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G UE S T EDITORIAL

DISENTANGLING SCIENCE & IDEOLOGY
WENDY JOHNSON

May’s editorial, titled “The Intrusion of Fundamentalist Religion into Biology Education,” touched on many important issues for biology educators that deserve more attention. In many ways I agree with the conclusion that “we all must be on guard for the erosion of science and intrusion of religion into education,” although this blanket statement requires more clarification. Censorship and manipulation of facts to fit religious dogma definitely erode science and education, but the discussion of ideological viewpoints (political, social, religious, economic, etc.) is a vital component of a well-rounded education that fosters critical thinking. It is also important to note that the inappropriate intrusion of ideological dogma is not limited to fundamentalist religious beliefs. For example, many prominent atheists are as guilty as religious fundamentalists in pushing their ideologies into science and education. Ideology and science are inappropriately intertwined in the United States mainly, I would argue, because most citizens lack a basic understanding of the nature of science (i.e., its history, philosophy, and practices). This deficit is evident in both extremes of the “debate” about the teaching of evolution in U.S. schools as described in the recent editorial. Science seeks natural explanations for the physical world and is therefore silent on the existence of God, questions of morality, and other typically “religious” concepts. Unfortunately, this distinction is not well understood by the vast majority of our society. A proper understanding of the goals and process of scientific inquiry is vital for every citizen. Therefore, identifying the difference between scientific questions and explanations and those that are fundamentally ideological, philosophical, or theological must be emphasized in every science classroom. Regrettably, many teachers avoid these issues,

out of either ignorance or fear of the repercussions of such a dialogue. It is a tragedy that our educational system teaches the facts of science but leaves most students unable to give an accurate definition of science, let alone explain the distinction between scientific questions and those that are inherently nonscientific. This approach sets up a false dichotomy of science versus religion and ultimately shifts many discussions away from the science itself. As biology educators, it is our duty to ensure that our students have a proper understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. The new AP Biology curriculum and the Next Generation Science Standards seem to be on the right path in emphasizing the integration of the practices of science with content knowledge in science teaching; however, teaching the process of science is not enough. In order for students to develop a proper understanding of the nature of science, teachers must design learning experiences that help students recognize that scientific explanations answer certain types of questions about the natural world and how these differ from the types of questions that nonscientific explanations can answer. Of course, this requires that science teachers at all levels are well educated in the history and philosophy of science, which is not the case at present. Obviously, developing a proper appreciation and understanding of the nature of science in every citizen of our society is a very difficult task that will require changes in teacher education, pedagogy, and scientific discourse. Because we teach the science of life itself, I would argue that biology educators have more opportunity than in any other discipline to help students develop a proper understanding of the nature of science. The teaching of evolution is a natural point at which to explicitly discuss scientific

versus nonscientific explanations. I have found that when students develop a proper understanding of the difference between scientific and nonscientific explanations in general, they are more receptive to the scientific explanation for the diversity of life, regardless of their religious beliefs. I highly recommend the materials developed by the Modeling for Understanding in Science Education (MUSE) Project, available at http://ncisla.wceruw.org/ muse/ as well as the Understanding Evolution website at http://evolution.berkeley.edu/, for teaching both the nature of science and biological evolution. It is important to note that evolution is not the only issue where science and ideology get confused; climate change, conservation biology, and biomedical ethics are also rife with opportunities to help students understand the nature of science. Discussion of these topics requires both scientific and ideological considerations. It is important for teachers to explicitly address the distinction between science and ideology without proselytizing in order to help students develop an understanding of the difference between scientific and ideological ideas. Disentangling science and ideology requires a firm grasp of the nature of scientific inquiry, including the roles of observation and inference in science, and an appreciation for the explanatory power of scientific theories. Developing these capacities in our students must be our first priority if we hope to build a society of critical thinkers who are prepared to apply scientific knowledge to solve complex problems.

WENDY JOHNSON is a former high school biology teacher in Lansing, MI, and now a doctoral student at Michigan State University. E-mail: john3062@msu.edu. DOI: 10.1525/abt.2013.75.8.2

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THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER

VOLUME 75, NO. 8, OCTOBER 2013