Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Science in the Classroom

Well, after 2 straight weeks of controversial subjects (homosexuality and pro-life rallies), I figured I'd take a break from blogging about another controversial subject.  But then I changed my mind because I'm in a bad mood and venting makes me feel better.

I'm becoming convinced that many of the problems that the church is facing in finding its place in our world today can be traced back to the public school system in America.  Now, before anyone gets bent out of shape, let me throw a disclaimer out here:  I am a product of the public school system, and I have a degree in Secondary Education, so I don't criticize my upbringing and professional degree lightly-- but I believe it's fair criticism.

I was debating my friend Lance the other day, and it occurred to me that most people still think that Darwin's Theory of Evolution is accepted by most members of the scientific community.  Did you know that's not true?  No one denies that Darwin was onto something, and with the limited knowledge he had, he was still able to accurately detect natural selection.  Most scientists accept this as the driving force behind current evolutionary trends, but it is not complete.  Yet most graduates believe that Darwin's original theory was correct-- But why?

The answer is simple.  Kids still learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution in school, even though it's not up to date by scientific standards.  If we're willing to teach kids something that we KNOW to be incorrect, why can't we teach kids something that we can't discern whether it's correct or not?  Our current theory of evolution falls under that umbrella... and emergent evolution... then again, so does Creationism... and so does the Mormon account of Creation... and Greek Mythology... really any mythology... Shinto as well... and if we're going to bring Shinto and Mormonism into the fray, we shouldn't exclude Buddhism or Hinduism either.  Really, where should that line get drawn?  I'm in favor of teaching kids all of those theories and belief systems in science classes in high school, or none of them.

"That's not a science class then," some of you might say... in fact, that's what Lance said to me.  My question is, "When did science, as we know it today, become so arrogant?"  What I described in the previous paragraph would have been science class if your name was Aristotle or Socrates, Ptolemy or Caesar, Newton or Galileo... but apparently it's not science class if your name is Hawking or Sagan.

When I ask science-supporters why Creation or Intelligent Design shouldn't be taught in the classroom, I get one consistent response: they don't fit the scientific method.  Now as I understand it, they're looking for observable, empirical evidence which can also be repeated so we can predict future results.  Creationism and Intelligent Design do neither of those.

But, then again, neither does Darwinian evolution. It is not observable in nature, it's not repeatable, and there are many holes in Darwin's original theory.  Current evolutionary theory does what it can to plug up those holes, but it can't be proven using the scientific method... it's still very hypothetical.  To me, that means it's no more reliable than smacking your hands together and saying, "It's MAGIC!"

But what about the other things that we learn in science classes that don't fit the scientific method?  Gravity comes to mind.  Newtonian physics largely apply on Earth, but we believe that the laws begin to collapse when dealing with subatomic particles, and also near the event horizon of a black hole.  We can't observe what happens in those instances, but we're content with saying "Well it works in most cases and explains almost everything... so it should be taught in schools."  But it isn't SCIENCE... at best it's belief.  We have NO IDEA why gravity exists, we only know that it does, and most of the time we can predict how it will work.  Until 10 years ago, we didn't even know that Gravity actually travels in waves.  We believe that acceleration due to gravity is constant, except when it isn't. It varies, not even between planets, but at various places on Earth itself.  But ask any student in a physics classroom "What is the accepted number for acceleration due to gravity on earth?" and they'll (hopefully) tell you, "9.8 meters per second per second."  We're taught that it's a constant, that it's observable, that it's repeatable, but it isn't!  We even have a pretty good idea why it changes, but we don't teach that in school because... I actually have no idea why.

If we're supposed to be teaching our kids science, based on the scientific method, we're doing a terrible job.  If we're allowed to teach our kids unreliable theories, why NOT also be allowed to teach Creationism, or at the very least, not mock it. What difference is there between "So you believe a god created everything that's around us?" and "So you believe that we got here because of an explosion that arose from nothing to create everything?"  Neither are observable, neither are repeatable, neither are empirical... yet one is the widely respected opinion and the other is lampooned as theological crazy talk, for no better reason than the established order says so.

I'm not the first who has arrived at this conclusion, and I'm sure I won't be the final one either.  The late Paul Feyerabend comes to mind when discussing this issue.  He went so far as to say that science should be separated from the state IN THE SAME WAY that church and state should be separated.
The way towards this aim is clear. A science that insists on possessing the only correct method and the only acceptable results is ideology and must be separated from the state, and especially from the process of education. One may teach it, but only to those who have decided to make this particular superstition their own. On the other hand, a science that has dropped such totalitarian pretensions is no longer independent and self-contained, and it can be taught in many different combinations (myth and modern cosmology might be one such combination).
Science and church getting equal treatment?  Sounds like a pipe dream... but to the rational observer, perhaps it doesn't sound so crazy after all.

EDIT: I've gotten too much heat about "Emergent evolution" to keep it in.  "Current leading evolutionary theory" or something to that effect replaces it.