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Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Royal Society and Teaching Creationism

 
Michael Reiss is a practicing priest in the Church of England. He is also director of education in The Royal Society. Reiss wrote an article about teaching creationism in schools. The complete article was posted on guardian.co.uk [Science lessons should tackle creationism and intelligent design].

This article is stirring up a lot of controversy because many people are interpreting it to be support for teaching creationism as a scientific viewpoint. That's not how I interpreted it. I thought Michael Reiss was saying the same thing I advocate. Here is the relevant part of the article so you can judge for yourself.
I feel that creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view. The implication of this is that the most a science teacher can normally hope to achieve is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, this scientific world view is unlikely to supplant a creationist one.

So how might one teach evolution in science lessons, say to 14 to 16-year-olds? Many scientists, and some science educators, fear that consideration of creationism or intelligent design in a science classroom legitimises them.

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: "The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support."

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one's best to have a genuine discussion. The word 'genuine' doesn't mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.
The other approach is the one I call the "Ostrich" approach. It would ban all mention of creationism and refuse to even discuss any objections to evolution that students might have. This approach avoids the controversy altogether by claiming that creationism isn't science and therefore shouldn't be taught in science class.

That's just plain silly, in my opinion. We all know that creationist students have a lot of so-called "objections" to evolution and by ignoring them in evolution classes we are not doing our job. We need to face those "objections" and deal with them by explaining why they aren't scientific. If we don't do that, then we shouldn't be surprised when students accept the word of their pastor over that of their science teacher. You can be certain that their pastor doesn't limit his/her teaching to religion.

We agree that creationism isn't science. It's an attack on science and the best place to defend against such attacks is in a science class.


[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net where you'll find plenty of discussion in the comments.]

15 comments :

  1. I don't think creationism should be part of the science curriculum, which is not the same as saying it should be banned from discussion; all biology teachers should be prepared to confront creationist questions and objections from their students.

    But not part of the curriculum. Too many scientists/educators cannot be trusted with their answers to "what is science". Academically and philosophically, the answers can be very nuanced. So anyone who slips an answer to that question as a mere section in a school textbook is simply pontifying on what will probably be some simplistic positivist dreck about "evidence" and "critical thinking" that a teenager could have written up.
    By no means in the world could I agree that Larry's positivist, all-encompassing views of what is science be taught to kids, at least, not to mine.

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  2. A simple question: In a single class, will the students be able to decide whether mathematics is science? Whether philosophy is needed or not in science?

    I don't think so.

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  3. I'm glad you posted this. Reiss has been shamelessly quote-mined by the media on this one and we need more posts like this to shine a light on what he really said. He's not a creationist sympathizer; he's on our side. And better yet, he knows the enemy. Interestingly the Anglican church is about to publish an official apology to Darwin. Those who are religious and simultaneously denounce creationism in the science classroom, like Reiss, are among our most potent allies. They should be encouraged.

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  4. I agree, in principle, with Reiss. However, given the ways creationist/IDders argue their case, I can see opening up the discussions to their points of view time-consuming and subject to abuse. Anyone familiar with the evolution/ID debate knows how time consuming it is to refute even one bogus ID claim. It's bad enough we have so little time to fully explain evolution--must we now take up even more of that precious class time refuting every bogus argument on the "10 Things to Ask Your Biology Teacher" list?

    Dave Wisker

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  5. Given that some 15% of US science teachers are young earth creationists, this would set a dangerous precedence here. Maybe OK in Canada and Western Europe.

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  6. As others have said, US primary and secondary teachers cannot be trusted to present creationism as a collection of worldviews (I think Reiss ignores all but biblical creationism) in the classroom. Nor can they safely teach creationism as scientifically vacuous even if they present it as culturally important. Many science teachers in the US already proselytize in the classroom and permitting a discussion of creationist worldviews in the science curriculum would simply empower them to continue and encourage others to follow suit. Moreover, imagine a science teacher pointing out in science class the scientific illegitimacy of biblical miracles. In some places, this would be accepted and appreciated. In most, the teacher would be reprimanded or fired. In some districts, the teacher would receive death threats, his/her property would be vandalized, and (s)he would be driven from the school and the community. This is not fantasy. It is the reality of our primitive society. It already happens in this country to good science teachers who teach evolution and don't mention the bible. For now, trying to properly address creationism in elementary or secondary science classes or both is dangerous at best.

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  7. SLC says,

    Given that some 15% of US science teachers are young earth creationists, this would set a dangerous precedence here. Maybe OK in Canada and Western Europe.

    So, the real issue is incompetent science teachers, right? How come we don't hear more about that?

    Surely the fact that there are incompetent science teachers can't be used as an excuse to avoid teaching good science?

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  8. c-seprent says,

    For now, trying to properly address creationism in elementary or secondary science classes or both is dangerous at best.

    Thanks for an excellent example of the Ostrich Approach. Don't be surprised if things get a lot worse.

    Since when has intimidation been an excuse to avoid teaching the truth? We need to support those teachers who stand up for science and not abandon them whenever the going gets a bit rough.

    One solution is to invite College and University Professors to biology classes to give lectures on science and evolution.

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  9. Larry wrote

    One solution is to invite College and University Professors to biology classes to give lectures on science and evolution.

    I've actually offered to do that in secondary school science classes, and have been turned down or ignored. Class time, I've been told by one such teacher, is too tight to permit it, and it would make waves with parents.

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  10. Very interesting post.

    (Sorry I haven't had time to comment much of late but I am still reading your blog to keep up to speed on these issues)

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  11. No. Just.... no. It doesn't seem right.

    Creationism is not a science. Hell, it's not even a theory. It boils down to "god did it, and here's why and how *points to bible*". That can't be taught, it can merely be *said*.

    Intelligent Design / Creationism is mostly "taught" by pointing out "flaws" in evolution (i.e. "incomplete fossil record", "half a wing is useless" etc etc...) and then filling in these "gaps" in evolution with "So obviously, god did it".

    However, any good class will highlight and discuss these criticisms and points anyway; that's a basic part of teaching anything. You don't need to teach the creationism "side" of it because there *is* no creationism side. As I said, creationism's angle comes from pointing out evolutionary theory isn't 100% complete and then leaping to the conclusion of "god did it".

    Creationism and Intelligent Design are not, and never have been, anything remotely resembling a science or even a subject. They are simply ways of pushing various religious ideas into people's minds and dressing them up in a more "professional" covering. They do not deserve to be "taught" at all.



    I don't see it as an "ostrich" tactic any more than I see alchemy not being taught in chemistry classes as an "ostrich" tactic, or astrology being taught as a serious science.

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  12. 15% of US science teachers are young earth creationists?

    Then 15% of US science teachers should be fired immediately. Why hasn't this happened yet? A creationist science teacher is like a math teacher who can't add two numbers together.

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  13. With all due respect to my fellow commenters, it sounds as if some of you - like much of the British media - haven't bothered to read Reiss' essay and are putting words into his mouth. Don't jump to conclusions - leave that to the creationists.

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  14. anonymous says,

    You don't need to teach the creationism "side" of it because there *is* no creationism side.

    Nobody is advocating that we teach the creationist side except to show that it's wrong.

    I don't see it as an "ostrich" tactic any more than I see alchemy not being taught in chemistry classes as an "ostrich" tactic, or astrology being taught as a serious science.

    Fortunately, we don't have to worry much about alchemy but astrology is a different matter. My kids were taught in grade 5 how to distinguish astrology from real science. It was a very valuable lesson.

    If we don't teach our children in school that astrology is bogus science then how do you expect them to learn that?

    If we don't tech them that creationism is wrong then we shouldn't be surprised if they think it's a legitimate alternative to evolution. The Ostrich Approach is one that believes in ignoring creationism in school in the hope that it will spontaneously disappear as soon as our students learn about evolution.

    How's it been working so far?

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  15. It is easy to talk about incorporating creationism, IDC and other non-science into a science curriculum and then dismiss any problems with doing so as burying one's head in the sand. Doing it is quite another thing entirely. It is easy to pass off intimidation in the abstract. But when it is your spouse and your children that are at risk and knowing that the local police support those issuing the threats and are unlikely to help if the threats are acted upon, it is much more difficult to pluck up the courage to do what's right.

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