Can't Wait to See the Exam Question About This… July 10, 2011

Can't Wait to See the Exam Question About This…

Gotta love Doonesbury:

The comic actually raises a deeper question:

Would you rather a science teacher bring up Creationism/ID in order to debunk it, or would you rather the teacher not mention the fake “controversy” in the first place?

I understand the arguments for the latter. Why bother mentioning something that’s not science? Why limit ourselves to the Christian Creation myth only? Isn’t talking about Creationism somehow validating it? We wouldn’t teach students about “alternatives to gravity,” would we? There are plenty of reasons not to bring up “alternatives” at all.

But just for the sake of argument….

If you’re not going into a science-related field, how often would you ever talk about evolution? You would really only hear about it in the context of certain Christians trying to push it out of public schools. I think there’s a case to be made as to why students should be aware of the arguments anti-evolutionists tend to use, just so they know how to knock them down.

Brian Clegg made a similar argument a couple years ago:

… I’m a popular science writer. My job is to make science accessible to the general reader, and a tool that popular science uses with great success is context. We put science into its historical perspective. We include stories of the people involved in the discoveries. This makes the subject more approachable. School science often lacks context. It is presented as bare fact, and as such is often a turn-off…

… By putting creation myths into context in this way, we are much more likely to defuse the issue than by rigidly insisting that they should never appear in science lessons.

Or, perhaps, consider this as an exam question:

“Kenny says there is plenty of evidence for microevolution but there is none for macroevolution, adding that we’ve never seen one species change into another. How would you respond to him?

You need to have a certain knowledge about how evolution works in order to answer that, and I can see the educational benefit of the question.

If we want students to be scientifically-literate, do we need to make them aware of why some people think evolution is so controversial?

I had a chance to ask a similar question to the National Center for Science Education’s Executive Director Eugenie Scott when I interviewed her a few years ago. She was in favor of teaching evolution-only in the classroom:

Hemant: Should we teach ID in the classroom if only to say “Here’s why it’s not valid”?

Eugenie: No… just for purely practical reasons. In order to teach ID, a student has to know a great deal about molecular biology [and] about cellular biology. In order to understand [William] Dembski’s probability theory argument, students have to know a fair amount about probability. Now… how much background knowledge would students have to be given to get them up to the point where they can understand why these arguments are really invalid? It’s not that high school students are incapable of learning this, but teachers don’t have the time to do it.

For what it’s worth, I lean toward her side. You barely have enough time to teach the curriculum as is, without getting into the nonsense people associate with the subject. But I still think that exam question and others like it — not directly associated with Creationism/ID, but addressing common misconceptions about evolution — are good ones.

(Thanks to Karl for the link!)

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  • Claudia

    I don’t favor putting creationism into the classroom even to debunk it for two reasons:

    1. Class time is limited. Time spent debunking creationism would cut into time students could be learning actual science.
    2. Allowing creationism in for the purpose of debunking legitimizes the presence of creationism in the classroom. This would have the double effect of arming creationists with an argument that creationism IS science (otherwise, why would it be taught in biology?) and opening the door to teachers willing to promote creationism. It would be harder to pursue creationism in the classroom if you had to prove, beyond it’s mere presence, that it was being promoted.

    Having said that I do think that much more time should be spent in the classroom learning the scientific method and that in addition students should learn how one distinguishes science from pseudoscience. For any student not going into the scientific field, this would be the greatest contribution their science class could give them. Beyond just creationism, the appreciation for evidence-based thinking and the ability to distinguish evidence from snake-oil will help them avoid all sorts of irrational claims; astrology, homeopathy etc..

    Parents, if they are interested in helping their kids confront creationism, could teach them about creationisms claims and many flaws at home.

  • Raven

    The time factor was the first problem that I thought of when considering the idea of teaching ID to debunk it. I would LOVE to see science teachers debunking it in the classroom, but as your article noted, they barely have time to do more than gloss over ToE in the first place.

    The other concern I would have is if ID was allowed in the classroom at all, it would be possible for some teachers to teach it as a fact from their own bias. In my experience, most science teachers are great. Not all school districts can afford to hire great science teachers, and make do with non-specialists.

  • Rich Wilson

    Of course what Doonsbury gets wrong is that Noah did include the dinosaurs. And they all fit because they were cute little baby dinosaurs. And Unicorns too, just not the pink ones Disney pushes.

    (really, you can look it all up on

    Hi Ken 🙂

  • abadidea

    Claudia, IMO you could just as well argue that the learning process of debunking IS science and that it’s a very high return on investment. Teach a person to fish yadda yadda.

    As a wee creationist in middle and high school… I think I would have totally freaked out and played the “help help I’m being repressed” card.

    As a slightly less wee creationist in university… well, I had a professor who I very quickly came to admire and respect… and the way that he so callously and contemptuously dismissed creationism threw a kind of reset switch in my brain allowing me to think “this guy, who I’m already convinced knows what he’s talking about, opines that my religion is only suitable for blithering morons. Not only that, but what he says and what this astronomy textbook says makes… a lot of sense. Maybe… just maybe…”

    Ahh, but I’ve told the “astronomy saved my soul” story too many times already!

  • tommy

    I agree to teach it, and debunk it, using humor and logic. First poster says it would be a waste of time. Completely disagree. You are teaching something more important than just memorizing facts… but critical thinking when debunking creation stories. hopefully students will have a real moment when some learn it IS completely ridiculous. That probably has more payoff in some respects and taking a day or 2 to debunk.

    Then you follow up the christian myth, with.. ok class now we are moving to the aztec creation myth.. anyone want to dive into that one? Hopefully the class will laugh and say… No thanks.

  • Heidi

    My problem with teachers spending time debunking creationism is that the odds are great that it would lead to taxpayers spending money to defend against the resulting lawsuits brought by fundie parents. “ZOMG, my kid came home from school THINKING!!!” *fundie parent has attack of the vapors*

  • Philbert

    I don’t think you have to plumb the depths of creationist sophistry, but it would be good to address common misconceptions such as the “macro evolution” thing. Most people aren’t deceived by detailed arguments about probability theory, they have elementary misunderstandings like “if we came from apes, why are there still apes?”

  • Lisa

    Narrow-Minded like Jesus!

  • Lisa

    ‘Facts’ are neutral. However, there are no such things as ‘brute facts’; all facts are interpreted. Once the Bible is eliminated in the argument, then the Christians’ presuppositions are gone, leaving them unable to effectively give an alternate interpretation of the facts. Their opponents then have the upper hand as they still have their presuppositions—see Naturalism, logic and reality.

    Directly from the Answers in Genesis website. Can’t make this stuff up.

  • Annie

    @Claudia- The idea of teaching the scientific method is outdated and not used in good science programs. The scientific method is simply a way to present science, not to actually do science. As a science educator, the only time I teach the scientific method is for students presenting science fair projects.

    Real scientists don’t sit down and think up a good hypothesis, so neither should children. Instead, start with a problem that needs to be solved or something fascinating that one would like to know more about, and go from there.

    I would never teach creationism in my science classroom or lab, even to debunk it. If it was a flawed theory that was based on science, maybe, but since it is completely lacking in any scientific evidence, I don’t think it would work well as a non-example.

  • Kelly

    I think that only scientifically valid subjects should be taught is science classes. That said; I think that the ‘controversy’ or ‘issue’ of “alternative theories” to evolution could have a place in other classes, perhaps in social science or even civics. I do not wish to say there are things which “should not be taught”, simply that they should be taught in the proper context and setting. I would have enjoyed a classroom debate in my civics class on the subject when I was in high school.

  • Nakor

    I’m with the “class time is limited” group, although I have argued before that prior to grades where students select a specific science (physics, chemistry, etc.) — that is, while they’re still at a grade where there is one generic “science” course — some emphasis should be placed on the scientific method, and topics like:

    – empiricism
    – the terms ‘hypothesis,’ ‘theory,’ and ‘theorem’
    – basic methods of proof and disproof (not necessarily at a level of formal logic)

    A lot of what science classes at the grade 8-10 level teach are scientific facts that, often enough, are utterly unimportant in the long run. That time would be better spent explaining how science works, and in place of memorizing a list of facts, choose fewer of them but demonstrate how they came to be known, and how they can be proven.

  • mouse

    Ugh no, just no. I’m nowhere near a scientist. I’m a high school drop out with no formal education to speak of. And I’m so beyond grateful that I didn’t have a science teacher who tried to introduce creationism, even for debunking. I did have one who addressed the topic when a student brought it up (which I think is totally appropriate). The guy gets bonus points for shutting the kid down with minimal time and without being a raging jerk to the poor idiot in question.

    I don’t think creationism should be addressed in science classes AT ALL, unless it were some kind of “politics/philosophy of science” idea (or again, if a student brings it up it can be briefly dismissed). Of course in a class that encompassed that concept I would expect to be part of a different category (high school philosophy classes, when they exist, seem to fall under humanities).

    However, I do think that it would be appropriate to address the issue in any class that is, by design, intended to encourage analytical and critical thinking of a more broad nature. Back in my day (early-mid 90s) this would have fallen under various english and literature classes. I can see how designing the courseload for something like that might be problematic, however. And those fusion classes are usually more like math/science and english/history than english/math.

    All of which brings me back to… just no.

  • Lana

    I’m in favor of debunking creationism in the classroom — but only in those states where they insist on forcing it into the classroom and having it protected by law by “teaching the controversy” or whatever.

    Science backs up evolution. If enough teachers address the whole issue by debunking creationism, they can undo any damage done by teachers who teach it as fact.

    I agree it is a problem to fit it into the curriculum, which is why I tend to think only the districts where they are protecting and teaching creationism are the ones where it should be debunked in the classroom by teachers.

    If the parents don’t want their kid questioning religion, they shouldn’t force their religion into an environment that is theoretically designed to encourage learning, questioning, and knowledge — all antithetical to religion.

  • Larry Meredith

    I wouldn’t support teaching the ridiculous alternative theories as an opportunity to debunk them. Sounds like a waste of time. I do like the idea of teaching the answers to the most comment arguments against evolution though, like your example. I’d love to see the look on that fundi kid’s face when he gets an F for answering “I would tell Kenny he’s exactly right, and that’s why evolution doesn’t make sense.”

  • dauntless


    As a science educator, the only time I teach the scientific method is for students presenting science fair projects.

    Real scientists don’t sit down and think up a good hypothesis, so neither should children. Instead, start with a problem that needs to be solved or something fascinating that one would like to know more about, and go from there.

    As a science educator, perhaps you should realize that the scientific method is still widely used in the realm of science.

    As a research scientist, I make predictions based on observations and then test those predictions. I may do this a dozen times a day. The “OHEC” model of the scientific method isn’t really used, but even with that model, you “start with a problem that needs to be solved” as you put it.

    But read any journal article about an experimental study and you’ll see something like “We predicted X would happen, so we tested it”. I guess my point is, we still use inductive and deductive reasoning and experimentation, along with replication and peer review, to test our understanding and that is the basis of the scientific method.

  • I’m on “team don’t spend the class time to teach (or debunk) the controversy”. I’m afraid that too many high-school teachers will take creationism seriously and teach it as an equally probable (or even more probable) theory.

    P.S. my high school physics teacher told us (in class) that evolution wasn’t true.

  • Claudia

    Tommy said:

    First poster says it would be a waste of time. Completely disagree.

    I also disagree, because that’s not what I said. I can see the usefulness of debunking creationism BUT I would oppose it in the science classroom because I think the benefits are outweighed by the risks/disadvantages (time taken from other subjects and the risk of legitimizing/introducing creationism into public schools). Though I take @abadidea’s point of using creationism as an example of pseudoscience my feeling is still that if we allow creationism to enter the classroom under any guise we will increase it’s use by scientifically ignorant and/or fundamentalist teachers.

    Annie said:

    As a science educator, the only time I teach the scientific method is for students presenting science fair projects.

    Real scientists don’t sit down and think up a good hypothesis, so neither should children. Instead, start with a problem that needs to be solved or something fascinating that one would like to know more about, and go from there.

    I’m a “real scientist” and though the classic flow-chart of the scientific method is very simplistic, it’s not true that we don’t think of a good hypothesis and then plan and execute experiments. In fact, as noted by @dauntless, papers still use the “This is the current state of knowledge of X-This aspect is still unknown-we sought to learn if the mechanism could be Y-these experiments were employed-these controls were done-results point to this conclusion.”

    By “scientific method” I was using a generally well-known term to cover general knowledge about scientific inquiry and how it works. Concepts like reproducibility, falsifiability, peer-review etc. are important, as is the capacity to distinguish someone with actual data from someone using big words and betting you will be impressed and believe them (read: Demski).

  • Would you rather a science teacher bring up Creationism/ID in order to debunk it, or would you rather the teacher not mention the fake “controversy” in the first place?

    What year of school would this get taught? The earlier it happens, the more of an impact the debunking would have.

    I don’t think creationism should ever be mentioned by name or on the sly. What should be mentioned as early as possible is scientific naturalism, IOW, the idea that science is a method of investigating the world that does not and can not involve supernatural beings of any sort. Once that has been established in the classroom, then it automatically settles that creationism/ID/angels/demons/leprechauns/unicorns will never be discussed.

  • MH

    In chemistry class we learned about phlogiston theory. The idea was to show how and why a theory is discarded. Given that ID was the historical view until it was discredited, it could be useful to show why it was discarded in favor of evolution.

  • Laura Lou

    I’m a student in a public university and in my Biology 103 class the professor took time to address Creationism/ID. He made very clear that its claims are supported by no evidence, and he showed clips from the NOVA documentary about Dover. We did not waste time learning all that Biblical nonsense; rather, we focused on how the “scientific” claims of ID aren’t scientific.

    From what I gather talking to my classmates, many college students really benefit from this education because they arrive as a Freshman with a bad understanding of evolution and believe that the religious criticisms of it are valid.

    So I’m glad that this was taught in my biology class.

  • Jeff Ritter

    If the public school could approach it the same way my community college did I’d love it. In biology the first couple lessons were entirely on the scientific method. After the final lesson on the subject the professor turned and said…and this is why intelligent design is not taught in science class-it simply cannot follow the rules of the scientific method. You can take a humanities course on mythology and read all the various stories about the creation of mankind and the many versions of our demise. I did just that and greatly enjoyed the course. Having come from a fundamental christian upbringing with only 3 years at a public school I was grateful for the clarification of ID. So, teach mythology and philosophy in public school. Explain why all the various forms of ID are not taught in science and leave it at that.

  • Carlie

    I teach at the college level, and I never bring up creationism. I do take a full two weeks of lecture to build up to natural selection and evolutionary theory, going through all of the history of geological discoveries of deep time, biological discoveries of genetics and mutations, how to measure time by radioactive decay, etc., so by the time we get to evolution and natural selection it just seems like the natural conclusion of all of that data put together (well, that’s the hope). Very few people have brought up creationism in class, but if they do I say that there’s not any class time for it but I’ll be glad to answer questions for them and anyone else interested after class.

  • Ibis3

    Yes it should be taught, but not in science class by scientists. Teach science in science classes.

    Teach about creationism (and alchemy, and humours, and mind-body dualism, and geocentrism) in history classes. Oh and a thoroughly secular treatment of the history of Christian mythology and theology too.

  • Toby

    I think its fascinating that most of my self-professed atheist fellow travelers don’t know the history around the theory of evolution. Biblical creation was debunked by GEOLOGISTS and “naturalists” had to play catch-up. Geologists who studied rates of erosion and extrapolated backwards or who used fossils for dating rock strata and found fish or seashell fossils at the tops of mountains were the scientists who debunked biblical creation. Naturalists then were filling the void with competing theories of evolution (LeMarck, etc.) They were called naturalists before biology became more rigorously codified and established. I think this historical factoid can be briefly mentioned when teaching the theory of evolution in school.

    This factoid is crucial – its an aha! moment. You can’t argue with erosion rates – they are directly observable in the present. A lot of people who are merely Deist or irregularly religious or doubting find the theory of evolution to be contrived (why come up with this theory in the first place, what’s the point?)… until they learn the history that the biblical theory was debunked by geologists. Then they get it. Really, from an emotional standpoint, in my life, that has been most people’s major objection to the theory of Darwinian evolution, that it seems so arbitrary and unfulfilling and is it necessary? So, yeah, it is necessary.

  • Gregory Marshall

    That is exactly what we did in my Catholic high school, see how that ended up working out, well at least for me. 🙂

  • Annie

    Caludia wrote:

    “I’m a “real scientist” and though the classic flow-chart of the scientific method is very simplistic, it’s not true that we don’t think of a good hypothesis and then plan and execute experiments. In fact, as noted by @dauntless, papers still use the “This is the current state of knowledge of X-This aspect is still unknown-we sought to learn if the mechanism could be Y-these experiments were employed-these controls were done-results point to this conclusion.”

    Agreed. As you and I both stated, the scientific method is necessary for presenting research. Whenever I write something for a peer-reviewed journal, I utilize this method. But my point was that this is not the best way to teach students how to be scientifically literate, and to understand the nature of science.

    Students need to begin with learning science process skills, alongside the nature of science (order and organization, demanding evidence and explanations, that science is dynamic, etc.). Without these things, the scientific method means nothing to students. To teach the scientific method to children often misleads them into thinking that all science has a concrete beginning and end. I grew up memorizing these steps without knowing their true meaning (because it was never taught to me)… and without having the skills necessary to following this method. The idea of teaching the scientific method to children is quite antiquated, and for good reason. It falls into that fact-based philosophy of just throwing information at children and expecting them to absorb it. Today, we use inquiry to teach the processes and methods of science. It makes it more meaningful to the children who are learning, and it allows them to utilize these skills throughout their lives. Not all of my students will grow up to be scientists. But I do hope they will all be scientifically literate.

  • Ryan

    I like the idea of addressing creationism historically. I don’t think it’s worth bringing up the latest forms in all their contrived glory, but you can touch on the original creationist position, and explain why evolution via natural selection offered a mechanism that gives a better explanation than creationism. That may be hard to do in the limited class time available, but it would teach the facts of evolution, and also teach about the process of science.

  • Charles Black

    I can’t remember who said this but comedy is the best weapon to deal with irrational nonsense such as Creationism.
    Just ask Edward Current to name one comedian.

  • The link for the probability theory argument is dead.

  • TychaBrahe

    I’m all in favor of “teaching the controversy.” But the controversy isn’t a science controversy. Politics, current events, history (linking Scopes and other times of oppression to now).

    But the argument that you don’t really need to know evolution unless you go into a science career is specious. 90% of the facts we learn in school is useless in the real world. When was the last time someone asked someone to prove a trigonometric identity or what the Teapot Dome scandal was or whether a particular poem is written in iambic pentameter or not.

    What we are supposed to learn in school is how to solve problems, how to research things, and how to think about things in a cultural context. For that you need truth. Evolution is truth in science. ID is truth in current events.

  • I love Eugenie Scott.

  • Art Newman

    Those students who still want to cling to their creationist or literal “inerrant” bible beliefs should, hopefully, understand that science teachers mainly want them to be literate about what Darwin and other historically important science figures actually said as opposed to what the general public thinks they said. AM talk (rant) radio is loaded with kids calling in to say their science teacher said “the giraffe’s neck grew so it could reach the tree leaves”–no, that’s Lamarc and not Darwin. Also, being exposed to a passing survey of ideas that may not be used later in life trigonometry at least shows students some of the tools/arrows in the scientists quiver that are thre to be used if needed. Teapot dome an other events help to reinforce memory as to what happened as some events led to other events which may happen, again, some day–or not. Leonard Bernstein got to mention iambic pentameer in his, Joy of Music, to show that the blues could be considered “classical” music. “My babe, she left, she left, done gone away…” (I paraphrased it)–(iambic pentameter). All these historical people, events and concepts, in various fields of study, can be useful, at times, as starting points or “points of departure” at those times when one is trying to “contrast & compare” or if looking for a place to start when researchig history or trying to understand what some historian is referring to in the daily news or in conversation. And, I wish those teachers who try to appease some students by saying, about evoluion, “It’s just a theory” would realize that what they are trying to say is “It’s just a hypothesis”. A theory is something supported by the prepondeance of the evidence, And evolution is a theory–not, merely, a hypothses, by now.

  • Norickayer

    RE: Teaching discredited theories, my [college level] psychology class did a two-week study of Freud’s theories. We had assignments where we read a fictional autobiography and psychoanalyzed the character with Freudian ideas. The professor never really got around to telling us why Freud’s ideas were mostly bullshit. He never mentioned that since cathexis, projection and interjection explain every possible action equally well, they have no explanatory value.

    Eventually, when I insisted “but is it true?” he admitted that we were learning about Freud for historical context. I felt sort of cheated.

  • Donotemail

    I didn’t hear about creationism until I got into university. It took me a year to understand that people just don’t accept the evidence for it.

  • Donotemail

    I didn’t hear about creationism until I got into university. It took me a year to understand that people just don’t accept the evidence for it.

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