Every society that’s ever existed has felt it necessary to have creation myths. Why should I believe one? People write to me and say: “You show us birds and orchids and wonderful, beautiful things – why don’t you feel you should give credit to He who created those things?” My reply is: what about a parasitic worm that’s boring through the eye of a four-year-old child on the bank of an African river? It confuses me that I should believe in a god who cares individually for each and every one of us and could allow that to happen.
– Sir David Attenborough, The Observer Magazine, 20 January 2008
The subject was raised at a Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education meeting, where it was stated that Creationism and Intelligent Design are likely to be discussed in RE lessons because children will ask about them. Suffolk’s SACRE will be providing guidance on this.
We’re aware that some teachers and others in education circles are sympathetic towards Creationism and Intelligent Design because their religious beliefs lead them to ignore or misunderstand the evidence for the theory of Evolution. We are strongly opposed to any suggestion that Suffolk schoolchildren may be given a false impression in RE lessons that Intelligent Design is a “theory” of equal value to the theory of Evolution.
We’re aware that a worryingly high proportion of British people think that Intelligent Design, or Creationism, is an explanation for life on earth. We’re aware that an increasing number of teachers report that they’re challenged by students who won’t accept Evolution theory, making science lessons very difficult. We’re aware that university science departments are finding that science students are arguing that Darwin was wrong. This trend simply demonstrates a general scientific ignorance.
There is a strong case for training RE teachers in basic science. One of the arguments that’s been used to justify credence in Intelligent Design is that “Evolution is just a theory”, which demonstrates a lack of understanding about what is meant by scientific theory.
Stephen J. Gould explained theory and fact:
In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”
Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.
Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.
Prof. Jose Wudka explains what’s meant by a scientific theory:
In popular usage, a theory is just a vague and fuzzy sort of fact and a hypothesis is often used as a fancy synonym to “guess”. But to a scientist a theory is a conceptual framework that explains existing observations and predicts new ones. For instance, suppose you see the Sun rise. This is an existing observation which is explained by the theory of gravity proposed by Newton. This theory, in addition to explaining why we see the Sun move across the sky, also explains many other phenomena such as the path followed by the Sun as it moves (as seen from Earth) across the sky, the phases of the Moon, the phases of Venus, the tides, just to mention a few. You can today make a calculation and predict the position of the Sun, the phases of the Moon and Venus, the hour of maximal tide, all 200 years from now. The same theory is used to guide spacecraft all over the Solar System.
A hypothesis is a working assumption. Typically, a scientist devises a hypothesis and then sees if it “holds water” by testing it against available data (obtained from previous experiments and observations). If the hypothesis does hold water, the scientist declares it to be a theory.
The British Government has issued clear guidelines about the teaching of Intelligent Design in science lessons; it’s not science, so it won’t be taught. We need equally clear guidelines about how Creationism and Intelligent Design are discussed in RE lessons.
If you teach RE in Suffolk, or you’re likely to, and have any questions or comments, please email us. All communications are treated with strict confidence.