A.C. Grayling: Teach the Controversy

Philosopher A.C. Grayling explains why “Teaching the Controversy” isn’t a good approach to science education, whether it’s regarding Evolution, Astronomy or Medicine.

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34 COMMENTS

  1. I can see why Christianity went largely unquestioned for so many centuries; apart, that is, from the brand competition. The existence of Yahweh can almost be inferred from the spectacle of an awe-inspiring piece of architecture like a medieval cathedral such as Salisbury.

    It takes an effort to realize the actual inspiring reality:- that feeble humans achieved all that enduring magnificence, unaided by any mystic super-being.

    As for the controversy, I say why not teach it? Take a little time to tell it how it is, and students will go out into the world fully armed with the truth about id creationism, astrology, necromancy, alchemy, and a general understanding of how such superstition came about in the absence of rigorous scientific principles

    • To “teach known stuff as fact” can, in itself, be a sort of religious upbringing. True science does not lay any claim to absolute knowledge (fact), but only theory (probability). It is prudent to always remind the student that theories are constantly changing as new information is uncovered. It could well be, as it has happened on numerous occasions, that one theory may be augmented or replaced by one yet to be presented. This is the only scientific “fact” I feel ought be taught.

      • David Dec 19, 2014 at 11:40 am

        To “teach known stuff as fact” can, in itself, be a sort of religious upbringing. True science does not lay any claim to absolute knowledge (fact),

        Actually science does teach objective measurements and observed phenomena as the facts they are.

        http://pseudoastro.wordpress.com/2008/12/21/terminology-what-scientists-mean-by-fact-hypothesis-theory-and-law/
        “Fact” in Science: It may surprise you to know that a “fact” is generally used the same way – it is an observation – but it is very specific. For example, if I drop a ball while holding it in the air above a surface, it is a fact that it will fall to the surface. This term is usually not used, however — we resort to “observations.” For example, I observe that when the wind blows, a flag will flutter.

        but only theory (probability). It is prudent to always remind the student that theories are constantly changing as new information is uncovered.

        It would be misleading students to suggest that well evidenced scientific theories are likely to be radically changed, rather than slightly modified or limited to specific circumstances.

        “Theory” in Science: A theory is really one of the pinnacles of science – what nearly everyone strives to make out of their hypotheses. A hypothesis is elevated to a theory when it has withstood all attempts to falsify it. Experiment after experiment has shown it sufficient to explain all observations that it encompasses. In other words, a “theory” has never been shown to be false, despite – usually – hundreds if not thousands of separate attempts to break it. It explains the observations with one or more mechanisms and, because it provides that mechanism, it is considered to be above the level of a Law. Examples these days are the Theory of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, the Germ Theory of Disease, and yes, the Theory of Evolution. (see link.)

        A lot of confusion arises from the misuse of the vernacular meanings of these terms when a specific scientific meaning is required.

        It could well be, as it has happened on numerous occasions, that one theory may be augmented or replaced by one yet to be presented. This is the only scientific “fact” I feel ought be taught.

        Read the link I have provided, and it will make your understanding of the separate definitions clearer.

        • For example, I observe that when the wind blows, a flag will flutter.

          Except for when it does not flutter when the wind blows. As it did a few days ago when we had rain followed by freezing cold. (there is an exception to every rule <-except that one)

          There are only two theorems in science, those that have been disproved and those that have not yet been disproved.

          • olavisjo Feb 6, 2015 at 6:54 am

            There are only two theorems in science, those that have been disproved and those that have not yet been disproved.

            There is a sub-set of: those that have not yet been disproved. and that is those which will never be disproved.
            It is at present unclear where exactly the boundary of the 2 sub-sets lie.

            Of course they would never have made the status of scientific theories (or theorems) in the first place, if they were not supported by consistent observations and solid evidence making their accuracy probable.

      • To “teach known stuff as fact” can, in itself, be a sort of religious upbringing.

        Most science educators teach known stuff as facts. The speed of light in a vacuum (c) is a universal physical constant that can be measured. The earth orbits the sun. Are they not facts? It would be silly to teach students that there is no such thing as a fact. But it would be useful for a religious apologist to try to drag the scientific method down just a little way towards the uselessness of faith.

        It is prudent to always remind the student that theories are constantly changing as new information is uncovered.

        You are mixing facts and theories. Scientific hypotheses graduate to scientific theories when they have been repeatedly tested and confirmed to explain facts about the natural world. Einstein’s theory of special relativity is more accurate than Newton’s laws of motion when speeds are very high relative to c. Comparing this process to religious “knowledge” is also silly. The Christian church’s hypothesis that all creatures were created as they are now by God several thousand years ago looks extremely unlikely to to even graduate to a scientific hypothesis let alone a theory. Which is probably why the church seems to have moved on to theistic evolution – they accept that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming (such that it is called the fact of evolution by many) but they hypothesise that it was (and is) guided by God. Theistic evolution will also not graduate to a scientific hypothesis any time soon.

        • Marktony Dec 19, 2014 at 1:45 pm

          Most science educators teach known stuff as facts. The speed of light in a vacuum (c) is a universal physical constant that can be measured. The earth orbits the sun. Are they not facts? It would be silly to teach students that there is no such thing as a fact.

          When teaching the basics to beginners, it is better to be approximately right, than precisely incomprehensible!

        • The speed of light in a vacuum (c) is a universal physical constant that can be measured.

          The speed of light is a constant because we define the meter to be the speed of light times 1 second divided by 299792458. So the speed of light will necessarily be constant but the length of the meter may vary. No proof has yet been presented to demonstrate that the meter will never change length.

      • David.
        To “teach known stuff as fact” can, in itself, be a sort of religious upbringing. True science does not lay any claim to absolute knowledge (fact), but only theory (probability). It is prudent to always remind the student that theories are constantly changing as new information is uncovered. It could well be, as it has happened on numerous occasions, that one theory may be augmented or replaced by one yet to be presented. This is the only scientific “fact” I feel ought be taught.

        It think AC Grayling covered that point more than adequately by asking where you should stop when following this line. Does one teach astrology along with astronomy? It could go on ad infinitum if every possible ideology and fanciful notion were to be accommodated.

        The understanding that there are no hard and fast absolutes in science is a fair objective and should be emphasised but I really like the way Grayling has covered all possible objections to teaching the controversy .

      • Alternatively one could teach that:

        “Religion came via cultural myths. Knowledge comes via scientific enquiry.”

        The difference is the method one arrives at a conclusion. Teaching them together as alternate theories confuses this fundamental difference, and makes it seem both are on a level playing field and deserve equal qualitative weight as a way of achieving ‘enlightenment’.

  2. I am afraid that the pendulum has swung completely against you Phil with this short clip and this. I think it relevant to post here instead of the ‘Teaching Religion to children’ thread. All my thoughts and worries put succinctly and very persuasively with no chance (never say never?) of the pendulum coming back.

        • Olgun Dec 19, 2014 at 4:16 pm

          What do you mean uh? :-) the conversation we had about teaching religion in schools in another thread.

          I think you have misunderstood Phil’s comments.

          He was talking about teaching ABOUT the comparative beliefs and history of religions, not inserting mysticism, YEC fantasies, and ID, into the teaching of science.

          The video makes it clear, that science does not become “controversial”, just because some assertive ignoramus says so. Young Earthists, Flat Earthists, and geocentrists are simply ignored or summarily dismissed in science, as they have nothing of merit to contribute to an already crowded curriculum.

          • No, I understood that Alan but I am using this as a link to that in thst it has no end. Let’s just teach facts. The rest will fall into place.

          • The weird beliefs of your neighbours are brute facts. You will need to know about it and deal with it. Me. I’m learning about religion all the time, because whilst science is easy and has a clear way to progress, the world is currently fucking up politically because cultural ignorance abounds. American foreign policy has been woefully underinformed about alliances made for short term expedience. More people need to make informed judgments on the nonsense Fox News spouts or the Daily Heil. The religious outnumber us except in our little north European haven of reason. We need to tell the tolerable from the bad. We need to know who and how to work on (and with) politically, and how to get as many down from the cliff, from religious to more secular ideas, knowing they are not inclined to jump.

      • No. I stand with Dawkins on this about learning about others beliefs and life styles. I don’t ever advocate teaching “the controversy” on matters of science. Never, ever, ever have. I don’t ever expect schools to “teach religion”. If they do they should be stopped. I thought you had missed my point in the other thread and now I am sure of it. Sorry.

        • It’s my fault for not being clear Phil, sorry. My objection is to how much time is given to teaching beliefs around the world so as not to confuse children with not enough. If it’s not enough then it can still be skewed at home or in the community. If it’s too much then what is too much? What level will it be taught too? Degree level but with the understanding that it all means nothing in the end? I would rather send my children to the RD school knowing it was left to me to explain the fairy tales, like all the rest.

          Just to add, I don’t want my children wasting time having conversations like this https://richarddawkins.net/2014/12/did-historical-jesus-really-exist-the-evidence-just-doesnt-add-up/#comment-163310

          • My kids lapped up RE. They are awesome in these kind of RDnet discussions with others. This also formed the platform for our mutual discussions on morality, which I am tediously keen on. They will never experience my ineptitude in dealing with creationists. They will make shrewder political judgments than I did.

          • For me Phil, and I have said as much on other threads, an ‘I don’t care’ and reality is enough. I don’t want to wave my plumbs in the face of stupidity to win an argument (no offence). I will stand by another thing I said. Come to my level and argue against science not have me come down to yours to argue fairy tales. (You=religious people).

          • I want to argue against their morals…and change their minds. Science is certainly threatened in the USA, but its their moral discourse and political eccentricity that is the most scary. Science is doing OK in Iran looking at the huge numbers of science, engineering and medical students. It is the moral and political battle in progress that needs great finesse from our foreign policy and our popular support.

            We neglect the political and social education of our young at our peril. I speak as a technophile.

          • I have seen very little evidence that their minds can be changed in that way. In fact it seems to cement minds against the argument more often than not. In my mind this is the way to go (I have posted it before I know). Teach and lead by example. Outbreed the outdated ideas. Not by population explosion but by forcing families to question each other (if you read my comment on link) use science to solve the problem. I have been arguing the point that scientist should use science, as in, work out the most effective ways and use them. Jumping on and repeating condescending remarks (I am with Katy on this one) to every religious person that attempts a post on this forum is achieving nothing but a bit of back slapping for regulars. You can pick out the phrases said over and over again (No offence) with not a single person coming back changed.

          • Jumping on and repeating condescending remarks (I am with Katy on this one) to every religious person that attempts a post on this forum is achieving nothing

            I don’t recognise a thing of me in your comments. I can’t tell you how maddening this misrepresentation is. (I hope you recall the specifics of my opinion on condescending comentary and where and why and specifically for whom it would be advantageous? And why, why would you bring this up now, muddling the conversation with such a misdirection?)

            What of my posts or exchanges with the religious do you find so egregious or fatuous? I think I only argue with you and Katy…

            We need to know who and how to work on (and with) politically,

            It is politician’s minds I most want to change. And, therefore I want to change voters minds. I want the UK populace to support Rohani in his good efforts…when they are for the good. Etc. I want my kids up to speed on these topics.

          • BTW. I considered it a discussion rather than an argument. Two people, or more, putting their ideas across in a bid to reach some understanding. It may not always end up in a common understanding or an agreement but it is still a discussion in my eyes.

          • Appreciated, Olgun.

            At least this has allowed me a chance to reformulate what I am trying to say. Secularists of all stripes, religious and not, need to understand all the players in the struggle for a fair and open future. I argue less and less with the religious preferring to leave it to the professionals like Alan or the newbies who need a go. Most of my discussions-with-disagreements are had with other atheists, as we are doing here. I want to change policy direction to that advocated by Sean Faircloth, hinging discussion on morality, where “they” think we are weak and we (wrongly) think its a wash. I want govt./state policy-making to no longer wave through moral exceptions for the religious.

            People not on my side are those who think their culture is nigh on perfect, Danish welfare state-ists, Islamists, Cultural atheists. People also not on my side are those who think other peoples’ cultures should be respected on principle. My cultures might be closest to Danish welfare state-ists and I argue for it, but am quick to point up its faults.

            Cultures were always works in progress. We must see clearly into cultures and spot the good… when Quakers make us obliged moral authors, when Islam became a cultural ark preserving and enriching thought otherwise washed away in the destructive deluge of the Christian Dark age, or the Amish reminding us of that deep self fulfilment is got in “tending ones own garden” (as Candide observed [a lesson he got from a Turk btw]). But the bad is there too and we must be fearless in asking for change where its needed. And yes we must think of the children. The best of this happens when children talk to children (as with my account of P4C), of other faiths and none, and discover in a few key places they are worlds apart and sometimes unfairly so.

            To critique cultures we must be savvy, clear eyed and fair.

          • To critique cultures we must be savvy, clear eyed and fair.

            There is not much I disagree with you in that Phil except respect and the platform.

            It is impossible to show any respect while dismantling another persons beliefs, no matter how genuine you might think you are in your heart. The ugliest sight I have ever seen, as far as trying to respect each other, was an attempt by religious leaders to come together I one place to show how this respect thing is done. Each dressed to the eyeballs in their own regalia, they looked so awkward it was alarming. I wish I could find it on YouTube to show you. This is why I believe each should stick to his own market stool and send out the appropriate messages to get people to gather round. People feel the tension when one stool holder is pointing out what the other is doing wrong and stay away or worse, pick sides. It is something the politicians have been doing for decades now and the public have had enough. Stop telling me how bad the other side have done, I am not stupid. Just tell me how you are going to make things better.

            The platform you choose is something I have tried and left behind. The leaders and decision makers only follow party politics and unless it comes from the very top will not budge. It has given me many headaches to find this out banging my head against that wall. We (Turkish Cypriots) have councillors and a Baroness that will only fight at party politics level no matter how they think in private. We have found the only way is in the number of followers/voters you can attract, a bottom up approach, is the only way to get to these people. Your way is the slowest way possible, I have found, and the most frustrating. Majorities will always win but if you can find your mass vote will sway things then the politicians will start to gather like the proverbial fly. Too many self interested politicians and policies to fight against face to face. That means they will only act on your results and have no time to listen how wrong the majority are. If you are nice to them they will slither like a snake and make you believe whatever you want but insist on action and the fangs come out.

          • Again, I don’t recognise myself in your account of things. I am not interested in how religious groups grapple with each other, though I see a reality TV show in it, perhaps like wife swap. Bishop Swap..?

            I am interested how a burgeoning secular movement and then state can tackle the various demands put upon it by the religious special pleaders. Arguing the moral case is something the secular cause has been reticent to do. Clearly understanding the moral risks of the various faith positions, sexism, racism, misfortunism (god or karma’s judgment), child abusiveness, stops us from giving a pass to what seems picturesque faith. The few politicians I know do engage on moral criticism of cultures and to great effect. Being very targetted rather than general much support from within the communities can be got. Former MP Ann Cryer reached in to Pakistani communities to tackle arranged marriages with great effect and no little risk. This required superb cultural and religious knowledge to not be a muddling and conflating outsider.

            Maybe we understand each other differently on respect. I am not talking about being polite with the other when they attempt to politely engage me. I will always be polite. Why wouldn’t I be?

            Impolite, manipulative or child abusive proselytising will get little politeness from me, however. If dangerous it will get ridicule if ridiculous. If half baked, its errors corrected.

            Respect though (my internal feeling of it) is only ever earned, and everyone, I hope, gets a fair chance. Most often its got in patches…

          • Phil , again, I am not pointing the finger at you but the atheist movement as a whole. I am talking about major policies and if people will be able to execute them. Politicians in changing our education system for. The better and for all. I agree with the changes needed and am just giving my account of how quickly that can be done and the obstacles I see. There are politicians trying to change my community also but pulling in different party political directions and for nothing but votes. I am sure there are some human beings in there somewhere. I’ve yet to meet one, that’s all. Maybe I am not understanding you and for that I am sorry.

  3. @ Alan I think reading this book ( library?) or the sales blurb on this
    link, would help you understand the scientific approach to teaching
    about the history of religious myths.

    Read the blurb Alan and still don’t think we need to compare reality to myths to make the point (if I got it right anyway) time to leave that stuff for hobby material when we get older. I looked for a school that taught nothing about religions at all but could not find one. I was hoping my grandchildren would have that.

    • Olgun Dec 19, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Read the blurb Alan and still don’t think we need to compare reality to myths to make the point (if I got it right anyway) time to leave that stuff for hobby material when we get older.

      The problem is that if you study the history of the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, in Egypt, Asia Minor or North Africa religions play a crucial part. Once we move to European kings, empires and wars crusades, Caliphates, and Xtianity, are deeply entwined in the history. The Xtian conquests of North and South America, colonisation of Africa, and displacements of the native cultures is heavily religiously motivated, with religion one of the tools of empire builders.

      Introducing a wider range of myths, challenges the believers’ assumptions of a “default” Abrahamic god!

      • Yep! But leave that as an incidental in history and geography not have its own class of RE. Gives it too much importance and, as you say, ONE of the tools and maybe only thought of as a major tool because of the importance given to it in the bible that is used as an history book by some.

        If we are to teach children about what dreams are, do we also need to tell them what our ancestors thought they were in order to make sense? I don’t think so. If we teach them what science knows then if they come up against silly stories then they have the tools to filter out the myths.

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