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Exam results and existential crises

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The good news

The day finally arrived yesterday: we received our results for S104: Exploring Science. There was much excitement and anticipation in the land, and verily did we leap into the course website with glee.

I'm delighted actually - I got a distinction! I knew I'd done well, as I have achieved consistently high marks throughout the course - but the end of module assessment was genuinely tricky, so I'm really pleased.

  • Overall examinable score (OES): 87%
  • Overall continuous assessment score (OCAS): 93%

The self-indulgent navel gazing

The results come at a good time, actually, because I've been dipping - rather self-indulgently - in and out of an existential crisis over the past couple of weeks. It struck me, rather more forcibly than I would have liked, that I'm 32 years old and I am not where I thought I would be.

The fact that 1990 is more than 20 years ago keeps assaulting me in an unnecessarily violent manner. I shouldn't be old enough to remember 20 years ago, surely! I keep thinking of Britpop as a modern phenomenon.

My mortality and the foundations of my existence are at the forefront of my mind, which troubles me. Navel gazing is not becoming, nor - do I feel - is it particularly helpful if it lasts longer than about 15 minutes.

I should have been so much more than I feel that I am at the moment.

Having said that, I would not turn the clock back 15 years for anything; I'm wiser, happier and feel smarter and more attractive than I did when I was but a whippersnapper - I'm just not quite where I thought I was. Either that or the world moved sideways slightly when I wasn't looking.

I've always felt slightly out of time. The 1920s, 1940s or 1950s would have suited me much better than these modern times (female emancipation and general equality notwithstanding). The music, the clothes and the manners of the times delight me. But perhaps we are living in even more exciting times as we prepare to send human beings to another planet...

Getting my Open University results has given me a bit of a kick back onto the right track. It's only a level one course, but it was bloody hard work, and I really feel proud of myself. Roll on S216 - I'm ready for you.

And while I'm waiting for you, I'm diving headlong into books on science to try to get a head start. Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" is my current literary beau, and a splendid read it is too. I've been advised by a colleague to try a little Stephen Jay Gould as anathema to Dawkins, to see which evolutionary camp I fall into, so Amazon was duly visited, and Gould ordered. We'll see where I end up.

Where I want to be is saving the world, one turtle at a time.

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Blue hair, yellow sweater, big smile

Evolution: the genesis of enlightenment

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At what point does theory become scientific fact? When the body of evidence for outweighs the body of evidence against? Or when the body of evidence supporting the theory is so overwhelming, the mere idea of counter-evidence seems vastly unlikely?

I'm not sure. Perhaps there is no clear-cut boundary between "theory" and "fact".

Many scientists, including the scientist and atheist Professor Dawkins, the naturalist and superhero Sir David Attenborough, and Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the former president of the Royal Society, are sure that evolution is no longer a theory, but a fact.

And I agree with them.

An article in today's Daily Telegraph publicised a new campaign calling upon the Government to tackle the threat posed by creationism, or "intelligent design". The newspaper printed the word "threat" just so; with quotation marks around it. I have no compunction in calling creationism a threat, in the most worrying and real sense of the word.

Creationism is one of the more unsavoury ideas to make it over here from America - and it is truly frightening that it is becoming accepted and widely encouraged by those at the top of their political game. Not just one, but two potential presidential candidates believe that a god created the Universe in six days and rested on the seventh. This in itself is alarming; but they are encouraging the teaching of creationism in schools. Not in religious education classes, you understand; but in science classes.

New Scientist magazine calls it anti-science. I cannot think of a better term, and I see it all the time. It is not just creationism; homeopathy, chiropractors, faith healers, crystal peddlers, and those who think that AIDS can be cured by the judicious application of a cabbage are all slowly but surely getting a foothold in our day-to-day lives - occasionally such beliefs are harmless, often they are questionable, and sometimes they are downright dangerous.

There is not a shred - not one shred - of scientific evidence to support creationism. As we became more enlightened, we tried to reconcile the story of Genesis with the evidence presented by men and women of science, and that was to be commended. It led to a spectacular understanding of a spectacular Universe, made - if anything - more awesome (in the true sense of the word) the more we knew.

Evidence for the fact of evolution is everywhere: it is in the rocks in the shape of fossils; it is in biology, as we look back towards the last universal common ancestor; it is in chemistry, where we can trace molecules back to the building blocks of life. Within those enormous subject areas, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, and it is the only idea that makes sense of our planet.

More insidious than the denial of evolution is the anti-science rhetoric that accompanies it. To paraphrase Paul Nurse, who shared the Nobel prize for medicine in 2001 and who is president of the Royal Society, the following is disturbing:

  • Stem cell research, that promises to cure diseases and immeasurably improve the lives of many who suffer on a daily basis, is an evil practice that should be stopped immediately because it involves "the wholesale destruction of human life". Perhaps the irony of that one is lost on its detractors?
  • Variations in climate are "natural, cyclical environmental trends". This is true. But we CAN say with assurance that some weather change is anthropomorphic, and that human activity IS creating changes that may be irreversible. Climate problems in Texas are not best solved through "days of prayer for rain".
  • And that intelligent design is "a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science class".

Provide me with evidence, please, that intelligent design is worthy of discussion in a science class. I am not entirely happy with it having a place in a religious education class as anything other than a story from the Bible. But the idea of it being taught to children as a legitimate scientific theory makes me recoil in horror, and fills me with fear for what our future holds. We have done a lot of damage to our planet - and to humanity - over the recent past, and we cannot undo that damage without scientific advancement. We didn't understand what we were doing; now we do, and we have to understand how to solve the problems we have created. Going backwards is not the answer - it almost never is! This is not about mocking religion or those of faith, and it isn't about attacking others for their beliefs. It is about science, reason and evidence, and our future.

I do not have to prove that creationism is a fallacy - you can't provide evidence for something that doesn't exist. It is up to those expounding creationism as a legitimate theory - or as fact - to provide evidence to support it.

Faith doesn't exclude science and reason! The Reverend Professor Michael Reiss, the former president of the Royal Society who has put his name to the campaign mentioned above, has called evolution "God's doing". I know many people of faith who are intelligent, reasonable, reasoning and thinking human beings who have no trouble reconciling their belief in a god with the evidence presented by science. Why, then, are creationists forcing their beliefs into our schools, our media, our children?

There are some who would speed humanity towards a new dark age. Do not let this happen: embrace science and knowledge, make sure your children are enlightened and open minded, and stay reasonable in the face of the unreasoning.

Permalink 3 comments (latest comment by Nigel Paddon, Wednesday, 21 Sept 2011, 17:27)
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