On parables

I'm currently obsessed with my desire to cause various Floridians to be beaten with sacks of California oranges. For a sense of who I'd like to see pulped, check out Carl Hiassen's excellent survey of the situation. In between fancying citrussy punishments for people who needlessly complicate science education, I've become aware that the framing of science is yet again controversial.

Mike Dunford responds with a parable:

Suppose that you are taking a walk through the hills above a town, and you reach the foot of a dam. There's a crack in the dam, and it's getting wider. You run back down to the town, and you knock on doors, and you yell and make a fuss, and you tell everyone that the dam is breaking.

In other words, you educate and inform the public, recognizing that you are not an engineer, and fixing the dam thing will take more resources than you alone can muster.

Mike then envisions:

They thank you for the news, and go back to bed. What do you do next? Do you grab some tools and do what you can to fix the dam, or do you turn and walk away?

Strangely, a number of people (including ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet) seem to think that the role of the scientific community in those circumstances really should be to turn and walk away

Setting aside that evacuating as much of the town as possible ("walk[ing] away") isn't the worst idea available, especially if one isn't a civil engineer, Mike's claim hangs on a rather thin thread. As evidence for that rather shocking claim about his colleague, Mike quotes Matt saying: "Let's agree that the goal of the science community is to educate and inform." That, apparently, is tantamount to heading for the hills.

I like parables, I like allegories, and I like metaphor. I dislike the notion that Biblical literalism is actually a literal reading in part because it loses the literary meaning of the text, which often relies pretty heavily on parable, allegory, metaphor and other literary techniques which require the reader to interpret the words.

It's not quite as bad, but pretty embarrassing, when people use a parable in a way which directly contradicts their point. Mike's parable does just that.

In a situation like Florida, the challenge we face is that a group of seven people were appointed by Jeb Bush to oversee the state's educational system. One of them is a doctor, a few have some experience teaching, and there are some lawyers and community activists in the mix, too. No evolutionary biologists. Which is fine, given the general set of things the Board of Education does. It's a political body, they're politicians, and they get expert advice as needed.

Knowing they weren't experts in science pedagogy, they appointed a group of people – teachers, scientists, clergy, parents, and science education specialists from across the state – to draft new science standards that would reflect the best of what we've learned about teaching science in K-12. Naturally, evolution runs through the curriculum. It's a fundamental concept in modern biology, and it is only right that it be presented as such.

Naturally, this generated public outcry. Creationists of various sorts have come out of the woodwork to oppose these excellent new standards, which (unlike the standards currently on the books) define basic concepts like heat and temperature correctly. Because of the outcry, the Board is holding tons of hearings, and may redraft some passages to make them harder for teachers to interpret, without adding anything that wasn't already in the text.

What is the appropriate response here? It seems to me that job 1 is to … educate and inform the public. When creationists stand up in public meetings and complain that evolution should be taught as a theory and not as a fact, it's a good opportunity to tell the public why theories are better than facts, and to point out that the standards themselves state this point ("a scientific theory is the culmination of many scientific investigations drawing together all the current evidence [i.e. "facts"] concerning a substantial range of phenomena; thus, a scientific theory represents the most powerful explanation scientists have to offer").

It's the right time to do that because now is when people are listening. And if they don't act on your suggestions, you don't "turn and walk away," you keep trying, and try in different ways. Carl Hiassen is giving mockery a shot. The AIBS is holding out the danger to Florida's biotech economy. Nobel Prize-winner Sir Harry Kroto points out the medical importance of evolution. Speakers at public hearings have pointed out that the counties which have passed resolutions opposing the standards are also the lowest performers on state standardized tests. When the Board gets its final dose of public comment on Monday, they'll get a new set of arguments.

And the Board of Ed. is listening. Scientists can't just magically pass these standards, and they can't magically place new people on the board. Educating and informing the public is the only way to elect sensible leaders and to end this conflict. That anyone would equate that process with "turn[ing] and walk[ing] away" is truly mind-boggling.

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"It's the right time to do that because now is when people are listening. And if they don't act on your suggestions, you don't "turn and walk away," you keep trying, and try in different ways."

We should make a movie to counterpoint Stein's: We'll call it "Exasperated: Tired of Explaining Basic Biology Over and Over to People Who Don't Want to Listen"

By Jason Failes (not verified) on 19 Feb 2008 #permalink

The mental image of Florida creationists being beaten with bags of California oranges made my day. (What does that say about me?)

I found your blog after reading up on Phil Kline (not sure exactly how I got here??). I have bookmarked you as I am always looking for the right words to "keep trying and trying in different ways" to explain about science education. Would you check your Sir Harry Kroto link? Take Care.