L’editorial de Nature d’aquesta setmana tracta del debat evolució/creació.
Informa: Mercè Piqueras
Nature 455, 431-432 (25 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455431b; Published
online 24 September 2008
Better to confront superstition with science than to disregard the superstitious.
The headlines were damning. “Leading scientist urges teaching of creationism in schools,” proclaimed Britain’s The Times newspaper on 12 September, echoing the headlines appearing that day in numerous other British media. The stories asserted that Michael Reiss, a biologist and educational researcher, an ordained Anglican minister and (at the time) the education director of the Royal Society, had explicitly advocated that state-school biology classes teach creationism.
The reports were wrong. Speaking at the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual Festival of Science on 11 September, Reiss had articulated — as he had many times before — a view consistent with the Royal Society’s official position: when students from a creationist background raise the issue in class, the teacher should explain why creationism is not science and why evolution is.
Nevertheless, on 16 September the society announced Reiss’s departure, arguing that the media’s misinterpretation had “led to damage to the society’s reputation” (see page 441).
Nature was not privy to the conversations between the reporters and editors responsible for this story, so we will leave it to them to consider how such a gross misrepresentation could have happened, and what lessons to draw from it. Nor was Nature privy to the Royal Society’s internal deliberations about Reiss, so we will leave it to the officers and fellows of that body to reflect on who has done the most to damage its reputation.
The misreporting surrounding Reiss has provided a propaganda gift to creationists everywhere. So in the face of such confusion, it is encouraging to hear the unequivocal stance of one of the US presidential candidates, Barack Obama, on the issue (see page 448 and ‘America’s fresh start’): creationism and intelligent design should not be included in a science curriculum. But scientists and science teachers must also grapple with the central challenge that Reiss was addressing: how to respond to students who have been steeped in, or confused by, scientifically nonsensical creationist beliefs when they ask about those beliefs in science classes?
Those who argue that allowing discussion of creationism in a science class gives it legitimacy, and that students who ask about it should be firmly directed to take their questions elsewhere, are misguided.
Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, and a long-time advocate for the teaching of evolution, points out that in the real world, any such shut-up-and-take-it-elsewhere response from the teacher will inevitably be perceived by the student (and his or her classmates) as a humiliating personal put-down. It will obstruct rather than encourage enquiry and understanding. It will also invite complaints from outraged parents.
What is more, it will squander what experienced educators like to call ‘a teachable moment’. All too often, that moment is the one opportunity that a school has to engage resistant students and introduce them to what science has to say.
At such a moment, a much more effective approach is for the teacher to follow the route Reiss advocated: deal with the question without ridicule, but make it clear that in science, theories must be testable to be valid. ‘You ask if Earth is 6,000 years old, and why the descendents of Adam and Eve have no relation to the lower animals? So how can we test those hypotheses, and what does the evidence say?’
This is a difficult and minefield-laden path for teachers to follow. For an example of just how delicate, see a 23 August report in the New York Times of how a teacher in Florida tackled such challenges (see http://tinyurl.com/48374f). In particular, it requires that the teachers have a confident knowledge and understanding of evolution, so that they can seize on those teachable moments competently. The sad news, according to surveys, is that too few biology teachers have such an understanding: evolution is not always taught well at the universities and colleges where teachers learn their biology. And that’s in the developed world; in poor and developing countries, teachers often receive no training in evolution at all.
Biology graduates who have not encountered up-to-date evidence of evolution in action — in fossils, in microbes, in genomes — have been ill-served by their training. Higher education in general, and biology departments in particular, are at the front line of the battle between creation and evolution too.