Saturday, 13 September 2008

Creeping Creationism

In some ways last week was a triumphant one for science. The physicists succeeded in drumming up extraordinary journalistic (and thus public) interest in an ultimately quite boring event, the turning on of the Large Hadron Collider. When the experiments at CERN actually begin early next year, there may well be great discoveries to be had (and we're all rooting for Peter Higgs and his elusive boson). Last week, though, the coverage could offer little other than awe, not at the cosmos, but at the power and complexity of the machine. Peering into the deep structure of the universe, recreating the earliest origins of space and time: this is what human ingenuity has come to in the first decade of the 21st century.

At the same time, we had more evidence of the strange, almost inexplicable re-emergence of creationism. Whatever Sarah Palin's personal views, her disinterred quote about "teaching the debate" (between evolution and creation) reminded us that there were millions of Americans who apparently think that the world was made in six days. And in Britain, home of Charles Darwin (and Richard Dawkins), a senior figure in the Royal Society won headlines for suggesting that creationist nonsense might have a place in school science lessons.

Professor Michael Reiss didn't quite say that creationism deserves a place in the curriculum. Rather, he told the British Association Festival of Science that it might be discussed if it came up in class - which is more or less what Sarah Palin said in 2006. He stressed that creationism is not science. Yet he also maintained that the creationist views of some schoolchildren deserved to be "respected". This is almost as worrying as a call for teaching creationism would have been.

"There is no controversy from a scientific point of view here," he told the gathering. Indeed, there is not. Evolution and natural selection are as well established as any theory can be. They are the very foundations on which the modern science of biology rests. To pretend otherwise is to engage in deception. There is nevertheless a problem, thinks Reiss, because "an increasing percentage of children in the UK come from families that do not accept the scientific version of the history of the universe and the evolution of species". I don't know if that's actually true. Reiss's claim that 10% of the British population, six million people, believe in creationism, is indeed alarming. But even if that is the case, there are even larger numbers who believe in UFOs, ghosts and paranormal phenomena. These subjects are not discussed in school science lessons because they are simply not relevant. Nor is creationism.

"The question is therefore," asks Reiss, "what are we to do with those children." He suggests that creationism should be respected because it is not so much a "simple scientific misconception" as a "world view", a "non scientific way of seeing the world". He spoke of the "depth of sincerity with which people believe the creation narrative from the scriptures". But the truth of a theory has nothing to do with the sincerity with which it is believed. Nor is it decided by majority vote. The proper response to the student who says "I don't believe it" isn't to waste time arguing the toss; it's to point out that science is science (and not philosophy or religion or literature). The student doesn't actually have to "believe" in evolution - though a good teacher will be able to demonstrate its truth - merely to know what the theory says.

On the Guardian's science blog, Reiss lays bare the alarmingly compromised (he might say "nuanced") thought processes that underlie his statements about creationism. He begins by repeating his assertion that a tenth of the population believe that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and "came into existence as described in the early parts of the Bible or the Qur'an"; he contrasts this with the "overwhelming majority" of scientists who "believe" that the universe is billions of years old. Two contrasting belief systems, then: one might almost imagine that they have a similar status. They don't. Believers believe. Scientists actually know things.

There follows an utterly bizarre observation: "Just because something lacks scientific support doesn't seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson." You might just as well say "the fact that Atlantis does not exist is not sufficient reason to omit it from a geography lesson". Why not teach astrology alongside astronomy, in that case? Many millions of people believe in that. Reiss's answer is that religious belief is more tenacious than belief in astrology (because of the greater "depth of sincerity"). Not so. Even a belief in Bigfoot or the extraterrestrial origin of crop circles can be proof against all reasoned argument. No, the problem for Reiss and others who think like him lies not in the psychology of the believer, but rather the social status of religion and its increasingly prominent role in the new secular ideology of "diversity". Many who are happy to acknowledge, for themselves, that creationism is contrary to the most basic principles of science nevertheless feel the need to treat it with a degree of caution because it is a religious belief.

Reiss, who is education director at the Royal Society, is also an Anglican priest, which presumably makes him sympathetic towards religious explanations of the universe. He is also, of course, a scientist. More importantly than either, though, he is an educationalist. He had a twenty year career in teaching and is now a professor at the Institute of Education. Most worryingly, he played a prominent role in the development of a new GCSE science curriculum. One that puts more emphasis on teaching children about the social importance of science - to the detriment, perhaps, of actually teaching them science.

Amid widespread accusations of dumbing down - Baroness Mary Warnock dismissed the new course as "fit for the pub" - Reiss defended the revised curriculum as a "significant shift" towards creating a "scientifically literate" population. The danger, however, is that it turns science into sociology, or philosophy. Instead of studying chemicals, subatomic particles, animals and plants, the human body and so on, children are supposed to learn about "science", how scientists relate to society, how scientific discoveries relate to technology. Which is all very interesting, but not actually science.

This is where creationism gets a look-in. For if it has no place in biology, it can have a place in a discussion about biology. A couple of years ago, Reiss gave an interview to Zoe Corbyn of the Guardian in which he made precisely this point. "I think all the new GCSE science courses open up the possibilities for discussions about socio-scientific issues, including creationism". So already he was redefining creationism away from being what it actually is, unscientific nonsense, to being a "socio-scientific" issue.

It was revealed in the same interview that Reiss had co-written a book on the problems of teaching science to children from "creationist" homes. "I am really interested in how you teach in a way that is true to science, but doesn't put many capable, sensitive young people off science for life, nor denigrate them." He added, "I love having intelligent 15-year-olds who will cheerfully argue their corner". Well, indeed, philosophical debate is fun. But if Reiss is correct in his assertion that creationism is growing in Britain today, then indulging or "respecting it" by giving it the oxygen of debate will hardly make it go away. And this pernicious, fact-denying, wilfully ignorant weed in the garden of knowledge needs to be rooted out: of the churches, of the mosques, certainly of the classrooms.

Reiss is right that creationism constitutes an entire world view. Genetics and Darwinian natural selection together provide an explanatory structure without which modern biology would simply cease to make sense. And "young earth" creationism - which is what Reiss seems to be talking about - doesn't merely deny biology but geology, astronomy and much of theoretical physics as well. There is really no place to begin, still less to win, an argument with the religiously extreme refuseniks who subscribe to it. Better to just ignore them.

Or, perhaps, try turning the tables. Creationists claim to believe the Bible when it comes to the age of the earth, yet are quite happy to ignore it when it comes to the earth's shape. Yet the Bible is crystal clear on the subject. The earth is flat, heaven is a dome-shaped canopy, and the universe consists almost entirely of water.

According to the book of Genesis (1:6),

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.

The Hebrew word translated as "firmament", Raki'a, literally means a sheet of beaten metal. The dome of heaven is, then quite clearly solid. Before God came up with that clever device, there was just water. "Darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters". The text goes on to distinguish the waters "above the firmament" from the "waters below". The latter, when "gathered together", became the sea: but the dry land sat, or more likely floated, on this immense cosmic ocean: that was where rivers came from, and the wellsprings (rather as modern science explains the magma from the earth's deep structure flowing upwards in volcanic eruptions). It would seem that the primeval waters are kept in bay by a system of plugholes: later on, when God decides to send the Flood, "all the fountains of the great deep were broken up."

At the same time, the "windows of heaven were opened". Those were the portholes on the dome of heaven that held back the waters "above the firmament". That there was an immense body of water above the heavens was obvious because the sky is blue.

The earth is not only flat, it would appear to be square: Isaiah speaks of the "four corners of the earth". Several Old Testament books use the phrase "the ends of the earth": a spherical earth cannot have ends. Psalm 104 (which seems to have been written, or at least inspired, by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten) contains a wealth of information about the early picture of the earth. God "stretcheth out the heavens like a curtain" and "laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be moved for ever" (that verse got Galileo into trouble). Returning to Genesis, we discover that God "made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night". No clue here that the moon is a rocky sphere that shines only be reflecting the light of the sun. In the book of Joshua, we learn that God made the sun stand still in the day so that the Israelites could win a battle. It must have been awfully dark in Australia.

Strangely, we don't hear demands for flat-earthism to be taught alongside round-earthism in the classroom, or for the views of flat-earth believing students to be listened to with respect. Why do fundamentalists find it so easy to ignore the plain words of the Bible in this respect, but are so determined to defend it against findings of geology and evolution? How has creationism become for a minority of Christians (and increasingly Muslims as well) a defining characteristic of their belief? That's a question for students of the psychology and sociology of religion. But it has no place in science lessons.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is always good stuff 'Big H' but can you cut the circumlocution?
My eyes can only take a limited amount of screen time. Pithy that's wahat I want.

valdemar said...

People are uncomfortable with evolution in a way they are not with, say, heliocentrism. It strikes closer to home. But remember that creationism/ID is part of a 'Wedge Strategy' - at least among US Christian fundies and presumably their UK fellow travellers. They attack Darwin because it's undoubtedly the weak point in the Enlightnment world view. If they win i.e. get creationism into the classroom on an official basis, then I daresay geology, astronomy and so on will be next. There is, by definition, no logical boundary to irrational thought.

valdemar said...

Post in haste...

I mean 'They attack evolution'. It looks insane to write 'they attack physics', at this moment. I hope it always will.

therealalekid said...

There was an episode of QI several months back and one of the subjects was on the 'flat earth myth'. According to Fry and the programme throughout history not many people believed in a flat earth. For the pretty rational reason that poeple could see the moon and pretty much guess that the earth was flat itself.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth_mythology

heresiarch said...

It depends when you start "history". The evolution of belief in a round earth was very closely tied to the development of abstract thought. Before about the 1st millennium BC most people did think the earth was flat. The major creation myths presuppose it. The Egyptians pictured the sky as the body of the goddess Nut, and the earth as the god Geb, or alternatively the sky was a cow, or a kind of canopy: the basic shape, though, was the one that appears in Genesis. The early Greek philosophers argued about it: some thought the earth was a flat disc, inlcuding Anaximander (6th cent BC). Aristotle assumed it was a sphere, and Christianity followed him in that as in much else. Eratosthenes proved it around 200BC.

But by that stage Genesis, with its flat earth, was already ancient.

valdemar said...

Oddly enough, I've read about this in a late Victorian book entitled Pioneers of Evolution, by one Edward Clodd - no, I'm not making this up. He writes that Anaximander had evolutionary ideas, asserting that 'Man' was originally a fish-like being, and that life originated naturally from non-living matter. No gods necessary, they just complicate things. Sensible chap.

WeepingCross said...

It seems to be worryingly common now for media voices (on Radio 4, at least, I pay attention to nothing else now, and am wavering in my devotion to that to be honest) to expect Christians to be creationists, or at least to have some sort of intellectual sympathy with them. The colossal majority of us are not, and are baffled by their insistence on maintaining the literal truth of what the consensus of the Church has commonly understood as allegorical. To find that the secular media, in its ignorance, is accepting their account of who we are is absolutely enfuriating.

therealalekid said...

Thanks for the background history The Heresiarch, I was just commenting on what I had watched and I think that the 'myth' that they were trying to debunk was that flat earthism continued to the middle ages.

lost causes said...

The only debate about creationism worth having in the classroom would be a Dawkins style drubbing of the entire argument. The issues go right to the heart of critical thinking and the scientific method, and to set pupils right on this matter would be doing them a massive favour. For example, why not point out to creationists that their hypocrisy in reaping the benefits of science, while denying it's truth. However, as this would offend the increasingly litigious religious communities, this kind of approach would be frowned upon, so it is probably best to leave the debate for the post-modern mire of Personal, Social and Religious education.