Monday, September 3, 2012

Our Overwhelming New Challenge: The Denial of Physical Reality

Science educators have always assumed that we will be challenged by creationists. More recently, we have been challenged by global warming denialists. Major science education associations, whether national (such as National Center forScientific Education) or local (such as Oklahomans for Excellence inScience Education), now consider it their mission to respond to both challenges.

But now the conservatives are attacking every branch of science. And they are attacking physical reality itself. This means that there is nothing that scientists can say or science educators can teach that will make any difference, since we always base our statements on physical proof.

The major example that has been in the news recently is Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) who is running as the Republican nominee for Senate. Even the Republican Party withdrew support for him when he made comments about “legitimate rape.” I am not sure whether the Republicans were all that upset about his scientific claim that a woman’s body can “shut down” a pregnancy. He apparently knows nothing about human anatomy and physiology, nor did he consider it worth his while to find out. Apparently he was satisfied with just making something up and saying it. Apparently reproductive anatomy and physiology is under attack by some conservatives.

And there are some conservatives who use biblical statements upon which to base their beliefs that the Earth is the center of the universe and does not move and that there are Methuselahs living inside the Earth.(Note: my browser indicates that the anti-Copernican website above may be unsafe to visit.) Warren Chisum, who was at one time the second most powerful Republican in the Texas House of Representatives (he is leaving office January 2013), informed some of his colleagues that the website revealed important information indicating that the Copernican view might be a hoax.

I had an experience on August 31 that took me totally by surprise. I was teaching general biology, and the topic was global warming. I was presenting evidence of global warming. In a previous section of the class, I had talked about the Antarctic ice layers, and how scientists could determine global temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from them. I was expecting, and got, a challenge about how global warming is part of a recurring cycle; I told the student that yes, indeed, it was, he was right, but I then explained how the global warming that is occurring today is different from the previous cycles of warming.

What I was not expecting, in this section, was loud criticism from two creationist students that, since the Earth is only 4,000 years old (I assume they meant since the Flood) there could not be 400,000 layers of ice in Antarctica. That would mean that 100 layers of ice would have to form every year for the last 4,000 years. This, I said, would have to be a miracle. They were unwilling to defend the idea of God doing such a deceptive miracle. The conclusion was, apparently, that I was lying about there being thousands of ice layers in Antarctica. I showed them a photograph of the ice layers that I had taken (not, of course, all 400,000 of them) but this was not good enough for the students. I suppose photos can be faked. What I had experienced was an attack on the admissibility of physical evidence itself—their religious view simply did not permit the existence of those ice layers. I was totally unable to know what to do next. Fortunately other students told the creationists that they had come to learn from me not from other students, and class went back to normal except that I could not concentrate.

These students had already challenged me earlier in the class. They said that if the atmospheric carbon dioxide readings were made in Hawaii, wouldn’t the volcanoes have messed up those measurements? This was a reasonable question and I answered it, in two ways: first, the Mauna Loa observatory is thousands of feet above current volcanic eruptions; second, the measured increase in carbon dioxide is uniform from year to year, irrespective of periods of volcanic eruption. I forgot all about this discussion until later, since it was a reasonable question. I did not become quietly upset until they attacked the existence of the 400,000 ice layers.

I think we will increasingly encounter such attacks. When we teach about the existence of human endogenous retroviruses (HERV) in our chromosomes, we can expect creationists to criticize their interpretation; but maybe we should now expect them to claim that HERV simply do not exist. Pseudogenes? Perhaps they do not exist either. If we said the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2004 went to the discoverers of the olfactory pseudogenes, the students will perhaps simply say that is an international scientific hoax.

Of course creationists reject radiometric dating. Uranium-lead dating is based upon the fact that zircon crystals do not incorporate lead while they are forming. Perhaps now I should expect creationists to reject the facts of chemistry and say that, in fact, zircon crystals do contain lead when they form, even though uranium atoms have seven shells with a valence of two while lead has six shells and a valence of four. How could I prove this to them? I can’t say, “I just happen to have a uranium atom here, and as you can see it has seven shells of electrons, with two on the outside.” Or, “I just happen to have a freshly-forming zircon crystal, and as you can see there are no lead atoms in it.” How should I handle this? I simply cannot prepare for every possible challenge to the reality of physical evidence. Meanwhile all creationists have to do is to say, for example, “I won’t believe that carbon atoms exist unless you prove it to me right here in the middle of class.”

There are some things I can prove to them, maybe. If they claim that photosynthesis will clean all of the additional carbon dioxide out of the air even during droughts, I can tell them I have actually measured photosynthetic rates in drought-challenged plants and drought does indeed reduce and eventually stop photosynthesis. Or maybe they would just say I am lying. What can I do?

Conservatives have become very good at reinventing reality. Lots of people consider the Republican Party to be the party of fiscal responsibility, as if the administration of George W. Bush (with a trillion-dollar deficit-funded war) had never happened. You will notice they hardly mentioned it during their convention. The only mention was by Jeb Bush, who said, “I love my brother.” Otherwise, for aught we hear from Republicans, the Republican Party was created de novo ex nihilo in 2009 in Edenic perfection.

I fear that we have a new generation of extreme conservatives coming along who do not believe in physical evidence. Truth, to them, is whatever their party or their preacher tells them, even if there is physical evidence or historical records against it. There has, perhaps, never been such a challenge to science or to science education. At least not since the clerics simply refused to look through Galileo’s telescope and see the moons of Jupiter.

Please post comments about your experiences, or suggestions about what to do.


  1. There is a point where an honest skeptic becomes a crank. Students should not allowed to deny data on the basis that it is fraudulent, dishonest. They are in no position to impune the reputations of scientists. Should they suggest that as a professor the information I deliver is a lie, then they impune my reputation and expertise, and the dean of students and I would be having a discussion. What data would they accept? Clearly none, so they are self-professed, obstinate non-learners. Their only purpose is denial of knowledge. Clearly such a position is antithetic to higher education.

  2. Fortunately these students have become quiet, perhaps because the other students did not welcome their intrusion.