creationism’s new battleground

Just how much should we be allowed to discuss creationism in science class? It depends who's discussing it and why.

both sides editorial cartoon

Here’s an interesting statistic. In the UK, about 29% of teachers think that creationism should be taught alongside evolution. It’s a very significant number for a country so progressive in its science education and in which some 70% of the population accepts the theory of evolution vs. about 40% for the US. The survey was done by educational broadcaster Teacher’s TV as a reaction to the controversy over comments made by the former Director of Education at the Royal Society, Reverend Professor Michael Reiss who was asked to step down from his post after opining that evolution and Christianity are not incompatible and science teachers should address creationism in class.

Left with flagellum sized fuses after pitched battles with creationists to whom the teaching of evolution is the equivalent of preaching atheism to kids, the greybeards at the Royal Society thought it was time for Reiss to leave and allowed the science media to openly speculate that perhaps he wasn’t such a good choice for the post anyway seeing how he was a minister and all. It was an overreaction that could give creationists claiming that evolution is nothing more than a bureaucracy and shuns creationism simply because evil atheists have taken over the hallowed halls of academia, some ammunition. The thing is, Reiss didn’t say anything in favor of creationism or anything that many scientists themselves haven’t said.

But being a minister and saying that creationism should be addressed in science class, left the wrong impression. What he really meant is that if a pupil with very strong religious beliefs tries to talk about creationism in class, the teachers should answer his or her questions as a part of the educational process. The Teacher’s TV survey says that 88% of teachers support this idea and I think it’s perfectly valid to expect a science teacher to address creationist myths in class. Kids today are given enough bad information about science as it is and their teachers should be ready and willing to clear it up.

Interestingly enough, the Times article which reported the survey results links to a ridiculous op-ed essay about teaching creationism “as long as science is respected” by conservative Irish columnist Melanie McDonagh. According to her, if you present evolution as just a theory rather than “a dogma” and delve into creationism, more kids will enjoy science class. Of course, when proponents of this stance talk about presenting evolution as just a theory, it shows just how little they know about science and the scientific method.

Gravity is just a theory but when have you randomly floated off in the air? Time is only a theory but when was the last time you woke up ten years younger? Does this mean that we shouldn’t teach time and gravity as facts because they’re just theories? Theories are tested hypotheses that are proven true as far as we can test. When you try to teach the scientific method, you have to focus on the facts, not theistic flights of fancy. So how exactly would one respect science, as McDonaugh graciously offers, when you present pseudoscientific dogmas alongside it?

If a student wants to ask about creationism in class, by all means, clear up misconceptions and explain as much as you can. Good science is built on skepticism and thoroughness. But just as you don’t invite a witch doctor to a medical school and pretend that you’re respecting science, you shouldn’t give creationists a bully pulpit in science class and pretend that you’re somehow respecting evolutionary biology.

# education // creationism / creationists / evolution / science education

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