Petition to Scottish Parliament; no state-funded creationist teaching. Draft text; comments requested

DinoPicAa

Dinosaur pulling cart; detail from book handed out to Scottish primary school children in a non-denominational school last September

Below, the first draft of a petition being submitted to the Scottish Parliament. For background on the petition process and the role of the faith-neutral Scottish Secular Society, petitioners, see here. For examples of some of the extraordinary events that make this petition necessary, see here, here, here, and here. For samples of the kind of thing that makes all this necessary, see here and here.

Petition: to bar the teaching in Scottish publicly funded schools of separate creation and of Young Earth doctrines as viable alternatives to the established science of evolution, common descent, and deep time.

We petition the Scottish Parliament to instruct the Education Secretary to issue guidance to schools and colleges to prevent the teaching of creationism[1]  and related doctrines as viable alternatives to established science. Nothing in this request precludes the discussion of such doctrines in their proper place, as part of the study of ideas, neither does it nor can it infringe on individual freedom of belief. For purposes of clarification, we respectfully offer provisional draft language that would meet the case.

The most remarkable thing about this petition is that it is necessary. Evolution, meaning the common descent of living things and their change over time is, and has been for generations, the unifying concept of the life sciences, and is so recognised by all major scientific Academies and by repeated references in the Curriculum for Excellence. The deep time necessary for this evolution had been recognised by Scottish geologists over a century earlier. There is wide agreement that Scotland’s future prosperity depends on science-based industry, based in turn on our strong tradition of research, especially biomedical research.

Yet over the past few decades, this established science has come under attack, inspired by the importation from the US of the doctrines known as creation science, flood geology, and Intelligent Design. These maintain, respectively, that scientific findings should be judged according to their compatibility with biblical literalism, that the entire geological record is the product of  a world-wide flood and other events within the past few thousand years, and that the repeated operation of mutation and selection is incapable of generating new significant information. Such doctrines require the wholesale rejection of modern cosmology, geology, planetary science, and biology along with much of present-day physics and chemistry. Nonetheless, we know that they are being presented in schools as viable alternatives to these established sciences.

For many years, voices within the educational community have been asking the Scottish Government for guidance on how to deal with these threats. In reply, the official answer, from Government ministers and from the SQA, has always been that such matters can safely be left to the judgment of individual teachers and school Heads.

This, unfortunately, is just not true. There have been numerous incidents of pupils being taught creationist doctrine as fact, the most egregious being the events at Kirktonholme where the entire school assembly was given books stating that evolution is a lie promulgated by those who hate God to justify their own wickedness, and that dinosaurs coexisted with humans and may even have been used as beasts of burden. Representatives of openly creationist churches sit as unelected church nominees on Local Authority education committees, many school chaplains belong to creationist churches (this was true not only of the chaplain unmasked at Kirktonholme, but of his successor), and it is customary for schools to have many-membered chaplaincy teams on which creationist churches are represented. There are even anecdotal reports of school science teachers negotiating (!) with their colleagues in religious Education to ensure that creationism is not taught as true doctrine. Thus there is no doubt that guidance we seek is necessary. Moreover, as long ago as 2010, such guidance was requested by the teachers themselves through their representatives in EIS and Association of Secondary Teachers. Events since then only underline the wisdom of responding to these requests.

We have no wish to restrict the discussion of creationism as part of the study of religious or other ideas. We therefore suggest as a possible model the following language, which loosely follows the lead of that now in place in agreements between Churches and the Department for Education in England:

Pupils must be taught about evolution as firmly based science, and not presented with ‘creationism’ as scientific fact or as a valid alternative to evolution.

‘Creationism’ here means any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution.

Pupils should also be taught about the age of the Earth on the basis of established science, and not presented with Young Earth scenarios as credible alternatives.

This guidance is not intended to inhibit discussion of beliefs about the origins of the Earth and living things, such as creationism, in Religious Education and other cultural studies, as long as they are not presented as valid alternatives to established science.

Previous action taken to address the problem discussed: for many years, interested parties have been asking the responsible Government ministers, and the SQA, for clarifying language. The response in all cases has been that such guidance is not necessary, on the grounds that official inspections have uncovered no evidence of creationist teaching and that the matter is best left to the good judgment of the teachers themselves. This even when the request for guidance has come from the teachers’ representatives, as documented in the Herald of Sunday 10 Oct 2010, which reported that

Ann Ballinger, of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, urged ministers here to clarify the situation, while the EIS union said authorities should ensure teachers knew their position regarding intelligent design in the classroom.

(Intelligent Design in this context is the doctrine that current science cannot account for biological complexity without recourse to the [presumably supernatural] intervention of a designer, and is almost invariably, as in the case of the leadership of Glasgow’s Centre for Intelligent Design and in the very title, Uncommon Descent, of the Discovery Institute’s newsletter to the “Intelligent Design community”, accompanied by denial of evolution and common descent, and misrepresentation and ridicule of its scientific underpinnings.)

On 4 November 2010, Roderick Gillespie on behalf of SQA wrote to Prof Braterman as follows:

We note your comments about explicit guidance on the teaching of creationism and Intelligent Design (ID). There is no evidence from HMIE school inspections or other sources to suggest that creationism or ID is currently being taught in schools in Scotland….

Under Curriculum for Excellence, there is an expectation that young people will be able to engage in well-informed debate around moral and ethical issues, be able to discuss the scientific evidence and be aware of other theories. Teachers would use their professional judgement and respond positively to any questions from pupils about these issues…

It is expected that most teachers would be prepared to respond positively to creationist theory questions raised by pupils, and to lead any further discussion.

More recent correspondence has been equally inconclusive and unhelpful. For instance, on 1 October 2913, in the wake of the Kirktonholme scandal, SSS wrote to Mike Russell saying:

We ask that you declare immediately that creationism and intelligent design are specifically excluded from the educational setting outside of RME classes, and that appropriate action including formal guidance is issued to all schools to underpin your statement.

AllenLetterOct2013EdIn reply, Alastair Allen wrote on 29 October on his Department’s behalf to Carolime Lynch, then Chair of SSS, saying

What is taught is at the discretion of the school or the head teacher based on the eight areas within Curriculum for Excellence. I have no doubt that all teachers have the capacity and wherewithal to intelligently answer questions from young people about creation.

Thus all possible attempts to obtain the necessary guidance, either from the SQA or from the responsible Ministers, have been made and have produced no result.

Attachments:

A)    List of statements supporting evolution from scientific Academies, religious organizations, and others

B)     Statements from SQA and from Government ministers denying the need for guidance

C)    Summary of evidence of creationist activity and of creationists in positions of influence in Scottish schools

[1] Creationism here means the separate creation of different living kinds. No objection is being raised to discussion of the overall belief in God as the ultimate creator. Similarly, by Intelligent Design we mean the oft-refuted claim that natural processes cannot generate the kind of new information required for evolution. This claim should be distinguished from the respectable philosophical position that sees the operation of the Universe as a whole as the working of Providence.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on June 23, 2014, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Perhaps a broader term than “biomedical science”, at the end of paragraph 2…?
    We have such a diversity of fields of innovation!

    (Just a thought – not important in the big picture.
    Haven’t yet read all.)

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  2. Hi I’d be inclined to put quotation marks where you’ve written creation science, lest there be any doubt at all that it ain’t science.

    The first paragraph was a little confusing as well. It was ambiguous about whether it meant discussions of ‘creation science’ as an idea or just the creation stories and ideas as metaphors or early beliefs or whatever in the proper places. I’d be inclined to word it more strongly so it was clear that it was the creation stories as beliefs/metaphors or literal fact only that was allowed not the idea of those beliefs having their own ‘science’.

    Only thought that cos I have a defunct AS RE book from our RE dept and when it mentions the ID arguments it mentions the Behe type stuff. Best not give loopholes to allow that ‘evidence’ in as part of a discussion.

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  3. I am also doubtful whether evolution needs to be defended so carefully. Even if a series of massive discoveries overturned our understanding of evolution tomorrow, Noah’s Ark would still be ludicrous.

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    • Our understanding of evolution, like our undrstanding of gravity, has indeed undergone momentous changes over time. However, I expect a three-fold attack on this petition, with C4ID wielding the trident: (a) evolution is not established science, (b) creationism isn’t being taught anyway, and (c) restricting creationist teaching is an imposition on individual religious belief. Remember that we’re drafting for debate in the political arena, not a learned journal. Also, there are many varieties of creationism that don’t involve absurdities as blatant as Noah’s Ark.

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  4. Don’t actually have time to read it all now. I hope to return to it later, but in case I don’t, just a note on this: “established science of creationism[1] and related doctrines”. I had to read that sentence a couple of times; it initially seemed as thought creationism was being described as “established science”. I’d suggest rephrasing as:

    “We petition the Scottish Parliament to instruct the Education Secretary to issue guidance to schools and colleges to prevent the teaching of creationism and intelligent design (are there any other “related doctrines”?) as viable alternatives to established science.”

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    • Thanks. Well spotted. Sentence now reads: “to prevent the teaching of creationism [1] and related doctrines as viable alternatives to established science.” the reference to “related doctrines” is to pre-empt relabelling, which the creationists do with great skill. Creationism to creation science to intelligent design to exploring alternatives …

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  1. Pingback: Keeping creationism out of Scottish schools; the long, long paper trail | Eat Your Brains Out; Exploring Science, Exposing Creationism

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