He said…What?

Reading through today’s headline over at the National Secular Society, there’s a few headlines all dealing with one question: Creationism.  The Times, in particular, issues the headline, “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools“.  Later, over at the BBC, was the headline, “Call for creationism in science“.  A Times editorial on “Unintelligent design“, an Independent article stating, “One in 10 pupils believes in creationism“. A bizarre analysis, again from the Times stating, “You need to understand your opponents’ argument“.  What’s with the sudden interest in creationsim?

Well, it all leads to one thing: a scientist – the Prof./Rev. Michael Reiss – is saying that creationism should be taught in schools.  And not just any scientist: Scientist, ordained minister, and member of the Royal Society.  We are in very muddy territory indeed if a member of the Royal Society – and a biologist at that – is endorsing creationism.  The Times actually went further, proclaiming that:

Creationism should be taught in science classes as a legitimate point of view, according to the Royal Society, putting the august science body on a collision course with the Government.

If this is true, then we really are in deep do-do.  The position of the Royal Society, when it was last embroiled in this farce of a “controversy”, was categorically that creationism is not science.  Have they suddenly performed an about face?

Well. No.

What the Prof./Rev. actually wrote can be found here, and this appears to be the crux of his argument:

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.

Now, if I’m reading this correctly, he’s not saying, “side must be set aside to discuss creationism in the science classroom”, he’s instead saying, “if a child asks, or mentions, creationism, the correct response is not to say, ‘we can’t discuss that at all’, but to say, ‘okay, defend that statement'”.  And I think he’s right.  Especially as he goes on to clarify:

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 creationsim or intelligent design observe equal time.

He’s not saying, in any way, shape or form, that either intelligent design or creationism are valid scientfic viewpoints, or represent any form of challenge to evolution. Rather he’s saying, “let’s show how science works“.  Simply hand-waving and dismissing the idea does not teach children anything: instead, he’s saying, show them how there pre-conceptions differ from the way science works. And he’s right: this is hardly novel. Take physics as an example.

Almost all of modern physics is counter-intuitive, yet it is by far the best description of the world we see.  We are taught in schools that two objects of different weights – a feather and a lead weight, say – when dropped in a vacum will drop at the same rate.  This runs counter to our every-day observation that the lead weight will fall faster.  Similarly, we are taught that an object at motion will remain in motion unless a force is appled against it.  But if you roll a ball along a straight plane, it will eventually stop – the physical truth runs counter to normal experience.  It has to be explained that the discrepency is air-resistence.  In many respects, it could be argued that if a person has not experienced the “huh?” moment when newtonian physics is explained to them then they probably haven’t understood the implications, and probably never felt the, “Oh!” feeling of exaltation when they finally do get it.  I regularly meet people who, even in adult-hood, still don’t understand that an object in orbit, whilst aparently weightless, is not mass-less, and make eroneous assumptions based on this.

Evolution is the same.  Evolution – just like modern physics, and all good science – is overwhelmingly supported by evidence, and is overwhemingly backed by predictive power, but is overwhelmingly counter-intuitive.  Humans and apes share a common ancestor.  And, in fact, we’ve got common ancestors with every mammal.  Huh?  On the face of it, it makes no sense. Yet it is absolutely true.  The kids coming into the classrooms to be fed these apparently nonsensical viewpoints may well believe that humanity was created, because they have no other frame of reference.  They haven’t learnt what science is.  Surely nothing could be better for the teaching of evolution – and the teaching of science in general – than to point out why creationism isn’t scientific, and why intelligent design isn’t scientific.  All this guy is saying is, “teach kids critical thinking”. Otherwise, all you’re doing is teaching them a bunch of facts they don’t understand, and can never connect to their own lives.

And he’s appropriately cautious too:

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said.

I’m deeply dissapointed that an honest assesment of how to explain evolution in the classroom is distorted and grossly misrepresented by the media in an attempt to garner a few newspaper sales.  I can imagine the glee with which creationists, on both sides of the pond, will look at these headlines and shout, “See!  Even the Royal Society agree with us”, when they, most profoundly, do not.

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4 Responses to He said…What?

  1. Mimi says:

    I read a story along these lines somewhere and was a bit confused. Thank you for clearing it up. I was wondering how things could have been so suddenly turned around. Now how are we to correct so many news sources?

  2. Richard says:

    The Huh? moment for me in secondary school was Newton’s Third Law. I wondered how anything could move at all if there was always an equal and opposite force. Since then I’ve used that law so much in engineering calculation I take it for granted.

  3. Richard says:

    I’d have thought that the Hindu creation model would have more chance of survival than the Christian one. Maybe it does in India. It posits a very old world, but also posits a form of cyclic time. It doesn’t so obviously contradict observation.

    That both the Hindu model and the Christian model exist with the same “evidence”, that of their respective scriptures, must be evidence by counter-example that scripture is not a valid source of evidence. If all scripture is valid then they can’t both be right.

    Each seems internally consistent to its followers and each produces that feeling of rightness/joy/epiphany. Each also has its share of good things, loving others, helping others, being a generally decent person that is sometimes used to defend scripture. “If Jesus/Krishna was right about that then he must be right about the rest”.

    Anyone looking a Hinduism and saying “can’t be right – flying monkey armies” should note that “virgin birth and resurrection” is also very counter-intuitive. Both sides can argue that this is just allegory and not important, something more likely from the Hindu side I think.

  4. One of my biggest “Huh?” moments was not resolved until long after I left school: If light is a wave, by what means does it propagate? We were told how a wave in water propagates, and how sound propagates through air as a compression wave, but we were then told that light is a wave, but it doesn’t propagate through anything. So how can you describe it as a wave? It wasn’t until I developed an interest in astronomy and then particle physics later on that I realised the answer was, “It’s one hell of a lot more complicated than that!”. I love science!

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