Questionable Motives

April 12, 2011

What is Big History and why is it important?

In spite of never-ending creationist pushes into public education (the latest in Tennessee) to replace what is true and knowable with what is believed to be true and unknowable, Big History allows us to better understand how the universe operates and our place in it. Enjoy this TED talk from David Christian who wants everyone to know this story (it picks up speed at about the 4 minute mark).

September 4, 2010

Do we need some help understanding why Hawking thinks no god is necessary?

Here is an extract from The Times (no link because you have to pay) about Hawkings new book:

Modern physics leaves no place for God in the creation of the Universe, Stephen Hawking has concluded.

Just as Darwinism removed the need for a creator in the sphere of biology, Britain’s most eminent scientist argues that a new series of theories have rendered redundant the role of a creator for the Universe.

In his forthcoming book, an extract from which is published exclusively in Eureka, published today with The Times, Professor Hawking sets out to answer the question: “Did the Universe need a creator?” The answer he gives is a resounding “no”.

Far from being a once-in-a-million event that could only be accounted for by extraordinary serendipity or a divine hand, the Big Bang was an inevitable consequence of the laws of physics, Hawking says.

“Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the Universe exists, why we exist,” he writes.

“It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going,” he finds.

There has been the predictable kerfuffle from the religious apologists about why Hawking must be wrong including this atrocious one from The Mail Online by Prof. John Lennox. Does he simply miss Hawking’s main point and concludes that the error must lie there? Or has Hawking made a blunder so obvious that even the creationist blowhards at the Discovery Institute pick up on it? Yes, it’s easy to believe that they are much more clever and insightful than Hawking. Even so, I wonder which it may be? Can anyone help?

Perhaps Prof. Sean Carroll can. Here’s quick summary of what Hawking means:

And The Wall Street Journal article written by Hawking and his co-author Mlodinow seems a pretty straightforward explanation to me (but I’m hardly of the same intellectual caliber of the Big Brained writers and Deep Thinkers and now humourists at the Disco-tute):

The idea that the universe was designed to accommodate mankind appears in theologies and mythologies dating from thousands of years ago. In Western culture the Old Testament contains the idea of providential design, but the traditional Christian viewpoint was also greatly influenced by Aristotle, who believed “in an intelligent natural world that functions according to some deliberate design.”

That is not the answer of modern science. As recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

In other words, no creator god is necessary.

April 9, 2010

Are religious beliefs and scientific knowledge compatible?

Absolutely not. And this incompatibility has direct and dire and very real negative consequences on scientific literacy – a fundamental component necessary for a country to remain competitive in a technological and knowledge based world economy.

We are often told by well-meaning people that science and religion are compatible, that each ‘magisteria’ offers us a different way to know, and that each deals with different but equally important questions while providing us with different kinds of answers about human life. It is no wonder, then, that public education must tread a careful path keeping science and religion relegated to their separate spheres of influence.

As we are well aware, science and religion often are in conflict when their truth claims are in direct competition, and nowhere is this conflict more prevalent and rancorous than when religious belief in special creationism comes up against the theory of evolution that informs the biological sciences. The notion that we are dealing with different kinds of knowledge is simply not true. We are dealing with one kind of knowledge only, the kind that is informed by evidence or uninformed, either true or not true, right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, probable or improbable. It is no wonder, then, that one of the main battlegrounds between knowledge informed by evidence and religious belief informed only by faith begins in the biology classroom (See the latest biology text book banning story here.)

How do American students compare in academic achievement with students from other countries? You know these studies; advisory panels and boards distribute and then gather the completed surveys and tabulate results which are then used to provide the evidence for educators and their political overlords to measure and compare and contrast how effectively we are passing on knowledge about the world to our children through the curriculum of our education system.

This year (2010) has seen a rather remarkable and intentional omission in the United States: the survey questions about evolution and the Big Bang have been pulled. The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics (evolution and the Big Bang) force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs. (Source)

What are we to make of this problem? To start with, if science and religion were truly compatible, no “choice” would have have to be made because each kind of knowledge would be separate. But they are not separate at all. They are in direct conflict. Why does this matter?

Well, if knowledge is based on what is true and truth matters, then only one approach – either science OR religion – yields ‘true’ knowledge. It is this ‘true’ knowledge that informs not only the technologies and medicines that work in the world but the moral and ethical framework in which they take place, and science has a solid track record of yielding exactly this. Religious belief, in stark contrast, yields no new knowledge and informs neither workable technologies nor medical practices in all the various fields of human endeavors, although the religious make claims to hold the higher ground in ethical and moral questions.  But rather than face this blunt problem of allowing competing factual truth claims to both have recognized merit in spite of a revealed averaged knowledge deficit by all, the NSF has decided in its wisdom to avoid presenting the data that informs this evidence altogether by intentional omission.

Previous data clearly shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang and the reason for this lies squarely at the feet of religious belief. We know, for example, that  science knowledge scores vary considerably across the EU-25 countries, with northern European countries, led by Sweden, recording the highest total scores on a set of 13 questions. For a smaller set of four items that were administered in both 1992 and 2005 in 12 European countries, each country performed better in 2005. In contrast, the U.S. data on science knowledge do not show upward trends over the same period. That lack of progress is alarming, which raises the question why not?

We know that in international comparisons, U.S. scores on two true or false science knowledge questions – “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and “The universe began with a huge explosion” – are considerably lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked. In the United States, 45% of respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents . (The deleted text is here.)

In other words, basic scientific knowledge in biology and cosmology informed by overwhelming and mutually supportive evidence shows by this data that the US has been drastically influenced by religious truth claims that compete directly with scientific truth claims informed by enough valid evidence to establish scientific consensus. And that competition has a negative effect on passing on this foundational scientific knowledge to our children.  Clearly, religious belief is not a separate but equal ‘magisteria’ from the findings of science nor a different kind of knowledge; religious belief is a direct competitor that is neither informed by evidence nor a consensus of knowledgeable opinion.

From a recent national survey of high school biology teachers in public schools we find it shows that there is a large variation in how teachers approach the topic of evolution. How they teach evolution, in turn, affects public knowledge. High school teachers who completed the most number of college-level credits in biology and life science classes and whose coursework included at least one class in evolutionary biology devoted 60% more time to evolution than teachers with the fewest credits in these areas. More specifically, teachers who expressed the religious view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” devoted 35% fewer class hours to evolution than all the other teachers.

This data reveals quite clearly cause and effect: those teachers who hold religious beliefs that compete with scientific knowledge have a direct and negative effect on the quality of teaching that scientific knowledge within the public education system. That is a very important finding. For whatever excuse and rationalization the National Science Board cares to drape over their decision to omit that data from its advisory report to the White House, it is highly unprofessional and, in the words of Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom, “Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools.” I will add that it also downplays how that controversy between scientific knowledge and religious belief regarding truth claims affects in a negative way the scientific literacy of the general population.

So next time you hear that well-intentioned person argue that religious belief and science are compatible but different ways of knowing, remember that such a claim is wrong, and the data to prove it is wrong is available to all.  Such an unfounded assumption of compatibility is doing real harm to the next generation by disarming them of the foundational knowledge necessary to compete in a technological and knowledge based world economy. Unequivocally, religious belief and science are in direct competition, and when all is said and done, I think the words of Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne shall prove to be prophetic:

“In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.”

And, I will add, the only contribution religion can make to the ideas of science is to actively impede the acquisition of knowledge in all areas of human concern.

Update: there is another terrific post with a slightly different take about this over at Why Evolution Is True by Greg Mayer.

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