When writing about science for the general public, it is to vital use the simplest language possible. It is also helpful to make frequent use of analogies to relate scientific concepts to objects or situations that can be easily envisioned by the reader.
Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin, is a book that delivers on both counts. The book is full of analogies that help the reader to better understand complex biological phenomena.
My favorite analogy involves recipes:
All animals are the same but different. Like a cake recipe passed down from generation to generation--with enhancements to the cake in each--the recipe that builds our bodies has been passed down, and modified, for eons. We may not look much like sea anemones and jellyfish, but the recipe that builds us is a more intricate version of the one that builds them."
Your Inner Fish, p. 115
Just as a family cake recipe is passed down and modified over many generations, the various genetic recipes that build animal bodies are essentially modifications of an ancient set of basic ingredients. Certain ingredients may have been added or subtracted over time, the amounts of each ingredient may vary significantly, and the order in which the ingredients are mixed may have even changed. However, even with these differences, the basic ingredients are still the same and the recipes all share an obvious common ancestry.
Another helpful analogy explains how paleontologists interpret the relationships between existing and fossil species:
Tiktaalik is a wonderful intermediate between fish and their land-living descendants, but the odds of it being our exact ancestor are very remote. It is more like a cousin of our ancestor. No sane paleontologist would ever claim that he or she had discovered "The Ancestor." Think about it this way: What is the chance that while walking through any random cemetery on our planet I would discover an actual ancestor of mine? Diminishingly small. What I would discover is that all of the people buried in these cemeteries--no matter whether that cemetery is in China, Botswana, or Italy--are related to me to different degrees.
Your Inner Fish, p. 180
This book is such an easy read that I was able to finish it in less than 24 hours, and I am a notoriously slow reader. I actually wished that it was longer!
Earlier, I encouraged readers to "Embrace Your Inner Fish." Now that I have read the book, I have a better suggestion: let Your Inner Fish embrace you.
Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) joined in the call for presidential candidates to debate science, technology, and the economy during the 2008 election season.
". . . in another two years over 90% of all scientists and engineers will live in Asia" - Shawn Lawrence Otto, SD2008 organizer, citing a recentBusiness Roundtable report.
During the past 7 years science has become increasingly politicized for ideological purposes. Finally, science supporters are raising a loud voice to demand a hearing from those who want to lead us: will our future president decide policies based on the best consensus science available, or will we continue to see our leaders blindly ignore the advice of the experts in the relevant fields?
What excites me about this movement is that it was started by mostly non-scientists who recognize the power of a grass-roots network. These organizers quickly gathered support from Nobel Laureates, leaders in government & business, academic leaders and leading scientists, writers/editors, and college and university presidents. Thousands of us ordinary citizens have also signed on, and the Wichita Eagle has taken up the charge.
The organizers have been volunteering full-time for this effort and even drawing on their own personal funds. Please consider donating securely here to help with more web hosting, travel, communications, and event organizing.
A wise friend once told me that in his years of working at the Statehouse, he was always amazed by the changes a few determined, energetic people could make. Please, be one of those people, and stand up for ScienceDebate2008!
Stabilizing selection is a type of natural selection that acts to favor the average value of a trait by eliminating extreme values of that trait. It can be represented graphically as a perpetual narrowing of the curve representing all of the existing values for a particular trait in a population.
The biological concept of stabilizing selection can be used as an analogy for understanding the current state of science education in the US.
In the present analogy, the trait undergoing selection is an individual's overall understanding of science. The value currently favored is a mediocre understanding of science. Several factors result in the elimination of extreme values for this trait.
On the lower end of the curve, complete ignorance of science is eliminated by our current educational practices. In this age of media and mass communications, a total lack of scientific knowledge is increasingly rare. Many public schools have implemented excellent science programs that contribute greatly to scientific literacy. Even in places where significant portions of the population reject wide swaths of scientific knowledge, a certain value is still assigned to science. This is likely due to the recognition that the use of the scientific method has led to advancements in agriculture, technology, and medicine that have greatly improved our overall standard of living.
On the upper end of the curve, a full understanding of science is eliminated by two major factors.
First, scientific concepts can be difficult to grasp. Our world is incredibly complex and figuring out how it works requires a significant effort. In addition, scientific discoveries sometimes contradict common sense and everyday experience. Due to the difficult and non-intuitive nature of some scientific explanations, many people choose to adopt simpler explanations for natural phenomena. This natural human tendency can be quite challenging to overcome. In the famous words of the late Richard Feynman, "Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves."
Second, many of our current educational practices help to eliminate a full understanding of science by de-emphasizing, omitting, or even openly denigrating certain topics due to their "controversial" nature. Under such conditions, a sort of negative feedback loop may be established where efforts to improve science education are rejected by people who, due to their own lack of scientific knowledge, reject such efforts because of a perceived threat to their personal beliefs.
In nature, stabilizing selection ends when environmental factors change so that the conditions no longer favor the average value of the trait. One possible outcome of such a change is the splitting of the population into two separate groups through a process known as disruptive selection. Another possible outcome is directional selection, in which the average value for the trait continuously shifts in one direction.
Obviously, the most desirable outcome in the present analogy would be directional selection towards a fuller understanding of science. This should be the goal of anyone interested in the continued advancement of science. Therefore, our efforts must be focused on identifying the environmental conditions that will favor a full understanding of science.
The letter is so good that I have decided to reproduce Gelber's entire opinion below the fold.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Florida is in the midst of determining whether intelligent design and creationism should be taught alongside evolution in our public schools. It would be a great mistake to give intelligent design, or any other faux science, a home in Florida's science classes.
The state Board of Education will soon vote to accept or reject new science standards for teachers that must be updated to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and the culture wars are heating up. When the Department of Education released its proposed standards in October, for the first time the word evolution was included as a standard to the agreement of many in the educational and scientific community.
The Board of Education is likely to vote on the new science standards in February. No matter what the outcome, legislators will have an opportunity to have their say when the legislative session convenes the following month. I fear the worst.
One of the problems with teaching intelligent design as the "other side" of Charles Darwin's scientific theory is that it is not an opposing scientific theory. It is religion posing as science. While the theory of evolution argues that man and other species evolve through the process of natural selection, intelligent design is an assertion that living things are simply so complex that they are best explained as the act of some intelligent designer.
Intelligent design cannot be tested scientifically because it is ultimately premised on something that cannot be proven scientifically: faith. This is why it is so dangerous, to both religion and science, to teach them side by side. Imagine debates in science classes about what part a higher deity had in designing life. While knowledge of scientific theories can be tested, how would a teacher grade a student's support of creationism based solely on faith?
If you have to teach creationism because it has been dressed up in a pretend scientific theory, what about those creation theories that forgo involvement of a deity and credit man's creation to intelligent designers from another galaxy? Imagine how parents would react when they hear their child learned from the science teacher that aliens created the Earth and everything on it, without any scientific evidence.
Florida should resist efforts to include "intelligent design" in public school science classes. Mixing faith and science can only harm both.
Is there any sound as endearingly horrific as your child learning to play the violin?
Many parents haul their kids to music lessons each week and insist on daily practice. For the most part, unless they have extensive musical training, they rely on the music teacher to teach the kids the basics of bowing, the fundamentals of fingering, and the rationality of rhythms.
Imagine what might ensue when a parent disputes the music teacher's instruction.
"No, that round open shape is NOT a whole note, it's a quarter note!"
or, "Why do you insist that pianissimo means very, very soft? Don't you know about a list of 700 musicians who contend it actually represents very loud? It makes so much more sense because a piano is large and heavy and it can be played loudly, so OBVIOUSLY pianissimo is supposed to mean very loud!"
Of course, the music teacher - and many of the other parents - would rightly conclude that the complaining parent had no knowledge of music, but had a lot of nerve berating a musical expert about music.
For example, this morning the violin teacher asked me to fill in while he ran to get a different book. I tried to keep the beat for the class as best as I could, but I recognize that I have no more business trying to teach violin than he does trying to teach my science class.
So why is it that those who deny evolution are often lauded by others for loudly expressing their non-acceptance of a theory about which they know nothing? What part of "expert in the relevant field" do they not understand?
It's as though they're tone-deaf, but still they insist that the Berlin Philharmonic is grossly out of tune.
Can improving science education end this complete cognitive dissonance? Or does the issue go deeper . . .
Did I mention that Neil Shubin has become quite well-known? Indeed, I actually found out about his book while watching his appearance on the The Colbert Report.
Here is a paragraph from Your Inner Fish:
My knee was swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and one of my colleagues from the surgery department was twisting and bending it to determine whether I had strained or ripped one of the ligaments or cartilage pads inside. This, and the MRI scan that followed, revealed a torn meniscus, the probable result of 25 years spent carrying a backpack over rocks, boulders, and scree in the field. Hurt your knee and you will almost certainly injure one or more of three structures: the medial meniscus, the medial collateral ligament, or the anterior cruciate ligament. So regular are injuries to these three parts of your knee that these three structures are known among doctors as the "Unhappy Triad." They are clear evidence of the pitfalls of having an inner fish. Fish do not walk on two legs.
Finally, for a more extensive discussion of Your Inner Fish, as well as an all-around interesting conversation, I encourage you to check out this diavlog featuring Neil Shubin and Carl Zimmer on Blogginheads.tv.
As I write this post, my copy of the Your Inner Fish is on a UPS truck somewhere between Lenexa, Kansas and my house.
Barbara Forrest has again spoken out against the faux "neutrality" of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the recent forced resignation of science curriculum director Chris Comer.
In the article, Forrest writes:
There are times when "neutrality" isn't neutral, when a desire to appear unbiased betrays a bias. The Texas Education Agency's reluctance to appear biased in favor of evolution and against intelligent design (ID) creationism is one of those times.
This week's compendium links back here to an article I wrote about Indohyus.
Tangled bank is named after 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.
Mena Reece speaks in the drama-laden voice of an authentic teenage girl:
"I believe in God -- nothing will ever change that. You can hook me up to a torture machine and I'll still say I believe. I'd die if I didn't have God. But I also believe in science. Does that make me a bad Christian? Why do I have to ignore facts just to prove my faith is strong?"
According to the Bookslut review, author Robin Brande successfully avoids the temptation to fit her characters into any one of the four stereotypes: the Bible-is-inerrant young earth creationists, the slick intelligent design proponents, the scientists who can't grasp why any intelligent person wouldn't accept evolution, and the atheists who loudly proclaim that any who accept religion are stupid.
From the review:
"Kids, like adults, need to understand what's behind issues like these -- almost as much as they need to learn the bedrock principles and facts of evolution. A countryful of courage, that's what we need, on behalf of the kids. Courage to continue to insist that teachers teach science in science class, and religion in religion class. Courage to write an array of books, fiction and otherwise, that look at God and evolution."
In the article, Lebo explains why all eyes will be on Texas in 2008:
The review will influence the writing of science textbooks, and publishers are watching the process closely. With almost $30 million in the budget for textbooks, Texas is second only to California in the bulk purchase of such books. It's also a single-adoption state, approving and buying books for all the state's school districts. Publishers edit and revise textbooks in response to the specific demands of members of the Texas State Board of Education. And what's adopted in Texas is adopted in many other states.
The booklet comes at a time when public school science curriculum standards are under fire in Florida and Texas.
As an active participant in the debate concerning the 2005 Kansas Science Standards, one of the sections that caught my eye was the following description of scientific explanations:
In science, explanations must be based on naturally occurring phenomena. Natural causes are, in principle, reproducible and therefore can be checked independently by others. If explanations are based on purported forces that are outside of nature, scientists have no way of either confirming or disproving those explanations. Any scientific explanation has to be testable — there must be possible observational consequences that could support the idea but also ones that could refute it. Unless a proposed explanation is framed in a way that some observational evidence could potentially count against it, that explanation cannot be subjected to scientific testing. (p 10)
In 2005, much of the debate in Kansas centered around the removal of wording that specifically limited science to the search for natural explanations. Many observers saw this particular change as an attempt to allow for the discussion of supernatural explanations in science classrooms.
As the above excerpt from Science, Evolution, and Creationism makes clear, non-natural causes are not scientific because they cannot be subjected to scientific testing and therefore cannot be confirmed or disproved. The limitation of science to natural causes is not a priori. It is the unavoidable consequence of the practical requirement that all scientific explanations must be testable.
So it turns out that the original definition of science was right all along.
A couple of noteworthy paragraphs from the editorial in the (pdf) Winter 2008 edition of the KATS (Kansas Association of Teachers of Science) newsletter.
" . . . information is just the tip of the iceberg, like the one pictured [here]. It is our responsibility to help students recognize that most of the massive strength of science rests underneath the surface in the form of the scientific method."- *Paul Adams, editor, KATS Newsletter
"Our students today have more information at their fingertips than all of the previous generations on this earth combined. This information is just the tip of the iceberg, like the one pictured on the front cover. It is our responsibility to help students recognize that most of the massive strength of science rests underneath the surface in the form of the scientific method. Our science standards emphasize that 'Science is a human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.' Much of the general public seems to confuse 'science' with 'science-y,' hence the persistent beliefs in astrology, crystal healing, orgone energy, intelligent design, homeopathy, perpetual motion, UFOlogy, and vitalism."
"Although our goal in the past has been science literacy, it may now be time to emphasize science competence." - Adams
"We need a citizenry capable of going beyond recitation and recall of seemingly-unrelated factoids; we need today's students to learn the basic way of scientific thinking. When our students are competent in the ways of science, they will be able to distinguish between reliable and unreliable data sources, to differentiate between science and pseudo-science, and to apply critical analysis to the latest breaking science news as interpreted by the popular media. The issues of stem-cell research, evolution education, and global warming are but a few of the hot-button political issues. Eventually, our students need to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff in order to make reasonable, rational decisions regarding public policy."
* In the interests of full disclosure: Paul Adams is my husband.
"The bottom line is that the world is round, humans evolved from an extinct species, and Elvis is dead" - Gerald Weissmann MD, Editor-in-Chief, FASEB Journal
According to an article appearing in the January 2008 issue of The FASEB [Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology] Journal, a survey of 1000 likely voters reveals that the respondents would prefer to hear about evolution-related issues from scientists, science teachers and clergy than from Supreme Court justices, celebrities, or school board members.
In academia, though, a scientist's public outreach activities are considered to be much less important than the number & quality of published articles, the amount of grant monies awarded, and the number of graduate students who succeed in their program. Even in small state universities, public outreach is vaguely lumped under the heading of "service to the profession" or "service to the community."
As science faculty endure the grueling track to tenure, adding one more component to their "must do" list doesn't seem like a reasonable solution. But as these aspiring professors write articles for peer-review, they might consider including an interpretation of their work that the general public could understand, and having this interpretation released by the public relations department of their institution.
Keep in mind I'm not employed by a college or a university; I freely recognize that this idea might not be workable in the real world. What are some obstacles? How else could we foster better communication between scientists and the general public?
"This survey is a wake-up call for anyone who supports teaching information based on evidence rather than speculation or hope; people want to hear the truth, and they want to hear it from scientists." - Weissmann
There's a potent message for science teachers embedded in this article as well:
"The survey also found that there is a relationship between people's understanding of science and their support for teaching evolution. Respondents were asked three questions: one related to plate tectonics, one related to the proper use of antibiotics, and one related to prehistory. Those who accurately answered questions on these subjects were far more likely to support the teaching of evolution in schools."
Perhaps this quote reeks of "man bites dog," but it underscores the need for science competency in the general public, not just science literacy. More on that difference later.