Teaching Evolution as a Sensitive Issue

@art and @nlents and @jordan and @cwhenderson what is your thoughts on this?

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My old evolution professor, Charlie Thompson, had a simple way to deal with creationist students. He just told them they had to learn what scientists think and be able to explain it on tests. They didn’t have to believe it. Seemed to work.

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I often take 5-10 minutes to explain my own personal views on subject material that may ruffle the feathers of particularly conservative students. I also explain that if a student is committed to a young earth creationist view, that only knowledge of the material will be assessed, and not their beliefs (much as John has mentioned). I typically add that those students should understand the evidence for evolution so they are informed should they try to argue against it. I had a student several years ago that approached me (quite respectfully) after class to discuss evidence of human evolution. He had sadly been informed that “Piltdown Man” was the only piece of evidence in the fossil record that supported human evolution.

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I think it is critical to get students out of the fear driven fight-or-flight response. No progress is possible in high aggression environments.

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Did he also need to explain that what creationists say that scientists think is not what scientists actually think?

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He didn’t do it, and it appeared not to be a problem. I would suppose that if you just explain what scientists really think, the students could compare that with what creationists say on their own time.

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I think I strike the same balance that y’all describe. I do a brief disclaimer at the beginning that the course is about science and will stay within those bounds, i.e., natural and measurable phenomena only. I won’t probe private beliefs about religion nor discuss my own, and they are free to consider this a course on “the mainstream scientific consensus on knowledge, approaches, and interpretation of evidence,” which they may disagree with, but that’s how they’ll be assessed. In 15 years of teaching evolution, I haven’t had any pushback that I’m aware of.

For a years, I was also doing pre- and post-surveys and I did see that the needle moved a little bit, particularly when you put the actual evidence in their hands. Some of my strongest students have later told me that they were Christians and that while their resistance had been weakened, they just couldn’t accept what we learned because it threatened their faith. I always point them to essays by Francis Collins and so forth and then leave it at that. I’ve always wondered where they eventually landed.

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