Monday, June 18, 2012
During the some of the preliminary sessions presenters addressed the question, "why new standards?" One point they emphasized that these (the NGSS as well as the Common Core Math and Literacy standards) are based on evidenced of what students need to know and not just a bunch of people in a room deciding among themselves. Evidence discussed included research on student learning, correlation of entrance exams with success in college, surveys of high school and college professors, and curricula from countries like Singapore that have shown to be doing a particularly good job educating their citizens. Another point of difference is the explicit intertwining of science and engineering practices with content, things like planning and carrying out investigations, collecting and analyzing data, and constructing arguments. Although these skills that support evidence based reasoning have been recognized in the past, they have been too easy to ignore in teaching and assessment, as it is much easier to teach and test understanding of specific chemical reactions than the process of using evidence to support a point.
It is really important to do a better job developing evidence-based reasoning ability in our students and future citizens. Issues involving science and technology like energy scarcity, global warming and biomedical ethics are only going to become more common and good solutions will require the ability to critically evaluate the evidence for different positions. In fact, so many of our societal and political issues need us to do a better job with evidenced based reasoning to really resolve complex issues.
Unfortunately, our cultural institutions are not doing a great job helping us develop evidence based reasoning. Schooling often seems to emphasize right answers instead of thoughtful reasoning, and current assessment practices don't help a lot. Churches seem often to focus on defending a particular doctrine or meeting emotional and spiritual needs. Then there are three fingers pointing back when I consider how much reasoning from evidence students are asked to do in a typical college science classroom. Our texts and curricula spend so much time racing through information about different topics that there is little time time to help students learn how that knowledge was developed or why we believe it to be true. Even in courses like physics where we claim to be teaching critical thinking, and even I, who should know better, catch myself falling into that trap. If we don't teach evidence based reasoning in our college science classes, where we educate our future teachers and citizens, where are we going to? And if we can't learn to use it for understanding motion and molecules, how are we ever going to learn to use it for the most important issues?
Sunday, February 5, 2012
|Engraving of Newton using a prism |
to split white light into different colors.
Robert Hooke (1635 – 1703) was a highly skilled experimenter who contributed to the study of Mars and Jupiter, behavior of gasses, understanding of elastic media (e.g. mechanical springs), fossils, and early microbiology, having built the first compound microscope. He was a leading member of the Royal Society, the world’s first scientific organization, through which he had contacts—and sometimes disputes—with many of the leading Europeans in the field of natural philosophy. Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) was a first-rate mathematician, who invented calculus and gave a rigorous mathematical foundation to the study of motion of objects. Among other things, he had discovered that white light could be split into a rainbow through a prism, and developed the corpuscle theory of light, in which light was pictured as carried by miniscule, massless particles, with different colors corresponding to corpuscles of different sizes. Their relationship got off to a rough start when Hooke strongly criticized the first paper Newton submitted to the Royal Society discussing his discoveries and thoughts about light. It deteriorated further over Newton’s theory of gravitation, for which Hooke tried to claim partial credit and Newton went out of his way to deny.Newton then withheld publication of his book on optical phenomena until after Hooke’s death to deny him the opportunity to criticize it, and while Newton served as president of the Royal Society, the only known portrait of Hooke and a collection of his writings disappeared.
The two men’s theories of light were incompatible with each other. Hooke pictured light as disturbances that propagate through a medium, like ripples on the surface of a pond, while Newton saw it as tiny balls passing through space and bouncing off surfaces. Waves are collective motions while particles are discrete things. Which theory provided the best description of reality was an important question, but their disagreement went far beyond that to one of self exaltation and discrediting of the other, even to the point (at least in the case of Newton) using power and personal reputation to repress views with which he disagreed. It worked for a while—for the next century most scientists held to Newton’s corpuscle theory, but then work by scientists including Thomas Young, Augustine Fresnel and James Clerk Maxwell increasingly supported its rival, and by the nineteenth century wave theory emerged victorious.
The victory was so complete that when a young, then unknown Albert Einstein published a paper seeking to explain a perplexing phenomena know as the photoelectric effect, he felt obliged to insist that his radical solution was a mere heuristic and shouldn’t be understood as a physical reality. His idea was that light energy comes in discrete packets and different colors corresponded to different amounts of energy, a very particle-like behavior. Despite his claims of it being mere heuristic, the scientific community initially reacted quite negatively, and some historians believe that this idea delayed his receiving the Noble Prize. Yet discoveries over the next couple decades showed that not only light, but also electrons, protons, and other subatomic entities are strictly neither waves nor particles in the classical sense. They possess both particle-like properties and wave-like properties. They are strange entities that are so different from everyday experience that even the best minds have a hard time explaining them conceptually, despite having mathematical equations that describe their behavior well allow allow us to design semiconductors and lasers. In the end, Hooke and Newton were both partially right, and reality is stranger and more subtle than either imagined.
I look at the battles between Hooke and Newton, and it reminds me of the so-called debates on origins. There are plenty of people on both sides that are so convinced that they possess the truth that they will attack the integrity and intelligence of their opponents, repress dissent in the classroom or the pew, and even undermine the idea that objective truth exists. But I wonder if anyone really has the complete truth. After all, both sides have persisted now for several generations, and it is rare for ideas and positions that contain no truth whatsoever to last that long. I believe there are good reasons to believe that both sides are correct in some aspects. When I consider the work of an infinite creator and how our universe and life came to be, I suspect that reality is stranger and more subtle than any of us can imagine.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
The importance of understanding the cultural context is even more important when it comes to Genesis. Genesis is not a modern work. It was written several millennia ago in a Middle Eastern society thoroughly surrounded by a pagan world view. It shares a number of elements with the contemporary Egyptian, Sumerian and Chaldean creation myths. These include the world starting in a dark, watery chaos, the sky is something like a dome (the “firmament”) placed above the earth, humans formed from mud/dust/clay, plants and animals created in current forms, and a time scale far shorter and more recent than modern understanding. But there are also radical differences that would not have been missed by the original audience. Rather than a pantheon of gods and goddesses, each with their own area of power, emerging from the primeval waters or (often incestuous) procreation, there is a single, all-powerful God who wills the world itself into being. Creation of different parts of the world happens not through haphazard processes including rivalries, murder and sexual liaisons, but through an orderly, intentional, fundamentally good process. Sun, moon, earth, sky and sea are portrayed as inanimate objects, not deities; the author of Genesis declines to even dignify the sun and moon with names. Humans are not afterthoughts, a result of rivalry between different gods, or made to be slaves of the gods. Rather they are created in God’s image as sub-rulers of the world in a special relationship with Him. Genesis’s view of the natural world and humanity’s relationship with it—much closer to the modern understanding its contemporaries in many respects—is unprecedented in the ancient world. In contrast to both contemporary and modern accounts of origins, Genesis offers very little information of the mechanisms through which things came to be; the description of God forming the man and breathing into his nostrils in Genesis 2:7 is about the most detail offered. Compare that to pages after pages or even books of describing the activities of pagan gods or the formation of galaxies and geological formations. This lack of detail about the mechanisms suggests to me shrewd planning by a divine author anticipating how understanding of the physical world would change with time; descriptions of the mechanisms by which we now believe the world came into being would have been incomprehensible to the original audience, and those which they would have found reasonable would be nonsense to the modern mind. The way Genesis seems anticipate modern understanding of the inanimate, orderly nature of the physical world, workings of natural processes, and humanity’s power over the Earth, convinces me that Genesis is a result of divine revelation. In its historical and literary context, Genesis serves as a powerful refutation of the pagan world view and a foundation for teaching God’s people how to live in covenant relationship with him and the world. To demand that it serve as a scientific text teaching us how and when the world came into being detracts from the far more important message the author is making.
Thursday, August 25, 2011
The critical underlying issue is the apparent incompatibility of current scientific theory regarding genetic diversity and the prevalent Christian doctrines regarding original sin and the fall. In very simplified terms for those not so familiar with each, genetic theory says that in addition to mutations that are a clear benefit or detriment, there are also those that don't make a lot of difference (e.g. blue eyes vs. green eyes) that slowly accumulate in a population over many generations; by measuring how much diversity there is now and making some reasonable assumptions about the rate of accumulation of variation, one can estimate the minimum number of genetically distinct individuals that existed a certain number of years ago. Original sin says that the first couple sinned in disobeying God, and as a result have passed that sin nature onto all of their descendents, something that took the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ in life and death to break its power. One couple vs. many clearly forms conflicting claims, and they both can't be right.
As I am neither a theologian nor a geneticist, I do not seek to resolve the conflict here. Rather, I'd like to discuss the related but not identical concepts of evidence, theory, doctrine and Truth. I believe productive discussions of controversial topics like this require a healthy understanding of the differences. First, capital-T Truth is not something any human being or organization has a lock on. Complete understanding of the universe we live it is simply beyond any one or group of human beings. In the physical realm, it is simply far too complex for anyone to really know more that a small slice, and there are limits on knowledge, from the quantum mechanical uncertainty principle that says one can't have perfect knowledge of a particle, the speed of light that limits how fast information can travel, to limits on our ability to gather information-my astronomy colleagues tell us that 96% of the mass/energy in the universe is of some form that almost none of the current detection methods can see. In the spiritual realm we have only the limited amount of revelation that God has chosen to provide, which comes to us in the language of ancient human authors, which can be sometimes ambiguous and cultural dependent. This is not to say we can't know anything, but neither a scientific theory nor a Christian doctrine are the same thing as Truth. Both are human constructs that correspond to a greater or lesser extent to the Truth that we can't know completely. The actually serve similar functions in their respective disciplines, providing us a framework for making since of the myriad of related facts and encapsulating the best understandings for passing on to the next generation. The theories and doctrines that are widely taught today are the ones that won out over others because they provided a better fit to the evidence. The type and nature of the evidence they utilize tend to be quite different; science relies heavily on observations and experimental results to establish theories, while doctrines rely more on scriptural interpretation, tradition and individual impressions. I do not believe that either theories or doctrine are intrinsically more reliable than the other; consulting a physics text on how to treat my wife and the Bible on how to build an airplane are equally foolish. Some theories are far more established than others with much stronger evidence, and the same goes for doctrines. There is good evidence for them, so they are not to be lightly tossed aside because we don't like them or a few pieces of evidence seems to conflict. But even the most established theories and doctrines are not the same as the Truth, so we must not conflate the two and be prepared to rethink even the most cherished theory or doctrine if the evidence warrants it. The goal should not be to prove my theory or doctrine is right, but to better approach the Truth.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
|Representation of Casey Anthony's tattoo, "beautiful life" in Italian.|
Perhaps just as sad is that we don’t have to look very far to find other examples of self-centered people trying to spin the truth to fit their convenience. At the moment not one but two professional sports leagues are engaged in lockouts, involving people whose income far exceeds most Americans who are trying to convince us that they are being impoverished by each other through contractual agreements they themselves agreed to. Perhaps the greatest farce at the moment are the budget “negotiations” that seem to currently consist largely of Republicans and Democrats trying to paint each other as the roadblock to resolving a serious national issue. But of course, we elected them and they are simply pandering to and enabling our selective reading of facts to keep believing that the nation’s financial bind can be resolved without any significant tax increases or modification of entitlement programs. Maybe we are not so different.
Sadly, being loose with the truth when it suits an agenda extends past our politicians and hard-partying young women to even groups we want to think of being more trustworthy. For example, I am troubled by a prominent radio preacher blithely claiming there is not one shred of evidence for evolution—note that is ANY evidence, independent of whether it is enough to convince him or not. I have difficulty understanding such claims as anything but willful ignorance, given not only the mass of scientific work but even a book specifically written by Christians and published by a Christian publisher with an explicit goal of explaining such evidence to the church. I cringed at a cutesy cartoon video produced by a major creationist organization (which now has a successful for-profit arm) that claimed that teaching about evolution was the root cause of abortion, homosexuality, and a host of other social ills, basically conflating “evolution” with “secular humanism” in a way that would make Louis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty proud. On the other hand, I am baffled by atheistic scientists who are so careful in their scientific work yet turn around and make blanket statements about religion being the root of mankind’s ills, blithely lumping Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa into the same category as Osama bin Laden. I even had one otherwise respectable colleague claim to me that Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were religious fanatics, despite the latter two—as atheistic communists—explicitly used state power to repress religious activity. More subtle is the continued promulgation of the idea that science is entirely objective and based solely on facts while religious belief is completely subjective and based only on opinions, so that the latter has no place in public discourse. While there is certainly a difference in degree, science does have a subjective element—witness Einstein’s refusal to accept non-deterministic quantum mechanics because it just seemed wrong to him—and theological discourse is hardly fact-free, for example bringing up the etymology of words in the original text, comparing different passages and appealing to respected authorities. Unfortunately, it is so much easier to paint opposing views with broad brush strokes to dismiss them without trying to really understand a different view point; after all, we might discover that they might be at least partially right, and our most cherished beliefs might need to be re-evaluated in light of new knowledge.
Our tendency to “adjust” fact to fit what we want to be true is a human thing. In the prototypical sin described in the Bible, Adam and Eve (egged on by the serpent) chose to re-interpret what God had told them because they decided for themselves that eating the forbidden fruit was good for them. It is a pattern one sees throughout scripture, whether it is King David trying to cover up his liaison with Bathsheba, Peter denying knowing Christ in response to a woman’s accusation, or the unnamed Corinthians using freedom in Christ as a cover for sexual perversion. I don’t think the root problem of our society are Democrats or Republicans, scientific evolution or public displays of faith, greedy sports figure or owners, biased media or dysfunctional families. It is so much easier to try to play victim and put the blame on someone else, like Casey Anthony tried to, but that just points back to the real problem. Much as we hate to admit it, there is a little bit of her in all of us, spinning facts to match what we want to be true, trying to hide uncomfortable truth even from ourselves. There have been great scientific and technological advances over the last few centuries that have radically changed the material existence of most in our society. Human nature, however, hasn’t really changed, so on this subject I believe that certain ancient collection of writings still offers the best insight into our spiritual problem and its resolution. Call it what you will, but the root is in us, not them, and best we can do on our own is to cover it up. A good life can not be built on lies and what we just want to be true.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
|The planarian is a simple animal with eye |
spots set into shallow pits, that allow it to
distinguish light and dark and some direction.
Image by Alejandro Sánchez Alvarado
Religion has been an enigma for those who seek to construct a rational, scientific view of the world and human existence. We no longer need to invoke any sort of supernatural activity to account for the motion of the sun and stars, variety of species and mental illness. Yet the overwhelming majority of people that have ever walked on the face of this planet firmly believe in the existence of something more than what can be seen and touched, that there are gods, or spirits, or unseen forces, that can help or hinder, bring hope or judgment, that we may be able to influence but not control. Even among people who consider themselves not religious, one can find belief in astrology, UFOs, good luck charms, etc. In fact, evidence of religious belief in burial customs (such as inclusion of artifacts for the afterlife) is one of the criteria often used for when hominoids became truly human. But if all there exists is the material world, religious belief doesn’t make a lot of sense.
There are many suggested explanations for this apparent conundrum, most of which fall into a few categories. One common one is that it is a psychological cooping mechanism—"the opiate of the people" was Marx’s quip. Another category focuses on religion’s role in explaining the physical origins world around us; from this view, religion no longer has a purpose. A third, more subtle and a little more respectful, focuses on religion’s role in supporting social order. Specifically, it suggests that religious belief evolved with humans because of the side effects of shaping a cooperative, interdependent social order. This is the basic idea behind the article I am referring to.
While there is some truth in those ideas, they are far from the whole thing. There is a long history of downtrodden and oppressed people turning to religion to find meaning and hope in a harsh world, but has also lead to heroic action and personal sacrifice. African-American Christianity not only ministered hope to slaves and Jim Crow victims, but also a major force in the civil rights movement. Most religions contain stories about how the world came to be, but that is often only a small portion of their teaching, and the focus is not so much on satisfying curiosity as understanding one’s place in the universe. Morality and right living is a major theme of many religions, but there is real variety in how much emphasis is given, and even what those morals are. Consider the stories of the affairs and infighting of the Greek gods, or religions such as Vodou that don’t address morality, at least as it is understood in western thought. What they all do is teach about of the supernatural and how one should relate to it. This, however, is not the deepest flaw in the idea that religion evolved simply due to its social benefits.
The suggestion that any other significant aspect of human beings evolved simply for a side effect would be met with incredibility. No one would seriously suggest that ears evolved merely because of the structures that give us our sense of balance, or that the only real purpose of eyes was to help the body maintain its sleep/wake cycle. Ears and eyes are sensory organs that evolved in response to auditory and visual realities, respectively, because they provide the individual useful information carried by sound and light that could provide an advantage. Maybe, just maybe, religiosity evolved in response to a spiritual reality; information from and requests to real supernatural beings would certainly provide an advantage to an individual. Common features in different religions are encounters with supernatural beings, at least for select individuals. Neuroscientists have discovered regions of our brains connected with religious sensations, just like there are regions connected with hearing and vision. One could legitimately raise the objection that, unlike vision where we all would more or less agree on what is seen, spiritual encounters demonstrate inconsistency in their nature and who experiences them. But remember that eyes have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years, so are pretty well develop organs. In contrast, a human "spiritual sense" is most likely less than hundred thousand years old, so if such an organ exists, it is likely to still be quite primitive, perhaps more akin to the eye spots and eye pits, the most primitive forms of eyes, which only perceive generalized shadows.
Whether or not humans have evolved a "spiritual" organ that is unique among the animal kingdom, the biggest problem with this “scientific” explanation of religion is a serious logical fallacy. Natural science uses methodological naturalism, meaning that it only considers explanations that can be attributed to the physical world. That is fine if one is studying semiconductors or meteorites; those are physical phenomena and so it is preferable that one look for a physical explanation. However, the attempt to explain religion "scientifically" then starts by making a major, unjustified assumption, that religion is best explained strictly as a natural phenomena. It would be legitimate for one to try to make the argument that human psychology is a better explanation for the phenomena called religion than that the existence of a supernatural reality. That would be normal practice in science; proponents of one theory seek to demonstrate that it better matches the phenomena studied than a competing theory. However, simply ignoring or dismissing the most widely held theory (that there exists a supernatural reality) and evidence put forth to support it without any justification just because it clashes with one’s beliefs/dogma (science can explain everything) is not intellectually honest. One might go as far as calling it blind faith; it is not all that different from those who would reject entire scientific disciplines simply because they contradict a particular interpretation of scripture. I don’t have a problem with scientists investigating realms that overlap with faith, but there must be an openness to the possibility that there is more to our world than the physical reality. Natural science is a powerful tool for understanding our world, but it is not the only means, and it has its limits.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
My hometown was shocked this past week by the horrendous murder of an expectant mother. Another woman had befriended her, was taking her to a doctor’s appointment, then apparently killed her and cut the child from the mother’s womb, trying to pass off the child as her own when she took it to the hospital. It is difficult to comprehend how someone could reach the point of carrying out such a barbaric act, though one pointer is claims she had been making. She had been (falsely) telling the young mother, neighbors and others that she was pregnant, even buying baby things, and it seems that efforts to maintain her “truth” led to the destruction of another family.
There is a disturbing trend in our society of being cavalier about truth and basing it more on what one’s group thinks than any external reality. At one end, it can be seen in prevalent academic theories that assert that the only “truth” is what the reader or the group decides there is in a text or history. At the other end, there are politicians making claims and crafting legislation based on “facts” generated by talk shows and related circles. Underlying all of this is a great arrogance, dismissing or demonizing those who disagree, where “being right” is more about winning the social battle than really understanding the world we live in. And now this attitude seems to even be creeping into what would seem to be the last defenders of Truth, which should make us all afraid.
As both a scientist and a Christian, I am connected to two groups that continue to claim their respective truths are not human inventions but based on an external reality—the physical world and God, respectively. Yet the clashes between the two groups over issues such as origins are legendary, and I am troubled by how quickly both sides are often to resort to strategies that cheapen Truth. For example one prominent radio preacher (John MacArthur) states that “evolution is not scientific. Evolution is not reasonable.” In other words, he claims greater expertise on what “science” is than thousands of scientists, who apparently suffer from limited reasoning capacity. On the other side, Richard Dawkins has called those who don’t believe in evolution “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” What bothers me is not the passion—whether or not the world has a creator is an extremely important question. Rather it is how quick many on both sides are to dismiss arguments they disagree with by focusing on the motivation of the others, using double standards for evidence, or simply ignoring them rather than do the hard work of studying the opponent’s arguments to separate the truth from the error.
It is often much easier to employ arguments to undermine the integrity and truth claims of the opponent than to take them seriously and counter them. But the more we undermine the truth of the other, the more we tend to undermine truth itself. Truly seeking the truth requires humility where we are willing to admit we could be wrong about some things and may never know everything. I pray that we be a little less concerned about being right, and more on understanding truth, before we kill Truth and leave ourselves orphans.