Ron Schott, who is the geoblogosphere’s Bora Zivkovic, hosts Geology Office Hours on Google+ every Monday and Thursday. It’s a time for geo professionals and the geocurious to get together, chat about whatever topic comes to mind, and sometimes show off our rocks. Anybody with a webcam and a G+ account can get in on the fun.
I’m not as good a talker as writer, so don’t join one of the Monday sessions expecting especial brilliance. I’m mostly there to eavesdrop. Didn’t really expect to do so today – I had a ton of stuff I should be doing, and I hadn’t even got out of my pjs, but I’d just got done shooting the cat with some particularly lovely little hand samples, and jumped on to see what Ron thought of them. You know how that goes. You’re all like, “Hey, I’m not really dressed, but quick, look at the pretty rock!” and the next thing you know, a lot of people you admire particularly (like Chris Rowan and Harold Asmis) have joined the conversation, and they get on the topic of geologic timescales and religious students, and you suddenly forget you’re sitting there in your jammies with a head of hair that might frighten small children.
Biology gets all the attention, due to the insane amount of resistance to teaching evolution in this country, but none of the sciences are immune to religious pushback. Geology doesn’t get a free pass because we have awesome rocks. We’ve got this geologic timescale thing going on. And when you have students who’ve been told by their church and their religious families that the Earth is something on the order of 6,000 – 10,000 years old (depending on how you calculate all those begats in the Bible), you get a lot of very confused kids when you start talking in billions.
Ron mentioned that he’s discovered, over his years of teaching, that if he emphasizes the geologic time scale up front, those religious kids shut down on him. If he built up to it, they engaged more. That’s not to say that he danced around the subject: the Earth is billions of years old and there’s no getting round that. But the impression I got from what he said is that kids rejected the idea of geologic time out of hand if it was foisted on them up front.*
My impression is this: these kids have been fed a steady diet of religious lies, all their lives. They’ve not been taught to think scientifically, nor critically, and in those first few days of class, all they’ve got to go on is authority figures. Here’s one authority telling them, authoritatively, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, plus or minus a few hundred thousand years. On the other hand, they’ve had a lifetime of authorities – their preachers, their parents, their faith community – telling them it’s only a few thousand years old (give or take a few begats). Who are they going to believe? And the decision’s easy, when they haven’t yet learned to think for themselves: the authority figures they were raised to trust.
But if you show them how the world works, introduce them to the scientific method and the lines of evidence and teach them how science is done rather than merely recite the findings at them, they can see for themselves that the Earth must be very old indeed, and they engage more. And the teacher has never had to compromise reality. Never has pretended the Earth is anything other than ancient.
And this brought to mind what I’ve heard in a lot of deconversion experiences I’ve read about: people who left their fundamentalist faith, who discarded Biblical literalism and accepted science, usually didn’t do it in a flash. There was resistance at first, but once they’d got a taste of critical thinking, once they’d learned something of how science works and what it says, they started questioning. They started trying to reconcile what they’d been taught to believe with what they were learning out here in the real world. And it can’t be reconciled without some pretty extraordinary mental contortions.
Not everyone’s willing to tie their brain in painful knots, so they stopped trying. They may not have left the faith completely – there are plenty of people out there who didn’t abandon Christianity, only the Biblical literalism. But they learned to accept and appreciate science. They learned how to think, investigate, and discover. Whether it was evident at the time or not, a seed got planted when a professor taught them a fact at odds with their faith, and showed them how that fact was established. It’s no wonder so many fundamentalists choose to home school: giving kids that information and showing them how to do science is like pulling a card out of that elaborate house of cards they’ve got built. It can bring the whole house down.
You all know I want that house of cards to fall. Fundamentalist religion is this country causes an immense amount of harm, both to the people within it and to the rest of us. As Chris pointed out during the discussion, America’s almost unique among industrialized nations for the influence religious people have on politics. And when that religious contingent includes people who despise science and believe every word of the Bible is literally true, even the ones that directly contradict each other, then you’ve got a disaster.
Not to mention, people from more enlightened countries laugh at you (hi, Harold!).
And that means I’d very much like to see science education succeed. I want these kids to know what science is, what it does and what it teaches us about this crazy wonderful universe of ours. I don’t want them denied that extraordinary beauty. And I want them to learn how to think.
So, when faced with religious kids who may be deeply invested in the truth of their fundamentalist faith, or who have never really given it much thought, but just accepted what the adults around them believe, how do you handle it? Do you start slow and build? Do you go in for the short, sharp shock? How do you reach these kids?
The floor is open, my darlings. Professors, profess!
*See Ron’s clarifying comment.