Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Religion and Science Education

Beautiful images - in this case, a volcano erupting - are definitely a great way to start a conversation about science, but also a great way to start a controversy.  Available via NASA's Earth Observatory.

Some of the tensest times working as a science teacher in any capacity are when subjects like the age of the Earth or evolution come up.  When the content in a classroom intersects with (and runs counter to) deeply held beliefs, life can suddenly get really difficult.  In particular, in my capacity as a sort of 'unofficial' teacher without a set curriculum or state guidelines to follow, I always have a little bit of internal debate about just how controversial a topic I want to teach.  Because, while I love teaching science to kids (and I think that the fact that the Earth is over four billion years old is really cool) I'm not a huge fan of dealing with irate parents and guardians.

The mere fact that this is a problem, though, is part of why science education and literacy are so crucial.  It's no secret that conversations between the religious and scientific establishments can get nasty in a hurry.  Like so many public debates, the most extreme voices on each side seem to dominate the whole proceeding.  The result is hurt feelings on both sides.  Scientists feel that their important - environment-preserving, paradigm-breaking, life-saving - work is lost in a chorus of religious backlash.  Religious groups feel that their concerns are responded to with condescension and dismissiveness (after all, in the words of Richard Dawkins, God is a delusion).

If, as a society, we're going to solve a problem like global warming, we need a lot more than just scientists.  That means that communications between a large group of Americans, like conservative Christians, and scientists have to get less acrimonious in a hurry.  By increasing scientific literacy by improving science education, it will be easier to communicate the necessity of reducing carbon dioxide emissions or the benefits of solar power.  Plenty of the children who go through science education through the next few decades will grow up to disagree with scientists on subjects like evolution.  But if we increase the number of adults who understand the scientific method, it gets easier and easier to facilitate civil conversations dominated not by extreme voices, but by people who are prepared to negotiate the boundaries between religion and science with respect and purpose.

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