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Science, religion and how things came to be

By Katy Barnett - posted Tuesday, 6 April 2010

I think I’ve said before [in my blog] that I was raised by scientists. When possible, I try to explain things scientifically to my children. Obviously there’s a limit to their understanding at this point, but when they were scared of thunder and lightning recently, I told my daughter it wasn’t monsters (as she feared) but electricity in the sky, caused by hot air hitting cold air.

When my daughter was asking why ice turned into water, I explained the concept of change of state to her. I explained that ice, water and steam were all made up of the same little tiny invisible pieces, but the difference was in how fast they were moving. The explanation ran thusly:

When the water was made cold, the little pieces got much more still and close together (making the water solid - ice). When the water was made hot, the little pieces whizzed around very fast and were very far apart (making the water into a gas - steam). When the water was normal temperature, the little pieces were able to move around quite a lot, slipping and sliding, making them liquid. Then I drew a diagram to show the difference. My daughter then copied my diagram herself and showed her father, and explained it to him. Daddy, who is also a scientist, was most impressed.


My mother was over and observed the diagram. “I think they should teach change of state as soon as possible,” she said approvingly. “It’s a fundamental concept. Instead, they don’t introduce it until Year 10.” I was totally shocked.

How far should we try to teach things scientifically to our children? What kind of credence should we give to other explanations (myth or religious explanation)? When I was telling my daughter about the lightning, I said that some people in the olden days thought there was a big man called Thor sitting in the clouds throwing lightning bolts down like spears, but this wasn’t true. Still, his name is where we get the name of thunder from (the proto-Germanic word *thunaraz gave rise to Old Norse Þorr, German donner, Dutch donder as well as Old English Þunor which turned into thunder).

The Australian reported on February 27, 2010:

School students will learn about Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, Chinese medicine and natural therapies but not meet the periodic table of elements until Year 10 under the new national science curriculum.

The curriculum, obtained by ‘The Weekend Australian’, directs that students from primary school through to Year 10 be taught the scientific knowledge of different cultures, primarily indigenous culture, including sustainable land use and traditional technologies.

I find it very interesting that indigenous myth and legend incorporates important information about the land and the people’s observations about the environment about them. It’s a valid form of knowledge. But … it isn’t really science, except in the most broad terms (in that it is an observation about how the world works). I don’t think indigenous myth and legend should be taught as science.

Science means “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method”. Scientific method means carrying out experiments to ascertain how the world works. It is a particular product of the Western Enlightenment.


The idea is that you put up a hypothesis as to how a particular thing works, and you test that hypothesis. If you are seeking to establish the impact of sunlight on plant growth, for example, you may do a “control” experiment where you put a plant in normal conditions to show what happens if you change nothing. Other plants may be in the dark or in half light. Then you take the data and you draw a conclusion from it. It’s important to keep in mind Karl Popper’s "falsibility”. You can never actually confirm a scientific hypothesis, but if you disprove your thesis, it is decisive: it shows the thesis to be false. What can a scientist conclude then? A scientist can only conclude that for the time being the facts seem to be consistent with her thesis and thus her thesis has not been disproven.

Aboriginal myth and legend is not a series of scientific experiments. It is a religious, legal and spiritual explanation of the world which depends upon faith and cultural practice. Some of the elements of that explanation may match up with conclusions of the Western scientific method, which is very interesting, and shows that some parts of myth and legend may have a basis in empirical observation.

My parents recounted that when they visited Uluru, they were told by the non-indigenous guide in reverent terms that a particular cave was “Mala putu” (Mala’s pouch or the pouch of the female hare-wallaby). That’s not a scientific explanation of the cave, and it is not the pouch of the female hare-wallaby. However, some people believe that explanation, and their faith is fine by me. Just don’t try to pass it off as science or reality.

My worry is that if you start putting such observations up as science, you may end up having to give fair play to other non-scientific explanations of the world. Specifically, you are leaving it open to people to start claiming that their particular religious explanation of how the world was created is “scientific”. Do you end up having to give fair play to Ken Ham’s “Creation Museum” as “science”? Because that ain’t science. It’s faith.

I think the reason behind the desire to put indigenous culture into science teaching is a desire to make up for the oppression and ill-treatment of indigenous people in the past. There’s no doubt that indigenous forms of knowledge were disrespected, and indigenous people were written off as “savages” who were not worthy of being treated as equal human beings. (Although I note that whitefellas learned pretty quickly to be respectful of blackfella knowledge if they got stuck in the bush or needed a tracker to follow someone). But you don’t need to say that indigenous beliefs are scientific in order to give them respect.

Just because woo-woo is believed by people who have historically been victims doesn’t make it any less woo than the Abrahamic religions. It’s still woo, not science.

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First published in Skeptic Lawyer on February 27, 2010

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About the Author

Dr Katy Barnett is a lawyer, blogger and lecturer at the University of Melbourne. She lives in Melbourne, Australia and blogs at Skepticlawyer.

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