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Wisconsin Governor and erstwhile presidential candidate hopeful Scott Walker infamously refused to answer a question on evolution. However, that sentiment doesn’t necessarily carry over to the typical voter. The U.S. public is far from unanimous when it comes to human origins.

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Political scientists Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer looked at the way that the notion of scientific expertise has clashed with democratic decision-making when states develop curriculum guidelines for the teaching of evolution.

Berkman and Plutzer point out that the political constituencies and groups who oppose the teaching of evolution in schools are similar to the ones that oppose same-sex marriage and abortion. Unlike with those other religiously tinged “morality issues,” though, the other side in the debate is animated by a desire to uphold “the prestige, power, and authority of science as a social institution.”

Since the Scopes “monkey trial,” courts have mediated this conflict, policing the question of how we should understand the authority of scientists. In the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas case, a U.S. District Court dismissed the idea that evolution should be considered part of a secular religion and treated in the same manner as creationism. Similarly, Kitzmiler v. Dover in 2004 struck down a local Pennsylvania school board’s requirement that students be told about intelligent design theory.

Berkman and Plutzer argue that court victories like these help affirm the importance of scientific knowledge, but they don’t necessarily lead to the consistent teaching of evolution, rather than creationism, in the classroom. They argue that state school boards charged with setting curriculum guidelines don’t follow a “technical policy-making model” like the process for setting rules for professional licensing. Instead, the strong political movement around the issue has been able to significantly influence standards.

The authors find that, when it comes to the rigor of science curriculum standards in general, states with more support for public education and larger bureaucracies for standards development have the most rigorous curricula. Looking just at standards regarding evolution, on the other hand, those variables have no influence. Instead, public opinion on evolution is a significant predictor of the rigor of the standards. The authors then look at what influences public opinion on evolution and find that the two important variables are the proportion of fundamentalists in each state and the percentage of adults with advanced degrees.

Finally, Berkman and Plutzer note that the court rulings do constrain states’ ability to write standards, allowing them to “give only cursory attention to natural selection…” but not to require “balanced treatment” for creationism and intelligent design.

Without the limits created by the courts, the authors write, democratic mechanisms would make the schools in some states much more hostile to the teaching of evolution. Which is probably something Scott Walker is well aware of.



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Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Sep., 2009), pp. 485-499
American Political Science Association