Three Types of Bias in Secular Science Textbooks

People on the Homeschool Forum often ask me what science textbooks I recommend. There are some great options by Christian publishers in some subjects, but many are plagued by weak or outdated science and explicitly promote young-earth or intelligent design perspectives. In general, books by secular publishers have a lot of advantages. The good ones are updated every couple of years so they are reasonably current with respect to science and pedagogical best practices. Also, at least theoretically, they are supposed to be silent on matters of faith, so Christian teachers and parents have more freedom to contextualize the science with Christian teachings.

Yet not all secular science textbooks are created equal, and some can be pretty vocal about promoting an anti-faith perspective. Because of this fact, some parents and Christian educators express concern when they are faced with the prospect of using a secular textbook for a science course. They worry that an atheistic bias in these textbooks could harm students whose Christian worldview is still developing.

Although it is true that teachers and students will probably encounter instances of bias in secular textbooks, the potential negative effects can be offset if teachers equip students to look out for certain themes and recognize claims that are unjustified or unfair. And some research seems to show the slippery slope fear is unfounded when faith integration is paired with a secular textbook.

Here we consider three common types of bias that sometimes crop up in secular science textbooks and some ideas for how to help students recognize them and respond from a Christian perspective. We follow with a couple of examples teachers could discuss with their students.

Bias #1: Science justifies scientism

One of the foundations of modern scientific inquiry is methodological naturalism, the idea that science studies the natural world, so supernatural causes are not considered as possible scientific explanations. This should not be confused with metaphysical naturalism (also called scientism, ontological naturalism, philosophical naturalism, or scientific materialism), a worldview that claims the natural world is all there is and there are no supernatural facets of reality. Some Christians mistakenly think that because the practice of science today usually involves methodological naturalism, all scientists are promoting metaphysical naturalism.

Science is limited to natural explanations and therefore does not have the tools for determining the existence or non-existence of supernatural realities. But as Christians, we believe many supernatural truth claims on the basis of Scripture, church tradition, and personal experience. Science and theology both generate knowledge and are complementary ways of finding out truth about reality. Recognizing this means we don’t have to see the natural explanations science offers as diminishing or competing with the supernatural explanations offered by our faith; the explanations complement one another to form a more complete picture of reality.

To combat a bias toward metaphysical naturalism, help students discern the difference between ruling out supernatural explanations in scientific study and ruling out the possibility of supernatural explanations in all areas of life. Point out when some scientists overstep the bounds and imply that science has proven they are correct in holding to metaphysical naturalism as a worldview.

Bias #2: Science and faith are at war

Some people promote the idea that science and Christian faith are inherently incompatible and at war with one another. If textbook writers subscribe to this view, or even if they are simply ignorant of the beliefs of religious people, they may present religion or people of faith as foils or enemies of science and scientists. They may imply that there is only one way to interpret certain passages of the Bible, and that people must choose between what science says about the world and what they claim the Bible says about the world. They may present history as a battle between religious thinking and scientific thinking and claim scientific thinking eventually wins out and replaces religious thinking. Religious thinking may be presented as superstition, outdated tradition, or a way for corrupt religious authorities to maintain control over ignorant people. Scientific thinking on the other hand, may be portrayed as a superior source of knowledge since it is based on reason, empirical observations, proof, and evidence.

When you see that  faith and science are being treated as opposing forces, point out that this is not the only way to see the relationship between faith and science. Give students opportunities to explore different ways in which science and faith can relate to one another. Help them see that that textbook writers who mischaracterize the beliefs of Christians may be ignorant about religion, but that doesn’t mean we can or should discount what they say about science. This is a great moment for talking about the need for reading with discernment.

Bias #3: Religion is an obstacle to scientific progress

Sometimes secular textbooks seem to go out of their way to characterize religious beliefs, sacred texts, and Christian institutions as obstacles to scientific thinking. They may also ignore all the positive contributions to scientific progress that Christians have made and continue to make. There have been unfortunate occasions when religious people or authorities have resisted scientific advances. But if we fail to balance those stories with the stories of the many faithful Christian scientists who have pursued their investigations specifically because they were motivated by their faith, then we don’t paint a balanced picture.

The history of science is full of many devoted Christians (and people from other faith traditions) who have seen no conflict between science and their faith, and in fact have found them to be mutually edifying. Combat the idea that Christians stand in the way of progress by highlighting the devout faith of important scientists of the past like BoyleLemaître, or Pasteur. Have students regularly read about believing scientists making meaningful contributions to their fields today. If you see news or pop culture references where scientists are stereotypically described as being atheists, talk about whether that is a fair portrayal of all scientists.

With these strategies for addressing any bias you might encounter, you can confidently pick up a science textbook and focus your worries on the hard work of teaching the material. Below are two sample activities you can do with students to practice detecting and discussing bias.

A bias detection activity to do with students

Part 1

The following two quotes were taken from science textbooks. Read the selection and discuss whether it makes a fair statement about science and faith, or whether it is an example of one of the three areas of bias discussed above.

Quote 1:

When Darwin published his theory in 1859 in a book called On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, it unleashed a firestorm of protest throughout Europe. At that time, the leading explanation for the diversity of organisms was an idea called special creation. Special creation held that: (1) All species are independent, in the sense of being unrelated to each other; (2) life on Earth is young—perhaps just 6000 years old; and (3) species are immutable, or incapable of change. These beliefs were explained by a supernatural being.1

Sample discussion points: This paragraph suggests that most Christians in 1859 were special creationists, and that the “firestorm” was primarily a clash of scientific vs. supernatural ways of understanding the origin of species. The truth is that many Christians in the mid-19th century had already accepted the fact that Earth was much older than 6000 years, and some respected Christian scientists and Bible scholars at the time found ways to reconcile their faith with evolution. This is a classic example of the warfare myth being perpetuated.

Quote 2:

The search for order and meaning in the world has taken different forms: one is science, another is art, and another is religion. The domains of science, art, and religion are different, although they often overlap. The arts are concerned with personal interpretation and creative expression and are not restricted to any particular domain. The domain of science is the natural world. The domain of religion is the supernatural. The termsupernatural literally means “above nature.” Science works within nature, not above it. Science may answer the question “What is life and how did it come to be?” But science is unable to answer philosophical questions such as “What is the purpose of life?” Although this question is valid and important, it is outside of the domain of science. It is better addressed in the domains of art and religion (6).2

Sample discussion points: The paragraph is pretty fair because it avoids portraying science as something that replaces religion or conflicts with faith. It describes methodological naturalism in science, but it also acknowledges that a naturalistic approach to the world does not answer all our important questions.

Part 2

Most textbooks have an introductory section on the scientific method or the development of scientific thought. Find that section in the textbook you are using this year and discuss any areas of bias you find. Also discuss any passages you think are particularly fair in their presentation of the relationship between faith and science.

Notes & References