Encore post: Feynman and the inconceivable nature of nature

March 14, 2009

[This is an Encore Post, from August 2007 — just as it appeared then.  See especially the links on textbook selection processes, and “cargo cult” science, at the bottom.]

NOVA had a couple of good programs on Richard Feynman that I wish I had — it had never occurred to me to look at YouTube to see what people might have uploaded.

I ran into this one:

Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?

By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.

Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.

Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.

I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.

Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.

We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college.  [2009 Update:  James is studying physics in the wilds of Wisconsin, finals week at Lawrence University next week — study hard, and good luck, James!]

And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.

Other notes:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Charismatic Megafauna.

Fighting cargo cult science

March 13, 2009

Creationism is not taught at any major university, as science.  It’s difficult to find creationism taught in any curriculum, including theology schools, because it’s not a part of the theology of most Christian sects.  And yet, creationism continues to pose hurdles to good science education in almost every state (especially Texas).

The hard work of spreading creationism is long entrenched, and continuing, though largely out of the view of most observers of cultural and scientific trends.

For example, consider this blog by a guy who teaches creationism at Bryan College.  It’s been discovered by supporters of science education — but what can anybody do about it?  P. Z. Myers at Pharyngula noted the non-scientific contents of the stuff being taught.  That’s not really enough.

We need to more aggressively promote good science teaching in public schools.

Here’s one thing we might do, as I noted in the comments at Pharyngula.  We need to create institutions to aggressively promote good, powerful science teaching.  Here is what I wrote there, essentially.

Notice that this is Bryan College that Todd Wood preaches at, the college set up to honor William Jennings Bryan, the creationist prosecutor from the Scopes trial. This is part of the evidence that scientists and other lovers of science and good education slept too long on some of these issues (“While Science Slept” might be a good essay somewhere).

Remember Scopes lost his case, and was fined; the overturning on appeal was due to a technical error in the fine, not due to other obviously major flaws in the law (which was signed and promoted by Gov. Austin Peay, who also has a college named after him).  The law against teaching human evolution remained effective in Tennessee until after 1967, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Epperson v. Arkansas — which finally persuaded the Tennessee legislature to repeal the act.

Some people thought H. L. Mencken’s mocking judgment on the Scopes trial was final. Not creationists. While the rest of the world went on, fundamentalists developed a powerful, out-of-the-major-media network to spread and promote their ideas. Part of this network was the establishment of Bryan College, and to some degree, I think Austin Peay State University (though, as a state university with serious intentions on educating people, APSU is in the evolution camp in curricula).

Why is there no Clarence Darrow College? Why is there no John T. Scopes Institute for Teachers (say, at the University of Chicago, where Scopes went back for his advanced degree)?

Unless we get out there and fight in the trenches of education and religion and culture, evolution will continue to face silly opposition. Feynman warned us of the dangers of cargo cult science. (Honestly, though, Wood’s stuff looks like cargo cult cargo cultism, it’s so far removed from real science — doesn’t it?)

In the end it’s odd that a progressive-on-most-issues guy like Bryan would be memorialized by naming a college after him to preserve his most profound errors. It’s effective propaganda. I’d be willing to wager Bryan would have come around to evolution with the evidence stacked as it is now. His error was emotional and theological, I think. Education can prevent and correct such error.  Bryan College doesn’t do that in evolution — something else needs to be done to fight what Bryan College does.

The John T. Scopes Institute for Teachers could run in the summer months, it should have a thousand teachers of science from primary and secondary education in every session, and it should emphasize the best methods for teaching the best science we have. We really need such an agency — or agencies — now. Our children lose interest in science between fourth grade and graduation, their achievement in science plunges in comparison to other nations.

Our economy suffers as a result.

Creationists have Bryan College to help them spread their versions of cargo cult science, with that mission specifically in mind. We can fight fire with fire, but we have to fight ignorance with education. And, my friends in science education, we are behind.

Obama’s birth certificate: Astrologers bring sound reason

November 30, 2008

Texas Darlin‘ and the bevy of sites who contest the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate need to come up for air once in a while.  When astrologers start using better science, logic and reason than those obsessed with Obama’s birth certificate, it’s time for those so obsessed to change their ways, don’t you think?

See also the six ways the arguments against Obama’s birth certificate fail.

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