Home » Creationism, Education, Evolution, Expelled, Free Speech, Intelligent Design, Science, theistic evolution » ‘Should Creationism Be Taught in British Classrooms?’

‘Should Creationism Be Taught in British Classrooms?’

This is the title of an opinion piece that appears in the latest issue of the liberal-left weekly UK magazine, New Statesman. It is written by Michael Reiss, who 18 months ago was forced out of his position as director of communications at the Royal Society because he said that creationist and ID views should be treated critically but respectfully, when raised by students in science classes. (As you can see from the end of the piece, he is eminently qualified to speak on these matters.) 

Reiss’ sacking has been perhaps the most public demonstration of an Expelled-like phenomenon in Britain to date. To this day, I am surprised at how little outrage it generated. I protested immediately at the time.

To his credit, Reiss, who appears to be a free-floating theistic evolutionist, has not backed down from his original position. However, his reformulation is quite interesting, as it now rests on a distinction between what one teaches and teaches about in science classes. He is clearly making the point that the classroom is not about indoctrination, and so one can teach about creationism without ‘teaching’ it per se as dogma.

I would have thought that the same equally applies to evolution and any other controversial theory that may be inferred from a field’s agreed facts and concepts. After all, since a course normally concludes with a written examination – and not a profession of faith – students might easily reproduce all they have been taught about evolution without coming away believing in the theory. (Imagine the question: ‘Describe the basic tenets and supporting arguments for the dominant theory of the emergence of life on earth’.)  Interestingly, Reiss leaves the door open to that prospect, though the overall tenor of the article would have easily enabled him to close it.

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15 Responses to ‘Should Creationism Be Taught in British Classrooms?’

  1. As far as I remember, when I was at school, science education was largely a question of learning basic facts by rote. There was little emphasis on what is the essence of science namely, its methodology. Obviously, there are basic facts and theories which have to be learned in any subject but if science can be said to exist anywhere it is in the practice.

    Reiss’s little anecdote about the student who was mocked by her teacher for watching a spoon to see if Uri Geller could bend it is instructive. Apart from the response being very bad teaching practice, it was a missed opportunity for illustrating the scientific method.

    The best science teachers can do for their students is to ensure that, as well as learning the basics of what is currently known in a given field, they are given a thorough grounding in the scientific method. Equipped with that, they can then tackle anything that takes their interest.

    As far as I can see, there are only two possible objections to teaching students about creationism in the science class. The first, is whether or not there is room for such discussions in what could be a crowded curriculum. The second is the risk that some teachers, who hold strong religious beliefs themselves, might cross the line and begin proselytizing their students.

    Both objections could be answered by referring such discussions to classes on religious studies and philosophy. But, since science can address any claims about the natural world made by religion, such questions are fit, in principle, for a science class. The only concession to students with religious beliefs themselves should be to explain to them that they are not required to believe but they are required to understand.

  2. Seversky stated,

    “The first, is whether or not there is room for such discussions in what could be a crowded curriculum. The second is the risk that some teachers, who hold strong religious beliefs themselves, might cross the line and begin proselytizing their students.”

    Would not want to interrupt the proselytizing of the unsupported, and current atheistic religious belief, that we came from apes would we?

    Or Seversky, do you care to provide your proof for human evolution here where it can be thoroughly dismantled instead of just indoctrinating children with known falsehoods?

  3. I used to be an editor for publishing companies that provided educational curriculum (and one of my key jobs was to make sure we were following provincial guidelines). I was also an equity reviewer for a very large school board. So, from that perspective:

    The main thing the relevant subject teacher needs to do is answer the students’ questions in an intelligent way that leads to more questions and creates a learning experience.

    The teacher must be free to do this – whether we are talking about sex ed, climate change, or Darwinism.

    That the teacher has a viewpoint is accepted – but irrelevant.

    The teacher who didn’t have a viewpoint could well be an amoeba, so far as I am concerned.

    Professionalism among teachers forbids proselytization in class for one’s own viewpoint.

    While we are here:

    WhybecauseIsaidso is NOT going to cut it with students.

    Nor is whybecausetheBoardsaidso*, nor whybecausesomejudgesaidso, nor whybecauseDr.Importantsaidso.

    The chief danger of the saidsos?:
    Students get bored and many intelligent students just drop out.

    Then they must make up their credits later. A big waste to all.

    * To me, the scandal of the Dover school board situation was that teachers were required to bark out some statement in class about design in the universe. NO teacher should be required to do any such thing.

    Of course, an appropriate exception is made for administrative announcements about chewing gum wads on the walls, smelly lockers, or the inappropriate shortness of some (unnamed) girls’ skirts …. :)

  4. “The teacher must be free to do this – whether we are talking about sex ed, climate change, or Darwinism.”

    or ID or YEC.

    Good point except I can’t believe that O’Leary and I agree about anything even the time of day. Maybe I have a fever.
    Dave W

  5. Off topic reference:

    Metabolic Pathways
    http://www.sigmaaldrich.com/im.....17_04_.pdf

    Metabolism: A Cascade of Design
    Excerpt: A team of biological and chemical engineers wanted to understand just how robust metabolic pathways are. To gain this insight, the researchers compared how far the errors cascade in pathways found in a variety of single-celled organisms with errors in randomly generated metabolic pathways. They learned that when defects occur in the cell’s metabolic pathways, they cascade much shorter distances than when errors occur in random metabolic routes. Thus, it appears that metabolic pathways in nature are highly optimized and unusually robust, demonstrating that metabolic networks in the protoplasm are not haphazardly arranged but highly organized.
    http://www.reasons.org/metabolism-cascade-design

  6. Dr Fuller,

    I would have thought that the same equally applies to evolution and any other controversial theory that may be inferred from a field’s agreed facts and concepts.

    OK, what kind of creationism is it that may be inferred from the agreed facts and concepts of physical science?

  7. It is an interesting article but I can’t work out what practice the guidance is recommending. One extreme is something like:

    A) If a creationist student raises concerns about evolution then don’t just tell them to shut up but understand where they are coming from and use it as teaching opportunity to demonstrate the evidence for evolution and the scientific method (also be aware that students from creationist backgrounds may not raise their concerns).

    The other is something like:

    B) Include various creationist viewpoints in your biology lesson as alternative “worldviews” and give the evidence for the evolutionary worldview.

    (A) strikes me as just good teaching. (B) is digging yourself into a hole.

  8. This article assumes there are only two points of view out there when in fact there are at least four. Only one of the four is ideologically free and that is ID. Creationism, naturalistic evolution and theistic evolution are ideologically driven. This article assumes that ID and creationism are the same thing which they are not so the fact that ID is the best science there is on evolution it is all lost because most of the planet believes otherwise. While it gives lip service to ID as somewhat different, it does not distinguish it really from creationism. They are mentioned in tandem throughout the article. So the meme of ID = creationism lives on and while this perception lasts, ID will get no where.

    This is one of the penalties that ID pays because many who support ID refuse to differentiate it from creationism and the opposition is only too happy to conflate the two. So while we continue to defend ID here, we are essentially defending creationism in the eyes of the world and actually undermining ID. It is a serious impediment for many to endorse ID. They will be thought of as creationists which they abhor.

  9. By all means let creation science be taught in the schools.

    Richard Dawkins

    and

    the presence of a creative deity in the universe is clearly a scientific hypothesis. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more momentous hypothesis in all of science.

    Richard Dawkins
    as reported in Dawkins on the Discovery Institute Payroll?

  10. The context of scordova’s quote-mine, from a Dawkins lecture entitled The “Alabama Insert”: A Study in Ignorance and Dishonesty:

    I really have less trouble than some of my colleagues with so-called creation science being taught in the public schools as long as evolution is taught as well. By all means let creation science be taught in the schools. It should take all of about 10 minutes to teach it and then children can be allowed to make up their own minds in the face of evidence. For children who study hard and keep an open mind, it seems to me utterly inconceivable that they could conclude anything other than that evolution is true.

  11. To Nakashima and Jerry,

    I happen to think that ID is a rather advanced form of scientific creationism (one that is compatible with most of actual biological science), and unlike Jerry, I don’t see the rhetorical acuity in trying to hide from that fact — especially since opponents of the theory constantly use it against ID, as if its defenders were ashamed of its theological roots.

    Here I think the US legal basis for the debate — where it’s always very important to distinguish science and religion — inhibits ID defenders from arguing as forthrightly as they might. In this respect, Dembski’s book ‘The End of Christianity’ deserves a lot of credit for bucking that trend.

    And of course, Dawkins is entitled to his prediction that teaching creationists about the facts of biological science and allowing them to make up their own minds will turn them into Darwinists. I happen to think his prediction is wrong — for reasons having nothing to do with creationists’ cognitive deficiencies — but his experiment should definitely be allowed to run!

  12. As a teacher, I heartily endorse Reiss’ view that there is a real difference between teaching something and teaching about something. This is a fundamental point to make – people who have not grasped it will not make good educators. Science teachers ought to be especially sensitive to these matters: the history of science tells us that science is tentative, subject to revision and sometimes to revolution. For teachers to turn science into a dogma is a betrayal of their own discipline. Testing ideas against evidence is the principle – empiricism is the hallmark of science. What is emerging very strongly is that evolutionists do not like their cherished ideas to be examined critically. As an example, all we need to do is analyse the reactions to “What Darwin got wrong” by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini. It shows that there are good reasons for disquiet about the existing teaching of evolutionary concepts.

  13. I happen to think that ID is a rather advanced form of scientific creationism (one that is compatible with most of actual biological science), and unlike Jerry, I don’t see the rhetorical acuity in trying to hide from that fact — especially since opponents of the theory constantly use it against ID, as if its defenders were ashamed of its theological roots.

    Steve, it is very possible — in fact I think it best — to leave ID as a simple observation of nature i.e. this event meets the known criteria of design.

    This provides for the possibility of objectively better criteria of design being found and possibly falsifying ID or new observations of the event being made showing that it does not fit the known criteria of design which of course would falsify ID.

    The only dogma of science should be that there is no dogma of science. The only assumption should be that the most-grounded scientific explanations of today will be laughed at 100 years from now.

    The problem with Darwinism is that it became a dogma.

    If ID should ever become a dogma it would be an insult to faith.

  14. Steve Fuller raises an excellent point when he writes:

    “However, his reformulation is quite interesting, as it now rests on a distinction between what one teaches and teaches about in science classes.”

    This is the quintessential philosophical demarcation or point regarding the teaching of origins or what is better known as “the controversy”- which is that it is not the same thing to present a widely held theory or perspective as it is to present it as “the truth” or “fact.” Whether it is evolution or ID or Creationism that is being taught- or whether it is Gaussian dynamics, or Newtonian mechanics etc- school is about EDUCATING students on how to think- and not what to think. And it is about presenting them with information and forcing them to believe one side of controversial things.

    It is therefore 100% true that even if you were to teach “about” flat out Biblical Creationism- just present the details of the theory as an informative topic- it would not be the same thing “teaching it” to students.

    Teaching about something merely presents the information as theoretical and controversial- where as purely “teaching” something usually implies that a certain skill set, theory or methodology will be required of a student to learn, employ and accept to get a passing grade.

    ID should be taught about- Neo-Darwinism should be taught about so long as it is relevant to current events- and Creationism is perfectly fine to teach “about” so long as the curriculum does not take a position for or against it.

    Therefore good education is about presenting valid, relevant information and techaing students how to use and orginize it in a quality and productive way.

    Stick to teacing HOW to think and NOT what to think- and we will be better off.

  15. Professor Fuller,

    I maintain that the term “creationist” is so ambiguous that it should never be used in any discussion unless it somehow qualified as to what it is meant in its particular use. The term when used in discussions of evolution nearly always takes on the sense of meaning of Young Earth Creationism. Just as the term “evolution” takes on the sense of Darwin’s version or whatever is the latest synthesis unless it is qualified. “Evolution” is a fact, new species have arisen which is not controversial; someone says they believe in “evolution” which means that these species arose by natural processes only which is not supported by any scientific data.

    So if one wants to say the world is composed of two types of people, creationists and materialists, then they should also go on to distinguish between the different types of creationists and that everyone who believes in some form of God, it a creationist. My guess is that materialists might deserve some type sub classification too. Is a Deist a creationist or materialist?

    By using the term creationist and ID in tandem as the article does, it says that ID is young earth creationism which it definitely is not. There are obviously many forms of non-materialists and your suggestion that ID really has its roots in some form of creation is perfectly true because that is what ID says. But who is the creator? ID just does not have the ability to identify who that creator is so it cannot be identified with any specific theology. I believe you were taught by Jesuits so you are familiar with Catholic theology. We have had the discussion here before that a Catholic believes in creation but can be a very avid supporter of ID or one who is anti-ID so how much does the religious implications of ID affect theology when the largest religious sect in the world is indifferent to it. I believe StephenB made the point that Thomas Aquinas was a young earth creationist but his many works are now being used by theistic evolutionists again ID.

    I am aware of the distinction a lot of the theistic anti ID people make which says that after creation of the universe that all unfolded according to the laws that were put into place while claiming that the pro ID people believe in subsequent creation as well. So in the sense both these groups are pro ID, just different versions of it. It is just when and how the information was inputed. It is a little like the socialists who appear to the non socialists as one entity. But as Nazis and Communist demonstrate there are variations who hate each other and Lenin killed most of his socialist allies after the Communist Revolution.

    This spat amongst various forms of ID is interesting. I personally have no problem with the theistic evolutionist’s anti ID position in principle. It is just that the science does not support it. But the theistic evolutionist anti ID people are in reality just another form of ID so we are into a classification problem here. As I said three of the players in this story abandon science to back their position while the fourth group which I identify as ID does not. Now two of these three other players are creationists just as ID is a creationist group. So maybe we should have a major thread on just how to identify who is ID or what form of ID if being a creationist means supporting some form of ID.

    As to your claim, “one that is compatible with most of actual biological science”, I would change the “most” to “all.” What little bit of biological science might ID object to? I know of none. That is why I say that ID is better science than what is preached by most of biology. Because, ID does not dispute what biological science does, but only offers different interpretations of some of the findings. Ones that could have implications for a wider range of research. But in this paragraph if the term “ID” is inclusive of the two other types of creationists then your statement might be more accurate.

    I am sure this could be written more eloquently and precise but I am sure you understand the position I am advocating.

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