Creationism in the UK education system

I’ll admit to feeling a little smug when reading the rash of recent creationism/ID scare stories from the US recently. “Well, us Brits might not be all we’re cracked up to be,” I thought, “but at least we don’t have those problems over here.” Turns out I may have been making false assumptions. PZ ‘Pharyngula’ Myers linked to an online version of a story that a co-worker pointed out to me in the print-version Guardian that claims over 30% of university students in the UK subscribe to either creationism or intelligent design as their explanation for the way nature is.

It’s an alarming article. The Grauniad has a recently-gained reputation for publishing deliberately inflammatory stories but, as far as UK papers go, it’s one of the most trustworthy, so I’m assuming there’s a decent basis of fact behind it. The scariest bit, for me, is as follows:

“In the Opinionpanel survey, nearly 20% said they had been taught creationism as fact by their main school. Most thought it would be best to teach a range of theories, but nearly 30% of those who supported creationism felt that pupils should learn about creationism alone.”

Whoa. That’s really not good.

The alarming thing is that many of these students are studying science subjects, stuff based on empiricist data and the scientific method, logic, reasoning and evidence. And as the article says:

“The findings come as little surprise to Roger Downie, professor of zoological education at Glasgow University. Two years ago he surveyed the views on evolution of biology and medical students there. “What was extremely worrying for students embarking on evidence- and science-based disciplines was that they were perfectly prepared to say they had rejected it not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of their religious beliefs,” he says.”

So, basically, they’re teaching kids who are fully aware that if they give the right answers in the exams, regardless of what they actually believe to be true, they’ll pass the course. This could explain why this country is so short of scientists and technicians. They didn’t care what the degree was, as long as it looked good on the CV.

Regular readers will know that I’m a pluralist. In other words, my philosophy is generally summed up as ‘believe what you want, but leave others to make up their own minds’. I’m anti-evangelist, sure, but what you do in the privacy of your own church, home or skull is no concern of mine. Just keep it out of other people’s hair – if your religion is such a hot property, surely the lost will come looking for you, right?

I’m starting to think it’s time to revise that view. No, I’m not going to go all militant on science – if only because I believe that would be counterproductive, and indeed would cause more of these backlash reactions of faith-based reasoning. To religious mindsets, science seems like just another religion – and how many religions do you know that are really tolerant of other faiths? (Apart from the core beliefs of non-militant Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism, I can’t think of any. Quelle ironique.) A rise in fervent religious faith is going to be bad news for rationalism – because rationalism is, and has always been, the enemy of blind faith.

That’s not to say all people with religious beliefs are anti-science – indeed, I know someone whose mother is a microbiologist, but attends church every Sunday. Her view is that evolution et al is something that God set in motion, a part of the ineffable plan. Seems a little strange to me, but demonstrates that religion doesn’t have to exclude empirical evidence and the scientific method.

So, is this really a big deal? Should we be worrying about this here in the UK? I don’t watch TV, but I’m sure I’d have heard about a sudden rash of fire-and-brimstone televangelists by now. Furthermore, the British character would seem to be the ideal innoculant against proselytism – we’d rather sneer at people who disagree with us from the safety of our own front rooms. And after all, it’s no more irrational than some of the incredibly weird things that some Brits choose to believe in, things that may or may not be anti-science. I can’t see any mobs burning laboratories in the foreseeable future…not religious mobs, at least. *

No, my principle concern is about the educational standards in this country, a subject that I have addressed before. What this really underlines, far more than the penetration of religious belief into society, is the fact that a degree from a UK university is nothing more than a pricey piece of paper that certifies you are willing to spout what is expected of you for three or for years, in the hope of getting a better job at the end of it.

How can it be valid to give someone a degree in a science subject when they openly confess that everything they have been taught to recite is contrary to their beliefs? That’s a little like giving a mechanic’s qualification to someone who thinks that cars are powered by little gremlins on a set of pedals, and that all the stuff in the engine block is just a hoax to fool the faithless.

The revelation (sorry) that creationism is being taught in some schools is also pretty frightening. Kids are impressionable by nature, and an indoctrination into specious illogical rubbish at an early age isn’t going to do the overall savvy of the population any favours. But then, judging by current trends in government, that may be the intent of allowing it to happen – ignorant people vote for sock-puppet politicians far more readily than people who have been taught to question appearances and easy answers.

I’ve always been proud of my pluralism, and I’m loathe to give it up now. But I think it’s time to get a bit more vociferous and argumentative when issues pertaining to the conflict between faith and reason come up in conversation. The world’s not in a pretty state right now, and that’s largely due to the power-mongers pulling the strings of those they know best how to manipulate. And the easiest to manipulate are those who cling to dogma, in defiance of any evidence that contradicts their assertions.

I want this world, and this species, to have a future. If there isn’t some sort of general consensus on the scientific method being valid, I may as well start building my own rocket to the asteroid belt right now – because there’s little chance a religion-based government is going to go into space for any reason other than to make it easier to stomp on infidels.

* For full disclosure, I am against unnecessary animal cruelty, and indeed have protested against the use of animals in cosmetic studies, but I can see the necessity of animal research for truly important science. But I still believe that deciding whether or not a mascara is safe to release to the public is not necessary research, and never will be.

5 thoughts on “Creationism in the UK education system”

  1. As a student at university this doesn’t exactly surprise me and it doesn’t stop at the students. My research skills and methods tutor (a Canadian) came out in one seminar with “the whole creationism / evolution debate is ridiculous, they’re both just theories and neither one is better than the other” to which there were murmurs of agreement from several students around the room (one of which was Swedish, one Hungarian and a couple of Brits)
    When I tried to point out that, yes they are both theories, but there’s a massive difference between them because while evolution is backed up by over a century’s worth of painstakingly collected and corellated evidence, creationism has no evidence whatsoever in its support I was greeted with snorts of derision and a debate about different epistemology’s having equal validity.
    Bollocks, to be blunt. A theory of knowledge that rejects all evidence and uses as its only text a myth-mash of highly edited codswallop like the old testament is not an epistemology, it’s a type of blindness brought upon by brainwashing as a child.
    Admittedly this incident took place in a Politics seminar, but it was a political science course where the aim was to teach students reasearch skills, y’know, how to evaluate evidence. Scary stuff.

  2. Good call, Rosie. This is something I’ve heard of before – there are a lot of mutterings of this sort over the pond, where the latest weapon of the creationist/ID movement is to deploy postmodern deconstruction upon science and its works, trying to discredit it as ‘historical knowledge fascism’, or some such rubbish.

    I’ll admit to not having a full understanding of postmodernism (but then again, can anyone have it, by definition?), but it seems to me that the entire core of the idea is that of ‘suspicion towards metanarratives’. That premise may well be used to attack science as ‘an equally (in)valid epistemology’, but surely by logical extension the same reasoning must be applied to almost any religious doctrine, which as you point out should suffer far more heavily through having no empirical evidence to back it up.

    A part of me wonders if this isn’t simply a manifestation of the traditional intellectual rebellion of persons in their late teens and early twenties – you know, that whole ‘flirting with ideologies that are certain to upset the mainstream’ gig. Then again, maybe I’m just trying to kid myself that things aren’t getting nasty.

  3. When you build your rocket, aim it at Mars — not the asteroid belt. There’s more gravity and more water there. That is, unless you have some kind of plan to launch asteroids at Mars’ south polar ice cap to jump-start a pressure-building and heating atmospheric terraforming process, then follow them to Mars to finally set up shop. Oh, yeah, and give it another seat: I want a ride. Seriously. I want out of here (being a USian, that is).

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