Perhaps we should teach both what we know and what we don’t know in all subjects, including science and religion.

We are all eager to pass our knowledge on to the next generation, so they can avoid making our mistakes and can begin building where we left off. Surely that is a true principle because we can see the great technological advances in civilization by having done that. But is there also a need to teach what we have not learned?

There is a well-known saying that “It’s not what I don’t know that gets me in trouble, it’s what I know that ain’t so.” Are there things you learned in science classes that you later discovered are just not true? Are there things you learn in church that you later discovered are just not true? When that happens, one’s belief in science or faith in religion can be shaken to the core. Is there a way to prevent this confusion?

Education in Science 

Let me give you an example of what I mean from the realm of science. Let’s talk about a solid science like genetics, where experiments can be done and results tested.

What did you learn in school about dominant and recessive genes concerning blue eyes and brown eyes? Well, in my high school science class we were taught that we inherit one gene from each parent and that brown is dominant and blue is recessive. If either or both genes are “brown” then brown eyes result. Only if both are blue can one have blue eyes. Is that roughly how you remember it?

Now ask yourself whether you believe that to be true. When I asked that question to my wife, she rehearsed that same story. Then I asked, “Do you believe that?” After thinking for a moment, and apparently mentally reviewing families she has known, she replied with some certainty, “No, that just isn’t true. I know families where both parents have blue eyes and not all of the children have blue eyes.”

Isn’t that interesting. Apparently she had never really taken the time to compare what she learned in school to real life in that case. One brown-eyed child did. He was disappointed in school not to learn why he had brown eyes and both of his parents had blue, so he went on to do more experiments in the field to discover why.[1] According to recent articles on the internet, eye color is a subject which is not understood in all its details.[2] If that is the case, why didn’t they teach me that in school?

To me this is a very serious question. In classes designed to educate, clearly we want to teach what we think we have learned. We want our children or students to learn quickly the results of past experience in history and the sciences, as well as skills such as reading, writing, math and arts. Surely we don’t want to have the teacher tell us that they don’t know anything and that we all need to start from scratch. But just where is the correct balance between teaching what is known and what is unknown? 

Knowledge vs. Ignorance

I had the privilege to learn physics from a series of books written by a master teacher and researcher, Richard Feynman, who was a Nobel Laureate in that field. His text is now a classic, but it was only used for one year at the University of Utah and even then only in an honors class. But I was so glad to be in that class.

In every chapter, he would explain principles of physics in an exciting way where we were allowed to discovered them ourselves to a large degree. But at the end of each lecture, he would often explain the many facets of this very field that were not understood. He challenged his students to be the ones who would go forth and solve those very problems. We were all inspired by Prof. Robert Kadesch, who taught our class from that book, who likewise taught our class to think for ourselves and explore new realms.

One student in that class was Alan C. Ashton, who went on to invent the “musicational organ” (connecting an organ to a computer to both play and write music) for his PhD dissertation and later co-authored the WordPerfect software that raised the bar for all word-processors.

Perhaps what might be the best approach in all teaching would be to spend about 90% of the class time teaching what is believed to be true, but then at least 10% of the time inspiring students to continue on and learn specific things that are just not understood. Perhaps we should all follow Feynman’s example.

Let’s go back to the eye-color example. The results of Gregor Mendel’s experiments with peas were published in 1866, but largely unrecognized until after 1900.[3] He found that crossing purple-flowered peas with white-flowered peas produced mostly plants with purple flowers, some with white, but none in between. That result can be explained with the dominant-recessive gene theory.

But if that is all that is taught in school, the students think that the subject is all done, that there is nothing more to be learned and there is no incentive to do more experiments. How many years was it after that before someone discovered that if you cross a red snap dragon with a white one, the result is often pink? It is now more than a century after Mendel, and we still don’t have a clue about hazel eyes or grey eyes.

My whole point is that if the class had ended with the simple statement like, “While this theory explains certain very simple cases and is often true, there are still many problems which we do not understand, such as pink snap-dragons and hazel eyes.” If classes had explained our weaknesses as well as our strengths, then we might have explained hazel eyes long ago. Many of us have had a false sense of security about what we know.

By the way, in defense of the teaching of genetics, apparently the problem has been corrected to a large degree. If you enter “genetic eye color” into a web search engine you will find several articles that explain the subject well and make it clear that we don’t know all the answers. One article is an ideal role-model for just what is proposed in this article.[4] My point is that I wish such teaching had been common a century ago.

Levels of Ignorance

It appears there are various levels of ignorance in science. Sometimes we have no clue at all how something works, sometimes we have a pretty good scientific theory that gets the right answer most of the time, and sometimes we have a theory that has correctly predicted results in every experiment performed.

For example, the theory that blue-eyed parents have blue-eyed children works most of the time (as far as I know) and if so, falls into the second category. I see no problem with teaching it that way. On the other hand, if it turns out that two white-blossomed peas always lead to white-blossomed offspring, then that is the latter type of experimental result. But it is still important to point out that while we are sure of the experimental results, that does not mean the theory proposed to explain the results is perfect.

It is also important to explain where even our most certain knowledge stops and ignorance begins. For example, Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravity when tested with experiments in the laboratory has a 100% success rate as far as I know. That is wonderful, and why we call it a “law” rather than a “theory.”

But every law is effective only in a certain domain. Whenever a principle in science is taught, it would be wonderful to also explain the limitations on the experiments. In the case of gravity, we could explain that we don’t know if this law applies to subatomic particles and subatomic distances, or across intergalactic distances.

Moreover, I was appreciative of the first teacher who taught me that we have no idea why Newton’s law works. That is, Newton did not explain exactly why the earth and moon would somehow “know” how hard to pull on each other, but only that we could calculate the acceleration of each toward the other by using his equation.

Often the great steps in knowledge have been taken by those who were either taught that we didn’t know it all, or who realized that what they had been taught was inadequate. Such considerations led Albert Einstein to propose a whole new theory of gravity.

 Education in Religion

Could some of these ideas be used in the teaching of religion? This is a touchier subject, but it appears that many of the same principles definitely apply. There are things we know, there are things we believe, and there are things that we just assume are true because they “sound good” – but they really are not true at all.

When listening to sermons being preached in church, it can be instructive to question whether or not the doctrine being taught is really true. Can you remember where it says in scripture the point being taught? Has a living prophet taught that concept? If so who, when, and where?

And again, might it be a good idea occasionally to explain just what we do not know? Sometimes this is easy, as in examples when the Lord has told us that some things are not public information, such as the exact time of his Second Coming (Matt. 24:36), or of the details of the fate of the sons of perdition (D&C 76:44-47). Sometimes it is harder, as when we have misunderstood a scripture because of a poor translation or because we have confused a figurative meaning for a literal or vice versa.

One solution to the question of correct translation is to consult several translations. There are some excellent tools for doing this, such as a book putting eight independent translations of the New Testament side by side.[5]

 False Teachings

Sometimes false teachings are not a problem, because they might concern only some minor point of doctrine, and when the point is clarified, no one is shaken up much. But other points are deep and fundamental, and when one becomes convinced that the doctrine is false, the person can lose faith in the entire gospel, or even in God.

Let me give an example of the first category. Have you ever heard it taught in church that Alma gave a wonderful discourse in which he taught that faith is like a seed, which will grow if it is planted in the heart and then nourished? Now read that sentence again and ask yourself if that is true. Is that what Alma taught? If not, then exactly what did Alma teach? Is it important to get it right?

To me it is important enough to mention here that it is not at all what he taught. He taught that the word of God is like a seed to be planted in the heart, not that faith is like a seed. Faith is exercised in planting the seed and nourishing it (Alma 32:28-42), but it is the gospel that we must plant in our heart. Now is that just a picky detail, not worth clarifying? To me it makes a huge difference, because Alma is apparently telling us both to study the scriptures and also to listen to the word directly from the light of Christ in our hearts. That calls for action on our part, and it is the faith which leads us to perform that action. It is the same symbolism that the Savior used in the parable of the sower (Mat. 13:3-23).

Speaking of parables, consider one more example. How often have you heard it taught that Christ taught in parables so that his hearers could better understand his meaning by using examples familiar to them? Now, is that true? Is that why he taught in parables? Actually we know that exactly the opposite is true. He explained to his disciples that he used parables to hide the deeper meaning from hearers so that they would not understand (Mat. 13:10-15). Then he explained the meaning to his apostles who also would not have understood otherwise (Mat. 3:18-23).

Edges of Knowledge

 Some areas of religion raise questions that nearly all would agree are unknown because they just are not explained in the scriptures, or the translation is uncertain. For example, exactly what were the stones in the breastplate of the high priest of ancient Israel, and what tribe of Israel did each represent? The ancient names of the stones are listed in the scriptures, but the translation of at least some of the names has not been certain.

When was the Savior born? When was he baptized? When did he resurrect? When was the Great Deluge? The dates of the first two of those events are not given in scripture. The dates of the last two are given, but in a system that has been ambiguous to us. All of these are questions that have seemed worth researching to me.[6] Of course there are many other areas of research just crying to be done, but students need to be guided into knowing where to work. One man wrote a whole book trying to find the actual graves of all of the original twelve apostles.[7]

 True Doctrine

And now consider the reverse. We have been admonished that when we teach in church, we should stick to what is in our lesson manuals and when we speak in Sacrament meeting we should teach doctrine we know to be true. And when we do know it is true, it helps at least some listeners to know why we know it. Quote the words of the prophet! Quote the scriptures! Quote those General Conference talks!

One thing that has frustrated me in many church classes is the teacher who loves a wonderful discussion and asks the class their opinion of the meaning of some doctrine. About ten different responses are listed on a chalkboard. Now that may all be fine and often generates interest, but then I expect the teacher to conclude the discussion by telling us the correct answer by quoting what the prophets have indeed said on the subject.

There are many teachers who drop the discussion there, perhaps not wanting to offend someone who gave an incorrect response. But we have come to church to learn the true word of God, to have it planted in our hearts, not to see the confusion demonstrated by the variety of responses from the class. Often the Church’s official position is clearly stated in the manual, but the teacher never mentions it.

My point here is that when we do indeed know the truth, we should teach it with power and conviction, and back it up with references to official sources.

Conclusion

In both science and religion, it is this author’s opinion that we should teach what we believe to be true and carefully explain the basis for that belief. That basis might be experiments in science and scriptures in religion, but in both cases the student will know why the teacher is convinced and can then make better informed decisions on whether or not he believes it. It is also suggested that the teacher also spend about a tenth of the class time in explaining what is not understood about this subject and hence inspire the student to do research to discover unknown answers.

 

Notes

1.   “Eye Colors” at www3.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/htbin-post/Omim/dispmim?227240.

2.   For example, “The Genetics of Human Eye Color,” www.seps.org/cvoracle/faq/eyecolor.html.

3.   “Mendel’s Genetics” at anthro.palomar.edu/mendel/mendel_1.htm.

4.   The following is precisely the type of honest education that should inspire students. An introductory article on eye color genetics closes with this explanation of what is not known, and an implied challenge to discover why: “In humans three genes involved in eye color are known. They explain typical patterns of inheritance of brown, green, and blue eye colors. However, they don’t explain everything. Grey eye color, Hazel eye color, and multiple shades of blue, brown, green, and grey are not explained. The molecular basis of these genes is not known. What proteins they produce and how these proteins produce eye color is not known. Eye color at birth is often blue, and later turns to a darker color. Why eye color can change over time is not known. An additional gene for green is also postulated, and there are reports of blue eyed parents producing brown eyed children (which the three known genes can’t easily explain [mutations, modifier genes that supress brown, and additional brown genes are all potential explanations]).” from “How are human eye colors inherited?” at www.athro.com/evo/gen/inherit1.html.

5.  For example, Eight Translations of the New Testament (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1974).

6.   Pratt, John P., “Twelve Sons, Twelve Constellations,” Meridian Magazine (13 Jul 2005); “Twelve Sons, Twelve Stones,” Meridian Magazine (3 Aug 2005); “Passover: Was it Symbolic of His Coming?” The Ensign 24, 1 (Jan, 1994), pp 38-45; “Astronomical Witnesses of the Great Flood,” Meridian Magazine (13 Aug 2003); and “The Restoration of Priesthood Keys on Easter 1836, Part 1: Dating the First Easter,” Ensign 15, No. 6 (June, 1985).

7. McBirnie, William S., The Search for the Twelve Apostles, (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1973).


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