Bill Nye is in the news this week following the release of an online video in which he criticizes the teaching of creationism, calling on parents to “question their beliefs” before passing the philosophy on to children.
Nye is known as “the Science Guy” in middle school classrooms everywhere, and his foray into the evolution debate comes as a surprise to some considering his innocuous demeanor, though this is not the first time he has discussed the issue. The video of his opinion has garnered over 4.6 million views, as well as a response from Answers in Genesis, a group supporting creationist teachings in public schools.
In an article entitled “Time is Nye for a Rebuttal” – yes, they really called it that – the group contends that both evolution and creationism should be taught, a position which seems to align with the majority of conservative rhetoric and policy initiatives concerning the issue.
Particularly in the Southeast, legislators regularly introduce bills to challenge evolution and/or add relevance to intelligent design. In Mississippi, such bills were introduced in 2009 and 2010, with Rep. Gary Chism’s 2010 proposal requiring equal instruction time for both evolution and intelligent design. The bill died in committee, as have others of its type in the state.
The debate between these positions remains heated largely because the nation is nearly evenly split in opinion over the issue, though in the Southeast a larger percentage of the population supports intelligent design.
The Pew Research Center reports that while 60 percent of the East and West support evolution, the rest of the nation is less certain, with 45 percent of Midwesterners and 38 percent of Southerners ascribing to the theory. The percentage of residents in an area advocating evolution aligns roughly with patterns of religiosity throughout the nation.
How do these mainstream opinions manifest themselves in science classrooms? Nearly 70 percent of textbooks sold in the U.S. come from four publishers. States in the Southeast with large populations, such as Texas and Florida, account for large portions of sales for these corporations, and as such, firms are given incentives to produce content for science classrooms that aligns with public opinion in those states, regardless of demand for additional information on evolution in other regions.
Teachers also face community pressure to depict evolution and intelligent design in alignment with regional norms, and an instructor’s personal belief system may affect instruction. It is difficult to determine the extent to which either position takes prominence in a classroom.
A recent survey of more than 1,000 college students, compiled by Michigan State law professor Kristi Bowman, found that 3 out of 10 high school students receive creationism instruction in public school, with 2 out of 10 learning something about intelligent design. More than 90 percent encounter evolution, although, somewhat alarmingly, nearly 75 percent remember almost nothing about it.
In summary, it seems that many teachers continue to instruct students in creationism and intelligent design regardless of what state guidelines and curricula dictate, and those who do include evolution in a classroom setting often give it a cursory overview.
Given these statistics, it seems Nye’s fear of a new generation lacking in scientific understanding has credence, though one has to wonder if there has ever been a generation well versed in scientific principles as a whole. As long as public opinion continues to regard evolution with skepticism, enforcing a curriculum promoting the theory will remain a challenge at every level. Nye wants to promote scientific understanding without offending the religious right. If the responses to his video are any indication, that may be an impossible goal, and this should not be the case.
Creationism directly contradicts well-accepted science, and for this reason it has no place in a science classroom. This fact remains, regardless of any potential connection between the science of human origin and religion.
Meghan Holmes is a second-year graduate Southern studies student from Arab, Alabama. You can follow her @styrofoamcup.