Creationism's far from unintelligent design on our schools

The real problem with "creationist schools" is not their attitude to science, says Nelson Jones.

 

I knew a creationist once.  He believed in a literal Adam and Eve and in the Tower of Babel, yet claimed to find natural selection implausible.  He was no-one's idea of a knuckle-dragging, inbred redneck, either, but went on to gain a first class degree from Oxford.

He could argue me under the table, and often did, since with the naive overconfidence of youth I imagined that I might somehow be able to alter his mind by presenting it with facts.  Small hope.  His sharp, subtle, trap-like mind was entirely dedicated to defending propositions that had been obsolete since the middle of the nineteenth century.  He knew all the rhetorical tricks and could deploy them with ease, weaving straw men with the skill of a master hatmaker from Montecristi. 

So I've never made the mistake of underestimating creationists. Creationism may be stupid, but creationists are not - or at least need not be.  It may well take a special sort of intellectual dexterity to maintain beliefs so out of keeping with the modern world as the notion (held by some but by no means all creationists) that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.  This may help explain why creationists can prove so effective at political manipulation.  Even so I never imagined that in Britain, unlike in the United States, we would ever see them plant their foot in the door of political or social influence.  Or run publicly-funded schools.  It's disconcerting, to say the least, to learn that at least three of the first batch of free schools, established as a result of education secretary Michael Gove's initiative, have backers behind them of known creationist sympathies

One of them, Grindon Hall Christian School in Sunderland (previously a private institution) has a statement on its website that, while not insisting on young earth creationism, declares a belief in the "inerrancy" of Scripture and promises to "challenge vigorously the unscientific certainty often claimed by scientists surrounding the so-called Big Bang." The language it employs is quite nuanced, but it doesn't take too much reading between the lines to work out where they may be coming from.  They are "very happy to believe that God could have created the world in six days" but "do not feel it is helpful to affirm it as unarguable fact".

It's not helpful if you want to set up a school with government funding, certainly. The Department for Education is quite clear that creationism - a religious, not a scientific, opinion - cannot be taught in science lessons as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.  Another suspected creationist establishment, Sevenoaks Christian School, states on its website that while it plans to teach in RE lessons that God made the world "and is pleased with his creation", it is "content to accept" the DfE's  stipulation for biology lessons.  As it must be if it wants to take the money.

For some people, this is enough.  Anyone objecting to creationists running schools as such, regardless of what they say they will teach in biology classes, runs the risk of being called a secular fundamentalist.  The respected Christian blogger known as Church Mouse suggests that the British Humanist Association's campaign against the schools amounts to "hysteria". Taking at face value the schools' declaimers, he asserts that none of them is a "creationist school".  He suggests that opposition to them in motivated by two things: the political campaign against the Gove reforms (including the very concept of free schools) and the wider secularist dislike of state-funded faith schools in principle.  

Similarly, the Telegraph's Damian Thompson, while fully accepting that creationism is "pseudoscience", sniffs out something of a "witch-hunt" motivated by an "ultra-secularist" mindset that would see religion swept out of public sphere entirely.

There may be an element of truth in such claims.  The BHA does indeed campaign against state-funding of faith schools.  Pro-secularism campaigners have more than just creationism in their sights.  There are however good reasons to be particularly suspicious of creationism, which doesn't merely deny scientific facts but comes with a wider agenda. Hence the notorious "wedge" strategy, followed with some success in parts of the United States.  Ostensibly this aims to present evolution and creationism (or its more subtle variant, intelligent design) as competing and equal theories, and thus to persuade or require schools to "teach the controversy", even though there is no controversy.  The ultimate aim is "to see design theory permeate religious, cultural, moral and political life." 

Britain may be more resistant to the classic "wedge" manoeuvre.  DfE guidelines leave little or no room for it in science lessons.  Instead, we find creationists and their sympathisers appealing to principles of diversity and respect for deeply held religious conviction.  In Northern Ireland recently, the Evangelical Caleb foundation successfully (as least at first) persuaded the National Trust that the perspective of the creationist "community" deserved to be represented at the Giants' Causeway exhibition.  Likewise, creationists on the British mainland may be willing to concede on the limited question of science education if it enables them to provide schools whose more general ethos is anti-scientific.

Creationists have a problem with science, of which evolution is an integral part, because they see it not as humanity's search for truth about the universe but as a materialist, atheistic worldview in fundamental opposition to their understanding of Christianity (or indeed Islam).  A "secular" worldview that also encompasses such things as reproductive rights for women, respect and equality for gay people and a religiously neutral approach to lawmaking.  (One wonders what sex education will look like at creationist-run schools.)  As mainstream religion sheds adherents, the more fundamentalist strains, including creationism, become proportionately more significant and influential. Furthermore, they are adept at attracting publicity, and so increasingly come to represent "religion" in the public mind. Involvement in education is one way of gaining respectability and profile.

The real problem with letting creationists run schools is not that, given half a chance, they would fill children's minds with fake science and inaccurate information about the world.  This matters, of course, but people managed to get by quite happily for centuries believing that the sun revolves around the earth (as it clearly says in the Bible, though few "Bible-believing" Christians insist on it today).  In any case, they won't be allowed to present creationist ideas as "science".  No, the problem is with all the other stuff they believe.  A school with a creationist "ethos" would an unwelcome proposition even if no teacher there so much as mentioned the Book of Genesis.

Adam and Eve. Photo: Getty Images
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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