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Indoctrination or Debate? How to Teach Evolution

Sarah Chaffee

In her own telling, Helen Lee Bouygues is all about critical thinking. She heads the Reboot Foundation, which “aims to better integrate critical thinking into the daily lives of people around the world.” Sounds great! Writing at Forbes, she asks, “The Cure For Pseudoscience? Clear Thinking.” Unfortunately her comments leave you wondering if she knows what real critical thinking is.

She highlights a study that sought to dispel students’ “pseudoscientific” views, including climate change and evolution “denialism.” Here we go again.

I will only deal with evolution here, not climate change or other topics. Bouygues labels evolution a “widely uncontested fact.” Really? Tell that to the scientists who gathered at Churchill College, Cambridge University, last month for the “Evolution Evolving” conference that Discovery Institute’s Paul Nelson reported on for ID the Future. Scholars there discussed a range of formerly “forbidden topics,” looking for a better version of neo-Darwinian theory. “No one looks for a better theory if they’re happy with the one they have,” as Dr. Nelson put it.

What Evolution Means

Of course in any discussion of evolution, it’s crucial to say what you mean by the word. Bouygues doesn’t do that. So whether it’s a “fact” or not is impossible to say.

It sounds like the study that she recommends was about talking students out of “nonsense” views, not training them to present and respond to conflicting evidence:

As part of the research, the authors studied three groups of students. One group took a general education science course that did not explicitly cover critical thinking in any way. Another group took a course that included lessons in research methods. The third group took “Natural Science 4: Science and Nonsense.” The course, the authors write, “explicitly addresses common human errors of perception and logic by applying critical thinking skills to the claims of specific epistemically unwarranted beliefs.”

In the “Science and Nonsense” course, the professors had students make a class presentation on a pseudoscience topic each week. The presenters would share evidence and arguments on both sides of the issue, debating about the existence of Bigfoot or extra-terrestrial beings. Students would also write essays, which were graded on their use of reason, research and evidence.

As each week passed, the debate in the course became more sophisticated. Among the topics “were homeopathy and climate change denialism, where the evaluation of claims involves deeper knowledge, more intricate analysis, and strong personal beliefs are often challenged,” the authors write.

At the end of the semester, students from all three groups took a posttest. The students in the general education and research methods classes showed a small drop in pseudoscientific beliefs. In contrast, the unwarranted convictions of the students in the “Science and Nonsense” course plummeted by a massive 45%.

Sloppy, Not Critical

Grouping the “denial” of “evolution,” whatever that means, with belief in Bigfoot and alien spacemen is an example of sloppy, not “critical,” thinking. Evolution should be presented honestly with its scientific strengths and weaknesses, drawing on scientific controversies in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific literature. True critical analysis is like a round in a competitive debate: arguments are presented for and against a proposition, and someone (in debate, the judge, in the classroom, the students) makes a decision as to which point of view seems best. There is no foregone conclusion toward which the debate seeks to drive the listeners.

A course in “Science and Nonsense” is not intended to foster that kind of thinking. It seeks to persuade, to herd students toward approved opinions. It’s not education. It’s indoctrination.

Photo credit: Chuttersnap via Unsplash.