Toward the fact of knowing

by Robin Whatley

Assistant Professor, Science and Math Department

For most of us, it isn’t possible to have direct knowledge of all of the intricate workings of our natural world. Knowledge is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “Familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study; the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered or learned.”

On the other hand, there are many questions for which scientific answers are readily available and comprehensible, with explanations no more than a Wikipedia page away. Why is the sky blue, or daffodils yellow? How do the cells in our bodies come together to form organs that can digest a potato chip or a strawberry? How does the television transmit signals into our houses that take the shapes of aliens or newscasters or cartoon characters?

Why we perceive the sky as blue or daffodils as yellow is based on the interpretation of data, that is, facts or observations about our world. Data doesn’t necessarily have any particular meaning until it is interpreted in some way that confers information.

How we know that somewhere beyond our blue sky are orbiting moons, planets, asteroids (sorry, Pluto) and other universes, lies somewhere between fact (data), trust and knowledge. While there are still many scientific questions remaining (the reason students continue to become scientists), our trust in science and scientists has been validated time and again. Validated by the development of life-saving advances in medicine, by exploration and research on energy sources and new forms of communication, by the invention of tools and technology for studying and making predictions about earth processes, and the list goes on. The science behind our trust is built upon a long history of observations, investigations and comprehensive knowledge of the

natural world.

So why, when the American public is polled about whether humans and other animals have evolved over time, does 31 percent of the public not trust that scientists are telling them the truth?

The 2009 report from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that while 97 percent of scientists accept the evolution of humans and other animals over time, only 61 percent of the public is in agreement. In 2004, a Gallup poll found that 45 percent of respondents believed that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” The Earth, however, is not young.  Geologists worldwide agree on an age of 4.54 billion years.

Science is not infallible, nor are scientists, but why is there such a dichotomy between science and popular understanding when it comes to issues of evolution? The same 2004 Gallup poll found that only 20 percent of those with a high school education or less (versus 52 percent of college graduates and 60 percent of postgraduates), and only 22 percent of weekly church attendees (versus 46 percent of those who seldom or never attend church) believed that Darwin’s theory of evolution is well supported by scientific evidence. As one Columbia student pointed out to me recently, “We are forced to choose between religion and science at a young age.”

We need to allow our own minds to gather evidence and form conclusions.

When I was in sixth grade, my teacher Mrs. Graham, introduced us to the concept that dinosaurs had existed many millions of years ago. I made the shocking connection that the Earth had to be at least as old, not merely several thousand years old as I’d been taught in church.  After a sleepless night, I asked her how it could be so. Mrs. Graham very quietly replied: “We have the scientific evidence that dinosaur fossils are millions of years old. You think about it.” And that was all she needed to say.