Science is all LIES
January 5, 2011 11:31 PM   Subscribe

How do I gently but firmly steer a very misguided 14-year-old to respect science? I'm not a teacher, but I am in a mentoring role and feel I owe it to her to try.

Last year, a friend related a story about how she was, in front of her 11-year-old daughter, praising the girl's great grades in math and science, when the child interrupted with, "Science is all lies." She'd recently accompanied a friend to a few visits to Baptist Sunday School--the only thing her mom can think of to attribute the comment that continues to haunt her.

Today, a 14-year-old girl I mentor said "I don't believe in science" after I showed her an atlas and explained some of the maps in the front. When pressed to explain what she meant, she said "God put two people on earth and we all came from them," and "I don't believe we came from monkeys." I'm not really sure how her brain went from continental drift to the Garden of Eden, and it sure sounds like it may not be science, per se, but evolution with which she takes issue. But since evolution is science-based, she is denying all of it. She also said, "I'm a Christian" as if that explains everything. I responded that she could be a Christian and still believe in science. Conversation stalled and I backed off, honestly dumbstruck (and having completely forgotten how horrified I was that she thought Africa was a country in South America).

What do I do? I wanted to shake her and day, "don't be one of the stupid people!" Obviously I did not. How do I approach this wisely? I want to quietly introduce fact, and connect her to science through some good, tangible stories that can come up in everyday conversation. BTW, I really have no interest in discussing evolution unless she brings it up. I want to start short and simple and leave her less threatened by "science" in general.

Her parents are divorced with eight children (presumably not for religious reasons). One parent is "crazy religious" (her words), the other is not. My relationship with them is mostly limited to coordinating her availability. She doesn't get much adult guidance or supervision. She is extremely impressionable and not a great student, but shows promise and curiosity. I am not a parent, not a teacher, and definitely not a Bill Nye when it comes to introducing scientific ideas.

Would appreciate your thoughts, both as to why this is happening to our young people AND as to what I can do.
posted by AnOrigamiLife to Science & Nature (50 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This is not meant to be flip: ask her, sincerely, if she'd climb on the roof and jump off. When she says no, ask her why not. When the word gravity arises -- as I imagine it will -- you can point out that it, too, in scientific terms is "just" a theory, but this obviously doesn't make it a lie.
posted by scody at 11:39 PM on January 5, 2011 [9 favorites]

Many of math and science's great minds were faithful Christians. Copernicus was even a priest and Gregor Mendel (the pea plant dude) was a monk. There must be some who wrote about their ability to be a scientist and a faithful Christian. Perhaps it might give you an idea of how to put science and faith together.
posted by Foam Pants at 11:54 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

when the children stop believing in science, it's time to take their cell phones away from them.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:54 PM on January 5, 2011 [49 favorites]

Best answer: The most favorited comment of 2010 might be of some use here.
posted by JimmyJames at 11:55 PM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

It sounds like these girls care very deeply about their religion and very very much want to do right by it. It sounds like they believe science and the Bible are at odds with one another. Maybe they got this idea from their preachers, but it's equally possible that they encountered an atheist who rudely and condescendingly touted how irrational and unscientific religion in their faces. So to them only loyal thing to do is to be against science.

If so, I think you need to make the case that science and Christianity aren't irreconcilable. And I think you need to come from a place of deep respect for their religion if you attempt this. are lots of websites out there that can help you if you need talking points. They may need to hear this from someone they know to be a devout Christian. Do not say anything like, "Don't be one of the stupid people" even in jest. That's disrespectful, and who listens to someone who has such contempt for your most deeply held beliefs?

Here is a good example.

Job 26:7

He stretches out the north over empty space;
He hangs the earth on nothing.

The author of Job describes the Earth as being suspended in space, which is scientifically accurate, rather than being flat, as many people believed in that time.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:56 PM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Are you sure she isn't just being lazy and trying to get a rise out of you? Trying to deflect her ignorance and general insecurities by changing the subject?

Maybe I just haven't lost enough faith in humanity yet, but this just seems too crazy.

(And the mercator map is stupid, so maybe she's onto something. Tell her god spoke to you and bring in a peters projection map =)
posted by zephyr_words at 12:10 AM on January 6, 2011

If she's truly a child of God and made in His image, then God gave her that brain for a reason. And if God is truly transcendent and omnipotent, then of course there are all sorts of contradictions and paradoxes inherent in studying science. Not because science contradicts God, but because God is so great that our tiny human minds can only vaguely limn the dimmest outlines of Him.

So using her mind to think and reason, to then apply that knowledge in service to others, that is a way of glorifying God.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:16 AM on January 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

"don't be one of the stupid people!"

You know, she's 14. This might be exactly the tack to take with her.

I don't know that I'd say that verbatim, but something like, "Oh, come on. I know you're smarter than that," might work. Or even a well-timed roll of the eyes and, "So it would be fine if I threw this [nonthreatening object] at your head? Because the laws of physics aren't real?"

As a teenager, I was much more concerned about people thinking I was stupid/lame/immature/uncool than I was concerned about any adult who was trying to reason with me in an earnest and straightforward manner.
posted by Sara C. at 1:15 AM on January 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

Being 14, shaken, and told "don't be one of the stupid people!" can be just as powerful as rational argument.
posted by westerly at 1:55 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

On preview, what Sara C. said.

I don't think it sounds like she's "crazy religious" like her parent, I think she's as likely to be telling her religious mentors 'AnOrigamiLife says the continents drifted in this pattern, where was the garden of Eden in that?' In other words, discovering a rough dialectic (truth-seeking by challenge) on her own.

But I could be an optimist.
posted by westerly at 2:03 AM on January 6, 2011

Best answer: Trying to "shake some sense into her" would probably backfire. When I was in my mid-teens I seem to recall that me and all my friends had great fun "pissing off the adults". Trying to get a rise out of the grownups, we would say provocative things. I wouldn't take what this 14-year old girl says too seriously. At that age, one is trying on various guises, seeing what fits. The less you react to any one guise, probably the quicker the phase will be passed.

As for "what is happening to our young people", what has always happened to people that made them turn to the comforting simplicities of religion? The world gets complex, or difficult to understand, or suddenly full of flux and people want easy, reassuring answers. Religion provides the soothing balm. Maybe you could try not to be one of the things she soothes against?
posted by telstar at 2:39 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would say that science is a process, a set of rules to follow to help you find an answer to your questions if no one else knows. Saying you don't believe in science is like saying you don't believe in math; math and science are just tools you can use to find answers.

Lots of people use the scientific method to try to learn more about the world every day; everything we know about electricity, medicine, and outer space came from science. Almost everything in our lives is a result of people using science to solve problems, from cell phones to microwave ovens, contact lenses to clean drinking water.

Sometimes people say "Science is wrong," but what they should really say is that they don't agree with a certain theory. Lots of people don't believe evolution is where humans came from, but they still use science to solve problems all the time.

Sometimes science doesn't always lead to clear answers, and people end up arguing about what the results mean, but it's still the best way we know of to help us figure out how the world works.
posted by Menthol at 3:07 AM on January 6, 2011 [16 favorites]

What Menthol said. The beauty of science is that it is a process and not a set of conclusions. It's perfectly fine for your student to question any theory. In fact, it should be encouraged. That's what science is about.

My wife used to teach an after-school science program. During one of the classes on genetics, one of her students said she "didn't believe in DNA." My wife responded that DNA exists regardless of whether the student believed in it or not. But, my wife continued, that the student didn't simply have to take her word on it. My wife then explained the class project, which was to have the class extract DNA from a cell sample. At the end of the project, the students had a little test tube of DNA that they had extracted right in front of them. There was no belief involved and no simply "taking it on authority;" only testable hypothesis and repeatable experiments.

Teach the process and she will eventually accept the individual theories.
posted by chrisulonic at 3:10 AM on January 6, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like she's parroting what other people have said because she hasn't been taught to think critically or encouraged to come to her own conclusions. Whatever you were doing/saying triggered a rote response in which science=monkeys=wrong. I doubt she was making a huge cognitive leap to get there. Also, being one of eight in a family that's been through divorce sounds pretty chaotic - she might be fixating on certainties. Citing religion is an easy way to shut down conversations about other stuff she might find unsettling and/or confusing.

In terms of how to work with her it might be worth taking some steps back and just look at things in the world around you, clouds, the tv, music players etc and see if you can engage her in a discussion about what they are to help develop her curiosity about how the world works. Don't pull out the textbooks and say science has all the answers - just talk, ask questions and follow her lead, not correcting her, but just presenting alternates and letting her decide for herself whether or not it's something she wants to take on board. Look at what she's interested in and take it from there.
posted by socksister at 3:24 AM on January 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is just speculation, but if her parents were recently divorced, or if there's been some recent friction between them, then this could just be a way of allying herself with the crazy-religious parent. Emotional issues like that can get in the way of rational thinking, and might be hard to make headway against unless you became something more of a personal friend / confidant for her.
posted by jon1270 at 3:46 AM on January 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Are you sure she isn't just being lazy and trying to get a rise out of you? Trying to deflect her ignorance and general insecurities by changing the subject?

Maybe I just haven't lost enough faith in humanity yet, but this just seems too crazy.

This may be true in this particular case, but unfortunately I think you just haven't lost enough faith in humanity. I work in a science classroom at a high school where the majority of the students were raised by very religious families, and things just like this (where the student has sworn off any and all science because of their religion) are way too common.

I think Menthol is absolutely right...she needs to understand that science isn't trying to be the end-all, be-all. I absolutely would not push the issue too far, because she could start seeing you as one of "them". Instead, see if you can incorporate some of the more concrete example of science into what you talk about (the things directly around you instead of concepts or maps).
posted by kro at 3:55 AM on January 6, 2011

Tell her that if science was a lie, we wouldn't have cell phones, television, Facebook or Justin Bieber or [insert whatever she's into].
posted by Diag at 4:10 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I wanted to shake her and day, "don't be one of the stupid people!"

I totally sympathize with this reaction, but I think it points to something else that you may want to address with her, before you can tackle the lack of respect for science.

I think the first step towards gaining a respect for science would involve teaching her, through demonstration, how to listen and talk to people with different beliefs/world views than her own, and most importantly, have respect for those differences, especially if she doesnt share those beliefs. Because the first step towards gaining a 'scientific' world view is understanding that perspective can change what we believe to be true, and our perspective can and will change as we learn and gain new experiences. And ultimately, the scientific method is just a structured path for gaining that experience and using it to build new perspectives.

I guess the short version is - before she can accept any new world view, she needs to be encouraged and taught to keep her mind open. Her rejection of science is troubling (to me), not because it's science in particular, but because it shows a wholesale rejection of a whole way of looking at the world. That's what I would try to address first.
posted by aiglet at 4:55 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Disclusore: I'm a Christian, a youth mentor, a former atheist and lover of science. :)

There are many many Christians who are big fans of science (like me, for example).

I think that a smart approach might be to try and find a mentor for her who shares her religious values and shares yourl ove of science. There are many of us out there in all walks of life.

Someone in that "sweet spot" may have an easier time connecting with a young person like the one you're describing.

Calling her or her values "stupid" is a pretty sure way to demage your relationship with this young person.
posted by DWRoelands at 4:58 AM on January 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'd say to taker her to a good science museum or event. You don't have to be in a big city to find one. Many big universities offer programs for the public in astronomy, biology, or physics. It may be worth a day trip to a good museum in a nearby city because they always engage kids in a very immediate way.

You may not be able to change her mind about her beliefs but you can expose her to the wonders of science. Arguing with a teenager about the craziness of her beliefs will get you nowhere.
posted by JJ86 at 5:53 AM on January 6, 2011

the only cure for ignorance is education.
posted by chicago2penn at 5:55 AM on January 6, 2011

Chiming in that calling her beliefs stupid is a bad idea. She's 14. All of her ideas are completely, 100% and absolutely true; those which are opposed by adults may be up to 150% true. This would be irrespective of whether those beliefs concerned religion or eyeliner.

Engaging curiosity, encouraging questions, and if there are practical demonstrations that she can prove to herself then go for it. I like DWRoelands idea a lot - stuff like this is always better not coming from adults. Are there any science-loving churches around you? If you could find someone who was around college age (and thus cooler than any High School friends) who could do cool science stuff with her that would probably be more effective than any boring grown-up stuff.

And I'm saying this as an atheist, because I can remember being 14; anyone who challenged any of my ill-advised political beliefs at that point merely entrenched them. But encouragement to think, to read, to research, allowed me to make my own informed choices and change my mind myself.
posted by Coobeastie at 5:59 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Society for Ordained Scientists might have some ideas.
posted by JanetLand at 6:02 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Call her bluff. Just say you don't believe her. She should be secretly impressed. If she isn't impressed by your confrontation, then she is free convince you of her position and this effort will fail her. You will do her more service by calling her out than indulging a false position masked by sincerity.
posted by Brian B. at 6:18 AM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

I personally would relentlessly hound her every time I saw her using a cell phone, refrigerator, car, any pen better than a quill or stick, computer, television, etc. I would also spend a lot of time musing on the horrible ways one might die from very simple causes without medicine or doctors. But that's pretty awful advice.

The better thing to do, I think, would be to call that church she went to, explain the problem, and see if the pastor can find a doctor or teacher or IT person in the congregation that would like to talk to her about why refusing to use a map makes you an idiot, not a Christian.

Even if she's just being a shit, this should be a wake-up call that you have to own the things that come out of your mouth.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:26 AM on January 6, 2011

the connection between continental drift and the garden of eden is through the valley of i-don't-want-to-do-the tutoring-because-only-stupid-people-need-a-tutor (among other things.) just mentioning the word stupid will only confirm why she doesn't want to do the tutoring in the first place.

also, she gets good training at home baiting both sides of this argument since her mom and dad likely split over this (among other things.)

in short: you are being 'trolled' by a 14 year old. don't react, don't let it get to you, don't get distracted from talking about geography into a culture-war debate with a teenager primed for it by her parents.
posted by at 6:33 AM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

You could (should) start by pointing out that the Theory of Evolution says nothing about humans coming from monkeys.

Explaining what evolution really is could change her views pretty severely.
posted by timdicator at 6:41 AM on January 6, 2011

Looking past all the mind numbing religious issues, I too was once a 14 year old girl who hated science. It may be that she's using the "I don't believe in science" to cover up the "I don't understand science and it makes me feel like an idiot. If I hide behind something I heard in church nobody can think less of me."

The thing that turned me around was a class I took called Food Science. I failed Chemistry my Senior year, of course had to go to summer school and this miraculous class was offered. Since I liked to cook it sounded like fun. Basically it was like Home Ec. except that when we cooked we had the scientific process explained to us. Boiling points, chemical reactions, all those things suddenly made sense when they were applied to food.

One of the most memorable lessons was making peanut brittle. Maybe you could make some candy with her, explaining the chemical reactions necessary to reach the soft ball and hard ball stages, things like that. It's pretty hard to deny science when you're the one controlling it.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:43 AM on January 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

Well she's just starting out so you might want to give her some slack...yes, she's really missing the bigger picture here, and its unfortunate...but she's still young and most people grow up eventually and see things differently. But you're definitely not wrong on your adult view of the world...the "scientific method" is pretty much what science is all about, and is one of the reasons the bible has survived till this day. Some guy or gal in ancient times had to experiment with papyrus to get the right combinations down for making it usable for scrolls. Someone had to figure out how to make paper by coming up with a theory and testing it to see if it'd work, what inks lasted the longest, etc. Whoever's filling her brain with the concept that science is counter-religious is off their rocker, science and religion go hand in hand...whether either side of the often childish argument likes to admit it or not.

All the scientific method is, is a disciplined method of finding facts...hardly threatening is it? Heck, its used even within the bible to some extent. It's a study of cause and effect, very simply. Now here's where it gets thrown out of proportion and hyped to be something else...some hypothesis may not mesh well with religious thinking here and there...but hey, it goes the other way around too. And many scientific principles are embraced by religion or hey maybe taken for granted. In the end however, both science and religion borrow heavily from each other. And even though they are often at odds like opposing ideas, they're really two different things entirely. Religion is a way of life, science is a means of rationalizing that life. They can coexist easily.
posted by samsara at 6:49 AM on January 6, 2011

Best answer: Continuing the comment JimmyJames linked to, I find that when I have students who don't seem interested in what I'm teaching, it really helps to find out about them. People love to talk about themselves, share their own stories, especially teenagers and young adults (I teach college students). Once someone feels respected as an individual, they start to enjoy conversation. If a student is poor at math, they sometimes think that I believe they're not good at anything, but when I listen to them talk about what they _are_ good at, they gain confidence and become more amenable to what Im trying to teach them. Really, truly believe that other people have valuable things to say, and they'll start to believe the same thing about you.
posted by monkeymadness at 6:55 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I teach bio in a very religious town. I get lots of statements like that. I tell my kiddos that answers involving religion are inappropriate in class and my expectations are that in science, they answer with science-based information and that I promise I won't try to change their religious beliefs. However, some kids take it too far. One girl, in my (AP Bio class!) once handed me a bunch of print outs about how the Bible proves dinosaurs were alive w/ humans. So I go to Talk Origins and for each of the points in her article I printed out the counter point. She didn't feel attacked by me because I just handed her someone else's responses. As a teacher, it changed how I do things though - I now emphasize evolution in way more depth throughout the year.
posted by adorap0621 at 6:56 AM on January 6, 2011

I wanted to shake her and day, "don't be one of the stupid people!"

Why SHOULD she believe in Science (or, rather, the findings of Science)? She's never seen an animal evolve. So she doesn't have the evidence of her senses. And if she believed in it because "a lot of smart people say it's true," then that would be just a form of faith.

I think there are a lot of people out there who believe in Science for reasons that have little to do with rigorous thinking, logic or empiricism. They believe in it because, though they don't understand it very well, they want to be part of The Club of Smart People. Saying "I believe in Science" is a sort of club membership. Other people believe in Science because they've been fucked over by religion. They were tortured in church, so they defected and went over to the other side. Their belief in Science is not a thorough understanding of the Scientific method. It's a show of team spirit.

Of course, there ARE reasons to trust what Biologists say, but those reasons aren't obvious to most 14-year-olds (or even to many 40-year-olds). Try getting into a conversation with an average "smart" adult sometime. Ask him why he believes in Evolution. Some will be able to give you good reasons. For many, it will come down to faith-based personality cults ("because Darwin proved it!")

Here's something that really saddens me: if you ask a lot of grownups whether they believe in Evolution, a lot of them will say yes. If you ask them about people who don't believe in it, they'll call those people stupid. If you ask them to explain Evolution to you, they won't be able to do it. (They'll be able to give you a really high-level description of one sort of animal changing into another, but that's it.) To me, believing in Science because "it's what smart people do" is worse than not believing in it at all. Why? Because the whole point of science is to NOT take things on faith this way.

The way to get someone to believe in Science -- if it's possible -- is to DO Science with her. Don't start with some sort of lofty experiment that proves Natural Selection or the age of the Earth or the size of the cosmos. Those grand studies, that appeal to many of us who already love Science, are off-the-beaten track of what most everyday Science is about. And starting a neophyte with them is like giving an illiterate person "Hamlet" as his first book to work through.

Ask her how many packets of sugar it would take to fill up a small cup. Have her guess. That guess is a hypothesis.

Have her open up the suger packets and dump their contents into the cup until its full, counting how many it takes. Did she confirm or deny her hypothesis.

Let's say it takes 35 packets. Ask her if she thinks this is always the case (with this brand of sugar). In other words, would 35 OTHER packets also fill a cup of the same size? What if there's a variable amount of sugar in the packets? Give her $20 and ask her if she'd be willing to risk it betting (double or nothing) that it always takes 35 packets. (Say you'll try it five times, and she'll have to give up her money if it takes more or less than 35 packets even one of those times.) Ask her if she'd feel more comfortable risking it (or choosing not to risk it) if you and she repeated the experiment ten times before the bet.

Repeat it ten times. Write down the average number of sugar packets it takes to fill a cup. Ask her how confident she feels now about the fact that it takes an average of 35. Ask her about how her confidence now compares to her earlier guess, before she'd tried it.

Invite a friend over -- a friend who knows nothing about the sugar packets. Ask the friend to guess how many sugar packets it takes to fill the cup. Say the friend guesses 100. Which is more trustworthy, this new friend's guess or your experimental data? Given that the data is more trustworthy (make this emotionally clear by betting again), doesn't experimentation have at least SOME value?

(It would be great if you invited ANOTHER friend over and asked him to bet, 35 vs 100. Ask your 14-year-old to explain to this new person why going with her 35 makes more sense than going with the first friend's bet of 100. If she says, "you should go with 35, because we tried it ten times, and it always took 35 packets," she's arguing for Science.)

It's vital that your 14-year-old understands that THIS is Science. This is not something kinda like Science or a toy Science. It's actual Science. So many people get at Science from the wrong end. They START with the lofty stuff: Natural Selection and so on. That's starting to learn Math with Linear Algebra without first learning to add. There's absolutely NO reason to trust that Natural Selection is true if you don't first trust the basic rules of Science. In fact, I would say that someone is smart to not trust Science if she hasn't been through "basic training."

(A lot of us Science geeks first fell in love with Science through Science Fiction. That's fine, but it's important to note that not everyone goes through this process. And though our love of "Star Trek" or whatever was great, because it eventually led us to Einstein and Darwin, let's admit what that love was: romanticism. Someone who "believes in Science" because he loves the USS Enterprise but doesn't know anything about the Scientific Method does not really believe in Science -- he believes in a certain kind of romance or coolness or escapism.)

As a next step, ask her to guess how many M&Ms it takes to fill the cup. After she guesses, tell her that you actually tried it yesterday, and it took 18. Tell her that you're not going to let her try it for herself right now, but give her some money and ask her if she'd rather bet it on her guess or your experimentally-derived 18. As always, make this very real: open up a packet and say you're going to pour it into a cup. She can bet on her guess your 18. She'll lose the money if she guesses wrong. If she says she'll go with 18, because she trusts the results of your earlier experiment say, "What if I did the experiment wrong, or what if I'm lying?"

This is a really important thing to consider. If some Nobel-prize winner from Cal Tech says he's found out how to time travel, why should we believe him?

Now email five friends who you also asked to do the M&M experiment. Have them report their findings. When they all say 18 (or some average that's close to that), ask her how confidently she'd bet her money, now. Ask her why she's more confident that 18 is the right answer.

THIS is so much more important that whether or not someone believes in Evolution. Evolution has become a symbol. But it's not the be-all-and-end-all of Science. (It's a VERY important theory, of course, and a lot hinges on it. But it's not synonymous with Science.) And, again, if you manage to get her to believe in Evolution, that's not necessarily a win for Science. It could just be a win for Team Smart or Team "Fuck you, Preacher Man!"

For emotional reasons, she may not be ready to accept Evolution now. Don't worry about it. Give her basic training in the Scientific Method -- and an understanding of why we can generally trust repeated findings of experiments we didn't conduct ourselves -- and she'll have the necessary life skill. At some point, when she's ready, she may apply that skill to her thinking about Evolution.

As always, good teaching is about giving students tools -- not on persuading them to use them. THAT'S something each person must decide to to (or not) on her own.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on January 6, 2011 [33 favorites]

Best answer: 1. Tell her the purpose of science is to learn about the rules by which God's universe operates, and to explore and show the world the infinite wonder of God's creation. As suggested above, stress the fact that many devout Christians were skilled scientists. Explain what "science" means: the scientific method.

2. Don't try to take the offensive and try to smack down her beliefs. That will just cause her to dig in deeper. If you wouldn't take such an argument to a church full of people at Sunday mass, there's no need to raise it here. Instead, take a defensive position and disabuse her of specific misconceptions about what "science" believes (e.g., "scientists believe we came from monkeys"). That will at least show that the word of her teachers is indeed fallible.

3. Ask her what virtues are most highly favored in Christianity. When she gets to charity and helping the poor, give her examples of advances in science that have saved literally BILLIONS of lives: In agriculture alone, take the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, or the work of Norman Borlaug. Science does far more good for humanity than harm. Should be easy enough to counter any opposition to that statement.

4. Inquire as to whether she has objections to Physics, Chemistry, Math, or any other science that has little or no controversial content, and remind her that it is not fair to dismiss all sciences based on her objections to Biology. Also draw to her attention that archaeology is just as much a , and draw her attention to the fact that archaeological expeditions in Israel and elsewhere are giving support to much of the text of the Bible, with the conclusion being that science proves God's word, not disproves it.

5. Don't give up on this girl. You are a mentor to her because she needs guidance. Here's your big chance to guide her.
posted by holterbarbour at 7:13 AM on January 6, 2011

Reasoning might be a useful tool; enthusiasm alone often doesn't work. I tried this with my younger sister (also in her early teens) over the winter holidays, who I've been very concerned about lately; she doesn't seem interested in learning anything, she chatters constantly, but she's very friendly and bubbly with everyone.

So when we had a day out together on Christmas Eve, we had a conversation where I gently pointed out that she could do anything- anything! she wanted, if she'd put the work in for it. I got a little animated, (being pretty excited about science as a whole) pointing to a nearby tree and saying that if she wanted, she could learn about the cell processes and photosynthetic complexes that send those wooden branches arcing towards the sky, or that she could understand why the sky is blue, or why the sun rises. I was desperate to show her that knowledge led to understanding.

She gave me a sort of odd, pitying look and said "You sound like my English teacher." Then she went back to looking out of the window.
posted by malusmoriendumest at 7:25 AM on January 6, 2011

She gave me a sort of odd, pitying look and said "You sound like my English teacher." Then she went back to looking out of the window.

I would feel the same way if someone said, "You know, you can learn all about the rules of football!" or "You can learn all about tax law!"

Pedagogical approches based around what the TEACHER is into will almost always fail. But the cool thing about Science is that it really does hook into most subjects. It hooks into sports, fashion, food, history, music, socializing, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 7:34 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Call her bluff. Just say you don't believe her. She should be secretly impressed. If she isn't impressed by your confrontation, then she is free convince you of her position and this effort will fail her. You will do her more service by calling her out than indulging a false position masked by sincerity.

Agreed. She is likely just doing that thing that adolescents to where they "try on for size" various personalities and belief systems.

Another more sarcastic tack would be to say "well, I don't believe you exist." She will be incredulous, and then you say "believing something doesn't make it true. Science is about testing what we see to find out the truth, regardless of what we thought. Science gets things wrong all the time, because we are learning new things all the time."

You could also go into the difference between the scientific method and that kind of science, and the "science" we see in news reports and on TV. Writing a paper that says something is plausible, given a presumption, is a lot different from running experiments and getting results.
posted by gjc at 7:34 AM on January 6, 2011

I did something interesting a couple years ago.

I actually looked up the "scientific evidence" that was being proposed to support Creationism and the Young Earth hypothesis, and did my own, just-the-facts investigation; after which, my acceptance of evolutionary theory and such remained standing.

But it acquainted me with a couple of really important things: I got to see the evidence that Creationism was putting forth for its theories, and I got to see that it wasn't as completely nuts as others would have you believe. There are holes in the evidence that evolution puts forth -- but they're holes that get explained if you go a couple steps further and look somewhere else. Similarly, there are some points to the Creationist argument that hold up at first blush -- until you go a couple steps further in a different direction, and explain why "but if you take this into account, it doesn't work that way after all".

The problem that this debate often runs into is, people are all too often getting emotional about it. Calling her "stupid" is just going to make her want to cling to her position, and when it's a position that has some grains of scientific fact to them, she is going to feel even more justified. Which is why the calm approach is probably going to work -- "okay, let's look at what you've got for evidence. Okay, this point here -- yeah, that's true. But let's test that...and if we test it, we have to introduce this other point. Ah, but look -- when you introduce this other point, then that cancels out this first point, so this doesn't work after all. Okay, well, now we know."

Testing the creationism theories on their own merits, and doing so calmly, will not only tell her "science isn't telling you this is the case just to be mean, they're doing this because they've checked this stuff out," but it will also send the message that you respect her as a person, which may also be something she's wrestling with now. By staying calm, and respecting these ideas enough to give them their fair day in the court of science, you're showing her that it's not about whether someone is "stupid". It's just about what does and doesn't test out.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:52 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am a christian from the type of church background where you would frequently hear, 'Don't believe in science'. But it means something different than you might think. It means something more like, 'Don't trust the scientists that they're right, because most / many of them are out to prove christianity wrong.'

In this kind of christian circle, 'science' is not seen as a discipline, but as an opposing religion. Therefore, everything that they say (even if true), is seen as a lie. After all, the devil twists the truth a bit. You need to present the fact that science isn't a religion or a belief system - it can also be dangerous to present the 'scientific method' as this sounds like a belief system or dogma. (Ignoring the fact that there isn't one single 'scientific method' anyway).

So, agree where you can: 'It's good to challenge ideas that are presented to you: scientists do this with each other all the time.'
Expound where you can: 'Most scientists are not out to prove each other wrong, or to prove christianity wrong (although some might be).', 'Most scientists are honest, and if science supported something in the bible, then they wouldn't try to hide that fact.', etc.
Lightly approach the idea, that when something seems to contradict what we each believe, instead of avoiding it, we should consider why it contradicts what we believe. This might seem scary, since some science certainly is in the opposite direction from what we are taught, and from what the bible says or seems to say. But maybe those topics aren't that important right now. Maybe (controversial, I know) it's ok to believe in creation. But most of science is concerned with stuff that ultimately leads to TVs, computers, kitchen counter tops, toilet paper, thinner paper for bibles with nicer printing that's easy to read. Even translation of the bible into English is science. That's when we discover that the bible said the earth was rotating and in space, at a time when people *thought* the bible said it was flat and had four corners.

Trump card: 'Science just means knowledge. We all want to know the truth. God wants you to know the truth. The truth will set you free.'
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:01 AM on January 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

PS: You may hit a problem if you try to point out how many scientists are christians. They may turn out to be the 'wrong sort' or 'not real christians' in her world-view, and this will merely confirm that science is bad.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 8:05 AM on January 6, 2011

I'm inclined to agree with grumblebee and I think that many of the answers in this thread, seeking some way to insist to her that science is right about particular things, propose a bad and probably ineffective approach.

I would start off by agreeing with her and say that yes, anything that science says might well be wrong. Because a "true" scientist, that is a genuinely empirical thinker, ought to accept the possibility that any given conclusion of science might be utterly and completely wrong. That needs to be unhesitatingly and unflinchingly acknowledged and accepted, not shied away from as something that might weaken science's authority or make an argument difficult or anything of that sort - it is part of the essence of science and empiricism that everything is "just a theory", nothing is sacrosanct or beyond questioning and revision, and that when we're talking in these terms we're not dealing in Truth with a capital "T".

In practical demonstration it's probably easier than anything else to see with the example of quantum physics: my impression is that many physicists would themselves be unwilling to say that our quantum physics is "real"; that although it's all the result of data from real, reproducible experiments, there's not a great deal of confidence that the model we've created based upon that data is what the actual underlying mechanism producing these phenomena is like. Einstein, for example, rejected even the fairly bare-bones Copenhagen interpretation of quantum phenomena and stuck to the "ensemble" interpretation that doesn't rise very far above the level of description: "when you do x, y happens." Our current understanding and concepts like "probability clouds" and "wave function collapse" are probably an approximation of what's going on under a fairly narrow set of circumstances that are visible to us, the tip of the iceberg in the same way that Newtonian physics was an approximation of General Relativity.

Basically, it sounds to me like what your mentor-ee (is that a word?) is seeing now is that science is a relatively analogous, equivalent, alternative to religion: it's just a different kind of revealed truth, one that fits very well into a religious mindset of good-versus-evil, holiness-versus-worldliness narrative. But science is not some sort of alternative religion: it's a wholly different thing, an empirical methodology where any person could re-do all of the experiments, from the very beginning, and see with their own eyes the exact chain of reasoning that leads to any given conclusion, and examine and verify that every experiment was designed and undertaken with the explicit and honest proposition that the hypothesis being tested is only one among several possibilities.

So you shouldn't play that game, don't even engage her on that level. Don't try to assert rightness or truth to science or particular scientific conclusions, not even in some limited "the physical world is the domain of science, the spiritual world is the domain of religion" scope.

Play another game entirely and just get her to see that, right or wrong, true or false, science is a very different thing from religion. Concede that it's certainly wrong very frequently, indeed all the time, but show her what scientific and empirical inquiry is in the most fundamental sense and how she has a right to demand things from scientific facts and conclusions, things like reproducibility and even falsifiability - there must be a clear and methodical, straightforward way that any science can be questioned and disproven, even attacked, by a scientist's peers - things that can't be demanded from revealed truth.

On preview - there ya go, as blue_wardrobe is saying, there's this whole "culture war" science-versus-religion thing you don't want to get sucked into or appear to be a partisan in.
posted by XMLicious at 9:13 AM on January 6, 2011

Best answer: Working off of what blue-wardrobe said about the 'wrong sort' of Christians; this girl should probably be made more familiar Saint Thomas Aquinas. It is kind of hard to argue that a saint is the 'wrong sort' of Christian.

I particularly like this line: "Thomas viewed theology, or the sacred doctrine, as a science..." and I think you would both find the article that statement cites to be very interesting.

That gets to be some fun logic:
-I don't believe in science because I'm religious
-Theology is a type of science
-Therefore, I don't believe in Theology
-Therefore, I can't be religious
posted by VTX at 9:16 AM on January 6, 2011

Best answer: Don't. Really, just don't. It doesn't sound like you are particularly qualified or empowered, with this child, to engage in either the defense of the general intellectual reliability of science (which is in fact an extremely complicated topic, and consequently simplistic presentations of it are especially vulnerable to logically deficient but rhetorically effective attacks) or in criticism of particular religious positions on science. It is quite likely this child is in the influence of people who are more than equipped to rhetorically dismantle your makeshift defense of science and/or critique of creationism. Don't talk to her about what a Christian can believe unless you are in fact a Christian who believes that. Don't play rhetorical games around religion at all, it's well beyond your appropriate boundaries.

Just do your best to encourage questions and critical thinking skills. There are a million rhetorical tricks to attack specific ideas and arguments so in the arena of rhetoric it's going to boil down to who has the most access and training and the investment in putting a particular message into her head, which is not going to be you. But rhetorical tricks can't overcome critical reasoning ability. Certainly address specific comments, i.e. if someone said to me "I don't believe in science" I would probably say something like "but isn't all medicine, and all technology, based on science?" Rather than trying to get to the root of a particular objection, which is carrying you right to the heart of disputed, partisan, controversial and well-defended territory, you are simply engaging her mind in realizing that there are probably lots of things she values or believes in that are driven by science, and that she can't engage in a universal statement without painting with a much broader brush than she can justify. In the end you're not going to form her beliefs and opinions on this subject. Work to help her develop the best mind and habits of thinking you can and she will have to do the rest.
posted by nanojath at 9:16 AM on January 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Seconding everything blue_wardrobe said. I was also a teenager who did not believe in science. My (insane) fundamentalist Christian father gave me anti-science books to read, anti-evolution videos to watch, and generally instilled in me a distrust of teachers who were trying to "prove" their worldview was right, and mine was wrong.

I didn't just have trouble in biology, though. I also had problems in history, and English, and in any class where ideas were discussed.

It is very difficult to teach someone who believes you're trying to teach her evil. When I was a kid, I saw my science teachers as opponents. Same went for the English teacher who made the class read Inherit the Wind, about the Scopes trial.

There is really not much you can do, in my opinion, to alter a person's worldview. It will happen, or it won't. And it's really hard, and really unpleasant, when people don't take you seriously or accuse you of being stupid or ignorant.

It might help to try to engage this young woman on little topics that don't challenge her fundamental beliefs -- in God and the Garden of Eden and Noah's ark and Jesus rising from the dead. You'll be surprised, though, at what seemingly innocuous statements might make her cringe. You could do a gravity experiment with her, and she might like it, or she might think, "Just because they got gravity right, they think I'm going to fall for evolution, too." You could tell her what Einstein said about God, but she might think, "Yeah, except Einstein wasn't Christian." Really, if she is deeply involved in a religious movement that rejects science completely, you'll probably find she has already set up a series of mental blockades against 90 percent of what you might be able to teach her.

Even after I left the church for good I never really caught science. By that time I was out of high school and into college, where science classes were not at all accessible for someone who spent so long struggling against the idea of science that she never learned the basics.

The problem is that you've got a mentee who may see every challenge as a threat. Start small, maybe with Copernicus and Galileo -- your pupil probably does not think that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the earth stands still, and she might find the story of the Catholic church's reaction interesting. Especially considering the timing: Copernicus and Galileo were working around the same time as the Protestant Reformation. It would be interesting to see what Martin Luther and John Calvin thought of their ideas, or of their processes.

The one teacher I had in school who really tried to work with me, in spite of my crazy Calvinism, never tried to dissuade me from my beliefs. He only insisted that, along with all the outside reading I was doing about Calvin and Knox and Cromwell, I also read things written by people who held opposing beliefs. You can never fully understand a thing unless you understand all sides, he said. He really emphasized the importance of knowing all the arguments, whether you agree with them or not.

And that is how I ended up reading Robert Reich and Gloria Steinem, which is how I ended up leaving fundamentalism behind.
posted by brina at 9:47 AM on January 6, 2011 [7 favorites]

The Sacred Balance
posted by kch at 10:07 AM on January 6, 2011

@vtx: Precisely because Thomas Aquinas is called a 'saint' might be why this girl could equate him to 'not a christian'. In evangelical christianity, the word 'saint' equates to 'christian', i.e. every believer is a saint, and there is no special class of believer called a 'Saint'.

For many fundamentalist evangelicals (not all), figures such as Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, etc. and other great theologians prior to Wesley or thereabouts, are moderatey respected for *some* of their thoughts, but moderately likely to be wrong on the rest of their theology. The New Testament apostles are generally supposed to have had the same theology as modern evangelicals. But Paul, for example, wouldn't be called 'Saint Paul' in the sense of having been canonized. Was he a saint? Yes, because he was a believer.

This is not a criticism, but an explanation, of this perspective. It is somewhat more egalitarian than many other christian worldviews. But it means that no particular historical figure's views, apart from Paul's, Peter's, etc. in the New Testament and of course, Jesus', himself, would be particularly esteemed by many modern evangelicals. So don't appeal to too many famous people, Saints, or otherwise - they are just as likely to be considered wrong.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 10:43 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

My son loves science and wants to be a biologist. He won some awards at school for his native curiosity and science fair projects and all the rest.

The girl he is best friends with (and attracted to) comes from a family who truly believes God created Earth ~5000 years ago.

He will explain to her, rationally, carbon dating and fossils and all the rest. She will listen to him, pretty much argue that "science doesn't know everything", and they come to a point where they just let it go and agree to disagree. It frustrates him that she won't accept factual data. She thinks he just needs to have more faith.

In this girl's case, the fact that she herself believes her family is "crazy religious" is on your side. Do not get worked up. Just be rational and give her the facts... but recognize that if it doesn't work, you have done all you can do.
posted by misha at 10:56 AM on January 6, 2011

I like the idea of side-stepping the evolution aspect and focusing on the more fundamental elements of what makes science tick.

A good subject for this, I think, is astronomy, because it's still within the realm of things people intuitively can grasp, but the scales are such that they must employ the combination of reasoning and observing to figure it out, rather than just directly observe everything. She's obviously never been to the sun, but would she reject the idea that the Earth orbits the sun and not the other way around?

Talk about Eratosthenes trying to prove the Earth was round and calculate its size, without having traveled around it. How would you try to determine the size of each planet's orbit, including Earth, when you could only observe from Earth? (Now I'm genuinely curious about that last one.)
posted by RobotHero at 10:58 AM on January 6, 2011

I grew up in the bible belt in a really, really small town. Lots of people believe the things that this young woman does. If the topics of evolution or plate tectonics come up again, don't be horrified by her reaction. You might say something like, 'God could have easily set up the conditions for all of these things to happen. Many of our greatest scientists were and are devout Christians.' You don't need to use logic or try and defeat her blindness--that won't work. What you need to do is give her subconscious a way out. If she says that she doesn't believe in it, tell her that you do and that science doesn't have to be anti-Christian. Don't even try and explain why or how, just let her know that it doesn't have to be the way she thinks it needs to be. You're up against a force here though--if she tells her parents, they might want her to stop seeing you because you are promoting the devil.
posted by 200burritos at 11:39 AM on January 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, given the context of when she brought this up, I probably would have just laughed and asked, "But you believe in Africa, right?" Were these particularly scientific maps? Do you have any indication why she would have brought it up *at that moment?*
posted by RobotHero at 11:45 AM on January 6, 2011

I hope someone is still reading this, as it has taken me a rather long time to read through this, however I would suggest you introduce her to home chemistry. Chemistry is great as there is not much belief involved: You do an experiment, you get a result. Well, as long as you stay away from quantum chemistry. You do have to believe the equipment you are using, but I digress.

There are all sorts of fun home chem experiments that you can find on the net, though some of the materials can be a touch tricky to get these days due to the lack of true home chemistry sets. However doing stuff like lighting a $20 bill on fire without it burning, turning an old glass coke bottle silver, heat activated invisible ink, heck, making a hydrogen balloon from water (then blowing it up of course.) They are fun to do (or at least I think so, but then again I'm studying chemistry), impressive and very very 'science' and hard to disbelieve, since, well, you just did the experiment and can do it again.

Physics has a couple of cool ones as well: Check out crystal radios, orange clocks and cloud chambers, though for the last one to be impressive you need a alpha source like an old radium watch or a chunk of uranium ore (the second is probably cheaper to get and you don't have to worry about damaging it.)

Honestly, pouring beans into a jar? boring. Making fire and crystals and such? Seeing radiation (well, the contrail it leaves), hearing radio waves? Much more interesting. But that could just be why I'm going into synthetic chemistry and not analytical chemistry.
posted by Canageek at 3:51 PM on January 7, 2011

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