Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Nelson's office responds - ID in religious education only

Well, blow me down and cover me with dust. Brendan Nelson's office replied:

For those whose eyes aren't microscopes, here's the response.
Dear Dr Wilkins

Thank you for your email of 11 August 2005 to the Hon Dr Brendan Nelson MP, Minister for Education, Science and Training, concerning Intelligent Design being taught within science curriculum in Australian schools. The Minister has asked me to reply on his behalf.

The Minister strongly supports the important role parents can play in helping to shape school curriculum. He does not, however, advocate the teaching of Intelligent Design to Australian school children as science, nor in competition with the theory of evolution. He does not support the replacement of the teaching of evolutionary theory with the teaching of Intelligent Design.

State and Territory school curricula follow the Australian Academy of Science's position that, whilst evolutionary theory - like any other scientific idea - is imperfect and subject to testing, creationist accounts of the origin of life are not scientific ideas because they are not subject to empiricial testing.

However, Intelligent Design can appropriately be taught as part of religious education in schools.

It is important that Australian schools aim to provide students with a balanced exposure to the wealth of ideas - orthodox or not, scientific or not - which enrich our society, and to equip students to make their own informed judgements about the validity of those ideas.

While the Australian Government's funding contributions for schools is significant, State and Territory education authorities have the primary responsibility for the provision of schooling in Australia. School curriculum issues, including in relation to science and religious education, are therefore State and Territory responsibilities, determined by government and non-government educations authorities.

Thank you for raising your concerns with the Minister.

Yours sincerely

Sarah McNamara
And here I should leave it, eating humble pie and being prepared to offer my apology to the Minister (who might have said all this when he raised it in public). But I am a snarky fellow, and I must take the Hon Minister and his advisor (not adviser - that is an abomination up with which I shall not put) to task on a few points that are not grammatical or matters of plural forms (all "curriculum" above must be either curricula as a Latin plural or the more commonly accepted "curriculums" now it is an English word).

My first concern is why should we teach a wealth of ideas? Some ideas are just silly and will confuse students. For example, should we teach students, so that they may make an informed judgement about its validity, that women not wearing the Hijab are asking to be raped? That is an idea out there that some Islamists have said in public in Australia. If not, why not that, but ID? It is equally offensive in a different way - it promotes one religious viewpoint (coincidentally the Minister's) and prevents the free investigation of knowledge, and will serve only to remove potential scientists and free thinkers from the meme pool. I wonder what other reason one might have for promoting this idea and not the Hijab?

My second concern is how the Minister['s advisor] has characterised scientific theories - "imperfect and subject to testing". Is this really what the AAS says? Let's check:
The following points summarise the view of the Australian Academy of Science on this issue:

  • All scientific ideas are theories, imperfect and subject to test. That the theory of evolution is imperfect, and still the subject of study and modification, affirms that the theory is part of science. Many attempts to modify and expand the theory have been successful, showing (since Darwin's day) the gene-basis of inheritance, the basis of gene-reproduction in the double helix structure of DNA, the 'genetic drift' basis of the origin of breeds, and so on. Many challenges to the fundamentals of the theory have failed empirical test. The theory has attracted enormous empirical testing and remains one of the most powerful of scientific ideas.
Hmmm. A slight difference. Yes, they are imperfect, but hey, guess what - science only retains theories that have been successfully tested and revised in the light of knowledge and evidence.

OK, what does the AAS say about ID?
  • The creationist account of the origin of life has been and remains an important idea in human culture. However it is not a scientific idea. That is, it is not open to empirical test. It is an article of religious faith.

  • The creationist account of the origin of life is not therefore appropriate to a course in the science of biology, and the claim that it is a viable scientific explanation of the diversity of life does not warrant support.

  • The Academy sees no objection to the teaching of creationism in schools as part of a course in dogmatic or comparative religion, or in some other non-scientific context. There are no grounds, however, for requiring that creationism/intelligent design be taught as part of a science course.
So, ID is not science at all. Fine. Teach it, as the AAS says, in religious classes. But what does this imply? Surely that ID is not-science, that it is, where it conflicts with science, not-true. So why should we teach it in religious classes? Are we saying to our students that religion is either false or just something that can get along with science?

The Minister might like to ponder that question, and the implications it has for the role of religion in modern society.

At any rate, I am vastly relieved to find out that the Federal Government isn't about to link funding to States and Territory education programs with a false religiously-motivated idea.