Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Thursday, August 14, 2003

An opening for Creationism?
Yesterday, I noticed this story from Kevin Drum about some changes in the wording of the chapter review topics in a (High School?) Biology textbook which, by some lights, open the door to discussion of religious Origins of Life ideas. Here is the relevant "review topic"

20. Finding and Communicating Information. Use the media center or Internet resources to study hypotheses for the origin of life that are alternatives to the hypotheses proposed by Oparin and Lerman. Analyze, review, and critique either Oparin’s or Lerman’s hypothesis as presented in your textbook along with one alternative hypothesis that you discover in your research.

Now, Oparin and Lerman have hypothetical timelines for the development of organisms from the primordial organic stew. Here are Oparin's and Lerman's ideas. Now, I have no real input on which is more likely, or whether there are other possible abiotogenic scenarios (my gut tells me that there are many rough paths toward life, given a fluid set of initial conditions, and no real constraints on wild-assed guessing). Now, the question is, are these changes really going to open up science classes to religious dogma?

My answer is a definite yes. In fact, I think that the new formulation opens a very profitable door to discussing the Creationist ideas. What, you say, not the answer you were expecting? Well, here's the rub. Any student who goes on the web looking for "Origins of Life" is bound to find 10 creationist sources for every scientific one (actually, a Google search shows that to be quite wrong, so consider my ass self-fact-checked), so a student might be likely to show up to class with a Creationist or ID theory (Intelligent Design). Now, it is staggeringly unlikely that the students have no idea of the Biblical Genesis story, so I don't think the idea will be new to them. But is any of this relevant to a science class, you might ask? After all, this seems like it belongs in a social studies or religion class...

NO! In fact, this discussion belongs right in the middle of a science class. A student of science must understand what it means to ask and answer a question using logic, reason, and the experimental method. Further, they must understand that when someone presents an explanation for events, it may come in many forms only some of which are scientific If a theory or hypothesis is subject to experimental verification, it is scientific. If it is not, then it is not science.

Aha, you might say, this makes the other origins of life and evolution arguments unscientific, right? After all, we can't go back in time and watch the primordial slime turn into people, right?

Well, that's true, but misleading. While we can't turn back the clock, we can do experiments to test predictions here and now made by Abiotic origins theories and by Evolutionary theory (the Miller/Urey experiment is a classic example). On the other hand, any notion that a Divine intervention (or Prime Mover, if you like the cold, pseudoscientific language approach) was necessary to start life is by definition untestable.

So, it seems to me that, perversely, this effort presumably by Creationists to inject their ideas into the classroom provides a terrific opportunity to educate students on why those ideas are not science. As a student of the sciences, and a partisan of freedom of thought and speech, I don't find it a good idea to suppress the Creationist ideas-it is a much better to combat them openly and honestly, and explain why they don't fit into a scientific rubric.

It seems to me that the best outcome of this question being posed to a class is that most of the students will come up with various hypotheses that include no mention of Deities intervening, but some student or students will include Creationist or ID hypotheses. A good science teacher can use this to contrast a viable, testable scientific hypothesis with one that is not. If the students are told they are not allowed to mention or discuss Creationism, it makes it seem that we are trying to suppress the information, which in the time honored tradition of teenagers everywhere, will make them seek it out. Of course, the teacher might fail to demonstrate how Creationism is unscientific, but in that case, you have a bad teacher, not a bad policy or a bad question, which is a whole separate issue.