Science as a human and humanist endeavor

Science is grounded in the concept that we, as humans, can examine and understand the world around us. This is practically one of the roots of humanism as a philosophy. We don’t need supernatural causes to explain our surroundings. As Douglas Adams said, or perhaps wrote, “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

In fact, the supernatural and science don’t play well together. A natural world can be studied, examined, and perhaps most importantly, quantified. We can’t be absolutely certain that a result from an experiment is a good representation of reality, but the better designed an experiment is, the closer to 100% we can get. Hence, the incredible excitement from particle physicists that a candidate for the Higg’s boson had been found and that the statistics showed that their results were valid to five sigma (five standard deviations). The scientific method would not work if capricious sprites and malevolent gremlins were playing in the results.

To put it simply, if you don’t start out with the concept that a human can understand the world through human endeavor, science would be a waste of time.

Science is often criticized by many religious or spiritual individuals for rejecting the supernatural, and is mired in a dull, naturalistic world. Again, the problem is that the supernatural, when we try to detect it, provides no good evidence that it is there. If it did, curiously, it would cease being supernatural and become natural.

Stephen J. Gould described this as non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA), wherein the natural and supernatural, the scientific and the religious, operated in two separate and distinct areas. Think of it like a Venn diagram, where the two circles don’t overlap. Sadly, this isn’t exactly a good explanation of how religion and science intersect. Instead, I prefer my own mental model of mutually exclusive magesteria (MEMA).

In the classroom, it is by far best for a teacher to rely on the NOMA model. Avoid getting yourself into a position where you support one religion over another, or your interpretation of religion over another. Just rely on what the evidence is and know that there are organizations that will back you up if you come up on a group that wants to pick a fight over evolution, stem cells or climate change.

However, where science has looked, the supernatural has given way. Many religions and denominations of religions accept this and shroud their position in mystery, holding to claims that they have answers to different kinds of questions. Others refuse to accept the evidence that they are wrong, and refuse to adapt. Failure to adapt to a changing environment tends to be the first step on a path to extinction.

The Earth is not the center of the universe. Zeus/Thor/Baal does not throw lightning from Olympus/Asgard/Bali Hai (that last one was a joke). Humans are primates, vertebrates and mammals. Humans can understand the world without resorting to ad hoc or post hoc claims of the supernatural.

There are no fairies at the bottom of the garden, but the garden is just as wonderful a place.



Chick-Fil-A supporters aren’t necessarily bigots

I had posted this on google+ and fezbook back during the height of the Chick-Fil-A debacle, and decided that I liked it enough to post it here, with some links and a little bit added on at the end.

I recently read a web piece calling for restraint from those criticizing Chick-Fil-A, pointing out that doing so does not automatically mean that the supporter is a bigot or a homophobe. That is fair. Most of us recognize that being called a bigot is a bad thing. When somebody says something critical of you, the human thing to do is to react defensively, not to examine the situation and ask if the comment was fair. Here are the alternatives that I can think of.

If you are choosing to support Chick-Fil-A and are unaware of their anti-LGBT stance, and having provided 5 million dollars to a variety of groups, some listed by the SPLC as hate groups, then you are ignorant. I can understand that. A few years ago, I didn’t realize that CFA knowingly gives money to groups that support laws in Uganda that would make being gay a death penalty crime, with a very weak standard of evidence to boot. I didn’t realize that completely legal discrimination in the US against people that I consider good friends and family members was being funded by my patronage. I was ignorant, but I got better.

Perhaps you simply don’t care about the social effect that discrimination has. If so, you need to work on your empathy and see beyond yourself and recognize that somebody in your family is being harmed. Friends and coworkers are being harmed. Your students are being harmed. Even if you teach at a conservative, religious school, some of your students are gay. In the city that I live in, the social normalization of homophobia has led directly to the bullying of children to the point that they choose suicide rather than spending another day dealing with the emotional pain it causes. You can be apathetic and disinterested and be neither a bigot or a homophobe.

But if you are hiding behind this book of sacred law or that one to justify bigotry, that doesn’t make you less of a bigot. Just that you have done exactly what people that have used the sacred to justify the profane institutions of misogyny, slavery and racism have done. History will pass you by and with the passage of time, chances are, you will be finding ways to act like this all never happened.


Chick-Fil-A had pretty impressive sales on August 1. That would suggest that this controversy has helped them, right? Well, that isn’t what all the evidence is saying. The brand’s image took a major hit once the company’s support of hate groups became well publicized. It will probably not recover any time soon, and while a core customer base has been strengthened, the larger customer base has become less enamored of cows that write like lolcats. The long term viability of the company has likely been affected, and only time will tell if it is for better or worse.

There is a consistent historical trend towards a more tolerant and fair society (but not one tolerant of intolerance), with racism becoming something that is frowned on in society, sexism is taking its last gasps, and just as social acceptance of those that wanted to prevent mixed race marriage sank to the depths, bigotry against members of the LGBT community (real or just assumed) will follow. It won’t be fast or easy, but it will happen.

And just as your personal “gaydar” may not always be reliable, just because somebody is eating Chick-Fil-A, they aren’t automatically a bigot. And the same goes for the employees of Chick-Fil-A. Right now, for many people, including some that may be in your classroom or on your campus, take the jobs that they can get, not necessarily the jobs that they want. Don’t make it harder on them.