Science lessons should include creationism

Science lessons should include creationism September 11, 2008

So says Michael Reiss, Professor of Science Education at the University of London. Why should teachers want to do a crazy thing like that? Well, Prof Reiss reckons that a good argument is at the core of science. He points out that discussing creationism, if students raise the issue, could be wonderfully instructive:

… in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

And of course he’s right, at least on that level. If a student challenges the teacher about creationism, it’s crazy to argue that the response should be “It’s not on the curriculum, so we can’t discuss it”. So crazy, in fact, that nobody is actually arguing that we should. A good teacher should use the opportunity to open up the discussion about the scientific method, why it is so powerful, and why supernatural beliefs like creationism just don’t cut the mustard. It’s not a novel idea. Just last week Susan Blackmore was arguing that challenging student’s religious beliefs, and teaching science method rather than science fact, was at the heart of good science education.

So is Prof Reiss just tilting at windmills? Well, it’s hard to say. Prof Reiss is also a minister in the Church of England, and some of the early news reports of his remarks (made earlier today at the British Association of Science Festival) suggested that he was asking for creationism to be taught alongside science as an ‘alternative worldview’.

But the Daily Mail cleared that one up:

But Professor Reiss added: ‘Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis.

‘However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.

But that still leaves open a rather more interesting question: should creationism be actively introduced as a topic of discussion in science classes? On the one hand, creationism is a fairly widely-held misconception, and it offers a textbook example of how supernatural, non scientific thinking can lead even reasonably intelligent people to completely and fundamentally misunderstand how the world works.

On the other hand, if you let creationism into the curriculum, even as a vehicle for challenging irrational ways of thinking about the world, it opens up an opportunity for the various crazy faith schools we’ve got springing up in this country to weasel out of their obligation to teach science.

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