How to Deal with Creationism in Schools

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Not having watched the debate yet, some more thoughts on the strategy question.

This may take on a quite European view on the subject, and it does so knowingly. I am not part of the Northern American discourse, some points will thus seem naive or miss the point.

Now, Olaf has already problematized some of the precarious positions of creationism. Let me start by problematizing a secular point. Nye says creationism has no place in schools.* He is not alone. Tagged as pseudoscience, creationism seems out of place in a science class. Some even go so far as to call creationism in schools child abuse. Ken Ham could not possibly have prayed for more comfortable opponents. It seems proponents of science are more adept to falling into Ken Ham’s traps than to countering his strategy. If Ken Ham wants to claim creationism is being censored, he only needs to quote Richard Dawkins and his website. They are easy game.

Part of the problem is how Dawkins et al. apparently do not seem to get the game Ken Ham is playing. Or they feel it’s more comfortable to have him as a living strawman, which would make their relationship reciprocal. Let’s assume they do not understand how they are being played. This, then, is a strategic proposal of how to counter some of Ken Ham’s self-positionings.

So let us talk about creationism in schools. If creationism sees censorship, if Ken Ham regards himself akin to Galileo and science the Catholic Church (see Olaf’s previous post), if Ham asks children to think critically about evolution, what better way to counter for science than to reclaim critical thinking and turning it against creationism? What better way to counter creationism than actually teaching it at school?

1. Critical Thinking – We can do it better

Ken Ham and “Teach the controversy” both share the same strategy. They will propose teaching creationism or intelligent design in the name of critical thinking. They will regularly call for a critical attitude towards science, and will try to, in the case of “Teach the Controversy”, try to even the playing field and give creationism or intelligent design the same credence as the scientific theory of evolution, or, in the case of Ken Ham and his museum, try to align creationism as a counter-narrative with critical thinking. Ham repeatedly makes an appeal to the critical faculties of his readers, „teach the controversy“ will leave any decision to the student.

Rather than merely responding by deconstructing this as a rhetorical strategy (which is is), science could also embrace it. It is a trap in which disagreement would appear to be a rejection of critical thinking, to be dogmatic. Science could now point to its critical core: Science relies heavily on critical thinking, on skills of discernment of error and verification.

If creationists want controversy, if they want critical thinking, let them have it!

Science could to counter the challenge of creationism by not just repeating the facts of the matter. It could also show how these facts have become part of science. (That is: it would also answer Ken Ham’s seperation of science and history by pointing to the history in science). It would make a case for engaging creationism as an opportunity to teach scientific thinking. It would show that science must not be a dogmatic, monolithic set of beliefs, and demonstrate science has the skills and tools to discern within controversy between claims, how it is actual critical thinking. Ken Ham knows this. He calls upon his readers not to engage science as a neutral ground. Scientists could argue he cannot have his cake and eat it, too.

Which leads me to

2. Creationism could be taught in school as an engagement with scientific skills

All too often, teaching creationism in school is rejected out-of-hand, as it does not adhere to the facts, because it is contrary to scientific knowledge. If science classes in school are merely rote learning of scientific knowledge, creationism as a counter-narrative has a simple task: producing counter-knowledge. But if science classes intend to be more than rote learning, if they intend to teach science, false claims provide a chance to practice scientific thinking skills. Creationism is just such an opportunity. If students in a classroom take issue with the theory of evolution, maybe there is more to do than pointing to textbooks, authorities, or facts. Students could learn how to evaluate claims for themselves. They could look into the history of theories, into the evidence brought up for them, how evidence has been produced, who has checked it, how they can reproduce scientific research etc. etc. For example discussing creationism one could take up the claim of a young earth, then look into the evidence for it and confront it with the evidence for billions of years of geological history. If the evidence is being contested, look into how the evidence has been produced, how to reproduce experiments, etc. etc.

Naturally, this may all seem overtly idealistic. It is demanding on science teachers, demanding because of the theoretical background necessary, demanding because of the time it takes to teach this way. Not to speak of the demands of parents, schoolboards and officials.

But maybe that is not quite the point. The point is whether science can reclaim critical thinking in the eyes of the public, and a more research and question oriented science classroom could be part of that.

So we have two advantages to engage controversy and counter-knowledge this way: take them by their word and show them how science is better at critical thinking, and students will be trained in scientific thinking better. Creationism in schools, in a research and problem-oriented classroom would not be a reason for Bill Nye’s fear of scientific illiteracy.

Will this end the problem of creationism, then?

Likely not. People like Ken Ham are very flexible in their strategies. Right now he is following an almost postmodern approach, while also trying to lay claims on critical thinking. He will find other options as soon as that route is impassable. One only needs to look at the resistance against teaching critical thinking skills in science and history classes to see how these are already being understood as challenges to parental authority and traditional values.

In the end, then, this is only a very localized and temporary solution. It will take back the claim on critical thinking and science though and will help drawing the lines more clearly once again. Maybe this, for once, will not only be in Ken Ham’s interest.


* On the other hand, if I propose active engagement of creationism here, Bill Nye is already following part of this strategy.

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