Field of Science

Science education versus religious thinking

A recent commentary (Science Education and the Future of Humankind) by Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, asks, “Can we modify our educational system so that all high school graduates emerge with a science way of thinking?”

And of course he calls upon scientists to get involved especially in educating science teachers. Who can actually argue with this? No question about it, teachers are the key component, especially those in elementary education for two reasons. One, they reach kids during formative stages, and two, they are among the most woefully poorly trained to teach science.

Now I’ve recently commented on increasing the amount of science in liberal arts core curriculum, but I’m not going to hold my breath about any change there. We can probably teach teachers to become better at instructing science, but not without drastically changing the way we educate teachers. Teaching is a profession. Can you name any other profession that does not demand post-graduate education? Part of the problem is that teaching gets the shorted in terms of educational demands. How can anyone become proficient in a subject area and proficient in a profession is a 4-year curriculum? I maintain that it is not possible, although many teachers do manage to do a fine job, it is in spite of their education not as a result of it. Teachers should earn a regular BS/BA degree before embarking upon professional study to become proficient in teaching.

But even this isn’t going to solve the problem because deeply rooted religious beliefs are antithetic to scientific thinking. All those people who seek accommodation between religion and science are on a fool’s errand because very few religious practices are fully compatible with science (Unitarians being the one obvious exception).

I have seen the conflict first-hand in too many students. If they accept an evidence-based way of thinking, their religious experience is threatened and they find themselves faced with accepting ideas that they do not believe or want to accept on the basis of their religious beliefs. If faith is important, then evidence is not, and vice versa.

In a senior seminar class of mostly biology majors I presented a lesson on the morality of stem cell research. I am careful not to present anything that might be considered my position. Most agreed that human life began at conception, except one Jewish student who said it begins at birth. I had them seek information and discuss other ideas of when human life begins. As they got more sophisticated and were exposed to more different ideas, many of them modified their positions as they gained knowledge, for example, in the UK embryos less than 12 days old are used because up until this time twinning can occur. This one simple fact was very significant to many students, as was the idea of brain death and the commencement of higher level brain activity at around the 25th week of development. However a few dogmatically stuck to their guns (“life begins at conception”), forcing them to ignore or dismiss any information that ran counter to their religiously-based positions.

Pitting scientifically based learning in school against religious indoctrination at home and at church will only increase the divide and probably generate more pressure to publically fund religious schools or allow people to opt out of public school taxes on religious grounds.

Lederman is one smart guy, but he hasn’t been down in the educational trenches in a long time, if ever, and he just doesn’t know what most people are thinking.

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