Critical Thinking about Evolution

(and intelligent design & creationism)

Worldviews and Education in Public Schools

Can we improve Scientific Integrity and Educational Responsibility
by using critical thinking about Origins Questions (regarding Evolution,
Intelligent Design, Young-Earth Creationism) in an effort to achieve our goals
of Quality in Science Education and Balanced Neutrality in Worldviews and Religion?

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

• Critical Thinking — what it is and isn't

This website's homepage for CRITICAL THINKING — which describes resources that are useful for building an effective educational program to help students learn creative-and-critical thinking skills — begins with a clarification of what critical thinking is and isn't:   To avoid misunderstanding, this page begins with a non-definition:  critical thinking is not necessarily being "critical" and negative.  In fact, it would be more accurate to call it evaluative thinking.  The result of evaluation can range from positive to negative, from acceptance to rejection or anything in-between.  Yes, critical evaluation can produce a glowing recommendation.  On this page, for example, the quotes and links — which are recommended, but (as with all sources of information) should be used with an attitude of "critical thinking" evaluation — are the result of my own critical thinking.

Sections 1 and 2 — which contain excerpts from other pages — describe a general context for thinking about origins education (regarding atheistic evolution, theistic evolution, intelligent design, and young-earth creationism) in public schools.
1. Worldview Balance in Public Education
2. Worldview-Dangers of Critical Thinking in Public Schools 

3. Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy 
4. A Wider Range of Topics and Views 
  Views and Questions: An Introduction to Part 2


1. Worldview Balance in Public Education  [excerpts]

      Most educators, including myself, agree that... teachers should not take advantage of their opportunity to impose personal religious beliefs (theistic, atheistic, pantheistic, or agnostic) on impressionable students.   { note: "..." indicates omission of text }
      asymmetry and balance:  An event cannot be described theistically unless this is done explicitly, but "not theism" is communicated implicitly when the possibility of theistic action is omitted from every description of every historical event.  ...  If a curriculum always assumes that "there is no theistically active God," is this neutral?  ...  Does the absence of a perspective produce a balanced treatment of that perspective?  Or will an absence of God in all discussions of the world encourage students to live as if God is absent from the world? ...
      Trying to ignore religious questions produces an implicit hidden curriculum that teaches more than just subject-area content.  But deciding what to do instead is difficult because... definitions of desirable balance vary widely, and instruction that is satisfactory for some will be unacceptable for others.  In a pluralistic society there will be vigorous debates about an important function of education, the selective transmission of culture, when we are deciding which cultural concepts and values to include, and how these should be taught.  ...  No matter what a teacher does it will be impossible to please everyone... [and there is often] an uncomfortable climate of controversy for teachers.
      A confrontational approach, with a debating mentality, is especially common in some areas of the curriculum.  In education about origins [re: evolution, intelligent design, and creationism], for example, the situation is often made more volatile by polarized attitudes, with zero-sum battles fought by combatants who acknowledge only two possibilities (young-earth creation and naturalistic evolution), who ignore all other positions.  This unfortunate approach, encouraged by those with extreme positions, tends to produce mutual hostility and disagreement about everything except that "there is no middle ground so we have to fight it out."
      Wisdom in Teaching:  Because most young students are intellectually vulnerable, teachers are expected to seek a balance between two conflicting demands: a teacher should provide strong intellectual guidance, yet while doing this should not exert "too much influence" on students.  ...  Effective teaching... depends on the integrity and skill of individual teachers who think carefully, with wisdom and courage, about desirable goals, who build a solid foundation by adequate preparation and planning, and who carry out their plans with sensitivity and respect.

      Conflicting Constitutional Clauses:  The Bill of Rights, the initial set of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, begins by declaring that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  This broad, ambiguous statement has led to many arguments, in and out of the courtroom, about how to interpret "establishment" and "free exercise," and what to do when they seem to be in conflict.  ...  If teaching is done skillfully — with wisdom and sensitivity, with an intent to educate rather than persuade, to teach about religion but not to teach religion — it should not run into legal trouble with the "establishment clause" of the U.S. Constitution or with recent court rulings.  /  Two valuable resources are The Supreme Court, Religious Liberty, and Public Education and the home-page (covering a wide range of issues and providing lots of links) for WORLDVIEWS IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS: OPTIONS FOR IMPROVING RELIGIOUS NEUTRALITY.

This condensed summary is 30% of the full-length page about
Worldview Balance in Public Education

2. Potential Worldview-Dangers of

Critical Thinking in Public Schools    [excerpts]

      Does absence produce balance?  As explained in Part 1, a common educational policy of teaching [everything]... with no mention of religion... does not accomplish its stated goal of achieving a balanced treatment of religion.  But do theists want theistic concepts to be explained by a teacher who might distort these ideas due to a lack of knowledge and skill, or by a skeptical nontheist who might try to persuade students against theistic beliefs?  ...
      Accurate Understanding and Respectful Attitudes:  Students in my high school learned valuable lessons about understanding and attitudes from one of our favorite teachers, who sometimes held debates in his civics class.  On Monday he convinced us that "his side of the issue" was correct, but on Tuesday he made the other side look just as good.  After awhile we learned that, in order to get accurate understanding, we should get the best information and arguments that all sides of an issue can claim as support.  We also learned respect, because we realized that even though we may have valid reasons for preferring one position, people on other sides of an issue may also have good reasons, both intellectual and ethical, for believing as they do.
      The intention of our civics teacher, and the conclusion of his students (including me), was not a postmodern relativism.  ...  When teaching about religion in a public school, all of us should agree that "reaching a conclusion" is not an acceptable goal.  But we should distinguish between goals for a class and for an individual student.  If a teacher claims that "since you cannot know for certain, you should avoid a conclusion," it would encourage a relativistic agnosticism in students.  But perhaps this can be avoided if a teacher explains that "since this is a public school I'm trying to be neutral, but each of you as an individual, outside school, can reach your own conclusion."  Appropriate training of teachers is essential, so they can learn effective strategies for remaining reasonably neutral, with a logically appropriate humility, while avoiding a mushy (or pushy) postmodern relativism.  { a resource: Basic Concepts of Reality, Truth, and Theory }

      Most educators agree that two central goals of education are conceptual understanding and thinking skills, and the thinking skills include critical evaluation:  a teacher should help students learn the skills and attitudes required for critical evaluation, for deciding whether a theory should be accepted, rejected, or viewed with an intermediate level of confidence.  ...  But when "critical thinking" is used in worldview education, is it always beneficial?
      At its best, when people and ideas are treated with respect, and views are expressed accurately, an interactive discussion of controversial issues usually produces high motivation, and helps students learn about important issues while developing their thinking skills.
      At its worst, however, interactive discussion can be an effective way for a teacher to persuade, to impose personal opinions on students.  ...  For example, imagine my civics teacher using his expert debating skills to specialize in "Monday arguments" without ever presenting Tuesday's counter-arguments.  But it would be even worse (for seekers of the truth) if he constructed a weak, distorted "strawman" of the Tuesday position, for the purpose of knocking it down and declaring a victory of Monday over Tuesday.  This would be effective for persuasion, even though it would be intentionally misleading (and therefore intellectually dishonest) because the strong Tuesday — the real view, not the fake made of straw — was never involved in the debate.
      [ Here are some extra comments, not in the original page, about an application in origins education:  Imagine that "critical thinking about evolution" is being explained by a teacher who believes in, and is strongly committed to, an all-natural history of nature, who thinks intelligent design is totally unscientific and is just thinly disguised young-earth creationist religion.  In this context, the critical thinking may become "Monday plus strawman-Tuesday" with the teacher persuading for the truth of naturalisic evolution and the idiocy of design, instead of an opportunity for balanced education.  Of course, similar distortion-and-persuasion could occur with a teacher who was strongly pro-design or pro-creationism. ]
      In this situation a few students — those who already have the knowledge, confidence, and ability required to skillfully analyze complex issues — would survive and might even thrive.  But most students — being young, inexperienced, and intellectually timid — would lack the ability to mentally defend themselves against a well-prepared adult who, as teacher, occupies a position of authority and has earned the respect of students.  ...  Another danger is a "direct teaching" of worldviews — which can be implicit or explicit, subtle or obvious — to students who are not able to engage in critical thinking about what they are learning.  Because most young students are vulnerable, teachers are expected to seek a balance between conflicting demands: a teacher should provide strong intellectual guidance, but should not exert "too much influence" on students.  ...  In all areas, effective teaching depends on the integrity and skill of teachers who think carefully... and carry out their plans with sensitivity and respect.

This condensed summary is 43% of the full-length page about
Critical Thinking and Worldview Education in Public Schools

A TRANSITION:  The page summarized above is "critical thinking about critical thinking" which in the rest of this page is applied in the complex context of education about origins — of teaching about theories of creation, evolution, and intelligent design — that usually involves not just scientific evidence and logic, but also the worldviews and thus the religious beliefs (whether these beliefs are theistic, nontheistic, or agnostic) of students, teachers, and scientists.

Evolution Education in Public Schools:

Critical Thinking & Religious Neutrality

    3. Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy
      The page you're reading — Critical Thinking (about evolution and worldviews) in Public Education — is the third page in a series about how worldviews influence education (and are influenced by education) in public schools.  Although I do express opinions about issues, especially in Part 2, my main feeling is not "the issues" but is empathy for conscientious teachers who (in the words of an ASA publication in 1986) must face the challenges of Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, as outlined in Pages 1 and 2 above.

      This climate of controversy is described in my abstract for a conference presentation at NSTA:
      When teaching evolutions (astronomical, geological, chemical, biological) the questions (scientific, philosophical, religious, educational) are complex and difficult.  Teachers may feel external pressures to teach unconventional theories, or to avoid teaching (or avoid questioning) conventional theories.  Or a teacher may feel internal tension between compassion (for a student with personally meaningful beliefs about evolutions) and responsibility (to teach the scientific evidence and logic regarding these beliefs).
      So a teacher doesn't have to teach everything (and be externally accountable for it) a potentially useful resource, for students and teachers who want to explore, is a "multiple positions" website being developed for the American Scientific Affiliation [this page is part of it] that features the best available arguments for different views about Origins Questions.
      The goals of this approach are intellectual stimulation, scientific integrity, and educational quality, to allow inquiry-based learning that requires evaluative thinking.  In the current social context, no approach can bring total harmony, because instruction that is satisfactory for some will be unacceptable for others.  But we can aim for understanding and respect, with teachers who are "free to teach" building a solid foundation by planning wisely, and carrying out their plans with sensitivity and respect.

      4. A Wider Range of Topics and Views
      This website's homepage for ORIGINS EDUCATION IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS outlines basic principles for science education, constitutional law, and public policy, and describes resources (mostly on the web) that adopt different perspectives and propose different answers when we ask important questions:
      A. Freedom and Responsibility:  When naturalistic theories of evolution (chemical and biological) are evaluated in the scientific community, we see a majority consensus and a dissenting minority.  Should a teacher be free to "teach the controversy" by describing evidence for (and against) the majority and minority views, and explaining why there is disagreement?  Or does scientific integrity require that a science teacher should try to convince students that the majority view is true?
      B. Legality and Constitutionality:  What did the authors of the United States Constitution mean by an "establishment" and "free exercise" of religion?  What are the practical effects — on what teachers can be required to do, and are allowed to do — of recent legal interpretations?
      C. Methods of Teaching:  What principles of logic should be used when evaluating origins theories, in science and education?  In the complex, controversial area of origins, how can a teacher cope with the challenge of teaching skillfully, with wisdom and sensitivity?  Is "sticking to the textbook" an effective method for teaching students?  Is it a wise self-protection strategy for a teacher?  What are the potential benefits (and dangers) of open discussions?
      D. Educational Policies:  What are desirable goals, and how should we define effective education?  What policies at different levels — classroom, school, district, state, and federal — will produce the most effective education when we ask questions about Methods of Teaching?
      E. Young-Earth Views:  When trying to design instruction that is responsible, legal, and balanced, how can educators cope with the challenge of young-earth creationism and the tensions that arise due to a mismatch between its strong popular support (mainly in some parts of the Christian community) and weak scientific support (across a wide range of fields, from astronomy and geology to physics and biology)?

      Views and Questions: An Introduction to Part 2
      My views — theological, scientific, methodological, relational, and educational — are summarized in another page that concludes:
      Educationally, I think critical thinking about evolution — at a level that is appropriate for students' abilities — should be allowed in public school classrooms, by providing evidence and using logic.  The scientific support for a wide range of questions about evolution (astronomical, geological, chemical, and biological) should be examined in a neutral, unbiased way.  /   These are my own personal views.  My views as an editor (of the ASA website for Whole-Person Science Education) are described in the home-page for Origins Questions and in Understanding & Respect.   /   Also, I think — personally and as editor — that we should distinguish between methodological naturalism and philosophical naturism, and that evolutionary creation (proposing that divinely guided natural evolution was God's method of creation) is compatible with conservative Christian theology.
      These views raise questions that are discussed in Part 2.  For example,

      A — Critical Thinking about Evolution?

      When we look at evolution, are there any scientific reasons for critical questions?  If teachers accept what physicists claim about motion, why should they question what biologists claim about evolution?  Will critical thinking about evolution decrease what students learn about its principles and its applications in biology?

      B — Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Religious Neutrality?

      What should a teacher do when critical evaluations of evolution raise questions in the minds of students, when they ask (either silently or aloud), "Are there any alternatives to a totally natural evolution?"  /   Can a theory of "mere evolution" or "mere design", or both, be taught in a way that is religiously neutral with minimal worldview implications?  In public schools, should the concept of intelligent design be explained in a science education classroom?  Should design theories be critically evaluated?  Or is it wiser to simply allow critical thinking about evolution, with no mention of design?  And is this possible?
      Section 1 describes an asymmetry between expressions of theism and not-theism, and asks a question:  If a curriculum always assumes "there is no theistically active God," is this neutral?   A basic theory of intelligent design — which makes a distinction between design-directed action (which could be natural or supernatural) and undirected natural process — does not propose supernatural design-directed action, but it does let this possibility be considered.  Should design therefore be excluded from science education, because science must assume that "everything in history happened by natural process" so it must conclude that "a naturalistic total evolution is true"?  Is this conclusion non-religious, so it should be allowed (or even mandated) in public education?  By contrast, is it religious (and illegal in public schools) to consider the possibility of design-action in history?
      How can we teach about scientific support "in a neutral, unbiased way"?  When we ask "what is the support?" and "what is neutral?" the answers aren't easy or simple, because the scientific questions are difficult and complex, and ideas about worldview-neutrality vary widely.  /   Does any questioning of naturalistic evolution imply supernatural design-action (thus making it religious), so in public education is it unconstitutional to allow critical thinking about evolution, even if intelligent design is not proposed as an alternative?

      C — Critical Thinking about Young-Earth Creationism?

      I suggest "teaching the controversy" about chemical evolution (for the origin of life) and biological evolution (for the development of life) where I think some scientific questions are justified.  But I think the situation is different when we ask "How old is the universe?"  How should we teach astronomical evolution and geological evolution, where controversy exists because many parents and students believe (mainly for nonscientific reasons) that the universe is young, even though scientific support for an old universe is extremely strong, and critical questions don't seem scientifically justified?   { What are the relationships between theories of intelligent design and young-earth creationism?  What are the similarities and differences, logically and sociologically, in terms of science and theology, culture and politics?  And what are the implications for education? }

      These questions are examined — but are not answered — in an appendix for this page (in Part 2) where I say:  If our goal is optimally satisfactory education — with "the greatest satisfaction for the greatest number" plus integrity in respecting the evidence and logic of science — then people with differing views must be willing to flexibly abandon some demands and gracefully accept some compromises, to respect other ideas and other people (even when we disagree) and live with the reality of unresolved tensions.

If you like this page, you may also like the following related pages.

Critical Thinking in Origins Education — Part 2

an overview with links to pages by many authors:

A Useful Resource for Evolution Education:
A Multiple-Positions Website that can help you
Cope with Complexity in a Climate of Controversy

(a presentation for NSTA conference, April 2006)

FAQ for Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Principles for Logical Evaluation of Evolutions

This page is

Copyright © 2003 by Craig Rusbult
all rights reserved

Areas of the Website

Whole-Person Education