Sunday, September 11, 2011

Separating Fact from Nonsense

As a science teacher I always have a lesson or two near the beginning of my 8th grade science course on the difference between fact and opinion. On one of my guided practice handouts, for example, I might list several pieces of information and ask the students to write whether or not each represents a fact or an opinion. A sample list might include:

A clear sky usually appears blue.
A blue sky is very pleasant to look at.
The rosebush has thorns.
Carbon is an element.
The girl in the picture is very pretty.
Science is easier than math.

Most adults can easily pick out the facts in this list. Items one, three, and four are facts; the others might apply to you but not necessarily to everyone else. Therefore, they represent opinions. But I could have added a third possibility to the mix. I could have asked them to choose among fact, opinion, and belief. I could have added items to the list such as:

God exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected to save the souls of mankind.
Every word of the bible is true.
Allah is the one true god,
Mohammad was the highest prophet.
Every word of the Koran is true.

If I asked them to choose among fact, opinion, or belief, most people, including my students, would be honest enough to label those last examples as beliefs, even fundamentalists. But what if I left out the belief part and forced you to pick between only fact and opinion? Those should be the only two choices anyway; adding belief to the mix creates a false dichotomy. Either something is factual or it isn't, if it is specific enough in nature to be either true or false. Some things can be conditionally true, but when they are true, then at that moment and under those conditions, it represents a fact. So in the list above, including the religious statements, a devout Muslim would answer the last three as fact. But he would decide that the first three religious statements were opinion, and wrong opinion at that. On the other hand, a devout Christian would answer fact to the statements about God and Jesus but would say the Allah and Mohammad statements were opinion. Taking only the six statements related to belief, it is not possible for all of them to be fact, since some of them negates some of the others. For example, Allah cannot be the one true god if God exists as Father, Son, and Holy spirit. And every word of the Koran and the bible cannot be right since some passages in each book contradict what is said in the other. Since there is disagreement over the factual nature of the six religious statements, then the logical conclusion is that they represent opinion. If any of them represent fact, nobody knows for sure which ones do so. So it is each person's opinion as to which ones are factual.

And that is how belief differs from fact and from opinion. If something is an opinion, even the person who holds that opinion will usually admit that it is just that, an opinion. But those who hold a particular religious belief will make no such admission in most cases. To devout Christians it is a cold, hard fact that Jesus is the Son of God who died on the cross. To devout Muslims, Mohammad was the greatest prophet of all. To observant Jews there were no prophets beyond their Torah. And all three groups consider their belief as factual. Most ardent followers of one religion or another not only believe that their holy book is absolutely true, but that all the other holy books are patently false. Thus there is no contradiction of fact. If you don't believe the Koran is true then you don't have to take it into consideration when you claim that what the bible says is factual.

But truth has a quality to it that is often inconvenient for the believers. The truth stands as an independent entity. The truth is not affected by opinion or belief. Truth is truth independent of your belief to the contrary. Truth is also not dependent upon knowledge. Facts remain true whether anyone knows about them or not. When you strongly believe something is true but there is no way of knowing it for sure, or even in the midst of evidence to the contrary, it is called faith. In Christian circles, faith is a good quality to have. The bible strongly supports faith. But if you drill down into the nature of faith, you find it to be hollow and ugly. Does God exist? Was Jesus resurrected? Unless you know for sure, based on solid empirical evidence, then you don't really know the truth; all you have is faith. And, by definition, what you have is a strong belief in something for which you do not know the facts. You are taking an opinion and making the claim that it is a fact without any evidence to back it up. That is pretty much the definition of delusional. It is dishonest, and if you teach it to your kids, you are being dishonest with them.

Children learn to cope best when they can recognize the difference between fact and opinion. Some opinions are easy to recognize as such. But religious beliefs are mere opinions masquerading as facts. And when different versions of the facts collide, trouble often ensues.

In closing, let me include a list of cold, hard facts that my students learn are true sometime during the course:

Everything is made of atoms.
We really did land on the moon.
The earth is spherical and goes around the sun.
All life on earth really did evolve from a common ancestor.
The earth is 4.5 billion years old.
The universe is 13.7 billion years old.
Our universe began with a big bang.
Gravity exists.

And before someone jumps in with the claim that some of these are not really facts but theories, let me remind them that a scientific theory is something that is accepted as true and useful to virtually all scientists and can, for all practical purposes, be reported as factual even if small details of the theory still need to be filled in or improved. For example, the earth is 4.5 billion years old. But that figure was fine tuned downward from a previous estimate of 4.6 billion years. But that does not mean it might actually be only 6,000 years old though.

By the end of the course, if nothing else, my students learn how to recognize an opinion and how to distinguish opinions from facts, even opinions that pretend to be facts.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Open Letter to the Science Channel

Dear Science,

You are one of my favorite channels on television. I watch you on a daily basis. I also watch some of your sister channels, such as Discovery, Animal Planet, and Planet Green. That said, I do have some concerns and complaints. Sometimes you show programming that is not really about science. Shows such as Oddities and Junkies can't really be described as science shows. And especially shows like An Idiot Abroad has nothing at all to do with science.

I know, some of these shows are your most highly rated. Well, that's because people tend to like quirky shows better than they like shows about science fact. But if you choose to be the science channel, then you should show only programs that are actually related to science, shows like How do They Do It, How It's Made, Curiosity, Through the Wormhole, and Wonders of the Universe.

Some of your sister channels are also guilty of programming off topic. The Discovery Channel should be about discovering our world, not about motorcycles. If you insist on including programs such as American Chopper, why not add a new channel to your lineup called The Redneck Motorhead Channel. And what's with all the supernatural and ghost hunting sensationalist garbage on Planet Green? What does that have to do with a clean environment?

I appreciate that the Science Channel and Planet Green have resisted showing those annoying program-length commercials late at night. And I do appreciate having these educational channels available. I'm just afraid that you are starting to yield to the lowest common denominator of our society by compromising your programming. Please, let the programming match the name. Keep it pure. And put an end to some of the sensationalist programming or at least move it to a more compatible channel. Thank you.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

We Don't Build Big Things Anymore

In the twenty-first century, things go lightning fast. I can send a message to someone in Australia in a matter of a few seconds. Cars speed around the track at Indy at more than 220 miles per hour. And today's computers are clocked in gigahertz. My first real computer, a Tandy, had a clock speed of about 6 megahertz.

But some things have actually slowed down. The speed of progress in such things as infrastructure projects and space exploration, for example, seem to take forever if they get done at all. And, though it might always have been the case, gridlock in Washington seems to make any kind of legislation take forever.

In 1930, for example, the ground was broken for the construction of the Empire State Building. It was finished 18 months later in 1931. In 1956, construction began on the Internet Highway System. Most of the important stretches were completed by the mid-1970s, though it took another 15 years to complete the entire system as originally conceived. So 35 years after the first shovel of dirt was turned, the Interstate system was finished. That seems like a long time, but it has taken 20 years just to build a few miles of Interstate 69 between Indianapolis and Mexico. When completed, it will be the longest north-south Interstate in the U.S. But when it will be finished is anyone's guess.

In 1962 Pres. John F. Kennedy set this country's space program in high gear, vowing to land a man on the moon within the decade. That was accomplished on July 20, 1969. It took only seven years to complete the moon project. These days, the U.S. isn't sending any humans into space at all, at least not in its own spacecraft. It has been almost 40 years since a human being has walked on the moon. That's an entire generation. And we've been nowhere else in space either outside Earth's orbit. What if the early explorers suddenly just stopped going anywhere because their home country's decided they didn't want to spend the money to send them places?

In the decade of the 1930s, the government put people to work on megaprojects such as the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, and most of the other dam projects in the West. Things seemed to get done in short order. We set forth goals to reach, and we reached them. Whether it was a barrage of skyscraper projects in New York, the nationwide Interstate Highway System, dams in the West, or the space program, we set the goals, we started the projects, and we completed them. Then we would set new goals. That cycle seems to have ended. Our infrastructure is aging. There has been no new and improved nuclear power plants built since the 1970s. It takes decades to build stretches of single highways. Our manned space program is nonexistent, and buildings don't get built as fast as they used to.

The new World Trade Center tower is still under construction after spending years in the planning stage. It is scheduled to be completed in 2013, seven years after groundbreaking. The Empire State Building took less than two years to build.

Why does it take us so long these days to get major projects accomplished, or even started? Part of the reason has to be the fault of Congress. Most public works projects must be funded by the government. And we don't want to spend any money these days, especially the Republicans. If projects don't get funded, they don't get built. Things are also slowed down by the Environmental Protection Agency. I'm all for protecting the environment, but sometimes these agencies get carried away with regulations and red tape. Finally, there always seems to be grassroots movements standing in the way of progress. The I-69 project in Indiana, for example, was delayed for many years due to law suits and protests by citizens groups who were against it for one reason or another, ranging from environmental protection to being against the sale of farmland.

Our economy is in shambles and the unemployment rate has been too high for too long. Funding infrastructure projects would help alleviate the unemployment problem and build a fire under our economy. It would also give us new bridges, roads, and other structures that are sorely needed. It's just too bad that the obstructionists in Congress, the Republicans, seem to always get their way.