Truth has been in the news a lot lately. The denial of science, the promulgation of “alternative facts,” and the casual branding of difficult truths as “fake news” have stretched our political discourse to the breaking point. The very question of what makes something “true” has been torn wide open, and people are taking sides as never before.
This question has challenged me to explore two essential layers of my identity, because I hold truth dear in each of them: I am both a Quaker and a science teacher. Age-old conflicts between science and religion have never played out within me. In fact, my life of faith and my life in science support and complement each other in comforting ways, and I cherish the truths revealed through each.
As a Quaker, I engage in the special acceptance of truth found in meeting for worship. With the gift of continuing revelation, Quakers wait in silence, confident that truth is always a hair’s breadth away. It may be very difficult to cross over into that amazing place where truth lives, but we know it is always there.
As a science teacher, I teach my students every day that truth of another kind exists nearby as well. The stories that science tells us, buoyed by evidence, bring us closer all the time to deep truths about our world. From why birds migrate to how gravity works, science is constantly trying to peek inside, getting closer and closer to how things really work.
I believe in both of these kinds of truth, and they comfortably live together in me without a hint of animosity. I have found a profound metaphor to describe what this cohabitation feels like. Denise Levertov, in her poem “Presence,” describes a distant and mysterious mountain “as if a red ground had been laid beneath not quite translucent white.”
She is invoking a painting technique in which an artist first paints a color on the canvas to give depth and support to the next color, which is painted on top of the first. A sky blue background in a Matisse still life, for example, lays on top of a surprising pink layer. Rothko’s paintings are towering celebrations of this practice, and each rectangle he paints vibrates and shines with multiple colors peeking out from under the surface.
My faith in divine truth is the “ground” beneath my daily work, where I go about my business as a science teacher. However, that business is harder today than it used to be, with science, and the teaching of science, coming under fire from increasingly organized groups of skeptics. Climate change denial and the anti-vaccination movement are two particularly dangerous outcomes of this trend, and our health and safety are now truly at risk from this distrust of difficult truths.
The myth of “mad scientists” in white lab coats still pervades our schools.
I find that much of today’s mistrust of science stems from some broad misconceptions of what scientists do, so I spend much of my time with students challenging these misconceptions about how scientists view truth.
In our textbooks and in the media, science is often depicted as a system of beliefs that seeks to prove theories beyond doubt. The myth of “mad scientists” in white lab coats still pervades our schools. These eggheads—almost always white males—are imagined to follow a scientific method, elevating their theories to laws and moving on to hammer out new facts, working somewhere far removed from the general public.
A quick Google image search for “scientist” supports this, revealing hundreds of pictures of white men in white lab coats, staring intently at beakers full of colorful chemicals. These images leave out the vast array of science professions, not to mention egregiously underrepresenting women and people of color. Popular culture has a very narrow view of who scientists are and what they do, and more importantly, how they deal with truth.
Myths like this belie the very important essence of science. Scientists don’t deal in ironclad proof; they deal in evidence. Everything they do boils down to finding ways to support their claims, and then modifying, adapting, and even discarding, when necessary, what they thought they knew.
However, this commitment to the fluidity of knowledge and the willingness to adapt and change beliefs does not mean that scientific truths are flimsy. A common barb thrown at scientists is that they only deal in “theories,” and so nothing is certain. This is not the case. A “theory” for a scientist is true due to overwhelming evidence. If a theory holds up to repeated observations and tests, it is as true as it can be.
Scientists, then, hold their facts in a very stable place, where the evidence of their senses and their reason establish a kind of truth that is all the stronger because it is always open to revision. These truths only become more durable as evidence that would topple them fails to surface. It’s a fluid process, and one that requires reverence for nature and a respect for mysterious possibilities.
To illustrate this with my students, I like to point out that scientists and artists often operate from the same place. Entomologist and social scientist E.O. Wilson tells us: “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works like a bookkeeper. Keep in mind that innovators in both literature and science are basically dreamers and storytellers.” Nature is not just the subject of a scientist’s study; it is her inspiration as well.
I can understand why it would be hard for people to accept the truths of science if we place religion and science on opposite ends of a spectrum. If we let people believe that science is dispassionate and devoid of reverence for the things it studies, then skepticism is a little more understandable. However, if we see that reverence for nature is at the center of a scientist’s work, the truths of science and religion appear to grow from some of the same seeds.
Quaker decision making isn’t compromise, or even a search for consensus. It is a humble acceptance that solutions to our problems are nearby…
I see some clear parallels to our Quaker business practices here. Our commitment to truth drives our collective decision making, from meeting for worship for the conduct of business to clearness committees. Collective discernment depends on the surety that truth underlies all of our interactions, just waiting for us to find it. Just as there is that of God in each of us, so are there abiding truths flowing from this divine nature.
Quaker decision making isn’t compromise, or even a search for consensus. It is a humble acceptance that solutions to our problems are nearby, in a realm of divine truth that we can all discover together if we search with reverence. Although our movement toward the truth is often imperfect, Friends frequently find that the truths discovered in this way withstand the test of time.
As a Quaker science teacher, I can’t help but place Friends foundation in continuing revelation and scientists’ openness to the unfolding truths of nature side by side in my life. These two pursuits of truth deal in very different kinds of evidence, to be sure. Hard data and repeated testing are more useful in the lab than in the meetinghouse, after all.
However, in spite of their differences, to me they still belong together. The truth I receive in worship by listening for the still, small voice within doesn’t replace my reason; it is a corollary to it. It is no less valid, and just as valuable as what I gain from sensory evidence.
For me, truth is a very rich word. If I know something to be true and can refer to it as a fact, it has to have passed through some narrow places in my mind and emerged all the stronger for it. Truth is a shimmering thing, both vulnerable and strong. And although I can arrive at truths in very different ways, every truth undergirds my world in the same way.
Outside of the classroom and in the meetinghouse in particular, I need to hold fast to the sanctity of truth.
Believing as I do in this richness of truth, it is all the more galling to witness political discourse in which the telling of untruths has become common currency. There are many roads to the truth, but simply labeling something “true” because we want to isn’t one of them. And calling an outright lie an “alternative fact” isn’t just morally wrong, it undermines the whole richness of human experience. And in that richness, we find people of faith and scientists, all believing in the sanctity of truth.
Believing this, I feel a call to action. In my classroom, I teach my students to examine their thinking and to revel in the times when they realize that they are wrong and, even more so, to embrace the times when they simply do not know. I teach them that truths are often hard won, but that when they see a truth clearly, to let it live inside them. My hope is that building these habits will help let the difficult truths in, and that the evidence for truths like climate change will find fertile ground to grow in.
Outside of the classroom and in the meetinghouse in particular, I need to hold fast to the sanctity of truth. We don’t really live in a “post-fact” world; we just have many more distractions on our journey. Our call to justice is being challenged more than ever today, and, as we seek to create a better world, let us not forget that our pursuit of truth also needs to be held in the Light. I believe that Quakers are and always have been “Friends of the Truth,” and just as we stand up for each other in a difficult world, we should stand up for our friend truth as well.
3 thoughts on “The Obligations of a Quaker Science Teacher in a Post-fact World”
Great piece, Mike!
Mike, you might enjoy the book by Friend C David Pruett: Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit
This resonates well with my work, offering that revelations from the scientific endeavor can augment and enrich a spiritual life. Further, since science is global and interfaith, its findings could serve as a common ground for praise and celebration. More at sevencandles.org.
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