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Competing Theories in the Classroom

The evolution vs. creationism debate has been one of the hot-button issues between liberals and conservatives for the last 150 years. Both sides want their viewpoint taught in the science classroom. I am an atheist, so I am clearly on the side of the evolutionists, but I will propose something here which is almost heretical: introduce both “theories” as hypotheses.

Fellow freethinkers, please don’t be alarmed. I am not proposing that both views are equally true. I am not trying to introduce faith into the public classroom. In fact, I am echoing the sentiments of many in the creationist camp who insist that both theories should be included in the biology curriculum. But I propose that we go beyond merely presenting ideas. Instead, I call upon brave science teachers to supervise an experiment–devised and performed by the students themselves–to determine which, of all competing hypotheses, is closest to explaining the variety and complexity of life on Earth.

Science has never been afraid of difficult questions. Science has survived many revolutions, and yet its methodology is still intact. It is that very scientific method that is the core lesson in all science courses. The scientific method is a tool for discovering truth–the way to find the best explanation for observed phenomena. Is it not appropriate that we use this tool to separate fantasy and reality?

I propose that we let the students divide themselves into teams. Each team would be assigned a hypothesis to investigate. The hypothesis could vary from natural selection to the creationism of Genesis–or any other “account” of the origin of life. Using the steps of the scientific method, the students would perform experiments to test the validity of the claims. These experiments would almost certainly include a good deal of observation.

It would be the goal of each team to find flaws in the hypothesis they were assigned. By exposing the flaws, the students would learn that their theory is unsound. One of the likely outcomes is that some of the students would discover that their theory is untestable and therefore unscientific. Others would, if they followed the rules of logic, find that their hypothesis is false.

The students would be allowed to peer-review each others’ results. This would allow for the possibility of duplicating successful experiments and for the elimination of false conclusions. The teacher would remain neutral, judging the validity of the reasoning, only–not the results. The class would then form a scientific consensus as to which theory best explains life.

The most valuable lesson learned by the students would not be which hypothesis is correct, rather it would be that they learned how to formulate valid scientific theories and to critically analyze the process. That, after all, is the most important thing that our science courses can teach the next generation.

In the end, I hope that this experiment would not promote a given worldview over others. No debate about the existence of souls, or the afterlife, or anything to do with moral behavior would be necessary; these issues are more philosophical than they are scientific.

Our country today faces many problems. Not the least of those problems is the inability of a vast majority of its citizens to think critically and independently. Legislating answers to scientific questions will get us no closer to the truth. Investigation will.

Science is not gospel, of course, but it is a valuable tool to help us find the best answers. Teach the children how to apply that tool. It just might turn out that allowing equal time for competing theories would have an unanticipated result: the survival of the fittest.