Friday, February 11, 2011

Science Rules!

Google's doodle today celebrates Thomas Edison's 164th birthday birthday.

(Go to the homepage. It moves.)

But this is not a great time for science in the United States. Tomorrow is Charles Darwin's birthday. The "father of evolution" is a key figure in our understanding of ourselves as a species and as ourselves. And yet he is still a controversial figure down south.

In an interview with beloved TV science educator Bill Nye "The Science Guy", Popular Mechanics confronted him with the following:

In a recent survey of 926 public high school biology teachers across the nation, only 28 percent of teachers taught evolution as a well-supported fundamental idea of science. Meanwhile, 13 percent openly supported "intelligent design" in the classroom, and 60 percent fell somewhere in-between. This majority presented evolution cautiously—by including non-scientific viewpoints, by limiting discussion to genetics, or by saying that students only needed to learn the material to pass exams.

Bill's response was "it's horrible."

"Science is the key to our future, and if you don't believe in science, then you're holding everybody back. And it's fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don't believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don't believe in science, that's a recipe for disaster. We talk about the Internet. That comes from science. Weather forecasting. That comes from science. The main idea in all of biology is evolution. To not teach it to our young people is wrong."

So what went wrong? There are many who will blame fundamentalist religion for the anti-science movement, but as a humanist I can't give religion any more credit than any other man-made form of persuasion — including politics, fashion and advertising.

People aren't stupid. They are allowing themselves to believe that the universe was designed, and is being ruled, by an anthropomorphic, omnipotent king. But there are many others who believe in other unknowable things, too. faith and superstition seem to come along with the human mental package.

No, I think that the reason people turn away from scientific explanations is because they are overwhelmed by the cold complexity of it all.

Which do you prefer?

You are a beloved child of God, put on this planet to serve Him. Submit to His will, and whatever happens to you here, you will have eternal bliss in heaven with everyone good who has ever died.


You are a product of random genetic mutation, shaped by environmental conditions, that just happens to be self-aware. However, many of your thoughts and actions are probably due to heredity. You live on a tiny, fragile planet in a vast nothingness, and the entire existence of your species is an insignificant blip in time. When you cease to function, your thoughts and experiences will terminate and the only purpose of your life will be the genes and memes that you have propagated.

But there is another way. Faith does not preclude science.

Pretty much every religious person is of the "salad bar" variety, picking and choosing what tenets to follow. (If you don't believe me, read this.)

And the entirely rational human being does not exist either. We are all affected by superstition and magical thinking. (If you don't believe me, read this.)

It is not a one-thing-or-another game. Scientific education just makes people more appreciative of the world they live in. In me, and also in my young son, science opens a world of wonder and discovery. Every day, some new secret is unlocked that helps us understand who we are, why we are, and what we can do to make a difference.

The problem for me is education. And it's not the teachers' fault either.

Bill Nye said, "They're doing their job but they're under tremendous pressure. The 60 percent who are cautious—those are the people who are really up against it. They want to keep their job, and they love teaching science, and their children are really excited about it, and yet they've got some people insisting they can't teach the most fundamental idea in all of biology."

But there's more to it than that. And Canadians are not immune. Education has become commoditized. Instead of celebrating teachers who invent creative ways to inspire students about science, we are concerned about standardization and "accountability". These are political solutions, not educational ones.

If we can't fix the curriculum, I think its up to science champions to bring science education to the mainstream media. Behemoths like BBC, National Geographic and Discovery help, but those serve a niche market. Teaching kids about science should be embedded into everyday media experiences. It should be interesting and accessible. It needs to be a Schoolhouse Rock or Hinterland Who's Who for this generation.

Who's with me? I know of a few local museums that could certainly champion this cause. Call me.

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