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+---Topic: Education started by Louis

Posted by: Louis on July 06 2006,00:49

Dear All,

Creationists are not unintelligent.

Yes I know, shock horror etc.

Much pontificating has been done on why creationists do what they do with regards to science/knowledge. As I am much concerned about education I was thinking about an idea I'd like some input on. I'll elaborate:

The creationist "big tent" contains some very highly educated people. Dembski, for all his flaws has genuine qualifications in several subjects at post-highschool level. The same goes for the Behes, Morrises, Gishs, Meyers of this world, and many other creationists besides. We have had much discussion of how adherence to certain pre-existing religious ideologies affects creationists, we've had discussions of their apparently aberrant psychology and the excellent "Morton's Demon", we've discussed their political ideologies and commitments and a wide variety of other topics.

In short we've found many social phenomena to "blame" (and I use the word loosely) for the current crop of creationists.

I have another area to "blame": education. Since I have been exposed to the UK, US and French post school education systems, I have obviously formed some opinions about each. Whether these opinions are correct or not I leave to you guys to discuss.

My observation, particularly in the UK and US, is that the education system, particularly in schools but increasingly at universities, views education as a measurable "product". The increased use of league tables based on exam results has produced the (perhaps unwanted) effect of schools teaching kids to pass exams and not to think too deeply. In the news today here in the UK is a story about a child studying for their GCSE exams (at 16) who has been told to dumb their excellent answers down and to include certain key phrases/terms because the exam system doesn't reward original thought, it only rewards "correct" answers according to a mark scheme.

Obviously I find this abhorrent, and it is a well established trend in UK schools, it is also creeping into our universities. I also noticed the same thing to some degree in the US system, where the focus in many courses (right up to junior/senior college course I took) was in the accurate regurgitation of the assigned textbook/course notes in an exam. Obviously there are local variations in style etc, but it was the general pattern I observed particularly in these two nations.

Another outcome of this that I have observed is since we appear to be teaching kids to pass exams and not to think, is that we have a frighteningly ignorant populace bulding up. A populace that thinks there is a "right" answer to all questions, and the liberal arts/humanities style "essay question" response to a problem is the way to do things.

(Be assured I am not blaming teachers, schools, or the humanities for this phenomenon, merely the system in which these things are taught studied and the way this system has changed of late.)

What I mean by the "essay question" response is the over simplistic high school type answer in which the student demonstrates they can find references to support an argument or interpretation, and if the spelling, grammar and punctuation is ok, and the argument has some supporting references, then an A is awarded. "Smith et al [1994] say that Shakespere was written by Bacon" kind of thing. The conclusions are irrelevant  (it would appear) and the validity of the references is also apparently irrelevant. This is also reinforced by the timid politically correct culture of schools in which no student can do wrong or "fail" at anything for fear of damaging them or litigation.

I think this education method has been creeping in over the last few decades and is directly contributing to the creationist resurgence we are having. I think the evidence in part lies in the relatively widespread acceptance of creationism in the US in particular (an "answer" with no room for doubts, supported by quote mines etc), and in the style and manner in which the GoPs and AFDs of this world "support" their claims.

Obviously I think this is one contributory factor, not THE contributory factor.

I'd be grateful for tales of other people's educational experiences, thoughts on this matter, and a general discussion on what could be done in education and also what scientists/interested parties outside education can do.


Posted by: Mark Frank on July 06 2006,01:58


I think your comments about education are very astute - but I am not so sure about the link to creationism.

First on education

I have two sons going through the UK education system  and I am doing an OU degree myself (I can't speak for the US). Everything you say about essays is true and I find it frustrating - but you have to compare it to the alternative. I believe that on balance UK secondary school education has improved over the last 20 years and higher education has improved out of recognition over the last 30 years (at least in the humanities - science, maths and technology may have been OK). My OU course has its limitations, but it is far, far better than the "education" that I got from Cambridge in 1969-72 which comprised a weekly meeting with a series of postgrads who would clearly prefer to be somewhere else and some optional lectures from academics with no training or interest in education e.g. Roger Scruton who wasn't even audible. It was strictly a DIY job and much of your time was spent trying (unsuccessfully) to determine what the curriculum was. (You can see this is a sore subject of mine  :( )

The link to creationism

I believe creationism has been strong in the US for over 100 years during which time the education system has presumably changed a good deal and surely there have always been academics on the fringe of science with bizarre beliefs? What has changed is that creationism/ID has gone international, and become more politicised and organised. I would put this down to a general resurgence of religion and the extraordinary growth in communications.

A interesting post - I look forward to seeing other comments .
Posted by: Louis on July 06 2006,03:17

Hi Mark,

Yes, I agree with much of what you say, I perhaps should have made myself a little clearer. With regards to the US and creationism, it's a serious downfall of my idea that creationism in the US has existed prior to much of the "modernisation" of education.

BTW I know what you mean about the Cambridge system, I was educated in a very similar way for part of my higher ed. It suited me, but it's by no means a good method for most people, and given secondary school education today, it's downright disasterous. I would also agree that modern secondary ed is not awful, just that the way we are doing it is missing the point of education. Mind you perhaps what I think the point is and what other people think the point is differ!

I think the purpose of an education is manifold. In no particular order:
1) to produce useful and independant members of society as far as is possible.
2) to allow citizens to understand the world and systems around them, both in terms of science and the humanities.
3) to teach people how to think, not just what to think. Of course some of the "what" has to happen, we aren't going to reinvent the wheel with every kid, but I would argue the emphasis has shifted from "how" too much towards "what".
4) to encourage learning appropriate to the student doing it (W. Sanderson's "I will never admit there is such a thing as a dull boy".)

And probably a dozen things I have forgotten!

The link I am making with creationism is not necessarily causative, i.e. I am not saying that this education system makes creationists. What I am saying (I think!;) is that this reliance on the "right" answer type education and the generally "woolly" approach to scholarship/intellectual honesty most people encounter prior to 16 and 18 actually aids this type of thinking.

Obviously, as you mention, there are vastly more important causative factors, but to use a medical analogy, we are more efficiently mixing our population and thus the ideas contained in that population. We are not effectively innoculating people against certain virulent and harmful ideas. This is education as a vaccine as it were. I am not suggesting we fight off dogmatic religious bunkum by inculcating a dogma of our own. I AM suggesting that by encouraging "rote" learning and "league table" approaches to educational success we are failing to prevent dogmatic ideas proliferating.

Is that clearer? I apologise if I'm a bit waffly, this is an idea I idly had at lunchtime whilst reading the BBC site, it's isn't exactly coherently sorted out yet! (Obviously!;) What I'm looking for is someone to tell me (as you kindly have) I'm talking bollocks, or at least partially bollocks, and then hopefully engender a more profitable discussion.



P.S. Good luck with the OU degree. I'm going to do one "for a laugh" (i.e. I don't need to do it, I just want to) in my spare time in the next few years I think, depends on a few things. I don't think learning stops when you leave your grad school.
Posted by: deadman_932 on July 07 2006,19:30

Louis: I'll generally agree that rote memorization and regurgitation aspect of the modern public school system ( at least in the U.S.)  is --well, I'll dust off the old distinction between "necessary " and "sufficient" and apply it here --it's a necessary condition for the widespread acceptance and propagation of "woolly thinking" among students, but it's not sufficient to explain the totality of it, which you'll agree with, given your statements.

Mark ( I think) is describing a kind of historical particularism in that distinct developed cultural institutions create the environment for the flourishing of squishy thinking and in the case of the US, there's so many factors that go into this that it's hard to get a "snapshot" of it.
To try to forward this discussion, I'll list a few things that come to mind, in no particular order:

(1) Cultural and epistemic (hyper-)relativism
(2) Downplaying critical thinking skills in favor of "quantifiable" standardized testing
(3) Lack of adequate funding for both student and good teachers
(4) Parents that are generally too busy making a living in any case to aid in the process, even if well-educated
(5)The general fact that-- to paraphrase Feynman-- science is hard while faith/belief is easy.
(6)The exponential increase of "knowledge" that makes it daunting to even dip into
(7)A general human propensity to seek "easy answers"  even in complex situations, while the complexity/rapidity of modern life leads to generalized anxiety and concurrent desire for "simple solutions"
(8)The best interests of the class structure is to have moderately educated specialists that function with minimal complaint/unrest and can be comparatively easily placated. This comes from both the "left and the right" nowadays.
(9) Schools emphasize rapid turnover in students and publish or perish at the faculty level.
(10) A tacit popularized tendency to view "smart" as a social negative probably because knowledge is the ultimate form of power (ack, let me explain that-- I tend to define power in terms of "getting others to do what you want them to do" i.e. if I give you gold and h-bombs and put you alone on Mars, you have no "power," really...and knowledge is the sine qua non of getting others to do what you want them to, I think..but if you have other ideas on this, let me know)

Whew. Okay there's a few things to chew on that *might* explain how I'm viewing this at the moment. A simple "agriculture"  analogy:
Humans = seeds, with varying propensities that can be encouraged. (Jane likes math while John likes art more..yeah, i know this is too simplistic)
Culture = the "soil" in which they settle
People like parents, teachers, and everyone else = cultivators

All of these things interact at specific moments in time and through time (synchronic v. diachronic) to produce surges/ebbs in "magical," uncritical  thinking or conversely, skeptical ( in the best sense of the word) rationalism.
Maybe that'll help generate more comments. Maybe. :p

Cheers, Joseph
Posted by: deadman_932 on July 07 2006,19:43

I should add (after I had a beer, I looked at this) I don't view Dembski as unintelligent, anyone with multiple degrees in psych, math, theology, philosophy isn't, but I also believe that he and Behe and a few others are interesting cases. It seems to me that the majority is dragged into the "future" ( or simply ideas) by a relatively small number of people and Dembski KNOWS what he's doing. The question of why he's doing it is interesting and of course hinges on his weird psych and personal history. Now I'll have some Bushmill's and ponder the whichness of the what a bit, I think.
Posted by: blipey on July 07 2006,20:43

I generally agree with the conclusions reached by everyone else.  I am, however, a proponent of essay tests.  I think that they are the best way to evaluate what someone knows.  I think the quibble here is on how we evaluate said tests.

As Louis stated, merely making the "essay" requirement one that has a cite and a conclusion is never productive.  But, if this is the model, I don't see it as really being an essay.  The point of essay tests is (or should be) to evaluate an argument.  It is not enough to merely quote someone and leave it.  Rather, find a reference, evaluate it, state a theory and support it with logical argumentation.  This is an essay.

Here in the US there is much clamor in educational debates over "teaching to the test."  However, I think that this is a fabulous idea.  When people bring this argument, I think they really mean we "teach to the answer."  This is the flaw as I see it.  I believe it is the responsibility of educators to design tests not for answers, but for arguments.  These tests can only be evaluated by exploring what the students comprehend about a subject--a properly evaluated essay is a fine demonstration of their knowledge or lack thereof.
Posted by: Stephen Elliott on July 08 2006,05:21

Speaking for UK only.

I do not understand why we have a government target of 50% of pupils going to University.

IMO. Primary education should be mostly rote learning facts with a little more generalised education, including PE.

Secondary education should be more diverse. English, Maths and Science to a decent basic lvl, also allowing choices at about age 13+. More skills classes for the less academic.

Let children "fail" sometimes, it is a part of life everyone has to face.

I also agree with "streaming", letting children learn at their own pace.

I do believe that a lot of schools are now just teaching to pass the exam, therefore improving the schools "score".

Unlike Louis, I do think teachers bare some of the blame. Certainly not all of it (the government is No1 culprit) but some.

I find it worrying to work among so many degreed people who seem ignorant.
Posted by: Flint on July 08 2006,13:05

From what I've read that seems relevant, as well as from some personal experience and from the (stated, anyhway) educational qualifications of creationists on many boards, I've come to the conclusion that education has little impact on creationism. A poor education tends to leave its victims with two basic shortcomings: lack of as broad an exposure to human knowledge as they may have had, and lack of depth of understanding of what they are exposed to.

As an example, they can write well enough to get their points across, but their writing tends to be full of grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors, and tends to lack imagination or coherent paragraph structure. It relies on a narrow vocabulary.

This same sort of passable-but-limited mental scope is visible across the board. Some of these people are very intelligent, though, and capable of remarkable insight and depth in fields that interest them, even if their formal education may have merely glanced at them in passing.

Creationism, now, is something entirely different. It is emphatically not a matter of lack of exposure or depth, or something presented in a boring or didactic manner likely to be tuned out. By all indications, creationists have done considerable homework, paid close attention to the supporting arguments, and are characterized by strong convictions. They are suffused with a truly admirable determination to defend their convictions against the slings and arrows of uncongenial reality.

In this regard, I think we all have something to learn from creationists. If we could only understand just what it was about the presentation of the material that provoked such lifelong zealotry, we could revolutionize education as currently practiced. The problem here isn't poor education at all. The problem is rather outstandingly capable education harnessed to misguided notions.
Posted by: skeptic on July 08 2006,16:33

I'd like to offer a bit of irony to this discussion.  Louis seems to lament the regurgitation of facts style of teaching in most public schools, a sentiment that I agree with by the way, and implies that it enourages or supports the spread of creationism.  And yet current teaching of evolutionary theory at the high school and early college level is expected to be accepted, memorized and regurgitated.  No original ideas are tolerated and there are "Right" and "Wrong" answers.

I accept that this could be the product of the current debate where the ID argument is attempted to be displayed as a valid scientific argument.  Personally, I don't accept that premise but shouldn't students who are taught to think for themselves and critically evaluate an argument be able to come to that conclusion themselves?  Or are we afraid that most will just take the easy way out, a la Feynman?

just a thought, if we really want to encourage individual thinking and original ideas and teach the tools to encourage this then we have to be prepared for the products of these students.  Think of it as an example of the Rule of Unintended Consequences.
Posted by: Chris Hyland on July 08 2006,16:48

Im all for thinking for yourself and critical analysis etc, but you do actually have to teach some things as true. What I got taught about evolution was: here are the mechanisms we are aware of, here is the evidence that makes us think that these mechanisms were a major force in evolution, etc. Im really not sure whats wrong with that.
Posted by: deadman_932 on July 08 2006,17:55

Perhaps it's my exposure to real-time online debates in chatrooms that is swaying me, but I do think education is very important here. The vast majority of creationists/fundamentalists have poor-middling educations, I think I can safely say that, given the stats on this. For instance, in the Spring 1986 edition of Free Inquiry, Burnham Beckwith compiled a list of studies examining IQ and strength of religious attitudes. 13 studies found that students with higher IQ's and academic test scores tend to be less religious/fundamentalist. Most of the "studies" however were old, some dating back to the 1920's, some in the 1980's
However, Goode, Erich. 2002. "Education, scientific knowledge, and belief in the paranormal." SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 26(1): 24-27. says that while degree of fundamentalist religiosity influences susceptibility to Biblical creationism, most American researchers also contine to find that those less educated are more traditionally religious. The net effects of degree level, controlling study year, age, gender, number of science courses, college major, basic science knowledge, and attitudes... continued to predict rejection/acceptance of fundamentalist and creationist views.
A 2005 Harris Poll exploring the beliefs of American adults about evolution, creationism and Intelligent Design theory (cf. Skeptical Inquirer, 29(6), 2005, pp. 56-60 & the poll itself @< > ) reveals
64% of American adults believe 'human beings were created directly by God' ("Creationist")
22% believe that 'human beings evolved from earlier species' ("Evolutionist)
10% believe that 'human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them.' (Intelligent Design) --------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Skeptical Inquirer noted that there is a strong correlation between age, geography, politics and education and beliefs about evolution: Those with college educations, independents, liberals, adults aged 18 to 54, and those from the Northeast and West support the belief in evolution in large numbers.

The typical American Creationist is Midwestern or Southern resident who lacks higher education, judging by this data .
Posted by: blipey on July 08 2006,20:42


And yet current teaching of evolutionary theory at the high school and early college level is expected to be accepted, memorized and regurgitated.  No original ideas are tolerated and there are "Right" and "Wrong" answers.

This is a telling statement.  The role of high school education has been discussed a great deal.  I tend to agree with those who say its purpose is to introdduce the fundamentals and the very basics of research and modern ideas.  By introducing the topic, we can hope to encourage interest which may be pursued at a higher, college and university level.  Notice that I do not include critical thinking in this plan, because I believe that ALL levels of education should involve critical thinking (it is NOT education otherwise).

I would like to know, skeptic, why you do not latch onto cosmology, geology, or any other branch of science with your critique.  Surely, they must all conform to the same scutiny?  It is this silly obsetion with Evolution that makes the IDC crowd look foolish.
Posted by: deadman_932 on July 08 2006,21:55

current teaching of evolutionary theory at the high school and early college level is expected to be accepted, memorized and regurgitated.  No original ideas are tolerated and there are "Right" and "Wrong" answers... I accept that this could be the product of the current debate where the ID argument is attempted to be displayed as a valid scientific argument.

I frankly overlooked this. I find it ironic, given  that Skeptic (1) Thinks ID is invalid and (2) hasn't been able to come up with any valid "original ideas" concerning evolution as it is. We don't teach creationism/ID in public schools because it is scarcely-disguised religion. Nor do we teach numerology or phlogiston theory. That evolution IS taught as because evolution as defined in biology IS fact. This has nothing to do with any "current debates" with ID and predates it by far.
Posted by: "Rev Dr" Lenny Flank on July 09 2006,03:09

Quote (skeptic @ July 08 2006,21:33)
I accept that this could be the product of the current debate where the ID argument is attempted to be displayed as a valid scientific argument.  Personally, I don't accept that premise but shouldn't students who are taught to think for themselves and critically evaluate an argument be able to come to that conclusion themselves?  Or are we afraid that most will just take the easy way out, a la Feynman?

The problem with this, of course, is that the young children who are the target of all the ID crap simply do not know enough to "critically evaluate" them and make any intelligent decisions about what is right or not.

That, of course, is the very reason WHY the IDers target such young children, and do NOT target, say, college students.

It's like asking a bunch of six year olds whether they'd like to have broccoli and spinach for lunch, or cookies and ice cream -- and then expecting the six year olds to "critically evaluate" them and then choose the one that is best for them.

After all, the reason we educate kids in the first place is because they DON'T know enough to make intelligent decisions, or to "critically evaluate" them.
Posted by: "Rev Dr" Lenny Flank on July 09 2006,03:21

It should perhaps be pointed out that, in the US at least, the purpose of the education system isn't to actually educate anyone.  Despite all the loud noises we make about "educating our kids", the readily apparent fact is that we really don't care at all about it, and simply aren't willing to pay for it or devote the necessary resources for it.  Instead, we are entirely happy with an "education" system that does nothing more than give people the bare minimum of "knowledge" they need to successfully produce the next generation of minimum-wage service-sector workers who make our economy run.  The fact that most Americans don't know what a "molecule" is, or can't find Iraq on a world map (heck, many of them can't even find the *US* on a world map), doesn't bother us, as long as they can flip a cheeseburger and give correct change.

We are, alas, a nation of uneducated dolts who are utterly pig-ignorant and utterly unconcerned with anything that goes on around us.  (sigh)
Posted by: Flint on July 09 2006,09:18

There's a category error happening here. Yes, religious fundamentalism correlates with lower economic class, lower levels of education, etc. But we can't conclude that education would have caused a religiious conversion, or whether religious convictions cause people to avoid both education and the sorts of tasks that require education, as too uncomfortable for their faith to tolerate day to day.

Nor does this have anything to do with the overall quality of education, which at least in my experience varies widely. In the US, there are schools producing outstanding people in all fields, and other schools whose primary function is to provide as safe a babysitting service as very little money can buy. This latter category does NOT reflect "the nation as a whole", despite Lenny's complaint. Maybe Lenny attended such a school when he studied statistical distributions?

He's right that in early childhood, critical analysis is simply not possible; this requires a fairly substantial number of years absorbing both the knowledge and the processes necessary to perform one. It is during precisely these years that fundamentalism acts to circumvent subsequent motivation along these lines.

And so we learn, not very surprisingly, that college degrees in biology cause only 25% of those who went in as creationists, to question their convictions.

So if education really influences creationism, it's the sort of education one receives in the first half dozen years of life. In terms of religious faith, that's when the die gets cast.

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