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The January/February 2007 issue of Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, features an article by a college teacher named Alvin Saperstein, of Wayne State University, about how his introductory astronomy and physics courses are attracting many young-earth creationists.
These may be very good students, but they frustrate him because he cannot convince them that the universe and all it contains, including our planet, came into existence in a natural evolutionary process over billions of years, rather than in the six days of creation a few thousand years ago, as creationists calculate from the literal words of Genesis.
No problem arises when the professor explains how the universe works now. It is only when he lectures about cosmology, or evolutionary theory in geology, biology, or anthropology, and asks his students if anything he has said bothers them, that discomfort begins to appear. The class skeptics are not disruptive or rude; they express their contrary opinions only after the professor asks for their reactions to his exposition of orthodox scientific theory.
Saperstein infers that the few students who openly voice their doubts represent a much larger number of silent creationist students. He asks himself, “Are they silent because of fear of professorial retribution, because they don’t know whom to believe, or because they just don’t care?” Clearly, the students who openly express their doubts deserve more respect than the apathetic ones (if there are any) who just don’t care.
Saperstein reports that “a serious, dedicated student asked me, ‘What am I supposed to believe? You have spent the semester explaining to us why I should believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old in a universe created 13.5 billion years ago. Yet I grew up in a warm, loving, and supportive family and church that taught me that both earth and universe were created about six thousand years ago.’” Some students tell him that they do not believe in biological evolution, nor do they accept “facts” based on evolutionary assumptions.
Saperstein writes that, unfortunately, many instructors avoid confronting the problem posed by biblical-literalist students by giving exams that minimize the need to agree with the scientific historical paradigm and allow students to answer with what they have been taught rather than what they really believe. The result is a two-brained student, who thinks one way in science class and another way in the rest of his life.
Saperstein concludes that, if very many students remain biblical literalists despite having had a scientific education, he fears for their future, the future of American science, and the future of an American society beset by problems amenable to scientific solutions. He does not explain why knowledge of how the world works now is not sufficient for a science that aspires to solve the problems that beset us. Perhaps our society is more in need of a sound spiritual grounding than of theories about the distant past that cannot be tested by observation or experiment.
I have observed that anti-Darwinist inclinations are fairly common among engineers, for example, who are the scientists most directly concerned with society’s practical problems. But creationists can also be found even among evolutionary biologists and paleontologists, whose theoretical work directly involves the more speculative historical subjects that arouse skepticism in Saperstein’s students.
Saperstein tries to persuade his creationist students to embrace scientific orthodoxy, but when he meets resistance, he falls back on the same “two-brain” evasion that he at first deplores. In his words: “If some students still refuse to accept the processes and results of mainstream science, I can only resort to the ‘two-language’ model. You may be speaking perfectly correct German, but you are still wrong—in a French class.”
I see this analogy as an invitation to creationist students to parrot the required naturalistic answers in science class, but to rely on what they have learned in their loving families for the rest of life’s problems. Probably that is the best available resolution of the conflict, if the alternative would be to force serious and dedicated students to lie or to avoid science courses altogether.
Tolerance & Persuasion
On February 12, 2007, the New York Times reported on a biblical creationist who had just received a Ph.D. in paleontology from the University of Rhode Island. His faculty advisor described his dissertation, which was based on the ruling naturalistic paradigm and its time scale, as “impeccable.” The Times article described the similar case of Dr. Kurt Wise, a creationist who studied for his Ph.D. at Harvard under the famous Stephen Jay Gould, and I know of a third example at the University of Chicago.
These cases all involved senior professors who were unusually tolerant. Some more rigid science educators insist that a university should not award a degree to a student who might use the credential to encourage the public to entertain doubts about the veracity of cherished evolutionary theories. I consider it a great tribute to the integrity and decency of the professors involved in the cases reported by the New York Times that they were willing to tolerate a graduate student with heretical personal opinions, provided he performed scientific work that fully satisfied the standards of the profession.
Alvin Saperstein is also a decent man who is trying to understand his students and reason with them rather than dictate to them. But he had better be careful, because persuasion can work in either direction. I know one senior professor, author of an influential book advocating a naturalistic, chemical evolutionary scenario for the origin of life, who was persuaded by his students that his theory was wrong and that life was intelligently designed. He got into a lot of trouble with zealous colleagues and administrators when he began expressing his doubts about his previous assumptions in his classes.