In the last couple of months, the debate over science standards and evolution has really heated up in Florida.
One important point that seems to be lost in all of the furor is that the standards in question were developed by a committee of scientists and science educators. Who better to decide what should be included in a science curriculum than professionals who actually practice and teach science?
And yet, as seen in the article linked above, a lot of non-experts seem to have no problem elevating their own opinions about science education above those of the professionals.
"My children need to be exposed to everything, but taught as a theory," [Chairwoman Carol] Hilson said. "Science is, well, not an exact science. It's all so subjective. There are a lot of holes in the theory of evolution.
"I can't imagine that we would teach science and not teach intelligent design.
Ms. Hilson appears to be somewhat out of the loop.
There's a very obvious reason not to teach intelligent design in science class:
I honestly mean no insult to Ms. Hilson. She probably has very little familiarity with the evidence of evolution and the utter vacuity of intelligent design.
I cannot help but wonder, though, why so many people feel entitled to have firm opinions on scientific topics they clearly know very little about. Even more perplexing--what makes some people feel so comfortable expressing their uninformed opinions in public?
A little over a month ago, a majority of school board members in Polk County Florida were reportedly opposed to the upgraded science standards for Florida public schools that list evolution as one of the "big ideas" that students need to know.
At least one member, Margaret Lofton, went so far as to say that if evolution is taught, she wanted to "balance it with the fact that we may live in a universe created by a supreme being as well."
Apparently, the board members have since changed their minds.
"The pro-intelligent design board members say they now recognize that the new standards are a state issue and there's nothing they can do about them, even if they'd like to."
The change of heart was, in part, prompted by a flood of responses from supporters of REAL science.
Hopefully, this whole sitation will serve as a reminder for public school decision-makers that it is crucial to understand the scientific consensus before publically expressing an opinion concerning what topics should be included in science standards.
Based on their anatomical features, scientists have long hypothesized that cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) evolved from land-dwelling mammals. Like their land-based relatives, cetaceans are warm-blooded animals that breathe air, give live birth, feed their young with milk, and move by flexing their spines up and down. These distinctly mammalian traits are known to have evolved in land-dwelling mammals long before the earliest cetaceans first took to the water.
Despite the obvious connections, scientists were puzzled for most of the 20th century by a lack of intermediate fossils illustrating the transition of cetaceans from land to water. Then, beginning in the early 1990s, several amazing transitional forms were discovered that fit neatly into the existing gaps.
Hans Thewissen and Indohyus
Over the last ten years, Hans Thewissen and his colleagues at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (NEOUCOM) have been busy locating the missing pieces of the puzzle. Recently, Thewissen announced the discovery of Indohyus, a 48-million-year-old hoofed mammal that may be the closest known fossil relative of cetaceans.
Indohyus was comparable in shape, size, and behavior to its modern analog, the water chevrotain:
Indohyus was clearly not a cetacean, but it may have been a close cousin to the ancestors of cetaceans. Indeed, as shown by the illustration below, there is very little resemblance between Indohyus and modern cetaceans.
The primary characteristics linking Indohyus to cetaceans are similarities found in the middle-ear region of the skull:
Indohyus shares with cetaceans several synapomorphies that are not present in other artiodactyls. Most significantly, Indohyus has a thickened medial lip of its auditory bulla, the involucrum, a feature previously thought to be present exclusively in cetaceans. Involucrum size varies among cetaceans, but the relative thickness of medial and lateral walls of the tympanic of Indohyus is clearly within the range of that of cetaceans and is well outside the range of other cetartiodactyls.
Other paleontological evidence has suggested that the animal spent considerable time in the water:
Thewissen and colleagues also explored how Indohyus lived, and came up with some surprising results. They determined that the bones of the skeleton of Indohyus had a thick outside layer, much thicker than in other mammals of this size. This characteristic is often seen in mammals that are slow aquatic waders, such as the hippopotamus today. Indohyus' aquatic habits are further confirmed by the chemical composition of their teeth, which revealed oxygen isotope ratios similar to those of aquatic animals. All this implies that Indohyus spent much of its time in water.
After further analysis, the discovery of Indohyus may add one more piece of evidence to the puzzle that illustrates the connection between cetaceans and their land-based ancestors.
What is most intriguing about this piece of the puzzle is that it fits with the molecular evidence that has already identified hippos (members of a group known as "artiodactyls") as the closest living relatives of cetaceans. The existence of an artiodactyl group in the fossil record that is a sister group to cetaceans would confirm the evolutionary hypothesis that whales, dolphins and porpoises are derived from ancient artiodactyl ancestors.
Even with this latest find, there are still many unanswered questions about the evolutionary history of cetaceans. The puzzle will always be missing pieces, but each new discovery has consistently confirmed the hypothesis that cetaceans evolved from land-dwelling mammals.
Indeed, it may no longer be appropriate to refer to the evolutionary origin of cetaceans as a "hypothesis." The evidence collected so far certainly leaves little room for alternative explanations.
I send a lot of e-mail in the course of the average day, and ordinarily nobody is fired as a result. But I'm not always so lucky.
Branch's post concludes:
...with a constant climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution across the country, it looks as though my colleagues at NCSE and I won't be out of a job any time soon. So we'll continue to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and to help concerned teachers, parents, and citizens in general to do the same.
We'll keep the e-mails coming, too.
The new year will undoubtedly bring with it new challenges and new opportunities to support those who defend the teaching of REAL science in public schools.
As I described last week, Dr. Daniel Bolnick wrote a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott that has now been signed by over 150 of his fellow Texas Biology professors.
The letter was prompted by the forced resignation of Chris Comer, the former director of science curriculum at the Texas Education Agency (TEA), and it argued that TEA employees should not be forced to remain neutral on evolution.
It is my expectation that agency staff members will be mindful, particularly on policy matters, that anything said will be scrutinized and may be interpreted as representing a position of the agency or State Board of Education. This controversy is an example of how closely policy makers and the public examine this agency's every word and action.
The Board's position on science education should be to provide the best and most accurate science possible, regardless of the political consequences. There are times when public bodies need to lead, and this is one of them. Speaking on behalf of my colleagues, I urge both the Board and the TEA to exercise such leadership by issuing statements that unambiguously support the teaching of evolution and omission of intelligent design in public classrooms. The full weight of scientific evidence would be on your side. The scientific community is agreed that evolution should not only be taught, but taught in a straightforward manner, unqualified by alleged "weaknesses" that are invariably based on faulty logic or misrepresentations of available data.
Bolnick went on to invite Commissioner Scott to discuss the details of evolutionary biology with university faculty members from across the state of Texas.
is a biweekly compendium of science weblog articles.
This week's edition is hosted by Ouroboros and links back here to an article about the importance of theories.
The name "tangled bank" comes from Charles Darwin's famous metaphor:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life and from use and disuse: a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms.
One of the consequences of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is the widespread neglect of gifted and talented students. All across the country, already-sparse programs for these students are being cut as schools must work more intensely with the students who are less likely to pass the state assessments.
Kansas is no exception. Some of the brightest students in the state have languished as scarce funds for gifted/talented programs are diverted to help meet NCLB requirements.
Now these students will have another option.
The Kansas Board of Regents announced today that the Kansas Academy of Math and Science (KAMS) will be located on the campus of Fort Hays State University. If funding is made available by the state, FHSU has indicated that KAMS should be open and operational by the Fall 2009 academic semester.
From the KBOR press release:
KAMS, which was established by legislation approved and signed into law in 2006, will ultimately enroll approximately 80 high school juniors and seniors who are academically talented in science and mathematics. Once a student completes the two-year program of study, they will have earned both a high school diploma and college credits equivalent to an associate of arts or associate of science degree.
KAMS will enable the best and brightest Kansas high school students to mature and develop into science and mathematics leaders. These students will engage in a potent blend of college-level instruction, research activities, service learning, and peer interactions. Fifteen other states in the U.S. offer similar academies, including Missouri and Oklahoma. A glance at the Siemens Talent Search shows that for the past several years, the winners & semifinalists are disproportionately from such magnet schools.
It is vitally important to our state's future that our best and brightest students be nurtured in an environment that will encourage them to either stay in Kansas or return to Kansas upon completion of their studies. - Regent Christine Downey-Schmidt, Chair of the Board of Regents
Of course, there's a hitch - funding. In order to open as scheduled, the Kansas Legislature will need to approve $4.3 million over the next six years. As Downey-Schmidt noted,
KAMS will challenge talented individuals and encourage them to enter mathematics and science fields, which in turn will help address one of our state's most critical workforce needs. However, it certainly goes without saying that state funding is imperative for the establishment, operation, and ultimate success of KAMS.
The trial was the first time in US history that a public school district was taken to court for requiring the presentation of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in science classrooms. Jones ruled that teaching intelligent design in public school biology classes violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States because it is not science and "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."
One interesting revelation from the interview was that Jones had never heard of intelligent design prior to being assigned to the trial.
Jones: "I was on my way home from my chambers that day, and I had the local radio station on in Harrisburg. And I heard about this big, bombastic press conference regarding an establishment clause challenge involving a concept known as intelligent design that had been filed in federal court.
And I remember having two distinct thoughts as I was driving home. One was that I consider myself reasonably well-read, but I didn't remember ever hearing about intelligent design. It was off my radar, which is funny now. And the second one was, I wonder who's going to get that case. I didn't know until the next morning that it was me."
Promoters of Intelligent Design (ID) often claim to be agnostic about the identity of the designer. Indeed, some ID promoters have suggested that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveler from the future. To me, it seems rather pointless to argue about the religious nature of ID.
The most important distingushing trait of ID is that it is NOT science. The reason religion always comes up is because some people are actively trying to push the non-science of ID into science classrooms, and their motivations for doing so are therefore suspect.
The non-scientific nature of ID is easily demonstrated by looking at the evidence:
>>There are no peer-reviewed publications that provide positive evidence for ID.
>>There have been no experiments performed using ID "theory" as a framework for forming testable hypotheses.
>>Prominent leaders of the ID movement have openly admitted that there is no "theory" of ID.
All purportedly scientific ideas are ultimately judged by their ability to advance scientific inquiry. ID has utterly failed in this regard.
So what if ID is not religious? The indisputable fact is that it is NOT science, and that's why it deserves no place in public school science curricula.
One of the more effective antievolution strategies is to argue that, when evolution is taught, students should learn about both the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory. Indeed, one of the politically active groups in Texas has a website with this sentiment in its URL: www.strengthsandweaknesses.org.
The call for the teaching of the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution is an especially effective political strategy because it exploits the American sense of fairness. The problem is that, in practice, the strategy is anything but fair.
This is easily demonstrated by merely browsing the TBSE website. Not a single link, book, video, or other resource on the "Teacher Resources" page points visitors to information about the strengths of evolutionary theory. Using the search function on the TBSE website yields zero results for simple words relating to evolution such as homology, vestigial, and pseudogene. Clearly, fairness and scientific accuracy are not among the goals of this organization.
So, the next time someone tells you that students should learn about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, catch them off guard and ask them to tell you about the strengths.
As Texas prepares to reconsider what youngsters statewide should know about science, the forced ouster of Science Curriculum Director Chris Comer, apparently for standing up for the integrity of science education, was both shocking and sad.
Leshner went on to argue that evolution and religious belief need not be seen as incompatible.
In a free country, there's room for both religion and science. The scientific acceptance of evolution is compatible with the religious views of many Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu followers.
As geneticist Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian and director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, has said: "Faith is the way to understand questions that science can't answer, like 'Why are we all here? Why does it matter? Is there a God, and does he care about me?'"
Stand Up for REAL Science strongly agrees with the take-home message of Leshner's editorial:
The curriculum in science class must stick to science.
Science educators cannot be expected to remain neutral regarding efforts to insert nonscientific "criticisms" of scientific theories into public school science classrooms.
A massive body of scientific evidence supports evolution. All working scientists agree that publication in top peer-reviewed journals is the scoreboard of modern science. A quick database search of scientific publications since 1975 shows 29,639 peer-reviewed scientific papers on evolution in twelve leading journals alone. To put this in perspective, if you read 5 papers a day, every day, it would take you 16 years to read this body of original research. These tens of thousands of research papers on evolution provide overwhelming support for the common ancestry of living organisms and for the mechanisms of evolution including natural selection. In contrast, a search of the same database for "Intelligent Design" finds a mere 24 articles, every one of which is critical of intelligent design. Given that evolution currently has a score of 29,639-while "intelligent design" has a score of exactly zero-it is absurd to expect the TEA's director of science curriculum to "remain neutral" on this subject.
Over 100 Texas Biology professors sent a letter yesterday to Robert Scott, the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA), arguing that agency employees should not be required to remain neutral on the subject of evolution. The Austin American-Statesman has the story.
The letter was prompted by the recent forced resignation of the state's director of science curriculum, Chris Comer.
Part of the letter reads:
It is inappropriate to expect the TEA's director of science curriculum to "remain neutral" on this subject, any more than astronomy teachers should "remain neutral" about whether the Earth goes around the sun. In the world of science, evolution is equally well-supported and accepted as heliocentrism. Far from remaining neutral, it is the clear duty of the science staff at TEA and all other Texas educators to speak out unequivocally: evolution is a central pillar in any modern science education, while "intelligent design" is a religious idea that deserves no place in the science classroom at all.
Last Sunday, Commissioner Scott was interviewed for a "Point of Contact" Q&A in The Dallas Morning News. He claimed that the firing was not about the curriculum standards.
The following exchange hints at what the forced resignation was really all about:
Why shouldn't the agency advocate the science of evolution? Texas students are required to study it.
I don't think the impression was that we were taking a position in favor of evolution. We teach evolution in public schools. It's part of our curriculum. But you can be in favor of a science without bashing people's faith, too. I don't know all the facts, but I think that may be the real issue here. I can't speak to motivation but ... we have standards of conduct and expect those standards of conduct to be followed.
From that answer, it seems that Comer was forced to resign because her decision to forward that email was perceived as "bashing people's faith."
Say the words "litmus test" to any science educator and they'll probably think of an acid-base indicator. For Texas's former director of science curriculum, that phrase likely conjures up an entirely different image.
As some readers may know, the "stand up for REAL science" website was originally created in response to a campaign that the Discovery Institute launched in the summer of 2006.
The campaign, entitled "Stand Up for Science", included a website and an online petition encouraging public support of the 2005 Kansas Science Education Standards.
For those who may not remember, these were the standards written by a minority of intelligent design (ID) supporters on the Board-appointed writing committee. The Board adopted the standards in November, 2005 despite vigorous opposition from educators, scientists, and the general public.
In the summer of 2006, I was interviewed for a newspaper article (archived) that referenced the campaign and other efforts by ID promoters in Kansas prior to the primary elections in August, 2006. Although there were protestations to the contrary, these efforts were widely perceived as an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2006 Kansas State Board of Education elections.
Thankfully, the 2006 elections changed the make-up of the Board, and the new majority summarily rejected the 2005 standards in favor of the standards written by the majority of the writing committee.
Curiously, even though the 2005 standards are no longer in effect, the "Stand Up for Science" website has not significantly changed. The petition still reads:
Show your support of strong science standards by signing this petition. You don't have to be a Kansas resident to stand up and say you support the good work that Kansas has done on its science standards. Sign the petition today.
"YES! I want to stand up in support of the Kansas science standards. I agree that teachers should equip students to critically analyze evolutionary theory by presenting them with the scientific evidence both for and against Darwinian evolution."
In the newspaper article referenced above, the Discovery Institute's Robert Crowther was quoted as saying:
This is a long-term initiative. There is a national debate over how to teach evolution. This web site will be around long after the elections are over.
Crowther was telling the truth. It has been over a year, and the website is still there. New entries have even been periodically added to the "UPDATES" column on the main page. However, the main content of the website still does not acknowledge that the 2005 standards are no longer in effect. Visitors unaware of the current state of affairs in Kansas are being inappropriately misled.
Unfortunately, although most Kansans have moved on, the Discovery Institute is apparently determined to stand in place.
Or maybe they are trying to remember why they stood up.
This week, Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, wrote an editorial in The Wall Street Journal announcing a call for a presidential debate solely on the topics of science, technology, and health.
The initiative, called Sciencedebate 2008, calls for candidates to express their views on these issues in a public debate.
Dr. Krauss's editorial ended in the following way:
In spite of the ambivalence reflected in some polls, there is a popular understanding that science and technology will be essential to meet the challenges we face as a society. When reports began to surface warning that the avian flu might become a threat to humans, for example, everyone from the president down called for studies to determine how quickly the virus might mutate from birds to human beings. No one suggested that "intelligent design," for example, could provide answers.
We as a nation desperately need a more scientifically literate electorate and leadership, and a presidential debate on these subjects would be a good first step in this direction.
Increasing scientific literacy among the US electorate is a challenge all science educators must face head on. We need an "educator in chief" who is willing to lead the charge.
I wanted to pass along this recording of a lecture by Charles R. Marshall, Professor of Geology and Biology at Harvard University.
I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation, especially his discussion of the difficulty of fully understanding evolutionary change due to the occurrence of historically contingent events in the history of life.
The lecture is entitled "Evolution: From the Fossil Record to Genomic Revolution" and is broken into three parts:
The Board of Education in Rio Rancho, New Mexico has overturned a policy that had been criticized as providing an open door to the teaching of Creationism and/or Intelligent Design in local science classrooms.
The policy was rescinded on a 3-2 vote. Several of those speaking out at the meeting were Rio Rancho High School teachers who were opposed to teaching Creationism or Intelligent Design in their classrooms.
As a science teacher, I must say that it is a shame that educators have to devote any of their time and energy to defending science education from those whose ultimate concerns lie outside of science. When I consider all of the efforts of the antievolution movement to date, I cannot think of one positive effect they have had on the teaching and learning of science in US public schools.
Actually, that's not entirely true. Though definitely unintended, they have motivated me and many of my colleagues to learn more about evolution so that we can more effectively convey to our students why it is so overwhelmingly accepted as a useful scientific theory.
Theories are crucial to science because they provide a coherent framework for making sense out of scientific observations.
An example of such a theory is the theory of evolution. Without the theoretical framework of evolution, biologists would be limited to observing living things and noting the similarities and differences between them.
The following story illustrates the importance of theories in science.
One notable difference between organisms is seen in the chromosome numbers of the members of the family Hominidae, including humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.
Here is a detailed, yet incomplete, history of scientific discoveries concerning human and great ape chromosome numbers:
1958: Researchers definitively confirmed that humans have 46 chromosomes.
1960: Researchers determined that the chimpanzee chromosome number is 48.
1961: Researchers determined that the gorilla chromosome number is 48.
1961: Researchers determined that the orangutan chromosome is 48.
1975: Researchers used various techniques to compare orangutan chromosomes with the chromosomes of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Their analysis confirmed the hypothesis that the four species derived from a common ancestor.
1980: Researchers noted the striking resemblance of the chromosomes of humans and chimpanzees.
1982: Researchers reported that the striking chromosomal similarities extend to orangutans and gorillas as well. They also noted that a specific pattern in the middle of human chromosome 2 bore a resemblance to the ends (telomeres) of two separate chromosomes in the great apes. Using evolutionary theory, the researchers hypothesized that human chromosome 2 resulted from the fusion of two separate chromosomes that would have been present in the common ancestor of humans and the other great apes.
1991: Researchers tested the chromosome fusion hypothesis by sequencing the previously discovered telomere region in the middle of human chromosome 2. What they found were stretches of DNA that are normally found in telomeres. This discovery confirmed the fusion hypothesis.
1992: Researchers detected evidence of a deactivated centromere sequence in human chromosome 2. Centromeres are regions normally found in the middle of chromosomes. The second centromere sequence was located right where it was expected to be found, based on the already identified corresponding chromosome in chimpanzees. This discovery also confirmed the fusion hypothesis.
2002: Researchers mapped the precise fusion point on human chromosome 2 and described its structure in detail.
2005: Researchers mapped the precise location of the deactivated centromere on human chromosome 2 and described its structure in detail.
2005: Researchers published the initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome, showing a break in alignment continuity at precisely the locations predicted by the fusion hypothesis.
As can be seen in the list above, it literally took decades to uncover the explanation for the difference in human and great ape chromosome numbers.
It is important to note that, since they had a theoretical framework to work from, the scientists responsible for these discoveries were not limited to simply noting the similarities and differences in the chromosomes. They could actually discover the causes of those similarities and differences.
It is also important to note that scientists did not just run across this evidence and then later claim that it supported the common ancestry of humans and great apes. Instead, they used evolutionary theory to propose a testable hypothesis, to form predictions based on that hypothesis, to test those predictions by examining the chromosomes, and to ultimately confirm their hypothesis.
The 2006 exam focused on science and assessed student understanding of concepts in physics, chemistry, biology and earth and space science. The exam is designed to measure students' reasoning skills and their abilities to apply scientific knowledge. The average science score for the 5,600 US students who took the exam was statistically significantly below average.
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said that these results show a need for more training and support for math and science teachers. He also suggested that the federal government should encourage states to adopt common education standards so that all teachers and students are working towards the same targets.
The Good News: Common education standards already exist for science. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) offer a coherent vision of what it means to be scientifically literate, describing what all students should understand and be able to do in science.
If something like the NSES framework were to be adopted by all states, then perhaps the time, resources, and money now used to develop the various state standards could be reallocated to improve the training and support of science teachers. Such a change would also help to defuse the current politicization of science by supplying fewer targets to those who oppose the teaching of consensus scientific understandings.