If science facts won’t improve reasoning, don’t study science, creationists say

If you saw the notice on the original study, you knew this one was coming.

A team of researchers checked two things in college freshman:  First, how much science they knew, sort of a trivia catalog; and second, how well they could use their reasoning powers.

The study showed Chinese students way ahead of U.S. students on simple knowledge of science facts.  But the study showed little difference in powers of reasoning of the two groups.

Wait, don’t jump to conclusions.  That’s what the creationists did.  Check out Ed Yong’s post and analysis of the study, at Not Exactly Rocket Science (with ensuing good discussion).

If knowing a lot of science doesn’t improve logic, why bother to learn science? the creationists asked.  Especially, why not teach creationism in biology, since teaching evolution seems to them rather authoritarian.

Could you make this stuff up?

Here’s the EurekAlert summary, and here’s a clip from the description:

The research appears in the January 30, 2009 issue of the journal Science.

Lei Bao, associate professor of physics at Ohio State University and lead author of the study, said that the finding defies conventional wisdom, which holds that teaching science facts will improve students’ reasoning ability.

“Our study shows that, contrary to what many people would expect, even when students are rigorously taught the facts, they don’t necessarily develop the reasoning skills they need to succeed,” Bao said. “Because students need both knowledge and reasoning, we need to explore teaching methods that target both.”

Bao directs Ohio State’s Physics Education Research Group, which is developing new strategies for teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For this study, he and his colleagues across the United States and in China decided to compare students from both countries, because the educational systems are so different.

In the United States, only one-third of students take a year-long physics course before they graduate from high school. The rest only study physics within general science courses. Curricula vary widely from school to school, and students can choose among elective courses.

In China, however, every student in every school follows exactly the same curriculum, which includes five years of continuous physics classes from grades 8 through 12. All students must perform well on a national exam if they hope to enter college, and the exam contains advanced physics problems.

“Each system has its strengths and weaknesses,” Bao said. “In China, schools emphasize a very extensive learning of STEM content knowledge, while in the United States, science courses are more flexible, with simpler content but with a high emphasis on scientific methods. We need to think of a new strategy, perhaps one that blends the best of both worlds.”

The students who participated in the study were all incoming freshmen who had just enrolled in a calculus-based introductory physics course. They took three multiple-choice tests: two which tested knowledge of physics concepts, and one which tested scientific reasoning.

Did you see anything there that suggested that NOT learning science facts is a good idea?

Tom Gilson at Thinking Christian used the study as a springboard to rail at evolution in biology curricula, and at the National Center for Science Education, calling the study (somewhat tongue in cheek, I think) “terribly dangerous.”  No, that doesn’t make sense, but it gets stranger as he explains in comments that he’s not advocating creationism or intelligent design, either.

But nothing in the study suggests any serious problem with the teaching of evolution theory.  Where did Tom get that idea?

Bao explained that STEM students need to excel at scientific reasoning in order to handle open-ended real-world tasks in their future careers in science and engineering.

Ohio State graduate student and study co-author Jing Han echoed that sentiment. “To do my own research, I need to be able to plan what I’m going to investigate and how to do it. I can’t just ask my professor or look up the answer in a book,” she said.

“These skills are especially important today, when we are determined to build a society with a sustainable edge in science and technology in a fast-evolving global environment,” Bao said.

He quickly added that reasoning is a good skill for everyone to possess — not just scientists and engineers.

“The general public also needs good reasoning skills in order to correctly interpret scientific findings and think rationally,” he said.

Telic Thoughts seized on it , too.

It’s a springboard to a new creationist meme, and here’s how it will come out of the mouths of creationists, speaking to school boards and writing letters to editorial pages: “Learning a lot of science doesn’t improve critical thinking skills, so let’s teach something other than evolution.”

That’s not what the study says.

First, the study says Chinese students know more science than U.S. students. This is worrisome for the U.S.  While the study shows that entering freshmen are no better at critical thinking than U.S. students, the fact remains that more Chinese students graduate with science degrees.  Then a lot of them come to the U.S. to get advanced degrees.  Even the radical right wing National Center for Policy Analysis worries about the number of Chinese engineers and scientists U.S. colleges and universities graduate.  We’re behind in this race for brains and skills.

Second, researchers showed that freshman science students need to improve their reasoning skills, in both China and the U.S. Look hard at any creationist claim — they won’t argue for more education to improve reasoning.  We need to note what this finding is not:  It’s not an indictment of science education.  It’s not a call to stop or slow down science education.  It defies “conventional wisdom,” but it’s not an endorsement of knocking down science education as a result.

Third, the study only identifies what might be a problem. High school graduates in their first year of studying science in Chinese and American universities are not very sophisticated in their science reasoning.  Is this a problem?  Is this a skill that should be learned in high school?  Or, is it a skill that is better taught after the freshman year, at college?  This study was a snapshot, not a longitudinal study.  It did not purport to show when or how to best instruct on the reasoning processes necessary for a successful career in science.

In particular, this is not an indictment of biology education in the U.S., nor especially an indictment of education in evolution theory.  It’s possible to suggest that Chinese students know more evolution than U.S. students.  That’s a far sight from saying education in evolution theory doesn’t work.




14 Responses to If science facts won’t improve reasoning, don’t study science, creationists say

  1. mark says:

    Well, I guess you’ve got me on the point about the compounds of life being found elsewhere in the universe. By similar reasoning, of course, God is not only on Earth making Adam and Eve, but also in space making organic compounds, and in the laboratory as well, so that any chemist who claims to produce life would just be claiming credit for God’s work in the lab.

    back to topic:
    The post at Thinking Christian seems to mischaracterize Lei Bao &al.’s study (perhaps he only read the summary and the the entire article). When those authors state “Because students ideally need to develop both content knowledge and transferable reasoning skills…” they did not mean that teachers should add disproven, unbacked-by-evidence, pre-scientific materials to the curriculum and treat such materials as scientifically valid explanations. The Creationist approach is based on contorting evidence to fit the dogma, not checking theory against observations and adjusting the theory as needed.


  2. My daughter said it quite well one day:
    “Questioning the faith is not seen as the path to enlightenment in most religions, whereas doubt is considered a fundamental requirement for good science.”


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Nor could you defend your cheap shot at NCSE, Tom. If it’s not a cheap shot, please explain it. That’s a challenge you can’t meet, I suspect. I would love to be surprised, I would love to have you defend your point with hard evidence that NCSE is so crabbed and dogmatic as you claim, if only because it would indicate you’re not dogmatic yourself.

    Alas and alack, you won’t take the challenge. It’s only fair that we draw our own conclusions, then, isn’t it? It’s a free nation. We can believe any fool thing we wish. We can’t force those foolish beliefs on others. That’s where you and I part company.

    At least, your present claims are not so macabre and erroneous as your past ones. When I view your body of work against science and evolution, I get a bit creeped out that others may actually find your views representative of a “thinking Christian,” since they are inaccurate and uncharitable.


  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks for the offer, Ed, but I’ll let this be the end of the discussion for me.

    Readers who think I only interact with people who agree with me should take note that I invited Tom Clark of the Center for Naturalism into debate on my blog, precisely because I saw him as being a strong spokesperson for a viewpoint very different from mine. We’re having a very fruitful discussion; a “fair fight,” you might even call it. (You can find it on my blog by doing a search for Tom Clark. The invitation I mentioned was by private email; he graciously responded by commenting on my blog.)

    Other than that, I know you’ll continue to draw your own conclusions no matter what I say, and you’re quite likely to continue issuing charges of “cheap shot” (which seems rather self-referentially ironic, I might add) and so on. There’s obviously nothing I could say that could persuade you otherwise.

    You get the last word, obviously: it’s your blog, and I’ve said all I have to say here.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Your readership is such that you’re unlikely to get many people who know Eugenie Scott and the National Center for Science Education to take you to task for your calumny against them — you’re in favor of sunlight, so long as you get to control the shades.

    You’re right. Some will agree with your cheap shot, some won’t. Cheap shots are the stock in trade for creationists, and sadly, the major contribution in the veins of science. Our kids shouldn’t have to study cheap shots in school. Science would do them, and us, and our nation and its future, much more good.

    If you wish to retract your cheap shots, or if you think you can defend them, you can do it here. I won’t censor you the way you censor me. Truth wins in a fair fight, and truth is willing to fight fair.

    I’ll be watching to see whether you can answer any of Art Hunt’s responses.


  6. Tom Gilson says:

    Ed, I think if readers just take James M’s excellent advice (see the first comment in this thread) they can decide for themselves whether you interpreted my post correctly. If they read to the point in the discussion where I explain why you were disinvited from my blog, then they can also decide for themselves how they want to interpret my action there.

    Some will agree with me, some probably won’t. That’s fine with me. I’m very open to having the sun shine on what I wrote.


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Telic Thoughts is shocked, SHOCKED, that I think creationists will try to make hay from this study, despite Tom Gilson’s newest censorship (the internet equivalent to putting one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing “la-la-la-la-la!”). (I’m torn between accusing him of going all Joe Stalin on me, or accusing him of going all John Milton on me, or just accusing him of joining the Inquisition — which one will get the biggest rise out of him? Would any of them make him genuinely think about these issues?)

    Chiefly, I think, they’re ticked that I caught them before the meme went viral. Creationists don’t like sunshine.


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Here’s the sort of reasoning errors creationists make all the time, leaps to precarious and often (usually?) wrong conclusions:

    BTW, believing in absence of God is as much a leap of faith, as the other way around. You guys simply are to religious to admit it, and instead cover it up with the “all-religious-people” are dumb and don’t believe in science.

    I thought we were talking science! Who believes in an absence of God – and what possible difference could that have to science education? If understanding science is the hallmark of atheism, then atheism must be the path God prefers for humans, since understanding is better than failing to understand in almost all cases (if you can think of a case where ignorance is better, let us know).

    In any case, there is no warrant for a conclusion that scientists are atheists.

    “Convincing” a liberal judge to impose your own view on majority of people,or providing Los Angeles Times as a reliable, does not take much intellect – that IS certain.

    Were that so, creationism would be in. As it is, creationists have failed to convince any judge to impose their views on a majority of people. Here in the U.S., our founders graced us with the First Amendment, which protects diversity of thought and, in this case, stops creationists from imposing their opinions on others through force of law. While that is a nagging sore for creationists, it is a boon to science, and democracy, and morality.

    If creationism cannot survive without laws to support it, why bother with it?

    (Check the facts: In almost every case creationists have lost in federal or state court, the judges have been conservative Christians, though it appears they are Christians more dedicated to the concepts of honor, honesty, and doing the right thing than are most creationists.)


  9. boggy4062 says:

    One Question to Mark,
    You mean to say that God only exists on Earth? If science COULD create life with right conditions, what are they? Do you or Ed have a formula? If you do, I would suggest to run to a patent office … yesterday.
    BTW, believing in absence of God is as much a leap of faith, as the other way around. You guys simply are to religious to admit it, and instead cover it up with the “all-religious-people” are dumb and don’t believe in science.
    “Convincing” a liberal judge to impose your own view on majority of people,or providing Los Angeles Times as a reliable, does not take much intellect – that IS certain.


  10. […] It's almost not fair to smack down someone who leads with his chin but sometimes it serves a larger purpose. Ed Darrell has valiently slain straw men, inaccurately depicted the views of others, shown himself incapable of appreciating the distinction between knowledge and analysis based on that knowledge and embarrassed ID critics. But Ed is economical. He manages to accomplish the foregoing in a single blog entry he dubbs If science facts won’t improve reasoning, don’t study science, creationists say. […]


  11. Ed Darrell says:

    One might say that Ed’s wrong, the Creationists haven’t jumped to conclusions; they had a firm grip on their conclusions long before seeing any evidence.

    I stand corrected!


  12. mark says:

    I did check out Telic Thoughts–and found it unconvincing. For instance,

    “[W]ithout a trained organic chemist on hand to supervise, nature would be struggling to make RNA from a dilute soup under any plausible prebiotic conditions.[yada yada…]

    This is a common, but lame, argument because what is being tested is the possibility that a particular chemical substance could develop under conditions that resemble those occurring in nature. Another way of testing is to look for the building blocks of life in places where there are no people to control their production. And they are found, even away from Earth.

    One might say that Ed’s wrong, the Creationists haven’t jumped to conclusions; they had a firm grip on their conclusions long before seeing any evidence.


  13. James M says:

    Ed asked, “could you make this stuff up?” Great question!

    One way to answer it would be to go to the websites he says he got it from–Telic Thoughts and Thinking Christian–and see whether they said what he claims they did. Judge for yourself.


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