‘Stuff that you long ago forgot isn’t general public knowledge’

What do Christian fundamentalists have against set theory?” asks Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing.

She goes on to answer why — basically for the same reason that Christian fundamentalists do everything: Us-vs.-Them tribalism. But don’t let me spoil the ending, go read the whole thing (the kicker is terrific).

What I want to highlight here, though, is her introduction, which I may plagiarize if I ever decide to write my own memoirs because it so closely parallels my own experience:

I’ve mentioned here before that I went to fundamentalist Christian schools from grade 8 through grade 11. I learned high school biology from a Bob Jones University textbook, watched videos of Ken Ham talking about cryptozoology as extra credit assignments, and my mental database of American history probably includes way more information about great revival movements than yours does. In my experience, when the schools I went to followed actual facts, they did a good job in education. Small class sizes, lots of hands-on, lots of writing, and lots of time spent teaching to learn rather than teaching to a standardized test. But when they decided that the facts were ungodly, things went to crazytown pretty damn quick.

All of this is to say that I usually take a fairly blasé attitude towards the “OMG LOOK WHAT THE FUNDIES TEACH KIDS” sort of expose that pops up occasionally on the Internet. It’s hard to be shocked by stuff that you long ago forgot isn’t general public knowledge. You say A Beka and Bob Jones University Press are still freaked about Communism, take big detours into slavery/KKK apologetics, and claim the Depression was mostly just propaganda? Yeah, they’ll do that. Oh, the Life Science textbook says humans and dinosaurs totally hung out and remains weirdly obsessed with bombardier beetles? What else is new?

For me it was grade 3 through grade 12. And neither classroom video nor Ken Ham had yet surfaced, but we did watch those Moody Science movies and read books by Dr. Henry Morris — so I know quite a bit about bombardier beetles, too. We didn’t use the BJU textbook in biology, but one of the textbooks for my Bible class was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. (Yes, in high school, I took a final exam on Hal Lindsey. Aced it.)

But I also share Koerth-Baker’s sense that, much of the time, my school “did a good job in education.” The tricky thing, for years afterward, was figuring out the difference between that much of the time and the time we spent galloping off to crazytown.

I also know just what Koerth-Baker means by “it’s hard to be shocked by stuff that you long ago forgot isn’t general public knowledge.” I’ve gotten better at remembering that some of that stuff from fundie-world should be shocking, though. It helps to have a wife who finds it all hilarious. I can usually crack her up just by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag, or the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible, or by singing a few bars of “Bright and keen for Christ our savior. …”

Big-time extra credit to anyone who recognizes that last reference.

(Via Jeremy Yoder’s always cool “science online” roundups at Denim and Tweed.)

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  • JayemGriffin

    Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us, and after this our exile- *cough*

    As noted above, you can take the kid out of the Church, but it takes a while to get the Church out of the kid. 

  • Lori


    Meanwhile, my mom is visiting, and we’re having conversations about how
    Israel is important to her so she’s going to vote for Romney (because
    Obama can’t really be pro-Israel because, being Muslim, he’s of course
    pro-Arab, and to be pro-Israel, one must of course be anti-Arab.)   

    Oy vey.

    You could maybe try a slightly different Jewish perspective on her:


  • Lori


    Any clue how they explain appendixes?  

    IME, much the way God responded to Job’s questions—-Look, a hippo! Now stop asking about stuff for which I have no reasonable explanation.

  • Dmoore970

    Reading Maggie Koerth-Baker’s post, I think she has a pretty good answer.  Set theory, as taught at the elementary or secondary level is innocuous.  Higher level set theory is highly esoteric and counter-intuitive.  Fundies tend to evaluate everything through the lens of, is it a challenge to our religion.  If it is simple an easily understood, they can at least evaluate it.  If it is too esoteric and counter-intuitive to be understood, it is presumed to be a menace.  In fact, it comes under strong suspicion of being a rival religion.

    Try reading Andrew Schlafly in Conservapedia.  You see exactly the same reaction to everything he doesn’t understand, from e=mc2 to complex numbers.

  • Pat B

    It’s a titch more complex than that, but basically the cerebro-spinal fluid is an entirely separate medium to protect the neurons from diseases and toxins in the blood. Hence the Blood-Brain barrier and the brain’s ventricular system which is very different from the normal circulatory system.

    Of course it comes down to the same point; no intelligent designer capable of making an organism as complex as a human being would think it was a good idea, rather than giving us a full-on brain liver or making the brain less fragile.

  • MaryKaye

    It’s also true that eyes with genuine color vision–not our three-pigment approximation–are biologically possible.  Octopuses have eyes with (a) no blind spot and (b) full-color vision obtained by a kind of spectroscopy.  It’s speculated  that accurate color vision is particularly important for a creature that can change color, but it’s also quite possible that the octopus lineage just got lucky and hit on a better solution than we did.

    Color TV and color pictures in magazines would puzzle and disappoint an octopus, because to it, a mix of red and yellow is *not* orange, it’s just a mix of red and yellow.  Orange has a quite distinct wavelength, but humans are not equipped to sense that directly–all we get is pings on our three color receptors, and we have to infer colors indirectly from that.

    Anyway, the view that, as a colleague of mine said, “Evolution created the bacterium but the flagellum is too complex so God had to stick it on directly” lacks elegance.  Surely something capable of creating the world could create it evolutionarily (which is, I think, the predominant Christian view worldwide–just not in the US).

    I can’t resist one more color vision story, courtesy of another colleague who works on color-vision genetics.  Red water penetrates the ocean rather poorly, so below a certain depth most fishes lack red receptor genes.  But they found one, very deep down, which had them.  Why?

    They finally caught a live specimen and discovered the answer:  the fish has a red light on its head.  It red-lights its hapless prey, just like a human poacher!  Biology is so cool.  The saddest thing about creationism is that it gets in the way of people being able to appreciate how cool it really is.

  • Janet Aydelott

    Thus a solid understanding of incompleteness would make it difficult to accept circular arguments about Biblical truth based on truths found in the Bible.  There lies the wedge of uncertainty, and set theory is the mallet of logic.

  • My mom’s basic attitude seems to be that knowing the real facts is just too difficult, so she can basically only go with the facts as they’re presented to her, and since she lives in a predominantly Republican area she gets her facts filtered through that lens, so what can she do?

    My own approach is that when I know that the facts I’m being presented with are cherry-picked, and I don’t know enough to get the real complete picture across the board, the best I can do is decide what areas I value the most and pay attention to whether the facts I’m being presented with seem to provide a full picture of my choices in those specific areas, and reject pictures that seem importantly incomplete.

    To my mom, U.S. support for Israel is really important, so it should be worthwhile for her to look at U.S. support for Israel over the last four years, and over the eight years before that, and ask whether Israel is getting less support now than it was before. Because if it isn’t, that should at least make her wonder whether the narrative she’s been hearing reflects reality. For me, maintaining the government’s status as a regulatory agent on industry rather than exclusively as an enabler of industry is really important, and I should similarly look at that.

    The SSM thing was kind of interesting. Her own position was that she felt marriage equality really had no business being part of a Presidential campaign, ditto abortion. People, says she, should be able to choose who to have in their families, and that isn’t the government’s business. Which I actually agree with. But the fact is that absurd as it is, right now one party actively endorses preventing by law certain choices I believe people should be able to make.

    And while ultimately that isn’t as important to me as preserving a viable balance between the power of citizens and the power of businesses, it’s still important to me and I make choices accordingly.

    And I recognize that isn’t especially important to her, which saddens me personally, but it is what it is.

    And I don’t really know why I’m talking about this here.

  • arcseconds

    There actually isn’t much in either set theory or Gödel’s incompleteness theorems that prevents one from being a theist of quite a traditional sort.  Indeed, Cantor and Gödel were both theists.  Cantor had a concept of the ‘absolute infinite’ going beyond any infinity which is tractable in mathematics, and identified it with the magnitude of the system of all ordinal numbers Ω, and also with God.

    Incompleteness spells the death of formalism, not platonism.  In fact, it kind of suggests a kind of platonism – arithmetic is a structure that can’t be captured fully by any axiomatic system, as there will always be truths that the axiomatic system can’t prove (or else the system can prove everything, including false things).  So if you thought that the numbers exist in the mind of God, then you’ve got more reason to think that post Gödel, not less.

  • Oh?

    But hemorrhagic strokes are the result of blood leaking into the brain, no?
    That is, not cerebrospinal fluid, but blood.
    At least, so I thought.

    Which, as I understood it, has decay products which are toxic to neurons, independent of whatever diseases and toxins it might or might not be carrying.

    But perhaps I’m confused.

  • I have to wonder if they deliberately want to obfuscate things like set theory because understanding sets can undermine positions that they promote.  

    For example, remember SherryLevine from this thread?  Assuming that her position was genuine, she felt that letting gay people get married would lead to an increase in social acceptance of statutory rape because there are some gay people who are also pedophiles.  The thing is, pedophiles is a set that does not correlate with sexual orientation.  Sure, it is a set that intersects with the set of people who are homosexual, but it also interacts with the set of people who are non-homosexual, and has more items in that set to boot.  

    If Sherry understood better the way these sets intersect, the kind of bad data she was arguing from would render her position unsustainable.  Not that it makes it any better of a position, just that she would not be able to sustain it even in her own mind.

  • Turcano

    Hemorrhages are a problem because of the sudden increase in pressure on brain matter, which is very bad for it.

  • I’m not sure what I find more depressing: that the Discovery channel is running a faux-documentary on mermaids with a “blink and you missed it” disclaimer(*) when they could be running Mythbusters (or just about anything else), or that when I went web-searching to find out just why this was on the Discovery channel of all places, I found a lot of people who believed there really is a mermaid conspiracy coverup.

    (*) I only discovered there *was* a disclaimer when I did the web search.

  • GDwarf


    Many of them think of everything as a vast collection of particulars, instead of as groups and subgroups.

    That’s because that’s how math is taught. Or, at least, was taught to me.

    I can still remember when I realized that fractions and division were the same thing. I was in grade 10. I had been taught rules to do division, and rules on how to handle fractions, and they were never combined. Never explained. Suddenly fractions made sense. Before they were just these weird, arbitrary, numbers that you sometimes got and had to use weird, arbitrary, operations on.

    Now, obviously, much of math can’t be explained to students as they learn it. It’s a field where justifying the basics requires you know very advanced stuff (it takes a whole book to prove that 1+1=2, for example). But it’s also always taught as a bunch of completely unrelated concepts. I was taught powers of 10 as being separate from exponents, for example, so I was confused for a year about how you knew if you were multiplying a number by 10 or itself.

    It isn’t until high school that classes started to explain various relationships and had you using old ideas in new ways and so-on. My sister, who avoided math as much as she could, still doesn’t believe me when I explain how certain concepts are related (such as division and fractions) because she was taught them separately and doesn’t want to have to re-build her understanding if she doesn’t have to.

    I would’ve loved learning “New Math”, because it’s all about learning how this stuff works and putting it all together, instead of rote memorization.

  • Grades 8-12, I was homeschooled using Pensacola Christian Academy’s materials. Those A Beka books are crazy. It took me about a semester of college to undo everything & start realizing that nearly everything I’d been taught was complete and utter BS.

  • But it’s also always taught as a bunch of completely unrelated concepts.

    Not always. I was taught that fractions and division were the same thing expressed differently, that exponents and powers were the same thing, etc. I can’t think of anything in math I was taught as you describe it until algebra 2 in 10th grade, which preceded trigonometry. Probably not coincidentally, that’s also the year I became utterly uninterested in math, and started only taking it because it looked good on my transcript. 

  • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

    It red-lights its hapless prey, just like a human poacher!  [/quote] 

    Can you explain more about what red-lighting means?  The whole area of weird undersea creatures and the things they do is fascinating, and Google’s not helping much. 

  • GDwarf


    Can you explain more about what red-lighting means?  The whole area of
    weird undersea creatures and the things they do is fascinating, and
    Google’s not helping much.

    The idea with the fish is that it lights up its surroundings with red light. Since it’s the only fish down that deep that can see red light this lets it hunt visually without other fish being able to see it, or even know it’s there.

  • Andrew_Ryans_Caddy

    Thank you! Nature has some awesome sorts of genius. 

  • I learned much the same way, and hated it.  I did terrible in math because there were so many discrete components to keep in my head, and inevitably some of those tiny components kept falling through my mental fingers every time I grabbed them for a test.  

    It makes so much more sense when I can see the singular relationship between all this stuff.  I would tell the teachers “The hard stuff is easy and the easy stuff is hard,” because I could only “get it” once my knowledge about the subject reached a critical mass such that I could finally see the big picture and how everything connected.  Lead to a lot of plateaus in my learning.  

    When you get down to it, all arithmetic is addition, mixed in various ways, and even that is just a kind of Boolean logic, built out of a few true/false gates sorting numbers by value.  

  • “Beware, you who seek first and final principles, for you are trampling the garden of an angry God and he awaits you just beyond the last theorem.”
    Sister Miriam Godwinson, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

    — “Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.”
    Academician Prokhor Zakharov, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

  • When I took Calculus 1 in high school, I felt like I was the only one who didn’t care how it worked, just that it did. Then I took Calc 2 and suddenly Calc 1 made sense – but Calc 2 didn’t, and the same thing happened in Calc 3.

  • When I first took Calc 1, it made me think, “Hey, I know this!  This is a function!  I can write those!”  

    … unfortunately, my solving exam problems by writing pseudo-code involving looping and Boolean tests proved to be not acceptable as demonstrated understanding of the math.  :(  

  • arcseconds

     FearlessSon made a similar point.  

    Some fundamentalists do have natural ideological defenses against logic,
    I’ve seen evidence of that.  Can’t actually remember how it goes now,
    perhaps someone else can help?  It can be very explicit, though, almost
    ‘logic is a tool of the devil! God wants you to use feeling & the

    They may be intuitively shying away from set theory for that reason. 

    But I’m thinking they don’t understand enough about it to really make a call here.  They’re really unlikely to be explicitly going “well, set theory is basically logic, and we all know that logic leads to atheism and baby-killing!”   I think Koerth-Baker’s take that they think it’s a filthy modernist indoctrination trick of some kind sounds plausible to me (and she’s got personal experience here).  I still think my curmudgeon explanation has got something going for it i.e. “you need to get the same hard schooling I did son and learn some ‘rithmetic, not this new math rubbish.  you’ll never be able to run a business if you don’t know your 13 times table inside out!”.  

    I’m going to add to that something that I think is implicit in both Koerth-Baker’s account and my curmudgoen idea, and that’s that everyone likes a basic undeniable fact that they thoroughly understand.  Fundamentalists (of all stripes, not just Christian ones) really like them, and really don’t like ambiguity and possibility and confusion.  They don’t understand set theory, and they’d rather their kids got ‘real facts’ that they do understand (or think they do) .  If they have any inkling that set theory can be used to ‘justify’ arithmetic, they’d like it even less, because they’re not going to want any suggestion that clear facts require further justification.

    (I’m pretty sure that they can’t know anything at all about the incompleteness theorems apart from at the very most the name)

  • arcseconds


    When you get down to it, all arithmetic is addition, mixed in various
    ways, and even that is just a kind of Boolean logic, built out of a few
    true/false gates sorting numbers by value. 

    Well, that’s how we build adding machines these days, with logic gates.  I don’t think that shows us anything fundamental about the nature of arithmetic, though.  A few years ago addition was done mechanically with cogs, and before that with beads on wires, and we don’t think addition is really just a kind of mechanical action or movement of beads, do we?

  • arcseconds

    I forgot to say in my earlier remark that set theory does kind of mean you have to go for a ‘passeth all understanding’ bit of mysticism about God, though, because there can’t be a set of things known by God, because then there will be something God doesn’t know (namely the power set of the things known by God).

    But that kind of understanding of God is also plenty traditional.

  • Wednesday

     Some people just object to any method of teaching elementary school mathematics that isn’t purely “skill & drill”. I had to explain to my aunt that reform* curricula like Everyday Math may not look like they’re teaching things, since they don’t focus on speed drills and rote memorization, but some of them actually are informed by what we know about how most children learn. She still seemed skeptical but stopped saying “they don’t teach math in elementary school” anymore, at least in my hearing. Maybe I should’ve also pointed out that I was terrible at speed drills as a kid but somehow I still managed to get a PhD in math.

    *Reform, in the context of math teaching, really just means anything other than the traditional skill & drill approach.

  • Tonio

    “Pledge of Allegiance to the Christian Flag, or the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible” – I’ve heard of the former but not the latter. When I reached the line “life and liberty for all who believe,” I immediately imagined non-Christians being herded into camps. The fact that such pledges even exist illustrates the degree of danger that the US could become an outright theocracy.

  • So glad my mom got me out of fundieschool when she did (x-x) it still took years to deprogram myself, but I don’t like to think of who I could have been.  I was NOT a good person when I was still in the bubble* – I said terrible things to people who didn’t deserve it, I thought horrible things about others… no I do not like that person I was and could still have been.

    I will however admit, like Fred and Maggie Koerth-Baker – when they weren’t trying to stuff my head full of BS, and stuck to genuine facts – there was some excellent education to be had there.  I was pretty far ahead of my classmates when I moved to public school** – and there is a part of me that wishes I could have stuck with the ‘just the facts’ side of that education while ditching the bullshit.

    *I don’t know that I’m a good person now; but I take some comfort in that uncertainty – at least I’m wise enough to know that I *don’t know*; and that helps me at least make an effort.  After all, if you’re absolutely certain you’re a good and righteous soul, you aren’t going to be doing too much careful reflection on what you’ve said and done.

    **This landed me in a ‘gifted’ course for awhile.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to wonder whether or not I was more intelligent than average… or if perhaps it was just a function of being several steps ahead.

  • I used to play gun games such as airsoft or paintball and quit only after finding out other people could actually see their weapon fire. I think that might have had something to do with it. 

  • AnonymousSam

    Wait, that’s a thing? *Websearch* …

    Yeah, that’s… that’s disturbing. It does, if indirectly, imply death to the rest of us.

  • Randall M

    I think it’s important, when criticizing the “design” of the human body or other parts of nature to remember to emphasize that while these things are bad design they are exactly what we would expect from evolution.

  • Perhaps there’s some element of my education that I’m forgetting, but what exactly are “multiplication tables?” Are they just tables where you cross-reference two numbers to find their product? Children are taught to do arithmetic that way?

    (I don’t remember anything about the teaching process I went through, just that arithmetic has always been a more or less automatic process for me. Not sure if that’s genetic – my grandfather and two of my uncles have the same trait – or part of being non-neurotypical.)

  •  Children are taught to memorize the products of numbers from 1 to 10. When I was a kid, this was done by rote: “1×1=1, 1×2=2, … 4×4=16, 4×5=20, 4×6=24, … 7×8=56, 8×8=64, …, 9×9 =81”.

    “Knowing your multiplication tables” roughly means being able to recite that list.

  • EllieMurasaki

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiplication_table –yeah, pretty much. I don’t know how one would teach kids to multiply one- and small two-digit numbers that isn’t rote memorization, anyway.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Of course it comes down to the same point; no intelligent designer capable of making an organism as complex as a human being would think it was a good idea, rather than giving us a full-on brain liver or making the brain less fragile.

    Assuming that the designer could make the brain less fragile, without compromising other elements of the design (such as, say, not being incredibly expensive in terms of production time/materials).  Granted, if you’re working with a perfect designer, as creationism is…
    Mostly, a lot of the flaws in various beings could be explained as a flawed or compromised intelligent design – a lot of the things we make have similar flaws, after all.

    (which is, I think, the predominant Christian view worldwide–just not in the US).

    It’s the predominant Christian view in the US, I believe… the creationists are just loud.

  • She still seemed skeptical but stopped saying “they don’t teach math in elementary school” anymore

    They weren’t teaching math. They were teaching arithmetic. Not the same thing.

  • Pre-computers a lot of arithmetic was done with tables. Some you memorized, some you looked up – my physics textbook had a section in the back full of trig tables. The Babbage engine’s purpose was to generate “difference tables” for printing presses because the ones built by hand tended to have transcription errors.


    Mostly, a lot of the flaws in various beings could be explained as a flawed or compromised intelligent design – a lot of the things we make have similar flaws, after all.

    If humans were designed at all, it was by a large number of lowest-bidders who weren’t talking to each other working from design specs drawn up by committee. And then production was farmed out to another lowest bidder who read the blueprints upside-down.

  • The_L1985

     Mainly, it’s an attempt to reconcile several ideas:  the existence of dinosaur fossils, the YEC idea that dinosaurs and humans must have coexisted, and the fact that so many cultures have dragon legends.

    They try to mesh these apparently-unconnected ideas by positing that legends of “fire-breathing dragons” may have been dinosaurs (coeval with humans, mind you) who, like bombardier beetles, could shoot out superheated gasses in self-defense.  They often use Biblical beasties like Leviathan and Behemoth as examples of “dinosaurs” that man knew about and interacted with.

    As a child, I wanted to believe all this, because the idea of real live fire-breathing dinosaurs is even more awesome than the truth about dinosaurs.  But it seemed a little too simple to be right, and as soon as I learned about evolution in college, the chain reaction began.

  • The_L1985

     That is only half of the story.  See my reply to the same comment.

  • The_L1985

     It doesn’t help that logic has been removed from HS geometry classes, because it’s “too hard” or some such nonsense.  Gee, maybe if you’d teach kids some of the basics of logic in elementary and middle school, it wouldn’t be too hard!

  • PJ Evans

     I don’t know if blood is actually toxic to neurons, but if you have blood escaping into the brain tissue, the pressure it produces is going to do a lot of damage.

  • PJ Evans

     Only to ten? They made us go to 12×12. Which is certainly useful with feet and dozens.
    My 8th grade math teacher had us learn the squares of the numbers up to 25 squared; this is occasionally useful.

  • The_L1985

     Ray Comfort, and that is exactly why he doesn’t do the banana thing anymore.

  • The_L1985

     Show unto us the blessed fruit of….oh gods, now you’ve got me doing it!

    Did your school have you do the little call-and-response addendum?  “Pray for us, Holy Mother of God.  “That we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.”

  • AnonymousSam

    Others have started doing it since, though. Apparently they didn’t get the memo about it being thoroughly refuted. Then again, considering where I first read the proposition and its rebuttle, “facts” are never a priority of theirs.

  • The_L1985

     The only reason I was able to work with fractions is because I took piano for 12 years.  Math education is woefully fragmented as it is, and I hate this idea that the old-guard seems to have that lessons should be discrete and separate, instead of blending concepts from different levels and disciplines in order to help kids make sense of things.

  • The_L1985

    That’s actually better than getting it in a private-school setting from grades K-8, though.  Imagine having misinformation reinforced by everyone in your elementary-school class and by lots of grownups at the school.

    It actually makes it harder to admit later on that A Beka was wrong about stuff.

  • The_L1985

    Then you are damned lucky.  I am a math teacher, and I did not know how to do word problems until I was taking college physics, because it wasn’t until then that I was finally able to figure out how to set up a problem in symbolic (math) form based on the words therein.

    Until then, I had to have someone else set up the equation for me, because I didn’t know how to tell which numbers went where, or how you knew which operation to use, unless it was something like D = rt where you have a specific formula given to you to use.

    I now teach remedial courses to adults, in essence undoing whatever poor practices my students were put through, and apparently good elementary-school math teachers are depressingly rare.