Saturday, June 25, 2005

Thinking about how others think

Scanning stories on the web and poking around websites, I find lots of articles and opinion pieces on this ongoing debate. Definitely no shortage of words. In fact, there is so much available, I often spend too much time reading and don’t have time to pull together a “thought of the day.”

An article reproduced today on Red NOVA caught my attention because although it is clearly pro-evolution, it is not unabashedly so. It demands that readers consider how their opponents think. (What a concept!)

Take a look at “Evolution, Religion Entwined” (from Deseret News), a discussion about the book The Evolution-Creation Struggle (Harvard, 2005). The book’s author, philosophy professor Michael Ruse, a self-avowed “ardent Darwinian” looks “at why opponents of evolution feel so threatened and why evolutionists are so surprised and perplexed at the opposition.”

The article ends with this quote from the book:
"Those of us who love science must do more than simply restate our positions or criticize the opposition. We must understand our own assumptions and, equally, find out why others have (often) legitimate concerns. This is not a plea for weak-kneed compromise but a more informed and self-aware approach to the issue."

Monday, June 20, 2005

"Nature" and intelligent design

Today I ran across a thought-provoking article about intelligent design from the British journal Nature that asks “Who has designs on your students' minds?” (#434, pp 1062-1065, April 2005). The article looks at the skirmish between ID and evolution on college campuses and considers whether it belongs in the classroom.

“…. (O)thers feel that the movement deserves an airing at the university level, even if they oppose its teaching in public schools. ‘I think that college is a place for experimentation,’ says Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, a group based in Oakland, California, that promotes the teaching of evolution in public schools. If intelligent design is gaining ground on college campuses, she adds, then scientists are as much to blame as anyone. ‘I think college professors can do a better job of teaching evolution,’ she says.”
Very few scientists – if any – would deny students the opportunity to discuss ideas like intelligent design or creationism. What they object to is having that discussion in science class or somehow legitimizing what are essentially theological philosophies as science.

Lots of questions; no easy answers.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

What about "fairness"?

Let’s face it, many Americans make it through school – even college – with a limited understanding of science. Lack of knowledge about evolution gets passed on from one generation of students (and teachers) to another thanks to the nervousness of school districts and textbook publishers about riling the sensibilities of the community. Frankly, much of my own understanding of evolution comes from training I received in my role as an education volunteer at the zoo – followed by several years of reading to stay on top of the evolution/creationism controversy.

One of the key arguments made for including creationism or intelligent design in science classes is “fairness.” Let students hear all sides, they say. (Of course, we know that the religious right doesn’t really want people to hear ALL sides, but it sounds good to the audience they are trying to persuade.) On the surface, it does sound reasonable, but “all sides” do not have equal weight, something that people with a poor understanding of science may not get.

A couple of articles I ran across this week address the “fairness” argument.

In “Polling Opinion about Evolution: Low Information Public Underscores Importance of Communication Strategy” (3/1/2005), Matthew Nisbet analyzes the results of various polls.

"For much of the public, support for teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools stems from their religious orientations. For others, however, it likely resides in a lack of appreciation for the strong scientific consensus that supports evolutionary theory. For these individuals, this lack of understanding probably connects to a “fair minded” but misguided and low information sense of relativism: no specific belief, no matter how scientific, can be the complete answer. Based on this reasoning, teaching both evolution and creationism makes sense. This likely sizable segment of the public believes rightly that students should be exposed to multiple points of view, and be allowed to make up their own minds. However, where they are misguided and misinformed is in believing that either ID or creation science passes the standards of epistemological rigor that merit inclusion in science textbooks and teaching standards."

In a June 17 opinion piece, (“Heaven help us if religion pokes its nose in science class”) Seattle Times columnist Lance Dickie notes the importance of honoring differing points of view

"We live in a country that thrives on a mix of religious viewpoints, with favor toward none. That is a value worth protecting. The alternative yields Iraq, the Middle East, India, Northern Ireland and the Balkans, to name a few places where religious tensions fueled profound human suffering. U.S. history is not exempt."
Dickie goes on to point out the telling difference between science and religion:

"The bugaboo, of course, is evolution, which is derided as a theory. Has anyone ever claimed otherwise? As with all theories, it stands ready to be poked, prodded and disproved. Always. That is the nature of science.

"Advocates for particular religious interpretations strain to dress up their challenges and defenses in scientific language, but fundamentally, they could never admit to being wrong. To acknowledge defeat or doubt would be to deny their beliefs. That is the nature of religion."

Science must always be challenged. Faith must never be challenged.

Monday, June 13, 2005

“Wanting to believe” or science?

This weekend I was watching a DVD from the library with the final chapter of the 2001 PBS seven-part series Evolution. The segment, “What about God” considers the debate between evolution and biblical creation largely through the eyes of students at Wheaton, a liberal, Christian college. It also recounts an effort by students at one Indiana high school to have creationism added to the science curriculum.

The young people are all thoughtful and articulate. While the older students are figuring out how to reconcile their deep faith with what it means to be a scientist, the younger students are trying to get the school district to implement their idea of balance. They use phrases like “I want to believe” and “because it’s what I believe” to support creationism.

No one directly called them on it, but “wanting to believe” is not what science is about. In fact, it is the antithesis of science. A survey on scientific ethics reported in the British journal Nature (and elsewhere) last week highlights the dangers of “wanting to believe.” Among the findings:

“Fifteen percent [of respondents] said they had changed the design, methods or results of a study in response to pressure from a financial sponsor.

“Six percent said they failed to report data that contradicted their previous work.”

[See “Scientists admit to breaking rules, researchers say” by Maura Lerner of the Minneapolis Star Tribune]

More than anything, the report illustrates that scientists are human. Even when you are trained in the scientific method, you can be derailed if you stake your reputation – or your faith --on having your research validate a particular conclusion.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Shocking news from Oregon

In a previous post, I mentioned that the NCSE site includes a news archive where you can see -- state-by-state -- where science education standards are under attack. I have been comforted to know that Oregon has its act together and isn't even listed in the NCSE "Select state of interest" drop-down menu. But on yesterday evening's News Hour on PBS, I was alarmed by a story suggesting that some school districts in Oregon may be opening their science classrooms to creationsim. Yikes!

The news segment called "Back to School" (Available in audio on the News Hour page on the PBS website) reports that Robert Smith, the superintendent of cash-strapped Myrtle Point school district, is desperate to get home-schooled kids back into public school. The video showed him "dealing" with parents to adjust the curriculum to meet their Christian requirements, suggesting he might be willing to add creationism to science classes.

This is a tiny school district, and they will likely bump up against state law, but according to the report, this kind of negotiation may be occurring in states where school funding is based on the number of students enrolled in public school.

Pay attention, folks. Do you really want to see elected officials prostituting education standards to shore up a weak budget?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Non Sequiturs and Pseudo-science

When I started this blog, I never expected to be commenting on comic strips, but I ran across another today that is spot on. Check out the Non Sequitur strips for June 6 and June 8 wherein a little girl tells her dragon pal that when she grows up she wants to be a "pre-conceptual scientist." These two strips could be a good starting point for a discussion about the differences between science and pseudo-science.

Also found today -- in the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader -- is "Pseudo-science will hurt students," an insightful opinion piece by the Rev. Kenneth L. Chumbley. The Episcopalian priest recounts being questioned by a stranger about whether he believes in creationism and explains how he deals with the issues raised in the recent Kansas School Board hearings.

"Although I believe that God is the source of creation, I am nevertheless concerned about mandating the teaching of intelligent design and creationism in the public schools; they are religious concepts that are most appropriately taught in houses of worship, not in science classrooms.
. . . .
"How God created the universe, I told the man at the coffeehouse, was a mystery to me, just as it was surely a mystery to the writers of the Genesis creation stories. Their accounts, I said, are poetry, not science; truth, but not fact."

The full article includes other discussion-worthy points about why people are attracted to fundamentalism and the impact pseudo-science could have on our competitiveness in the global economy.

[Finding gems like this on the internet is not hard. Finding the time to keep track and document all the discussion is.]

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

What's happening where you live?

The obvious way to keep up on news about attacks on evolution in public education is to scan Google News or another online news service. But if you don't have time to follow the ebb and flow of stories, leave it to the professionals. The National Center for Science Education news archive offers links to articles from the past 4 years organized by year and by state. Check out what is happening where you live, and don’t wait until it is too late to get involved.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

This and that from here and there

I had to chuckle when I saw a Tom Tole political cartoon reproduced in the June 4 Oregonian. Sort of a "what's next" if the religious right manages to undermine the teaching of science.

Teacher standing in front of class, on the board are the words: "History class. The United States was made in six days"
Teacher is saying: "Franklin Roosevelt is only a theory..."
Footer: "... which the courts may soon prove never happened."
You can see the cartoon on the Washington Post website, but you may need to sign up for a free login.

A well-written editorial in the June 4 Virginian-Pilot. "Evolution deserves confident teaching" notes that Virginia is NOT one of the 21 states where the teaching of evolution is under attack, but the proponents of creationism and intelligent design are active and are causing educators to be more cautious.

I'm always glad to see pieces like this coming from the so-called Bible Belt, making it clear that there is no monolithic point of view based on geography. Real Southerners do understand the difference between science and religion.

Meanwhile, clear on the other side of the continent and way, way up north, the June 5 Anchorage Daily news reports that "Alaska's science ed standards get an F" largely because of the way evolution is marginalized in state science standards.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Evolution controversy. Huh?

In my travels around the web, I keep running across the phrase "evolution controversy" or variations such as "the controversy around evolution." Groups and organizations that argue the case for science ed. (such as Talk Origins and National Center for Science Education) refer to the "Creation/Evolution controversy," but opponents of evolution use the phrase to suggest that the theory of evolution is itself controversial.

Even the mainstream media has picked up the language and, hey, if it's in the newspaper it must be true, right? Sure, and the Michael Jackson trial is the defining political event of the decade.

Just because people are blathering on about a subject does not make that subject important ... or controversial. There are plenty of debates about the "how" of evolution – debate is an integral part of science -- but the "what" is broadly accepted in the scientific community.

If you're truly interested in the controversies -- authentic controversies --around evolutionary theory, read The Evolutionists: The Struggle for Darwin's Soul by Richard Morris.