November 2010

Parrying the Attacks of Creationist Culture Warriors

What Is Our Objective?

EvolutionIf our objective is to convince the general public that evolution is “right” and creation science is “wrong,” we have set a nearly impossible task. Having grown up in a city with two major league baseball teams, I can tell you that, despite years of vigorous debate, I have yet to see a Cubs fan convinced to become a White Sox fan, and vice versa. Point out that the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, whereas the Cubs have known nothing but frustration since 1908. So what? Point out that Wrigley Field is a thing of beauty, a landmark whose history and ambiance far outshine the modern sterility of U.S. Cellular Field. So what? It is difficult to change long-held beliefs through logical debate. The more we press the issue, the more likely we are to slip into the kind of dogmatic language that alienates rather than illuminates.

So what should our goals be? To get students, friends, parents and teachers excited about science. To do so, we must show people that science is, at its core, a fundamentally human endeavor; that the scientific method was devised by people trying to satisfy our universal craving to know and understand. We need to illuminate for them the impact that science has on their daily lives. We must show how they use scientific methods and principles every day. And, we must demonstrate our respect for their choice of belief system. Not only must we cease denigrating Genesis, we must be careful to dispel the notion that we seek to silence their views altogether.

I expect few people to respond by either recanting their faith or rejecting the biblical story of creation. However, I do expect that people possessed of a basic appreciation and understanding of science will understand why, to be included in the biology curriculum, intelligent design must first be subject to scientific investigation. Note that I did not say that they would understand why intelligent design does not belong in the science text or classroom, because it is the nature of the evidence and not the nature of the subject that qualifies something as being scientific.

If You Can’t Beat Them…

How often have you muttered, “How can we get our students interested in science?” or “How can we get them to understand the scientific method and its application?” One tried-and-true way to stir up interest is via controversy, and here is one ready-made. Imagine, for a moment, if the faculty members in a science department somewhere decided to take up the fundamentalists’ call to “teach the controversy.”

Imagine a series of classes and discussions leading students on a journey to where early man confronted his desire to make sense out of the world in which he lived, classes that would integrate the physical and natural sciences with history, philosophy, religion and sociology. When asked to imagine how primitive man might first began to apply the tools of science, perhaps students would describe keeping records of time to keep track of and predict the seasons and phases of the moon. Done in a dispassionate manner, away from television cameras and bombastic pundits, imagine what a rich learning experience this could be. Perhaps someday…

Peter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is a professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He also is chairman of the ASBMB Education and Professional Development Committee.

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