Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Teach the Controversy

I favor a strategy called "Teach the Controversy."1 I think high school teachers should directly address issues that are controversial in society. In science classes they should address and debunk common misconceptions about science.

There doesn't seem to be much of a problem with this idea in Canada but in the United States there is a lot of opposition to the idea. Check out Jerry Coyne's recent post to see what I mean: Once again Larry Moran decries legal battles against creationism.

Let's focus on a specific example. First, we need some background. Many state legislatures in the USA have seriously considered, or passed, so-called Academic Freedom bills. On the surface, these bill look innocuous. They are designed to promote critical thinking in state schools. Part of that process involves challenging and debating controversial science topics. We all know, however, that the real propose is to allow teachers to challenge evolution by teaching alternative "theories" (i.e. creationism).

The state of Louisiana passed the Louisiana Science Education Act in 2008. You can follow the link to a detailed summary of why the legislation is opposed by many scientists and by many scientific and education organizations. So far, attempts to repeal it have failed and no group has been able to mount a successful legal challenge. If this ever gets to court it will soak up thousands of hours of time and effort and it's not clear what the result will be. It would be a disaster if the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the state and lost.

Why not try a different strategy? Here's the text of the Louisiana Science Education Act
Section 1. R.S. 17:285.1 is hereby enacted to read as follows:

§285.1. Science education; development of critical thinking skills

A. This Section shall be known and may be cited as the "Louisiana Science Education Act."

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

(2) Such assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in Paragraph (1) of this Subsection.

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

E. The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and each city, parish, or other local public school board shall adopt and promulgate the rules and regulations necessary to implement the provisions of this Section prior to the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year.
Why not find a few high school teachers and support them in an effort to adhere to the law by teaching critical thinking? They could choose a couple of examples of controversial ideas in Louisiana society and address them head-on in their science classes. I suggest two popular ideas that challenge the textbook description of evolution.
  1. The universe was created only 6000 years ago.
  2. Humans were created separately from apes.
The scientific community could support these teachers by preparing "support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied" and by developing lesson planes to cover the material in just a few hours for each topic.

The evidence and lesson plans could be posted online and evolution supporters could publicize the lessons and show how effective it is to teach critical thinking by debunking some popular myths. At first there may be only a few teachers willing to take a stand but hopefully those numbers would grow as more and more teachers realize that they will have solid support from the scientific community.

Even students who aren't in the designated classrooms will become aware of the dangers of teaching the controversy. Maybe state politicians will have second thoughts. They might try and silence the teachers but that would be difficult given that the law specifically encourages teachers to teach the controversy. It would be interesting if they tried to stop the lessons by claiming that those ideas were religious and debunking them was an example of discrimination against religion.

I submit that this might be a far more effective strategy for changing people's minds than fighting another court case.

Please don't argue that those two ideas aren't "science" and should never be discussed in a science classroom. Those ideas are attacks on science and they are certainly part of the controversy about evolution—at least in Louisiana. Moreover, those are exactly the sorts of things that the politicians had in mind when they voted overwhelmingly for this law back in 2008. There's no better way to teach critical thinking than to use specific examples of bad science to show students how to recognize the difference between good science and bad science.

Many people think that teaching the controversy means bringing stupid ideas into the classroom and treating them as if they were respectable alternatives to real science. That's a false assumption. You can just as easily bring stupid ideas into the classroom and teach students why they are stupid ideas. That would be a good thing.

[Image Credit: The images are from Intelligently designed Sarcastic T-shirts. They don't necessarily support my position on this issue but they have cool T-shirts.]

1. I'm perfectly well aware of the fact that Teach the Controversy is a Discovery Institute slogan and ad campaign.