Survey indicates public confusion about science teaching

By staff writers
October 29, 2009

A new global opinion survey shows that the British public continue to be confused about how evolutionary science should be taught in school classrooms and whether opposing non-scientific views should be included.

An Ipsos Mori survey released recently questioned 11,768 adults from 10 countries on how the theory of evolution should be taught in school science lessons.

About 54 per cent of the 973 people polled in Britain agreed with the view: “Evolutionary theories should be taught in science lessons in schools together with other possible perspectives, such as intelligent design and creationism.”

Surprisingly, this percentage was higher than in the US – a comparative bastion of religious fundamentalism – and Egypt, where only a third as many people dissented from the scientific consensus.

In the US, of 991 adults responding to the survey, organised by the British Council, 51 per cent agreed that evolution should be on the curriculum alongside other beliefs, like so-called Intelligent Design (ID).

Across the 10 countries as a whole, 43 per cent agreed with this statement.

Science educators and commentators in Britain are surprised by the figures. Some suggest that the wording may have confused some people, with ‘intelligent design' assumed to be either a scientific concept or something compatible with standard science, which it is not.

Likewise, many people do not seem to know what ‘creationism’ means: the belief that the origins of the world lie in an immediate divine fiat, probably within the last few thousand years – rather than a complex process over billions of years, as the scientific evidence indicates.

Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ (the idea that an extra-terrestrial force must be responsible for features of the world ‘too complex’ too have evolved) in fact derive from concerns raised by ways of reading religious texts, especially the Genesis stories in the Bible, which mainline churches and theologians reject as mistaken.

In response to public, educational and scientific concern, the UK government has rejected creationism and ID as non-scientific notions that do not meet the requirements of the national curriculum, but has said that young people can discuss creationism critically as part of other classes educating people about religion and beliefs.

Christine Blower, acting General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, commented: “It would be wholly wrong to include creationism in the science curriculum. An overwhelming body of evidence, not assertion, supports the concept of evolution and therefore evolution must form the basis of the science curriculum.”

Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said: “Creationism is not a credible scientific or theological concept, but a movement originating within religious fundamentalism which both misreads ancient texts and opposes the findings of modern scientific investigation. It is non-evidential, and as such is no more due a place in a school science lesson than alchemy or astrology."

He added: "It is important to understand why non-scientific ideologies like this arise and how they are politically propagated, but where that is done is a different issue. Much greater general public education is certainly needed on science and on the relationship between science and different kinds of belief systems – not least within faith communities.”

Fern Elsdon-Baker, who heads the British Council's ‘Darwin Now’ programme, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birthday this year, said the latest opinion poll raised concerns about how effectively evolutionary science was communicated both inside and outside the classroom.

She commented: “Overall these results may reflect the need for a more sophisticated approach to teaching and communicating how science works as a process.”

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