Thursday, September 11, 2008


God's Laboratory

Michael Reiss, director of education for the Royal Society, Britain's most prestigious scientific organization, has come out as against keeping creationism out of science classes.

Professor Reiss, a Church of England minister and former biology teacher, said he strongly believed in teaching the theory of evolution to children.

But rather than dismiss creationism as wrong or stupid, teachers should be prepared to discuss it as another 'worldview'.
According to Professor Reiss, approximately one in 10 British schoolchildren come from families with creationist beliefs.

Some science teachers think that because creationism and intelligent design are scientifically invalid that anybody holding them is just being a bit stupid. That’s not something I would want to convey.

Although pupils might have other irrational beliefs – about ghosts, tarot or astrology - creationism should be treated as a special case.

The depth of sincerity with which people believe creation narratives from the scriptures – whether it is Islam, Christianity or some other religion – tends to be much greater than the belief that people have in horoscopes or astrology.
Naturally, Britain does not have a constitutional requirement of separation of church and state as we do in the US. But even if we didn't, I don't see why the "depth of sincerity" of the religious/philosophical beliefs of children (much less of their families) should dictate how science should be taught, much less require including "scientifically invalid" concepts in a science class.

If it should, then won't there also have to be special provision made for the children of deeply sincere atheists or "theistic evolutionists," accommodating any scientifically invalid material they'd like included as well?

And just how "deep" is deep enough? Why should the strong beliefs some people hold against the big bang, stem cell research, global warming or science-based medicine (rather than faith healing or "alternative" medicine) not be taken into account too? How long will it be before the scientifically invalid concepts start to overwhelm the valid ones and the class stops being about science at all?

Why shouldn't a simple (but deeply sincere) explanation to the effect that the class is about science and religious/philosophical questions should be addressed to the student's parents or pastor suffice?

But Professor Reiss added: 'Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis.

'However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.

'I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a "worldview"; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.'

That doesn't seem unreasonable to me.

Of course, this is the Daily Mail so I wouldn't trust it even if it told me Richard Dawkins is an atheist.

On the other hand, it irks me no end that British citizens have been denied a written constitution which includes a declaration of unassailable rights.
'Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted ...

I know. But why should teachers who are, more often that not, in the US anyway, poorly equiped to deal with evolution, much less scientifically invalid "worldviews," have to get involved at all? If the teachers aren't believers themselves, ready to proselytize the kids, they may well botch badly the subject of worldviews, even giving the kids the idea that science is just another form of religion. And if they remain silent in the face of arguments by often well prepared creationist kids, they may give the whole class the idea that there are no scientific answers to creationist objections.

I'm all for classes in philosophy/comparative religion/philosophy of science where teachers backed by a curriculum and good materials and (hopefully) training could navigate such obstacles with some reasonable chance of success. But throwing science teachers into it willy-nilly is just a recipe for educational disaster.
I'd like to think that science teachers in the UK are competent enough to address the controversy.

If they could take advantage of the situation to explain how science should be done then that's a good thing. It helps students to learn about critical thinking.

When my kids attended high school in Canada the biology teachers always set aside time to debate the creationist point of view. It was a good learning experience to discuss the creationist claims and see why they were wrong.

I've even given some talks in local high schools where I explained why evolution is a much better explanation than creationism.

I think it's sad that that option isn't available in the USA.
I think it's sad that that option isn't available in the USA.

I won't pretend to be expert in the competency of American teachers -- I'm only going by some polls and studies I've seen. There are doubtless many teachers who could handle it in the US (and, doubtless, many in the UK and Canada who can't). I just think it is too important (when it comes to the science end) and too fraught (on the religion end) to trust to ad hoc instruction.
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