Category Archives: Public perceptions of science

Is Naturalism a religion?

A couple of days ago Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum debated Bill Nye on the topic “Is creation a viable model of origin in today’s modern scientific era?”  Early in Mr. Ham’s introductory remarks he suggested that Naturalism is a religion and that if creationism can’t be taught in public schools, that naturalism should be prevented as well. Is Ken Ham right?  Is Naturalism a religion?  What is Naturalism anyway?  What is religion?  What would science education be without naturalism?

Naturalism, as defined by Wikipedia, is the philosophical idea that only natural laws and forces operate in the world or that there is nothing in the world beyond what can be observed in nature.  So, I guess, Ham implied that not believing in a god is a religion.  That sounds self-contradictory to me.  Perhaps we need to dig a bit deeper.  Some philosophers distinguish different forms of naturalism.  There is philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism.  Philosophical naturalism is essentially the naturalism defined in the first sentence of this paragraph.  There is observable nature and nothing else.  Methodological naturalism centers on the process or method of knowing (which Ken Ham pointed out is the Latin definition of science) about nature.  That is the scientific process.  By definition, methodological naturalism excludes SUPERNATURAL explanations.  So, potentially, someone could accept methodological naturalism as a way of discovering how the world works (e.g., where it came from, how it functions, etc) and embrace a supernatural worldview that gives their life meaning (why am I here?, what is my purpose?, what happens when I die?).

So methodological naturalism is clearly NOT a religion, but philosophical naturalism could be.  But that begs the question, “What is religion?” Again, if we consult Wikipedia, religion is a collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.  In short, it is a collection of customs that a group of people share in common.  It is interesting to note the etymology of religion is fuzzy which potentially hampers determining its original definition. It may refer to holding gods in reverence, considering something carefully, or to bind together.  So by the first etymology, methodological naturalism is not a religion.  By the second and third definitions it could be, I suppose.  I suggest the latter, because science does require careful consideration and the scientific community is bound certain processes and rituals (consider the peer-review process or the ritual associated with performing a radioimmunoassay.)  Philosophical naturalism may also be a religion if reverence of nature is replaced for reverence of gods, perhaps.  During the debate, Bill Nye commented on his wonderment for the natural world and the process of discovery.  I must admit I have felt it myself.

Back to the original question, should naturalism be outlawed in public education?  I think not.  The naturalism taught in public schools is methodological naturalism and is the only way to advance scientific progress.  Recognizing a creationism model for origins opens up a garbage can of worms no one (especially the religious right in America) wants to deal with.  Which creation “hypothesis” do we teach in American public education?  Clearly we cannot limit it to the Christian version, but where then DO we limit it?  Do Americans want their children exposed to “other” religions in school?  That is in indirect opposition to the first amendment.

As I said earlier, a creationist model hinders progress.  How did the Earth form?  God did it. Done. Now what?  Instead we need to be teaching kids good, solid science methodology so they can explore the wonders of nature in an intelligent and meaningful way.  The notion that we can advance technologically without methodological naturalism is simply not true.  Creationism stifles wonder.  It prevents kids from asking questions and more importantly from seeking answers.

Don’t keep the keg by the TV during an Evolution/Creation debate

I just watched the Nye-Ham debate on YouTube.  I intend to give a more thorough treatment to the debate tomorrow, but I wanted to get a couple of thoughts into cyberspace tonight as the blogoshere explodes in the aftermath.

1.  Don’t keep the keg of homebrew next to the tv during a science vs creation debate.  Much imbibing will ensue.

2.  Citing your cadre of hack PhD ‘s may impress those who have not been in graduate school.  Those of us who have are not impressed (I am can at least say I did not go to the same Oklahoma university as Fabich)

3.  Evolution does not mean antiGod

4.  Did Ken Ham really have to make a statement about gay marriage in a Creation/Evolution debate?  No he’s a prick. (Again homebrew by the TV a bad idea)

5.  Observational science/historical science is a false dichotomy.  Both follow the same process called the scientific method.

6.  Are we really still confusing methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism?

7.  Yes, science does make assumptions in formulating radiometric dating, the big bang, etc.  But isn’t divine creation by THE CHRISTIAN God  an assumption, too? (see next)

8.  Why is the Bible the “Go to” book?  Why not the Quaran,  Taiji tushuo, or one of the Native American creation myths?

9.  What is a “kind” anyway?

10.  It’s okay in science to say, “We don’t know, yet.”

More on the Nye/Ham “debate”

Alright, As promised I have a bit more intel for you regarding the Nye/Ham smackdown in the primordial ooze (What else can you call a creation museum?).  The event press release can be seen here.

The event is scheduled for February 4th at 7:00 pm in the Legacy Hall (and that’s one hell of a legacy!). The topic of the “debate” is, “Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?” According to, the $25 tickets sold out in less than 20 minutes. Personally I think buying fossilized dinosaur poop would have been a better way to spend the $25 bucks.

I forced my self to visit the answers in genesis website (I kept one eye closed and held my Darwin fish emblem to my heart). Apparently this is being billed as an “historic event.” Since Monkey trial has already been used, Kentuckians will need to come up with something different.  Let’s help them out.  Post your suggestions in the comments below.

The folks at AiG af fantastic marketers (NSF and AAAS needs needs to recruit these masterminds).  According to their website you can purchase a live stream of the event for $5 bucks, a DVD  and stream for $20, or the Stream, DVD, and video download for $25. Though I did see on their website that they were scuttling the live stream  because of demand and that they were looking into other exciting opportunities for people to watch the event live.

I still think this is a bad idea.  As I said before there is nothing to debate since creationism is not science.  There is nothing to be gained from debating creationist.  Their minds are made up.  In the worst case scenario Nye can come off looking like a fool and those folks still on the fence about the issue fall over on to the otherside.

What are your thoughts on the event.  Is it a good idea to get the issue out in to the open so it can be discussed or is this a huge mistake?


AAAS-SWaRM Science and Religion symposium talk

On March 31st I will be chairing a symposium on Science and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science-Southwest and Rocky Mountains Region annual meeting in Tulsa, OK. Attached is the latest version.  It is down to 12 minute. I have posted it here to get CONSTRUCTIVE critisisms. Please don’t comment on the lack of polish or the “ums.” It was the first time I went over it. I know it’s rusty. Please let me know what you think of the content.

AAAS-SWaRM2012 (with audio 4)

You must have a PowerPoint viewer to hear the talk.  Let me know what you think.  As I polish, I will post upgrades.

Science, I don’t need no stinkin’ science!

Many lay people seem to be schizophrenic when it comes to science.  Science is great when it is beneficial.  We can thank science for cell phones and computers, faster cancer diagnosis and better treatment, safer food and drugs, and more energy efficient cars and appliances.  Everyone likes technology as a result of science.  However, when we apply science to human origins all bets are off.  “I didn’t come from no stinkin’ monkey.”  Evolutionary science causes peoples’ hackles to be raised.  Everyone becomes a skeptic.  Most feel that it’s okay if we don’t understand how a cell phone works or how a CT scanner can see into us.  Science is magic in these cases, and we are content with that. But try to explain descent by common ancestry and science doesn’t apply.

So where does the disconnect happen?  I think it is related to how the public defines science and its understanding of how science progresses.  I don’ t think our public education system does a good enough job of promoting science literacy and reinforcing what science is and how it works.

As a Biology professor, each semester I begin with the obligatory lecture on What is Science?  This give me a twice yearly chance to contemplate definitions of science, philosophy of science, and why science is important (if in fact, it is important at all).

The Science Checklist

When most people define science they list science classes in high school or college. A list of courses is not a definition.   I define science as a self-correcting way of knowing about the natural world.  Science is both a body of knowledge (not just facts) and a process by which to gain knowledge about the natural world.  A good way to recognize science is by way of the science checklist as assembled at the  understanding science website. 

How is science done and how does science progress?  Oh,

Convoluted wheels of science

that’s an easy one, right?  Scientists use the scientific method.  That’s what your high school science teacher and textbook writers want you to believe.  Unfortunately, there isn’t really A scientific method.  The scientific process is different each time it plays out.  I won’t get into it in detail here.  Let’s call them the Convoluted Wheels of Science and understand that the process of science meanders through the four main wheels: exploration, testing, community feedback, and benefits.

Why is science important?  Or more precisely,why should everyone understand  what science is and how it is done?  Crikey!  Why not!  A realistic understanding of the world is essential everyday.  Global climate change is a good example to start with.  Some purported news channels suggest climate change is not happening, that the data are fabricated, and that the scientific community cannot even agree among itself if climate change is real.  Start with the easy part, the scientific community cannot agree on the reality of climate change.  This is patently false.  The National Science Foundation has a good summary of the Climate change data here.  The fabrication of data is also easy to deal with.  It has been suggested that Philip Jones of the Climate Research Unit in England, falsified or utilized flawed data.  I don’t know if he did or not, but it doesn’t matter for two reasons.  First, his data were not the only data indicating climate change, there are many independent data sets corroborating the hypothesis for global climate change.  Second, the scientific community will sort him out.  His research will be subjected to peer review and replication.  Every discipline has “bad apples.” That doesn’t make the whole discipline bad.    For more on the importance of science to everyone, look here.

So, to wrap this up, Science is a body of knowledge and the process by which this knowledge is generated.  The process is convoluted and different each time it plays out.  Finally, SCIENCE IS IMPORTANT!  If you think you “don’t need no stinkin’ science,” you are deluded, ignorant, and sadly mistaken.

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.

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.


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