Science, Schools, and Scientism

School science is different from research science.


But this obvious truth seems out of the grasp of some commentators on the creation/evolution controversies.

Here’s what I mean:

School science is not simply science that goes on in schools.  School science is, like all school subjects, inextricably bound up in the necessarily complex process of formal education.  As such, it is inseparable from questions of morality, authority, sexuality, religion, and culture.

Anyone who has ever spent time teaching in a K-12 classroom knows this.  The formal curriculum is only one element of the constant intellectual ballet in which good teachers engage daily.  Teachers are responsible for considering everything about their students.  Are they tired?  Do they speak English?  Do their parents help with their homework?  Is this content too easy?  Too hard?  Easy for some, hard for others?  Is this a good time to introduce new material?  Is this a compelling way to introduce it?

These questions are only tangentially related to the curriculum as dictated by district, state, Jesus, or any other entity.

Nevertheless, this obvious fact is consistently ignored by participants in the creation/evolution debates.

To cite just one example, the witty and engaging science pundit Jerry Coyne often condemns the “accommodationist” tactics of science educators at the National Center for Science Education.  In one recent essay, for instance, Coyne denounced the “purely political” and “purely tactical” argumentation of NCSE leaders Eugenie Scott and Kevin Padian.

Coyne’s implication is that science should not be muddied with such non-scientific thinking.

Fair enough.  But this demonstrates the difficulties of the debates.  SCHOOL SCIENCE must necessarily be discussed in political terms.  And pedagogical terms, and developmental terms, and publishing terms, and scheduling terms, and moral terms, and historical terms, and ethical terms.

Asserting that such things are not scientific, and therefore not part of a proper science classroom, is only itself a political argument.

For those of us interested in education issues, it can be frustrating to see the ways this simple truth can be ignored.  Recent writing from all sides, for example, does not address the ways “science” is not the same as “school science.”

One essay by Steven Pinker in the New Republic, for example, defends the role of science against charges of overweening “scientism.”

Another article in First Things defends religious conservatism against charges of anti-scientism.

For those of us interested in understanding the cultural meanings of science, these are all worth reading.  But they do not help much when it comes to understanding the debates swirling around school science.

School science needs a different language.  School science—as a school subject—cannot be separated from ideas about morality and youth.  It cannot be separated from notions of proper ethics, proper family structures, or proper activities for young people.

For example, we spend time fussing and feuding over whether or not it is good to teach evolution.  Such debates are worthwhile, but they can lead to dead-ends, cultural trenches whose walls no one can see over any more.  If we want to make real progress teaching good science in real classrooms, we need to talk about a wider range of topics.  We need to discuss where it should fit in a curriculum.  How it will be introduced.  What ideas will be emphasized, at what ages.

As the old cliché goes, teachers don’t teach academic subjects, they teach children.  And the complexity of teaching decisions will necessarily be as complicated as the nature of each individual child, crowded together into classrooms with dozens of other infinitely complicated children.

We need a more distinct language with which to address these issues.  This is not simply a question of “Science,” “Religion,” or “Scientism.”  This is a question of teaching young people.  It must allow room for the full complexity of the process.

This is not a plug for creationism.  This is not a plug for teaching watered-down science.

This is a plug for a more effective language to discuss school science.  A plug to recognize the distinct nature of school science and to stop wasting time saying school science should be something it is not.  It is nonsensical—except as a political ploy—to bemoan the fact that creationism is a religious idea and therefore improper in a science classroom.  If students have religious ideas about science, those ideas will automatically be part of a science classroom, whatever research scientists or science-education experts may say.

Classrooms do not parcel out bodies of information the ways research laboratories at the Universities of Chicago or Cambridge do.  In schools, knowledge is always tangled.

Maybe we need Professor Pinker to add another target to his subtitle.  In his recent essay, Pinker directed his “impassioned plea” to “neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians.”

I would like to see an impassioned plea about the complicated nature of school science addressed to school-board members, classroom teachers, PTA members, research scientists, and activist religious folks.

Telling such people that “science” does not include religion has been a losing strategy for over a century.

Why?  Because “school science” does indeed include a host of other ideas.

Spilling more ink cramming school science into the procrustean bed of research science will not help.



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