Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The value of evidence

Check out Olivia Judson's editorial in the New York Times.

In defending the teaching of evolution in public schools, she puts forth a crucial (and frequently overlooked) argument:

"The third reason to teach evolution is more philosophical. It concerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book, “The Republican War on Science,” the journalist Chris Mooney argues persuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence — or indeed, evidence of any kind — has permeated the Bush administration’s policies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oil to the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part of this general attitude.

Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt for evidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it first begins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute for evidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science is never distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and the results are no better.)"

Continuing on yesterday's theme, this editorial highlights the value of evidence in understanding our world. Teaching ideology over evidence makes students intellectually lazy, causing them to accept "just so" stories as appropriate explanations of reality. That is not learning.

We should teach students to be empirical and to be skeptical. The only way to do this is to get them comfortable with evaluating evidence. Challenging our beliefs is tough, but it's better than the alternative.

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