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British Humanists campaign to restrict academic freedom

This week has seen the launch of a new website, with the title: "Teach evolution, not creationism!" registered by the British Humanist Association. The issue relates to education and the way the subject of origins is handled. The organisations in the campaign are the British Humanist Association, the Association for Science Education, the British Science Association, the Campaign for Science & Engineering and Ekklesia. There are 30 individual signatories and most publicity has been given to Sir David Attenborough. The Daily Telegraph's report said that "The naturalist joined three Nobel laureates, the atheist Richard Dawkins and other leading scientists in calling on the government to tackle the "threat" of creationism." What they want is "enforceable statutory guidance" that will allow legal sanctions to be taken if any publicly-funded school allows creationism or intelligent design to be presented as science. The only point science teachers would be allowed to make would be to declare these topics out-of-bounds for science students. The joint statement reads:

Creationism and 'intelligent design' are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. There should be enforceable statutory guidance that they may not be presented as scientific theories in any publicly-funded school of whatever type.
But this is not enough. An understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. The teaching of evolution should be included at both primary and secondary levels in the National Curriculum and in all schools.

Should students be taken for a ride in a school bus by Dawkins? (source here)

The key features of the statement will be familiar to ARN readers. The statement takes a demarcationist view of science: they hold the view that science can be clearly distinguished from non-science and that creationism and ID are definitely outside science. Furthermore, they consider that the state has the responsibility to preserve the purity of science education by providing enforceable statutory guidance. In particular, the campaign is concerned that the teaching of evolution is not getting the emphasis it deserves: they view evolution as central to all aspects of biology and they want all schools to be teaching it at primary and secondary level.

The UK media coverage explained the campaign in some depth. The Daily Telegraph quoted Andrew Copson, chief executive of the BHA, who said: "the threat of creationism and 'intelligent design' being taught as science is real and ongoing, particularly as more and more schools are opened up to be run by religious fundamentalists". The Daily Mail said: "Those behind the call for 'evolution not creationism' say teaching that God created the world is dangerous and must be prevented by law." The Guardian reported: "The Department for Education says all schools must teach a broad and balanced curriculum, and creationism should not be taught as scientific fact. But a spokesman for the British Humanist Association (BHA) said: "That's precisely what we want to be monitored.""

Two organisations were highlighted in the Campaign's Position Statement as examples of what they are complaining about:

"Organisations like 'Truth in Science' are encouraging teachers to incorporate 'intelligent design' into their science teaching. 'Truth in Science' has sent free resources to all Secondary Heads of Science and to school librarians around the country that seek to undermine the theory of evolution and have 'intelligent design' ideas portrayed as credible scientific viewpoints. Speakers from Creation Ministries International are touring the UK, presenting themselves as scientists and their creationist views as science at a number of schools."

These two examples illustrate the paranoia that is afflicting the BHA and its collaborators. Neither of these offending organisations are departing from the Government guidelines about how creationism and intelligent design should be treated in schools. Truth in Science put a statement to this effect on its website here: "Truth in Science [. . .] has never advocated the teaching of creationism in science lessons in schools. It has consistently advocated, promoted and distributed materials that encourage a more critical approach to the teaching of Evolution as an important component of science education, allowing individuals to follow the evidence wherever it leads." The guidelines do not prohibit the development of critical thinking skills when evolutionary concepts are taught, and there is no shortage of evidence suggesting the textbooks are imposing theory based on ideology rather than grounding theory upon evidence. The CMI response is found here. The trigger for this complaint goes back to May 2011, when a CMI speaker was invited to speak to students at a Religious Education study day at a Church of England school in the city of Exeter. The students also heard a different view from another visiting speaker, designed to stimulate debate. This is also perfectly compatible with the government RE guidelines which encourage teachers to give students opportunities to explore the issues. However, of all the media reports, only the Guardian was prepared to represent the views of these two organisation:

"Truth in Science denied advocating the teaching of creationism in schools. "We wish to highlight the scientific weaknesses of neo-Darwinism and to encourage a more critical approach to the teaching of evolution in schools and universities," it said in a statement.
Creation Ministries International was unavailable for comment."

At this point, most normal people will wonder what all this fuss is about. Why this campaign - when the two prime examples are compatible with government guidelines? Why the apoplectic comments about "threats" and why are they insisting that teaching "that God created the world is dangerous and must be prevented by law"? To explain this, it is necessary to see the relevance of their demarcation arguments. They deem it vital to show that creationism and ID are delusions that belong outside science. They are not prepared to contemplate a situation where scientific arguments are used to falsify the evolution of molecules to man. Yet this is what they are faced with: arguments about information that allow design inferences to be made (as here and here); arguments about the fossil record that falsify gradualism (as here and here); arguments based on exquisite design rather than 'tinkering' design (as here and here), and so on.

The only way such discussions can be excluded from science is to redefine science. This is exactly what the humanists/atheists are seeking to do. This means that they are re-framing science so it fits their philosophical preconceptions. This results in them wanting to trample all over the academic freedom of people (teachers, parents, students, scientists) who do not share their philosophical stance. The ID community has drawn attention to these issues repeatedly, as in this past ARN blog. Here is a recent example from Dr Alastair Noble, Director of the Centre for Intelligent Design, UK.

"You might rule out an explanation which invokes intelligent mind because it does not fit within the ideological naturalism which is invading science. In that case you're no longer doing science, but have adopted an overarching philosophy of nature into which you then try to fit the data - a faith position in effect. [. . .] If the science of origins cannot be debated freely, in schools or anywhere else, then it's not creeping creationism we should be concerned about, but galloping intolerance."

There's much more that needs to be said. What is needed though is a wider debate. Until parents, educators and scientists generally see the practical importance of these issues, we face the prospect of a small elite group imposing its will on the majority by influencing policy-makers, journal editors and science organisations. We need academic freedom in schools, colleges and universities, but unless we stand against the thought-police, we have only ourselves to blame when we lose it.

First written for The ID Report by David Tyler

More blogs on academic freedom:

Tyler, D. An appeal for authentic science studies, ARN Literature blog (5 February 2010)

Tyler, D. "Darwin's golden retriever" portrays ID as an assault on science, ARN Literature blog (5 June 2009)

Tyler, D. How to move beyond damaging pestilential wars, ARN Literature blog (15 February 2009)

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