3 reasons for music eduction

Many adults remember music lessons - some fondly, some not-so-much. But there’s an enormous amount of evidence about the beneficial effects of music training in kids. Some lines of evidence point to how the benefits of musical education can spill over into other areas of life, improving how one’s brain functions, the ability to learn languages, math abilities, and so on. As a musician, I feel conflicted about this sort of reason for starting music lessons. Music isn’t solely important to kids because it might get them to behave better, get a better SAT score, or get them into Harvard. Music is its own reward. It possesses a beauty and value that can’t be reduced to utilitarian terms. Perhaps parents start kids in music for practical reasons; but it’s best to treat music as just music and let whatever other magic can happen just unfold with time. With that caveat, here are three reasons why music education is critical for kids.

Brain development

The brain undergoes massive development in early childhood.[1] Kids are born with very capable brains; but most of the brain capacity in infants is channeled into its ability to form its own “wiring.” Although the brain weighs about 25% of the average adult weight at birth, by age 3 it has already grown to about 88% of its eventual size. By age 10, the brain is 99% of its eventual maximal weight. The enormous growth in the brain reflects billions of connections being formed between neurons.

A study[2] by Nina Kraus and colleagues at the Northwestern University Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory showed that the beneficial effects of music lessons in childhood were sustained well into adulthood even among adults who hadn’t played their instruments in years. Kraus measured the timing of brain responses to speech in three groups of adults, some with no music training in childhood, some with just a little training, and some with a moderate amount of training. What she showed was that the brains of adults who had experienced musical training in childhood responded faster to speech stimuli than those without. And there appeared to be a dose-response relationship between the amount of musical training and the effect size.

A counterpoint to instant gratification

Everything about contemporary culture is designed for speed. There internet has transformed life in millions of ways, some good, some bad; but we’re all moving faster and faster. Don’t want to wait for a book? Download it on your iPad. Don’t want to wait for your fast food? Order on your phone ahead of time.

But music disobeys the contemporary heuristic that anything can be accomplished faster. Sure, there are more efficient ways to practice.[3] But training the mind, the muscles, the ears, and eyes to work in flawless coordination cannot be hurried. Music teaches us to slow down, accept our imperfections, and to be patient. It situates us in history by linking us to the past and forward to the future.

Shinichi Suzuki, the father of the modern concept of talent education, reframed talent as little more than persistent work. Suzuki observed the effortlessness with which young children acquire their native tongue. With persistence, subtle feedback, and a lot of nurturing, children tacitly master complex sounds and grammars. He began to wonder whether music, another auditory pursuit, could be similarly acquired. Time has proven Suzuki right, of course. But while the concept is enormously empowering, its implications for the size of the task are equally large. It’s really about slow, progressive acquisition of ability.

Above all music training is an adventure in willpower. Although willpower seems like an old-fashioned virtue, there is considerable evidence that willpower - a purposeful exercise of delayed gratification - can predict positive social and intellectual outcomes.[4] Furthermore, we know that developing willpower in one area of life can have benefits in other areas of life.[5]

A point of focus

Americans obsess about self-esteem in children often to their detriment. There is practically no evidence that interventions designed to deliberately boost self-esteem through unearned positive messaging and rewards actually work. Yet they are commonplace. For example, our local community soccer organization gives out medals for participation, presumably to bolster the self-esteem in children who didn’t score any goals or spent a lot of time on the bench. Showing up is not a rewardable event. If you sign-up for something, participation is an expectation. Furthermore, efforts to artificially boost self-esteem in this way have been shown to actually reduce performance.

The problem with trying to manipulate self-esteem is that it is a symptom of something, not a primary entity. If you want people to feel better, then they need to be better and do better.[6] Without attaching an intervention to what really matters, you’re working against strong psychological countercurrents. Instead, I like to think of self-esteem as the byproduct of two orthogonal factors: differentiation and accomplishment. Accomplishment boosts self-esteem by increasing a person’s sense of self-efficacy in the world. Differentiation, on the other hand, allows us to distinguish ourselves from others and adding to our own sense of unique value. The latter is particularly important in teens who struggle with the dichotomy between wanting to belong and wanting to be a unique individual.

What does this have to do with music? We know from Suzuki’s work that talent is just another word for hard work. But I think even that stops a little short of what’s really going on in kids. Instead, talent is found at the intersection of hard work and focus. Without focus, hard work can mean just doing a lot of “stuff.” Since music requires so much of both, the sense of accomplishment can be enormous. The more accomplished the kids become, the more they begin to differentiate themselves from others. This becomes the source of their self-esteem.

Of course, all of these principles operate with other pursuits. But why not music?

  1. https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/dev.html

  2. The Journal of Neuroscience, 6 November 2013, 33(45): 17667-17674; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2560-13.2013 Full text

  3. I was never really taught how to practice. We just practiced for hours. Start at the beginning, go to the end, and repeat. There’s a lot of good material around on how to practice more effectively. For example 10 easy ways to optimize your music practice and others.

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment The famous marshmallow experiment conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford is instructive. Young children who were able to defer eating a marshmallow had better SAT scores, higher level of academic achievement, and better health indices later in life than those who could not resist eating the marshmallow.

  5. In a study recounted in ”Willpower” by Baumeister and Tierney, students who were asked to maintain a good posture performed better on tasks unrelated to posture.

  6. The idea here is similar to that which is encapsulated in a quotation often misattributed to Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The misattribution is a product of Will Durant’s text formatting in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers (1926). His summary of Aristotle’s text is faithful in meaning, though. What Aristotle actually wrote was “the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life… for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy” in the Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.

Why I won't watch the Super Bowl

Every year around the time of the Super Bowl, I wonder if I’m ever going to bother to learn the rules of American football. I suspect not, since at age 48 I’ve never made it through an entire game start-to-finish.

Mostly, I don’t really care for the game because it conjures up bad memories from school days.

Passive consumption

Now, as an adult, what really bothers me about football, is that the only real way to enjoy the game is by passively consuming it. No one except for professionals actually plays the game. Instead, we sit on the sofa, watch the game on the television, analyze the plays and the outcomes, and buy team colors and paraphernalia. All without actually do anything of value.

The world and individuals progress by doing something. Watching isn’t doing.

Spectacle as commercial vehicle. Buying fans

The phenomenon of the Super Bowl commercial has elevated the event to near holiday status. Many people who would not otherwise watch football, tune in to the Super Bowl solely to see the clever, creative commercials.[1] That companies collectively spend over $220 million[2] on television ads suggests that the association between the game and the marketing of products and services unrelated to the game is no accident. But this alliance benefits no one but the companies themselves. In a sense, the football game itself, which should be a celebration and test of athletic accomplishment, is merely a vehicle for delivering something more potent. Like the cigarette which exists only to deliver nicotine, the Super Bowl exists mostly to deliver marketing.

Opportunity costs

The saddest thing about the Super Bowl is the number of lost opportunities when money could be better spent. Americans spend about $1 billion each year on Super Bowl snacks. About 4 million Americans plan to buy a new television set before the Super Bowl game to enhance their viewing experience. Hint, it won’t be a smaller one; and the one it replaces will undoubtedly end up in a landfill somewhere.

With the $1 billion that we spend on Super Bowl snacks each year, we could provide foor to over 3 million starving children for nearly a year.

Or, we could provide safe, clean drinking water to 50 million people in impoverished countries.

We’re fond of wringing our hands about constrained resources and that we can’t pay for universal health care or take care of our public infrastructure. But we can come together for a day and spend a billion dollars on crappy food, $220 million on ads, pay millions in salaries for football players, etc.? Something’s wrong with this picture.

  1. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/football-part-super-bowl-article-1.1597013#ixzz2sCm31n65 Fewer than half of respondents watch the game solely for the game itself; and over 25% watch the Super Bowl solely for the commercials.

  2. http://www.examiner.com/article/how-much-money-did-cbs-make-from-2013-super-bowl-ads-try-220-million According to sources, 55 ads aired during the last Super Bowl at about $4 million for each 30 second slot.

Homeschooling: skeptic to convert

For years I’ve harbored a deep skepticism for homeschooling, seeing it as antisocial, undemocratic, and as Dana Goldstein put it in Slate last year: " If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing." [1] That is, if we subscribe to progressive values, we should endeavor to improve the educational experience in an egalitarian way.

But I’ve come to regard homeschooling differently. And despite the fact that our daughter attends and excellent, well-regarded private school, she’ll be attending homeschool starting in first grade next year. This post

Homeschoolers have always been forced into a defensive position as exemplified by Deborah Markus’ “The Bitter Homeschooler’s” Wish List[2]; so in my head, I’ve rehearsed answers to questions that I imagine being asked about our decision. Now that I’ve practiced them in my imagination, I’ve decided to write them down so I can refer askers to them. The format is a list of frequently given answers. Why not an FAQ? Well, the format of frequently asked questions misses the point of documenting the responses. We all know the questions; the interesting part is contained in the answers.

Insanity, ideological extermism, political viewpoints

If your question is similar to:

  • Are you insane?
  • Are you just religious zealots?
  • Are you some sort of libertarian, antigovernment people?

Then the answer is:

As far as we’ve been able to detect, we are not insane. But it’s possible, so we’ll keep an eye on it. We are a secular family; and if we teach any religion at home, it will be a unit on comparative religions. Values, character strengths[3] and ethical behavior in the world are important attributes that we’d like to pass down.

We’re also not political extremists in any sense, though undoubtedly most conservative people would regard us that way. I’m not a libertarian, although libertarians sometimes get things right. I believe, for example, that people should be left alone with the minimum necessary limits. I believe that what people do in private, to the extent it affects no one else, is no one else’s business. I believe that people deserve second chances. And that problems like poverty and its attendant social ills that seem simple, are not; and they are not synonymous with laziness or graft. I believe that the government, not unfettered capital markets, has a role to play in equalizing opportunity.


If your question is similar to:

  • Won’t your daughter be incredibly sheltered?
  • Will she have no friends?
  • Isn’t she going to miss out on all these wonderful opportunities with friends?

Then the answer is:

School obviously offers a plentiful source of friendship. But while out-of-home school offers quantity of relationships, by sending your child off to school, you are outsourcing their network of friends. Given the tremendous importance of social networks in the socialization process[4], children turn out, in part, to mirror that values, attributes, and preferences of those around them. Why would anyone want to outsource that?

But homeschoolers do have to work harder to setup opportunities for their children to be with their peers. It has to be more intentional. But what important aspect of our lives isn’t intentional?


If your question is similar to:

  • How can you possibly be qualified to teach?
  • It must be very difficult?

Then the answer is:

I’m not a certified teacher. I have B.S. and M.D. degrees. Both my wife and I have been involved in professional education throughout our careers. I think we’ve learned a few things about education along the way. I don’t discount the wealth of knowledge, both explicit and tacit, that professional teachers bring to schools. Our daughter has benefitted greatly from their talents.

But our involvement with Suzuki training has taught us that we are both great teachers. The special insights that come from knowing your child deeply as only a parent can, offset any difficiencies that we have in formal training.

Is it difficult? Of course it is!

Public school

If your question is similar to:

  • As a progressive, don’t you support public schools?
  • Aren’t schools in your area excellent?
  • Isn’t your child already attending a great school?

Then the answer is:

We support the egalitarian ideals of public school. I support the concept of a national curriculum backed by a set of national standards. Why should the quality and integrity of a child’s education be subject to local or state whims? If we are to teach children in an evidenced-based way, then we need to recognize that evidence doesn’t change according to state lines.

But while we support public education and a national standard, we recognize that the implementation has been disastrous. The assumption that more data means better quality is absurd; and it is inconsistent with the what we know about how better-performing public education systems achieve their superior results. The cultural milieu in out-of-home schools is also horrifying. Texting, tweeting, Facebooking and the like are at best grand wastes of time for kids. Social tech may be central to contemporary teen development; but we want no part of it.

  1. http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/02/homeschooling_and_unschooling_among_liberals_and_progressives_.html

  2. http://www.secular-homeschooling.com/001/bitter_homeschooler.html

  3. The Values in Action Institute on Character is a source of inspiration for thinking about what character strengths are. See http://www.viacharacter.org/www/en-us/viainstitute/classification.aspx

  4. Here, I’m using the term “socialization” in its proper way, which is to say not the same thing as “socializing.” Socialization is the process of developing and inheriting norms, customs, and values from others in the community. It is the transmission of shared elements of culture. Good or bad.

The Science Wars

Almost everything you want to know about dysfunction in US politics can be symbolized by the most recent findings on the public’s views on human evolution published by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project[1].

On the whole, 33% of US adults say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. An additional 7% say that they “don’t know.” We can confidently state that about 40% of the US adult population is either grossly unfamiliar with the overwhelming body of knowledge that supports the hypothesis that all present living organisms evolved over time, or they simply choose to deny it. This is an embarrassment because while the US claims its primacy in the world, a large percentage of its population is ignorant about a critical body of scientific knowledge.

Beliefs about evolution

More disturbingly, partisan differences in beliefs about evolution are growing. In general, where factual evidence exists and is widely available, consensus around that knowledge grows in a predictable way. Instead among US Republican voters, understanding of evolution appears to be receding rapidly. In 2009, 54% of Republican voters stated that humans and other living things evolved over time. Now, four years later, only 43% agree with the same statement. A nearly 10% decline in knowledge cannot be attributed to a change in the evidence base around evolution, because no negative evidence has surfaced during the period. Instead, it reflects something more pernicious about the bundling of science, policy, and religion. See Figure 1 [2] for the gory details.

US voters have few options. Fiscally-conservative voters have no choice but to support candidates who openly trumpet their disdain for scientific knowledge around evolution because these are the positions that are most likely to attract US evangelical voters who find that the science of evolution does not fit properly into their worldview. On the opposite side, voters who support scientific integrity have little choice other than supporting Democratic candidates.

It is indisputable that all existing living things, including humans, evolved from earlier living things. Citizens put tremendous trust in their leaders to make rational decisions. When leaders fail to apply reason in their understanding of fundamental questions about science, how can they be trusted to make rational decisions about matters of policy? We need political candidates and other leaders who are willing to stand up and unequivocally label nonsense when they see it. In short, we need more leaders and fewer panderers.

  1. http://www.pewforum.org (accessed January 4, 2014)

  2. http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/30/publics-views-on-human-evolution/ (accessed January 4, 2014)

Serenity affirmation

As a family member of a person with addiction, I’ve thought a lot about how AA and Al-Anon work. Both rely heavily on the 12-steps and the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr. Based on the work of others, I’ve rewritten the Serenity Prayer as an affirmation to coincide with my own practice.

Here’s my version of the Serenity Affirmation:

"May my practice give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

May I live one day at a time,
Enjoy one moment at a time, and
Accept life’s hardships as a sign of impermanence.
May I live in the world as it is, not as I would have it,
Finding happiness wherever I am."

Adapted from other sources.

Comments? I’m @NSBum on Twitter.

The populist undermining of scientific consensus

I’m in awe of the decision by Popular Science to shut off the comments on its online articles. Suzanne LaBarre words their reasoning[1] so eloquently:

Suzanne LaBarre, Popular Science, “Why We’re Shutting Off Our Comments”

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

I think it’s time to declare an end to popular journalism. At the intersection of journalism and social media is a desire on the part of many to share their opinions; but anonymous commentary on subjects, like science, that dwell in the province of evidence really doesn’t work.

  1. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-09/why-were-shutting-our-comments

Set an ivar via the Objective-C runtime

Generally, I don’t like to use a lot of runtime trickery, swizzling and the like - but there are use cases where knowing how to do it can solve an immediate problem.

For my current project, I’ve temporarily incorporated a hidden feature that is brought up by a application-wide UIGestureRecognizer added to the main window. It allows me to
do things with the Core Data objects that I don’t necessarily want to expose to the user; but I’d like to be able to test quickly in real-world settings. For example, deleting
all of a particular group of managed objects so that I can test what empty table views look like. Or generating sample data so that I can see what really full table views look like.

One function that I needed to test in the field was a long-running timer. Not wanting to wait 15 or 30 minutes for an event to happen, I decided to create a developer-only functionality that would advance the timer to within 15 seconds of completion. Not something I want to expose to the end-user; but nice to have for testing. To do this, we need to manipulate an ivar _currentSeconds, resetting its value to 15. But let’s take a more general case with a class named Foo.

@interface Foo : NSObject

@property (nonatomic, readonly) NSInteger count;


@implementation Foo

Since the class interface only provides readonly access to the count property and its backing ivar _count, we can’t use the public interface to manipulate count. But the Objective-C runtime API will let us do so:

#import <objc/runtime.h>

// create the instance whose count property we'll change
Foo *myFoo = [[Foo alloc] init];

Now get a reference to the Ivar via the runtime:

Ivar ivar = class_getInstanceVariable(Foo.class, "_count");

Now the tricky part, since we’re changing a scalar, we can’t use object_setIvar because it takes an id. So we’re forced to set the ivar by using an offset into the class ivar layout. Something like this:

int *ivarPtr = (int *)((uint8_t *)myFoo + ivar_getOffset(ivar));

This is perfectly legal under reference counted memory management; but under ARC, it won’t compile because ARC doesn’t know how to manage the memory of the pointer we’ve created. The workaround is this:

CFTypeRef myFooRef = CFBridgingRetain(myFoo);
int *ivarPtr = (int *)((uint8_t *)myFooRef + ivar_getOffset(ivar));

Now all that’s left is to set our ivar and release the CFTypeRef

*ivarPtr = 15;

Showing the whole thing:

@interface Foo : NSObject
@property (nonatomic, readonly) NSInteger counter;

@implementation Foo


// Now we'll access the ivar from another class

#import <objc/runtime.h>

Foo *myFoo = [[Foo alloc] init];

Ivar ivar = class_getInstanceVariable(Foo.class, "_counter");
CFTypeRef myFooRef = CFBridgingRetain(myFoo);
int *ivarPtr = (int *)((uint8_t *)myFooRef + ivar_getOffset(ivar));
*ivarPtr = 15;

See also:

Comments? I’m @NSBum

Why I stopped buying DRM music from iTunes

DRM, officially ‘digital rights management’[1] - but I’m calling it ‘digital restrictions management’ is a technology that lets copyright holders restrict the use of digital content after they sell it to you. With the rise of the internet, DRM has become ubiquitous, though philosophically flawed. I’ve bought thousands of dollars worth of DRM content over the years; but I’m done.

True story. One of my sons bought a new iPod to replace a broken model. Like many kids who live a mostly mobile lifestyle, he never backed up his iPod. No worry, we’ll just redownload the content (apps, music, etc.) onto the new device from the ‘cloud’. The problems began when Apple requires you to use multi-factor authentication to prove that the person using the new device is the same person who used the old device to purchase the content. It requires you to answer a series of questions whose answers may be long forgotten. “Who is your favorite teacher?” Hmmm. What grade was I in when I got this iPod. Don’t guess because you only have a limited number of tries before it locks up your account for 24 hours. Keep trying after that and it will lock you out forever. No matter, we’ll give a call to tech support and give them our story. After minutes of explaining and pleading about the plight of a 13 year-old kid, no joy. In the end, he lost all of the content that we had ever purchased. Thanks for making the world a safer, better place, Apple.

The fragility of DRM

For me that was the final blow to my waning enthusiasm for DRM-encumbered music. Let’s get one thing straight. On the whole I enjoy the convenience of digital music. It’s really exemplary of the massive conveniences that we enjoy in the 21st century. Take a moment to ponder just how amazing it is to access any book, image, piece of music instantaneously. Want to listen to the Górecki Third Symphony? Poof! Purchased and downloaded. But the convenience doesn’t come for free; and although you’ve purchased the right to own a copy of the recording, what you’ve really purchased is a copy of a recording containing a very detailed set of rules about who can play it, on what device, etc. Although restrictions on the use of copyrighted content is nothing unusual, DRM takes the concept to a new level, in which the enforcement of the restrictions is embedded in the medium. It’s also remarkably fragile, as the experience with my son points out.

The purchasing experience

iTunes Store clutter and spectacle I use iTunes to play music, largely because it's free and convenient, and because I've never taken the time to look for more suitable alternatives. Since version 4, iTunes has contained an embedded store from which you can purchase DRM-containing music. Over the years, the iTunes Store has become more an more florid. I'm not a music snob. _(Well, I'm sort of a music snob.)_ I have reasonably eclectic musical interests; but I'm a classically-trained musician. The spectacle and commercialism of popular music doesn't interest me. But this is front-and-center in the iTunes Music Store. You can't find music without having to wade through album covers from Drake, Kings of Leon, Icona Pop, Dream Theater, and (amusingly) Dog Blood. I'm sure all of these albums are fine for their genre; but no matter how often you put a cover of Dog Blood's _Middle Finger, Pt. 2_ in front on me, I'm not going to buy it. You can always navigate to the classical category; but it's not much better. The view is still dominated by album covers as if the picture on the virtual "front cover" is what's important. I appreciate knowing what's new, but just show me a list. In short, the purchasing experience is heavily tuned to music whose enjoyment is attended by spectacle. It's off-putting to purchase classical music in this way; and for now I'll just use iTunes as a way of reverse showrooming[^2].

The device limitation

Apple limits you five devices onto which you can load music you’ve purchased. They provide you with no way of actually identifying what those devices are. If you go over the 5 devices, you just need to find one them and deauthorize it. You can’t get a list of the currently authorized devices. As I said, I don’t shared music I’ve purchased in an illegal way. So the five device limit on my use of the music is an unnecessary encumbrance on my freedom.

Album notes

Album notes

Many serious artists go to great length to write or commission extensive, well-researched, authoritative commentary on the works they’ve recorded. These are all but completely missing on iTunes. I suspect the same is true of other sources of DRM-encumbered music. I realize that actually reading printed material has become unfashionable; but this is a serious omission. My CD case of Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier contains detailed notes about the experience of recording the eccentric artist. It lends a sense of humanity to the humming Gould. I miss this too much. For me, the enjoyment of music, whether on my instruments or while listening to recordings is an experience that works on both sides of the brain. It’s an intellectual, as much as emotional, exercise. The album notes are an important part of the latter; and their loss in electronic content is lamentable.

Resources and waste

I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the issue of resources. Physical CD’s represent only a small amount of material; but it’s not neglible. The case is larger, has more plastic mass and is more expensive to produce. The incremental cost and resource expenditure for distributing music electronically is almost infinitely small. All other things being equal (which they are not) electronically-distributed music would be preferable from the perspective of natural resource conservation. However, purchasing used CD’s is one way to avoid incurring additional production costs.

Intangibility, value, and je ne sais quoi

There is something about physical, tangible objects that makes us value them more. Perhaps it’s because we evolved in, and inhabit a physical world. Music is so incredibly important to me that it’s hard to dissociate from something physical - whether it’s a printed score, my instruments, or a recording on physical media. I wonder whether music is trivialized not only by associating it with the visual intensity of modern performance but by selling and distributing it in a way that’s completely ethereal and dissociated from physical world.

Now CD’s seem like old friends; and I’m happy to be reacquainted.

Comments? I’m @NSBum

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management

Controversy and creationism

The New York Times ran a Room for Debate column entitled Should Creationism Be Controversial? Several authors on both sides of the issue wrote responses. I found one response, “Science, Too, Calls for a Leap of Faith” by Trevin Wax, particularly problematic.

Here are his claims, dissected:

“Science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a creator”

This is true. But in both formal logic and in our daily lives, the burden of proof is on the claimant. As individuals, anything more than the most trivial of claims requires something objective to back it up. That’s why the car dealer won’t let me take home a shiny new car on the promise that I’ll send payment when the bill comes. No, first I have to backup my claim that I have enough cash flow to warrant their trust.

“Even non-creationists live as if the creation story is true”

I found this the most puzzling of the claims. Mr. Wax sees Christian religious faith as the only source of purpose and morality in life. Undoubtedly, many derive a sense of purpose from their faith. But that says nothing about the sense of purposefulness among the faith-less. People derive purpose from all sorts of sources; and if he were correct, you would expect atheists to run amok in society, given that they could not possibly have any moral foundations. But they don’t. They don’t commit more crimes. (Actually, they appear to commit fewer crimes.) They raise their children just as responsibly as anyone else. In short, humans are purpose- and meaning-seeking animals. We want to see patterns and significance in things that happen around us. If the creation narrative endows some people with a sense of meaning and belonging, then by all means they should hold onto it. But they shouldn’t use it as a club with which to beat those of us who don’t.

He goes on to explain why altruistic behavior observed in humans does not fit with evolution by natural selection. After all, it seems to conflict with “survival of the fittest.” First, the common distillation of Darwinian evolution as “survival of the fittest” is problematic in this, and most contexts. More accurately stated, the genes for an adaptive trait become more frequent in a population because of differential rates of survival. There is nothing about altruistic behavior among humans that is maladaptive. Humans are social primates that have a strong need for altruistic patterns of behavior. The survival of the species is closely linked to the cohesion of the group.

Natural selection doesn’t work on a conscious level anyway. It is a feature of the way DNA changes through random mutation and recombination.

How does science prove itself?

The argument Mr. Wax puts forward here is that there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth. I would absolutely agree. But his error is in the conclusion that because science cannot prove itself as the sole source of truth, that the creation story must be true. This is an enormous logical leap. Perhaps science is not the sole source of truth and the creation story is false. My response to his challenge to the reliability of science is pragmatic. {“Science works.”} It predicts certain phenomena in the observable world, is repeatable, and can be harnessed to solve problems. And its process inherently helps it approach the truth through peer review, criticism, openness, and self-correction.

Revisiting Gould

Stephen Jay Gould famously characterized science and religion as “non-overlapping magesteria” - disciplines that answered completely separate questions. But an existence claim is a scientific claim and as a practical matter the magesteria overlap more than some would like. Nonetheless, we can’t have it both ways. Religious adherents should have the right to believe what they like, gather, and worship in the way they see fit. But they can’t claim that their faith answers a different set of questions than those answered by science but then demand to teach those answers in a science class. It’s no different than a demand by academic scientists to teach evolution in worship services.

Comments? I’m on Twitter @NSBum.