These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.
[THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON JUNE 7, 2000]
Creationists’ Approach: Separating Fact and Theory
Increasingly, believers in biblical literalism say schools should teach both evolution and creation. As the Tangipahoa (Louisiana) school board said in its “creation science” policy (overturned last year in federal court), students should “exercise critical thinking and gather all information possible and closely examine each alternative toward forming an opinion.”
John Walker, a pastor sponsoring a charter school soon to open in Rochester, says, “Like with all theories, we say, ‘Examine the evidence and decide.’ “
And the Oklahoma textbook commission proposed placing a note in texts, “No one was present when life first appeared. . . . Therefore, any statement about life’s origins should be considered as a theory, not fact.”
This is reasonable. We should adopt the creationists’ approach. Indeed, if we dismiss claims that evolution is only theory, it shows how poorly we learned science in school.
In science, facts are only what we observe. Laws describe patterns of facts, theories explain the patterns. There can always be alternative explanations, but the best laws unify available facts in the simplest ways, leave the fewest possible facts unaccounted for and do not require assumptions of unobserved phenomena.
Many common “facts” are actually theories. Is it fact that the earth is nearly a sphere? Until astronauts saw the globe, it was only theory, the simplest explanation for facts like the ability of world travelers to arrive where they began, without reversing course.
There could be other theories — the earth could be flat, with invisible forces transporting travelers backward. But this would not be the simplest explanation. It requires facts not observable (invisible forces) and does not account for other facts (like tides) that we can see.
Yet children might usefully be taught to make up their own minds if the earth is flat. Students could list facts needing explanation, and explore alternative theories to organize them.
In science, laws and theories are revised when new facts become known. Evidence was recently reported challenging an accepted theory popularly thought of as fact) that high-fiber diets protect against colon cancer. If data continue to support this challenge, the theory will be discarded because, like evolution, it was “only a theory” in the first place.
Evolution is science’s simplest explanation for observations of fossils and genetic structure. It can accommodate new facts — like the recent find of a dinosaur heart that may lead scientists to revise their understanding of bird evolution. The revision should be the simplest explanation for newly discovered facts.
Adults do not need to know details about evolution, like whether Australopithecus preceded Homo habilis. But with good science education, all would appreciate that evolutionary theory is based on gathering evidence, recording, categorizing and summarizing data.
Good science teachers emphasize empirical investigation. Sophisticated lessons are those in which, for example, teachers guide fourth graders who try to figure out why some toys float better in salt water, or bicycles rust in the rain. These teachers show children how to record observations, develop hypotheses, test them and revise them as new data are added.
This differs from typical teaching, in which students do (or watch) “experiments” that yield expected results. In truth, these are not really experiments which, by definition, manipulate phenomena when results are unknown in advance.
Of course, science study must include memorization of many theories for which children cannot gather much data. Classrooms cannot reproduce all of Isaac Newton’s observations that led to theories of motion, or of Copernicus’s observations that suggested a sun-centered planetary system. But a danger is that in learning settled theories, children leave school believing them to be facts.
Older students should learn that, like religion, scientific rationalism is also a belief system — a belief that testable and simpler explanations are always preferable. Otherwise, graduates will fail to appreciate how scientific method depends on empirical observation.
Paradoxically, fundamentalists opposed to having children make up their own minds about history, math and literature issues have seemingly endorsed a scientific spirit of inquiry for the origins of species. Schools should take them up on it, and endorse teaching students to form opinions about which creation theory more economically organizes data.
There may be an unexpected benefit from creationists’ attempts to bring Bible stories into classrooms. If religious conservatives become converts to teaching critical thinking, examining evidence and entertaining alternative perspectives, they will have lessons to teach us all.