Monday, October 29, 2007

Teach the Controversy

The latest issue of the McGill Journal of Education is devoted to the Evolution/Creationism debate. There are several interesting articles but one that caught Greg Laden's eye was by Eugenie Scott on teaching the controversy [WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE “TEACH THE CONTROVERSY” SLOGAN?]. Greg agrees with her that we should not address the evoluton/creationism controversy in shools [How To Get Away With Teaching The Controversy].

I'm on the opposite side on this one. In Canadian schools I think we should teach the controversy—even in biology class. Here's my reasoning. You'd have to be some kind of idiot not to recognize that there's a conflict between evolution and many religious beliefs. Pretending that it's not there is no way to educate students.

If we really want to educate then we should address this issue head on and explain why the religious point of view contradicts science. One clear example is the age of the Earth. Students need to hear about the scientific evidence and why it isn't compatible with a 6000 year old Earth as described in the Bible. Another obvious example is the evidence for evolution and how it conflicts with most religious myths.

My children heard about this in their public high school and the biology teacher even organized debates between the two sides (creationists vs. evolutionists). He made an effort to keep everyone honest and avoid insults but there was no attempt to disguise the fact that a controversy existed.

Other Ontario schools did this too. On three occasions I was invited to other high schools to explain the evolution/creationism controversy. One one of these occasions I debated a Christian fundamentalist creationist in a Roman Catholic school. What's wrong with that?

There's nothing wrong with that. Teaching the controversy is a good idea. It's good when teachers explain what's wrong with astrology and it's good when they explain what's wrong with Young Earth Creationism.

The reason this won't work in the USA has nothing to do with whether we should address public controversies that involve science. I assume that students will be allowed to debate the pros and cons of global warming and they might even get lessons on what's wrong with holocaust deniers. The reason the evolution/creation controversy is banned is because religion is involved and that's a taboo subject in American schools.

How does Eugenie Scott deal with the position I advocate?
An argument that has been persuasive in both the United States and Canada is the claim that having students decide between ID and evolution, or to have students “critically analyze” evolution, is pedagogically sound critical thinking instruction from which students would benefit. Of course, all teachers want students to be critical thinkers! It might be a useful critical thinking exercise for students to debate actual scientific disputes about patterns and processes of evolution, as long as they have a solid grounding in the basic science required. (For further discussion, see Alters & Alters, 2001; Scott & Branch, 2003; Dawkins & Coyne, 2005.) It would, however, not be a good critical thinking exercise to teach students that scientists are debating whether evolution takes place: on the contrary, it would be gross mis-education to instruct students that the validity of one of the strongest scientific theories is being questioned. It would, therefore, be gross mis-education to teach students the inaccurate science presented in Icons of Evolution, and other Intelligent Design literature.
I think she's making an incorrect assumption here. We can "teach the controversy" by dealing directly with the conflict between religion and science and by explaining that scientists do not question evolution. The whole idea behind teaching, as far as I'm concerned, is to teach the truth and not some made-up stories that the Intelligent Design Creationists are pushing. Scott is assuming that in order to teach the controversy we have to present the IDC side as if it were true. That's nonsense. It makes about as much sense as assuming that you have to pretend that astrology is true in order to demonstrate that it isn't. (Everyone agrees that there's a controversy over the validity of horoscopes, right? Should we teach about it in school?)

I just finished teaching a section on the evolution/creation controversy to second year students. We used Icons of Evolution as our textbook and the students each picked a single chapter and wrote an essay explaining why Wells is wrong. You could easily do the same thing in high school and that would be a real contribution to education. As it is, by ignoring those arguments you allow them to stand unchallenged.

Now, we all know that there's an additional problem that isn't being mentioned. It's the quality of teachers. I think many people want to avoid teaching the controversy in American schools because it would give teachers the opportunity to promote creationism. That's the point that Greg Laden mentions on his blog. If that's the problem then we should fix it. If teachers don't understand the material they're supposed to be teaching then educate them, or fire them. (I know, it's not that easy.)

We want our students to be critical thinkers and this issue is a perfect one for them to put that critical thinking into practice. If you dare not go there because; (a) you don't want religion in the school, or (b) you don't trust the teachers, then, please, state those reasons up front and don't pussy foot around the issue by pretending that there's something else involved.

Here's the essay that should have been written.
We can't educate our students about the conflicts between science and religion because that would require teachers to bring up religion in school. It is forbidden to discuss religion in public schools in America and that's why we can't allow teaching the controversy. This is too bad because otherwise it might be a good vehicle for teaching critical thinking. It's better to allow the local churches to undermine everything we teach in school because the alternative violates the constitution. (Of course, this argument might become moot with one more appointment to the supreme court.)

Furthermore, even if we could mention religion in school, it wouldn't be a good idea to debate evolution vs. creationism because there are too many "science" teachers who reject evolution in favor of Biblical creationism. We prefer the status quo where neither evolution nor creationism is being taught. Teaching the controversy under these circumstances just opens the door to teaching creationism instead of evolution.


  1. Damn, Larry, I have you all pegged as an unreasonable curmudgeon and then you go and write an interesting and thoughtful piece, on framing, no less!

    You are quite right that the "controversy" is intractable in the US because of the extreme separation required between religion and state education there. In fact, I often wonder if that separation is entirely a good thing - it looks to me like being unable to discuss religion in class means anything goes outside it. In Australia, we had no such problems - our critical thinking teacher when I were a lad (back in the early Jurassic) used to read out the columns of the local public atheist and discuss the topics in class with no fear of reprisal. But perhaps that was a more innocent age.

    But one thing that I think must be repeated ad nauseum - this is a public controversy, not a controversy of science. It's OK for there to be controversies about science; in fact in a democracy there must be or science becomes isolated and irrelevant to the community except when it offers mere technology, and this results in a loss of funding for basic science.

    Of course the antievolutionists are manufacturing that controversy, but there's enough authentic concern that we can use it to address wider issues about the role of science and science education, not to mention the role of the religiously motivated in a secular society.

  2. This is a great post, Dr. Moran. I was impressed you used Wells' book in a 2nd-year class in that way. Food for thought when thinking about teaching.

    In an odd irony, my high-school AP chemistry teacher, who taught me enough chemistry in high-school for me to slack my way through 1st-year chemistry at university, also devoted considerable class time to debunking laughable claims of various sorts. One day that stands out in my mind was our fun with a "golf-ball finder". However, the irony comes in to play when we consider that this man was also a hard-core creationist. I assure you, the day we discussed the 2nd law of thermodynamics was less than entertaining. So he was quite willing to teach the controversies surrounding late-nite informercials, but not others.

  3. So what you are advocating is using a particular view of science to attack particular views of religion.

    This is of course the agenda of many groups in the USA, such as the Kansas Citizens for Science, but fortunately the Consitution stalls them out.

    Because just as the government can not pass any laws "establishing" religion, neither can it prohibit the free exercise thereof.

    So far, the Supreme court has interpreted this to mean that just as you can not promote religion in public schools, neither can you denigrate it.

    It more simple terms, you have to deflect questions about supposed contradictions between "science" and religion to the students parents or own spiritual traditon.

    In other words, you have to shut up about the subject. Now, I know you won't like this, but that is just like, uh, too bad man.

  4. Interesting post Larry. I think that teaching real scientific controversies (as opposed to manufactured political ones) is of more value for promoting critical thinking. For example, the latest offering from Massimo Pigliucci (upcoming in Evolution) calling for an extended evolutionary synthesis (well worth a read by the way):

    Pigliucci, M. (2007) Do we need an extended evolutionary synthesis. Evolution, advanced online publication

    The Modern Synthesis (MS) is the current paradigm in evolutionary biology. It was actually built by expanding on the conceptual foundations laid out by its predecessors, Darwinism and neo-Darwinism. For sometime now there has been talk of a new Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES), and this article begins to outline why we may need such an extension, and how it may come about. As philosopher Karl Popper has noticed, the current evolutionary theory is a theory of genes, and we still lack a theory of forms. The field began, in fact, as a theory of forms in Darwin's days, and the major goal that an EES will aim for is a unification of our theories of genes and of forms. This may be achieved through an organic grafting of novel concepts onto the foundational structure of the MS, particularly evolvability, phenotypic plasticity, epigenetic inheritance, complexity theory, and the theory of evolution in highly dimensional adaptive landscapes.

    In the long run, getting to grips with genuine scientific debate will be far more productive (the above would be more suited to university than high school). However, I can understand your thoughts on discussing creationist material. I guess part of the reluctance to do so comes down to fear; fear that (as you mention) the teachers aren't good enough, fear that this will be the thin end of a wedge, fear that some students will fall for the superficially convincing aspects of some creationist arguments (this strongly relates to the quality of teaching). I must admit to having these fears myself and this makes me reluctant to advocate much in the way of a mention for anti-science arguments.

    Part of me also thinks that we should simply be beyond this now. Plainly we aren't, but irrespective of this, it saddens me that there is even talk of discussing what is basically tarted up 19th century theology in 21st century science classes. We have moved on, so I'm extremely reluctant to give it the time of day, despite the fact that a controversy of sort obviously still exists.

    However, I can sympathise with your approach. Given the right teacher, presenting the material in an appropriate way (i.e. not pretending the arguments have equal merit), I could see how this could be an excellent teaching strategy, both for promoting critical thinking and developing understanding of evolution (I myself have learnt an awful lot moreabout evolution having delved into the subject in response to creationist attacks). However in practical terms I doubt this scenario is going to occur very often. Thats why I'd argue against introducing such an idea at policy level (e.g. in a national high school ciriculum as we have here in the UK, or in State standards in the US). However, individual teachers, with sufficient skills could certainly adopt this approach as I think it has the potential to be very beneficial. Call this a kop out, but I think we have to be very aware of the practical realities of education "on the ground".

  5. Christensen says,

    In other words, you have to shut up about the subject. Now, I know you won't like this, but that is just like, uh, too bad man.

    Hmmm ... that might be an appropriate response to someone who cared about the constitution of the United States of America but it doesn't apply to me.

    I do understand that American teachers are prevented from explaining the difference between science and religious pseudoscience because of the law. My point was that this is the reason for keeping the debate out of the schools. There's no other valid reason for doing so and that's why the controversy is addressed in the schools in other countries.

  6. Larry,

    I agree, but you are unfortunately, wrong. But I do agree.

    My response in detail, for what it is worth:

  7. Well, I teach high school biology in Ontario. I perused the issue in question and decided that while it holds some academic interest, it really is too US-centred in its approach to be really relevant as a tool for Ontario biology teachers.

    I agree in principle with Larry, and I have also seen similar things done in the classes here. I've seen students in Grade 8 try and tackle it.

    I don't introduce it, and the reasons are entirely practical--I don't teach in a traditional high school but a private one, the courses are often rather compressed, and I barely have time to cover the curriculum as it exists. I have always been prepared to deal with it if a student brings it up, though--and up to this point I have not had a single student ever voice an objection, or ask a question, or raise the issue at all. Ever.

    To be honest I would love to do something like Larry does, but the time constraints don't permit it. Even with the luxury of a complete semester in day school there is too much in our Grade 12 curriculum to cover and most teachers simply don't. Something gets short shrift. If you schedule a debate about creationism and evolution, then you spend less time on something else. Personally I'd rather help the students understand the significance of the patterns in the fossil record over deep time (something the textbooks do very poorly) than drag in something external to the curriculum and that few students up here have issues with anyway.

  8. While I agree that "teach the controversy" is a political Trojan Horse presented to introduce creationism into the classroom, we can turn it to our own advantage. Aikido, anyone? Carefully managed, will all the appropriate caveats (don't treat all alternative explanations as equal, make clear that criticism of one theory does not equal evidence in support of a competing theory, etc.) controversy need not be feared.

    I have often fantasized about taking the "teach the controversy" folks up on their offer. Then bring in an a YEC and an OEC. When evolution critics can't come to agreement within six orders of magnitude on a fundamental datum of origins science (the age of the earth), the quibbles among evolutionary scientists fade to trivial. Can you imagine the public perception of astronomy if astronomers couldn't agree if the sun was 93 million or 93 miles away?

    The mistake TTC proponents make is assuming that the only relevant controversy is between them and mainstream evolutionary science. There are many other controversies out there within the anti-evolution world. Shine the light on them and make them defend themselves. TTC can be fun if you let the critics fight amongst themselves instead of ganging up on you.

  9. there's a conflict between evolution and many religious beliefs

    Presumably you are describing nations where such a conflict is important. There are also basic conflicts between the methods of science and dogmatism of religion, as well as conflict between current or former religions and other sciences. But no one cares much about that.

    I can't speak for how teachers should do, or what to do in nations that have serious problems with anti-science and/or anti-democratic movements. Here [Sweden] it would currently probably be seen as defocussing from the subject.

    Btw, history of biology in the basic courses is here a way of describing what creationism means and why it is a pseudoscience. Occasional objection to descriptions what major religions once thought and did has IIRC been made and rejected without much public debate. A problem for those who make such objections is that they put focus on that they still value old and falsified ideas.

    But a common interest in the modern world of new media and old superstition would IMHO be to put more resources on early critical thinking, also outside science class and with social and media focus.