Categories
science

Teach Evolution, Not Creationism

The British Humanist Association is behind a new campaign called “Teach Evolution, Not Creationism“.

Of course any reasonable person is going to support the campaign. No-one wants creationism taught to children as fact in science lessons. But there are a couple of subtleties that should probably be explained in detail.

Firstly, I’ve seen this as described as an attack on faith schools. Whilst I’m sure that the BHA is no fan of faith schools, it’s important to note that this current campaign has nothing to say at all on this subject. The evolution vs creationism debate is a completely separate one. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of faith schools in the UK are run by religions that don’t subscribe to creationism and won’t be teaching this nonsense to schools. Creationists are good at making their movement seem more important than it is, but most British christians are Catholics or Anglicans and neither of these churches subscribe to these ideas.

This campaign says nothing about the status as faith schools. It just says that creationism should not be presented as scientific fact in state-funded schools.

Secondly, people say that creationism should be taught at school as long as it isn’t presented as fact. And I agree with that completely. I’m very happy for creationism to be discussed in religious studies classes or even as part of a course in the history of ideas. There’s even an argument for covering it in science courses where it could serve as a case study of applying the scientific method to a problem and examining the evidence to come up with the best theory. I don’t want schools to produce children who have never who heard of creationism. I want them to produce children who know about creationism and who know enough about evolution to be able to counter the obvious nonsense that the creationists come up with (“There are no transitional fossils.” “What about this almost complete sequence demonstrating the evolution of the whale?”)

Finally, a friend pointed out that he doesn’t want facts taught in science lessons. He wants science lessons to teach “how science works”. By which he means critical thinking and the scientific method. And I can’t argue with that. That’s exactly what I’d like to see too. My experience of the school science curriculum is over thirty years out of date, but I’d hope that it isn’t just “here’s a fact learn it”. It wasn’t like that when I was at school.

Please read the campaign’s position statement and the progress that has been made so far.

And if you’re in a petition-signing mood, please sign their petition.

Categories
film

Creation

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a new film about Charles Darwin has failed to find a distribution deal in the US. The article suggests that this is because Darwin’s work is still a rather contentious subject in the US. They quote the christian film review site MovieGuide describing Darwin as “a racist, a bigot and 1800’s naturalist whose legacy is mass murder” (although they don’t point out that the quotation is taken from a book review and was not written in reference to this film).

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers has a slightly different theory. He says that the US’s antipathy to evolution is only part of the story and suggests:

One reason it probably isn’t getting picked up is that it isn’t a blockbuster story — it’s a small film with a personal story. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, but it’s not a Michael Bay noisemaker with car chases and explosions, or giant robots, or a remake of a 1970s cheesy TV show. That makes it a tougher sell.

Whilst I usually agree with PZ, I think he’s wrong here. It’s obvious that the film isn’t a blockbuster and I agree that the blockbusters are what the US (and, indeed, much of the rest of the world) audiences want to see. But films still win distribution deals if they’re not blockbusters. And I think that this film would have found a deal had it not been for the subject matter. Oh, and the title. I haven’t mentioned the title yet. And I think the title is a direct attempt by the film-makers to grab some publicity by annoying the American creationist movement.

The film is called Creation.

I mean, come on. Nothing could have been more calculated to garner publicity in the US. It’s not even an appropriate title for a film about Darwin. Darwin’s ideas say nothing at all about creation, they only cover the creation of new species of life. Darwin had nothing to say about how life originally came into existence.

There’s a common creationist misunderstanding about evolution. When they talk about “Darwinism” (as they like to call it) they are usually covering a far larger area of knowledge than the one that Darwin wrote about. Because they see Darwin’s work as an opposing theory creationism, they assume that it must cover the same ground as their nonsense. They therefore assume that “Darwinism” tries to explain the creation of the universe, the creation of the solar system, the creation of the Earth, the beginnings of life on Earth and the diversity of life found on Earth. And, of course, it doesn’t.

Obviously people who agree with Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection will tend to also hold non-biblical views on the rest of the subjects in my list, Darwin’s work only ever covered the last item on  the list. So to say that something you’re calling “Darwinism” addresses all of these subjects is nonsense. So to call a film about Darwin’s life and work “Creation” is equally nonsensical.

I don’t know if Darwin ever did any research into the earlier items on my list. I’ve certainly never read anything by him where he discusses the origin of either the universe or the Earth. But creationists like to bundle all of these topics together so that “Darwinism” can be seen as being in direct opposition to their fairy stories.

This new film sounds very interesting to me. It looks at how Darwin realised that his work explained the existence of so many different species on Earth without the need for divine intervention. It also examines how that knowledge effected his relationship with his deeply religious wife. I think that if more people in the US saw this film then it would help people to see that Darwin was a just a man doing his best to explain the natural world rather than the antichrist that creationist groups like to portray him as.

So it’s a shame that more people in the US won’t see this film. As I said before, I feel sure that the film-makers deliberately chose the title to court controversy. There’s no other explanation – the title makes no sense. It seems that their scheme has backfired on them. They might have gained some more publicity for the film (although notice that the original story I linked to was from Australia), but appears that very few people in the US will get the chance to see their film.

Categories
education

Creationist Idiocy in the UK

To “celebrate” the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, Theos (the religious think-tank) commissioned a survey into the public perceptions of Darwin’s theories. The results were published yesterday and do not make comforting reading.

It seems that about half of the UK don’t accept Darwin’s findings and only about a quarter of us say that evolution is definitely true. One in ten people believed in nonsense similar to that spouted by young Earth creationists.

Of course, science isn’t a democracy. Even if half of the population demand that creationism or “intelligent design” should be considered a science, that doesn’t suddenly make it a science. But the worrying thing here is the number or people who don’t seem to understand evolution or natural selection and who haven’t seen (or who have chosen to ignore) the overwhelming amount of evidence in favour of evolution.

And the blame for that has to be laid firmly at the feet of the people who bend over backwards to give religious beliefs a level of respect that they don’t deserve. For far too long, ridiculous religious beliefs have thrived in an environment where it is seen as rude to question them. It’s astonishing that children can emerge from the education system at sixteen without knowing about evolution and without being given the intellectual tools that they could use to see through the nonsense that their family and religious community are constantly telling them.

Picture it this way. Imagine how you would feel if there was a group who wanted schools to teach “alternative maths”. A group campaigning that pupils should be told that it was okay to believe that two plus two is five. It makes no sense at all, of course. And that’s about how sensible it is to allow children to believe that evolution isn’t true.

It’s a hundred and fifty years since Darwin published his ideas. And in that time pretty much every advance in biology has been predicted by evolution or has helped to prove and strengthen Darwin’s theory. No sane scientist doubts that Darwin’s theories were correct. And if scientists agree that the theory is correct then the fact that it contradicts some old legends really shouldn’t matter in the slightest.

These poll results should be a big red flag to the people running Britain’s schools. Twenty years ago it looked like creationism was effectively dead in the UK. Now it’s growing again, and if it isn’t quashed soon we’ll end up with cases like the US where religious nutters take schools to court for the right to infect children with their poison. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that stage.

Categories
science

Michael Reiss: Creationist


Following last weeks entry about the media and MMR I have another post brewing which goes into more detail about the central message of Ben Goldacre’s excellent book. That central message is that you usually can’t trust science and health stories in the press because they are usually written by people who don’t understand the story that they are writing. Most journalists seem to have only the shakiest of understanding of anything other than the most basic of scientific principles.

Another good example is the case of Michael Reiss. He gave a largely sensible speech saying that science teachers should be more willing and better prepared to discuss (and counter) creationism in the classroom. In journalists’ heads this became “Royal Society Bigwig Supports Teaching Creationism” and before you know it, he’s been hounded out of his job.

I thought that the Reiss story had run its course, but journalists were determined to have one last attempt to prove exactly how little they understood. And I’m embarassed to admit that it comes from the Observer – a paper I’d like to credit with higher than average intelligence.

The picture about comes from the web site version of this article by Sir Harry Kroto, the Nobel prizewinner. The article itself is eminently sensible. It talks about how there really is a huge philosophical difference between religion and science and how people of a religious nature must, by definition, believe things on faith alone which would, on the surface, seem to make it difficult for them to flourish in a scientifc career.

But the most brilliant piece of journalism is in the standfirst – that little piece of text underneath the title which is intended to draw the reader into the article. As you’ll see from the image above (which I’ve taken because I fully expect it to change when someone realises how stupid they look), it says:

Creationists such as the Rev Reiss don’t have the intellectual integrity to teach science

“Creationists such as the Rev Reiss”! Michael Reiss may have many faults. He may not have been the best choice as the Royal Society’s Director of Education. He may believe a few crazy things (he’s an ordained minister – that’s part of the job). But he is not a creationist.

He was campaigning for science teachers to be given better training in order to counter creationist claims in the classroom. And now, three weeks later, a national newspaper is calling him a creationist.

I hope the person who wrote that standfirst is suitably embarrassed.

Update: In the discussion on this article, the nonsensical standfirst has been mentioned. Some people have tried to defend it by pointing out that, as a theist, Reiss must believe that god created the universe even if he followed scientific processes rather than the fairy stories in Genesis. And that therefore, at some level, it’s reasonable to describe him as a creationist.

I say that if you’re allowed to redefine common words like that, then there’s no point at all in holding a conversation.

Categories
religion

Michael Reiss Steps Down

Michael Reiss has stepped down from his post as director of education at the Royal Society. This follows the controversy over his remarks about creationism in science lessons last week. I think he’s right to go as having an ordained minister in such an important role in the Royal Society is pretty silly. I agree completely with Richard Dawkins, who described it as “a Monty Python sketch“.

I’m slightly worried, however, that some of Reiss’s real message has been lost in the furore over what he said. Nowhere did he actually call for creationism to be taught in science classes – and that’s what many of his critics seem to be claiming. What he actually said was that teachers should be ready to discuss creationism when students bring it up in the classroom. He goes a bit wobbly here, saying that creationism should be seen “not as a misconception but as a world view”. This is obviously nonsense. A science teacher should be willing and able to show up creationism as the nonsense that it is whenever it is mentioned in the classroom.

And here’s where the current situation is letting children down. As in so many other areas of life, religion is given too much respect. Teachers are wary of discussing it as it is seen as disrepectful to question the children’s beliefs. Well, of course it’s disrespectful. But creationism doesn’t deserve any respect. Creationism is nonsense. Letting these ridiculous ideas go unquestioned is ultimately more harmful to society than confronting them and showing children exactly why they are nonsense.

To paraphrase a comment I saw on Comment is Free last week[1] – “intelligent, honest, creationist; pick any two”.

[1] And can’t now find, or I’d credit the author.

Categories
media

The Press on Dawkins

Richard Dawkins‘ new documentary series, The Genius of Charles Darwin, begins on Channel 4 this evening. He has therefore been doing a round of publicity interviews and the results have been appearing in the press over the weekend. It’s interesting to see how different papers treat it.

The Times ran a pretty straight article about Dawkins and his work (actually they ran another piece a couple of weeks ago).

The Guardian gave the article to Charlie Brooker. Brooker has no time for religion in any form so his piece is as funny and unapologetic as you would hope.

The Mirror’s piece is quite strange. The writer takes the approach that actually, the evidence for evolution isn’t quite as strong as Dawkins claims and that an intelligent person wouldn’t take a firm position in the discussion. The Mirror writer is, it would appear, a fool.

But the strangest approach comes from the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both of these papers have found a way to spin the story so that it backs up their xenophobic agenda. They do this by picking up on a remark from Dawkins where he says that many muslims have creationist beliefs and that it is therefore muslim families who are largely responsible for the increase of creationism that we are seeing in the UK. Now, no-one will deny that there are a large number of creationist muslims. Or that their children are being indoctrinated into believing that evolution by natural selection is “just a theory”. But I strongly suspect that this is rather missing the point of the documentary which, from what I understand having not seen it yet, is to explain the power of Darwin’s theory.

But if we’re going to get into the discussion of who is behind the current growth in creationism, it looks to me like the Mail and the Telegraph are ignoring some convenient facts. There are also a growing number of christians who are telling their children that evolution is unproven and Genesis is literally true. Of course that doesn’t sit well with the papers’ agenda. They want to promote the idea that it’s the evil foreigners who are destroying our society. Their argument is as weak as it ever is, but it seems that an argument doesn’t need to be particularly logically coherent in order to convince the readers of either paper.

Oh, and I don’t recommend reading the comments on either of those stories. Discussions of creationism and evolution always seem to attract the hard of understanding and it seems that the Mail and Telegraph readership has more than its fair share of people like that.

Categories
religion

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed

Here in the UK we don’t have many problems with creationists. We  have to be vigilant because it looks like they might be on the increase, but currently we mainly just point and laugh at them. It’s therefore hard sometimes to understand how much of a problem creationism is over in the US.

Unless you keep a close eye on our transatlantic cousins you might not have heard of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed – a forthcoming film which claims that a number of educators and scientists are being persecuted for their belief in “Intelligent Design” (the modern rebranding of creationism). The film first came to my notice last year when Richard Dawkins mentioned that he had been interviewed for the film under false pretences. Amongst the other people tricked into appearing in the film was PZ Myers, the Minnesota biology professor who is well-known for his blog Pharyngula.

Dawkins is currently in the US on a speaking tour. As part of the tour, he was in Minnesota on Thursday where he was due to speak at the American Atheists Conference. That evening he met up with his colleague and friend Myers. Also in Minnesota that evening was a screening of Expelled. This was one of a number of pre-release screenings of the film which have been held all over the country in order to build awareness of the film. Myers had reserved seats in the screening for himself, his family, Dawkins and some people who work on Richard Dawkins’ web site. He did this by registering on a web site. He didn’t use a false name or in any way try to disguise that he would be attending the screening.

Whilst the party was waiting in the queue, a security guard approached Myers and told him that couldn’t attend the screening and would have to leave – apparently missing the fact that Richard Dawkins was standing right next to him in the queue. Myers went off to the local Apple Store (where he posted this blog entry) and Dawkins watched the film with the rest of Myers’ family. In the Q&A session following the film Dawkins asked the film’s director why he asked for Myers to be removed and the director just lied in reply.

This is a brilliant own goal by the creationists. They seem to be as inept at public relations as they are at science (and also, if reports are to be believed, at filmmaking).

Myers published another, more detailed, account later and the story has also made the NY Times. The account on the Expelled web site seems extremely unlikely to anyone who knows anything about either Myers or Dawkins.

Finally, here’s a film of Dawkins and Myers discussing the incident.

Update: Here’s Richard Dawkins on both the incident and the film.

Categories
religion

Creation Museum Photos

It seems that the new Creation Museum Is even more ridiculous than I expected. Have a look at this set of photos. And read the information signs. And try not to laugh too much.

Categories
politics

Early Day Motion on Creationism in UK Schools

Following on from yesterday’s piece about “Truth” In Science trying to get their crackpot creationist theories taught in British schools, I see that MP Graham Stringer has tabled an Early Day Motion on this issue. You might consider popping over to WriteToThem and asking your MP to sign this EDM.

Categories
science

Rise of Creationism in UK Schools

From the front page of today’s Guardian:

Dozens of schools are using creationist teaching materials condemned by the government as “not appropriate to support the science curriculum”, the Guardian has learned.

The packs promote the creationist alternative to Darwinian evolution called intelligent design and the group behind them said 59 schools are using the information as “a useful classroom resource”.

The group behind this are called Truth in Science – which must be a joke as they seem determined to lie about science whenever possible. It’s also worrying that that they are a completely different group to the one that has been lobbying MPs recently.

The story goes on to say:

A teacher at one of the schools said it intended to use the DVDs to present intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinism. Nick Cowan, head of chemistry at Bluecoat school, in Liverpool, said: “Just because it takes a negative look at Darwinism doesn’t mean it is not science. I think to critique Darwinism is quite appropriate.”

This man is head of chemistry. A post that is traditionally held by a scientist.

Now let’s be clear on this (as I’ve been misunderstood when writing about this before). I’m all for pupils being taught the history of belief and comparative religion. But the only way that creationism (or “intelligent design”) should be covered in a science lesson is to illustrate how far our understanding of the world has increased in a relatively short time.

And, yes, I’m all in favour of questioning Darwin’s theories. That’s how science works. Theories are tested and questioned. But any questions need to come from scientific research, not from idiots who are upset because science disagrees with their favourite fairy story.

It’s not all bad news though. The government has said that this material should not be used in the classrrom.

The government has made it clear the Truth in Science materials should not be used in science lessons. In a response to the Labour MP Graham Stringer on November 1, Jim Knight, a minister in the Department for Education and Skills, wrote: “Neither intelligent design nor creationism are recognised scientific theories and they are not included in the science curriculum.”

So, I wonder what will happen to the teachers who have used it already? In my opinion people who teach this nonsense to children should be banned from teaching. But I’ll be very surprised if that happens.

Update: The same story on the BBC.