Is There An Assault on Science?

Is There An Assault on Science?

Yesterday, I wrote a brief post introducing a new book by Shawn Otto entitled Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  For the past four years, Otto has co-led, a grassroots organization that has tried to influence the 2008 and the 2012 presidential elections.  The goal is to sponsor nonpartisan debates among candidates for the office of President of the United States.  The basis for is reflected in this quote from their website:

By bringing candidates together with scientists, the media and the public in a safe and nonpartisan debate setting, science can be restored as an electoral value, a foundation of American democracy,  and a non-partisan basis for sound and effective policymaking, helping to “unstick” the United States from decades of paralysis on the largest policy challenges facing the country.

Otto believes that America has a “science problem” and the problem is how science is discussed (or not discussed) in the media, in the Congress, and in his case, in presidential debates.  His book is a good primer on science in American society, and I think provides people with a view that ought to be considered.

Otto points out that many important public policies challenges revolve around science, but he wonders if those in the position of decision making understand science, or understand how science-related decisions should be made.  He says this:

In an age when most major public policy challenges revolve around science, less than 2 percent of congresspersons have professional backgrounds in it.  The membership of the 112th Congress, which ran from January 2011 to January 2013, included one physicist, one chemist, six engineers, and one microbiologist.

In contrast, how many representatives and senators do you suppose have law degrees—and whom many suspect avoided college science classes like the plague?  Two hundred twenty-two.  It’s little wonder we have more rhetoric than fact in our national policymaking.  Lawyers are trained to create a compelling narrative to wind an argument, but as any trial lawyer will tell you, that argument uses facts selectively and only for the purposes of winning the argument, not for establishing the truth.

We witness arguments in Congress, on TV, on the Internet, and in presidential debates on science-related issues, and it makes you wonder about the literacy of those who have chosen to run for America’s highest office.  But, it’s really not as simple as that.  Scientific knowledge develops within a social context, and Otto notes the importance of discussing issues that connect science to society.  Medical breakthroughs, medical research, environmental sustainability, global warming, alternative energy, health care, cancer research, the teaching of evolution, bioengineering, and space exploration are some of the science areas that directly relate to policy making and the laws that Congress makes.

Otto believes that science is often assaulted when debates on policy making that require scientific knowledge are held.  Using a technique that the media loves (the split screen), all issues that are discussed have two sides—the left or the right; the Republican or the Democratic.   Although making public policy is not the same as how a theory is developed in science, it’s probably important that scientific knowledge be used in a way that represents science in making important decisions.  Years ago, the tobacco industry used the technique of arguing two sides of the smoking issue, but selectively used its own research, or denied what science research had shown about smoking, or simply raised doubt about the “science” of tobacco research in order to “win” the argument, not seek the truth about smoking.

We see similar tactics being used when climate change and global warming are debated.  Of course, the issue that has impacted science education is the teaching of evolution. The same tactic that “big tobacco” used continues to be used. Over the years, there have been attempts to show that there is another side of the theory of evolution—creation science or intelligent design.   We’ve used the courts to settle scientific and health issues, such as abortion, teaching evolution, and so forth.

Otto claims that a narrowness in thinking emerges when science related issues that lead to policy making are on the table.  Science research that could impinge of policy making is sometimes prevented from being shared, or is altered. For example, Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s chief scientist on climate change, has had some of his work censored and modified by White House (Bush) staff.  An Editorial in the Washington Post on Politics and Science discussed this case, and pointed out that a NASA spokesperson, appointed by the White House, interfered in the work of scientists at NASA:

Mr. Deutsch (A NASA media spokesperson) prevented reporters from interviewing James E. Hansen, the leading climate scientist at NASA, telling colleagues he was doing so because his job was to “make the president look good.” Mr. Deutsch  also instructed another NASA scientist to add the word “theory” after every written mention of the Big Bang, on the grounds that the accepted scientific explanation of the origins of the universe “is an opinion” and that NASA should not discount the possibility of “intelligent design by a creator.”

In science education, teachers have had to deal with topics in the science curriculum that are viewed as controversial including the teaching of evolution, discussions of birth control, theories of the origins of the universe, such as the Big Bang, global warming and climate change.  School boards, parents, and politicians have gotten involved in trying to pass rules restricting what and how “controversial” topics are taught, and have lately used the pedagogy of “critical thinking” to make sure that “all” sides of each controversial topic are discussed.  Although the teaching of evolution, or I should say creation science/intelligent design was settled by Federal Judge John Jones in the famous Dover, Pennsylvania case when the judge ruled that intelligent design was not science, and had no place in a science class.  The judge had this to say in his ruling:

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy. With that said, we do not question that many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs which drive their scholarly endeavors. Nor do we controvert that ID should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed. As stated, our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.

In my own view, case like the Dover intelligent design issue, the Kansas science standards controversy, attempts by legislators and state school boards in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana to legislate the content of the science curriculum to satisfy their own (often religious beliefs) opinions is an assault on the integrity of the teaching profession to make professional decisions on curriculum and pedagogy.

There is an assault on science and science education, and as I’ll discuss further in the days ahead, there is an assault on public education.


Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America is the title of a new book by Shawn Lawrence Otto, c0- founder of Science Debate 2008, one of the largest online (125 million) science sites that featured a “debate” between the 2008 Presidential candidates on science.

In Science Debate 2008, Presidential candidates (even during the primaries) were invited to participate in real debates on science, but no candiate accepted.  So Science Debate submitted 14 questions (which were reviewed by millions of readers) to the two candidates, Barak Obama and John McCain.  You can see the questions and their answers here.  I wrote many posts on Science Debate 2008, and you read one here.

I’ve just started reading Otto’s book on my iPad, and it touches on many of the themes that have been discussed on this blog including politics and science, science and religion, teaching evolution, climate change, and science in a democratic society.

I am going to write a few posts over the next week related to Shawn Otto’s new book, and of course relate it to science education specifically, and public school education generally.

Multiple Major Quakes in Eastern Turkey

Over the past two days there have been five major earthquakes in the Eastern Turkey region.  The first was a 7.2 earthquake on Sunday, October 23 at 1:41 PM at the epicenter, followed by four quakes (often called aftershocks) ranging from 6.1 to 6.0.  Each of these quakes, (and many more aftershocks registering less than 5.0) was located in the Eastern Turkey region of Van, which is about 577 miles east of Ankara, the capital of Turkey.  As you can see on the Google map, Van, (A on the map) which is a town next to Lake Van is located in the Eastern part of Turkey.

Google Map showing the epicenter (A) of the earthquakes in relationship to the region.


A good article to read to find out why Turkey has so much in the way of seismic activity is this one in the Christian Science Monitor.  Here is one quote from the article:

“Everything that is happening to Turkey is the result of the Arabian Peninsula smashing its way into Turkey, Iran, and Iraq,” explains Russ Stein, a geophysicist with the US Geological Survey inMenlo ParkCalif., who has worked in the region.

Hundreds of building have collapsed, and hundreds of people have died as rescuers continue a search and rescue mission.

Turkey: One of the Most Active Earthquake Zones

Turkey is one of the most active earthquake zones because it is located in an area where several tectonic plates are converging, and actively in motion.  According to geologists, Turkey consists of the Anatolian Tectonic Plate which is surrounded by the Arabian Plate, The Eurasian Plate, and the African Plate.  The movement of these plates, which are still active today, results in hundreds of earthquakes each month, as shown in the seismic map of Turkey.

Earthquakes occurring in the past 30 days. Source: Turkey Department of Earthquakes

The earthquake that occurred in the Eastern part of Turkey was a 7.2 magnitude quake that happened near the city of Van, Turkey. After shocks, some as high as 6.0, are continuing to sffect the region. The map below shows the location of the earthquake near Van in relationship to the capitol city of Ankara.

Earthquake Location Map: Source: USGS

According to researchers at the Kandilli Observatory, this earthquake was the strongest earthquake in Turkey since 1999. Reports indicated that hundreds of buildings collapsed, and there may be hundreds of deaths attributed to this quake. Our hearts go out to the people affected by this earthquake.


If We Ban High Stakes Testing, How Can We Assess Learning in Science?

High stakes testing should not be used to make significant decisions about student performance (achievement in a course, passing a course, being promoted, graduating) and should be banned.  In this post we explore formative assessment methods, and show how teachers to make decisions and judgments about student achievement should use a combination of formative and summative assessments.

Some would argue that we don’t have the science right to make such a decision.  If you were to interview staff at Achieve, Inc. or the Fordham Foundation, they would strenuously argue against this decision, and claim that we really don’t the data to make this decision that would ban high-stakes testing.  The truth is, we have the data to make the decision that we should Not use high-stakes tests to make important educational decisions.  As Nichols and Berliner point out in their research Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools:

High-Stakes Conundrum

For very respected researchers (Nichols, Glass and Berliner) to say there is no need for research on high-stakes testing is an enigma, or a puzzlement for not only educators, but politicians and corporate leaders advancing the use of high-stakes tests as a way of finding out if students measure up to the standards they insist all students should be held accountable.  For some of them, it is mind-boggling that anyone would suggest that high-stakes testing be banned.

If we do that, how will be able to assess students’ academic progress in science, mathematics, social studies, English, language arts, technology, music, art, or physical education?

Classroom assessment of learning involves analyzing multiple forms of evidence for making judgments about student learning, and the effectiveness of teaching.  No single criteria (such as a test) can be used to make judgments about what or to what extent students have learned science.  How can we possibly use bubble high-stakes tests to assess students’ ability to ask questions, design an experiment, collect data, and interpret the results?  How can we possibly assess all of the standards that the National Research Council will recommend that students achieve in a science course with a 40 – 50 item multiple-choice test given on one day in the spring of the year?  It’s nonsense, and unreasonable.

Question: So what are we to do?

Answer: Assessment for learning, not Assessment of learning

In their book, Nichols and Berliner point out that it is a legitimate request for citizens and school boards to know how students, teachers, and their schools are doing.  It is not a legitimate request to base this on a high-stakes test for at least two reasons: first, the research evidence does not support the claim that the pressure of high-stakes tests will increase student learning; and secondly, it is a violation of professional standards (according to the American Education Research Association) to make decisions that effect students life chances or educational opportunities on the basis of test scores alone.

 Their recommendation is that we shift away from assessment of learning to assessment for learning.  It is the kind of paradigm shift  that I have written about on this blog that will help us solve the high-stakes conundrum.

Assessment of Learning

Assessment of learning is also known as summative assessment.  Summative assessments tend to be one-dimensional.  The assessments are apart from the curriculum, yet uncannily drives teaching (teaching for the test, or removing interesting, hands-on activities so as to devote more time to teaching to the test).  Tests that are assessments of learning are context independent, and are inflexible.  All we have to do is think about the annual administration of high-stakes tests which will be used to punish or reward students and teachers—tests that were written by staff at some corporation that have not a clue about the curriculum for which they write.

Assessment for Learning

Assessment for learning is formative assessment. Formative assessments are everyday methods that teachers use to help students improve their learning and understanding of science, and to inform and improve their teaching.  Formative assessment methods have been studied by many researchers, and one study, funded by the National Science Foundation found that teachers who use formative methods take the steps to identify the gap between a student’s current work and the desired aim, and then together figure out how the gap can be bridged.  Formative assessment is multidimensional, and unlike high-stakes testing, is integrated into the curriculum.  The assessments are authentic–that is to say, teachers use a variety of real activities to assess student progress–laboratory activities, writing essays, participating in a debate, classroom questions, and indeed simply observing and interacting with students.

Formative assessments, unlike high-stakes testing, are embedded into instruction.  These assessments are part of the “regular” science curriculum.  Formative assessments are flexible, and take into account the diverse nature of helping students learn science.

One of the leading researchers in the world on assessment is Professor Paul Black, King’s College, London.  In a presentation by Dylan Wiliam, Black says this about formative assessment:

Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning.

Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.

Although banning high-stakes testing needs to done, assessment for learning is not a simplistic idea, but one that requires a multidimensional approach to assessment in the service of student learning. Here are formative methods used by science teachers, and described in The Art of Teaching Science:

Formative Assessment Methods: Summative Methods. Click on the image, and then click on PowerPoint Slides to see a presentation on assessment

Do We Throw Out Summative Assessments?

No.  We adopt the philosophy of a multidimensional approach, and use a number of summative assessment methods that teachers use to make judgments about student learning and progress.  No one form of summative assessment is enough to determine the extent or nature of student learning.

End-of-course tests can still be used, and indeed it might be more valid if these tests were developed by teachers the district, across school lines.   For example, a team of teachers using the biology standards that the district agreed upon could develop a biology test for introductory biology.   The image below lists a collection of methods that could be used:

Summative Methods. Click on the image, and then click on Powerpoint Slides to see a presentation on assessment