11 March, 2006

'Teach the controversy', UK style

It's odd really. My introduction to the world of blogging came through my exploration of the whole ID/creationism issue (which got me reading the Panda's Thumb, which introduced me to Pharyngula and many other science blogs), but I didn't really envisage writing about it much on my own blog. Here in the UK the debate has always seemed to be much more low-level, not really involving the government and courts the way it has in the US. Now, however, the publicity around the Dover trial seems to have stirred something up, or at least started our media examining attitudes to ID and creationism in this country more closely than they have in the past. And the picture has not been especially encouraging, as I have written about here and here.

Now I read in The Times that the OCR examinations board is planning to reference creationism in its new GCSE biology syllabus (also reported by the BBC here). Do we need to start panicking?

If you download the new OCR syllabus (pdf) and examine the relevent section (Item B2f: Survival of the Fittest, on pages 33-35) you will find no mention of ID concepts, or even the "weaknesses in the theory of evolution" rubbish that people are trying to write into the syllabuses in the US. There are two "Assessable learning outcomes" which probably sparked the hysteria:

  • Explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (e.g. creationist interpretation) (Page 35, top).

  • Explain the reasons why the theory of evolution by natural selection met with an initially hostile response (social and historical context) (Page 35, bottom).

Well, the language there could have been a bit tighter, perhaps, but given that the treatment of evolutionary concepts appears sound on the whole, I think this is aimed at discussing creationism as a failed explanation from the 19th century, rather than a credible modern alternative to evolutionary theory (there is also a discussion of Lamarackian inheritance). In other words, I agree with this comment from Flitcraft in the inevitable discussion over at Pharyngula:

There is the possibility that a Creationist teacher might seize on [those sentences] as an excuse to do some mischief, but given the way the syllabus covers things like debunking Lamarck, I think this is an attempt to teach some history of science rather than a pop at putting a Creationist trojan horse into the exam syllabus.

The exam board have also posted this statement:

At OCR, we believe candidates need to understand the social and historical context to scientific ideas both pre and post Darwin.

In our Gateway Science specification, candidates are asked to discuss why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence (my emphasis).

Creationism and 'intelligent design' are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding.

The last paragraph is strong enough to offset the fact that the statement I've bolded sounds a little bit weasel-like. Interestingly, this part is lifted almost verbatim from the National Curriculum itself, where, rather suspiciously, evolutionary theory is singled out as a 'scientific controversy'. The exam boards are not the people we should be keeping our eyes on, perhaps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this - our daughter has just covered this area of the OCR syllabus, and we were very confused as to why creationism had been introduced. Your clarity of thought has been very helpful.