Thursday, December 2, 2010

Science, Censorship, and Gibberish

Yes, it's another rant. But I'll try to keep the rant short and thoughtful. If that's not oxymoronic.

I was recently asked to help judge a number of children's entries in a contest that involves writing about and illustrating concepts related to evolution. The contest is still in progress, so I'm being intentionally vague. I'd also like to write a detailed account of the contest in a future blog, when I hope I'll be able to share some of the amazing work I'm seeing.

Reading through the kids' entries has gotten me thinking, once again, about the strange state of science education in this country and the tragedy of what has been called "the single best idea anyone has ever had" (the TOE) being held hostage by cultural and political interests.

Most of us are familiar with the basic the Creationist and ID talking points, so we don't have to endure another recitation of the tortured logic that is standard fare on that side of the issue. I just have to quote, however, from one piece of research I stumbled across. I've been saving it for some time, and I finally have an excuse to share it.

The paper's title and an excerpt from the abstract (don't worry about doing a close reading):

The Relevance Of Rb-Sr, Sm-Nd, And Pb-Pb Isotope Systematics To Elucidation Of The Genesis And History Of Recent Andesite Flows At Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, And The Implications For Radioisotopic Dating

Mt. Ngauruhoe in the Taupo Volcanic Zone of New Zealand erupted andesite lava flows in 1949 and 1954, and avalanche deposits in 1975. Rb-Sr, Sm-Nd, and Pb-Pb radioisotopic analyses of samples of these andesites, as anticipated, did not yield any “age” information, although the Pb isotopic data are strongly linear. When compared with recent andesite flows from the related adjacent Ruapehu volcano, the Sr-Nd-Pb radioisotopic systems plotted on correlation diagrams provide information about the depleted mantle source for the parental basalt magmas and the source of the crustal contamination that produced the andesite lavas from them. The variations in both the depleted mantle Nd “model ages” and the Pb isotopes also suggest radioisotopic heterogeneity in the mantle wedge 80 km below the volcano where partial melting has occurred, contaminated by mixing with trench sediments scraped off the interface with the subducting slab. Thus the radioisotopic ratios in these recent Ngauruhoe andesite flows were inherited, and reflect the origin and history of the mantle and crustal sources from which the magma was generated.

Impressive stuff. And it goes on for many, many pages, accompanied by numerous detailed maps, charts, and graphs. What's most amazing about this obviously erudite work is that it's presented to support the theory (or rather, the fact) that the Earth (along with the rest of the universe) was created over the course of a week sometime in the last few thousand years. The complete paper can be found at:

There are vast piles of this sort of stuff on the internet, and one could make a good argument that the best thing to do is simply ignore it. It warrants our attention, however, not because of its content, but because of its format. It's an example of a trend that has intensified over the past couple of decades: the use of pseuedo-scientific methodology, jargon, and 'data' to further positions and ways of thinking that are anti-science in every important sense. IDers, global warming deniers, even garden variety homophobes — all have recognized the value of muddying the waters with their own versions of scientific data and argument. When it comes to something as complex as climate modeling or deciphering genetic code (not to even mention quantum physics) it's very difficult for the non-scientist to distinguish between valid work and gibberish. Children are typically the indirect victims of intentionally confusing or inaccurate 'science', since many of their parents, school board members, and science teachers are themselves confused.

This brings me back to the Theory of Evolution, and the reason it's censorship is so unfortunate. Unlike most other subjects in contemporary science, the basic concepts of evolutionary theory can be understood by a motivated second- or third-grader. There an inherent elegance to the theory — it does what a good scientific theory should do, and does it gracefully and simply. Anyone, adult or child, who understands the way evolution works also acquires at least an implicit sense of what a scientific theory is and how science is done. Not least of all, there is the satisfaction that comes from understanding why so much of the living world looks and acts the way it does.

An introduction to the TOE, in other words, is a perfect introduction to what science is and what scientists do. This is an issue that is, in some ways, distinct from the fact that, in the words of a famous Russian biologist "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

I don't have any real remedies — the controversy seems to be one of the key components of a world view that rejects science and humanism and is suspicious (despite lots of declarations to the contrary) of higher education in general.

The books I work on all have something to do with the natural world. Most of them include living creatures of one sort or another, so it would be hard to avoid referencing evolution in some form. It's just too much a part of how the living world works.

I've mentioned, in previous rants, that I am often warned not to talk about evolution during school presentations. This has happened even in progressive public and private schools in liberal parts of the country. I understand the request. It's driven by the annoyance — even fear — caused by a few rabid, rigid parents. But the request is not really that I don't talk about how the living world works. It's much more specific: don't use the 'E' word.

When the subject of evolution is relevant or unavoidable, as it so often is when I'm describing an animal's form or behavior, I've chosen a non-confrontational approach. I might, for example, explain that animals usually have more offspring than will survive to reproduce, that the animals who are the most fit for their environment will be the most likely to survive and have offspring of their own, and that the traits that make them fit can often be passed on to the next generation. When environmental conditions change, the qualities that help an animal survive may also change. When these new qualities are passed on from generation to generation, a new kind of animal may result. Sound familiar? I've never gotten a complaint about this kind of explanation. In a best-case scenario, children will appreciate the beauty and logic of this process. Later, when they are in a position to make their own decisions about what to believe and what to call things, they will be weighing ideas rather than labels.


Vicki Cobb said...

I'm with you on this, Steve. When I discuss the lightening of skin shades from equatorial Africa to Ireland, evolution is implied. I've read many scientific papers and I screwed up my brain as I read your excerpt because it makes no sense. The biggest problem is that most people don't understand that HOW we know in science determines WHAT we know and that you can't cherry pick the fruits of science and make a rational philosophy of it. I updated a blog on this subject, originally written for INK and now published for Education Update: In the video "The Link" Leakey says that evolution is not a theory, it is a fact--just like gravity.

Loreen Leedy said...

It is ironic that pseudoscientists are forced to use the terminology and concepts (however distorted) of real scientists in a parasitic way... they can't create an intellectual edifice on their own, they have to steal bits of what others have made to build their little straw huts. (Where's the Big Bad Wolf when we need him?)

They should have to produce real predictions and real results before anyone pays attention to them... but that's not the point, is it? What they are paid to produce is propaganda.

steve jenkins said...

Vicki, I like your piece on Education Update Online. I had not seen that blog... I'll watch The Link. Sounds interesting. Human evolution is one of those potential book subjects that beckons, but it presents enough writing and illustrative challenges that the right approach always seems to hover just out of my grasp.

What we are all getting at, I think, is that a lack of understanding (or concern) about how science works is at the root of many of our educational and cultural ills. We just have to keep doing what we're doing, and hope it makes a difference.

Linda Zajac said...

In this age of self-publishing, it is way too easy to produce an entire nonfiction book that is really fiction. There are simply no controls on self-published material. I continue to be amazed at the amount of websites, books and articles I find that are not based on facts.

Recently, a well-respected scientist told me to stick to the facts and not to become an advocate. I wish I'd asked him to further explain what exactly he meant by "advocate."

Last month, at a science conference, I went to a session on science literacy. At the end of the session they asked each panelist how they would spend $1 to improve the public's understanding of science. The first speaker who was very knowledgeable about research in this area (of course I don't remember his name!) broke his dollar up this way:
$.50 - educating K-12
$.25 - educating college students
$.25 - educating adults

Lorraine said...

Great post.
As an entry level editor on a teacher magazine, I was told, point blank, not to use the "e" word. Our code for it was: "Animal and plant adaptation over a long period of time." But mostly, we avoided it altogether and focused on other subject areas.
The editor of this magazine also nixed any discussion of creation myths (as related to the stars, the moon, and the sun, for example) that didn't involve monotheism, even in a historical or cultural context.
Every year, I donate to the National Center for Science Education, which is on the frontlines of this battle. I usually opt for a t-shirt premium ("Scientists named Steve who believe in evolution") to help spread the word.