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Teaching evolution in the South: an educator on the “war for science literacy"

A Georgia Southern University professor explains the unique cultural factors that create skepticism toward science in the South

Getty Images / Stan Rohrer

Amanda Glaze is a professor of science education at Georgia Southern University. Before that she spent roughly a decade teaching K-12 in Georgia and Alabama.

She has spent her entire teaching career in the South.

Earlier this year, she produced a video for sciencefriday.com about the challenges she’s encountered as a science educator.

Teaching science, evolution in particular, can be a thankless job in this part of the country. In some communities, you’re colliding with a culture and a worldview that is both central to the identity of people and deeply threatened by scientific materialism.

“It is such a deeply personal and gut-wrenching reconstruction of identity,” Glaze says, “and you really have to be empathetic to that personal restructuring experience to understand why so many people reject evolution in spite of knowing a lot about it.”

Having grown up in the South, I know all too well what Glaze means here. I was never particularly religious, but I understand the pressures of living in a community defined by religion. There’s a price to be paid for defying cultural norms, whether it’s in a classroom or at a cocktail party.

Glaze, by dint of her profession, has violated several of these norms.

I spoke with her recently about the difficulties of teaching evolution in the South and her approach to improving scientific literacy in a place openly hostile to science.

Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, follows.

Sean Illing

How did you end up in this awkward position of teaching science in places where science is regarded with suspicion? You grew up in the South, so I assume you understood the cultural taboos around science in general and evolution in particular.

Amanda Glaze

I grew up in a very small outskirts community outside of Gadsden, Alabama, which is a town of maybe 40,000 people. I hate to say it, but it was a very homogeneous upbringing and I wasn’t exposed to very much outside of the culture and background of my family, which I think has been a very important frame for my research.

I grew up in a very devout Southern Baptist family. My family always was, and continues to be, very highly regarded in the church.

But I was also an adopted only child and, while I was the only girl and the youngest in the family, I was always allowed to do whatever the boys were doing. So I was taught from a young age to question everything, to push the envelope.

I just followed my interests where they led me.

Sean Illing

Could you say a bit about your current research focus?

Amanda Glaze

There are three facets of my research at present. The first is gauging the pulse of evolution education across the nation. The purpose there is to not only see how we (in the South) are doing but to find out who is doing it well and to explore what works.

That leads to the second facet, which is development of programs, materials, experiences, and approaches for teaching science, especially topics that are seen as controversial.

There is also a qualitative angle where I have been collecting stories surrounding controversial topics, especially here in the South. For me, it is these stories that give us the greatest insights into the reasoning behind why people reject evolution, or distrust science, or view things as they do.

Sean Illing

I gather a lot of what you’re doing involves analyzing science education and literacy in the South relative to other parts of the country.

What questions do you ask when you conduct your research?

Amanda Glaze

I ask questions about basic concepts of evolutionary biology (high school level), and questions about beliefs such as "do you consider yourself to be religious, spiritual, atheist, agnostic, other … discuss." I ask people when they first heard about evolution and about their experiences with evolution in school. I ask them if they have heard about evolution from places other than school and what they have heard.

Sean Illing

What are your findings so far?

Amanda Glaze

My findings align with that of others: Basically that even with science majors we are nowhere near what we expect of students when it comes to things like understanding or acceptance of evolutionary concepts, or even the nature of science — science as a process, how science is done, and so on.

Sean Illing

How much less likely are people in the South to understand or accept evolution compared to students elsewhere?

Amanda Glaze

Research shows that people in the South are 84 percent less likely than their counterparts in other parts of the country to learn about evolution, or to learn about it in a way that is accurate. Similarly, studies such as my quant study in preservice teachers and Leslie Rissler's study of undergrads in Alabama show that religiosity is a strong negative factor that impacts acceptance of evolution.

When looking at other studies in the United States, mostly done in places in the Northeast (Indiana, New York), the levels of acceptance are quite low overall. However, the South boasts a population that is more closely aligned with the literal interpretation of Genesis (including creationism and Young Earth Creationism) that many cite as their reason for rejecting evolution. It also tends to show a higher impact of religious beliefs as a predictor of acceptance or rejection of evolution compared to other locations.

Sean Illing

Not to get too buried in the weeds here, but you seem to be saying that people in the South are less likely to learn about evolution or to have been taught evolution accurately, but do we know that they are in fact more hostile to it?

I feel fairly safe assuming this, but does the data back that up?

Amanda Glaze

I am hoping that with the national study data we’re assembling now I can finally answer the question as to whether people in the South are more resistant to evolution than others. As of right now there has not been a study to look at this nationally. So what we are going on is based on the breakdown of small studies that suggest that religiosity is a big factor, more so in some places than others, and that literal interpretations of creation are one of the leading points of contention.

It might turn out that there are other regions that are just as likely to accept or reject, but right now we don't have data to represent those areas. We are making inferences based on the different data sets that are out there and the things that they appear to point to as we learn more. That is precisely why this national study is important.

What we do know is that, at the very least, the South seems to be the region that is the most widely vocal in their anti-evolution positions. It will be very enlightening to see what happens now that we have, and are continuing to collect, data from around the country.

Sean Illing

The anti-evolution sentiment is certainly pervasive. You’ve been teaching in the South for a decade, right?

Amanda Glaze

Yeah, since 2005.

Sean Illing

How much resistance have you received over the years from parents and administrators and even from students?

Amanda Glaze

You know, in different settings I receive different levels of pressure. You always have students who are especially resistant; they don’t want to talk about it. There are some who come in the door and they’ve prepared themselves for an argument. One of the things that I have always done in teaching evolution is taking away some of that taboo angle by just addressing it head-on.

I also try to dispense with this dichotomy that you are either religious or scientific; you are either for evolution or for God. This creates an unnecessary conflict. Nobody’s going to come to that conversation with open arms. They’re going to come in guns blazing because it automatically challenges all of their core beliefs and experiences.

You’re not going to have any kind of meaningful growth from that.

Sean Illing

Do you know science teachers, especially at the K-12 level, who simply refuse to talk about evolution in the classroom out of professional self-interest?

Amanda Glaze

Yes, I do know teachers that will flat-out tell you that they can’t teach it where they are because they will get fired. For many, it’s just not worth the hassle. And of course there are teachers who don’t teach evolution because it conflicts with their own religious beliefs.

Amanda Glaze.

Sean Illing

That’s outrageous to hear. If someone doesn’t want to teach science because it conflicts with their religious beliefs, then why the hell are they teaching science in the first place?

But this isn’t surprising. The cultural taboos around evolution run very deep in this part of the country. I grew up in this world and I know the sideways glances you get if you dissent from conventional wisdom.

Amanda Glaze

Oh, absolutely. The South is a rich place to study anything because of that underpinning culture. In terms of religion, what we’re looking at is something on the level of personal identity. So you’re asking someone to take their identity, break it down completely, and change it to a new identity.

It is such a deeply personal and gut-wrenching reconstruction of identity. And you really have to be empathetic to that personal restructuring experience to understand why so many people reject evolution in spite of knowing a lot about it.

Sean Illing

That’s certainly true. People’s identities are so bound up with their religion here that a simple collision with the facts won’t compel them to change their minds. People will defend the narratives that give meaning and shape to their lives above all else.

Amanda Glaze

That’s absolutely the case because I can look at the data and tell you that this isn’t merely about knowledge. Knowledge of evolution is one of the weakest predictions of acceptance of evolution. Which tells me that you can know everything there is to know about evolution and actively choose to reject evolution.

Sean Illing

I lived and taught in Louisiana until recently, and there you had a well-educated Republican governor [Bobby Jindal] who was backing a law that allowed creationism to be taught in public school science classes. And he had the overwhelming support of the state legislature.

Amanda Glaze

Oh, yes. And we’ve seen similar movements across the South — in Alabama, Texas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and elsewhere.

Sean Illing

The defenders of these laws say things like, “we’re just introducing students to the debate.” By that logic, we ought to teach the Stork Theory of reproduction in biology class or alchemy in chemistry class or astrology in astronomy class.

Amanda Glaze

But, again, if you tell people their religious beliefs are obscured, you’re going to have a fight on your hands. What bothers me is the lack of understanding about what science actually does.

Science doesn’t consider God as a possible answer to any question whatsoever because God is a metaphysical construct and thus not part of the physical world. And science by definition cannot consider anything metaphysical or supernatural as an explanation.

Science is not out there trying to disprove the existence of God — we can't even consider that.

I really don’t care what people believe as long as they understand the science.

Sean Illing

Let me push back on that for a minute.

You say that there's a perceived conflict between being religious and scientific but that this is a false dichotomy. I think one can certainly be a religious person and a scientist, but can one be both at the same time?

Religions invariably make claims about the world that contradict what science says is true, and so to be engaged in science you have to sort of remove your religious hat, no?

Amanda Glaze

I think that’s right. I love the term cognitive apartheid. Look at people like Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who is a Christian and says openly that he wishes that science would not contradict what the Bible says, but it does and he recognizes that, and he still chooses to be a believer.

Sean Illing

Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to say that the great thing about science is that it's true whether you believe it or not. The trouble with this kind of scientific illiteracy is that it genuinely harms these students, who cannot succeed in a society based on science and technology if they don’t understand it.

Amanda Glaze

It’s crucial. And that’s why I tell people this is not a fight for evolution per se. I mean, evolution is a mechanism by which I work with people because if we can hit the most controversial points in the places where they are the most controversial, we can get to that level of conceptual change.

Then imagine what we can do in the places where it's not as resistant, where it's not as vocal, where it's not as taboo. This is a war for science literacy.

Sean Illing

Well, you’ve been in the trenches for a long time. Are you hopeful that this won’t be an issue in 10 or 20 years?

Amanda Glaze

I am very hopeful — some may say naively so. But I know that I personally went through this experience and I came out pretty much undamaged. It was not an easy process converting my worldview from a more literalist interpretation to a more scientific worldview.

A lot of the work that I’m doing right now involves culturally responsive teaching: How do you keep the topic in productive places? How do you navigate these conversations even though there may be conflict, even though there may be some discomfort there?

These are conversations that need to be had, and we’re pounding the pavement on the frontline down here.