Is this an “assault against scientific integrity”?

…It is according to the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Alan Leshner, in a released statement:

“It is alarming that the Louisiana Senate and a key House committee have passed a bill that would undermine science instruction in public schools, despite strong opposition from scientists, teachers and others,” wrote Leshner, who also is executive publisher of the journal Science. “If it becomes law, the bill would unleash an assault against scientific integrity, leaving students confused about the fundamental nature of science and unprepared to excel in a work force that increasingly requires science-related skills.”

What is the object of this alarmist statement? It is the Louisiana Science Education Act, mentioned in part in my previous entry. I have since come across the more complete text of the Louisiana Science Education Act.  Here are the key sections (minus the lawmaker speak):

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

(2) Such assistance shall include support and guidance for teachers regarding effective ways to help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied, including those enumerated in Paragraph (1) of this Subsection.

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

Is there anything in the wording of this bill that restricts or hinders scientific inquiry and learning? I certainly don’t see why educators would consider this to be anything but a good thing, except for those who consider this a subversive plot to eventually eliminate the teaching of evolution from schools and replace it with religion. Note that it is these opponents who always focus the attention on evolution, even though the bill itself specifically refrains from being restricted only to the teaching of evolution. The great fear of those like Barbara Forrest is that students might hear of any knowledge, either real or implied, that evolution is scientifically controversial.

Seems to me that proper scientific inquiry is about going where the evidence leads, not trying to silence those who may bring evidence contrary to your position. John G. West, author of Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, wrote an article entitled “Louisiana Confounds the Science Thought Police” for the National Review.  He states:

Students need to know about the current scientific consensus on a given issue, but they also need to be able to evaluate critically the evidence on which that consensus rests. They need to learn about competing interpretations of the evidence offered by scientists, as well as anomalies that aren’t well explained by existing theories.

It was the very slight anomaly between the observed orbit of Mars and the previous assumption that planets traveled in circular orbits that compelled Kepler to scrap all earlier models and eventually conclude that planets traveled in ellipses. Kepler described how important this tiny difference between observation and theory was to his new discovery:

For, if I had believed that we could ignore these eight minutes, I would have patched up my hypothesis accordingly. But since it was not permissible to ignore them, those eight minutes point the road to a complete reformation of astronomy: they have become the building material for a large part of this work.

Where would we be today if Kepler had chosen to stick with the “proven” theory and not followed through with analyzing the discrepancy? What if he had listened to those who told him that he could not question the circular orbit of planets?

It is through open and critical discussion of the evidence that scientific theories are affirmed or falsified. And yet the agenda of those who oppose the Louisiana Science Education Act seems to be the stifling within the classroom of this very process of scientific inquiry and the acquisition of critical thinking skills. Who is really leading the assault on scientific integrity?

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12 comments:

  1. char said...

    I agree with your argument~ allowing other world views and interpretations of life can only add to the discourse and potential for understanding the wonders of the world around us.

    this debate leaves out many voices~ Western theories of Creationism are not the only ones that exist. Many first nations have "religious" beliefs grounded in the creation of the universe by a Divine being. But do we get to hear about Native American explanations, or Hindu alternatives to evolution~ no.

    I was raised a Creationist but after the age of 30 changed my position. However, as a person who values nurturing of the Spirit I do uphold Creation stories~ of all social groups, cultures and nations, as valid interpretations as well.

    Evolution is a scientific explanation, creation stories are spiritual explanations.

    Truth is not only to be found by science.

    Personally, I am ok with not thinking the Earth is around
    10, 000 years old whilst believing that my life is about more than "competition of the fittest" (and Darwin's interpretation of this phrase has been misquoted elsewhere).

  2. James said...

    I think the title of this post may be a bit disingenuous. Unless I'm mistaken, you are implying that Alan Leshner thinks that teaching critical thinking skills is an assault against scientific integrity, or worse, that the American Association for the Advancement of Science thinks teaching critical thinking skills is an assault against scientific integrity. I have no doubt that both are incorrect. The situation is not nearly as black and white as you would have it seem.

    "What is the object of this alarmist statement?"

    The object becomes clear if we consider the state of education in subjects other than science. In English classes, students learn about the mechanics behind the English language and, later, about how humans have utilized language (i.e. literature). Obviously, what English teachers teach is not exactly controversial; we grant what constitutes our language the status of fact. In history, things get a little more questionable. We rely on the work and records of the deceased to form a picture of our past and then teach that past to kids as fact. In mathematics, government, economics, and virtually every other subject we do the same. Then we have science. I don't need to tell you what science teachers teach kids. At this day in age, science has attained the status of fact as a result of leading society to incredible technological and medical advances, among others. At any rate, scientists like to think that science has just as much credibility as any other subject. Science works just as well as the mechanics behind language; it is easier to work with, and much easier to verify than history; it utilizes mathematics--a subject that can be considered as close to fact as anything possibly can be. The very nature of science has critical analysis of itself at its core. This bill in Louisiana singles science out as somehow inherently weaker than the other subjects; it proposes critical analysis of established scientific theory ONLY, implicating that the other academic subjects must be perfect. How is that NOT an assault against the integrity of the scientific establishment?

    I don't know whether or not I left that comment on your other post before or after you wrote this, and you didn't say whether you agreed or disagreed with anything I said, but I think I may have addressed some of the issues you discuss here.

    “Is there anything in the wording of this bill that restricts or hinders scientific inquiry and learning? I certainly don’t see why educators would consider this to be anything but a good thing…”

    The bill does not hinder scientific inquiry. One might be able to make the argument that it hinders scientific learning in the long-run however, but I do not think these are the reasons so many are railing against bills like these. I think it comes back to what Leshner talked about: the assault against the integrity of science. I think in that sense, critics say the bill is more bad than good. I mean, why not just find methods designed to improve critical thinking skills that don’t also weaken scientific integrity? It’s certainly possible. Scientists see bills like these as an assault on scientific integrity because they unnecessarily question the legitimacy of scientific theory. Since there are arguably more venues which lead to improving critical thinking skills in kids that don’t involve questioning established scientific theory than what the bill proposes, it’s easy to see why many scientists think the agenda of those who constructed the bill aimed at specifically weakening scientific integrity. It’s simply not necessary.

    “Note that it is these opponents who always focus the attention on evolution, even though the bill itself specifically refrains from being restricted only to the teaching of evolution.”

    To be fair, out of the scientific theories listed by the bill, evolution is the only one worthy of comment; “the origins of life” is simply too vague; I don’t think the concept or theory of global warming is even controversial—how it is applied is a different story entirely, so again the bill is too vague; and the concept or theory of human cloning isn’t controversial either—the ethics and application is, again, a different story entirely, so in this instance the bill is still too vague. It seems to me that the only theory on the list clear of ambiguity is evolution.

  3. Kendalf said...

    Char, thank you for sharing! And while I agree that a discourse on the different worldviews and interpretations can potentially add to our understanding of our world, I believe that the scope of the discussion that you are proposing would not be appropriate within a science classroom.

    James, thank you for your fair and balancing comment. It deserves a much more thoughtful response than I have the opportunity for at the moment. Please be patient until I can find the time!

  4. James said...

    Sure thing, Ken.

  5. Anonymous said...

    I think that people have the right to look at something and analyze it. If someone tells you that you can't question a viewpoint and must accept their view whether you agree or not, sounds like living in a dictatorship. Many people now freely criticize religious views, but don't want people questioning secular scientific views. For example, an article in the paper on February 17, 2009 reported that a student at LA city college was suing his public speaking teacher. Jonathan Lopez was giving a speech apposing same sex marriage when Professor Matteson cut him off and called derogatory names. He wouldn't let him finish his speech. The professor then told the class they could leave if they were offended, but no one left. So instead the teacher canceled the class. This teacher was censoring the speech, because he did not wish the students to analyze the speech and hear a conservative point of view. This is against the American law of free speech.
    Mark Haugaard

  6. Kendalf said...

    I'm writing this in a bit more of a rush than I would like, but I wanted to try to address at least some of the comments made by James.

    I admit that the title of this post is a bit disingenuous, but I believe it is no more disingenuous than the statements made in the article summarizing Leshner's statements in the Shreveport Times.

    You are right to call me out by stating that the situation is certainly not as black and white as my title makes it seem, and I will think about how I might change the title to reflect a fairer treatment of the situation. But I think this does serve to illustrate how it is inappropriate to misrepresent another person or group's position in a public forum. My blog reaches maybe 30 people... how many people read Leshner's article in the Shreveport Times?

    A bill moving through the Louisiana Legislature would allow the introduction of religious ideas in the state's public school science classrooms, putting science education in jeopardy and creating economic and legal risks for the state, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner writes in the Shreveport Times.

    Why do I believe that is a disingenuous statement?

    The primary claim of Leshner's letter is that the bill is "designed to introduce a religious idea called intelligent design into science classrooms." This is followed by the statement quoted in my entry on how this bill would "unleash an assault against scientific integrity..."

    In spite of the continuous misrepresentation by opponents, intelligent design is no more a religious idea and no less a scientific theory than the Big Bang theory, for example. The bill specifically states that the bill “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine.” So even if the majority of the proponents of the bill may have religious motivations, this bill will not allow them to insert anything religious into school curriculum. Leshner's assault against the bill seems primarily based on his belief that the bill will enable religious ideas to infiltrate the science classroom. I do not believe that the wording of the bill will allow this, and that is why I believe Leshner is misleading in making these statements. I think more can be said in response to Leshner's article, but I don't have time for that right now.

    James, your primary concern seemed to be that:
    This bill in Louisiana singles science out as somehow inherently weaker than the other subjects; it proposes critical analysis of established scientific theory ONLY, implicating that the other academic subjects must be perfect. How is that NOT an assault against the integrity of the scientific establishment?

    I took the time to look through Louisiana's state education standards for some other subjects, especially for history, since you noted that things can be a little more questionable in this subject. In the section stating the benchmarks for Government and Historical Thinking Skills, the words that appeared over and over again are analyze, compare, interprete, and evaluate.

    From Louisiana State Education Standards for History
    http://www.doe.state.la.us/lde/uploads/2912.pdf

    Benchmarks for Government
    A. Structure and Purposes of Government
    -analyzing the necessity and purposes of politics and government and identifying examples of programs that fit within those purposes;
    -comparing and evaluating the essential characteristics of various systems of government and identifying historical and contemporary examples of each;
    -explaining and evaluating issues related to the distribution of powers and responsibilities within the federal system;
    -evaluating the role and importance of law in the American political system and applying criteria to evaluate laws;

    B. Foundations of the American Political System
    -analyzing the central ideas and historical origins of American constitutional government and evaluating how this form of government has helped to shape American society;
    -explaining basic democratic beliefs and principles of constitutional democracy in American society and applying them to the analysis of issues of conflicting beliefs and principles;
    -analyzing the nature of American political and social conflict;
    -evaluating issues related to the differences between American ideals and the realities of American social and political life;

    A. Historical Thinking Skills
    -applying key concepts, such as chronology and conflict, to explain and analyze patterns of historical change and continuity;
    -explaining and analyzing events, ideas, and issues within a historical context;
    -interpreting and evaluating the historical evidence presented in primary and secondary sources;
    -utilizing knowledge of facts and concepts drawn from history and methods of historical inquiry to analyze historical and contemporary issues;
    -conducting research in efforts to analyze historical questions and issues;

    I then compared these benchmarks to those given for science education, and since this is the primary issue of debate, I specifically looked at the benchmarks for evolution:

    Louisiana State Science Education Benchmarks
    Life Science: Grades 9-12
    3. biological evolution, which includes:
    a. exploring experimental evidence that supports the theory of the origin of life;
    b. recognizing the evidence for evolution;
    c. discussing the patterns, mechanisms, and rate of evolution;

    No mention of critical analysis, or evaluation of evidence, or that scientists arrive at their conclusions based on interpretations of data, and that there can be disagreements on these interpretations. When I contrast the benchmarks for science and history, and then I consider the language of the Louisiana Science Education Act, I don't get the impression that the bill is unfairly requiring a critical analysis of science ONLY, and that all other subjects are exempt. What I see is that the bill is enabling teachers to critically analyze scientific theories in the same way that students are taught to critically analyze their other subjects.

    You wrote that, "At this day in age, science has attained the status of fact as a result of leading society to incredible technological and medical advances, among others. At any rate, scientists like to think that science has just as much credibility as any other subject."

    I would venture that rather than attacking the credibility or integrity of science, the bill reasserts what gives science its foundation for credibility and encourages students to learn that science has built its credibility on the continuous process of testing and evaluation of old theories and the advancement of new theories that explain things better than the old theory. I think that it is important for students to learn how to critically analyze and investigate ideas in science, even before we pile on the science content. And by critically analyze, I don't just mean questioning everything that your science teacher says. I mean learning what criteria are used to establishe a scientific theory, and seeing for themselves the extent with which current scientific theories are supported by the data.

    What the bill does is take science down from its improper place as the subject that only gives unassailable facts. I think a major problem in our society is that when someone says, "Scientists say [this]..." or "The consensus of scientists is [this]..." that the majority of people simply accept [this] as fact, without considering the evidence or the possibility that other interpretations of the data may be valid. The debate over anthropic global warming and stem cell research are both prime examples of this, and that is why I think they have been specifically mentioned in the wording of the bill along with evolution.

  7. Ellie said...

    It is frustrating when scientists freak out at any mention of evolution. In Bible class we recently watched a video exploring this concept, that any scientist who even slightly mentions intelligent design or a subject that majority of modern scientific thought rejects, that scientist's career is down the drain. If scientists were as right as they believed, it would seem they wouldn't fear hearing others differing opinions. It would seem that this would excite them, by giving them the option to further prove their point and prove other points as false. It is almost as if scientists are scared to let children decide for themselves, because they are scared they possibly might support an opinion different from theirs. Our children are the thinkers of the future, it is unfair to place a barrier on their knowledge, especially in such an impressionable age. Children need to hear every opinion and form their own opinion by sifting through the data they have.

  8. James said...

    Ken,

    “I admit that the title of this post is a bit disingenuous, but I believe it is no more disingenuous than the statements made in the article summarizing Leshner's statements in the Shreveport Times.”

    I’m assuming you’re referring to the article Leshner wrote for the Shreveport Times and not the article summarizing Leshner’s statements on the AAAS website. It’s true that parts of Leshner’s article are disingenuous. However, the parts referred to in your original post and the parts I responded to are not disingenuous. In any case, no matter how misrepresentative or low someone else is willing to plunge, justice is never served by doing the same.

    “But I think this does serve to illustrate how it is inappropriate to misrepresent another person or group's position in a public forum. My blog reaches maybe 30 people... how many people read Leshner's article in the Shreveport Times?”

    I certainly agree. Put that way, my addressing a detail on a blog that does not reach an enormous audience probably isn’t of world-changing significance. I stumbled upon your site through a vicarious series of links and was taken by the title of your blog. If I had gotten the explicit message from the appearance of this blog that you were someone determinedly trying to push some sort of radical ID agenda I wouldn’t have bothered to respond at all. As things stand, I get the impression you sincerely have what you think is the best interest of society at heart, and thus I felt it worthwhile to point out a few discrepancies in one or two of your posts; nothing personal, I assure you.

    “The primary claim of Leshner's letter is that the bill is "designed to introduce a religious idea called intelligent design into science classrooms."”

    If the overall theme of Leshner’s letter was to criticize religious schemes beneath the surface of the letter, it was not the theme of the excerpt you used. There was no reference to religion in that excerpt; the points Leshner makes in that excerpt are just as true and unaffected by his personal opinion regarding the motive of the bill and that of those behind it.

    “In spite of the continuous misrepresentation by opponents, intelligent design is no more a religious idea and no less a scientific theory than the Big Bang theory, for example.”

    I think that’s wrong, but I’m not here to talk about ID.

    “Leshner's assault against the bill seems primarily based on his belief that the bill will enable religious ideas to infiltrate the science classroom.”

    While the article Leshner wrote would seem to convey that message, I would argue that the value of Leshner’s article does not derive from his beliefs about religious agenda, and thus his opinions on these matters are irrelevant. The value of Leshner’s article comes from his recognition that the bill is an assault on scientific integrity, which it is.

    “In the section stating the benchmarks for Government and Historical Thinking Skills, the words that appeared over and over again are analyze, compare, interprete, and evaluate.”

    Right, but the phrase(s) Leshner and I have so much distaste for is “critical analysis,” or “critique,” and these are not in any of the benchmarks. I simply do not think students have an adequate grasp of what is already being taught. It seems to me that in order to successfully critique something, you have to have an adequate knowledge of what you are critiquing first, and most students do not have this.

    If the bill was less ambiguous in places, and “critique” was removed, I would say the bill should be seriously considered, but as it is worded now it is unacceptable.

    “No mention of critical analysis, or evaluation of evidence, or that scientists arrive at their conclusions based on interpretations of data, and that there can be disagreements on these interpretations.”

    No mention of critical analysis in any of the history benchmarks you cite either.

    “When I contrast the benchmarks for science and history, and then I consider the language of the Louisiana Science Education Act, I don't get the impression that the bill is unfairly requiring a critical analysis of science ONLY, and that all other subjects are exempt.”

    If “critical analysis” is not in any benchmark for any subject, it seems fair to say the bill unfairly requires a critical analysis of science only. The history benchmarks at least make no mention of critical analysis. At any rate, do you really get the impression from the history benchmarks that they want students to question the validity of what is being taught?

    “I would venture that rather than attacking the credibility or integrity of science, the bill reasserts what gives science its foundation for credibility and encourages students to learn that science has built its credibility on the continuous process of testing and evaluation of old theories and the advancement of new theories that explain things better than the old theory.”

    If you refer to critical thinking skills, then yes the bill does accomplish that, but the bill accomplishes more than that by specifically directing critical thinking skills toward accepted scientific theory, implying that the scientific theory needs to be critiqued and therefore weakening the integrity of what the scientific establishment deems acceptable for general education. I’m not saying scientific theory shouldn’t be critiqued, but allowing high school students to do this definitely sends the message that the scientific community is not capable of adequately testing and critiquing their own theories.

    I would also note that there are a myriad of ways to develop critical thinking skills in kids that don’t involve poking holes in whatever scientific theories kids feel like poking holes in, so the fact that the writers chose this particular method of developing critical thinking skills can easily be construed as an attempt to weaken aspects of accepted scientific theory—not that this is necessarily the case. This is where people like Leshner take off.

    “I think that it is important for students to learn how to critically analyze and investigate ideas in science, even before we pile on the science content.”

    I also think it is important for students to learn how to critically analyze and investigate ideas in science. However, learning how to critically analyze does not necessarily entail critically analyzing accepted scientific theory. There are thousands of exercises kids could do that would improve their critical thinking skills but that also don’t throw the validity of what they should be able to take as true into question.

    “What the bill does is take science down from its improper place as the subject that only gives unassailable facts.”

    According to whom? In school, every class (with the exception of a few) teaches what students grant as “unassailable facts.” Isn’t this the PURPOSE of school? Kindergarten to high school is the domain of “unassailable facts.” When we are children, we rely on our parents to give us unassailable facts. That aspect of childhood to a great extent defines our success as parents. Up to a certain point, I would argue, most kids can’t do much else besides learn and regurgitate facts; where that point ends is debatable. It’s nice that you’re so optimistic as to say this point ends in high school. I think that’s certainly true for some students; but the majority?

    The other issue I have here is that we’re dealing with public education; the education that we are willing to grant to everybody. I agree that kids need to know how to critically analyze a theory and assess the validity of what they’re being told, but do all kids need to necessarily apply this to a theory like evolution? It seems like you’re justifying this bill by saying that in order for science to advance as it always has, kids need to know that science isn’t perfect and that there is a place for critical analysis, but the only way that anything scientific is going to change is through scientists and the scientific establishment. So in essence, you’re justifying this bill off of a minority of students who will go on to become scientists, so what about all the rest? We will have placed this inherent distrust of science in the minds of everyone just to get it to the very few who will actually grow up to be able to do something about it. The thing is, anyone who actually sees a legitimate problem in a scientific theory and actually cares about the problem will probably become a scientist and do something about it. I mean, unless I’m mistaken this is how it has always been. Those kids you’re trying to justify this bill with would probably become scientists with or without what the bill proposes.

    “The debate over anthropic global warming and stem cell research are both prime examples of this, and that is why I think they have been specifically mentioned in the wording of the bill along with evolution.”

    Neither anthropic global warming or stem-cell research are explicitly mentioned in the excerpt of the bill you provide, which is again why I originally said the wording of this bill is too vague.

    I’m really trying not to sound evil in this discussion because at first glance it looks like I’m arguing against free-thought and critical analysis of the controversial issues of today, but I’m really just saying there’s an appropriate time and place for such debate. With the current state of education in the United States, I don’t think this bill is appropriate. I think a bill with such ambiguous language would have unprecedented repercussions on the educational infrastructure in Louisiana and potentially elsewhere in the U.S. I think that among these repercussions is an overall weakening of scientific integrity. My first impression of this bill is that it is idealistic and unrealistic in today’s world. Feel free to disagree. I think that when considering bills like these, we need to think about the fundamental purpose of education, from kindergarten to high school especially, but also in college and beyond. I have always been under the impression that into high school this purpose is simply giving students what “facts” we can reasonably say we know, because most students are not yet at the level where they know enough to be able to intelligently criticize what they are being taught until after they have left high school. It may not always be this way, but I think that in today’s educational system this is the case.

    I probably won’t say any more about this.

  9. James said...

    Unless of course you really want me to.

  10. Kendalf said...

    James, I certainly would like to continue hearing from you. I just haven't had the opportunity to respond to your previous. Major project going on at our school.

    But do note that when I posted my previous comment I did change the title of this entry.

  11. rawlin said...

    A critical analysis of scientific theories should not occur in primary or secondary schools. At this point in life, a child should be setting a basis for how they approach life. If they're taught to simply question everything, and have no personal knowledge on the theories presented, nothing is accomplished except the breeding a generation of ignorant skeptics. It's not that conflicting scientific theories shouldn't be presented in class at that age, but I children, being by nature very impressionable, should not be taught that all theories have validity. When faced with a difficult situation, people with no real knowledge often regurgitate information they've been taught, instead of thinking things over themselves.

    If children were taught to reason effectively, instead of being taught an opinion on specific scientific gray areas, that generation would progress much farther scientifically, than our current generation.

  12. Trevor G. said...

    Also this issue runs the line between science and religion, so in order to find the right balance in the schools we must first either create a combination of the two to fit with the cultural and social needs of the people but also the truths presented in science. Also you can't ignore those needs and have a set agenda for all schools, like rawlin said: "If they're taught to simply question everything, and have no personal knowledge on the theories presented, nothing is accomplished except the breeding a generation of ignorant skeptics."

    but sadly until one or the other is proven to be completely factual neither side will gain the much needed support to become dominate.

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