A bunch of British scholars have issued a Joint statement on creationism and evolution in schools. The list of signatories include all the usual suspects: Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, Steve Jones, Michael Reiss, Steven Rose, John Sulston, Lewis Wolpert, etc.
Creationism and "intelligent design" are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.Nobody can argue with the second part of the statement; of course evolution should be taught.
But this is not enough. An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. The teaching of evolution should be included at both primary and secondary levels in the National Curriculum and in all schools.
I want to challenge the first part of the statement. Should the British government pass a law banning the teaching of creationism and/or Intelligent Design Creationism as science?
The first thing that troubles me is the idea of a legal ban on teaching anything at all. I don't think this is a good idea even for ridiculous ideas such as homeopathy or astrology. Do we really want lawyers and legislators making decisions about what should be taught as science and what shouldn't? Neither of those groups are competent to make such decisions.
Besides, enforcing a legal prohibition against teaching Intelligent Design Creationism as science only plays into the hands of the creationists. What are we afraid of? Are we worried that the creationist challenge is so strong that science may not be able to withstand the assault without protection from the courts?
There's another issue that's even more troubling. We could read between the lines of the joint statement and come up with the following logic ...
We the undersigned have adopted a particular version of what science is and we have adopted a particular definition of intelligent design. We agree on a particular (unstated) definition of "scientific theory." According to these views and definitions, intelligent design is not science and should not be taught as science in our schools.Problem is, there are many different definitions of science and why should we believe this group of signatories over another? There are also many different ways of defining intelligent design and some of the definitions fit my view of what science is. It may be horrible science but it can't just be dismissed as non-science.
On this blog we often discuss books by Intelligent Design Creationists. Most of what's in The Myth of Junk DNA or The Edge of Evolution, for example, is pure science by any definition. It turns out to be bad science—or a very misleading version of science—but on the surface it seems to apply rational thought, evidence, and skepticism to the problem of evolution.
I'm very uncomfortable with the idea that those books should be banned from science classes.
There's another reason why banning bad science is wrong. Study after study has shown that in order to correct student misconceptions you need to address those misconceptions directly. For example, if a student comes into a classroom thinking that creationism is correct, they will not be swayed by simply presenting the evidence for evolution. That's necessary but not sufficient. You also have to show them why their creationist views are wrong and that means bringing up those incorrect views in science class.
Take irreducible complexity as an example. If students think that irreducible complexity refutes evolution then you aren't ever going to change their minds by ignoring irreducible complexity in class. What you have to do is explain the concept and demonstrate why it's bad science (or non-science if you prefer). You can't do this if you are legally prohibited from mentioning intelligent design in a science class.
We need to teach students what science is and what science isn't. The appropriate place to do this is in science class. You can't teach this concept without giving some examples of non-science or pseudoscience and that's a good thing because it directly addresses any misconceptions students might have.
Similarly, if Intelligent Design Creationism is mostly bad science (instead of non-science) then the best way to teach the difference between good science and bad science is to use examples and Intelligent Design Creationism is an excellent example because so many students think it's good science. Banning it from the science classroom is just bad pedagogy.
It's also counter-productive. By protecting it from direct critical analysis in a science class you are actually giving a free pass to the anti-science forces outside the classroom.