Sunday, 21 September 2008

View From the Pulpit - forgive us PZ

From the uncompromising atheist PZ Myers;

Michael Reiss's big mistake

Should creationism be taught in the classroom? It depends on what you mean by "taught".

For instance, I recently lectured our freshman biology majors on the age of the earth. I first made up a list of facts and concepts that I wanted them to take away from the class: there were plain dry facts, like that the earth is 4½ billion years old, the Cambrian was about 500 million years ago, the Permian extinction was about 250 million years ago, etc. — the bony outline of a geological history of the earth that every biologist should know. Then there were the major events in the history of the geological sciences: names like Smith and Hutton and Lyell, the debates over uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism, the geologic column, and the practical motivation behind 19th century geological research. Then there are the general concepts students ought to know: how radiometric dating works, how the age of a fossil is determined, and what the fossil record actually shows.

Notice that I do not teach creationism — nowhere in the list of ideas that I think are important to get across will you find a 6000-year-old-earth, flood geology, polonium halos, vapor canopies, or other such nonsense. If you asked me if I teachcreationism, I'd honestly and unambiguously say no, because it isn't part of the message they're supposed to go home with. But if you listened to the actual lecture, you'd discover that I do teach about creationism, that I mention that scientists believed that the earth was much younger in the 19th century, that this idea had a religious premise, and that greater understanding of the earth led to increasing awareness of its great age. That's the context. It's also useful because I'm trying to get them to do more than memorize a collection of dates and names of eras and periods, I'm trying to show them the process scientists used to figure out the age of the earth. I'm also happy to answer any questions that students may bring up, which often involve creationist misconceptions. So, sure, some creationist ideas flutter up periodically, to be shot down as erroneous, and used as examples to show how creationism has been refuted.

But I don't teach creationism. There's a difference between instructional content and goals, and pedagogical strategy. There is to be no sympathy given to bad ideas.

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