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Jalees Rehman, M.D.

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Islam, Science and Concerns About Creationism in the Classroom

Posted: 01/01/11 08:26 AM ET

I have often been asked why we scientists are so resistant to introducing ideas such as "creation science" in the biology classroom. My first reaction is to say that these ideas are not really scientific and therefore do not belong in a biology class, and I would be similarly opposed to teaching lacrosse rules or musical "song and dance" routines in a biology class. I have also realized that one of my key concerns is the harm that teaching creationist ideas in a biology classroom can do to the development of scientific thought in schoolchildren. I will first briefly illustrate some aspects of scientific work in biology, and then I will use a specific example from recent Muslim creationist literature to show how it can be potentially detrimental for students who want to develop rigorous scientific thought. For the purpose of brevity, I will use the all-encompassing term "creationism" to describe beliefs based on religious scriptures about the development of life on earth. An in-depth discussion of the different types of creationism can be found in the excellent overview by Ronald Numbers entitled "The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design".

In my daily work as a cell biologist, most of my time is spent designing and interpreting a wide range of experiments that measure gene expression, regulation of cell signaling pathways, cellular movements, metabolism or cell proliferation. Evolutionary biologists on the other hand specialize in studying the biological diversity of species and the evolutionary process itself. They are much more likely to study genes and processes in a wide range of species. Even though the subject matter is very different between my own research and my colleagues specializing in evolutionary biology, we do share a common approach as to how we develop our scientific ideas and theories. There has been an extensive amount of literature published by scientists and philosophers about the nature of the "scientific method" and its limitations (see "What is this Thing Called Science" by A.F. Chalmers), but in simplified practical terms, most of us tend to develop testable scientific hypotheses based on existing scientific ideas as well as some preliminary experiments. We then conduct experiments to test the hypotheses and our hypotheses are either confirmed or rejected. The existing scientific models are accordingly revised to incorporate these changes. When certain aspects of the theory cannot be directly tested, we try to make reasonable inferences based on the available data. Theories are often revised and at times radically modified as newer data is obtained. This very basic description of the scientific method is used in cell biology as well as evolutionary biology or any other field of biology.

As simple as this method sounds, the devil is in the details. When we mentor undergraduate students, graduate students or post-docs (people who have completed their Ph.D. but are acquiring specialized knowledge and skills in a certain area), we have little trouble teaching them how to perform the experiments. Usually, it only takes a few months to learn how to measure the activity of genes. However, the real challenge in training budding scientists is to teach them how to think independently and how to design and interpret their experiments.

Since we humans take great pleasure in being right, scientists learn to be especially cautious when designing experiments, so that they are not biased towards confirming the hypothesis. We try to teach our students how they should separate their actual experimental data from their hypothesis, and conduct experiments that not only confirm their hypothesis, but also those that would refute it. We highlight the importance of also considering alternate interpretations of their experiments. Only such rigorous testing and critical evaluation of one's own experiments can lead to reasonably reliable interpretations. Learning how to identify our own scientific biases and separate the actual data from our interpretations of the data takes years to learn.

One thing that I have noticed, however, is that students who were already exposed to rigorous scientific thinking during their middle school or high school years have an easier time when they interpret experiments at the university level. In Germany, middle school or high school students can enter the German National Youth Research Competition ("Jugend forscht") or the German National Mathematics Competition ("Bundeswettbewerb Mathematik"), and similar competitions also exist here in the United States. In such competitions or science fairs, middle and high school students get acquainted with the scientific method. They are often required to distinguish between the hypothesis, the experimental results, how the results relate to the hypothesis and the various interpretations of the results. My personal impression is that this clarity of thought can be of immense benefit to these students if they decide to pursue undergraduate and graduate studies in the sciences later in life.

However, I am concerned that inclusion of creationism in biology classes may represent an obstacle to developing this clarity of thought in middle school or high school students. There is much discussion in the United States about the role of Christian biblical creationism in the classroom, however it is important to note that Muslim creationism is also becoming more visible. Taner Edis (The Illusion of Harmony) and Ronald Numbers (The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design) discuss the importance of Harun Yahya, a pseudonym for the Turkish author Adnan Oktar, who has written numerous books targeted at Muslim middle school and high school students and which are exported to many parts of the Muslim world. The author Steve Paulson recently interviewed Harun Yahya and describes his organization as a well-funded "media operation," which widely distributes the books and videos. An extensive list of Harun Yahya's books promoting creationist thought based on Quranic verses can be found on his website and can be downloaded free of cost. To evaluate the nature of these writings, I downloaded the book entitled The Miracle in the Ant. This book is visually appealing with very nice photographs and summary boxes, written in an easy to understand English. It covers many aspects of ants, ranging from their anatomy to their social biology and many interesting details such as the production of pheromones. However, interspersed between these scientific details about ant biology are many phrases referring to these scientific findings as being proof of the work of a Creator as well as verses from the Quran. Furthermore, the author frequently mentions the errors of evolutionary biologists since their theories cannot adequately explain the diversity of ants. Finally, the author has a book chapter entitled "The Evolution Deceit," which seems very much out of place in a book on ants, because it uses hostile terms to attack numerous aspects of evolutionary biology which are unrelated to ants. It refers to Darwin as an "amateur biologist" whose ideas were "unscientific" and would have been "banished to the dustbin of history" if certain ideological movements had not promoted them.

The tone of Harun Yahya's book (and some of his other books that I have perused) is very hostile, invoking conspiracies that promote "unscientific" ideas. He includes many scientific facts but combines them with his own interpretation of the Quranic scripture, without clarifying the differences between the actual scientific data, his interpretation of the scientific data and his interpretation of the scripture. Impressionable students who read this may not be able to distinguish between the scientific hypotheses, which have been experimentally tested, and the scriptural interpretations of the author, which have not been experimentally tested and are not meant to be tested. Such obfuscation of the types of knowledge could become a major obstacle for the development of critical scientific thought in students. Furthermore, the overall hostile tone that invokes "conspiracies" is not based on any data and presented as a fact without proof. This may not only deter students from wanting to pursue a scientific career because of alleged "conspiracies," but it may also promote a culture that allows blanket statements without critical evaluation. Authors such as Harun Yahya or his counterparts in the area of Christian creationism are of course free to believe in and promote any theory. However, I think that one of the main goals of a biology class is to introduce students in middle schools and high schools to basic knowledge in biology as well as help them develop critical scientific thought. Teaching creationism in a biology classroom may undermine these goals.

 

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