.

ID has no value as science, because it sets no constraints. Their "intelligent designer" is, of course, simply a euphemism. What they mean is "God". The explanation that "God did it" sets no constraints. It could explain anything. The supposed evidence in favour of ID are no more than rather dishonest attempts to falsify evolution in small incremental stages. Even if successful - and they most certainly are not - a falsification of evolutionary theory would add not one iota of support to any alternative "explanation".

However, that is not the main reason for opposing the teaching of ID in science classes. The claims of ID for scientific legitimacy have been tested in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. What the trial showed so clearly is not only that ID has no value as science, but that it is promoted dishonestly. The defendants, representing the creationist element which wanted to teach ID, lied under oath. Michael Behe, one of the leading lights of the ID movement conceded under oath that he felt able to dismiss as "unconvincing" dozens of scientific papers without even bothering to read them. ID is a movement founded on the falsehood that it has value as a scientific theory, promoted under the falsehood that it is not an issue of religious belief, and is being pushed into science education not by scientists, but by those with vested political and religious interests.

I don't think we should teach our children outright falsehoods as science. That seems a very reasonable position to me. Evidently the creationists who dissemble behind the facade of ID think differently.

David, your note boils down to the old bit of stupidity "teach the controversy" and your fake concern deserves to be shit-canned. If you want to remain ignorant of modern science, and (I assume) will keep your children ignorant as well, that's your business (and a shame about the kids), but you don't have the right to force your stupid ideas into the classroom and hinder the education of my children, or the children of anyone else.

What, exactly, do you think are the "weaknesses" of evolution? I don't expect a reasonable answer; if we're lucky there won't be a response at all.

David, as many people have said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs." Or to put it differently, when you critique an established theory with a myriad of well-tested predictions that permeate many different fields (in the case of evolution, they might include genetics, geology, ecology, pharmacology, etc.), you need to present a very extensive set of contrary evidence, supported by some sort of descriptive theory that fits those contrary facts and does not do undue violence to all of the related fields which depend on that theory.

So for instance, it does no good to argue that evolution is a conspiracy perpetuated by a vast cabal of otherwise unrelated public- and private sector scientists who uniformly suppress dissent without powerful evidence both of the alternative theory and the existence of the conspiracy. In general, people who make these kinds of arguments are called "cranks."

And I, for one, do not want my children to be educated by cranks, or lectured in scientific crankery that was ghost-written by cranks, or indirectly taught that it appropriate for people who have not developed evidence supporting a well-thought-out alternative theory to criticize a scientific whose evidentiary and logical basis they have not taken the time to understand.

By Jim Gitzlaff (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

I agree and disagree, ID is a large pile of bollocks, obviously, but one of the things that put me off science a little at school was that the way it is taught makes it feel like everything has already been discovered and understood and the research that is going on is at such a complicated level that you could never understand.

While this is pretty much true, we pretty much understand the Kreb cycle (what I remember learning at school) and I don't envy someone without a scientific background trying to understand this weeks Nature paper, there is so much more we need to learn and maybe a way to do this is teach children where the actual gaps in our knowledge are and possibly inspire them to do something about it.

By HardLight (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

Discussing the socio-political-legal controversies surrounding evolutionary science, if held at the high school level, belongs in a 'science in society' or 'philosophy of science' class, not biology class.

I wonder how many students in schools, colleges and universities would say they have the academic freedom to critique evolution in their science classes?

Probably as many as the students who have academic freedom to critique round-earthism in their geography classes.

@David: Too late. My children already don't believe in ID or Creationism, and they're far too interested in actual details about plants and animals to buy your outdated nonsense. You'll have to do better.

It sounds like great idea to critique ideas in science, but when does this actually happen? And why would we expect this to happen in high school science?

For example, is there a movement to get students to critique the periodic table while learning the basics of chemistry? (After all, who has seen a valence? It's all inference --- shouldn't students learn that first??)

The ability to understand and thus to critique complex ideas before getting an understanding of the subject is setting people up for learning by anecdotes and sound bites rather than by the acquisition of basic knowledge.

People who say "teach the controversy" talk as if all other types of science were taught in this fashion, and evolution is somehow the exception. They aren't, and there's a good reason for that.

By Christine Janis (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

Sorry to inform you Greg, but public education is a joke! By the time they water down the curriculum enough for today's average student, it doesn't matter what is being taught...nothing is being learned! Ultimately the schools will have to reduce the lessons down to a series of much for your real science.

Back in the day (about a million years ago) in an Italian Middle School, our religion teacher told us that it serves no purpose to ask religion "how the world was created" (as it is the result
of natural processes-including EVOLUTION) as much as it doesn't to ask science "who" created it (God in her opinion): they are two different domains that don't intermix...And God would be ok
with it!
Forward to the present, I am a life science teacher today and I would never think evolution isn't real; the God part "of it" is nobody's business-least the schools where I might teach! That's why I leave my religious beliefs at home...Where they belong (whatever those may be)!

Steve, I'd love to know what your connection with the education system is. That's a mighty strong opinion with a fair amount of detail. Are you a teacher? Student? Administrator? Parent of kids in school?

I'm a trainer of teachers, husband of a teacher, parent of a kid in school and education related activist. I don't exactly have a shining stellar opinion of the education system, but I don't see it as a joke either. So, I'd like to know what your opinion is based on.

Quite frankly, I don't think Steve's opinion is based on anything; it's just something he heard as a kid and learned to parrot without any thought simply because it made him feel good. I'll be VERY surprised if he musters up enough energy to even read our comments, let alone cobble up a response.

The main problem with my local public school is a lack of discipline - children get away with telling the teachers to ****-off if the teachers try to tell them what to do or not do (smoking on school grounds, plaing music in class), and there is effectively zero discipline. The result is that even those children who would be condusive to do some actual learning are distracted from doing so.

As a result, enrolments have dwindled, children from very low socio-economic backgrounds are concentrated there, the academic performance at the school has plummeted, so enrolments dwindle further, and it will shortly follow the great many other of our town's public schools in shutting its doors.

I seem to recall that last year, our local police recorded attending over 500 incidents at public schools. I'd be surprised if the catholic schools recorded a single incident, unless you count the persistent weekend-break-ins and arsons.

Meanwhile, the non-public school system here now enrols almost 45% of the town's children. The Catholic system is the major provider in this space.
Perversely, however, if you send your disabled child to a non-public school, the government funding for that child is only a fraction of what it would be if the child were in a public school.

So if you are a parent of a child with learning difficulties, you have the choice of sending it to a school where it will be surrounded by retarded delinquents, or you send it to a catholic school (the non-catholic non-public schools avoid charity cases like the plague) where the teachers will struggle to provide the support it needs.

So, I don't know where Steve comes from, but in my neck of the woods public schooling is a vicious cycle of failing anti-educational knee-jerk politically-correct policy-making. Which is to say - it's a joke.

By Vince whirlwind (not verified) on 07 Sep 2011 #permalink

Great article. 150 years after Darwin's death, the Theory of Evolution has been studied and revised in facinating and important ways. Sadly, scientists have been intimidated out of spreading this information around because of politics and extreme religous fanatics. It's a shame, because the new understanding of Darwin's theory is vital to understanding how life on Earth works.

Look up Lynn Margulis' contribution to the Gaia Hypothesis for more (no, it's not a new age idea; Gaia simply states that our planet may be self-sustaining and that biota react and change to environmental conditons and vice versa for reasons unrelated to "survival of the fittest"). It has also been shown that some mutations, even ones that do not benefit species, can remain in the gene population without dying out from natural selection.

So which one of these ideas proves Intelligent Design? None, of course. Graviational Theory is also being revised. Does this mean that the Creationsists will propose that flying unicorns cause gravity and that Einstein was wrong? Probably.

the public schools here (Portage MI) are also very good. I have no problems with the science education (or education in any discipline) the schools offer.
I do know, on the other hand, that the local charter schools are a mix: several are not very good, some are reasonable, a few are (apparently) quite good. Not surprisingly, the quite good ones are packed. There are some private schools - they are quite picky about who they take. From a poor family? Have physical or other problems? Good luck getting in.
One telling thing: because of some state law, whenever Portage schools has certain professional development opportunities for public school teachers, it must hold x seats for teachers from charter and private schools who want to attend. uniformly (not almost, uniformly) the teachers from those other schools never attend.
Kalamazoo public schools are a mixed bag, but they are on an upturn and are not nearly as bad as they were ten years ago.
So, the universal (as I took Steve's comment) statement that all public education sucks is, in my opinion, not worth a sack of wet fertilizer.

I actually came from a school system that didn't do much on either one. And as it did then, Arizona's public school system still ranks in the bottom 10 of all States. One organization ranked Arizona 44th worst in my grad year, and 3 years later they were number 50. I am inclined to agree, none of the curriculum was ever taught, more-so recited and graded out of the Teacher's Edition. I can only hope that in the schools where evolution is taught, that this is not the case. And a difference not often considered in the debate on what should be taught in biology class on the origins of life, is that whatever they choose should be subject to the same scrutiny as any other topic in any class. There are aspects of American history that are too ambiguous about their accuracy and those that the experts, defined here as those who are educated in and hold degrees in history, can not agree on to a point where it would be an accepted fact, thus it is not taught in schools. As believers in both creationism and intelligent design have considerable disagreements in specific facets of the topic and with much conflict on how literally the one source of the topic should be taken, it should not be ever taught in schools until there is a considerable consensus on what it even is. And should this ever happen, that all the creationists agree on, say, 90% of their story, then they can argue for it to be taught in schools. As for teaching the controversy, no student could possibly benefit from being told it might be this or it might be that. And my quick opinion on the rest, the one time creationism should be taught in a science class is in a context similar too "Ok students, people used to think humans and animals were just created, but now we know that...."

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