Saturday, February 18, 2006


Statements on teaching science

I've recently begun looking into the educational standards of Utah and California. I've actually been really impressed with what I've found so far. Utah first:

Utah State Board of Education Position Statement on Teaching Evolution

Science is a distinctive way of understanding the natural world. Science seeks to increase our understanding through empirical evidence. As a way of knowing, science assumes that anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. By the very nature of scientific inquiry, there are infinite possibilities for further refinement of current knowledge and understanding.

Understanding may be derived from sources and perspectives other than science such as historical and logical analyses, art, religion and philosophy. These sources rely upon other ways of knowing, such as emotion and faith. While these ways of understanding and creating meaning are important to individuals and society, they are not amenable to scientific investigation and thus not appropriate for inclusion in the science curriculum. Science relies nearly exclusively on observation and empirical evidence. Since progress in the modern world is tied so closely to this way of knowing, scientific literacy is essential for a society to be competitively engaged in a global economy.

Well done Utah! I've noticed that some people regard calling something "unscientific" as an insult. "Unscientific" doesn't mean worthless, it just means that something is not science. "Scientific" is just an adjective. Science is limited to using natural means to explore the natural world, and in fact it is a remarkably successful way to explore the natural world. It's an approach that I find so worthwhile that I decided to make a career out of it. The supernatural is outside the realm of science because the supernatural is outside the natural world. Miracles for example are outside the realm of science. Religion is largely outside the realm of science too, or at least it should be. Having a personal relationship with God, which I think is one of the basic Christian beliefs, is also unscientific, but that doesn't mean it's not true. It's just not subject to scientific investigation. This is one of the reasons I think creationism is generally bad for the Christian community (or any religious community, actually). One of the tenets of organizations like Answers in Genesis of the Institute for Creation Research is basically that Christianity is true because there is scientific evidence for a young earth and a global flood. Now the claims they make are subject to scientific investigation, and they don't really stand up. Therefore, they are a very poor foundation for a relationship with God.

Evolution in the broadest sense can be defined as the idea that the universe has a history and has changed over time. Observation of the galaxies, stars, planet Earth, and life on Earth clearly demonstrates that significant changes have occurred. There is abundant and consistent evidence from astronomy, physics, biochemistry, geochronology, geology, biology, anthropology, and other sciences that evolution has taken place. This evidence is found in widely divergent areas, from the geologic fossil record to DNA analysis.

I've got mixed feelings about this paragraph. Sure, if you read through the literature about cosmic and geologic history you'll see the word "evolution" used, but that just means change (which afterall, is one of the definitions of evolution). The statement from the BoE kind of says that, but I don't really like their wording. There really isn't a overarching theory of evolution that covers everything from cosmology to biology (this sounds too much like Kent Hovind's caricature of evolution for my liking). Evolution refers only to the origin of biological diversity (not the origin of life, not the origin of the earth, and not the origin of the universe – all of those are separate topics). The reason this annoys me so much is that it leads to statements like "Amphibians couldn't have evolved from fish because we don't know how life first originated." Evolution and abiogenesis (the origin of life) are two separate, but certainly related, fields. Here's an example. Let's say I'm interested in the history of my family in Utah (which would cover the last 150 years or so). If someone were to come to me and say that my family couldn't have moved to Utah from England in the 19th century because we don't understand how Homo sapiens are related to Australopithecines, I’d think their argument was pretty flawed. The study of Australopithecines and their relationship to Homo sapiens is certainly interesting, and it's broadly similar to me researching the history of my family in Utah, but they're definitely not the same thing. If you wanted to refute my claim that my family moved to Utah from England you'd have to prove the records that were kept, etc., were false. Trying to do anything else would be trying to dodge the evidence. Similarly if you want to refute the idea that amphibians evolved from fish, you've got to directly address the evidence (transitional fossils like Icthyostega and Acanthostega, etc.). Anything else is just a distraction.

There is little or no debate among credible scientists about whether evolution has taken place. However, since our understanding is still incomplete, there is considerable and productive debate about processes of evolution. Research questions remain, and scientists often disagree about their explanations, as they should. The nature of science encourages ongoing and meaningful investigation of all assertions made by science. Scientific conclusions are tested by experiment and observation as all scientific theories are subject to continued evaluation.

While some describe the principle of evolution as “just a theory,” the scientific definition
of a theory is far more rigorous than may be commonly understood. In science, a theory
is a systematic explanation of observed phenomena. It must be consistent with all natural
laws and withstand the scrutiny and inquiry of the scientific community. The National Academy of Sciences has stated, "Evolution is one of the strongest and most useful scientific theories we have." As a fundamental scientific concept, evolution is a necessary part of science classroom instruction, and it will continue to be taught and progressively refined as a key scientific principle.

No complaints there. I am very glad that they point out the difference between the common and the scientific usage of the word "theory". That's very important, and it needs to be reinforced.

Teachers should be aware that students bring with them a set of beliefs. Teachers and students should respect and be nonjudgmental about students' beliefs, and teachers should help students understand that science is an essential way of knowing. Teachers should encourage students to discuss any seeming conflicts with their parents or religious leaders. Science teachers should make available to interested parents their planned instruction and the context for that instruction.

Again, I have no complaints here. People certainly have the right to reject findings that they think are incompatible with their religion. I think they're wrong, and I think the foundations of their religion aren't very solid, but I'm sure they think the same about me. When I teach about geology I'm not motivated by a desire to make people abandon their beliefs. If someone asks, I'll certainly tell them why I think Young Earth Creationism fails scientifically, and why I don't think that YEC is a very accurate description of the natural world. I will also tell them that I think religion should be outside the realm of science. What I say may conflict with their religious views, but I don't think that's an acceptable reason to avoid teaching a subject. Christian Scientists taking a health class for example, should be expected to understand surgery, antibiotics, etc., even though those practices conflict with their religious beliefs. They don't have the right to insist that health not be taught, or that healing prayer be taught 50/50 whenever health is taught. That's also true for creationism.

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