Oh the middle, what a strange place to be. Middle child, middle ground, middle school, that awkward middle seat in the already claustrophobia-inducing airplane rows….many people would say that being in the middle is not the best place to be for a variety of reasons. I would have to argue that the middle is where all the amazing things happen, that the intersections are the most entertaining, informative, and inspiring places to be and things to see.
So that is where you will find me, at the intersections of science and society. My name is Amanda Glaze and I am a researcher and assistant professor of science education in the Southeastern United States. My background is one of mixed pedigree, with degrees in criminal justice/political science, education, and bench sciences and a wealth of experiences in between (You can learn more about my backstory at Errant Science). The cool thing about being something of an academic mutt is that you get extra lenses to view the world, lenses that you might not have ever found without exploring fields which you would have otherwise never had involvement.
So why does that matter? My research and outreach focuses on teaching and learning evolution across levels. Did I mention I do this in the South? You know, that place that is in the news every other day for another legislative attempt at preventing evolution and climate change from being taught? Oh, and Alabama, home of the reknowned anti-evolution disclaimer? Yes, that’s the one, and here I am, right in the middle of it all, loud and proud as an advocate for science and science education. Why you may ask? Because what better place to go to understand the battle for science literacy than in the middle of the battlefield, where controversial topics like climate change, evolution, and stem cell research are not just a chosen conflict but deeply rooted in cultural exchange and worldview.
As a scientist trained in evolutionary biology, I love numbers. I love the clean lines of statistical analysis, I love examining lineage and connections among species, spending time in the field and in the lab, and being able to see, in real time, changes taking place in populations. What is often missing from the sciences, where we focus on being rational, objective, and clinical, is the background noise, the stories, that tell us so much more about what is going on and why. That is where my “other” training comes into play. As much as I am a biologist, my research toolbox has the tools of a psychologist, anthropologist, sociologist, educator, and historian. I am as much a part of the humanities as a part of the sciences, and while science is the focus of the research/outreach I am engaged in, without my mixed background, I feel that I would be missing so much from the big picture that is understanding the acceptance and rejection of evolution and taking steps to improve the relationships between the scientific community and the general public.
In PoliSci in learn about political history and structure and how we are connected, past to present to future by the actions of leaders and of the people. A lesson that has always stuck with me, especially being from the South myself, is the stories of the political demigogues, of the Long family of Louisiana, George Wallace in Alabama, and others. In criminal justice we learn that there is always an exchange, in fact all of forensic science is based on Locard’s Principal, that even if only at a microscopic level when we are in contact with something we bring things in and take things away. In the sciences I learned what things are happening in nature, how they are happening, and how scientific knowledge comes to be. Where these three things intersect, you will find me, talking to the public about evolution, studying the reasons why people accept and reject (and they are much more complex than what you would think), and collecting the stories behind both.
For those not from the United States, the theory of evolution in the US is still considered highly controversial by those in the general public. So much so that a recent Gallop poll (2014) indicated that 42% of the country believes in creationism, that humans were created as is by God; with only 19% agreeing with a wholly evolutionary background for the human race (with no interference from God). There is an ongoing fight for basic science literacy, in which we see gains and losses on a regular basis. We do have a set of national teaching standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which outline teaching of scientific concepts, practices, and such for the classroom, but these are a suggestion, not accepted by every state (states’ rights and whatnot). In those standards, evolution is prevalent and a part of curriculum from early primary years. In reality, we see a high number of teachers that do not teach evolution at all and others who teach creationist “alternatives” to evolution in the classroom, or both side by side. I could talk for days on the history of this issue, of court cases, legislation (oh yeah, did I mention this is from my home-town and my parents know the guy personally), and groups who push “creationist theory” but I will let you read as you wish and push forward.
So here we are in the middle yet again. But in the middle of this is science literacy, that’s what it is all about. Science literacy is an easy enough concept but one that is hard to achieve. Put simply, it is the understanding of what science is, how it works, and the ability to apply that knowledge to problem solve. I want people to understand science, regardless of their beliefs, their culture, or their background. Unfortunately, this issue has been reduced to a dichotomy between religion and science; which, to me at least, is a false dichotomy and one that undercuts the problem to the point that we are at a standstill in our progress. That same poll, which has been conducted each year over 30 years, shows that we are not making gains with the public that those percentages remain relatively fixed across that 30 year time period. In short, what we are doing just isn’t working.