Jan 19 2009

Louisiana, We Have a Problem

In my recent post on the battle between science and creationism, I noted that the current strategy of the intelligent design (ID)/creationism movement is to push for academic freedom. They don’t really care about academic freedom, they just want to erode academic quality standards so as create a back door through which they can squeeze their religious beliefs into science classrooms. This strategy is playing out in Louisiana.

Last year Louisiana governor Bobby Jindahl signed into law an academic freedom bill that was part of this strategy. Now, just last week, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education passed the Louisiana Science Education Ac. Casey Luskin, one of the worst apologists for anti-science over at the ID “think tank”, the Discovery Institute, characterized this bill as a “victory for Louisiana students and teachers.”  If Luskin in happy with this bill, we should be very worried.I don’t think anyone is actually fooled by what is going on. Just about every article I read about the topic characterized the bill as a “thinly veiled” attempt to get creationism into public schools. The bill ostensibly is designed to allow school teachers to use outside material to teach controversial topics in science class. The bill initially contained language specifically banning the teaching of ID or the teaching of religious belief as science. However, advocates of the law pressured the school board to remove these protections, and the law was passed on January 11th without them.

Of, the fallacy of the academic freedom justification for such education policy is that it deliberately confuses issues of quality standards with those of freedom. The reason for having a curriculum and approved teaching materials is so that a minimum standard of quality can be maintained. ID proponents attempt to justify the erosion of educational standards with two arguments – that the current standards are biased and they would rather have no standards than biased standards, and that teaching controversial ideas will improve critical thinking in students.

The first claim is simply a fabrication, and part of their overall strategy. ID proponents are attempting to characterize the methodological naturalism on which modern science is based as biased against them, because it does not allow them to say “and then a miracle happened” whenever it is convenient for them. They don’t want to play by the rules of science because they cannot succeed by those rules. They want to introduce theories, such as ID, that do not meet the minimum criteria for being scientific – specifically that a scientific theory must be testable.  So they whine that the rules are unfair, and have developed a great deal of propaganda designed to mislead the public about how science works.

It really does come down to that – science has discovered certain things about the world that doe not accord with their ideology. Therefore they seek to twist the process of science to their ends, even if that destroys the institutions of science altogether. When you change the rules of science, it isn’t science anymore.

The second argument – that children will learn critical thinking by hearing controversial issues, is a more complex question. I agree with this partly in theory, with some caveats. My personal experience is that I learned a great deal about science and critical thinking when I was high-school age by learning about and debunking creationism. This was almost entirely on my own time and driven by my personal interest. As a skeptic, I definitely believe that critical thinking is sharpened by learning about pseudoscience, and specifically how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience.

Also – I do not agree with teaching students a sanitized version of science. All science is controversy, to an extent. Students should be taught the messy process of science, with all it’s uncertainty and missteps.

But doing this well is tricky, and here come the caveats. Teaching science (or any topic) also has to be age-appropriate. Grade school students are taught, as hey should be, a very simplified version of science and the findings of science. They should be pushed to the edge of their understanding, always peering at the next level of depth, but they need to be given material they can understand. For example, recently my 9 year-old daughter was taught in her science class that there are three states of matter. Actually, there are many more than that (5-8 or more, depending on what you count). I don’t think my daughter needed to hear about Bose-Einstein condensates, however. To test the waters I did tell her that there were more states of matter, and specifically mentioned plasma. It seemed to confuse her a bit, as she wanted to concentrate on learning the material presented in class. But I do think that perhaps it would be better to teach students at that level that there are three main (or classical) states of matter, but there are other more exotic states that they can learn about when they are older. That way they can focus on an appropriate level of detail, but they have a whiff that there is deeper knowledge to be had also.

The point of this tangent is that we have to be thoughtful in deciding how to present scientific material to students to optimize learning. They have to master the basics first, and then go deeper as their understanding matures. Part of this is exposing them to more controversy and uncertainty. ID proponents, howver, are not trying to optimize science education. They are trying to confuse students by creating uncertainty even where it does not exist.

Further, the context in which controveries are presented is very important. Creationism should not be presented to students as a viable scientific alternative to evolution. It isn’t, and therefore any such presentation will confuse students about the nature of science. However, at the high-school level it would be appropriate to teach students (and this is already done to some extent) about false ideas that were discarded in the past, and even modern pseudosciences and why they are not science. I don’t mind teaching students about creationism if it is used as an example of pseudoscience. But that is not the same thing as teaching them creationism as science.

And of course this abstract discussion about how science is best taught needs to be put in to the real world context of the creationism movement. In a perfect world perhaps we could be a bit more liberal with the standards. However, we live in a society with dedicated, active, and well-funded anti-scientific groups looking to exploit any opening to weaken science education and indocrinate students. Even though teaching about creationism may be a good learning experience for some student, I don’t trust every school district and every science teacher to respect the subtle distinction. In fact it is certain that such wiggle-room would be used by some to teach creationism as science.

That is what the academic freedom strategy is all about. Creationists and ID proponents (aka Cdesign proponentsists) are trying to find the most reasonable-sounding and legally viable arguments they can to crack open the door to the public schools – and then shove and much of their propaganda and anti-science through that crack as they can.

The DiscoTute, for example, has published a book called Explore Evolution. It is their alternative text chock full of nonsense and distortions. That book is a tangible manifestation of exactly what they want to shove through the cracks. We can now look for it to show up in Louisiana science classrooms.

The battle continues.

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