23 November 2014

How to teach to "controversy"?

"Hill found that 58 percent of respondents said this topic is only "somewhat, not very, or not at all important" to them. People who held creationist views were the most emphatic about their beliefs; 64 percent of that group said they care about being "right," presumably in the metaphysical sense of rightness. " 

I tend not to worry very much about whether generally the population accepts evolutionary theory on its own, excepting as it is a harbinger for otherwise poor quality scientific backgrounds. It does not have very much to do with almost anyone's daily lives. Antibiotic resistance and viral mutations would be the average person's limit of visible experience for which they are having adverse effects (by not getting vaccines for their children and by overusing antibiotics for viral infections for which they have no impact or farmers using them prolifically on animals we consume). These are fields for which the limited education of the average person on germ theory and the types and causes of illness, or even just the ability to critically examine ailments and their causes in others (eg, people get colds not because it is cold, but because they stay inside more often with other people when it is cold), is probably a bigger concern than evolutionary theory. Meanwhile the average person is not likely to work in a biochemistry lab or a genetic engineering research firm or as a naturalist studying animals and animal behavior or biodiversity. The specific influence upon their lives is pretty small as a result and so it is not something I worry a great deal about in particular.

What is concerning on this subject is that my "opposites", the creationists, seem to care an awful lot about it, much more than the much smaller cohort of people who are, like me, atheistic and accepting of evolutionary theory. And then this was also a concern: "An estimated 28 percent teach evolutionary biology according to the recommendations of the National Research Council; the rest don't advocate either view" Science teachers apparently don't care very much about whether the general population learns about science either. It's one thing if I don't care, because I have no children and little interest in teaching such creatures. But if the teachers at large don't care (or are afraid to, a plausible explanation in many cases), that's a deeper concern. If there's a large percentage of people who care a great deal, but who disagree with established scientific concerns, there needs to be a way to raise it for everyone else, the people who are unsure or don't care very much one way or the other or who otherwise want their children to learn the proper scientific ways of thinking and analysis as part of their upbringing and education.

Some thoughts

1) Let the most adamant creationist people go and teach what they want through home schooling (they're often already doing this).

2) Let the most adamant creationists set up their own private institutions to send their own children, with the possible result, if this is a significant problem that people do not learn adequate science in primary education, that they could risk being shut out of certain professional fields as adults (unless they address this later on by attending colleges that aren't conservative Christian in nature).

This is also already happening. I often think it may be acceptable to let them use tax credits to fund the institutions simply because #3 below looks so bad as a long-term prospect to me. We've had decades since Scopes and the needles haven't moved very much in the general population, and I think there's not very good reasons to think this will change in the near term for sure. My general thinking for #1 and #2 is that creationists aren't very easy to argue with logically, so they're better off not impacting everyone else as much or not being as concerned about everyone else because they've segregated their children off. I think it likely that if they are left alone to do their thing, there's a possible gain in them generally leaving everyone else's kids alone and we can focus on educating those children instead.

As a hopeful note, I don't know that this self-segregated education style has a lasting effect that the creationist might hope for. It's very possible that their children may not care as much about their religious identity as they do (often for other unrelated reasons) and this may allow for openings of doubt in any factual basis behind creationist mythology.

3) Continue the curriculum and courtroom fights and leaving teachers and school administrations to fight it out with parents who don't pursue those two above options out of inertia or marginal interest. I'm not very enthusiastic about this as a result because school boards are often democratically selected. As we should see from the link, not only are there a ton of creationists in America; roughly four times as many as the atheistic population which is largely on its own fighting back as the theistic evolutionist is not very concerned about the issue one way or the other, for reasons that should be obvious. They're also much more motivated about the issue. Meaning they will go vote for school boards that advance creationist views as much as they can get away with and they will win those elections in most states, with adverse effects upon the overall quality of education available to everyone. Not just what is available to creationists and not just impacting upon science curriculum and evolution in particular.

The optimistic view is that religious dogma on other issues, such as birth control or homosexuality, is driving away many young people from organised religion as young people have broken from their elders and parents on these questions, and they may also break on this question once broken away on others. This suggests that in 20-30 years time, fewer people may care a great deal about this as a question of evolutionary theory in education. I'm not sure this is a good calculated risk given what creationists or millennial revisionists can do to science and history education in the meantime. That damage is still considerable.

4) A different approach would be to let students try to bash each other's heads in by debating or bringing up these issues. I don't think this is an effective method of teaching "controversial" issues until perhaps high school and my preference would be that it be in the form of a comparative religion or philosophy course. Creationism is not science and doesn't belong in a biology class.

5) Address the question of meaning. Teleology has a long use as part of religious doctrine for providing people easy answers (if I think badly misleading ones) about the nature of the universe and one's purpose in it. As the poll should also show, there's a large cohort of people who are theistic but accept evolutionary theory or place their deity as having a specific involvement. To explain this view (or one possible interpretation of that view). Let's say god created evolution as a biological process, and upon its long and winding paths, came a result of the creation of man. This purported god was pleased by that development and endowed human beings with some special significance (often the "soul"). Or something to that effect. That's an opening for which acceptance of scientific conclusions about the nature of existence has walked through Christian theology for centuries ("god did it, and this is how", or other similar interpretations). Evolution for whatever reason is not typically pushed in the door this way and in fact is presented precisely as the vehicle for atheism that many anti-science creationists fear it to be. That may have to change tactics.

I don't think that's going to provide a very satisfying answer for meaning and purpose at all to address the question of "meaning" for which many people reject evolutionary theory to present it in the "god did it this way" variety of explanation. But apparently a lot of people do. I see this example of "meaning" frequently used in movies with an alternative to gods in the form of super-advanced aliens seeding humanity into the genetic code of the planet and sometimes teaching humans basic skills of agriculture or warfare, or in some cases various "advanced" technologies (a position which makes even less sense than the soul concept advanced by Catholics given that there's actually very strong observable evidence against it, while the soul is a metaphysical concept devoid of evidence or empirical debate). This path provides some presentation of meaning that is to me just as hollow and useless as those provided by religious scripture and organised religions. But given the popularity of the plot points, it is not surprising that the problem of meaning dominates the need to cling to creationist myths, whether science fiction-based or religious, to avoid the difficulty of addressing personal or species level meaning. I sympathize that those are difficult questions for which simple and emotionally driven responses may provide comfort and ease (but not actually answering the question). I don't think the average person wants to contemplate these issues very deeply, or at least very often, in favor of actually living their lives.

Which is probably why many people are fairly blah about whether evolution is a thing.

To put a quick flip on this science fiction-y thinking. There's also been a strain in Star Trek type shows that the future will be better tomorrow because there won't be religions because presumably the aliens we would encounter won't have them either or will find our myths absurd and have their own better ones or some such. While I find the humanist ethos running through Star Trek amusing and sometimes appealing (and sometimes not so much, since it glosses over economics on the basis of "we have matter replicators"), there doesn't seem to me to be a basis point for saying that human beings on discovering other sentient beings from other worlds would suddenly and inevitably accept that this means that there is no god and their religious beliefs are pointless. What it might (optimistically) suggest to many people is that evolutionary theory is generally correct. But that acceptance of theoretical knowledge already doesn't come into conflict with the questions of purpose and meaning that most people are using religious beliefs and practices, and the affirmation of congregations of like-minded others, to try to wrestle with. Those questions aren't going to be diminished by the discovery of and communication with other beings.
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