Science and Creationism: A Self-Directed Learning Experiment

What should scientists do when the majority of parents and children are in the thrall of a wrong idea? That was the problem Copernicus had with the church when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. Copernicus was wary and withheld the publication of his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, until just before his death in 1543. Many people had to suffer abuse, torture and incarceration before the heliocentric view became acceptable. The treatment of Galileo is the best known example.

The problem scientists face today is with the story of creation in Genesis, which fails as a literal description of the origin and history of the universe. The best practice today is for scientists to humbly tell parents and children the truth and let them take it from there, dealing with the information as they wish. Hopefully they will check out the facts and circumstances for themselves. Truth, even when obvious, can’t be imposed. That’s why it occasionally falls to children to point out to adults the emperor’s missing clothes. Understanding—the ability to stand under one’s beliefs using evidence and clear reasoning—is still the genuine way to form personal beliefs, accurate or otherwise. If a person doesn’t know why a belief is false, it will do no good to force a truth claim on him. Telling truth in a clear and civil way is enough. In other words, offer yourself as a teacher in a spirit of mutual learning. If that fails, enjoy the day until a more propitious day comes.

This issue came to public attention recently when “the science guy,” Bill Nye, made his You Tube statement about “creationism.” Take a look at it and see what you think. Despite the fact that his statement provoked a death threat, in the form of a “tweet,” which was unfortunate as well as undeserved, I was impressed by the civil and respectful tone of his statement, very much within the attitude of an honest educator providing useful public information. I thought to myself: He’s done it right. He’s not attacking a religion, rejecting God, insulting anyone, or seeking to start a fight. The creation myth in Genesis, while beautiful in a literary sense, and a core story in the cultural storehouse of folklore and myth, is nevertheless untrue as a statement of physical history. Banishing the theory of evolution in its favor in curriculum and textbooks, as Kansas, Texas, and other states have tried to do, can only retard the ability to do science, build knowledge, and develop products and technology. Policy makers and the public, parents particularly, should want to know that. Nye told them in a nice way. He treated his readers and auditors as adults.

I find his attitude particularly welcome in a national political climate where citizens are expected to choose between liberal and conservative identities, frame every issue in dualistic terms, shoot clever zingers at the other side, and put down and debase the opponent quickly and mercilessly, as if the future of the country and the world depended upon speedy verbal tricks and sensational rhetoric. This is nonsense, of course, yet the putdown has become, at least temporarily, the preferred form of encounter on topics of public concern. Fear and a perceived dearth of time have come to prevail over deliberate, thoughtful conversation. Nye’s tone suggests an alternative, a return to clear, direct communication to a respected public.

What Nye does, in effect, is invite us to participate in a scientific experiment of our own design: choose a scientific project and carry it out to your own satisfactory conclusion. For example, take on the problem of determining the age of the earth, or the circumstances leading to the emergence of the dragonfly. Read all you can of the works of scientists who have studied your subject. Nye predicts you or I or anyone else who undertakes these or a like project will repeatedly and routinely find need for the theory of evolution in the work, while we will not require recourse to the Biblical theory of creation. This will be the result regardless of one’s religious commitments and beliefs. If this is the result, then the theory of evolution is needed in science, and creationism is an unfortunate distraction.

I hope readers take Nye up on his implicit invitation to read a bit of science. I recall fondly the image of a farmer—I think in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio—who becomes irate after hearing from his schoolboy son that invisible germs surround and invade us, the teacher had said so. So off the farmer goes to school the next morning to confront the boy’s teacher. The teacher invites him to look at samples through the microscope. Wow! What is that? Germs. Really! Yes, germs exist, they really do; the farmer has seen them with his own eyes. He understands.

Evolution is indispensable to science and creationism fails as a description of physical reality. Discover that for yourself and you will voluntarily wish to unburden children of this belief as it applies to the history of the physical world. Your personal religious faith need not be forsaken in the process. Folklore carries truth too. Perhaps you will find it meaningful to help your child think about the creation myth as rich folklore, instead of as cold, literal fact. Science and public policy, and perhaps the spiritual life, will be the better for it.

Will Callender, Jr.

September 3, 2012©

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