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Why Synthesis Matters

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

Do the facts always "speak for themselves"?

The founders of the Creation Museum seem to think that evolutionary geologists and paleontologists make too much of an assumption when they say that the facts of continental drift and biodiversity support a scientific explanation of the earth's history, rather than a divine one. Yet, as New York Times science reporter Kenneth Chang writes in a blog entry extending a recent article he wrote about paleontologists visiting the museum, facts can play both sides: even in trying to dispute them, the creationists ended up demonstrating their truth (or at least their likelihood).

In that case, it's all about the spin.

For example, according to the museum, modern foxes and dogs share an ancestor in a doglike creature that boarded Noah's Ark, despite the fact that they vary greatly -- and demonstrably -- in their genetic makeup. Scientists happily explain this diversification through the branching-off from common ancestors based on adaptation, a core principle of evolution. And oddly, so do the museum's creationists, who otherwise staunchly reject the principles of evolution.

Chang writes:

In reporting the article, I talked with Andrew Snelling, the museum geologist who helped put together the flood exhibit. He said the rapid diversification occurred because of the open ecological niches after the flood and the geographical isolation of small population groups.

His explanation fits with the usual biological explanation of how evolution works.

The main difference between the explanation given by scientists and that given by the creationists?

[. . .] to explain how the few species aboard the ark could have diversified to the multitude of animals alive today in only a few thousand years, the museum said simply, “God provided organisms with special tools to change rapidly.”

“Thus in one sentence they admit that evolution is real,” [visiting paleontologist] Dr. Bengtson said, “and that they have to invoke magic to explain how it works.”

My point here is not to ridicule creationists or challenge them to accept evolution. It is to point out that in trying to reconcile the facts to their world-view, they've had to perform some curious mental gymnastics, and yet there are plenty of people for whom this explanation is convincing. Their conclusion, though, doesn't much satisfy the paleontologists who visited their museum, even if they succeeded in at least amusing the ones cited in the article.

I wrote earlier about why synthesis matters, and this collision between faith and science seems to me to illustrate an important real-world application of the kind of work we do when we ask students to examine different points of view and the ways in which they shape their arguments around the facts. Do the facts always speak for themselves? Perhaps not, since the particular selection and arrangement of facts usually end up telling the story.

Learning to think critically about how to approach these different opinions and facts also helps students to recognize how others do so, and whether they do so successfully or not. Seeing the same topic addressed in radically different ways, as well as in ways that overlap but still conflict, helps them to learn about the construction of logic, though it can be difficult for them to divorce their own personal assumptions and beliefs from objective assessment of argument.

If your school community is open to classroom discussion of controversial issues like this one, you can get some cracking good real-life interaction going, not only between students in your own class, but even with people outside of class, as in the case I cited earlier of Mark Lukach's Global Issues Initiative students, who communicate by podcast about issues about which they are passionate. Thanks to Mark's encouragement of their critical thinking and their willingness to engage with different opinions. And it's this kind of engagement that we really wish for when we teach these skills to our students.

What other controversial topics do you think hold enough "real-world" significance for your students to be worth seeing just how they entice the facts to "speak"?