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Should atheists support teaching both evolution and creationism in schools?

melian          19 August 2015 02:19 PM


Traditionally atheists were among the least liked groups in the US. According to the opinion polls, Americans would rather see a Muslim or a homosexual than an atheist in the White House. Predictably, American atheists often develop a siege mentality and for some, combining the words “support” and “creationism” in the title might be a sufficient reason to dismiss this article. I hope though that most readers will reserve their judgment until they’ve read it to the end.

The opposition to teaching creationism in science classes is usually based on two reasons:

  • “Creationism is false and is not a proper scientific theory.”

    It may sound paradoxical, but this is precisely the reason why creationism is a very suitable topic for a science class. One thing that is conspicuous by its absence in the science curriculum is teaching children the fundamental principles of science and explaining how real science differs from religion or pseudo-scientific theories. Instead, most end up with an impression that the difference lies in authority figures: the theories are scientific if scientists say they are scientific, just like for Catholics a religious doctrine is true if their priests say it is true.


  • “Teaching only the evolutionary theory undermines the positions of religious fundamentalists.”

    According to the opinion polls, the fraction of people in the U.S. who do not believe in evolution has not decreased in the last 30 years, so this strategy is not really working. Even in the totalitarian countries, like the former USSR, suppressing religion for over 70 years had only a temporary effect on the population beliefs. ). In fact, by refusing to address their arguments, schools are likely doing creationists a favor.


The two popular reasons for teaching creationism are similarly false:

  • “Creationism is a scientific theory.”

  • “Evolution is not scientifically proven.”


Given my target audience, I would not trouble myself with disproving these claims. However, just because an idea is supported for the wrong reasons or by the wrong people does not mean that the idea itself is unsound. I believe that allowing both creationists and scientists to present their arguments to students can bring several benefits:

1. In general, exposure to different points of view tends to make people less prejudiced and more tolerant of the outgroup. This may be particularly important for the US where growing segregation between different political tribes results in mutual demonization (perhaps, it is no coincidence that the political group most tolerant of atheists is not Republicans or Democrats, but Independents).

2. Ultimately, the main purpose of school is to teach children skills that would be useful to them in the future. By themselves, facts about evolution are of no practical use to at least 99% of the population. However, learning and analyzing arguments of evolutionary and creationist theories can help students develop a truly important skill – critical thinking.




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aliad 31 October 2015 06:54 PM
73%

I don't know if I'm just the right audience to comment on this post or if I'm exactly the wrong audience. I was taught creationism by my parents and am still a young earth creationist to this day despite not thinking the Bible is definitive one way or the other and being pretty close to being able to pass an ideological Turing test for evolutionisum.

I do think a significant part of the reason for this is that the proponents of evolution seemed unaware of and or unwilling to engage the arguments for creationism. For kids that are given pro creationism arguments at home or church, the school refusing to engage those arguments may give the impression that either the arguments are weak or that this is a prestige conflict where the evolutionists and the kid's culture are on opposite sides.

Of course there's a flip side in that in order to refute the pro creationist points for the kids who have already heard them, you have to expose the kids who have not heard them to those arguments. I suppose it comes down to haw convincing you thing your confer arguments are.


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melian 1 November 2015 05:21 AM
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the school refusing to engage those arguments may give the impression that either the arguments are weak or that this is a prestige conflict

To be fair, with many people prestige signaling is much more effective than logic. So if the one’s only goal is to impose a certain view, signaling that the contrary views are low-class can be more effective than logical arguments.

I wonder what would be your choice if you were living in a place where young earth creationists were fully in control of the education system. Would you allow proponents of the evolution theory to present their arguments to children?


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aliad 1 November 2015 07:34 PM
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I like to think I would allow them to present their case, though I can't know if I would be that high minded in actual practice.

Prestige signally can work batter than logic with the uncommitted or loosely committed. But if you signal to someone that they and their parents and the whole community they see as fundamental to their identity is low-class, that can backfire. They may seize on any hint that the signaled is arguing dis-honestly to decide that rather than their group really being bad the signaler is a dishonest person of group who is unfairly using their prestige to attack the people they are labeling low-class.

This can lead to them discounting the source of the prestige signaling in later arguments. I think part of the problem with getting action on global warming is that there exists a large group of people in the US and other countries that were already prepared ... read more


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Silent Cal 1 September 2015 12:33 PM
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It doesn't seem wise to introduce students to the evaluation of scientific theories using something ideologically charged.


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melian 2 September 2015 06:50 AM
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Starting with an ideologically charged example is indeed not a good way to do it. If it were up to me, I would first teach students the general principles (with politically neutral examples to assist them). Then they might be given past examples of how ideological bias could trump science (for instance, the history of genetics in the USSR). Finally, I would let them learn about present controversies (creationism, global warming etc.) by independently reading the arguments of each side.

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ChristianKl 19 September 2015 07:57 AM
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I think Global Warming works much better as an example then creationism.

With creationism the theist side doesn't really make scientific arguments. With Global Warming you at least find a bunch of people who care about arguing within the realm of science on the skeptic side.

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ChristianKl 29 August 2015 03:57 PM
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I'm my own school time we spent on semester in biology on evolution. The class talked alot about what Darwin did instead of focusing on science.

If I would design a school curriculum for evolution I would debate in the classroom whether we lost Vitamin C due to evolutionary pressures or gene drift.
I wouldn't spend time talking about Darwin's voyage. I would only spent a very limited amount of time talking about fossils.

I would spend a lot more time in setting the idea of evolution into relation with other biological knowledge.
2. Ultimately, the main purpose of school is to teach children skills that would be useful to them in the future. By themselves, facts about evolution are of no practical use to at least 99% of the population.

It's useful for a black person who lives in the US to understand that there's strong evolutionary pressure that changed skin-color in 10,000 of years to being whiter when they think about taking vitamin D3.

As DNA sequencing get's cheaper I would also expect that understanding evolution will become more important as time goes on.

Evolution is also a phenomenological primitive that's useful outside of biology.
If you want to understand why free markets often outperform central planning it's useful to grasp evolution. It's useful to understand what an evolutionary algorithm happens to be.


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Jiro 21 August 2015 11:52 AM
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The connotation of "should we teach X in schools" is "should we teach X as fact" unless the question specifically disclaims this.

If you say that we should teach it because it's false and we need to teach things that are not scientific and can be contrasted with science, you are being overly literal and ignoring the connotations of words. Don't do that.


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melian 21 August 2015 01:09 PM
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The connotation of "should we teach X in schools" is "should we teach X as fact"

You have pointed out one of the major problems with our education system - everything that is taught in schools is taught as a fact (even in subjects like history, where “facts” tend to change with every new generation). Naturally, this is convenient for people in charge of the education system, as students taught this way are less likely to question authority.

In many controversial cases it would be more beneficial for students not to be explicitly told “facts” by their teachers, but rather be taught the arguments of both sides and then make up their own mind. In the particular case of evolution vs. creationism, I think we should first teach children the general scientific principles (including how to choose the right theory from multiple hypotheses). Students who mastered these principles should have little trouble with deciding whether creationism is really a scientific theory.


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Jiro 21 August 2015 01:46 PM
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That doesn't answer the objection. I'm not talking about what we do in schools but what the meaning of phrases in conversational English is. The question "should we teach X in school" connotes "should we teach X in school as a fact", but you did not answer it according to that.

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zedzed 24 August 2015 12:24 PM
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Creationism belongs in schools as part of a teaching-about-religion class.

I can't find the link, but I remember an atheist making an argument (which I currently agree with) that we should teach about religion in school; most students only have exposure to the religion they were born into, but exposing them to other religions will more-or-less help them "unprivilege the hypothesis". Creationism, of course, would belong in such a class (and nowhere near a science class). Putting it in a non-science class would also be a major victory against creationists: to my knowledge, their current argument is that we should present multiple viewpoints, which this would do whilst reinforcing that creationism isn't science.


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melian 24 August 2015 02:51 PM
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School is not a very suitable place to seek victories against ideological opponents. Such victories are bound to come at the expense of the education quality. Teaching children about religions also creates another problem. There is no practical way to teach children about all religions, so some “hypotheses would have to be privileged” at the expense of the others (which would be against the principle of separating religion from the state).

Creationism, of course, would belong in such a class (and nowhere near a science class)

Why not let the students themselves decide whether creationism is scientific or not?

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Jiro 25 August 2015 12:31 PM
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Letting the students decide whether creationism is true is the equivalent of an isolated demand for rigor unless you want to let students decide in general whether the things taught to them are true. And pretty much nobody wants that. We don't just let students decide whether, for instance, the germ theory of disease is true--the evidence on the germ theory side is so overwhelming that students who decide for themselves that the theory is false will be doing so through mistakes and misconceptions. And school is not supposed to teach mistakes and misconceptions.

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gbear605 30 October 2015 12:43 PM
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This brings up an interesting point: how do you teach a teaching-about-religion class? For instance, the World History class at my high school talks about all the modern religions, their main beliefs, and their origins, but it didn't really help me to "unprivilege the hypothesis"

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Alice 21 August 2015 03:15 PM
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There is a problem with doing this. If you teach this in a reasonably constructive way, this may lead people to believe that it is a scientifically legitimate theory.

Then if you teach it in a negative way, this comes dangerously close to saying that religion is false, which I think is not the place for a school to say.


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melian 22 August 2015 06:23 AM
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It does not have to be taught in positive or negative way:

- teach students the general difference between science and pseudo-science
- present them the arguments of creationists and their opponents
- let students independently decide whether creationism is scientific or not


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Fwiffo 27 September 2015 12:48 PM
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It used to be perfectly fine to have a theistic interpretation of established scientific facts.

However the problem is not that much about creationism as it is about "scientism" or that some of us have adopted a stance where we believe things because of trusted authorities do trusted rituals to arrive at the trusted truths. While it is true that not everyone can be a scientist it can be forgotten that science is a method and not a belief. Therefore there are a lot of people that believe the rights things for pretty wrong reasons.

Then comes a group that uses those same methods to try to justify very weak conclusions. But resisting them is hard because they don't use inherently inferior reasoning to that what majority of people use. In order to be able to effectively reject creationism one would actually need to rigour up or actually refer to the reasons why we have high reason to belief we have arrived at the results in a trustworthy way instead of appealing to that they have been arrived by trustworthy people.

Theist often see atheist as cuthroat free-for-all capitalist that embody "humans are wolfs to each other" to the t. However you don't get to that with only science, additional worldview stances are required in the same way that evolutionary theory doesn't lead to social darwinism. However the current practise does include that the scientific results are wrapped in a kind of worldview baggage in a kind of holistic way. While the scientific results are formally defendable the worldview imports are not. Being a kind of money dictated industrial-nationalist consumerist is a very easy default educational outcome where it as an active worldview choice would be very prone to critism. The school doesn't have a mandate for it but because enough people that work within schools have that as an unrelated goal they tend to exhibit it within confines of school too. Thus the problem of capitalism not being an ideology is very similar to male not being a gender or white not being an ethnicity.

It can be consistent to allow both ideologies to work within schools or that both are kept out of its confines. What makes it problematic if one is kept in and one kept out. But in order to talk about why it is important to keep evolution on the curriculum one kinda has to talk about how it forms an important piece for a lot of people how they see humans relationship to the rest of the world. This doesn't have to do with scientific facts per se but why some people attach great significance to those facts. In a way if people of the previous times thoguth taht kings had divine right to rule, some people might see that the US is THE worlds super power because the USSR collapsed and via some kind of strange evoltionary principle that proves capitalism as the one true prosperous way of living. (but then we could ask whether evolution proves markets any more than it proves social darwinism)


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