Faith in the science classroom

PZ Meyers has recently written an excellent post about faith and skepticism. An interesting point raised here is what should be done about students who give faith-based answers to exam problems in a science course? In particular, how should one handle a faith-based answer on a cosmology exam? On the one hand, Pamela Gay argues that dismissing a students beliefs may place a wall between the student and the instructor that prevents learning. On the other hand, one worries about the message that is being sent to the student about how science works.

While I was an undergraduate student of physics, I was asked to go to a local high school with one of my professors so we could promote physics degrees to the senior students and answer questions about what its like to study science. One of the questions that we got was inquiring if it was okay to be a scientist and have faith.

I was about to answer “No! But, its great. When you study science, you learn that you don’t need to believe books and authority figures. You don’t need to believe things because you learned them when you were young. Things are true or false for other reasons. Better reasons! Evidence, not faith! That’s the coolest part about studying science!”

Luckily, the professor I was with was quicker on the draw than me and gave the politically correct answer: There are lots of scientists who balance their religious lives with their work lives and produce great science in the process.

For a lot of students, this is a big concern with learning science. A skeptic may be used to repeatedly adopting and discarding their beliefs as they become aware of different evidence, but to a religious person beliefs can form a major part of their identity. Having to give up beliefs–give up identity–to study science is a frightening prospect.

To me, the problem is similar to the age-old problem of students who get the wrong answer on an exam because the teacher said something untrue or misleading in a lecture: The students reasoned from authority, got the wrong answer and claim it’s not their fault because they were just repeating what the authority figure told them. As a student, I’ve made this very argument to successfully get extra grades on exams. After all, if the poor reasoning is an authority figure’s fault and not the student’s, it would be unfair to penalize the student, right?

Of course, appealing to authority is not good reasoning, so it is fair to penalize it in a science classroom. We are already used to giving students partial marks for math errors, so why not reasoning errors too? But, one has to be aware that reasoning from authority is the only tool in the toolbox for a majority of students. By college, a student has been rewarded for writing down knowledge handed down from textbooks and authority figures for twelve years. If the rules suddenly change, and the tools that they’ve developed to secure scholastic success are suddenly being punished, the student is likely not to understand the reason behind the punishment. These otherwise talented students are routinely chased away from science classes into arts classes where things are more familiar to them. This then contributes to an overall societal problem: some people love science, but everyone else hates, misunderstands, and fears science because of bad experiences in the science classroom.

It’s a huge mistake to ask students to reason like scientists all at once. What happens is that the science classroom becomes a filter where students who were already thinking like scientists get passed through and a large fraction of the students are filtered out, possibly scared away from science forever. Science is a different kind of reasoning than what is normal for humans, and it needs to be introduced early and reinforced frequently throughout a person’s education. There is a poorly studied process by which a normal person begins to think more like a scientist, and I doubt that training a person for many years to reproduce answers from a textbook before suddenly flicking the scientist switch is a useful way to lead students through that transition. As a society, however, we’ve collectively decided that its okay to put off teaching scientific reasoning until a student enters graduate school where they need to do professional quality scientific reasoning all of a sudden. One imagines that if we were better at education as a society, we could find a way to make this transition much more gradual and welcoming. Moreover, we could find ways to get more than just a few elite students through the transition.

A faith-based answer has no place on a science test and penalizing it is fair. In fact, one should not hesitate to send a message that this kind of reasoning is considered wrong in science. Not sending that message could be damaging to the students beliefs and understanding about how science works. However, the situation is delicate because bright religious students can easily go and study something else if they become offended. Good riddance, some of you may say. But, whenever this happens, science loses: a bright person who may have become pro-science is chased away to the opposing team.

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