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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Teach the Controversy

I favor a strategy called "Teach the Controversy."1 I think high school teachers should directly address issues that are controversial in society. In science classes they should address and debunk common misconceptions about science.

There doesn't seem to be much of a problem with this idea in Canada but in the United States there is a lot of opposition to the idea. Check out Jerry Coyne's recent post to see what I mean: Once again Larry Moran decries legal battles against creationism.

Let's focus on a specific example. First, we need some background. Many state legislatures in the USA have seriously considered, or passed, so-called Academic Freedom bills. On the surface, these bill look innocuous. They are designed to promote critical thinking in state schools. Part of that process involves challenging and debating controversial science topics. We all know, however, that the real propose is to allow teachers to challenge evolution by teaching alternative "theories" (i.e. creationism).

The state of Louisiana passed the Louisiana Science Education Act in 2008. You can follow the link to a detailed summary of why the legislation is opposed by many scientists and by many scientific and education organizations. So far, attempts to repeal it have failed and no group has been able to mount a successful legal challenge. If this ever gets to court it will soak up thousands of hours of time and effort and it's not clear what the result will be. It would be a disaster if the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state and lost.

Why not try a different strategy? Here's the text of the Louisiana Science Education Act
Section 1. R.S. 17:285.1 is hereby enacted to read as follows:

§285.1. Science education; development of critical thinking skills

A. This Section shall be known and may be cited as the "Louisiana Science Education Act."

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

(2) Such assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in Paragraph (1) of this Subsection.

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

E. The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and each city, parish, or other local public school board shall adopt and promulgate the rules and regulations necessary to implement the provisions of this Section prior to the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year.
Why not find a few high school teachers and support them in an effort to adhere to the law by teaching critical thinking? They could choose a couple of examples of controversial ideas in Louisiana society and address them head-on in their science classes. I suggest two popular ideas that challenge the textbook description of evolution.
  1. The universe was created only 6000 years ago.
  2. Humans were created separately from apes.
The scientific community could support these teachers by preparing "support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied" and by developing lesson planes to cover the material in just a few hours for each topic.

The evidence and lesson plans could be posted online and evolution supporters could publicize the lessons and show how effective it is to teach critical thinking by debunking some popular myths. At first there may be only a few teachers willing to take a stand but hopefully those numbers would grow as more and more teachers realize that they will have solid support from the scientific community.

Even students who aren't in the designated classrooms will become aware of the dangers of teaching the controversy. Maybe state politicians will have second thoughts. They might try and silence the teachers but that would be difficult given that the law specifically encourages teachers to teach the controversy. It would be interesting if they tried to stop the lessons by claiming that those ideas were religious and debunking them was an example of discrimination against religion.

I submit that this might be a far more effective strategy for changing people's minds than fighting another court case.

Please don't argue that those two ideas aren't "science" and should never be discussed in a science classroom. Those ideas are attacks on science and they are certainly part of the controversy about evolution—at least in Louisiana. Moreover, those are exactly the sorts of things that the politicians had in mind when they voted overwhelmingly for this law back in 2008. There's no better way to teach critical thinking than to use specific examples of bad science to show students how to recognize the difference between good science and bad science.

Many people think that teaching the controversy means bringing stupid ideas into the classroom and treating them as if they were respectable alternatives to real science. That's a false assumption. You can just as easily bring stupid ideas into the classroom and teach students why they are stupid ideas. That would be a good thing.

[Image Credit: The images are from Intelligently designed Sarcastic T-shirts. They don't necessarily support my position on this issue but they have cool T-shirts.]

1. I'm perfectly well aware of the fact that Teach the Controversy is a Discovery Institute slogan and ad campaign.


  1. How do you allocate time between teaching science and non-science? And how do you cleanly separate the non-science from the religious ideas which underpin it?

    I'd love to see your idea of what a model syllabus for such a science course would look like. It could be a useful way to shut up the creationists, but in practice I suspect it would be too easy for a teacher to shift the "stupid" labels around.


  2. Ok, so for the teaching materials concerning a 6000 year old earth, do only working scientists get to submit materials or do advocates of 6k earth also get to submit materials? If the YECs dont get to submit materials that would seem blatantly unfair - not in keeping with "Teach the Controvery" If they DO get to submit materials should blatant lies and distortions be allowed?..because of course they dont consider them to be lies and distortions. Can we allow the lies and distortions but just explain to the students why they are lies and distortions? If you do the YECs will have counterarguments that are also lies and distortions. Should you allow those? It never ends. How are a bunch of 14 year olds who know nothing of science supposed to sort this out?
    Theres a Youtube of Laurence Krauss arguing with a YEC radio host that I recently heard. I highly recommend it, if for no other reason Krauss' extreme frustration is very telling. Should we subject children to that type of argument?

    1. Real scientists will prepare the lesson plan using material that the YECs have published.

      Nobody said this was going to be fair to the YECs.

    2. The point here is to give the IDiots AND the YECs a dose of their own medicine. They kicked the beehive-- what do they expect to happen? Do to them what they did to us at Dover pre-2006, what they do to us now at hundreds of taxpayer-financed voucher schools all over the US, with their "Loch Ness monster was a plesiosaur" and their slandering of scientists as lying atheists.

    3. I am not a public school teacher, however, I have worked with many public school teachers (in the USA) in both primary and secondary education.

      Take 8th grade science as an example. Teachers are under a state mandate to introduce a set of concepts in about 9 months of 1 hour a day. The Earth Science module I helped with was to be presented in three weeks. There was not an hour to spare for BS.

      High school is not much better, although at least chemistry and biology are taught separately. Still, though, there's simply no time for flim-flam. The kids need to be exposed to the best science has to offer, the most current knowledge at the appropriate level and there is simply no room for idiocy.

      Check out this link:

      A-to-Z of crazy. Even if you had a semester to teach Crazy 101 you'd be hard pressed to get through this list, other to say that "All this stuff is bullshit, read it at your peril."

    4. @Bill,

      I respectfully suggest that you might be teaching the wrong things. The most important objective is teaching the kids how to think like a scientist. That should take precedence over "the most current knowledge." They can get that out of a textbook if they ever need it.

      You need to make sure you are not graduating children who believe that vaccinations can be harmful and homeopathy is an effective treatment for disease. If you're not doing that then it doesn't really matter if they know what sedimentary rocks look like or whether volcanoes are located in rift valleys.

    5. Ah, Larry, I see your point and I didn't express mine very well! In fact, when I wrote "current knowledge" I thought "not what I mean" but rushed to post before heading out the door. Haste makes waste.

      No, of course I meant teaching kids how to think like a scientist. And, in fact, the science standards here in Texas (I know, I know) layer knowledge at an age appropriate level. Granted, there's a lot of fact shoving but it's coupled with reasoning skills.

      My pitifully written point was that there's not a lot of time for navel gazing and it's easy for a teacher to open a bigger can of worms than they intended .

      I really don't know where you teach about anti-vaccination nuts especially when they are former Playboy centerfolds! We should really start a program to clone Cara Santa Maria.

    6. Bill, I'm not suggesting that you teach about vaccinations or homeopathy. What I'm suggesting is that science education should concentrate on how to think scientifically so that students will be prepared for critical thinking when they become adults.

      That kind of education will require setting aside time for BS and time for class discussions. If that means teaching fewer facts, or even concepts, then it's worth it in the long run.

    7. Larry and Bill,

      As a former HS science teacher, I have to say that Bill makes a good point. When you add in the fact that most Fridays in the fall are not usable for teaching due to football (the only school activity that matters in the South), and at least one day a week in the Spring is out for UIL, baseball and/or basketball, then you have testing week (which has changed radically), etc... I once figured that I had less than 40 hours to teach all of the concepts that the curriculum required... for a full year course.

      Larry's point is well taken and the new Next Gen Science Standards will go a long way in that direction. Those states that adopt NGSS will have to radically re-evaluate how science courses are structured and taught. There is a overarching theme of interaction between disciplines and the skills of science. I could easily see Larry's proposed ideas working in an NGSS classroom.

      Unfortunately, NGSS is completely voluntary and, I think, several states have already opted-out of using them.

      I'll also add that, as a former Texas HS science teacher, I once got a "talking to" by my principle for bringing up evolution. I had to show her the state standards that explicitly mentioned evolution concepts.

      It's not just the teachers, but getting principles, school boards, and parents on board with this concept and/or NGSS is going to be... difficult. It's most assuredly worth it, but... well... I'm glad I'm not a teacher anymore.

  3. There are a couple of problems with "teaching the controversy." One is that too many teachers would be all too happy to teach the BS attacks on science put out by the DI. Another is that you could get into a lot of trouble if you taught that creationism/ID is meaningless tripe, not only because many parents would dislike that line of attack, but because of Constitutional issues of keeping state separate from religion.

    Presumably one could come up with a curriculum that would safely attack the pseudoscience of creationism without attacking religion, but teachers would have to tread a line that they might find difficult to maintain. There was a lawsuit not too many years ago when a teacher disparaged creationism and a student took offense. I believe that the teacher won, but threats of lawsuits themselves tend to keep teachers from getting too close to controversy. But even if they didn't fear lawsuits, parents' getting all mad about their sacred truths being debunked would likely be a major damper.

    At this time I'd just be happy if we could eliminate the many biology classes which either teach that creationism is true (probably not many, but they exist), or that simply ignore evolution altogether (all too common).

    There's also the question of teaching "critical thinking" to kids who may not have much knowledge of how science is properly done. So in theory I can see it in high school, probably junior or senior, but presumably not lower--unless these were advanced classes. IDiots want to teach "critical thinking" before kids know how science is properly done, essentially to poison them against science and critical thinking.

    Even as an ideal, critical thinking about creationism should only be pushed after children have learned the basics of science, not before that. This is probably assumed by Moran, but in the US it needs to be explicitly stated, given the attempts to "teach the controversy" before kids have any idea of what good science is.

    Glen Davidson

    1. Glen has referred to the case of American teacher James Corbett, who was fired for calling creationism "religious, superstitious nonsense." He was provoked into criticizing creationism, and a Christian student recorded his criticisms of creationism, and the teacher was fired. It went to court; the firing was upheld in 2009; I believe it might have been overturned later.

      A federal judge ruled that a public high school history teacher violated the First Amendment when he called creationism "superstitious nonsense" during a classroom lecture.

      U.S. District Judge James Selna issued the ruling Friday after a 16-month legal battle between student Chad Farnan and his former teacher, James Corbett.

      Farnan sued in U.S. District Court in 2007, alleging that Corbett violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by making repeated comments in class that were hostile to Christian beliefs.

      The lawsuit cited more than 20 statements made by Corbett during one day of class, all of which were recorded by Farnan, to support allegations of a broader teaching method that "favors irreligion over religion" and made Christian students feel uncomfortable.

      During the course of the litigation, the judge found that most of the statements cited in the court papers did not violate the First Amendment because they did not refer directly to religion or were appropriate in the context of the classroom lecture.

      But Selna ruled Friday that one comment, where Corbett referred to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense," did violate Farnan's constitutional rights.

      [Student Wins Suit After Teacher Says Creationism 'Superstitious Nonsense', Associated Press. Monday, May 04, 2009]

    2. @Glenn, @Diogenes

      Are you saying that American high school teachers simply can't teach critical thinking because debunking any pseudoscience nonsense that even touches on religion will be ruled illegal and the teacher might be fired?

      If that's true, then the emphasis on using the law to keep religion out of the schools has had disastrous consequences and the game is lost.

      The creationists claim is that you can teach evidence against evolution without mentioning evolution. If that's true then you should be able to teach why that "evidence" is bullshit without mentioning religion. Surely, you can say that the idea that the universe is only 6000 years old is superstitious nonsense as long you don't say that religion is superstitious nonsense. Right?

      I find that argument very defeatist. It sounds as if you've given up any hope of convincing students that the creationist arguments are ridiculous because those arguments are protected from criticism by the American Constitution. Is that what you believe?

    3. Glen Davidson says,

      There's also the question of teaching "critical thinking" to kids who may not have much knowledge of how science is properly done.

      The whole idea is to teach students how science is properly done. You do this by using examples of good science and contrasting them with examples of bad science. You can use astrology as a bad example—that works very well—but it's better to use examples that are widely believed to be good science. That really gets their attention.

    4. " There was a lawsuit not too many years ago when a teacher disparaged creationism and a student took offense. I believe that the teacher won, but threats of lawsuits themselves tend to keep teachers from getting too close to controversy. But even if they didn't fear lawsuits, parents' getting all mad about their sacred truths being debunked would likely be a major damper."

      I'm glad I live in Europe.

    5. Pedro, are you the banned Vashti? Vashti/Witton says you're his sock puppet, and I believe her.

    6. Huh? I've been here for ages. Certainly not Vashti, lol. What the hell, Diogenes?!?! You're sick or something?

    7. Larry:

      Are you saying that American high school teachers simply can't teach critical thinking because debunking any pseudoscience nonsense that even touches on religion will be ruled illegal and the teacher might be fired?

      No, I don't think Glenn was saying that (and, in fact, James Corbett was never fired and, ultimately, the suit against him was dismissed). However, how many underpaid, overworked, ElHi teachers would be willing to undergo hassles from parents and local school boards, who control their careers, and the potential of a couple of years of the stress or lawsuits in order to carry out your "plan"?

      When you recruit a cadre of maximally selfless teachers with no interest in their finacial security to send us to impliment this scheme, let us know. In the meantime, something around 15-20% of the ElHi science teachers in the US are more than willing to teach creationism. Another 60% or so just want to make it to retirement without being "test cases." And those numbers are, almost certainly, not evenly distributed across the US. Your "plan" might have some effect in Blue States but likely none at all in Red States. Basically, you are asking us to abandon students in large swathes of the US.

    8. Hei Diogenes, are you going to appologise for your retarded comment above or just ignore it?

  4. I think that fully teaching the controversy would be a great idea, but there is not a snowball's chance in hell that it will happen. Of course, we could go far with presenting a hypothesis like "the earth is 6000 years old" and providing overwhelming evidence for its true age.

    However, teaching the controversy really should include going to the source of the evidence on the Christian creationism side -- doing a little analysis of the Biblical texts. (I did this in a small way in some college classes on the fringe of the Bible belt, since I do have some background in that. Nobody obviously changed their minds during class, but some students' worlds were mildly rocked by hearing alternative ideas about the sources and interpretations of Biblical passages.) I think that for many students you can provide all the scientific evidence you want and they will just look for logical sounding ways to rationalize creationism. (I've seen homology dismissed, vestigial organs dismissed, dating methods dismissed, with just enough hint of reason that the disagreement can easily devolve into "he said, she said.") If you can crack open their glib assurance that the whole Bible is actually history, change may happen.

    Are we going to do that kind of thing in high schools? No. And we probably shouldn't (despite a long, scientific, scholarly, Christian and Jewish examination into the Biblical texts, where, when, and why they were written and what they may have originally said) both for first amendment reasons and because some troubled teenagers really are holding onto a rather simple-minded faith to get them through difficult years. I would tell my college students, though, that they're not children any more and they can handle it.

    Of course, many handled it by dismissing me as a crackpot. I did want them to learn to exercise their own judgment . . . sigh.

    1. In my first year teaching science I was informed by the superintendent of schools that parents wouldn't put up with an atheist teacher. Since at that time I still believed that science could not definitively speak to the god thesis, I hadn't said a word about religion of any sort. I've since had many years of Christian testimony confirming that evolution is atheistic and belief is an act of will, just like faith or happiness.

      In practice, most Christians can tolerate the so-called teaching of evolution if there is a tacit understanding that it is just something for the test. It helps if, as is overwhelmingly the case, that the so-called teacher affirms that they are believers. If this is not a matter of common knowledge, any child can conduct an interrogation at any moment, of course. The strongest armor against unwelcome theological implications is the common conviction that science is just something for nerds, dweebs, dorks, grinds, geeks, Star Trek fans, the terminally uncool. The technological benefits associated with science in general are welcomed in much the same spirit you would welcome the services of a maid.

      The idea that beliefs should be based on evidence, which is science in its broadest sense, is not one that is widely held, much less admired. Nor is inconsistency in principle generally regarded as a problem to be solved. It is rather held to be a sign of mental flexibility.

      Given these attitudes, I must respectfully suggest that teaching the controversy will not be interpreted as debunking nonsense, debugging student brains. It will be interpreted as mandating, for instance, teaching creationism actually has a case. No doubt teaching that Scientology or Islam or something else unpopular is bunkum would be perfectly acceptable. But that kind of selectivity merely teaches bigotry in my judgment.

      Fostering critical thinking in the student does not mean teaching them to hold to the evidence, it means teaching them it is permissible to defy scientific authority and believe as the student personally wishes. Indeed, it means teaching that science is not authoritative in any normal sense of the word.

      All those state standards requiring teaching the limits of science have the same goal. And frankly every time a scientist solemnly announces that science can't really prove anything or that science can't pronounce on the supernatural or that science doesn't tell us about reality, the very same point gets hammered home.

      So I must also respectfully suggest that "science" hasn't got its own house in order. The teachers' own science education doesn't go deep enough to teach foundational controversies. You would laugh yourself silly at the idea that anyone of any age would listen to me. Why should you expect a student?

  5. Constitutional issues aside, there is a big political difficulty in doing what you suggest. You might find some rather advanced urban or suburban high schools to cover what you describe.

    But many high schools in rural areas would use this as an excuse to bring in creationist "experts" and creationist arguments, with nothing available to counter them. While you and your friends are busy leading a sensible discussion in a university neighborhood in Baton Rouge, Ken Ham's friends will be giving presentations all over the place.

    Of ciourse to some extent this already happens, and did already happen, even before the LSEA passed: teachers let their students know that they don't think evolution happened, or simply fail to teach the positive evidence for it. But the LSEA approach is intended to encourahe more of that.

    1. Nobody says it's going to be easy. I'm sure there will be some teachers who promote creationism but that's not a very good argument for abandoning the fight altogether.

      If we don't encourage and support the good teachers then the bad ones are going to win by default.

  6. One problem is that the legislaton is used to write the text books. The result is that, as soon as teaching the controversy is officially encouraged, the examples you cite _don't_ challenge the textbook description of evolution - instead, they become _part_ of the textbook description and in practice will be taught as such.

    To teach the controversy, it must first be clear which ideas are not endorsed by science. Explicitly putting bogus ideas in the curriculum or text books without clearly marking them as bogus will have the wrong effect. But, in the USA, clearly marking them as bogus won't fly for political reasons.

    1. One problem is that the legislaton is used to write the text books

      I don't think any respectable publisher is going to produce a biology textbook that gives equal time to creationism. Surely that's the least of the problems?

      But, in the USA, clearly marking them as bogus won't fly for political reasons.

      There are tons of American politicians who explicitly say that evolution is bogus. Are you saying that there's no way to address those lies in the public schools?

    2. I'm not an expert, but I get certain impressions from spending too much time reading blogs:

    3. I now work for one of the big publishing companies and there's not a hint of creationism in our book (Miller and Levine).

      I have heard a rumor than one of the Glencoe books DID include ID as an option. But I have tossed my copies of those text because they were so bad anyway.

      On the other hand, I can see why a publisher (without any ethics and a research team of morons) would print something with references to ID. The second largest purchaser of textbooks in the US is Texas. If Texas wants ID (the scientists don't, but almost everyone else seems to), then a book with references to ID might stand to get a big chunk of market share.

      Fortunately, the teachers still decide which books to use and I think most all of the teachers in the state would ignore an order allowing ID into the classroom.

  7. I agree with what seems to be the general run of comments here. Larry's proposal, though interesting in principle, fails any test of practicality. First, only a highly knowledgeable teacher would be capable of it, and those are in shortest supply where they would be most needed. Second, any course taught as Larry proposes would be likely to get the teacher fired in exactly those places where it would be most needed. (And where it wouldn't get the teacher fired, it probably isn't needed.) I'm sure the teacher could then sue, but who wants to volunteer to be fired as a test case? Third, as Joe says, the great majority of attempts to "teach the controversy" would most often be quite different from the ideal Larry describes and would more closely resemble what Joe describes. All this is quite aside from any first amendment issues.

    1. OMG! That's such a hopeless point of view. Do you really believe it? Are things so bad that you're ready to squelch any attempt to make things better?

    2. That's reality in the United States. Do you really believe otherwise?

    3. Larry you yourself have said that it requires a pretty deep understanding of evolutionary biology to refute Edge of Evolution. I think you also said that plenty of actual scientists did a bad job of tackling his arguments. Do you think your average high school biology teacher is up to it?

    4. Larry, sometimes you remind me of Ratbert. Of course I wouldn't want to squelch any attempt to make things better, if indeed I thought it would make things better. Your method clearly wouldn't work, however. You could have given the same response if I had attacked your plan to give every science teacher a hat that glows in the dark and spells out SCIENCE in big letters. Your response, in other words, is irrelevant to the merits of your plan. Or lack thereof. Now, what we probably ought to do, which would actually help, is pay attention to the quality of science teaching, pay science teachers more, and demand more of them. That might actually accomplish something.

    5. @John Harshman,

      Sorry for being so grumpy. I just get pissed off when everyone is so negative about trying to change things. It seems like the most common criticism is that I simply don't understand how difficult it is to fix things in America. I I did, I would be just like them and not even try.

      You say that my method clearly wouldn't work but you didn't really present a good argument to back up your claim.

      On the other hand, you do think that we should pay science teachers more and demand more of them. I support that. But why don't you want to start right now demanding that science teachers teach evolution and debunk the myths?

    6. I believe I presented two good reasons your plan wouldn't work: 1) Local parents and education establishment wouldn't allow it; 2) a high percentage of teachers are unequipped or uninterested in pursuing the "controversy", or would consider it an excuse to teach creationism.

    7. 1) Local parents and education establishment wouldn't allow it

      Find a district in Louisiana that isn't as backward as you think. You have to start somewhere.

      a high percentage of teachers are unequipped or uninterested in pursuing the "controversy",

      My plan suggested that we find a few good teachers and give them a ton of support.

    8. I don't think there are any such districts. And in fact you don't have to start somewhere if by "start" you mean implementing your plan. Now, finding a few good teachers and giving them support is a great idea, but there's no necessary connection to teaching the "controversy".

    9. I don't think there are any such districts.

      Do you really believe that or are you just being argumentative?

    10. In Louisiana? Yes, I believe that. Perhaps New York.

    11. I don't think there are any such districts.

      I don't know if I'm that pessimistic.

      But if such a district were found and "the controversy" taught there successfully, then the IDiots would just say, "see, it works," and insist that it should happen everywhere.

      Then you'd get the familiar dreck made to attack evolution being taught as if it were scientific.

      Glen Davidson

  8. Larry, with this proposal there is absolutely no daylight between you and your beloved Discovery Institute. Strange bedfellows. Wouldn't it be better just to teach the science? How does scientific understanding advance by "teaching a controversy" that doesn't exist in science? If you teach good science there is no need to set up a false controversy - the age of the earth, for example, is the age of the earth. It worries me that you pander to these nutjobs and give pseudo-ligitimacy to their crackpot ideas.

    Sadly, Louisiana will only be brought to heel through the courts. That's because a law, allegedly, is being broken, and that is how these issues are resolved.

    1. If you teach good science there is no need to set up a false controversy - the age of the earth, for example, is the age of the earth.

      That's simply not true. If you don't directly address the misconceptions of your students then you're wasting your time if you think that simply presenting an opposite point of view is going to convince them. You not only have to teach them the evidence for a 4.5 billion year old Earth but you also have to teach them why their arguments for a 6000 year old Earth are wrong. If you don't present both sides of the controversy then they'll politely listen to your point of view but stick with what their preacher has already convinced them is true.

      It worries me that you pander to these nutjobs and give pseudo-ligitimacy to their crackpot ideas.

      It worries me that there are so many people who make excuses for not fighting back.

    2. I agree that you do need to engage the students' misconceptions directly. But when you do, you find yourself directly arguing with religious ideas. What is the support for the idea that the earth is young? What's the evidence? It's Biblical. If it weren't for that Biblical basis we wouldn't have the problem (in the U.S.). But if you bring up the Biblical evidence and argue that it is weak, you're bringing religion into the classroom, and in a negative way. That upsets people.

      Not to mention the problem that people who know the science well enough to make the case for evolution well rarely have the basis in Biblical studies to point out why the Bible might be somewhat lacking as a historical reference.

    3. Barbara,

      American politicians and their allies, the IDiots, are practically begging us to teach the controversy. They really, really, want to put the best case for creationism in front of students in public schools.

      I say go for it by simply explaining why it's bad science. If they want to shoot themselves in the foot by claiming that this is an attack on religion then let's see if they can make that stick. I'm prepared to donate money to any teacher who wants to be the next John Scopes.

      They're calling us out on our claim that we can defend evolution against all attacks. Let's not chicken out.

    4. Oh, you're probably right. Teaching the controversy well is probably the best approach because it actively confronts ideas the students are holding. I've always tried to make the case for evolution one way or another, but I think you shouldn't be real optimistic about it being done effectively in U.S. high schools, thought the majority of high school science teachers are doing what they can to get the ideas across. In college we can hope, though I've seen it botched there, too.

    5. Larry, I think your idea of "teaching the controversy" is naive. Scientifically, what is the controversy regarding, for example, the age of the earth? You don't address student misconceptions through anything other than teaching the science. They can refuse to accept this, but they aren't using science as part of their reasoning and this is an educational point in and of itself.

      Couple of questions for you.

      1. Are you happy putting crackpot religious ideas about science on a stage in a science class?

      2. Are you happy being seen as an open advocate for the Discovery Institute on exactly this point?

      If neither of these questions causes you to pause for a moment then naive is a very apt description of your position and you stand to undo a lot of very good work you do elsewhere in the cause of science. It would be a pity. I think your position is a huge mistake.

    6. Barry asks,

      Scientifically, what is the controversy regarding, for example, the age of the earth?

      The controversy is that many people, especially in America, believe that the Earth is only 6000 years old. This is an attack on science since scientists have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Earth is billions of years old.

      This is not a "scientific controversy" in the sense that I teach in my course but it's definitely a controversy that we scientists ignore at our peril. We need to teach students that their belief in a young Earth is totally at odds with science. If we don't teach them that, they will continue to think that the "evidence" taught to them by their parents and preachers is real scientific evidence.

      Are you happy putting crackpot religious ideas about science on a stage in a science class?

      Yes. That how we destroy it.

      Are you happy being seen as an open advocate for the Discovery Institute on exactly this point?

      I'm not an open advocate for the Discovery Institute although on the issue of "teach the controversy" we do find some common ground.

      Are you one of those people who will oppose anything your opponents might say just because they disagree with you on some issues?

      I think I have a pretty good track record of opposing the IDiots so I'm not embarrassed to recognize that they might occasionally say something useful. However, in this particular case I intend to use their advocacy of "teach the controversy" against them so it's not like I'm totally agreeing with their stance.

  9. From my own experience as a student, I feel that I understand the material much better if presented in a historical context. Studying how scientific theories and ideas develop and unfold over time gives the student a much better grasp of their scientific underpinnings. And this strategy is employed in many scientific disciplines that to some degree lie outside of the origins debate. For instance, if you take any introductory course in psychology, you'll have to learn about Freud's psychoanalysis, Adler's individual psychology, behaviorism, the school of positive psychology, and if your instructor is generous enough you might cover a little bit of William James.

    Even though many of these schools and ideas are now deemed to be pseudoscientific or totally false, and their importance is only historical, they still serve as an excellent teaching material as to how the modern scientific discipline of psychology has developed and matured over time.

    I think the same is true for many other scientific disciplines. You can't just present the material or the evidence as coming out of nowhere (historically speaking). You need to lay the ground by explaining why, after adhering to the creationist paradigm for thousands of years, scientists finally came to abandon it. What is wrong with it? What sets of observations cannot possibly be reconciled with that paradigm? And why are they better explained by modern science?

  10. Most schoolteachers, indeed most scientists, are not at all familiar with creationists' deceptive arguments, obfuscating counter-arguments, convoluted counter-counter-arguments, etc. etc. To write a well-documented curriculum, it would require experts in counter-creationism (that's us, Pandas Thumb and the NCSE, maybe the BCSE, etc. Not Dawkins and not Coyne, etc.)

    Here is my wish-list for creationist shibboleths to get demolished by teaching the controversy:

    1. "Only intelligence can create information"

    2. "There are no transitional fossils"

    3. "There are no beneficial mutations"

    4. "The Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids evolution"

    5. "Macroevolution has not been observed"

    These myths are much more pernicious and MORE POPULAR than Larry's example of the Earth being 6,000 years old. When creationist "experts" get up to talk at public hearings, like we just saw in Kentucky, they don't say the Earth is 6,000 years old. They don't say that because it's not popular, they don't really believe it themselves, and no adult can say it out loud without snickering or flinching or displaying a "tell", as the card players say, that reveals they're lying.

    1. What about teaching the historical developments of evolutionary theory and how it came to replace creationism as the reigning paradigm that explains the history of life? I don't think that it's appropriate to teach many of the things you listed for many reasons. They aren't even fit for an undergraduate level course, considering the fact that professors in this case don't have enough time to cover the required material already.

      This should be covered in a philosophy of science or sociology course, perhaps, but not in the science classroom.

    2. @Diogenes,

      I agree that your examples are more common but they are also much harder to teach. Remember, you are only going to have a couple of classes to debunk one or two myths.

      I agree with some critics that high school teachers may not be capable of dealing with some of the criticisms of evolution. You've picked some examples that even accomplished scientists would have a hard time debunking if there was a semi-knowledgeable student in the class.

      It would be a disaster if a student could win the debate over a teacher.

      I selected examples where there will almost always be students in the class that will support the scientific explanation. This means that there can be lively debate within the classroom and I firmly believe that under those circumstances the myths will be exposed to ridicule.

      Most of these myths cannot stand critical analysis. We should not be going out of our way to protect them.

      The students in my class (second year)have to write an essay on one of the chapters in Icons of Evolution. That's manageable. They couldn't handle The Edge of Evolution or Signature in the Cell.

  11. All I can say is that in the town where I grew up and the town in which I last last worked and the town I live in now (all in the USA, two in New York State and one in Ohio), most, if not all of the teachers would feel free to support creationism openly in their classes, and any teachers who were in any way dismissive of creationist beliefs would probably be fired and at the least have many of their students walk out of their classes with the backing of their parents. (As it is, I know parents who home-school because there is not enough overt religion in public education to suit them.)

    I would love to live in a society and time when Dr. Moran's suggestion would be possible without any bad effects, but I think results here and now would end similarly to the way Socrates' pursuit of truth did.

    What Dr. Moran suggests is being ably done in this blog and some others. Unfortunately it does not reach most of the audience that needs to hear it, because, as I heard one of my nieces say at a family gathering, "You saw that on an atheist blog? Why would you believe anything you saw on an atheist blog?"

    1. All of the science teachers at Dover High School openly opposed the school board and refused to deliver the required disclaimer. They had substantive support in the community.

      I think you are underestimating high school teachers. That's not to say that some won't do as you predict but, until we try the experiment, you will never know how many high school teachers might speak up if they had your active and vocal support.

    2. I hope you are right, but I think attaching statistical weight to Dover (and the other recent case which I am aware of, at Mount Vernon, Ohio) could be a form of survivorship bias. That is, if the brave teachers at Dover had not opposed the community-elected school board, you would have never heard of them.

      My own anecdotal weight attaches to this: there are four colleges(/universities) I am aware of (where family and friends have gone or considered going to): Houghton College in western NY, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Biola University in Los Angles, California, and Nazarene College in Mount Vernon, Ohio. These schools offer majors in science, pre-med, and education (and other things such as music). Bible Study is a required course for all graduates. The graduates go on to make good livings as, for example, chemists, doctors, dentists, and teachers - primarily the latter. These graduates do not believe in evolution. The teachers (such as my father and brother-in-law) may go on to become school principals. (In the USA, a school principal is the chief administrative officer, who hires and fires teachers.) Maybe it is a coincidence that in the four places I have lived or have relatives there are such colleges, but that is the basis of my concern.

    3. In order to teach school in Ontario you must be licensed and accredited by the Ontario College of Teachers. You must have a postsecondary degree "from an accredited postsecondary institution acceptable to the College." Not all degrees are acceptable.

      After you get your degree, you must also complete an accredited teacher education program at a university. There are only 13 universities that have an accredited program and they do not include religious colleges.

      Competition to get into these education programs is intense. Until recently, you needed grades comparable to those required for medical school and you need to demonstrate that you have the skills to be a good teacher. Letters of reference are required.

      Students who do not accept evolution would not have a very good chance of getting accreditation and even if they succeeded it's very unlikely that they would be accredited to teach science.

    4. That sounds like a very excellent system. I hope the teachers' pay corresponds to this high level of qualification.

      To my limited knowledge (based on causal conversations with six close relatives who are teachers), little or none of that applies in NY State, which is one of the stricter USA states. Teachers in NYS typically start without any post-graduate education, but are expected to get a Master's degree in (I think) five years. I have two nephews who became teachers with Bachelor's degrees in Education out of Houghton College. They spent about half of their senior years as "student teachers" at local high-schools. This gives practical experience and mentoring by experienced teachers. Recommendations from the teacher mentors and school administration play a large role in the graduate's job prospects (probably more so than GPA). Religious colleges such as Houghton produce polite, sociable students who do well in this system.

      The biggest hurdle for students from such colleges who seek post-graduate degrees in science-related fields such as medicine, is I think the Graduate Record Exam - but it is possible to memorize the answers to certain questions (and forget them after the exam) without believing in the science behind them. Another of my nephews won the Silver Medal for being the second-best chemistry student in Canada, at McGill University, while being a fundamentalist Christian. (His father is a pharmaceutical chemist who got his B.S. at Houghton and moved to Montreal to work for Bristol Myers there.)

      So I think the Grand Experiment would work better in Ontario than in even a relatively progressive (for the USA) state like New York.

      (I will email your list of qualifications to my sister who retired from teaching in NYS last year, to check whether I am correct in saying that NYS does not have the same qualification requirement.)

    5. P.S. My sister emailed links to NYS websites which give a formidable list of requirements for teacher certification (according to my sister, "among the highest and most respected in our country"). The link farm starts with:

      (Teaching in NY)

      The bottom line for me however is this: I did a search in the NYS online database (a few link clicks away from the above) for accredited programs for "Classroom Teacher, Biology, grades 7-12", and found this:

      PROGRAM CODE : 22727 - click here for more program information


      I don't know what they teach in that program, but none of the Houghton graduates whom I know accept evolution (two of whom were teachers - one a science teacher - who went on to become principals at their schools)(and pillars of their communities, I should add).

      They might be good biology teachers, for that matter. I had what I thought was a good high-school biology teacher who never said one word for or against evolution (a long time ago). They would not be the best candidates for the Grand Experiment, though.

  12. I must say that I have read the comments here and Prof. Moran's responses with considerable interest.

    I have to say that it appears to me that Prof. Moran just doesn't understand the situation in the US. As an example, some 20% of the population in the US believes that the Sun revolves around the earth. In particular, he doesn't seem to realize that the Christian fundamentalism in the US is far more influential then it is in Canada and it is that philosophy that drives the engine of scientific ignorance and denial. This is particularly true in the Southern states and in many parts of the Midwest.

    As an example, earlier on Prof. Moran posted the following comment:
    I don't think any respectable publisher is going to produce a biology textbook that gives equal time to creationism. Surely that's the least of the problems? My response is, you want to bet? The State of Texas, where creationists continue to dominate the Board of Education is very influential in influencing what gets into textbooks because they purchase them state wide and Texas has the second largest school population in the US. If that body tells the publishers to fill up their textbooks with creationist nonsense, they will do so in order to continue doing business in Texas. Unfortunately, since Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks because of the statewide purchases, those textbooks get used in other states. Textbook publishers are not in the business of producing one set of textbooks for Texas and another set for, say, Oregon.

    Attached is a commentary published just today by Prof. Coyne on the situation in Texas.

  13. I agree with you about the merits of this approach as good teaching. Of course it is better to explain why we know that some theory is better than the alternatives that have been suggested than merely affirming that it is correct.

    But Jerry Coyne may also have a point. I am neither a US American nor do I live in that country, but what if the vast majority of teachers is actually merely waiting for a chance to teach creationism outright?

  14. Why are evolutionists so afraid of creationism? Don't you all believe that evolution is a fact? Yeah, some people may still claim that the Earth is flat, or that the Sun revolves around Earth, but the facts state otherwise. You are not going to change those people by suppressing the facts. What do you worry about? Facts are facts and no idiot can change it. Let them choose by giving them the choice. Suppressing the facts makes them wonder that you might be hiding something. That's the idea that got me interested in the creationism/evolution controversy.

    1. What facts are being suppressed, exactly? And are you also in favor of teaching the controversy regarding the shape and motion of the earth? If not, why not? What's the difference between that and the controversy you want taught?

    2. There are no facts (we prefer the term evidence, BTW) which support creationism. As for "equal time" arguments, I prefer "time in proportion to the evidence". If you have 10% of the evidence, you get 10% of the time. Intelligent Design Creationism has 0% of the evidence, as do all other forms of creationism.

      What are we afraid of? We are afraid that ideas without merit will be taken seriously. You want your ideas taught in a science classroom? Then EARN THAT RIGHT by doing research and supporting your ideas with evidence.

    3. @MattG

      I prefer time in proportion to influence. If a false idea is influencing 50% of the population to reject evolution then that idea should be discussed, and refuted, in class.

      I've got news for you, MattG. There are plenty of ideas without merit that are taken very seriously. Ignoring them won't make them go away.

  15. I think it helps if you change the context. Suppose in health class we allowed teachers to teach the controversy over alternative medicine and traditional folk medicine against the modern medical understanding. Sure, 95% of health teachers will still do the fine job they would have done anyway, and they'll be given a chance to address the myths and harms of folk medicine. What do you think the other 5% would be like, where the teacher had particular views about a miracle cure or folk remedy?

    I also think Genie Scott has the clearest answer on this: Teachers are there to teach students. They have a limited time and attention span. I can't imagine a class plan that resolves ideas about origins among 30 students that would be resolved in a single class.

    1. That ratio of 19:1 sounds pretty good to me!

      I agree with you about teaching the origin of life. There are genuine scientific controversies. I'm pretty sure that if it's currently taught in high school chances are high that it's being taught incorrectly. It's too complicated for high school.

    2. Larry, what ratio would concern you and give you cause to pause?

  16. I agrere with Mr Moran on this.
    if wrong ideas that are very commonly held about nature etc can't be debunked by excellent information then what good are schools for regarding higher critical thinking.
    This is what creationists want.
    We are confident we are right and the evidence of nature will not prove/disprove anything to our loss.
    Banning creationism and its criticisms of evolution has always been immoral, illegal, and classic establishment control of what is taught to the people.
    The truth is what must be taught in education or its just government propaganda.
    censorship is opposite to a intellectual, culture of truth seeking.
    We need a old fashioned tolerance bill for creationism(s).

    Canada does censor creationist conclusions in science classes. i know of textbooks that denouce creationism as false, without rebuttal, and then only teach evolution etc.

    Christians and creationists in Canada need to care and protest and change things.
    We were here first and teaching evolution is teaching our faith is false.
    Teach away but we demand rebuttal.
    We all live together.
    The guys who are right should not be afraid of fair debate.

    1. We were here first and teaching evolution is teaching our faith is false.

      I have a flash for you Booby, your faith is false.

    2. I hope Larry reads this and recognizes how his idea on "teaching the controversy" is so wrong. But then again, with the likes of Robert lining up to support you, you must have "right" on your side.

  17. Mr. Robert Byers said:

    "Banning creationism and its criticisms of evolution has always been immoral, illegal, and classic establishment control of what is taught to the people."

    Saying that "Banning creationism and its criticisms of evolution has always been... illegal..." is simply false, at least in the USA. Biblical creationism is a sectarian religious belief. The first amendment to the US constitution forbids the government from endorsing any sectarian religious belief. Teaching sectarian religious beliefs in taxpayer-supported public schools is blatant endorsement of those beliefs by the government. Alternatively, evolution is not a sectarian religious belief nor does learning and understanding the science of evolutionary biology require that students to give up their religious beliefs - many people are able to hold conflicting ideas in their heads simultaneously. In other words, teaching evolutionary biology violates neither the no establishment clause nor the freedom to exercise clause in the religious protections identified in the first amendment of the US constitution. Dr. Moran's proposal is intriguing as a thought exercise but as others commenting here have pointed out, the practical/logistical hurdles may be insurmountable in Louisiana (or Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and several other states.)

    1. You have not accurately understood this.
      The purpose of classes dealing with origins is to teach the truth and search for truth.
      if you claim that its illegal to teach any form of creationism then you are saying either the state can not teach the truth in schools on origins or the state has concluded creationism(s) are not true.
      If the latter is so then the state is making a opinion on truth relative to religion.
      Its saying Christianity is not true .
      Thus a breaking of the very concept you are invoking for the seaparation of state and church.
      It has been illegal to ban creationism because these schools clearly indicate to the students they are teaching the truth on origins.
      Not just ignoring but banning creationism is a illegal action of the state when its purpose is to officially declare it as a false doctrine.
      There is no think in the constitution to justify an attack upon God or Genesis.
      The very Puritan Protestant Yankees and Anglican Protestant Southerns would laugh to scorn any construction that allowed any denial of the bible. In fact they would of banned evolution or any skepticism of religion.
      Further its a error to see the state as everything the state pays for. Education has nothing to do with the actual government. Its not a arm of the government. Anymore then bridges are.
      I don't see how this Canadian boy could be wrong here.

  18. Ok Dr. Moran, here you go. It's not a full lesson plan, but it's pretty good.

    Additional ideas and suggestions welcome.

    1. OgreMkV - this sounds a great class, but it doesn't need "teach the controversy" to be the reason why you do it. You are just developing sound scientific principles and there is nothing preventing this from happening in any science classroom. I don't know what value the comparative creationist "ape" chart adds to the lesson other than to provide a platform for those who would claim that "there are various ideas on how apes are classified". Giving credibility to crackpot ideas is a very dangerous precedent.

    2. Barry,

      I'm coming to agree with larry on this. Ignoring the creationists isn't working.

      Actually, I'd prefer to teach a class like that to principles, superintendents and school board members rather than HS students.

      As far as the ape/human chart... I don't know. I think it's a good lesson in science doesn't just have all the answers. Sometimes there is no 'right answer' and we have to make the best judgements we can with the available data.

      What we seem to be finding with religion is that they proclaim to have all the answers. When kids taught that get to college and realize that religion doesn't have the answers, then they get disillusioned and leave their faith.

      The same thing may be happening with science. In HS we teach kids the answers to things that we know. But we aren't teaching good science practices (partially because most teachers don't know them). We have to make it clear to students that there isn't always a 'right answer' and that we have to make do with the best information we've got. Which is why the ability to judge source material and critically evaluate sources is so important.

  19. I'm science teacher in Germany. Most of the ideas Laurence's proposing are common practice here. We use wrong historical ideas (e.g. phlogiston-theory in chemistry) as examples for telling why modern theories are better, or creation 'science' to tell the difference between science and other conceptions.

    I guess the main argument against Laurence from the point of view of the americans is another problem. Many teachers in the US are eager to teach creationism. So it's better to forbid these contents altogether.

    The situation in Germany is different. We have religion as ordinary lessons, so religion is established in all schools. The big churches teach a non-interventionist god, so science is no problem for them. They even fight creationism, because these people are dangerous for their truce between religion and science. So Laurence's proposition works fine here.