What the Loch Ness Monster Taught Me About Tolerance

The degree to which we should be tolerant of others is a tough question.  Liza has addressed that issue to some degree in an earlier post.  Now, something else has happened that has me wondering how far we should to go in our tolerance of others.  That is, what kinds obligations do we have in terms of tolerance, and how are those obligations are weighted in relation to other obligations we have.

The UK’s Guardian recently published an article on a ruling by the UK’s National Academic Recognition Information Centre (NARIC) concerning what degrees will be accepted as equivalent to their A-Levels certification.  The Advanced Level (A-Level) General Certificate of Education is a qualification offered by educational institutions in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the European Union. Students generally study for the tests during their last two years at secondary school, and the degree is the most common qualification used to determine a student’s eligibility for university admission. The A-level signifies that a student has achieved proficiency in skills and subject matter necessary for college coursework.

What is surprising about the recent decision by NARIC is the acceptance of the International Certificate of Christian Education (ICCE) as equivalent to the A-levels.  For those unfamiliar, this is a degree that is given out by private fundamentalist Christian schools and home-teachers.  Now, in and of itself, there is nothing unreasonable about accepting a degree from a Christian school as equivalent to a degree from a public school.  That is, there is nothing unreasonable about this assuming that the degree in question is actually equivalent, and this is determined by the content of the coursework and testing that is administered by the program in question.  Certainly, it would be absurd for anyone to suggest that a curriculum that taught nothing equivalent to what was taught in public schools was actually equivalent.  So, if the courses at such a school taught “alternative” histories, mathematics, or writing skills, no one would suggest that such programs should be granted equivalency.  That is, if the history courses from such a school taught that civilization was started by a reptilian race who still ruled from the shadows, and all wars, country formations, and political events were interpreted in light of this, it would be surprising if such was accepted as legitimately equivalent to the history taught in a public school.  Similarly, if the math classes taught that 2+2=17 and that the largest angle of a right triangle was 458 degrees, it would be surprising if that was accepted.  As such, it is clear that not just anything can be accepted as equivalent.  It should actually be equivalent.

With the above in mind, I was troubled to hear that NARIC was accepting the ICCE as equivalent for reasons that parallel those sketched out above as disqualifying a degree from such acceptance.  Here is a sample of what is taught in the text of a text used in those schools granting that degree:

"Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie,’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

"Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all."

Did you get that?  I suggest you read it again.  The above says that the Loch Ness Monster falsifies evolutionary biology.  It then goes on to flat-out lie about the existence of transitional fossils in the fossil record. Then it says that even if fossils do appear to be transitional (which is strange, given the previous denial of their existence), that must be an error, and it is to be explained by an appeal to an article of faith in a particular deity.

Right up there with so-called “alternative” maths and histories we should exclude such sciences as failing to qualify as equivalent.  It is simply absurd to suggest that anyone taught in their biology class that the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution has an education on par with what is taught in a legitimate biology class.  They are not equivalent, and that anyone would suggest otherwise should make any sane, rational person shake their head in confusion and frustration.

(By the way, as indicated by the linked article, the curriculum also teaches that “apartheid helped South Africa because segregated schools ‘made it possible for each group to maintain and pass on their culture and heritage to their children’.”  Lest you think it is only genuine science that is being misrepresented, think again.)

So why might NARIC accept this nonsense as analogous to what is taught in real schools?  Here, I can only guess that it has to do with the desire to be tolerant and respectful of diverse religious beliefs.  Freedom of religion is considered sacrosanct in free societies in general, and it is not difficult to understand the inclination to treat those people who want to teach their children their religious beliefs with due respect.  But how far are we willing to go?  At what point do we say enough is enough?  As I indicated earlier, I find it highly unlikely that any group teaching their children that the world wars were guided by reptiles from outer space as legitimate history would be afforded such consideration.  But this is a belief that is actually held by a number of people (I kid you not; look up “reptilian conspiracy”), and it could easily be counted as “religious.”  We do not feel the need to be tolerant of that belief, so why do we feel the need to be so tolerant of people who tell their children outright lies (e.g. “Nessie” has been scientifically documented, such has anything to do with evolution, there are no transitional fossils, etc)?  Moreover, why would we feel obligated to accept a curriculum in biology that includes such nonsense as equal to what is taught in a real biology course? 

It seems clear by our commitment to public education that we feel obligated to educate our children.  This sentiment is generalizable to virtually every society, though the specifics vary.  I don’t want to sketch the argument for that obligation here.  Suffice to say, if you buy into anything like that, then it seems likely that that obligation extends to providing a good education, that is, an education that includes things that are true and correct.  If that is the case, then we are doing something wrong when we teach falsehoods to our children.  Now, it may be the case that in a free society we do not think the government should have the ability to dictate exactly what parents teach their children (though this is obviously debatable).  However, it is the government’s job to determine what gets the stamp of approval as legitimate.  In fact, that’s the whole reason for groups like NARIC’s existence.  Whatever our obligation is to tolerate the beliefs of minorities (religious or otherwise), that obligation cannot extend to accepting the teaching of lies as equal to the teaching of truth.  This also applies for purely practical reasons.  The primary function of NARIC’s determination is to serve as an indicator of what degrees will be sufficient for acceptance into public universities.  Clearly, if children are taught things that are false as being true, they will be in for a rude awakening, both in worldview and grade expectation, when they get into a class that teaches a legitimate curriculum.  As such, no favors are done for the children by accepting their ICCE degree as comparable to a certification in legitimate coursework.  On the contrary, they are being harmed, especially as there is every reason to think that the curriculums in question would be edited to meet legitimate educational standards if students who graduate with an ICCE were not granted the equivalence necessary for university admission.

The virtue of personal tolerance can be debated, but, whatever our obligation to tolerate is, it does not and should not extend to the sanctioning of lies by state regulators such as the NARIC. Stamping out the teaching of lies to our children is a much higher obligation than any we might have to tolerate absurd beliefs in others.

*I want to say thanks to Liza for some helpful editing and the suggestion for the title.

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3 Responses to “What the Loch Ness Monster Taught Me About Tolerance”

  1. James Gray Says:

    Perhaps the problem is that high school education tends to be quite bad, so they don’t want to be “too demanding” on what counts. We see in the examples you gave a total lack of understanding regarding inductive/deductive logic. How about requiring all students to know the difference between good reasoning and bad reasoning?

    • Jim Says:

      I’m all in favor of classes on reasoning and critical thinking. I think such classes would be terribly valuable to all students regardless of what they go on to do in their lives. But even if they never offer such classes, it just seems bad policy to accept anti-science as equivalent to actual science.

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