What If: Serious Scientific Answers

A few years ago some friends recommended What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe because I have a very science-minded little boy who loves “what if” type questions. Munroe started his career by building robots for NASA. He is the author of a very popular webcomic and science Q&A blog: “What If.” The concept of the book is that he answers strange and ridiculous questions that have true scientific possibilities. The format is fantastic. Fans of the blog submit wild questions and Munroe answers those questions with stick figure comics, a friendly tone, and serious theoretical science. I loved this book. Until I didn’t. I will probably love this book again down the road.

This review is tricky to write. My desire to talk about this book with parents of young readers comes from the nuances I found in the writing. For mature teens or adult readers who are well grounded in their worldview, I think that my comments are mere quibbles. For young readers, however, I think that caution is necessary.

The book is fantastic, except that, understandably, not all of the scientific answers are entirely wholesome. While this book is a wonderful adventure into theoretical science, it suffers under the sad limitations of secular bias and separation from theological possibilities. Of course, I expected that. I just wish that it weren’t so. I am not arguing with Munroe. I am just stating it for the Christian readers of this blog who want to know how appropriate this book would be for creationists and those who hold biblical values. Much of the science has nothing to do with religious questions, but some does. So, know that.

Really, I am not foolish enough to expect popular modern scientists to be any different than Carl Sagan’s Ellie Arroway. I fully expect rationalists, theoretical scientists in particular, to be staunchly entrenched in the post-Enlightenment camp. I completely disagree with their position, but I do understand and respect it.

What I find maddeningly frustrating about this book is that it is ridiculously attractive to curious science-minded readers, young and old. And, because this book is very attractive to young readers, it is sad that the secular humanistic tendencies of the writing do nothing to protect young readers from topics beyond their level of innocence. While the book is written in such a way that nine-year-olds can grasp much of the explanation, sadly, it covers territory not fit for nine-year-olds. Specifically, what I find a bit dangerous is that many rationalists and secular humanists seek to make questions about sexuality purely rational and simplistic. For many, it is part of an agenda to “properly educate” children in the progressive way and desensitize them to traditional religious understanding on moral teaching. I would not presume to assert that that is what Munroe is attempting to do. Rather that the progressive mindset has conditioned two generations to think this way already, so they see no reason why they should be careful in presenting material in a way that considers the innocence of its readers.

In fairness, there is no indication that this book is designed for nine-year-olds. From what I can tell, Munroe intends this book for more mature audiences. I don’t mean to throw mud on the book, but merely caution parents. This review is asserting praise for the concept generally, and voicing concern for parents of young readers specifically.

The chapter that caused me the most concern is entitled “Self Fertilization.” The question posits whether or not researchers would be able to extract bone marrow stem cells in such a way that a woman could impregnate herself. Munroe responds, “To make a human you need two sets of DNA.” Fair enough. The nine and a half pages that follow explain the science of reproduction, DNA, chromosomes, inbreeding coefficient, etc. Not how I want to talk to my son about reproduction, but good science. The trouble is that, typical of his friendly style, Munroe interjects social commentary into the chapter. “Self-fertilization is a risky strategy, which is why sex is so popular among large and complex organisms. (footnote: Well, one of the reasons.)” Also, “occasionally complex animals that reproduce asexually, but this behavior is relatively rare. It typically appears in environments where it is difficult to reproduce sexually, whether due to resource scarcity, population isolation… or overconfident theme park operators.” Clearly, he has not said anything scandalous here. What he has done, however, is take the miracle of life and essentially put it in a petri dish. As a lover of science, I get it. God’s miracles are not diminished by us understanding how He uses biology to effect His will. But the callous treatment of questions that deserve some wonder and awe makes me sad, and until my son is more mature, this isn’t the way that I want him thinking of these issues.

I own both the hardback book and the audiobook from Audible. My husband and I have discerned that this book is generally pretty good for our son. Instead of taking the book away, I did something I almost never do; I cut the chapter out. Until Christians write books like this (who knows, maybe my son will someday), we are going to have to deal with some of this. That said, we simply don’t need that chapter. At this time, I still don’t know what to do about the Audible recording. I cannot delete a chapter, that I am aware of.

As my son exits early childhood and moves into the transition years, we are going to have more and more challenges like this. The tension between living in, but not of the world is always present. It is my hope that we can find a balance without compromising our values. Because we are enchanted with science, I think we are going to be working through many books like this on a case-by-case basis. As we do, I hope to continue to review them here for parents in a similar predicament.

“Physics does not change the nature of the world it studies, and no science of behavior can change the essential nature of man, even though both sciences yield technologies with a vast power to manipulate the subject matters.” (Pope Paul VI)