Thursday, November 7, 2013

Brave Science Teachers

Today I leave for the Oklahoma Academy of Sciences (OAS) meeting at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. Tonight is the Executive Council meeting, and tomorrow is when all the papers, meetings, and the banquet occur. OAS is not a high-powered scientific research organization, but is a way for scientists to connect and share their work, and to talk about what most of us spend most of our time doing: teaching.

And teaching science requires bravery.

Every day when I go in to teach classes, I am undertaking an act of bravery. And I admire all of you other science teachers for doing the same thing. When we teach even the smallest item of scientific truth, we are positioning ourselves squarely against the beliefs of many conservative religious people.

Of course, in part, I am talking about evolution. And global warming. But there are a lot more ways in which teaching science goes against fundamentalist religion.

If carbon dioxide is becoming more abundant in the atmosphere, then it must absorb longwave radiation and cause global warming. To deny this is to deny the basic facts of chemistry. Yet when I teach this, I know I am drawing the ire of some religious person somewhere. And it is not just evolution that requires bravery to teach; just to say that there are pseudogenes and endogenous retroviruses in our chromosomes, even without pointing out the evolutionary explanation for it, is to teach something that is uncomfortable to creationists. To say that our brains work by neurotransmitters, rather than the body being merely a squishy, smelly husk for the spirit is a threat to many religious people, even if we do not claim or even believe that the human spirit does not exist. Religious people openly teach their home school kids that all of science is a vast conspiracy against God. Therefore when we teach the scientific method, of testing hypotheses, we are disagreeing with what some of our students have been told before they come to college. Science is not hypothesis testing; it is hatred of God, according to the view with which they were brought up. To teach them that germs cause some diseases, and that smoking and POPs (persistent organic pollutants) cause cancer, goes against the belief held by some fundamentalists that demons cause disease, and the belief held by adherents of Christian Science that it is some kind of spiritual imbalance. To say that populations have limits is to fly in the face of the fundamentalist preachers who tell their followers to have as many kids as possible because God will always provide resources for humankind. Do you teach embryonic development? Well, the Bible says that God knits babies in the womb. So there. Embryogenesis is a miracle, not a biochemical process.

Not all creationists will say all of these things. I’ll bet there are many creationists who believe in neurotransmitters and Hox genes. But they have to depart from the Bible and accept human authority to do so.

So just try thinking of something to teach in science that does not contradict some fundamentalist religious belief. You can’t do it. Of course, I suppose history teachers cannot, either. Or sociology teachers. Maybe math teachers—yes, nothing in the Bible contradicts math, does it? Don’t be so sure, though: at one time there was controversy over the value of pi because the Bible seemed to indicate that pi was 3.3333 and not 3.1416.

So here’s to all the brave science, math, history, and all other teachers, who teach and show by their lives that knowledge, not just belief, is important.

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