Fighting cargo cult science

March 13, 2009

Creationism is not taught at any major university, as science.  It’s difficult to find creationism taught in any curriculum, including theology schools, because it’s not a part of the theology of most Christian sects.  And yet, creationism continues to pose hurdles to good science education in almost every state (especially Texas).

The hard work of spreading creationism is long entrenched, and continuing, though largely out of the view of most observers of cultural and scientific trends.

For example, consider this blog by a guy who teaches creationism at Bryan College.  It’s been discovered by supporters of science education — but what can anybody do about it?  P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula noted the non-scientific contents of the stuff being taught.  That’s not really enough.

We need to more aggressively promote good science teaching in public schools.

Here’s one thing we might do, as I noted in the comments at Pharyngula.  We need to create institutions to aggressively promote good, powerful science teaching.  Here is what I wrote there, essentially.

Notice that this is Bryan College that Todd Wood preaches at, the college set up to honor William Jennings Bryan, the creationist prosecutor from the Scopes trial. This is part of the evidence that scientists and other lovers of science and good education slept too long on some of these issues (“While Science Slept” might be a good essay somewhere).

Remember Scopes lost his case, and was fined; the overturning on appeal was due to a technical error in the fine, not due to other obviously major flaws in the law (which was signed and promoted by Gov. Austin Peay, who also has a college named after him).  The law against teaching human evolution remained effective in Tennessee until after 1967, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Epperson v. Arkansas — which finally persuaded the Tennessee legislature to repeal the act.

Some people thought H. L. Mencken’s mocking judgment on the Scopes trial was final. Not creationists. While the rest of the world went on, fundamentalists developed a powerful, out-of-the-major-media network to spread and promote their ideas. Part of this network was the establishment of Bryan College, and to some degree, I think Austin Peay State University (though, as a state university with serious intentions on educating people, APSU is in the evolution camp in curricula).

Why is there no Clarence Darrow College? Why is there no John T. Scopes Institute for Teachers (say, at the University of Chicago, where Scopes went back for his advanced degree)?

Unless we get out there and fight in the trenches of education and religion and culture, evolution will continue to face silly opposition. Feynman warned us of the dangers of cargo cult science. (Honestly, though, Wood’s stuff looks like cargo cult cargo cultism, it’s so far removed from real science — doesn’t it?)

In the end it’s odd that a progressive-on-most-issues guy like Bryan would be memorialized by naming a college after him to preserve his most profound errors. It’s effective propaganda. I’d be willing to wager Bryan would have come around to evolution with the evidence stacked as it is now. His error was emotional and theological, I think. Education can prevent and correct such error.  Bryan College doesn’t do that in evolution — something else needs to be done to fight what Bryan College does.

The John T. Scopes Institute for Teachers could run in the summer months, it should have a thousand teachers of science from primary and secondary education in every session, and it should emphasize the best methods for teaching the best science we have. We really need such an agency — or agencies — now. Our children lose interest in science between fourth grade and graduation, their achievement in science plunges in comparison to other nations.

Our economy suffers as a result.

Creationists have Bryan College to help them spread their versions of cargo cult science, with that mission specifically in mind. We can fight fire with fire, but we have to fight ignorance with education. And, my friends in science education, we are behind.

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