Evolution, other science on trial – today, in Austin, Texas

November 19, 2008

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) hearings on proposals for new science standards kick off today — and will probably run long into the night.

You can probably still sneak comments in.  You can listen to the hearings in streaming audio, live.  You can read the live blog reports from Texas Citizens for Science (TCS) President Steve Schafersman.

Texas science teacher Joe Lapp (a member of TCS) will give the board some good advice — will they listen?

Lapp will say:

My name is Joe Lapp, but I go by Spider Joe. I teach children about spiders, about the biology and physics of a spider’s world. My mission is to stoke passion for science in children and to empower children to think like scientists. I like to think that I’m launching these children into productive future careers as scientists, and indirectly, through them, contributing to solving some of mankind’s most serious challenges.

I’m watching what is going on here in the State Board of Education. You’re vying over what to teach about science and about evolution in particular. Some of you say, “teach the weaknesses with evolution.” Some of you say, “the ‘weaknesses’ are phony, don’t teach them.” You argue over whether science includes the supernatural or is restricted to just natural phenomena.

I ask you, how many of you grew up to be scientists? How many of you make a living teaching science to children? In a world full of people who dedicate their lives to science or science education, how many of you on the board are one of these specialized experts?

I’m suggesting that you recognize that you yourselves don’t have the answers.

We all come to the table with preferences and biases, but we’re talking about our children’s education and their future lives. When a scientist approaches a question, she may have a preferred answer, one that might win her the Nobel prize. When Pons and Fleischmann performed their cold fusion experiment, they wanted to see more energy output than input. Their bias blinded them to the truth, and rather than winning the Nobel Prize they became laughing stocks. If a scientist wants to know the truth, she must design an experiment that might show her desired outcome wrong; she must delegate her answer to the outcome of an experiment that ignores her biases.

The State Board of Education has a choice. One option is to play politics with our children’s future and vote your bias, regardless of the truth. The other option is to delegate your answer to the outcome of an experiment that ignores your biases, so that the answer better reflects the truth.

Fortunately for you, you have already performed the experiment. You delegated answers to your questions about science and evolution to experts in science and science education. They answered in the form of your September TEKS drafts. I urge you not to suffer the embarrassing fate of Pons and Fleischmann and to accept your experimental results. I suspect that politics introduced biases into the November drafts. Don’t fudge your results.

Please show your respect for children and science by making this a scientific decision and not a political one. Launch children into science by example. Envision children growing up to create new biofuels, cure cancers, eliminate AIDS, end malnutrition, reverse global warming, and save our wondrous natural resources for future generations.

Science is our children’s future.



Faith and Freedom speaker series: Barbara Forrest at SMU, November 11

November 10, 2008

Update:  Teachers may sign up to get CEU credits for this event.  Check in at the sign-in desk before the event — certificates will be mailed from SMU later.

It will be one more meeting of scientists that Texas State Board of Education Chairman Dr. Don McLeroy will miss, though he should be there, were he diligent about his public duties.

Dr. Barbara Forrest, one of the world’s foremost experts on “intelligent design” and other creationist attempts to undermine the teaching of evolution, will speak in the Faith and Freedom Speaker Series at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.   Her evening presentation will serve as a warning to Texas: “Why Texans Shouldn’t Let Creationists Mess with Science Education.”

Dr. Forrest’s presentation is at 6:00 p.m., in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center in the Hughes-Trigg Theatre, at SMU’s Campus. The Faith and Freedom Speaker Series is sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network’s (TFN) education fund.  Joining TFN are SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, Center for Teaching Excellence, Department of Anthropology, Department of Biological Sciences, and Department of Philosophy.

Hughes-Trigg is at 3140 Dyer Street, on SMU’s campus (maps and directions available here).

Seating is limited for the lecture; TFN urges reservations be made here.

Dr. Forrest being interviewed by PBSs NOVA crew, in 2007.  Southeastern Louisiana University photo.

Dr. Forrest being interviewed by PBS's NOVA crew, in 2007. Southeastern Louisiana University photo.

From TFN:

Dr. Barbara Forrest
is Professor of Philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is the co-author with Paul R. Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (2004; 2007), which details the political and religious aims of the intelligent design creationist movement.  She served as an expert witness in the first legal case involving intelligent design, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District. She is a member of the Board of Directors for the National Center for Science Education and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Widely recognized as a leading expert on intelligent design, she has appeared on Larry King Live, ABC’s Nightline, and numerous other television and radio programs.

Also see:

Quote of the moment: Nobel physicist Stephen Weinberg, on creationism

October 24, 2008

Physics Nobelist takes stand on evolution

“By the same standards that are used in the courts, I think it is your responsibility to judge that it is the theory of evolution through natural selection that has won general scientific acceptance. And therefore, it should be presented to students as the consensus view of science, without any alternatives being presented.”

–Dr. Steven Weinberg

[After the 2003 round of hearings on biology textbooks for Texas schools, I edited from the transcript of the hearings before the Texas State Board of Education the short speech made by Stephen Weinberg, who graciously joined in the fight for science, and shipped the remarks to anyone who wanted them.  The American Institute for Physics (AIP) put Dr. Weinberg’s remarks up on the web — here they are.  Something to think about now that the SBOE has stacked the science standards writing group with creationists unqualified in almost all sciences.

For the record, for your edification, for the advancement of truth in the fight for science, justice and the American Way:]

The following is a transcript of testimony to the Texas State Board of Education. Dr. Steven Weinberg, professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin and a Nobel prize winner for electroweak theory, addresses the Board.

DR. WEINBERG: Thank you. Hello. Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you. I should say at the outset that I haven’t read the textbooks in question and I’m not a biologist.

Stephen Weinberg

Stephen Weinberg

My Nobel Prize is not in biology, but is in physics. But I have been a physicist for a long time. And I think I have a good sense of how science works. It doesn’t deal with certainties. We don’t register things as facts that we have to swear allegiance to.

But as mathematics and experiment progress, certain bodies of understanding become as sure as anything reasonably can be. They attract an overwhelming consensus of acceptance within the scientific community. They are what we teach our students.

And the most important thing of all, since our time is so precious to us, they are what we assume as true when we do our own work. Evolution — the theory of evolution through natural selection has certainly reached that status as a consensus.

I’ve been through these issues not very much professionally in recent years, but I was on a panel of the National Academy of Sciences some years ago that reviewed these issues in order to prepare an amicus brief in a similar argument that was taking place in Arkansas at that time. At that time, it had reached the courts. We know that there is such a thing as inheritable variations in animals and plants. And we know that these change through mutations. And it’s mathematically certain that as given inheritable variations, that you will have evolution toward greater adaptation. So that evolution through natural selection occurs can’t be in doubt.

As I understand it, many who want to put alternative theories into our textbooks argue that, although that may be true, we don’t know that that’s all that happens, that there is not some intelligent design that also assists the process of evolution. But that’s the wrong question. We can never know that there isn’t something beyond our theories. And that’s not just true with regard to evolution. That’s true with regard to everything.

We don’t know that the theory of physics, as it’s currently understood, correctly accounts for everything in the solar system. How could we? It’s too complicated. We don’t understand the motion of every asteroid in the asteroid belts. Some of them really are doing very complicated things. Do we know that no angel tips the scales toward one asteroid moving a little but further than it otherwise would have in a certain time? No, we can never know.

What we have to do is keep comparing what we observe with our theories and keep verifying that the theories work, trying to explain more and more. That’s what’s happened with evolution and it continues to be successful. There is not one thing that is known to be inexplicable through evolution by natural selection, which is not the same as saying that everything has been explained, because it never will be. The same applies to the weather or the solar system or what have you.

But I can say this, and many of the peak scientists here will have said, I am sure, the same thing. You must be bored hearing this again and again. But how can you judge? I’m not a biologist, you’re not biologists.
There is a natural answer which is very congenial to the American spirit, I think. And that is, well, let the students judge. Why shouldn’t they have the chance to judge these issues by themselves? And that, I think, is the argument that many are making.

But judge what? Judge the correctness of evolution through natural selection? Judge the correctness of Newton’s law or the conservation of energy or the fact that the Earth is round rather than flat? Where do we draw the line between the issues that we leave open to the student’s judgment and the issues that we teach as reasonably accepted scientific facts, consensus theories?

The courts face a similar question. They often are presented with testimony or testimony is offered, for example, that someone knows that a certain crime wasn’t committed because he has psychic powers or someone sues someone in tort because he’s been injured by witchcraft. The Court does not allow — according to current doctrines, the Court does not allow those arguments to go to the jury because the Court would not be doing its job. The Court must decide that those things are not science. And the way the Court does is by asking: What — do these ideas have general scientific acceptance? Does witchcraft have general scientific acceptance? Well, clearly, it doesn’t. And those — that testimony will not be allowed to go to the jury.

How then can we allow ideas which don’t have general scientific acceptance to go to high school students, not an adult jury? If we do, we are not — or you are not doing your job of deciding what is there that is controversial. And that might be an interesting subject to be discussed, as for example the rate of evolution, the question of whether it’s smooth, punctuated by jumps or whether it’s — or whether it’s just gradual. These are interesting questions which are still controversial which could go to students and give them a chance to exercise their judgment.

But you’re not doing your job if you let a question like the validity of evolution through natural selection go to the students, anymore than a judge is doing his job or her job if he or she allows the question of witchcraft to go to the jury. And why this particular issue of evolution? Why not the round Earth or Newton’s theory or Copernicus, the Earth goes around the sun? Well, I think it’s rather disingenuous to say that this is simply because there’s a real scientific conflict here, because there is no more of a scientific conflict than with those issues.

I do get involved in this issue. I think it’s clear that the reason why the issue was raised with regard to evolution is because of an attempt to preserve religious beliefs against the possible impact of the theory of evolution.

I don’t think teachers have any business either preserving religious beliefs or attacking religious beliefs. I think they should teach science.

And science, as the courts understand it, in that other context, is what is generally accepted by scientists. And what is the evidence that evolution through natural selection is generally accepted through science? I don’t think — general acceptance doesn’t mean unanimity.

I know there are Ph.D. scientists who take an opposite view.

There’s not one member of the National Academy of Sciences who does.

There’s not one winner of the National Medal of Science who does.

There’s not one Nobel Laureate in biology who takes the view that there’s any question about the validity of the theory of evolution through natural selection or that there is any alternative theory that’s worth discussing.

So by the same standards that are used in the courts, I think it is your responsibility to judge that it is the theory of evolution through natural selection that has won general scientific acceptance. And therefore, it should be presented to students as the consensus view of science, without any alternatives being presented.

Thank you very much.

Immigrants learning English: Not so fast

October 22, 2008

Economics fans, pay attention:  Immigrants tend not to learn English when they move to America.  Moreover, they do well without it.

Greg Laden’s got a nice write up of a study on immigrants learning English.  I especially liked this story:

I once met … at a centenary celebration of some kind … the grandchild of a man who moved as a teenager from the old country to southern Wisconsin, ahead of his family, to learn the local customs, farming techniques, and language. After a few years in a small town in Wisconsin, his family arrived to start farming. The young man had indeed learned the local practices, the local farming techniques, and the local language. German. His family, arab speakers from Palestine, were well served by this young man because German was all they needed to get along in the US.

Not what the “English only” crowd wants to hear.

Here’s the citation on the study Greg Laden wrote about:

M. E. Wilkerson, J. Salmons (2008). “GOOD OLD IMMIGRANTS OF YESTERYEAR,” WHO DIDN’T LEARN ENGLISH: GERMANS IN WISCONSIN American Speech, 83 (3), 259-283 DOI: 10.1215/00031283-2008-020 [you’ll need a paid subscription for the full text]

‘We don’t got no stinkin’ education. We don’t need no stinkin’ education!’

October 12, 2008

My family’s heritages are migrant and education. By that I mean that moving someplace else for a better life, and getting the kids into better schools, has been a tradition running back at least 6 generations. My paternal grandfather was a seaman in the British merchant marine. He married a woman in Guyana, then moved the family for a job in the stockyards in Kansas City, a better place to raise kids. His children became nurses, politicians, law enforcement officers, successful trucking magnates; his grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, nurses, business executives, and teachers — one Rhodes Scholar. I am second-generation American on my father’s side.

My maternal grandfather was a farmer of great skill. He moved from Provo, Utah, to the frontier town of Manila, Utah, then to Delta, then to Salt Lake City, in a quest for riches from farming. Deciding that wouldn’t work, he took a job with Utah Oil Co., a company that was eventually merged into Standard of Indiana and now, British Petroleum. His children all graduated from high school, except for the daughter lost in infancy. Several went on to college. They became construction company owners, contractors and engineers, railroad engineers, small company entrepreneurs and retailers. His grandchildren are physicians, lawyers, business executives, successful salesman, investors — and a couple of good old boys who scrape by (every family has some). My grandfather was second-generation from pioneers, people who moved their families west in wagons, or if necessary, on foot and pushcart. They were people who fought Indians sometimes, and died in those fights and in the migrations. They left legacies in the towns named after them, and in their records as educators — both my maternal grandparents were schoolteachers early on, many of their cousins were college professors, one a college president.

Education in our family was always viewed as a ladder to personal success, to a good life, if not always a key to economic well-being. Especially in the case of my maternal grandparents, there was great assistance from the Latter-day Saint emphasis on education.

If I had to typify their version of the American dream, certainly a huge part of that dream involved the kids getting educated well beyond their parents, and getting a better life as a result.

Education was a part of the American dream from pre-Revolution days. Foreign visitors often commented that in America the crudest of men read the newspapers and discussed politics with vigor and earnestness absent in other nations. Education was the cornerstone of freedom, in the view of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and as demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington.

Sometime in the 1980s, I think, the tide changed. Certainly the Reagan Revolution had something to do with it. Cuts in Pell Grants, the grants that got thousands of kids into college, were a signal that education was no longer valued as it once was. One by one the federal government stripped away some of the most important building blocks of our modern society, things like the GI Bill, which had provided America with a highly-trained, highly-skilled corps of engineers in the 1950s. Those engineers invented the infrastructure to our nation that now crumbles, and they invented the industrial processes, and sometimes the industries, that we now use daily. Transistors, which make computers possible on the scale we have today, were invented and developed into powerful “cogs” for machines that do what had not even been dreamed of 40 years earlier.

I can’t tell you exactly when the tide turned, but I can tell you when I first realized it had. After staffing the Senate Labor Committee for most of a decade, I escaped to the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, a good place for a budding environmental lawyer to work, I thought at the time. The chairman of the commission was Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (now senator from Tennessee). Lamar had two big projects in Tennessee that he pinned his hopes for the state upon. Both were influenced in no small part by his work trying to recruit auto manufacturers to build production facilities in Tennessee.

Nissan and Toyota had levelled with him: Tennessee looked good, but for two things. First, there were few good ways to get products like automobiles out of the state to markets they needed to be sold in. Second, Tennessee’s education system wasn’t providing the highly-educated workers the car makers needed to run highly-sophisticated machinery in a fast-moving, just-in-time inventory system that produced high quality products at lowest cost.

Alexander responded with one initiative to build good roads out of Tennessee to major markets. He called that initiative “Good Roads.” He responded to the education needs with a program designed to plug money and support into Tennessee schools to improve education, bolstered by the report of the Excellence in Education Committee in 1983. He called that initiative “Good Schools.” In retrospect, those were good places to focus development efforts. Tennessee got at least one Japanese company to locate a plant there, and snagged the much-desired Saturn production plant of General Motors.

The Commission had some hearings in Tennessee. I was along on one of those hearings, and I was with Alexander when he was met by a Tennessee constituent who just wanted to talk to the governor. Alexander, being from Tennessee, hoping to keep his election chances good, and being a good governor, agreed to give the man and his wife a few minutes — I watched. The constituent complained about all the changes coming to Tennessee. He complained about the costs of the roads, and the costs of improving the schools. He worried about taxes, because, he said, he didn’t make a lot of money. Alexander assured him that his taxes would not rise much if any at all, and that especially the education part of the program would benefit all Tennesseans. “Do you have children?” Alexander asked the man.

He responded that he had two kids, both in their early teens. And then he said something that just stunned me: “You know, I’ve gotten by pretty good with my 8th grade education all these years, and I don’t see why my kids need to have any more than that. I’m not sure we need Good Schools.”

To Lamar Alexander’s everlasting credit — or shame, if you’re very cynical — he didn’t strike the man down. Alexander spent a few more minutes explaining the benefits the man’s children would have from better education, and he closed off telling about his meetings with car company executives who made it clear that they wanted to hire only good students who had graduated from good high schools, and maybe who had enough college that they could do the complex mathematics to run big machines. Alexander asked the man for his name and address, said his opinion was very important to him, and promised to get back in touch.

I suspect Alexander did contact the man later. His office tended to work very well on such matters as constituent contacts.

But I’ll wager he didn’t change the man’s opinion about education.

Sometime in the mid-1980s many Americans began to look on education as unnecessary, as expensive, and as “elitist” in a new, derogatory sense. Instead of education being something blue-collar workers hoped their children would earn, it became something blue collar workers felt oppressed by, somehow.

From that commission, I moved to the U.S. Department of Education, in Bill Bennett’s regime. Over the next few months I observed the same anti-education phenomenon playing out in debates about school reform in dozens of states. Then I got out of government and into private business, where education was demanded, and I only occasionally worried about the drama I had seen.

The past few weeks, especially since the nomination of Sarah Palin, have heightened my fears about the loss of the shared dream of better education for our children. It was part of the American psyche, woven into the fabric of our government from the “Old Deluder Satan” law in Massachusetts, which required towns of any size to set up some kind of school, through the Northwest Ordinances, which set aside sections of every township to be used for the benefit of public education, through the settlement of the west where nearly every town with a kid in it built a school — schools were built in Utah before many pioneers had houses to get them through the winter — through the dramatic rise of public education that helped knock out child labor, and that provided us with truly American armies and navies to get us out on top of two world wars.

Now comes conservative columnist David Brooks to explain how this process has been aided and abetted, if not intended, by the Republican Party, “The Class War Before Palin.”

In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

It’s a sobering piece. Please read it.

We remain a nation of migrants, a nation that migrates. We remain a nation that desires economic success and is willing to move to get it. Have we lost the good sense to remember that education improves our chances at success? Does Brooks explain the entire motivation for the War on Education?

What do you think?

Let your students blog

September 22, 2008

One way to get better use out of technology is to let your students use it.  How about having students make posts to a blog, for credit?  They learn how to write, they learn technology, and they learn the class material.

Here’s a great example of a classroom-driven blog, where the students do most of the work: Extreme Biology. Miss Baker’s Biology Class holds forth from a school in the northeast, with 9th grade and AP biology students doing most of the work.

Here’s another good example, from another biology class (in Appleton, Wisconsin — close to you, James!):  Endless Forms Most Beautiful (every biologist will recognize the title from biology literature).

The idea is attracting some attention in science circles, especially with an idea that working scientists ought to drop by from time to time to discuss things with students.

How do your students use technology to boost their learning?

Hitting the virtual midways

September 11, 2008

It’s State Fair time in several states — Minnesota’s fair is in full swing, Texas’s fair is gearing up, for example — time to take a look at various carnivals and think about midway rides, no?

Where’s the new fried food pavilion?

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