“Being willing to consider a design inference, if the data point in that direction, is good science regardless of the philosophical or religious implications.”
Science Classes Should Educate, Not Indoctrinate
By Rebecca Keller
Science Text Publisher
Saturday, September 3, 2005
On Sunday, Aug. 28, the Albuquerque Journal paraphrased me as saying, “Scientists err by being unwilling to consider the possibility that some sort of transcendent being is responsible.”
The Journal acknowledges that this misrepresented my actual words. In fact, it is opposite to what I really think. I don’t believe that looking for a transcendent being, or God, or little green men is in the purview of good science.
However, being willing to consider a design inference, if the data point in that direction, is good science regardless of the philosophical or religious implications.
No scientist should ever be so committed to an ideology, whether that ideology is religious or philosophical in nature, that it blinds him to possible interpretations of scientific data. That happened in Galileo’s time and it is happening today whenever people close their eyes and plug their ears to design inferences in biology.
Living things are incredibly complex. Even on the microscopic scale each cell is literally packed with interacting networks of molecular machines. It looks designed. If it looks designed, how can it be unscientific to wonder if that design is real?
It is understandable that people are concerned about the metaphysical implications; if there is design then there must be a designer.
But the basic trouble, and the underlying reason this controversy never ends, is that evolution is a creation story; it has huge metaphysical implications no matter how it is taught. How is it less religious or less controversial to teach evolution as it is now, pretending that we somehow know that there is no design?
The only way to be religiously neutral on a subject such as evolution is to acknowledge what we know and what we don’t know. Virtually all of our students come into class knowing that evolution is controversial. Pretending it’s not, passing off students’ questions with patronizing non-answers, or pretending “science” really knows that there is no design in biology is certainly not good educational practice.
The current NM State Science Standards were crafted in part to deal with exactly this issue. The Science Standards are divided into three strands: Strand I, Scientific Thinking and Practice, Strand II, Science Content, and Strand III, Science and Society.
If we are going to teach students about biological origins we need to help them understand all the issues behind origins science, including evolution. Why is it controversial? What worldview assumptions are behind it? Do we really know that life was generated only by random processes of mutation and natural selection? What evidence supports it, what evidence is against it?
Strands I and III give guidance in how to deal with such questions. For the record, our science standards were given national recognition as some of the best standards in the nation.
Rio Rancho Science Policy 401 kicked off the latest local brouhaha but what is really happening in Rio Rancho and across the country? Is it a sneaky effort by creationists to get a Trojan horse into the classroom? Is it a conspiracy by the fundamentalist right to take over the country?
No. What’s really happening in Rio Rancho is that because the theory of evolution is being taught without the possibility of criticism or objective dialog, people recognize that it amounts to “religion” being passed off as science.
The Rio Rancho policy is intended to ensure that the state standards are followed. By following Strands I and III of the state standards, the teaching of evolution as religion is minimized. In particular, science teachers should encourage questions and critical thinking about the controversial aspects of evolution.
Not only should students learn that reasonable people disagree about the meaning and interpretation of data, they should learn that scientists disagree, too. In fact, disagreeing about how data should be interpreted is what scientists do. That is science. The history of science illustrates that disagreements in science are the very thing that fuels scientific discovery.
Evolution as a secular creation story is already being preached from the classroom pulpit. Teaching the controversy helps keep religion, of any flavor, out of the classroom.
This is good science education and this is what is being proposed in Rio Rancho and across the country.
Rebecca Keller, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of New Mexico, is president of Gravitas Publications of Albuquerque and writes elementary and middle-school science textbooks.
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Rebecca Keller, Ph.D.
Gravitas Publications, Inc.