Vote on the ScienceDebate 2008 Questions

In two recent posts I wrote about ScienceDebate 2008, a grassroots movement to engage the two presidential candidates in debating their views on science, science education and science in society.  I specifically discussed two of the 14 questions, question 4 on science education, and question 12 on scientific integrity.

If you recall, each candidate responded to 14 questions and provided the organizers of ScienceDebate 2008 with their replies, which you can read on the ScienceDebate 2008 website.

You can also vote on each candidates response to the 14 questions, rating Obama’s and McCain’s response on an A – F scale, and when you do, you can view immediately the results in the form of bar graphs.

I don’t want to give any of the voting away, but one candidate seems to understand the issues important to science in our society than the other.  This would be a wonderful activity to do with your students.

I recommend you go to the site, and cast a few votes.

New Environmental Weblog: Green Inc.

There is new weblog on the New York Times website that I want to mention today, and it is called Green Inc.: Energy, the Environment and the Bottom Line.  Developed by three environmental educators and writers, this weblog focuses on the following:

How will the pressures of climate change, limited fossil fuel resources and the mainstreaming of “green” consciousness reshape society? Follow the money. From renewable energy policy to carbon markets to dubious eco-advertising, our energy and environment reporters will track the high-stakes pursuit of a greener globe.

I think that you will find this weblog an outstanding resource for your students, and along with Andrew Revkins’ amazing weblog, Dot Earth, you will have two trusted sources of information on environmental education.

Panel Calls into Question the use of SATs and ACTs for Admission

I am driving to Texas, where I will be for a couple of weeks. Tonight I read an article in the New York Times entitled College Panel Call for Less Focus on SATs. In an earlier post, I suggested that high school high-stakes examinations be eliminated.  Today’s article only reaffirmed my conviction that high school should begin to move away from the use of high-stakes examinations for exit from school, especially when more than 280 colleges and universities no longer use SATs or the ACT for admission—these scores are optional. 

The article describes the work of a commission established by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  I recommend that you follow the link above and read the article.

Does the article lend support your opinion?

Making Important Decisons Based on “Sound” Science

Sound: a: free from error, fallacy, or misapprehension <sound reasoning> b: exhibiting or based on thorough knowledge and experience <sound scholarship> c: legally valid <a sound title> d: logically valid and having true premises e: agreeing with accepted views

Science: a: knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b: such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

This week the first Presidential debate will take place, and although the topic will be foreign policy, the science and technology decisions that the U.S. government makes have global consequences. It is important as teachers to help students understand how science information is and should be used in making important decisions.  Isn’t this a simple matter?  Use the results of science to formulate the decisions that need to be made. Just use “sound” science.

Maybe not.  The term “sound science” was first used by the tobacco industry to try and discredit research that had shown that secondhand smoke endangered nonsmokers.  They did this by using public relations to claim that the research upon which the claim was made (secondhand smoke endangers nonsmokers) was “junk science,” and that any decisions that health officials should make should be based on “sound science.”

Elisa Ong, MD, and Stanton Glantz, PhD, reported this in their article Constructing “Sound Science” and “Good Epidemiology”: Tobacco, Lawyers, and Public Relations Firms in the American Journal of Public Health:

The tobacco industry has attacked “junk science” to discredit the evidence that secondhand smoke—among other environmental toxins—causes disease. Philip Morris used public relations firms and lawyers to develop a “sound science” program in the United States and Europe that involved recruiting other industries and issues to obscure the tobacco industry’s role. The European “sound science” plans included a version of “good epidemiological practices” that would make it impossible to conclude that secondhand smoke—and thus other environmental toxins—caused diseases.

In yesterday’s post, I explored what the candidates said about the role of science education in our society.  Today I want to explore another question which asked the candidates to reflect on recent criticism leveled at the Bush administration for using political interference to alter scientific reports, and indeed to use language that casts doubt on scientific research.  It is in this context, that you will see the terms “junk science” and “sound science” used, especially by politicians.  The champion for using the term “sound science” is Senator James Inhole, who has claimed that human-caused climate change (global warming) research is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on Americans.

Here is the question presidential candidates Obama and McCain were asked.

Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job.  Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

Of course the short answer to this is NO.  If you asked your students to discuss this question, what would be some of their comments?  Would they be surprised that scientific results have been altered, or that political views can be used to filter the way scientific evidence is used?  What do they think Obama would say in response to this question?  What do think McCain would say?

Ok.  Now, here are two excerpts taken directly from the the candidates’ responses to the question on scientific integrity. Can you match the the statements with the candidates?

Candidate 1: I will restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best- available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees. More broadly, I am committed to creating a transparent and connected democracy, using cutting-edge technologies to provide a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens. Policies must be determined using a process that builds on the long tradition of open debate that has characterized progress in science, including review by individuals who might bring new information or contrasting views. I have already established an impressive team of science advisors, including several Nobel Laureates, who are helping me to shape a robust science agenda for my administration.

Candidate 2: We have invested huge amounts of public funds in scientific research.  The public deserves to have the results of that research.  Our job as elected officials is to develop the policies in response to those research results.  Many times our research results have identified critical problems for our country.  Denial of the facts will not solve any of these problems.  Solutions can only come about as a result of a complete understanding of the problem.  I believe policy should be based upon sound science.  Good policy development will make for good politics.

Note that one of the candidates used the term “sound science.”  What does this say about the future of science and science education if this candidate is elected?  And to find out which candidate said, please follow this link, and then scroll down to question #12.

Science Scores on International Assessments: The Sky is Falling

In yesterday’s post, I described Science Debate 2008, and efforts to engage the two major candidates for President to answer 14 important questions about science.  The one question that focused on science education was as follows:

A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.  What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

Each candidate discussed this question (you can read each candidates’ response by following this link and then scroll down to question #4).  You can decide for yourself which candidate provided the kind of answer that will improve science education in the nation’s schools.   To give you a flavor for what they said, here are two excerpts from their answers.  One of the candidates said that:

All American citizens need high quality STEM education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work. (please note: I added the link to the STEM education coalition)

The other candidate said that:

America’s ability to compete in the global market is dependent on the availability of a skilled workforce.  Less than 20 percent of our undergraduate students obtaining degrees in math or science, and the number of computer science majors have fallen by half over the last eight years.  America must address these trends in education and training if it hopes to compete successfully.  

Note that the question on science education was couched in the language of international assessments, e.g. “A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.”  What does this mean?  Is the sky falling?

No. Large-scale international assessments of student achievement receive a great deal of attention when the results become public.  Normally, the results comparing countries are reported in a fashion similar to standings in professional sports, where 1 is at the top, which is typically Singapore, followed by lower scoring countries, and as suggested in the question, placing the U.S.A. 17th out of 30.  

There is a real problem in using results to compare one country to another.  As some researchers have pointed out, the scores reported are averages for the country of the students who took the test.  Often the the differences between average scores from country to another are not significant, BUT politicians, educators and the public see that if their country is not NUMBER ONE, “the sky is falling.”

And its not just a concern expressed by U.S. politicians.  Svein Sjoberg of the University of Norway reports (in a study–Real Life Challenges: Mission Impossible) that results on the PISA test (Programme for International Student Assessment) of students in Norway provided “war-like headings” in most of Norway’s newspapers.  In fact the commissioner of education of Norway was quoted as saying, “Norway is a school loser, and now it is well documented.” 

So, when U.S. students score 17th on an international test, policy makers make the claim that science education in the U.S. is in free-fall, and needs to uplifted.  Remember, that the score used on these tests is an average.  There are more than 15,000 independent school systems in the U.S. and to use an average score on a science test (typically comprised of 40 – 60 questions) does not describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in the U.S.A.’s schools.  David Berliner (in a research study entitled Our Schools vs. Theirs: Averages That Hide The True Extremes)points out that the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) data for the U.S.A., when analyzed by socioeconomic levels, shows great disparities and inequalities.  For example, schools in the most affluent neighborhoods do well on these tests, but schools in poorer neighborhoods do not.  And Berliner points out that scores on international tests will not change unless the inequalities in the schools are fixed.

Results on these international achievement tests, taken out of context, might not be the best way to assess how well science is taught in any country’s schools.

How can school science be assessed that will help us close the gap between schools?  What suggestions do you have?  Do you think that these international test results are valid ways of assessing school science learning?