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Neil Armstrong, Bill Nye and the War on Math and Physics

The news came a few weeks ago that Neil Armstrong had died.  He is a personal hero and I mourn his loss, especially coming so soon after Sally Ride. I went into my computer and resurrected the slides from a presentation I did at the Western PA Montessori school, Neil and Buzz Go to the MoonI brushed off the slides and added some narration as a gift to send a special four year old whose birthday I missed.  You are welcome to grab a young child in your life and watch the story I made for Hunter.

I was surprised in my research to discover that a growing number of the population believes the moon landing was faked. Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s latest book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back claims that we are experiencing a war on math and physics in our country. They quote repeated examples of media, politicians, and even educators that are deliberately refusing to acknowledge facts.  Vice-presidential candidate Ryan gave a speech at the recent Republican Nation Convention that was, according to Sally Kohn of Fox News, “an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.” Neil Newhouse (the Romney pollster); “We are not going to have our campaign dictated by fact checkers.”  Is it ever okay to deliberately deny facts in favor of ideology or propaganda?

Bill Nye (the Science Guy) made a YouTube video several weeks ago about the damage that is done when parents and teachers introduce creationism and teach their kids that scientific theory and fact should be dismissed not because of empirical testing and reasoned critical thought, but on biblical interpretation. The video has garnered over 4.5 million views since it was published on August 23.

I am teaching a class this fall at Duquesne University, a Catholic University with a local Catholic population alongside a diverse international student body. I had an opportunity to discuss Bill Nye’s video with my Global and Cultural perspectives class. I was surprised to hear that many of my local students thought Catholics were creationists and that Bill Nye represented a scientific view of creation that was contrary to the faith that the school and I (and some of the students) practice.  Certainly, an evolutionary theory that claims it is proof of the non-existence of God goes too far. Yet, contemporary physics mathematically demonstrates a universe approximately 63 billion year old, contemporary geology demonstrates through repeatable laboratory experiments an earth approximately 4 ½ billion years old, contemporary biology continues to demonstrate evolution at work even in our decade. To quote Pope John Paul II in 1996 “… new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”

A war on math and physics is incompatible with a Church that claims faith and reason are never at odds with one another but mutually support each other and a country whose psyche is permanently shaped with the impression of the soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots on the moon. It is human to grasp at simple truths and tire quickly at the tedium of critical thought.  Yet, as we grow more complex as a society, we need to apply the rigor and accept critical thinking as a necessary skill to survive and thrive in the 21st century.  As a parent and teacher, I want to challenge my children and my students to not merely take the pulse of popular culture for an informed decision, but to traverse the space to scholarly investigations and take the time to look at evidence and fact generated in the professional realm.

The past contains examples of people of faith attempting to deny scientific discovery. The most obvious example is Galileo’s enforced silence in the 17th century. It is important to remember our history so that we don’t repeat it. Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture said in an interview at the November 2005 conference on science and theology “The permanent lesson that the Galileo case represents pushes us to keep alive the dialogue between the various disciplines, and in particular between theology and the natural sciences, if we want to prevent similar episodes from repeating themselves in the future.

The International Theological Commission in a July 2004 statement (paragraph 63) endorsed by Cardinal Ratzinger, then president of the Commission and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI, includes this paragraph:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5–4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution.

Faith, history and philosophical thought are important and necessary partners with science. What emerged at the time Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Greek philosophy were ideas that shape the moral decisions of individuals and communities. Christianity, Islam, and Sihkism take up these ideas and reshape them to include moral responsibility, compassion for the poor, forgiveness and mercy to build a future of peace, and human rights. Faith and philosophy help us grasp the seeds of hope, consolation in despair, the expanse of imagination, empowerment amidst injustice, and the infinite within the finite.  Critical thought is tedious yet the journey brings flashes of insight.  The spiritual path also has its own moments of tedium, yet reveals compassion in the midst of sickness and death, witness in the face of injustice and evil, and sacred words to express gratitude in the presence of great beauty and earth rises.

I invite you, as parents and grandparents, to ask frequent and difficult questions of your kids and journey with them through the tedium of scholarly research and spiritual practice.  Invite them to THINK: Test which information is “critical” and sort it from what is extraneous, seek out alternative views and critique the information they Hear from an individual teacher, news reporter, friend or internet article, question their own Intelligence, recognizing how fallible, prone to error and easily manipulated human reasoning is, entertain New and revised perspectives, and act confidently on the Key insights the have gained, able to articulate their perspective and act on it decisively, leaving behind some conclusions of other thinkers until the time comes to critique their view once more.




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