Friday, August 10, 2012

Friday Journal Club: "Science Teachers' Views of Science and Religion vs the Islamic Perspective"

by Salman Hameed

Our inaugural Friday Irtiqa Journal Club starts with a paper by Nasser Mansour: Science Teachers' Views of Science and Religion vs. the Islamic Perspective: Conflicting or Compatible?

I think this was a slightly longer paper than would be good for the venue. I will try to pick papers on the shorter side - but sometimes the choices are limited.

The results in the paper are based on open-ended written surveys with 75 Egyptian science teachers, with follow-up interviews with 15 of the participants. I think it is important to note that the study is not based in Cairo or Alexandria - the large cosmopolitan cities of Egypt. The teachers in the study are from the Gharbia Governorate of Egypt, whose capital, Tanta, is located between Cairo and Alexandria. It is quite possible that we are seeing more conservative views on science and religion than we would find in the larger cities. 

The key finding of the paper reaffirms the idea that religion is central for these science teachers, and their views on science are shaped through that particular lens: 
[T]he findings suggest that participants’ views of the relationship between science and a specific religion (Islam) confirmed the centrality of teachers’ personal religious be- liefs to their own thoughts and views concerning issues of both science and Islam. This centralization, in some cases, appeared to lead teachers to hold a conflicting relationship, hence to a creation of a false contradiction between science and Islam. Therefore, it could be concluded that teachers’ personal Islamic-religious beliefs inform their beliefs about the nature of science and its purpose.
And this is how they viewed the relation between science and religion:
The numbers are relatively small, but yet it is striking that most of the teachers view integration as the mode of science and religion interaction. I was also struck by the fact that "Dialogue" for most teachers meant science in the service of religion. 

For some reason when talking about these results the author lumped the conflict and independence categories into one, which I think is not only problematic but also did not seem warranted based on the responses he got for the two categories. But this is what he says about it: 
The teachers in the second group, those who perceived a conflicting or an independent relationship between science and religion, however, see science as suspect, either because of the unreliability of scientific methods or the need to use different methods to consider something from an alternative viewpoint.
Interestingly, some of the conflict responses stemmed from the "eurocentric" impression of science and a distrust of western knowledge. But the numbers are too small (5)  to make too much of it.

But the author, in general, also found that some science teachers in the survey held a "naive" views of the nature of science and of religion itself: 
In this study, some teachers did not ascribe just to naive views of NOS but also to naive views of the Islamic perspective of science and scientific investigation. They argued that science is an ever-changing phenomenon and scientists’ assumptions and predictions may be wrong, whereas the teachings of Islam are eternal and not subject to human error. The purpose of doing research in science, they argued, is to validate the Qur’an or establish the truth of the Qur’an.
A few additional comments on the paper: 
1. I think the key results from the paper are not that surprising - but it is important to conduct these studies. It is clear that religion plays a dominant role in the worldview of these science teachers, and they evaluate everything from that perspective. Therefore, it is a reasonable suggestion to suggest that the training of teachers take this background into account. 

2. My main criticism of the paper lies in the fact that the Mansour uses a normative definition of the relationship between Islam and science (these are peppered throughout the paper), and described it as positive. He uses examples from history to make his point. Two problems with this approach: 

First, we have to be careful when using the term "science" historically, especially in ascribing it to medieval times. The nature of scientific inquiry has changed a lot over the past few centuries, and it is difficult to say much about the relationship between "science" and "religion" during that time. 

Second, and there is no single relation between Islam and science. It depends on what specifics are we talking about. Islam is interpreted by individuals. If one interprets that there the mountains and valleys were formed because of a worldwide flood, then for that interpretation, there is a clash between Islam and science. Ditto, if one interprets Islamic doctrines to say that humans are not a product of evolution from prior animals (a question about evolution was part of the survey in the paper). On the other hand, if one has an interpretation that allows plate tectonics for geology and evolution for the rise of humans, then there is no clash. Or some may find an interpretation that may lend itself for dialogue or integration. But all and all, there is no single relation between Islam and science - rather there is multitude of relations depending on interpretations and on what particular scientific idea we are talking about. In fact, there are often contradictory views within individuals (for example, Big Bang theory - dialogue; biological evolution - clash), and it will be fascinating to explore how some of these science teachers deal with contradictions.  

3. This is more for my own research interest, but I noticed that the question on evolution was included in the written-survey. However, Mansour only talked about it in the clash narrative. But the vast majority talked about dialogue and integration models, and I'm curious to see how they viewed evolution. I think this will highlight the complexity of the responses and they may not fall neatly into Barbour's four categories used in the paper.

4. I think the paper underscores the need to explain how science is done and why people do it. This is a science education problem worldwide, but perhaps the issue gets exacerbated in places where religion may be considered as an arbiter for how nature works. 

Thoughts from others? Also, this is the first attempt at the journal club format. Let me know if you have suggestions on that as well.

I will post the title of the paper for next Friday's journal club later today.

Mansour, N. (2011), Science Teachers' Views of Science and Religion vs. the Islamic Perspective: Conflicting or Compatible?Sci. Ed., 95: 281–309. doi: 10.1002/sce.20418


Don said...

In addition to the methodological points that you made regarding the study site and the definitions used, I would level a criticism at Mansour's use of Barbour and his interpretation of grounded theory.

In the diagram on (289), Mansour outlines his interpretive approach. There is nothing strange there- the inductive growth from data into categories and their comparison with integration is a classical use of the theory. However, I am not so convinced that Mansour took his own advice from his interpretive road map.

In the introduction, and throughout the paper, Mansour relies a great deal out of the four categories that he ascribes to Barbour- integration, dialogue, conflict, and independence. But he does not use his findings to engage with these categories in a critical way. Instead, he takes a path that attempts to explain how personal Islamic beliefs relate to these categories.

Take, for example, a point that you highlit in your description of the "Dialogue" section. I agree that Mansour's finding here is that some of his participants thought science ought to be in the service of religion. Finding this attitude in his study population is unsurprising. However, it is surprising that Mansour considers this a good fit for his "Dialogue" category. Mansour could instead have taken that finding as an opportunity to embrace grounded theory wholeheartedly and describe the finding as disruptive of the "Dialogue" category that he found in the literature.

My point is that grounded theory is not meant so much to reinforce categories that we find in the literature but to add critical depth to that literature. A sound way to do this is by investigating populations, such as Mansour's, that did not have representation in the literature when the categories were established. Unfortunately, Mansour seems more interested in fitting his study into continuity with established science and religion narratives than he is in highlighting the comparative depth that his study might have brought to the conversation.

Salman Hameed said...

Yes, it is one of those cases that the use of existing categories inhibits the richness of data. Apropos to your comment about how to decide what is a good fit for each category, I was also surprised about a statement on page 300, that "those who perceived a conflict or an independent relationship between science and religion...see science as suspect". However, if you look at the quotes of "two domains" (independent) model on page 297, you will find that, with the exception of one, those all fit neatly with Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA).

May be Mansour dealt with some of these issues in another paper. I will try to track those down as well.

Don said...

I thought it best to stick with the one example from the Dialogue section, as it seemed the most puzzling. However, I was also surprised that there was no mention of NOMA in the "independent" section. It has been a while since I examined Barbour closely, but I would be surprised if even his categorization of independence between science and religion seemed to be as antagonistic as that quote would suggest.

It would be interesting to go through Mansour's evidence here and see what other conclusions might be drawn from his same quotes. Of course, without his whole dataset we would have less to work with. I'm curious how much divergence of interpretation might be achieved merely from a reexamination of the quotes Mansour presented in this paper.

Salman Hameed said...

Well even if Barbour doesn't mention NOMA directly (my copy is in the office - will check later), it is now a well-defined term for independence, and some of the quotes appear to fit perfectly (different domains for values and science etc). And I agree with you, that a reinterpretation/recategorization of the dataset can be really interesting, as the some parts of the survey are asking the right questions....