Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Would popular science counter creationism?

Bringing me in doesn't make it
teaching creationism
Thanks to Ian Campbell for pointing out a report to me, publicised last week, on the best way to 'tackle creationism in the classroom. The blaring headlines suggested 'Children should be taught about creationism in science lessons to avoid alienating those of strong faith,' but before the radical atheists start foaming at the mouth, I'm not sure that's what the study actually concluded. (Actually it's too late to prevent the backlash. Apparently 'Richy Thompson, campaigns officer at the British Humanist Association, said: “Young Earth creationism and intelligent design should not be given credence and taught as scientifically valid for the simple reason that they are not.”'

But did the study suggest this? Admittedly there was the inflammatory statement 'If [evolution] is presented insensitively, students may feel compelled to choose between science and deep-rooted religious beliefs. Rather than asking whether religious views should be covered in science lessons, the question is can we afford not to talk about them?' But one of the people who appears to be involved in the study (I only have indirect reporting on it, which isn't totally clear), Pam Hanley of York University said 'I wouldn’t for a moment say you should teach creationism in science, but you could certainly talk about evolution in the context of when Darwin first published his ideas, when it was challenging the religious orthodoxy.'

So, no one appears to be suggesting we teach 'Young Earth creationism and intelligent design... as scientifically valid.' Rather, what they appear to be saying is, rather than plonkingly teach evolution as 'This is how things are, accept it,' instead they take the popular science approach of giving the context of the discovery. Don't just teach what evolution is, but explain how it came about. I think that is totally uncontroversial. In fact, I'd suggest we ought to be using the techniques of popular science far more in the science classroom if we want to overcome the general impression that science is boring. It doesn't mean you shouldn't do the grunt work with formulae and experiments and all that good stuff too, but some context of how the theories were developed can really make them seem more relevant and comprehensible.

So was this a storm in a religious tea cup? I think so. The study raises a point worth making, because a fair number of students coming from strong religious backgrounds, particularly muslim and Christian, do reject evolution when simply presented with it as 'scientific fact' because such an approach is not strong enough to come up against deeply held beliefs. But with more context, there is every possibility that some (not all - there will always be those who can't look around the blinkers) will expand their worldview to take in the stance that evolution and their religious beliefs do not have to be incompatible.

Image from Wikipedia

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