Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Extending the shoreline – an interview with Chet Raymo

The vexed question of separating science from faith. Raymo, in his capacity as a science educator, wrote a weekly column in the Boston Globe on Science. A column that was often used in the classroom by teachers, as an aid to inspire their students. So what then does he make of the moves, both in America and to a lesser extent in Europe, to introduce creationism to the curriculum? [Editor’s note: Proposals were made by Italian Education Minister Letizia Moratti earlier this year to ban the teaching of evolution, while in England a number of schools that are State funded refuse to teach evolution in the classroom]: “More than two thousand years ago Aristarchus was accused of impiety for suggesting that the Sun might be the centre of the universe. Galileo suffered the same fate. The tension between religious fundamentalism and science is ongoing. In our multicultural societies it is important to keep religion out of the public schools, and especially out of the science classroom. Religious fundamentalism is a great source of mischief in the present world, as it has been in the past”.

We go on to discuss this tension between science and faith, and the classroom. Anthropologist Wade Davis, in an earlier edition of Three Monkeys Online, suggested that there is a crisis in the way science is taught, that allows this type of anti-scientific movement to develop. Professor Raymo is keen to differentiate between the responsibilities of the scientist ant the science educator: ”It’s certainly true that Science doesn’t address any of the questions that religion addresses, and that’s the great Strength of science. It poses only those questions that can be addressed empirically. Miracles and creationism can’t be addressed empirically, and by definition, are unscientific. It’s easier to believe in something beyond ourselves, it may be part of our genetic heritage, it may be culturally induced. Science does not address that, and nor should it. I think it’s important, however, for science educators, such as myself, to show that reliable scientific knowledge of the world is not divorced from our aesthetic lives or spiritual lives, and indeed most of my own writing, almost all of my books, have attempted to do that: to connect scientific knowledge of the world to our emotional and spiritual lives. [Emphatically] It’s a role for science educators, not for scientists. Scientists should keep all of that out of what they are doing. That’s why Science has succeeded, that’s why it’s been such an effective, universal, and reliable way of gaining knowledge of the world”.

And what does he make of suggestions of the ‘God gene’? “A tendency to believe one has the attention of a powerful divine being or beings would seem to be universal. It is possible it has a genetic component. Such feelings might also derive from our earliest experiences of dependence upon a parent, dreams, and so on. This is an interesting topic — the natural history of religion — and I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about it”.

Climbing Brandon is a fascinating book, interweaving literature, folklore, history and natural science, which will impart wisdom to any reader. Scientific empiricism can have its downside though, as this Irishman, living in Italy, found to his dismay reading the book, where one of his most cherished Celtic ‘achievements’ is dismissed, one long used to taunt and tease proud Italians, that of St. Brendan’s discovery of America, centuries before Cristoforo Columbo! And all for a mere lack of evidence! “The adventurer Tim Severin showed us that such a voyage is possible, by achieving it in a boat made of medieval materials. However, I know of no convincing evidence that the Irish (or th
e Portuguese, or Chinese) got to America before Columbus. We do know the Vikings preceded the Genoese navigator. For the time being, the tip of the hat goes to the Scandinavians”.

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