Scientific expertise and the culture war: Public opinion and the teaching of evolution in the American states

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The teaching of evolution in public schools has been a central element in the nation's culture wars since the 1920s and remains a contentious issue today. Content standards for the teaching of biology have been flashpoints for conflict, with well publicized battles occurring in state governments, in federal courts, and in local school districts. We show that a full understanding of evolution politics at the state level must simultaneously account for three important features. First, cultural politics typically includes an important role for public opinion. Second, scientists and their professional organizations have actively sought a monopoly on defining what is and is not science by marginalizing their uncredentialled opponents and by erecting boundaries that buffer science policy from the influence of politics and public opinion. Third, in the American federal system courts rarely settle cultural issues but merely narrow the space within which politics can operate. In accounting for these features, we explain why court victories for science have had only limited impacts and provide a model for understanding other issuessuch as sex education, stem cell research, and global warmingin which moral and ideological arguments may conflict with scientific consensus.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)485-499
Number of pages15
JournalPerspectives on Politics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Political Science and International Relations


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