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20 April 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The creation of a phantom enemy
It is the scientific establishment's own self-doubt that lies at the root of the furore over creationism.

by David Perks

It seems that a new spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of creationism. During the past week Britain's National Union of Teachers (NUT) put forward a motion at its national conference to end state funding of religious schools. Meanwhile, the arrival of John Mackay, an Australian creationist, on British shores prompted a full-page article in the Guardian (1).

Despite the current furore, the real problem is not the strength of creationism but the defensiveness of the science establishment. This is well illustrated by the recent Royal Society statement on the issue.

The Royal Society has condemned the rise of creationism in our schools and universities. As Professor David Read, vice president, put it: 'We felt that it would be timely to publish a clear statement on evolution, creationism and intelligent design.' (2) But why throw down the gauntlet now? The intelligent design lobby in the USA seems to have shot its bolt, and with the Christian car dealer Sir Peter Vardy funding only three schools in Britain, the statement seems a bit melodramatic. It is as if science wants to pick a fight with a supernatural spectre that isn't really there.

Creationism has appeared on the agenda in British schools only because science is concerned to show that it is prepared to listen to other points of view (3). To claim that creationism is on the rise in Britain is to miss the point. Science is on the wane.

The most recent hue and cry over creationism being taught in British schools was down to an obscure one-word inclusion as an aside in a new GCSE syllabus by the OCR examination board. The board was caught unawares by the attacks it received. It had no intention of introducing religion into school science; it was trying to follow the new agenda for science teaching by opening up a discussion about competing ideas in and around science. But this is the real source of the problem. By questioning the validity of the scientific method, the new approach to science education opens up a can of worms. Instead of teaching young people to think about the nature of scientific truth, young people are being encouraged to be sceptical about science and knowledge itself.

This is no surprise. Scientific institutions such as the Royal Society are battered from all sides as they try to defend themselves. Government has almost completely lost its bottle when it comes to arguing for science. This has left the scientific community exposed and nervous. In response, it has invested heavily in a strategy of listening to the public's concerns about science. The result is that those very concerns come to dominate debate. So the Royal Society's statement on teaching evolution in schools becomes a confusing self-examination rather than an assertion of Darwin's theory of natural selection. As the Royal Society website puts it, 'Science is about disbelief. It accepts that all knowledge is provisional and that any theory might be disproved' (4). Stressing scientific uncertainty seems to have little hope of inspiring confidence in science.

Scientific advance is now more likely to be portrayed as the road to Armageddon
By trying to sound less dogmatic than the creationists it derides, the Royal Society is just admitting that it is doubt and not science that is really at issue. Asserting any set of beliefs, whether the theory of gravity, the existence of the 'Big Bang' or the existence of God, is seen as the problem. By adopting a muted form of cultural relativism, the scientific establishment seeks to coexist with other points of view. It is apparently only when one claim on the truth is asserted over another that things get out of hand. As the Royal Society puts it, 'young people are poorly served by deliberate attempts to withhold, distort or misrepresent scientific knowledge and understanding in order to promote particular religious beliefs' (5).

But surely if any religious creed is to have validity it has to assert its authority over science? It is the audacity of the creationists who have dared to challenge scientific authority directly that has most offended the scientific establishment. But whether it is young earth creationists or the followers of the intelligent design movement, we have nothing to fear from different views on evolution, the Big Bang or any other aspect of science. There is a choice between science and religion. People have to make that choice for themselves - young people don't need over-anxious scientists to protect them from irrational views.

The scientific establishment seems far too preoccupied with fighting non-existent foes, rather than putting its case for the future potential of science. New scientific advance is now more likely to be portrayed as the road to Armageddon rather than a panacea for society. The foreboding with which genetic engineering is viewed by both left and right is a clear example of this new pessimism. Francis Fukuyama, in our Our Posthuman Future (5), likens the threat of human genetic engineering to a disaster on the scale of fascism. In Liberation Biology, Ronald Bailey notes: 'we find ourselves in the remarkable position of having many of our leading intellectuals and policymakers arguing that their fellow citizens should be denied access to technologies they know will enable them and their families to live healthier, saner and longer lives.' (6)

This is where the real battles lie. Instead of talking down to the public, scientific institutions would do much better to talk up their own beliefs and argue for a positive vision of the future. It is the scientific establishment's irrational fear of the public that most concerns me.

David Perks has taught science for 20 years and is currently head of physics in a large comprehensive school in Tooting, South London.

(1) Star of creationist circuit flies in hoping to stir the faithful in small towns of Britain, Guardian, 18 April 2006

(2) Royal Society statement on evolution, creationism and intelligent design, Royal Society, 11 April 2006

(3) Intelligent design and educational stupidity by David Perks

(4) Why Creationism is wrong and Evolution is right - Prof Steve Jones, Royal Society

(5) Royal Society statement on evolution, creationism and intelligent design, Royal Society, 11 April 2006

(6) Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Francis Fukuyama, 2002

(7) Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, 2005

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