Sunday, July 31, 2005

Grassroots activity

Been doing lots of reading online, but I haven’t been writing. I don’t feel any need to post my own unoriginal thoughts to the discussion. Then, even when ideas start percolating up and connecting, I can’t seem to find the time to capture them. Besides, the weather has been uncomfortably hot. Excuses. Excuses.

Anyway, about a little over a week ago I saw an article on the web about a group of people on the East Coast who are starting up an organization to preemptively ward off attacks on science classes in their local schools. What was especially interesting to me about the article “Classroom Evolution's Grass-Roots Defender” (Washington Post, 7/20/2005) was how they were motivated to join the battle based on their involvement in the 2004 presidential election:

“’I fear for my country. That sounds like a radical notion, something from the '60s, but there is a pervasive fear, a scariness,’ said Richard Lawrence, 63, a retired Environmental Protection Agency employee who voted for Nixon. ‘We're just a small group, maybe with a powerful idea. We don't have a clue, but we're not letting go.’”
“A few people approached, including Irving Wainer, 61, a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health. At a meeting Dec. 12, they were joined by Mary Detweiler, 54, a fellow Kerry sign-carrier. She had grown ‘very depressed’ about the election, she said, but after feeling energized by the campaign - her first political role since opposing the Vietnam War - she did not want to let the spirit go.”

I tracked down someone who was named in the article and –even though I am clear on the other side of the country – got myself added to the mail list of the organization, which is calling itself the Message Group. If you are in Virginia and want to find out what their plans are, you can write to them at

A few days later I saw reference to a similar group in Michigan, where I grew up. I found their site, Michigan Citizens for Science, and there I found a list of links to other state groups that aim to protect the integrity of science education.

Postscript: Read the transcript of an online chat with Peter Slevin, author of the Washington Post article.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Science isn’t democratic

Several weeks ago there were stories on the web about a recent survey on the subject of human evolution. One article, in the Washington Times, titled “Majority in poll see God as direct Creator of man” (7/8/2005), started out

“Most Americans believe it all starts in heaven: 64 percent of us agree that ‘human beings were created directly by God,’ according to a Harris poll released yesterday.

“Among college graduates, for example, the poll found that almost half believe in creationism, while 31 percent supported evolutionary theory.”

Yet another survey. (Big sigh.) But something popped out at me. I ran across this article while The New Republic “do you believe” discussion was going full throttle. The Washington Times, not exactly a standard bearer for objective reporting, used “believe in” for creationism but used “support” for evolutionary theory in reporting out the results. Does this mean that they get it … or were they simply aiming to deflect criticism? Hmmm.

Anyway, the results of the poll, which btw I didn’t see reported anywhere except in the religious press, were not surprising. They were just so … so … so what?

Since when is education – especially science education – supposed to be based on what most people believe … or want to believe? Yes, education can help instill values, but it must also inform. And it must prepare students for the real world.

When students used to ask her if she would please, please grade an upcoming exam on the curve, one of my high school teachers used to respond, “Would you want to go to a doctor who got through medical school on the curve?” I would now ask, “Would you want to go to a doctor whose medical education was based on what the general public believed to be true?”

What might that look like? Here’s an example based on a recent news story on common misconceptions about a disease that can kill you “Americans misinformed about cancer” (MSNBC, 6/28/2005):

“More than 40 percent of Americans surveyed in a study falsely believed surgery can allow cancer cells to spread through the body, researchers said.”
“The results show that the American public is significantly ill-informed about cancer, and that most people overestimate how much they know about the disease, the researchers said.”

So, let’s say some misguided, pseudo-scientific “do-gooders” – or outright charlatans –start campaigning about the dangers of cancer surgery in order to promote their alternative “cure.” They need only persuade another ten percent of Americans that surgery could spread cancer. With clever marketing and cooperation from a scientifically illiterate media, they might be able to do it in a few years. Then we could conduct a public opinion poll to determine what medical schools should teach about cancer treatment.

Yes, it’s a pretty ridiculous example, but no more ridiculous than suggesting that science curricula should be based on opinion polls. The real lesson to be taken from the results of the Harris poll is that the general public has a poor understanding of evolution. This is a real problem and it needs to be addressed by better science education, not by watering down content – or perverting education standards – to avoid offending someone’s sensibilities.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Do you believe in … algebra?

Haven’t felt much like writing for the past two weeks. The scope of this blog is very narrow, and although I’ve been reading relevant news stories, it all seems to be more of the same. No great new thoughts. Just the same discouraging reports about attacks on science and valiant efforts to fend them off. And besides, it's summer in Oregon!

Then, a couple of days ago, I started spotting commentary about a piece in The New Republic Online in which author Ben Adler asks a bunch of conservative talking heads whether they “personally believe in” evolution. I haven’t had a chance yet to read the original article, which requires a login (and the site is not accepting my registration), but I have read some excerpts and plenty of commentary.

If you read my June 13 post, you’ll know I would argue that asking about whether someone believes in evolution is totally bogus. Do you believe in gravity? Do you believe in algebra? SCIENCE IS NOT ABOUT BELIEVING!

The best commentary I saw is on a weblog called Societas (tagline: “Proud member of the reality-based community”) Blogger Thom Haslam suggests a more useful question would be
“Do you accept evolution as valid science, including the claim that human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors?”

Apparently, the conservative “thinkers and pundits” for the most part danced around the “believe in” question. I really wish TNR’s Adler would go back and ask them – and some liberal talking heads – the improved version of the question. Less tap dancing and more serious discussion.

Lots more insightful discussion in Haslam’s posting. Recommended reading.