A Response to Larry Sanger

Yesterday I posted an essay titled “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism“.  Larry Sanger responded with a thoughtful piece here.  In what follows, I respond to his piece (I was going to simply leave a comment on his blog, but it got too long and I figured it would be better to post here).

***

First off, thanks for the thoughtful response.  You seem like a very nice guy yourself, Larry!  As a fan of your work, I find it to be a great honor to engage in debate with you.

I think you bring up some very interesting points and I think if we were to discuss these issues in person, we may realize we agree on more than initially meets the eye.  I do, however, have some disagreements with you based on your response.  Let’s start with what we can agree on.

You wrote: “I always found the tendency of some college professors to teach their own pet views to be extremely annoying.  What I believe is my own business.  I have no desire to be part of your project to transform the world in your image; as a student, I regard myself as a free agent and merely want the tools to shape my own beliefs.”  I too have found these types of instructors who teach their pet views very annoying (especially in economics courses).  We’re not talking about “pet views” though; we’re talking about scientific facts.  You seem to be implying that I’m trying to change people’s beliefs about things I cannot possibly claim to know.  I can assure you that I’m not, I’m merely trying to uncover truths about the nature of reality by separating fact from fiction given the tool of reason that we humans are endowed with. We don’t know a whole lot, but we do have some knowledge.

I would hardly characterize what I’m suggesting as “indoctrination” (Is it really possible to be indoctrinated with objective scientific facts anyway?) or using “force”, so let’s set those misleading terms aside.  I would call what I’m suggesting stating scientific fact in an authoritative manner.  I do suspect, however, that many students may have been actually indoctrinated by their religious teachers.  I know this because I was indoctrinated with Christianity as a child.   What I’m suggesting, then, is that teachers have an obligation to call things by their proper name.  In other words, I’m suggesting we avoid euphemisms.   As such, scientific facts should be labeled as facts and verifiable mythology should be labeled as mythology.

And who is a teacher to decide what is fact and fiction?  Alas, this is where it can get tricky and this is where I think your concerns largely stem from.  I too see reason to be concerned about teachers professing something as a fact when it is not a fact in actuality.  I’m confused by your assertions though, because if I’m understanding your position correctly, you’re suggesting that a teacher shouldn’t call Norse mythology Norse Mythology.  You seem to be suggesting, by implication, that we should absolutely ban the use of the word “mythology” in academic settings so as not to offend those who choose to believe in the mythology over the facts.  If it wasn’t clear, I think believing in mythology is an individual’s prerogative; however, I think educators have the obligation to make them aware of the facts and to encourage critical thinking.

You wrote:  “Now, it might sound strange to call the inculcation of belief in the conclusions of science “indoctrination,” but it is not the quality of the belief that makes for indoctrination, it is the method whereby it is taught.”  I must admit, as I previously mentioned, this does indeed sound downright bizarre, especially coming from someone who believes in scientific facts.  So as long as we eradicate the “forcefulness”, as I think we both suggest, then it would seem that we agree on this point.

You later continue by writing:  “If you’re saying that you want to repudiate student belief, to label student beliefs as “mythology,” you’re not in favor of persuading recalcitrant students with argument; you want to shame them.”  That seems like quite a leap to make.  Another way to look at it would be that you are trying to help spare them future embarrassment by helping them hurdle the irrational belief instinct.  Telling a student that there is a difference between facts and mythology is not necessarily degrading or shaming them, despite what you say.  There are tasteful ways to discuss such matters in a classroom setting.

I’ll ask this question again:  should we be allowed to call anything mythology in academia?  As I asserted at the end of my piece, it seems insensitive and unfair to call some religious beliefs mythology and others justifiable beliefs.  For whatever reason, certain religions seem to get preferential treatment in academia over others.  I think we would be wise to think critically about why this is so.

Finally, you wrote: “We can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, with a grasp of math, to deny that 2+2=4.”  I, for one, can sympathize with those people who can’t really understand what that would mean.  This is because I also can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, endowed with the ability to reason and be logical, to deny that evolution is true.

 

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15 Comments on “A Response to Larry Sanger”

  1. Larry Sanger says:

    All right, you reject the terms “force” and “indoctrinate.”  First let me reiterate that it is not the quality of the body of knowledge that determines whether indoctrination is happening–it is the method whereby it is taught.  If a student is taught any body of knowledge largely by rote rather than by argumentation, and also made to feel ashamed if he does not accept it, then he is being indoctrinated.  I was indoctrinated, in this sense, on any number of points when I was in high school and college.  Granted, they weren’t about scientific fact; but if for some reason I had wanted to buck the scientific establishment, I might indeed have felt indoctrinated on any number of points.

    For this reason it is possible to indoctrinate someone to believe the theory of evolution.  Consider a person who, when expressing disagreement, is put on the spot, picked on in an unusual or special fashion to defend his views, and (especially) is subtly or blatantly mocked, belittled, or otherwise disrespected for his views.  As you no doubt know, people (whether they call themselves “creationists” or not) are capable of debating the merits of evolution at great length.  They are not wrong to do so, if they don’t understand why it is such well established science (as, I agree, it is).  They can do so employing surprisingly subtle and interesting arguments, even if, at bottom, the arguments aren’t very persuasive.  Now suppose that a biology professor or, worse, a philosophy professor were to do a unit about evolution or creationism-as-pseudoscience.  Suppose a well-read, articulate Creationist were  in the class, prepared to go to the mat for Creationism.  Next suppose the professor were to proceed to treat the topic as he would, say, electromagnetism or brain localization or some other part of science about which there wasn’t much controversy, as you suggest.  Well, what does this imply?  On the one hand, the professor might not invite any discussion at all, in which case there is nothing much in the way of indoctrination going on at all.  But on the other, if the professor does invite discussion, how should he react to the student’s earnest, well-researched (if ultimately irrational) beliefs if he wants to treat the science as “settled”?

    Boghossian is clear, and so were you in your earlier blog post.  You say that you have a responsibility to disabuse the student of his false beliefs (and not merely teach him what the mainstream views are).  Hence, you, the authority figure, will be pitting yourself against the hapless student.  Inevitably he’ll be put on the spot.  I ask you, when else in one’s entire education, perhaps apart from religious education, does a teacher feel he has a responsibility not just to correct mistaken answers to questions the student doesn’t much care about, but to dismantle sincerely held beliefs that the student cares deeply about?  How can you avoid indoctrinating the student?  And if you don’t, please explain in some more detail what a non-indoctrinating program of education might look like when you get to the evolution-is-pseudoscience unit.

    I don’t say that teachers should avoid labeling mythology as such; in the typical classroom, there are no adherents to pagan mythologies.  Christianity, however, is different, for the obvious reason that most students in most American classrooms are, at least nominally, Christian.  It is obviously silly not to take this fact into consideration in deciding how to approach sensitive issues.  Are you asking whether we should label Christianity a myth, and thereby (at least, in the lexicon of most students) imply that it is objectively false?

    I notice that you completely sidestep my central argument, that it comports best with the aims of liberal education to treat student beliefs respectfully–even if you regard them as “myth”–and employ rational arguments, rather than pressuring students, labeling their views in ways they find off-putting and personally belittling, and essentially aiming to persuade them of something of which they have no desire to be persuaded?  Do you really think the latter approach conduces more to the aim of liberal education than the more traditional, gentler approach, which I support?

    Finally, on the 2+2=4 thing, you seem to be saying that the theory of evolution is just as certain as 2+2=4.  That is, of course, completely ridiculous, and there really is no need to go into any details about theory confirmation or any such thing to make this any clearer.  For one thing, the latter is a truth obvious to all; the former is not, even if it is pretty obvious to you and me.

    • Greg Linster says:

      I’ll try to answer your questions on a point by point basis.

      1) “I ask you, when else in one’s entire education, perhaps apart from
      religious education, does a teacher feel he has a responsibility not
      just to correct mistaken answers to questions the student doesn’t much
      care about, but to dismantle sincerely held beliefs that the student
      cares deeply about?”  How can you avoid indoctrinating the student?  And if you don’t, please explain in some more detail what a non-indoctrinating program of
      education might look like when you get to the evolution-is-pseudoscience
      unit.

      History would be one example.  Suppose I were to deny a historical atrocity, say the Holocaust, by simply saying that I didn’t believe in it.  Furthermore, suppose that because of my faith I was willing to ignore all the evidence, no matter how compelling, in order to maintain this deep held belief.  How does an instructor deal with this situation without indoctrinating (in the way you are using the term) the student?  Encouraging rational thinking is a futile task in this situation, so what’s an instructor to do?

      What I am getting at here will not come as a surprise.  I’m suggesting that some ways of arriving at conclusions are better than others.  Based on the way that you define “indoctrination” I don’t see how we can really have an educational system at all if we don’t first accept this assumption.

      As for the evolution-is-pseudoscience unit, you seem to be implying that our education system should consider faith based claims to be equally as valid as scientific based claims.  I’m not sophomoric enough to suggest that all scientific theory is 100% accurate, but at least it’s based on evidence and reason.  Science can definitely mislead us, however, it’s a process that allows one to change their mind based on the evidence.  Faith does no such thing.  The irony, of course, is that many people use faith to justify their beliefs in some domains and science in others.  That seems a bit hypocritical, right?

      2) I don’t say that teachers should avoid labeling mythology as such; in
      the typical classroom, there are no adherents to pagan mythologies.
       Christianity, however, is different, for the obvious reason that most
      students in most American classrooms are, at least nominally, Christian.
       It is obviously silly not to take this fact into consideration in
      deciding how to approach sensitive issues.  Are you asking whether we
      should label Christianity a myth, and thereby (at least, in the lexicon
      of most students) imply that it is objectively false?

      Yes, that is what I’m asking.  Why should Christianity or any other religion be given a privileged treatment in the classroom?  If we’re willing to call some religions myths, as you suggest, don’t we have the responsibility to be as equally fair and sensitive as possible to all other religions?

      3) I notice that you completely sidestep my central argument, that it
      comports best with the aims of liberal education to treat student
      beliefs respectfully–even if you regard them as “myth”–and employ
      rational arguments, rather than pressuring students, labeling their
      views in ways they find off-putting and personally belittling, and
      essentially aiming to persuade them of something of which they have no
      desire to be persuaded?

      You seem to be implicitly suggesting that avoiding offending people is more important than seeking knowledge within the walls of academia.  How can a professor even argue with someone who believes that faith is superior to reason though? 

      I’ll reiterate that it’s entirely possible to teach and argue without being disrespectful.  In the end, I think allowing “faith” claims to have the same validity as scientific claims demeans the human pursuit of knowledge.

  2. Jeff Huber says:

    (thoughts on your original post – I’ll add here for the sake of conversation) 

    Greg, I think you make a lot of assumptions. And the title of the piece is misleading.
    Creationism comes in many many varieties (which you hint at) – not just the world was created 5K years ago and that’s it. A good friend of mine is a Christian and a physics professor at University of Oklahoma. He wrote a book on how and why the big bang was the beginning of the universe umpteen years ago. He doesn’t address evolution in the book. (unpublished – because the publisher didn’t think mainstream Christians would care – a sad point.) I’d like to see that viewpoint mentioned. 
    To the greater thesis of your article – I think you assume the un-assumable. And that is that all faith is foolish and wrong. Not to hold you to a full out proof every time you mention it – but perhaps some linkbacks to previous work or external work would have helped. In fact it seems blatantly in the face of the science to say as you say, “verifiably wrong.” Does science know anything? Or does it believe certain things to be true? I *think* what you really mean is you assume a certain confidence interval as acceptable for fact. Which is fine – just so long as you acknowledge that.

    Worldviews and belief systems all have their assumptions and things which they hold to be true for their own sake. I think the greater question is which system most closely matches the world we live in.

  3. Logos_tech says:

    Sanger states, “So let’s set aside those two examples of beliefs-that-students-should-be-disabused-of. Clearly, more common, real-world examples are more apt to resemble Creationism and thus be open to the objection I’ve raised above”. Rea…lly!? Sanger thinks that there are other real world beliefs other than 2+2=5 and Odinism that “are more apt to resemble Creationism? The arguments he gives about people holding these beliefs apply equally as well in regards to Creationism. The examples given ARE the equivalent real world examples along with denying the Holocaust and British Colonialism. Sanger makes the mistake of equating correcting a student’s belief with indoctrination. Certainly, depending upon how it is done, he has a point, but that is the key. It’s not a matter of whether or not one should correct his or her student’s erroneous beliefs, but how it should be done. Certainly I can agree that there are better ways of correcting a students erroneous beliefs. Among them are to “train them better in the habits of rational thought”. So, yes, erroneous beliefs should be challenged and repudiated. One should do so with tact; with an eye towards educating not indoctrinating. But if the best evidence available indicates that the student is mistaken there is no reason for a professor to suggest that the student may be right and to suggest that he or she may be is intellectually dishonest. Students deserve more. This can all be done without ridiculing, bullying or berating a student. To turn this on its head one might also consider this applies equally as well for students correcting professors. If a student has good reason to think that a professor is mistaken then he or she should present their case and try to show how the Professor is wrong. I’ve been privy to seeing this done in classes watching students correct false statements by my professors. Never have I seen a professor accuse his students of indoctrination.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I see both sides of the argument but I think I lean more toward what Larry Sanger is saying. When I was in college, I took a Geology course. Evolution and a 4.5 billion year old Earth were regularly raised without any challenge. One day, in lab, the professor for some reason angrily criticized creationist beliefs. A girl I always sat across from in lab looked really troubled and uncomfortable. She said her parents would be really troubled if they knew she was taking this course and maybe she shouldn’t be there.

    She did continue to come to class but I was surprised by her reaction. She never seemed troubled by the mention of Evolution or billions of years of Earth’s history before. But this attack on her parents beliefs or perhaps beliefs she was unsure about seemed to really upset her. I’m not sure if anything was gained by the attacking tone. Maybe if the professor had addressed creationism with respect for the fact that their were some believers in the class or people who were unsure, it would have been a better approach.

    Professors should present facts and evidence. They should address challenges respectfully. They should teach students how to think critically. But I think trying to force a certain belief on students is troubling. I didn’t like it when I had conservative economics professors trying to push their Republican views on their classes. I have remained a Democrat despite attempts to suggest that I am wrong.

    Evolution is a fact. The evidence for it is overwhelming. Let the facts speak for themselves. Some people will still want to wallow in ignorance. That has to be their choice. But plenty of believers accepted Evolution and lost their narrow-minded religious beliefs just by being exposed to the facts. Pushy professors may actually do more harm than good. People often become defensive and cling more strongly to their beliefs if they feel attacked.

    I also take issue with the Holocaust denial example. Holocaust denial is usually based on prejudice and hate, so challenging a student who holds racist views is completely different. I do think there is nothing wrong with calling modern religions modern mythologies. I think professors should be careful how they address it though. They should be trying to get students to think and question, without making them feel defensive and personally attacked.

    Education should be about opening students to new ideas, even ideas that may make them uncomfortable. But it should be done in a manner that respects the believer even when the professor doesn’t respect the belief.

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      So I think we can agree that tone and approach do indeed matter.  And I absolutely agree that being respectful is important.  I never meant to imply or suggest otherwise if that’s how you understood it. 

      You assert that: “Evolution is a fact. The evidence for it is overwhelming.”  These types of statements open things up for extensive debate because people can ask “How do you know?”  What I think we’re ultimately trying to get at is that some methodologies for arriving at conclusions are better than others.

      Anyway, I’m also confused by your denial of the Holocaust example.  Are you suggesting that religions don’t promote prejudice and hate?  If you are, I think you are grossly mistaken because some definitely do. 

  5. Peter, you say:
    “We’re not talking about “pet views” though; we’re talking about
    scientific facts.  You seem to be implying that I’m trying to change
    people’s beliefs about things I cannot possibly claim to know.  I can
    assure you that I’m not, I’m merely trying to uncover truths about the
    nature of reality by separating fact from fiction given the tool of
    reason that we humans are endowed with. We don’t know a whole lot, but
    we do have some knowledge.

    Then you say:
    “I would call what I’m suggesting stating scientific fact in an
    authoritative manner.  I do suspect, however, that many students may
    have been actually indoctrinated by their religious teachers.  I know
    this because I was indoctrinated with Christianity as a child.   What
    I’m suggesting, then, is that teachers have an obligation to call things
    by their proper name.  In other words, I’m suggesting we avoid
    euphemisms.   As such, scientific facts should be labeled as facts and
    verifiable mythology should be labeled as mythology.

    My question for you: How would you classify Christian beliefs, or more specifically, Catholic beliefs: as “things you cannot possibly know,”  “verifiable mythology,” or in some other category?

    Asking as a Catholic who also believes in rational arguments and does not question *proven* scientific facts (as opposed to merely postulated ones).

    • Greg Linster says:

      Edmund, I need some clarification to your question.  Which Catholic belief are you specifically referring to?  If you were referring to the bible’s claim that Adam and Eve just appeared on earth, then I would say that there is scientific evidence that would suggest otherwise.  Before we debate this issue any further though, I think we must agree on one key assumption. Do you, like me, believe that some ways of arriving at conclusions are better than others?

  6. “I, for one, can sympathize with those people who can’t really understand what that would mean. This is because I also can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, endowed with the ability to reason and be logical, to deny that evolution is true.

    How about, instead of denying that evolution is true, raising some important questions.  Such as: how do you explain the Cambrian Explosion?  How do you explain the wealth of information in the cell and how it got there?  The incredible complexity of the cell’s mechanisms for replicating DNA, synthesizing proteins, etc.?  Is raising questions OK?  How about questions that include words “intelligent” and “design” in the same sentence?

    I know, I know, evolution doesn’t address the origins of the cell.  But that just raises another question: who does?

    I may have more questions for you, Greg, and for your supporters, but I’d like to hear your answers first.  I’ll give you a hint: I am a Christian (Roman Catholic).  Can you prove that my beliefs are just a myth?

    • Greg Linster says:

      Thanks for the comment, Edmund.  I’ll answer your questions in the order you asked them.

       1) Absolutely, raising questions is A-OK!

      2) I’ll also say that raising questions with “intelligent” and “design” in the same sentence is ok too.

      3) I don’t know why there is something instead of nothing or where the origins of the first cell come from.  Those are good questions though and it would be foolish of me to pretend to know the answer.

      If you have any more questions, please feel free to shoot them over.

  7. […] “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism” and my post “A Response To Larry Sanger“).  I’d recommend skipping over the introductions. Peter comes on at about nine […]

  8. […] atheists can be equally as bad as (if not worse) than religious fundamentalists. As I discussed in my exchange with Larry Sanger, how you approach things […]


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