Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Should politicians and lawyers ban the teaching of some subjects in public schools?

The Scottish Secular Society (SSS) was upset that creationism might be slipping into some schools in Scotland. They petitioned the Scottish government requesting that teaching creationism be banned in public schools in Scotland.1 Government officials refused on the grounds that there were already mechanisms in place to ensure that students received a proper science education [Schools creationism ban rejected by Scottish Government].

The official said,
Safeguards include; school managers having oversight of curriculum planning and resources; local authorities with robust complaints procedures, independent school inspections and the development of curriculum materials through a collegiate approach that provides for early identification of any inappropriate material.
This seems like the proper approach to me. Governments can set up mechanisms to create standardized curricula and that should include descriptions of what should be taught in each grade. They can even pass a law saying that all schools have to adhere to the guidelines.

I don't think they should be responding to pressure groups that want to ban the teaching of certain subjects. Most of us would react strongly to any government that banned teaching of sex education, evolution, communism, Islamic culture, feminism, gun control, or post-modernism.2 We should also be wary of banning other subjects even though we are certain that they are wrong—subjects such as Young Earth Creationism. If you give politicians the right to ban teaching of certain subjects then don't be surprised if it backfires.

It's best not to give them that power in the first place but to rely instead on curricula and standards that are developed by educators and enforced by educators. Mistakes will be made but it's better in the long run to do it that way than to have education influenced by the power of lobbyists and pressure groups and petitions.

Jerry Coyne disagrees. He thinks that the Scottish government should have banned the teaching of creationism [Scotland refuses to ban teaching of creationism]. This is one of those issues where Jerry and I strongly disagree. He wants to fire teachers who teach creationism and he wants government to pass and enforce laws that prohibit the teaching of certain subjects.

Here's the letter he wrote to Fiona Robertson, the director of Scotland’s Learning Directorate.
Dear Ms. Robertson,

As an American professor who teaches evolutionary biology, I was deeply disappointed to read in The Herald of Scotland that your country’s education directors refuse to ban the teaching of creationism to schoolchildren....

As the author of a popular book on the evidence for evolution (Why Evolution is True), I am fully aware of the massive evidence for evolution and the complete absence of evidence for any creationist views, which invariably stem from Biblical literalism. Creationism is thus a purely nonscientific view based on religion, and I’m saddened that Scotland won’t take even a minimal stand to ensure that its children are not indoctrinated with such bogus "science". The truth of evolution, I’ve found, is not only fascinating, based as it is on mountains of diverse but congruent evidence, but also deeply enlightening, showing us how our own species, and other species as well, came to be. It is the true story of our origins.

I hope that Scotland, like England and Wales, will have the resolve to explicitly establish some guidelines about what Tim Simmons, head of the Curriculum Unit, called "well-established science." Without an explicit statement that creationism is not well-established science, schools are at the mercy of whatever their teachers want to impart about the origins and diversity of organisms.

Thank you for your consideration.
Cordially,
Jerry Coyne
Professor
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago
Chicago, IL 60637 USA
I don't agree with Jerry Coyne. I'm all in favor of teaching evolution and proper science but I'm also in favor of teaching students why things like creationism, astrology, and homeopathy are wrong and why the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist.

It's a bit ridiculous to pass laws banning the teaching of every single thing that "is not well-established science."

It's true that "schools are at the mercy of whatever their teachers want to impart" but the way to fix that problem is to change the views of society, and teachers, about evolution and creationism. There isn't much evidence that simply banning certain subjects will actually change whether students believe them or not. If that were true, then we would expect that the students of Dover Pennsylvania have now come to accept evolution and reject creationism.


1. I'm using "public" school in the North American sense to refer to schools that are open to the public and supported by government funding.

2. I'm a bit ambivalent about banning post-modernism.

19 comments :

  1. I'm OK with what you said, Larry, but there's a caveat. In the US, teaching something is conflated with advocacy. I'm OK with people teaching about creationism but not teaching creationism. I teach about science but I also advocate it.

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    1. Exactly. I remember learning about various religions in US public school as well, but it was clear that the goal was to understand what was the basis of the religions even when these beliefs contradict what we know about the natural world. The problem is when (as sometimes happens, although I haven't had such a teacher) a teacher decides to skew it so that is propaganda for a particular religion.

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    2. I'm OK with people teaching about creationism but not teaching creationism.

      Me too. I don't think that teachers should be teaching creationism in public schools. Is there something about my post that made you think I was in favor of teaching scientific nonsense?

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    3. No, but just as you acknowledged that banning subjects can lead to unintended consequences, so can saying nothing can be banned, because there is a fine line between merely teaching what creationists believe and advocating it (or using the "balance" excuse to suggest that creationism and evolution are equally valid viewpoints).

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    4. The history of creationism is something that could be taught in current affairs for example. I have no doubt students would find the various court cases in the US which culminated in the Dover trial fascinating. They should know why creationists have lost every time they've challenged science, and how Ken Miller's testimony at the Dover trial was so damning to ID creationism.

      The history of science is also a subject that is sadly ignored. Students should know why geologists abandoned a young Earth and a global flood several centuries ago, and long before the concept of radiometric dating.

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  2. "I'm a bit ambivalent about banning post-modernism."

    I don't get this. More precisely, I don't get how anybody with any kind of background in evolutionary biology would disagree with the critique of modernisms belief in progress.

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  3. Larry: "It's a bit ridiculous to pass laws banning the teaching of every single thing that "is not well-established science.""

    In the US that's not exactly how it works. There are no laws against teaching creationism in the US. The First Amendment is legally interpreted to mean that no publicly funded institutions can promote religion, and judges interpret teaching creationism as promoting religion. You are underestimating the power of the judicial branch of government.

    In the case of Scotland, I believe it was the case not of proposed laws against creationism, but of regulations issued by the education ministry. That is IIRC how creationism is "banned" in England, by a ministry, not by laws.

    Thus, in the UK educators are still the ones deciding what other educators teach, contra Larry's point.

    Larry does not exactly spell out how he thinks standards should be enforced-- if a geography teacher teaches the Earth is flat, I'd assume Larry would agree he should be disciplined-- but Larry doesn't spell out who should do the disciplining. I presume Larry thinks the other teachers local to the school should enforce discipline, like a faculty senate. Larry seems to put great confidence in the faculty senate.

    But if a government education ministry is run by educators, when they do the disciplining, it's still educators disciplining educators-- just at a higher up level, rather than Bob and Mary discipling Steve down the hall, which I presume is what Larry has in mind.

    It's not clear to me why Larry thinks the faculty senate should have the power to discipline (if that's what he means) but educators who rank above them in government institutions should have no such power. The former case seems like a Good Old Boys' Network and even more "political" than getting the government involved!

    My point: if we agree educators should discipline educators, where should we put the "cutoff point" for how high up the totem pole such decisions may go? Larry seems to want the cutoff point placed very low. True? If so, why?

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    1. Larry: "It's best not to give them that power in the first place but to rely instead on curricula and standards that are developed by educators and enforced by educators."

      Larry doesn't spell out exactly what "enforced" means, or how this works. If a geograohy teacher teaches that the Earth is flat, is Larry saying that the faculty senate can discipline him? Does discilpine include firing?

      What about the principal or chancellor of the school? Can they fire the Flat Earth guy? How does it work, and why is it better?

      Larry seems to think faculty senates are immune to political influence, but of course local bodies are susceptible to LOCAL political influence. Larry is exchanging the danger of LOCAL political interference in place of national political interference.

      This won't work against fundies because they know all politics is local. Fundies put 90% of their effort and meddling into local politics. If decisions are made locally, there will still be massive political meddling, but it will be local meddling, at which fundies excel.

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    2. Larry doesn't spell out exactly what "enforced" means, or how this works. If a geograohy teacher teaches that the Earth is flat, is Larry saying that the faculty senate can discipline him? Does discilpine include firing?

      I don't think you can change what a teacher believes by punishing them or firing them. Instead of concentrating on the law to protect you from creationism, we should be concentrating on educating the general public about science and scientific reasoning. We should also be focusing on the real problem, which is belief in god(s).

      Once we achieve an enlightened and educated society, the issue of teaching creationism will go away. I doubt very much that a few isolated instances of teaching creationism in Scottish schools is a serious problem. You could make it into a serious problem by trying to enforce an outright ban.

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    3. So Flat Earth guy can't be fired no how?

      Math teacher that teaches 2+2 = 5? Can't be fired?

      Can people be fired for extreme incompetence?

      Assume you say yes. If teachers can be fired for incompetence, but NOT for pseudoscience, doesn't that require a regulating body to distinguish pseudoscience from incompetence-- what's one and what's the other?

      Who decides that? And won't that regulating body, that decides where pseudoscience ends and incompetence begins, be subject to political pressure?

      Aren't individual teachers themselves also subject to political pressure?

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    4. Once we achieve an enlightened and educated society, the issue of teaching creationism will go away.

      Well then, that's no problem.

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    5. Well then, that's no problem.

      Correct. That's why teaching creationism isn't much of a problem in those countries that are closer to the ultimate goal whereas teaching evolution is the problem in those countries that are farthest away from being enlightened.

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    6. Larry: "whereas teaching evolution is the problem in those countries that are farthest away from being enlightened."

      You're right Larry. Poor Alberta!

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  4. " I'm all in favor of teaching evolution and proper science but I'm also in favor of teaching students why things like creationism, astrology, and homeopathy are wrong and why the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist. "

    My ninth grade science was devoted to history of science. This is a good way to teach about the emergence of scientific methodology. It also reinforces the concept that science doesn't know everything and continually attempts to improve understanding.

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  5. Off topic, but am I the only one who sees the left sidebar text wriggle? Starting with Quotations. Using Chrome browser.

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  6. I have no problem with teaching kids about creationism. But that is a far stretch from suggesting that it is supported by evidence, or science. But if we are going to teach kids about creationism, I would also want them to be told about all of the other creation myths; without judging one to be superior to another.

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  7. The posters here seem to think their opinion matters but not the public who possess the nations and the schools and the kids.
    If creationism is banned as a option for truth in origins then the government is saying OFFICIALLY such and such religion is wrong. So a opinion on religious truth/untrith.
    There is already in the Anglo American civilization a settled fact and law that no government is to say Christianity is not trur or any religion.
    CASE CLOSED.
    Any interference with this is a attack of God, Christ, religion etc.
    Its also a breaking of social contract of people to not use power to attack the truths of religion by political power.
    Banning creationism is illegal because it means banning as a option for truth dioctrines of the Christian faith. Especially when the banning as this as a goal.
    Scotland and Scots became a successful people because of Presbyterian protestantism.
    to say gOD/GENESIS is false as part of the creation of the universe and plain false is a laughable attempt to control religious opinions by way of getting at the kids.

    The object of science class is to teach the truth on the subjects it talks about. PERIOD.
    Saying creationism is banned, or disallowing as it is now, is saying its false!!
    Where is my logic wrong here?
    Saying its false is illegal if there is a law that doesn't allow the state to interfere with truth about religion.
    Creationism is scientific and must be allowed.
    Prohibition is immoral,illegal, absurd and won't last.
    if a prof/teacher doesn't teach creation when he thinks its true then he teaches error as he sees it. so why be in the profession?
    Freedom of speech and though and conscience and conclusions is uncontestable in these nations.
    Censoring Christian conclusions or any is proof the establishment and bad guys everywhere hAVE NOT learned their lesson.
    BAN THE BANS. There's the slogan for the futrue.
    Yeah for Scots killing the ban but now kill the spirit behind it.
    Creationism must be taught as a option in scotland if enough people want it or just one.
    It is all anti Christian activism. it is war about religion again after the wars were won by the good guys uniquely in the English speaking world.
    Yes freedom will destroy evolution but error is destroyed by freedom of seeking/teaching truth.
    Why is this Coyne interfering with Scotland!!
    Scotland for the Scots!! (Of coarse I do interfere with America but thats different)

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  8. Bobby: "There is already in the Anglo American civilization a settled fact and law that no government is to say Christianity is not trur or any religion."

    No, the law states that government can't stop you from believing any religious nonsense that you want (within reason). It does not say that the government can't say that YEC or Christianity, or Islam, or Budism, or whatever, is wrong. And, in effect, they are saying this by declaring that you can't teach your mythology as a science. Sucks to be you.

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    1. Your wrong. its not just in the Yank constitution but is a settled fact in the nations essence.
      The gov't is not to use its power to opine on what is true or not true about religion.
      People can say things like prayer etc. Bit no power with authority and money and institutions are to be used against the christian faith or any.
      in fact teaching God or genesis as not true in subjects dedicated to what is true is already breaking this law and essence.
      however it could be done if the subject warrents human investigation options.
      THEY ruin this one chance of theirs by BANNING creationism by the very law that they are already breaking.
      They can censor but not creationism for legal reasons. Even censorship is not acceptable to historic free America.

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