New book examines evolution vs. intelligent design in science education

Roger Taylor, a SUNY Oswego assistant professor of psychology, wants the next generation of science educators to understand that teaching evolution as doctrine, diametrically opposed to those who believe in intelligent design, sends an arrogant, counterproductive message to their students.

Roger Taylor with his book.“When you start talking about the evolution of humans as people, it can be very frightening for some students and parents,” said Taylor, who co-edited a new book that explores how we know what we think we know in the Darwinian debate about origins and change. “You have to be sensitive about how you approach it.”

Routledge, of New York and London, a publisher of scholarly work, this year released “Epistemology and Science Education: Understanding the Evolution vs. Intelligent Design Controversy,” co-edited by Taylor and a mentor of his, Michel Ferrari of the University of Toronto.

The strident positions of advocates of teaching evolution over intelligent design, or vice versa, often boil over to public controversy, as in the case last year of an Ohio science teacher fired after refusing to remove a Bible from his desk, burning an “x”—some said a cross—into a student’s arm and insisting on teaching evolution as a theory.

Taylor, a first-year SUNY Oswego teacher, earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh and began research on the book during his post-doctoral work at Vanderbilt University.

Can they coexist?

What would Taylor, a cognitive psychologist, like the central takeaway of the book to be for science teachers, particularly in middle schools?

“In terms of the language they use, I would emphasize humbleness,” he said. “We seem to want to make firm statements. The more you know about science, the more you know that it’s tentative. In terms of evolution, let students know that this is our current theory, but it could be overturned. Science is a way of understanding the world, and this is our current understanding.”

Is there a place for intelligent design in science classrooms?

“Intelligent design can be considered a scientific theory,” he said. “Look back—astrology and alchemy were the best theories that scholars of the day had at the time. Over the centuries, scientists learned they weren’t very predictive, weren’t very useful. That was one of the things that distinguishes what we consider a scientific theory from a non-scientific theory.”

Taylor argues for an approach to evolution that involves showing, not telling—in an evidence-based, non-opinionated way—about the origin and development of species, and letting students learn to think for themselves. Nor should scientists proclaim their disciplines flawless.

“Science is very messy,” Taylor said. “It sometimes doesn’t work. Experiments go awry.”

Cross-discipline research

Another important tip for science teachers is to acknowledge there’s room for both science and religion.

“Science is a way of understanding the world. Science doesn’t talk about ethics and morals and how you should live your life,” Taylor said. “Religion deals with that.”

Taylor did a great deal of cross-discipline reading for the book—the history and philosophy of science, cognitive psychology and science education research—and collaboration with scholars in disparate fields who wrote chapters. He teaches in the college’s psychology and human-computer interaction programs.

“Oswego is one of the few places that actually appreciates cross-discipline expertise in its professors,” Taylor said. “Lots of institutions want you to focus on a tiny area of study. I really like the idea where biologists can talk with artists and philosophers and so on. That’s something that really impressed me abut Oswego—they foster collaboration among disciplines, and I think that’s really what academia and intellectual life should be about.”

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PHOTO CAPTION: Thorny issues—Roger Taylor, in his first year as an assistant professor of psychology at SUNY Oswego, displays the book he co-edited about how knowledge and belief arise among students and proponents of evolution and intelligent design, and how science teachers should approach the subjects in the classroom.

(Posted: Feb 02, 2011)

Tags: psychology, evolution, education