Science Literacy in Letters to the Editor

There has recently been a flurry of letters to editor in the Marietta Daily Journal (Georgia) that were promted by a editorial two weeks ago by a Rev. Price concerning intelligent design. There has also been another subset of letters prompted by a Jeffrey Selman who has for years challenged Cobb County officials (schools and government) on First Amendment issues. For instance, he organized a legal fight against the school district which had authorized placing “evolution is only a theory” stickers on all middle and high school life science and biology texts. The district was ordered by a Federal Judge to remove the stickers, which they did. Writers to the paper have made their arguments using personal reasons, as well as making claims about various concepts in science, and other topics.

For example, a writer today, who claimed that “Selman is not as tolerant as he thinks he is,” expressed his anger about Selman’s views on several topics. In fact the writer stated: “…And then Mr. Selman’s friend, Dr. Benjamin Freeed, has the nerve to insinuate that parents who don’t agree with him and Mr. Selman are not good parents, his belief being that they are ignorant.”

In the same writer’s letter, I also found a couple of interesting references to science. I am not trying to claim that this writer is ignorant, but his statements shed some light on level of science literacy that exists in our culture. Here are the two points he made that I think are revealing:

1. “Of course, there are many scientists who believe that evolution is a fact, even though no one was there at the time to verify, it cannot be duplicated scientifically and no one has ever seen one kind of animal evolve into another kind. There are also many scientists who believe otherwise.”

2. “If he (Selman) will check carefully, the sticker that he was successful in getting yanked out of the textbooks only stated the truth: Evolution is a theory that cannot now, nor can it ever, be tested scientifically, just a no other theory of the beginnings of the world can be tested scientifically.”

I think the writer has hit the nail on the head about what and how we can know in science. Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University says this about this issue:

“Science, the argument goes, is based on experiment and direct, testable observation. Therefore, science can address only phenomena that are brought into the laboratory and examined under controlled condtions…but this argument would deny scientific inquiry to any situation that does not lend itself to laboratory science. The natural history of the earth is just a situation. Since there were no human witnesses to the earth’s past, the argument goes, all statements about the past, including evolution, are pure speculation.”

Then he raises the question, “Is scientific inquiry restricted to what we can actually bring into the laboratory and see happening right in front of us? Is there really any scientific way that we can know anything about the past at all?”

And of course, as he shows in his book, the answer is yes. Let me explore a few examples.

1. Here is one example from the news of a week ago.A few days ago, NASA scientists announced new results from the WMAP Mission (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe). WMAP has produced a new, more detailed picture of the infant universe (shown below).

This new information helps to pinpoint when the first stars formed and provides new clues about events that transpired in the first trillionth of a second of the universe. Here is a beautiful example of using scientific methodology to probe into the past, and answer questions about about what was the universe like at the moment after the Big Bang.

2. Another example the geological time scale, which has over time gone through many revisions, and improvements detailing events (geological and biological) in the earth’s history. You can view some graphical geological timelines to get an idea of how geologists have divided geological time into EONs, ERAs and PERIODs.

3. A third example, closely related to the geological time scale, is the fossil record (paleontology), which is a record of the histoy of life on the earth.

All three of these examples are part of K-12 science curriculum. Students in an earth science class or a physics course would find out about the Big Bang Theory, Students in earth science (elementary and middle school) would create geological time scales in their course, and geology, earth science and biology classes would help students learn about the fossil record. In all of these cases, students would learn something about the nature of science, and how we can know about what the universe was like in the past, and the history of the earth. Apparently, these lessons were lost on the writer to the Marietta Daily Journal.

Political and Policy Implications of Science: A Cause for Rewriting Science?

Since late 2004, Dr. James Hanson, Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been prevented from speaking out about the implications of years of research on Global Warming. Hanson, a 30-year veteran NASA scientist, “fell out of favor with the White House” after giving a speech complaining that climate scientists were being muzzled (he also said he was going to vote for Sen. John Kerry in the upcoming presidential election). The New York Times published an article, Climate Expert Says NASA Tried to Silence Him (Jan. 29, 200) which detailed the nature of the muzzling going on in NASA and being directed by the White House.

CBS’ 60 Minutes program featured Hanson in one of their pieces entitled Rewriting Science. Hanson, who took a risk in going public said on the program “In my more than three decades in the government I’ve never witnessed such restrictions on the ability of scientists to communicate with the public.” CBS provided documents showing the extent to which scientific reports were re-written by White House lawyers (not scientists) to undermine the credible research showing that the Earth is warming, and that it is caused by the creation of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide). This was not an editing job, it was a calculated re-write of papers in which the White House made global warming research appear to be full of too much uncertainty to be used to make policy decisions. It was revealed that the White House staff member doing the re-writing was a Phil Cooney, a former lobbyist of the American Petroleum Institute. Cooney recently left the White House and is now employed by a large oil firm!

Hanson and his colleagues at NASA have accumulated evidence to support the fact of global warming, and are expecially alarmed at the serious increase in the melting of glaciers, especially in Greenland. Of particular note is that Hanson suggests that CO2 emissions need to be reduced in the next ten years, or the increase in melting of glaciers (resulting in the rise of sea level) will contribute to more catastrophic results. The graph below shows how atmosheric co2 has changed over the past years ice core and atmospheric data.

What results? Hurricanes for one! In a study reported in Science by researchers from Georgia Institute of Technology, Carlos D. Hoyos and others have shown that the increasing trend in the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes for the period 1970 – 2004 is directly linked to the trend in global warming. One of the specific varibles that they looked at was sea water temperatures, which have increase about 1 degree celcius over this period. Hurricanes get their “energy” from warm ocean water, and if ocean temperatures are increasing its clear there will be more energy for future storms. Hurricane Katrina, grew from a category 1 storm before passing over 90 degree water in the Gulf of Mexico (as shown below) becoming very quickly a category 5 storm.

And the past few days, Hurricane Larry, which was more powerful than Katrina, hit the Queensland Coast of Australia.

Science should be used to help formulate policy. However, when government lawyers re-write science to fit a particular political ideology, then the public is done a major disservice. The U.S. government has had a disturbing record in terms of how it has viewed the results and theory of global warming, irrespective of political party. Bush 1 and 2, and the Clinton administration have not only mis-read science results, but interpreted them to fit their own political views. Years ago, Jacob Bronowski recommended that scientific research NOT be funded by the government, but by some other organization. He never went on to formulate this suggestion in any specific way. I am not sure an a non-government agency would be able to convince politicians who are bent on a particular view or ideology. Perhaps what is needed is better science education at the K-12 level. But that has been the theme of government and non-governmental CEO’s for decades, and sadly, science education has not changed very much. In the state that I reside, only half of the students who start school, graduate from high school.

Intelligent Design Again in the News

Last Sunday (3/12/06), the Rev. Nelson Price of Marietta, GA wrote in his Sunday column in the Marietta Daily Journal, “Intelligent design infers there was a designer.” He brought up old arguments related to the issue: scientists are stifling free speech by not allowing intelligent design into the classroom of science; our youth are being protected from such dangerous concepts at I.D.; some things in nature are just too complex to have evolved by means of natural selection—a designer needed to step in and form these complex systems whole; the watch and watchmaker analogy; the orbit of the earth is just right because of an intelligent designer (this is a new one).

In response to Price’s article was one (3/15/06)by Ed Buckner, Southern Director, Council for Secular Humanism. The article, entitled Price wrong again about Intelligent Design claimed that Price’s column was nothing but old wine in a new bottle, and the wine had soured.

I submitted an article to the MDJ after reading Price’s article. Here it is:

Scientific Explanations need to underscore science teaching

I look forward to reading Rev. Price’s Sunday editorial in the Marietta Daily Journal. I generally find the discussions in his pieces thoughtful. I was, therefore, surprised at his piece last Sunday, entitled “Intelligent design infers there was a designer. I am surprised that Rev. Price does not see the religious basis for intelligent design, when interestingly he was arguing that it was a scientific idea, and that our youth were being prevented from learning about this idea.

Centuries before Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (co-discoverers of the theory of evolution by natural selection), were born, the idea that an intelligent designer was responsible for an organism’s complexity was well know. The leading proponent of the idea was the English theologian Richard Paley creator of the famous watchmaker analogy, written in 1802, that Rev. Price referred to in his piece. Paley’s idea of an intelligent designer was replaced by the theory of evolution by natural selection about 50 years later when Darwin published his famous book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. In 2005, two books were published on Darwin’s contribution. Each book was edited by two well known scientists, James D. Watson and Edward O. Wilson. Each book contained four of Charles Darwin’s books, including his “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

The idea of intelligent design was revived in 1991 by U.C. Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson after he had a religious conversion, in his book, “Darwin on Trial”. Later Johnson joined with the Discovery Institute in Seattle to promote the idea by affecting change in the curriculum of the nation’s schools. Not through research (as they claim) but through press releases and propaganda. Johnson’s idea, known as “wedge theory” is designed to drive a wedge (as to split a log) into evolutionary biology. There is no research agenda; but there is a very rigorous public relations program.

The science education community has not been involved trying to hold our youth hostage or protecting them from ideas such as intelligent design. Instead our youth have been pawns in a game led by real activists—the Discovery Institute and the Thomas More Law Center whose goal is to wedge their way into science classrooms through intimidation and propaganda.

Rev. Price refers to a “ever-expanding cadre of academicians” that are associated with the intelligent design movement. An analysis of these academicians reveals that very few of them are in the field of science and most are lawyers, government employees, engineers, and theologians. There is no scientific basis for intelligent design, even though Rev. Price claims that there is. The Discovery Institute does not have a scientific research program, and the central concept of the intelligent design ideology, irreducible complexity (in lay terms, some things are so complex they came into being whole—e.g. requiring an intelligent designer). The example they use over and over again is that bacterial cells are propelled by rotary type engines called flagella motors. According to Michael Behe (I.D. proponent), the rotary motor is irreducibly complex, it couldn’t have come into being via natural selection; it must have come into being whole. The problem is that this is not true. Parts can be removed, and it still works. Flagella came into being through natural selection.

The flaw here is that I.D. proponents want to define intelligent design negatively, as anything that is not chance or necessity. Science requires positive evidence. And this is what Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace did independent of each other.

And finally, the orb of the Earth’s orbit that Rev. Price mentions was explained centuries ago for Sir Isaac Newton in his Universal Law of Gravity, or should we rename it the Theory of Gravity.

Darwin, like Newton, proposed a scientific rather than a religious explanation: the fit between organisms and environments is the result of natural selection. Like all scientific explanations, his relies on natural causation. And this is the kind of thinking that should be espoused in science classrooms.

Constantly Striving for Inquiry-Based Learning

I received an email from a science educator colleague and friend, and he included a copy of a paper that he presented last fall at conference among science teacher educators. The paper, entitled “The journey from powerful ideas to classroom practice:Enacting inquiry pedagogy through co-construction, not indoctrination,” by Michael Dias, Kennesaw State University. The paper also earned the “outstanding faculty position paper” award at the conference. The paper traces the issues related to attempts by science teacher educators to develop inquiry-oriented programs to prepare secondary science teachers. It’s been a difficult journey. Inquiry-based teaching was not really in the mainstream of teacher preparation until the 1960s, and yes it was related to the massive response by the National Science Foundation to the launching by the USSR of Sputnik. Science education responded with the emergence of a host of science curriculum projects and were developed from late 1950s and into the early 1970s.

On a personal note, Sputnik enabled me to receive a Ph.D. in science education in the late 1960s because the NSF funded Academic Year Institutes at many universities around the country. Hundreds of science and mathematics teachers (like myself) spent a year in full-time study–in my case (and many others as well) I stayed on at the university (Ohio State) and completed my doctorate, and did not return to high school teaching.

Inquiry-based teaching was a theme of many of the NSF funded science projects such as PSSC Physics, Chem Study, BSCS Biology, Earth Science Curriculum Project, Introductory Physical Science, Individualized Science Curriculum Study. Elementary projects such as Elementary Science Study (ESS) followed the inquiry theme. And during the 1970s many teachers earning their Ph.D. degree in science education focused their dissertations on these projects and their impact on student learning. Many of the studies compared these NSF projects to the more “traditional” text book oriented programs. Oddly, all of the NSF programs produced texts (except for the elmentary science projects). Most studies found little difference in the “academic” achievement of students in either NSF or traditional programs. Years later, using more sophisticated methods (essentially looking at a whole bunch of studies and using the data to draw conclusions), researchers reported that the NSF projects did have significant differences in impacting students understanding of inquiry and attitudes toward science.

Yet, inquiry-oriented teaching is not the staple of secondary science classrooms. Texts, lecture and testing still dominate the classroom. And even when major universities develop what appear to be strong-inquiry-oriented science teacher education programs, the long term effects seem to be nill.

So Dr. Dias’ paper sheds light on this issue, and he suggests changes that are needed in teacher education, e.g. “practice to theory” and “co-construction” of inquiry-based science.” In his view:

” …Collaboration with teachers using this framework has resulted in the realistic view of inquiry that I wish to promote. The essential features framework allows us to acknowledge with teachers the elements of inquiry pedagogy already present in their practice, and also provides direction for extending student opportunities for working at a higher level of independent and collaborative thought. With this tool we can take teachers from the common initial notions of inquiry as “hands-on activity” or “discovery” or “design an experiment” to a more varied view of endeavors congruent with the nature of science.”

There are programs that have initiated these changes, but if history is of value here, to reverse the trend of constantly striving for inquiry-based learning will take significant changes. I think Mike is on the right track!

International Space Station Advances; Impact on Research

NASA announced, after a meeting in Florida among all of the participating countries (United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada), that a new plan for the completing the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS) was worked out. NASA indicated that it would take 16 flights of the space shuttle (Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavour) in order to deliver equipment and materials needed to complete the various components of the ISS.

Of course this has resulted in some controversy among scientists, engineers and managers. At a hearing in Washington, some members of Congress expressed concern over the loss of research projects and the disruption of project teams. At the hearing, some scientists argued that NASA was sacrificing small space projects valuable for training graduate students and advancing science to sustain some big programs. Others said the United States was risking its leadership in space science.

This is a difficult issue. We want the Space Station completed. It will be useful to future space research projects, and it will be used for future expeditions to the moon and beyond. Yet, some say that the continued costs associated with the Space Station are impacting science research projects.

One of the key issues here is what are NASA’s goals for the future of space research and exploration, and do these goals. This past year, out of the blue, the Bush Administration announced plans for putting astronauts on Mars in this new century. NASA has been plaqued for nearly two decades with two space shuttle disasters, each of which appeared to caused by the mis-management at the highest levels of NASA. What is driving NASA at this time? Have we really reached any kind of a consensus on goals that should drive NASA in the future? When NASA announces that it going to make 16 launches of the Orbiter, one has to raise questions.