My big objection to science aggregation sites like Science Daily is that they don’t really do honest, critical reporting, but mostly parrot the bulletins issued by university public relations departments. The result is that readers get one-sided puffery of new results and no critical analysis. Science journalists often depend on such sources and, often lacking science training themselves, simply regurgitate the PR to the public. That leads to debacles like those “cephalopods can change their RNA to make themselves smarter” articles, every one of which was grossly distorted (I haven’t had time while traveling to discuss this at all, but I’ll tell you not to believe the press’s account).
But it’s worse when venues like Scientific American do the same thing. This happened when the magazine just wrote a short piece about a study by M. Elizabeth Barnes, James Elser, and Sara E. Brownell published in a recent issue of The American Biology Teacher. The Barnes et al. paper describes a two-week module inflicted on college students at Arizona State University with the explicit aim of convincing students that evolution and religion are compatible. At the end, they surveyed the students about how they felt about the issue. As SA notes, the module seems to have “worked”:
On topics ranging from astrophysics to public health, rejections of scientific consensus can prove quite inflexible when bolstered by religious doctrine. But a new approach to teaching evolutionary biology appears to ease such tensions. It involves airing perceived conflicts between religion and evolution in the classroom rather than simply presenting a mountain of evidence for evolution. Such a curriculum could help biologists (most of whom claim to hold no religious beliefs) more effectively prepare students (most of whom profess belief in God) to meet the nation’s growing need for scientists and technologists.
Surveys filled out by 60 students before and after the module revealed that the number of students who perceived a sense of a conflict between religion and evolution at the start was cut in half by the end. . .
“If we encourage national policy documents that promote these teaching practices,” says study co-author Elizabeth Barnes of Arizona State, “perhaps we can increase acceptance of evolution among our students, future teachers and future political leaders.”
Perhaps, but I doubt it, as there’s no indication that the study actually promoted acceptance of evolution, and it also involved teaching a particular theological point of view in a public university, which violates the First Amendment. As I wrote in my own analysis of this study posted here in February, the work of Barnes et al. has conceptual and scientific problems:
My objection to this study is that it was tendentious, didn’t look at the effect of the mirror-image study, used small samples, and, most important, took a particular theological point of view, pushing it on students in a public (state) university. This module requires a special interpretation of religion—one saying that it is not at all in conflict with evolution. Yet many religionists feel otherwise.
In other words, the instructors, in a well-meaning attempt to get people to accept evolution, are propagandizing the students with theological views. That’s clear since they trotted in a religious scientist and let the students read accommodationist literature while denying them arguments about the incompatibility of faith and evolution, which I see as powerful. (Why else are most scientists nonreligious—far more so than the general public?) By pushing a particular view of theology on the students, I see the experiment as a First Amendment violation. Would it be any better if the professor propagandized the students with a view that science and religion are incompatible? For that, at least, is a philosophical rather than a theological view. But if they did that, they’d be excoriated. Such is the eagerness of Americans to “respect” faith—the tendency to believe without evidence.
But in my own view, they should leave the accommodationism or anti-accommodationism out of public school classes. Just teach the damn science, and let the students work out the issues themselves. To do otherwise is to push a certain view of religion on them, one that should be left to parents, private discussion, or preachers. The authors of this paper are going the route of Elaine Ecklund at Rice, who has devoted her career to accommodationism. It’s not a pretty endeavor. And it’s injurious because it lets the students retain their view that faith, belief without evidence, is a valid way to accept religious claims.
But my main issue with the Scientific American piece is this: why didn’t they do any critical analysis of the study rather than just parroting the results promulgated by the authors and by the Arizona State PR office? Why did they quote just the author and not critics like me? Here, at least, Scientific American is acting like Science Daily.