Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Sadly, The London Times Also Interviewed Dawkins

A far sillier interview with Richard Dawkins appeared recently in The London Times. It is one of those gossipy items where the interviewer, a fellow named Bryan Appleyard, feels compelled to remind you constantly of his own moral and intellectual superiority to the person being interviewed. P. Z. Myers has already commented here. One point worth addressing is this exchange:

Even his most celebrated campaign — against the teaching of biblical creationism in schools — weakens slightly when challenged. It would, I point out, be madness not to teach creationism because, if you didn’t, nobody could possibly understand Darwinism. Context is everything. Again he agrees.

“I think that’s a fair point. It’s important to think historically about the historical context. I’m certainly all for that — teaching creationism as part of the history of ideas. But Darwinism is supported by evidence which is not a negligible fact.”

Myers replies:

It’s nonsense to claim we need to teach creationism. It’s like saying you can’t teach chemistry without reviewing alchemy first, or that you can’t understand physics unless you are also taught the misconceptions of kindergarten kids. The only reason it is discussed now is that students are coming to class with their heads full of rubbish, and we have to tell them which parts are wrong. But realistically, creationism doesn’t come up at all in any of my classes other than one freshman course.

I agree with Myers' statement here, but I also think Dawkins' point got a bit garbled in the interview. Appleyard is simply wrong to suggest that Dawkins' statement here represents some sort of weakening in his stance against teaching creationism. Dawkins was simply pointing out that it is important to undertstand the history of evolutionary theory along with the biological facts. Nineteenth century scientists generally believed the Earth was relatively young and that species were fixed. Students should understand why those ideas collapsed in the face of contrary evidence.

Speaking for myself, I have no objection to discussing creationist ideas in science classes if the purpose is to show why those ideas no longer hold up. I object only to presenting creationism as if it were a legitimate scientific theory on a par with evolution. I suspect that is Dawkins' view as well.

It is sometimes good pedagogy to introduce correct ideas by demonstrating their superiority over incorrect ideas.


At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I seem to recall that we spent at least a little bit of time in one science class learning about alchemy, and its relation to modern chemistry. The link there is a little stronger than the link betwen the bible and evolution, though.


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