Should creationism be taught in the classroom? It depends on what you mean by “taught”.
For instance, I recently lectured our freshman biology majors on the age of the earth. I first made up a list of facts and concepts that I wanted them to take away from the class: there were plain dry facts, like that the earth is 4½ billion years old, the Cambrian was about 500 million years ago, the Permian extinction was about 250 million years ago, etc. — the bony outline of a geological history of the earth that every biologist should know. Then there were the major events in the history of the geological sciences: names like Smith and Hutton and Lyell, the debates over uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism, the geologic column, and the practical motivation behind 19th century geological research. Then there are the general concepts students ought to know: how radiometric dating works, how the age of a fossil is determined, and what the fossil record actually shows.
Notice that I do not teach creationism — nowhere in the list of ideas that I think are important to get across will you find a 6000-year-old-earth, flood geology, polonium halos, vapor canopies, or other such nonsense. If you asked me if I teach creationism, I’d honestly and unambiguously say no, because it isn’t part of the message they’re supposed to go home with. But if you listened to the actual lecture, you’d discover that I do teach about creationism, that I mention that scientists believed that the earth was much younger in the 19th century, that this idea had a religious premise, and that greater understanding of the earth led to increasing awareness of its great age. That’s the context. It’s also useful because I’m trying to get them to do more than memorize a collection of dates and names of eras and periods, I’m trying to show them the process scientists used to figure out the age of the earth. I’m also happy to answer any questions that students may bring up, which often involve creationist misconceptions. So, sure, some creationist ideas flutter up periodically, to be shot down as erroneous, and used as examples to show how creationism has been refuted.
But I don’t teach creationism. There’s a difference between instructional content and goals, and pedagogical strategy. There is to be no sympathy given to bad ideas.
This is an important distinction that is blurred by most people who advocate that tired old slogan, “teach the controversy” or “teach both sides”. There is only one side, the pattern of the evidence. There are, of course, cases where the evidence is still open to interpretation, and there it is appropriate to present a more ambiguous answer and explain how scientists are still working to resolve the problem. But nothing in creationism falls into that category! It’s all long disproven and discarded, except by people who maintain a belief despite being contradicted by the facts. There is no scientific controversy, and there aren’t two sides.
Those who ask us to “teach” creationism are either abusing that verb in a way an educator shouldn’t, or they are asking us to give bad science a special privilege, a promotion to the status of a legitimate scientific subject that deserves to be on a science teacher’s lesson plan. It doesn’t. It is not important to specify that students must learn that some people think the earth is 6000 years old. What should be on the outline of concepts taught in science class is how we know the earth is much older than 6000 years.
This issue comes up all the time here in the US, since it is one of the common strategems of the creationists to beg for that special promotion of their falsified claims by demanding that we “teach both sides”. It’s in the news again now for the United Kingdom, of all places, because the director of education (!) for the Royal Society (!!) argues that “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view“, and that creationism and intelligent design ought to be taught.
Michael Reiss, the director of education, is pushing this idea with a noble and reasonable intent: he thinks it is the only way to reach some students who will shut off learning if their religious biases are challenged. Unfortunately, he’s also suggesting that non-science/anti-science concepts should be specified as a course objective in science classes, he’s buying into common creationist propaganda ploy, and he’s asking for unwarranted deference for wrong ideas held for unscientific reasons by students. He argues for respecting misplaced concerns.
I do believe in taking seriously and respectfully the concerns of students who do not accept the theory of evolution, while still introducing them to it. While it is unlikely that this will help students who have a conflict between science and their religious beliefs to resolve the conflict, good science teaching can help students to manage it – and to learn more science.
Creationism can profitably be seen not as a simple misconception that careful science teaching can correct. Rather, a student who believes in creationism has a non-scientific way of seeing the world, and one very rarely changes one’s world view as a result of a 50-minute lesson, however well taught.
Which is exactly why his idea is so awful. Kids are getting inundated with religious nonsense at home, are getting instruction in it at least once a week, and Reiss thinks we ought to sacrifice the one hour of secular, rational, critical thinking they will be exposed to by diluting it further with religious apologetics? Please. This is more cause to be uncompromising, not less.
Just to muddy the waters further, the source of Reiss’s sympathies are clear: he’s an ordained minister of the Church of England. As Dawkins put it, “A clergyman in charge of education for the country’s leading scientific organisation – it’s a Monty Python sketch.”
It is. But we have to be careful. I would not want to suggest that there ought to be some restriction, such that the director of education ought not to be religious, because that comes too close to setting an irrelevant criterion. If we were to scratch off all CoE members from candidacy for the position, why not cross out those who play fantasy role playing games, or write frivolous poetry, or who sing Bach in a chorus, or who memorize baseball statistics? If the person in such a position can keep a proper perspective in which his hobbies have absolutely nothing to do with his work, I wouldn’t object to even a minister having that job.
A director of education who won’t even repudiate the “teach the controversy” propaganda line of the creationists, though, has exposed his own ignorance of the issues and of the necessary goals of science education, and has made his ability to keep superstition out of science suspect. Reiss is demonstrably unfit for his job, not because he plays silly games with god-belief in his spare time, but because he’s willing to pollute the science classroom with lies. That should not be tolerated, and I don’t care that he thinks it’s a way to maintain rapport with students — there is no acceptable excuse for conceding science to those who don’t understand it.
The New Humanist is running a poll on what should be done about Michael Reiss.