Most Americans are familiar with the idea that despite the overwhelming, convincing and elegant evidence for evolution, a surprising number of people still don't buy it. Things aren't much better in many European countries. It's still remarkably easy to find people who believe that creationism or "intelligent design" should be taught in science classes, and that evolution and creationism should be given equal time. The new movement to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" would be fine if it were pointing out evolution’s weaknesses as would be inherent in any scientific theory, but creationists' efforts at this have instead often resulted in recycling the same tired old arguments that have been appearing in creationist books for decades. Creationists and intelligent design proponents consistently profess that intelligent design has equal footing as a theory, and that its specific tenets (such as irreducible complexity) ought to be discussed and examined in science classes and often at the university level as well.
Despite the unshakable proof of evolution as a basic theory - and the ever-increasing evidence for its specifics - the last decade has not seen much change in the public's perception of the debate. In 2001, a Gallup poll indicated that a little over one third of Americans believed the basic principle of Darwinian evolution is "supported well by evidence". More shocking, though, is how many Americans believed that "God created humans in their present form": a whopping 45%. In 2004, these numbers hadn't changed.
A similar poll was conducted in 2009 to celebrate Darwin's 200th birthday, and the numbers had changed depressingly little. In almost a decade, the percentage of people who believe in evolution as a well-supported theory has risen to 39%. That's eight years of intense research, mounting evidence, increasing standards for education, many new publications, public awareness, public debates with brilliant scientists and speakers, documentaries and movies and books - and a 4% increase is all there is to show for it, which may be little more than statistical noise anyway.
How can this be? What are we doing wrong?
I have noticed what might be a new recent trend in the scientific community's attempts to combat this concern. I'm currently taking an upper-level evolution course at my college, one of the last courses I need to graduate. Unlike other evolution-related college courses I've taken in the past, this one has a specific part of the curriculum that's oriented towards teaching us about the creationism debate. Not, I should point out, teaching us about creationism as a theory the way that the school boards in Texas want, but teaching us about the basics of the conflict in order to, I presume, give us adequate ammunition against the other side. I noticed this trend arising last year, too, when one of my science professors informed the class that he was teaching a new course soon entitled something like "Evolution for teachers", the point of which was to specifically educate teachers on how to handle the inevitable topic of creationism in high school biology. And indeed, it seems like high school teachers' prevailing ambivalence, uncertainty, and sometimes downright fear of discussing evolution in the classroom may be contributing to the overall pattern of this problem.
In my own class, at least, opinions on this approach have so far been mixed. Many students have been complaining that we shouldn't be wasting valuable class time learning about this garbage, when there's such an enormous wealth of information to be gained from learning about the pure science and history of evolutionary theory. Many of them simply don't care about Duane Gish and Michael Behe, and many of them find the whole debate unbelievably ridiculous to begin with. The sentiments expressed run the gamut from "why should I care about this?" to "do we need to learn about how to combat flat earthers, too?" The professor's perspective seems to be that by teaching the students the basic tenets of the debate, he's better equipping us for dealing with creationists in the real world, in the realm of education and the public.
This month's question is: Do you think that educating students and teachers about how to deal with creationists in an academic setting is going to make a difference to the public's perception of evolution in general? And if not, what do you think is the best method for combating creationism, since little else seems to be working?
It's too soon for me to have much of an opinion on this at the moment, since learning specifically about creationist debates in college classes is a relatively new phenomenon to me. I do, however, hope that it will be at least somewhat successful over time - it's a very sad thing to imagine that another decade will see another mere 4% increase in the public's acceptance of evolution.