Letter to the Editor of the FEd Newsletter:
Raymond Hall's article (Spring
2002, pp. 7-11) presented four excellent student activities for
promoting critical thinking. Hall mentions quite a few pseudoscientific
beliefs that are professed by many Americans: astrology, psychic
contact, extra sensory perception, ancient astronauts, big-foot,
out of body experiences, etc. To this depressing list, I would like
to add one item that should be in every list of significant pseudosciences.
Creationism, the belief that the Bible's Old Testament can be read
literally and that Earth and the main biological types (especially
humans) were created separately just a few thousand years ago, is arguably
America's most important pseudoscientific belief because it is held
so dogmatically by so many people, its base lies in mainstream religion,
and it cripples science education in the public schools. Especially
when disguised as "creation science" or "intelligent design," creationism
fits perfectly the standard definition of pseudoscience as "any claim
that is presented so that it appears scientific even though it lacks
supporting evidence and credibility." Its negative effect extends explicitly
to all the sciences, including physics. For example, creationists in
1999 in Kansas removed from the state science standards all mention
of the big bang, radioactive dating, continental drift, the age of
Earth, global warming, and biological evolution. Although this rule
was rescinded in 2001, similar laws and rules exist in many states.
Polls consistently show that roughly 50% of all Americans believe that "God
created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the
last ten thousand years."1
Creationist nonsense remains endemic because we scientists have failed
to teach good science to all students. All of us should follow Raymond
Hall's suggestion by teaching critical thinking in our general science
courses. In addition, there are at least four specific opportunities
to introduce evolution-related topics into physics courses: First,
teach radioactive dating as an application of nuclear physics, and
present the main geological ages along with supporting radioactive
and non-radioactive evidence. Second, discuss the consistency between
the second law of thermodynamics and increased organization in open
systems such as a growing leaf, and counter the fallacious creationist
argument that evolution contradicts the second law. Third, present
big bang cosmology and the supporting evidence: the expanding universe,
the three-degree microwave background radiation, "ripples" in this
radiation, and quantitative agreement between big-bang isotope-formation
predictions and observed isotope ratios in our galaxy's oldest stars.
Fourth, discuss (perhaps in the context of possible life elsewhere
in the universe) the hypothesis of the chemical origin of life on Earth
and supporting experimental and fossil evidence.
Art Hobson, Professor Emeritus of Physics, University of Arkansas,
Fayetteville, AR 72701 firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (W. H.
Freeman and Co. New York, 1997), p. 156.