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.

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.

Change is Difficult

In Cobb County Georgia, the school district’s administration proposed in February to provide an iBook (Apple Computer Co.) for every teacher and students, grades 6 -12. It would have been a major transformation in the way education would be implemented in the district. Cobb is the 2nd largest school district in Georgia. The proposal would have been the largest laptop program in the United States. It’s been stopped in its tracks. Some say that the superintendent and his staff mislead the public in the use of county funds (it would have been a $100 million project), and influenced the final decision of which computer company would ge the contract. The public (according to the Marietta Daily Journal–which in my opinion was biased against the superintendent’s plan) was incensed, and it appeared that the support that was needed eroded over the past 6 months. There are deeper issues, however, that were avoided in the discussions in newspaper, and in the school committee’s public meetings (five of the seven members of the school board supported the superintendent–as of now, it is 4-3, this Thursday, the fate of the superintendent could be decided). The deeper issue is what impact the use of laptops for each student, grades 6-12 would have had on the nature of teaching, the curriculum, and success of students. The only instructional issue I noticed being brought up was the affect the computers would have on student achievement, would it impact test scores. The problem that I see is the deeper consideratioin of how such a transformation would change the nature of teaching and learning in the district. How would it impact the goals of the curriculum? What would become of the curriculum? Perhaps the lack of discussion of these issues indicated that change is difficult, and the in reality, the public was really not interested in moving in this direction. Yet, in other parts of the nation, districts are moving in this direction. A small district in Arizona, for example, announced that each student will be getting an Apple iBook, and that the curriculum would reflect this fact. It was, according to the superintendent, a district that has taken risks in the use of technology over years. Maybe Cobb simply is not ready for that.

Tale of Two Conferences

Tale of Two-Conferences, one for Educators, One for Newspaper Editors

Since I’m from Boston, but have lived in metro-Atlanta area for 36 years, I wondered what all the fuss was about when I read the headlines in the last two editions of the Marietta Daily Journal (MDJ), “Redden sends 54 Educators to Boston (7/19/05) and “’Boston boondoggle’ questions strike nerve (7/20/05).” I wondered also why Cobb County would send 54 educators to a conference on the topic “Building Learning Communities 2005.” So I Googled to the conference, and found a robust and detailed website. I was a bit suspicious when I noticed “November” in the title given the fact that he is one of those high-paid consultants that should stay in Boston in the eyes of some in Cobb County, and certainly the editorial staff at the MDJ. The first thought I had was, this is simply a conference where the participants sit in a large lecture hall and listen to what the guru has to say.

Did not find that all! Instead I found an intensive three-day conference (July 19-July 21). I then thought, I bet November is the keynote speaker at least one of the days. Nope. There were three keynote speakers, Dr. Christopher Tan, from the University of South Australia, Dr. Michael Resnick,, MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, MA, and Sir Dexter Hutt, Executive Head of the Ninestiles Federation, Birmingham, England. I wondered, where’s Waldo (November)? I found him on the program giving 1 1/2 hour-workshops each day, concurrent with 6 other workshops presented by different educators and an end-of-the-day wrap up session for half-an-hour.

The conference was not about Mr. November (not to be confused with Mr. October) . Turns out the conference was about critical thinking (this idea ought to please those who advocated the “evolution and critical thinking stickers” on biology texts in the county) and information literacy, online community building, leadership and managing change, and transforming and designing new schools.

Now the MDJ would have us believe that 54 Cobb educators went to Boston to frolic at wine and cheese parties, take a cruise on Boston Harbor (not a bad idea, given some of our early patriots used the harbor for a famous party), and to just enjoy the beauty of this New England city. They would have us think that these 54 educators went to Boston to sit at the feet of November, the computer guru. They would have us think that on day-one the only activity was and I quote the MDJ “a one-hour afternoon feature called Reflections/Sharing with Alan November,” followed by canoeing in the evening.” Here is the real story. (You can check my facts by going to the conference web site.) Day one started with registration at 7:30 am, followed at 8:30 am by the first Keynote of the conference by Dr. Christopher Tan. His topic: “Powerful Collaboration Tools for Empowerment in Global Knowledge Ecology. Then starting at 9:45 – 11:00, there were 7 workshops; from 11:15 – 12:30, there were 7 more workshops. And, oh, yes, there were 8 more workshops from 1:30 – 2:45. November’s session was from 3:15 – 4:00. Then back to the hotel by shuttle bus, and a free evening. Canoeing was optional. Days two and three followed the same pattern of keynote and workshop sessions. And by the way, there was an optional set of pre- and post-conference sessions that participants were invited to attend on a first-come basis.

Yes, there was a wine and cheese reception; yes there was an Boston Harbor Dinner Cruise. But these events were at the end of the day, and optional. And yes, there was a powerful conference for planned for educators from around the country.

Then I wondered what kind of conferences do newspaper reporters and editors attend? Do they have receptions, serve wine and cheese, have dinners, and so forth? So an other round of Googling brought me to the American Society of Newspapers Editors (ASNE) website , and details of their annual conference (April 2005), held a the Washington, DC Marriott Hotel. They had keynote speakers too. And they had, like the educators at the Boston conference smaller, intimate workshops. I wondered, who do they have as their keynote speakers? Here is what their program said about the keynote speakers: “President Bush will speak at Thursday’s lunch. In addition, we will hear from First Amendment Lawyer Floyd Abrams; Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Poet Laureate Ted Kooser; News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch; Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” They had luncheons, and receptions with wine and cheese, and optional excursions around Washington. It cost the editors between $500 – $700 just to attend, meals, drinks, hotel not included. At least the educators got the first glass of wine free! I don’t know if any of MDJ editorial staff went to this conference. However, based on the website I would highly recommend it next year.

The conference that our educators went to in Boston was not the “Boston boondoggle.” It was a first-rate professional development conference powerfully related to the District’s goals of bringing education in Cobb into the 21st Century. Just like the Newspaper editors conference, in which new ideas are presented, our educators were “involved” in cutting-edge ideas that they can bring back to our schools, a benefit to thousands of students and their parents. And one other thing that was common to each, just as the ASNE conference had a general, we have one too!

No Paradigm Shift in Cobb County, Georgia

In Cobb County, Georgia’s second largest school district (just outside Atlanta), the district superintendent and school board have initiated the Power to Learn Project. Power to Learn will put an i-book in the hands of every student grades 6-12, as well as every K-12 teacher. The total cost of the project will be $100 million. The first phase is underway; each teacher has received a computer, and each student in four high schools will get computers this fall for a year of experimentation. However, the project is in serious jeapody. On Friday, a citizen (represented by former Governor Roy Barnes) from Cobb County took the school district to court. At the hearing, it was recorded into testimony that the final evaluation scores of the competing computer companies (Dell, IBM, Apple) were altered. The alteration resulted in Apple getting the contract when, according to the testimony of Cobb official, they were rated lowest. Now the school district is considering having the Cobb district attorney summon a Grand Jury to look into these allegations.

Why is this happening? Firstly, putting computers in the hands of every student requires a paradigm shift in thinking regarding the nature of school curriculum and how students learn. There has been very little ground work in preparing citizens or educators for such a change. Paradigm shifts require new ways of thinking. Most change in education uses the integration model, in which a new idea is integrated into the present paradigm. A paradigm shift means the new idea supplants a previously held view, like moving from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican view of the universe.

My guess is that the Cobb officials in charge of the Power to Learn project had not realized the “power” and subsequent reaction of the citizen’s of Cobb, a very conservative power center. The local newspaper, The Marietta Daily Journal, has been the forum for the discussion surrounding the project, and most of the letters and opinion essays have been against the project. More will be discussed at this site on this project in the days to come.