2 April 2008

A Wellcome educational resource?

I've just come across the 16-page educational resource, "Big Picture on Evolution" (pdf), published in January 2007 by the Wellcome Trust.

At right is their take on creationism/ID (click for a larger view). Unfortunately, it's more factual/historical than critical, and it strikes me as not taking a strong position. The strongest bit is the last sentence ("[Judge John Jones'] judgment made it clear that ID could not be considered a valid scientific theory") but even here Wellcome is simply giving Judge Jones the last word instead of taking a position against ID, as I believe any institute with Wellcome's authority should.

Unfortunately, the rest of the booklet contains more of the same. There's certainly lots of information about evolution that is presented in an accessible if rather cartoonish way. They do a particularly good job explaining the fact that all species are descended from a common ancestor and they go into quite a lot of good detail about genes and evolution.

But then they also give a lot of space--a full quarter of the 16 page booklet--to religious voices who, though none deny evolution outright, make anti-scientific statements like "God is a given, there is no doubt He exists" and then go on explain how this is rationalised to fit with scientific thought (i.e. God created the world using evolution). This viewpoint, that religion can and should be fitted around--or melded with--current scientific knowledge, is often called "God of the gaps" and it can be just as damaging to religion as it is to science.

Worse, they call this section of the booklet "Real Voices", which provides just the opt-out that a reader who might want to deny or rationalise evolution is probably looking for. In other words, Wellcome never comes out and says that while these voices may be real that they are not necessarily right.

In the end, by giving religion a lot of space in an educational booklet about evolution, Wellcome is, by default, legitimising the presence of religion in the science classroom.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I feel this reader has missed the point of the Big Picture publication on Evolution. The Wellcome Trust is a major supporter of public engagement with science, a movement that attempts to enhance the quality of discussion surrounding science and its application. It is a measure of the confidence Wellcome has in this approach that it places its public engagement work apart from it corporate communications, public relations and press activity – maintaining an independent and trusted voice. The Big Picture series does this exceptionally effectively and is a valued resource because of the way in which it encourages critical thinking amongst its readers, rather than seeing science simply as facts to be learned.

I used to work at the Wellcome Trust and contributed to the development of the philosophy and approach of the Big Picture series that nunatak feels so strongly about. As an educational resource, the role of Big Picture is to challenge ideas and orthodoxies, to present current science ideas and controversies in historical, social and ethical contexts and to promote the discourse that underpins the intellectual process. What scares me about nunatak’s views is a lack of appreciation of how people develop their ideas about the world. The notion that if each side bangs its drum more loudly it will drown out the other side is mistaken as ultimately it results in a cacophony in which no-one gets heard.

nunatak criticises the inclusion of ‘a full quarter of the 16-page booklet to religious voices’. I counted 2 pages. The aim of the Real Voices section, to which nunatak is referring, is to provide insight into how individuals consider particular issues. It is predicated on the basis that dialogue is more likely to be successful if founded on mutual respect and understanding.

I’m aware that members of the Intelligent Design community have launched a scathing assault on the Big Picture on Evolution. And now with nunatak’s views here, I’m inclined to congratulate my former employers, as they must be doing something right.

Peter Finegold
Medical Genetics Research Group
School of Clinical and Laboratory Sciences
University of Manchester
peter.finegold@manchester.ac.uk

peter said...

I feel this reader may have missed the point of the Big Picture publication on Evolution. The Wellcome Trust is a major supporter of public engagement with science, a movement that attempts to enhance the quality of discussion surrounding science and its application. It is a measure of the confidence Wellcome has in this approach that it places its public engagement work apart from it corporate communications, public relations and press activity – maintaining an independent and trusted voice. The Big Picture series does this exceptionally effectively and is a valued resource because of the way in which it encourages critical thinking amongst its readers.

I used to work at the Wellcome Trust and contributed to the development the philosophy and approach of the Big Picture series that nunatak feels so strongly about. As an educational resource, the role of Big Picture is to challenge ideas and orthodoxies, to present current science ideas and controversies in historical, social and ethical contexts and to promote the discourse that underpins the intellectual process. What scares me about nunatak’s views is a lack of appreciation of how people develop their ideas about the world. The notion that if each side bangs its drum more loudly it will drown out the other side is mistaken as ultimately it results in a cacophony in which no-one gets heard.

nunatak criticises the inclusion of ‘a full quarter of the 16-page booklet to religious voices’. I counted 2 pages. The aim of the Real Voices section, that nunatak refers to is predicated on the fact that debate based on mutual respect and understanding is more likely to encourage people of differing viewpoints to challenge ideas.

I know that the Intelligent Design community launched a scathing assault on the Big Picture on Evolution. And now with nunatak’s views here, I’m inclined to congratulate my former employers, since they must be doing something right.