All pupils should be taught evolution from primary school onwards so they do not mistake Barney the dinosaur for scientific fact, a leading science education academic has said.
James Williams, lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, believes TV programmes such as The Flintstones and Barney amp; Friends, as well as films such as One Million Years BC (pictured), starring Raquel Welch as a bikini-clad cavewoman, have created a pop-culture cliche of interaction between humans and dinosaurs which is exploited by creationists.
Addressing the British Humanist Association this month, Mr Williams said creationists deliberately feed children scientific misconceptions. Children then build on these, adapting all new knowledge so that it fits into their mistaken understanding of the world.
He said: "It is intellectual abuse when a person in a position of power and authority, claiming expertise in science, deliberately provides a non- scientific explanation for the development and diversity of life on earth."
The earlier and more established the misconceptions, the more difficult it can be to correct them in later life, he said.
Because most children love dinosaurs, creationists tempt them with books, toys and museums featuring assorted prehistoric wildlife. Their literature targets primary pupils, presenting pseudoscientific explanations alongside images of dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden or descriptions of dinosaurs dying out during the great flood. Popular culture unwittingly reinforces this, with images of Fred Flintstone riding a dinosaur to work or Raquel Welch fending off a giant tortoise.
"We're often on the back foot, responding to creationist attacks, rather than getting on with the job of preventing bankrupt pseudoscience from making an impression on young minds," Mr Williams said.
He called for education about evolution to start early. At the moment, far too much is left until key stage 4, he said. "Misconceptions set in primary will be very difficult, if not impossible, to correct over 10 years later."
Teachers should be practised in combating creationist arguments, he said. "Science is about the acceptance of evidence, and is not a belief system. We should resist talking about a belief in evolution."
And scientists should watch their language, he said. Many mistakenly confuse the words "theory" and "hypothesis": in scientific terms, a theory is a clearly proven fact.
"As a community of scientists and science educators, we can prevent the ideas being taken on as factual, and we can prevent the misconceptions taking hold," Mr Williams said. "We can only do this, however, if we are proactive in teaching evolution at an earlier stage in schooling, and we can only prevent it with robust examples from the vast weight of scientific evidence for evolution that currently exists."
Appliance of science
Begin evolution education at primary
- Provide more up-to-date examples of evolution in teaching resources.
- Give teachers tools to combat creationist arguments in class.
- Remember, evolution is scientifically proven, not a belief system; a hypothesis is not yet proven, but a theory is scientifically watertight.