Saturday, September 14, 2019

Common weak arguments for teaching evolution

By Mathew Goldstein



Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha and Craig Rezac, a faculty member with the Brainerd High School science department, a public school in Minnesota, recently gave an update on the biology curriculum taught to students. The President of the school district, Sue Kern, then questioned the validity and practical benefits of teaching the theory of evolution to students: Darwin’s theory was done in the mid-1800s and it’s never been proven,” Kern said. “So I’m wondering why we’re still teaching it.”

Craig Rezac replied: “The interesting thing about theories is that we have to find information to disprove it. There hasn’t been any information found to disprove the theory of evolution. As we learn more about DNA, it only solidified it. It’s based on observation. It’s based on fact.” Kern then asked “With regard to Christian students — how do you do that? They’re taught not to agree with that, so.”

“This is science and science deals with facts. It doesn’t deal with belief,” Rezac said. “It doesn’t have to be a dilemma or a concern for someone to choose between Christianity and evolution — that’s not what this is about. You can actually embrace both. It’s my duty as a teacher to teach science and not teach religion. That’s the separation of church and state.” 

I disagree with Ms. Kern. But I also partially disagree with Mr. Rezac. Americans United for Separation of Church and State agrees with Mr . Rezac precisely where I disagree, and there are other secularist and some science focused organizations that make similar arguments. I am concerned that this commonly expressed defense of the validity and benefits of teaching modern knowledge, as exemplified by Mr. Rezac, is substantially flawed and therefore weak.

There is no such thing as a no beliefs science. Conclusions about how the universe works, including the billions of years old evolution of life, are necessarily also beliefs that we humans hold. The assertion that “science doesn’t deal in beliefs” is dubious and therefore is a weak argument. Furthermore, this is not a harmless mistake because it is somewhat anti-intellectual, it disregards the importance of anchoring our beliefs in modern knowledge.

The second weakness is the argument that “you can embrace both” evolution and particular religious beliefs. Maybe, maybe not. This depends on whether or not there is a mutually exclusive conflict (in my view there is a pervasive, fundamental, conflict). It is inappropriate for public school educators to tell anyone else that any particular belief about how the universe functions that they hold is not Christian and/or is not mutually exclusive with a conclusion reached by biology. Sometimes there is a conflict and blaming those who fail to “embrace both” merely because there are others who do is circular, it is an unresponsive response.

A better response would start by acknowledging that there can be genuine conflicts between what is taught in public schools and the sincerely held beliefs of families in the community. Instead, focus on the role of public schools and epistemology. It is the role of public schools to pass on to children our current state of knowledge according to the consensus of professional academic experts unaltered and uncensored, regardless of whether or not any families disagree with any of the conclusions. These are the conclusions of the experts who rely on a measurable, best fit with the available evidence, track record of success, thus enabling a consensus to be reached. Public schools do not adjudicate between the various other beliefs regarding how the universe functions that were not derived from, or are not supported by, a worldwide consensus of experts.

So the question asked by Ms. Kerns, while understandable given that the board members are elected, is misdirected insofar as it requests that public schools accept the conclusions local families have adopted in addition to, or instead of, the (potentially conflicting) consensus conclusions of the experts. The beliefs of the local families should be irrelevant. Popularity contests are not a viable alternative method of obtaining or disseminating knowledge regarding how the universe function. We are unable to determine the percentage of human protein making genes that are also found in bananas (about 44%, see https://www.popsci.com/humans-genetically-linked-to-bananas/) by a popular vote. When a student answers zero percent because the Bible said humans were created apart from plants and animals and biologists are mistaken whenever they contradict the Bible then that wrong answer should lower their grade. That student may need to find a career outside of biology after graduating public school.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Political cost associated with atheism

By Mathew Goldstein

PsyPost is a psychology and neuroscience news website that reports on the latest “research that has been published in legitimate, peer-reviewed scientific journals”. A study, Godless by Association: Deficits in Trust Mediate Antiatheist Stigma-by-Association, Andrew S. Franks, Kyle C. Scherr, and Bryan Gibson was recently published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. The researchers found that associations with atheism were linked to decreased support for political candidates among religiously affiliated — but not unaffiliated — participants.

The researchers’ initial study of 101 undergraduates found that religiously affiliated participants viewed hypothetical candidates as less trustworthy when their photo appeared next to words related to atheism. A second study of 157 undergraduates found that religiously affiliated participants showed reduced support for an explicitly Christian candidate who espoused support for atheist rights. A third study of 144 undergraduates, which was conducted 4 weeks prior to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, found that religiously affiliated participants who perceived Barack Obama to be associated with atheism were less likely to support him.

One of the researchers, Andrew Franks, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University comments on the study as follows: “I do not want people to think that this is a reason to avoid being associated with marginalized groups, however,” he added. “Rather, I want people to recognize that bias against groups such as gays, atheists, and racial minorities is so powerful among a substantial portion of the population that it can extend to friends and supporters who are not members of such groups, and I would like that realization to increase the urgency of fighting against these detrimental biases.” I agree with Andrews Franks.