Thursday, April 02, 2009

Critical Thinking in the Classroom *
I recently got acquainted with a young instructor who teaches science to seventh-graders at an evangelical school. He's a graduate of Wheaton College and a recent convert to Catholicism. This affords him an interesting perspective on how evangelicals handle science in the classroom, in particular how the whole 'teach the controversy' approach trumpeted by Bible science types plays out in practice.

The text the school in question ordered for this young teacher's class is Exploring Creation with General Science. The author, Jay L. Wile, is a young earth Biblical literalist with a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry. In terms of suggested experiments for kids, my teacher friend tells me that generally the book has a lot to recommend it: great ideas for simple experiments and so forth, and apparently it's a favorite with homeschoolers. So far, so good.

But...inevitably the age of the earth has to be discussed. That is,
catastrophism: the view of literalists that the earth is only a few thousand years old and much of what geologists have uncovered suggesting otherwise can be explained as the result of a series of cataclysmic events that happened over a very short time, to fit with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Modern geologists take a uniformitarian view of the earth, and see the layer upon layer of different strata in the Earth's mantle as evidence of the planet's changes being gradual over billions of years.

According to my teacher friend, "Wile pushes catastrophism while 'teaching the controversy.'" He writes, "I talked to the principal about my annoyance with the whole thing and he, being the cool guy that he is, is fine with my particular take on it (Old Earth/Evolution), but still thinks the controversy ought to be taught.

"So I've been doing research on uniformitarianism [and] catastrophism and realizing that the idea of putting these two theories in front of seventh graders and,
A. expecting them to understand what is going on, much less B. make a real judgment between them, is just beyond absurd.

"Until seventh graders have a grounding of basic knowledge about standard geology, there's no point in asking them to determine anything based on classroom presentations of 'evidence' culled from one simplistic textbook and a teacher who knows little about geology."

[I'm trying to imagine a similar seventh grade class where the textbook gives an overview of
A. The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and B. Bohm's Non-local Hidden Variable Model --and expect seventh graders to be able to 'weigh the evidence' and make a judgment about it. Only Earth Science and evolution seem to bother literalists. But I digress.]

My correspondent adds, "As soon as I start looking at the various arguments, I realize that creation science, flood geology, Intelligent Design - all of that - makes
no real attempt to engage with mainstream science. But, if they're doing science at all, they need to be able to beat the scientists at their own game or there's no point. So in other words, they're not really arguing with scientists. They're arguing with other Christians and using 'science' to bolster their argument: that the Bible requires a particular theology and hermeneutic. Which just means that Christians on the other side, if we want this debate to not be completely won by the loudmouths, have to come up with a compelling hermeneutic and theology."

Not surprisingly, the problem makes his approach to class challenging.

"We're making a timeline of the ages of the earth in class. I've been looking for a comparable catastrophist timeline explaining the same evidence (as uniformitarianism) and ... not finding it."

There are no shortage of Biblical videos to view for the kids as well. "The worst," he writes, "is watching ... and realizing that the guy could be arguing that 'Hitler was bad' and the non-sequiturs and equivocations would make you begin to question his case.

"The biggest issue here is how Wile sets up his science book - and, by the way, his attitude strikes me as completely ingenuous the entire time - so as to make it seem like he is presenting a fair case to be judged on the evidence."

For example, Wile does a unit in which he attempts to establish, scientifically, the material historical integrity of part of the Bible.

"[He] assumes that that same integrity applies to all the different books and literature in the Bible," writes the instructor, "and thus treats Genesis 1-11 as a legitimate historical source with evidence to be weighed in the balance together with radiometric dating, stratigraphy, index fossils, contintental drift, etc. Then he presents uniformitarianism and catastrophism, followed by a list of potential 'problems' with either side.

"At the end of which he concludes,
'both uniformitarianism and catastrophism have difficulties. Regardless of which view you take, you will run into what seem to be unsolvable problems' (Wile 209, emphasis author's)."

"If I didn't tend to trust these people since I grew up among them and know their basic sincerity, I would swear they were being actively disingenuous."

Not surprisingly, evolution is considered a weakness of the uniformitarian view:
"So, which is it? Is there independent evidence for the process of evolution or not? Well, the short answer to this question is 'no.' You will learn more about evolution when you take biology. For right now, however, let's look at what should be the main line of data that relates to evolution." (Wile p. 210, emphasis author's).

I did a little googling on the texbook author, Jay Wile, and it seems, like so many proponents of Biblical literalism, he peddles bad faith arguments against evolution. This, for example, comes from a sample lecture promo.

In this seminar, Dr. Jay L. Wile, a nuclear chemist, explores the complicated Creation Versus Evolution debate. He discusses Christian attempts to make the Genesis account compatible with the theory of evolution and shows how these attempts fail. The conclusion is that a literal interpretation of Genesis is completely incompatible with the theory of evolution. He then proceeds to show that this is not at all a problem for someone who is both a Christian and a scientist. He presents strong scientific evidence that supports a literal interpretation of Genesis and equally strong scientific evidence that discounts the theory of evolution. He discusses evolutionists' attempts to explain away this data and how such attempts fail. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this seminar comes when Dr. Wile details some of the fantastic life forms on this planet whose existence can never be explained using the theory of evolution. Regardless of how science-oriented you are, this seminar will strengthen your faith and give you an even deeper appreciation for the marvelous Creation that God has given us.

Those evil evolutionists... again. What's funny is this lecture is immediately preceded by one dedicated to 'Critical thinking'.

One of the biggest failures of our public and private school systems is that they do not teach students how to think critically. In this seminar, Dr. Wile gives you specific suggestions as to how you can teach your child to think critically, regardless of the subject matter that the student is learning. You will learn how to help your student evaluate statements, look for hidden assumptions, find political/social agendas, and discover faulty logic. Although Dr. Wile's area of interest is science, he will show you how critical thinking applies to all academic areas, as well as all facets of your life.

This narrow, defensive approach to science may seem fine at the grade school level and even high school level for home schoolers. But what happens when the kids who show a real aptitude for science and interest in pursuing a career... get to college-- and they have to confront not just professors with working labs but fellow students-- and the weak foundations of their Bible 'science' simply don't stand up to scrutiny? How many of these kids will then turn on their faith and consider it all a pack of lies (as Einstein did and others) because their particular branch of Christianity has a deeply faulty attitude to the natural order?

* updated to reflect a couple of corrections.

6 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

How many of these kids will then turn on their faith and consider it all a pack of lies ... because their particular branch of Christianity has a deeply faulty attitude to the natural order?

In the Gospel we do not read that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Holy Spirit so that He might teach you all about the course of the sun and the moon.’ The Lord wanted to make Christians, not astronomers. You learn at school all the useful things you need to know about nature.”
-- Augustine of Hippo, Contra Faustum manichaeum

For if he takes up rashly a meaning which the author whom he is reading did not intend, he often falls in with other statements which he cannot harmonize with this meaning. And if he admits that these statements are true and certain, then it follows that the meaning he had put upon the former passage cannot be the true one: and so it comes to pass, one can hardly tell how, that, out of love for his own opinion, he begins to feel more angry with Scripture than he is with himself. And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him. "For we walk by faith, not by sight." Now faith will totter if the authority of Scripture begin to shake. And then, if faith totter, love itself will grow cold.
-- Augustine of Hippo, On Christian doctrine, ch. 37

Brandon said...

The popularity of the whole "Teach the Controversy" approach has always puzzled me. That's exactly what shouldn't be taught, for precisely the reason you note: the reasons and evidences involved are actually quite sophisticated. And in a sense it's quite clever: if you have a simplistic position to oppose to a more sophisticated position, what's the best way to do it? Make sure that the simplistic position meets the sophisticated position on territory where things can only be handled in a very simple way.

Incidentally, though, it seems to me that this flawed approach to education has been a long time developing, and it's just that it took a long time for the natural sciences to begin to succomb. Philosophy and theology went this way a very long time ago, to the detriment of us all as our education in such matters began to be simplified and watered down and attenuated with elaborate attempts to treat all positions as being on the same level; and that's something of a chilling precedent, because if geology and biology follow the way of theology and ethics, in the next step, as people grow more and more tired of the dispute and less and less able to judge it, people will stop teaching it on the ground that there's no way for schools to decide what's right in these cases and it's all a matter of opinion anyway.

John Farrell said...

...because if geology and biology follow the way of theology and ethics, in the next step, as people grow more and more tired of the dispute and less and less able to judge it, people will stop teaching it on the ground that there's no way for schools to decide what's right in these cases and it's all a matter of opinion anyway.

That's an excellent point. And one all too sadly on display now in the contemptuous impatience with which so many 'new' atheists regard philosophy (let alone theology).

Deuce said...

Hey John, this is a bit off-topic, but I was curious to see what you think of this:

http://www.templeton.org/darwin200/

I found it, and Brooks' accompanying NYT article, separately through Mark Shea (doesn't like it) and John Derbyshire (likes it) immediately before coming to your blog just now, and so had it on my mind.

As I see it, this sort of thing is the flipside of, and largely the motivation for, the sort of thing that Jay Wile is doing.

It's true that he's taking a narrow and defensive approach to science, and that he screens out inconvenient data in an intellectually dishonest manner. It's also true that this creates the risk that students will later reject their faith as all a "pack of lies" when they come to realize this.

But, consider another possibility: A kid is brought up in a Christian environment that teaches him that there is no incompatibility between evolution and his faith, that science is wonderful and he can trust it and should accommodate it, etc.

Then, he comes across something like this Templeton Darwin200 symposium on morality. What is he supposed to make of it?

Should he reject it as unscientific? Why? The arguments and evidence these folks are using are seemingly similar to arguments and evidence used elsewhere in evolutionary theory. What in-principle reason is there for him to reject it as such?

Furthermore, this whole thing is being advanced by big-name scientists in the name of science. Unlike a guy like Behe, these guys are mainstream, and don't have a chorus of voices screaming that they don't represent the consensus and aren't really scientists. If it's not proper science, there's no indication of this from the scientific community itself.

In addition, this thing is being run by the Templeton Foundation, which is supposedly dedicated to trying to harmonize science and religion. And the featured scientists are not, like the New Atheists, overtly hostile to Christianity and Christian morality. No, they sound like they simply want to approach the moral sense from a scientific point of view, and even seem to say some nice things about it. What could be wrong with that?

And yet, if the kid accepts the implicit thrust of their arguments, which is that morality is an evolved instinct that doesn't actually reflect a transcendent moral law that we can reason about objectively, he will have accepted a premise that is incompatible with the reality of sin and redemption, and he will have thereby lost his faith, perhaps without even realizing it at first. And, whether they intended it or not, his spiritual mentors will have set him on the path that led him there, and be at least partly responsible for the loss of a soul.

This is, I believe, a very serious threat, and one I've been mulling over more than usual recently after reading this depressing account (HT: What's Wrong With The World) of the spiritual wreckage psychotherapy wreaked on eager, "science-friendly" Catholic orders in 1960s California.

Which is worse, that souls might turn against the faith because their fundamentalist teachers tried to shield them, and misrepresented the evidence in the process, or that they might be led away from the faith by unknowingly complicit, useful-idiot teachers?

Frankly, I think it's the latter. In any event, it's far more subversive, and leaves the person unguarded, not even realizing that they are being corrupted until it's too late. A person who makes a clean break has a greater chance of coming back later, in my opinion.

I'm also fairly certain that a justified fear of this possibility is what motivates guys like Wile to bend the truth. I think that those who counsel a greater acceptance of science among Christians would do a lot better in their efforts if they were seen to show equal concern for the corrosive effects of swallowing whole everything that is sold as science, even by the mainstream, and were to speak out as clearly about things like this Templeton symposium (which is a direct, though obscured, attack on the faith) as they do against various fringe creationist absurdities (which just make the faith look silly).

It also seems to me that those Christian leaders who promote a greater acceptance of science (and *particularly* of evolution) on the part of other Christians thereby take on a greater responsibility than others to see to it that Christians are not led into apostasy because of them. And yet, many of these people seem to me to be either woefully underprepared or even outright cavalier about it (For instance, look at this report on a Kenneth Miller speech, and particularly the part where he's asked about evolutionary accounts of morality).

I guess my point is, simply, that this stuff needs to be fought, and not just by creationists and IDers. It also needs to be fought by - especially by - those who take a more scientific outlook and who are thus in a better position to fight it. I suspect that anyone who does this will be tarred as a "creationist" just as relentlessly as most IDers are, but it needs to be done. Our society is in a deteriorating condition, and it's more important than ever.

Bonus: It would largely remove the impetus for guys like Jay Wile.

John Farrell said...

And yet, if the kid accepts the implicit thrust of their arguments, which is that morality is an evolved instinct that doesn't actually reflect a transcendent moral law that we can reason about objectively, he will have accepted a premise that is incompatible with the reality of sin and redemption, and he will have thereby lost his faith, perhaps without even realizing it at first.

I guess where you lose me here, Deuce, is your presupposition that if much of morality is an evolved instinct, it therefore cannot also reflect a transcendent moral law. How do you establish that?

If Christians tell their children something that can be objectively falsified (the earth was made in 6 days) it is far worse than being challenged by something that may seem to undercut theology. And require further reflection.

John Farrell said...

It should come as no surprise, btw, that the new atheists are not impressed by Brooks' column. But Brandon is all over it as well.