Students in the study's two intervention streams read from "Icons of Evolution" by Jonathan Wells, which attacks evolutionary theory and is sympathetic to ID, and "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins, which supports the theory of evolution. Students in the intervention streams also read "Icons of Obfuscation" by Nic Tamzek, an online refutation of Wells' book, and discussed current thinking about the nature of science. Students in the two non-intervention streams read from and discussed "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley, which describes evolutionary explanations for sexuality.
Verhey asked the 103 enrolled students to classify their beliefs about evolution and creationism before and after the course. Most of the 66 students who completed the survey had previously been exposed to both evolutionary and creationist accounts of life. Sixty-one percent of students in the intervention streams reported some change in their beliefs; most of these students were initially sympathetic to creationist explanations and moved toward increased acceptance of evolution. Only 21 percent of students in the non-intervention streams reported change in their beliefs.
Verhey's study was inspired by an influential theory of cognitive development advanced in 1970 by William G. Perry. Perry's theory holds that students pass through distinct modes of thinking. Verhey's intervention was designed to support students as they progressed toward a more sophisticated cognitive mode by engaging them at the level of their initial understanding--including their initial ideas about creationism. Although alternative explanations are possible, Verhey maintains that his results suggest engaging prior learning "was an effective approach to evolution education."
BioScience is the monthly journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). In an editorial commenting on Verhey's article, prominent evolution educator Craig E. Nelson asks how Verhey's "effective pedagogy" is to be reconciled with the strong stance of AIBS--and Nelson himself--against requiring the teaching of ID or creationism in high-school science classes. A large majority of biologists believe ID, which holds that evolution cannot explain life's complexity, is fundamentally unscientific. Nelson points out that teaching ID or creationism in a science class would be wrong unless these notions were critiqued scientifically and compared to evolutionary explanations. As many high-school teachers are not well prepared to rigorously contrast creationist and evolutionary accounts, Nelson writes that it would be "quite inappropriate to require such comparisons in high school." But encouraging active comparisons by college and university students will, according to Nelson, "help future teachers and other leaders understand why there is no contest scientifically between creationism and evolution."
I fished out my copy of Kitcher and refreshed my memory of his discussion. He does say one thing that echoes Michael's proposal:
"Important purposes may be served by exposing the differences between science and pseudoscience, by showing ... how Creation 'science' consistently falls short of the standards required of the genuine article."
However, he then goes on to say:
"What is in doubt is the possiblity of a fair and complete presentation of the issues ... in the context of the high school classroom... Creationists scatter their criticisms, using whatever ammunition they can find. Even a gifted teacher would not be able to expound enough of the scientific background to make it clear that all the salvos miss the mark.
"What Creationists really propose is a situation in which people without scientific training—fourteen-year-old students, for example—are asked to decide a complex issue on partial evidence. Creationists ... can make enough criticisms to prevent a biology teacher from identifying all the errors. In short, they can muddy clear waters.
"Students would be indoctrinated if they were offered a single view as authoritative when rival views were equally well confirmed by the available evidence. Nothing like indoctrination occurs when the best-supported account of the origin and development of life is presented for what it is."