Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Scientific Expertise and the Culture War: Public Opinion and the Teaching of Evolution in the American States

Michael B. Berkmana1 and Eric Plutzera2

a1 The Pennsylvania State University.

a2 The Pennsylvania State University.


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 issues—such as sex education, stem cell research, and global warming—in which moral and ideological arguments may conflict with scientific consensus.

Michael B. Berkman is Professor of Political Science, The Pennsylvania State University (

Eric Plutzer is Professor of Political Science, The Pennsylvania State University (


Michael B. Berkman and Eric Plutzer are the authors of Ten Thousand Democracies: Politics and Public Opinion in America's School Districts (Georgetown University Press, 2005).

This research was supported in part by grants from the John Templeton Foundation and the Spencer Foundation. The authors thank Claudio Tufis and Julianna Sandell Pacheco for their assistance with data analysis. We received valuable comments on earlier drafts from Frank Baumgartner, Charles Barrilleaux, Mark Rom, and our anonymous reviewers. Earlier versions of this paper were presented in 2006 at the State Politics and Policy Conference and the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association.