Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Joel at Dembski’s Home for Wayward Sycophants has a loopy post about a report out of London that some teachers are avoiding controversial subjects like the holocaust and the crusades for fear of offending the sensibilities of some religious minorities. The government report out of England says:

“Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship,” it concluded.

Joel is right to find this appalling, but his reasoning for doing so is simply bizarre. And he turns reality completely upside down in comparing this to teaching evolution:

It is disturbing that this is where education in the United Kingdom is heading. Teachers are encouraged to gloss over one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century because it might offend some people’s sensibilities or religious background. Though we have survivors, documented evidence, and hard proof that it occurred, educators do not wish to teach it because it might be offensive.

However, if you happen to believe that God created the world, or a deity of some sort, then please do not raise your voice in class. That is your opinion. They will not teach the Holocaust because it might offend a radical sect of the population – but they will teach Darwinian evolution even though the majority of the population does not accept it fully?

This shows that some educators are more willing to deny the Holocaust, or at least sweep it under a rug, than abandon Darwinian evolution. Is this a sign of things to come?

He has this precisely backwards. We have the same situation in the US, where surveys of science teachers have shown that a sizable percentage of them gloss over evolution, or don’t mention the term at all. Why? Precisely the same reason mentioned above, because it conflicts with the “highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship” and is therefore too controversial.

They get tired of getting phone calls every semester from ignorant parents who think the world is 6000 years old and that Adam and Eve had a pet dinosaur. They get tired of being accused of “inculcating atheism” and of teaching things that will “send our children to hell.” What’s the difference between that and what is going on in England? Absolutely nothing.

Even weirder is Joel’s comment about a majority of the public not accepting evolution “fully.” Is he suggesting that if a majority of the public didn’t accept the holocaust “fully” that teachers would be justified in not teaching it? He seems to be making the argument that because the public doesn’t accept evolution, therefore schools shouldn’t teach it. In reality, that is all the more reason to teach it, and do a better job of doing so. The validity of evolution is no more determined by popular opinion than the reality of the holocaust.

Comments

  1. #1 flatlander100
    April 3, 2007

    Nothing new here in the US Ed, and not just in the sciences. In Louisiana, when the shift was made [I think about 15 years or so ago] to teaching [and testing] only post 1877 US history in 11th grade [the first half is taught in the 8th grade], one advantage [politely so called] of doing it that way, I was told, was that the contentious isses of slavery and reconstruction, could be avoided in high school history classrooms. Teachers told me actually studying slavery, the civil war and reconstruction in the 11th grade created a great deal of tension in mixed race classrooms [in Louisiana, that meant nearly all public school classrooms], and occasional violence [shouting matches that led to fist fights out of class --- that sort of thing]. While most of the HS history teachers I talked to were appalled at the notion that only post 1877 history would be taught [and tested on on the high stakes exit exam], a few were very relieved that now the “problem topics” could be skipped over.

    So what you’re writing about fits into a sadly long tradition in US public schools. And it’s not just in science classes, Ed.

  2. #2 J-Dog
    April 3, 2007

    I am a Dembski Denier, and do not “fully accept” belief in Joel Borofski, proud of it, and my school district is not teaching my beliefs at all! What happened to Fair and Balanced?

  3. #3 Ginger Yellow
    April 3, 2007

    The study can be found here. It makes for fairly depressing reading, but at the same time these specific incidents of schools avoiding contentious subjects seem to be isolated – ie there is a systematic mistreatment of contentious issues but no systematic avoidance of, say, the holocaust. A lot of the study’s focus is on how teachers do teach contentious issues, but do it in a bland, by the book way so as to avoid causing offence/trouble. It should also be noted that, contra Joel, it’s not just talking about issues whose reality is disputed by some, but rather issues whose significance is – Britain’s role in the slave trade, the Soviet revolution and so on.

    There are many problems with the British education system, not least the rise of state funded religious schools with little oversight of curricula, but on the other hand the centralised nature of most public education significantly restricts the potential for things like creationism or holocaust denialism to creep into lessons.

    The thing that has me most disturbed in British education, even more than creationism in the City Academies, is the granting of BScs by universities in nonsense subjects like homeopathy. It’s one thing to be teaching its placebo effects to doctors, but it’s another thing entirely to pretend it’s a science. See here for a round-up of material on the subject. For all our irreligiosity and cynicism, Britain seems to be spectacularly susceptible to woo.

  4. #4 Matt Penfold
    April 3, 2007

    What is it about creationists that means they cannot open their mouths without lying ?

    This Joel person seems to have failed to realise that the teaching of evolution is not a contentious issue in the UK. There are a few groups who oppose it, and sadly a small number of state funded schools which have a fundamentalist ethos (but even those are obliged to teach science as setout in the national curriculum). The public in the UK largely accept evolution and consider those who think the earth is 6000 years old pretty much like they would consider someone who thinks aliens are beaming rays into their head.

  5. #5 Christophe Thill
    April 3, 2007

    Why will there never be “Creation denialists”? Because, unlike the Holocaust, we have no witnesses, no remains, no authentic documents, no proofs of any kind. It’s not a historical event. How can anyone dare imply that both things are, somehow, alike?

  6. #6 ZacharySmith
    April 3, 2007

    It is a sad day indeed when educators give deference to what parents teach their children at home.

    Why stop at evolution and the Holocaust? What if little Johnny’s dad thinks that adding and multiplying fractions is worthless? Or that thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes are the judgement of God?

    The list of potentially offensive topics is endless.

    What if some goofy religion claimed that the heart is the seat of consciousness and the soul. Would human anatomy class suddenly become offensive?

  7. #7 Sastra
    April 3, 2007

    I have a liberal friend who, despite accepting evolutionary theory, is in favor of including Intelligent Design and even Creationism in science classes. Why? Because she is a sweet, kind, sensitive person who believes that education is worthless unless children learn to respect other people’s feelings — and other people’s religions. So if teaching evolution hurts people’s feelings, or damages their sacred personal or family “faith,” then it needs to be either balanced fairly with the Other Side, or eliminated altogether. I suspect the controversy in England would also set off her alarm bells, especially if any of the offended groups are religious, minority, or the double whammy of ‘religious minority.’ She sees it as a matter of tolerance and learning to get along with others, with mere book learning as secondary. After all, “we all have our own ‘truths.'” Arghh.

    Clearly, from her point of view, truth is flexible and subserviant to Being Kind. She makes a wonderful mother and considerate friend. However, she is also, in my opinion, a bit of a fool — and a dangerous one at that. She is precisely the sort of politically-correct namby-pamby relativist which is denigrated by the Religious Right — while simultaneously being courted by the pragmatic strategy of the Discovery Institute.

  8. #8 Tim
    April 3, 2007

    Sad. And dangerous. Somewhere along the line we mistook our right to not take offense for the right not to be offended.

  9. #9 Matt Penfold
    April 3, 2007

    Tim,

    I suspect what you actually mean is our reponsibility not to cause offence. Sadly to many people think that rights come with responsibilties.

    Unfortunatly Ed falls into that trap. He has become so in thrall to the US Constitution and the rights it allows he forgets that responsibilties come with rights. If only he would overcome this shortcoming he we would be a worthwhile ally.

  10. #10 Tim
    April 3, 2007

    No Matt, I mean that we have a choice as to whether or not to feel insulted. But we are not entitled to a world in which no one ever offends us.

    The eight century Buddhist Santideva explains it best when in his example of one traveler explaining to his whining companion whose feet hurt because of a rocky path, that it is much easier, and much more sensible to bind one’s feet in soft leather than to cover the whole world with leather so that one’s feet never hurt.

    That does not mean we should not be considerate and conscientious. But it does mean too that we not try to cover the world in leather because someone’s feet might get hurt.

  11. #11 DuWayne
    April 3, 2007

    Matt Penfold –

    Where exactly has Ed ever implied that rights don’t come with responsability? That was a most obnoxious statement, addressed to someone who works very hard to defend a lot of things I, and many others who read him, hold very dear. He is, to put it mildly, one hell of a great ally – even to theists, such as myself – who believe in defending our liberties and defending science education.

  12. #12 Ed Brayton
    April 3, 2007

    Matt Penfold wrote:

    Unfortunatly Ed falls into that trap. He has become so in thrall to the US Constitution and the rights it allows he forgets that responsibilties come with rights. If only he would overcome this shortcoming he we would be a worthwhile ally.

    Okay Matt, let’s get specific. This is nothing but an empty platitude at this point. What alleged responsibility have I forgotten about or do I reject? Be specific.

  13. #13 gwangung
    April 3, 2007

    Where exactly has Ed ever implied that rights don’t come with responsability? That was a most obnoxious statement,

    And it comes from a most obnoxious person, who I suspect of being a troll.

    Few people I know take the idea of “responsibility to not give offense” seriously–and they generally forget about it after they have their nap.

  14. #14 THobbes
    April 3, 2007

    I suspect what you actually mean is our reponsibility not to cause offence.

    No such responsibility exists. The concept of rights includes with it some responsibility, of course; using property (to which one clearly has a right) to commit a crime like drug cultivation violates the law and is a basis for criminal punishment. Thus, in exercising our rights, we should not break the law, unless that law is unjust. That’s the kind of responsibility that comes with rights.

    Leave aside for a second whether you agree with the current state of the drug laws. If you feel that the example is a bad one, then replace drug cultivation with some act that is justly unlawful.

    However, no reasonable conception of rights includes the requirement that we restrain ourselves to the extent that we cannot exercise our rights in the first place. If we assume that the right to free expression includes the responsibility that we not offend anyone, then that right is meaningless. Everybody will be offended by something, and thus we cannot (by your standard) say anything.

  15. #15 Matt Penfold
    April 4, 2007

    Ed,

    OK, let me show you.

    You frequently go on in your blog about the right to freedom of speech. I have not yet read a blog from you where you call on someone not to excercise that right and to act in a reponsible manner. We all know that sometimes mistimed or inappropriate statements can have wide ranging effects. To follow your rationale there is no requirement for people to consider the effects of what they say on how what they say might effect society. And that is where I have a problem with you. You view this issues from a legalistic point of view, or at least judging by the content of you blogs you do, and yet they go far beyond that.

    To give another example, you often blog about the seperation of chuch and state and legal challenges to that in the US. What you seem to miss is that the legal seperation of church and state is not the real problem. The UK (Other than Northern Ireland) has an established church and yet the role of religion in public life is far less prominent in the UK. To give a example, an MPs relgious views are simply not an issue; You will not see them proclaim that they are christians, or how often they attend church. A person’s religious views tend to be a matter of sublime indifference to the majority of people in Britian. When a politician does start talking about god, as Blair did over Iraq, most people feel uncomfortable at him doing so: Blair suffered a reduction in popularity after doing so. So it is not the law that is the issue, it is attitudes.

    THobbes,

    We all have a reponsbility not to cause offence. It is not an absolute one of course but to claim there is never such a responsibilty to to say that people have no responsobility to consider the effect of their actions on society. That views such as yours are so prevalent in the US might well go towards explaining why the US is such a socially divided country. To give an example: As I am sure you aware Iran is currently holding 15 British Sailors and Marines claiming that they violated Iranian terroritorial waters. Now people in the UK would be perfectly at liberty to march through the centre of London calling for the British Government to user force to resolve the issue. That would be the people’s marching right. However it would probably not a very reposonsible thing to do when both sides seem to be trying to solve the problem via diplomacy.

  16. #16 Tulle
    April 4, 2007

    Matt, everything you say causes me offence. Please take your own advice and stop posting such views.

  17. #17 Matt Penfold
    April 4, 2007

    Tulle,

    You have missed one thing. I do not give a toss about the consquences of causing you offence.

    So sorry but learn to live with it dickhead.

  18. #18 Tulle
    April 4, 2007

    Matt, thanks you made me laugh this morning, and in a good way for both of us. Nothing you said realy offended me. I was just using my way of saying someone will always be offended by what one says. You have a good day.

    To know me is to love me :-)

  19. #19 Ed Brayton
    April 4, 2007

    Matt Penfold wrote:

    You frequently go on in your blog about the right to freedom of speech. I have not yet read a blog from you where you call on someone not to excercise that right and to act in a reponsible manner. We all know that sometimes mistimed or inappropriate statements can have wide ranging effects. To follow your rationale there is no requirement for people to consider the effects of what they say on how what they say might effect society. And that is where I have a problem with you. You view this issues from a legalistic point of view, or at least judging by the content of you blogs you do, and yet they go far beyond that.

    This is truly amusing. There are, of course, multiple levels from which to view any situation, and yes, I write primarily about the legal aspects of cases involving speech. Only someone actively looking for something to criticize and blinded by their own personal dislike of someone would infer from that focus that therefore I must have a certain opinion about the moral aspects of the situation (that is, how someone should behave as opposed to whether their behavior is legal). This is the sort of ridiculous thinking that leads people to think that the ACLU, for example, must support the viewpoint of the people whose free speech rights they defend. But as David Goldberger, the Jewish attorney who represented the Nazis in their legal battle, said:

    “We are in the business of supporting the first amendment. We do not support the ideas of this particular organization, nor have we ever, nor will we ever. But the issue is not the content of their views, the question is what is the power of government to pick and choose among speakers in the marketplace of ideas?”

    Yes, I defend liberty, without regard for whether I agree with the message or not. But you are dead wrong to claim that I never condemn the content of the message. In post after post when defending the right of people to express their anti-gay beliefs, for example, I have said very clearly that I find what they say to be heinous and wrong but I will still defend their right to say it. Not that I really have to say such things, of course, because anyone who has read my blog for more than a day or two knows that I am a passionate advocate of equal rights for gays and a staunch opponent of anti-gay bigotry. I have also defended the right of people like David Irving to deny the Holocaust even while finding his views absolutely repulsive (and saying so quite bluntly).

    The bottom line is this: no reasonable person who has read my writings would ever infer that because I support the legal right of people to say such things I must also believe, on a moral level, that they should say such things. But you, quite frankly, don’t appear to be a reasonable person. For some reason, I get your ire up and that forces you to resort to ridiculous arguments like this one to discredit me. But you’re simply wrong; I frequently condemn the content of someone’s speech while still defending their legal right to say it. I would love it if no one ever said anything bigoted against gay people. I would love it if no one ever expressed anti-semitic ideas, or denied the holocaust. But I will still defend their legal right to express those beliefs no matter how vile I find them on a moral level.

    To give another example, you often blog about the seperation of chuch and state and legal challenges to that in the US. What you seem to miss is that the legal seperation of church and state is not the real problem. The UK (Other than Northern Ireland) has an established church and yet the role of religion in public life is far less prominent in the UK. To give a example, an MPs relgious views are simply not an issue; You will not see them proclaim that they are christians, or how often they attend church. A person’s religious views tend to be a matter of sublime indifference to the majority of people in Britian. When a politician does start talking about god, as Blair did over Iraq, most people feel uncomfortable at him doing so: Blair suffered a reduction in popularity after doing so. So it is not the law that is the issue, it is attitudes.

    Um…okay. And this is supposed to have something to do with me allegedly ignoring the moral responsibility that comes with our rights? I’ll take non sequiturs for $1000, Alex. Clearly, logical thinking is not your strong suit.

  20. #20 gwangung
    April 4, 2007

    You have missed one thing. I do not give a toss about the consquences of causing you offence.

    So sorry but learn to live with it dickhead.

    This is obnoxious AND offensive, by many people’s standards. And quite irresponsible, as well.

    I doubt you will live up to YOUR responsibilities as you are demanding others to do.

  21. #21 Matt Penfold
    April 4, 2007

    Ed,

    I take on board your reponse to my claims you do not do enough to condem what people say whilst supporting their right to say it. what I did not see addressed how you suggest that we deal with the consequencies of what people say. We all know what an general anti-gay ethos in, for example, a school, can cause a young gay person to go through. In some case, all to many, they take their own life. Now I do not not doubt you are appalled when this happens, but what are you doing to stop such an anti-gay ethos ? Saying you support gay rights is fine, but sadly does not seem to be doing the trick. Kids are still killing themselves becuase when the look around them they see anti-homosexual rhetoric and precious little support. You support the right of a child to hand out literature that says gays will burn in hell on the grounds it is protected free speech. And I know you support gay rights, and welcome that, but the two do not sit happily together. Being gay can be tough, I am sure, and being a gay teenager tougher still. Such people are vunerable. The teens are difficult years for anyone but imagine being a teen, being gay and being subject to an environment where people are openly saying you should burn in hell. To argue that such comments are protected by free speech laws does not help that kid. He or she will dread going to school and sadly all to many will see no other way out of an intolerable situation that to take own life.

    Yours words of support of such people is fine but words are not what is needed. Action is. Action to stop gay kids from having to endure such a hostile environment. And it is here I am afraid you fall down.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    April 4, 2007

    Matt-

    Okay, so you’ve changed your argument. First you claimed that I “ignored” all aspects other than the legal aspects. Now the truth comes out: what you don’t like is that I think liberty trumps the issue of whether someone should say something, or how it affects others. Well you’re right, I do. But that’s an entirely different argument. Yes, I fully recognize that gay kids are troubled by anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes to the point of being distraught over it. Though frankly, I doubt that the expression of an opinion about homosexuality is enough to cause such problems. I’ve been close enough to my gay friends to know that they would all say that they don’t much care about someone expressing their beliefs about homosexuality being sinful, unbiblical, etc; it’s the direct, personal harassment and bullying that really causes the problems. Now, one may argue that one leads to the other, but bullying behavior can be controlled without violating someone’s right to express a belief about homosexuality itself. Thus, I think it should be legally protected for a student to wear a t-shirt that says homosexuality is sinful, but not for a student to target another student for personal harassment and bullying.

    The problem with using this as a pretext for the government deciding which opinions can be spoken and which can’t is that there is virtually no limit to how many other things might be banned using the same premise. Indeed, you have demonstrated this yourself in another thread by arguing that a student should be forbidden to argue against abortion because there might be a female student at the school who has had an abortion and it would be emotionally painful for her to hear someone suggest that abortion is wrong (and remember, this was based just on someone making the general statement that abortion was wrong, not any kind of personal targeting of this hypothetical girl or harassment of her).

    But that’s just the beginning. Once we have established the premise that the government may forbid speech that could potentially cause someone emotional pain, where does it end? Let’s flip the situation above around: suppose there’s a girl who had an abortion but is now convinced that what she did was morally wrong and it now causes her emotional distress to hear others advocate that abortion should be legal? Emotional pain is a personal thing; whether you think she ought to feel that way or not, she does. And that situation has the same argument for government intervention as the one you cited. For that matter, I’ve heard some radical feminists argue that the mere advocacy of an anti-abortion position subjugates women and causes them to be oppressed. Can’t they make the same claim?

    The fact is that there is no end to the list of possible causes someone might advocate that could cause someone else emotional distress. Advocating that adultery be legal may cause great pain for someone whose spouse cheated on them. Certainly Holocaust denial can be very hurtful to someone who lost a mother or father in the concentration camps. Advocating that drugs be legalized may cause emotional distress for someone who lost a loved one to a drug overdose. There is no end to the possible pretexts for government intervention to prevent someone from feeling subjective emotional pain due to the words of others.

    But here’s the other side of this: there are other ways to deal with such expression. We are seeing it going on right now in response to anti-gay sentiments in schools all over the country. We’ve seen the formation of hundreds of Gay Straight Alliance clubs and events like the Day of Silence, where gay teens are standing up for themselves and their straight friends are standing up in solidarity with them. And I would argue that this is a far better way to deal with the situation. Thousands of young people are finding their voice through such programs, and they’re also gaining something that government intervention can’t give them – pride and dignity in standing up for themselves and saying “your words will not make me think less of myself.” This is an opportunity for growth that they cannot get if we demand that the government sanitize the environment to make sure they’re never exposed to the opinions of others.

    There is only one sure thing about a society that values free speech: someone, at some point, is going to say something that we hate, something that makes our blood boil or causes us pain to hear advocated. We can run to the government to protect us from the opinions of others, but in doing so we put our own freedom at risk along with theirs. Indeed, I would argue that in our current climate of anti-gay fervor, giving government the authority to decide which speech is okay and which is not makes it a lot more likely that our speech is targeted rather than theirs. Or we can exercise our own freedom and counter their words. By doing so, particularly by encouraging young people to do so for themselves, we empower them and ourselves to stand up to intolerance without practicing it ourselves.

    Now, you may disagree with me on this. That’s fine. But drop this bullshit about how I just “ignore” the notion of moral responsibility.

  23. #23 THobbes
    April 4, 2007

    Matt:

    I’m sticking with the reasoning that I mentioned before, but will put it in syllogism form:

    1. As you state, we supposedly have a duty not to cause offense.
    2. As Ed Brayton mentions above, virtually any position that you advocate will cause offense to somebody. You may deny this to be true, but it remains a simple fact of life–recall Abraham Lincoln’s “You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”
    3. Thus, if we are not to offend anyone, then we effectively cannot advocate anything.

    This result is inimical to the very concept of free expression, and it defeats the entire purpose of government protecting this very important right. If we have a right, but a duty that precludes us from exercising that right, then that right is effectively useless. I am led to conclude the only reasonable position that results, as other commenters have explained as well: life is tough. You’ll be offended by things other people say. Get over it–learn to argue back and show them to be the ignorant, bigoted homophobes (to use your example) that they are. In the end, this gives a far better result than asking the government to do the work for you.

  24. #24 Jason I.
    April 4, 2007

    Matt Penfold said:

    Yours words of support of such people is fine but words are not what is needed. Action is. Action to stop gay kids from having to endure such a hostile environment. And it is here I am afraid you fall down.

    So what is it exactly that you think should be done? Are you suggesting that offensive speech should be fought against with violence? Or suppression of that speech? What do you do to “stop gay kids from having to endure such a hostile environment”?

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