Thursday, May 07, 2009

Texan schools erase 13.7 billion years

Dimitrios Korres has kindly brought my attention to a Bad Astronomy article that included this fascinating video from a hearing of the Texas State Board of Education.

The lady, Ms Barbara Cargill, argues that because people sometimes estimate the age of the Universe as 12 billion years and sometimes they think it is 14 billion years, it may be better to be silent about the number of billions of years and leave the figure open to a discussion which is healthy for science, especially if the discussion ends up with the kids believing that the right figure is 6,000 years. ;-)

If I understand well, they have approved the proposal and censored the age of the Universe out of the Texan schools. The cosmology taught in Texas must be really extraordinary. :-)

These decisions are clearly driven by a religious agenda. Biology is the most frequent victim of such an agenda. For example, the lady believes that she hasn't evolved from a monkey - an animal that was different from the existing monkeys but it was more similar to them than to us. The truth is that even this lady has evolved from a monkey. The only difference between her and a subset of others is that she hasn't evolved too far. :-)

Let me talk about the truth and the nature of learning and education. Even if the age of the Universe were thought to be between 12 and 14 billion years, it would be - relatively speaking - a rather accurate number that would be grossly incompatible with any estimate that is comparable to a few thousand years. Hubble thought that the Universe was just a few billion years old. That was very far from the contemporary estimate but it was sufficient to see that the Universe was ancient.

Needless to say, the very statement that the Universe is argued to be between 12 and 14 billion years of age - even though she apparently thinks that it's just a "cold fact" - is heavily outdated. According to the five-year WMAP data (see also TRF), page 10, Table 2, the age of the Universe is
t0 = 13.69 +- 0.13 billion years.
The error margin is approximately 10 times smaller than she indicated. The new era of high-precision cosmology has allowed us to say that the Universe is 13.7 billion years old even though many of us used to read numbers between 12 and 15 billion years when we were kids.

Unlike religion, science is supposed to make progress and it is indeed making progress. And I even think that the improving figures and other insights of cutting-edge science should be periodically incorporated into the textbooks and curricula, even though the kids obviously don't have the tools to scientifically verify all the accurate numbers.

Ms Cargill says that it is more important for children to learn how to critically think and how to evaluate the evidence. And you know, I generally agree with that. Except that the fact that the Universe is billions of years old is so fundamental that if the children fail to reach this conclusion, it shows that the whole educational strategy trying to make them think has failed.

I am happy that Phil Plait admits that scientific reality is not a matter of opinion and cares not for the majority vote despite the fact that this rudimentary fact about science is inconvenient for various movements on all sides of the political spectrum.

Am I afraid that this decision will destroy cosmology, physics, or science in Texas? Not really. I don't think that in the modern world of the Internet, it is possible to hide the actual scientific results about the age of the Universe. Any Texan kid who is interested in cosmology will obviously find the right answer - and the answers to many questions that are much more complex. On the contrary, the censorship may stimulate the kids to search for these "classified mysteries". ;-)

And yes, there will be many people who will happily buy the religious education and believe - or pretend to believe - that the billions of years are uncertain and that there is a good chance that Newton's original Biblical estimate of the age of the world - around 6,000 years - is still compatible with all the data we have today. Is that a catastrophe? I don't think so.

With all my respect, these people are just way too stupid to have anything to do with science. They don't care about science, they're not capable of learning science, and it may be even better if their stupidity is kept manifest by not teaching them what the age of the Universe is. In our civilized world, many stupid people have been brainwashed by correct scientific data so that they can pretend not to be stupid. It is questionable whether such an ability of the stupid people helps our society or not.

It may actually hurt it. That's why I would not be upset about the Texan decision. The idiots have the right to decide the way they do and such a decision may simplify the identification of similar idiots across the world.

And that's the memo.