Sunday, September 20, 2015

New Head of Vatican Observatory A Welcome Sign

Pope Francis has named Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno to be the new director of the Vatican Observatory (CNS story here). This is important because Brother Consolmagno has been outspoken in his support for "authentic science", science that is neither contrary to religious faith nor beholden to any particular political interests. It can be difficult to find either one of these properties in a lot of current scientific talk, especially in the popular scientific media, though in point of actual practice it can be equally difficult to find fault with the work of any one particular scientist regarding these points. The difficulty, in my opinion, lies rather in science reporting and in the trash-talk, for lack of a better term, that comes from certain quarters of the blogosphere (on both sides of the issue).

The dialogue between science and religion has not always been helped by dialogue, either from scientists who are religious or from religious writers who admire science, because it can be difficult to play both sides of this street in today's overwrought ideological climate--this is a climate one can fervently hope will change very drastically in the near future, but so far there's not much hope for that, since this climate and its potential for change are very much matters of anthropogenesis. In most cases there is never any genuine need "to play both sides of the street", but in many cases no matter what one says, there will be some audience or other somewhere accusing you of playing just one side of the street, namely the Wrong Side, the politically motivated side or the ignorant side.

I think a great deal of the blame for this situation lies at the feet of science education, though not necessarily science educators. That might seem an extraordinary thing to say: isn't it the job of the science educator, after all, to see to it that students of science are properly educated? In one sense yes, of course, but in another sense no. Every student has an obligation to learn from those who have greater expertise, but not all students approach education with this frame of mind. Many have been taught already to ignore what seems foreign to them or appears to them to contradict their deeply help shibboleths. Thus it is that we find high school and college age students already taking positions with respect to scientific controversies with social implications, even when they have virtually no education or background in the necessary science.

I'm not sure what the solution is to this problem--by the time I see students in college many of them have become rather set in their ways. The appointment of an advocate like Brother Consolmagno, however, can only be seen as a positive move forward.

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