You have to admit that this is pretty cheeky: In the latest issue of Science magazine, Australian National University researcher Nicholas Matzke traces the evolution of anti-evolution efforts using the same methods he usually uses to track the shared origins of different species. But Matzke's work is more than just ironic. With his analysis, he hopes to help the pro-science crowd understand where these arguments come from — and hopefully, by extension, how to fight them off.
Phylogenetic analysis is a huge part of understanding evolution. These analyses are how we get the family trees that show us how different species descended from a common ancestor. Scientists use the DNA and physical traits of different living (and extinct!) things to figure out where they intersect, spinning the web that connects everything on the planet back to our single-celled ancestors.
For his latest study, Matzke swapped out genomes and morphological traits with text from legislative proposals designed to keep evolution out of schools and let creationism in. While creationism has taken on many pseudoscientific overtones to sneak its way into public schools, the school of thought is purely religious in motivation. The efforts to push creationism as a valid alternative to evolutionary biology can be traced back almost a century, when teaching evolution was banned, but Matzke analyzed only the 65 bills proposed in the past decade.
Many of these bills are basically copied from one state to another, making it easy to analyze the slow shifts in language and tactics.
"They are not terribly intelligently designed," he said in a statement.
Matzke already knew that the anti-science lobby had shifted from trying to keep evolution out of schools (which was deemed unconstitutional in 1968) to trying to give creationism an equal chance in the classroom instead. Around 2006, just after this, too, was deemed unconstitutional, the tactics evolved yet again.
Now, the teaching of evolution is increasingly swept into a larger anti-science fight — one that includes an argument against climate change.
"The strategy of encouraging 'critical analysis' of not just evolution and origin-of-life studies, but also of human cloning and global warming was essentially invented in a 2006 school board policy passed in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana. This combination proved popular, and legislative bills using this tactic have since been proposed in many states, and were passed in Louisiana and Tennessee," Matzke explained in a statement.
These bills "encourage critical analysis" of several topics in science, opening the floodgates for science teachers to share pseudoscientific views. The stealth strategy is sneakier and far more insidious. While the National Science Teachers Association strongly supports the teaching of evolution (and only evolution), the organization warns that teachers in some parts of the country may be pressured to present opposing, pseudoscientific views, as well. As recently as 2011, a study found that more than 70 percent of high school biology teachers avoided taking a hard stance on evolution in the classroom, mostly to avoid potential conflicts. And a troubling 13 percent of those teachers actively pushed creationism as a possible truth.
This shouldn't surprise us: Although 98 percent of scientists connected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science say they believe that humans evolved over time, only 66 percent of Americans surveyed by Pew believe that science has reached a consensus on the issue. Nearly a third of Americans reject evolution entirely, and around half of those who accept it as good science still believe that a higher power played a part in the process. To each their own, of course, but believing that evolution had just a touch of intelligent guidance is a pretty slippery slope toward teaching your students that "creation science" might be worth checking out.
And if Matzke's analysis is correct, we should be wary of the evolution of sneaky, anti-science rhetoric.