Monday, November 27, 2006

Truth and evidence

I was disappointed and not to say a little anxious to read a report today claiming that an increasing number of schools are teaching creationism in science lessons. I'm not concerned merely because I happen to think creationism is not much of a theory. (I happen to think that it is more like a form of intellectual surrender: we can't at present explain how this happened so we assume something analogous to something familiar, like a super-craftsman, must be responsible...) More worrying is the rhetoric assumed by many of the organisations promoting this view that suggest that they are the intellectually modest and respectable side in the debate. For example, the organisation Truth in science offers as part of a rationale for its promotion of creationist material the principle outlined in various school syllabuses that:
Pupils should be scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (for example, Darwin's theory of evolution)
National Curriculum KS4

This is an excellent principle and could offer a foundation in critical epistemology generally. It is important to be able to recognise how empirical data can be interepreted differently and how alternative hypotheses are advanced, tested, and criticised. That is the way to do science. But this does not mean, I think, that entirely unfalsifiable and untestable hypotheses -- such as those offered by creationists -- deserve to be presented to children as equally plausible or equally worthwhile. Here's a thought: What would count as evidence against creationism? What would creationists say could possibly count as evidence against their view? If there is no answer to this, then I have no idea how to assess creationism as an explanatory hypothesis. True, it is not easy to see how one might prove Darwinism either, but at least in its case I have some idea about what phenomena might and might not be interpreted in its terms. Note that the KS 4 principle talks specifically about scientific controversies. I don't think I'm alone in imagining creationism not to be 'scientific' in any significant sense of the term.
The Truth in science site goes on to point out sections in textbooks which point out -- rightly -- when evidence for a particular theory (e.g. hominid evolution) is scant or disputed. Again, this is perfectly good science. But I don't see how this should be thought to be a sign of bad faith on the evolutionists' part. They, at least, are prepared to offer their theory for scrutiny. (To be fair, Truth in science do generally take the pose that they are encouraging debate in the face of dogmatism. But there are some curious sides to this. See here, for example, for their restatement of the misguided old chestnut that natural selection and evolution would make our society empty of morality. 'Humanism', it seems is for them a synonym for amoralism. For a better view of humanism see the British Humanist Association site.)

My proposal would be that creationism does deserve to be taught as a theory. But it also therefore deserves to be subject to the same scrutiny as its competitors. (No mention of that possibility by Truth in science...) Start with Hume's Dialogues on natural religion and other discussions of the argument for design and see what children make of that. Taught well and with an open mind, I imagine this would be an excellent educational opportunity.

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