Sunday, June 21, 2009


To Light One Candle

When I started this blog almost five years ago (on the old AOL blogsite), I vowed the subject of each entry would be amateur astronomy, peripherally at least. I think I’ve stuck to that right well; I can’t remember the last time I strayed off the beaten path of gear-star parties-observing. This is one of those times, though, muchachos, and for good reason...

One recent and quiet Chaos Manor South afternoon I was, as I often do, yakkin’ on Cloudy Nights and Astromart. AHHH—OOOGAH! Mail’s in! I strolled into the front hall of the old manse to see if Mr. Postman had perhaps left a new issue of Sky and Telescope or, at least, yet another Orion catalog. No such luck. What I found instead was the little brochure pictured above. Somewhat distractedly, but with nothing else to do—clouds were coming in and the cats had been fed—I set to browsing through this pamphlet. Shortly my jaw was dropping down to my chest. Well, almost, anyhow. This was a solicitation for a group pushing the geocentric theory. They were, it seemed, downright tired of godless scientists claiming the Earth goes around the Sun!

Like Popeye, your Old Uncle has had enough and he can’t stand no more. While I try to keep things light here and, yes, focused on the amateur side of astronomy, I do have a toe in the other camp, too. As an astronomy educator at the university level, if just an enlisted man in the trenches of academe, I get to see firsthand the increasingly sad state of science and math literacy in this country. Sure, many of my students are as scientifically and mathematically inclined as my generation of undergraduates was. But not all, and the ignorance seems to be spreading. Example? The first class I taught, over a decade ago now, an otherwise bright-seeming young woman raised her hand after I’d reviewed the syllabus to include the requirement that each student have (and know how to use) a scientific calculator: “You mean we have to do MATH? I thought this was a SCIENCE course.” And it’s gone downhill from there.

Lots of people a lot smarter than your Old Uncle have wrestled with the causes of our country’s science illiteracy and innumeracy (“math illiteracy”). A quick Google will turn up lots of opinions from everybody from the AAAS to Discover Magazine. Since I’ve been teaching for a while, and have observed a goodly number of math and science challenged post-secondary students up close and personal, I think I’m allowed to offer a few opinions myself. I’ve decided the Troubles with Kids Today science and math-wise originate, near as I can tell in four general areas: secondary schools (high schools), the home, the culture, and religion (in other words, “the whole dadgummed shootin’ match”).

Yeah, I know and acknowledge there are many talented and tireless secondary-level science teachers, so y’all don’t grab up the torches and pitchforks. Certainly colleges share part of the blame for turning scientifically and mathematically ignorant students loose on the world after four years, but I don’t think I’m being prejudiced if I say mostly it ain’t our fault. It’s awful hard, especially in this time of dramatically reduced post-secondary education budgets, to do much to rehabilitate the freshman who is badly deficient in math and science. Those who’ve chosen majors that require a respectable degree of math/science knowledge from the get-go fall by the wayside or are shunted into majors that do not require this knowledge to any degree and (theoretically) never think about math and science ever again.

The reasons freshmen are coming in without much math or science as compared to the college freshmen of fifty years ago are complex, but probably start with a fact that is seldom considered: we are attempting to fully educate many more marginal students today than we were in the 1950s or 1960s. Back then, the student who couldn’t stay awake in Algebra or Biology (or English or Social Studies) was quickly switched onto the “vocational track” that culminated in trade-school or work on graduation. Of course, innumerable minority students, no matter how impressive their talents and grades, were also steered away from colleges (if not locked out of them), but that is a kettle of fish for another day.

Today, it is generally presumed every kid should go to college. That’s made possible by financial aid, renormalization of the ACT/SAT scores, and by what amounts to open-admissions policies at public universities. Naturally, there still are and likely always will be plenty of kids who fall asleep in algebra and biology and who, failing or failing to take the college prep science courses, get very little science (or math) education in high school. The difference is that many of these students are nevertheless college bound.

What can be done? Secondary science curriculums need to be designed to also serve students who are not going to be able to handle the time-honored high school track of biology-chemistry-physics and algebra-geometry-precalc. These kids, even those who have no intention of going anywhere near a university, need to be well-educated in the general concepts of science and math. They might not be able to balance chemistry equations when they graduate, but they damned well should know what the Scientific Method is and have at least a simple picture of the universe around them. Yes, I know some schools do do a good job with “general” science courses. Most don’t, however, and the most important thing that could be done to improve science literacy in the good, old U.S. of A., I’m convinced, would be for these courses to be viewed by secondary educators as critically important, perhaps even more important than the “real” science courses they teach.

For good and ill, the American home has changed one hell of a lot since the 1960s, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t look there for another source of our problems. In the intervening forty years we’ve come a long way from the old norm of two-parent – one-career homes where stay-at-home Moms kept an eagle eye on Junior and Sis and made danged sure the homework got done every night, were at PTA meetings every month, and showed up for those unpleasant teacher-parent conferences on the (hopefully) rare occasions when they occurred. Clearly we are not going back to those days. For one thing, many—way too many—families struggle to keep their heads above economic rough waters with both Mom and Pop working full time.

I don’t have the solution for that, but one thing that couldn’t but help is to educate parents (many of whom are scientifically illiterate and innumerate themselves) as to the importance of math and science for their children’s success in school and after. This is one area where we—amateur astronomers—can do yeoman duty. Even if all you accomplish at a public star party is to impart to some parent the wondrous knowledge that the Sun is a dwarf star and the Moon was born of the Earth, you may have unknowingly motivated Mom or Pop to put the kids on the road to scientific literacy. Which may be as simple as them beginning to help little Junie Moon with her biology homework despite a long day at The Office.

You know what really pisses me off? Hearing the interminable jokes on the sitcoms about how much math sucks. It is truly bizarre, but in our popular culture being mathematically illiterate is not only rib tickling, it is presented as something to be proud of. You listen to this junk on the boob tube, and you get the idea that the only person who can do or is interested in doing math is that fabled and weird rocket scientist. It is not just TV, either. I am a big Jimmy Buffet fan, but I near-about blew a gasket when I heard his “Math Sucks” song. Yeah, maybe that was ironic or at least slightly tongue-in-cheek—maybe—but I doubt that’s what most of his fans thought.

What they thought was likely “YEAH! ME TOO!” I am just amazed when a person who would be mortified to admit they have trouble reading or writing readily and chirpily confesses they cannot add two and two. Every time you hear a math (or science) joke on the television, I encourage you to complain to the network and sponsor with an email. Yeah, I know it seems a small thing, but popular culture is viral, and the current message is that little Johnny must fail in mathematics in order to be “normal.”

We now come to the lollipop-in-the-beach-sand sticky part of the problem: religion. As most of y’all know, your Old Uncle is not a praying man. That does not mean I hate religion. While I am not shy about excoriating religion for the evil it has done, I also respect it for the good it has done and continues to do. Naturally, the older I get, the more I wish I could believe, but I find I simply cannot, not in the objective reality of gods and goddesses. I acknowledge the psychological reality of spiritual entities, but as concrete big daddies and mamas watching us from the clouds? No, I never have been able to. But I don’t want you to think I, like some folks who count themselves among the non-believers, have any particular axe to grind when it comes to religion. I actually find religion fascinating—if not convincing.

As for the subject at hand, most well-established religious sects—Christian ones, anyway, the modern religions I know the most about—have a pretty good record when it comes to science. The Roman Catholic Church, despite its continuing bad press over the Galileo affair four centuries back, embraces both Evolution and The Big Bang. Most of the mainline protestant churches are the same. But that is not true of the evangelical protestant sects that are still very popular and wealthy in the Americas. Being a Southron born and bred, I’ve been aware of the fundamentalists’ battle against Darwin since I was a pup. I still remember how my old man, an immigrant to the South who was European in both heritage and outlook, used to laugh about the “crazy preachers” the TV station where he worked as an engineer used to broadcast on Sunday mornings. How we used to laugh about one worthy, who, once he was done with the HEALING, would lay into Darwin, his spiel culminating in this goober crouching down and capering like an ape among the congregation.

These people were always a tiny minority, though; one formed of the less privileged, and one that had relatively little influence even in the Sunny South. That began to change with the fundamentalist explosion that got seriously underway about thirty years ago. By the 1980s, folks toeing the fundamentalist line were not confined to the South, and not confined to a demographic consisting of the poorest of the poor dirt farmers and unskilled workers. Soon, prominent and (supposedly) educated men in Washington were casting aspersions on pore ol’ Charles Darwin. And soon the crusade against Evolution expanded to include anything that contradicts the most literal interpretation of the Bible.

That was really always the argument they had with Charlie, anyway. Sure, the hardliners may have hated the aesthetics of the idea that a “monkey” was their (distant) uncle, but what really torqued the jaws of the (increasingly) right-wing religionists was that Evolution contradicted what “The Lord” said in Genesis. If contradicting the Bible’s literal interpretation was the offense, why shouldn’t Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton be in the dock with Darwin?

One evening about ten years ago, a student approached me after class. At first I supposed he might still be struggling to understand Kepler’s Third Law, but a glance at his face showed this was something more serious. Perhaps the need to, regretfully, miss next week’s astronomy lab. You could have knocked me over with a feather, though, when he looked me in the eye and said, “I was talking to my pastor and his wife, and they want to know who at this school has been teaching blasphemy about the Moon.” Noticing my uncomprehending look, he elaborated, “The Pastor says that teaching the Moon was formed of the Earth is against God’s Word.”

Not knowing what else to do, I recapitulated the reasons we believe the Moon was probably formed as the result of the collision of a large body with the nascent Earth. It was immediately apparent, however, that the mind of this student was now firmly closed to anything I might say on the subject. With nothing else to be said, I told him he was welcome to give my name to his pastor and that I’d be happy to chat with the holy man about the origins of the Solar System. I never heard from the kid’s preacher, and can only assume the student decided the old aphorism, “Don’t Start Nothing, Won’t be Nothing,” was a pretty good one to follow.

From that evening forward, I kept my ears and eyes open. It wasn’t long before I became aware many—if not all—the sects loosely described as “fundamentalist” (or “right-wing,” or “hard-shell,” or “literalist”), groups that have one thing in common, an unbendingly literal interpretation of the Bible’s stories that does not admit any possibility of metaphor or fable, are in opposition to almost all of modern science. That includes, especially, biology, astronomy, and geology, the disciplines most likely to contradict the myths in the Holy Book. I thought I knew the score, anyway, but actually I really wasn’t aware how far things had gone until the other day when I received the mailing mentioned at the beginning of this here screed.

At first I couldn’t believe anybody with the money to professionally print and mail a pamphlet like the one I got (likely in large numbers; it was addressed to “occupant”) could be serious. This had to be a gag. By the time I finished reading and had done a little Googling, it was clear that this was anything but a gag. There is a (thankfully) still small, but perhaps growing group of religionists who don’t just deny the 19th century’s Darwin, but also the 16th century’s Copernicus. The people who sent me the brochure, for example, are distributing a free book called Geocentricity Primer and seriously (near as I can tell) do believe the Earth is not just the center of the Solar system, but is in a central and privileged position in the universe itself, a universe very limited in size and age.

What is their proof? There is none, of course. As is usually the case with the scientifically illiterate writing about science, they follow two paths, making up things wholesale, and positing a CONSPIRIACY AMONG THOSE BAD OLD GOD-HATING SCIENTISTS:
"Ever since the scientific community adopted heliocentrism as fact, attempts have been made to prove it. NOT ONE of these attempts produced the proof…the results…are consistent with the hypothesis that the earth is at rest."
As is also usually the case with these people (and their buddies, the Creationists and Intelligent Designers) the words “theory,” “fact,” and “hypothesis” are sprinkled liberally throughout the text despite the fact that it’s readily apparent that whoever wrote this thing had no more idea as to what these words mean in the context of science than my cat, Growltiger, does.

So, we now have a bunch that don’t just deny Evolution or The Big Bang in favor of religious texts, but who go so far as to crank us back to the medieval in the service of their faith (after a few paragraphs about “science” my little pamphlet gets straight to the point with plenty of scripture quotations). Are people who believe the Sun goes around the Earth a tiny minority? Yes. Could the idea spread? It’s scary, I know, but given the high degree of ignorance about science demonstrated by a large proportion of the American public this and other crackbrained and Luddite ideas could spread. You doubt that? I’ve seen a survey in which a majority indicated that they thought the best way to decide which should be taught, Creationism or Evolution, would be to have residents of a school district vote on the ideas. Will they next be voting on whether or not the Earth is round?

What do we, the majority of Americans who understand the importance of science, do about the Geocentrists and the IDers and the Creationists and (believe it or not) the Flat Earthers? We do nothing about these religious sects per se. One of the beauties and strengths of the western democracies as opposed to the fundamentalist religious regimes of the Middle East/Southwest Asia is that we allow the most harebrained among us to worship whichever gods they see fit in whatever ways they see fit as long as they do not do unwonted violence to themselves or their children or infringe on the rights of the rest of us. Which does not mean these people should not be opposed if they, for example, begin lobbying your local school board to “teach” Creationism or Intelligent Design alongside or in preference to Evolution or whichever scientific theory or subject they oppose at the moment. If you do not stand up, not only will their children be harmed, yours will be too.

How about individuals? How do you respond when somebody wanders up to you at the public star party and loudly declares, “I cannot believe you are tellin’ these kids that Jupiter goes around the Sun. My preacher says that is the word of Satan.” What you should not do is say, “Ha! Ha! Ha! You loony! Why don’t you move to Iran and hang out with the Ayatollahs?” I am embarrassed to admit that is (almost) what I did at an astronomy club meeting when a new member chirped up with that old canard about human tracks alongside dinosaur tracks in Texas proving man lived with the dinosaurs (like the Flintstones, I reckon), proving the Bible correct. Don’t ask me how the discussion got on that subject, but it got my dander up, I responded too harshly, and we lost a valued club member.

Instead, talk to these people calmly and gently. The truth is, most of them were educated in the same schools and colleges as the rest of us and really know the basic facts of the universe. Deep down, they know Copernicus and Kepler, not Jim Bakker and Oral Roberts are correct about the layout of the Solar System. In my experience, quite a few of ‘em are practicing Doublethink—the art of holding two opposed things to be true at once. They know Earth is revolving around good, ol’ Mr. Sun, and that their god is not (literally) a bearded old man sitting on a throne up in the (literal) clouds. Their bold assertions about Dinosaurs or Galileo are sometimes a cry for help, help in reconciling their faith with their knowledge.

You can help them, not by banishing them to Tehran, but by gently and simply summarizing why and how we know the things we know and by emphasizing that the knowledge of these things does not necessarily mean they give up (all) their beliefs. Tell them about brilliant scientists who’ve remained believers despite knowing the Bible is not literally true. The examples of religious men, like the astronomers of the Vatican observatory, who acknowledge the truth of our astronomical knowledge can also be convincing and reassuring. You may not immediately covert these people or even obviously sway them, but you may later find you planted a little seed that blossomed into enlightenment. If you ask me, good, ol’ America is ripe for a Second Age of Enlightenment in the face of way too much ignorance—religiously induced or otherwise.

Rod, you are my hero for posting this. In fact this post is very timely as I was going to ask you about your astronomy gig at university. I don't have a degree in astronomy, at least not yet, but I was thinking of getting a master's in astronomy and teaching at the community college level, if not teaching survey courses at the university level. I am a software engineer and so I have a technical background so my thinking is all I need is some formal education in astronomy to be able to teach. Is that what you are doing? I think in your bio you mention you are an engineer. Anyway, this is still a few years out so in the meantime my idea is to do what I can with outreach.

A really, really good post. If I were a praying man I'd create a shrine to you and use these blog entries as the holy text. :) Your entries of late have been bordering on literature, especially when you write about the Pal Jr.
I am one of the "fundamentalists" to which you refer who actually belives in the Bible. I am also an amatuer astronomer who minored in math in college. I guess I would descibe myself as a skeptical Christian.
The issue of Scripture vs. Science, although enduring, is, I believe, a largely false issue. However, your blog was terrific at pointing out how some in the religious community purport to get definitive answers from Scripture on matters of science. I have never viewed Scripture as a science textbook and, I think, dealing with it that way actually cheapens it. By the same token, I believe science actually cheapens itself by trying to answer some questions that it cannot, and was never intended, to answer. Blind "faith" in science can be misplaced as well.
Your advice of respectful engagement is right on.
By the way, whether the Earth and mankind are in a special place and time is one that I struggle with personally. I am impressed by certain finely tuned numbers that have made it possible for intelligent life on this planet, of all places. Anyone looking at the data would at least have to consider the possiblility of a designer or creator. See, e.g., Just Six Numbers written by a non-believing scientist.
Anyway, your underlying point that students are ill-prepared in the math and sciences is true. We have heavily supplemented our children's science and math education in the home. But keep in mind, our children are largely being educated in public schools that lack any religious affiliation. In grade school, my kids have learned mostly about global warming, saving the pandas, and ecology. Very little is done with the hard sciences. Blaming religion for this sad state of affairs paints way too broad a brush.
>> “Ha! Ha! Ha! You loony! Why don’t you move to Iran and hang out with the Ayatollahs?” <<

No need to be derogatory toward another culture or country. You were getting your point across just fine. In fact the West owes a HUGE debt to Muslims for preserving and developing scientific thought while Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages.

Perhaps many in the "science" community are equally to blame. Our current practices of accepting as scientific dogma things (theories) that are simply not falsefiable rather than verifiable leads to "fundamentalist belief" in science. Like you I came through my scientic studies in the 60s and 70s. I remamber many educators stressing that we must be able to validate and support any of our conclusions, not just with math formulas but with hard facts. Now it seems that anyone with any sort of scientific accreditation can simply make assumptions based on nothing more than their own ideas and the fact that they are not falsifiable. They come up with their "scientic law" and then work the math backwards with a large number of "ifs" and the general community accepts it as a possibility.
>No need to be derogatory toward >another culture or country. You >were getting your point across >just fine. In fact the West owes >a HUGE debt to Muslims for >preserving and developing >scientific thought while Europe >was languishing in the Dark Ages.

I think I was clear in saying that this was what you SHOULD NOT do. Did you misunderstand.

I'll also say, given recent events, it's clear that I meant the AYATOLLAHS OF IRAN who are some of the most narrow-minded and bigoted religious FANATICS it has been my displeasure to hear about. CERTAINLY the Islamic world has made contributions, incredibly important contributions to science, but in Iran it seems that is inspite of the religion the state promotes.
And yet, for all the comment about your non-belief in God, you acknowledge education has gone downhill since the 60's, and this was directly caused by the "Great Society" and liberal thinking. Funny how education was taken much more serious in the days when this country was firmly planted in the faith in God and country.
I myself believe science for the most part has it right, and I also believe in the Creator of all things. I see no conflict in this, and fail to see why anyone should. God created, and science is how we determine how he did it.
Most of the ignorance in our society today is perpetrated by the unbelievers, the ones who would destroy faith, and subject us to the Utopian view espoused by those who think they know better than the rest of us.
No doubt, established religion has caused great harm. But religion is a creation of man. God is not.
Science also has been used to great harm. Eugenics, anyone? Remember the attempt at a "master race"?
If anything has been proven, it is that throwing more money at the problem is not the answer, higher education isn't for everyone, and there will be no Utopia. Some people are just more capable than most, and it's a fact of life. This is why in every society 20% of the people own 80% of the stuff.
And socialism will not work as it did not work in any other of the societies run by the so-called elite.
As God told Job when he questioned, "Where were you when I was making the world".
Now I'm off my soapbox.
>And yet, for all the comment >about your non-belief in God, you >acknowledge education has gone >downhill since the 60's, and this >was directly caused by the "Great >Society" and liberal thinking.

Sorry Doug: IMHO "Non Sequitur." I don't accept your thesis, that declines in education were caused by bad ol' GODLESS LIBERALS. At any rate, there is plenty of blame to go around, starting with greed and hate.

Your assertion that ignorance is perpetrated by "unbelievers" is laughable since the principal source of ignorance on a grand scale is still those who believe in invisible and non-interacting entities whose gluttinous desire for worship and obediance and repression has everything to do with the desires of their human servants, and has wreaked havoc on the human race--and continues to. Just turn on the news. To put it simply: there is not one shred of _evidence_ for the existence of any supernatural entity. Never has been. Stories in ancient books do not count, you see. :-)
Hey Rod,
Have you ever noticed that there are those in every facet of life that seem to just push things to the over the top level. It does not really matter what we are talking about... Barbque sauce could be a good example. You are so right that there are sects out there that push and if they can not get the proof then what the heck we will just manufacture some. Rod if you read my blog I had an encounter with a creationist family that are life time members of the Creationist Museum in Northern Kentucky. I was polite about them in the blog but to be honest the girl which was interested in astronomy sounded like a Stepford wife. It was super creepy. I calmly listened as she spit out memorized text. I then presented questions to her that challenge the creationist IMHO far flung logic. I question the motive of sects like that but I read between the lines that they prey upon the scientifically ignorant person to gain a foot hold The Dark ages of europe are equal to the repression of science for the exultation of religion is that not what happened to Europe? I see the same kind of thing going on in the middle east in places and it is all about the power he who has knowledge has the power the church in Europe had a good grasp of it as well as the Some sects in the Middle east to date The dumbing down of folks to control them is no giant mystery Now I am not sure why America seems to think it is a good thing to make light of the learned pupil It reminds me of the Texas A&M Aggie joke what do you call an Aggie after they graduate school? boss of course! see my point. For the record I am a man of Faith I am by no means proud of what Religion has done to Mankind. You pick the religion.A giant part of me believes that all the Mandates made to pray at certain times of the day or to a certain someone for this and not that and countless other stuff with rules and regulations on dress hair etc... tend to look like control mechanisms more that Good ole boy perched on a cirrostratus cloud issuing orders of the day. I have to take a look at a religion and determine what is faith/belief and what is manmade blatherings. Christianity was a marketing mission in the early days... Hey Druids what is that? You have a winter solstice festival? ugh .... yes we have Christmas where we celebrate the birth of Jesus which was really born in the spring hmmm That is just one example but there are so many and not just in Christianity but in all religions really Believe me when I tell you as a scientist I struggle with the Faith issue because it requires no proof and as a scientist I would be laughed out of the joint for presenting a certain view without proof. I feel better now...
“Ha! Ha! Ha! You loony! Why don’t you move to Iran and hang out with the Ayatollahs?”

You are my hero!

At any rate, what passes for religion these days is at it's core a continuation of the ancient seasonal Astrology, just most people do not realize it. The fact that it has been corrupted by governments does help much either.

Science is the new religion, and it threatens many in the old.

If you have never done a study of fulfilled prophesy, you should do so. There are literally hundreds of predictions made in the Old Testament that came true. I can think of a few off the top of my head (the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the Jewish captivity and its ending in Babylon, the rebuilding and destruction of the Temple, etc.). We follow science because it's predictive yet ignore the predictions in the Bible because . . .? I would encourage you to look at fulfilled prophesy before making the statement that there is no proof of anything supernatural in this world.

I've been a fan of yours for about a year, since I bought a copy of "The Urban Astronomer's Guide" and my Nexstar GPS 11.

I've enjoyed reading your book and many of the posts on your blog and on the Yahoo! NexStar GPS group. Your writing is always one of my go-to's when I need information or opinion on matters astronomical.

Your words about how to deal positively with a difficult situation are very inspirational. I teach 8th grade science and a high school astronomy class in Tennessee, and I've had students (and parents) come to me with similar questions as the ones you presented. It can be hard to be positive, but it helps to know there are others out there in the same trenches.

Thanks Rod!

You may have opened Pandora’s box with your bog. It is bound to touch a lot of nerves. In dealing with illogical people, I am afraid that you are pushing on a string. You are a logical person and making the mistake that logical people often do when you use logic with illogical people. Over my 68 orbits around the sun I’ve learned if illogical people were interested in listening to logic, they would not be illogical in the first place.

I’ve found that asking questions that lead to illogical answers is often a better approach. The subject of god. I will readily concede that a god may exist. The question is if one god can exist, why not more? I sort of like the ancient Greek gods. They really had character. However, they must have been lousy lovers or they would not have kept coming down to earth to make love to us mortals.

I am afraid that you are pushing again on a rope regarding education in the USA. It has been “dumbing down” since the end of the 1800s when ancient Greek was dropped but, as you said, really accelerated in the 1970s and then came the bending of the rules for social justice.

I think the open admissions policies of many universities is a good thing. True, most of the freshmen class are not around for the 2nd year. So what? Other than an elitists college ranking system that frowns on such attrition, what is the harm? It opens the door to all and only the achievers will take the opportunity all the way. Even the kids that don’t make it, gain something from the experience. Better expenditure of tax payer funds and pissing it away in foreign wars.

However, don’t pick on the illogical folks too much. We scientists are often no better. I’ve watch many a whore of science trash another’s research or ideas not because the work was bad but only to steal precious research dollars.

A pet peeve of mine-the tendency of science to tout theory as fact. The Big Bang is a theory, not fact. Evolution is a theory, not fact. Both theories support the evidence as we know it, but so did the theory of ether some 100 odd years ago.

Another pet peeve is the tendency of “correct political thinking” to influence scientific interpretation of data. Global warming is an example. As I understand the geological evidence, Earth in general has always been warmer than now. We’ve had some ice ages and technically are in the last stages of one now. Politically incorrect scientific data is given little weight as its does little to generate research dollars or feed the pet rocks of politicians. It will be interesting to see how much weight, if any, the recent findings that glaciers on Mars are receding and Mars may be undergoing its own global warming event in parallel with earth as this conclusion is not politically correct. Tis a shame. If global warming is a natural event then we are far worse off than if caused by man. We can correct the mistakes of man but fighting mother nature is a different thing. If the political incorrect science that global warming is a natural event is true, then we had better get off our butts very fast as start learning how to live in the new world to come or we will join the dinosaurs.

While I will admit, a small possibility does exist that we are the only intelligent beings in the universe, such a possibility is statistically approaching zero. Every time I look at a galaxy I can not help but wonder who is there looking back at me.

Me, personally, yes, I have a god. My god is what ever caused our universe to be in the first place… the great unknown waiting for scientific revelation.
As a scientist, how can you say that the possibility that we are the only intelligent life in the universe is statistically approaching zero? How do you develop a statistical model from a data set of one? The Drake equation is total pseudo-science - a theory based on speculation unsupported by any observable data.
The question from anonymous: how can you say that the possibility that we are the only intelligent life in the universe is statistically approaching zero?

First, don't forget, one data point is infinitely better than none.

We know life exists on at least one planet in the universe. This is a fact.

The position that life is unique to this one planet is a theory based upon speculation unsupported by any data and a good example of the pseudo science Drake equation you mentioned.

Even with our emerging measurement techniques, we know that stars other than our sun have planets

We have no clue regarding the composition and size of the unobservable part of our universe.

Extrapolating based upon the number of stars in the observable universe and the ratio of the number of stars we now know have planets to the number of stars examined for planets produces the probability that the total number of planets in the observable universe is astronomically large.

If we assume that the unobservable part of the universe is similar to the observable part, then the total number of stars with planets expands even more…how much if any? no one has a clue at the moment.

From there the arithmetic of the probability of life elsewhere in the universe is simple. The statistical odds are greatly against the fact that earth is so unique that it alone is capable of life. Then if you consider life other than oxygen based can also exist and the possibilities of other life in the universe greatly expands.

We can open up another Pandora’s box, what is intelligent life? My two dogs do have some degree of intelligence. They even have some ability to reason. I often seem them very successfully solve problems.

But then, I suspect you either know this or know of this.

Rod, Thank you. I'm an educator, too, and your advice on how to discuss these issues in a reasonable way is really an inspiration to me. I'll remember this blog the next time I'm tempted to be sarcastic to someone who brings up this subject.
I have only two words for you Unk..."Thank you."
For statistical purposes, having a data set of one is not infinitely better than having a data set of 0. Neither is a statistically relevant sample size. There are no statistical conclusions that can be drawn from a sample size of one. Thus, the conclusion that "[t]he statistical odds are greatly against the fact that earth is so unique that it alone is capable of life" is a purely speculative value judgment and not based on any recognized statistical principle. As scientists, we need to get away from wishful thinking and stick to the facts. By this logic, the statistical odds are greatly against the fact that there is not another Statue of Liberty somewhere in the universe.
Hi Rod,

Enjoyed your soapbox rant. I disagree with you though. I have a PhD. in a mainstream science and I believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis. Actually, the creationist now has an arsenal of scientific data that can be used to back up a young Earth scenario over the billions of years everyone seems to be buying into. I am not alone either. We have modern science for only a century and I'll bet the science of the next century will bring us back to God, regardless of the tittle tatle you believe now.
Just my two cents!
Hi Lorna:

That's fine. But when will the Creationists present their evidence? They have not yet. AFAIK, they have not presented a single testable theory that produces anything like predictions. That being the case, I have to call all of it, whether it be "Creationism" or "Intelligent Design" or whatever they call it "religion," not "science." I'm certainly be willing to be convinced, but, on the face of it, a claim the Earth is 6000 years old is patently ridiculous. Not just astronomy and physics but geology and biology too say, "No way Jose." LOL
Rod, I fear this is a lost cause. We are headed towards another dark ages,not another enlightenment. How many network anchors have we seen promoting "Intelligent Design", denigrating the work of climate scientists and linking the work of evolutionary scientists with all of society's evils? This is not just random ignorance. This is a well-funded calculated effort to undermine any sort of intellectual independence. Good luck with the gentle summarization.
Myself, I'm very optimistic about the future. A decade or two ago, most folks were totally unaware of creationism. That's totally changed and the interesting byproduct of creationism's resurgence has been a deeper understanding of astronomy and evolutionary biology. It's rather ironic.
well if GOD came down to the earth would everone belive its him??
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