Evolution Expounder: For More Than a Quarter of a Century, Genie Scott Has Led the Fight against Creationism in Public School Science Classes

Church & State, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Evolution Expounder: For More Than a Quarter of a Century, Genie Scott Has Led the Fight against Creationism in Public School Science Classes


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 8.: 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. …

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