Schools should put faith in science
By SCOTT ROWED, CALGARY HERALD
Added: Thu, 29 Nov 2007 00:00:00 UTC
In recent years, creationists have become more aggressive in their attempts to undermine science education. The movement, originating in the U.S., has gained political support in Great Britain and Canada.
The Alberta government has been quietly increasing funding to faith schools -- to 100 per cent in the case of "alternative" programs -- and allowing creationism to be taught alongside the Alberta curriculum.
Currently, this movement is most visible in the Ontario election campaign where Conservative Leader John Tory has promised a free vote on funding for all faith schools, pointing to Alberta as an example.
In response to a question, Tory said, "You know it's still called the theory of evolution. But they teach evolution in the Ontario curriculum, but they also could teach the fact to the children that there are other theories that people have out there that are part of some Christian beliefs." His comments show a dismal lack of scientific literacy.
Creationists are fond of stating that evolution is a theory, not a fact. In everyday use, the word "theory" means a hunch or guess. In science, however, it means a comprehensive analysis that explains and interprets the empirical evidence, or facts. A theory is not the bottom rung on the ladder of truth that aspires one day to attain a higher rung called fact.
Humans evolved over millions of years from hominids in Africa and share a common ancestor with the chimpanzee. That's a fact. Whales evolved from land-dwelling carnivores, another fact. The facts tell us "what" happened, whereas the theory of evolution interprets the "how" -- the mechanisms by which evolution works.
When Tory states "there are other theories that people have out there that are part of some Christian beliefs," he refers, of course, to biblical creationism or its latest disguise, intelligent design. His use of the word "theory" ducks under the scientific meaning, yet is used to imply creationism is just as valid as evolution.
This is a common ploy by creationists and is unacceptable for a political leader in a secular society that depends on science and technology.
Creationism usually comes with a choice of two flavours, YEC (young Earth creationism) or OEC (old Earth creationism).
The OECs accept the scientific age of the universe at about 13 billion years. The YECs count the "begats" in the Old Testament and come up with about 6,000 years. The difference is a factor of a bit over two million. Using the same ratio, the diameter of the Earth would be less than six metres. If it were made of rubber and filled with air, it would make a wonderful beach toy.
Tory should clarify whether YEC or OEC would be the official government version of creationism. They cannot both be true -- logically either one is false or both are false. If Tory allows both, he will be using public funds to teach children at least one doctrine that he knows must be false.
When people believe that Adam and Eve had a pet vegetarian Tyrannosaurus rex who used his massive, serrated teeth to crack open watermelons, should we respect their beliefs? (Don't laugh; this is roughly what some creationist cults actually believe).
Should we reward them with taxpayers' money to pass on these wonderful insights to the next generation? Should our future leaders learn to smother their critical thinking and make decisions based on faith rather than evidence and reason? From Canada, we don't have to look too far south to see how tragic these faith-based decisions can be.
Science and technology are the engines of our economy. If we indoctrinate our children with pseudo-science like creationism or intelligent design, or dumb down the curriculum to avoid "offending religious sensibilities,"we are robbing them of exciting careers and harming Canada's future scientific and economic power.
The science curriculum need to be strengthened, not gutted. It needs to inspire young children with the wonders of distant galaxies and nebulas, with the vastness of geological time, and with the incredible diversity of life on Earth and how evolution shaped it.
Teaching biology without mentioning evolution is like teaching astronomy without mentioning gravity. Yet, evolution seems to have become a dirty word in our science classes -- the "e-word."
In Alberta schools (K-12), it's only covered in a brief section in the optional Biology 20. If we want our children to have a good grounding in biology, we need to introduce the basics of evolution and natural selection in elementary grades and continue through high school.
Alberta Education officials say it's OK for religious schools to teach creationism as long as they also teach the Alberta curriculum. But, with evolution erased from the curriculum except in Biology 20, it means our provincial government accepts the "creationism-only" model for young children in publicly funded faith schools.
At a recent high school graduation I attended, several students praised their science teacher, who taught them to accept nothing without critically analyzing the evidence. It's a pity more of our political leaders did not have such teachers.
Scott Rowed lives in Banff and is currently heading up a study on science education and faith schools for the Society for Secular Humanists in Calgary.
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