Recently I was talking to a friend who teaches high school, and he mentioned that a surprising number of his students — even bright, literate, articulate students — believe in absurd conspiracies (chemtrails, secret world governments, etc.) or equally flaky pseudoscientific theories (astrology, remote viewing, healing crystals). Living, as I think most non-fiction writers do, in the reality-based world, these sorts of beliefs have always seemed amusing but not really worth much of my attention. I’m starting to wonder, however, if that’s a mistake.
Plenty of polls show that acceptance of ideas such as a 10,000-year-old earth or alien abductions are far from fringe — in many cases, they represent the majority view (at least in this country). Confronting these ideas is tricky. Most scientists, for example, refuse to debate creationists, not wanting to give them the imprimatur of legitimacy that a debate might provide. One danger of this attitude, understandable as it may be, is that the scientific perspective remains unarticulated and risks becoming just one of a smorgasbord of perspectives, no more or less legitimate than any other.
I’ve been thinking about a couple of books that take a more direct approach to this issue. Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World (1995) isn’t thought of as a book for young readers, but should be. In it Sagan addresses a range of pseudoscientific topics, including UFOs, ghosts, and channeling ancient entities. His writing is clear and accessible. Perhaps most importantly, his intent is clearly not to just debunk irrational ideas, but to express something of the beauty, elegance, and importance of a scientific understanding of the world.
Richard Dawkin’s The Magic of Reality — How We Know What’s Really True is even more ambitious. The book, which is intended for a young audience, is organized around a series of questions: Why are there so many different kinds of animals? Why do we have night and day, winter and summer? When and how did everything begin? Each chapter starts off with some of the mythological rationales for these phenomena, then introduces the real — scientific — explanation. Dawkins acknowledges the limits of our understanding of some of these subjects, but does an excellent job of using analogy and metaphor to make potentially complex accounts understandable. It’s true that Dawkin’s high-profile atheism, which is implicit in this book, means that he’ll never be acceptable to much of the country’s educational system. That’s a shame, because he really does have a gift for explaining how the natural world works.
Now, about that blog title. I think “teaching the controversy” — shorthand for introducing intelligent design into science classrooms while discrediting evolutionary theory — has real merit. But not in a science class. In a social sciences class, discussion of how and why so many people believe things for which there is no evidence could have real value. I’m enough of a realist to admit that there is not much chance of this becoming a widespread practice in the public schools. But as a non-fiction writer, I think there may be opportunities, when addressing a scientific topic, to acknowledge and refute some of the popular and inaccurate views on the same topic. This doesn’t have to be confrontational, though sometimes that approach may make us feel good (perhaps I should just speak for myself here).