Wednesday, July 11, 2012

"Freedom to doubt"

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman, boy from Brooklyn.

I recently ranted about what should not be presented as science in school.

We live in an age of the expert, of the specialist. Few folks can even change a tire anymore because they can call someone else whose job is to do just that.

We also live in an age of magical thinking--we accept what we are told out of ignorance, out of fear, but (sadly) mostly out of comfort.

Science class is the one place in school where a the discipline requires that a child be taught to question, well, everything, at least everything that forms our ideas about the natural world.


Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.
Richard Feynman 

The Republican state platform in Texas wants critical thinking skills banned in classrooms if it leads to "challenging the student’s fixed beliefs ...." There goes science.

We chuckle, but we take this lightly at our peril.
Science requires questioning authority.
That's how science works!

xkcd, of course--Randall Munroe may be the best science teacher ever!

Galileo, arguably the father of modern science, spent his final years under house arrest for pushing heliocentrism. We have come close to seeing the major tenet of biology pushed aside in Kansas, in Pennsylvania, and (naturally) Texas.

If kids in class get what science means, learn how to do it, and most important, become in charge of their own thinking (which means questioning their own assumptions as well), we'll still see the rabble bearing pitchforks at board of ed meetings.

But the rabble will be rooting for truth, not dogma, and this Great Experiment started by Tom, John, and George back in the 1770's will have a chance to right itself.





Feynman photo from psnt.net--no idea where they got it, I'd guess Cal Tech.


10 comments:

John T. Spencer said...

I hope I give my students and my children the freedom to doubt. My questions got me into trouble in school and church when I was a kid; though doubt was pretty welcome in our home.

John T. Spencer said...

Re: Texas

By the way, there goes social studies, math (which has become magical thinking as well), humanities, art, music and language arts. Not sure what more you're left with being a catechism.

Sue VanHattum said...

"Science class is the one place in school where a the discipline requires that a child be taught to question, well, everything,..."

I would hope math class would be another place where students are taught to question everything.

doyle said...

Dear John,

True, but science has no gold standard. Sounds like you grew up in a most excellent home!


Dear Sue,

Math is blessed (and cursed) with precision.

David Rudel said...

Doyle, I cannot speak for other states, but the idea that the Texas Board of Education is statutorily (or otherwise) moving away from evolution is a widespread canard, and very wrong.

The story you linked to was just an alarmist effort at whipping up interest, published by the local rag. It very much misrepresented the situation.

I was my company's point person in getting our materials adopted by the Lonestar state. In addition to carefully studying the newest revision of their state standards, this involved 2 weeks in Austin in early June to walk the materials past the Texas Education Agency. The TEA assembles a group of teachers and professors to examine and vet all the materials. These are not politicians.

The TEA only suggested approval of pro-evolution materials. No ID or creationist materials were approved. In fact, if anything, the TEA's approval were wrong for the opposite reason. They approved some materials that misstated the correlation between morphologically-inspired evolution trees versus genetically-inspired ones. They also approved one resource that used reproductions of Haeckle's embryo drawings, which are now known to be fraudulent (or at least wrong).

Then, after getting the TEA's approval, I was flown down again in July to sit through the actual meeting of the State Board. It was a complete circus, but not because of anything the state board did.

Because of articles like the one you linked to, and who knows how many other ignorant pieces of sensationalist blather, people had come from far and wide to "protest" against the possible adoption of anti-evolution materials. This would have made some sense if such an action was even being contemplated by the board---which it wasn't.

The state board had no intention whatsoever of modifying the TEA's suggestions. Such a motion was not even on the docket. People got up to speak for their scheduled 2 minutes and after the first couple of people used their time to protest against the acceptance of non-evolution-based materials, the board pointed out that there were no such recommendations on the docket. The TEA had not approved any, and the board had no intention of modifying that judgment.

But this didn't stop the dozens and dozens of people who had driven all the way to Austin to speak their mind, so I sat there through literally hours of people making speeches that the board repeatedly indicated had no relevance to their proceedings.

The only evolution-based questions/changes made was that some of the members wanted Haeckle's erroneous drawings removed, and at least one board member tried to get the misrepresentation regarding genetic trees corrected.

The whole affair was quite possibly one of the worst wastes of my time I have ever had to endure, and most of it was due newspapers and other outlets trying to stir up controversy where there was none to be had.

doyle said...

Dear David,

Quite interesting.

The noise around that particular meeting does make one scratch one's head since the TEA's recommendations were clearly going to be approved at that particular board meeting.

Is there a possibility, given the 2009 language of the Texas science standards, that a text supporting ID as an alternative theory could end up in public schools in Texas?

David Rudel said...

Hi Doyle,
That is an excellent question. The short answer is that, from what I recall, there is really no room for ID or any other alternate theories within the structure of the standards. [That doesn't mean a local teacher wouldn't insert it, though.]

What IS possible is a discussion of various challenges to Neo-Darwinism. The specific science standard you are referring to (I think) is the one that says students will examine and evaluate ALL evidence for a given theory. This does not mean that students are to be shown alternative theories, but rather that there is room for exhibition of negative evidence.

In fact, this standard posed some concern for us....and it was more or less ignored by textbook writers. One thing textboks never do is suggest there is any evidence that goes against any modern theory. (This has nothing to do with the evolution issue...it is just the way science is presented...whatever is presented as the current view (which is often no longer the current view) is always presented as rock solid.

In fact, one of the professors who came to speak about her concerns specifically said she did not like how there was so much focus on "questioning" in the standards. (This was a physics teacher... it wasn't a discussion of evolution.) She literally stood there and said that she was worried students would "lose their faith" in science if so much emphasis was put on questioning.

Did I mention it was a circus?

So it seems to me that the whole thing makes some of the accusations rather ironic. The one thing the Texas board wanted to do was correct known errors and the Texas standards actually call for a less artificial representation of science than most others.

By the way, what we decided to do to address the question of evaluating all evidence for a theory was to give students a type of historical research project where they evaluated Gallileo's or Newton's theory of motion based on the known information of the time. This allowed us to hit the critical reasoning skills in question without getting mired in any controversy.

David Rudel said...

Oh, and I know it may not be germane to your question, but regardless of the actual text of the standards, the process the TEA has in place for vetting materials just makes it very unlikely that anything controversial would be adopted. The board might be populated by politicians, but it would take a very stark divergence from current methodology for an ID text to be adopted...or a major change in the disposition of the SBOE. The State board puts tremendous confidence in the TEA and gives them a lot of money to do their vetting procedure.

Now, in LA you might find all kinds of things happen if Jindal's voucher program survives the courts.

Anonymous said...

Texas "Education" Agency? Boy, does that put the moron in oxymoron.

Anyone else notice that the acronym for Texas Education Agency is TEA? As in Texas Education Association (TEA) Party?

Their idea of science is teaching li'l K-12 cowpokes that Jesus turned water into petroleum. Nope, sorry, not my cup of Chardonnay, that's for sure. Oil and water don't mix.

And their idea of multiplication is the parable of the feast of plenty. Well, pilgrim, here's what I reckon: happy trails and thanks for all the loaves and fish.

doyle said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'll let your comments stand as a paean to ignorance and poor reasoning.

The TEA are among the good guys, as are a lot of folk in Texas.

See, Texas is a state, with defined boundaries, a government, and people, all kinds of people, within those boundaries.

But thanks for your time,anyway.