Creating a Distorted View of the World

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The following is a reprint of my article in The Argus, the local paper for Brighton and Hove. It appeared on their regular page 8 comment slot. A lot of what I say is similar to that in my account of the BBC interviews reported in my last blog post.

The Local Argus Mast

One of my research interests is the creation-evolution controversy in schools. Is there a big problem? Are children routinely being taught creationism as a scientific fact in our schools? In truth we just don’t know for certain. A 2006 poll by Opinionpanel found that nearly 20% of UK students said they had been taught creationism as fact by their main school. If this poll is correct then it’s very worrying, but more work is needed to see how widespread the practice really is. Other research shows that 40% of science teachers have been challenged by pupils about creationism. For me, a very disturbing development has been the application for Free school status by an evangelical Church in Newark, Nottinghamshire, founded on biblical literalism, that will teach evolution as ‘just a theory’, in science. I’m willing to predict that if the school opens, it will be very badly taught evolution theory, undermined at every possible point. I hope the application is firmly rejected.

I’ve come across a class set of anti-evolution  creationist books in a West Sussex school, apparently donated by parents. Organisations, such as Truth in Science, distribute intelligent design creationism DVDs and books UK schools. Lots of creationist material is aimed at young children, such as glossy, appealing dinosaur books and comics which distort and misrepresent scientific fact. They include madcap ideas such as dinosaurs co-existing with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a bizarre claim that a live pterosaur – a
flying reptile – may have been captured by cowboys in 19th Century and dragons were real, fire-breathing dinosaurs. You’d think such things are laughable, not dangerous. On one level, they are harmless as the majority of right-minded people dismiss such ideas as patent nonsense, but to a child such ideas are very appealing.

Creationism is getting more sophisticated. Intelligent design creationism, the idea that things are so complex they could only have been designed and that evolution cannot adequately explain, for example, how an eye could have evolved, is trying to force its way onto the school curriculum. Intelligent design creationism isn’t science. It looks like science, it pretends to be science, but it’s not. Science needs evidence to support its
theories. Scientific theories are explanations of natural phenomena accepted by the scientific community and well evidenced. Theory can have more than one meaning – in everyday language a theory could be a speculative guess, but not in science. Intelligent design creationism is the opposite of science. It is built on the idea that if we cannot explain something, by default it must have been designed. Intelligent design creationism lacks any evidence.

Another key point of the campaign is the drive to include evolution in our primary curriculum. Under the last government, this was going to happen, but when the coalition came to power the revised primary curriculum was scrapped. Teaching the fundamentals of evolution early is necessary to prevent children gaining misconceived ideas about how life has developed and diversified. Children exposed to creationist books and comics can quite easily pick up misconceptions and once implanted, they’re difficult to change.

You may have jumped to certain conclusions by this point. Perhaps you think I‘m an atheist and I’m intent on removing religious teaching in all state schools. Both assumptions would be incorrect. I’d describe myself as an agnostic and I firmly support religious education in all schools. It‘s important children learn about all religious faiths and beliefs as well as understand atheism, agnosticism and humanism. Intolerance and discrimination is built on ignorance. Knowledge of what other faiths and ‘no faith’ is really about, taught by qualified religious education teachers, is preferable to children picking up prejudiced misinformation about various religions from the media or the playground.

By all means talk about creation myths and stories in religious education, but don’t present them as scientific fact. Evolution is a scientific fact – new species have been observed appearing in the wild. The evidence in the fossil record is overwhelming. The rich diversity of life we see today is interconnected and interrelated as evidenced by DNA. Some of the natural mechanisms that cause evolution we understand, such as natural selection, others are still a mystery. But scientists are working on explaining and understanding these complex processes, they haven’t given up and said, ‘well I can’t explain it so it must have been designed that way’.

Understanding evolution helps us develop better drugs to treat serious illness and realise why it’s not so simple to cure the common cold or how HIV and aids spreads and changes. If we allow creationist doctrines to gain equal status in our schools with the tried and tested scientific theory of evolution, why not allow astrology in place of astronomy, alchemy over chemistry and magic in place of physics.

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One thought on “Creating a Distorted View of the World

    Sophie said:
    July 9, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Just to let you know I am profoundly grateful to know academics like you are working so diligently to protect our children’s education. I’m not an atheist, but I am a secularist and have a strong dislike of faith misrepresented as fact. It seems to me vital that Creation Science, however disguised, is not presented as fact or, indeed, as science. I think the key is teaching our children as young as practicable about the rules under which science operates: evidence, theories, data. A child or young person thus equipped will be able, throughout their lives, to assess for themselves whether a claim (any sort of claim from YEC to homeopathy) is science or pseudoscience.

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