Teaching in a time of professor watchlists

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Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.

So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms? Continue reading

Faith, knowledge, respect and science education

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People sometimes make decisions and solve problems without using reason. It’s part of our nature. People seek understanding through a variety of modalities. It’s normal.

I don’t use reason and science to deal with everything I encounter in the world, but I rely heavily on evidence. Faith remains perplexing to me, and not for the lack of education about a variety of religious traditions. Faith is the choice to believe that something is true without evidence. I won’t choose to use faith about anything of real consequence. I am not a religious person, and I choose against faith.

I am aware that my approach to understanding remains a minority view. Remembering this fact is an important part of my job, if I am to be an effective science educator.

Last year, the blog Sci-Ed (I’m a fan of the site) ran a piece by Adam Blankenbicker arguing that we should not “believe” in science because the belief requires faith, whereas knowledge is gained though evidence and investigation. With respect to the facts and the concepts, I agree with Mr. Blankenbicker, wholeheartedly.

However, I never would attempt to sell his concept, as written, in a blog devoted to science education. Science is about evidence, but just because science educators put an emphasis on evidence that does not mean that we need to go out of the way to insult belief.

The first concern about this post was expressed by Holly Dunsworth, who wrote that an interview with her for that piece was taken out of context.

In contemporary culture, the prevailing view is that faith is a virtue rather than a vice. On the other hand, many scientists have gone to the great trouble to point out that faith more often leads to bad behavior. But, as a science educator, that’s never an argument I want to actively seek out. That conversation will not be resolved anytime soon, and if you bring that conversation to the forefront of science education, the conversation will promptly stall.

One cannot win the argument that faith is a vice, if the definition of winning includes earning respect from people of all backgrounds. In my book, science education wins when everybody learns and loves evidence-based science, and that includes people of faith.

Some science educators, such as Mr. Blankenbicker, attempt to convince others that the use of faith is a vice. I may agree with him, but delivering that argument would hobble my own efforts as a science educator. Once a person who has strong religious faith sees the “faith = bad” idea coming from science educator, the analytical part of the brain turns off.

Too much science education involves preaching to the converted, in which people who are already interested in science learn even more about science. A different approach is required when informal education efforts target an audience that arrives with both scientific ignorance and suspicion of the motives of the science educator. With some topics that are (allegedly) connected to religious doctrine, such as the origin of life on Earth and the diversification of biodiversity, lessons involving facts, knowledge, and evidence won’t be accepted if the same lessons simultaneously attack faith.

To bring new people over to science, we can’t start by insulting them. No matter how many fan emails published by Dawkins, this basic fact remains: Whenever a science educator argues that religious faith is a delusion, the receptivity of the target audience shrivels.

To put it more simply, when someone feels that an educator just insulted their beliefs, they’re not going to consider the content of that educator’s science lesson. Ever since Sci-Ed published a piece insulting the use of faith, I imagine that religious readers of the site, if any remain, will be less receptive to the science content within. I find it dismaying that some science educators have written off the majority of the US population because they are religious. That religious population is the one that informal science educators need to reach the most, if we are to reverse the nation’s decline in science education.

When people don’t trust science educators for information, they’re not necessarily leaning heavily on Descartes either. Lots of people simply make decisions without any useful evidence. Most people who reject facts generated by science don’t necessarily see their views as a product of “faith” or “belief.” Some people use faith about empirical matters in which it is often useless, when knowledge would be more useful is more useful. But most people who use faith for spiritual matters don’t have the theological or philosophical training to understand which kinds of decisions are better solved with knowledge instead of faith.

Here is a small story, to illustrate how people use faith when knowledge and reason is required. When my son was in kindergarten, he was having a friend over, and they were playing with some toys. The friend was struggling mightily to join together two pieces in a puzzle, even though these pieces weren’t designed to connect to one another. Literally, one piece had a square peg and the other had a round hole. When the friend was told that the pieces would not fit together, the child replied, “They will fit. I have faith that they’ll fit.” Then he continued to twist and push, but the pieces never joined.

If you know typical 5-year-olds, that conversation is perfectly normal except for the fact that the child specifically explained that he made his decision based on faith. This child learned, at home, to use faith to solve an everyday problem to which knowledge was suited. It so happens that one of his parents was being trained as an evangelical minister. I have no idea if the parents would have been proud of the child’s faith in this circumstance. I don’t know how the parents would have handled the situation if they were present. I’m sure that he eventually figured out that spatial problems using puzzles are solved using reason, and not with faith.

When it comes to more complicated problems that take a little more than round holes and square pegs, I don’t know if he’ll learn to drop faith and pick up knowledge. Will he use the same reasoning as biologists to measure natural selection and reconstruct evolutionary histories? Will he use the same logic and evidence that geologists and physicists use when seeking to understand the age of the Earth? Many adult Americans inappropriately apply faith instead of reason to these topics. Or, they use poor quality reasoning from lines of inquiry that originate from faith-based assumptions.

To get to the factually correct answers, faith must be set aside. Effective science education doesn’t require that the entire audience reject the use of faith for everything. It just requires that the audience uses reason when it comes to matters of science. Emphasizing that knowledge is useful and appropriate is a positive, but emphasizing that faith is useless and inappropriate is a negative. People rarely learn, or adopt constructive approaches, by focusing on the negative.

As far as I’m concerned, as a science educator, it’s beyond my job description to judge other people if they use faith about matters that are not informed by science. Moreover, if I do judge other people because they use faith, then I’ve just made my job impossible because I have cut myself off from my target audience. Some science educators don’t worry so much about teaching science content, but instead primarily argue that it’s stupid to be religious. This approach is not going to solve the science education crisis in the United States.

I want everybody to use the knowledge gained from science to make factual decisions about the natural world. If I can demonstrate that knowledge provides answers, then others will be able to conclude that faith is not suited to scientific matters. There are a small number of people who insist on using faith to directly controvert factual evidence. These people have no interest in knowledge, and these people are lost to science education efforts.

If science educators focus heavily on the small minority of the uber-faithful and anti-factual, we alienate the nearly everybody else: the people who who use faith at some times in their life but are open to knowledge. Effective outreach begins with respecting the notion that some people use faith and religion in some aspects of their life. Any science educator who can’t respect the fact some of the audience is religious and uses faith at times is in the wrong line of business.

Science and religion may or may not be compatible. But much of the country is religious, and it’s in all of our interests for this majority to use reason to understand and accept facts that have been established through science. It’s the job of the science educator to convince the faithful that science requires reason and knowledge. You can’t do it successfully if you start by insulting the faithful for their faith.