Thursday, September 21, 2006

A classroom conversion

Peter Fromm's name is not legion

P.Z. Myers over at Pharyngula has linked approvingly to the website of a high school science teacher, Ms. SuperScience. The teacher is unapologetic about teaching real science and recounts a brief encounter with an upset parent. A mother replies to her statement that the biology class will definitely cover the evidence for evolution by repeating a popular creationist talking point: “Well, what evidence, because there really isn't any?” Ms. SuperScience shows her no mercy, citing the findings of molecular biology and discoveries in the fossil record. The creationist flees.

She may well return, but it will undoubtedly be to joust further with the science teacher, not to admit that the teacher is right and she is wrong. It is a symptom of the closed mind of the creationist that evidence is irrelevant. First they say it doesn't exist and then, when you display it in abundance, they either reject it as irrelevant, suggest it's misunderstood, or imply it's fraudulent. It can't be right, you see, because God the Creator would never allow it.

Strangely enough, though, I think the creationist mother is right to be concerned, at least from her point of view. There is no better treatment for a narrow religious point of view than immersion is a good secular university. Young people are less deeply programmed than their ossified elders, for whom data-filtering has become a way of life. It must be even more dangerous when high school teachers are brave enough to teach science as it is rather than as the religionists would prefer (which may very well be “not at all”).

The estimable Martin Gardner wrote a neglected novel titled The Flight of Peter Fromm. It's a semi-autobiographical work that recounts the spiritual and intellectual journey of a Bible-believing young man who finally comes to realize that his childhood training is a tissue of myths and fantasies. His epiphany comes in the form of a lecture on geology:
Peter had raised his hand in class one day, Blitz told me, to ask if it were possible that all the sedimentary rock on the earth had been deposited at the same time. “You mean,” said Blitz, intending to be funny, “by the big flood described in the Old Testament?” Everyone in the class laughed except Peter who nodded gravely.

“I was dumbfounded,” said Blitz. “I didn't want to embarrass the kid by arguing with him in front of the class, but I spent the rest of the hour going over all the evidence I could think of that proves sedimentation has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. The boy listened without batting an eyelash. After class he came up and asked if he could see me sometime in my office.”

Blitz pushed away his empty dessert dish and blotted his mustache with a napkin. “When he came to see me he had a big book with him called The New Geology. It was by some knucklehead named Price.”

“I know the book,” I said. “Price is a Seventh-Day Adventist who lives in Walla Walla, Washington. He must be as old as Methuselah. You know, he was the scientific authority William Jennings Bryan kept referring to during the Scopes trial in Tennessee.”

“It figures,” said Blitz. “I borrowed the damn book and stayed up half the night reading it. I had no idea anyone like Price still existed. Why, he has the notion that....”

“You don't have to tell me about Price,” I said. “I've read his book.”

Blitz lifted his bushy eyebrows. “Sometimes you amaze me, Homer. Is there anything you haven't read? Have you seen my latest paper, ‘Vadose and Phreatic Features of Limestone Caverns’?”

I laughed and shook my head.

“I was so fascinated by Price,” Blitz went on, “that next day I took his book to class with me. For three days all I did was talk about Price and the man's priceless stupidities. When I gave the book back to Peter, do you know what he did?”

“He still wanted to argue about it?”

Au contraire. He shook my hand and thanked me. He told me those were the most important lectures he'd ever heard.”

I felt relieved. Peter meant, of course, exactly what he said—he always meant what he said—even though he could not then have been aware of how sharp a corner he had turned. To change the metaphor, Blitz had driven the point of a geological hammer into the rock of Peter's fundamentalism. He had opened the first tiny fissure through which the waters of modern science could begin their slow erosion. Now the metaphor breaks down. It may take a million years for a boulder to crumble. A religion can crumble in a few centuries. A man's faith can crumble in less than a year.

Peter threw away his copy of The New Geology.
Peter was more receptive toward evidence than most creationists, but remember that he's based on Martin Gardner's own growing-up experiences. It's not just a fictional account. Science teachers who keep teaching actual science will make it possible for other students to make their flight from unreason.

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