Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Point, Exactly

Here's an interview with a researcher, about the decline in the teaching of evolution. Some important points therefrom:

We see two distinct issues here. The first is that students are being cheated out of a sound science education. All nations are increasingly confronted with important policy choices that are informed by science: Should we mandate vaccines for all school children? Should we take costly steps to reduce carbon emissions? How can we most effectively reduce the incidence of chronic diseases? For ordinary citizens to play a meaningful role in democracies tackling these issues, they need to be excellent critical thinkers concerning science. They should not blindly accept scientific findings, whether they come from academia, government or industry. But neither should they believe that scientific debates are simply clashes of opinion and values. A healthy appreciation of the nature of science, the persuasiveness of replication, and respect for the necessary expertise is also essential. When teachers tell their students that they can have their own opinions about the validity of evolutionary biology, they are sending a dangerous message to our future citizens.

On the other hand, the failure to integrate evolution into the general biology class represents a missed opportunity to turn students on to science....

... Evolutionary biology — taught well and thoroughly — offers a great opportunity to convey the nature of science to young people. This is an opportunity most school children are denied.

And it addresses the main problem, that of faith and the closing of the mind:

We estimate that no more than 30 percent of Americans belong to faith traditions that emphasize a strict and literal reading of the Bible that may lead adherents to see a potential conflict between their faith and the findings of evolutionary biology. The contradictions are rooted in beliefs about the antiquity of the earth, Adam and Eve, and the idea that all current animals descend from those on Noah’s ark. ... Nevertheless, these ideas have diffused into the larger population and are held by others whose own pastors, priests and rabbis see no inherent contradiction between scripture and science. I think there are opportunities for those associated with these other faith traditions to better articulate how faith accommodates modern science, and vice verse. ....

... More broadly, many people of faith are drawn to the study of evolution to explore God’s work, and find a spiritual connection in their study of nature. This perspective was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but is not often enough articulated in current debates about evolution. Maybe that is because nobody has yet stated it more eloquently than Darwin himself:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

As our worldly problems become more complex and threatening, the response, sadly -- in the US, anyway -- has been to resort to simplicity and ignorance. As it suffuses into our education system, already lacking in much, the future is steadily being pulled away from us. The need of some to ignore reality is translating into the inability of everyone to evaluate data, to be skeptical, to have a rational -- a scientific -- way to address information.

The results are obvious: we're turning away from difficult solutions toward magic. And with increasing frequency we're electing prestidigitators, not leaders, at the very time we need them the most.


  1. I agree with the article.

    Creationism and Evolution aren't guaranteed to be separate entities.
    Who is to say that the timeline in the story of creation in Genesis was ACTUAL days?

    Is it so unreasonable to think that a God whose timeline is 3 dimensional (always is, always was, and is everywhere in the present) may have taken more than 1 day when creating the heavens/earth considering that a "24 hour day" didn't even exist until he created a spinning earth revolving around a sun?

    Is it not logical to at least ponder how a "Big Bang" can maybe correlate with an all powerful being creating heaven and earth?

    Most, if not all, Christians have moments where they ponder the existence of a God. Some of us even have angry words for him....a few times a day. How could you not?

    I would be very hesitant to paint the whole lot of them with the same brush as you have, and even more hesitant to assign blame for today's state of affairs to Christians. As of 1990, 86% of the U.S. was some denomination of Christian. As of 2008, 76% of the U.S. was a Chrisitan denomination. According to your line of reasoning, things should be improving. In that same time period, atheists/agnostics have gone up 7 percentage points.

    What strikes me is the atheist who is totally certain that we are here by a lucky roll of the cosmic dice. The belief that at some point from a few nucleic acids to a monkey-fish-frog, we've ended up with man, capable of thought and reason and monkey, who cannot even be potty trained.

    As for me, I'm hedging my bets with weekly shout outs to the Big Guy in the Sky (especially for that time when a scud runner missed me by about 100 feet). I'm sure He can see right through my fence sitting, but hey, He created me this way.

    Anyways, all of my psycho babble was a prelude to my reason for posting: brief video that adds nicely to the point of your blog entry:


  2. PT: I don't think I've ever said that Christians are the source of all of our problems. Not all Christians, anyway. But it's remarkable how much effect a small number of hard-core biblical literalists are having on education across the country, and in our public and political discourse.

    Nor, of course, is it just atheists who recognize the science and power of evolution, not to mention the incontrovertible evidence.

    Whether or not god/gods exist is beside the point: the point is about learning science, learning to go where the facts lead, to separate fact from fiction. In a complex world, it's indispensable if we're to find solutions. But if that small subset of Christians have their way -- and, no matter the percentages of believers in this country, they are, they are -- our ability to produce the kind of thinkers we need will be steadily degraded, as they wage their war on science.

    It need have nothing to do with belief or lack thereof. Although, whereas I understand the power of belief and the need of most humans for it, I've never understood, and never will, the idea of rejecting fact to sustain belief. If religion has value, it ought to be to allow one to live in the world as it is; not force one to deny reality.

    In the same way I can't fathom the mental gymnastics required to believe the earth is six thousand years old, I can't comprehend a thoughtful person denying that evolution happens. I could no more accept a religion that demands that sort of belief than I could the idea that we could live without oxygen. Or a religion that demanded I do.

  3. And, oh yeah: he created me this way, too. Right?

  4. Good and Evil...

    If one has not been given the ability to understand "Good and Evil", how would one be able to understand what a rule, that told one not to eat the fruit from "The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" meant, without eating the fruit of the "The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?"

    Being immortal, and having never seen death, how would one comprehend what death was?

    This reminds me of a scene my wife witnessed in a restaurant recently.

    While the mother was absent, the father repeatedly offered food to his baby - who happily reached for the food, only to have the father remove the food from the infants reach.

    The father kept this up until the baby began to cry, whereupon the father laughed.

    I guess Father is still laughing.

    And, actually, the snake was correct: They did not "Surely Die."

    They died uncertainly and slowly, as we still do.


  5. 99.9% of the world believe in some form of life after death: heaven and hell, reincarnation, soul transcendence, nirvana, etc. 80% of americans believe in a REAL devil or satan or other evil spirit. Some huge number think of God as a person living in heaven with a long beard and wearing robes and knowing everything and able to do anything to any and all, and "selected" groups. None of this is scientific In light of this, here is how a professor-friend of mine teaches evolution: "many, many people believe the creation story explanation; others including almost all secular scientists follow some evolution theory. Compare and contrast." I like this approach: non-confrontational to believers, gets everyone to study with understanding the other views the goal, and analyse and defend your position.

  6. Aside from the contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2, I've never had a creationist give me a decent answer to how the earth could bring forth grass, herbs and fruit-bearing trees before the sun was created.

    "Is it not logical to at least ponder how a "Big Bang" can maybe correlate with an all powerful being creating heaven and earth?"

    Considering that we have pretty good evidence that the earth didn't even exist for the first 2/3 of the existence of the universe, seems kinda sketchy. The author of the Big Bang theory, Georges LemaƮtre, was both a physicist and Catholic Monsignor, so I'm sure the theological implications crossed his mind. I'm also told that this was the reason some steady-state theorists clung fast to their position.

    I've considered the possibility that something gave the cosmic nudge that touched off the Big Bang. I've also considered the possibility that said entity was killed in the rapid expansion -- talk about your basement science project going really wrong . . .

  7. The problem with your friend, Tim, lies in your opening sentence: if he's gonna give credence to creationism, then he should be giving it to earth on the back of a turtle, Hindu, Shinto, every native religion...

    I agree it's nice to be non-confrontational, and assuming he ends up showing the difference between science and belief, I guess it's fine. But it's a little like a geologist spending time on the flat-earth theory. It seems to me, assuming your friend is teaching in a science class, he should be teaching what's known, the evidence, the bases on which evolution is confirmed, the scientific controversies within it. How science works in general: analyzing data, making predictions, confirming or disproving them...

    The rest, while legitimate subjects of study, belong elsewhere.

    Although, getting back to your opening statement, which I've addressed many times here, is indeed an interesting fact, and a subject of study in its own right: the need (or tendency) of the human mind to believe in a higher power. The fact that there are so many incompatible beliefs, equally strongly held by those that hold them. The fact that for any religious belief I might hold, there are literally billions of people who believe something entirely different, yet all of us are certain of the truth of ours. Willing, in many cases, to die for it, to kill others who believe otherwise.

    I find that fascinating.


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