Redacting exam questions on evolution is a slippery slope

No beating around the bush from the Genesis Expo in Portsmouth. ian_rickard, CC BY-NC

Writing good science exam questions is hard. Getting the wording right, making sure that what you are asking about is clear, pitching the question at the right level, takes time, lots of experience and sound subject knowledge.

The idea that a school could object to public exam questions and remove them – literally crossing them out with a black marker pen – is astonishing. Yet that’s exactly what happened last summer at the Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School in Stamford Hill, Hackney. Questions on evolution were censored not on the grounds of being poor, or for examining incorrect science, but because they conflicted with the school’s religious beliefs.

Tampering with public examinations

Tampering with public examinations goes against all the guiding regulations on school tests. What’s astounding is that once this tampering was uncovered by the National Secular Society (NSS), the exam board in question, OCR, condoned the action. Now the NSS has found through a Freedom of Information request, that OCR may come to an agreement in the future with exam centres on “how, when and where” redactions can take place.

Examination officers in schools and headteachers are accountable for the integrity of public examinations. Teachers can face serious disciplinary action for opening exam papers early or tampering with them. Headteachers have been sacked, jailed even, in the past. Yet in this case no action was taken.

The Yesodey Hatorah School was allowed to censor (the board prefers “redact”) questions on evolution because they were thought to be incompatible with the school’s religious character. Minister for education and childcare, Elizabeth Truss said, in a letter to the NSS, that a “proportionate and reasonable response” had been agreed with the school. She also stated that the school would be required to teach the new science curriculum in full from September 2014.

Skip that question girls. Yesodey Hatorah Senior school has been redacting exam questions on evolution. Max Nash/PA Archive

This raises important questions. What other aspects of science (or for that matter any other subject) could be subject to censoring on the basis of some perceived “offence” to the sensibilities of a wide range of established religious groups? Reproduction? The Holocaust? Climate change?

There are many vociferous religious groups worldwide who challenge evolution and who want a form of creationism to be taught. In the UK, such opposition, though present, is minimal. We may have a creationist museum in Portsmouth, a creationist Zoo in Bristol and our own mini version of the American Discovery Institute which promotes the idea of “intelligent design” in Scotland, but opposition to the scientific concept of evolution is, to all intents and purposes, relatively small in the UK.

The nature of science

The implication such groups make is that evolution is “not proven”, not a “fact” and, as “just a theory” should not be presented as the only account of how life develops. Most would like a form of creationism to be taught alongside evolution. But the Yesodey Hatorah School, which serves the Orthodox Jewish Charedi community, went one step further and removed evolution altogether from exams. Such an action shows a complete lack of understanding of the nature of science, the status of “scientific facts” and what a “theory” in science means.

Evolution is a scientific fact. There are multiple lines of evidence from various scientific disciplines: from biochemistry and genetics, where the commonality of DNA in closely related species is evident, to geology and the numerous fossils that show the evolution of species over time. Evolution by means of natural selection is also a theory. Natural selection explains how evolution takes place. One crucial aspect of evolution theory, often overlooked, is that it is not a theory of origins. Evolution is a theory that explains the development and diversity of life, not how life began.

Theories in science are open to change and many are incomplete, but they offer the best and accepted explanation of a phenomenon at any point in time. Proof of a scientific fact is often equated with the idea of “truth” by those who misunderstand the nature of science. Scientific facts are not “proven truths”. They are open to re-evaluation as new evidence or data comes to light.

Acceptance vs belief

So how do we overcome the issue of religious sensitivity towards evolution? One answer is to look at the idea of acceptance over belief. People of faith will often operate within a well-defined and established belief system. Beliefs, in this context, don’t necessarily require rational explanations or solid evidence to be held as real.

Science can’t operate in the same way. Evidence is sovereign. It rules the way scientists operate in the real world. A scientist may say that they “believe” this or that will happen in an experiment or that they “believe X explains Y”, but this is not the same as religious belief. It’s much more akin to acceptance.

With acceptance there’s capacity for change. If new evidence comes to light which better explains a phenomenon, then the “accepted” explanation can be disposed of and a new explanation adopted.

In the case of religious belief, evidence, no matter how convincing and strong, will not necessarily lead the believer to reject their belief system. They either accommodate the evidence into their belief system in such a way that the central belief is not disposed of, or, more often than not, reject the evidence.

A slippery slope

Elizabeth Truss has sought assurances that the Yesodey Hatorah school will teach evolution, yet, paradoxically, will allow it not to be examined if an agreement is reached with the exam board. How will we know that it has been taught? How will we know how well it has been taught (or for that matter how badly)?

The teaching of accepted scientific facts and theories must not be censored. That we are even contemplating allowing public examinations to be open to such censoring is unconscionable.