Essay:What Creationist Science Fairs Tell Us About Creationism
Now, I'm no fan of creationism. In fact, I consider it a blight on the human experience. But I'm often asked by moderates, "why should I care?" If parents want to teach their children fairy tales, and have their local public schools do the same, the argument goes, what's the harm?
This is the harm. The direct result of creationism, and the teaching thereof to children who don't know better, is the intellectual stunting of young minds who could otherwise push the limits of human understanding, but instead, find themselves corralled into the mental equivalent of a small, padded room. We should care, and the state should care, about whether our children learn science as science, and can contribute to America's perpetually science-driven economy, or whether they'll become the latest in a depressing series of armchair preachers, ranting about "flood geology." Reading the account of the creationist "science" fair, I'm reminded of how much the teaching of creationism to one's children borders on child abuse. I pray that these kids can escape from the intellectual hole into which their parents have - without their consent, and to their detriment - dug them.
What Creationist fairs tell us about creationism is how successful Creationists have been in hijacking secular and scientific vocabulary and arguments to present their own case. Living in Europe, Creationism is a rare experience for me. But seeing the arguments used by Creationists, cloaked as they are in a superficial veneer of scientific language, it's easy to see how they have been successful in persuading the young and the layman that their religion is a valid reasonable alternative. Speaking with my Anglican and Catholic scientific friends, they are astonished to see how "Creation Science" can be so dishonest - a trait they consider anathema to Christianity. They are terrified that this new wave of Creationist nonsense will be the final nail in the coffin of their precious and ancient religion as it drags their faith into the pit of ridicule.
While I'm not a proponent of Creationism and I myself have a serious problem with such garbage being taught in schools, I think that I play the devil's advocate a bit here when I argue that Atheists and secularists on this matter have an agenda in the education system no more aggressive or fierce than that of, say, any Christian parent. That the abhorrence secularists and Atheists show at Creationism being taught is the same that Creationist proponents feel at the "theory" of evolution being taught.
I know that this isn't a debate, and I may be going a bit off topic, but I have to disagree with any notion that "Creation Science" gives any less validity to religions that incorporate it. Religion has been attempting to incorporate evidence against its claims into its beliefs for centuries. If aliens came to Earth, the faithful would somehow relate the existence of aliens to their religious scriptures by pointing at a vague verse or two and say "A-hah! God created aliens, do you see?" just as they've done with many pieces of scientific evidence against their claims. A bible verse on every poster? Come on. That, or they reject the evidence, which works just as well to any faithful Theist.
Anyways, my thoughts? Well, I agree with PZ Myers: "...and it doesn't really matter how much potential a kid has — it's going to be poisoned and stunted by a carefully fostered environment of ignorance that favors the appearance of science over any attempt at genuine inquiry."
The main thing it tells me is that creationists are willing to accept poor scholarship if the conclusion reinforces their core beliefs. This is hardly a revelation, though. We should hardly expect novel discoveries from high school students, creationist or otherwise, but a minimum standard needs to be applied: that conclusions drawn flow logically from data gathered. This is what our secondary science education should be striving to teach, above all else. If a child comes to a science fair presenting an experiment demonstrating how water can cut a channel in wet sand in a short period and then made an unsupported leap to the grand canyon, projecting a ludicrously short timescale (< 1 year), this does not deserve an award. I would expect a good teacher to sit down with them, and do some simplified back of an envelope calculations with them, demonstrating the fallacy in their thinking. If the child had actually attempted a calculation of the age of the canyon from their data, or better yet chosen a sandstone river valley, trying to make sensible estimates for flow rates and noting possible sources of error, I'd be tempted to give them a prize even if their dating was +-50 million years. It's not the conclusion that's important, it's the scientific methodology employed.
Emphasising preconceived conclusions over scientific methodology is the real problem here, and it's the core problem for all so-called "creation scientists." How are they possibly going to deal with data that contradicts their good book? As a corollary, it's an object lesson in why our schools must remain secular institutions. Once we allow religion to gain a foothold in the classroom, critical thinking is the first casualty.