Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Royal Society Blues

Couple of related yet disjointed thoughts on this matter of Michael Reiss having to resign from the Royal Society for suggesting that "science teachers should treat creationist beliefs 'not as a misconception but as a world view'".

He wasn't suggesting that creationism should be treated as an interpretation of human development that was of equal validity to evolution - alternatives between which students should choose freely between in some kind of post-modern intellectual supermarket - so one is inclined to agree with those who have suggested that his resignation/dismissal represents a response completely out of proportion to what he actually said.

In particular, I'd agree very much with the spirit of what Chris Dillow had to say on the subject, which is - if I've understood correctly - is something akin to JS Mill's defence of free speech, even in the face of ideas and doctrines that we know are false. Against Plato he argued that the threat posed by limiting discussion by threat of legal force was greater than that of the truth being extinguished in public debate because in the former social arrangement, what can be verified with argument and evidence runs the risk of turning into a dogma that its proponents cease to defend rationally.

So of course teachers should engage with students who raise such questions. However, I'd have to add a caveat or two. One presumes that Reiss is suggesting the formalisation, the institutionalisation, of this engagement in some form? There's a problem with this of a fairly practical nature. One would be that it limits the judgment of the school and the teacher.

Lemme give you an example. In my field, one of the challenges to a rational approach to history and politics that one encounters is that of the conspiracy theory. It absolutely has to be challenged but the question is how and to what extent one should do it. It depends on the circumstances. My own approach is to deal with the whole evidence-free, emotion-rich, paranoid characteristics of the conspiracy theory. I am simply not prepared to waste classroom time arguing the toss about the specific details of the latest 9/11 conspiracy for example. I'm also disinclined to discuss things like this at all if I think the individual in question is simply wasting my time and/or is so fanatical in their beliefs as to be impervious to rational argument and evidence. It's not that uncommon. The question is, how to deal with it? Sometimes you talk about it, sometimes it's appropriate to close conversations down. It's a balance that is difficult to strike - no doubt we get it wrong on many occasions, but I have not the least doubt that any attempt to routinise the practice even in the most limited way would make this more difficult than it already is.

There's more but I'll come back to it...

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