Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Letter to the Teacher

I'd like to share a letter a wrote to my daughter's science teacher. My daughter is a Junior at a private Christian school near Atlanta, Georgia. I believe she is receiving a good education at this school. But I had serious reservations about a particular book that was required reading. The book is "The Chemistry of the Blood" by Dr. M.R. De Haan.

Mr. ————— :

I wanted to write and offer my thoughts about a book that is required reading in your course. I offered to help my daughter Ashley write an essay covering the 5th and 6th chapters of “The Chemistry of the Blood.” I read the chapters and I don’t take any issue with Chapter Six. It seems to reflect the traditional understanding of the Biblical doctrines concerning prayer. But there are several points in Chapter Five that I find very inaccurate and outdated.

First of all, I want to say that I have no formal scientific training but science is a subject that fascinates me and I spend a lot of my free time reading books and listening to audio books and podcasts on a wide range of scientific subjects. I’m a big fan of such writers as Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson and Brian Greene, among others.

It’s my opinion that “The Chemistry of the Blood” may have some usefulness in terms of spiritual teaching. But in Chapter Five Dr. De Haan wanders into the areas of cosmology, anthropology and evolutionary biology and it becomes very apparent that he is out of his element. On page 69 he describes — or attempts to describe — Big Bang Theory. The description he gives is an oversimplification of the cosmological model that this theory represents. In 1943 when “The Chemistry of the Blood” was published some of the finer points of the theory were still being worked out, however, even at that stage of its development, the theory predicted the existence of cosmic microwave background radiation. Using satellite technology this radiation was detected and confirmed in 1964. This, along with other lines of evidence, solidified this theory as the best scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. Today this is an uncontroversial theory that is widely accepted even by Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig.

Dr. De Haan then goes on to give a caricature of the theory of evolution. It is very clear from his description that he doesn’t understand the theory and he lampoons it in a attempt to make it seem silly and implausible. In some circles this is a controversial theory and many people reject it on religious grounds which is their right. But if the theory is to be presented it should be presented accurately and comprehensively so that the students can fully grasp it and examine it on its own merits. However one may feel about the implications of the theory it cannot be denied that it is almost universally accepted by scientists around the world and it is supported by many lines of evidence including the fossil record, genetics, homology, paleo-anthropology, etc. The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said “Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” Students who intend to pursue careers in science or medicine will be required to learn the theory very thoroughly at the college level. It would be a disservice to those students to deprive them of a fair and accurate introduction to the established facts that undergird the theory. The theory can be taught within the framework of a Christian worldview. Many professional scientists who are also religious have no difficultly finding compatibility between evolution and their faith traditions. A good example of this is Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University — an outspoken defender of evolution and a devout Catholic. Another good example is Francis Collins, one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project. He is an evangelical Christian and he wrote “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.”

But back to the was what I read on page 70 that really gave me pause and caused me to be seriously skeptical of Dr. De Haan’s scientific credentials (After a quick Google search I found that, outside of his medical degree, he had none). He writes “ not speculative or theoretical. True science deals with proved facts...Any theory which is later proved to be false proves that it was unscientific. True science rests on unalterable and eternally established facts.” This is absolutely laughable and it betrays a complete ignorance of the scientific method. The very essence of the scientific endeavor is curious speculation — asking “why?” and “how?” and “what if?” with no commitment to a preordained conclusion and an openness to follow the evidence where ever it may lead. Were Newton’s laws of gravity considered “unscientific” once they were superseded by Einstein’s theory of general relativity? Will Einstein’s achievement be considered “unscientific” now that physicists are developing string theory in order to resolve general relativity’s incompatibility with quantum mechanics? Of course not. Every finding in science is provisional and tentative. Every theory is falsifiable and can be improved and refined with better evidence. Science isn’t about establishing ultimate or absolute truth. That falls within the domain of philosophy and religion. True “proofs” are only found in mathematics.

In short, it is my feeling that this book has no place in a science class.

I also want to quickly touch on a few passages from pages 79 & 80. Dr. De Haan writes “Anything which draws the woman away from the an abomination of the Lord.” And “The current custom of women’s dress is a greater menace to the welfare of America than invasion from a foreign power (He is referring here to women wearing pants)...The modern dress of our women is an invitation to moral decay...and the judgment of the Lord.” He goes on “To see men, even preachers, running about in public with only a pair of shorts is a disgrace to civilization.” And finally “The woman’s place is in the home and there is nothing more Godlike than MOTHERHOOD.” Even if this book continues to be used as a part of a Bible class I would hope that the parts of the book which follow in the same vein as the quotes above would be critically analyzed and held up as artifacts of obsolete and antiquated thinking that was typical in the early part of the last century but from which we have advanced. It would be an interesting sociological study in the progression of cultural norms. As a father of two girls I would hope that they would be exposed to more up-to-date and relevant books that affirm and empower them as women and instill in them the confidence to pursue any goal they choose whether inside the home or in the professional world.

Thank you.

A Few Thoughts on Skepticism

I recently created a Discussion Group on my Facebook Page called "Skeptically Speaking." The idea to do this was inspired by one of my favorite podcasts, "The Skeptics Guide to the Universe." It was my desire to find a hand full of like-minded folks who share my interest in scientific subjects and critical thinking. To clarify the intentions behind setting up the Discussion Group I posted a note on my page that provides an exposition. For those interested in my blog I have posted the text of that note here...

Since I named our Discussion Group "Skeptically Speaking" I thought it might be helpful for me to share my thoughts on the subject of skepticism. So let me define what I call a good skeptic by trying to debunk the straw man conception that true believers have of skeptics.

I'm reading a book by John Ankerberg and John Weldon titled "Handbook of Biblical Evidences." Throughout the book the authors refer to skeptics as people who, because of their personal biases, are not willing or able to consider the "evidence" of Biblical claims. Here's a quote: "skeptics...wish to find 'evidence' to support their skepticism." Another: Skeptics "allow their personal materialistic philosophies to color their interpretation of scientific data."

In other words, skeptics already have their minds made up. And it's true that there are some people who are skeptical in that way. These are a priori skeptics. But that is not a good skeptic. A good skeptic approaches the world with an open mind and an excitment about the process of learning and exploring possibilities. A good skeptic is keenly interested in examining evidence of any kind for most claims. Of course if I claim I have an invisible elephant living in my garage, no one, skeptical or otherwise, is going to believe me. Why not? Because there are some basic things we as educated people living in the modern world can agree on because everything in our shared experience confirms certain realities.

And there are different levels of reasonable skepticism. If I meet someone and he tells me his name is Frank there's no good reason for me to be skeptical of his statement. But if he tells me that his name is Frank and that he died yesterday and came back to life this morning I'm going to require a little more evidence other than his testimony before I will believe him. As Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

But as we move further away from our comon experience of everyday realities, as we begin to consider things that may dwell in the fuzzy edges between reality and fantasy, people tend to divide into different camps. These various camps or positions fall along a wide spectrum.

At one extreme end of the spectrum are people who are fantasy prone. These individuals haven't met a conspiracy theory or a piece of magical thinking that they don't like. These are the people who are always forwarding emails containing stories that turn out to be urban legends. These are folks who use "miracle" to describe just about anything that is out of the ordinary.

On the other extreme end of the spectrum are those who are not only hardcore skeptics, they are cynics. These folks just aren't interesting in anything that falls outside their limited view of reality and are quick to dismiss even things which may be well-established but with which they are not familiar. They are closed-minded and lack intellectual curiosity.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. But I think (and I'm just speculating here) that more than 50% of the populations in industrialized western cultures tend to lean more toward the fantasy prone end of the spectrum. Most people, for instance, would probably say they believe in luck to some degree or another. Most people have a few pet superstitions. Some of these superstitions may be so minor and inconsequential that their owners may not be consciously aware of them. Think of what a big deal a lot people still make about Friday the 13th. Many buildings, even today, don't have a 13th floor.

And then there's all the rampant magical thinking that is at the heart of the self-help industry and about half the stuff Oprah is pushing on her beguiled audience. Just believe hard enough and you too can be rich, thin and in love!

I spend a lot of time thinking about why people believe what they believe. What are the fault lines, so to speak, that separate critical thinkers -- skeptics -- form the rest of us. And I'm still working this out but so far I think it breaks down to two major questions:

1) Is the universe purely materialistic or iis there something beyond reality as we experience it?


2) Do we believe what we believe because it makes us feel good?

When a person wrestles with these two questions they will have addressed what is at the core of their decision-making process when evaluating truth claims.

I've been on a journey over the last few years. A journey of intellectual inquiry and re-evaluation of my thought processes and belief systems. I don't expect this journey to end as long as I have a pulse. And I make no claims to have arrived at any great and lasting Truth. I can only give you the provisional conclusions that I've drawn at this point.

First, based on my observations, all phenomena which can be explained can be explained in materialistic, natural terms. I have seen no evidence of the supernatural. One could argue that the supernatural, by its very nature, lies outside the realm of scientific investigation. Assuming that to be the case, I would have to say that I'm agnostic in regard to the supernatural.

Second, whether it makes me happy or sad to believe a thing has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not said thing is true. It has been said that "the truth will make you free." You may be free but you may not be happy. When you find out a loved one has cancer you're going to know the truth and you're not going to be happy about it. I say that to say this: be very skeptical of the person who claims that embracing the belief system that he is peddling will make you a much happier person. You may be deluded into a kind of happiness based on self deception but you won't be any closer to the truth.

So, in conclusion, I'd like to address the various topics in our discussions within the framework of critical thinking. I think the best tool for understanding reality is the scientific method and a rational analysis of empirical data. But I'm certainly open to debate on this point. Let's throw some ideas around and see what happens.

Thank you for reading.