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.

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Comment by Henry Ruddle on August 8, 2010 at 4:28pm
@PJ -- read the whole post, or at least the last two paragraphs.
@Michael -- I think another great place for this calculation would be on TV. In the typical "balanced" segment, they have 1 or 2 evolution critics against 1 real scientist. If they were to follow my logic, in a 5-minute segment, they would give the critics half a second to make their case. That would be truly representative of the scientific credibility they bring to the debate.
Comment by Mario Rodgers on August 8, 2010 at 8:13pm
Appropriate time in the classroom == 0 secs.

Yeah. Believing animals just poofed themselves into exisence is REAL science. *rolls eyes*
Comment by Dennis Paul Renner on August 9, 2010 at 10:13am
Unfortunatly in the real world creation science gets more time than what you would think. My daughters high school biology teacher was a strong christian, All the other student in my daughters class room were christians. My daughter was the only student in the room who had really studied evolution science at home. The teacher spent the whole time making fun of the therory of evolution and promoted creationism. Of course I complained to the principle and the board but found that they too were creationists and backed up the teacher.
So I had a long talk with my daughter about just listening and learning, The teacher had previously picked on her and made fun of her knowledge of evolution in front of the other students. My daughter made it through the class and even got a good grade.

You probably wonder why I didn't go further in seeking leagle help. Well I live in an area where two things are really big, God and guns. My wife and I just figuired if we were going to continue living here, it was not worth starting a war over. My daughter is now in college and is doing very well. Science and evolution are taught as they should be.
Comment by Henry Ruddle on August 9, 2010 at 1:23pm
@Dennis -- I'll bet your daughter's biology teacher didn't even understand the theory of evolution, which might have been another avenue. It's a fantasy, but imagine the school board forcing him to prove himself!

Your situation reminds me of one of the best lessons I learned from my Dad when I was in high school -- there are times to stand on principle, and there are times to keep your principles to yourself and just work the system. When you are young, your instinct is to be an idealist, and so going along to get along can be really hard. However, doing so consciously will protect you from being corrupted and allows you to enjoy the delicious irony of being rewarded by a system that you can later work to undermine or choose to ignore once you are out from under its authority.
Comment by Henry Ruddle on August 9, 2010 at 6:28pm
@PJ -- You seem to have read my post rather narrowly. My purpose is to show the absurdity of the creationist argument that "scientists disagree, so we should expose kids to the full range of viewpoints." I agree that religion has no place in the classroom. I'm merely showing that if choose to give fair weight to their claim that "scientists disagree," you'd still only end up with 1.5 minutes to present their side since evolution is overwhelmingly considered proven by scientists.
Comment by zoolady on August 9, 2010 at 7:40pm
PJ...Henry's posts are NOT in favor of creation "science." Read them again....
Comment by Henry Ruddle on August 10, 2010 at 12:40am
Jake -- I think it would be great if every high school science teacher spent 1.5 minutes reading the ludicrous statement that the Dover school board briefly imposed, just so long as they quoted Judge Jones' decision criticizing it, and followed up by explaining the scientific meaning of the word "theory." Teaching science in a community with a heavy anti-science bias has got to be a tough job, but it always bothers me to hear about teachers who duck the subject of evolution entirely, or teach it using euphemisms. I say go ahead and "teach the controversy" because the kids on the fence might join the rationalist side, and the creationist kids will at least hear a counterpoint to the malarkey they no doubt hear at the dinner table. Of course, the real tragic cases are the creationist science teachers, like the one Dennis mentioned, who don't need a whacked-out school board to encourage them.
Comment by Bill on August 10, 2010 at 6:06pm
There may be a place for creationism in the classroom, just not the science classroom. It belongs in comparative religions and deserves to compete for attention with all of the other non-scientific creation stories in the history of the world. It also deserves some study time devoted to it in abnormal psychology classes.
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 Johnny on August 15, 2010 at 9:58am


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