Can we refute creationism in evolution class?

April 15, 2010 • 7:03 am

Over at the Center for Inquiry, Michael De Dora has published a controversial piece arguing that while we can teach the evidence for evolution in public school biology class, we should not at the same time overtly refute the claims of creationism.  While it’s okay to teach that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, says De Dora, and to outline the evidence for that age, it’s wrong to add that the earth is not 6,000-10,000 years old, for that is a religious idea, not a scientific one.  And, says De Dora, that violates the Constitution’s provision of church-state separation:

More specifically, the purpose of biology class is not to reject religious ideas; it is to inform students about biology*. There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity or label its creation story a “myth”; it has nothing to do with teaching the theory of evolution or biology generally. And While Zimmerman overstates his case to some degree — the passage does not refer to the entire Bible as a “myth”– directly rejecting specific stories in The Bible still shows preference. . .

Science classrooms should teach science. Biology class should, at least on evolution, cover the work of Charles Darwin and other early scientists theorizing about evolution; it should tackle the meaning of the word “theory” in science; it should discuss the enormous advances in evolutionary biology since Darwin’s time; it should talk about the multiple lines of evidence supporting the theory of evolution; and much, much more. By the end, there should be no doubt that evolution is as close to a fact as we have. Talk about discouraging students from believing in creationism…

Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent. But I don’t see a church-state issue with merely mentioning that religion exists. Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.

And, in the comments (De Dora’s responses to the commenter’s questions are in italics):

@Deen: “If the biology textbook is even halfway decent, the rest of the book should have already established that the creation story couldn’t have been true anyway. How could it be problematic to point it out explicitly?”

Because it is one thing to teach biology; it is another to deny religious ideas.


@Deen, “Are you saying that it’s OK to teach people that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, but it’s wrong to teach them that the earth isn’t 6000 years old?”

Yes. One imparts scientific knowledge. The other denies a religious idea. One is constitutional; the other is not. There is no reason for a high school biology teacher to get into denying specific religious ideas in a high school biology class.

I think De Dora is wrong here, and for several reasons. First, the claim that the earth is 6,000 years old is not a religious idea, it is an empirical claim. Yes, it’s an empirical claim that’s derived from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, but it is not a “religious idea.”  Refuting the idea is not the same thing as attacking religion.  It’s simply showing that one of the claims that some religious people make about the world is wrong. (As I argued in a recent post, because these empirical claims come from specific notions about the supernatural, testing them is, in effect, testing the idea that gods have intervened in the universe in certain specified ways.)

But why go after those ideas in the first place, especially in biology class?   I think there are several reasons. The first is that there is an important social context in which biology, geology, and cosmology are embedded and other sciences are not.   Much of the American public rejects evolution precisely because those sciences make empirical claims that contravene empirical claims that come from other sources, mainly faith.  If there are widespread views of the world that contradict biological fact, it’s important for students to know that.  This equips them to be not only good citizens, but also to think scientifically.  Telling the students that “here is a feathered theropod dinosaur that lived about 150 million years ago, which is strong evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs” is not the same as telling them that and adding that “this contradicts the notion that birds and reptiles were separately created.” One way of teaching gives positive evidence, the other not only gives that evidence but dispels an alternative hypothesis—the most widespread alternative hypothesis.

And that brings us to the second reason: teaching evolution and dispelling creation provides students with a valuable lesson: it teaches them to think scientifically—surely one of the main points of a science class.  They learn to weigh evidence and to show how that evidence can be used to discriminate between alternative explanations.  It’s of little consequence to me that one alternative explanation comes from a literal interpretation of scripture. Indeed, it’s useful, for this is a real life example—one that’s going on now—of how alternative empirical claims are fighting for primacy in the intellectual marketplace.  What better way to engage students in the scientific method?

Weighing alternatives was also important in the history of evolutionary biology.  As we all know, Darwin’s rhetorical strategy in The Origin was to constantly present the reader with facts about biology that could be understood in light of his ideas but not in light of religiously-based creationism. Eventually, the case for creationism collapsed under his persuasive weight. This strategy was crucial in promoting the rapid acceptance of Darwin’s views among biologists  (except, of course, for natural selection, which wasn’t widely accepted until about 1920).

In fact, under De Dora’s view, it would be not only wrong but illegal to teach Darwin’s Origin of Species in public-school science class (or perhaps any class!), since the book is loaded with explicit discussion about facts that contradict creationism.  I’ll limit myself to citing a few passages from Darwin’s discussion of biogeography in chapters 11 and 12.  I’ve put the “illegal” passages in bold:

In discussing this subject, we shall be enabled at the same time to consider a point equally important for us, namely, whether the several distinct species of a genus, which on my theory have all descended from a common progenitor, can have migrated (undergoing modification during some part of their migration) from the area inhabited by their progenitor. If it can be shown to be almost invariably the case, that a region, of which most of its inhabitants are closely related to, or belong to the same genera with the species of a second region, has probably received at some former period immigrants from this other region, my theory will be strengthened; for we can clearly understand, on the principle of modification, why the inhabitants of a region should be related to those of another region, whence it has been stocked. A volcanic island, for instance, upheaved and formed at the distance of a few hundreds of miles from a continent, would probably receive from it in the course of time a few colonists, and their descendants, though modified, would still be plainly related by inheritance to the inhabitants of the continent. Cases of this nature are common, and are, as we shall hereafter more fully see, inexplicable on the theory of independent creation. . .

Before discussing the three classes of facts, which I have selected as presenting the greatest amount of difficulty on the theory of `single centres of creation,’ I must say a few words on the means of dispersal. . .

These cases of relationship, without identity, of the inhabitants of seas now disjoined, and likewise of the past and present inhabitants of the temperate lands of North America and Europe, are inexplicable on the theory of creation. We cannot say that they have been created alike, in correspondence with the nearly similar physical conditions of the areas; for if we compare, for instance, certain parts of South America with the southern continents of the Old World, we see countries closely corresponding in all their physical conditions, but with their inhabitants utterly dissimilar. . .

We now come to the last of the three classes of facts, which I have selected as presenting the greatest amount of difficulty, on the view that all the individuals both of the same and of allied species have descended from a single parent; and therefore have all proceeded from a common birthplace, notwithstanding that in the course of time they have come to inhabit distant points of the globe. I have already stated that I cannot honestly admit Forbes’s view on continental extensions, which, if legitimately followed out, would lead to the belief that within the recent period all existing islands have been nearly or quite joined to some continent. This view would remove many difficulties, but it would not, I think, explain all the facts in regard to insular productions. In the following remarks I shall not confine myself to the mere question of dispersal; but shall consider some other facts, which bear on the truth of the two theories of independent creation and of descent with modification. . .

We have evidence that the barren island of Ascension aboriginally possessed under half-a-dozen flowering plants; yet many have become naturalised on it, as they have on New Zealand and on every other oceanic island which can be named. In St. Helena there is reason to believe that the naturalised plants and animals have nearly or quite exterminated many native productions. He who admits the doctrine of the creation of each separate species, will have to admit, that a sufficient number of the best adapted plants and animals have not been created on oceanic islands; for man has unintentionally stocked them from various sources far more fully and perfectly than has nature. . .

This general absence of frogs, toads, and newts on so many oceanic islands cannot be accounted for by their physical conditions; indeed it seems that islands are peculiarly well fitted for these animals; for frogs have been introduced into Madeira, the Azores, and Mauritius, and have multiplied so as to become a nuisance. But as these animals and their spawn are known to be immediately killed by sea-water, on my view we can see that there would be great difficulty in their transportal across the sea, and therefore why they do not exist on any oceanic island. But why, on the theory of creation, they should not have been created there, it would be very difficult to explain. . .

And finally, one of my favorite passages from The Origin:

The most striking and important fact for us in regard to the inhabitants of islands, is their affinity to those of the nearest mainland, without being actually the same species. Numerous instances could be given of this fact. I will give only one, that of the Galapagos Archipelago, situated under the equator, between 500 and 600 miles from the shores of South America. Here almost every product of the land and water bears the unmistakeable stamp of the American continent. There are twenty-six land birds, and twenty-five of those are ranked by Mr Gould as distinct species, supposed to have been created here; yet the close affinity of most of these birds to American species in every character, in their habits, gestures, and tones of voice, was manifest. So it is with the other animals, and with nearly all the plants, as shown by Dr. Hooker in his admirable memoir on the Flora of this archipelago. The naturalist, looking at the inhabitants of these volcanic islands in the Pacific, distant several hundred miles from the continent, yet feels that he is standing on American land. Why should this be so? why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America? There is nothing in the conditions of life, in the geological nature of the islands, in their height or climate, or in the proportions in which the several classes are associated together, which resembles closely the conditions of the South American coast: in fact there is a considerable dissimilarity in all these respects. On the other hand, there is a considerable degree of resemblance in the volcanic nature of the soil, in climate, height, and size of the islands, between the Galapagos and Cape de Verde Archipelagos: but what an entire and absolute difference in their inhabitants! The inhabitants of the Cape de Verde Islands are related to those of Africa, like those of the Galapagos to America. I believe this grand fact can receive no sort of explanation on the ordinary view of independent creation; whereas on the view here maintained, it is obvious that the Galapagos Islands would be likely to receive colonists, whether by occasional means of transport or by formerly continuous land, from America; and the Cape de Verde Islands from Africa; and that such colonists would be liable to modifications; the principle of inheritance still betraying their original birthplace.

Now I’m not saying that we should all go into public-school biology classes and gloat, “See—religious ideas are wrong!” And I doubt that any of us think that we should use this teaching strategy to explicitly dump on those strains of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism that promulgate creationist ideas.  There’s a sensitive way to do this.  Too, when we do teach evolution, we don’t need to constantly criticize empirical claims about creationism.  In my own classes, I mention creationism only during the first two lectures—the lectures on the evidence for evolution.

Over my years of teaching, I’ve given many talks about evolution in public schools.  I’ve also taught evolution at the University of Maryland, a public university.  And I’ve found that the mention-and-dispel-the-alternatives approach is pedagogically useful.  Now this isn’t the same as “teaching the controversy,” because 1) I don’t spend a lot of time on the creationist claims, and 2) I show the students that those claims don’t stand up.

I’ve also written a book on the evidence for evolution, and explained in its introduction that my theme made sense only in light of ongoing controversies.  We don’t need books about Why Atoms are True or Why the Germ Theory of Disease is True.  The reviews of WEIT were almost uniformly positive, and, more important, I can’t think of a single one who took me to task for bashing religion, though I frequently discuss creationist claims.  (Note: I’m going on memory here, so I may have forgotten some criticism.)   Further, not a single one of the many people who have written me thanking me for the book have added, “Hey, you know, it would have been more persuasive if you had laid off creationism.” At any rate, there is no evidence that my strategy in writing that book impeded its message.

Yes, we have to admit that some students may begin questioning religion if they see that their faith makes incorrect claims about the world.  But, as I’ve said before, that doubt can arise not just from teaching biology, but from teaching geology, astronomy, or any form of logic, philosophy, or rational examination.  Indeed, many people have rejected their faith because of what they’ve learned in religion class, at seminaries, or in courses on Biblical scholarship.  There’s no need to bash faith in public schools, but neither should we make religion’s false claims about biology immune to critical scrutiny.

94 thoughts on “Can we refute creationism in evolution class?

  1. So with regard to claims made by the Church of Christ, Scientist, we can teach kids that the germ theory of disease is true, but we can’t teach them that denial of the germ theory is false. I guess.

    1. “teaching that the Earth is not 6,000 years old has a clear secular purpose: teaching that the Earth is not, in fact, 6,000 years old.”

      Ah well said. So it does. And that’s the Lemon test, right?

      1. “Much of the American public rejects evolution precisely because those sciences make empirical claims that contravene empirical claims that come from sources other than observation.”

        This confuses me a bit, Jerry. How can other, nonobservational, sources be ‘empirical’?

      2. In my limited study of history, 6,000 years (many creationists now say 10,000 years–easier to remember I guess) coincides with early Sumeria which some believe is the precursor to Judaism.

        I’m in favor of teaching the difference between story and science, especially the historic reluctance of religious cultures to accept scientific findings.

        The college age inter-faith group in our area is more secular than many atheists would believe. It’s the adult leaders who are trying to keep up.

  2. “Much of the American public rejects evolution precisely because those sciences make empirical claims that contravene empirical claims that come from sources other than observation.”

    This confuses me a bit, Jerry. How can other, nonobservational, sources be ’empirical’?

    1. What I meant is that religion makes empirical claims about the world that come from faith, which is a “source other than observation.” Sorry if that was unclear.

      1. The fault here may be mine. I’ve always strongly associated the scientific method and empiricism in my own mind, possibly to the degree that I now think they’re interchangeable terms. That’s intellectual laziness on my part because, while empiricism is essential to the scientific method, the reverse isn’t necessarily true.

        1. Indeed: science is no more empiricism than it is rationalism or pragmatism. (I would argue it makes use of an epistemology something like a combination of primarily the first two and a tiny bit of the latter.)

  3. As a student and teacher I always find most useful in understanding a subject to know its history, and why some hypothesis have been discarded or modified over time.

    1. Exactly. I can’t imagine trying to learn about any subject without learning about the way it has changed over time – without learning about the way it is cumulative. Apart from anything else, that’s just interesting! De Dora says just teach science as a body of facts, and nothing else – which drains it of a lot (not all, but a lot) of its interest.

      1. “I can’t imagine trying to learn about any subject without learning about the way it has changed over time”

        That’s the religious way of learning things: I told you this stuff is true. Accept it or rot in hell.

        If you don’t question, then everything becomes compatible. Have you seen “A few good men”? Remember the last scene, when he says “If Santiago wasn’t to be touched, and your orders are always followed, then why would Santiago be in danger”? Establishing relations among different pieces of information is like that game, “connect the dots”. If you don’t connect the dots, then Santiago could be in danger and protected by the general at the same time without a problem. Having two pieces of information, you don’t do anything useful with them, because you are accepting them without questioning, i.e., faith.

        The religious don’t connect the dots–they just collect them instead.

    2. This seems like a cogent point to me.

      When learning about the atom in physics, students are often first taught about the plum pudding model (and others), and how it was demonstrated to be wrong.

      In chemistry, one might learn about phlogiston and how oxidation supplanted it.

      When getting into temperature, one might discuss caloric heat before explaining how temperature is now linked to molecular motion.

      Before learning about special relativity, one often learns about aether, and how it came to be discarded as an idea.

      And in biology, students learn that people used to believe in spontaneous generation.

      When it comes to evolution, there were of course earlier theories besides Darwin’s (Lamarkism), which are typically mentioned, but creationism actually was also, if I understand correctly, genuinely thought to be in the running at the time. And hell, it’s the only one that still has a lot of people clamoring about it. So that’s just not going to be mentioned because it has to do with religion?

  4. When De Dora stated, “There is no scientific reason for the textbook to discuss Christianity….,” in the second sentence, it was clear to me that sailing could get a little rough for him.

    I’m with the Coyne/Myers camp on this. I hope to read De Dora’s response to his critics soon. His response surely will be more revealing than his original comments.
    ~Rev. El

  5. Wow, its glaringly obvious that De Dora has never actually taught evolution to anyone. Saying that we can’t address creation because it violates the Constitution is wrong on two additional fronts:

    1) Many creationists (more so ID’ers) still hold that it is NOT a religious idea, so for them to even agree with De Dora they would have to sabotage their own cause (although this level of ineptitude has been seen before in that movement).

    2) De Dora says we should be discussing the definition of the word “theory” (etc). How incredibly puzzling would that be for students if we don’t put the argument in its proper context? Could you imagine trying to explain the Tea Party movement without mentioning the Obama administration?

    1. Could you imagine trying to explain the Tea Party movement without mentioning the Obama administration?

      Or using the terms ‘stupid’ and ‘inane’?

  6. “and finally, one of my favorite passages in The Origin:

    Why should this be so? why should the species which are supposed to have been created in the Galapagos Archipelago, and nowhere else, bear so plain a stamp of affinity to those created in America?”

    Jerry, that passage from The Origin actually reminded me of some parts of your book. I don’t have the print or an electronic copy to quote from but I believe it was also a reference to biogeography and distribution trends of insects, lizards and birds on islands. I remember puzzling a few times over parts where you questioned why a Creator would do “X”.

    I understand why they were included but at the same time I was fairly sad that they had to be.

  7. DeRosa’s idea that it is unconstitution to say that the Earth is not 6,000 years old is nonsense. It may be unconstituional to teach that Christianity is false because the Earth is not 6,000 years old, but teaching that the Earth is not 6,000 years old has a clear secular purpose: teaching that the Earth is not, in fact, 6,000 years old.

    Simply because a person chooses to adopt, as a religious tenet, something that is contradicted by secular knowledge does not mean that the promulgation of that secular knowledge is an infringement on religion.

    1. “teaching that the Earth is not 6,000 years old has a clear secular purpose: teaching that the Earth is not, in fact, 6,000 years old.”

      Ah well said. So it does. And that’s the Lemon test, right?

      1. No. The Lemon test includes much more than secular purpose. It actually consists of three prongs. The government’s action must

        * have a secular purpose;

        * not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion; and

        * not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

        De Dora’s argument seems to rest upon the second prong.

        1. Thanks. (I could have looked it up but was too busy mouthing off.)

          So a reasonable reply to De Dora’s claim is presumably that teaching that the earth is not 6000 years old does not have, and is not intended to have, the primary effect of inhibiting religion, yes? The primary effect is clearly intended to be teaching what is true and how we know it’s true and the like. If a side-effect is inhibition of religion for some people…they can’t expect us to teach lies as an alternative.

          I suppose this is where the NCSE and the NAS leap in with cloaks fluttering saying “We know how to fix this problem!”

          1. De Dora’s argument, I think, is that teaching how old the earth is has the primary effect of science instruction, but facing the purported religious claim head-on (“the earth is not 6,000 years old”) has the primary effect of attacking religion, which is a no-no. But I’m not convinced that “the earth is 6,000 years old” is really a religious claim. In any event, there wouldn’t likely be as big a problem but for, ironically, the vigilance with which secularists have gone after religious activities in the public square. Relatively benign religious activities have so often been claimed in court to have the primary purpose of advancing religion, often successfully, that “primary effect” is not as high a standard as common sense might suggest.

          2. IANAL or even a US resident, but ITSM that for the Lemon test to work the way the way De Dora claims would be disastrous – you couldn’t criticize any claim so long as someone, anywhere, holds it as an article of religious doctrine. Not only this, but what counts as “religious” is notoriously vague. Without anything whatsoever could be “protected” by someone simply asserting it is one of their religious beliefs etc. Also, I find it incredible that what is permissible would not be closed under logical consequence, but …

          3. “The earth is 6000 years old” is a statement of fact that is scientifically testable. Its truth or falsehood just happens to have religious implications for some people as well. The science teacher should be allowed to reject the claim based on the available scientific information, but is not allowed to discuss the theological implications of its rejection.

          4. If the teacher says something to the effect of “Christianity is not true because the Earth is not 6,000 years old” that may fail the second prong. If a student says, “I am a Christian and the bible says the earth is only 6,000 years old,” the primary purpose prong isn’t implicated if the teacher simply answers, “no, the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.” So long as the theological implications are not discussed or rebutted, the fact that a person believes a false secular fact as a religious tenet is insufficient to transform secular instruction, correcting that false fact, into a statement with the primary purpose of inhibiting religion.

  8. Those are some interesting quotes. Maybe it’s high time I actually pick up a copy of Origin of the Species and read it.

  9. Hypothetical dialogue in a public high school biology classroom:

    Student: What theory of creation is Darwin assuming in these passages?

    Teacher: I’m not sure. From Paley? It’s hard to say.

    Student: Well, why should we think that theory of creation, which Darwin is trying to falsify, makes any sense? Aren’t many such theories possible?

    Teacher: I guess so.

    Student: So all of these arguments in the Origin might be a load of rubbish, challenging a theory of creation no one should have taken seriously anyway.

    Teacher: Well — it IS the Origin of Species, after all. The founding document of evolutionary biology.

    Student: So what. Darwin borrows a theory of creation from somewhere, but you don’t know where, and Darwin doesn’t say. I see no reason to think any of these “God wouldn’t have done it this way” arguments make the least bit of scientific sense.

    In a debate with me on NPR a few years ago, the philosopher of science Niall Shanks said he did not support the use of the Origin of Species in high school biology classrooms. (The host, Margot Adler, was flabbergasted at this.)

    It’s not hard to see why.

    1. The curious conversation you construct here is predicated on having an uninformed and inarticulate teacher. (It sounds like a paraphrase of a Jack Chick tract!) The idea of special or separate creation was the received view at the time of the writing and publication of the Origin, and supported by such luminaries as Buckland, Sedgwick, Lyell, Huxley, and, in somewhat distinctive forms, Cuvier and Owen. Paley’s ideas on adaptation were an important part of this, although growing out of an earlier English tradition of natural theology. A teacher who knew a bit of this history would easily answer the questions posed by the student and help him understand the historical context of the development of biology. Teaching biology (and science in general) in a historical manner, so as to present the evidence on which our conclusions are based, and not merely (as is too often the case) the conclusions, is the best way to teach the content, and also the methods, of science. I have previously recommended the excellent The Discovery of Evolution by David Young as a text for both learning and teaching the historical context of the scientific development of evolutionary theory, and reiterate my recommendation here. If your hypothetical teacher had read it, he would not have been unable to answer the student’s questions

      1. Hi Greg,

        I’m all for having historically-informed teachers, and no doubt the materials you recommend you be quite useful in that vein. The history of science provides context unavailable from any other source.

        Problem is, the fundamental epistemological difficulty (entailed by “God wouldn’t have done it that way” arguments) doesn’t disappear even with the most historically nuanced perspective or knowledge.

        Elliott Sober has written a lot about this recently. See his Evidence and Evolution (Cambridge, 2008), where — commenting on Gould’s famous ‘panda’s thumb’ argument — he writes:

        “Gould adopts assumptions about the designer’s goals and abilities that help him reach the conclusion he wants — that intelligent design is implausible and Darwinian evolution is plausible as an explanation of the panda’s thumb. But it is no good simply inventing assumptions that help one defend one’s pet theory….I think the creationists are right to object in this way to Gould’s argument” (p. 128).

        It matters what view one chooses as a dialectical partner. For instance, no current creationist with graduate-level training in biology (e.g., Todd Wood at Bryan College [PhD in molecular genetics from U of Virginia, on protein homology]) would accept as reasonable a hypothesis of the special creation of individual species — a view recognizable to Darwin’s contemporaries. That would be akin to asking Jerry, or you, to defend a scala naturae view of phylogeny. Seriously to engage opposing viewpoints requires far more than standing up obsolete strawmen.

        1. Darwin’s arguments addressed the alternative views of his time, the views of Lyell, Huxley, etc.; and it is salutary to examine the arguments by which he convinced, in a span of 15 years or so, essentially the whole of the scientific community of the truth of descent with modification. His arguments did not depend on any strong theory as to the nature of the Creator (a term Darwin used a number of times in the Origin, though scarcely ever ‘God’). Indeed, the leading creationists of the time, such as Lyell, were seeking secondary laws for the introduction of new species, which did not depend so directly on divine intervention. Rather, Darwin’s argument for descent with modification consisted of what Whewell called a ‘consilience of inductions’ (a useful phrase happily retrieved from obscurity by Michael Ruse)– a number of large classes of phenomena (geographical distribution, unity of type, adaptation, etc.) which were not just explicable by, but expected under the theory of descent with modification, but which were, at best, isolated or anomalous under separate creation.

          Creationism as a scientific enterprise may, with considerable justice and even greater convenience, be said to have ended on December 14, 1873 with the death of Louis Agassiz, the last great scientist who was a also creationist (and also the founder of the institution in which both Jerry and I studied). An historically informed approach to teaching biology would at this point take leave of creationism, never to return.

      2. And that stuff is interesting – and that’s why leaving it all out and just teaching A Set of Facts is such a sucky idea. (Not least, what is interesting is more likely to stick, and be understood.)

    2. And which “theory of creation” would you claim to subscribe to, Paul, if you don’t “accept as reasonable a hypothesis of the special creation of individual species???” And is your hypothetical high school student fluent in all these other “theories?” Is the Discovery Institute in the process of circumventing creationist parents, ministers and youth pastors to train kids to challenge under-prepared high school teachers on these deep philosophical points???

      Answer the questions, Paul.

  10. “So, earth is 4,5 Billion years old, Mrs. Smith?” “Yes, Billy, it is.” “That means it isn’t 6000 years old?” “I’m afraid I can’t talk about that, Billy!” Yes, that’s school as we want it…

  11. It never ceases to amaze me how otherwise smart people will claim that if something has been shown to be false by science but it being openly declared so would somehow hurt the feeling of religious, then the because it’s unconstitutional to do so, we should keep silent.

    If it is currently unconstitutional to openly say that the factual claims of religions are demonstrably false in class, then this means only one things: there is a problem with the Constitution and it needs to be changed.

    What should be told to students in class is the following: “There is no way to say whether there is a God or not because it is an unfalsifiable hypothesis in practice. However, all religion make a number of factual claims about the world around us, and a lot of those have been shown to be false”. Then some examples are given and it is explained that everyone is free to have an opinion on the hypothesis of the existence of God, but there is no evidence for his existence, while there is plenty of evidence against the accuracy of Islam, Judaism, Islam, etc.

    This is the correct scientific position on the subject, and therefore it should be what is taught in school. And it should be taught in school because it concerns some fundamental cosmology within which all the other natural sciences exist.

    1. I agree. I know that creationists want to “teach the controversy” to get religion into schools, but evolutionists, instead of opposing, should seize this as an opportunity to refute religious superstition in schools. Right now, science and religion are allowed to go on like ships passing in the night. If you read Dawkins’ or Coyne’s books or blog, you can see that they are a form of “teaching the controversy”. Lets get this stuff into schools.

      1. The problem is that when people say that it would be unconstitutional to do so, they have a point. A good argument can be made that it indeed is.

        So a very strong push from the scientific community is needed for this to happen. But of course, you’re not going to get that if there are so many people whose primary objective is not to hurt anyone’s feelings

        1. It’s not unconstitution to say that the earth is not 6,000 years old. Period. Even if it destroys someone’s religious faith, it doesn’t matter because there is a wholly secular reason for imparting this wholly secular fact: namely, the world isn’t 6,000 years old. (If you say “Christianity is false because the earth is 6,000 years old”, that is unconstitutional. But because of the Christianity-is-false part, not the 6,000-years-old part)

          1. Christianity isn’t false because of the 6000 year claim. It is false because of the 6000 year claim and the five hundred other false claims in it

          2. So therefore the teacher gets to look at her watch and say that there isn’t time to discuss all five hundred before the bell rings therefore we won’t discuss any of them any further, and the Constitution is saved. Easy peasy!

    1. Yeah, I wouldn’t be so sure that “Why the Germ Theory of Disease is True” isn’t needed either, considering the popularity of homeopathy, the fear of vaccines, and HIV denialism.

  12. I have mixed feelings on this myself, and the origin of my ambivalence can be summed up in a response to this quote from Jerry:

    I’ve found that the mention-and-dispel-the-alternatives approach is pedagogically useful. Now this isn’t the same as “teaching the controversy”…

    Fully agreed. However, I don’t doubt the ability of some teachers to twist one into the other, or at least to blend the two. Once you have the textbook explicitly mentioning the 6,000-years-old thing, for example, you have opened the door a crack for a teacher with Creationist sympathies to defend that ridiculous hypothesis.

    It seems to me that in the current environment in the US, it may be better to just prohibit all mention of it as a matter of general policy. I recognize this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and I’m not firmly taking this position — as I said, I have mixed feelings. I just sorta feel like there are so many idjuts clambering to “teach the controversy”, that any attempt to debunk the alternatives could be twisted into a mechanism for giving the alternatives more voice than they deserve.

    To be clear: I’m not agreeing with DeDora. I might tenatively agree with some of his conclusions, but he goes too far, and in any case his reasoning is deeply muddled.

  13. “…I can’t think of a single one that took me to task for bashing religion, though I frequently discuss creationist claims.”

    This one did!

    Of course, this may have not been the kind of “review” you were talking about, since this is just a random guy with a website (and he also happens to be a champion liar and a moron). But… just wanted to let you know it was out there.

  14. As a matter of constitutionality, DeDora might be off-base, but I’m not sure that, tactically-speaking, he’s all wrong. Having taught high school earth science, I’ve seen attention slam shut, totally and irrevocably, when kids feel that their religious views are being challenged. An oblique approach — showing them the facts, helping them get to the conclusions we draw from them, and then letting them think about the implications — has an admittedly low success rate, but one that’s been noticeably higher in my experience than the direct assault that Prof Coyne advocates as appropriate in all cases.

    Maybe it pays to gauge one’s audience — a direct assault is probably a LOT more useful for people with more solidly-integrated egos. For teenagers clinging to faith as a bolster for their hormone-driven identity crises, it’s a losing proposition.

    1. I thought the direct assault approach relied heavily on exposing the facts too, the difference is that it goes one step further and it clearly states the conclusions that necessarily follow

      1. “the difference is that it goes one step further and it clearly states the conclusions that necessarily follow.” Most people seem to like to think they came up with the answers all by themselves, even if you actually led them there by the hand. Often it’s expedient to let them keep thinking so.

  15. De Dora says:
    Denying religious ideas is the step that puts us in a bind.

    If denying ideas that have no scientific value ‘put us in a bind’ then, – hell, where do we stop to not be put in a bind?

  16. Far too many Americans currently believe that evolution, on a wide scale, did not occur. Religion is the primary reason why students end up with this misconception. If teachers try to be overly sensitive about correcting students’ mistaken understanding, then the understanding will not be corrected at all. One doesn’t need subtleties and niceties when counteracting plain falsehoods.

    1. Sometimes niceties are a useful tool. One doesn’t throw away a screwdriver because hammers are better for driving in nails. Building a finished structure most often requires both.

  17. I think DeDora is right. It’s fine to teach X, whether or not X conflicts with some religious doctrine. It’s another thing to pointedly confront the religious doctrine. The impact of the two is entirely different. Simply teaching X gives students something to think about, if they believe the conflicting religious doctrine. But directly saying “this Christian (or whatever) doctrine is false” is experienced as a direct assault on one’s religion. I think the effect would be to heighten religious consciousness and loyalties, and prevent religious students from learning X. Furthermore, most teachers are religious, so no doubt the direct confronting of religious attitudes would probably wind up being more of a problem for non-religious students than anyone else.

    1. But the alternative isn’t (see Jerry’s post) to say “this Christian (or whatever [Muslim/Jewish/etc]) doctrine is false”, it is to say (something along the lines of) “any claims that the earth is only a few thousand years old is false.” Jerry said no of course the idea isn’t to say “And by the way your religion stinks.” The idea is in fact definitely to leave that bit out.

      1. Well look, I think there’s a gray area here as to when someone’s directly confronting religion. If you say that the world is 14 billion year’s old, you’re implying it’s not 13 billion years old, but you probably won’t make a point of that. You’re also implying it’s not 12 billion years old, etc etc etc. When you single out “not 6 thousand” as an implication of “14 billion,” obviously you’re goal is to confront a certain religious view, even if you don’t name it. As a rule I think teachers and textbooks should teach bodies of information, and leave “how to reconcile this with my religion or non-religion” as a private matter for students to sort out at home. I don’t think the same rule holds at the college level, maybe because kids are pretty much stuck going to a given school–they’re virtual prisoners of the teachers. At the college level, there’s much more choice about where to go and what classes to take.

        1. Well look, I think there’s a gray area here as to when someone’s directly confronting religion.

          There is nothing in the context of the quote that directly confronts religion. As an introduction to the chapter a simple historical fact was presented –

          “In the 1970s and 1980s, antievolutionists in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana passed identical bills calling for “equal time” for teaching evolution and creationism, the biblical myth that the universe was created by the Judeo-Christian god in six days. But a court ruled that the “equal-time” bill was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated the separation of church and state.”

          This statement is true – that is what the court cases were about and that’s how they were settled. The whole controversy erupted over the word myth – how else would you describe creationism? One could use the word story, or belief, I suppose, but I doubt that would have satisfied the creationists either. The only thing that would satisfy them is if creationism were taught in the classroom.

          1. How about — “the biblical depiction of the universe as having been created by the J-C god in 6 days”? It’s awkward but neutral.

            I’m sure the folks on this thread wouldn’t have liked a word with positive connotations, so why defend a word with negative connotations? If it shouldn’t be “creation history” it also shouldn’t be “the creation myth.” And don’t say “history” implies “factual,” because in books about religion it often has a very squishy meaning.

          2. How about — “the biblical depiction of the universe as having been created by the J-C god in 6 days”? It’s awkward but neutral.

            Depiction, story, myth … it all comes out the same. The drawback to pandering to the religious, for fear of hurting their feelings, is that it makes no difference. They just push harder and harder to undermine science.

            If it shouldn’t be “creation history” it also shouldn’t be “the creation myth.” And don’t say “history” implies “factual,” because in books about religion it often has a very squishy meaning.

            It shouldn’t be “creation history” because there is no such thing. And we’re not talking about squishy religious books, we’re talking about a high school science class, where “history” does imply factual.

        2. Bodies of information? Really? And you a philosopher! Not to mention a fan of narrative and other kinds of thickening (if you’ll permit the expression).

          Bodies of information are not enough. As Jerry says, part of the goal is to teach students to think scientifically. Fact-stuffing has to be done, but so does epistemology.

          I think De Dora’s vision is repulsively impoverished. “Just learn this for the exam, kiddies.”

          1. I didn’t put much time into stating all the goals of public education because my point was essentially negative. Surely it’s not one of the goals to directly and explicitly encourage students to question their religious beliefs. You can teach students facts and skills that may lead them to change their beliefs, but directly encouraging doubt is something else.

          2. That partly depends on what is meant by “religious beliefs.” If you just rule out any teaching that might lead to students’ questioning any religious belief, then you’re ruling out education as such. It’s not possible to educate people if you’re that restricted.

          3. There’s no way I think we should “rule out any teaching that might lead to students’ questioning any religious belief.” That’s why I said “directly and explicitly encourage students to question their religious beliefs.” There’s a huge difference.

  18. Of all the things that can be taught–I assume facts are allowed–one could teach that the premise that the earth was created on Sunday October 23, 4004 BC (BCE) and Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise on Monday, November 10, 4004 BC requires a literal interpretation of the Bible as recorded history.

    This means that the current 10,000 year earth age used by creationists is in error and that old earth creationists who accept 13.7 billion years as the earth’s age as correct are interpreting the accuracy of the scriptures.

    I read the story of Adam and Eve as symbolic of human separation from the mass of animal forms endowed with the blessing–and burden–of thought and reason. To accept the Bible as an inerrant historic record is to deny that gift which might anger the source of this quality.

  19. This is a wonderful world indeed; claiming that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old implies that it is not 5,999 years old, and that’s OK; but the implication that it is not 6,000 years old is not politically correct. Is there an end in sight to this madness?

  20. This seems like nothing more than a word game to avoid legal difficulty. Empirically demonstrating that the world is 4.5 billion years old implicitly demonstrates that any view contrary is unempirical. And maybe that’s fine, and like they point out it comes down to underlying philosophical issues. But how do you deal with that in science class? Should science teachers in an effort to alleviate the fears of fundamentalists that they once shared a common ancestor with a chimpanzee have to inform students and parents that empiricism has an underlying philosophical core that one wishes to reject? Or is that again implicit?

    This to me is where this whole situation is looking to use word games to avoid legal difficulty. And given the history of the conflict, this separation of scientific truths from philosophical truths just means that each time there’s a revision of the scientific standards or new textbooks are on offer that creationists are going to try to undermine evolution while trying to promote their position.

    As for the use of the word myth, myth is a statement of the kind of story it is. Not a statement of truth or falsity at all. That myth is colloquially taken to mean false shouldn’t influence the use of the word anymore than the colloquial use of the word theory as meaning guess instead of the scientific definition.

    1. That myth is colloquially taken to mean false shouldn’t influence the use of the word anymore than the colloquial use of the word theory as meaning guess instead of the scientific definition.

      The part that irritates me about the “story” advocates is that story is also colloquially taken to imply falsity. A common definition is “a fictional narrative shorter than a novel”. The only substantive difference between myth and story colloquially is that myth more often implies a very old story.

    2. As I’ve said a gazillion times, the general public is neither aware of nor cares for such a nuanced version of ‘myth’.

      1. Just to add: please supply an example of a true myth. If you can supply no such myth, please do give up the assertion that a myth is not necessarily untrue.

        1. I would say, of the top of my head, that the Fight of Hermann at Teutoburgerwald; the Story of the Defense of the Alamo; the Hebrew Captivity in Babylon; the Defeat of the Mongolian Invasion of Japan by the kamikaze are all true myths.

        2. To look at myths as being true or false is misrepresenting what mythology is. They aren’t meant to be taken literally, they are symbolic and reflective of a different “truth” than one of a literal retelling of events.

          It’s unfortunate that fundamentalists think that a story involving a talking snake is a literal historical account as opposed to a symbolic myth and that’s where we’re getting into trouble. In other words, ignorance trumps knowledge.

      2. And the general public doesn’t seem to warm to the scientific definition of theory either… doesn’t mean we should abandon a perfectly good word.

  21. Isn’t this where “Scientific” Creationism gets hoist by its own petard? If it claims to be scientific, then it can be discussed and refuted in a science class.

    I would have thought that teaching why Creationism is not science would be a useful way of teaching about what science is.

  22. “Even if biology courses were going to teach background on the theory, as I would admit they probably should to some minor extent, then textbooks obviously have to acknowledge the existence of dissent.”

    Yes, and we po’ chemists must acknowledge the existence of alchemy and not poo-poo the alchemists (or the most popular modern version: the homeopath)! Those astronomers need to be buddies with the astrologers; they’re so mean saying the astrologers are full of shit. We must respect people’s bullshit and give them equal credibility! Gee, aren’t you glad that previous generations didn’t swallow that nonsense? Where the hell do people get this stupid notion that somehow the ancients were wiser and more knowledgeable than our generation? De Dora is 100% anti-science. Screw science, it’s more important that you don’t hurt some moron’s feelings.

  23. The textbook passage in question doesn’t even directly refute a 6000 yr age or any other creationist nonsense. It simply describes the story which is the source of these claims as a myth.

    Here’s the thing: my dad teaches a high-school class on… mythology. We uncontroversially describe the Greek and Norse and Egyptian origin stories as myths and the Abrahamic (not Judeo-Christian dammit) creation is clearly in the same category. To refuse to describe it as such would be religious discrimination and unconstitutional.

    Note there is nothing wrong with using “story” or “account” or whatever in the same context. However, there is something very wrong in caving in to pressure for special preference of a popular religion. It’s like the Texas conservatives who want to strike Jefferson from a list of enlightenment thinkers. A given textbook may or may not include Jefferson on such a list as a choice of emphasis or space, but deliberately striking his name from an existing list is a clear insertion of ideological bias.

  24. Another example is my favourite origin quote:

    He who believes that each equine species was independently created, will, I presume, assert that each species has been created with a tendency to vary, both under nature and under domestication, in this particular manner, so as often to become striped like other species of the genus; and that each has been created with a strong tendency, when crossed with species inhabiting distant quarters of the world, to produce hybrids resembling in their stripes, not their own parents, but other species of the genus. To admit this view is, as it seems to me, to reject a real for an unreal, or at least for an unknown, cause. It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore.

  25. Isn’t it interesting that although evolution has had a virtual stranglehold in our educational system for decades, most people still believe in a Creator because the evolutionary model is so contrary to day-to-day, observed experience? For an intricately ordered universe to suddenly appear out of nothing, belief in an intelligent Creator is much more reasonable and intuitive, requiring much less faith than naturalism, and is the only model that doesn’t contradict observational, true science, see Miracles of God, Evolution or False Prophets?

  26. Imagine this scenario using De Dora’s logic. Student A comes up to the teacher and announces the world is 6000 years old. Student B comes up to the teacher and announces the world is 6000 years old.

    The teacher, knowing student A is an evangelical christian, says to him, “Uh, whatever you say.” The teacher also knows student B isn’t a creationist but simply didn’t read the textbook, so he turns his head from student A towards student B and says, “No, you are wrong, please read the chapter again.”

  27. Creationism, in whatever forms it takes, should be given no mercy by science. We do ourselves no favours by being polite to those who would try to replace science with mythology.
    Anyone who wishes to pussyfoot around creationists trying not to upset these cretins,and not tackling their dangerously erroneous beliefs is NOT on the side of science.
    We either forthrightly say that creationism is a load of BS or we collaborate with the sort people who let their kids die from preventable medical conditions, because praying to god will cure them. Remember the hideous death of Madeline Kara Neumann?
    Do we really want to encourage such idiocy by our silence?

  28. 30+ years of teaching geology in universities has shown me that direct attacks on students’ opinions usually just solidifies those opinions. No one likes to be told what to think. I advocate presenting the evidence and logic behind scientific conclusions and answering any questions with more of the same.

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