Education


This great article highlights some of the exact points I talk about in the last chapter of my book — that we need to teach students how to think about big-picture issues associated with science, so they can better understand why scientists reason the way they do.

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I’m not sure what to think of this ruling, but it’s certainly interesting. From the May 5 edition of the New York Times:

A federal judge has ruled that a history teacher at a Southern California public high school violated the First Amendment when he called creationism “superstitious nonsense” in a classroom lecture. The judge, James Selna, issued the ruling after a 16-month legal battle between a student, Chad Farnan, and his former teacher, James Corbett. Mr. Farnan’s lawsuit said Mr. Corbett had made more than 20 statements that were disparaging to Christians and their beliefs. The judge found that Mr. Corbett’s reference to creationism as “religious, superstitious nonsense” violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Courts have interpreted the clause as prohibiting government employees from displaying religious hostility.

David Velleman, a well-known philosophy professor at NYU, has an interesting blog post about intelligent design. Velleman is not at all an ID proponent, but his post takes an interestingly nuanced view.

He wrote the post in 2005, and strangely, if one tries to access the post via the original URL, one reaches a blank page. But I was able to access the post using archive.org; here it is

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the short post, but I want to focus on this part: 

The theory of evolution is, not a complete explanation, but what philosophers of science call an explanation-schema — a general template for developing explanations of many different phenomena. 

Given a successful explanation schema, the scientific approach (I won’t call it a “method”) is to continue applying it to new cases, adjusting it as the need arises. Those who have devoted their lives to such an enterprise tend to be optimistic that it will ultimately yield explanations for all of the phenomena. Their optimism about the enterprise is encouraged by its successes to date; and in any case, pessimists would probably look for a different line of work. But optimism about the ultimate reach of science is not itself a scientific thesis. Whether science carried to its ideal limit would leave a remainder of unexplained phenomena is a question that science does not attempt to answer. It’s a question for metaphysicians and epistemologists. 

Some poeple completely reject any God-of-the-gaps argument — they hold that science will fill in any gap in our understanding. But I think Velleman is making a good point here, when he says that “optimism about the ultimate reach of science is not itself a scientific thesis”. It’s fine to be optimistic, but it’s not fine to pretend that those who aren’t optimistic are ipso facto violating the canons of scientific methodology. 

Velleman also says that ID should be discussed in school, but 

Unfortunately, the curriculum in which ID belongs doesn’t exist in high schools.

Velleman holds that ID belongs not in the science classroom, but in the philosophy classroom.

Christopher Hitchens has an interesting new article out, reacting to the “muddled” Texas School Board decision which held that “all sides” of scientific theories should be taught. Hitchens writes:

I find myself somewhat drawn in by the quixotic idea that we should “teach the argument.” 

But he goes on to say that doing so would

set a precedent for the sharing of the astronomy period with the teaching of astrology, or indeed of equal time as between chemistry and alchemy. Less boring perhaps, but also much less scientific and less educational.

Hitchens’ reasoning here has two key problems.

The first is that the teachers wouldn’t have to teach astrology as true; they could just talk about astrology, and explain why most all scientists reject it. That would be highly educational for the students — instead of just learning the content of current scientific theories, they would learn how scientists go about rejecting theories, and  would gain a better understanding of how theory change happens.

Second, the sophisticated proponents of the “teach the controversy” line of thought aren’t supporting “equal time” at all. They can happily admit that most of the time in the classroom should be spent on learning standard scientific theories; the question is whether any time at all should be devoted to astrology, or alchemy, or intelligent design.  The Dover trial, after all, was about a 60 second mention of intelligent design in a biology classroom. The debate isn’t about whether intelligent design should get equal time; the debate is about whether intelligent design should get 60 seconds.

Kent Greenawalt is a law professor at Columbia University, and the author of the 2005 book Does God Belong in the Public Schools? He and I have similar ideas about the extent to which intelligent design should be taught (though we both have nuanced positions, and there are definitely some differences too). Anyway, here’s an interesting passage from pp. 124-5 of his book:

I have proposed a middle course somewhere between what evolutionists insist is the only sound scientific approach and what proponents of Genesis creation and intelligent design seek. This counsel of moderation may have little appeal for opposing camps who standardly accuse one another of dogmatism and dishonesty. The evolutionists suspect, with a good deal of justification, that intelligent design is supported by many as a device to sneak religious objections into the science curriculum. Proponents of intelligent design, with a good deal of justification, charge that their position is ruled out of court without a hearing. Each side often tries to make the arguments of the other look as ridiculous as possible, and neither seems much interested in a fair appraisal of, or even a candid debate about, how far teaching science should involve possible limits of science, and whether critics of evolutionary theory have any solid scientific basis to suppose that the history of life on earth may involve such limits. 

I support the passage of the Louisiana Science Education Act, which Governor Jindal recently signed. I recognize that this is not popular with fellow secularists. There’s a lot I could say about these issues (and I do say a lot in my forthcoming book). But for now here are a few blog-worthy thoughts.

In my opinion, what the act says is relatively innocuous:

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. 

I am all for promoting critical thinking skills and logical analysis — this is what philosophers do, and I’ve encountered too many college students who are shockingly bad at it. As for open and objective discussion of scientific theories, I’m all for that too. Too often, science education consists of learning disconnected facts about the content of recieved scientific theories, facts which the students will forget soon enough anyways. Evidence suggests that students learn more when they are also taught how scientists reason, and how scientific inquiry happens. Having discussion about controversies in science will help students to see how scientists reason. 

What about focus on evolution, the origins of life, global warning, and human cloning — isn’t it clear that there’s some sort of political agenda there? First, I have to point out that that list actually doesn’t change the material content of the act; it just provides examples of the sorts of theories that could be talked about. But it’s clear that those theories are picked because they’re ones that are controversial in the public sphere in Louisiana. The fact that they’re controversial in the public sphere means that students are likely to have heard about them, and moreover, they’re likely to have heard some uninformed opinions about them. Without an act like the Science Education Act, teachers might feel compelled to side-step these controversial issues, and to avoid addressing the confused beliefs some students have, but with an act like this one, teachers can feel more emboldened to address the issues head-on. 

It’s clear that the worry from many secularists is that creationism or intelligent design will be taught as true in science class as a result of this act. Well, if that were to happen, teachers would be violating what the act says — they wouldn’t be having an open and objective discussion. But if that’s the worry, then the situation is no different than if the act hadn’t passed — we’d still have to worry about teachers violating the rules and teaching in a way that they’re not supposed to. But as long as teachers teach as they’re supposed to, then science students in Louisiana are better off as a result of this act being passed.