Teacher recommends lying to to get Christians and Muslim students to accept evolution

Reader Diane G. called my attention to a new (and badly misguided) article in The Humanist, the publication of the American Humanist Society. Written by Susan Corbett, who has taught science all over the world, it’s called “How to teach evolution to Christians and Muslims.” Sadly, Corbett’s way of teaching evolution is not only an affront to real science, but an example of how trying to coddle religious faith winds up misinforming people about important scientific issues.

Corbett recounts how she faced possible resistance when wanting to teach evolution to Christian and Muslim students in Nigeria. So she consulted a Muslim colleague, who suggested the first strategy below—one often used in Islamic countries. The second strategy is simply confusing, and liable to mis-educate students.

Here are Corbett’s two suggestions about how to teach evolution—not just to her students, or to religious students, but to all students. Quotes from her piece are indented:

1. Tell them that humans weren’t subject to evolution. 

How I was ever going to teach this subject to sixteen-year-old students who had such strong beliefs and trust in the truth of their respective religions? How could I help them achieve academic success on their “high stakes examination” and yet be sympathetic and understanding toward their religious beliefs? After talking with several leaders within both faith traditions, I found a way around the problem that suited everyone.

First, an interesting fact that I came across in Islamic teachings which was also generally acceptable to the Christian community was that Muslims are (for lack of better terms) “allowed” to believe in an evolutionary explanation for life on Earth, with the exception of humans. As long as the focus was on non-human species, there would be little-to-no objection from the Christian or Muslim communities within the school. Fortunately, the British-based examination boards that create the IGCSE Biology papers are religiously literate and sensitive enough to various beliefs that questions on the paper regarding evolution tend to focus on animals other than humans.

That’s just wrong, because one of the most inspiring things about learning evolution (and too bad if it upsets the religious mindset) is the indisputable fact that it tells us how we’re related to all other species, living or extinct. Saying that we weren’t subject to the same materialistic processes as other species also makes our complexity and achievements much less wondrous, and walls us off from the diverse, fascinating, and fruitful questions about human origins, human evolution, and evolutionary psychology.

And how nice of the “sensitive” British examination boards to leave humans out of evolution!

2. Tell them that evolution is only a theory, and by that she means “an unsubstantiated suggestion”. 

Second, the term “theory” can be defined as “an idea or set of ideas that is suggested or presented as possibly true, but that is not known or proven to be true to explain certain facts or events.” After giving the students this explanation of a theory, I was then able to present Darwin’s theories to them and allow them to postulate whether they believed Darwin’s thoughts followed this definition. This allowed them to have all the relevant subject content information they might need to pass the IGCSE examination at the end of the course, regardless of their religious beliefs. Once we had established for the students that evolution—despite a lot of evidence—was still a theory, and one that did not necessarily have to include humans (their choice), then we had some very interesting lessons and discussions, even with sensitive issues like genetics and DNA evidence.

How helpful of Ms. Corbett to redefine the scientific meaning of “theory” so as not to offend the tender sensibilities of her students! But of course her definition, which equates a theory with a “hypothesis” or “guess,” is simply wrong. In science a theory is a coherent explanation that ties together a body of facts, makes sense of those facts, and is often supported by a large amount of evidence. And evolution really is known to be true in the scientific sense. It’s not a guess, not a speculation, not a hypothesis. It’s a scientific fact. In the several hundred pages of my last book, I laid out the evidence for that.

Frankly, Corbett is giving away the store in her attempt to teach her students. They’ll wind up convinced that evolution doesn’t apply to us, and that the theory of evolution is nothing more than idle speculation. And they’ll get a distorted idea of what a “theory” is along the way. I would humbly suggest to Ms. Corbett that the way to teach evolution is to tell the students the truth. Humans are part of the evolutionary process, and it is the true story of our origins.  And there are tons of evidence to support not only human evolution, but evolution in general.

And what about other students who aren’t so religious? Corbett thinks her methods are also good for them, too:

Influential humanist and education thinker, John Dewey wrote in 1897 that long-lasting education and learning occurs when the subject matter being studied has relevance to the experience of the learner. Using 2010 Humanist of the Year Bill Nye’s videos to help teach evolution, we successfully balanced between being sensitive to religious claims and scientific methodologies but were still relevant to the students’ experiences in life.

What’s stopping American biology teachers from teaching evolution in the same way?

The TRUTH, Ms. Corbett—the truth! That’s what’s stopping us. We will not to lie to students as a way of getting them to accept science.

If lying about the nature of evolution is a way to convince people that evolution is sort-of true, while avoiding injuring religious feelings, than we are truly lost.  It’s simply too bad if students become resistant to your message when you tell them the truth. Would you tell them, if they asked about mortality, that they were immortal, so as to not instill in them the fear of death? Tell the kids what scientists really think about evolution, and let the chips fall where they may.

In my view, Corbett should not be teaching science anywhere.

Diane G. tells me that some of the comments on Corbett’s piece are upsetting to those who accept evolution and  real science, but I deliberately avoided reading those comments. I’d like to keep my equanimity this afternoon!


  1. livinginabox
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    The truth should always be plain, unvarnished and uncompromised.
    Ms. Corbett is wrong.

    • Christian
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      That’s indeed a stupid idea and using such a “strategy” is going to cause more damage than not addressing evolution at all.

    • Frank
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      The muddled nature of Ms. Corbett’s thinking is clear, if only because she thought her “solution” was so clever that it was worth writing about. What I can’t understand is the editor’s decision to publish such a trite and transparently dishonest suggestion.

      • dearmore
        Posted February 4, 2015 at 4:36 am | Permalink

        The American Humanist Association (not Society) has disintegrated terribly in the 22 years since Isaac Asimov’s death. Such a thing would NEVER have been published when he was president of the organization.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 4, 2015 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

          Sad to hear that.

  2. DSG
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    TWO wrongs dont make a right,
    and two lies dont make a truth
    DONT LIE is a VERY good rule to follow.
    (AND dont call a pass play at the end of the big game when you have the best running back in the league–sorry, I have friends who live in seattle ;(

    • darrelle
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      That was frustrating to watch, and I am not even a football fan. A very “damn, I wish I could get a do-over on that,” moment.

  3. Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    That’s the absolute worst ‘teaching to the test’ thinking I’ve ever seen. Nevermind actual truth, we’re fine if you don’t learn the subject. In a nutshell that’s what’s wrong in much modern educational approach. Really, the shocker isn’t that she’s doing it; I know many high school teachers to have to go though bizarre gyrations to get students though arbitrary testing. The shocker though is that she’s publicly suggesting this as a good thing.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      My feelings exactly. She’s not just teaching them that evolution isn’t true; she’s teaching them that science itself is no more than a kind of intellectual parlor game useful only for passing science tests, with no real bearing on how the world actually works.

    • Nimesh Patel
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      When I was in high school there was a biology teacher and he was also a deacon at a church. He skipped the chapter on evolution. He said “evolution is not true. You all did not descent from an ape. God made man in his image”. He also described theory as a set of wild or unsubstantiated set of pieces of data. He was a creationist through and through.

      His actions actually motivated me to investigate this topic. I just thought “what is he trying to hide? Why not just put the facts on the table?”.

  4. Randy Schenck
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I’m told it really bothers students in history class if you require them to remember dates so from now on, just skip the dates part. Maybe just give them the century, that might work.

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      And all that inconvenient Native American and slavery in U.S. History. Just spend 50 minutes chanting “AMERICA F**K YEAH!”

      That’s really all most Americans take away from 13 years of instruction anyway.

      • Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        Native American slaughter and “relocation,” I meant to say. I’m a few pickles shy of a barrel today.

      • tubby
        Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        Isn’t that the basic gist of the Texas history books?

        • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

          That’s sure what it sounds like, but hasn’t there also been pushback from publishers and writers? It’s a depressing situation but the crackpot school boards don’t hold all the cards (just like 50 or 51 of them – and they’re all Jokers).

          • tubby
            Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            So I’ve heard as far as science textbooks are concerned. I think there’s still something of a desire for the David Barton type Christian Nation/sanitized history books, however changes in the review board make up may help keep that out of public schools as well.

            • Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

              Until the Huckabee-Jindal ticket sweeps to victory – then it’s Taliban time!

              • tubby
                Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                Hold me tight and tell me it won’t happen.

      • darrelle
        Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        I was disgusted to learn that my son had been awarded “Student of the Month” at his school. The criteria for the month was “Patriotism.”

        When I congratulated him he said “it doesn’t mean a thing dad, they just pick somebody randomly from the kids who are fairly good students. It’s not like I say the Pledge really well or anything.”

        • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          He sounds like a thoughtful, informed young man. That’s the most patriotic thing there is!

          I turned down Student of the Month when I got it in High School. I won the state math prize, starred in and directed two plays, won medals at state and local industrial arts competitions … and then got the award when I didn’t really have anything in particular going on. The principal said it wasn’t meant to be an insult, but at the same time he couldn’t honestly say it had anything to do with accomplishments. Looking back, I think I was an arrogant brat – but at least I was being honest!

          • darrelle
            Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

            Thanks, and I agree. The patriotism that disgusts me these days is that thoughtless jingoistic kind still so common in the US. That we still make an effort to program that into our kids in public primary schools is really disgusting.

            It seems to me that real patriotism worth having would come about by our kids life experiences leading to an appreciation for their society. No need to condition them to it. That’s cheating. Following from that, it seems the best way to achieve that is by doing the best we can to create, maintain and improve our society as best we can so that it actually is an admirable society. I am a patriot, just not the kind most people in the US who wave the flag to show their patriotism would appreciate.

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 3, 2015 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

              Great answer from your son!

              When my kids were in a certain elementary school, it was quite obvious that these sorts of rewards were being given to “problem” students of one sort or another, just to give them positive reinforcement when they managed not to be disruptive. Meanwhile, the well behaved children were ignored, of course. Not that they cared much, the strategy behind the process being apparent to everyone.

            • Posted February 3, 2015 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

              Patriotism has always struck me as a bizarre concept. A country is a great example of a granfalloon. I usually try to avoid founding my philosophy on a cliché, but, in fact, we are all of us on this planet in it together. If I must adopt a patria, I guess it’d be the Earth and all its inhabitants.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted February 4, 2015 at 1:33 am | Permalink

              @Diane G

              I have one of those sorts of awards from my work. For ‘best environmental suggestion of the month’. I actually scored $100 for it. The suggestion was, ‘In our fancy new office, why don’t we turn off the office lights near the windows during the day?’. I was really rather embarrassed because (a) it was so flaming obvious and (b) I was actually just being sarcastic.

              • Diane G.
                Posted February 4, 2015 at 1:56 am | Permalink

                That’s hilarious!

                But wow, $100? Worth a little embarrassment I’d say. 😀

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

          There are many funny version of the tiresome “pledge of allegiance”. I suggest he try one of those.
          I keep trying to get my very well behaved children to misbehave a little at school. But they won’t.

          • darrelle
            Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:02 pm | Permalink


            Me too. I am usually the one picking our kids up from school. A standard question I ask them is “so, who got in trouble today?” In their earlier years they were a bit perplexed and slightly offended that I would ask that. Now they just roll their eyes. My typical response to their never changing “not me” response is “huh, you should try a little harder.”

            • Randy Schenck
              Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

              I’m just trying to figure out that student of the month thing? Do you get a parking space with that?

              • darrelle
                Posted February 3, 2015 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

                No parking space, but he did get a coupon for something. Can’t remember, might have been a milkshake from a fast food joint.

  5. eric
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m okay with a test not having a question about homo sapien evolution on it. One would hope that the actual reason for doing that is more solidly pedagogical than sociopolitical. Like, say, the state or national curriculum in question typically uses some historical evolutionary example and so you use it on the test. If your reading list includes Your Inner Fish, then yeah, use Tiktaalik evolution as your exam question. If you know most of your seniors will be reading E.O. Wilson, ask about ants.

    But that second suggestion…wow, that’s bad. That sort of intentional mischaracterization should be punished. I don’t see how any teacher could see that as ethically acceptable.

    Most of all I don’t really understand why all this pandering is necessary. If you think students are going to object, spend a day or two talking about the scientific method beforehand. Point out that as an evidence-based method, it may not come up with the same answers as revelation-based methods but that here, in this class, we’re going to discuss the evidence-based theories that science accepts and uses, not others. You don’t have to crap on religion, just point out this truth. In history class you study what historical studies tell us. In math class you study what mathematical calculations tell us. In science you study what the scientific methodology tells us. Doing that doesn’t mean that scientists disregard history or math, it just means that pedagogically they’re going to limit classroom discussion to the subject. Want to discuss divine revelation? Go do that in religion class.

    • thh1859
      Posted February 4, 2015 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      “… spend a day or two talking about the scientific method beforehand. Point out that as an evidence-based method, it may not come up with the same answers as revelation-based methods but that here, in this class, we’re going to discuss the evidence-based theories that science accepts and uses, not others”

      Eric, to my mind, that’s a perfect compromise: no lying, no distortion, but at least there’s a good chance they’ll now listen and think.

  6. Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    I’m in total agreement with you. I’d say Susan shouldn’t teach ANYTHING, let alone science. I’d guess (this is not a theory) that she’s filled her head with too much multi-cultural claptrap to think clearly anymore.

    Again, just a guess – but I’ve seen the pattern in persons who say things like: “a little Muslim birdie told me, so now I think…” — which is, of course, an ecological fallacy to ascribe one’s attitude or actions towards a group on the basis of an opinion (or other attribute) of an individual (or small, especially unrepresentative group).

    One should simply report on the scientific consensus to the best of one’s ability… along with the evidence for such consensus. If one gets pushback (which one will, especially in Nigeria) one can say that they are free to “believe” anything they want, according to their tradition, but that they are expected to know what the theory of evolution is, that it applies to all life, and why it is considered to be generally accepted fact among scientists.

    And then let their cognitive dissonance flourish, if that’s what it leads to. They may change their minds ten years or more down the road — but to support general ignorance in the culture is unconscionable.

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      The dynamics in the comments section of the Humanist article seem to support my guess. Note the “white knight” who is all over the comments, repeating himself & replying to everybody. Another condescending, authoritarian who flaunts his credentials and supposed experience, and will not directly engage with the arguments presented.

      Instead of seriously engaging dissent with integrity as the proper course of action, he just keeps pointing to ill-conceived guidelines that support a “little people”, misguided multiculturalism. Screw him and his title.

    • Posted February 4, 2015 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I dunno what it is like now or there, but here for a while at least there was a *tremendous* amount of bad relativism being inculcated in schools of education. Could be from that.

      I am, like many here, also appalled that a humanist society would publish such a thing (at least without severe rebuttal). I am even more appalled that a teacher would try these things out, but given what I said earlier it alas doesn’t surprise me too much.

  7. GBJames
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    How can Ms. Corbett think she is teaching science if she is lying? Is she insane?

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps she fancies herself the Mary Poppins of science educators. Helping the medicine go down with a spoonful of bullsh**t. I wish I had time to read the article; maybe I’d feel less anger if I understood WTF she is thinking (but then, I might feel worse!).

      I don’t doubt grade school teachers of all subjects, not just science, need to be prepared and trained to deal with all manner of irrationality and misinformed-ness among students – which qualities are all but exclusively religious in nature.

      If leaving out areas of “controversy” is a common technique, I weep both for the still-misinformed students as well as the teachers and curricula developers who are put in the absurd position of having to pussyfoot around long-established facts.

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Given the repeated reference to IGCSE I guess maybe her main concern is to get students to do well on exams. To protect religion-induced false beliefs from suffering an academic disadvantage.

    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Miss. Corbett shouldn’t be teaching evolution at all anywhere! To exempt humans from the equation of evolution is like removing the ‘sum’ after many additions, subtractions, divitions etc. Evolution is studied mostly in relation to Humans only–our relations to other living creatures. It’s also ridiculous to call evolution ‘a theory’ equating it with ‘a hypothesis’! Scientists uninimously must agree to address evolution as ‘a fact’! The fact of evolution is as strong as the shape of Earth is spherical, not flat. Instead of clarifying the scientific definition of ‘ theory’ it’s better to address it as ‘the fact’ PERIOD!

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      I disagree – my style would be to use the opportunity to try to get across the notion that facts and theories are not mutually exclusive terrain – but that facts inform theories. This cannot be stressed enough, IMHO.

      To merely stamp one’s feet saying it is a FACT, FACT, FACT – without addressing what a theory is leaves the teacher in the position of appearing to the students as all the negative stereotypes many religious people hold so dear: namely, that the teacher takes evolution “on faith”, is not listening to what students think are valid concerns, is a “fundamentalist, etc., etc., etc. Your approach would appear to me to play into such misconceptions.

  9. Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    So I had to turn off my local public radio station a few minutes ago when the pledge driver started talking up the Deepak Chopra “premium” – full-throated crowing about the way he uses “science” to something or other *click*

    And then I come home to this.

    Why do these accommodationists insist on perturbing my beautiful mind! Gah!

  10. Roan Ridgeway
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    It is outrageous that anyone would resort to lying in order to teach facts. Lying is an indoctrination tactic that some, not all, theists use and has no place in a science classroom.

    I could have taught evolution to those same students without compromising principles of honesty.

  11. Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    This type of thing really irks me. As others have said above, it’s a horrible example of “teaching to the test.” Forget reality, what’s important is that we teach students the proper bit of text to regurgitate. Ironically, it has quite a similar feel to that of a typical Bible study.

    The weaselly redefining of “theory” using the nonscientific connotation is a damnable offence for a teacher of science. Absolutely inexcusable, tantamount to saying that the scientific method is just a means of ad hoc explanation of observable phenomena.

    I think if there was only one phrase I could expunge from this entire discourse, it would have to be the “only a theory” trope.

  12. Nimesh Patel
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Why does religion want to continually poke it’s head into the realm of science? If that is going to be the case, then science and other subject matters should poke their heads into the realm of religion. Oh, let’s see how powerful God (Jesus, Krishna, Allah, Buddha, etc.) is by doing a controlled experiment on the effectiveness of prayer shall we? How about the field of archeology expose the fact that the historicity of the Old Testament is a lie (http://www.truthbeknown.com/biblemyth.htm). Also while we are at it, why do religious institutions need to be tax exempt. Why hasn’t God figured out this money thing yet? LOL. I am so sick of this shit! I just want to be left alone. The problem with religious folk is just that; they won’t leave you alone!

  13. boku
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    She mentions Nigeria as an example of where she has teached. Now, I have no idea what it looks like over there. So maybe for the places where she has taught is a matter of teaching evolution by one of these two methods or not at all? If so, that changes things abit, and the question becomes something else:

    Teach evolution using one of the two methods she suggested or don’t teach them about evolution at all.

    Then maybe, using one of her two methods are the better option?

    • eric
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      IMO her first suggestion might qualify as an acceptable “hold your nose” compromise because it’s omitting, rather than misinforming. However, I can’t see her second suggestion as anything less than unethically promoting misinformation about how science works and what a scientific theory is.

    • Henry Fitzgerald
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      But Corbett is recommending her methods specifically in Britain, where this dilemma doesn’t apply.

      There’s one obvious reason why, in some places, it might be a choice between teaching religion her way and not teaching it at all: it might be illegal to teach evolution any way other than hers. I can understand why teachers might prefer to obey rather than disobey the law.

      I find it hard to conceive of any other circumstances where her recommendations are reasonable. Suppose there’s a society where, if she teaches the subject honestly, the parents will storm into class and forcibly remove their children so that they don’t get any education at all? In that case, I think avoiding the subject altogether is actually preferable. Concentrate on whatever it is you will be allowed to teach honestly.

      • Lee
        Posted February 4, 2015 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps under these extreme circumstances a science teacher could say something like the following: “The modern scientific method is one of the crowning achievements of mankind. It teaches how to study nature in a way that leads to knowable, testable explanations of what you are studying, and has produced advancements such areas as space travel, computers, modern agriculture and the fight against infectious diseases. One of the most important and well-supported subjects in science is evolution, the study of biological species and how they originated. Unfortunately, sometimes there is strong religious and political pressure not to teach about evolution. This is very unfortunate, but it is a fact of life right now. Because of this, I won’t be teaching you about evolution. However, if any of you are interested, I can point you to resources that you can study on your own.” (Then onto the next subject.)

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      I agree with our host – teach evolution as it is or don’t teach it.

      Most of the students in these classes will never be biologists. That being the case, it is more important to teach students how science works and to place it into the broader context as a way of thinking that should apply to most everything that we learn. How do we know what we know? What is the only proven approach to knowing when things are true and, even more so, when things are not true? Lying about evolution because the implications of facing reality make you unhappy subverts the most important purpose of teaching science at all. Getting across some facts of evolution to students is less important than promoting the scientific worldview.

      Teaching science this way provides cover to authorities who don’t really want to confront their students with reality. No science teacher should collaborate in doing that.

      • Posted February 4, 2015 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        Yes – if I were teaching in a place where teaching evolution were actually dangerous to my life or that of my students (and Nigeria may well be, I don’t know) I would try to tailor the curriculum even more to method and evidence rather than statement of fact and such. This of course may well be impossible.

  14. Heather Hastie
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Muslim scholars in general are determined that all scientific discoveries were predicted in the Qur’an. When a discovery is made, a passage in the Qur’an is reinterpreted to show that Allah had already revealed the information to Muhammad. For example, the water used by Allah in the making of Adam is now interpreted as a drop of semen. In Muslim countries where education is widespread, there is often higher acceptance of evolutionary theory than in America, although it’s mostly less than the majority of Western countries.

    My opinion is that her sensitivities from the American experience are warping her opinion, or she’s going to communities where the local imams are not knowledgeable. I think Eric’s suggestions above for an approach to take are excellent. Lying to the kids is wrong, and a good teacher wouldn’t do that imo.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      Allah ejaculates?

      • Posted February 4, 2015 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

        Jiz be upon him.


        • Diane G.
          Posted February 4, 2015 at 10:03 pm | Permalink


        • Heather Hastie
          Posted February 5, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          +1 😀

  15. Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Step one in teaching is being a nice person. Not a pushover, but decent and fair. And honest.

    I think you need to tell kids that what you are about to teach may conflict with their religion, but it is what science has found and it is what you believe to be true.

    I meet people online who believe it is impossible for an atheist to be a good person. Being a counterexample may be the best thing you can teach. It may be more important than teaching details that will be forgotten anyway.

    Maybe off topic, but my high school biology book (1960) has no mention of evolution or of change over time. The word does not appear in the index. I went to a private, college prep school.

  16. Henry Fitzgerald
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Corbett’s first two comments make it quite clear she hasn’t forgotten the real goal of this “education” thingie – it’s to help students pass their IGCSE examination.

    If she can do that without their actually having to learn anything, then so much the better.

  17. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Donald Johanson, the discoverer of the Australopithicine fossil known as Lucy, works with plenty of regular field people, cooks, and technicians and even local schools when he is out on digs. The population is Muslim, and from everything I have read they seem fiercely proud of their role and the importance of their country in understanding human evolution.

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Muslim schisms seem to be invisible to westerners, but apparently much of the violence that we see is internecine.

      Someone I know says that they produce more history than can be locally consumed.

  18. Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    One of the duties of teachers is to help students become well rounded citizens and part of that is socialization. Teaching lies is the worst possible example to set for them.

  19. tubby
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t pretending that evolution doesn’t apply to humans or is just some idle speculation just kicking the can down the road to some poor college professor who then has to deal with that mess? Or doesn’t she think her biology students will be attending college?

  20. Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    “Lying to the kids is wrong, and a good teacher wouldn’t do that IMO.”

    The reason I quit teaching was because I was being asked, due to an absurd emphasis on standardized testing, to be intellectually dishonest with my students. We were instructed to teach the kids to respond to essay questions with formulaic, prompted responses like “according to the text . . . ,” and other such flat, lifeless drivel.
    I preferred not to renew my contract rather than teach my students that formulaic prattle is acceptable writing.
    If my experience in the classroom taught me anything its that the best resource for educating students is an intelligent, thoughtful and honest teacher who accepts the responsibility of being an authority figure while maintaining respect for the dignity and intelligence of his or her students. I don’t see how it could be possible to be that and employ this strategy.

    . . . unless you lie and tell them that you might do a pop-quiz, just to keep ’em on their toes, that’s okay . . .

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Big-time thumbs up!

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink


    • darrelle
      Posted February 4, 2015 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      Great comment. I hope my students have more teachers like you than otherwise.

      At the high school I went to many of the teachers were retired from professional careers doing what they were teaching. Physicists, chemists, mathematicians. They were nearly all very good teachers. It was evident that they loved their subjects, and loved teaching them to other people. From that experience it seems to me that this is a very good model for teaching.

      • Posted February 4, 2015 at 8:00 am | Permalink

        I appreciate the kind words, but the sad reality is that qualified professionals will ultimately choose an easier and more lucrative career path rather than deal with educational bureaucracy in many cases. That is ultimately why I am no longer in eduction.

        • Posted February 4, 2015 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

          So, tell us, bobsguitarshop, what do you do now… 😉


          • Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:51 am | Permalink

            After I left teaching, I went to work as a producer and editor in TV news, which was terrible in every way that a job can be terrible. Now I do film/video production for a company that produces live events.

            • Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:54 am | Permalink

              And there I was thing you ran a guitar shop. 😞

              And I do now remember your anecdotes about your TV news work.


              • Posted February 5, 2015 at 8:58 am | Permalink

                That’s actually a vestigial organ left over from my first attempt at a wordpress blog. It seems not that many people are interested in reading about why it’s important for a stratocaster’s pick-ups to be slightly out of phase.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted February 5, 2015 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

                I’m interested in that! Why do a Strat’s pickups need to be out of phase? (If an explanation here is too long could you give us a link?)

  21. jay
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Wow! The other side of “lying for Jesus “. Appalling.

  22. Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    What a terrible idea. What happens down the road when these students inevitably learn that science says evolution does apply to humans and that this is not a recent discovery? Obviously, they’ll figure out someone is lying. In the worst (and seemingly likely case based on polls on scientific attitudes), a great many students will dismiss scientists as untrustworthy.

    Then when scientists say something like vaccines are necessary for a healthy population, well scientists lie! Let’s do homeopathy instead because those promoters have always been steadfast in their claims to the truth.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      I’ll play devil’s advocate on this. What if the choice is to teach it the way this teacher says or be kept from teaching it at all?

      Then when the students learn it isn’t just a theory, that humans are included and that those bits were left out for religious reasons, they may conclude that it all makes sense and be annoyed that their religion was in the business of lying to them.

      They could go on to accept the whole truth based on the understanding they’ve gained from the incomplete version, write a screenplay based on the experience and live to see it be made into a major Hollywood movie, perhaps starring Tom Cruise.

      • eric
        Posted February 3, 2015 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        That doesn’t appear to be the situation. The situation appears to be that she was allowed to teach it, but was having trouble getting students to accept it and so got the first strategy from another teacher.

        So I don’t see why we have to think of this as a false dichotomy. It isn’t only these two strategies or not teach. So my response would be “find a way that doesn’t involve deception but also shows you’re not trying to attack religion.” My @5 provides one example.

        But ultimately, if the chips come down, I think I would recommend a teacher be honest and keep their integrity and risk not reaching many of their students, vs. telling them to lie about how evolution works to make it more comfortable to them.

      • Posted February 3, 2015 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that could happen. I’d even bet, given enough students, that it would happen for some. But I am looking at the trends that Jerry has posted numerous times here. In your scenario, it wouldn’t be the religion that was found to be lying explicitly, it is the teachers. Also, my scenario entails them finding out that they were lied to by science educators only to find out other scientists say humans did evolve. Now we’ve got a situation where there’s no reasonable explanation for why some science educators are lying. But your point is valid that if the students figure out that it is actually true that humans evolve, they may accept it and be thoroughly baffled about why an educator would lie about it. The distinction in my scenario is that they aren’t accepting the truth, merely focusing on the lie. Either way, isn’t it better to have a clear cut advantage in maintaining intellectual honesty? We don’t need to muddy the waters by letting students have to determine who lies less.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted February 3, 2015 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

          I agree with both of you. My comment was from a cartoonish perspective – as if the teacher had to choose only between teaching something or nothing about evolution.

  23. jay
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    One possible approach could be a detailed discussion of genetics and evolution through many species and end with our own very close genetic relationship to other primates. If it’s obvious enough, they’ll make the final connection on their own (or with a little help) .

    If they ‘find ‘ it themselves, it sinks in with less trauma.

  24. Adam Pack
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m not defending her, but I think ‘lying’ has a role in education. I had to explain covalent bonding to my younger son recently (he’s 7) and I ended up talking about atoms having hooks on them, which could connect together to make molecules, because I didn’t think quantum physics was age-appropriate. So, sometimes you have to tell children something that isn’t true to get the basic idea across.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 4, 2015 at 1:48 am | Permalink

      For ‘lying’ you could substitute ‘simplification’ and I think it’s perfectly valid. If you first tried to explain quantum theory you’d never get as far as molecules.

      Later on, you can explain that the ‘hooks’ are in fact made from shared electrons, I don’t see any clash there. (And indeed the very convenient mental picture of an electron as a particle is equally a ‘lie’ as I understand it).

      • Posted February 4, 2015 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        You used a model not a lie. When children are little all meat is chicken, and all round things are balls. They are not “misinformed” really – they are just young, and it is our job to age-appropriately expand their vocabulary and knowledge base. I have been called grampa by a little 3 year old girl when I was 48 years old and she had never met me before and we are not related. I didn’t correct her, although I would if she was 15 (because then it would be snark!). This does not count as lying by omission either.

      • Adam Pack
        Posted February 4, 2015 at 6:24 am | Permalink

        Yes, when I was learning chemistry, the GCSE started with ‘a lot of stuff you’ve learnt so far was simplified. Here is the real version’.
        Then two years later, A-level started with ‘a lot of the GCSE wasn’t strictly true. Here’s the real version’. I hear it’s the same at degree level.

      • Posted February 4, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        I think one should first or simultaneously teach inquiry – then kids will know that it is “more complicated than that” but also know why it is being simplified for them – even if only eventually.

        I wish more textbooks were like this – I remember general chemistry books (in high school and university-equivalent ones) full of, say, “curve fitting constants” like in Henry’s law or equilibria problems, etc. These really bothered me sometimes, particularly the ones of the form y = Cx – it just looks (and sometimes one is!) just futzing with units. Explaining that it is fairly complicated to derive, or that its limitations are thus and so would really help avoid mindless calculations or the thought that “science classes are just more arithmetic”. It doesn’t help that some places teach physics (e.g. kinematics) in the context of mathematics as well.

  25. Posted February 3, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I for some reason felt compelled jumped into the fray in the comment section over there with a little bit of well directed snarkiness. Then again, I had no other choice.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

      Nice one. 😉

      Also nice to see she’s taking a drubbing in the comments now.

  26. Macha
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Agreed, but she could well be between a rock and a hard place .. Here’s a sad-but-true comment on the article ..

    “Remember he could get killed if he goes against the beliefs of muslims or lose his job if he goes against what christians believe. and I’m also a teacher so I won’t risk my life in order to prove them that there are no proof of gods but that there is proof of evolution.”

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      That could be true, but that would not then mean she should propose we teach this way in the United States, where we’re under no such duress.

  27. kelskye
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    It’s reminders like this that tell us that there really is no conflict between science and religion…

  28. Posted February 3, 2015 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Her no 1 is acceptable in the passive sense: just leave humans out (for the time being), a tactic used by Darwin himself.
    Corbett’s second is a real nono, methinks. Despicable.
    It would be way better to instruct students about what is a theory, a hypothesis and wild speculation, IMMO.

    • Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      Darwin didn’t leave them out: he suggested that they evolved in his 1859 book, and wrote a large treatise on human evolution in 1871. He certainly never intended, as this teacher apparently does, to completely omit humans from the evolutionary scheme.

      • Posted February 4, 2015 at 11:50 am | Permalink

        Amplifying, I’ve heard it said that what Darwin did post Origin was basically a continuation and expansion of it for various classes of organisms (e.g. orchids).

  29. peepuk
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    I can understand her argument that telling half of evolution is better than telling no evolution at all. At least these children have the possibility to pass their exams.

    Probably Nigeria is less meritocratic then the US. Critical thinking may reduce your opportunities in society. So it may be for them more important to escape poverty then to now the truth.

    But I don’t think this line of reasoning applies to the US.

    • peepuk
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      now == know, probably some more 🙂

    • eric
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      Technically she’s not telling half of evolution. She’s teaching falsehoods: that humans didn’t evolve, and that when scientists call something a ‘theory’ they are talking about a mere unsubstantiated idea.

      • peepuk
        Posted February 4, 2015 at 6:28 am | Permalink

        Ok, maybe you are right.

        But still, when there was the choice between some bad consequences for the children and teaching falsehoods about evolution and science, I could understand her decision.

        A bad consequence: life in poverty due to not finishing school.

        On the other hand if such bad consequences are unlikely, then this kind of behavior would be indefensible, especially for a teacher.

        I have at this time too little knowledge about Nigerian society.

        • eric
          Posted February 4, 2015 at 6:55 am | Permalink

          What you’re describing may be an interesting ethical or philosophical puzzle, like the trolly car case, but it doesn’t appear to be the actual situation she’s describing or dealing with. Based on the details of her story, there is no reason to think or assume that she was faced with such a limited, binary choice. See my response to @22.

          • peepuk
            Posted February 4, 2015 at 8:19 am | Permalink

            I don’t think it’s farfetched when we read her story.

            1) She writes: How could I help them achieve academic success on their “high stakes examination”

            2) It’s well known that Nigeria is a poor country; 45% of the people are affected by real poverty. So the stakes are probably much higher then in rich western countries.

            If we combine those 2 objective pieces of information this leads to exactly this dilemma. So I give her in the Nigerian case the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty.

            So I disagree with your last reply.

  30. Sastra
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    As boku at #12 and several others have mentioned, her strategies would be understandable and acceptable only in very dire situations where it’s a forced move. If the alternative to distorted science is science which WILL be either more seriously distorted or not taught at all, then it’s a rock and a hard place dilemma. Under the circumstances, her suggestions might be the best of the realistic options.

    But then the story would be a different kind of story. It would be a cautionary tale of how bad it can be out there – and the hard compromises we sometimes have to make. It sure wouldn’t be a general recommendation presented with a smile and a flourish.

    There are apparently several styles of accomodationism. Sometimes you stick with the scientific facts but help the religious find gaps or fuzz categories or wave their hands theologically. Change the religion so it can play catch-up to science, show them how.

    Then there’s this nonsense. I don’t think the NCSE would pull something like this. “Humans didn’t evolve.” Jeezus.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      It sure wouldn’t be a general recommendation presented with a smile and a flourish.


      At first, after learning she’d taught in Nigeria, I kept trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, imagining that she and/or her students might be in grave danger if she didn’t skirt some big issues.

      But as she built to a rather smug, “my, how well I’ve solved this perennial debate” pat on her own back, it became obvious that she had no clue about the issues involved, nor any idea of what constituted honest and effective teaching.

      I really haven’t paid much attention to The Humanist lately, but from what I remember, I’d have expected better of them.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 3, 2015 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

        Just because a magazine prints it doesn’t mean it’s the standard of the magazine. Humanism involves debates and arguments. They’ll probably have some strong rebuttals next issue.

        I hope.

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 3, 2015 at 9:06 pm | Permalink


  31. Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    #2 is how I was taught evolution in public school in Texas. Our biology teacher stated up front that “I don’t believe this; it’s just a theory; but I have to teach it.” (This was in the late ’80s.)

  32. Posted February 3, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    #2 is how I was taught evolution in Texas public schools in the late ’80s. In my case, the teacher said she didn’t even believe it, but “had” to teach it.

  33. Posted February 3, 2015 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    If you have to lie about fundamental aspects of a subject then why bother teaching it in the first place?

    • Posted February 4, 2015 at 4:08 am | Permalink

      a requirement of the job and therefor money.

  34. Posted February 3, 2015 at 6:57 pm | Permalink


  35. Henry Fitzgerald
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    Having brought myself to read the article, I note that she’s also utterly uncritical in accepting the pronouncements of her colleague Mr. Alausa – who claims, implausibly, that “over 1,000 years ago, Muslim scientists also found evidence for evolution” – with the usual paltry evidence: a reference to a single ambiguous sura in the Koran.

    A proper scientist might express scepticism when told all this by a devout Muslim, and ask for some sources.

    • Posted February 4, 2015 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, in some places (Iran, I believe) there is great respect still for the Greek philosophers – as there should be – and they too noticed evolution by natural selection. Unfortunately, accumulating evidence for it was interrupted by Plato, Aristotle, and then religions, etc. but …

  36. madscientist
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Ah, all strategies championed by people who also like to pretend that religion is not inimical to science.

  37. Posted February 4, 2015 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    That is pretty ridiculous! I should found a neo-pythagorean cult and then demand that the math teacher denies the existence of irrational numbers because that would upset my beliefs.

    • Dominic
      Posted February 4, 2015 at 5:46 am | Permalink

      The trouble is you would have to eat a lot of beans!

    • peepuk
      Posted February 4, 2015 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      My favorite mathematician L. E. J. Brouwer does:

      He considered mathematics to be purely the result of the constructive mental activity of humans rather than the discovery of fundamental principles claimed to exist in an objective reality. (wikipedia)

      Or did:

      About his last years, Davis (2002) remarks:
      “…he felt more and more isolated, and spent his last years under the spell of ‘totally unfounded financial worries and a paranoid fear of bankruptcy, persecution and illness.’ He was killed in 1966 at the age of 85, struck by a vehicle while crossing the street in front of his house.” (wikipedia)

      Surely a brilliant man.

  38. merilee
    Posted February 4, 2015 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, couldn’t find the anti-vaxxers post.

    Jon Stewart had a great bit on the Marin County educated liberal types. He called them “mindfully stupid.”

  39. Posted February 4, 2015 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    “Would you tell them, if they asked about mortality, that they were immortal, so as to not instill in them the fear of death?”

    That’s exactly what religious people do, and for exactly that reason. Dualists believe the intangible “spiritual” part of ourselves is “our immortal soul”.

    I would have more sympathy with Susan Corbett if she would omit, rather than lie.

    1. “This is how animals and plants evolved. (Optionally:) Biologists have not found any significant way that human beings differ in biology from (other) animals. (Draw your own conclusions.)”

    2. “All of science is open to question. Evolution is no exception. Good new evidence can in principle overthrow any theory. (Evolution by natural selection has not been overthrown in 165 years.)”

  40. lutesuite
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    The article seems to have been taken down. Anyone know why?

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