Andrew Brown gets it wrong all over again
Someone suggested the other day that the Guardian keeps Andrew Brown on staff to help spike the number of hits on its CiF blog, since his posts are always so screwy that people gravitate towards Brown’s offerings just to twist his nose. Whether the Guardian’s intentions manage this level of deviousness and ingenuity I am not sure, but lately Brown has been pulling out all the stops on idiocy in a race to the bottom in the intellectual sweepstakes, the diapason of his ignorance rumbling contentedly in the background. This morning, for example, he suggests that “At least creationists have given it some thought,” and then asks, as a subtitle, “Would you rather an indifferent or a passionately wrong child in the science classroom? Let’s not simply sneer at Darwin deniers.”
Clearly Brown has never been in a classroom. It is better to have a teachable child, than one whose mind is so obdurately made up that he won’t even begin to digest what is on the curriculum. An indifferent child can, depending on the skill of the teacher, be turned into a passionately curious child, who can’t wait to learn the next mind-boggling thing. A child who knows better than the teacher, and who hasn’t given a thought — contrary to Brown’s title — to the subject he is supposed to be learning, is simply unteachable, and will be a constant thorn in the teacher’s side, since he will continue to bluster about his certainties even at those critical moments when the whole class is hanging on the teacher’s every word, simply yearning to learn about the wonders that this world provides on every side.
Brown says that 40% of British adults believe in creationism, or are at least unclear about evolution, and he adds, in a remarkable non sequitur, that “this is quite clearly not a problem created by religious belief.” It must be a massive failure of science and maths education, Brown thinks. There may be such a failure, but this does not show it. Even if, for the people who are still unclear about evolution, and tend to mix creationism, evolution and intelligent design in a grab bag of beliefs, 10,000 is an extraordinarily high number, if you count like Terry Pratchett’s trolls, “one, lots, many,” the fact still remains that this is so far out of line with what any reasonably informed person should know about evolution, that more than a failure of education is necessary in order to explain such a big mistake. It means that people have other sources of “information,” and it’s not coming from science inside or outside the classroom. The only place where people talk in these terms is in religion, so it must be a problem created by religious belief.
But Brown won’t have it that way. “The distinction I am making here,” he writes,
is one between being wrong, as the biblical creationist or intelligent designer is, and not even getting that far, like the wholly irreligious child who leaves school thinking, if he thinks about it at all, that the Earth is around 10,000 years old, and dinosaurs and cavemen probably did live side by side.
Unfortunately, even if children are natural creationists, the language he is using here comes straight out of the religious creationist’s copybook. There is no natural creationist who believes, without prompting, that dinosaurs and people probably lived side by side in a young earth not more than 10,000 years old. There is simply no reason for believing such nonsense except religion.
Assuming he is right about the sources of children’s mistaken ideas about the age of the earth and the evolution of life, he asks:
The question, then, is which kind of pupil does more harm in the science classroom. Is it the passionately wrong child, or the dully indifferent one? Which would you rather argue with, and which argument would teach the rest of the class more?
I don’t think argument is the issue. As a teacher I would not want to argue with children. Having children who are prepared to learn is the issue, and arguing with a creationist child is as much fun as arguing with the person from whom the child learned all this nonsense. An indifferent child can be turned into one who is obsessed with learning. A creationist child is not thinking at all, but spouting conclusions learned from a religious parent or from some local conventicle, mosque or church where he has picked up enough nonsense to make teaching him a burden rather than a pleasure.
For some reason Brown thinks the teacher can counter the creationist child’s beliefs by marshaling the arguments against creationism. After all, he suggests, the arguments are all out there on the internet. All we have to do, he opines thoughtlessly, is to present the ”vast collection of arguments and facts showing that evolution is in fact observable, and, in a word, true.” This is simply a misunderstanding. Take as much evidence as you like, it still will not make a dent in the conviction that the Bible is truer, is, in fact, God’s truth, to forsake which is to put oneself in danger of hellfire and damnation.
But, no, Brown won’t have it that way. The arguments are there, they demonstrate, he suggests, the triumph of good ideas over bad ones. Brown has no idea of the kind of hold that religious idiocy has over the mind of those who are in its thrall. He thinks we can simply overcome this with good arguments, and at least, he says, we should be able to do it without sneering at the intellect and character of creationists. That’s not exactly what he says, so let’s put it out here. This is his last paragraph:
So perhaps we could stipulate that this material could be produced without sneering at the intellect and character, and without the ambition to crush their egos as well as to prove them wrong – ah, but that would require a different kind of education, in another classroom.
And when we put it out like this, we can see already that this is a sneer against the new atheists — although he doesn’t mention them. Good teachers don’t sneer at the intellect and character of their students, even students who are profoundly wrong. They try their best to see that the children learn the material that is assigned to them to learn, and when they fail, heartachingly, as they so often will when overcome by religious certainty, they will feel alarmed at the child’s obvious inability to learn, weighed down, as he is, by religious dogma and the fear of learning. But to suggest that such children have at least given the matter some thought is to dignify something which does not qualify as thought at all. These roadblocks to learning have been instilled in them by repetition and fear. Religion can do this. Has Brown never noticed? Or is his profound ignorance just a pose for effect?