Teaching Science in the Schools

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Francisco J. Ayala, Teaching Science in the Schools American Scientist, Volume 92, Number 4 July-August 2004

… It is often argued that the American tradition of fairness and “equal time” beckons that these alternative theories be taught. But these theories are not scientific and therefore have no place in the science curriculum. Not all scientific knowledge is equally certain. When there is uncertainty, alternative hypotheses should be taught in science classes, but only those grounded on naturalistic explanations subject to refutation by empirical observation and experiment. Schools should not teach astrology as an alternative to astronomy, alchemy as an alternative to the periodic table or witchcraft as an alternative to medicine.

The theory of evolution needs to be taught in the schools because nothing in biology makes sense without it. Modern biology has broken the genetic code, deciphered the human genome, opened up the fast-moving field of biotechnology and provided the knowledge to improve health care. Students need to be properly trained in science in order to improve their chances for gainful employment and to enjoy a meaningful life in a technological world.

Continue reading at American Scientist Online

16 Comments

A different idea on teaching science - latest from the DI.

Ayala’s editorial is generally good, but I’d like to point out that it contains the kind of subtle metaphysical assertions that are often inserted into discussions of evolution and creationism (by both sides) without explanation, and which I feel are part of the reason for the misunderstandings and overheated rhetoric in the debate.

“Students need to be properly trained in science in order to improve their chances for gainful employment and to enjoy a meaningful life in a technological world.”

When he says uses the phrases ‘gainful employment’, ‘meaningful life’, and ‘technological world’, he is including a whole host of assumptions, many of which are debateable. For example, while it is important for students to be properly trained in science, it is by no means obviously a requirement for gainful employment. Nobody would dispute that a taxi cab driver is gainfully employed, but it’s also fairly obvious that an understanding of science doesn’t really impinge upon his ability to do his job. I realize I’m over-dramatizing here, but the point is that a lot of scientists tend to view public policy within the narrow confines of science. Better understanding of science and how it works would be helpful in many areas, true, but it’s also true that many things are only marginally affected by a proper understanding of science.

The phrase ‘technological world’ obviously applies to the West, but it obviously doesn’t apply to large fractions of the world. Coupled with the loaded term ‘meaningful life’, it implies that only those who understand technology can have meaningful lives in our modern world. There’s a whole host of issues here (like whether the implication is true in the first place), but the main point is that such fears are behind much of the anti-science movements, whether from secular anti-biotech movements or fundamentalist Christians. What is the point of needlessly inflaming those fears if the goal is to produce support for science and science education?

You have an interesting site. I plan to keep reading. I have spent alot of time thinking about the creation/evolution debate, though I don’t like to think of it in those terms. I was brought up to believe that Darwinism is evil and laughably wrong on the science. I have since come to believe that those charges are a bit extreme. Moreover, I don’t think that Darwinism and creationism are mutually exclusive ideas, when creationism is defined as the belief that God created the world in some manner or other. Many Christians do in fact hold both views and maintain fidelity to the Bible. But one aspect of the controversy that troubles me is that in the effort by “creationists” (in the more specific sense of 7 24-hour days in Genesis, etc.) to obtain “equal time” in schools and in the response by their opponents to block their admission to the biology classroom, the validity of the religious/philosophical ideas of the meaning of life as a field of inquiry in public school has fallen by the board. Just because creationism is not science, does that mean that it is improper to inform high school students of the history of ideas about origins? I posted on this topic over at the blog I maintain with a group of friends. I would be interested to hear your comments. Here is the link: http://www.lettersfrombabylon.com/2[…]ism-and.html

Having a place for high school students to study some philosophy, some comparative religion, and some of the factors that are part of some people’s concerns about evolution would be good. There are several problems that I am aware of. The first is that there is currently neither the time nor place in the standard high school curriculum for this. We have more to teach than we have time for anyway - not only the four core solids (English, social studies, math, and science), but also, increasingly, technology, foreign language, fine arts, health, etc. The content demands of the high school keep increasing as funding for public education decreases (in respect to costs, some of which are unfunded mandates.) So finding a place for the above topics in anything but an elective at a large high school would be hard.

The second problem is that if in fact we taught some of these things more explicitly, I think a lot of people would get upset. For instance, if in a comparative religion class we discussed non-theistic ways of understanding ultimate reality as well as different versions of theism, and if we discussed the split between Biblical literalists (who definitely don’t have scientific knowledge on their side) and those Christians who have no trouble reconciling their religion with science, my guess is that the parents of a lot of kids would object that they didn’t want their kids being taught about all that stuff in the public schools.

A third problem is that not many teachers have the background to teach such material, and good curriculum materials would be hard to find.

So even now, where it would be possible for a science teacher to teach about the evolution controversy from an historical perspective, touching on the philosophical, religious, and cultural issues involved, most teachers would touch the idea with a ten-foot pole.

Jack,

I think you meant “WOULDN’T touch the idea with a ten foot pole.”

I agree with Jack that John’s suggestion is an intereting idea, but has serious practical problems. One of the issues is the idea that public schools should reflect the common values of society in its curricula (and the question of origins is tightly linked to values). But in a pluralistic society how does one sort out what those values are? That is one reason why educational funding and control has historically been local (which results in wide disparities in quality and curricula across the country).

This also brings up a chicken-and-egg question with respect to values: does the school reflect the community’s (however defined) values, or does it shape them? The Creationists seem to put a lot of stock in the idea that public schools shape societal attitudes and values. I think there is some truth to this, but I think they overstate the case. They feel the public schools no longer support or espouse their (Christian) values (the extent to which they historically did this or not is a debate for another time); I think the reason they don’t is because the society as a whole, or at least large segments of it, largely has post-Christian (or even anti-Christian) values. (Which might sound odd to those who feel beseiged by Creationists or religious conservatives, but it’s true nonetheless.) Simply forcing changes on the curriculum isn’t going to have much effect on the underlying value system.

I agree that it would be nice to teach high schoolers better critical thinking skills and expose them to a broader array of ideas, but if your concern is keeping the kids from injuring or killing each other with knives or guns, or keeping them from doing drugs, you’ve got more immediate problems than improving their philosophical pedagogy.

…the society as a whole, or at least large segments of it, largely has post-Christian (or even anti-Christian) values.

Why, then, does a non-christian have a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected president any time in the foreseeable future?

I see it more as a question of polarization, and the loss of confidence in the virtue of “live & let live”.

There seems to be a sort of siege mentality among conservative christians. (The blog title “Letters from Babylon” evokes that, at least in my mind.)

I can understand that. In fact, when I look at American popular culture and the aggressiveness with which it’s sold to the rest of the world, I have a certain sympathy with the Iranian theocrats’ characterization of us as The Great Satan.

One problem of concern to a lot of PT regulars, though, is the tendency to see science in general, and “Darwinism” in particular, as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy working hand in hand with Ozzy Osbourne to undermine “traditional values”.

Not that any of this will be news to John, whose blog - despite my quibble about its name - I have found thoughtful and interesting.

The practical obstacles Jack mentions to the idea of teaching more philosophy in high schools, particularly on the topic of the origin of life in the universe, are indeed daunting. I had considered many of those same obstacles as well, with similar (unfortunate) conclusions.

I was also interested in the response from Mike. I suppose public schools do in fact often reflect the common values of a society, but should they? Is it the job of the school system of a pluralistic society to teach that the gay marraige debate, for example, is analogous to the Civil Rights Movement? Or is it rather the role of the school system to equip students with the historical background and analytical skills needed to decide for themselves how these two social controversies are alike or different? Of course no human endeavor is unbiased, including the presentation of history. All the same, I think schools should concentrate more on basic instruction (the three “R’s” for example) in knowledge and put any remaining resources into teaching students HOW to think about difficult, controversial questions rather than WHAT to think about them.

Regarding Russell’s impression of a “siege mentality among conservative christians,” there might be some truth to the idea. But, as one of those conservative Christians, I tend to think of the struggle more as a desire to challenge the ideas of the day (like relativism) that I believe are (1) false or (2) destructive. Naturally many other members of our society disagree with my opinions about what ideas are false or destructive, but all thinking persons who care about their world and about the well-being of others should combat what they think is untruth. It seems that that same mentality motivates the Panda’s Thumb as well. What is too often missed, however, is the need to speak the truth (as one believes it to be) in a spirit of love and respect. The “siege” part of Russell’s impression of the conservative Christians might come into play because many of us, like those who post at LFB, feel that thinking conservative Christians in the last 30 years or more (maybe much, much more) have surrendered the field of intellectual debate to those who hold worldviews that are anti-Christian or dangerously false. For a variety of reasons, evangelical Christians have not done a good job speaking out for the intellectual respectability and viability of faith and of a religious worldview. So now that the vacuum has been filled, so to speak, those Christian thinkers who wish to re-invigorate such fundamental debates as absolute truth vs. relativism feel like they have to dig in their heels for the long haul. Anyway, that rather long response is just my take on the issue. Other Christians might disagree.

Thanks for the great dialogue! I hope we can maintain such discourse. One of the problems is that too few people seek out contrary opinions. Learning and growth are hard to come by that way. If you’re interested in more of my thoughts on that topic, see: http://www.lettersfrombabylon.com/2[…]-debate.html

“One problem of concern to a lot of PT regulars, though, is the tendency to see science in general, and “Darwinism” in particular, as part of a vast left-wing conspiracy working hand in hand with Ozzy Osbourne to undermine “traditional values”.”

Right. And that is why I feel it is unwise to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life without believing in/understanding evolution - it only serves to exacerbate that tendency, and doesn’t really help the goal of defending science.

Mike S: I feel it is unwise to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life without believing in/understanding evolution - it only serves to exacerbate that tendency, and doesn’t really help the goal of defending science.

I’m with you here 100%. But I’m not sure whom we’re in league against . Who would you say does imply that?

And I think you’re with me 100% when I say one probably would have a hard time making much sense of biology without “believing in”*/understanding evolution.

*(I prefer “accepting” or some such, as “believing in” sounds religious)

Mike S: I feel it is unwise to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life without believing in/understanding evolution - it only serves to exacerbate that tendency, and doesn’t really help the goal of defending science.

I’m with you here 100%. But I’m not sure whom we’re in league against . Who would you say does imply that?

This line from Ayala’s editorial:

“Students need to be properly trained in science in order to improve their chances for gainful employment and to enjoy a meaningful life in a technological world.”

I didn’t say it invalidated the whole editorial, just that scientists should be more careful about saying things like that.

And I think you’re with me 100% when I say one probably would have a hard time making much sense of biology without “believing in”*/understanding evolution.

Quite right.

*(I prefer “accepting” or some such, as “believing in” sounds religious)

I’m with you here, too. ; ) While I think one can point to evidence for or against religious beliefs (that is, beliefs are not entirely a ‘personal’ or subjective phenomenon), it is important to highlight that key distinction between religious belief and science: the latter does ultimately depend upon faith, while the latter ultimately depends upon empirical evidence. And the phrase ‘belive in evolution’ muddies that distinction.

Mike S: I feel it is unwise to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life without believing in/understanding evolution - it only serves to exacerbate that tendency, and doesn’t really help the goal of defending science.

I’m with you here 100%. But I’m not sure whom we’re in league against . Who would you say does imply that?

The following line from Ayala’s editorial:

“Students need to be properly trained in science in order to improve their chances for gainful employment and to enjoy a meaningful life in a technological world.”

I wasn’t saying that this invalidated his whole point, just that scientists should be more aware of the reactions people have to such things.

“And I think you’re with me 100% when I say one probably would have a hard time making much sense of biology without “believing in”*/understanding evolution.”

Quite right.

“*(I prefer “accepting” or some such, as “believing in” sounds religious)”

I’m with you there, too. I think there is evidence to support or disprove different religious beliefs (that is, they are not wholly subjective), but the key distinction between religious belief and science is that the former ultimately depends upon faith, while the latter ultimately depends upon empirical evidence. And the phrase ‘believe in evolution’ muddies that distinction. The problem is there often isn’t a convenient alternative, although I guess ‘accepting’ comes close.

Mike S: I feel it is unwise to imply that one cannot live a meaningful life without believing in/understanding evolution - it only serves to exacerbate that tendency, and doesn’t really help the goal of defending science.

I’m with you here 100%. But I’m not sure whom we’re in league against . Who would you say does imply that?

This line from Ayala’s editorial:

“Students need to be properly trained in science in order to improve their chances for gainful employment and to enjoy a meaningful life in a technological world.”

I didn’t say it invalidated the whole editorial, just that scientists should be more careful about saying things like that.

“And I think you’re with me 100% when I say one probably would have a hard time making much sense of biology without “believing in”*/understanding evolution.”

Quite right.

“*(I prefer “accepting” or some such, as “believing in” sounds religious)”

I’m with you here, too. ; )  While I think one can point to evidence for or against religious beliefs (that is, beliefs are not entirely a ‘personal’ or subjective phenomenon), it is important to highlight that key distinction between religious belief and science: the former does ultimately depend upon faith, while the latter ultimately depends upon empirical evidence.  And the phrase ‘belive in evolution’ muddies that distinction.

Sorry about the multiple posts. I wasn’t seeing my posts even after going back to the homepage and reloading the comments section. I don’t know if it’s my browser or what.

Accepting is indeed a better word. That some form of evolution occurs is a done deal, scientifically. You can accept it or not.

More or less reflexively, I’d like to respond to some of the comments John made above. Seeing a Christian making a good faith effort to communicate with people many of whom don’t share his faith is refreshing.

Regarding Russell’s impression of a “siege mentality among conservative christians,” there might be some truth to the idea.

I’ve seen a good deal of what I’d regard as a siege mentality among conservative Christians, and I can’t think of a single case where the proximate trigger for the “they’re out to get us” response was anything other than the weakening or loss of a previously privileged (and institutionalized) position. Once, ONLY Christians could pray in school; this privilege has been getting eliminated and this is seen as an attack on Christians. One city council, who had had a Christian minister say their opening prayer since forever, had an atheist instead wish them wisdom and good judgment (but only once), and that was considered an attack. Monuments engraved with the ten commandments are removed from a courthouse rotunda (but the judge who put it there denied requests for equal time for any other viewpoint) and THAT was considered an attack. I’ve seen dozens of similar cases, whose common denominators were (1) that previously institutionalized Christian privilege was removed, and (2)The suggestion of equal time for those of other faiths was regarded as a deliberate denial of the One True Religion.

But, as one of those conservative Christians, I tend to think of the struggle more as a desire to challenge the ideas of the day (like relativism) that I believe are (1) false or (2) destructive.

An interesting locution. What if relativism is both destructive and TRUE? Which should be defended in that case, the truth or the social cohesion a shared falsehood promotes?

…many of us, like those who post at LFB, feel that thinking conservative Christians in the last 30 years or more (maybe much, much more) have surrendered the field of intellectual debate to those who hold worldviews that are anti-Christian or dangerously false.

And here is that same curious locution again. The implication is clear: relativism is both false and dangerous; worldviews that are anti (read: not) Christian are dangerously false. And here we see the siege mentality peeking out around the edge: that viewpoints indifferent to Christianity somehow become “anti-Christian” UNLESS they (at the very least) don’t conflict with doctrine. Of course, it is not the intent of the scientific method to be “anti-Christian”, even if doctrine is denied. Someone arguing FOR a viewpoint is not necessarily and maliciously arguing against the “truth”, as defined by a different viewpoint. They can be ships passing in the night. Is it not possible that the Christian worldview is itself dangerously false? How about the Islam worldview?

For a variety of reasons, evangelical Christians have not done a good job speaking out for the intellectual respectability and viability of faith and of a religious worldview. So now that the vacuum has been filled, so to speak, those Christian thinkers who wish to re-invigorate such fundamental debates as absolute truth vs. relativism feel like they have to dig in their heels for the long haul.

Here once again is the assumption that relativism is ipso facto false. But what if it is not? How can we have a dialog of “intellectual respectability” if one’s opponent’s viewpoint is DEFINED as false before the dialog begins? It’s entirely possible that the worldview of the evangelical Christians can work, especially within a homogeneous society of Believers. But almost ANY worldview works just fine, within some broad parameters, if everyone agrees it’s right.

What has been bugging the Christians, in my reading, is that the US culture is becoming increasingly heterogeneous, requiring an increasing amount of compromise, leading to more conflict at all levels. In Europe, where the Muslim population is large enough to constitute a political force (and growing rapidly), the situation is even worse. We run the very real danger that cultural groups within the society will disagree about the rules themselves, like one baseball team deciding that the game should be won with guns rather than runs. In other words, a polity can work only when its members agree to disagree on the cases, but formally agree to agree on the conflict resolution procedures, the meta-rules on which the society rests. And this meta-agreement may be threatened today.

The answer is NOT to define one’s viewpoint as “truth”. Relativism in this environment is the reality; intransigently defining other viewpoints as false only fans the flames. Christians must understand that they don’t run the show anymore; that they offer one answer among many. The scientific (i.e. observation-based rather than definition-based) worldview currently shows promise of being a potentially unifying approach. The downside is, science has no “truths” to offer, only some reasonable probability of being correct.

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This page contains a single entry by PvM published on July 12, 2004 4:00 PM.

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