Giving Creationism Appropriate Time in the Classroom

We hear a lot about how since there are working scientists who are critics of the theory of evolution through natural selection, it is a contradiction of our values of tolerance and skepticism to confine science teaching in high schools to ... um ... science. OK, if we want to put science curriculum up for a vote, let's calculate out how much time we should spend in high school science class in order to give these critics their due.

Let's look at the data. According to the Census Bureau, there are about 3.5 million Americans making their living in the life sciences such as biology, genetics, and so on. That ignores the millions in the hard sciences and medicine who also use evolution in their work, but let's stick with life sciences so we can't be accused of padding the numbers.

Next, the Discovery Institute, the think tank behind Intelligent Design, claims that there are 500 working scientists who believe that theory and disbelieve evolution. Of course, if you examine their list, you'll find quite a few of these folks do not work in life sciences, but let's be charitable and count them all -- perhaps there is a bias against creationists in the life sciences, so they couldn't find a job in any of those fields.

To determine what proportion of the professional scientific community prefers Intelligent Design to evolution through natural selection, let's first round down the number working life scientists to 3 million to take into account the ones on the Discovery Institute's list and to make allowance for maverick viewpoints. When we divide 500 Intelligent Design proponents, by 3 million evolution proponents, we get 0.000167 (rounded to six significant digits).

Now let's consider high school science class. The typical school district offers 180 days of instruction with 50-minutes classes. This translates into 9,000 minutes of science instruction (at most). Multiply 9,000 minutes by 0.000167, and you conclude that under the most generous interpretation of the numbers, Intelligent Design deserves 1.5 minutes of class time per year.

I suggest that the National Center for Science Education distribute it's collection of cartoons poking fun at creationists to every high school in America. One or two of those should be more than enough to burn up the time, and creationism would get the hardy laugh that it deserves.

Views: 7

Tags: creationism, design, education, evolution, intelligent, science

Comment by Henry Ruddle on August 10, 2010 at 6:59pm
Jake -- Please remember that my original point was that 1.5 minutes out of 9,000 was the most generous gift a school district could justify giving to creationism based on the argument that "scientists disagree." I'm not suggesting that science is a popularity contest, merely that if school board were forced to face the political argument that creationism deserved a chance, the rebuttal would be, "Sure, we'll give it the time it deserves -- 1.5 minutes out of 9,000." The notion is to use the opportunity to dismiss it as absurd and unsupported, not to lend it credence.

I'm very familiar with the Dover case, which is why I suggest that reading the Dover statement followed by a clarifying rebuttal would be a good strategy in the hands of a competent teacher with a good grasp of science and the facts of evolution. The statement rests entirely a false definition of "theory," so yes, reading the Dover statement as the "official position" of the anti-evolution side and then demolishing it would fulfill the need.

The truth ought not have anything to fear from lies. Rational folks spend all together too much time on the defense. Kids in states where it actually matters will surely have heard about the controversy, so attacking it head on could only help.

@Bill -- I agree that creationism should be discussed in school. It's a great case study for a unit on critical thinking. I also think a physics unit on how much water would have been necessary to carve the Grand Canyon in a few weeks or how much faster the speed of light would have had to be for light from 12 billion light years away to reach us in 6,000 years would make excellent topics. Believers are desperate to support their faith with science, and I think it is much more effective to ask questions and get them to ask questions instead of telling them they are wrong and thereby feeding the false dichotomy of science versus faith.
Comment by Jake W. Andrews on August 10, 2010 at 8:44pm
Henry- Interesting. I honestly never thought of the statement as an official position of the anti-evolution side. I have always thought of it as creationist/bible thumping propaganda to get rid of evolution, but not as an official position to argue from. It puts things into stasis is what I am getting at. Thank you.
Comment by Johnny on August 15, 2010 at 9:58am
Comment by Cara Coleen on August 15, 2010 at 11:04am
Don't you love it when your entire post is misunderstood by some? Well, I understand :) But my one question is: is 1.5 minutes ALL the time they would have throughout the semester, or 1.5 minutes a day? (I realize this isn't a real proposition to begin with)
Comment by zoolady on August 15, 2010 at 11:26am
Henry, I enjoyed your post and your math methods.
Comment by Henry Ruddle on August 16, 2010 at 8:39pm
@Cara -- Just 1.5 minutes for the whole year. However... you reminded me of the fact that the typical high school science course doesn't deal with evolution for the whole year. If we assume that there will be perhaps 6 weeks of stuff directly related to evolution, that's just 1500 minutes that require "balance," which means that instead of 1.5 minutes, creationism would only get 15 seconds ... to be fair. The teacher might say, "We are going to discuss the 'alternative theories' to evolution for exactly the amount of time they deserve according to their acceptance among working scientists and ... um ... I've already given them too much time already. Now let's move on to the material accepted by 99.98% of all working life scientists."
Comment by Bill on August 16, 2010 at 9:33pm
@Henry, I accept your math, but would extend it. You must divide your 1.5 minutes by the total of all religious creation myths. By this accounting, creationism is way over it's appropriate time with just the mention of the word "creationism" perhaps once every 200 years.

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