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All posts for the month May, 2009

Would you Ask Your Banker to Do Your Brain Surgery?

Over at BadAstronomy, Phil Plait is having a field day with Cre@tionist Loonies (CLoonies) I don’t blame him. I am growing increasingly dismayed at the silliness that some people subscribe to in an effort to please the various deities they waste their time trying to supplicate with foolish behavior.

Belief and faith are not matters of science.  And this entry isn’t about having faith — that’s a person’s personal business.  It’s about those some people I noted up there — the CLoonies who have co-opted faith and spirituality to sell the rest of us a bunch of irrational, made-up ideas.

When a CLoonie gets up and tries to school everybody in a part of science that the CLoonie knows just enough about to be dangerous, all he or she is really doing is showing their ignorance. Even those CLoonies who claim they were trained to BE scientists — they are twisting what they learned (at serious taxpayer expense in the case of one CLoonie who claims to have a PhD in astrophysics, but is rejecting everything he learned as a scientist in order to further some strange ideas he came up with) to suit their own private ends. So, the next time you run into somebody claiming that their god/goddess/object of faith has all the answers for science questions, run away very fast. The odds are very high (more like 100 to 1) that this person is full of it.

Think of it this way — a CLoonie without scientific training, professing to explain science to you — is asking you to accept a bill of goods. Is actually lying to you in order to get something. What would that something be?  Probably money.  Maybe just a feeling of power.  Of looking more important and better than you.

But, if you start to pick apart such a person’s claims and beliefs and assertions, you just about always find out they don’t know what they’re talking about. That they are fundamentally wrong. And, I bet you they know it, but they’re hooked on the feelings of power they get from their act.

For questions of science, research, and just plain how the universe works, it’s best to rely on somebody who actually DOES the science and doesn’t have a spiritual axe to grind. No good scientist is going to ask you take anything on “belief.”  He or she is going to show you the facts. Not made-up facts. Not tainted facts. Just facts based on reliable observational methods.

Hey, if you need a surgeon, do you ask your banker who had the same surgery to do the procedure for you, since he knows about it?  Would you ask an airline pilot to remove a tooth for you, since she once had one removed and knows how it feels?  How about getting your car fixed by an actor, since he played a car mechanic on TV once?  No?  Then why let self-anointed CLoonies tell you how the universe works based on their faulty, faith-based delusions of self-educated grandeur?  Real scientists can tell you all the exciting and provocative stories you want to hear about the universe, and those will be stories based on real science.

You’re better and smarter than the CLoonies think you are, you know.  They’re looking for dupes. For people gullible enough to buy the crap they’re selling. And, mark my words, they ARE trying to sell something.

But, you have common sense on your side. And intelligence. If you believe in a deity — use what you think your deity gave you to honestly ask questions about the cosmos — and don’t fall for foolish claims of “teach the controversy” or “God made all this” or whatever 7 impossible things a CLoonie tries to tell you you SHOULD believe in.  Science is not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of facts and knowledge based on observable phenomena.  Period.  All other attempts to explain it through hocus-pocus and oogedy-boogedy magic is, as Sherman T. Potter says, “Mule muffins.”

A Thing of the Past?

I hope not.  I remember my first visit to the planetarium when I was in 7th grade. It fired my imagination. More to the point, it stimulated my interest in science — which is a good thing. More kids need to have that experience. Lately, however, as the state budgets fall, visits to planetariums and science centers get curtailed, which is not so good (and funny how you never see sports cut, or administration salaries reduced).  To put it bluntly — the U.S.’s future lies in the hands of the kids whose educational services we’re curtailing to pay for misguided wars and financial bailouts.  If we aren’t spending the money to educate children (and everyone, really) in science and math and reading and all the other things they will need to make their way in an increasingly technological world, they’ll lag students in other countries. And many of those students elsewhere ARE well educated and will go on to be the leaders in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).  I think you can see where this could end up if the U.S. continues to drop the ball when it comes to science and math education.

So, it may seem like a little thing on which to start an educational revolution, but a visit to a planetarium/science center is a small step that pays off big time.  It worked for me and for whole generations of kids who launched rockets, created rovers on Mars, fixed space telescopes, and continue to achieve great things in science and technology. It can continue to work for you and your kids.  Find a way to  make sure they get that — search out programs that bring kids to science and technology museums and planetariums. Those programs exist.  Actually, I’m interested in knowing which places actually have active field trip programs so that all their students CAN visit a legitimate science center/planetarium at some point in their school careers. Feel free to write me with stories and suggestions about them, and I’ll try to post about them as I get time.

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA -- one of the worlds best-known public observatories.

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA -- one of the world's best-known public observatories.

For now, I want to tell you about a successful program in Southern California. It’s one that brings students from all over the Los Angeles area and surrounds. It’s called the Observatory School Field Trip Program, and is sponsored by the Friends of the Observatory (FOTO), of which Mark and I are proud members. It brings public astronomy to everyone, and in particular, the underserved populations of children and adults who wouldn’t normally be able to come to the observatory due to distance or economic issues.

The actual visit is 2.5 hours of programming and lectures that completely support science curriculum standards at the fifth-grade level. At that level, it’s sophisticated enough to bring in some very cool concepts and approachable enough to interest kids AND adults.  Plus, the students and their teachers get to visit a very engaging institution that shows them the wonders of astronomy. It turns visitors into observers. (And yes, in the interests of full disclosure, I DID write Griffith’s exhibits.)

Science, astronomy, cool programs, a great view, and a seminal observatory experience — what’s not to like about FOTO’s program?  And who knows, some budding space scientist may get her first exposure to science at Griffith and go on to lead a team on the first visit to Mars or build some absolutely essential piece of technology that will revolutionize our lives and create lots of jobs.

FOTO’s school visit program is one that needs funding to continue — and if you’re a member of FOTO (or, even if you’re not) — it’s well worth a few minutes of your time to tuck  a check for $20 into an envelope and send it to FOTO (see the link above for contact info).  Or, join FOTO and include an extra $20 when you sign up.  You don’t have to live in LA to be a member of FOTO — heck, I’m on the East Coast, but I still send them my membership each year because I believe so much in what Griffith Observatory stands for and what it does for all its visitors. It’s the future we’re juggling with here, let’s fund it wisely.