Monday, October 26, 2009

Creationism should be taught in science classes

So say 54% of Britons, apparently. Well, 54% of the almost 1000 people polled. It might come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that, whatever the numbers might be, I actually agree.

The unfortunate thing about a poll is that, however "scientific" it might be, the results tend to be presented in the media without any sense of possible nuance in the answers.

The unfortunate thing about a lot of hard science advocates--and I consider myself to be one--is that they tend to see clear-cut boundaries where there's actually a considerable amount of haze. The thing about modern science is that it's part of an epistemological continuum. The history of myth and the history of science are not 100% discrete and science should not be taught in an ahistorical manner. Both myth--the picture of creation presented in Genesis, e.g.--and science--the story of evolution as told by Darwin and his followers--spring from the human desire to explain origins and predict destinies. To teach only Darwinian evolution, divorced from the intellectual and cultural contexts in which it, ahem, evolved is to paint a picture of spontaneous intellectual generation--to borrow terminology from another debunked hypothesis I learned about in Biology 11.

Darwin's version is an improvement upon earlier stories. It is supported by enough evidence to be a bona fide theory and not merely a hypothesis. Creationism has a lot of company. Lamarckism, for instance, which is routinely taught in schools, in precisely the way it should be: as a theory that once had some scientific currency, but is now discredited. (Notwithstanding the fact that Canada's federal science minister still thinks it's valid.) Incorporating Creationism into science curricula gives teachers the opportunity to present it for what it is: an antiquated idea that should not be taken seriously as a useful path to anything resembling objective truth. Leaving these topics to religion classes--of which I had none in my 13 years of pre-university schooling and which are probably only de rigueur in religious schools--is to risk having them taught as valid scientific theories and increases the risk of significant portions of the population thinking that one "theory" is as good as any other. Why would you want to do that?

One of the people quoted in the Guardian piece says that the poll results show how ignorant "the public" is. The public doesn't get that way by accident and it won't be cured by ignoring or suppressing certain topics in the curriculum.

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