Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Susan Blackmore on evidence versus understanding

Susan Blackmore on the issue of teaching evolution:

But many religious believers are simply not interested in evidence. I have now got used to debating with Muslims and Christians, but at my first meeting of the University of the West of England Islamic Society I simply couldn't believe that wonderful, detailed, scientific evidence was of no interest to them whatever. If something is in the Koran, they said, then no evidence changes anything.

What about understanding theories though? In my experience it is understanding, not evidence, that opens minds. If someone really understands how natural selection works then … gulp, jaw drop, stare, think … suddenly the world looks different. All previous ideas are thrown up in the air.

On science teaching:

I don't mean that science teachers should belittle religious beliefs, or scoff at them, or even tell students they are wrong. They need not even mention religion or creationism. What they must do is explain so clearly how natural selection works that those students, like one or two in Dawkins' series, begin to feel the terrifying impact of what Darwin saw. This realisation will change them. It will challenge what mummy and daddy told them, it will cry out against what they heard in chapel or synagogue or mosque. It will help immeasurably in their ponderings on human nature, the origins of life and the meaning of existence. This is growing up. This is learning. This is the process that skilful science teachers need to initiate, encourage, and help sensitively to guide.

They should never shy away from challenging their students' religious beliefs and opening their minds, because understanding the world through science inevitably does just that.

I agree with her emphasis on understanding over evidence and also on not being afraid of challenging student's beliefs. But this is where the balancing act comes in. If science teaching comes off as an explicit mission (crusade?) against religion, as is often the case with Dawkins, then it will backfire and many will regard science as the enemy. Teachers need to convey the excitement and wonder of science independent of any stance on religion. Bring up evidence, methodology, and understanding when challenged by students on religious grounds - but avoid a pre-emptive attack that will alienate students from science. Of course, we will still have religious nuts. But lets isolate them against the more reasonable believers.

Read the full article here.


Psiloiordinary said...

Well said.

Epiphenom said...

Depends on the audience. If you have an audience of believers, then if you present science and religion as being in conflict they will choose religion. But if your audience is young people who are a little sceptical and distrustful of religion, then showing them the wonder of science and how it contrasts with muddled, non-naturalistic thinking can be mindblowing.

In other words, it's all about framing. Dawkin's approach is good for some people - it's exactly the thing that I would've loved as a teenager, just beginning to wrestle with these sorts of problems.

Salman Hameed said...


You are right. However, in the US 85% of the population believes in God. So the likelihood of encountering believers in the classroom is quite high. And again, I'm not advocating against taking a naturalistic approach at all - I'm just saying that it should stay within the context of science unless challenged by students on religious grounds.

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