Sunday, October 2, 2011

Are they really that stupid?

About a year ago, I came across an example page out of a "Christian Science" textbook.  To be exact, it was a textbook published by Bob Jones University expressly for use by Christian homeschooling parents.  This particular page scan was actually a margin note/caption about the nature of electricity.  Here, you can see the actual scan from BJU's great and wonderful 4th-grade level "science" textbook.
There are just so many things wrong with that... where do I begin?  Oh yeah!  About the same place I begin with Bill O'Reilly's insane argument that the tides are an unexplained phenomena!

Are these people for real?  Electricity is a mystery?  No one has ever observed it?  I guess all those electron streams I shot inside a vacuum chamber and manipulated with varying fields in my 100-level quantum mechanics courses don't count as "observation."  Is it really all that mysterious?  I mean...  I always thought it was the force delivered by photons which are generated from the difference of potential across a field when these regions of different electric potential are connected by any medium through which charged particles can move and/or exchange energy (i.e. a conductor).  Silly me.  I should have realized that nobody knows what it is!

When I first saw it, the main modes of critique are just the nature of how it even expresses the mystery in the first place.  Seeing, hearing, and feeling?  What kind of question is that?  It is stated as if we expect electricity to be a tangible thing.  I don't think anybody views something like kinetic energy as a tangible thing, or gravity as tangible, but we are able to observe and quantify it, and we have a fairly thorough understanding of how it works.  The passage points out as well that we are all aware of electricity's effects in telephones, light bulbs, etc.  It seems to ignore the fact that we also know exactly WHY electricity can do those things, and how it can be controlled to have the specific effect you're looking for.  Is this the sort of thing that's really possible if it is indeed such a mysterious and poorly understood thing?

That too, the question of "what electricity is like"...  What it's like?!?  What sort of description are these writers expecting?  "Electricity is kind of wet and squishy and smells like old shoes"?  Being like something implies some sort of comparison, and it is sort of valid to say that there is not really a thing which you could compare to electricity.  Okay, we have things like the "flow" of electrical current, but that doesn't mean we can compare electricity to fluids.  Trying to ask what electricity "is like" is no more meaningful of a question than asking what the square root of a pickle is ; of course you're going to get a stupid answer if you ask a stupid question!  The biggest flaw though, is to take the very loose and very weak understanding of the layman and argue that this is pretty much the limit of what scientists know.  I can probably accept that it is true that the average layman doesn't know what electricity is, but that doesn't mean people who are remotely scientifically literate don't...  just as it isn't the case that Bill O'Reilly's horrifyingly poor understanding of tides doesn't mean that scientists hadn't already answered that question a few centuries before he was born.

Recently, though, this same excerpt was brought up in some radio programs and one person raised an interesting point recently about this particular thing.  Electricity, here, is being used as an analogy for their god.  The idea is to say that you don't understand it...  can't taste, smell, hear, see, or touch it...  but it's there, and you can see its effects.  Which is pretty much their analogy to "God."  You can't see any gods, nor can you detect one by any means, but you can see the universe that "God" supposedly created, which can be counted as the "effects" of a creator of the universe...  therefore God exists because he's just like electricity.  It's a classic mode of double-talk.  The analogy falls apart for the obvious reason that the lack of understanding or observability of electricity are patently false.  These weren't even true statements for the scientific community around the time when electrically powered devices were a brand-new concept.  On that alone, the analogy works only so long as you lie about the very thing to which you're drawing the analogy.  But even for the layman who would understandably lacks a basic understanding of what electricity is, it still doesn't work...  because it would be true for them that they can only see the effects of electricity, and not electricity itself...  though I think many people could tell you what it feels like if they've ever received a shock before.  However, in the case of gods, we can't really do that.  It's not just that you can't prove that there is a creator called "God", but that there was even anything created in the first place.

Again, you have to lie.  Something creationists excel at.