Sunday, December 18, 2005


Science in Utah

Most of this post is going to be anecdotes about me growing up in Utah, and my experiences with science education in that state.

According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute Utah (scroll down) gets a "C" on its state science standards. This is considerably better than many states (most notably Kansas, due to the recent appalling behavior of members of the state board of education). According to the Fordham Institute "Utah's best showing is in the life sciences" although the physical sciences don't fare as well. I'm proud of Utah for their good showing in the life sciences, but naturally I wish they'd scored higher in the physical sciences (I am, afterall, a geologist). I grew up in Utah; I graduated from high school there and I was an undergrad there. I think educators in Utah generally do a good job teaching life sciences, and evolution in particular. This may suprise some people, who assume that since Utah is such a religious state they must be anti-evolution. I took AP biology in high school, and I'm happy with how evolution was taught. My teacher mentioned religion too - at the start of the class he said that he didn't think being religious necessarily conflicted with accepting evolution. I also had a life sciences class and an earth science class in junior high, and I don't have any complaints there. Granted, these are just the experiences of one person, and I definitely did meet people who were hostile to conventional science, but I haven't encountered any serious organized resistance to the teacing of evolution or conventional geology.

This is probably a good time to mention Chris Buttars, a state senator who wants to teach "divine design" in Utah schools. Buttars was unequivocally rebuffed by the state school board. From that article:

"As a fundamental scientific concept, evolution is a necessary part of science classroom instruction, and it will continue to be taught and progressively refined as a key scientific principle."
"Teachers should respect and be nonjudgmental about (student) beliefs, and teachers should help students understand that science is an essential way of knowing. Teachers should encourage students to discuss any seeming conflicts with their parents or religious leaders."

I wouldn't be surprised if Buttars continues to pursue "divine design", but I would be very surprised if his efforts get anywhere. The LDS church isn't hostile to evolution and geology. Actually, while I was growing most of the opposition to evolution and geology that I encountered came from Protestant Christians. As a senior in high school I went to a talk at my local (Baptist) church about evolution. I wasn't very impressed, the speaker made quite a few very poor statements including "punctutated equilibrium is defined as a lizard giving birth to a chicken" (I'm paraphrasing). His talk wasn't very popular with the leadership of the church, mainly because he said that in order to be a Christian one had to be a creationist. To my knowledge the church hasn't hosted a similar speaker in the 12 years or so since I attended that talk (although they do link to a few young earth creationist sites on their web page).

I'm not LDS, but much of my family is, and many of my close friends are. I'm told that in LDS Seminaries the instructors are told not to take a position one way or the other about evolution. This isn't quite the position I wish they'd take, but it's much better than being hostile to evolution. There are undoubtedly members of the LDS church who are young earth creationists, but I don't think they're the majority, and quite honestly I'm not sure this is the case with most Protestant Christians in the US.

I wonder if part of the reason Utah is fairly friendly to geology is that there's just so much of it there. Faults, mountains, canyons and dinosaurs may be distant things to the people of Kansas, but they're in your backyard (more or less) in Utah. That's probably just wishful thinking on my part.

I haven't lived in Utah for a long time, but I still feel the need to stick up for that state from time to time. I think Utahns get more grief than they deserve.

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