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creationism - misconception or worldview?

My brother sent me an e-mail yesterday, saying "This should wind you up..." with a link to an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper. He was right, it wound me up all right.

The link's to an article about comments by the Dr Michael Reiss, director of education at the UK's Royal Society (the premier science organisation in the country) - and the reaction to them. Because the comments are contentious, to say the least. (There's also an audio link available.)

According to the Guardian, Dr Reiss has said that creationism and intelligent design should be discussed in school science lessons. He feels that to exclude them has the effect of turning students off science altogether, and that creationism/intelligent design are not 'misconceptions' but represent an alternative worldview.  "My experience after having tried to teach biology for 20 years is if one simply gives the impression that such children are wrong, then they are not likely to learn much about the science," he said. "I think a better way forward is to say to them 'look, I simply want to present you with the scientific understanding of the history of the universe and how animals and plants and other organisms evolved... Now I would be more content simply for them to understand it as one way of understanding the universe."

OK, this is a knotty issue. And there are probably people who'd agree with Dr Reiss that this is the way forward. But many evolutionary biologists in the UK are up in arms over these comments (& doubtless there'll be more in other countries, fairly quickly).  And I'm with the latter group on this one.

For starters, science as a way of 'understanding' the universe has a great deal more validity and power than either creationism or its pseudoscientific offshoot, intelligent design. I'm a teacher, I know how difficult it can be to alter students' worldviews/mindsets, but to suggest that they shouldn't be challenged at all really bugs me. It seems to me that this is saying, "OK, science & your own particular worldview are equally useful in understanding how things work," & in a world where having some degree of scientific literacy is becoming ever more important, this is selling the students short.

What's more, we don't take this approach for other areas of science. We don't pussyfoot around with geocentrism, or the idea that diseases are caused by 'bad air', or various non-scientific concepts of energy, for example. A good teacher recognises that these misconceptions (call them 'worldviews' if you like) exist, & then works to help the student reconcile their understanding with a more scientific concept of what's going on. (And they don't start by telling the students that they're wrong.) So why advocate this approach to evolution?

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See also PZ's take on this (the comments thread is also interesting!)

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4 Comments

From the Guardian article you linked:

Reiss, who is an ordained Church of England minister, told the British Association Festival of Science in Liverpool that science teachers should not see creationism as a "misconception" but as an alternative "world view".

If science teachers are to do this, at the least they're going to have to explain what kind of world view it is, one based on--at best--hypothesis without supporting evidence, etc. Which will only lead to the same students reacting, this time for having their position "written off" as opposed to being ignored.

I'm all for teachers explaining how the scientific methods works, and after this explaining how a approaching a problem starting with a preconception, be it from an ancient book, myth, "old wives tale", customary practice, or what-have-you, isn't a scientific way of approaching things. You can illustrate this with examples that don't involve creationism. If kids ask about creationism you can thank them for another example of starting with a preconception from an ancient book and invite them in their own time to start with evidence and point out that you intend work starting from evidence within the classroom as that's how science proceeds and this is a science class--?

Just loose thoughts on a Monday...!

Hopefully implementation of the new NZ science curriculum will see a lot more focus on the 'nature of science' side of things, which could help to address this. Unfortunately I've yet to hear what, if any, resources will be available to support teachers in this. A colleague & I put a proposal for a resource book (fully of the 'stories' of science, as well as discussing what NOS is all about) to one of the major publishing companies - only to hear that they felt this was not an appropriate venture for them. So we're looking around to find other options.

The other issue wrt teaching evolution is the fact that it crops up in isolated achievement/unit standards, with a limited time available for covering them, so teachers may not feel that they have the opportunity to deal with the misconceptions/conflicting-worldviews thing in any meaningful way.

Real-world practical problems have a nasty habit of putting a stick in the works, eh?

The anti-evolution, creationist crowd seem to either not need this for the forums they use (the internet) or where they need to cover costs for printed material they seem to be rather well-backed. I have to admit I have a suspicion that a fair amount of this backing ultimately comes from tithes.

Reiss has been asked to resign: http://royalsociety.org/news.asp?id=8008

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