Friday, August 12, 2011

A Modest Proposal on the Teaching of Controversial Issues Related to Science

There is an article in the August 5th issue of Science magazine which reports that high school teachers across the country are being asked to teach both evolution and climate change as "controversial issues" assuring balanced treatment in the classroom.

Let me make a modest proposal. The teachers should do so.

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In the case of evolution, one controversy is between creationism and evolution, In the case of climate change, the controversy is over whether the evidence supports human action as causing rapid global warming in this century or whether it does not. Thus, in both cases one can examine the degree to which the scientific community is united on each side of the question. In point of fact, scientific consensus is a crucial element in the credibility of scientific issues. In both cases, the bodies of scientific evidence will be too extensive and complex for secondary school students to master, but it is possible to give an idea in the classroom of the quantity and quality of evidence adduced on each side, and to show in specific examples why evidence adduced by the creationists and the antagonists to climate change theory is fatally flawed.

I believe that students in secondary schools studying science should be prepared, as part of their courses, to judge political arguments that are purported to be scientific in nature. Thus I suggest that teachers teach that creationists are arguing a religious position under the guise of science, and opponents of climate change theory are arguing a position in support of commercial interest who don't want the expense of reducing emissions in the guise of science.

Thus, I would suggest that in the classroom teachers explain that students should find evolution much more credible than creationism and anthropogenic climate change to be more credible as a basis for action than the position offered by its critics.

In the case of evolution as a controversial subject, there are those who oppose evolution on the basis of religious beliefs. In the case of controversy between religion and science, I rather like the solution that if there are two bodies of evidence for theories that you wish to believe simultaneously that appear to conflict, you are probably interpreting one or the other theory or one or the other body of evidence incorrectly. One can explain, as a model, how the Catholic Church reinterpreted the bible to allow it to accept the Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun (having previously punished Galileo for advancing evidence in support of that theory).

Of course, teaching these controversies honestly will be more objectionable to those promoting bad science than ignoring the controversy, but so it goes.

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