June 2017

Science is a Verb

Justin Morath, assistant professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College and the Associate Director at the SLCC Creative Writing Center, was Humanists of Utah guest speaker at our May general meeting. His training was in animal behavior and human/animal cognition. He was also a co-organizer of the SLC March for Science. He is a social activist in other circles; LGBT+ rights, homeless youth advocacy, animal welfare etc.

As a teacher of the scientific method he became more and more interested in scientific literacy. Especially in the community. And the current Director of the CWC ultimately offered him the AD position. Because they were interested in expanding out of English. And it fit in perfectly with his goals.

He said that if a school board tried to require me to present my art as equally valid as the well refined works of Klimt in a classroom, we would all rightfully cry foul. But the point is, that budding process of the aspiring artist is important to nurture, as is the aspiring scientist.

The originating force behind the CWC is the work of Paulo Freire. Whose main contribution was the book Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire was an educator in rural Brazil in the 1960s. Looking through the lens of a Post-Marxist liberation theology, he saw that the education system mirrored the other oppressive systems in place to maintain class hierarchy. And that education was part of the problem, what he termed the “Banking Education” model. Where the teacher holds (or owns) the objective information and the pupil passively accepts this from the teacher as she dumps it into their head. Teacher owns the truth and “gives” it to the pupil to graciously accept. “This is art.” “This is fact” Or to quote the rapper Nelly “I know something you don’t know. And I’ve got something to tell ya…”

He argued that the act of learning does not need to be this way and that education can be a liberating force and does need to come from these gatekeepers of knowledge. Therefore, the CWC’s motto is “Everyone Can Write.”

What does this have to do with science? Because they fall from the same process. A process of discovery and of asking the questions and finding answers.

Science is not a noun; a person place or thing. But a verb. Here’s the thing: once we make it a thing, a noun then it becomes something we can possess. We can own nouns, not verbs. Even in the abstract. A process or an action is a participatory event that all can do- it’s radical and revolutionary. But a noun, can be held by a gatekeeper.

Which is why we have such ridiculous arguments going on in the scientific community about whether Bill Nye is a “scientist” or not. Bill Nye MadLibs. Insert noun here. Arguing whether Bill Nye is a scientist based on his degrees and career is arguing about nouns for the purpose of being a gatekeeper to knowledge. I’m not saying definitions don’t matter, but in this case, it’s a clear example if it being used for the purpose of withholding knowledge in order to “bank” it to the privileged few. “I hold the knowledge that I may grant to you about what is deserving of the scientist nomenclature.”

Whether you are a kid playing in the backyard admiring your sample in a jar, a disheveled post doc, a R01 holding pharmacology P.I. you are doing science. Again, to varying degrees. But that’s fine. We likely all agree.

Here is where the piranhas might come out to get us. Even someone with a blatantly false understanding about something, like an anti-vaxxer is engaging in the same process. They are asking questions and making connections about their world.

We are an inquisitive species. We want to learn and figure out our world just for the sake of it. He went to a Sherlock Holmes immersive exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science over the holiday break with my family. As a scientist, most interested in our social world, instead of participating in the activity where each person would mill between stations and try to figure out Whodunnit, I sat back and watched the participants. Everyday people were paying very good money to learn and figure out something. They know it is fiction, but they wanted to figure it out and know the ultimate answer.

Of course, the ultimate answers that are found may be completely wrong. So, what do we do in a situation like this…where villains are apparently injecting our vegies with food coloring? Seriously this is like a whole trope—vegies getting injected with scary needles. A google image search for GMOs and half of what pops up is this. There’s clearly an anti-vaxxers undercurrent going on here. But by pitting “science” (as a noun) from the “anti-GMO” or whatever, we are imposing this well entrenched banking model of education onto the debate. We are now claiming to be gatekeepers that simply need to bestow upon the ill-informed the necessary information to fix the problem. This deficiency re: banking model has been shown for the last 40 plus years in psychological research to not work that well. So not only are there implicit issues of class and power in this model (as per Freire) but it’s also not very effective. And in many cases, will actually backfire on you.

This isn’t a controversial statement, but here is a claim that is: Someone who believes in a crackpot conspiracy or bad pseudoscientific claim is also doing just this. They share the same desire to know as the most rigorous scientist. And that’s ok, so long as it is the starting point—not the end point to the question they ask. Because face it; thoughts are cheap and most things we first believe are wrong regardless of your title, status, or expertise.

Most of the time scientists are wrong too. We fail to reject the null hypothesis for a myriad of reasons, and it’s all set up this way on purpose. The difference between science and junk it that the process is set up to tease out the bad and refine the brush strokes to get closer to an objective truth, like a well-trained artist. And ultimately let go of the bad answers.

Because we all do use critical thinking, when it is to our advantage in protecting our preconceived beliefs. We can all do it. It’s not something that can be “banked” onto us. Yes, like art it takes practice and guidance to get better at it. But ….

There are a myriad of ways that we as humans protect ourselves from the fact we have bad answers. Such as to quote Upton Sinclair here or Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber when…Science ideally is a systematic set of check and balances to tease these out. But it is still an ultimately human endeavor.

  • Understanding how we prevent change matters:
  • Content is second to process.
  • If you want the facts to matter, don’t worry about them so much.
  • Accept that we are all wrong most of the time.
  • No one should be a gatekeeper.

Banking, or the deficiency model, is problematic and doesn’t really work anyway.

Know that we all have the same reasoning/critical thinking capabilities and we all use them.

—Justice Morath
Salt Lake Community College


What Science Tells Us About Religion

Sharon Nichols wrote a conclusion from her article titled, “What Science Tells Us About Religion.”

I live in the South. Here, the first question people ask you upon meeting you is, “What church do you go to?” I have decided that my blow-away answer is, “Oh, we don’t go to church much,” which lets the asker of the hook without committing me to something I don’t believe in (weddings and funerals are still in churches, after all!” I try not to close the door on the discussion unless someone is being rude. Don’t be afraid to engage the religious in discussion. Don’t debate though, because that only tends to harden already held beliefs on both sides. Prepare a few points ahead of time that you can state in nonjudgmental terms, such as: “I am a naturalist” (and/or humanist, atheist, agnostic, etc.) reflecting your true stance. “I follow science rather than believe in religion” or “I find much greater mystery in science than in religion. “Be true to yourself—without going so far as to place yourself in danger.

How do thinking people who rely on reason counter anti-intellectualism and anti-science, and anti-modernity trends? It is incredibly frustrating to attempt to deal with anti-intellectualism and anti-science; they are so contrary to common sense and reason. A strategy that is less fraught with frustration is that of “planting seeds.” Exploit an opening and use communication skills to plants seeds of reason and doubt. Seeds can crack boulders; surely, they can root out unreason. Have you ever seen a blade of grass growing in concrete? It is the same with doubt. Think of religion as a differential terrain: some of it will “wash away” in the same way that weaker rock layers rode before stronger rock layers will. This can eventually lead to canyons of doubt. Every drop of doubt that is added erodes religion further, until religious belief is no longer tenable.

The more books and articles revealing religions weaknesses, pious lies, and evils, the more likely someone teetering on the edge of doubt will eschew religion, and step into the light of reason. It may happen gradually, much more too slowly for some of us, but it will happen. It is already happening. The spate of religion protection laws in the United States are part of the backlash caused by the religious realizing they are losing ground. Let us hope that we may see the end of religious privilege in American in our lifetimes.

I believe we must be in the real world, and not that of make-believe, wishful thinking and unreason. The alternative is to turn the corner on knowledge itself and I for one do not intend to sit idly by while the human cultural world slides into the abyss of willful ignorance and chaos.

—Craig Wilkinson, MD
Board Member, Humanists of Utah


A Better Life – Film Screening and Discussion

On Friday, June 30, The Humanists of Utah are pleased to invite filmmaker and photographer Chris Johnson, creator of the film, A Better Life: An Exploration of Joy and Meaning in a World Without God, based on the interviews found in his book, A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy and Meaning in a World Without God. There is no God. Now what? If this is the only life we have, how does that affect how we lives our lives, how we treat each other, and cope with death?

As a follow-up to one of Kickstarter’s most successful publishing projects, photographer and filmmaker Chris Johnson introduces us to some of the many voices from his book. In this fascinating documentary—learn the stories behind the book in interviews with some of our greatest thinkers.

Join Chris as he explores issues of joy and meaning and travels around the globe meeting people from all walks of life and backgrounds who challenge the false stereotypes of atheists as immoral and evil.

From Daniel Dennett and A.C. Grayling, to Julia Sweeney and Robert Llewellyn —learn the various ways many atheists have left religion to a better life filled with love, compassion, hope, and wonder!

Learn about Chris’ project and purchase your copy here:

https://www.theatheistbook.com/

Friday June 30 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM
Salt Lake City Public Library
210 E 400 S, Salt Lake City

— Elaine Stehel


Robert Lane’s President’s Report will resume next month