Teach the Non-Controversy

Teach the Non-Controversy

by David Tallmon

It is an exciting time for physicists. They have experimentally confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, something postulated decades ago by theoreticians to reconcile seemingly contradictory evidence from previous experiments. The Higgs boson is arguably the most important science discovery of this young century because it helps unify particle physics under what is called the Standard Model by affirming how particles have mass. One important lesson from this discovery is that sometimes it takes decades to produce experiments to support or reject hypotheses.

Another important lesson from this newsworthy event is that it highlights what makes science, science. Namely, that one must posit testable hypotheses to do science. That is, if a question or theory about how the natural world works can be turned into a testable and falsifiable hypothesis, then it is a scientific question. If a question cannot be falsified, or disproved, it is not scientific. Science progresses by transforming raw ideas, however outrageous or iconoclastic, into formal statements that can be tested with results that either support or refute the initial idea.

Although this might seem a trivial point to some, I think we scientists have failed to teach the general public that falsifiable hypotheses lie at the core of science. One of the consequences of this failure is that we continue to waste time debating the role of evolutionary biology in public schools. Every year at least a few state legislatures propose bills to weaken the teaching of evolution in our schools. This year, legislators in Oklahoma, Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri proposed bills that would weaken the teaching of evolution in public school science courses. There will be more bills elsewhere next year.

Make no mistake, evolution provides the mechanisms by which the simple building blocks of DNA has been assembled into the vast living beauty that surrounds us. It has remained largely unchanged for over 150 years. In fact, discoveries such as DNA (among the most important discoveries of the 20th century) and the development of the field of population genetics have filled-out, refined, and strengthened Darwin’s initial idea of evolution by natural selection (among the most brilliant insights of the 19th century).

Just as physics is integral to understanding how the physical world works, evolution is integral to understanding the unity and diversity of life forms and how they change over time. Until a better theory comes along, evolution is the Standard Model of biology. It is a falsifiable theory and has withstood repeated rigorous tests. Do you have to understand evolution to be a surgeon? No, just as you do not have to have a deep understanding of physics to fly a plane or know the subtleties of organic chemistry to fill a prescription. But I certainly want my doctors and pilots and pharmacists to understand these fields because they make them better professionals. And for some professions, a profound understanding of these sciences is absolutely necessary. Still, I’d like everybody to have at least an appreciation of these sciences because they make the world a more sensible (and satisfying) place.

Understanding evolution needn’t cause one to abandon one’s god, moral code, or respect for life. Many brilliant scientists have reconciled their spiritual beliefs, however fundamentalist or liberal, with evolutionary theory and have emerged both devout believers and insightful scientists. They seamlessly function in the spiritual and scientific worlds. One of the things I enjoy most as a teacher is seeing my senior biology students have an “aha” moment when they realize how much evolution makes sense as a mechanism to explain the diversity of life, and that they do not have to abandon their morals to appreciate its elegance.

We need to make sure the general public understands that science is about proposing testable mechanisms for how the natural world works. Let us teach evolution (and particle physics) in our science courses. Let us teach religion in our religion courses. Let there be no controversy; they address different topics. Science is a method of learning about the world that need not be threatening. To suggest otherwise is to add sound and fury that divert resources away from learning how the world works. Our students deserve better. Our society deserves better.