Kenneth Miller: Dealing with Religious Students

This is from Brown University about Kenneth Miller, who was a witness for the good guys at the Kitzmiller trial. The last time we wrote about him was Kenneth Miller Speech at Wittenberg University.

Today’s article is Teaching science to the religious? Focus on how theories develop. Good topic! Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us:

Religious students sometimes come to class thinking that science and religion are in deliberate opposition, like two lionesses fighting over a kill. When Brown University biologist and practicing Catholic Kenneth Miller teaches evolution, he also teaches that such a zero-sum mindset just isn’t warranted.

“I think it’s really unnecessary,” Miller said. “What’s extremely unfortunate right now is that, not just evolution, but whole areas of science have been sucked into the culture wars argument and it’s been taken for granted, therefore, that science takes a particular position in the left-right spectrum.

“Extremely unfortunate” is right, yet that’s how it is these days. All may not be lost, however. Miller has a way to deal with it:

Miller’s basic approach is to help students trace the development of a scientific theory, rather than to present it as some kind of finished doctrine that must be believed because it has evidentiary support.

Does that work? Let’s read on:

“I don’t ask students to believe in education because I don’t ask them to believe in DNA either,” Miller said. “To me the word ‘believe’ means to accept something beyond question. In science there are no facts or theories that are beyond question. What I do urge students to do is to learn about the evidence and understand why the scientific community finds it persuasive.

We have doubts that anything can reach some students, but Miller speaks from experience. The article continues:

The best way to approach deeply religious students on a scientific issue is to develop the scientific background, to show that science doesn’t grow out of some sort of anti-theological or political perspective, but out of a very human drive to understand ourselves and the world around us,” Miller said. “They see that it is not an a priori cultural and social conclusion for which you are trying to find a justification but rather the logical outcome of being curious about nature and trying to find out how it works.”

That’s enough excerpts, because you ought to click over there to read it all. Miller knows what he’s talking about.

Copyright © 2012. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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13 responses to “Kenneth Miller: Dealing with Religious Students

  1. “We have doubts that anything can reach some students, but Miller speaks from experience”

    Was a very interesting article, and even Miller admits if someone really has a closed mind, there is not a lot he can do. Quoting one such example of a student that insisted he could not be religious because the books she believed in said so.

  2. Curmudgeon: “We have doubts that anything can reach some students.”

    The key word is “some,” and Dr. Miller certainly agrees (as I do) that a certain % is beyond hope even by high school. But another % is not beyond hope, and that’s where we need to devote 100% of our efforts. When people obsess over “fundies,” or whine about “sneaking in God” or “lying for Jesus” they are handing the win to the anti-evolution activists on a silver platter.

  3. Anyone else notice that Dr. Miller wants students to critically analyze evolution? When anti-evolution activists demand that students “critically analyze” evolution, and we reply with the implication that they should not, again we hand them an undeserved win. The correct reply is: “Yes, students should critically analyze evolution, but the long-refuted misrepresentations that you want taught will discourage that.

  4. Frank J says: “Anyone else notice that Dr. Miller wants students to critically analyze evolution?”

    I don’t think that’s what he’s doing. His method reminds me of how Asimov wrote his general-audience science books — from an historical perspective. He said that by explaining the development of a field step by step, the reader could see how the science developed, and how newly discovered facts sometimes enhance and sometimes revise earlier understandings. It’s sort of like an intellectual adventure story. Another advantage of doing it that way, he said, is that such books rarely need revision except for the final chapters.

  5. My favorite quote in the article is:

    “They see that it is not an ‘a priori’ cultural and social conclusion for which you are trying to find a justification but rather the logical outcome of being curious about nature and trying to find out how it works.”

    Unlike ID and other forms of creationism.

    At the end of the day, I think this is the strongest argument against ID – that it is not the conclusion of scientific inquiry but rather a process of justifying the personal beliefs of its adherents.

  6. Holding the line in FL

    Being a middle school science teacher in Floridia, I find it best to take the approach that Dr Miller describes. I start life sciences with heredity, DNA to show the kids the basis for evolution by something they can easily grasp. I use the “E” word all the time, not just for biology but our understanding of the world as a whole to get the kids used to the word and its true meaning. The word theory and law are consistantly used in the correct scientific use not the usual misunderstood use. The Theory of Plate Tectonics is a great place to start with that. When covering Plate Tectonics, I show them the evolution of scientific thought to prepare them for similiar information, i.e. Biological Evolution. When I start with Evolution itself, I start with the changes in scientific knowledge starting with the fall of the Roman Empire, the advent of the Dark Ages, and leading up the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment step by step to show the kids how we arrived at where we are today. Examples of current research (check out the story that lice can tell) are given at least twice a week. By the time we finish, there isn’t too much of “were you there?” types of questions. Most of the kids seem to follow along, seem to enjoy it, and actually make semi-good grades on the tests!!! Whether or not I actually convince them of the truth isn’t as important as that at least they don’t openly attack or question my instruction. Some kids will never learn.

  7. Very good, Holding the line in FL. I might suggest that from time to time you give an example of theories that were disproven and discarded, explaining how that happened and how, as a result, we have an even better understanding of the natural world. It’s an essential part of the process.

  8. Frank, I have to agree with you, there is a problem with denying points because we want to disagree with the creationists. As a rule, creationists appropriate useful terms and redefine them to fit their narrative, in effect sneaking in doubt. Their idea of critical analysis has nothing to do with analysis and everything to do with critical, using the common definition of critical meaning dispute.

    We should be agreeing with them that science should be critically evaluated and include a description of what critical evaluation entails. This would counter the slippery definitions and equivocation they use all the time.

  9. Holding the line in FL

    Showing how the ideas and theories change is part of the history of the evolution of scientific thought and a specific part of our new “Big Ideas” in our course of study. Specific examples are given such as flat earthers, geo-centric, the letting of blood to release the dangerous humors, etc are given to illustrate. It is wonderful to see their reactions when I show them the flat earth or hollow earth websites. They are incredulous.

  10. As a retired middle school science teacher, I take my hat off to you, Holding the line in FL. I really like your approach.

    I hope you have as much luck with the parents as you apparently do with your students. Do you sometimes wish that they could be in your class along with their sons and daughters?

  11. Very interesting replies i’m seeing here. But as for me, any person who sticks to the superstition of God that has no evidence whatsoever and rejects the fact of evolution will always be seen with contempt. Kind of like a second class individual.

  12. One of my colleagues called a student to his office to discuss her weak performance on quizzes and exercises. She accepted his remarks with equanimity and said, “Well, if God wants me to pass this class, I’ll pass it.”

    He fixed her with a stern gaze and declared, “There’s not room in this class for both me and God!”

  13. Retired Prof said:

    She accepted his remarks with equanimity and said, “Well, if God wants me to pass this class, I’ll pass it.”

    Reminds me of the joke about the guy caught in a flood. Before the flood comes, a man knocks on his door and says, “We have a bus to take you to safety.” The guy says, “No, my God will save me.” When the flooding begins, a truck with oversized tires passes by. The driver sees the guy and shouts, “Get in! I’ll take you to safety!” The guy replies, “No! My god will save me!” The guy climbs on top of his roof as the water climbs higher and higher. A boat comes by. The boaters say, “Come on! We’ll take you to safety.” The guy says, “No, my God will save me!” The water gets up to the point where it’s now at the peak of his roof. A helicopter comes by and, over a loudspeaker, the pilot says, “Grab the rope! We’ll take you to safety!” The man shouts back, “No! My god will save me!”
    Eventually, the water climbs too high and the man drowns. The man comes before God. The man says to God, “I had all my faith in you! You were supposed to save me! Instead, you let me drown!” God replies, “What are you talking about? First, I sent a bus, then a truck, then a boat, then a helicopter!”