Presenting the evidence just isn’t enough (From a talk given some time back shortly before retirement from the position of Head of Science at a Local High School)

Bill Peddie

In his book Unpopular Essays, Bertrand Russell claimed that although he was fully aware of the notion that the human is a rational animal, despite years of searching for supporting evidence for that assertion, he could find none. For those hoping to batter the creationist opponents of evolution into submission with logical rational argument, Bertrand Russell’s comment should at the very least sound a note of caution.

As a second year student in zoology at Canterbury University, more years ago than I care to remember, I went armed with my genetics evolution notes to a lecture which had the intriguing title Darwin Debunked. The lecturer was the Roman Catholic chaplain and Thomist scholar, Father George Duggan – and his talk even today would stand as a good example of creation science at its thoughtful best. What puzzled me was how, after his talk, despite having the zoologists and geologists in the audience tear his arguments asunder with devastating counter examples, this Rhodes scholar and trained Catholic thinker was totally unmoved.

It was much later that I gradually came to realise that where matters of faith and cultural belief are concerned, there is too much at stake for conventional argument to produce a shift in position.

Let me illustrate with three examples.

On several occasions, Jehovah’s Witnesses have arrived at my door and unsuspectingly offered me literature which I have previously checked out for myself. The pattern has usually been that sometime later they escape in disarray, I suspect thankfully, promising to return with the answers to the questions raised. They do not return – and yet it is a hollow victory because my visitors can be seen with the same neat little sports jackets, the same briefcases no doubt still containing the same flawed literature; and wearing the same smile of the truly saved, walking up the front paths of houses in the same neighbourhood the very next weekend. One-on-one tutorial teaching does not necessarily lead to total success.

My second example is from a transcript from an interview I had with a seventh form Polynesian pupil. The transcript included the following exchange.

Me: How old do you think the earth is?
Pupil: Six thousand years old.
Me: And the universe?
Pupil: The same.
Me: If someone was to give you very strong evidence that the world was older than that – and that for example there was geological evidence there was no flood of the size that would cover the world – how would you react?
Pupil: Evidence like what?
Me: Annual tree ring data going back seven or eight thousand years for the bristlecone pine – examples of annual deposits of ice layers which when counted give values into many thousands of years, fossils which from every test appear very ancient and radioactive dating of rocks leading to estimates of not millions but billions of years: – those sorts of things for the age of the earth. And then for Noah’s flood – the fact that the scientists have calculated that you would need to have three or four times the total amount of water in the sea, atmosphere and under the earth in order to cover the highest mountains like Mount Everest.
Pupil: (there was a pause, then…) Well, I would have to say that God is greater than that. But I am glad you told me about that – because if someone had hit me with that on the street – if I was, say witnessing – I would have been stuck dumb. I don’t know about that sort of thing. Now I can get ready with an answer.
Me: But it wouldn’t change what you think about the age of the Earth.
Pupil: No!

My third example of another attempt to educate those with a built-in resistance, comes from a few years ago by courtesy of physiologist professor Roger Short of Monash University. After discovering 27 percent of his first year medical students held a creationist view, he gave eight lessons on evolution to his class and retested them. Despite having completed an assignment on the subject matter of the lectures he found no change in the creationist views.

What crystallised my thinking on the nature of the problem was an interview I did when I was a few months into my PhD study into the nature of the creation/evolution debate. In the course of this interview a Maori studies lecturer made the comment that the ultimate in alienation would be to be a Maori evolutionist.

When I protested this with the counter example of Rangi Walker’s son who is a well known zoologist and one who as far as I know still accepts a concept of evolution my informant’s reply was instructive.

“To the extent he believes in evolution he is not a Maori.”

Group Identity
This reply suggests a way of looking at the debate. For many, the position taken on the debate is more one of identity with a group who are associated with a viewpoint than it is with a rationally constructed, evidence based position. I am not even convinced that this is itself entirely irrational behaviour. After all if your family – your whanau – has a discernible set of characterising beliefs, and you think it is important to identify with that family, that religion, that culture, is it simply a question of logical analysis to cut yourself off from the group by questioning what you believe to be one of its underlying major tenets? In today’s politically correct age it is ironic that those who bay for the creationist blood of fundamentalist Christians fall uncomfortably silent when asked to consider the creationism so much part of the thinking of many Maori and Polynesians.

Not the Desired Effect
As already stated, the first surprise for the teacher with creationist pupils of the more extreme sort, is that the usual classroom rehearsing of a few well chosen facts supporting evolution does not have the desired effect on those alienated by their belief system. The second problem is that such is the fervour of the strict creationist camp that their leaders have taken the trouble to assemble the most detailed and documented case which is both technical in flavour and at least superficially plausible. They will, for example, quote figures to cast doubt as to the reliability of radioactive decay figures, talk glibly about astrophysicists’ problems with the speed of light, and quote examples where apparently old rocks show signs of recent formation. And they have amongst their number some surprisingly well educated and well qualified supporters. It is true that they have few who are actually doing research or who are specialists in the areas they quote, but criticising them for basing their case on much that is second hand and interpreting science in amateur ways is not the way to deliver the knockout punch.

With some degree of embarrassment, might I dare suggest that familiarity with research and logical analysis may not even always be a central plank of the acquired wisdom of the proevolutionary camp. After all even amongst the Skeptics I am prepared to guess that there are some who would accept the validity of radiochemical dating of rocks – and yet perhaps never have handled a Geiger counter – or without having the faintest idea as to the relative merits, limitations and likely error bars of carbon dating or of Potassium-Argon dating, Uranium Lead dating or fission track analysis. There would be those who accept the idea of pre-hominid ancestors without having seen the fossil collections – or even without having the faintest idea of how the process of identification is made.

Methods of Study
Let’s face it – a huge percentage of our knowledge comes from received, predigested knowledge. The sources of knowledge for the “creation scientist” are admittedly different but the methods of study are proabably sufficiently similar to explain why apparently otherwise well educated people can be found sincerely claiming that the Earth is of the order of six thousand years old. It is important to remember that this hard-won so called knowledge is based on hours of study of a different literature and unquestioning acceptance of the textbook assertions of such worthies as Duane Gish, Henry Morris, Ken Ham or for that matter the apparently authoritative and profusely referenced claims by the anonymous authors of those nicely printed Watchtower publications.

Unfortunately, although in my view science teachers may know their conventional science in their subject disciplines from university they are ill prepared to identify the characteristics or for that matter the dangers of the pseudoscience of creationism as it is sometimes introduced into our schools. For example I received an extraordinary document through the mail one time entitled “Understanding The Young Earth Model”. Yes I have spotted plenty of serious errors and misinterpretations of mainstream science in this publication which incidentally is called a “science teacher resource booklet”. But you have to remember I have a relatively recent PhD in the topic. A first encounter with the claims – especially by one unfamiliar with the quoted sources may well produce understandable confusion. Many of our science teachers have no geology in their degrees and it is possible to get right through a university science course without coming up against the raft of evidence which supports such things as an acceptance of the ancient past for the universe and the old Earth.

They are not to know that the PhD in the qualifications cited by an author come from the same university that Ian Plimer once told me had, with his connivance, for the not inconsiderable sum of US$19, inadvertently awarded a Doctor of Divinity to the slobbery blue heeler cattle dog that belonged to his next door neighbour. Unless they are very well read, nor are the teachers likely to know which of the creationist assertions are founded on thoroughly discredited experiments or total misrepresentations of the literature.

Human and Dinosaur Footprints
For example a few years ago impressions of human footprints were reported as being found beside dinosaur footprints in the Paluxy River area in Texas. The creation science case was not helped when one of the creation science assistants reported that he had witnessed the Reverend Dr Carl Baugh carving out some new fossil human footprints by torchlight. The Paluxy River findings of human footprints are now considered of no consequence by the paleontologists but they still surface in creationist literature.

In a number of instances I encountered evidence of what is at worst deliberate intellectual dishonesty or at best extremely sloppy and ill-informed research techniques on the part of the leading creationists. In one of his lectures in Auckland, John MacKay supported his case by quoting from a book by Derek Ager entitled The New Catastrophism. He underlined the significance of Ager’s comments by stressing the authority of the book, posing a rhetorical qustion: “Who of you has had a book published by Oxford University Press?” Unfortunately for Mackay, the copy in the University of Auckland (which incidentally claims to be published by the Cambridge University Press) has a preface. There in bold type is the disclaimer –

“…in view of the misuse my words have been put to in the past, I wish to say that nothing in this book should be taken out of context and thought in any way to support the views of the “creationist”, who I refuse to call “scientific”.”

The existence of creationist influences in our schools raises some fundamental questions about the role of the school as an agent of society. If you are teaching in a comfortable white middle class suburb away from a bible belt enclave or marae the worst you are likely to encounter is a weekend missionary visit offering you a chance for spiritual enlightenment. If you are teaching at the type of school which demands a signature attesting a fundamentalist acceptance of bible literalism as a prerequisite for employment – or you are teaching in an area where the parental customer base represents unquestioning acceptance of Adam and Eve and the Noah flood and the board of trustees is known to have a bible literalist or creationist stance, it is legitimate to question how far you should take heed of in loco parentis. For me with my training in science – and a formal higher degree in science education with a focus on this very debate, there is normally no contest. I am totally convinced in the case for evolution. I personally find the evidence overwhelming as I believe is the case for believing the Earth was created vastly earlier than 6000 years ago. In making room for a discussion of the extreme form of “creation science” it is a little like being asked to condone those wishing to waste my pupils time with a case for the flat Earth, fake cures for cancer or career guidance by astrology, I do however concede that since we have to teach pupils as they are rather than as they should be, the probability they have either already encountered or at least are likely to encounter this set of beliefs make it more reasonable to tackle the problem. Since they have to learn what constitutes pseudoscience as well as good science there is also a case for arguing for creation science as a case study.

I also believe that as a science teacher I have a responsibility to fairly represent mainstream science views and attitudes and not imply a justifiable case where none exists. But when it comes to deciding – as I had to decide a few years ago – whether or not I should share my understanding with four Exclusive Brethren pupils when I knew that the penalty for heresy for them might be being ostracised by their family, I was less confident. The point is that even if the teacher sees “creation science” or its new equivalent “intelligent design” as being almost devoid of redeeming features, I believe we owe pupils and their families the right to choose their own religion and own place in society. I must also stress that for many teachers the debate is likely to be a non-issue. It is really only in those schools where the contributing community contains a significant number o Bible literalists or vehement creationists intent on spreading their message in the schools that there is likely to be an issue for the teacher.

The regulations governing what happens in schools are of little help. While the education act safeguards the right of university lecturers to raise controversial issues and question cherished beliefs (with the possible exception of revisionist histories of the holocaust) there is no such clear direction for teachers at the secondary level.

What then should the teacher do to deal with someone offering creationist literature to the school or offering to come in and share creationist assertions with his or her pupils.

For what it is worth main word of advice is that the teachers should make themselves thoroughly familiar with the nature of the literature. I first entered the arena assuming it was just a question of assembling the conventional evidence a la the prescription and thereby overwhelm the counter case. I rapidly discovered that there is a difference between evidence derived from a pseudoscience and that of the more conventional scientific literature. I found it helpful to my students to teach them how to read such evidence critically. The way I used such material in the classroom was to demonstrate how science can be misrepresented.

I also believe that teachers should be sensitive to the fact that they may be dealing here with matters of religious or cultural belief and avoid direct confrontation where it is possible to do so. My personal answer was to introduce some geological and astronomical principles early on to my pupils and leave the evolution of man till much later in the piece. My own preferred strategy is to show a variety of simple methods for establishing the world is very old and inviting the pupils to draw their own conclusions as well as conveying the majority point of view. This might include showing photographs of varves, annual and daily ring formation in coral deposits, speed of light data from distant stars and galaxies and a highly simplified account of radioactive dating.

I would give examples of variation in species, then examples of observed speciation. In the senior school I used the examples of new species including the cichlid fishes,(which produced a new species in a part of Lake Victoria cut off by a landslide, the new flower Primula kewensis which spontaneously appeared in Kew Gardens after a doubling of the haploid number of chromosomes of the parent flower and the ring species of the Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls in which the overlapping species can interbreed in colonies around the world but by the time they are met up round the other side are sufficiently different not to interbreed.

I found even year eleven form pupils are fascinated by skeleton photos of related species and hominid and pre-hominid fossils.

I also gave simplified accounts of protolife experiments such as those of Urey and Miller – and the Fox experiments.

After this I believe the pupils were more ready to make some of their own judgements about evolution when it is formally studied.

I also think that whatever the religious belief of the teacher it does no harm to point out that most mainstream religious believers now accept evolution. If I was asked I made no secret of the fact that I was a lay preacher in the Methodist church and had no problems with reconciling my interpretation of the bible with my scientific understanding of an ancient Earth and processes of evolution.

I think that whatever the constraints of the exam prescription, science teachers  have an obligation to teach the difference between pseudo science and science. Where creation science is helpful is to highlight for senior pupils how science can be misrepresented.

Finally rather than lament the entanglement of science, education and entrenched world view we might do worse than allow the last word to John C Greene.

“I am convinced that science, ideology and world view will forever be interwined and interacting. As a citizen concerned for the welfare of science and of mankind generally, however, I cannot help but hope that scientists will recognise where science ends and other things begin.”


  1. Hans Weichselbaum says:

    Well said Bill. I am still struggling with this whole nonsense. I grew up in Austria as a Christian, like everybody else there (that was half a century ago). I studied chemistry, lived in Europe for 30 years and never came across somebody who believed that the universe was 6000 years old.
    Only after coming to an English speaking country (first South Africa and now New Zealand) did I become aware of this issue. As you said, it is a cultural thing. If your social/church environment denies evolution, then no logical argument, no evidence will sway you.
    If somebody says that the universe is 6000 years old and we ask them why they come to this figure, the answer often is “because the Bible says so”. I accept this reply and we can carry on questioning this premise (what in the Bible do you have to take literally? That the earth is flat? That the earth doesn’t move? …). But if that person comes with arguments such as “evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics”, or “carbon dating gives false results” then he or she has stepped on scientific ground and must follow the rules of scientific arguments: the rules of logic and evidence. And if evidence and logic point the other way, then the creationist has to accept the outcome and move on.
    These people are out to destroy science. I don’t care about the older ones. They can believe whatever they want, but it’s the children I do care about. They are being brainwashed, often home schooled to keep them away from that little bit of science they are exposed to in our school system. Once they hit university, or once they start using their brain, they either mistrust science or they drop their religion because they have been told that the two are not reconcilable. Creationists talk a great deal about science, but they distinguish between ‘secular’ and ‘Christian’ science. In the latter the conclusions are already fixed. If it doesn’t agree with the Bible it is automatically wrong. That’s not how science works. I always thought that the fact that science is peer reviewed, that it is self-correcting, that alone must convince everybody that science leads us to the real truth about the world.
    But that is obviously not the case. In my opinion there should be more emphasis in our school system to teach children about the scientific method, how scientists work, how they develop their theories, and the history and development of science, especially over the last 400 years. At the moment children get exposed to little bits of chemistry, physics, biology, astronomy, which most children find boring. They just want to pass the exams and by the age of 15 they get the option of simply dropping science.

    • peddiebill says:

      Thanks for this comment Hans. You present a coherent summary of the same situation I faced as a teacher. If you think it is bad in New Zealand you should visit the US or some countries in the Middle East where whole populations in some areas assume that accepting evolution is an assault on their faith.
      Unfortunately once such a situation is reached, there seem to be few options for altering the view.

  2. Hans Weichselbaum says:

    Thanks Bill. I am currently doing research and, hopefully, will start next year towards a thesis in philosophy of science. I would like to get actively more involved in the science curriculum here. Please let me know if you hear of any talks or meetings involving the creationist/evolution issue. Thanks.

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