Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Arguments against "Teaching the Controversy" in science education

Source: http://controversy.wearscience.com/
After Oklahoma, the parlament of the U.S. state Tennessee approved a similar bill that encourages science teachers to critically question subjects that the legislators deem controversial: Biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

In a remarkable display of twisted thinking, the legislators stated that the bills aims to protect teachers from being "punished" for covering the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories" (I find it hard to believe that teachers in bible belt states have to fear punishment for criticising the theory of evolution). Despite the authors' affirmation that the bills "shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine", they are quite obviously thinly veiled creationist agenda.

The goals of the bills sound noble: To "help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens." While "teaching the controversy" could indeed be used to improve science education, there are three (or more) arguments against implementing such a curriculum:
The Periodic Table of the Elements is also just a theory!
1) These bills imply that there is a controversy within the scientific community regarding evolution and climate change. Fact is that the majority of scientists accept the theory of evolution and climate change. Scientific argument does not concern IF these phenomena happen, but HOW exactly they happen (an important distinction) (See "Does anyone still doubt climate change?").

2) Time in science classroom is both limited and valuable. U.S. high school science teachers spend only an average of 13.7 hours on evolution (Berkman, et. al. (2008)). Building a deep understanding of complex scientific theories is hard cognitive work and takes time (even without spending time on non-scientific alternatives). Spending valuable time on alternative theories will take away valuable time that could be spend on helping students grasp accepted scientific theories. U.S. students are already lacking in scientific understanding (see PISA test results) and around 50% of U.S. citizens reject the theory of evolution (see survey results here).

Teach the Controversy
3) Given enough time (see argument 2) to discuss alternative ideas in-depth, "teaching the controversy" could be valuable to distinguish scientific from non-scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas. The history of science includes many theories that were succeeded by more powerful theories. For example:
Changes in scientific theories are not evidence for "all scientific knowledge is relative". It lies in the nature of scientific knowledge to ever improve theories to approximate observable natural phenomena ever better. However, acquiring a deep understanding of that many alternative theories for the sake of comparison is hardly feasible in the current school setting.

An integrated understanding of major scientific theories and the nature of science is important in a science-based democratic society to 1) make informed evidence-based decisions, 2) understand the complexity and inter-connectedness of the underlaying mechanisms behind natural phenomena (see Richard Dawkins' book "The magic of reality"), and 3) appreciate scientific theories as major human accomplishments (See more detailed discussion in essay "Why science education").


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