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If Education Secretary Nominee Betsy DeVos Is Questioned on Evolution, Here's What She Should Say

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We should expect confirmation hearings for Donald Trump's Cabinet appointments to include scaremongering about science education. This week's fake news about a "petition" to VP-elect Mike Pence, demanding a moratorium on instruction about evolution, gives a hint of what may be to come. Atheist activists jumped on the petition as evidence of what the semi-mythic "Christian Right" has in store for the next four years. The petition's creator, though, characterized it as "tongue-in-cheek."

While Pence along with Trump's HUD pick, Ben Carson, have commented in the past on questions of evolutionary origins and intelligent design, the focus is likely to be on Mr. Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. In The New Yorker, outspoken atheist cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has already sounded the alarm ("Donald Trump's War on Science").

As evidence against Mrs. DeVos, he cites her church membership and college majors (business administration and political science, rather than education). Krauss admits she has no record of saying anything at all about evolution, but her husband, Dick DeVos, in a run for governor of Michigan, had this to say:

I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design -- that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory -- that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less.

The structure of the sentence by itself tells you that it was a casual remark. Granting Mr. DeVos the benefit of the doubt, it wouldn't be the first time that a political aspirant invoked ID in such a context without having researched what ID means or what its advocates say. Notably, Discovery Institute, the major force in supporting research on intelligent design, strongly opposes requiring ID in public schools, and always has opposed it. (See our Science Education Policy.)

Instead, we call for permitting teachers to challenge students with an approach to evolution that sharpens their critical skills, using mainstream scientific sources to examine the strengths and weaknesses of standard neo-Darwinian theory. Two states (Tennessee and Louisiana) and multiple school districts have adopted this policy of academic freedom, teaching about legitimate disagreements among mainstream scientists.

But when did a little thing like accuracy trouble a Darwin activist equipped with a media bullhorn? Krauss inveighs:

There is nothing respectable about the idea of "teaching the controversy," as intelligent-design advocates describe it. We don't teach modern astronomy by suggesting to students that they feel free to decide for themselves whether the sun orbits Earth or vice versa; instead, we teach them how scientists discovered the realities of our solar system, despite considerable pressure to renounce their own discoveries.

The day that Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, senior biologists and other scientists were gathering at London's venerable Royal Society, where Isaac Newton once presided, for a conference to discuss controversies rocking the study of evolution. Those include what the first speaker at the event, Austrian evolutionary biologist Gerd Müller, called the major "explanatory deficits" of textbook Darwinian theory. A "teach the controversy" approach would invite students to weigh those deficits. By the way, it might surprise Dr. Krauss to hear that approximately 10 percent of the scholars gathered for the three-day meeting were, in fact, intelligent-design advocates or sympathizers. (We know who they were and counted them.)

To compare these sophisticated, enlightening disagreements to whether "the sun orbits Earth or vice versa," you would have to be either ignorant or dishonest. Since Krauss participated in a debate this year with ID advocate Stephen Meyer, author of Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell, he can't be utterly ignorant of what design theorists say.

Krauss goes on to demand that Mrs. DeVos be interrogated on her beliefs regarding ID:

During her confirmation hearings, DeVos should be asked whether she thinks it's appropriate to teach intelligent design alongside evolution in biology classes, or whether young-Earth creationism should be presented alongside the reality of a 4.5-billion-year-old solar system in physics class. An answer in the affirmative to either question should disqualify her as the highest federal government official overseeing public education in this country.

By all means, lawmakers should ask her any relevant questions they care to, although the point about Young Earth Creationism would be mere badgering, intended to smear her. If she's queried on ID, though, what should she say?

First of all, it isn't the role of the Secretary of Education to dictate science education policy to states or localities. Ramesh Ponnuru at National Review Online makes this point, "I hope DeVos will muster the patience to explain that the Department of Education does not (and should not) determine schools' science curricula. It's because it does not that Krauss is unable to explain how DeVos could 'drive our educational system off a scientific cliff.'" True, as far it goes. However, one hopes for an Education Secretary with some vision to impart, beyond merely setting policies.

Therefore, second, Mrs. DeVos could note the benefits of teaching students to think and write critically about a complex, fascinating scientific issue like evolution. Again, this is not about intelligent design, much less about Biblical literalist creationism. The unsolved problems of Darwinian theory include those highlighted by Gerd Müller: among them, how to explain phenotypic complexity, phenotypic novelty, and dramatic discontinuities in the fossil record.

It isn't just ID proponents who ask about these issues. Nor do you have to take our word for it on the benefits. As the world's most distinguished science journal, Nature, has observed, "[S]tudents gain a much deeper understanding of science when they actively grapple with questions than when they passively listen to answers."

Finally, Mrs. DeVos could note that academic freedom laws are called that because they are meant to ensure freedom for instructors to engage in creative pedagogy rather than merely regurgitating the same evolutionary talking points year after year. The aim is to protect excellent teachers from career retaliation, a threat always in the air when evolution is challenged.

Earlier this year, University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer won plaudits for a Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Free Speech Is the Basis of a True Education." Among other welcome observations, he decried "efforts to suppress discussion of Charles Darwin's work." While he may have been thinking of the historical past, suppressing discussion is always a bad idea, and allowing open debate is always "the basis of a true education."

Mrs. DeVos could cite Dr. Zimmer. Indeed, she could quote Lawrence Krauss himself in the same New Yorker article:

[S]tudents should be encouraged to understand that evolution is not some principle laid down on high by a conclave of scientists; they should explore the various empirical tests to which it has been subjected for more than a hundred and fifty years.

Right! And since it's not "some principle laid down on high," it should be fair game for criticism. Unfortunately textbook Darwinism has failed some conspicuous "empirical tests," as scientists increasingly acknowledge, at least in their professional conclaves when they think the public isn't listening. Mrs. DeVos could and should advocate that this fact not be withheld from young people.

Photo: Betsy DeVos, by Keith A. Almli [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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