I was talking to a friend, whose father had died. On the first anniversary of his father’s death, as he sat around the dinner table with his mother and sister, the clocked chimed and all three of them felt the “presence” of his father. This gave my friend pause because he didn’t know how to explain the event and this opened his mind to the possibility of ghosts. Why did my friend not have a framework for dealing with events that he could not explain? Why was his “go-to” explanation supernatural?
Certainly, in our recent past, humanity’s “go-to” explanation was the supernatural. From Greek and Roman mythology to evil spirits that caused illness, “We lived in a demon-haunted world,” as Carl Sagan wrote in his now famous book about science and critical thinking.
“Some of the most sensitive, intelligent, and concerned young people are finding science increasingly less attractive and less relevant to their problems than was the case for previous generations,” he continued. “We all agree that this drift is deplorable. It must be due in part to their misunderstanding of what science is about, the scientists’ failure to communicate its power and beauty … The habits of critical interrogation and of suspending judgment in the absence of adequate data are unfortunately uncommon in everyday life.” (Sagan, prior to a UFO debate.)
Similarly, another friend, was convinced of the existence of Bigfoot because he had watched a program on the History Channel examining the legends about Bigfoot. The program was designed to entice viewers to entertain the possibility that Bigfoot exists. Why was he so quick to abandon a lifetime of causal relationships and critical thinking and believe in a myth?
These events are a frequent and almost daily occurrence for me, and I can only fault myself and fellow members of my profession for not teaching their science students, at every educational level, the ability to distinguish the scientific process and evidence from pseudoscience and nonsense in real world situations. We all need proficient garbage detectors.
Dr. Bruce Tiffney, dean of the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara, once lamented to me that new college students could do science experiments and qualitative and quantitative analyses all day long but when asked to explain their rationale and the use of the scientific process in everyday life, they drew a cognitive blank.
To remedy this situation, I began teaching my younger students a simple scientific orientation for looking at everyday life from a scientific viewpoint: “Natural events have natural explanations.” Science might not know the explanation yet but, historically, we usually move from supernatural explanations to measurable scientific explanations of our natural world. This simple and straightforward orientation would have helped my friend who considered ghosts to be a possible explanation for the natural and rather typical “sensed presence” effect.
Considering the example of my “bigfoot” friend, I also teach my students that the realization of, “I don’t know,” is a very important tool to find out information at the beginning of the scientific process. Carefully considering what is known and repeatable is much more important than jumping at emotionally satisfying and exciting explanations.
I managed to watch a few minutes of the Finding Bigfoot TV show before my wife turned it off … because I was screaming at the TV. The entire program is filmed in night-vision green to give it the air of scientific technology.
The Bigfoot “researchers” were stumbling around in the deep woods when, suddenly, they heard a noise: “There, there he is. That’s the noise Bigfoot makes!”
“No, that’s a freaking squirrel!”, I shouted … and then my wife changed channels. Of course, it could have been a deer, a raccoon, a falling tree limb or any number of other natural events.
I continue to be amazed at how quickly we are willing to abandon a scientific view of the natural world and natural events. When a crop circle is constructed, obviously by pranksters, large groups of people are only too willing to believe that advanced aliens traveled millions of light years to cut the grass (Bill Bryson’s analogy in A Short History of Nearly Everything). Unidentified flying objects generate the same leap of imagination, out of the real world “unidentified” object to the fantastical “little green men are visiting.”
My young students give me hope. One of them told me this scientific vignette: “Three people — a lawyer, a teacher and a scientist — were watching the countryside from a moving train and observed a single, black sheep. The lawyer said, “I see that this area has black sheep.” The teacher said, “Well, it’s more accurate to say that this region has some black sheep.” Then the scientist said, “All we know for sure is that this area has one sheep and its right side is black.”
Looking for natural explanations for natural events, saying what you see and knowing what you don’t know are elementary scientific orientations to observing and understanding our “demon-haunted world.”
— Victor Dominocielo, a California-credentialed teacher for 36 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. The opinions expressed are his own.