Saturday, June 18, 2005

What about "fairness"?

Let’s face it, many Americans make it through school – even college – with a limited understanding of science. Lack of knowledge about evolution gets passed on from one generation of students (and teachers) to another thanks to the nervousness of school districts and textbook publishers about riling the sensibilities of the community. Frankly, much of my own understanding of evolution comes from training I received in my role as an education volunteer at the zoo – followed by several years of reading to stay on top of the evolution/creationism controversy.

One of the key arguments made for including creationism or intelligent design in science classes is “fairness.” Let students hear all sides, they say. (Of course, we know that the religious right doesn’t really want people to hear ALL sides, but it sounds good to the audience they are trying to persuade.) On the surface, it does sound reasonable, but “all sides” do not have equal weight, something that people with a poor understanding of science may not get.

A couple of articles I ran across this week address the “fairness” argument.

In “Polling Opinion about Evolution: Low Information Public Underscores Importance of Communication Strategy” (3/1/2005), Matthew Nisbet analyzes the results of various polls.

"For much of the public, support for teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools stems from their religious orientations. For others, however, it likely resides in a lack of appreciation for the strong scientific consensus that supports evolutionary theory. For these individuals, this lack of understanding probably connects to a “fair minded” but misguided and low information sense of relativism: no specific belief, no matter how scientific, can be the complete answer. Based on this reasoning, teaching both evolution and creationism makes sense. This likely sizable segment of the public believes rightly that students should be exposed to multiple points of view, and be allowed to make up their own minds. However, where they are misguided and misinformed is in believing that either ID or creation science passes the standards of epistemological rigor that merit inclusion in science textbooks and teaching standards."

In a June 17 opinion piece, (“Heaven help us if religion pokes its nose in science class”) Seattle Times columnist Lance Dickie notes the importance of honoring differing points of view

"We live in a country that thrives on a mix of religious viewpoints, with favor toward none. That is a value worth protecting. The alternative yields Iraq, the Middle East, India, Northern Ireland and the Balkans, to name a few places where religious tensions fueled profound human suffering. U.S. history is not exempt."
Dickie goes on to point out the telling difference between science and religion:

"The bugaboo, of course, is evolution, which is derided as a theory. Has anyone ever claimed otherwise? As with all theories, it stands ready to be poked, prodded and disproved. Always. That is the nature of science.

"Advocates for particular religious interpretations strain to dress up their challenges and defenses in scientific language, but fundamentally, they could never admit to being wrong. To acknowledge defeat or doubt would be to deny their beliefs. That is the nature of religion."

Science must always be challenged. Faith must never be challenged.


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