Summary, scientific thinking and Dick Cheney

Here’s a hodge-podge of thoughts on creationism and science education before turning to other topics:
  1. First a summary, mostly for my own benefit. Science education targets two overlapping but distinct groups of students: future scientists and engineers, and everyone else. There’s a large body of scholarship analyzing why non-scientists should learn science. My favorite essay identifies 3 main types of public science literacy: practical, civic, and cultural. Evolution has almost no practical value, but it may have high cultural value. But even if we deem evolution critically important, public education always involves tradeoffs with parental authority. Just as we don’t force everyone to salute the flag or get vaccinated, we can’t necessarily force everyone to learn the theory of evolution. The tradeoffs between scientific and non-scientific factors will be a running theme on this blog.
  2. Now for some new thoughts. Cultivating “scientific thinking” is often viewed as much more important than any specific content knowledge. It’s a theme that arises all the time: specific facts are less important than understanding the process of science and its ways of thinking. So if it’s scientific thinking we’re really after…aren’t there many ways to accomplish that? Why not spend an entire year studying human anatomy? Or maybe substitute evolution for a unit on bioengineering or a more in-depth look at organic chemistry. Unless the theory of evolution and nothing else in science teaches people to “think scientifically”, surely there are many paths. A survey course in biology (what I and most people I know had) is not the only possible curriculum.
  3. Maybe even more than scientific thinking, scientists desperately want the public to appreciate and be engaged with science and technology. Which makes me wonder why we brand people as “anti-science” when they don’t believe in evolution. We almost certainly will not convince creationists to change their beliefs. Attacking them for disagreeing with a single theory makes it harder to engage them in fields outside biology. Given how much we care about public engagement, we must tread carefully here. It doesn’t mean that evolution is not important (it is), or that it should be avoided (it shouldn’t). But a strident, narrow defense of evolution may undermine scientific literacy writ-large. We may detract from our own goals and marginalize people we want to reach. Do we really want to tell people that they are unwelcome in physics and chemistry if they don’t believe in evolution? And do we have to do it so angrily? In evolution and in politics, I wish we could all just try a little tenderness. This with-us-or-against-us mentality does not serve any noble purpose. Dick Cheney should not be our role model.

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