This was first posted back in October, 2005. I have also addressed this issue in my post, “Intelligent Design” (and my apologies for the links in that post that don’t work; I hope to have them up and working this week).
The following is a copy of a letter that I sent to the Kansas Board of Education as they were debating the inclusion of “intelligent design” into the state wide science curriculum.
In addition to being a Lay Speaker in the United Methodist Church, I also hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. While I don’t know if I am truly qualified to speak on the subject this background should allow me to speak on this topic. And I speak on this because I do know that I would not be comfortable in any setting where one area of my life dictates how the other area of my life will be run.
You may also want to look at my post for July 9th (“Isn’t This the 21st Century?”) in which I published the first sermon I gave on this topic.
An open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education:
First, as a way of introduction, I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education from the University of Iowa. I have taught chemistry courses at the high school and college level for over twenty-five years. I have also taught science education courses. So I believe I have the credentials in the area of science and curriculum for the debate presently taking place.
Additionally, for the past ten years I have been an active lay minister in the United Methodist Church. I consider myself evangelical in name, word, and deed (though not in the sense that it is used in today’s society). Thus, I believe that I have the appropriate credentials for this debate.
If we are to debate/discuss the theory of evolution, or any theory for that matter, we must first understand that a theory is not a fact or a collection of facts. It is the best explanation of a set of facts gathered in some empirical manner.
The problem today is that many teachers teach theories as if they were facts rather than explanations. In doing this, they corrupt the process of science and develop many misunderstandings. The genesis (and excuse me for using this word but it is highly appropriate to the debate) occurred some forty years ago. The science curriculums developed in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s launching of the first Sputnik were experimentally based. They were designed to show how theories were developed by having the students actually do experiments. But over time, with the cost for laboratory experiments rising, such experimentally based lessons were cut back and ultimately phased out. Thus, instead of being able to help students develop an understanding of theory development in all branches of science, teachers simply presented theories as facts and without experimental basis. Theories became facts.
This argument has been made before but if we are to present competing theories for evolution, as is the current debate, then we might as well include the theory of phlogiston in chemistry and the nature of the “ether” that light must travel in physics. Both of these theories were prevalent several centuries ago but have been replaced by the development of experimental evidence that provided a better theory.
The key point here is that older theories were replaced (after much discussion and debate) because the physical evidence provided suggested a better theory. You can have competing theories but they must be based on the same evidence and there cannot be claims of outside agencies or forces. Nor can there be any disagreement about how the evidence is gathered (some proponents for the intelligent design theory make improper claims about the accuracy of dating the age of fossils).
Nor can a theory be introduced simply because it fits within one’s belief system. To do so would be reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s when genetics were taught on the basis of Marxist-Lenin philosophy rather than on the empirical evidence first suggested by Gregor Mendel. And we are reminded that the Catholic Church took over three hundred years to acknowledge that its punishment of Galileo may have been incorrect. But three hundred years ago, those who held to the heliocentric system were punished by the church. The discussion today has all the hallmarks of a similar persecution.
Instead of a debate over what theories to teach, school boards should focus and worry more about funding schools so that science can be taught as science and not as an advance reading course. Instead of worrying about what is taught, school boards should also worry about whether teachers hired have the ability to teach science and present the materials so that students understand what science is and what science is not.
School is about critical thinking and developing critical thinking. If we introduce a theory that limits one’s ability to think, and that is what the introduction of this proposed alternative theory would do, then we are defeating the purpose of school.
We are told in Genesis that we were created in God’s image, so we must be thinking creatures. In thinking, we seek new ideas. Now, before anyone gets a burr under their saddle and complains that I cannot use one passage of Genesis without using all the passages let me add this.
The story of creation is not unique to our culture or heritage; it is common to all cultures and heritages. This suggests to me that there is a God. Genesis acknowledges God’s presence in our lives and attempts to describe God’s work in terms that early mankind could understand.
Science is not about replacing God; science is about helping people develop an understanding of the world around them. It is likely that instead of taking people away from God (the fear of may proponents of intelligent design), the development of thinking through science teaching will lead people to God. For us to conclude that science will drive people away from God is to misjudge our Creator and ourselves.
It seems to me that those who oppose the teaching of the theory of evolution and would propose new theories fear the unknown. They fear change and do not want their children exposed to dangerous new thoughts. They fear that their children will go to school and come back questioning their beliefs; but if they, as parents, are teaching their children, their beliefs are sound and will withstand the questioning that exposure to other ideas brings.
School is a time for exploration. Students should leave asking questions about the world around them and they should know how to find the answers. Perhaps, as they do this, they will find the truth. But if we seek to stifle their thinking, then all we will do is insure their enslavement.
Our role in this process, as parents, educators, and citizens, is to set our children free, not limit them.