Friday, July 4, 2014

Knowing and Uncertainty

Photos this week have nothing to do with my essay - Here are a collection of doors seen in Peru...

Most Americans, when asked how they gain understanding of the world, will tell you that they rely on “good reasoning”, “follow common sense”, think  “critically” or “logically”.

But for some, this only goes so far… The issue between creationists and evolutionary biologists keeps resurfacing… The Pew Research group found that 42% of Americans see themselves as creationists.  This creates an issue in our schools and what we teach our children.

First lets get one thing clear – Science is not about “proving” things to be true.  Science is about seeking available information and finding the most probable solution to a problem based on the evidence. As new knowledge becomes available, explanations are adjusted and corrected.  For something to be a “theory” – does not make it unreliable.  It simply tells that “it is the best conclusion” to fit the known facts.  No one study or test “proves” or “disproves” something. It is abhorrent to scientists to think of manipulating data to support a desired outcome.

The belief in creationism is a “belief”… created by people of faith to explain the origins of the earth, and all life…passed on my tradition over the centuries… but not based on ongoing tests or scientific research. This interpretation is not open to question and examination.

It is not fair, and not possible to have an open debate between the two positions.  One system disregards anything that does not support the faith position.  The other is open to all new tests and results to reach a conclusion. 

Far from all Christians support the literal stories of Genesis. Many modern day Christians see Genesis as an allegorical story – a metaphor. These Christians see Genesis as the ancient explanation of an early people…. The story tells how these people experienced God active in their world.  In the Genesis story, God says that creation is “good”.

My goal as a science teacher is to encourage students to investigate – to examine, to learn how to design tests, to gather new verifiable information.  People who base their position purely on “belief” are very limited in how far they can engage in these actions.

I am concerned for young Americans who are prevented from learning how to think critically.  News articles this week pointed out that Bob Jones University Press sells a Life Science textbook (used by many voucher eligible schools).  This book teaches students that dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time…. And many have even lived side by side within the past few thousand years.  Great dragon-like-beasts are mentioned in the Bible, and this is offered as “evidence”.  The books advocate that the student must decide between belief in God and belief in evolution.  This misses the point that for many Christians today, it is enriching to combine a belief in evolution with an understanding of a God for whom creation is ongoing.

It is recognized by biologists today that life on earth is undergoing constant change.  Evolution is a continuous process – natural selection in allowing the most fit organisms of all species to survive. Understanding the impact of the rapid human population expansion, global climate change, and human impact on our planet are imperative for our survival as a species.

I have a fear that the US is producing a population that is not competitive with much of the rest of the world in scientific knowledge.  Not only does the pursuit of deeper knowledge depend on producing individuals training for new cutting edge research; but the national policies, that support new programs, depends on an educated population to encourage and support the programs.  Schools in much of the rest of the world do not face the conflict over teaching rigorous scientific knowledge and the pursuit of scientific reasoning methods.

Someone recently told me “I’m not sure that I believe in evolution”.  This person is an example of someone confusing their beliefs with their ability to logically assess evidence.  The evidence is there – we can choose to ignore it but that doesn't remove the existence of the evidence.

How can people without scientific knowledge understand the major biological issues of today?  - Genetic engineering, emergence of new microorganism by mutation, new crop development, medical treatments, the rule of mutations and adaptation resulting from human impact.  Those people that say they don't trust scientific problem solving are going to be left behind in the competitive global economy of the future. The question is are we training students to be ready for the new world economy…

I am curious why many people mistrust science.  For those without knowledge, they don't understand how science works.  Concepts are growing increasingly complex - and in depth understanding requires long study – and this is not possible in all the important topics of current study.  Also scientific knowledge is constantly changing – so no one explanation is the final “truth”. Most of these changes are minor ‘tweaks’ – but for many we want final definite answers.  At times we discover that our explanation is inadequate and then it is necessary to return to basic questions and seek more complete answers. But this is how science works – new questions – demand new research – and better more inclusive interpretations. 


Perhaps it is the loss of certainty that leads many to feel uncomfortable with the scientific process, and sends people back into reliance on a comfortable set-in-stone belief system.  But just because such beliefs are more comfortable doesn't make those approaches more honest or effective.

Two recommended articles on the topic