Wedge strategy or salami slicing? Two equally valid theories

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Creationism is to be discussed as part of the GCSE biology syllabus:

The [OCR] exam board says students need to understand the background to theories.

Its new “Gateway to Science” curriculum asks pupils to examine how organisms become fossilised.

Teachers are asked to “explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (e.g. creationist interpretation)”.

Sounds innocent enough. Except that creationism as it is currently understood is very much a modern phenomenon. The Biblical creation myth was a hodge-podge of different creation myths borrowed from other cultures. There was no “creationist interpretation” before Darwinism, there was just the Bible and a lack of any other satisfying explanation. A series of theories, not least of all Lamarckism were explored, before the scientific community settled on Darwinism. Creationism is a reaction to Darwinism and the enlightenment, a modern literal interpretation of a clearly allegorical myth. Its place in a lesson on “interpretations of the fossil record” merits a paragraph or two, sure, but such a lesson would only have validity if it mainly focussed on the various attempts at formulating a scientific theory.

I’d dearly like to know who in OCR came up with that guff, as it has all the hallmarks of the wedge strategy, the well documented plan by US evangelists to subtly undermine the enlightenment by dressing up dogma as quasi-scientific scepticism. Intelligent Design is of course a famous example of this strategy.

I didn’t catch all of Rod Liddle’s Dispatches programme on Monday, but what I saw was disturbing enough. The picture that Liddle painted was that of teachers selected for their faith rather than ability, a subtle but no-less-comprehensive attempt to infect science teaching with religious dogma without falling foul of Ofsted and a selective use of exclusion to remove “troublesome” pupils. As time goes on, I have no doubt their confidence will grow. Meanwhile, another evangelist is planning to use his money to create a chain of McAcademies, and despite being a Tory donor, Blair has rewarded him with a peerage (if he can passed the Appointments Commission). Overseeing the entire schools revolution, of which these are just a small part, is a woman who has well known sympathies to the Opus Dei cult.

This is a full scale onslaught on scientific reason, salami slice by salami slice – make no mistake. It has its links with the religious hatred laws and the moral authoritarianism of the Respect Agenda. All this is being presented to us in perfectly reasonable terms: it’s about choice, or respecting communities, or tackling anti-social behaviour. The risk of creating sectarian tensions and a hysterical culture of intolerance is glossed over.

What to do about it? Where do we begin? But we can make a start at least by talking about it.

7 thoughts on “Wedge strategy or salami slicing? Two equally valid theories

  1. It’s important to note, i think, that intelligent design and creationism already are discussed in schools, and have been for quite a few years (that i’m aware of, anyway). But the important thing is that they’re studied as part of the mandatory Religious Education. Because that’s what they are. And that’s where they should stay.

  2. Spot on James, except that I don’t think it is true that creationism doesn’t predate evolution. What was Philip Gosse all about then?

    Some, like Karen Armstrong, do argue that applying literal interpretations to religous texts, leading to fundamentalism, is a recent phenomenon. But I suspect she is just casting the ancients as having a faith like hers.

    And look at the fuss over heliocentrism and geocentrism. Galileo wasn’t put under house arrest over a question of allegory!

  3. Interesting post, and I’m glad this is getting attention. Yet I’m not sure this is the attack that many of us have been waiting for. Note that the OCR text refers to differences in interpretation ‘over time’; I strongly suspect that what they’re thinking of is (for lack of more precise terminology) the post-modern interpretation of the scientific method. That is to say, the conclusions that may or may not be drawn from a particular set of data depend on one’s preconceptions and cultural background. In other words, they’re expecting teachers to talk about how evolution was initially perceived and the evidence gathered since which has dealt with those doubts and left a scientific community which is confident of evolution.

    Now, I’m not normally that forgiving of decision makers, and so the real question is not what they meant but how it will be interpreted. Will it be used as the start of a wedge? That’s what we need to look out for, and fight against.

  4. I do fundamentally agree with you and don’t wish to emphasis differences for the sake of it. However I think you need to refer to evangelicals not evangelists. Certainly not all Evangelicals would wish to push creationism or at least not through entryism via the syllabus/school sponsership route. Given that religion in general and Christianity in particular are much weaker in Britain than the US I can’t see culture wars breaking out on this issue. Certainly if you look at the wide spread disregarding of the law over a daily act of collective worship and the dilution of the RE syllabus i don’t think you have much to worry about.

  5. Joe,

    Gosse was a contemporary of Darwin and was dealing with some of the same facts that Darwin had to deal with: the revelation that the world appeared to be much, much older than anyone had ever dreamt.

    I’m not for a moment suggesting that people didn’t believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible before Darwin and the rise of geology, just that it was a “given” because of the lack of any contradictory evidence. There was no “interpretation” of the facts, just a lack of facts.


    I don’t see culture wars being as intense as they are in the US, but it is clear that elements of all religious movements are getting increasingly militant. Scratch beneath the surface and I think you also find that our secular country is full of people who believe some very odd things – they certainly aren’t studying science in large numbers. There is a danger that if you don’t believe in something, you’ll believe anything.

    On RE:

    I’m a religionist by degree and am quite happy to see creationism taught in schools in this context. I do however wish that RE formed part of a much more comprehensive philosophy/ethics syllabus (scepticism about an overly prescriptive national curriculum notwithstanding).

  6. I’m listening to the new George Galloway show on talkSPORT. Its a piece of counter intuitive scheduling for a right wing shock station but so far I’m giving him 8/10. he has a way with the punters and so far is tailoring his considerable speech skills to the truncated slots between adverts. Adverts for the large corporations he is slaging off.

    I bet him and Kelvin McKenzie get on like a oil well on fire.

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