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Friday, 12 September 2008

Once upon a time . . .

Once upon a time there was a little boy who believed in fairies and other mysterious folk who lived in woodland. Eventually, after a few years of life, he was disabused of this. No harm done. With a little instruction from his parents and education from his primary-school teachers, he could see that the existence of such creatures was highly unlikely.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who believed there were green men on Mars. Eventually, after a few years of life, she was disabused of this. It was highly unlikely there was life on Mars, she was told by her parents and teachers, let alone actual humanoids. The atmosphere and other conditions would not support life. No harm done. With a little education she could see that his initial belief was unfounded, even though the possible existence of water on the red planet has recently caused some excitement as to the possibility of life, but certainly not proof of mammalian life.

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who believed in six-day creationism. It was in his holy book, the one they made him read at home and in the place of worship. He was never disabused of this. He went to school still believing in six-day creationism. He reached the stage in his school life when more advanced science lessons were taught. Still he believed the world was created in six days. It said so, in the Bible, in the Koran. It must be true. Some of his fellows had other ideas: that perhaps the world was created over a longer period, but still by God. Either way, it was divine, ordered, intended, planned.

This was in spite of evidence all around the boy (evidence that was becoming more accessible as he learned the scienfitic method and how to detect and test the evidence) that life progressed through a long process of evolution and that, before this – billions of years before this – the universe came into being from, it is widely accepted, a Big Bang, and continued to expand, forming suns and planets grouped into galaxies.

He was at secondary school now. What happened during his primary-school years that he should still believe in creationism, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

We heard on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, and read in newspapers yesterday, and on the British Humanist Association's science blog , that Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the University of London and also a Church of England minister, thinks there's room for teaching creationism in science classes.

In some cases, he says, "depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works."

This is fine as far as it goes. But the British Humanist Association points out that some earlier reports had suggested "that he was asking for creationism to be taught alongside science as an 'alternative worldview' ".

While kids with these views shouldn't just be told they're a bunch of loons, it should be made clear to them that there is no evidence for creationism and plenty for evolution. We all recognise that science is a work in progress and will never answer everything, but, when overwhelming evidence is staring you in the face (and schools provide the means to investigate this evidence via the scientific method), there comes a time when a teacher has to say, "Look, this is what the evidence points to. Your theory is the only thing people had in times gone by, but not any more."

But one has to ask, "Why are pupils of twelve or thirteen – old enough, anyway, to be doing more advanced science than in their early education – still believing in creationism if they've just had six or seven years of education? Ah, well, the likelihood is that they went to a "faith" primary school, which would, even if not teaching creationism outright, have been accommodating it as that "alternative worldview". So their primary-school education has failed to prepare them for secondary education.

I suspect many teachers feel cowed into accommodating the wackier beliefs, but would they accommodate bizarre notions if those notions sprang from anything other than a religious mindset? "Look, sonny, I know you once believed that you could catch bird flu from a rubber duck, but . . ." Why should they feel they can't challenge silly beliefs if they don't stem from religion, but daren't do so if they do?

So let's talk about creationism in class. It's an itch waiting to be scratched. It's there. You can't avoid it. It's part of the "where did we come from?" question. But it should have been nipped in the bud in early schooling, like the existence of Santa Claus and fairies at the bottom of the garden and a moon made of green cheese and little green men on Mars.

It is a useful vehicle for exploring how early people probably formed models of the world and had to fill in the gaps. But let's not waste too much time on it in science lessons that should be spent exploring science and the scientific method.

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