Do Science Educators Teach "Beliefs"?
Assistant Professor, Philosophy & Humanities, Sierra College
In the documentary, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” Dover, Pennsylvania pastor, Ray Mummert, explained his opposition to the theory of evolution by saying, “I've never appreciated the fact that my children are being taught to believe in evolution as opposed to creationism.” As educators, we would be inclined to agree with pastor Mummert, if in fact, students were taught “to believe” in it. But are science students really ‘taught to believe’ in the theory of evolution? I argue below that the use of the term “belief” obscures the crucial differences between the process of scientific explanations and the nature of religious beliefs, and a clearer understanding of both is needed for our ability to educate students about the value of science.
The term “belief” can be tricky because whether we are talking about a religious belief or a scientific theory, “belief” is synonymous with one’s acceptance of an idea. For example, if a person believes the earth revolves around the sun, it is implied that he or she considers this to be a true astronomical description of our universe. Likewise, if a person believes that Jesus was born of a virgin, then implied in that belief is the acceptance of its truth as an historical fact. But the use of the term “belief” to express our conclusions about aspects of history, the universe, and the world, tends to create the impression that all beliefs are on equal footing. What the term “belief” fails to capture is the fundamentally different processes and the different methods we use in arriving at those conclusions we call beliefs. The process by which a person believes Mary was a virgin is fundamentally different from the process by which scientists conclude that certain protozoan parasites cause malaria in humans. So, although each example attempts to assert as true some aspect reality, the conclusion about Mary is not arrived at using the same method as the conclusions scientists make about the cause of malaria.
This is the crucial distinction that pastor Mummert misses here: biology students are not so much “taught to believe” that certain parasites cause malaria per se. But what they are taught is that the scientific method of acquiring, examining, and testing evidence has established this connection that certain parasites cause a particular human disease.
Mary’s virginity, however, is not a belief arrived at through any scientific process. Christians, for example, don’t believe in Mary’s virginity because of any examination or testing of physical evidence. Mary’s virginity, like many other religious beliefs, are articles of faith. In this sense, talking snakes in the garden of Eden, man being created from dust and divine breath, the existence of heaven and hell, Jesus’ miracles, the doctrine of the trinity, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, are all believed true by most Christians, but not as an end result of any scientific gathering of evidence. Not only are they believed in a different way than scientific claims, they are not disbelieved based on the low orders of evidence in support of them. Instead, these are things Christians have faith in and are, as pastor Mummert notes, things Christians are “taught to believe.” But just because religious beliefs are taught to be true in this way doesn’t mean that all conclusions about the world are arrived at in this same way. In this sense, the theory of evolutionary, like any scientific explanation, is not something that students are really taught to believe.
The Scientific Method
So what is it that science students are taught? The first thing a student in the sciences learns is the scientific method. This comes easily to them for the most part because it’s the very way we interact with the world both as individuals and as a society. Basic social institutions such as our court system and a trial by jury function according to the methods of science. Each side in a court case presents arguments based on an assortment of evidence and reasons, and the jury is expected to come to the most reasonable conclusion based on those arguments. In medicine, doctors make diagnoses based on evidence, tests, and examinations.
Neither the jury nor the doctor is “taught to believe” any particular conclusion – instead, they arrive at these based on the preponderance of the available evidence. We all recognize the intuitive nature of the scientific method and we all use it in our normal everyday lives because the method works. Not only do we use it, we expect others to use it. Would we want juries to decide our guilt or innocence based on divine revelations? If we were diagnosed with a particular infection and given the choice between these two approaches, would we accept a doctor’s prescription of daily prayer or a doctor who prescribed a proven effective antibiotic? Educators don’t teach the scientific method as something “to believe” - instead it’s a method imperative to understand because it’s the most effective method we have available for arriving at accurate descriptions of the world.
Yet despite the intuitive nature and acceptance of the scientific method, many people balk at accepting certain scientific theories. Despite the fact that evolutionary theory is uncontroversial among the scientific community even though it is perhaps the single most rigorously tested theory in all of scientific history, only 35% of Americans in a recent poll agreed with the scientific consensus that human beings developed from earlier species of animals. So what can we say about the disconnect between the commonly understood value of the scientific method in such fields as medical science, physics, and chemistry, and its widespread disbelief concerning the theory of evolution? Why do some people accept the process of the scientific method and the theories that result from this process such as the germ theory of disease, the atomic theory of matter, or the genetic theory of inheritance, but reject the theory of evolution? And furthermore, why should we care?
If science matters, then for the same reasons, the theory of evolution matters. A prevailing theory in science simply means that scientists agree on what is the best available answer explaining the data and evidence. Whether we are talking about a species’ common ancestor or global warming, the fact that a particular theory has an established scientific consensus behind it means something undeniable – a broad-based conclusion by trained experts that the facts, evidence, and data supports as true. Evolutionary theory meets this test and that is why it is taught – not taught to be believed, but taught to be studied and understood in relation to the evidence behind it and as it participates in the scientific method.
So why should we care? Science and its method is the best available way to explain and understand our world. We will undoubtedly encounter challenges to the health and welfare of humankind on our planet. If we are to adequately handle these emerging issues, we must first make sure that our science is strong. To ensure this, science must be valued and science education must be supported. As evolutionary theory is the single unifying concept in all of biology, an understanding of evolutionary theory may not only be essential for the basics of science, it will be crucial for the well-being of our species as we face the future. We are educating the next generation of thinkers and doers. It is important for our students to not only be able to understand scientific ideas, but it is important that they understand their value as well.