January 29, 2003

Asking the "Big" Questions


By Paul Nesselroade

Each year at about this time millions of students across the country make their way back to campus to continue their unfettered pursuit of truth by asking life’s “big” questions in a free and liberating educational context; right? Well, unfortunately this ideal isn’t always reached. In fact, sometimes it is even obstructed.

As an example, read the following caution that comes from a recent syllabus for a science education class at a major U.S. university:

Cautions about sources and topics
Never cite a religious science source such as ICR, Answers in Genesis, or anything else like that. It is easy to recognize these groups. They are virulently anti-evolution. This caution also extends to the new ID (Intelligent Design) movement - another anti-evolutionary charade. These people are 95% wrong. As for the other 5%, no answer is known so they make up things that are not supported by experimentation. More than 100 years of rigorous investigations in fields from biology to geology have proven evolution as a fact. The debate is about mechanisms and it is a vigorous one. This debate is the theory part of evolution. You will be penalized for citing anti-evolutionary material. It is not science. If the thesis of your paper is anti-evolutionary (akin to arguing against the germ theory of disease or against the atomic theory of matter) you will receive a failing grade. Scientific journals do not publish papers with creationist and ID themes. I will certainly not accept them.

But when has the source of a citation been reason enough to disregard it? Is the challenge being raised valid or is it not? The truth should not have to be protected from challenges. Surely it can tolerate honest questions.

History attests to the importance of the right to question orthodoxies. Scientific ideas, even firmly entrenched ones, have to take seriously the claims of a rival if they wish to remain preferential – there’s no resting at the top of the hill. Our “big” ideas must be exposed to this process. If the challenge of design is heresy, and many students are, in their simplicity, just plain confused, wouldn’t an educator want to clear things up by addressing the issue head-on, dispelling key design arguments by exposing their errors? The truth has nothing to fear. After all, pseudoscientific ideas such as alchemy, phrenology, and countless others have been successfully dealt with this way. But are design arguments examined and refuted in light of evidence? Or do we find them ruled out a priori by philosophical presuppositions and theological critiques (e.g., God wouldn’t do it this way)?

If discovering truth is the goal, it is in everyone's best interest to welcome questions. To oppose this process is to defile a core value of science - open debate on the evidence alone. The public trust afforded to science comes, in part, from its own claim that it is self-correcting, constantly engaged with the evidence and paying tribute to no person, philosophy, or creed. But how can this basis for trust be reconciled with a refusal to hear challenges or examine its own presuppositions?

Brazen statements designed to silence challenges clearly go against the basic educational goal of free inquiry and can almost be viewed as a formal invitation for skepticism. Is this a wise strategy for an enterprise that makes truth claims? Good science education places a premium on the evidence and invites students to test that evidence from whatever vantage point they dare. Let’s allow students to ask their “big” questions; we’ll all be better off for it.

Copyright 2003 Paul Nesselroade. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 01.29.03