Posts Tagged ‘education’

All eyes on Texas

March 27, 2009

It looks like we have narrowly averted a major assault against science education in Texas, but that Champion of Ignorance, Dr. McLeroy continue the assault with what has been termed a death of a thousand cuts. One of his wedge arguments he tried to get in is to examine the sufficiency or insufficiency of a cell to have formed from natural selection. I touched on that a little bit here where I pointed out some plausible scenarios that could kicked off the whole shebang. Of course, to rigorously examine this far beyond the scope of high school biology. The only reason for wanting students to think natural selection may not be “sufficient” is to try to seed doubt. Normally, doubt is a good thing of course. Scientists doubt themselves all the time, and if not, they’ll get corrected later if need be. But the doubt McLeroy wants to sow is that evolution may not work, and this simply goes against everything we know in biology. Muddying the water with doubt about well established scientific principles is not appropriate in a science class.

Next, we had stuff on how the universe formed. Somebody named Cargill seems to have wanted standards with more “humility”, recognizing that there are “other theories out there”. It was laughable that she couldn’t actually name any other these relevant theories. I’m also not too sure that high school students are prepared to go into discussing anisotropies of the cosmic microwave background and relation to various inflationary models. Is this what Cargill had in mind? Somehow, I doubt it. And these are the people deciding the future of education for our country? I shudder in fear.

It is frustrating dealing with Creationists, but I almost wish that they just went ahead and said textbooks needed to discuss strengths and weaknesses of evolution. If I were to write a biology textbook (which I won’t; I’ll leave that to actual biologists who know much more about the material than I), I would do this in the first chapter:
We will now examine the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.
Strengths of evolution: See the rest of the book.
Weaknesses of evolution: None.

Science education under assault again in Texas

March 25, 2009

Once again, somebody in Texas has decided that our science education is too good and wants to undermine it with nonsense. A dentist, Dr. McLeroy has decided to ignore a century and a half of observation, experimentation, all the overwhelming evidence in support of evolution, and the general consensus of every working biologist to say that there are “problems” with evolution and kids need to know this. Although active research continues on various mechanisms, and on particular details, there is no disagreement on the basic and central fact of evolution in general, or how it so comprehensively explains all the evidence in front of us. In one of the most ludicrous and inane situations ever, this has now come before the Texas School Board. This is extremely important because this may well determine whether or not future textbooks on a national scale will deal with real science or will get muddied up with time wasting nonsense. From the article:

The textbooks will “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution — because there is,” said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. “We need to be honest with the kids.”

The vast majority of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

Yes, they say, there are unanswered questions — transitional fossils yet to be unearthed, biological processes still to be discovered. There is lively scientific debate about some aspects of evolution’s winding, four-billion-year path. But when critics talk about exposing students to the “weaknesses” or “insufficiencies” in evolutionary theory, many mainstream scientists cringe.

The fossil record clearly supports evolution, they say, and students shouldn’t be exposed to creationist critiques in the name of “critical thinking.”

“We will be teaching nonsense in the science classroom,” said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

The reporting here is not as good as it should be. A passing reference is made that “transitional fossils” are “yet to be unearthed”. Technically true. Making fossils does require a special set of circumstances and we are fortunate to have those we do. More fossils would be useful, and it is noteworthy that each new fossil discovered lends further credence to evolution. However, an unfortunate implication is that we are still hoping to find transitional fossils. In fact, we already have transitional fossils (and see here).

Again from the article:

The textbooks will “have to say that there’s a problem with evolution — because there is,” said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. “We need to be honest with the kids.”

No Dr. McLeroy, there is no problem with evolution. There is no controversy in the science community on whether or not evolutionary processes are responsible for the immense diversity of life on our planet. There is a problem though and the problem is with your understanding of evolution and how the entire science process works. Do not inflict your willful and arrogant ignorance on Texas and the rest of the country. It may surprise you to know that having a scientifically literate populace will be a national strength. Going the direction you propose is to start on the path towards backwards medieval thinking, abdicating scientific leadership.

The school board is meeting this week, so Texans, do the right thing. I’ve lived in Texas for several years and know that there are some bright people there. Contact anybody on the school board you know. I can’t believe we really need to say this, but let’s fight to have actual real science in science classes. It’s the right thing to do.

California education woes

February 24, 2009

A new report from UCLA shows significant problems with California’s education system.

The report, issued by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) and the University of California All-Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD), finds that systematic inadequacies and inequalities in the public education system leave California students from all backgrounds unable to compete with their counterparts in most other parts of the country.

Also From the report:

The research also reveals a “restricted flow” through the “mathematics pipeline.” The progress of California students through the middle school and high school math curriculum is hampered by students’ lack of access to small class size, rigorous coursework and well-trained teachers, according to the report. This restricted flow makes the No Child Left Behind Act goal of universal proficiency in math by 2014 nearly impossible to reach for most California schools.

Finally, the report reveals worse educational outcomes for California’s class of 2006 than for previous classes. The consequences of poor learning conditions were greater for young people in the class of 2006 because they were the first to face the California High School Exit Exam’s “diploma penalty.” California graduated a smaller proportion of its ninth-grade cohort in 2006 than in any year since 1997.

I also heard about this report on NPR during the drive home. One of the coauthors stated that fewer kids are also going on to colleges after high school, in spite of higher expectations from parents.

This is bad news, particularly in the face of budget cuts for education that recently passed (nearly 10 billion dollars of cuts for education).

Altogether, this does not bode well for the future of California. Given our tendency here in California to be trend setters, it probably doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country either. We need a well educated populace to further drive progress and the economy and to maintain a relatively healthy democracy. Of course, throwing money at problems doesn’t automatically fix them. In the same vein, one can look for creative solutions that require less money.

We need to be thinking about what form those solutions may take. Certainly, as Obama constantly stresses, parental involvement needs to play a significant factor. In addition, perhaps a volunteer tutoring program could also be something many of us could do. There are also mentoring programs in which one can be involved. We should also think of ways in which we can show kids that math and science are relevant to their lives and be able to convey some of the excitement one can get by being able to use them to solve other problems. To tie the various subjects together to show how they can solve larger problems.

Of course, we now have this problem to solve about fixing education. Let’s see some ideas flowing.

Of lambs and prayer in schools

February 17, 2009

A chain letter made itself into my in-box a few days ago and seems to be getting around everywhere. The main text of it you can see here and scattered around the intertubes here and there. Apparently there’s even year 2000 version. To save clicking time, here it is:

Mary, had a little Lamb
Mary, had a little Lamb,
His fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The Lamb was sure to go.

He followed her to school each day,
T’wasn’t even in the rule.
It made the children laugh and play,
To have The Lamb at school..

And then the rules all changed one day,
Illegal it became;
To bring The Lamb of God to school,
Or even speak His Name!

Every day got worse and worse,
And days turned into years.
Instead of hearing children laugh,
We heard gun shots and tears.

What must we do to stop the crime,
That’s in our schools today?
Let’s let The Lamb come back to school,
And teach our kids to pray!

It is said that 86% of the World’s people believe in God. Why don’t we just tell the other 14% to be quiet and sit down?

Aw. The emotional strings are tugged. Can’t we allow the Lamb back in school? Let’s examine this a tad more closely. Is the writer of the chain-mail implying that kids can only learn to pray at school? Is there some reason they can’t learn to talk to imaginary beings at home or in the church? I must also be missing the critical thinking element that shows causation between lack of school prayer and school problems. Let’s further probe the implications here.

The 86% figure of the “World’s” people believing in God looks like it was a recent addition to this chain email compared to other versions I’ve seen on the web. As was the request for us atheists to, in other words, shut up. They seem to be saying that 86% of the world’s population, being theist, will be on the side of prayer in school. helps us out by breaking this down a bit further. It looks like 33% of the planet’s inhabitants claim to be Christian. In addition, we have 19.6% Muslim, 13.4% Hindu, “non-religious” at 12.7%, and we eventually get to atheists at a too small 2.5%. Lumping the big three together gets us at 66% (I’ve neglected Taoists, Buddhists, Chinese folk religions, etc. for space). Indeed, it does look as though a majority of the world’s population is still theistic in some form or another. So, to be fair, 33% of school days should be have a Christian prayer (dividing that up among the various denominations and sects, I imagine), 19.6% Muslim prayer days, and 13.4% Hindu (probably again divided up among devotees of Lakshmi, Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu, etc.). Of course, divide up the rest of the days among the various other religions according to percentage. After all, to single out one prayer type would be government official recognition of one religion and that is unconstitutional. Perhaps it should be done by the majority of the local population? This would be a tacit and hurtful exclusion of others with minority religious beliefs. Would Christian parents be fine if their community had a large influx of Muslim immigrants so their local schools now had to do Muslim prayers? Somehow I suspect that the agenda is “freedom” of having unconstitutional school sanctioned Christian prayer.

As for the call for free thinkers and unbelievers to sit down and be quiet, that is the one thing we can no longer do. If anything, we need to become more visible. The fact that chain emails like this are being distributed, and, in fact, actually taken seriously, is reason enough.

To think I’m from Florida

February 9, 2009

You know, I’m going to have to stop telling people that I grew up in Florida. Stories like this are just a sad embarrassment for my fondly remembered state. From the Florida Citizens for Science:

State Sen. Stephen Wise of Jacksonville announced through an article in the Florida Times Union that he plans to file a bill this legislative session to require evolution to be balanced with a discussion of intelligent design. Yes, require. Not just allow, but to require. Of course, we have to wait for the bill to be filed so we can see the actual language. Sometimes news accounts tweak what people say just a little bit, but then the whole meaning changes. Sometimes the person interviewed isn’t clear enough when talking to reporters.

Perhaps the bill won’t require the teaching of intelligent design. But if it does, I have to wonder if Sen. Wise has all of his marbles. A similar move was made in Pennsylvania. It didn’t go well for the intelligent design folks at all. They lost in a federal court case. The local school district was stuck with a million dollar legal bill. School board members were voted out of office. Intelligent design as a challenge to evolution went down in flames because of its clearly religious roots and purpose.

This is a serious WTF moment. The ironically named Senator Wise wants non-science nonsense taught on an equal footing with science. Why don’t we teach the kids astrology in their astronomy class, alchemy alongside chemistry, and rain dances in physical science when they learn about weather? Perhaps in World History class, the students can learn all about the Hobbits and the defeat of Sauron. Intelligent design, for the 10**101 time is not science and that is precisely why it does not belong in a science class. It is obsolete thinking based on lazy minds so wrapped up in wishful dogmatic thinking that they are all too willing to stop asking questions and investigating.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the ID-iots and creationists are designed with Teflon coating. No matter how many times the evidence is shown for evolution, or how many times it is explained how real science works, or how many times it is definitively shown how vacuous intelligent design arguments are, nothing ever ever seems to stick.

Science experiments for creationists

January 21, 2009

Over at Pharyngula, it was noted that there was to be a Creationist Science Fair. In the comments, I offered one suggestion that students could do for an experiment, which I’ll touch on here in a bit. But one experiment does not a science fair make. Since, in their web site, they claim to, unlike other educators, “teach the scientific method”, I thought it might be nice to offer a list of experiments to help them out. I have not heard of any creation scientists doing any experiments after all, so this may be a way to prod them a bit. One of the first experiments we here about, of course is in Genesis 30 (the one I commented on). From the Skeptics Annotated Bible we read:

30:35 And he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.
30:36 And he set three days’ journey betwixt himself and Jacob: and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks.
30:37 And Jacob took him rods of green poplar, and of the hazel and chesnut tree; and pilled white strakes in them, and made the white appear which was in the rods. (30:37-39)
30:38 And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.
30:39 And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

This is just begging for the experiment to be done. After all, one aspect of the scientific method (which they claim to be the only ones teaching) is reproducibility. As I noted in the comments earlier, the Bible does not give us the distribution or standard deviations of speckled or spotted cattle, so there is a chance to add to data to help our understanding of how viewing striped poles while conceiving effects heritable traits. Is this how zebras are made? I wonder if you could make striped people?

Now, the leg count experiment. From Leviticus:

Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
11:22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
11:23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.

So, collect insects, at least 100 or so, but 1000 would be a better test. They should be different types of insects, of course and scientifically classified as such. They could include such animals as flies, butterflies, moths, bees, a praying mantis, etc. Count the legs on each. Compute standard deviations and graph the results. Compare with the biblical claim of 4 legs to verify it.

This next experiment I call The Koala Bear March, is a little less doable, and I’m not so sure it would work, let alone that it would be instructional for students. But, if successful, it could remove one of the many many problems with the whole global flood. This is to reproduce and verify immigration patterns in the immediate post global Deluge period. Take one female and one male koala bear. Start them off near the top of Mt. Ararat and observe how they make their way from a mountain in Turkey to Australia. Since all vegetation had been killed in the flood and there are now no indigenous populations of eucalyptus trees between Turkey and Australia, it is likely that was no food for the koalas during this immigration. Of course, this would be an expensive undertaking, but I’m sure that funding could be found and the results put into a documentary form for the science fair project. There could even be a publication in there.

So, that is all I can think of at the moment (perhaps something to verify a hare chewing the cud?). It certainly isn’t easy to find experiments based on Bible stories as much of them were one shot deals. Feel free to come up with a few. But I did find another site with 4 suggested creationist experiments. Let’s have a quick look.

For the first experiment, the student blows air over a feather to see an uplift. This is to demonstrate how birds can fly. What is their conclusion?

You now have a working model of how a feather aids flight. When the air moves over the feather, in the normal position, it will lift upward.

The instructions to form a bird’s feather are found in their DNA. This information is different from genetic information which forms fingernails on people or scales on snakes. Feathers are extremely complex. For a great Science project research and discuss the extreme complexity of the feather’s structure, various types of fliers (birds, insects, mammals, reptiles); the DNA Code Barrier; and the mathematical impossibility of these different kinds of flying motions “evolving” by random chance.

Talk about intelligent design!!

Wow. So from the fact that feathers help a bird to fly, we conclude that there is a mathematical impossibility that it could have evolved by random chance. Wonderful. How one gets from feather aerodynamics to calculating mathematical probabilities in evolution (pure random chance is, of course, not the claim made in evolutionary theory) is not quite clearly spelled out, but I’m sure they did their homework on it. I wonder if they’ll mention that velociraptors had feathers?

Next, we dissolve an egg shell so that we have a “live model”, if you will, of a cell. O.K. I’m not sure what actual knowledge or aspect of the application of the scientific method this demonstrates, but sure. Since they are the only ones teaching the scientific method, I’m sure they got that thought out.

The third experiment is to create fossils, just how they were made in the flood. Wrong conclusions as well, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to explore.

The last experiment is pretty good, but could have been better. They freeze water and have it bust through a container to show volume expansion. It could have been better. Hypothesize that ice is less dense to explain the fact that it floats in water. Less dense means more volume for the same mass, by definition of density. So, design an experiment to test this. Design the experiment to actually measure by how much the water expands. Of course, then they ruin it. Instead of having kids wonder, research and explore how water got those properties (perhaps by suggesting further experiments. I guess it sort of depends on the grade level here I guess. But one could dig into the molecular structure at an advanced level), they invoke design. See, water expands when it freezes and that is necessary for life. Of course, that’s why it was designed that way by a designer. Clear as water. Well, mud anyway.

Now, of course, we can point and laugh at the creationist antics and silliness. But this is the type of standards we will eventually sink to if intelligent design/creationism is wedged into schools via so-called “academic freedom” bills, which incidentally seem to always single out evolution as one of the “controversial” subjects. The real victims here are the children. I’m sure there will be some who pull themselves up out of the mire of dogmatic and muddled thinking. But the potential of many more bright minds stands to be squandered, their potential opportunities to contribute to scientific progress gone.

Gone with the wind like that impossible feather.

Clear thinking in Texas

January 14, 2009

From Pharyngula we find out that an anti science guy is now in charge of Texas’ education system. The original posting came from Dr. Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge and concerns Don McLeroy, newly appointed chair of the Texas state board of education. Helpfully, a link to his website was provided. His emphasis is “clear thinking”. Since my emphasis is on clear liquid thinking, I reckoned I oughta take a crack at this. After all, he’s a dentist so this is something I can probably sink my teeth into. Let’s see what crowning wisdom we can glean from his site:

Filling the mind with knowledge and facts is, in fact, the special task given to education.

Thus, the most amazing “orthodoxy” which dominates the educational establishment “leviathan” today is the slighting of “facts and knowledge” for emphasis on problem-solving and critical thinking. Problem solving and critical thinking are secondary skills. Before one can think and solve he must first have something to think about.

Surgeons must be drilled and saturated in the facts of anatomy before they problem solve with a scalpel. Yet today there is a real bias in the public schools to de-emphasize knowledge and facts.

Again, for a child, the years before puberty are the golden time to learn, to be exposed to myriads of facts, to be trained in arithmetic, grammar and spelling.

In spite of this, each of these areas have been a battleground at the State level where the dogmatic “orthodoxies” have been challenged by the “back-to-the-basics” advocates.

What we need in our schools is a real commitment to filling our children’s minds with knowledge, facts and experiences; this is the school’s job; no one else is going to do it; it is what parent’s expect.

“Clear Thinking” will be the result.

First I would expect that somebody in charge of education should know the difference between a possessive and a plural, but we’ll put that aside. He seems to want to focus on filling kids’ minds with facts, ready to regurgitate at the drop of a standardized test I’ll bet. To the demphasis of critical thinking skills. Although, looking through the rest of his web site, I suppose I can understand why he wants less emphasis on critical thinking skills, as browsing around his web site would seem to indicate that critical thinking is not one of the tools in his tool box. I agree that facts are important. It is important to know what the structure of our government is. It is important to know what evolution is and how it explains the origin of species. It is important to know where seasons come from, what the chemical structure of various elements are and how the human experience has been reflected in art, poetry, and philosophy through the centuries. Critical thinking does not take a back seat to all this knowledge though. It is vitally important. One must be able to assess the accuracy of assumptions. One must be able to follow a logically coherent argument that follows from those assumptions. One must be able to look at statistical data and be able to derive correlative inferences, or not, from the data. For example, what is the statistical likelihood of being involved in a terrorist attack in the U.S.? Should you be living in constant fear? Can one draw a valid statistical correlation between lung cancer and smoking? Between a decrease in piracy and global warming? Our survival as a robust democratic system depends on the ability of the populace to think. To not only know many things, but to be able to use this knowledge and discover or create new knowledge.

Moving on through the site, we come to his thoughts on intelligent design. If I may sum up succinctly, his argument is that science, in particular, “Darwinian evolutionists” assume that nature is all there is and this assumption is wrong, that we’re all trapped into thinking this way, and there has been much evidence to show that “Darwinism” is wrong. First of course, much has been learned about evolution and how it works since Darwin. This peculiar authoritarian nomenclature is typical of creationist thinking. Next, of course, we don’t assume everything is materialist in nature. We simply have no evidence to suggest it is otherwise. If there was some type of interaction a god had with the universe, that would be something scientific methods would be able to ascertain. The fact that none have been observed strongly suggests that no such interactions exist, thus rendering a god, if not nonexistent, at least pretty useless from our perspective. He claims there is strong evidence against “Darwinism”, which I take he means evolution. I am aware of no such evidence. On the contrary, I am aware of mountain ranges of evidence that do support evolution and the evidence continues to accumulate. Instead of presenting actual evidence, or doing any real science to support the case for creation or intelligent design, I see a lot of hand waving and political maneuvering. Credible evidence to support their case must not consist of saying, we don’t understand how to get from point A to point B, therefore a designer must have been involved. Often in those arguments, the path is later revealed through rigorous scientific means and the argument is mooted. He seems to further fly in the face of well supported scientific consensus when he states that only a shaky hypothesis. I suppose if one wanted to go through his arguments one by one, each could be easily dismantled. I’ll save that fun for another time. So, Don McLeroy demonstrates that he does not know how science works, and yet he is in a position of authority in education.

Next, click on the “Educational Philosophy” and then click on “Abstinence is the Only Safe Message” link. He is a proponent of teaching only abstinence only programs. It is true that by abstaining one will not get STDs or pregnant. But, human nature being what it is, one must be realistic about what it is what people are actually going to do. Evidence shows that this type of program by itself simply doesn’t work, as discussed here. Once again, Don McLeroy is determined to hold to beliefs contrary to the evidence and displays a lack of having applied a little critical thinking to the problem.

So I can only conclude that instead of education in Texas is on very shaky ground. I feel sorry for the potential crippling of all those young minds. What makes this especially dangerous to the rest of the country is the influence Texas has on textbook publication.

Wack-a-moles in Oklahoma and Galileoists

January 7, 2009

Here we go again. Getting started early in the new year, we have Randy Brogdon, of Oklahoma, sponsoring a bill in the state Senate to assist teachers in “teaching the controversy”. I certainly hope students in Oklahoma will win by not having to put up with this nonsense, thereby getting real opportunities in the biotech world of the future.

Senate Bill 320 (document), prefiled in the Oklahoma Senate and scheduled for a first reading on February 2, 2009, is apparently the first antievolution bill of 2009. Entitled the “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act,” SB 320 would, if enacted, require state and local educational authorities to “assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies” and permit teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.” The only topics specifically mentioned as controversial are “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

On second thought, that should be easy. Evolution. No controversy. Done. Weaknesses? After 150 years of solid research, the evolutionary theory is as sound as ever. The only controversy that exists is that which exists soley in the minds of creationists/ID-iots as they continue their valiant struggle against reality. If we want real controversy, how about string theory vs. quantum gravity? Let the kids decide.

Or better, what about this whole business about heavy objects falling at the same rate as lighter ones. Controversial that! Those evil Galileoists are trying to infect our kids’ minds with their godless religion. Objects going around Jupiter rather than the earth? Who can fall for such fairy tales except immoral scientists? Why don’t ya know, the godless Galileoists will try to tell you that the sun is not pure but has spots! Unbelievable. These controversies need to be addressed in our schools.

Tip ‘o the hat to PZ Myers at Pharyngula.

Creationist harm

December 14, 2008

I was recently asked in an email (not related to this blog) about the harm of creationism. This person tried to make the point that it is only fair to have both sides of the evolution story presented in science class. That this is in keeping with true American democracy and we should let children know that the matter is not settled. The person went further and asked that since most Americans accept creationism and our nation is in a position of scientific leadership, surely that demonstrates that it is o.k. to present creationism (or its insidious cousin, “intelligent design”) as a viable alternative theory. So, I figured I would work out some thoughts on the subject here on this blog. Feel free to add your own comments here.

Read on!