Archive for June, 2009

Paleontologist on point

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009
biblicalhistorygarden.jpgA scene from the Creation Museum‘s biblical history exhibit.

When the North American Paleontology Convention was held in Cincinnati last week, a group international scientists visited the nearby Creation Museum and the New York Times covered their visit. In the article published yesterday, the scientists convey astonishment, amusement, and mild to moderate revulsion at the misportrayal of scientific knowledge. There’s also a gem of a quote by Dr. Arnold I. Miller, the University of Cincinnati geologist who organized the convention and suggested the trip to the museum:

Too often, academics tend to ignore what’s going on around them… I feel at least it would be valuable for my colleagues to become aware not only of how creationists are portraying their own message, but how they’re portraying the paleontological message and the evolutionary message.

In the culture war over science and religion, words are weapons. Dr. Miller’s words here—intentionally or not—are sharp and strategic. The assumption that the creationist message is separate from paleontological or evolutionary messages is subtle but eviscerating. The brand of creationism advocated by the museum—which is run by Answers in Genesis, the same people who attempt to fight science with the pseudoscientific publication Answers Research Journal—uses the language and imagery of science to assemble a biblical explanation. (As the Times article puts it, “same facts, different conclusions.”) Consequently, parsing the paleontological and evolutionary components of the museum from the creationist mission undermines the strategy of the $27 million Creation Museum.

Innumeracy versus illiteracy

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Advice columnist Emily Yoffe, who writes Dear Prudence on Slate, now performs live Q&As Mondays on the Washington Post. This week’s session included a complaint about bad math attitudes, and later, an insightful follow-up comment by a physicist. From the conversation:

Philadelphia, PA: I’m a graduate student in mathematics, and my particular area is very abstract. When people ask me what I do, or see me with a textbook and ask what I’m reading, no matter how simplified an explanation I give them, inevitably the person remarks that my area is “way beyond” them or that they’d “never be able to grasp that.” I always want to tell them, “You definitely won’t with that attitude.” …How do you suggest I respond to these kind of comments?

Emily Yoffe: A few years ago, in an attempt to help my daughter with her math homework, I enrolled in the elementary school math prep program, Kumon. I scored at the first grade level. Even if I tried, I probably couldn’t truly understand what you’re doing. But I would be interested if you could explain what this math is used for—modeling subprime mortgages? Global warming? Then we’d have something to talk about. So ignore the self-put downs, and don’t add any of your own. Instead think of it as an opportunity to show that what you do is interesting and can—on some level—be grasped.

Comment from another reader: I think this writer deserves more of an answer. I’m a woman in physics, and nearly everyone makes a self-deprecating comment when I say so. The point really is this: there is a cultural pride in innumeracy that doesn’t exist for illiteracy—no one will brag about not being able to read, yet feel free to essentially brag about not being good at math. This is not people being candid about their abilities. It actually is a way of dismissing the importance of the field of study by implying that it has no cultural necessity or meaning. …This hurts everybody!

I think there’s a great point buried in that comment. First, I’m pleased to learn a new word, innumeracy. Second, I’m going to take it a step further: cultural pride in innumeracy might not really be a party foul at a cocktail party, but it is part of the problem with science in America. It seems Americans have a schizophrenic relationship with science. On one hand, science holds such authority that pseudoscientific explanations are rampantly invoked to justify just about anything. On another, religious conservatives reject science as the work of the “liberal elite,” and we are still recovering from our last president’s dedication to ignorance. The chasm between what scientists know and what the public understands permits this dysfunction. I can understand irritation when otherwise well-educated people express a marginalized appreciation or interest in math or science. Sometimes, a dismissal of someone else’s work as being “way over my head!” can sound a lot like that.

Confidential to Philadelphia, PA: Do I know you? I’m a science grad student in Philly too! Email me