Talking Teaching

February 19, 2012

here be dragons

Over on SciblogsNZ we had a bit of a discussion around the issue of science & belief systems. How far should scientists, & those who communicate about science, go in ‘pushing’ against strongly-held beliefs? (These could include creationism, but also beliefs about ‘alternative therapies’ such as homeopathy & TCM.)

It is an area where care is needed, because if you ‘push’ so hard that people feel their ideas are threatened, they may become defensive & those ideas more entrenched. Neither’s a desirable outcome from science’s point of view. On the other hand, in teaching about science, from time you actually need to put students in an ‘uncomfortable’ place regarding their conceptions about the world, if they’re to examine those questions critically & perhaps reshape them in the light of the new knowledge they’ve acquired. (If that doesn’t happen, then that new knowledge is likely to be learned only superficially – quickly gained & just as quickly forgotten.)

I’d like to reproduce a comment from that thread, partly because it would be good to get a discussion going around the question of how far & how best to promote a science-based world view, & partly because the comment reminded me of the late, great Carl Sagan: I’m just re-reading his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I enjoy the lyrical nature of much of Sagan’s writing, but I also like this book for it’s ‘baloney-detection tool kit’ – a set of useful questions & approaches to encourage & strengthen critical-thinking skills. 

Anyway, here’s the comment: 

[if we just accept a belief system], in the end we pass deeper into the land of moral equivalency (how dare you question my belief system – it’s as valid as yours!).

Here be dragons.

Dragons are best slain – no good comes from people attempting to turn them into pets, or ignoring the fact that they scorch the curtains and eat children.

What do you think about this?



  1. If ever there were places for writing across the curriculum, dragon territories are it:

    * Ask students to create an annotated bibliography of sources both for and against accepting the topic.
    * Assign a sentence outline for an argument essay. (Less time-consuming to grade than a paper and if done well, still clear evidence of their thinking.)
    * Have them compare the methodology and conclusions between a “for” and an “against” publication as preparation for you lecturing on rigorous thought.

    Comment by complynn — February 19, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    • I really like the idea of a sentence outline for an essay. It’s not something I’d thought of before. I’m currently developing a new paper (on ‘big ideas’ in science) & was thinking of assessing it using things like student portfolios, participation in on-line discussion of the topics, & so on. This ‘sentence outline’ suggestion is going to join my list :-)

      What’s your perspective on this whole ‘scientific worldview’ vs ‘belief systems’ thing? Good science communication is something that’s dear to my heart, & science does get a bad press from time to time. How do we communicate about science, & enhance scientific literacy, in a non-threatening way (without approaching the dragons)??

      I mean, in the wider community, beyond the classroom.

      Comment by alison — February 19, 2012 @ 2:14 pm

  2. As a thinking Christian (don’t laugh, that’s not an oxymoron) and a physics teacher, I think it is better to approach the dragons and be a little threatening. To do this effectively you need to relate to your students so that they trust you enough to know that your intentions are good and that you aren’t trying to wound them for fun.

    Comment by Sam Hight (@WatchSamFly) — February 22, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  3. […] This post is also on Talking Teaching. […]

    Pingback by here be dragons | BioBlog — February 25, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

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