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Teaching Science as Dogma Isn’t Teaching Science at All


Debate. Free argument. Intelligence Squared U.S., a commendable non-partisan group, embraces the clash of ideas, bringing together experts to discuss controversial issues. Their motto is, “Let’s restore critical thinking, facts, reason, and civility to American public discourse. Join the debate and hear both sides of every issue.” What a concept. They’ve held around 140 public debates with 500 speakers.

At National Review Online, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal writes about the lack of diversity in thought at universities, mentioning intelligent design. I agree that critical thinking is important in education, and essential in the science classroom.

Jindal notes:

As a conservative Republican and evangelical Catholic, attending very liberal schools, I was almost always in the minority at college and graduate school. Yet I did not see myself as a victim discriminated against for my views. I graduated more confident in the beliefs I retained, knowing what I believed and why I believed it. I changed my views in some areas, and changed the views of others at times. Students of my generation with left-of-center views could spend four years at college without being similarly challenged for believing in affirmative action, multiculturalism, gun control, pro-choice legislation, and an expanded welfare state. Many liberal students surely engaged in critical thinking and questioning, but their views were considered informed a priori and were less likely to be seriously attacked by other students in dorm rooms or by professors in classroom discussions.

For today’s students, who come to campus already believing in inherent bias, systemic racism, gender fluidity, and the need for drastic government action to mitigate global warming, I would argue they are better served by being forced to consider the world from the perspective of smart professors and students who disagree with them. (I would make the same point about conservative students who believe in free markets, Western civilization, and intelligent design, but I don’t suspect most professors need encouragement to challenge these views!)

Wait: I would not agree with his tying intelligent design to “conservative students” and conservative views. ID has supporters across the political spectrum. However, there’s no question that it tends to be an object of criticism in academia. He goes on:

It is easy, and condescending, for partisans on both sides to construct straw-man arguments for their opponents and then smugly demolish them. Education systems play an important role in free societies by sharpening in citizens the critical-thinking skills they need to govern themselves. Part of the maturing and learning process has been for students to learn humility about their ability to comprehend the world, openness to new facts and arguments, and genuine respect for others with diametrically opposing views. Unfortunately, the modern university experience seems more likely to confirm in students their preexisting biases and healthy egos. [Emphasis added.]

Yes to that. Jindal’s observation is particularly relevant for science education. Scientific inquiry requires critical thinking. As Jonathan Osborne wrote in the journal Science in 2010:

Typically, in the rush to present the major features of the scientific landscape, most of the arguments required to achieve such knowledge are excised. Consequently, science can appear to its students as a monolith of facts, an authoritative discourse where the discursive exploration of ideas, their implications, and their importance is absent (7). Students then emerge with naive ideas or misconceptions about the nature of science itself — a state of affairs that exists even though the National Research Council; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and a large body of research, major aspects of which are presented here, all emphasize the value of argumentation for learning science (8-10).

Unfortunately, when it comes to science dealing with questions of origins, students often learn simply to memorize and accept “facts” about evolution. I contend that teaching science as dogma isn’t teaching science at all. Let’s make this practical: How do we expect to develop tomorrow’s Microsoft computer scientists, Salk Institute biologists, and DARPA researchers without making inquiry-based science paramount?

If critical thinking is important to the American conversation in general, as Intelligence Squared and Bobby Jindal agree, it is just as important for the future of our tech and medical institutions.

Photo credit: fritsdejong, via Pixabay.