Adventures in Ethics and Science

Hey, guess what? A California school district has adopted a new science policy aimed at getting students to think more critically … about evolutionary theory. It is not entirely clear whether members of the Lancaster School District board of trustees recognize that the policy effectively singles out evolution for scrutiny, or whether they were duped. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard this song before.

Here’s the coverage from the Antelope Valley Press:

LANCASTER – The Lancaster School District board of trustees voted to implement a “philosophy” of science instruction that encourages students to question Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and that permits science teachers to insert critiques of the long-standing and accepted scientific theory into the curriculum.

The new statement, updated from an older document, does not include any alternative theories such as “intelligent design,” which posits a master plan or master “designer” as an explanation of how the universe began. Outside groups quickly pounced on the move as a way of sneaking creationism – or a divine explanation – in the back door of the classroom.

Alex Branning, a 22-year-old entrepreneur who owns a Web design and marketing firm based in Lancaster, first proposed the changes at a school board meeting two weeks ago.

He told trustees it was “imperative” that the school district update its stand on the teaching of evolution as soon as possible. Teaching the theory of evolution enters California’s curriculum in seventh grade.

Victory came sooner than Branning expected. All five trustees voiced support for the amended statement, which members of the administration worked with Branning to revise.

“We owe it to our students to give them a world-class science education that prepares them as scientifically literate citizens and members of the work force in the 21st century. Our proposed policy is designed to do just that,” Branning said recently when he was pursuing adoption of the new standard.

He said the policy adopted by the school board Tuesday night will give students the “thinking skills” needed to compete in today’s economy.

Trustee Mel Kleven said the new philosophy will bring “scientific reality to the classroom” and promote an “open environment.”

Critics, however, questioned the motives in Lancaster’s approach to science instruction.

“You don’t do students a favor by pretending there are controversies in the scientific community where there are none,” said Kevin Padian, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

California Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell said by telephone that schools should follow the state’s standards on evolution.

“We want information that’s based upon accepted scientific theory. We need to have that info that’s accepted by the mainstream scientific community,” he said, adding that a discussion of beliefs may be more appropriate in a philosophy class rather than a science class.

“If it’s a back door attempt at promoting creationism or ‘intelligent design’ if that’s being portrayed as gospel, that would be incorrect in a science class,” O’Connell said. “That would not be helpful.”

Branning insists he is not anti-evolution and does not endorse teaching creationism or “intelligent design.” He said the group he founded, called Integrity in Academics, includes others who, like himself, want the whole picture of the origins of life shown to students. …

[Quoting Discovery Institute Attorney Casey Luskin:] “Any time that you’re permitting criticism, this is going to be good for students. We definitely support the school district bringing objectivity to science curriculum,’ he said.

Luskin said Branning did not work directly with the Discovery Institute, but one of his associates, Larry Caldwell, has worked with the intelligent design group in the past.

Caldwell tried unsuccessfully to get a policy similar to the one Branning proposed adopted in Roseville, near Sacramento. In a statement issued on Branning’s Web site, Caldwell praised Lancaster and encouraged other districts to follow suit.

“Unfortunately, there is a kind of ‘Taliban’ in the scientific establishment that seeks to suppress any criticism of Darwinism in the classroom,” Caldwell added. “It is refreshing to see school officials willing to stand up against Darwinian fundamentalists to give their students a science education rather than a science indoctrination. After all, effective science education is all about teaching students to ask meaningful questions and follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

Howard Sundberg, Lancaster’s assistant superintendent of educational services, said the philosophy fits into California’s established framework for teaching science.

“If you’re dealing in science, you’re not dealing in a belief system,” he said.

“Sure, kids can question things, but once you start crossing the line into beliefs or religion, that’s not something that’s appropriate for science.”

Still, he believes students will benefit from probing what some see as weaknesses in the theory.

“Those questions could help a theory to be understood,” said Sundberg, who crafted the final draft of the philosophy. “I just don’t see any bad that can come out of it, as long as we stay within the domain of science.” …

[Quoting Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State:] “Evolution is the only thing they single out. It’s not real critical analysis. It’s just an attack on evolution.”

Branning wouldn’t discuss his religious beliefs, saying his faith was a private matter. He said he is on the fence about evolution and finds credible arguments on both sides.

He is not, he insists, in favor of teaching creationism or intelligent design in a science class.

“Those aren’t scientific,” he said.

And Branning does not worry about his group being infiltrated by those who would promote alternatives to evolution.

“We keep those people out,” he said. “While we appreciate the encouraging words, we have different goals.”

Branning said his next stop is the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest school system. He expects a bigger fight there, but he remains confident he’ll win.

“Thomas Edison, when he was inventing the light bulb, was told that he couldn’t do it,” Branning said, “because that was the scientific evidence of the day.”

(Bold emphasis added.)

The newly adopted policy is posted at Mr. Branning’s site (as a GIF, with teeny print). It reads:

The Science curriculum of the Lancaster School District is standards-based and reflects the fundamental belief, as stated in the 2004 State Science Framework, “that all students can acquire the science knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the world that awaits them.” To provide students with a high degree of science literacy, the following expectations should be met:

The goal of science education is to encourage inquiry, investigation, and understanding.

The domain of the natural sciences is the natural world. Science is limited by its tools — observable facts and testable hypotheses.

The character of science is open to inquiry. The curriculum promotes student understanding of how we come to know what we know and how we test and revise our thinking.

To be fully informed citizens, students do not have to accept everything taught in the natural science curriculum, but they should understand the major strands of scientific thought, including its methods, facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws.

Students should learn that science never commits itself irrevocably to any fact, hypothesis, or theory, no matter how firmly it appears to be established. Evolution, then, should be taught as theory, as opposed to unalterable fact. Discussions that question the theory may be appropriate as long as they do not stray from the current criteria of scientific fact, hypothesis, and theory. Science instruction must respect the private beliefs of students, but discussion in this regard should not be part of the science curriculum.

Students are given opportunities to construct the important ideas of science, which are then developed in depth, through inquiry and investigation.

The three basic scientific fields of study — earth, life, and physical sciences — are taught and connections among them developed.

Science is presented with its applications in technology and its implications for society.

Science is presented in connection with the students’ own experiences and interests, frequently using hands-on experiences that are integral to the instructional sequence.

Instructional strategies and materials allow several levels and pathways of access so that all students can experience both challenge and success.

Textbooks are the major, but not sole, source of the curriculum; everyday materials and laboratory equipment, video and software, as well as other printed materials such as reference books and periodicals provide a substantial part of the student experience.

Assessment programs should be aligned with the standards-based instructional program. Student performance and investigation play the same central role in assessment that they do in instruction.

Let’s look at this “science philosophy” first and then double back to the Antelope Valley Press story.

There are many parts of this policy that seem just right. Science is concerned with the natural world and, as such, it does rely on testable hypotheses and observable facts to explain, predict, and manipulate. (As Jason Rosenhouse explains quite well, this is why calls to broaden science to include supernatural causes is a misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise.) Some might read the claim that “science is limited by its tools” as unfairly anti-science, but it seems most reasonable to interpret this as saying that science has a certain explanatory and predictive scope — science is charged with explaining, predicting, and manipulating stuff in the natural world, and with basing those explanations, predictions, and manipulations on empirical data from that world. Supernatural stuff isn’t part of science’s purview.

It is very important that science students understand the process and methodology in the building of scientific knowledge, especially how hypotheses are tested and how theories are revised. (It goes without saying that students ought to learn, as part of this, that evidence aginst one theory does not necessarily count as evidence for a competing theory. Students ought to learn as well that no scientific theory can (or should) explain everything.)

And, getting students involved with investigation makes learning science more vivid — in the best cases, more like doing science.

Critical thinking, of course, is central to what scientists are up to. Critical thinking is something students ought to learn. So, why restrict the critical thinking to evolution? Why does this policy single out evolution as the only piece of science that ought to be “taught as theory, as opposed to unalterable fact”? Surely critical thinking, the tentativeness of conclusions, and all that, are just as important to the physical sciences as to the natural sciences. Why not call for a critical examination of theories of chemical bonding, or kinematics, or the laws of thermodynamics?

If the point is really to emphasize the thoroughgoing importance of critical thinking to the project of science, then every piece of theoretical machinery the science student encounters ought to be subject to such scrutiny. Otherwise, it might seem to the students that the one theory singled out for critical examination (evolutionary theory) is somehow more problematic — either less well supported by evidence, or less explantory, or less predictive. It is not the view of the scientists who work with evolutionary theory that it’s problematic in these ways, so conveying this impression to students gives them a mistaken view about what is required of our best scientific theories.

So, are we down with critical thinking or aren’t we? If we are, then evolution should just be one theory among the many that scientists judge useful which students are asked to examine critically. (No time for such extensive critical examination of so many theories? Well, give all the students a double-period of science, then! After all, learning about how science works is essential to their well-being as citizens of the modern world.)

One other little point: what exactly is meant by the assertion that “[s]cience instruction must respect the private beliefs of students”? Certainly there are some beliefs that are outside of the scope of a science class (like the nature of the divine, or whether your mom loves you), while there are others that ought to be changed by science education. For example, if I believed that our best explanation for table salt dissolving in water is that someone has hexed the salt, my chemistry teacher is well within her rights to try to change this belief. How she’ll try to change it is by showing me what our theories say about crystal structure, bonding, and solutions, how the observables fit in the framework of the theory, and why something like hexing the salt fails to fit the framework in the theory in the right way to be explanatory.

I’d be a lot happier with the “private beliefs” part of the policy if it made clear that the point of science education is to give students knowledge of what our best scientific theories explain and predict, and of how these explanations and predictions fit with the available empirical evidence. One can certainly believe that the earth is thousands of years old, or that all the species now in existence appeared on the earth simultaneously in an act of divine creation, but science teachers are not responsible for protecting a student’s private belief that the empirical evidence must all support these other beliefs.

After all, one of the things that happens when one starts engaging in critical thinking is that one becomes aware of contradictory beliefs one has. Awareness of the contradiction doesn’t tell you which belief you ought to keep and which you ought to lose. But no teacher ought to be required to protect a student from bumping up against these contradictions. The theories that scientists find most useful and productive are what they are. It doesn’t mean that the student (or the scientist) must accept them as the absolute truth about the world. But, to deny that the theories are useful, productive, or well-supported just to avoid uncomfortable contradictions in one’s set of beliefs about the world is to misrepresent science. It’s not critical thinking so much as intellectual dishonesty.

Looking at the website for “Integrity in Academics,” Alex Branning’s organization that lobbied the Lancaster school district and now has plans to move on to Los Angeles, we find:

The sole purpose of the organization is to broaden the scientific education of our students to include scientific evidence that poses challenges to Darwin’s evolutionary theory, such as the Cambrian Explosion, along with scientific evidence that supports Darwin’s theory.

We owe it to our students to give them a “world class” science education that prepares them as scientifically-literate citizens and members of the work force in the Twenty-First Century. And our proposed policies are designed to do just that.

I ask again: if critical thinking is the goal, why is evolutionary theory the only target? Why are the physical sciences completely ignored? And why is it “imperative” that the teaching of evolution (but no other piece of the science curriculum) be updated at once? Will students be ill-equipped to take on the modern challenges of a career in Web design and marketing if evolutionary theory doesn’t get a thorough examination? What kind of work force does Mr. Branning envision in which this piece of scientific theory is the one where students must learn about potential weaknesses?

If, as Casey Luskin claims, “Any time that you’re permitting criticism, this is going to be good for students,” why stop at the science curriculum? Why not expand this to social studies (with critical examination of alternate histories of U.S. history, or of recent U.S. foreign policy)? Why not expand it to literature class (looking at literary sources of various “sacred texts”)? Why not math class (Euclidean vs. non-Euclidean geometry cage match!)?

If the point is to foster critical thinking skills, clearly the students will need more practice than they would get by restricting the critical thinking practice to evolutionary theory.

(Mad props to Dr. X for bringing this story to my attention and for forwarding the relevant links.)

Comments

  1. #1 MTW
    March 26, 2006

    Why not go whole hog with this critical thinking bit. I wonder if they would assent to “critical analysis” of Biblical texts, as historical literature rather then divine revelation. I doubt it. BAH!

  2. #2 eric
    March 26, 2006

    “If the point is to foster critical thinking skills, clearly the students will need more practice than they would get by restricting the critical thinking practice to evolutionary theory.”

    But, of course, restricting it only to evolutionary theory is the only real way of advanging Mr. Branning’s creationist agenda. Oops!

  3. #3 Ick of the East
    March 26, 2006

    Ah yes, the Taliban scientists.

    Because Taliban Afghanistan was such a haven for sceince and a place where evolutionary theory, and not fundamentalist creationism, was the accepted paradigm.

    How do the heads of these people not implode?

  4. #4 Unlearned Hand
    March 26, 2006

    ID’ers are neither bound by the scientific method nor Rule 11 of Federal Civil Procedure.

    (b) Representations to Court.

    By presenting to the court (whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating) a pleading, written motion, or other paper, an attorney or unrepresented party is certifying that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances,–

    (1) it is not being presented for any improper purpose, such as to harass or to cause unnecessary delay or needless increase in the cost of litigation;

    (2) the claims, defenses, and other legal contentions therein are warranted by existing law or by a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law;

    (3) the allegations and other factual contentions have evidentiary support or, if specifically so identified, are likely to have evidentiary support after a reasonable opportunity for further investigation or discovery; and

    (4) the denials of factual contentions are warranted on the evidence or, if specifically so identified, are reasonably based on a lack of information or belief.

    So even the new order of sophists can’t pull such nonsense and expect to get away with it.

    Why does Rule 11 exist? So society doesn’t waste its time in dispensing with balderdash.

    Is there a principled reason to distinguish scientific arguments?

  5. #5 Thomas Winwood
    March 27, 2006

    Would the sensible option not be to throw out this outmoded “separation of church and state” which results in the ridiculous absence of any religious classes in American schools and simply stipulate “Congress shall make no law forbidding the teaching in Religion classes of any one religion exclusively”?