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.


Launched: STS 135—To Infinity & Beyond

NASA’s STS-135 mission of the Space Shuttle lifted off its pad in Florida successfully, today, July 8, 2011. More than a million people were there to witness the liftoff.

Liftoff Space Shuttle Atlantis, July 8, 2011

Here is a video I made of the launch and commentary.

AAAS Vigorously Opposes Attacks on Climate Change Researchers

Yesterday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published an open letter on its website with the headline: AAAS Board: Attacks on Climate Researchers Inhibit Free Exchange of Scientific Ideas.  In the letter, the Board said:

Scientists and policymakers may disagree over the scientific conclusions on climate change and other policy-relevant topics. But the scientific community has proven and well-established methods for resolving disagreements about research results. It uses a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers, and experiments are repeated when necessary.

The harassment of leading climate scientists is exemplified by the American Tradition Institute’s suit against NASA (in particular climate scientist Dr. James Hansen).  In this case, the ATI is going after a scientist who has been a leader in NASA’s climate science research program.  This is a serious intrusion in the way science is conducted.  Hansen’s work has been published in major scientific journals and his work has been subjected to peer review process which science used to verify the reliability and validity of research papers.  The ATI, which does not use the same peer review tradition as used in scienc, relies on media outlets and its own website to claim it is presenting the “otherside” of environmental findings that have been documented and established as credible science in scientific  journals.

Here is the approach taken by the ATI.  Instead of doing research that might shed light on global warming and the effects of CO2 on global temperatures, they instead file this request:

This request seeks records of longtime, taxpayer-funded activist Dr. Hansen, to determine whether Dr. Hansen has filed applications for outside employment, like speeches, books (emails obtained already indicate NASA staffed worked on this), cash awards and other gifts, and other support.

Does this organization provide a list of references that call into question some of Hansen’s findings.  No, they want to uncover any dirt they might find on the “taxpayer-funded activist.”  Instead of providing credible evidence that disputes Hansen’s findings, they take a “legal” approach to try and sue NASA and Hansen, and in so doing change the way science proceeds.

But this is the way individuals and groups deal with scientific findings that oppose personal or corporate beliefs.  That is to say, they realize that they can not compete in the scientific world of journals and research papers, and instead rely on courts, and media outlets to propel their ideas into the public.

So, how is a teacher to deal with this sort of bias?  How does the science education community respond to groups such as ATI?  How would explore this your science classroom?

Water on the Moon

NASA has reported that if astronauts heated lunar soil, it would yield water that could be purified and used for drinking, or separated into Oxygen and Hydrogen and used for rocket fuel.

NASA scientists, of  Project LCROSS, have reported that there is water in one of the moon’s craters, and that there is more water in this crater than there is in the Sahara Desert.  The water, in the form of ice crystals, makes up about 5 – 8% of the crater’s mixture.  According to NASA, 8 wheelbarrows of soil could yield 10 to 13 gallons of water.

This was an unexpected result, as many have thought that the moon was barren of water.  Although there are no plans to go back to the moon, this discovery certainly certainly throws new light on NASA’s previous plan to go back to the moon, and use it as a staging ground for missions to Mars.  According to NASA, the water on moon could be used be broken apart into Hydrogen and Oxygen and used as rocket fuel.

In an article in the New York Times, the moon exploration was set in motion as follows:

Lcross and the lunar orbiter are part of NASA’s Constellation program, started five years ago by the Bush administration to send astronauts back to the Moon. Arguing that it is too expensive and that the United States has already been there, President Obama has pushed for its cancellation. A compromise on the space agency’s future, passed by Congress and signed into law by Mr. Obama last week, sets aside Moon ambitions for now, at least for the return of human explorers.

NASA’s Role in Inspiring Teachers and Youth

NASA, created by Congress and President Eisenhower on October 1, 1958, has played an important role in the hearts and minds teachers and their students. Although originally created as a national defense strategy, NASA’s space exploration missions have effectively inspired generations of people, not only in the U.S., but around the world.

I wanted to write about the recent announcements from NASA and the White House about the effect of the fiscal 2010 Federal Budget, and the implications for NASA. At a NASA budget press conference, NASA’s administrator & former astronaut, Charles Bolden, outlined the implications for the budget recommendations for NASA. The brief report is very interesting and you can read it here.

In one sense, the budget recommendations chart a new and dynamic course for NASA. Charles Bolden, NASA’s new director, starts off by saying:

I’m here today to tell you that this budget gives us a roadmap to even more historic achievements as it spurs innovation, employs Americans in exciting jobs, and engages people around the world.
Bolden outlined a number of directions that NASA will take in the years ahead that will invest in one of the most important aspects of the space program, and that is in innovation and inspiration. Here are some of the areas that were identified in the report.
1. Commitment to extend the life of the International Space Station beyond 2020.
2. Invest in critical and transformative technologies that will enable a path beyond low Earth orbit through development of new launch and space transportation technologies. Bolden says:
Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner solar system, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of “firsts;” and imagine all of this being done collaboratively with nations around the world.
3. Enhance support for the commercial spaceflight industry. NASA hopes that this will alter the way astronauts are shuttled to and from the International Space Station.
4. Investment in new technology programs including new and novel approaches to spaceflight, development of new heavy lift research focusing on new engines, propellants, and materials, and the development of a broad space technology program.
5. Robotic exploration precursor missions that will pave the way for later human exploration of the moon, Mars and nearby asteroids.
6. Continued support of planned missions to study the planets and
7. Development of new satellites to be used to improve forecasting of climate change, and continuation of NASA’s Earth science program.
8. Ignition of student’s passion and interest in science. Bolden put it this way:
Our Summer of Innovation initiative this year will begin a massive collaboration with thousands of middle school teachers and students to engage in stimulating, hands-on math and science programs that draw on the best and most exciting NASA resources.