Saturday, December 26, 2009

The joys of parents learning science

We're always hearing stories about kids making skeptical insights or getting interested in science. They're exciting because these kids are our future, and maybe we see a bit of our nerdy selves in them. I don't have kids, but I still get excited about something similar - parents learning science.

My parents have always been very pro-science. They always encouraged me in my science classes and Science Olympiad, and were elated when I decided to major in genetics. However, they're not particularly science oriented. My dad was a history and special ed teacher, and my mom was an art teacher. My dad is into politics and sports, and my mom is obsessed with decorating and traveling. They treat science how rational people should - scientists are experts in a certain area, and even though my parents don't personally understand the topics, they put their faith in scientists. It's no different than putting faith in a mechanic or a pilot - everyone has their specialty, and we can't know everything. They don't believe that evolution and global warming are just giant conspiracies precisely orchestrated by hundreds and hundreds of evil scientists. Just because they personally don't have the background to interpret the data doesn't render it false (if only creationists could understand this simple concept).

We're all intelligent, but in different areas - and sometimes that causes problems. The more I study biology, the less in common we have to talk about when I come home. Usually conversations consist of my dad rambling about some history book he's reading and me trying to keep my eyes from glazing over. But this time I had a plan. I brought home Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne (who also has an excellent blog). My dad will read science books if given them (he loved Guns, Germs, and Steel and Hot, Flat, and Crowded), and I figured this time I can kill two birds with one stone: Get my dad to learn more about my interests, and get him to ramble about something I'm actually interested in.


It's only been a day and he's halfway done. He says he loves it and that it does a great job of explaining concepts to a non-scientist. He's keeping a little notepad nearby so he can write down especially awesome facts to share with me, or questions to ask me so I can clarify. There's just something really cool about my dad running up and ranting, suddenly realizing the frustrating creationist logic I have to constantly deal with.

Dad: How do people deal with the fact that 99% of all species that have existed are extinct? Why would God design things to all die? That doesn't seem very intelligent to me.
Me: God works in mysterious ways *wink*

Dad: We have fossils! What more proof do they need?
Me: Satan buried them there to test your faith. That or the scientists made it all up.

Dad: Now he's talking about examples of unintelligent design. Did you know women have painful childbirth because we evolved from four legged ancestors?
Me: I thought it was because God was punishing Eve.

Playing the devil's advocate is fun. My dad knows I'm an atheist, and he's not religious at all either, so it's all for laughs. But it's great seeing him react to all the religious "arguments" that I have heard people seriously make. Not only that, but it mirrors how my dad instilled good skeptical thinking in me. I'd often ask questions (How did they get the squirrels to talk in that commercial? It has to be a computer) and he would reply with a ridiculous answer (Squirrels just talk when you're not looking). I would then go about explaining why that was silly, and logical thinking was developed!

I look forward to his future comments and questions as he finishes the book. Then my mom is going to take a crack at it! Soon the whole family will be well-read evolutionists, mwahaha!


  1. Brilliant plan! I just finished WEIT about a month or so ago and it was easily the best book I read this year. I wish I had thought to buy it for my niece and nephew for Christmas. Oh well, their birthdays are coming up. ;)

  2. Wish I had a cool science-savvy family like yours. *Le sigh*

  3. Playing the devil's advocate is fun. It would be even more fun if we can act like a serious creationist or a Christian fundamentalist with the right facial expressions. I have encountered them in real life, and it's so hard not to laugh in front of them after hearing their arguments.

    I think it may be a good idea to write a play to satirize creationists. ;-)

  4. *Le sigh* indeed. When I was a kid my dad told me that dinosaur bones are there because god used other planets to moosh together ours and that carbon 14 dating is a lie that all scientists know is a lie but pretend to believe in to get their nefarious devilish evolution theory accepted.

    Oh, and he's a doctor.

  5. I'm very jealous of you; I wish I could have that sort of conversation with my family. My own parents are accommodationists who won't call themselves atheists (even though they are), and are so ashamed of the fact that I'm outspoken that they're constantly imploring me to keep my mouth shut in public. I've been arguing that point with them for years, but they never seem to come around.

    My father listened to an interview with Dawkins a few months ago and was very impressed with him... but my father is too attached to conservative politics to call himself an atheist or even to entertain any hostility to religion.

    Neither of them are very scientific or sceptical in their thinking either. It irritates me to no end, but there's not much I can do about it... I've tried.

  6. yeah, my parents dragged me to Ken Ham conferences and Worldview Weekend. I was taught to distrust science. Oh, well, at least I know to teach my own daughter science instead of faith.

  7. Tell your dad I'm glad he likes my book!

  8. Your "conversation" with your dad was much like mine with my dad, only that the one with my dad's was really serious. My dad and I were in the American Museum of Natural History when he had trouble grasping the big bang theory. "But if the universe came into being like that, then where was God?" he asked. I didn't have the heart to tell my dad that there was likely no god, and so I just said "I don't know."

    I spent the first 22 years of my life in church because my dad and his entire family have been going to church, ever since missionaries made their way to southern China. Thus, it didn't occur to me just how much Sunday school will suppress a child's natural sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness until I was recruited to teach Sunday school in college.

    It's great that your parents value science so much. :)

  9. It's all good stuff except "Hot, Flat, and Crowded." Tom Friedman is a terrible, terrible writer.

  10. Have you read Jared Diamond's Collapse? That would give you common ground with dad... it's a lot of history about why certain civilizations ...collapse. :) My dad is reading it right now and keeps sharing tons of cool tidbits from it.

  11. I did this with my Dad once, with Politics. I put a Republican Candidate's (to my defense the guy was very moderate and in the wrong party) sign in our front yard. You can tell where this went after that.

  12. Speaking of evolution.

    I found this article today and thought you might be interested in it, Jen. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

  13. Ah, Sunday school..... I guess the average working stiff would be annoyed if he had to put in a seven-day week, but it's OK to make the kids do it. (I had six-day school + about 4 hours homework per evening, while my parents were enjoying their "well-earned" downtime). Sunday school should be forbidden internationally as child abuse.

    And another thing -- we have heard a lot, especially under the Bush Administration, about the evils of the madrassah. The IMF destroys the Arab social-welfare states, so that the poor people turn to the mosque for their social security. "Faith-based initiatives", as Bush would say. The strings are that the kids must go to Koran schools, in some of which they learn to become intolerant fanatics and terrorists. Quite different from Sunday school, of course.........

  14. Oh, wow. I just had a large, painful pang at reading this. I remember back in the day I could talk with this with my dad, before it started getting to the point where he'd dismiss everything I'd say and I'd get so choked up trying to talk to him I just don't bother any more. I can only go certain topics with my mother, and even with her, she has a preconceived world that doesn't broach argument.

    Treasure that family.