Today we start with a series of blog posts surrounding Chris Turney’s book, Bones, Rocks and Stars. The book is all about “the science of when things happened”, from things recent to things quite old: namely the Earth. (He mentions the age of the universe too, but not in that much depth.) Today’s post: only the intro!
Like a good thesis or academic paper, the book’s introduction serves to frame the material covered by the book, and explains why it is important. After all, Chris Turney is a published scientist, he knows how to write papers. However, he also writes accessible and entertaining popular science, the kind any literate lay-person can appreciate and understand, no college degree needed! (Read some reviews).
So what makes this so important? Turney mentions two examples of its importance, two weighty examples: the massive extinction of the world’s fauna and flora, and extreme climatic change. Humans have obtained great power and influence over the environment, our actions might just have some huge consequences we did not expect.
In order to develop some understanding of what the future holds, we need as good an understanding of how our mightily complex planetary ecosystem fits together as we can muster. The only way of gaining such an understanding is to study the past — a past that is, according to the evidence we’ve uncovered, several billion years long. Ignoring what we can know about the past would be irresponsible, would leave us blind with regards to what the future holds, would be an act of refusing to act as stewards for our planet.
The book explains what we know, and more importantly, how we know it.
Turney explains some of the controversies around time, e.g. Chapter 1 covers some of the conflicts around our calendar system. In the introduction he mentions some controversy surrounding a pop song:
If you haven’t read the book yet, see if you can spot it. Let’s play at being pseudo-intellectual-art-critics in the comments below.
For your friendly neighbourhood creationist?
How accessible would this book be for a young earth creationist? (Here I return to my old excessively verbose ways Feel free to skim or skip if you’re not grappling with such questions.)
If they’re interested in the subject matter, it looks to be very accessible. Turney approaches dearly held beliefs with the necessary sensitivity and empathy, even the epilogue on creationism (I’m briefly skipping to the end) sticks to facts and doesn’t ridicule. He remains open-minded as scientists should: he does not get dismissive, he simply requests evidence — “until creationism provides compelling evidence”, second last paragraph. The book serves enough examples of what kind of evidence lead to our current scientific conclusions, and he points at some events that should leave this kind of compelling evidence, if creationism were true.
One thing I did make a note of was a paragraph on page 3, stating:
“The key word we hear with creationism is ‘belief’. No matter how much science proves otherwise, some creationists still choose to believe the world is only 6000 years old. I might believe that the world is flat or that little green men live on Mars; should I get a teaching slot alongside electrostatics and gravity? I hope not.”
I think that’s about the worst it gets. What do you think, does that feel like ridicule? If you know my habits, you know how hyper-sensitive I can get when I’m on the lookout for things that could be negatively perceived — I get absolutely absurd. (And of course, when I’m worked up and “writing with passion, I’m prone to throw out negative words myself.) In and of itself, the sentence in question simply illustrates, clearly, how mere “belief” is inadequate for motivating the teaching of something in science class — for science you do need compelling evidence.
So what’s the potential problem? …the use of stereotypical examples. Stereotypes can be very loaded in someone’s mind: their use can provoke emotions from previous encounters, even if the current context doesn’t rationally justify those emotions flaring. We’re human, you know! For people with a strong in-group/out-group thing going, perceived negativity or ridicule can trigger a reaction of “this book seems biased against us, it is therefore not neutral and its contents cannot be trusted — I should stop reading”.
I think the ideal is really quite simple: give a book like this to a creationist from within the context of a friendship. “Here is a book that explains the science, it illustrates quite well why I believe what I believe. If you would like to understand my views and the views of others better, take a look at it.” By connecting the material to a good friendship, the friendship can lend it some goodwill, provides it with a friendly face, which helps overcome our tendency to interpret material we disagree with in the worst possible light.
Chris Turney’s book does explain, before the paragraph in question, that beliefs are matter of personal choice. He agrees that that is perfectly fine (oh, he’s such a liberal, isn’t he!). He is only taking exception to people trying to force personal beliefs into a science class. Simultaneously, he points out the limitations of science: “No one should claim that science has the answer to life, the universe and everything”. I like! The way this book is put together, I can’t imagine even a fictitious person who I wouldn’t be prepared to lend this book to.
All that said, I remain particularly keen and curious how this book is perceived by young earth creationists. If you’re a young earther (or possibly an until-recently-a-dedicated-young-earther) and you read this book, please come share your thoughts, experiences and feelings with us? Thanks!
Getting your hands on it:
In South Africa, I ordered the paperback version from Loot for R128 (+R20 shipping). If you would like to borrow that copy, I can add you to the waiting list. Otherwise, consider buying your own, to be lent to friends and family. It can’t hurt to have more in circulation!
(Yes, I should impose a word limit on myself. Fewer next time!)