science, math and religion, or how do you know what you know?

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This morning my kids and I read a short book called Maybe Yes, Maybe No, a skeptics guide for kids. It goes through a story of a little girl being told that there are ghosts in a friend’s house, and her figuring out what the ghosts really were. Then it talks about other strange things people believe, and some rules of science such as finding ways to test things, repeating the test, being honest, etc. My six year old’s big disappointment about the book was that it doesn’t tell him where to find ideas about things to test. He was almost crying about it. He said he wanted to do real science. He said he didn’t want to do an experiment where I tell him what to do and I already know the answer, he wants to prove something that other people don’t know yet. But he said he doesn’t know how to do that because everything he knows other people know. Where do you get ideas for what to test?

As I was sitting and thinking about that, and I found myself trying to explain about how he needs to look at the edge of his knowledge base, to find a hypothesis to test. He has to think about something he knows something about, and find something related that he isn’t sure about. If we end up talking about this again I’ll talk to him about how his dad sometimes writes reviews, looking at all the research done on a particular question and then trying to think about where they can move on from that.

We were sitting next to our gas fireplace and I asked if we could cook food in front of it. There’s a glass wall separating us from the fire. Would it get hot enough to cook food? So now he has something to test. He’s going to use tinfoil and see if he can position it close enough to the fireplace glass to melt some cheese. (I’ll watch how he arranges things so we don’t end up with a house fire.) If he can’t get it hot enough, I might make some suggestions for ways to alter his design, and we’ll talk about how he hasn’t proven that it isn’t possible, only that the design he’s used doesn’t work… but what would happen if we tried a million designs? How many proves it isn’t possible? And I’ll try to extend the discussion to talking about other questionable things people think scientists should be able to do.

Science is not a collection of facts. It is a way of approaching things. It is a way of trying to find answers. This matters to me tremendously right now, because I’ve just found myself in a lot of arguments with people over silly things and when it came down to it, the other people could not look at how we were arriving at our differing conclusions. One of the arguments had to do with the merits of alternative medicine in treating cancer. The person was arguing that pharmaceutical companies = bad and natural cures = good. He tried anecdotal evidence. He tried arguing about the motives of the people (big pharma wants only profit? Lone person selling hash oil wants only to cure everyone?). He thought we can’t trust scientists because they are in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies and what really floored me, is that to him, that was a reason to give up on science as a method of finding truth. He didn’t think it matters if something can be proven or not, because the truth will reveal itself to those who are willing to listen. To me that is the biggest issue. On what does one base one’s beliefs? Or in the example of alternative health care, what do you want to use as your criteria for determining whether you believe something is useful or not?

I have a copy of the book The Well Trained Mind. It is a big name in a lot of homeschooling circles, and when I was starting to homeschool I did find it helpful in giving an example of how a person could put together a school curriculum for his or her own child. That said, it has some interesting things in it. The authors argue that  theology is still the “queen of sciences” either in its presence or absence. It argues that the debate over evolution and creation isn’t about how species evolved but about the presence or absence of a creator, and that this has implications in every other topic. “Are we animals or something slightly different? Do math rules work because of the coincidental shape of space and time or because God is an orderly being whose universe reflects His character? Is a man who dies for his faith a hero or a fool?” I really like those questions but I think the authors are wrong in that the biggest question is not whether there is a God or not, the biggest question is, from where do we get our information? Science was once seen as contributing to theology because it was through exploring God’s world that we learn more about God. Where it got into trouble was when it started to provide answers that differed than the answers people previously held. That was when it became a question of when push comes to shove, which do you believe?

When I told my husband I was trying to write out my thoughts on this he said I should visit: http://www.11points.com/Books/11_Eye-Opening_Highlights_From_a_Creationist_Science_Textbook. The whole blog entry really is an amazing eye opener, but it is the last paragraph that is particularly good:

If you believe that the word of the Bible is, indeed, the word of God and the absolute truth, I have no problem at all with that. If you want to teach your children that everything was created by God, I also have no problem with that at all either. But I find it unacceptable, irresponsible and actually sick to trick your children into your beliefs. It’s not only disrespectful to them, it’s disrespectful to your beliefs. It’s a tacit concession that you don’t think your beliefs can hold up in the face of a counter-argument… or that you don’t think you can properly impart your beliefs to your children in an above-board way. When I read this non-textbook textbook, I see classic, not-so-thinly-veiled propaganda tricks. And that just spreads miseducation, confusion and, ultimately, acceptable ignorance. Which doesn’t benefit anyone — including your children, you or what you believe in.

Here again the idea comes out that the problem is not that someone doesn’t agree with someone else. The author of that blog isn’t annoyed because the textbooks are promoting ideas he believes are wrong. He is annoyed because of the means of promoting the information, the method of argumentation, so to speak. What is accepted as valid argument? What is accepted as valid proof of something? Why use rhetorical devices, repetition, and associations rather than valid arguments?

But then who decides what a valid argument is?! I suppose a person could argue that God revealed his truth to mankind through a religion and that the validity of an argument depends on how involved the source is in that religion. In other words, that God gave the information to men, and that they’ve passed it down, and the textbook is true because religious people say it is, and how they make their argument makes no difference because it is the source of it that guarantees its validity, not the arguments themselves. But there’s nothing really I can say about that except it really doesn’t convince me.

I want my kids to understand about what science is, because I want them to be able to see when they get into magical thinking. I want them to understand that correlation does not equal causation. I want them to be able to break down the arguments other people are making and try to understand them. I want my kids to understand what science is.

In the same way, I want them to understand what mathematics is. I want them to see it not as a set of rules or figures to memorize, but as a way of making sense of quantities and relationships. I am reading a book called Mathemagics: How to look like a genius without really trying and last night I read a description of how to find the square of a number easier… after working through a couple of questions following the step by step instructions, I wanted to understand why they worked. I had a sleeping baby in my arms, so I couldn’t go downstairs and try this out, but I sat in my rocking chair and pictured the math tiles that I use with my kids. They are small plastic squares and we have lots of them. I pictured making a square of tiles 13×13. The instructions then were to multiply 10*16 and then add 3*3. So I sat there and pictured moving the three rows of tiles from the bottom of the square to the side, and turning the rows the other direction… and I could picture why it is that the trick works. My kids are young, so I won’t show them this yet, but I want them to be able to understand the ideas and get excited about the math.

I think about the question the Well Trained Mind authors wrote about does math work because of coincidences of the shape of space and time or because God created an orderly world? I want my kids to eventually understand that some of the rules of math are the result of the number structure that humans have created for understanding math and some are based on the reality of grouping physical objects. For example, the ability to find whether a number is divisible by nine through adding the digits together and then dividing the number you get is a partly the result of our number system being based on ten. In a number system based on 5 or 12 then it would work differently. I want them to be able to understand that both in the way of being fluent with number systems, but also through using physical manipulatives and understanding that numbers are ways of trying to understand quantities of real or imagined things. There is a world – whether created by God or not – and humans have adopted orderly ways of understanding it.

I want my kids to see the world as the completely amazing thing it is. I want them to see patterns in everything. I was just watching this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahXIMUkSXX0 and I found myself so delighted.

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