Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Creationism and Science

In an Age article a couple of days ago, one of the government's most senior education advisers was quoted as saying that faith-based schools isolate religious groups and create divisions in society.

While I think there's some merit to this argument, that's not actually what I wanted to talk about. The article also raised the point that in some of these faith-based schools, creationism is being taught alongside evolution in science classes.

This is of real and genuine concern.

I can accept that when a school is funded by a religious group, they can claim the right to teach their theology to the students. When parents sign their kids up to these schools it's understood (or should be) that that's part of the deal.

What I can't accept is that something like science, so integral to our operation as a society, can be watered down for the convenience of a religious elite.

Faith-based schools may teach creationism, by all means. But they must do it only in the context of religious and theological instruction. Not in the science class.

To my mind, a school has two basic functions. The first is to develop a child's social, emotional, analytical and academic skills so that they have the best possible opportunity to succeed in whatever they choose to do. In a faith-based school, religious instruction will form part of this, which is perfectly fine if that's what the parents wish.

The other equally important function is to ensure that, as a society, we pass on from one generation to the next the skills required (to put it crudely) to keep the place running.

These functions are not mutually exclusive. They both go towards ensuring that each generation has a mix of people who will happily be engineers, checkout operators, doctors, cleaners, accountants, small business owners, rock stars, deep-sea diving instructors, etc. etc. Even ministers of religion.

But absolutely fundamental to the running of our society is an understanding of science. Science is what has advanced us from the stone age. Science underpins our agriculture and medicine. Science is essential for our understanding of the environment and the challenges of climate change. Science is what we use to build roads and computers and houses. Science touches every aspect of our lives.

When creationism is taught as if it were science, it devalues science. Being taught that theological dogma is science serves to remove the power of science, which is that it is open to being questioned.

All scientific claims must be backed up by observable evidence, or they will be quickly discarded. History is littered with the relics of scientific theories that were passed over for lack of evidence, or replaced with more plausible and supportable theories. (Here's a fun list to get you started).

In any science class, a student must be able to ask the question "where is the evidence?" with full confidence of receiving a satisfactory answer. Evolutionary theory can provide this. Creationism can not.

To say that creationism is science is to say that science does not require evidence. Such thinking undermines the very foundation of scientific thought.

If it were to become widespread in our society, so reliant on science for its survival, we would soon find ourselves in a very vulnerable position.


Spoon said...

Yes. We'll have to nip this religion thing in the bud, before it gets out of hand.

Matt said...

Facetiousness aside, we have the opportunity to do just that here in Australia, in this context at least.
In the US it's not uncommon for government-run schools to ban the teaching of evolution altogether.
We're nowhere near that here, and I fervently hope we never get there.

Spoon said...

I would argue that it probably IS uncommon, just not unheard of. It's just that when you hear an extreme story like "A Texan school has banned evolution" then it's all too easy to make the conclusion that suddenly a whole bunch of them are doing it. (Having said that I can't find a list, or percentage or anything. Damn internet. What's the point of wikipedia if it doesn't give you the EXACT pointless list you want at that exact moment? If you can find a percentage or something, that would be tops)

I agree that to ban evolution is a bad thing, and that to teach creationism as a science is also a bad thing.

But again I disagree with your extremism. If we don't stop this then society is going to come crashing to a halt (unless, of course, the American TV networks save society and create a brave new world by embracing the internet as a viable TV medium.*)

What we need is balance. Science needs to be taught in the impartial way that you claim it is. Personally, it wasn't in my experience. In science, probably more so than in most classes, the word fact was used a lot. More than, say, the word theory. You couldn't question these things. "People used to believe that the sun went round the earth. They were wrong. We are right." Why? because it's obvious, innit?
Science teachers get very grumpy if you keep asking "why" or "how do we know?" Note, that I am not saying "scientists" but science teachers. More specifically mine (with the exception, perhaps, of Garth Turner who didn't mind being questioned, but was very gruff about it, like he didn't want everyone to know that he didn't mind.)

A friend of mine in high school once told me a story of when he was in a very early maths class in primary school he kept asking why 1 plus 1 had to ALWAYS equal 2, and why this number followed that one. He said that none of the answers satisfied him (because they were of the "because they do" ilk) and so he kept asking until the teacher told him to sit in a corner, until he could either come up with a new mathematical system or accept the one that everyone else used and join the rest of the class.
He developed there an instant hatred of science in general and maths in particular and grew up to be a 6trtured artists-type writer (and a homosexual, although I assume that was incidental).

I was looking (for evidence of the schools thing) at this wiki article which I found interesting, but I only read bits of it. Sir Joh apparently banned evolution in Queensland schools in the 80s. So so much for it being "something that's starting to happen in America, and perhaps we can stop it happening here".

* but what about televangelists on the internet TV? Will they provide the much needed balance?

Matt said...

I'm not saying society will come crashing down, but I am saying that such thinking unnecessarily limits our development. And I agree that science teaching, in general, leaves a lot to be desired. But that's a whole nother topic.

I know that it doesn't seem like a big issue here, but in the US it's a whole different ball game. There are parts of the US, large parts, where evolution is just not taught at all.

In fact, it's not too long ago that the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design argument came to a federal trial.

And before you say this is an isolated case in an isolated backwater, it was only a few days ago that the Florida State Board of Education voted 4 to 3 to finally add the teaching of evolution to school syllabi, replacing vague talk of 'changes over time'.

But even this simple decision was wracked with controversy and ultimately watered down by compromise. The scientists say it doesn't go far enough, while the creationists say it goes way too far.

And just repeating, the margin was only 4 to 3. So it very nearly didn't happen at all.

Sarah said...

When I was at school we learned Creation Science in Christian Living class and nothing in Science class (except that testing on animals is WRONG and only PETA can save us). This meant I was way behind everyone else when I studied Bio Anthropology at uni.

Did you know that Creation Scientists believe there were dinosaurs on the ark? How did the velociraptor not just eat everything else?