Eugenie C. Scott has been executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, Calif., for 27 years. Scott, a physical anthropologist, has helped shape the organization into the nation’s leading defender of sound science education in public schools. She has worked alongside Americans United and other groups to keep biblical fundamentalism, in the form of creationism, out of public school science classes.
Under Scott’s leadership, NCSE played an important role in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, litigation brought by Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union that resulted in a 2005 landmark ruling striking down the teaching of “intelligent design” in a Pennsylvania public school. NCSE provided scientific expertise in the case and lined up expert witnesses who exposed the claims of intelligent design proponents.
Scott is reviled by Religious Right groups and advocates of creationism. The Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes intelligent design, has accused her of “stifling legitimate scientific dissent.” But mainstream science groups have a different view of Scott and her work. As The New York Times recently noted in a lengthy profile of Scott, in 2010 the National Academy of Sciences awarded her its Public Welfare Medal for “extraordinary use of science for the public good.”
Scott plans to retire at the end of the month. She recently shared some thoughts about her time with NCSE and the issue of creationism in public schools with Church & State.
Q. You’ve been defending sound science education for more than 25 years. What are some things we are doing right?
A. Through the Next Generation Science Standards, and the general encouragement of inquiry learning over the years, we’re finally getting away from science education as “drill and kill” memorization of unrelated facts and moving towards science instruction as a blend of content and process. For a student to know how science works arguably is more important than memorizing lists of terms.
Q. What things do we need to improve?
A. Teachers don’t have the time to mentor one another so that best practices can be spread, nor do they have the time or the assistance to set up inquiry experiences for students. A teacher once told me that if schools would hire part-time workers to set up and dismantle laboratories, more hands-on instruction would take place. And hands-on (and brains-on) is where it’s at in science education. No one learns music by reading about it, and science must be “done” as well.
Q. How have creationist strategies changed over the years?
A. We’ve gone from straight up encouragement of creationism, to creation “science,” to intelligent design, to the creationism du jour: the teaching of “weaknesses of evolution.” The content is the same, but the labels vary.
Q. Some people may believe that the study of evolution is only important to those who plan to work in fields like biology, geology and anthropology. Why is it important that all Americans understand the theory of evolution?
A. Don’t forget astronomy! That’s also an evolutionary science, because the universe — like Earth, and like living things — also has cumulatively changed over time. Biological evolution, that all living things are related through common ancestry, is not only a foundational scientific idea but profound also in its implication for philosophy, religion, literature, society – you name it. Evolution is a basic component of the knowledge of educated people.
Q. Polling data often shows resistance to evolution in this country. Yet polls also show that many Americans accept the idea of evolution guided by a Supreme Being. Are most Americans really “theistic evolutionists”?
A. Yes, because Catholics and mainstream Protestants still form a majority of American Christians. Not all of them know their denominations’ “official” theology, however, so there is much work to be done by the leaders of these denominations to educate the people on the other side of the pulpits.
Q. The same polls often show greater acceptance of evolution in countries like Canada, England, Australia and so on. These nations are not so different from the United States culturally, so why do we lag behind?
A. We have a more conservative form of Christianity than other majority Christian countries, just by historical happenstance (it was in the U.S. that the fundamentalist movement began in the second decade of the 20th century, which is quite recently). We also have a very decentralized education system, which means that, depending on local option, evolution may not always be taught or be taught well. So people are unusually ignorant of what evolution really means, plus a higher proportion of us come from more conservative Christian denominations.
Q. Creationists often frame this issue as a choice between God and Darwin. You work with a lot of religious leaders. How important is the role of the religious community in the battle for sound science education?
A. It should be a more active role. Local clergy (fortunately!) often turn out when we need them at local and state hearings, etc., but more needs to be done to educate parishioners about the denomination’s views on evolution, which are not always understood. Clergy, alas, often don’t have time for what most of them consider an interesting intellectual issue for seminary classes, because their time is taken up by congregants who have lost their jobs, are struggling with relationships, have kids on drugs or what have you. Complicating the problem is that few professional clergy feel comfortable with science. They come from humanities and social-science backgrounds, more commonly.
Q. What is the most important thing the average person can do to defend good science education in public schools?
A. Pay attention to who is running for local and state school board positions and the state supervisor of education elections! If people who cause problems don’t get elected in the first place, you can save a lot of trouble.
Q. What advice would you give to the next leader of the National Center for Science Education?
A. Enjoy the staff! They are smart, hard-working, knowledgeable, and are the reason why the organization is so successful.
Q. You’re retiring from the NCSE, but no one believes we’ve heard the last from you. What’s next on your agenda?
A. I’m going to spend about six months considering various suggestions but trying not to commit myself to anything right off. Still, I have speaking engagements through October 2014, so the creationists (and climate change deniers) will still have me to kick around for a while yet!