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14 March 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Intelligent design and educational stupidity
Worried about the rise of creationism in UK schools? This teacher blames the timidity of the science establishment.

by David Perks

After the verdict went against the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Dover, Pennsylvania, you could be forgiven for thinking that the argument for teaching creationism was on the decline (1). However, in the UK the educational establishment seems hell-bent on introducing those very same ideas into all state schools.

As reported in The Times (London) on Friday, the OCR examination board has included a comparative study of creationist views on evolution alongside those of Darwin (2). But should we be surprised to see ideas promoted by the religious right in the USA dished up to schoolkids in Britain?

Even a cursory look at the new science GCSE is enough to give anyone pause for thought. As I have argued in the Times Educational Supplement, the new curriculum is riddled with ideas that have little to do with a formal scientific education and more to do with a sociological critique of science (3). It seems that the science education lobby is determined to undermine the idea that scientific knowledge has any objective basis in reality.

The agenda for reform of the science curriculum in UK schools is dominated by the view that formal science education is not important for the majority of children. Instead, the argument goes, children need to be taught to question the basis of scientific knowledge rather than just accept it as fact. This might sound like a good way to foster an intellectually independent mind. However, it is more likely to amplify young people's cynicism towards science in the school laboratory.

The same sociological critique of science that is driving the reform of science education here was used to defend the teaching of intelligent design in the Dover court case. Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, argued on behalf of the intelligent design lobby (4). Fuller believes Darwinism has had it all its own way for too long.

As Fuller sees it, Darwinism is being taught as dogma and intelligent design acts as a 'critical foil' to those ideas. To him, teaching intelligent design in US schools is the lesser of two evils, if it allows pupils to question the domination of the established scientific community when it comes to understanding evolution. For Fuller and other cultural critics of science, the loss of scientific objectivity is a small price to pay for a chance to undermine the dominance of the scientific elite.

This gives the lie to the idea that the attack on Darwinism is the product of a right-wing conspiracy to infiltrate mainstream education with Christian morality. Despite the work done to uncover the 'wedge' strategy of the intelligent design lobby in the USA, teachers would do well to look at the scientific and educational elites before looking for fundamentalist Christians under the bed (5).

The fact that the Discovery Institute and others in the USA are actively promoting an attack on science and its materialist philosophy should not scare us. They claim to be targeting the weak points in science's own arguments. This would only be of concern if science could not substantiate its argument. If the argument for evolution did not stand up it would deserve criticism - in fact, the strength of the claims made against Darwinian evolution is weak and unsubstantiated (6).

Standing up for science means winning the argument for progress
Far more serious is the turn away from science both here and in the USA. The inability of governments to counter panics about the use of science and technology - whether it is the scare over the MMR vaccination or the need for stem-cell research - suggests that the argument for science has been lost within the establishment itself. Despite an obvious need to maintain science as a cornerstone of modern technological advance, governments have fallen back into discussing science through the prism of risk and the precautionary principle.

This allows the cultural critics of science to repose the scientific establishment as an elite who are deaf to the concerns of the public. The collapse of the notion of scientific expertise, once highly regarded in the West, is now contrasted to the cultural claims of different groups within society, whose claims on knowledge are seen as more important than upholding scientific truth as a vehicle for progress. Thus we find ourselves not only witnessing the US establishment ditching its faith in science in favour of its Christian constituency, but also in Britain there is a growing recognition of the need to respect Muslim beliefs.

But what escapes most commentators is that both Muslim and Christian views on Darwinism are a recent product of the attack on scientific certainty in the West. The anti-Darwinian views of Muslims are not a product of the Koran. Instead, they are a product of the same left-wing critique of scientific elitism which has predominated in Western universities for the past 20 or so years.

The intelligent design movement arose from the collapse of attempts to push 'young earth' creationism into US schools in the 1990s (7). The proponents of intelligent design consciously adopted the tactics of the cultural critics of science by presenting their own argument for teaching scientific uncertainty. Despite their hostility towards each other, the similarity between the Muslim and Christian attacks on Darwinism belies their common roots. The attack on science is a product of Western anti-elitist politics.

It is the argument between the proponents of science and its cultural relativist critics in the UK and the USA that should be our real target. Unless scientists and teachers can re-establish a sense of science as a progressive social project, we will not be able to halt the slide. Standing up for science now means being prepared to win the arguments for progress with those who want to accept muddle-headed semi-religious ideas in its place rather than dismissing them.

On this point, I agree with Steve Fuller rather than Richard Dawkins. Lambasting religion as being the source of all evil will win no-one to the cause of science. Instead, we need to understand why people think science has lost its relevance to them, and challenge the idea that science is an elitist tool of domination.

David Perks has taught science for 20 years and is currently head of physics in a large comprehensive school in Tooting, South London.

Read on:

Creationism, pluralism and the compromising of science, by Joe Kaplinsky

(1) MEMORANDUM OPINION, 20 December 2005 [pdf]

(2) Creationism to be taught on GCSE science syllabus, 10 March 2006

(3) Dark forces in the lab, TES, 6 January 2006

(4) Steve Fuller: Designer trouble, Guardian, 31 January 2006

(5) The Wedge of Intelligent Design, Paul Gross and Barbara Forrest, 2004

(6) See God, the Devil and Darwin, Niall Shanks, 2004

(7) See The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney, 2005

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