July 7th, 2007


only parts of it are true

For those of you that might not know, I teach mathematics. This summer, one of the classes I'm teaching is a bunch of 14- to 16-year-old high school students. Yesterday, one of my students asked a question she really shouldn't have. I could tell by the way she asked it that it was leading to trouble. I should have just reminded her that a math class was not the place to talk about this... but I didn't do that.

She wanted to know, just out of the blue, if I'd voted for Bush. I did manage not to respond by saying "Hell, no!" Then she asked if I'd voted at all, and I told her that I voted "religiously."

That was all it took. The students were looking for a way to procrastinate doing work and so one after another launched into what they wanted for the current political scene. One student wanted Obama, but didn't think he had enough experience, so she was hoping Hillary Clinton would win... and somehow this all got into even more dangerous territory when the subject came up about how the Republicans didn't even believe in evolution.

Now, forgive me for assuming that since these were supposed to be smart kids taking classes at college during the summer and graduating early that they'd actually have some respect for science. But instead, at least a quarter of the class, some of them some of the better students, indicated that they rejected evolution in whole or in part.

One girl, the one who wants to vote for Hillary, even stated that she thinks just parts of it are true. And I'm sure she wasn't talking about punctuated equilibrium.

This was VERY dangerous territory, so I changed the subject back to mathematics, but the whole scene still bugs me.

Here's the thing... we were talking about trigonometry. And one of the things we used on the board that day was the Pythagorean theorem, which says that for right triangles, the sides are related by the formula a2+b2=c2. And yet, no one in the class questioned my use of it. They just noted that it applied and did the calculation. No one questioned that since Pythagoras himself was a complete NUTCASE that maybe it wasn't true ALL THE TIME. They assumed that because I was the math teacher and actually had an advanced degree in this stuff, that I actually knew what I was talking about and my judgment could be trusted.

Earlier this week, the students had an exam in Art History. As they were studying, I didn't hear any of them question whether their art history teacher knew what she was talking about, or express doubts about the information she gave the class, about its veracity or accuracy. I seriously doubt they would question it if the teacher switched from Leonardo da Vinci to Pre-Columbian American art either.

When they take Chemistry, no one doubts it when the teacher tells them that atoms are made of some protons and neutrons and some electrons. And that if you combine two hydrogen atoms with an oxygen atom you get water. No one goes home and hears from their parents that water is really made up of carbon and oxygen.

When we launch spacecraft into the solar system, no one says are you sure you understand gravity well enough? Just because it works down here, it can't possibly work the same way in space, can it? Instead, if you drop a pencil on a table, they say, okay, that's gravity. The pencil proves that launching a spacecraft to Pluto should work. People may question whether we will get any meaningful science out of studying Pluto or going to Mars or if there aren't better ways to spend that money... but they don't say the physics is just partly true so we shouldn't bother.

And yet, when it comes to biology, 16-year-olds have the arrogance to say, "well, sure scientists have been studying this for 150 years and tried to prove it wrong and just come up with more and more proof that it's true, but I think only parts of it are true anyway." They say that the evolution we can observe in the lab is more categorically different from the evolution of species than dropping a pen on the table is from launching a spacecraft to Pluto. Evolution is no less the fundamental theory that underlies all of biology than gravity is fundamental to classical mechanics, and yet, one is the subject of vocal doubt by 16-year-olds, and one is not. To question the Pythagorean theorem is to question everything we know about trigonometry and square roots and whole fields of mathematics... and yet no one does that either. No one's parents are telling them it just ain't so, no matter what.

I just don't get it.


I finished listening to The Power of Myth this week. There was actually a point in the program where Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell about those "without any invisible means of support". Campbell's answer was incredibly condescending. He suggested that such people deserved a believer's compassion. And see, I was thinking the same thing about his need to read mysticism into human psychology.

After that I listened to the abbridged audiobook for Atheist Universe. I doubt I'll be buying the rest of the book. Not because I disagreed with anything in particular, or didn't think it had it's value, it's just that, at this point in my life, I'm not really looking for Bible verses to quote back at believers. One of these days I'll finish reading the Bible myself.

Another one that went really quickly was Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. That was really enjoyable. If nothing else, it was an interesting exercise in how to argue one's case in a way that understand's one's audience. It reminds me of teaching math. I don't try to teach my students the way I would learn it best, but the way I hope they will understand it. However, asking a believer for consistency is usually asking a lot. But I'm looking forward to listening to The End of Faith.

another crazy ohio law

Because I live in Ohio and was born and raised in Ohio, one of the things I'm collecting in my blog are crazy Ohio laws related to religion. Austin Cline was kind enough to write about one earlier today. The law is originally reported here.

The law seems to claim that no one can be arrested on a Sunday, in addition to no arrests on the 4th of July and, if I happened to be traveling to or from my place of worship, not then either.

Now the last one is particularly bizarre, but not really that strange for Ohio. I mean, since most Christians travel to their places of worship on Sunday, is this trying to cover Jews? Or just Christians who go to church in the middle of the week, like my grandmother? And once they get home or to their place of worship, doesn't that mean the police can just follow them and arrest them when they get wherever they're going?

And that first part, shouldn't that apply to even non-believers, too? Couldn't I commit a crime on Sunday (a misdemeanor of some kind), in plain sight, and simply drive across the state line immune from prosecution? I could, according to this law, come back into the state every Sunday none the worse for wear.

I'll have to remember this one in case I ever find myself in trouble.

But from reading the law, it's hard to see what would not be a felony, but not a breach of the peace.

It's just another attempt to give religious people or religious dates in general some kind of special status that ultimately doesn't make any sense. The blue laws in Ohio are equally inconsistent.