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 Sciencedebate.org, 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 Sciencedebate.org 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.

 

Science and Religion, The FaradaySchools.com

Part of an image shown on the Faraday Website

A recent poll reported that very few people in the US accept the theory of evolution as a valid explanation for the creation of life on Earth.  According to the National Center for Science Education, in a 24-country poll, 41% of the respondents identified themselves as “evolutionists” and 28% as “creationists”, and 31% indicating they don’t know what to believe.  In the US, 28% were “evolutionists”, with the “creationist” view held by 40%.

However, in a Gallup poll in 2010, 38% believed that humans developed from less advanced form of life over millions of years, but God guided the process, 16% believed that humans developed from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process, and 40% accepted that God created human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years.

Given these numbers, I found myself part of an online discussion of science and religion this past week.  Here are some details.

The National Association for Research in Science Teaching (NARST) hosts a discussion site and this week, a discussion on the nature of science was started when Prof. Keith Taber from the U.K. announced that a new website to support learning about the Nature of Science was live, and was entitled Faraday Schools. According to Taber, the site is about learning about science and religion.

Taber claims that science education takes a rather narrow view on the issue of science and religion, and in his opinion, this site would avoid such a single narrow view.

Northing could be further from the truth.  The Faraday site is intelligent design and creationism wrapped in a well-designed website with videos, animations, images, and text.

Check out the website (http://faradayschools.com/) and see for yourself what they have developed.  For one, the images are suggestive—there is the image of the face of Charles Darwin on the body of a monkey.  When you study the list of topics, and the “articles” that are referenced, your breath might be taken away.

Taber’s comments on the NARST list stimulated a bit of discussion.  And still is going on today.

One science educator (Dr. Norm Thomson, Professor of Science Education at the University of Georgia) had this to say about Prof. Taber’s comments:

Hello Keith, I do have a problem with your statement to Shari (Prof. Shari Britner) that “However, the idea that science excludes God is not part of a consensus view on the nature of science among the scientific community.” Science neither excludes nor includes “God” and that is the nature of science. And that is why scientists do not look for a deity to answer the questions posed in science. And, I think that from my experience with traditional cultures in Africa that to include the “Abrahamic” views of a God is Western arrogance. Why do we constantly refer to “God” in singularity versus plurality? I have not seen the new website to which you are referring but I have never seen a scientific paper that (1) has shown evidence for an external reality, (2) has proposed a means by which to measure it, and (3) I have never read a paper in the journals of Science or Nature that supports a the position that there is a “consensus view” of “scientists” which again is getting confused with “science”. I hold the position that the argument being posed by you is bordering on the approach used by those who support intelligent design. So I hold a narrow view of what science is and that is different than what individual scientists view and that is why there is a consensus of what science is, versus a plurality of views about one or many deities. So, if there is any mention of “God” that other myths of cultures should also be included. Norm Thomson

After reading this comment, I wrote this:

Norm,

I have spent a good deal of time studying the Faraday website.  It is a very well designed creationist/intelligent design curriculum claiming to represent the nature of science.    The content of the site is not different than the curriculum materials developed by the creation science advocates of the 1970s, and makes use of the slogans of the intelligent designers.

It is well worth looking at the site what.  It’s well done, but my suspicion is that most middle and high school students would see through the scheme and wonder why this “stuff” is being taught in a science course.  To be sure there is science in the pages of this website, but is primarily there to set up the real reason for the faraday curriculum—creation science–which a limited Western world view.

Norm replied with this comment:

Well, thank you for the link and now I astounded that there is even a discussion going on with respect to this website and its position. It looks like something that the Discovery Institute would propose. It goes back to the 19th Century for science and the year O for religion. I am now pondering why someone would even bring this site up for some view of science. And, I am disappointed that the position of this site reads as what I would expect from Fundamentalists who put words in the mouths of Darwin, etc. If anything, what we have learned about evolution since he offered his perspective would probably settle once and for all what his position might be and maybe even have persuaded Emma to have a different view.

It seems to me that the Dover decision took care of the US view on this matter most recently and in this country to bring this website into a classroom would be a violation of the First Amendment. And, I am surprised that our British colleagues have a concern about science being “dominated by atheists” whereas we know the impact religion had with respect to other science positions for so many years.

I would hope our astute students would see the deceit being proposed and it now bothers me to have read Keith Taber’s position on this. When I taught in East Africa with the British curriculum there was a clear distinction between science and religious education and as my headmaster who graduated from Cambridge said, there is a reason why the English language has different words for different phenomena.I am not ready to accept a field of “scireligion”.

According to Dr. Taber, the intention of the FaradaySchools.com curriculum “is to develop balanced materials which can be used in schools, including teaching about the relationship between science and religion (currently part of the school curriculum in England), as well as the nature of science (a key part of Secondary school science here.”

If you analyze the Table of Contents for each grade (7-12–http://faradayschools.com/),  and look for a balance between topic titles that seem to lean toward science (The Big Bang, Ideas and evidence, the Red Shift VS those that lean toward religion (Dear Darwin, because of you…, God and Miracles, Ways to interpret Genesis, God and Gaps, Galileo and how he understood the Bible, A physicist’s view of Genesis, there is a huge imbalance—toward religion.  Further, the religious ideas are rather narrow and are based on Genesis.

You might consider this post a warm-up of what is to come in the 2012 Republican primary for president.  Already, we have candidates that would totally support the Faraday website.