Another Victory for Apathy

11 Jun

Apathy: It's Your Future! The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe in its June 9, 2012 episode did a service to anyone concerned about science and science education with three news stories highlighting three attacks from three different angles. One of those stories was the decision by the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science, and technology (MEST) to “…produce revised editions that exclude examples of the evolution of the horse or of avian ancestor Archaeopteryx.” (via NCSE) But, the Rogues also ridiculed North Carolina for legislating the selection of data involving the effect of AGW-altered sea levels on coastline erosion and California for dumbing down high school science requirements.

Considering all three together, and then considering what the Society for Textbook Revise/Committee to Revise Evolution in Textbooks (STR) in South Korea has accomplished is nothing more than simple politics. STR has exerted maximum pressure at a narrowly-focused point, MEST, because the majority of students and their families, teachers, and schools affected by MEST were not, and most likely could not, organize an effective opposition. Some have resented the nefarious influence of the evangelical Christian community in South Korea.

South Korea’s strong creationist sentiment is apparently due in part to its large Christian population. When it comes to evolutionary skepticism, surveys show that South Korea’s numbers are comparable to those of the United States. Nearly one-third of South Koreans don’t believe in evolution, claiming that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support it, or that it contradicted their religious beliefs. Others simply stated that they didn’t understand the theory – an indication that evolutionary biology is insufficiently taught in that country. In fact, there are only 5-10 evolutionary scientists in South Korea who teach the theory of evolution in undergraduate and graduate schools.

And, this situation is only the result of good organization.

Creationism in South Korea gained more attention following the 1980 World Evangelisation Crusade, which was held in Seoul. The following year, the Korea Association for Creation Research was setup. The association’s website stays up to date with current evolutionary research, publishing news stories that often state the facts as published, before going on to poke holes in the results, point out that “accidents” of “random mutations” were surely by design, before finishing off with a few references to “the Creator”.

The country’s anti-evolutionary sentiment appears to already be widespread within the schooling system, with a recent survey of trainee teachers in the country revealing half of those questioned disagreed with the statement that “modern humans are the product of evolutionary processes”.

It’s easy to lampoon evangelicals when “…neon crosses that burn across the skyline of Seoul…barbershop-style” assault the eyes. But, the evangelicals are not acting “irrationally”. In North Carolina, pro-business interests swayed the legislature, and in California the issue was the solvency of the state government, but in all three cases, the last concern on anyone’s mind was science. Evolution might not be banned in South Korea (as of now), but it’s clear that STR has no opponents, at least none worth considering.

Obviously, I care about evolution, and more broadly, science education. Is it reasonable for me to do anything about this evangelical assault on evolution? Yes, as an educator, I need to be concerned about textbooks.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing how ignorantists can be so coordinated, so organized, so clever about this stuff.

But I am thinking about this from another angle. You see, I’ve seen the process of textbook making before. It’s a bit like watching people make law or sausage: if you can bear to see more than a little bit of it, then you have a strong stomach, at least in this country. One reason is that in Korea, there are official textbook lists made by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry renews its lists every few years, and at every step there is a huge competition – often involving a lot of last-minute revisions, according to new government guidelines – which decides what gets onto the textbook lists. Those books sell in huge quantities, and so every textbook publisher’s or author’s goal is to get a book within the guidelines, and then have it score high on Ministry evaluations, so that it can be included on an official school textbook list… and, bing! Profit.

(I wish I could say that the guidelines are amended well in advance – say, the day after the previous period’s textbook submissions were accepted for evaluation, so that textbook editors could get to work on the revisions needing to get done for a few years away. That would be the sane and organized way of doing things.

(But in my experience, like so much else in Korea, this amendation of the guidelines and required content lists happens at the last possible minute. The result is that textbook publishers and authors spend about three weeks to a month in a mad scramble trying to finalize their textbook content: rewriting new chapters, changing chapters, freaking out because they will not be sleeping for at least half of the coming month, if everything is to get done in time…)

The reason I bring up all of this is because textbook companies normally do not take risks when it comes to content and their potential inclusion on the Ministry of Education’s textbook lists for public schools. They are, indeed, so risk-averse that they will publish outdated material just to avoid being left off the list. This is because exclusion from the list means a loss of billions of won (ie. millions of dollars) of revenue; I’ve personally seen cases in textbook projects where broken English went uncorrected despite a native English speaker’s proofreading it, or publishers insisted on the inclusion of bizarre, dated, or contextually nonsensical idioms because, according to the government’s English textbook guidelines, that particular example of broken, outmoded, or obsolete English was “correct” and “was supposed to be included in a book for this grade level.”

Which brings me to the ominous subtext I see in all of this:

I don’t believe that major textbook publishers would not be willing to consider these cuts, regardless of pressure from Christian groups, unless they believed that the cuts would not jeopardize their books’ chances of official government endorsement. I’m not talking conspiracy, mind you: but I imagine there have been discussions among the major players. If there hadn’t, this kind of cut probably would never have been contemplated.

And need I remind you, when the current President was criticised for many things, but among them a discriminatory preference for Christians over Buddhists, and alliance with some of the most unsavory elements in Korean Protestant Christianity. (Which is no surprise: anyone so hare-brained as to declare Seoul “a holy place governed by God” and the city’s residents as “God’s people” – and then goes so far as to dedicate the city to his god – is bound to put his foot in not just his mouth, but also to use it to trample on others’ freedoms sooner or later.) For me, the religious criticisms of Lee (and much more here) are second to much more serious criticisms (outlined here and here)… with leadership like that, I certainly find it unsurprising that textbook publishers expect a welcome government response to the omission of evolution from Korean textbooks, and ultimately from Korean education generally.

Lampooning evangelicals is all too easy, but it risks making these very well organized, well-funded organizations august guardians of morality and accountability that a plurality of voters would give political power. At the least, science professionals should ally with other educational professionals, to revise textbook selection procedures, not just how MEST decides to include or exclude evolution. Professionals need to draw a line between education and professional success, and make a case to parents and students, that the present system fails them. Otherwise, this is just a partisan debate between what many people, a few provocateurs, but also many earnest laypeople, consider two phalanxes of crackpots muttering obscure formulas about the nature of the universe. I am invested in science, in social science, but, frankly, humanity did survive millennia believing the earth was the center of the universe. How long did it take before those incorrect opinions were refuted, and could it have occurred earlier if more people had cared? We seem to live in very fleeting times, and so the stakes could be higher for waiting to appreciate the mettle of the foe we face: our own apathy.

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