Monthly Archives: November 2011

Smart people are crazy…?

I recently made a post about the poor public relations science has with the public.   Since then I have been thinking about how we can remedy this shortcoming of science.  Too no avail.  Then, yesterday, a friend of mine made a Facebook post that caught my attention.  It read, “The thing about smart people is that they seem like crazy people to dumb people.”  Now, I don’t necessarily like labels, but like Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

The more I think about it, though, the more I am beginning to realize, that many Americans are probably not dumb, they’re just lazy.  Not necessarily physically lazy, but mentally lazy.  They don’t want to think deeply.  Hell, most of them don’t want to think at all.

Part of the problem is that we are not raising our children to think critically.  We no longer have a need of knowledge for knowledge sake.  We just Google it.  I would argue we need knowledge as a base for deeper questioning.  Knowing that Salvador Dali painted Persistence of Memory isn’t, in and of itself, worth a whole lot.  But having that knowledge might help a person ask a question on the next level, ” That is a funky-ass painting, what was the cultural milieu that lead him to paint like that?” or knowing what Natural Selection is and how it occurs might help someone ask, “Given that humans evolved through natural selection, how do I explain osteoarthritis or Obsessive Compulsive disorder?”

So the problem becomes, not that people are dumb, but that they are lazy.  Because they are lazy, they accept things at face value and don’t question it. This in turn allows people in power to use the media to their advantage.  Think about some of the stuff you see or read in the “news.”  Some of it isn’t even really news, it is  subtle religio-political propaganda.  And the public eats it up.

This situation reminds me of the Mike Judge film, Idiocracy.  Frankly, it scares the crap out of me to think that could actually happen.  In the film,  since the electrolytes in n (i.e., Gatorade) are good for people they are figured to be good for plants too How different is that from accepting that the first humans were created as gumby-like play-doe figures by an invisible hand that breathed life into them?  I’m just saying think about it.

We have a responsibility to ask questions and to think critically. Not only about what we see and hear, but also of what we think and believe.  There are groups of people, diametrically opposed to one another that want you on “their side.”  One group is interpreting scriptural writing as the literal word of God (Yes, this group includes both Christians and Muslims) and turns a blind eye to the numerous contradictions within (You can’t question the word of God, right?).  The other group claims a foundation in reason and critical thinking.  Yet this group thinks denigrating and belittling the beliefs of others is a sound way to win their favor.  Furthermore, they suggest the best way to spiritual fulfillment is through purely secular means without leaving room for the possibility for multiple and personal means of spirituality.

So, smart people only seem smart because they aren’t lazy.  They read, get informed and ask questions.  Dumb people aren’t dumb, they are lazy. They are poorly read, uninformed, and refuse to ask questions that matter (Big Mac or McChicken? is not a question that matters).  I urge everyone everywhere to subvert the dominant paradigm of anintellectualism and laziness.  Get smart and ask questions that matter.

Let's not let it come to this.

Religion: A divisive communal force

How is it that religion can function as both a communal force that binds people together in a common cause and can also lead people to perpetuate war and suffering on others?

Think about it. Some of the greatest community good has come out of religious ideas. Hospitals spring immediately to mind.

While at the same time region has lead people to heinous acts of violence against others with differing beliefs. The inquisition and the crusades are examples.

I’m not much for history (I like it, don’t know much about it), but isn’t religion at the root of the issues between Northern and Southern Ireland?

We need to embrace a diversity of religious viewpoints in the world. Diversity begets stability.  What a person believes only affects me if I let it.  What they do, based on those beliefs can impact me directly.

Science is like ….Hard and stuff…

Recently my university had an open house event to bring prospective students and their parents onto campus.  I volunteered to hang out at the Natural Science Department table with a couple of colleagues from Biology and Chemistry to schmooze.  I made a couple of interesting observations that morning.

The first thing I noticed was that most of the students and their parents avoid eye contact with the science profs.  I fully admit I’m not much to look at, but come on.  I’m not sure why  people don’t want to make eye contact with scientists.  I try to reserve my steely gaze for the lecture hall, so that can’t be it.

The second thing I noticed when I engaged a couple of the students as they walked by, eyes down, was that many students don’t think they can do science.  “Hi, do you have questions about a major in biology,” I ask.  “No, I’m no good at science,” many of them would reply.  Seriously?  I know for a fact students have to pass an end of instruction exam in biology in Oklahoma, so they must be okay at science, at least.

The third thing I noticed was also a reply to my inquiry. Apparently, many students don’t like science.  Now, I understand that not everyone want’s to be a science major, but I heard too often students say, “I don’t like science.”  Ouch, dude.  That’s my bread and butter!  I didn’t care much for sociology, but I found sociology to be interesting and relevant.  What is it that would make someone say they don’t like a specific discipline?

So, students (and parents) don’t like to make eye contact with scientists, they don’t particularly like science, and they don’t think they are good at science.  It sounds to me like Science has a public relations problem.

Too many people have a mistaken, stereotyped view of scientists as people, and science as an avocation.  Most people don’t know scientists, personally.  As a result their only experiences with science and scientists are based on media representations.  Scientists are often portrayed in one of two ways.  1) messy-haired, wearing a white lab coat, standing next to an array of bubbling glass tubes and beakers or “sciency” electronic apparatus.  2) dorks in comic book character t-shirts spouting physics equations.  We might throw in socially awkward and atheist into each of these descriptions, as well.

Stereotype 2: dorks in comic shirts spouting equations

Add to these mistaken stereotypes, a poor introduction to science in public school.  Now, hold on a second.  I’m not blaming the teachers, necessarily.  No doubt there are great science teachers and crappy science teachers.  I blame the bureaucratic nightmare better known as No Child Left Behind.  Teachers, fearful of loosing their jobs because their students don’t perform well on a standardized test, can’t make science fun and interesting because they are “teaching to a test.”  Gone are the days when teachers could go off on tangents to teach concepts their students want to run with.

A kick-ass public relations blitz is the best hope for changing stereotypes and short comings of our public education system.  Scientists need to get out and meet the public head on.  Make tv and radio appearances.  Go to local schools with their research.  Give talks about their research to civic groups and at public venues.

Help teh general public understand who scientists are as a group.  Being a scientist, I know how diverse scientists are as a group. Scientists are men and women; gay, straight, and transgendered; catholic, protestant, jewish, muslim, atheist; mothers and fathers; couch potatoes and marathon runners; laid-back cross-county skiers and gnarly snowboarders.  If you haven’t gotten it yet,  Scientists are people, too!

So, if you are reading this post and you are a scientist, get out there and engage people.  Help them understand what you do.  It may not be easy sometimes.  Make a special effort to pass on your passion for science to kids.  They are naturally curious, we need to nurture that curiosity into their teen years.  And if you are a non-scientist, get informed.  This internet thing is loaded with useful information.  Put it to use.  Email scientists that are dong work you find interesting, follow a science blog or listen to science podcasts (1, 2, 3).  Find out what science is all about.  It’s not just test tubes, beakers, and fancy sciency stuff.

And after all of this typing, it turns out I may be wrong.  Science has been proven to be hard.


The nature of the relationship between science and religion:Neighbors, layers, or deftly woven fabric?

A couple of weeks ago when I started this blog I said it was about science and region.  I haven’t said much since about the two endeavors since .  I aim to rectify that today.  As part of a Scientists in Congregations project funded by the John Templeton Foundation, I have the opportunity to talk about these two human trappings with people who have very different viewpoints.  This week I had occasion to think about how science and faith might be perceived by different people to be related.  I am by no means the first or last person to think about this, but I don’t thin enough people think or write about it.  So, I guess, I’ll give it a shot.

The first visualization I came up with was that championed by Stephen Jay Gould, Non-overlapping magestaria.  Science and religion can be viewed as neighbors.  Each of them dealing with a separate and equally important domain.  Science addressing the natural world in a strictly empirical manner and attempting to explain why nature and its processes occur the way they do.

Stephen Jay Gould

Religion on the other hand deals with how we should treat each other and ourselves.  Some people are very good at compartmentalizing these two domains and using each toolkit in the appropriate circumstance.  Others though, are not so good at applying the toolkit in the appropriate circumstance.  Who has tried to use a pliers instead of a wrench to loosen a nut and ended up stripping the nut in the process?

Another possible relationship is one of layers, similar to a geographic information system or on of those old transparencies of the human body where each overlay was a different organ system.  The idea

A three layer GIS

here is that you can look at each layer separately on its own or you can look at each layer together, one atop the other.  So in the case of  science and religion, by this view it is possible to view a problem or situation through the science overlay to assess why or explain how it is occurring.  Then look at it through the religion overlay to assess how that situation affects us spiritually or how it relates to our behavior towards others.  Finally, through deliberative theology, it would be possible to view a situation through both overlays simultaneously.  The primary aim being to match up what we know scientifically and theologically .  Again, some people are very good at this.  I’ve seen it while working on the SinC project mentioned above.  This may not be the best approach for everyone, it requires considerable thought and deliberation to look at both of those layers simultaneously.

Is it possible for science and religion to be interwoven in American Culture? Should it be?

The final possibility for the relationship between science and religion is best described as a fabric with the fibers of science and religion interwoven.  This is how I perceive the relationship as advocated by John Polkinghorne and others.  This is admittedly difficult to wrap your brain around.  I would go further to say, that as a culture, we are miles away from a relationship like this. The embedded theology of the american culture is not yet prepared to form a relationship as intimate as this one.

I have not finished thinking about these metaphors or descriptions for the possible relationships between science and religion, but I think it important to note that it is likely that different people will be better suited to different types of relationships.  It is glaringly obvious that some give these issues more though than others. The first steps will be to get the various denominations and religious faiths to inspect the possible relationships between science and religion AND TALK ABOUT THEM.  Additionally, we need sound science education in our public schools.  This will give young people the ability to ask thought-provoking questions.

So, I leave you, the reader to think about this and comment on these ideas.  They may have merit or I may be full of crap.  I don’t think these two choices are mutually exclusive, either…

Fundamentalism is the real enemy of science…not faith

As I burn around cyber space reading bits of this and that about science and religion many of the blog posts I come across are very critical of religious faith (1, 2,3).  Many of these blogs are posted by atheists who are especially verbal about their distaste for religious faith and people who hold religious views.  These new atheists feel that people of faith are on a mission to subvert our political system, take over our schools, and convert our government into a theocracy.

Now most of the people posting on these other blogs are considerable smarter than I and have far more impressive academic credentials.  Nonetheless, I think they are barking up the wrong tree.  It is not the religiously faithful we need to be concerned with, but the religiously fundamental.

I agree with the new atheists  completely  when they take a stand against fundamentalists who try to insert religion into public school and government.  This is clearly wrong and I am glad they do it.  However, I don’t think it is appropriate to deride everyone who holds some sort of spiritual faith-based belief.  It is entirely possible to have faith in a higher power and not be a fundie.

There are several fundamentalist “think” tanks that need to be exposed.  The Discovery Institute comes to mind immediately as an insidious group that is attempting to inject religion into government and public education.  Every thinking person needs to be familiar with this bunch of whack-jobs and spread the word about  their insidious and un-american agenda.

Most people in America are not fundies.  According to the Pew forum on religion  and  public life, most Americans are not biblical literalists.  About 33% believe the bible is the literally true word of god.  The remaining 77%  don’t belive the bible is literally true.  The rub is that a large portion of the 77% is also apathetic and unable (perhaps unwilling) to think.

So perhaps fundamentalism isn’t even the real enemy of science (though it is admittedly silly), but apathy and indolence on the part of most americans is the real problem.  Who is to blame for American apathy and indolence? Ourselves.  Parents, teachers, scientists, friends, everyone needs to hold everyone else to a higher standard.  I admit, it’s easier to not think about who we’re voting for (Hell, it’s easier to not vote!) or make a big deal out of someone thumbing their nose at the constitution (that what everyone who tries to get creationism into schools is doing!).

We need to engage each other in conversation while we simultaneously recognize that not everyone has the same beliefs and points of view.  Prof. Massimo Pigliucci’s blog has a quote (I belive from David Hume) in the header that I think summarizes the situation perfectly, “Truth springs from argument amongst friends.”  Teachers need to engage students, parents need to engage their children, and pastors need to engage their congregants on issues facing our society.  Why does the US constitution have a provision for freedom of religion?  How does a scientific understanding of our world match up with our theological understanding of the world?  Why do I belive there is a God that cares for and loves me?  How can I live a moral and “good” life without a belief in God? (Yes! It is possible)

These are the things we need to be talking about, over coffee or a pint of ale.  In ecology we know that diversity begets stability, surely a diversity of beliefs and opinions among humans in a culture can do the same.

The Duggars: Poster Family for Darwinism

Earlier this week I made a post about the menace of unchecked human population growth.  Apparently the Duggar parents don’t read my blog.  (I can’t imagine why?  Go to their webpage and check out #2 on their family favorites).  20 kids and counting.  Come on.  Seriously.  How does a baby even stay in that women’s uterus anymore?  Now, I know everyone has a right to have as many kids as they want, but come on.  If it was cats instead of kids, we would be referring to the Duggars as the crazy cat family.  What is going on here?  Are they caught in some sort of twisted Concorde Fallacy where they must continue to have kids in order to have kids for the older kids to take care of?  Or perhaps Mom and/or Dad has an addiction to being pregnant or having babies? Or perhaps they are intoxicated on the fumes of celebrity and TLC money.

I think these people are incredibly selfish. Their behavior borders on the criminal.  I admit, they are not hurting anyone right now.  But remember Malthus, resources are finite.  It is future generations they are harming, including their grandchildren and great grand children.

I find it oddly amusing that a family as fundamentalist as the Duggars would succumb to the Darwinian imperative of reproduction to such an extreme.  These people should be the new poster family for Darwinism.  After all, fitness (in an evolutionary sense)  is relative.

The Duggar’s should be playing both sides of the fence here.  On one side they can appeal to their fundie followers who worship them for raising their army of children in such a “good christian way” (though I would argue that 20 kids is BAD stewardship of the planet, not good).  But on the other side of the fence they could appeal to the “Godless Darwinians.” “Look at us, our fitness is higher than your fitness.”

They have to get their agents on the marketing opportunities here.  I can see the t-shirts now.  On the front side of the shirt it reads, “The Duggar Army is Gods army,” and on the back of the shirt it reads, “The Duggars fitness is higher than your fitness.”  The could put it on coffee cups and ink pens, too.  Oh, and baby diapers that read, “God’s little stinker” and “Dumping for Darwin” across the butt.

In all seriousness, having 20 children is every person’s right, but that doesn’t make it right.  When someone talks too much we tell them to put a sock IN it.  When someone like the Duggars has too many kids, we need to tell them to put a sock ON it.

Religion is like porn

Religion is like pornography. No, it is not necessarily offensive (religion, I mean!). In reference to hardcore pornography Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” I think religion is like that, I can’t really define it either, but I recognize it when I see it.

If we look at the origin of the word religionwe find that it is derived from the latin words “re-” and “ligare” which means to “bind again.” Now some may see parallels with pornography here as well, but that’s not what this post is about.

Bound by faith?

What religious people are bound to is probably different to different people. Some suggest religious practitioners are bound to their deity or that they are bound by faith to a specific set of religious tenets. Or perhaps practitioners of the same faith are bound together in a community of shared spiritual experience.

Obviously, religion means different things to different people. Most people have probably not considered what religion means to them nor why they practice their form of it. This is unfortunate and a little bit dangerous. Religious robots could be (are?) told what to do and how to think. This is probably happening, more or less, in many parts of our society.

The scary side of religion. Thankfully most religious folks aren't of this ilk.

People are told how to vote, what businesses to shop at or boycott , what charities to support, and how to think about (or not think about) scientific issues. This is frightening and precisely why many people are frightened by religion. In so many (by no means all of them) religious denominations people are discouraged from questioning their beliefs. Some go so far as chastising or ridiculing those who do have the courage to question their beliefs.

How else is religion like pornography? The very idea of both often stir intense emotional reactions. You’re either for it or against it. The “new-atheists” argue religion is supplanting reason in the western world. Fundamentalists argue faith will save us all. Similarly, some suggest pornography objectifies women and is degrading. Others suggest that some forms of pornography empower women, allowing them to become financially independent.

Both pornography and religion also balance on a very fine line with an antipodean twin Pornography walks a fine line with art. Art is beautiful;porn is offensive.

Art or porn?

Religion walks a fine line with reason. Religion explains the human condition; reason improves the human condition. Don’t read me wrong. Some art is offensive. Religious fundamentalism is has little power in explaining what it means to be human for everyone. It would seem then, that both pornography and religion are a matter of perspective.

So, religion is like pornography in that it’s hard to define, stirs intense emotion, and is highly dependent on perspective. It may be cliché, but it seems apt to close by stating the obvious, “different stokes for different folks.”

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