For several years we have taught a course, Science as a Candle in the Dark, to help students deal with questions about the foundations of their belief systems and to promote science and skepticism as a way of inquiry. Our goal was to help students learn how to challenge ideas in a constructive manner that would lead to further insight and understanding. We examine issues where religion and science tend to interdigitate. Another goal was to help students begin to understand ambiguities that arise when religion and science seem to conflict. We take no religious position in this class; the students have a right to their own beliefs and religious views. We emphasize the differences between science and religion. We discuss the conflict between evolution and creationism to focus attention on problems that seem to arise between these two domains.
The majority of our first-year students are creationists whose beliefs span the spectrum from young-earth creationism to "intelligent design" (ID). They have been told evolution is "only a theory" with troubling gaps that scientists do not acknowledge. Part of the problem is that many public schools ignore evolution, and teachers are afraid to broach it. One high school biology teacher in Oregon said he would not touch it with a ten-foot pole. Another said she uses only the word "change"— the word "evolution" is not used in her classes. This seems to be a common experience in our state and perhaps throughout the US. We have found that most of our incoming students were woefully ignorant of evolution. The only place most students were exposed to evolution concepts was in biology classes, but frequently not until they enrolled in college level courses. Even after learning about evolution, some students remained unconvinced. We have students in our program who memorize everything about evolution needed to pass a test, but state flatly they do not "believe in" evolution.
We try to help our students to understand the issues surrounding this divisive artificial controversy. In our classroom, we have advantages over other venues. First, we have a captive audience and adequate time to explain the science behind evolution and argue against creationism. Second, the seminar is not a biology class, so we do not sacrifice critical science content for this issue. Finally, we have the advantage of having sufficient time to discuss evolution and religious beliefs in the classroom; we are not confined to sound bites and a 5- to 20-minute terse counterargument. We have time to educate the audience.
Science as a Candle in the Dark examines the issues of evolution versus creationism. Until recently, we presented evidence for evolution, but gave no time for presenting creationist or ID views. Students are assigned readings from Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World (1996), Stephen Jay Gould's Rocks of Ages (1999), Chet Raymo's Skeptics and True Believers (1998), and an article on evolution by Ernst Mayr. This year we are adding Edward J Larson's Summer for the Gods (1997) to provide more extensive historical background. We give about six hours of lecture on the subject of evolution itself including the history of evolutionary thought, as well as evidence for evolution. We present clear arguments for evolution to help students understand what evolution is. We have had success with more than half of our students as evidenced by them questioning creationist explanations because of the class. Unfortunately, we do not persuade them all; many true believers do not budge despite our efforts.
We begin reading from Sagan's book. This taps into students' sense of awe and wonder of their world and begins their education in skepticism. We emphasize the careful and precise use of definitions and concepts. When we bring up the concept of skepticism, we help students understand that skepticism is not pejorative. We teach them to differentiate between skepticism and cynicism as part of their vocabulary. Using Sagan's examples, we illustrate how easy it is for them to be gullible and believe everything they hear or read in popular media. We emphasize that skepticism is a tool to separate factual knowledge and ideas from misinformation. We introduce them to Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit, an excellent tool students can use when evaluating ideas.
In our discussions, we explain that religion is a different domain from science. We classify the paradigms (Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria) of religion and science as Type I and Type II teaching disciplines or knowledge. Type I is religious belief or knowledge based in faith, not evidence; it is a philosophical construct evolving from the suppositions of faith. We explain this kind of knowledge is not wrong or bad; it is just a different magisterium from that of science. We give several examples of different kinds of Type I beliefs, but avoid discussing which, if any, are correct, pointing out that such views are typically faith-based and not something we can debate. We emphasize that Type I beliefs cannot be tested using scientific methods.
We define Science as Type II knowledge, which is testable and based in evidence, not faith. We define science as a method of inquiry so it is not misinterpreted as just another religion. We emphasize that science, unlike Type I knowledge, uses skepticism as one of its tools. We define and distinguish between the concepts of hypotheses, theories, and scientific laws. It is too easy for proponents of creationism to talk about creationist or ID theories, implying these are scientific theories, when they are Type I beliefs with no testable supporting hypotheses. Using clear definitions and making sure that students use words correctly in our discussions helps us to clarify real issues in evolutionary science. Clear understanding of terminology sets limits about the discussions that follow.
Using Type I and Type II terminology avoids some of the emotional pitfalls associated with words such as faith, religion,and evolution. This helps defuse the animosity some students have toward science and scientists. Because many fundamentalists see scientists as atheists, we want to avoid the dismissal of our teaching just because students think we do not share the same worldview. We refer to Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God (1999) as evidence that not all scientists are atheists. We try to defuse stereotypes and keep students interested and open to new ideas.
We review several articles that help students to begin developing skeptical skills. They read about and challenge ideas such as therapeutic touch and the use of polygraphs as lie detectors, and learn how courts of law misinterpret science because the judiciary often lacks adequate science knowledge or proper expert testimony.
Assigned readings from Skeptics and True Believers by Chet Raymo gives students a sensitive view of how one scientist looks at the universe from a perspective of gentle skepticism and wonder. The first contact with the subject of evolution is from Raymo's book. We show Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy and Frederic March playing the protagonists. Whereas the film distorts what really took place, it accurately describes the emotional tone permeating the current debate about evolution. We want students to get the drama from the Scopes Trial and understand what creationists mean when they say "Scopes Monkey Trial". True believers in the class squirm with the portrayal of fundamentalists in the film. We take advantage of this discomfort by asking them if the film expresses how they feel. Typically, they deny such feelings, and this gives the opportunity to question what the issues really are. We point out the real issue:Type I beliefs from religion cannot explain ideas and theories in the Type II magisterium of science and vice versa. That issue is blurred in creationist arguments.
Students are then assigned readings from Gould's Rocks of Ages that explain what really happened in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. The farcical part of the issue becomes clearer and students are amused at what really happened. This is followed with six hours of lecture on the history of evolutionary thought, the evidence for evolution, and the history of life on Earth. During and following the presentation, students are encouraged to ask questions about evolution.
Next, students read Greg Easterbrook's article "The new fundamentalism" (2000). In this cleverly written opinion piece, Easterbrook advocates "teaching the controversy", the darling of the ID movement. He also advocates changing the definition of science from natural explanations to logical explanations. He expresses a cynical view of biologists and attacks biologists openly. We ask students to write two responses to the article. One must agree with Easterbrook's contentions and state why. The other takes the opposite position. The purpose is to encourage students to articulate in writing and discussions their understanding of the issues. This assignment helps students evaluate their own beliefs and separate science from religion. It also provides insight into how ID proponents distort and twist arguments about evolution, and gives us the opportunity to help students express their arguments clearly and concisely focusing on careful use of definitions and concepts. We want no blurring of concepts and issues.
We show the video Icons of Evolution (based on the book of the same title by Jonathan Wells) to provide an opportunity to take a hard look at ID. This video takes the student to the core of the issues from the perspective of the ID enthusiast. The video is intelligently designed to deceive the viewer. Showing this video to church groups and school boards would likely convince the lay public that evolution is a "theory in crisis". In reality, the video is a mendacious attack on the integrity of scientists and scientific research. We follow the video with an extended discussion of issues raised by Wells and his ID colleagues.
We challenge several basic arguments central to the video's thesis and cast doubt on the veracity of the entire video. Several well-written articles available from the NCSE debunk Icons of Evolution and we use these to help make the case against the video. Two of these examples are familiar to RNCSE readers: the case of Roger DeHart, and the misuse and misinterpretation of data from evolutionary studies.
Roger DeHart, a teacher in the Burlington-Edison school district in Washington state, presented ID and other creationist misinformation about evolution to his high school biology class. Icons of Evolution portrays Dehart as a victim and martyr to generate sympathy and create the view that science and school boards unfairly undermine alternative (creationist) views. The fairness doctrine used by ID advocates plays a major role in this first part of the video. However, the Burlington-Edison Committee for Science Education's website on this issue (http://www.scienceormyth.org) gives a different picture of what happened. DeHart, a die-hard creationist, taught creationism in his classes. The school board and superintendent initially worked out an agreement with DeHart, which he subsequently deliberately broke. Our students, at first sympathetic to DeHart, did not like his duplicity. For Icons to be effective, it is necessary to have sympathy for the fairness argument and for DeHart. We told our students that science has nothing to do with fairness; it is evidence that counts. That approach also helped undermine sympathy for DeHart.
Once sympathy for DeHart is challenged, the students are open to a more critical analysis of the deliberate deceptions, omissions, and distortions of science that make up most of the "evidence" in Icons. For example, the video argues that if antibiotics are removed, bacteria revert to the wild type that lack resistance; therefore bacterial resistance has not "evolved". Whereas bacteria do revert under certain circumstances, Icons ignores evidence showing bacteria subjected to the selective pressure of antibiotics for longer periods of time retain the resistance even after the antibiotics are withdrawn. In essence, research on bacterial resistance to antibiotics supports evolutionary theory and does not contradict it.
Scientists are at a disadvantage when ID rears its head in school board meetings and community meetings. Our approach requires a significant amount of time and a willingness of the audience to listen and think about these issues. Addressing these issues in the classroom context is an ideal setting for grappling with the real arguments that ID proponents make. The value of exposing and examining ID arguments in detail was shown during the Kitzmiller trial in Pennsylvania when plaintiff's witnesses were given a chance to testify. The arguments took time, money, and careful examination by a judge who listened. This is a rare opportunity, but we are heartened that whenever anti-evolutionism has had its day in court, the courts have had no difficulty seeing through its pretences to scientific respectability.
In the classroom, however, we can take the time to explore, compare, we are not constrained by time limits for testimony or sound-bite reporting. One advantage is that students begin to understand the difference between scientific arguments and ad hominem attacks. We also engage the emotional responses of people who feel that their belief systems or values are under attack by scientists, especially those who teach evolution. By addressing these issues head on in the classroom, we helped our students see that we were not afraid to confront the issues, but that we wanted to have a conversation that was rational and fair — and one that did not distort the scientific studies that support evolution.
We began teaching this class because we were frustrated with the assault on reason promulgated by creationists. We were concerned that teachers should not be forced to teach science through the lens of creationism. Instead we decided to confront creationism, especially ID, directly and honestly with an understanding that both religion and science are part of human culture, but with the understanding that the two domains do not overlap. We found students are interested in learning about these issues. Not addressing them gives the argument to the creationists. We thought it was time to confront the issue. Most of our students have appreciated the opportunity to learn the facts about evolution and the conflict generated by "intelligent design" proponents and other creationists.
Mark Terry, as well as Glenn Branch and Alan Gishlick from the NCSE, provided essential information and resources for our rebuttal to Icons of Evolution.
Easterbrook G. 2000 Aug 8. The new fundamentalism. The Wall Street Journal.
Gould SJ. 1999. Rocks of Ages. New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999.
Larson E. 1997. Summer for the Gods. New York: Basic Books.
Miller KR. 1999. Finding Darwin's God. San Francisco: Cliff Street Books.
Raymo C. 1998. Skeptics and True Believers. New York: Walker and Co.
Sagan C. The Demon-Haunted World. New York: Random House.