Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Fact and fiction

Richard Dawkins exposed a major flaw in our education system, here and in the US. If you don't know him, he's the author of 'The God Delusion; the evidence for evolution', a book that I have read and fully appreciate. This post isn't intended to upset those of you with firm religious beliefs because, at the end of the day, science can always be attributed to 'God's' devine plan, or at least that's how it was moulded around the arguments when they began in the great scientific revolution of an earlier age. No, I'm writing this piece because his delivery of the recent Channel 4 programme 'The Genius of Charles Darwin' revealed a shocking truth about our so-called sensitivity to other people's beliefs, even if they fly in the face of scientific facts - in many schools our children are not being taught about evolution and the mere possibility that it could be true is being swept under the carpet in favour of not upsetting anyone.

If you believe in God, that's fine and is entirely your right but there is no measurable evidence for His existence (I've capitalised the His because that is how its done, right?). There is, however, lots and lots of evidence (despite that so-called missing link), even down to DNA, that life progresses through survival and adaptability - if you have to fly to make it as a species, then you will grow wings - that sort of thing. Pedants refuse to acknowledge this and that, as I said, is fine but when school science teachers - men and women of scientific understanding, whose sole reason for becoming teachers in the first place was to impart their knowledge and share the truth that they know - avoid the subject of evolution because some of their pupils come from religious backgrounds where such science is disowned because it clashes with the God theory, then I respectfully suggest that we are heading into an abyss of medieval ignorance. Our kids are learning a lot about the bias and oppression of religion and political correctness and nothing about the process of natural selection.

In the programme Dawkins interviews a number of individuals who deliberately sieve out the truths known about evolution in favour of a vague and almost totally unbelievable biblical view of how life on earth originated. This is being taught to children with no room whatsoever for another possibility. The woman being interviewed remained on her elevated soapbox as Dawkins attempted, again and again, to reason with her but she simply would not compromise, stating 'you people', meaning scientists, 'won't accept any other truth'. Dawkins pointed out that the only reason she would accept that the world was round and not flat was because there was just too much obvious evidence to support it.

More shocking was the interview with The Archbishop of Caterbury in which Dr Williams found it impossible to answer a simple question about the correlation of science and religion - he came out with a long-winded and totally indecipherable diatribe ending with 'of course it could sound like I'm trying to avoid a tricky question'. Yes, you are.

This blog isn't about religion and it isn't about television but, from the point of view of a British parent, I was shocked to see science teachers running for cover with lame excuses about the sensitivities of others when their job is to teach facts. I already have lots of experience with schools in which common sense and factual reality have been replaced with this 'duck and cover' mentality. We are being ruled over by pigeons and our kids are being taught (in some schools) by avoidance.

Not good enough.



Greenandblue said...

I have to say I agree that its not right to just avoid teaching things just because it doesn't fit in with someones religious views. If they are that bothered then teach both evolutionary theory AND the religious theory, let the kids decide which they wish to believe. Though of course that may give the children an element of doubt into the way they have been brought up and that surely can't be done.

Anonymous said...

The problem with Dawkins is that he's an evangelical Atheist

A true scientist should be agnostic. There is no evidence that a god exists, but at the same time, there is no evidence against it, other than Occam's razor (the simplest solution is generally right), the logic of which being that life being created by God is unlikely, as who created God?

That is to say that dogmatic atheism is also unscientific. We've yet to disprove divine creation, so we cannot completely discount it.

Ask me my *opinion*, and I will say "there is no god", but I cannot know.

That being said, I agree entirely that certain schools need to get their act together.

Anonymous said...

I don't normally post.

But just a note - Dawkins delights (as do some of his rivals) in misrepresenting opposition.

He'll never show Christian teachers teaching science faithfully, for example. Because that would detract from his aim of denigrating religion and those who hold to it. Believe me, there are many Christian/Muslim/whatever teachers who teach evolution *just fine*. Dawkins 'deliberately sieves out' the normal ones, because that makes him the voice of all reason and 'religious people' such nutters. So take Dawkins with a pinch of salt, cos he *definitely* has an agenda.

Just my £0.02.

stug said...

You're falling into one of the traps that creationists lay. It's not a science teacher's jobs to teach "the facts" of evolution. It is their job to teach that evolution is the best theory to explain the evidence. I'm an atheist with a Medical Biochem degree, who 100% agrees with Darwinian evolution, but it's still a theory, not a fact. Presenting it as a fact is almost a "fundamentalist" scientific act...

Anonymous said...

Oh you will have opened a hornet's nest here. But perhaps the debate should continue outsode of the usual arenas.

I like the idea of the US system of education, the seperation of church and state, where facts are taught in the classroom and spirituality in its various forms are taken care of by parents and communities. However it is rarely like this as schools are a focal point of most communities and so, to my mind, they should be.

Unfortunately you cannot have it both ways; if you want the schools to be at the centre of the community then accept they will bow to the majority; if some more science has to be taught at home is that all bad (or indeed any different to some religion taught in the home)? And belief vs fact is something you will never convince believers of so it is a moot argument, unfortunately perhaps.

As a parent I think it's responsible to review what my child eats at school, let alone what they learn - I wouldn't rely on the state to look after either in their entirity.

As regards spirituality "vs" science (a more ridiculous pairing you couldn't find), it is the deranged 6th form spit-flecked ramblings of Dawkins and his ilk that have me thinking - "this cannot be it, can it"? After many years as a lapsed (nay, collapsed) Catholic-cum-Aetheist I am exploring this again - is it any different to any other route to happiness?

Yes I believe in science and Darwin et al but I also am beginning to think there's a bit more to it than that.

But we have to be careful and use common sense in all of these matters - to see how wrong it can get I recommend you look at and search out the articles on dinosaurs etc - they were on the Ark you know?

Claire said...

I honestly can't work out what is going on. I attended Catholic schools from 4-18 and I was never in any doubt that evolutionary theory was the most likely explanation and that the bible stories were good stories when no alternative was around.

I'm ever so disappointed that my long held theory that although evolution is right, something, somewhere, let's called them God, started it all off, was hijacked. Hijacked by the creationist nutters and called intelligent design.

Anonymous said...

Bravo sir, I couldn't agree more. It scares me how science education is being degraded in this way, because this is going to have a profound impact on our society. We're going to have a generation of doctors, chemists, bio engineers who don't understand evolution, and this is going to endanger countless let alone halt progress in a range or medical and biological fields.

I know some very good religious doctors. But they appreciate that the book isn't everything, and have a full grasp of evolution and where the human body came about from. We're now creating children, soon to be young adults, who through what is in essence "brain washing" lack even the ability to consider evolution, and what kind of doctor will they become?

Claire said...

I agree completely. Science and religion should remain separate in the classroom. If it is offensive to teach evolution in science classes for fear of offending people, doees that mean you shouldn't learn about other religions in Religious Education classes for the same reason?

Anonymous said...

i'm sorry, but you can believe in god and understand evolution - the two don't have to be "either/or". a lot of people take the creation stories to be metaphors for the big bang, and hey - where there's science shouldn't there be a scientist?

but don't blame it on the teachers. teachers don't get to choose what to teach. they teach the curriculum. the curriculum is set out by the government. there are a lot of time pressures with the curriculum in terms of so many hours of PE a week, so many hours of numeracy, literacy and ITC. there are only so many hours in a day!

"creationism" is not on the english national curriculum, however as part of RE the story of creation according to various religions is. its not necessarily taught as fact, its taught as a belief, which is completely different.

on a separate note, personally i don't like dawkins, i find him insufferably smug and he has no respect for other people with different views to him. he has done a lot of work for atheism but he should learn to work with people otherwise he's no better than the people who swear blind that god personally painted the roses himself.

Uberduck said...

I'm very glad to say that when I was at school we were taught religion and we were taught science but no-one ever actually tried to tell us one was right and the other was wrong - we were left entirely to make our own minds up. It is perhaps telling that myself and pretty much all of my friends came out of this experience as atheists, not through any kind of anti-religious reaction but through exercising sheer common sense!

Fiz said...

I'm with Claire at 6.01

Xf said...


Quite right. Things need to be evenly balanced and this post is not about religion being right or is about scientific understanding and the possible restriction being placed on that understanding by those who should teach our kids what's real, as well as Santa Clause if necessary. Soon enough, they will make their own minds up.

Christian said...

Thank you for this interesting discussion. After reading the post and the comments, I couldn't resist to add a theoretical physicist's definition/interpretation of 'reality' or 'facts'.
From our point of view, everything is a theory. A good theory allows to (a) explain observations and (b) make predictions. The more predictions can be confirmed, the better the theory. However, it still is a theory. (Just because gravity has worked as long as mankind can remember doesn't mean it will never fail!)
I totally agree with the previous comments. If taught both science and religion, trust kids to be smart enough to make their own minds up and decide for themselves which the better theory is.

Vigilant Mouse said...

I am a priest, I have been a science teacher, and my degrees are in Geology. I have no problems reconciling my faith with my understanding of evolution (and as a geologist my grasp of the evidence for evolution extends over a far greater timescale than that which many people have explored). In fact I find both faith and evolution necessary as components of the way I attempt to understand the world in which we live.

Responsible science teaching is fact and evidence-based. It should enable students to distinguish laws and facts from theories, hypotheses and coincidences. I absolutely agree with Stuart that children should be taught about the theory of evolution. I also believe that they should be taught, both in science lessons and elsewhere, to evaluate data and conflicting evidence, to engage constructively with different points of view, to investigate for themselves rather than taking other opinions for granted, and to be understanding and tolerant of people whose ideas or beliefs are different.

And by the way (and this is something Richard Dawkins clearly does not understand), faith is not the opposite of doubt. Faith and doubt (which are not necessarily in conflict) are what one has when one does not have complete knowledge. Not even Richard D has complete knowledge, and it is arrogant of him to pretend otherwise.

D.M. McGowan said...

The business of science teachers hiding from the displeasure of over-zealous or fundamentalist parents is not confined to science teachers. In all levels of society there are too many people supressing what they know to be true in order not to 'rock the boat'. All this manages to do is - in the long run - destroy society.
Stand up for what you believe to be true and perhaps some time in the future the two factions (in this case the creationists and selectionists) can develope a productive communication.

pamey said...

Good blog, I agree with you, but get back to the posts about your shifts. I'm missing them. Hope the missus and little one are ok.

killa said...

I, being both a scientist(biologist) and a Roman Catholic believe that both should be taught in our schools.
Nothing we teach is neither right or wrong about how the world came to be. As of right now it is all theories. As Christian said '...A good theory allows to (a) explain observations and (b) make predictions. The more predictions can be confirmed, the better the theory...'

I was talking to my cousins a few days ago and they said that they changed the education system so they can exclude the theories of Darwin in Science. We are going to have several generations of children that do not know about Darwin. I believe this to be wrong I think we should include this in the education of the next generation. Who knows? Maybe they will solve someone the theories?

Matty said...

hiya, i was just reading this post with interest. I've been studying human evolution on a part time archaeology course and found it to be a fascinating subject. i guess what i wanted to say is that over the course of the last few decades the evidence of hominid fossil remains, stone tool technology etc etc and the advance in scientific dating has, in my opinion,reinforced and made credible the theories of darwin by allowing archaeologists to piece together a chronological map of how we evolved into homo sapiens. now at the risk of being controversial which is unavoidable with this subject, where is the evidence to back up the creationist claim? there is a great website called "talkorigins" (google is your friend!) which goes into great detail about the hominid fossil record and also the creationist arguments. cheers


Fiz. said...

Stuart's on leave and he writes as the spirit moves him. He is isn't a human typewriter! Vigilant Mouse, I completely agree with you.

jerym said...

Reading these posts I get a very strong impression that a lot of you have not actually read much of Dawkins, if you have you do not seem to have understood him which I find very strange as his style and clarity of writing is excellent.
Maybe some of you find the habit of cherry picking conveniant parts of the bible and misinterpreting them is hard to avoid.

Anonymous said...

I believe that evolution and a God who created the universe are both right. Because who knows what God's plan for creation really took place. How long is a day to God ?

PS Congrulations on your son being born. I hope Scruffs, if you still have him is taking to the baby okay.

Tom said...

Sorry but Dawkins is the same type of bore as the fervount believer.

I'm Jewish, and my family have been brought up in this belief. However, they have graduated as engineers, and a whole host of disciplines, constantly challenging their beliefs.

Spirituality, and science are two completely different species, and ought to be kept apart.

The 613 dictats regarding the prohibitions, and obligations of a Jew, and the realities of science is not in our family the cause of a conflict.

My granddaughter enjoyed her birthday yesterday, and my wife and I proudly gave her a microscope, which she had bullied me for years to buy her. Excellent. Her father is determined to use the 'scope' with her on her discovery of nature. But please understand that this discovery will be scientific, with all references couched in, and explained in real technical terms.

Behaviour and conduct of my children, and grandmonsters will be determined by the way we have brought our monsters up. It will not be attributed to a pompous (un)bible basher called Dawkin.

In the interim, all I can offer in return is a granddaughter, who I sincerely hopes understands (scientificaly) hypovolemic shock, and spiritually/faith the difference in calling out the green 'saints' because she can't be arsed to call her dad or grandad.

Personal note: Sorry, I mean no offense. How's Harry?

horsndogluvr said...

Oh, Dawkins. I dislike the man. He's so one-sided, I'm surprised he has two eyes/arms/legs etc.

I don't believe in "survival of the fittest." I believe in "survival of those most successful at reproduction." (And it looks like us "white" intellectuals are extinctifying ourselves, dunnit?)

I believe that evolution happens within species (a trip to Crufts dog show proves that one), but have seen no evidence whatever for one species evolving into another with which it cannot interbreed.

I do not believe that birds developed wings because they needed them to survive, but that wings were a mutation which they learned to use. From there, wings evolved to be more and more useful. (That's vastly over-simplified, for the sake of brevity.)

I believe the "big bang" theory is the best to date - and I also believe that God created the Universe.

Science is not incompatible with Christianity. Dawkins' ideology prevents him from seeing that.

Now, back to your usual subjects, please!

Dave said...

It's an odd thing - atheists complain that Darwinism isn't taught, while creationists whine that the bible isn't taught...what is being taught?

I was an atheist (and Darwinist) until the age of 38. Then a few strange things happened I couldn't explain by science. Today I encounter unexplainable things in my job as a paramedic nearly every day.

Academic debates about God are pointless, but experiences can't be denied when you're the one having them. I write about them on my blog. Here's one that might be helpful:

Thanks in advance for being open minded,

Dave Hayes

Anonymous said...

My name's Wojtek, I'm 16 and I'm come from Poland. I want to became
paramedic, and work at UK. Before i finish the university I want to
know your opinion about that work. Do you like this job? How many
pounds, I can earn at start?
Paremedic in my country is most required to support physical activity
(carrying stretchers, lifting things). And the doctor decides, what
kind of medicine paramedic must gives. In the UK paramedic, have more
privileges, or not? And the last question - you are doctor who work
at rescue team, or you are a paramedic "from the education" ?

I hope you can understand all text, at this e-mail. My english it too
bad yet ....
Thank you and greet, Wojtek

Deborah said...

I went to secondary school in Northern Ireland early 1970s and we did evolution and you can't get much more hidebound than religion in NI. That was 30years ago - what is wrong with people, they are going backwards!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I know this might be a bit late, but I'm only just reading this. I'm a medic with a biomedical science degree. I was only ever taught Evolution at school and creation at church. Intelligent design/creation/other views were not taught, yet when I asked obvious questions and my inquistive mind got started, nobody could answer my questions in 6th form college. The teachers just moved on. The only people I could find to answer some of the questions were at church/christian scientist stuff. Why can't we be taught both? Why can't it be accepted that science can't answer everything?

I have seen some pretty convincing anti-evolution things, so I'm creationist. I believe in micro-evolution and survival of the fittest but can't see the whole monkey to human thing. I find it interesting there are a few people (creationists) Dawkins supposedly won't debate with! I look at the complexity of the human body and how "simple" things like the eye works and can't see how it could have come about from evolution. Without one part it would give no survival advantage so how did it develop gradually?

Dave said...

I am rather shocked at how many of us are still unaware of the failure of Darwin's theory. Gould, Eldredge and nearly every modern paleontologist has confirmed (repeatedly) that Darwin was wrong.

The fossil record has never shown gradual changes. Species appear and disappear suddenly, without change. Gould said the neo-darwinian synthesis 'is dead, despite it's persistence as textbook orthodoxy'.
That's why the more recent theory of 'punctuated equilibrium' was developed.

I posted an article reviewing the fossil record (in the words of scientists) here:

Lynne said...


I've been working my way through the archives of this blog, having just found it (blog owner can probably tell that...), and I am truly disturbed by some of the comments here. Not disturbed as much by the "ordinary members of the public" comments so much as I am by a couple of people who claim, above, to be "scientists" but who clearly do not understand how evolution can be both a fact ("descent with modification" -- different and often multiple species descending from a common ancestor, which is, quite simply, an observed fact -- observed and recorded multiple times across plants, animals, fungi and bacteria) and a theory, which is the broad framework of concepts and evidence of why and how this observed fact of descent with modification happens. And "Maybe they will solve someone the theories?" WTF? Theories don't get "solved". That is not what a theory IS. A theory is an explanatory framework! One does not "solve" the theory of evolution any more than one could "solve" the germ theory of disease, the stress theory of materials science, Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, etc. These are conceptual frameworks which have withstood a great deal of testing -- they ARE solutions to understanding what we see around us.

It also disturbs me greatly that people who claim to have some understanding of biology think that creationism is a "theory" of equal standing....despite the complete lack of physical evidence supporting it, the abundance of physical evidence which contradicts it, and an entire lack of plausibility in the face of other scientific fields (such as physics, chemistry and geology).

Yes, it is absolutely true that you can believe in God as well as accept evolution, and you can be a "theistic evolutionist" who believes that evolution is just God's method for doing things...but a knowledge and understanding of biological evolution is still completely incompatible with a literal interpretation of genesis, and even the "God-just-magicked-it-into-existance" school of "intelligent design" (which frankly faces exactly the same lack of physical evidence as straight creationism). "God uses evolution as a tool" I don't personally have a problem with. "Evolution cannot possibly explain [x] without God-magic" doesn't fit with observable reality.

Regarding Anonymous from 11 November, all I can say is that you cannot possibly have looked for information about evolution very hard. A single trip into the journal section of a university library, a couple of queries on PubMed and a few hours reading talkorigins should be more than enough to knock a lot of the creationism "arguments" on the head, unless you are still wedded to ignoring evidence which people write about abundantly. I do find it plausible that people have refused to talk to you about it -- speaking from a biologist's standpoint, there are certain stereotypical questions that creationists all quote, which have already been refuted millions of times but which every fresh crop of ignoranti go back to, and even when a well-meaning biologist spends hours with someone tracing out exactly how and why something works, over 90% of the time the creationist in question will barely let the tea cool before going back to asking the exact thing that was just answered as if no-one had ever said anything. It is thankless and pointless, and when you approach someone who has already wasted countless hours of their life that way dealing with the people to try this before you, you're going to get the cold shoulder -- despite all your protests as to the fact that you are innocent and well-meaning and just want to see if there are answers.

Side note: Dave, no. Don't lie about what biologists actually say. There is supposed to be some biblical prohibition against "bearing false witness", I'm sure, as much as that usually gets ignored.