Posted by: Dan | September 20, 2008

Teaching Evolution and Biology, and Confronting Misconceptions

Last month, the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology published an article that a lot of high school biology teachers might want to take a look at, to refresh themselves in their work – Teaching evolution (and all of biology) more effectively: Strategies for engagement, critical reasoning, and confronting misconceptions. It’s subscription only, but contact me if that’s a difficulty.

My reaction though to the article is that it is vaguely (but not overtly) erroneous. For instance, they describe strategies for teaching “understanding and acceptance” of evolution. Of course biology teachers are obligated to see that their students understand evolution. And yes, understanding the simplicity and straightforwardness of Descent With Modification and its corollaries will probably lead students to accept Evolution over Creationism (or the students may simply engage in rote memorization, etc., as opposed to increased understanding of biology). But using the word “accept” as an immediate objective does sound like “indoctrination to atheism.” It’s not, clearly, but that’s what it would sound like to people who imagine the end of life as they know it if they turn away from whatever god they worship.

Moreover, the article starts off with (in the Intro) with: “It is also helpful to bridge the false dichotomy, seen by many students, between atheistic evolution versus religious creationism.” That’s verging on dishonest as science is non-theistic. That’s not the same thing as atheistic, true, but it is an explanatory framework that requires you leave your god at the door, momentarily at least.

Just about every other aspect of the article is outstanding however, focusing on engagement and critical thinking, as the title suggests. I’m not too knowledgeable on pedagogical strategies, but any scientist can tell you the value of teaching students methodology in science. Teach them how to design and run experiments in order to compare and contrast alternative explanations for a given phenomenon, and work on building skills of questioning one’s own assumptions as part of the critical thinking process.

Nelson, Craig E. (2008) Integrative and Comparative Biology, 48(2):213-225; doi:10.1093/icb/icn027

facts and conclusions

And of course, for correcting misconceptions, check out Talk Origins.



  1. Sounds interesting. I’ll look into it!

  2. Love the cartoon. However, the “conclusion” — there’s the rub. What is the conclusion? You scientists invent telescopes and then — darn it — you forget about about the telos.

    What’s it all about Alfie?

    However, I like your caveats about the evolution acceptance package. After all, Plato might have been a “creationist.”

    And he was no slouch.

  3. Plato (and Aristotle) can easily be read as anything but creationist. My modern Greek is horrible, and even my wife’s ancient Greek (she’s Greek Cypriot) is pretty bad, but I’ve been told that many of these ancient philosophers actually argued that the universe is as it always has been (neither old nor young universe).

    Also, since this is biology, Aristotle is probably a more appropriate discussion than Plato. Aristotle did use the word telos in his major works, but in Greek that word has many meanings. That is, I’ve also been told that there are occaisions when he uses telos in different contexts and thus translates as multiple different words, even within the same sections of text.

    But regardless, all one has to do is listen to a Creationist speak vs. a person of science speak – the cartoon is spot on.

  4. I was using “creationist” in a broad sense, as in believing in a creator. Creationist in a narrow sense usually refers to particular quaint sects of Christianity that believe Genesis as a literal account. (A version that excluded even St. Augustine.) So, I was suggesting that one could be a creationist without subscribing to quaint, non-scientific ideas.

    It’s all Greek to me! But I was making a joke with the word telos and scope = end, issue, final state, fulfillment + scope (to see). The telescope is supposed to make far away things visible, but is the telos — the end, purpose, fulfillment of man? Or of evolution, for that matter? Is evolution purposeful?

    Science is great at describing processes in the material world, but not so good at providing meaning. Science doesn’t answer (or even ask) the question of “why?” From a scientific stand point the question of meaning is irrelevant. Questions about meaning come from elsewhere.

    One of those other places is religion (though it hasn’t a corner on the market). Religion should at least be given its due for asking questions about meaning as well as for providing some intriguing and complex answers.

    As to the quip of the cartoon, they are almost Aristotelian verses Platonic versions of inference. But there is something to be said for looking at the whole (or attempting to) and then trying to find facts (to support it). The latter method is unscientific, though it is imaginative. And it recognizes a human psychological need to strive to find “the whole.”

    Scientific understanding takes the whole to mean the material world and treats the scientist himself as not existing — knowledge as objective and not dependant upon a subject who thinks and knows. And this is a fiction in its own way, but one which scientists most are happy to ignore.

    That science — or materiality for that matter — could exist as parts inside a larger whole — that might include the “spirit” or God or consciousness (apart from matter) or whatever cannot be demonstrated (similar to the “creationist panel above) but might still represent “reality.”

    Or not!

    But the questions are worth asking. Have been asked. Will continue to be asked. Are evidently ingrained (evolved?) into human nature to be asked.

    They ain’t going away. (If history, literature, religion, philosophy provide are to be judged.)

    An evolutionist, seeing (I presume) man at the top of the evolutionary chart, might wonder why man as the intellectual pinnacle of the process asks meaning questions. Doesn’t that throw “meaning” into the evolutionary process itself? That life has evolved into a self-aware, conscious, question-asking, God-fearing being would make religion a part of the evolutionary process itself. Which also suggests (to some) a telos to the universe — as Carl Jung, for one, thought — that the universe evolves into the direction of awareness of the universe’s creative impulse.

  5. Ohh – my misunderstanding. Yes, I more or less agree with this line of thinking. Thanks for explaining!

  6. … I was in a bit of a hurry this morning, and want to respond a bit more to a couple points you made.

    – The sense that you’re using here is verging on deism, which differs little from atheism except on the matter of First Cause.

    – I do completely disagree with the slightly positive appraisal of religion, as I find it to be full of self-delusional rationalizing, superstition, etc. The question of “why” people are like this is an interesting question, but I’ve written about my thoughts on that on posts in the Religion category (see the sidebar). But yes, the fact that we have just enough consciousness to contemplate metaphysics, but not enough for most of us to be any good at it, is why we so readily take the words of priests and such without thinking critically about them. Or that’s part of the story, anyway. But I digress…

    Regardless, the point with this post is still that understanding gained by critical analysis is a good thing, and much much better than the alternative.

  7. You are, again, taking me too literally. I’m not talking about Deism at all. Actually I’m personally a Christian, as it happens, so if I’m sounding Deist “shame on me!” What I’m trying to evoke here is a broader idea of “creator,” simply noting that it needn’t signify only a particular brand of religious rebellion vis a vis a science curriculum in the heartland. We’re not in Kansas anymore. ANY supposition that the universe is designed would be “creationism.” Now it may be that “intelligent design” is just a smoke screen for some of that ol’ time religion, but the idea of intelligence as a principle at large in the cosmos or of the cosmos having a design, a structure that is purposeful and not random — these ideas are old as the hills and not products solely of Christianity. However, from a purely sociological standpoint, our modern idea of science happens to fare rather better in modern Christian, democratic societies than in, say, China or the Islamic world — where individuality is less highly prized and tolerance is scant and the research grants do not flow like rivers into the sea.

    I’ll add some caveats as well. “Religion” is a big basket of things. To lump together “delusional rationalizing and superstition” with … what? … Augustine or Thomas Aquinas is like trying to measure a nanosecond using a grandfather clock.

    To assume that any religion’s highest forms of thought is represented by, say, the “rank and file” graduate of a humble Bible college (not that there’s anything wrong with that) is like me judging the astuteness of science by the example of my high school biology teacher — who was more noteworthy for his wheels than his ideas (our eternally adolescent teacher drove a much bragged about Corvette).

    Scientists are very cavalier about mixing metaphors where “religion” is concerned — as though religions are not plenty different from each other — and as though their respective contents have no significance, or as though an exegesis of their texts were just an easy thing to toss off. Also to suppose that people take a priest’s words without thinking critically is to expose oneself to a similar charge. Are you really so sure that people who disagree on these topics are not thinking critically?

    Scientists, who we’ll both agree are usually good “critical thinkers,” disagree about the contents of their disiciplines all the time. It is not a sign of any of them goofing off that they find themselves diverging into various directions, schools, tangents.

    My larger point is that questions like justice, goodness, right and wrong, the ideal, etc. are not questions that can even be addressed scientifically at all. Scientific modes of critical thinking deal in measurable, replicable, material events. For creativity and depth concerning the “shoulds” one needs to turn elsewhere.

    What role does even emotion play in science? Or aesthetics? Certainly scientists get charged up over their work and find it beautiful — but these qualities are themselves extracurricular and that simple fact matters! Too much critical thinking makes Jack a dull boy. And a dull boy is less likely fire up with the intuitive spark that leads toward the next scientific breakthrough. Even science has its “je ne sais quoi.”

  8. If you’re simply bringing up the general idea of a creator and that’s it, then that is indeed “deism.” Please look it up.

    On the other hand, if you’re talking about a god that is an interventionist god as well as a creator god, then that is theism.

  9. I think your viewing this mechanistically. Perhaps my vocabulary is inadequate. The point I’m making has more to do with meaning and where one finds it.

  10. And I didn’t find much to criticize with that main point of yours. Think of my comment as a minor footnote. ;-)

  11. However, one seems to have rather more to discuss when there is disagreement. Why is that, do you suppose?

    Disagreement would seem to be a form of invention. And therefore one should strive to disagree for the sake of gaining knowledge …?

    Or no?

  12. Disagreeing for the sake of gaining knowledge? Sort of. Or perhaps more like gaining knowledge through contrasting different interpretations. Or is that the same thing?

    Either way, where there lies uncertainty or lack of clarity, it can’t hurt to try and dig up all of the information that we can, and then lay it all out there for us to evaluate. And if we’re lucky, maybe someone will ask some really insightful questions about what we think we know. (that’s science)

    That, plus it’s no fun to agree all the time.

  13. True. I agree. (And no pun intended.)

    “[I]t can’t hurt to try and dig up all of the information that we can, and then lay it all out there for us to evaluate.” T’would be true for politics also, but yet the decision to vote for this one or that one usually boils down to a hunch or a feeling.

    How different from scientific evidence. Either the rocket goes up or goes poof. And there’s your result. But in terms of human decisions, we can never know how the alternatives might have turned out. So the question of meaning is a hard.

    Speaking personally (not on behalf of all my fellow Christians but only for myself and a few million others perhaps) I see God as interventionist on an intimate scale. I would pose God as keeping the whole game running all the time in the most extraordinary exquisite detail — “knowing when the sparrow falls” and knowing the sparrow’s molecules also and its gravity and having known its flight plan — God available with all, all the time, though having said that I’m not sure what “time” is.

    I have, for instance, been known to change my mind. I thought of voting for Obama, though I admire McCain a lot. Then I changed my mind entirely about Obama. He has too many skeletons in his closet and doesn’t explain them away to my satisfaction (I’d refer you again to the O’Reilly interview). However, in conversation recently with a friend of mine, I must say certain aspects of Obama’s personality reemerge to my mind as very impressive, etc.

    I am the same person among all these assertions and reversals and indecisions. The unity of personality is a remarkable thing of itself. The ability of people to be unitary and yet fraught with contradiction … it’s a lovely thing in nature, wouldn’t you agree? The Christian idea is that we are made in God’s “image” — that we are like God in various ways (in creativity, for instance) and are decidedly unlike the other animals, are utterly distinct from them yet sharing our creatureliness with them, our mortality and as well as the other hazards of life.

    Religion holds forth a great deal of consolation in times of duress, and great beauty also. I see it as antagonistic to science in beneficial ways because of its pressure to find meaning, in its insistence that meaning is genuine and that the search is not in vain.

    The current “telos” of science is something like the Big Cool. Eventually the universe freezes and que sera sera after that — and of course human beings would have long previously been swallowed up in a supernova or intergalactic collision or perhaps by a minor event like some nasty meteorite knocking us to kingdom come with the dinosaurs. In contrast the idea of God as actively creating the everything does suggest a wonderful sense of openness to life, that this is not all there is.

    We see in a mirror darkly, then face to face.

    Science is presently the only, the finest path we have to understanding the material process, but religious texts peer into areas that have something in common with poetry or with wisdom. As with our previous political discussions, the question of how leaders are chosen is a ripe topic in religious stories.

    While you are so close to Greece, what of the Greek myths, which were all active religions once. They teach interesting things about humans’ place in the universe. “War” is a god in that system of thought and how true! Have we ever escaped war — can we? Or is it engrained in nature, is it something like a “fate”? And love, and the other “gods.” Are they not like milestones in human psychology?

  14. […] left this comment at Dan’s Migrations.  To hear the whole debate, go there.  I’ve been too busy to post political things lately, […]

  15. That was a very good response, and I was going to suggest that you share for others to see on your blog as well, until I saw you’d already done so.

    The heart of your comment, as I see it:

    In contrast the idea of God as actively creating the everything does suggest a wonderful sense of openness to life, that this is not all there is.

    Let me pose a couple related questions in response…

    Why does not the awesome diversity of life on its own suggest a sense of “openness to life” to you, as you call it?


    Why do you refer to “all there is,” as with dissatisfaction, to a world without a god? Does not your love for your children, your spouse, your parents and brothers and sisters and dearest friends, provide you with emotional and even spiritual satisfaction enough?

  16. Thank you for your kind remarks. I’m glad you liked the comment. Apropos “openness to life,” I meant even a question about what life is, what the self is, or as in a religious context it would be called the “soul.”

    I did not wish to sound a note of dissatisfaction at all, except that when people think on their mortality, I think it’s natural to feel regret about life ending. And while love for others is a beautiful thing, one can be deeply grateful for it and still be conscious of the separateness of each person and to feel a desire for a greater connection, and religious people find themselves leaning in a god-ward direction as response to this yearning.

    It is akin to a scientist’s recognition that some fundamental aspect of a theory is inadequate, only the religious hunch is fundamentally emotional as well as rational: the sense that the spiritual world is not “flat” just as the earth’s surface is famously not flat either.

  17. … and religious people find themselves leaning in a god-ward direction as response to this yearning.

    So it seems – and I’ve never been able to understand this leaning. I mean, I understand the contemporary psychological and anthropological theories on the origins of religion and perception of supernatural agency, but I don’t possess even a glimmer of such yearnings.

  18. Part of the problem is the notion that their are contemporary psychological and anthropological theories. Period. They do form a kind of smoke screen, or kind of false theater.

    There are psychological theories about how people fall in love. All sorts of discoveries have been made scientifically about the material aspects of consciousness and emotion; so, for instance, various kinds of chemical changes take place during different mental states, when someone is angry or content, in love, or depressed, or whatever.

    But. The big but … even the scientist doing the study doesn’t really believe in his gut deep down that the chemistry “explains” his romance or that his love is reducible to just some endocrinology.

    And if the scientist’s girl friend breaks up with him or he has cause to feel jealous or neglected or whatever — he isn’t going to write that off as merely a down turn in his chemical future. And no one ever wrote poetry or composed an opera about their hormones.

    You earlier used the example of human relationships as causes of happiness and fulfillment yet all the emotional responses to human relationships are analyzable in materialistic ways. However, thoughtful people including even the scientists doing the research tend to exempt their own lives from this reductive framework — especially when they are in the midst of the emotion itself.

    We see things like love, justice, goodness or hatred, injustice, evil as having an intrinsic reality. If it were otherwise then scientists of all people would exempt themselves from, for instance, political discussion.

    How could Bush be accused of lying in an exclusively materialistic account of the universe? If he’s just following behaviors that are the random consequences of evolution, or if he is the sum of his hormones, or if his DNA has changed in response to his environment in an epigenetic process … well … que sera sera. How would that be different from aggression in other primates? Iraq war? That’s just the way things are. Are you getting excited about sharks and bears and lions?

    But no one believes that, not scientists, not anybody else. You said Bush lied. I disagreed. I say he urged war based on incorrect data. But either way, we both implicitly accept the idea of human accountability because something larger than just “chemicals” is at work.

    In a materialistic account of human behavior, no one is responsible for anything. We are our chemicals. But no one really believes that, do they?

    The sense that human love and human hate are things that matter reflect an intuition that love and hate are real and genuine qualities, that they can exist apart from particular circumstances. We agree that “right” and “wrong” exist. We just cannot agree about all the details. And the source of the morality comes from somewhere. We might not agree about that either, but implicitly we both have an idea of God: perhaps it’s just god-in-quotes for you or perhaps its a more anthropological sense of a presence in one’s life — a beloved, but it’s there even without the yearnings. There is a rational basis for God as well as an emotional one.

    At the very least, “God” is like the fudge factor in physics — it’s there to make sense of the gaps in the theory — it helps the mathematics come out properly. We need an idea of God to make sense of meaning in our lives. We need it for the very assertion that “meaning” exists. But that leaves a lot of stuff unexplained too. It’s a conundrum.

  19. Not one of your better comments. But then again, there wasn’t much you could say to my simply saying “I don’t possess even a glimmer of such yearnings [for a supernatural deity].” I just don’t, and as you’ve said, it’s a gut feeling, not something that you can persuade me on.

    You say there’s a rational basis for your god, but I don’t see it, or feel it. Any way you parse it, the idea of a omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god doesn’t fit with any empirical observation of the world. The organization of the world is far too capricious.

    And a “fudge factor” just sounds like fuzzy thinking to me.

  20. I’m disappointed. I thought I was doing well.

    Your lack of a feeling was precisely why I was making an appeal to reason.

    The rational basis for god has to be “thought” as well as “felt.” Empirical observation — this represents perhaps a cultural shift? The Bible seems to operate upon the expectation that our empirical observations will make God a persuasive notion: “the heavens are telling the glory of god and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19). Those words come out of a culture that knew the night skies intimately and didn’t suffer the disadvantages of light polution. Of course, they didn’t have a Hubble telescope either …. We still have an emotional access to these things, these ideas, and these feelings.

    Meanwhile, “fudge factor” is my imprecise quote from Jim Gates of University of Maryland in explaining how certain kinds of mathematics involved in string theory require “built in” values to make them come out correctly — to match observable data.

    He was not defending any kind of fuzzy math, only addressing the ways that theories are inadequate at present. I shouldn’t have presumed his off hand comment had a wide audience. I’m aware of his ideas, of course, as a layman only. He came out with a DVD in the “Teaching Company” series on the subject of contemporary theoretical physics.

    So I was making an analogy to religion — that it also deals with incomplete data.

  21. Hmm. But I’m surprised you have nothing to say about epigenetics and George W. Bush.

    Epigenetics is part of your particular balliwick …..

    And, I’m quite sure you are not angry with the sharks in their migrations as they travel to eat various unfortunate fish and even the occasional unlucky surf boarder.

    Where does morality find its footing in an evolutionary process shaped solely by chance events?

  22. Okay – well, that’s all well and good, I just don’t find such appeals convincing, as you probably would not find appeals from myself on the common sense of disbelief appealing. They’re our way of looking at the world, and although one of us may be right (we don’t know), neither of us is likely to change our minds on this.

    Regarding the bit on Bush and epigenetics, that was clearly a digression, and I’m not sure what point you were trying to make there, if any.

    However, you asked just now:

    Where does morality find its footing in an evolutionary process shaped solely by chance events?

    Do you really think that genetic drift (the primary force driving evolutionary processes that is based on chance alone) accounts for what we call “morality”? I think that it’s clear that the human range of accepted morals bears the very clear hallmarks of natural selection, made necessary by the particular social environment that humans have lived in since the advent of civilization. And those same hallmarks are derived from the range of morals accepted during our nomadic tribal history before that. That’s necessity, not chance.

  23. Nice serve. While I was arguing above the benefits (the necessity) of dealing with (different) religions’ specific contents, I’ll acknowledge that taking the discussion simply to “god” or “no god” has benefits from the point of simple logic. It makes it all or nothing. And work out the details later.

    I would like to think, however, that presented with sufficient evidence of whatever sort (whether rational, emotional or some combination) that the party in error would change his or her mind, as the case might be. (Though it would take divine agency to change yours, which leaves me off the hook.) I mean I’d like to think in each case that we wouldn’t insist purely on stubborness — though

    It does make one ask what role intransigence plays in an evolutionary process driven by necessity. Are we hedging our bets here? So which side is evolution on? God, no God, or both?

    And back to George W, how can you be so sure that he isn’t part of the evolutionary “drift.” It’s necessity, my friend. Don’t call it chance, call it necessity. But evolution might still vindicate Bush.

    Are you prepared for that?

    I think you’d do better arguing from the intrinsic merits of “right” verses “wrong.” If you think Bush is wrong, your stronger case lies there. Evolutions makes all the “shoulds” irrelevant.

    Dinosaurs outlasted us by staggering measures. Millions of years they were in business. But now their yesterday’s newspaper. Last comer wins the game.

    But you don’t believe that either. You think Bush is wrong. So, say so. And evolution doesn’t help you at all.

    Morality comes from elsewhere.

  24. Are you rambling again?

  25. It’s your serve. You must have many reasons for believing Bush is wrong and McCain is too much his created in his image. That’s your evidence to present.

    And no I’m not rambling. I’m making a fine point.

    But it’s deep.

  26. Now you’re really getting off-topic here. And not only are your last couple of comments going off-topic more and more, they’re not cogent (it’s impossible to discern a main point that you’re trying to make).

    Yes, that’s rambling. Get back on topic and make clear points.

  27. I like to cast a wide net for ideas. It’s been an exhilarating debate, but perhaps time to take a breather, wouldn’t you say?

  28. Dear Internet Pastor,

    The above was a “debate.” Get over it.

    Anns New Friend

  29. Whew, looks like I went and pissed off an idiot. Go check out his blog posts, where he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of biology, geology, and astronomy, at the very least.

    This “pastor” is precisely the sort of illiteracy in science that is bringing down America.

  30. “Dan”

    Have you ever had to hire a plumber? If so, did you quiz him about his views on “biology, geology, and astronomy”? Or did you just let him fix your plumbing?

    As a scientist, for God’s sake (if you’ll pardon the expression), has it dawned on you that human diversity is what makes civilization work? The “internet pastor” (assuming he really is a clergyman, which he might in fact not be) is writing about religion. The apt criticism would be whether he represents his own discipline accurately, not whether or not he knows yours.

    I’m not a scientist, but I did engage you in a debate of logic, and you rather pointedly ignored several of my arguments. If they were easy to refute, one would think you’d just refute them.

    I have no doubt I am not anyway qualified to challenge particular scientific ideas — and why would I wish to? I figure you guys know what you’re doing most of the time. For that matter I don’t argue with the plumber either. But do you not see how science does not exist in a vacuum? It is part of the whole, a subset of a society, of a civilization. You pretend that technology associated with stem cell research and DNA and so forth should be just accepted without comment by the public. Oligarchy? Rule by scientists. I don’t think so.

    Neither you nor the good pastor really debated each other, and that’s an unfortunate failure of communication. Human beings have had language, for how long evolutionist Dan? — yet they (and this means you, Bud) are still learning how to use it.

    Best wishes,

    Ann’s New Friend

  31. Ann’s New Friend,
    I commented on a couple posts of his where he clearly stated his positions in favor of flood geology and a universe that is about 6,000 years old (which flies in the face of just about everything known to biology, geology, and astronomy).

    Religions that are that ignorant of what we know about the world are worthless, IMO.

    To your comments, you’ve gone off-topic and brought up issues that appeared irrelevant. If you can make a stronger case why such-and-such is relevant, I’ll be happy to address it.

    And I would have been happy to discuss biology with him, had he answered my question “What do you think of transitional fossils X, Y, and Z” with a better answer than “Ok, Dan, Mr. “I can’t think for myself so I have to regurgitate all of the liberal garbage my pof’s shoved down my throat in indoctrination class”.” If you can come up with a way for me to have an intelligent conversation with someone who thinks that science is for “flat-earthers,” I’m open to suggestions.

  32. Suggestions, ask yourself why you engaged him in conversation in the first place. He doesn’t know science. Fine. Does he know anything about Christianity? Do you? Are you interested in learning about someone else’s ideas? their experiences? their reasons for believing what they believe?

    Does his ignorance about science disqualify him for knowledge of other sorts.

    Like I said: I don’t argue with the plumber. As long as the sink works, I’m happy.

  33. Ann’s New Friend,
    I think that the answer to all of your recent questions can be wrapped up in me saying that I see something very problematic with creationism, and young earth creationism in particular. The simple fact that 50% or more of citizens in the greatest nation in the world subscribe to such a view is unconscionable.

  34. And, incidentally, on your plumber analogy: People don’t go to their pastors (or religion) for a quick fix. Generally, pastors, reverends, preists, and the like, are community leaders who people go to for guidance.

    So yes, if such religious leaders aren’t grossly deluding their flock, I don’t put up much of a fuss. But if they lead their flock astray from anything remotely sensible, then I say find a new pastor (or in my case, none at all), just as I would suggest you find a new plumber if he didn’t know that water has to be pumped into the house to get the faucet to run.

  35. “The simple fact that 50% or more of citizens in the greatest nation in the world subscribe to such a view is unconscionable.”

    Unconscionable; it is not even true. You argue against a stereotype. It’s Amos and Andy. Your idea of religion has nothing to do with actual people in real churches.

    However, as to clergymen leading their flock astray, that’s a topic you should take up with you candidate. Not mine. Ironic, ain’t it.

  36. ANF,
    That is indeed one item I disagree with Obama on, no doubt about it. But strictly speaking, I hardly think that that is an issue on par with the economy, domestic policy, foreign policy, etc. With those, I’m solidly on the Democratic side. ;-)

    But to the percentage – while I was indeed rattling that number off the top of my head, polls do indeed show that a very large percentage of Americans hold such opinions. Fact-checking myself now, a series of Gallup polls show that, give or take a margin of error, about 50% of Americans believe that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

  37. You can find Gallup polls that will “reveal” just about anything you want to see. Dan, I’ve been in a lot of different churches and I don’t need a Gallup poll. Scientific illiteracy is not the exclusive problem of one subset of people, i.e. Christians. It’s an equal opportunity kind of ignorance. Heck, I couldn’t tell you how old the earth is without Googling it. Haven’t got much of a head for numbers so I’d be very easy to fool on this Jeopardy question.

    But why is it so obviously important that people understand science, but NOT important that they understand religion, literature, culture, myth, politics or a long grocery list of civilizations ideas? Are you a polymath? Like I said earlier, the plumber needs to know plumbing. And it’s actually to your benefit that he fixes his attention of the drain first and on questions of the cosmos afterwards.

    Asking when the earth got started is really not much different than asking the capital of Nebraska. So what. And notably it has nothing to do with scientific method, with intellect, with reasoning. It’s a rote fact.

    Meanwhile, your monologue with the internet pastor serves no purpose that I can see. But it could have served a limited purpose. If you knew anything about Chrisitianity and I’m assuming you don’t, you could –even as a non-believer — take a sociological interest in it as providing, for instance, a window onto the natural world of a very early civilization. The Psalms, for example, use natural imagery throughout as ways of characterizing God and his relationship to humanity. Geeze, there are National Geographic tv programs that have explored this topic in terms of the flora and fauna of the Middle East. They manage to address science without insulting people of faith.

    You want the internet pastors of the world to sit up and take notice of your discipline (after you insult them — good luck with that) and yet you have zero interest in the things they care about.

    Do you understand why you’re not making the sale, Dan? And you are selling something. You’re trying to get people to care about nature, to care about what happens to biological diversity if human beings destroy habitats, and to have scientific curiosity about life on planet earth. But because you insist on having this topic only on your terms you turn various people off — needlessly, I might add.

    You can let people care about things in the ways that the stuff affects their lives. Maybe they don’t go all the way 100% down your road. But you could get them a little way down the path. They can believe in God and learn a great deal about the science of life — that’s if you stop insisting that they give up their faith.

    And why should they anyway? Even on scientific grounds? You have no “scientific” arguement that God does not order the cosmos — by means of evolution — or by some other means. You got bupkis. Yet you still insist. And that, Dan, is very unscientific of you. Stick to the stuff you can prove.

    And if you care about sharing what you got with the scienfically illiterate, then you have got to meet them half way. If you want to make the sale, you care about what the buyer wants. Or have it your way all day, and lose the sale.

    If you don’t want to sell to the internet pastor and his demographic then don’t. However, there’s nothing surprising or unexpected about the failure of communication here.

  38. Whoa. Okay, let’s go down the list of items you said there:

    1) Great, you’ve been to a lot of churches. How scientific is your poll?

    2) I didn’t say that Christianity had a monopoly on ignorance. I didn’t even say that all Christians were ignorant. I said that if you’re among a subset of Christians who have pastors preaching absurdities, maybe you should think about not attending that church (or if you’re me, none at all).

    Please, pay attention to what I wrote.

    3) I did not say that those other subject you mention were unimportant. Nor did I say that one need know all that much science. Just the most basic summary of each subject at least.

    Again, please, pay attention to what I wrote.

    4) Actually, I do know a little about religion, having been brought up Protestant, been through a year’s worth of catechetical classes as a teenager (it’s just that I realized as an adult that I don’t see the need theology or mythology). And if you bother looking through my archives (see sidebar), I have a series of posts on “Religion.” You can also read about the sort of books that I have read relating to religion.. Yet, said conversation began on a post about “Evolution,” not religion, so I used common sense and figured that whatever I knew about religion should be irrelevant when discussing biology.

    Sorry, *some* of us don’t go off-topic and discuss religion when others try to discuss biology.

    5) My wife actually happens to be Christian (Greek Orthodox). We get along great, and I have no problem with her religion, although when her family asks me about it, I admit that yes, I don’t believe those things. The reason why I don’t call her ignorant? She happens to be one of the smartest people I know, unlike the Ignorant Pastor.

    6) For our dialogue, I left a comment on his post suggesting that “My gosh, that post is ridiculously ignorant about biology.” Yes, it devolved from there, and guess what, we have stopped the discussion.

    What I fail to see is what purpose your “monologue” with me here serves.

    7) This is the main point here – About the “sale” – what do you think I could possibly say to someone so fervently devoted to all things anti-intellectual that would get through to him? Yes, that’s an argument for not leaving a comment on his blog in the first place, but it’s done. I’ve already discontinued that waste of time.

    Please, get over it.

  39. Also… here’s an attempt to turn the conversation towards a more productive track:

    What do you think biology teachers should do when students as unteachable as the dubious pastor ends up in their classrooms?

  40. Well, count how many times you say “pay attention to what I said.” And try that line out in a classroom. I absolutely guarantee that little internet pastor junior — and half his peers along with him — will tune you out.

    But your hypothetical classroom is fictional. Since internet pastor’s demographic are going to send junior to a church school to avoid biology. If they are attached to the notion of 6,000 years or whatever, they’ll come up with their own “biology” curriculum. But this isn’t a problem in public schools, is it? The 6K year old earth isn’t really a threat to public school biology.

    So, my question is why have you got a microscope focused on this non-issue?

  41. “Count how many times you say ‘pay attention to what I said.'”

    No, I wouldn’t say that. I’d mark the answer wrong on a test though.

    But your hypothetical classroom is fictional. Since internet pastor’s demographic are going to send junior to a church school to avoid biology. If they are attached to the notion of 6,000 years or whatever, they’ll come up with their own “biology” curriculum. But this isn’t a problem in public schools, is it? The 6K year old earth isn’t really a threat to public school biology.

    That doesn’t bother you, that students seek to avoid education by making up their own cheap imitation of education?

    I don’t see it as a threat to public school biology either. But I do see it as a threat to the workforce, introducing people so badly educated to the world.

  42. Also, how do you figure that my hypothetical classroom is fictional? Most students still go to public school, and half of the American public are young-earth creationists. Clearly, many of them still go to public school, making my hypothetical classroom very non-fiction.

  43. “Half the American public” isn’t really listening to the number, Dan. You’re really reading A LOT into a missed answer on Jeopardy.

    The “workforce” is another red herring. I’m trying to think how many times the age of the earth has mattered at my job. It’s never come up yet. I’ll be sure and let you know when it does.

    Since I wrote my lunch time reply, I was thinking to myself: outside this debate, what kind of answer might really help Dan. And when I see YOUR reply, gotta tell you Dan, I’m thinking you’re hopeless here. You really are more interested in arguing against religion than you are interested in making a scientific argument. I told you already: stick to what you can prove. Problem solved. When you can prove God is a fiction, fine. Put that proof out there. But you haven’t got a proof. And science was always supposed to be about the stuff that can be proved.

    But let’s say you really wanted to teach biology to pastor junior. Begin with enthusiasm. What’s the best fact you got, the one that gets you jazzed. I’d start there. Enthusiasm is contagious — or “self-replicating” if you’d prefer.

    The geological aspect of the earth’s age is notably an interrelated bit of science, but actually why start there? Isn’t that someone elses’s department? What have you got in biology that’s similar? Is there anything about a cell that tells the age of a species the way that tree rings tell the age of a tree? Is there a mathematical model that describes biological change in such a way as to “date” species back to some specific beginning point in time? An odometer of life. If there is (or could be) such a model, where is the physical evidence to support it? This would be comparable to physics — to having a mathematics that is descriptive of actual forces in nature.

    If species cannot just appear as completed wholes, it does rather beg the question of what distinquishes “whole” from “part” and of how species become species — how do these barriers between life forms arise and what do they mean? Something in the nature of “species” should point back to the commonality of all of life as well as show how the specificity arises. When does the barrier between forms arise? Are there any in-between life forms? If anything in the cell, in DNA, in whatever form, demonstrates the time frame then let that evidence speak — and wouldn’t it mirror the same physical forces that operate elsewhere in nature? In other words: what is biology’s equivalent of carbon dating?

    I mean you can talk about the nature of scientific reasoning. You can look at the history of science. How scientific ideas have arisen (the order of inquiry) mirrors in ways the reasoning that lead to discovery and insight.

    In fact when I see how resistant some scientists are to religion, it makes me wonder what else they are being resistant to. Analogies can come from anywhere. You said I was always getting “off topic” but the discoverer of DNA had his famous dream about the the helix as two snakes intertwining. What if he had said, “oh, God, that’s so off topic.” Interestingly though that image, the caduceus has a “religious” context as the staff of Hermes the messenger god of Greek mythology. That image has been lying around in Western society for a long, long time before the discovery of DNA.

    I don’t know. How does one teach? You start with what you care about, with whatever it was that got you into the discipline yourself and you share it. With something like a blog, you can test market ideas, see what grabs the most hits — that tells you something about what people remember and care about and in turn can suggest ways of putting ideas into terms that people will remember.

    Isn’t the point that ideas be memorable? Isn’t that where cognition and evolution each follow a parallel, natural paths? You think religion is the enemy when in fact you are not especially curious about contemporary religious thought. In point of fact the image of a next scientific breakthrough might lie hidden in a religious image — just as the double helix was there in Greek mythology. When you know who Hermes was — my goodness, the “coincidence” is astonishing.

    Maybe what you need to do is get off topic a little more often.

  44. That’s okay, I think you’re hopeless. That’s why I don’t check your blog anymore.

    I guess I just care about good education standards, unlike you, who appear to be satisfied with “just good enough.” I’m sorry, but for a nation that hopes to remain the economic and technological leaders of the world, mediocre education simply won’t cut it.

    That’s why your view of education is completely hopeless.

  45. Interesting reply. As for me, Dan, I just directed one of my readers to your site! Best wishes, ANF

  46. I’m still wondering what you tell your children when they say, “Mom/Dad, why do I have to learn [school subject here, e.g., Algebra, Biology, Chemistry]?”

    Do you answer by saying, “It’s okay, you don’t need to know those things anyway?” It appears that you might.

  47. That question is not a problem around here. My kid is hungry for ideas. Ours is more a problem of “Put the book down now — it’s time to go to bed.”

    Little story: the kid fell asleep in front of one especially riveting episode of the television show NOVA called “Monster of the Milky Way” (which I highly recommend, by the way).

    Indeed, because she missed the whole second half (it came on a little too late for her 2nd grade bedtime routine), I was thinking to myself afterwards that I should get a copy of the show so she could see it in its entirety. But then I kind of forgot about it.

    Then I went to my parents’ house for a visit. And my uncle came by after he knew I was in town. And as he walked in the door he had a DVD in his hand with a program he had recorded about a subject in my discipline (which shall remain secret) and said, “I think you’ll like this.” And when I looked at the DVD I discovered that — “oh, by the way” he had also copied “Monsters of the Milky Way” on the same disc. We seen it a gazillion times now and the kid has shared it with her friends too. It mesmerizes children and adults too!

    He had no idea I was looking for a copy. He just walked into the door with it in his hand. But that, I would be told, is “just a coincidence.” Life doesn’t have any meaning. Nope.

    Around this house subjects like algebra, biology, chemistry are not considered awful things that one “must” learn, but delightful doors that open onto various scenic overlooks in the universe. And different doors open for different people. My own talents follow an entirely different direction.

    A belief in God supports intellectual inquiry for God is the author of human intelligence.

    I really was trying to help, Dan, and sorry that one word I used caused you so much consternation.

    Start with what you love, and share it. Simple as that.

  48. Here’s a link to the NOVA show

  49. Great, so you hold the capacity for fostering an interest in learning, as I do, for our kids. Why were you criticizing me for the past 6+ days for holding similar views?!

    I’m sorry, I just don’t get you, and how you can criticize one position for days on end, and then turn around and appear to agree with that position in the end. Make up your mind, would you?

  50. What I disputed (and reread a few posts ago about the innovative uses of debate, ah hem …)
    was the notion that religious faith was incompatible with scientific curiosity.

    Science represents a subset of the interesting things that human beings have to say about reality. But it is not the whole pie. And it does not answer questions about meaning because they lie beyond its purview.

    The item about Bush’s war was intended to bring that message home to a Democrat who could be counted on to find the war “wrong.” I was trying to make you aware that your opinions about Bush are unscientific. Moreover, their unscientificness does not affect their validity — which would stand or fall on other grounds.

    The question about meaning leads many people to God — not everyone obviously. But it does point to why materialistic accounts of the cosmos are inadequate.

    What I said is still there. Nothing up my sleeve.

    I could add, though I alluded to it somewhat already, is that rote memorizing of facts — even scientific ones — is very different from thinking in a creative scientific way (method). Similarly, knowing a lot of religious information is not the same as religious insight. Each “part of the pie” has its challenges when it comes to imparting real knowledge.

  51. What I disputed was the notion that religious faith was incompatible with scientific curiosity.

    Yes, I realize that you were arguing against a strawman – that is, you were arguing against something that I explicitly said was not what I was saying. Let me repeat a comment from a few days ago since you still don’t get it.

    I didn’t say that Christianity had a monopoly on ignorance. I didn’t even say that all Christians were ignorant. I said that if you’re among a subset of Christians who have pastors preaching absurdities, maybe you should think about not attending that church

    And yes, some versions of Christianity are incompatible with science. NOT ALL. And when I said that that ignorant “Pastor” held a form of Christian faith that was incompatible with scientific curiosity, I was quick to note that that does NOT mean that your faith, my wife’s, or the faith of many others is incompatible with scientific curiosity.

    Or at least not with methodological scientific inquiry. I happen to think that such religious faith precludes the philosophical implications of scientific inquiry, but you should have no problem finding prominent scholars who disagree with me. That’s a different question however, which I was not bringing up in this conversation.

    Regardless, why is it so impossible for you to read anything other than your strawman of me?


  52. Okay. Let’s call it a draw. Meanwhile, I have to return to my other life & am suspending the ANF blog for the time being. Too many school activities this time of year & work to balance also.

    Was terrific debating with you. Many thanks.

  53. Let’s call it a draw?! Is that a joke?


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