Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Teaching our Kids the Difference Between Science and Faith

Moral Maze: Teaching our Kids the Difference Between Science and Faith

Defeating the religious right’s latest attack on reason and evidence requires beating them at their own game.

The current site of the controversy is the US, where Louisiana has passed a law requiring the education bureaucracy to assist schools that wish to help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review” scientific theories like evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

Intelligent design, or its forerunner creation science, in sheep’s clothing? You betcha. But dressed up as academic freedom, the new law is predicted to succeed in introducing biblical principles into the classroom where those in more blatant contravention of the US separation of Church and State have failed.

I’m on their side, but I reckon the opponents of this bill, and the many predicted to follow it into legislatures across the country, need to modify their language and tactics if they want to beat their wealthy, dedicated and relentless opponent: the fundamentalist Christian churches.

First and foremost, they need to get past their moral indignation at the slick and cynical use by bible-bashers of the language and values of the progressive left. To do this, they need to stop arguing against the legislation on the grounds that Darwinian evolution is “accepted scientific fact,” and get on with turning the stated goals of the new “academic freedom” legislation to their advantage.

Because at the heart of this debate is not evolution, or any other answer to key questions that the scientific method turns up at a point in history, but the workings of the method itself. Currently, primary and secondary school children are taught scientific content: the conclusions of scientific investigation into questions like “how did life on earth begin?” Only when students enter university, are the methods used to reach such conclusions properly explained and used to critique contemporary answers to key questions.

This is ass-around backwards. As business leaders have been telling us for years, what we need in our rapid-fire world, where knowledge dates faster than it takes to chew a piece of gum, is people who know how to assess the value of new information and—where it is deemed valid and valuable—to acquire it. People, in other words, who don’t know stuff, but know how to think.

No matter how widely accepted it is today, no theory—including evolution—is beyond question. The accumulation of enough counter-evidence, or the successful questioning of the method or logic used to develop the theory in the first place, will topple it in the sort of paradigm shift that makes academic careers and defines human progress. This is how reason and evidence-based systems, of which science is one, work.

Only by accepting this, and by turning the ruthless objectivity of reason and evidence-based systems to their advantage, can those seeking to defend modern ways of knowing against pre-enlightenment ones based on faith, tradition or plain superstition, prevail.

Perhaps the latest manifestation of creationism, and the threat it poses to post-enlightenment ways of doing business, could prompt educators to listen. To stop stuffing our primary and secondary school children with reams of content certain to date, and to teach them instead to consider the validity of the varying methods humans have tried over time to decide what is right and true.

If they know this we won’t have to tell them that creationism, or whatever theory the faith-based crowd decide to throw at us next year, is something we can choose to believe it, but not something we can know.

They will be able to work this out for themselves.

Publication History

Teaching our Kids the Difference Between Science and Faith, Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)
27 Jul 2008

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