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Implementing Methodological Secularism: The Teaching and Practice of Science in Contentious Times

Implementing Methodological Secularism: The Teaching and Practice of Science in Contentious Times

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Implementing Methodological Secularism:
The Teaching and Practice of Science in
Contentious Times

Author: David E. Henderson
Implementing Methodological Secularism:
The Teaching and Practice of Science in
Contentious Times

Author: David E. Henderson

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11/09/2013

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105
6.Implementing Methodological Secularism:The Teaching and Practice of Science inContentious Times
David E. Henderson 
T
he central problem or public secularism has been identied by Cobern
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asa philosophically naked public square. In this chapter, I shall pursue thistheme urther in three areas. These are, rstly, the problem o philosophicalsecularism; secondly, how the science courses I have been developing with thesupport o the Institute or the Study o Secularism in Society and Culture(ISSSC) meet Cobern’s our rules or implementing methodological secularismin the classroom; and, nally, how we can advance this debate.Here, I shall consider the specic question o whether the current intellectualbattle over science—a battle that pits science against religion in the U.S.—isreally necessary.
Philosophical Secularism: Science or Religion?
Cobern’s ormulation o two orms o secularism is quite compelling. Hisdistinction makes sense, and it provides a mechanism to identiy whensecularism is on a sound scientic and philosophical ooting, and when it is not.It creates a useul parallel between two kinds o secularism and the two kinds o naturalism, philosophical and methodological, practiced by scientists. Clearly,all science must operate at the level o methodological naturalism. We cannotinvoke God or things we dont yet understand. And a religion that depends onplacing God in the gaps will struggle as the gaps are closed by new scienticdiscoveries. However, philosophical naturalism, like philosophical secularism, isnot a position that can be tested by scientic experiment. It is, rather, a mattero aith.Richard Dawkins has been a leading proponent o philosophical secularism
 
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S
eculariSm
& S
cience
 
in
 
 the
21
St
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entury
in the scientic community. He has popularized the powerul biology o randommutation and natural selection as a kind o scientism. It should not be calledDarwinism, however, since Darwin would certainly not recognize it as his. A moreaccurate term would be “Dawkinism.” As a scientist, I nd Dawkins’ argumentsunconvincing. Science cannot prove a negative. When scientists make categoricalnegative statements, e.g., “there is no God,” “Chlorofuorocarbons (CFCs) arecompletely sae or the environment,” and “Bisphenol A has no negative eectson humans”—one needs to be alert. Absolute positive, exclusionary statements,such as “random mutation is the only mechanism o speciation o lie,” alsocontain the same untestable character. And trying to extend the beautiul theory o Darwin beyond biology does a disservice to the science.I made the above statements about two chemicals to show the danger o categorical negative statements. In the 1970s, CFCs were seen as perectly saeand were viewed as some o the most ideal chemicals or their applications. They  were non-toxic, long-lasting, and inert. By the 1980s, evidence was growingthat they were disastrous to the stratospheric ozone layer. The 1989 MontrealProtocol has led to their gradual elimination. Scientists estimate that it will take50-100 years to undo the damage we have done with these chemicals. Thereis growing evidence that Bisphenol A, which is ound in the blood o 96% o the American population, has clear negative eects on the hormonal systemo people. Recent ndings suggest that there are at least three major negativeeects: early sexual maturation, obesity, and Type II diabetes.
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One need only look at the statistics on these problems to suspect a causal link exists even thoughit has yet to be scientically proven. We all ingest Bisphenol A when we eat anddrink things that have been stored in common plastics and metal containers thatare lined with plastics. It is detectable in virtually all canned oods and beverages.The US-EPA’s decision, in the late 1990s, to begin regulating hormone mimicsis a classic example o how questions no one ever thought to ask can lead to new science. The FDA has not yet ollowed suit or ood packaging and Bisphenol A,but pressure is mounting or it to take action.In the case o evidence or God, it is not clear that science has the tools toeven ask the question o whether a supernatural, spiritual entity exists. I science isthe study o the “natural,” then it almost by denition excludes the supernatural.How could a scientist develop the condence to assert that there is no God? Ibelieve it is only scientically tenable to say that, given the tools at our disposaland the experiments we have been able to conceive, we have not ound any positive evidence or God. A scientist who makes a categorical negative statement,about God or anything else, is not speaking as a scientist but making a statemento aith, belie without evidence. This is especially true i our universe is part
 
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mplementing
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ethodological
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eculariSm
o a space-time with at least 11 dimensions, o which we directly perceive only our, as proposed by String Theory. Philosophical naturalism is always suspectdue to its insistence on negative (and hence unprovable) statements. Similarly,philosophical secularism is a aith system rather than something supported by scientic evidence.Francis Collins, Director o the Human Genome Project, argues in his recentbook 
The Language of God 
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that there is evidence or the supernatural based onthe existence o the Moral Law among human cultures and the human quest orthe sacred. While one can argue with his logic, the act that Collins even makesthis argument demonstrates that scientists are not in complete agreement aboutthe absence o evidence or God. This may explain why a signicant number o scientists are also believers.
Science Curriculum
The second question I wish to address is: How can a science curriculum meetthe needs o the average student in college or high school? What should students who are not going to be proessional scientists know about science? This raises adeeper question o what science is. I would argue that the core o science is the
 process 
we use to determine which observations and theories are closest to thetruth, and which should be discarded. By “process,” I don’t mean the stylized“scientic method” that appears in the opening chapter o most science texts.Rather, I mean the messy process o argument and confict between competingideas and between competing evidence: the nuts and bolts o science. Science isa human activity, and the progress o science is accompanied by all the oibleso humanity: pride, greed, envy, etc. In spite o these human weaknesses, bettertheories will eventually prevail against those that do not hold up to examination.Some theories, like plate tectonics, took decades to be accepted by the scienticcommunity. Other theories, like relativity, were quickly accepted, but will requirecenturies to actually test in ull detail. Still other theories, like evolution, havehad their ups and downs, as evidence accumulated and the theory was rened inlight o new knowledge. In act, the evolution o lie is an example o a theory that is still developing rich new levels o evidence and is lled with uncertainty.Coberns rst rule is to teach science, not scientism. This implies a ocus onconfict and process more than on the specic current theories. Theories may change, but the process continues. I students are to “believe” in anything, itshould be that this messy process will ultimately produce correct insights andeliminate incorrect ones. But it is not necessary that students “believe” that thecurrent theories are the nal word. I scientists themselves believed this, there would not be much let to work on. One o my chemistry proessors once told

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