Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Those Are The Facts

Facts are not negotiable; they are the undeniable things that we all have in common.

The sun rises in the east. Check.

2 + 2 = 4. Check.

It takes two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom to make a water molecule. Check.

Facts are things we can prove, measure, and test. They are things we know. And I'm not interested in any freshman year philosophical questions like, "But how do we know that we know?" When the preponderance of evidence is there, we owe it to ourselves, our fellow man, and even our god to behave as if it's true. This is how the species progresses.

This little lecture has been brought to you out of my reaction to reading Deb's terrific post over at Science@Home explaining in terms understandable to children why daddies tend to be bigger than mummies. Deb is a scientist, educator and mummy, all of which are evident in her clear, concise, fact-based post. It's exactly the kind of explanation that I'd hope my own young child would receive from her science teachers. (I urge you to head on over there and have a look around.)

Sadly, in many parts of the US, the contents of Deb's post, if delivered in a public school classroom, would land her in the principal's office to face angry parents over evoking such scientific consensus as evolution, her matter-of-fact discussion of procreation, and statements like, "we are animals and work on the same rules as the rest of the world." And while there are anti-science zealots everywhere, no other modern nation teeters so close to edge of having it's public science education curriculum fall into the intentional blindness of fundamentalist faith. Polls taken over the course of the last decade, for instance, consistently show that between 25 and 30 percent of Americans believe that "creationism" or the junk science of "intelligent design" should be taught in science class alongside evolution. Really? I do hope that this is just the result of poorly crafted polling questions because otherwise it means that, at minimum, one in every 4 people with whom I come into contact on a daily basis does not understand the difference between science and religion. Or worse, actively seeks to blur the line in the furtherance of his own particular religious or political ends.

It's insane, too, that after writing the above paragraph I must, as a matter of form, quickly and apologetically offer the disclaimer that I, of course, have nothing against religion. Damn it, I do have something against any religion whose adherents seek to force its mythologies upon me and my child, be it in the public schools or through laws that serve no purpose other than to enshrine religious intolerance (like banning gay marriage).

If democracy is going to work, we must be able to agree that facts are facts. Other nations seem to understand this. We can and should debate our beliefs in our philosophy and religious studies classes, in our churches and synagogues, even amongst willing friends and families, but when your beliefs are contradicted by fact as determined through the rigors of the scientific method and the weight of academic consensus, you don't get to insist that we change those facts to suit your illogical, however spiritually gratifying, belief. Period.

Our public schools have wavered, but so far the courts of both law and public opinion have compelled them back onto the path of democracy. It's crazy that we must constantly defend our educational system like this, always fighting back those who would have us return to the dark times when religious leaders, not scientists, commanded that the Earth was the center of the universe, that disease was caused by sin, and that cats are in league with satan.

I've often written here about my conviction that the purpose of public schools in America is to educate children so that they can function as citizens in a democracy, while expressing concern about the vocationalization of our curricula. While I find many points at which these two purposes are at odds, one point upon which they share interests is in children receiving a fact-based science education. I've spent my entire adult life (mostly via my wife) in the company of business executives and business owners, people whose economic success depends upon our public schools producing adults who can think logically and lucidly, who possess a grasp of what is factually knowable about the world. Some of them are religious, some not, some are conservatives, some liberal, but I've never met one who would hire an employee whose understanding of science was based on creation myths.

In a democracy, I get to believe as my conscience guides me, as does my child, who as a 12-year-old decided to embrace a faith different than my own. If I walk into your church, if I ask you about your faith, then have at me, evangelize away. But when it comes to science classes in our public schools, belief does not trump fact. When it does, we are all lost.

I've had enough experience with this debate in recent years to know that I'm setting myself up for attack. I'll be called an atheist, which I am not. I'll be directed to so-called "peer reviewed" articles that cast doubts on evolution, all of which will be from the Discovery Institute, a "think tank" based here in Seattle, which exists solely for the purpose of muddying the waters around the teaching of evolution. I'll be told that evolution is "just a theory," a position that demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works. They will be wrong.

Those are the facts.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting post, and for the most part I agree with you Tom. However, many things were believed to be fact that have since been proven false. I tend to hold my understanding of how the world works rather loosely, knowing that down the road, our eyes may be opened further to how things happen in this world. I worry when any one person claims to have all the facts about something, whether they are religious or otherwise.

Cindy said...

Thank you so much for posting about Science@Home. We are homeschoolers, so this is right up our alley, but we don't teach creationism. However, I did want to mention that in my former life, I was an engineer for 25 years. You would think, this would be the most scientific group of people ever. Alas, I did meet someone who believed in proving the stories of the Bible scientifically. There are all types and, really, in a work environment, we may not know what our co-workers believe or don't believe. Actually in my industry, people tended to be very conservative.

kristin said...

thanks for getting up on that soap box for us.

Unknown said...

I've never commented on your posts before, but I think you deserve an Amen! here. Thanks for the clear thinking.

Chris said...

Not sure you've got any ground to stand on when it comes to deciding for all what is scientific 'fact' . Since none of us were actually present at the beginning of the world (however it one might believe the earth came to be the way it is today), it stands to reason that even the scientists could have their 'facts' skewed.

While I agree that for children, school is not the place to be discussing whose religion is right or wrong, it also should follow that my children should not have to agree with theories that, when presented as fact, continue to change and get corrected as more evidence becomes available through modern technology.

It did make me laugh when I read (in Science@home)... of course they do! They just use hair gel and go to the gym. There's nothing new under the sun.

Chris said...

--apparently I used the wrong set of parentheses... the quote at the end I tried to include was "...so the dominant males didn’t need to impress each other anymore."
--sorry about that.

I enjoy seeing your co-op and the great ways you engage kids in learning with all of their senses. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,
As a Christian reader (and big fan of your blog) I scold thee most severely! (Just kidding.) Actually, I understand where you are coming from. (I also happen to be a former educational science professor and lover of all things science turned preschool teacher - go figure!) Science is fantastic, and has taught us so much about our world, but it can certainly be flawed (as others have pointed out.) I'm not sure it's fair to call people who have faith in a God-created universe "anti-science zealots." (Albert Einstein would be counted in their number.) I actually came to my faith after a very thorough investigation of historical fact/evidence (coupled with some pretty powerful personal experiences.) We're not all wing-nuts who don't think logically! ;-)
Every day I find myself wishing (and praying) that we would all just listen to each other more and seek our common ground. I know it's out there. To me, that is the cornerstone of democracy. In the meantime, I'm not letting our religious/scicentific differences of opinion get in the way of one of my favorite blog "relationships." Your work with children is magical. (I'm not sure if that would fall under the scientific or spiritual realm- maybe a little of both!) Best wishes to you!
Susan in SC
PS- Oh, and by the way, if cats aren't satanic, they are at least demon-possessed. I'm sure of it.;-)