13 August 2005

Why isn't our children learning?

I took these pictures, showing the screen of a Sega video game, at a nearby Chuck E. Cheese today. I think they definitely help answer Bush's question about education.

12 August 2005

Kansas BOE wants to lie to students - Part 2

The second entry in what is starting to look like a long series of posts on the Kansas BoE's attempt to uneducate their students comes from the same page in the standards as the item I discussed yeaterday:

c. Patterns of diversification and extinction of organisms are documented in the fossil record. Evidence also indicates that simple, bacteria-like life may have existed billions of years ago. However, in many cases the fossil record is not consistent with gradual, unbroken sequences postulated by biological evolution.
[italics denotes material added by the BoE in this revision]
There are many different ways that this statement could be considered to be objectionable. For the moment, I am going to focus on only one of them: the contrast between this statement, and the motives that the BoE claims on page iv of the Standards:

Regarding the scientific theory of biological evolution, the curriculum standards call for students to learn about the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory. These curriculum standards reflect the Board’s objective of 1) to help students understand the full range of scientific views that exist on this topic, 2) to enhance critical thinking and the understanding of the scientific method by encouraging students to study different and opposing scientific evidence, and 3) to ensure that science education in our state is “secular, neutral, and non-ideological.”
In particular, I'd like to emphasize "objective" number one: "to help students understand the full range of scientific views that exist on this topic". One has to wonder why, if that is actually one of their objectives, they decided to parrot a highly objectionable creationist claim about the fossil record while simultaneously ignoring a real scientific controversy that covers the same material.

There have, in fact, been (and are) some scientists who feel that the fossil record indicates that evolution has not been a continuous, gradual process. Instead, they feel that the paleontological evidence supports a mode of evolution that they refer to as "punctuated equilibrium", in which a species does not appear to change substantially for long periods of change. Scientists who feel that the fossil record supports punctuated equilibrium more than continuous evolution do not doubt that evolution is a real phenomenon - the differences of opinion involve the pattern and process of evolution, not whether or not biological evolution has occurred. To put it another way, in addition to those who question whether or not the fossil record is consistent with a gradual evolutionary process, there also who question whether or not evolution should be expected to always (or even normally) be a constant, gradual process - at least in geological terms.

It is difficult to understand how the members of the Kansas Board of Education could be unaware of this issue - it has even gotten attention in creationist publications. In order to simply be ignorant about the scientific debate that punctuated equilibrium sparked, the KBOE would have to be totally and completely oblivious of a topic that has been prominently discussed in both the popular and scientific literature for over two decades.

It is possible that the majority of the KBOE are gibbering idiots when it comes to any actual knowledge of evolution, of course. However, that would hardly be an admirable quality in a group of people who are actively trying, against the advice of countless real scientists, to change the way evolution is being taught. Such ignorance could, at this point in time, only be willful in nature, and is no more excusable than outright dishonesty - particularly from those in a position of such responsibility.

Personally, I doubt that the KBOE majority is ignorant. They are simply determined to paint the theory of biological evolution in as unfavorable a light as possible. They have reluctantly determined that they cannot remove evolution from their curriculum, and that they cannot add a blatantly religious alternative. So they have, instead, decided to make sure that any mention of evolution is offset by as much creationist drivel as they can sneak into the curriculum as "evidence against evolution."

"[S]ecular, neutral, and non-ideological". Sure. You have to give them credit for that much, anyway - they are every bit as honest about their motives as they are about science.

11 August 2005

Kansas BOE wants to lie to students - Part I

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Kansas Board of Education has given preliminary approval to a set of science standards that have a strong anti-evolution bias. This bias becomes apparent literally before page one of the standards, and is apparent in any number of ways. Previously, I blogged on a change in language early in the document that singles out evolution, making it appear to be more dubious than other theories listed. Today, I am going to begin to examine some of the actual standards and benchmarks most affected by the KBOE's efforts to "improve" the way evolution is taught in their state. This will be the first in a series of posts looking at the specifics, since there are way, way too many objectionable areas to cover in a single post.

I'm going to start with an addition that demonstrates true chutzpah. (For those of you not familiar with the Yiddish term, it is difficult to translate directly, but can best be described as the quality displayed by a man who craps on his neighbor's doorstep, then knocks and asks to borrow some toilet paper.) Kansas' contribution to the art of chutzpah is found on page 78 of the standards, which are available as a pdf file on the Kansas Department of Education website:

Additional Specificity: a. Biological evolution postulates an unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal.

That "additional specificity" is one of the items added to the standards by the Board of Education. Not satisfied with merely adding all sorts of completely false "evidence against evolution" to their curriculum, the KBoE has apparently decided to follow up by redefining evolution in a way that makes it explicitly atheistic. Apparently, they aren't sure if lying to their students with their bogus examples of "evidence against evolution" will be enough to convince everyone to abandon this "atheistic science", so they have decided to bear false witness about what evolution actually is, means, and implies.

An earlier version of this item, which shows up in one of the balloons on the side, actually had a little more detail:

Deleted: a. The National Association of Biology Teachers statement on teaching evolution acknowledges the unguided nature of the evolutionary process by explaining that the process “has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species.” (adopted 1995, revised May 2004).

I do have to admit that the more recent draft is an improvement over this, but only because the newer version contains one fewer lie. The National Association of Biology Teachers statement does not say that. The supporting material does contain that quote, but the usage in the KBOE draft is at least slightly - wait for it - out of context:

Natural selection is the primary mechanism for evolutionary changes and can be demonstrated both in the laboratory and in the wild. A differential survival and reproduction of some genetic variants within a population under an existing environmental state, natural selection has no discernable direction or goal, including survival of a species.

The difference between saying "evolution" and "natural selection" is subtle, but quite real.

There is a also a subtle but important difference between saying that something "has no discernable direction or goal" and saying that something is "unguided". The first statement is a description of a simple scientific fact. The second is a non-scientific, philosophical assessment, and does not necessarily follow from the first.

And this is not an innocent or innocuous mistake. The KBOE has been informed, repeatedly, that the statement in question is dangerously inaccurate:

The eight dissenting members worry that teaching evolution as suggested by the majority of the committee “will necessarily have the effect of causing students to reach an uninformed, but ‘reasoned’ decision that they, and all other human beings, are merely natural occurrences, accidents of nature that lack intrinsic purpose.” In reality, nothing in the standards suggested by the writing committee would cause students to reach such a conclusion. Ironically, only the statements suggested by the eight dissenting members would actually produce such a misconception: “1. a. Biological evolution postulates an unpredictable and unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal. (p. 14).” It is clear that the eight authors of the minority report strive so mightly to mislead students as to the meaning of evolutionary theory in order to “balance” their own distortions with a non-naturalistic (supernatural) story of origins that lies entirely outside the realm of science.
Kenneth Miller, review of Science Standards
Additional Spec. 1a. The Revisers use the NABT statement as a citation for the
following: “Biological evolution postulates an unpredictable and unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal. Actually, the NABT statement is:
“The diversity of life on earth is the outcome of biological evolution—an unpredictable and natural process of descent with modification that is affected by natural selection, mutation, genetic drift, migration and other natural biological and geological forces.”

Thus it is factually untrue that the NABT statement contains any wording concerning guidance, direction, or goal. This is disingenuous, at the least, on the part of the Revisers.
E. O. Wiley, review of Science Standards

5) (p. 14) Proposed change: “1. a. Biological evolution postulates an unpredictable and unguided natural process that has no discernable direction or goal. [see NABT Statement on teaching evolution]”
All scientific theories, including evolution, remain silent about “guidance”. Weather processes may be guided by a Deity, yet all meteorology assumes is that weather can be explained by appeals to highs and lows and cold fronts, etc. whether it is “guided” or not. Furthermore, the NABT statement does not support this proposed change, as the NABT statement mentions nothing about “guidance”.
Douglas Theobald, review of Science Standards

Those three are just a sampling from a set of reviews of the proposed standards that are available on the Kansas State Department of Education website. It is possible, if not probable, that some of the members of the KBOE have not actually read those reviews of their changes, since they admitted that they didn't read the standards, either. Ignorance and gross incompetance, however, are not exactly the best of excuses for the garbage that the KBOE is trying to teach innocent students.

The new public mantra f0r the religious, anti-evolution bigots may be "teach the controversy" or "teach the evidence against evolution", and it might sound appealing, but that's not really what they are asking. What they are asking is that they be allowed to take your tax dollars and use them to lie to your children so that their narrow-minded beliefs will not be hurt by the harsh winds of reality. They have no honor, no shame, and if they feel that their motives are pure, no morals when it comes to choosing their methods. But they are popular enough to win elections. They should scare you. They certainly scare me.

A disturbing conversation.

I had a conversation with my advisor not too long ago, about the project that I'm planning on doing for my dissertation. It didn't go quite the way I had expected.

"So, what are your thoughts on your dissertation project?"

"Well, I'd like to look at multiple loci in..." I briefly sketched out my ideas.

"That sounds like it has some potential. What do you think you should start out with?"

That was a question that I had expected, and was well prepared to answer. I spent the better part of the next five minutes making a case for starting out by collecting some sequence data for the alcohol dehydrogenase locus. I've worked with this professor for the last couple of years, and I get along with him pretty well, so I was confident that he'd see things my way and let me start work extracting DNA. I finished making my case, and sat back with a warm, comfortable feeling, totally unconcerned by the sadistic glint in his eye.

"Interesting idea, but I was thinking about having you start out with something else."

"Oh?" I said, certain that he was going to suggest that I start with a mitochondrial locus instead. "Where do you want me to start."

"With a dissertation proposal."

"I still think it might be better to start with a nuclear site instead of the mito..." I began, as my brain, paralyzed by the horror inspired by my advisor's remark, struggled to get my mouth's attention. "...what did you say???"


"You know, I was really hoping to put that off for just a little bit longer. Not too long, just until I have a better feel for the project."

"And just how long did you think that might take?"

"I don't know, but not too long," I said. "I should be able to get it done right after..."

"Right after you finish the dissertation?" (Damn, how did he know what I was thinking.)

"Maybe not quite that long..."

"It's proposal time. No kidding. Time to get it done."

I took it well, I thought.

"Ok, ok, I'll get it done." Now on to the topic that is always central to every student's mind when an assignment is mentioned; "About how long does it need to be?"

"At least thirty pages, preferably not more than about fifty, and you should have around a hundred references."

"That's fantastic. I was expecting a dissertation to be a lot bigger than that. But what I meant to ask was how long the proposal needed to be. What's so funny?"

So now I know what I'll be doing this semester. Procrastinating. Maybe if I blog enough, the problem will go away on its own...

10 August 2005

Wow! I'm not deficient!

In the not-Intelligent Design related category, it's time for a little blogging about starting grad school.

Today, I got to meet with the graduate instruction committee. Those are the folks who look at your transcripts, examine the results of a series of diagnostic exams (three four-hour exams taken in a three-day period), and try to figure out what you suck at. Then they tell you how much work, above and beyond the normal requirements, they are going to make you do to fix things.

After I finished the cell and molecular diagnostic on Thursday, I was convinced that I had bombed the exam - and when I think I suck at something, I'm usually right. A third of the exam was on the topic of signal transduction, which I know almost nothing about. Another third covered cell structure for animal cells, and I never can remember what the hell the Golgi Complex does. One out of three ain't bad as a batting average, but outside of Organic Chemistry it doesn't usually fly.

So imagine my shock when I meet with the GIC today, and am told that I passed. I still can't figure it out. Maybe they got my papers mixed up with someone else, or maybe they looked at my stuff late at night and half-drunk. I've really got no idea. But I'm not going to complain.

Now all I have to do is figure out what I want to take.

What's in a phrase?

"...the present diversity of living organisms, explained by the biological theory of evolution, or descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors."
"...the present diversity of living organisms, which the biological theory of evolution, or descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors, seeks to explain."

The two statements above are, at least superficially, very similar to each other. The phrasing isn't quite the same, and the second version is a bit more tentative than the first, but they say more or less the same thing. So why am I bringing this up?

The first statement is from an early version of the Kansas State Board of Education science standards; the second is from the draft that they just approved. And it's just one example of how the KSBOE is trying to cripple the teaching of evolution in their state.

Lest you think that I am reading too much into a small change in phrasing, look at this:
Patterns of Cumulative Change: Accumulated changes through time, some gradual and some sporadic, account for the present form and function of objects, organisms, and natural systems. The general idea is that the present arises from materials and forms of the past. An example of cumulative change is the formation of galaxies, explained by cosmological theories involving (among other theories) gravitation and the behavior of gasses, and the present diversity of living organisms, which the biological theory of evolution, or descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors, seeks to explain. The present position of the continents is explained by the theories of continental drift, which involves plate tectonic theory, fossilization, uplift and erosion. Patterns of cumulative change also help to describe the current structure of the universe. Although science proposes theories to explain changes, the actual causes of many changes are currently unknown (e.g. the origin of the universe, the origin of fundamental laws, the origin of life and the genetic code, and the origin of major body plans during the Cambrian explosion).

[all emphasis mine]

That's the full paragraph, which is found on page xiii of the draft standards (pdf at Kansas DoE). The boldfaced material highlights the changes in the final draft. The italics indicate how other theories are treated. Strangely, evolution is the only theory that "seeks to explain" - everything else is "explained by" a theory.

Some people, particularly those who are ideologically allied with the creationists on the Kansas BoE, might argue that all they are doing is trying to make it clear that the theory of evolution isn't perfect, and might not explain everything, and it's in the best interests of education to make this clear to students. They would never single out a theory for criticism just because some people object to it on religious grounds - they just want to teach the best and most up to date material possible.

Yet, strangely, this version of the standards still states that, "the formation of galaxies [is] explained by cosmological theories". According to NASA, the question of how galaxies formed is still under investigation. So why isn't this tagged with "seeks to explain"? Creationist whining notwithstanding, there is no doubt in the scientific community that the organisms we see in the world today are the all products of descent with modification. Evolution explains biodiversity. Astrophysicists are still seeking to explain how galaxies form.

The simple truth is that the Kansas BoE has singled out evolution for classroom criticism. The reason for this is clear. It makes those people who object to evolution on religious grounds very happy. Unfortunately, that is not why Kansas has a board of education and it is not why Kansas has educational standards. The BoE and the standards, in theory, are there to make sure that the students receive a good education. Unfortunately, in Kansas today that theory, unlike evolution, appears to be completely unsupported by the available evidence.

09 August 2005

Evolution in the land of Toto

In a move that surprises absolutely nobody, the Kansas State Board of Education has voted to approve a set of science standards that criticise the cornerstone of modern biology. The next step is for the standards to be sent out for review by "outside academics". I wonder who, outside of the Discovery Institute, is going to be asked for comment.

My brother thinks I'm a nerd...

My brother was recently kind enough to give The Panda's Thumb a bit of a plug, and I'm always happy to get publicity. Sadly, though, he sees my participation on PT as evidence of my nerd-dom - possibly because he doesn't get as worked up about the whole thing as I do. That is a mistake.

It's not a mistake to claim that I'm a nerd, of course. I am one. Always have been, probably always will be. I'm working on a doctorate in zoology, I have access to not one but two different labs, I can converse more intelligently about the papers in last weeks' edition of Nature than about whatever the popular TV shows are, the only current TV show I can name is Myth Busters, I build plastic models in my spare time, and I used to play D&D a lot. If you don't think that is the picture of a nerd, then you are probably worse-off than I am.

Being worried about creationism is different. Here's why:

Evolution really is the key to understanding a huge amount of biology. Sure, you can memorize biochemical pathways and anatomical features and whatnot without referring to evolutionary theory, but that's about it. Evolution provides the thread that ties together the different fields within the biological sciences, and provides us with the explanation for why living systems work the way that they do. Without evolution, the biological sciences would be nothing more than a loosely-knit collection of barely-related disciplines.

Evolution is also a field that has enormous practical implications. Why do the drug companies test on animals first? Because we share a lot of common biochemical systems with them. Why is that? Because we share ancestors with them. Why is it important to always finish taking any antibiotic that you are perscribed, even if you feel better before you run out of pills? Because bacteria can evolve drug-resistance, and not finishing the whole treatment is a good way to help bacteria in your body do just that. Why is it so hard to find a single treatment for AIDS that will work for an extended period of time? Because the AIDS virus evolves really fast. I could go on almost indefinitely, but that would serve only to prove that I am a nerd - and I already did that. Suffice it to say that evolution has both theoretical implications and practical applications.

This is all stuff that the Intelligent Design community doesn't want you to learn - at least not as "fact". They want that stuff taught as a "theory", and they want students to be informed that there are "other theories" - or, at a minimum, they want students to be taught the "evidence against evolution". Those are positions which sound nice in theory, and lend themselves to fantastic sound bites. But they are lousy science, and in practice amount to teaching lies.

Personally, I think this is an area where education is important - and not just because I work in the field of evolutionary biology and have kids. Biology and biotechnology are areas that are advancing rapidly. Many of the new discoveries and inventions have huge implications, and quickly become areas of active public policy debate. (Stem cells are a fantastic example of this.) It would be nice if the public had a good enough working knowledge of biology to be able to have an opinion based on a reasonably accurate understanding of the science involved.

So when the Commander in Chief comes out and says that students should be exposed to Intelligent Design, I do tend to get worked up a bit. I don't know if he formed his opinion as a result of his own religious beliefs, as an attempt to pander to his religious right constituents, or out of plain stupidity, and I don't much care. (I do know that he decided to ignore the opinion of his own science advisor on this topic, but that's another story.) What I do care about is doing as much as I can to make sure that we are giving our children a good public education.

Evolution and creationism might not be the kind of thing that everyone gets worked up about, but there are reasons above and beyond nerd-dom to care about that kind of thing.

07 August 2005

Soundbite of the week

In his latest article for newsweek, Brian Alters has come up with what has to be one of the best anti-Intelligent Design soundbites I've heard:
...science is perhaps the last true marketplace of ideas. After a decade in circulation, intelligent design has failed the market test. So now its backers are seeking the equivalent of a government bailout...