Suppose you are a high school biology teacher in the American Deep South. Most of your students are creationists. You need to teach evolution. What do you do?
What seems to be underappreciated in this debate is that, generally speaking, it’s too late. At that point, explaining evolution is like pushing students down an expert-rated ski trail when they are still falling on the bunny slopes. Before considering evolution, they need to be well-practiced in critical thinking skills. First things first.
I propose that teaching skepticism early is a path which leads out of this predicament. I’ll use skepticism as a catch-all term for critical thinking, the scientific method, baloney detection kit, etc. Substitute whatever term you believe is most appropriate.
- Skepticism is foundational. A background in skepticism is necessary for evaluating creationist claims. A conversation without this agreed-upon approach is pretty much forlorn; participants may as well be speaking mutually unintelligible languages.
- Skepticism has no prerequisites. It is readily understandable by anyone, religious or non-religious.
- Skepticism is universal. It provides a form of intellectual self-defense. It can offer protection from being swindled by pseudoscience, cults, and crass commercialism. It can prevent the adoption of conspiratorial thinking, for example the “birther” subculture, AIDS denialism, and global warming denialism. It is (desperately) needed for a more reasonable, forward-looking society.
- Minds are only changed through their own exertion. Therefore the best we can do is give students the tools which they can use to change their own minds. Besides, we don’t want them to accept our answer because we say so. We want them to work it out for themselves, like a math problem.
If a student understands skepticism but continues to hold creationist beliefs, then at least he knows the path leading out. He may not follow it, but he also knows that he’s not following it. This alone may prevent a persecution complex. Presumably the student at least understands where science is coming from; that science is not out to get him.
- Skepticism is not “accommodationism.” Promoting skepticism just means “first pants, then shoes.” If you can’t even agree on whether homeopathy is ridiculous or not, then teaching evolution is going to be difficult or impossible. Arguing about religion is going to be even worse.
- Atheists and “accommodationists” have skepticism in common. Atheists can be content in believing that their position is the logical outcome of applying skepticism to religious claims. Religious persons can be content in believing that their religion can withstand skeptical inquiry (though atheists will wonder if the religious person ever undertook such an inquiry).
- Skepticism slips through the cognitive dissonance barrier. Debating religion raises the dissonance barrier. See Mistakes were made (but not by me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. Here’s an interesting podcast on it (if you are impatient then skip to the 33-minute mark).
- Skepticism is a long-term solution. Skepticism can be introduced to young audiences, ideally as part of a formal curriculum. And the earlier the better–before the habit of credulity becomes second nature.
Bringing skepticism into schools nationally is a realistic and practical waypoint on the road to a scientifically literate society. However it runs headlong into the historical issue of local control over education which has contributed to the dismal condition of scientific literacy in America (see the second chapter of The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby).