Archive for the 'Education' Category

May 14 2015

Why Is the Public So Wrong?

I had hoped that the advent of the internet would have a positive effect on public access to information, and perhaps it has. The problem is that it also facilitates access to misinformation. I also wonder to what extent people are availing themselves of this easy access to information (or are they just watching cat videos?).

I now frequently have the experience of being in a discussion with someone and arriving at a disagreement over a specific fact. Pre-internet we would not be able to resolve the difference, we would agree to look it up later, and usually would never do so. Now we can whip our our smartphones and within a minute or two find references to the correct fact.

Despite this there remains a disturbing gap between public perception and reality on many important issues. I discussed previously the recent survey showing significant differences between public attitudes towards certain scientific issues and the attitudes of science. The biggest difference was for the statement that it is, “safe to eat genetically modified food.” While 88% of scientists agreed with this statement, only 37% of the public did.

The gap is not limited to scientific issues, but spans the spectrum of civil issues as well. For example, 68% of Americans believe crime is worsening nationally, and 48% believe it is worsening locally, while crime has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades.

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35 responses so far

May 29 2014

Medical Information on Wikipedia

Published by under Education

Wikipedia is now the most common general reference on the internet, and the 7th most popular site overall. It is, in a way, our collective online store of human knowledge.

Wikipedia is also a wiki, which means that anyone can theoretically write and edit articles. Wikipedia has editors, however, and they manage this process, evaluating the authoritativeness and apparent motives of editors. It is not the wild west like it used to be. (We discussed this recently on the SGU – look for the interview with Tim Farley and Susan Gerbic here.)

The question remains, however – how accurate and reliable is the information on Wikipedia? There have been several comparisons of Wikipedia to traditional references, such as the Encyclopedia Brittanica, and Wikipedia compares fairly well to such sources.

How does Wikipedia do when it comes to more technical, and specifically health care, information? This is a critical question as many people use the internet and Wikipedia specifically as a source of medical information, often to guide medical decisions or self-treatment. A recent study set out to test that very question.

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15 responses so far

Sep 12 2013

The Undervaccinated and Motivated Numeracy

It will probably come as no surprise that not being vaccinated, or being undervaccinated (missing a schedule routine vaccine) is associated with a higher risk of being infected with the disease that the vaccines are meant to prevent. This is just another way of saying that vaccines work – they reduce the risk of infection.

Often anti-vaccinationists deliberately look at such data wrong, however, in order to create a false impression. They will cite data showing that the majority of the infected are vaccinated, implying that the vaccines do not work. This argument is not valid, however. If, for example, 95% of a population is vaccinated, but 2% of them are non-responders and get the illness, while 5% are unvaccinated and 20% of them get the illness, the vaccinated will outnumber the unvaccinated among those infected – even though ten times as many unvaccinated as vaccinated get sick.

This represents what researchers are now calling “motivated numeracy” – losing basic math skills when ideologically motivated.

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8 responses so far

May 17 2013

An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part IV

This is the fourth is a series of posts analyzing the claims of Don McLeroy, former chairman of the Texas School Board of Education and young Earth creationist. I recently interviewed Don on the SGU about his successful insertion into the Texas science textbook standards language requiring books to address stasis and suddenness in the fossil record and the complexity of the cell.

In parts 2 and 3 I addressed Don’s stasis and suddenness arguments. They are classic denialist fallacies – focusing on lower order details as if they call into question higher order patterns (they don’t). In this case, Don is arguing that the fact that many (not all) species display relative morphological stability in the fossil record, with episodes of (geologically) rapid speciation events, calls into question the bigger picture of the change of species over time in an exquisitely evolutionary pattern.

The former is a reflection of the tempo of evolutionary change and an artifact of the fossil record, while the latter is home-run unequivocal evidence for common descent and evolutionary change. Don has not provided any explanation for why the pattern of change we see in the fossil record presents any problems for evolutionary theory.

In this post I will address Don’ other main point, which he feels is the greatest weakness of evolutionary theory – the complexity of the cell. His premise seems to be that, if evolution were true, then evolutionary biologists should be able to provide detailed evidence for the specific evolutionary history of many biochemical pathways and cell structures. He argues that they cannot, and therefore the evidence for evolution is weak.

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29 responses so far

May 16 2013

An Interview with Don McLeroy, Part III

This week I am posting a discussion with Don McLeroy, a young Earth creationist and former chairman of the Texas Board of Education during the recent controversy over the science textbook standards. This is a follow up to an interview I did with him on the SGU.

Don has been traveling a bit this week, so our e-mail conversation has been slow, but we have had a few exchanges. For today’s post I want to simply reprint that exchange and then add a few thoughts, before I go onto new territory, which I will do in tomorrow’s post.

Here is Don’s response to my prior posts:


I do have time for one reply.

First, you keep bringing up creationism while I do not; I am only discussing the evidence for evolution–the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor as a result of unguided natural processes.

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25 responses so far

May 10 2013

Separation of Church and State

A comment on my recent post about Backdoor Creationism calls into question the premise that the US Constitution demands separation of church and state, and therefore religious beliefs cannot be taught in public schools. The comment reads:

The first amendment states that the federal government can neither (sic) or prohibit the exercise of religion. “separation of church and state” is just a propaganda term used by some to stave off religious nuts who use undue social pressures or indoctrination to push their beliefs to others.

Here’s a section of the first amendment.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

And here’s the definition of the word “respecting” from a dictionary dated 5 years after the adoption of the Bill of Rights.

RESPECT’ING, ppr. Regarding; having regard to ; relating to.

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35 responses so far

Apr 26 2013

Backdoor Creationism

Proponents of creationism have essentially been banned from the public school science classroom. A series of court decisions has created a clear precedence that doing so violates the Constitutional separation of church and state. However, no one really expected them to quietly go away. They have taken on a series of strategies to continue their efforts to teach their particular religious faith as science in the public schools.

They endlessly are seeking end-runs around the Constitution. First they tried “creation science,” and then “intelligent design,” but these were both transparently just religious faith crudely dressed up as science. Now they are still trying “teach the controversy” and “teach the strengths and weakness of evolution.” Both have had some limited success, but I predict will also eventually die a legal death.

Another strategy is to simply ignore the law and teach creationism anyway. In highly fundamentalist Christian communities there’s no one to blow the whistle, and no one to listen. A recent survey found that 13% of public schools teach creationism outright, while 60% avoid controversy by promoting neither evolution nor creationism. Only 28% teach evolution as the unifying theory of biology (as it should be taught).

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37 responses so far

Apr 19 2013

Jindal – Teach the Controversy

“Bottom line, at the end of the day, we want our kids to be exposed to the best facts. Let’s teach them about the big bang theory, let’s teach them about evolution…”

Not a bad sentiment so far. I don’t think I would have used the term, “best facts.” It’s a bit awkward, and more importantly science is not just about facts, it’s about how we know what we know, and the interaction of facts and data with hypotheses and theories.

This is not quibbling. A public figure with responsibilities toward public science education should have a thorough and nuanced understanding of science education.

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8 responses so far

Jan 28 2013

Up-Goer Five and Science Communication

Published by under Education,Skepticism

Do you think you could communicate a scientific concept to a general audience using only the 1,000 most commonly used words? A thousand words sounds like a lot, but is it? Clearly this would not allow for the use of specialized scientific jargon, which is the point. A good science communicator should be able to translate complex science into everyday language, and use accessible analogies to make those concepts understandable.

This is something I do everyday, and not just on my blog and other social media. As a physician I have to communicate sometimes complex medical information to patients and their families. To make things more challenging my patients vary from being other physicians, health care workers, scientists or academics, to lacking a high school education or even not being a native English speaker.

Communicating to the public effectively means targeting a broad range of background knowledge. An effective science communicator should be interesting to experts while being understandable to a novice. Another challenge is to make scientific concepts simple without being oversimplified.

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27 responses so far

Dec 13 2012

What is Time?

Published by under Education

One of the joys of having children is the opportunity to vicariously view the world through child-like eyes. Children are generally curious, and are free from the bias of “knowledge.” I am not trying to make ignorance into a virtue – knowledge helps us to think about things on a deeper level and to see the connections that make up the tapestry of reality. But knowledge can also be a trap that constrains how we think about things.

Children may highlight this fact by innocently asking questions that are free of assumptions we didn’t know we had. Every parent has likely faced these questions. In my opinion these moments are tremendous opportunities to engage a young mind with everything that is awesome about science and intellectualism itself.

Alan Alda seems to get this. He has been parlaying his TV and movie fame to promote science communication. He is a founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He wants scientists to explain basic concepts to the public – to children, in fact – in a way that they can understand. He gets questions from 11 year olds and then challenges scientists to explain the answer in a way that is engaging and accessible to 11 year olds, and then has 11 year old judge the answers (although referred to as “11 year olds” it seems the job of submitting questions and judging answers is open to 4-6th graders).

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33 responses so far

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