Religion in the science classroom

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Not that anyone asked, but I disagree with the above tweet. It’s not what you think though – I’m not for a second advocating teaching creationism in place of or even in parallel with evolution. Nor am I trying to placate fundamentalists. However, trying to remove religion from science is akin to trying to remove people from science – impossible and, ultimately, unscientific.

 

Tyson emphasises the importance of scientific literacy. Scientific literacy, although problematic to define, is a vital goal for science education. It is impossible to be fully scientifically literate without an awareness of the cultural and other factors driving the research and discoveries of science. Ignoring the contextual motivators and filters of both scientists and students neglects a crucial variable in scientific experimentation.

 

Take, for example, Albert Einstein, who epitomises science and scientists for many people; a phenomenal scientist and thinker. However, he disliked the concept of quantum mechanics, dismissing it with the statement below. Brought up by secular Jewish parents, he later described himself as agnostic. However, his views of God, whether explicitly rooted in a particular religion or not, may have influenced his repudiation of quantum theory, as indicated by this quote:

God doesn’t play dice.

Rather than attempting to distance science from humanity in the classroom, students should be familiarised with the gloriously messy nature of science, people and all. Quantum mechanics itself can be applied here – Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle outlines the impossibility of measurement without changing the observed quantity or object.

 

While the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, the creationist lobby can also quote scientific (or pseudo-scientific) studies. It is difficult to resist the seduction of figures and data surrounding us, not only from religious bodies but from businesses, governments and countless other sources. Statistics just seem so reassuringly solid, don’t they? But all is not as it seems. Critical thinking, a vital part of scientific literacy, is needed to wade through the initially persuasive numbers no matter their source. We ourselves, as readers, also carry our own preconceptions, religious or otherwise that may influence our integration of the scientific information into our world view. So, students need to be encouraged to consider cultural, societal and religious impetuses in order to fully evaluate concepts and make scientific decisions.

 

By all means, lets bring religion into the science classroom. Accept that scientists are people and not Gods, and are thus, sadly, often fallible. That’s okay, but instead of pretending that we shed all earthly thoughts when conducting experiments, students (and teachers and scientists and everyone else) need to evaluate external and internal influences.  It is important to aim for value-free science, of course, but scientifically literate citizens must be conscious of the potential influences of religious and other societal contexts on the scientist and on themselves. We might not be able to fully understand or control these influences, but critical assessment of these variables can only improve scientific literacy. So, in respectful disagreement with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am convinced that, in relevant science lessons, evaluation and discussion of religious doctrine can promote scientific literacy.

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