Monday, April 1, 2013

Teach the Controversy

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).


Vicki Cobb said...

Interesting conundrum, Steve. The problem is we're talking about beliefs that have an emotional anchor and don't succumb to reason. You might be interested in my post on this subject:

Jim Randolph said...

Well, as a Media Specialist, I use what little influence I have to promote these exact things. I promote your books, dinosaur books and pro-critical thinking books about pseudoscience and nonsense. I link to the Skeptic's Dictionary for Kids ( share those articles whenever possible. I even use it with teachers who really believe the Moon influences student behavior or think there's something to homeopathy. So much fun to promote reason, real science and skepticism in a cool and interesting way. Maybe you could tackle some of the popular pseudoscience topics like lake monsters and bigfoot in a scientifically literate way? There's way too much being published that is more about piquing interest without giving good facts. Great post, thanks!

steve jenkins said...

Vicki, that's a great post,.. Wish I'd read it before I wrote mine. Except that I might have felt as if it had already been written . . .
I like your list of factors - confirmation bias, etc.

Jim — I have thought of doing a book about pseudoscience - thanks for the encouragement. I didn't know the Skeptic's Dictionary for Kids - terrific resource.

Teresa Robeson said...

Yay! A post after my own heart. I'd like to get Dawkin's book for my younger son. I used to subscribe to Skeptic magazine for my older son. I just finishing refuting a friend's comment about Mercury in retrograde and her mood, and remembered that I have Shermer's
"Why People Believe Weird Things" on my shelf and need to read it.