Sep 12 2008

Teaching Creationism in Schools

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Comments: 34

Reverend Professor Michael Reis, Director of Education at the Royal Society has recently advocated the “teach the controversy” approach to creationism in schools. He is quoted as saying:

“An increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species.

“What are we to do with those children? My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science that one really wants them to learn.

“I think a better way forward is to say to them ‘look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved’.”

This an an extremely problematic position. There are some kernels of wisdom, perhaps, buried in this view, but it cannot be implemented as stated.

The primary problem with this position is that creationism is simply not science.  It does not meet the minimal criterion for science – having a falsifiable hypothesis. The same is true of its doppleganger – intelligent design (ID).

It is inappropriate to present as science any belief system which is not scientific.

ID/creationism also fails to meet a reasonable standard for inclusion in the science classroom in that the arguments that proponents put forth are terrible. They rely upon faulty logic, factual errors, and cherry picking.

Therefore their criticisms of evolution represent terrible science, and the belief they offer as an alternative is not even science.

But here is the sliver of potential benefit – what if we taught about ID/creationism as an example of pseudoscience in order to discuss why it fails to meet criteria for science and why the core arguments for creationism and against evolution are so horrible? I feel that I have personally learned a great deal about science and pseudoscience from confronting creationism. Why deprive students of this experience?

Well – here are the caveats and problems. First, any such discussion should be part of a philosophy of science class. Alternatively, it would be reasonable in a section of science class about scientific method and critical thinking – again, offered as an example of pseudoscience, alongside bigfoot and homeopathy.

It absolutely should not be taught alongside evolution or in the life origins section of science class.

But even then I would have serious reservations about this. The problem is that this would not be taking place in a social vacuum, but in the midst of a false public controversy over the teaching of creationism/ID. In the US we have kept creationism (mostly) out of public schools by pointing out that it is a religious belief and therefore requiring its inclusion violates the separation of church and state. We cannot then include it only to ridicule and criticize the belief, without violating this important principle.

We could deal directly with the bad scientific arguments against evolution (without even having to call it creationism or ID), just like a science classroom might deal with claims for a flat earth or geocentrism only to show students how we know these beliefs to be wrong.

But then again this can be dealt with by simply going over the history of ideas about life origins, resistance to the acceptance of evolution, and the lines of evidence that point to common descent and other aspects of evolution.

In the end, rather than open the door for creationism in the science classroom, any mention of modern creationism/ID should be confined to philosophy class as a tool for teaching critical thinking and the philosophy of science.

Finally, do address Reis’s concerns, it is easy to teach students that science class is about science – what is taught in science class is how science explores the world and the results of that exploration.  Religious beliefs of students do not have to be confronted.

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