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On the Relationship Between Belief and Acceptance of Evolution as Goals of Evolution Education

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The issue of the proper goals of science education and science teacher education have been a focus of the science education and philosophy of science communities in recent years. More particularly, the issue of whether belief/acceptance of evolution and/or understanding are the appropriate goals for evolution educators and the issue of the precise nature of the distinctions among the terms knowledge, understanding, belief, and acceptance have received increasing attention in the 12 years since we first published our views on these subjects. During that time, our own views about these issues have evolved, and this article presents a reconsideration of both these distinctions and the propriety of these goals. In particular, the present paper continues our discussion of the nature of belief as it relates to science education, and more specifically to evolution education. We extend that work to consider the import of the distinction between belief and acceptance.

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  1. The authors also reported on two samples of American adults who were asked about the same statement using a “‘definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false, or did not know or were uncertain” format.

  2. Respondents were allowed one other option, to say that they were not sure/did not know.

  3. Retrieved January 20, 2013, from

  4. Retrieved February 26, 2013, from

  5. Notice that on this standard philosophical usage, which we endorse, to believe that p just is to believe that p is true. That is, belief (that p) = belief (that p is) true.

  6. Retrieved April 1, 2013 from

  7. She may also have a “nagging doubt” that not-p (evolutionary theory is not true), i.e., she may hold conflicting beliefs, be of a mixed mind on the issue.

  8. Our view is close to that of Williams (2015), who also recommends both the acceptance/belief distinction just drawn and the focus on acceptance rather than belief in the articulation of the goals of science education. Our emphasis on understanding is also mainly in line with the position taken by Reiss (2011, p. 412) that the evolution educator’s hope should be “to enable students to understand the scientific worldview with respect to origins, not necessarily to accept it.” Reiss’ discussion of worldviews in instructive and we think mainly compatible with what we say here. While we advocate goals that include both belief and acceptance below, which seems on the surface to contradict Reiss’ “not necessarily to accept it” in the previous quotation, we think that students who achieve Reiss’ call to “understand the scientific worldview” will perforce meet at least our acceptance goals and quite possibly the first of our two belief goals as well. Our thanks to an anonymous referee whose comments prompted this note.

  9. The distinctions we draw between belief and acceptance are nominal distinctions, i.e., distinctions based on the norms of practice—how the terms are typically used. The distinction is not meant to reflect a structural distinction within the brain. Recent neuroscience research suggests, in fact, that—contrary to much research in the past 30 years—“diverse mental states emerge from the combination of domain-general psychological processes or “ingredients” that map to large-scale distributed networks in association regions of the brain” (Oosterwijk et al. 2012, p. 2110). For more on the neuroscience of decision making per se, see Levine (2009).

  10. Goals have, of course, varied over time and among the various countries of the world. Many of these goals are available in documents available on the Internet. The US goals are presented here as examples. For readers interested in other countries and changes over time, a good entry point is Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency (2011).

  11. Retrieved January 31, 2013, from

  12. Again, the focus is on the US context. For examples of science education goals in other countries, see Department of Education (UK) (2015), Milne (2004), Tyler (2007), and others. A review of these goals suggests a substantial similarity in focus. Therefore, the discussion here is likely relevant in many countries.

  13. Retrieved January 31, 2013, from

  14. Retrieved January 20, 2013, from

  15. For a more extended discussion of understanding as a goal of education and more generally, see Elgin (1999) and (2006). The nature of understanding is a matter of ongoing discussion in the epistemological literature, with some taking it to be a kind of knowledge, and others as a cognitive achievement that involves having a number of true beliefs about the understood topic. We refrain here from entering this debate, contenting ourselves with a simpler conception that seems fitting for science education. Thanks to an anonymous referee whose comments prompted this note.

  16. We acknowledge that the language of our goals is, of necessity, cryptic. For example, our use of the phrase “the best scientific explanation” is not meant to imply that there are competing scientific explanations. In settings where few if any students are predisposed to reject evolution and students have not been taught about “scientific creationism”, it would be more appropriate to say “the only scientific explanation.” In settings where this is not the case, however, our language seems more appropriate because it is less offensive to rejector students who are likely to focus on the word “only.” We find that being sensitive to student views is crucial to promoting their openness to consider evolution. Likewise, an anonymous reviewer of this manuscript felt that this phrasing implies that the theory of evolution is “static, not malleable.” We disagree with this interpretation and have found no evidence that students make this interpretation of evolution any more than they do with any of science although nature-of-science research has indeed long shown that students often misunderstand science as static, not tentative and subject to revision and expansion. This reviewer also argued that “there is no theory of evolution,” but that there are separate theories of natural selection, common descent, etc. Although we agree that the present understanding of evolution could be parsed into these sub-theories, the term “theory of evolution” is the more common usage at least in educational literature. We also feel that the focus of our proposals on students at the introductory level is more consistent with the more general phrasing.

  17. In Smith and Siegel (2004), we took the position that “Belief may be desirable but need not and should not be an explicit aim of education” (p. 575). Therefore, the inclusion of this belief goal represents a shift in our view.

  18. See Siegel (2010).

  19. See also El Hani and Mortimer (2007), Alters and Nelson (2002), Cooper (2001), and Southerland et al. (2001).

  20. “Idiomatic phrases consisting of a verb and another element, typically either an adverb, as in break down, or a preposition, for example see to, or a combination of both, such as look down on.” (In this case “that” is a demonstrative adjective.) Retrieved January 30, 2013, from

  21. Retrieved January 30, 2013, from

  22. For an interesting analysis of the relationship between the terms belief and faith within the context of religion, see Alston 1996. For a broader consideration of evolution and religious issues in America, see Long (2011).

  23. There is no need to distinguish between accept that and accept in because the latter construction is nonsensical in English.

  24. This is clearly NOT the meaning implied by much of the published usage of belief by many proponents of creationism, who argue that both creationism and evolution are “matters of faith”, just “beliefs IN” different things.

  25. We note also that one may encounter dispositional beliefs disguised in the structure of a propositional belief, as in “belief that God exists”—a position that may also suggest a belief IN God and is therefore clearly out of the bounds of science.

  26. We use the term “creationist” to refer to any and all of the many possible beliefs that include a supernatural creator.

  27. Retrieved January 31, 2013, from

  28. Retrieved January 31, 2013, from

  29. Examples might include authors such as Lawson and Weser (1990) whom we have criticized previously (Smith and Siegel 2004, Smith 2010) for espousing changes in personal beliefs including ‘‘non-scientific beliefs’’ such as a belief in the existence of the soul.

  30. Other arguments are summarized in Smith (2010).

  31. We note that these claims have not been tested empirically.

  32. Philosophers often argue that action requires the necessary motivation as well.

  33. Note, of course, that learning is not typically so linear, and thus we prefer the relationships depicted in Fig. 1.

  34. Reported in a manuscript submitted for review to a major journal in science education.

  35. Of course, the relationship between evidence and truth is complex: Evidence can be misleading, belief can be partial and/or equivocal, etc. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, belief qua belief aims at truth, and, if we are right, biology teachers should endeavor to bring their students to believe that evolutionary theory is (at least approximately) true on the basis of the evidence.

  36. The perceptive reader will note that Ms. James does not add Goals 5 and 6 in this note to parents. Her decision to omit this goal in her letter to parents is consistent with our recommendation that teachers avoid use of the word believe because of the potential for misunderstanding due to vernacular polysemy.

  37. Note that these are only Ms. James’ understanding goals.

  38. “All members of Hominidae except humans have 24 pairs of chromosomes. Humans have only 23 pairs of chromosomes. Human chromosome 2 is widely accepted to be a result of an end-to-end fusion of two ancestral chromosomes” (now called Chromosomes 2A and 2B in chimpanzees). Retrieved January 18, 2013, from

  39. This may, of course, be difficult for any students whose beliefs improperly make empirical claims that can be shown to be incorrect, e.g., young earth creationism beliefs held by biblical literalists. Ms. James will, in fact, need to address the NOS issues raised by these beliefs that improperly make religious claims about scientific questions. For suggestions on instruction for these students, see Smith (2010).


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We wish to express our appreciation to the editor and reviewers for their thoughtful and productive feedback to an earlier version of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Mike U. Smith.

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Smith, M.U., Siegel, H. On the Relationship Between Belief and Acceptance of Evolution as Goals of Evolution Education. Sci & Educ 25, 473–496 (2016).

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