Red rag

I was away for a few days, so I didn’t realize my letter to the newspaper had been published until I saw a slew of e-mails in reaction to my letter. All but one were very positive, with various degrees of cynicism, humour and despair. The lone critical response tried to catch me off guard:

Well, the Sumerians may have existed 4000 yeats [sic] ago but how old is God?

He continued,

I hope you do not believe in the unproven, unobservable thing called the theory of evolution […]

That was like a red rag to a bull, even though, as a further example of erroneous popular beliefs, bulls are in fact colour-blind! The writer claimed that, because (1) humans had stopped evolving (false), (2) evolution could not be replicated (false) and was therefore unscientific. It’s difficult to argue with these types of claims because they are based on such a poor understanding of science; in this case, both premises (1, 2) are false.

The Simpsons illustrate another example of conclusions based on false premises in the episode, “Much Apu About Nothing.” After the town of Springfield experienced a “bear attack”, a Bear Patrol task force is installed to keep bears out of the town.

Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.
Lisa: That’s specious reasoning, Dad.
Homer: Thank you, dear.
Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.
Homer: Oh, how does it work?
Lisa: It doesn’t work.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: It’s just a stupid rock.
Homer: Uh-huh.
Lisa: But I don’t see any tigers around, do you?
Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock.

It’s a symptom of a wider trend of poor understanding of science. Perhaps the major cause is the gap between what is taught in schools and what is being done in research. In simple terms, it’s a gap in scale and scope — the size of the numbers, big and small, are so removed from everyday life that many people will fail to understand their significance. Yet these numbers are all around us, in the age of the mountains, the microbes in our mattresses, the seeds on the ground, the transistors in our computers, cell phones and PDAs, the cells dying and reproducing inside us …

When I was ten, a teacher tried to convey the size of one million by saying that if I counted every tiny, 1 mm, square on every page of my exercise book, I would still not reach one million. I started counting but gave up by the second page. I was impressed.

When the numbers start to combine, the levels of complexity are beyond most school-level science courses. While it is true that there are many excellent popular books about science (for example, those by Stephen Jay Gould), they are for an older, motivated readership, not for a broader school population.

It’s a shame, because I can’t help feeling that many people are missing out, and fail to appreciate what they have in front of them. For myself, as I wrote before, I never cease to be amazed at the wonders of this physical world and have no need to make up any other.

Lizard, Calabash Bay

2 thoughts on “Red rag”

  1. I’ve always liked those video animations where you go from the very tiny (sub atomic nucleus scale, a few 10-15 meters, where you can clearly see the various bits inside the nucleus and the electrons whizzing around are too far to see) to the very huge (entire visible universe, i.e. the distance light, the fastest thing possible, has had a change to travel since the universe became transparent, shortly after the start of time: 45 billion lightyears or a few 1026 meters), in a series of pictures zooming out, with a short sequence in the middle at our scale quickly zooming out to satellite view of the Earth, then the moon pops in, and out, out to the Solar System, the galaxy, etc, etc… a gamut of 41 orders of magnitude.

    If once the entire sequence has run, you are reminded that the total number of those tiniest scale things in the entire large scale object (quarks in the visible universe) is somewhere around 1081… i.e. a movie twice as long still zooming out just as fast… then you realize there’s just no way to hold these images in your brain in any meaningful way. Only math works, and pretending otherwise is what makes it so easy for creationists to claim that even in a few billion years, there is no time for evolution to do its job… because we don’t have sufficient respect for our inability to grasp what a billion is.

  2. The physical world: yes, You should see my local Canarian mud flats – birds, sea, etc etc. (And the odd surfer.) More than enough, On the other hand…. pure reason gets hard going sometimes, if you’re living with a scientist. Liked your letter just the same.

Over to you!