Modern Biology and Ecology: the Roots Of America’s Assertive Illiteracy

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The 2016 election elevated Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos—major supporters of teaching creationism—to the vice presidency and leadership of the U.S. Department of Education, respectively. DeVos is a billionaire funder of efforts to pass state laws that give science teachers the right to present anti-evolution materials in science classrooms under the guise of protecting academic freedom. At every political level, from local school boards to the U.S. Department of Education, anti-evolution advocates are active and gaining ground.

Only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology. At the other extreme, 13 percent explicitly advocate creationism, and spend at least an hour of class time presenting it in a positive light.

That leaves what the authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” who avoid controversy by endorsing neither evolution nor its unscientific alternatives. In various ways, they compromise.1

The problems with ignorance about science in America are not confined to classrooms in school districts with fundamentalist school boards, but is a big problem even in the daily work of professional biologists and ecologists working for the Federal Government.

I remember an incident in Oregon (an allegedly progressive state) about a timber sale’s effect on some rare lichens during a meeting of about 50 professionals and ranchers, including several wildlife biologists and ecologists, under a Democratic Clinton administration. A florid-faced, long-time county commissioner and a rancher loudly interjected (and he was serious), “Why boys, if you want lichens, just come out to my ranch. I’ve got them growing all over the backs of my fence posts.” This outburst was followed by his loud laughter, joined in by all the other ranchers. The biologists present literally hung their heads and said nothing. Because of their silence, I had to explain to the ranchers the difference between various types and classes of lichens, why they are not all the same, and their biological importance. If I had not been there, the remark would have passed un-rebutted.

After the meeting, biologists came up to me, as they invariably do after such exchanges, and thanked me for explaining basic facts of biology. They apparently were professionally “estopped” from saying anything. Even worse, in meetings where endangered fish or hatcheries are at issue, state biologists are often the very ones disseminating misinformation. On the other hand, other biologists seem to be able to continuously advocate for extractive interests and bad environmental projects without fear of criticism or censure. Every one of the hundreds of timber sales that have been successfully stopped by appeals or lawsuits from groups I worked with had the obligatory biological approvals and sign-offs tucked away in their files. The “no advocacy” door seems to swing only one way.

Noam Chomsky, in his books Secrets, Lies and Democracy (pg.54ff), and The Prosperous Few and The Restless Many (pg.78-79ff), states that in worldwide surveys of people’s grasp of biological science and evolution, the results for the U.S. jump out as similar to pre-industrial societies. Chomsky says that to find the scale of ignorance about modern biology found in America today, one must go to mosques in Iran or rural Sicily.2 Ten percent of Americans believe in modern evolution; 75 percent literally believe in the devil! Americans do not generally realize that the furious debates about teaching evolution and creationism are unique to America.

What is the reason for America’s dismal level of biological and evolutionary education? In the fields of ecology and biology alone, among all sciences, it is widely considered unethical—and punishable by loss of tenure—for professionals to be vigorous public advocates of their core beliefs and ideas. All  scientists—particularly those in chemistry and nuclear science—could be criticized for not advocating for the public interest when dangerous applications emerge from their research, but such failings to sound alarms are very different from the failings of biologists and ecologists. Chemists, like any scientists, may sometimes sit by and watch their creations used against the public interest, but it would be a higher order of malfeasance if they passively allowed the reintroduction of the discredited Phlogiston Theory into their local high school. The entire scientific community, in general, has much to answer for. It was the scientific community that voted to prevent Carl Sagan from becoming a member of National Academy of Scientists because he was a “popularizer.” But the peculiar shortcomings of biology go well beyond the failing of scientists in general.

Of course, there are hundreds of biologists and ecologists who have made enormous contributions to the effort to protect our public lands, but these efforts are those of individuals acting out of conscience and not attributable to their professions. Two entire organizations— Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)—have been created just for agency professionals who stand up and advocate for honest science. These scientists’ efforts are exceptional and mostly are of the whistle-blower variety and are to the credit of individuals, not to their professional fields. If medical doctors operated under the constraints ecologists do, when they came upon an auto accident they might confine their response to merely documenting the situation for their files.

Dr. Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the finest science teachers who has ever lived, said in an address he gave at Caltech in 1974, that what many scientists do for government agencies is actually not science at all.

“If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish BOTH kinds of results.“

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.3

Government scientists who sign off on a bogus Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) or a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) or who allow their findings to be edited to fit preconceived notions are just using the forms and language of science and not actually doing science. They are merely misapplying the scientific method and doing what Feynman referred to as “Cargo Cult” Science.4

One can imagine a meeting on women’s health issues where a county commissioner asserted there was no need for women’s medical services because “Everybody knows that babies come from women eating watermelon seeds.” Would any medical doctor present let that remark go un-rebutted? Every science and profession from public health to business administration takes responsibility to promote, advocate, and advance their discipline. All, alas, but ecology and biology.

The task for biology and ecology today is not to merely collect more boring, incomprehensible “monitoring” data but to vigorously advocate for better public education by:

+ turning incomprehensible data into information;

+ displaying and formatting that information in interesting and compelling ways; and promulgating it everywhere.

+ The marvelous way any species has struggled over millions of years to fill its unique niche and why each creature is a fantastically precious physical and molecular repository of that struggle is the most interesting and marvelous story that can possibly be told.

Biologists must free their profession from the muzzles and shackles which bind them to silence as no other science. They must confront head-on the ignorance promulgated by so-called Christian fundamentalists who are on the rise, and distressingly, extending American- style biological ignorance to Third World countries at an alarming rate.

In America, the failure of biologists and ecologists to promulgate their knowledge is allowing their own niche—evolutionary knowledge— to be colonized by fundamentalists who proselytize anti-scientific, creationist myths and other nonsense. Every scientist in America should have gotten a wake-up call in 1999 when all the presidential candidates from both parties, including Al Gore, refused to condemn or take a stand on the decision of the Kansas Board of Education to remove teaching evolution from the state science curriculum. By essentially treating “advocacy” of their own discipline as a sin punishable by loss of tenure, ecologists are being driven from their own field of expertise. In their obsession with species competition, they have apparently forgotten about their own. In a society with a strong fundamentalist element like ours, it is risky business to allow misinformation to go unchallenged and to be positioned as enablers of “paganism.”

If the unprofessional practice of ecology continues its present path, within our lifetime we may well succeed in mapping the entire country ten GIS layers deep only to have public schools, under state equal-time mandates, teaching that the world was created 6,000 years ago. If this happens, the basic cowardice of the science of biology to address real issues and confront powerful forces will, in large part, be the cause. And it will not only be biology which is set back; entire fields of study such as cosmology, geology and quantum physics are impossible to teach with the constraint that the Earth was created recently. Basic yardsticks, including time and light and, indeed, mensuration in all fields of science, are irreconcilable with crackpot creationism.

Emerson saw this problem with biologists over 150 years ago in a speech, now known as “The American Scholar” essay in which he discussed the role of biologists (then called “research scholars”). He addressed what he saw as the growing tepidness and cowardice of scientists, and called on them to be brave. “Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it he is not yet man. Without it thought can never ripen into truth.”5 Of scientists, he said:

“It is a shame, if his tranquility amid dangerous times arise from the presumption that like children …his is a protected class; or if he seek a temporary peace by the diversion of his thoughts from politics or vexed questions, hiding his head like an ostrich in the flowering bushes, peeping into microscopes, and turning rhymes, as a boy whistles to keep his courage up.6

The question for ecologists today is this: in your evaluation, monitoring, research, mapping, and truckloads of abstruse term papers, are you merely “peeping into microscopes” and hiding your heads in flowering bushes? Are your scientific activities truly helping society confront the negative consequences of man’s actions?

Had I the power to deploy protesters and choose their message, I would send them to the biological sciences classrooms of American graduate schools, where they would stand in black shrouds at the front doors, holding signs with one word: “SHAME!” As the professors walked in, the protesters would rub the index fingers of both hands together at right angles—the universal sign for “Shame on you.”


1. Nicholas Bakalar, “On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan,” Science, February 7, 2011, accessed October 12, 2017.

2. Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Secrets, Lies and Democracy (Tucson, AZ: Odonian Press, 1994).

3. Richard Feynman, “Cargo Cult Science” (address, Caltech Commencement, Pasadena, CA, June 1974).

4. Ibid.

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar (Boston, MA: James Munroe & Company, 1838).

6. Ibid.

This essay is adapted from “Organize to Win” Vol 2 chapter 2 which can be downloaded for free at britell.com Subscribe to my blog here.


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Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at Britell.com.

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