Friday, October 18, 2013

Science, Reporters, Teaching, and More Coffee: Part II

Every year, or most every year at least, I head off to Eastern Washington University to teach and counsel at Satori, a summer camp for kids who like to learn stuff—and learn them we instructors do. But in between learnings, there’s a lot of time for conversation and a lot of time for a lot of coffee. Seeing as I’m a reporter now, I have an excuse to talk to anyone about anything, so I asked Thomas Hammer barista-manager Abby* whether she’d talk with me about science. She cheerfully obliged, though she also had to work. When she was off doing that, Satori director and Spokane school teacher Mike Cantlon filled in, making for an interesting back-and-forth that ranged from—well, this to that and a number of places in between.

This is part two of two, wherein we talk about beauty and the importance of how reporters and professors talk about science. Read the first part here.

*History, or more precisely my phone’s audio recording application, does not record her last name.

Nathan Explains Science: Mike, did you ever have beliefs that were sort of challenged by something that you saw in science and then had to think about where you came down on an issue?

Mike Cantlon: Yeah, I think that I was raised in a very religious family. Yet I don’t remember people saying that evolution doesn’t exist. As an example, evolution, because that seems to be the most
controversial issue when it comes down to religion versus science. I don’t remember ever having the conflict in conversation, but I remember believing just avidly in evolution, because that was the only thing that made sense to me. Then as I started working in biology and started getting into single cells and watching and taking a look at what happened, I thought, how can evolution exist? I mean, evolution exists, but how did all this start? Why does all this decide to get together and do what it does? What’s the coordinating principle behind all of that?  So then you start having doubts. 

But here’s the way I respond my students who ask me if I believe in evolution or not. My response is that, yes, I believe in evolution, but I kind of reject the creation versus evolution idea, and the reason is it could be something much more beautiful than all of that. I have no idea what that would be, but I think that at some point we will gain more knowledge, scientific knowledge, and we will discover something magnificent that we didn’t know before. I don’t know. That’s just my thought.

Why I is it significant to you that there be—the word you used was beautiful. Why is that significant to you?

Because no matter what happens I can’t quit being a philosopher. As a philosopher I personally can’t accept absolute truth. To say definitively, “this is the way it is”, is extremely difficult for me. I see things as parts of things and I see things – so for example evolution. If the scientific community decided that evolution is this way, all laid out nicely, I keep thinking, okay, it would be one thing to say that and take a look at the fossil evidence and all that stuff, but okay, fine. Is that a truth? I don’t think so. Not yet. There’s too much more involved with evolution than that simple idea. I think of it as a very much more complex thing, and I think that it’s—in that sense that means to me beauty.

I know a lot of scientists for whom there is a notion of beauty that’s within the science itself. Do you need more than the beauty that’s inherent in the science?

The problem is, physics for example, you could take a look at the inherent beauty in the physics. But then you also realize that physics is so interconnected to so many other things that to isolate physics in and of itself, to be an isolated entity, to me it’s not as simple as that, because it reaches out into everything else we do. So physics is a part of biology, physics is part of all that stuff, and so that’s where I think beauty is – the complexity.

Let’s look at an issue that’s been pretty much at the forefront in the last several months with the elections and Supreme Court decisions, and that’s the questions about gay marriage. Does the scientific aspect of that debate trump at all any moral questions that people have about homosexuality?

I think science has a huge impact on belief systems and therefore morality. The Lawrence Kohlberg idea is that levels of morality have very little to do with thinking in terms of science versus religion. Morality is the degree to which you believe that all people have the same rights. No person should be isolated from that. And therefore if we have a Constitution set up the way it is, then every human in this country, perhaps the world—if we believe it be a moral document of some sort, I don’t think that you can argue against homosexuality. It just doesn’t work. 

Now let’s see if we can get Abigail back into this. Has there ever been a time when somebody figured something out about biology or geophysics or something where a belief you had came into conflict with that, and you had to think about whether your belief was really correct?

Abby the Barista: Yes. Both sides. I’ve had both experiences where it’s challenged, and where it’s been more readily affirmed in me. I had a professor—he was a psychology professor I believe—and he was supposed to be doing psychology 101, just basic theory, but he used it as a platform to push on all of us about how awful our country is and about how awful all of our politicians are. He kind of used science to try to justify that a little bit, because based on science this and this and this. And it’s not that what he was saying was wrong, but his pushiness made me look at him like, you’re kind of pushing what you’re believing. And because I’m a communications major, half of what you’re saying can be how you say it. So if you push it on me...

Did you think that he was trying to find little pieces of science to justify opinions he already had?

Yes. He’d pull pieces. He wasn’t basing his argument solely on science, but he’d pull pieces from science and make it seem like he was more legitimate.

It sounds like that actually made you think that his argument was less legitimate.

Yes. I’m sure that some of the facts, if you looked them up ,were true, but they weren’t anchoring his argument by any means. So it made us discredit the science little bit. 

You said there was another experience where something you learned did actually change your view.

I had women and gender studies, and I grew up in a super conservative household.  This professor was awesome because she was subtle in how she taught. She would show us facts and theories. We learned all about transgender, transsexual, and about all that kind of stuff. And I just didn’t know about it. I didn’t know the science behind it. But it was just something that was just different about a person, something they were actually born with, and so learning changed my view about all that stuff. Kind of eye-opening, I think, in a positive way.

So it was really about the communication aspect of it?

Totally. And I think that’s maybe just how I was raised. My parents are super calm. I don’t respond to yelling or pushing or shoving very well. I don’t care what you’re selling, I’m not going to buy no matter how legitimate you are. And the professor that taught women and gender, she was great. She didn’t want us to think how she thought. She put out the facts, versus the other professor who is kind of like, “Oh, you don’t believe like I do? Well then you’re wrong.”

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