Critical ThinkingEducationPedagogySecondary Education

Is Bill Nye teaching creationism? Should debates on origins be forbidden in science classrooms?

Brandon Pettenger is (was?) an Arroyo Grande High School science teacher in the Lucia Mar Unified School District of California.  Apparently he had students watch a recording of the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate as to whether or not creationism is a legitimate scientific alternative theory to evolution by Natural Selection.  Along with watching the debate, students had extra credit opportunities consisting of writing “an essay on your opinion in the debate of creation vs. evolution as to the origins of earth and life on earth.”

Several students complained about non-science being taught.  In response, their parents with the able assistance of both the Freedom From Religion and Richard Dawkins Foundations (FFRF and RDF) brought the matter to the attention of his superiors.  The powers that be, responded.  Pettenger is apparently no longer allowed to teach biology.  All mentions of creationism or debates have been scrubbed from the school’s websites.

Having searched the web, it is unclear to me what Pettenger was doing, apart from “teaching the controversy”.  But as I have written earlier, this can be a good way to teach the way science works – to show how the vast majority of evidence supports an old universe and a biological evolutionary process, and how that selfsame evidence is entirely contradictory to creation happening only 6000 years ago.  An early article on this story seems to suggest this was what Pettenger was doing.  A later follow-up seems more equivocal, with suggestions that the presentations were indeed slanted to favor a creationist worldview.

If it is the latter – a deliberate distortion of the evidence – then I completely support the actions the school administration took.  Teaching any aspect of science incompetently needs to be eliminated from school classrooms.  However if it is the former, then what Mr. Pettenger was trying to have his students do is commendable: Evaluate the evidence and then form conclusions.  Just like every scientist ought to do.  [So Brandon, if you happen to run across this site…  If you were truly trying to undermine the teaching of evolution with pseudoscience, then you got what you deserved.  If on the other hand, you were trying to teach students how think about science and evolution, in particular.  And if the message was that students ought to actually evaluate evidence and not blindly accept the “truth” from authority.  Then, you have my sincerest support and my condolences that our putative allies in this process do not agree with the value of what you were trying to do.]

What deeply bothers me is that the FFRF and RDF would seem to view teaching creationism as truth versus teaching it as a disproved idea to be distinctions without a difference.  “Creationism” is apparently the Voldemort of science.  Its name cannot be uttered in any science classroom under any condition.  Ever!!!  Atheist sites that I respect, such as Hemant Metha’s, are gleefully cheering the outcome, without apparently caring as to whether or not evidence was honestly and extensively presented.  It ought not be so.

My very practical (evolutionist!) daughter points out that taking up valuable science class time and replacing topics that need to be covered for things like AP tests would be her objection to watching debates.  However…

Suppose a high school science teacher simply recommended that their students go view the Ham on Nye debate or any of the many online similar debates, outside of class?  Suppose a professor at a public university (me!) presents creationism and intelligent design as legitimate conceptual models for origins, but rejected for lack of evidentiary support?  Would the FFRF and RDF come down on their and my necks as enabling creationism?  Is Ken Ham really a silver-tongued devil capable of leading legions of otherwise bright-minded students away from science and into the denialism of creationism?  Certainly not from what I’ve seen and heard!

I have extensively argued that debates on evolution are good, and in particular that Bill Nye gave a generally praiseworthy account.  I won’t repeat those points again – you can read them here, here and here.  What I believe most firmly is that we as educators cannot just ignore the creationists, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, and GMO alarmists and hope they all go away.  We need to take them on.  IT BEGINS IN THE CLASSROOM!

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

1 Comment

  1. May 3, 2015 at 9:33 pm —

    I agree. So much depends on the context of the lesson. I don’t think I’d just say ‘watch this and write a response for extra credit’ without talking about background. For instance, talking about falsifiability of theories/hypotheses: what sort of evidence would cause us to have to overhaul either. Or in explanatory power: what would be things one could predict using either theory. Basically, to try to short-circuit the ‘I am a Christian so…’ and get students to think about how one constructs a theory and whether creationism does this well or poorly, and generally why science operates the way it does.

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