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Archive for January, 2009
In my previous post, I pointed out that one of the amendments adopted last week by the Texas Board of Education was so egregiously nonsensical that it exposed "scientific ignorance" on the part of the Board members who voted to adopt the amendment.
I fully realize the harsh nature of those words, but I did not use them carelessly. In the sense that I used it, the word "ignorance" simply meant "not knowing." It is not an insult to point out when people apparently do not understand the scientific principles under discussion.
Thankfully, ignorance can be easily corrected. What we have here is something we teachers like to call a "teachable moment."
More below the fold.
Before we get too far into this, I need to pause for a moment and acknowledge the horribly unfair situation that the Board members were put in. The specific wording of the amendment in question was proposed (and presumably written) by board chairman Don McLeroy. McLeroy's proposal came after the Board had already rejected an earlier attmept to re-insert language into the standards that would require students to learn about the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. Board members were given very little time to read and understand the amendment before they were forced to cast their vote on it. Even worse, they had no opportunity to consult with scientists in the room who could have explained why the wording of the amendment is nonsensical.
Below is the exact wording of the standard that has been added to section 7 of the Biology TEKS:
Bear with me because I'm going to have to break this into pieces.
The first problem is that the use of the phrase "sufficiency or insufficiency" portrays the inference of common ancestry as an open question. By leaving it open, the standard engenders improper doubt about the unifying principle of modern Biology. Among scientists, the fact of common ancestry of all living and fossil species is not in doubt. Just ask Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe.
The apparent intent of including the "sufficiency or insufficiency" phrase is to imply that common ancestry ought to be rejected as an insufficient explanation. A Biology teacher who teaches that biologists have real doubts about common ancestry would be committing educational malpractice.
The most problematic part of the standard is that it confuses a scientific inference for a scientific explanation. Scientific inferences, like the inference of common ancestry, are conclusions that are drawn from the patterns in the available evidence. Scientific explanations, like the proposed mechanisms of evolutionary change, are attempts to identify and explicate the natural causes for those patterns.
If you are sitting at the dinner table and the doorbell rings, you will likely conclude that someone must be at the door. This is because you know the same thing has happened before. Your "someone is at the door" conclusion is an inference that you have drawn from patterns in the available evidence.
The same can be said of the inference of common ancestry. Scientists who have examined the patterns in the genetic, morphological, biogeographical, embryological, and fossil evidence have come to the conclusion that all living things have descended from common ancestors. This is because scientists know that living things today come from their ancestors and that an extrapolation of this phenomenon backwards in time is consistent with the patterns seen in the available evidence. Indeed, in many cases, common ancestry is the only reasonable explanation that makes sense of biological observations.
Now, let's go back to our doorbell example. Imagine that you were asked to give a detailed explanation of exactly how the ringing of a doorbell led you to conclude that someone was at the door. Such an explanation would probably involve a discussion of the circuitry of the doorbell system and how the sound is made when a button outside the door is pushed to complete the curcuit. You would probably then describe how the sound propagates through the air in your house as a longitudinal wave until it reaches your eardrum, causing it to vibrate. Next, you might delve into the anatomy of the ear, the perception of the sound of the doorbell, and the way in which your brain functions in recognizing and identifying the meaning of that sound. After all of this, you might even mention that there are other types of doorbells that use do not use electricity to generate sound.
The proposed mechanisms of evolutionary change are like your detailed explanation of how a doorbell works. These mechanisms provide the explanation for how the patterns in the scientific evidence (those patterns indicative of common ancestry) were generated. As I mentioned in my previous post, the "sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record" can be explained using various mechanisms, including natural selection, reproductive isolation, speciation, changes in the environment, and the formation, preservation, and discovery of fossils.
And here's where we get to the really bad news for anti-evolutionists: based on our current understanding of how these evolutionary mechanisms work, scientists actually predict the "sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record." That's because the formation of new species usually occurs quickly and in small, isolated populations. Therefore, scientists expect there to be less fossil evidence of species-to-species transitions. Even so, while it is certainly true that most fossil lineages exhibit relatively long periods of stasis, there are also many lineages that exhibit gradual change with clear transitional forms linking one species to another.
Ironically, despite the confusion, the standard correctly implies (albeit inadvertently) that the inference of common ancestry may be insufficient as an explanation for the patterns observed in the fossil record. That's because common ancestry is not a mechanism of evolutionary change. It is the result of the mechanisms of evolutionary change.
At this point, you might be wondering how someone like Dr. McLeroy could claim to know something about evolution and still get it so wrong. Well, I think if you scroll up to the banner at the top of this page, you'll see one possible explanation.
Or maybe this quote is more apt:
-Harry S. Truman
Either way, you can hopefully now see why the current political process of determining science curriculum in this country is ultimately bad for science education.
One Final Note:
It is quite easy for those of us who understand the problem with this amendment to get angry at the perceived arrogance of those who would so blindly criticize that which they clearly do not understand. But anger will not accomplish anything.
Instead of anger, we must calmly and patiently explain why the amendment is misguided. I am confident that the teachable members of the Board will correct their mistake when the final vote occurs in March.
Here's hoping that they have the humility and willingness to accept correction.
Here's another quote from one of the Texas Board of Education members who supported the failed attempt to re-insert "strengths and weaknesses" into the Texas science curriculum standards:
Terri Leo is exactly right, of course. Singling out evolution for special treatment is an anti-evolution strategy that has consistently failed in the courts. Judge Jones addressed this particular strategy on page 57 of his ruling in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Intelligent Design case.
Quoting from an earlier ruling that struck down an evolution textbook disclaimer, Jones wrote:
Ms. Leo obviously knows that, by singling out evolution for special treatment, a Board of Education is just asking for trouble. Based on previous court decisions, such a move would have very little chance of surviving a challenge in the courtroom.
It might therefore come as a surprise to the reasonable observer that Leo and some of her fellow Board members would propose amendments to the standards that do exactly that.
But don't take my word for it. Here's how the Discovery Institute's John West described the Board's actions:
Among the amendments that passed, one addition to the Biology TEKS is particularly egregious. Board chairman Don McLeroy proposed an amendment that would expect students to:
In the famous words of quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli, "That's not right. It's not even wrong."
Common ancestry is an inference from the genetic, morphological, biogeographical, embryological, and fossil evidence. The "sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record" is explained by various processes, including natural selection, speciation, the formation, preservation, and discovery of fossils, and other natural phenomena.
I like how Tony Whitson described McLeroy's amendment on his blog:
But those insufficiencies provide no grounds for doubting common descent.
Dr. David Hillis put it this way in today's New York Times:
To summarize, here's the current situation concerning the science curriculum standards in Texas:
The Texas Board of Education has voted to drop language mandating that students be taught the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. However, Board members knowingly invited trouble by supporting amendments to the standards that singled out evolution for special treatment, exposing their own scientific ignorance in the process.
Thankfully, supporters of REAL science have time before the final vote in March to alert the Board of the inaccuracy of these last-ditch attempts to cast doubt on evolution.
Edited for grammar, 11:05am, 01/25
Here is an interesting pair of quotes from members of the Texas Board of Education who unsuccessfully opposed the removal of the "strengths and weaknesses" standard from the Texas science curriculum standards.
Apparently, Ms. Cargill, you'll have to say it at least one more time.
Everything's bigger in Texas, they say, and that saying seems to encompass the mess they're having right now over the science standards.
The Texas Freedom Network and Josh over at Thoughts from Kansas (and points west) have been live-blogging the Texas Board of Education "hearings" on the science standards. The latest from TFN:
4:32 - We're reeling here. McLeroy has launched a broadside against a core concept of evolution - common descent. This is like an army losing a battle ("strengths and weaknesses") and then launching a nuclear strike.
4:45 - Good God. It passed. Board members surely don't understand what they've done here. Certainly not all of them. Strengths and weaknesses is out, but McLeroy has succeeded in using the standards to raise doubts about a core concept of biology.
4:48 - The board has voted 9-6 to give preliminary approval to the standards.
McLeroy may also have just opened up the Texas science standards to an easy legal defeat by singling out evolution over other theories in such a blatant manner. One thing's for sure - McLeroy and his partners in crime aren't going to give in easily to the Enlightenment.
"We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do." - President Barack Obama, inaugural address, 1/20/09
Recently, the Discovery Institute's Anika Smith had this to say about the removal of a provision that would have explicitly prohibited the teaching of Intelligent Design (and/or Creationism) in the science classrooms of Louisiana public schools:
When I initially read Smith's post, I was left wondering: how can something be "legally redundant" and "beyond the intent of the legislation" at the same time?
Is this some kind of paradox? I daresay that, like Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, I haven't had much practice believing impossible things.
Thankfully, John Pieret of "Thoughts in a Haystack" delved in to try to sort it all out:
It makes no sense at all ... unless the legislature's intent, happily adopted by the DI, was to keep the whole thing as fuzzy as possible, in hopes that some creationism will slip by the courts and others who have actual respect for our Constitution.
If this is the kind of "critical thinking" that one can expect from supporters of the Louisiana Science Education Act, then maybe we need to consider the possibility that they, like Humpty Dumpty, choose to make words mean different things.
Those of us of a certain, um,
age generation life experience remember "Saturday Night Live" of the 1970's.
Ah . . . those were the heady days of Dan Akroyd, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, Jane Curtin, Gilda Radner, John Belushi, candygrams . . . and
[snapping back to the present]
Now, those were sharks which make Peter Benchley's creatures look about as threatening as Disney's Nemo. A monster like that would have chewed up that boat it breached, digested the humans, and used the boat splinters as toothpicks as it sauntered sneeringly through the shallows with a pack of ciggies in its rolled-up shirt sleeve.
In the Wikipedia graphic below, the green shark is a modern Great White shark and the red shark is Carcharocles megalodon:
The good news is that our next Science Cafe in Hays is coming up fast - next Tuesday, the 20th, 7pm-ish, at Cafe Semolino's as usual. The better news is that we'll be entertained this time by Mike Everhart, author of "Oceans of Kansas" and National Geographic's "Sea Monsters: Prehistoric Creatures of the Deep." Mike will open our minds to thoughts of ancient seas in this now-arid land with "Mosasaurs, Plesiosaurs, and Sea Monsters: Oh My!"
Oh my indeed. Lucky for Dorothy she only had to worry about lions, tigers and bears, 'cause if she'd met up with Carcharocles megalodon her little dog, too, would have been just big enough to qualify as a snack.
Join our Facebook group, Science Cafe Semolino's!
P.S. - Hays' Science Cafe is sponsored by Kansas Citizens for Science and the FHSU Science and Mathematics Education Institute.
edited for . . . oh, it just didn't read right.
I found this tip from the new website "Teach Them Science" to be particularly helpful:
Say alleged weaknesses, not "weaknesses."
There are two sides to this political controversy. One side says that evolution suffers "weaknesses," and the other side says that it does not, that evolution is strongly confirmed science. But reporters frequently say this: "One side wants the weaknesses taught and the other side doesn't." This is one-sided reporting, as it tells people that there are weaknesses that could be taught. Reporters should instead say, "One side alleges weaknesses with evolution and wants them taught, while the other side says the alleged weaknesses do not survive scientific scrutiny and are false."
I appreciate this tip because it correctly identifies the political basis of the controversy over teaching evolution.
Regardless of the strategy they choose to employ ("strengths and weaknesses" or "academic freedom"), anti-evolutionists are seeking a political solution to their failure to make inroads in the scientific community. REAL science is not advanced through the kind of political shenanigans we see occurring in Texas and Louisiana right now.
I think it is important to get this out in the open.
UNLESS YOU HELP
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will soon determine the science curriculum standards that will be in place for the next ten years. An SBOE-appointed committee of teachers and scientists has drafted new standards, which they recommended that the SBOE adopt to give students in Texas a 21st century science education.
However, nearly half of the SBOE hold worldviews that are at odds with the recommended standards. To sway children towards their worldview, they prefer that the standards teach rhetorical arguments against evolution. These false arguments have no basis in science and actually teach students to think unscientifically.
If you are a Texas resident, go here to find out how you can get involved.
Kudos to pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III! Because of his extensive experience as a pilot, his F4 training in the Air Force, his experience with gliders, and his work as a safety consultant, he was able to safely ditch his Airbus in the Hudson River yesterday without any loss of life among the 155 passengers and crew onboard.
So who would you rather have as your pilot: somebody with Sullenberger's resume, or just any warm body off the street?
If anti-evolutionists across the country treated the airline industry the same way they treat science education, they'd insist that pilots didn't need expertise. They'd argue that pilots and passengers should be taught "both sides" of Bernoulli's principle. They'd maintain that any legislator or school board member is capable of making critical decisions about airplane safety, and that pilots should be required to consider "Intelligent Falling" as well as gravity in their decisions. The results, of course, would be dozens of wrecks and hundreds of fatalities.
Though they claim to be doing it for the kids, anti-evolution activists across the country all suffer from an astonishing lack of humility. They're convinced that their uninformed opinions about science are just as valid as theories derived from multiple lines of evidence. They're determined to wreck science education in our country.
Would you want your child on one of their planes?
The future of science education in Louisiana continues to ricochet between pro-science and anti-science forces.
[Update, 0612 01-14-09: The BESE ended up stripping this language from the guidelines: "Materials that teach creationism or intelligent design or that advance the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind shall be prohibited for use in science classes."]
Earlier, Jeremy noted that the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Educators will meet today to discuss policy language for the state school administrators' handbook. That handbook will include guidelines for determining which supplemental materials can be used under the new Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), Louisiana's version of the "academic freedom" legislation. Proposed language included provisions that would prohibit materials promoting creationism or intelligent design from being used as science sources. As Jeremy pointed out earlier, this language is consistent with Section D of the LSEA:
But this morning, the Associated Press reports in theadvertiser.com that a key phrase has been dropped from the guidelines:
This phrase is entirely consistent with section 3 of the LSEA. Why was it eliminated? Could it have something to do with complaints from the chair of the Louisiana Family Forum that the earlier draft was "hostile to religion" and a "cheap shot?"
The Discovery Institute's John West isn't happy about what remains in the guidelines:
Of course West isn't happy. The Discovery Institute's new publication, Explore Evolution - I can't in good conscience refer to it as a textbook - would lose a willing and gullible market if its use is prohibited in science classes. This phrase also brings intelligent design to the same religious level as creationism as both rely on religious beliefs that "a supernatural being created humankind."
According to the Times-Picayune,
But if the Legislature's intent was to promote critical thinking and academic freedom, then why is the Discovery Institute so miffed that religious publications aren't to be used as science references?
West acknowledged the DI's work with the Louisiana Family Forum, an affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family:
One wonders why West is still maintaining that religious motivations aren't behind these shenanigans.
When it was first enacted last year, I referred to the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) as a "Dover Trap." My concern with the bill was that it would embolden Louisiana public school teachers with Creationist leanings to bring religiously-based Creationist material into the classroom under the guise of "critical thinking." Such an action could ultimately make the local district the target of a costly lawsuit, similar to what happened in Dover, Pennsylvania.
Next Tuesday, members of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education committee will be discussing policy language for the state school administrators' handbook that will provide guidance for determining what supplemental teaching materials can be used under the LSEA. According to an article on 2theadvocate.com, Barbara Forrest, spokesperson for the Louisiana Coalition for Science, is pleased with the language that has been recommended for discussion at the upcoming meeting.
Unsurprisingly, an ardent supporter of the LSEA is not pleased, claiming that the proposed guidelines constitute "religious hostility."
Mills said those proposed guidelines included "religious hostility" that went beyond the intent of lawmakers and was a "cheap shot."
What could be so hostile about the language found in these guidelines?
Here's a description from an article on theadvertiser.com:
Okay, so far there should be no problem. After all, empirical evidence is the currency of science, right?
The description continues:
This should also pose no problem for supporters of the LSEA, given that the legislation itself states that it "shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine." Indeed, supporters of the bill went to great lengths to disavow any religious motivations when the bill was being debated.
Aye, there's the rub!
Apparently, Gene Mills is unhappy with the fact that the proposed guidelines would specifically prohibit materials that advance the religious belief that humans were created by a supernatural being. Based on legal precedence, this means that the teaching of creationism and/or intelligent design is going to be prohibited.
The trap may be disarmed!
In conclusion, from my vantage point, the proposed guidelines appear to be a strict, literal interpretation of Section D of the Bill (pg. 2).
Clearly, this whole episode in Louisiana is an example of literalism gone awry.
Oklahoma wins the
booby prize for having the first "academic freedom" bill filed this year.
From the National Center for Science Education:
Once again, the legislation states that students may be evaluated on their comprehension of REAL science, not that they will be held accountable for learning science. In other words, students aren't required to understand REAL science in order to pass because of the presence of the weasel word "may:"
Here's a scenario dreaded by science teachers:
"For 5 points, explain the scientific evidence supporting the Big Bang theory."
Student response: "God said BANG; see Genesis."
Wouldn't the student be due full credit for this answer because (a) they're not required to understand the science and (b) they're expressing a religious viewpoint against which we must not discriminate?
The anti-evolutionists in Oklahoma aren't content to wait until the 2009-2010 school year to put this bill into effect should it pass (emphasis added):
Were you theeeere?" is Ken Ham's suggested response for students to give to teachers who are trying to teach REAL science.
Well, no, we weren't. But by the same token, most crimes go unwitnessed, yet juries are able to reach a consensus by examining the evidence presented at the trial.
In 2002, gastroenterologist Dr. Schmidt gave one of the nurses from his office in Louisiana an injection of what he claimed was vitamin B. Several months later, the nurse started feeling ill. Bloodwork revealed that she had contracted HIV.
An article in Scientific American reveals how evolution was used to help convict Schmidt of attempted murder:
I was fortunate to be invited to participate in Louisiana v. Schmidt as a scientist and expert witness by Michael L. Metzker of the Baylor College of Medicine and David M. Hillis of the University of Texas at Austin. The three of us worked together on the molecular analyses. The uncontested facts in the case are that a gastroenterologist broke into the home of his former office nurse and mistress and gave her an injection. He claimed it was a vitamin B shot. She claimed it was HIV. She had begun feeling ill several months after the injection and a blood test revealed that she had become infected with HIV, at which point she went to the district attorney's office to file charges. The DA's detectives quickly obtained a search warrant for the physician's office, where they seized his record books and a vial of blood from a refrigerator. The physician said that the blood sample, drawn from one of his HIV-positive patients, was for his own research.
The next logical step in the investigation was to perform phylogenetic analyses of the HIV lineages from the nurse and the alleged source. My collaborators and I selected two HIV genes to sequence, one relatively fast-evolving, encoding part of the viral envelope (env), the other slow, encoding a vital enzyme called reverse transcriptase (RT). We also had blood samples from about 30 other infected individuals to serve as a reference point.
Our analyses of the env gene showed the HIV sequences from the victim and the doctor's sample formed two sister clades relative to the epidemiological sample. The likelihood of two random people from the infected population having such similar viruses is extremely small. This result is consistent with the accusation that the physician used the blood sample from one of his patients to infect the nurse, but it could also be that the patient was infected with HIV from the nurse. The phylogeny inferred from the more slowly evolving RT sequences showed that viruses from the victim were younger, arising from within the clade of viruses from the alleged source. This result clearly indicated that viruses from the alleged source had infected the nurse. -David P. Mindell
No witnesses were present when Schmidt drew up that injection of HIV virus for his nurse. Still, from the evidence produced at the trial, the jury found Schmidt guilty. He is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence.
This edition of Scientific American has oodles of good evolution reading; this particular article "Putting Evolution to Use in the Everyday World" explains in more detail how we've used evolution to help in common situations.
Just because we weren't "there" doesn't mean we can't know anything about the situation.