Archive for August, 2006

Tackling Evolution Challenges at Museums and Parks

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Here’s a good story that shows the fight to defend science happens in places beside the classroom and politics.

The vast majority of scientists agree that intelligent design (ID) — the belief that the complexity of life is evidence that something intelligent must have designed it — is not a scientific theory. But the rising popularity of the belief has led museums and national parks to rethink how they present information to visitors. Both groups are working to further educate staff and volunteers, and also to present clear information about why evolution is accepted among most scientists.
“The bottom line is that intelligent design is a threat to the credibility of science in our culture,” says Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “Since science ought to be in a museum, we realized that as a museum, we could do a better job of educating people about what science is, and how we know what we know.”

The mission of natural history museums is always to explain how science works so that people can understand it, “but clearly there are individuals who are tempted to conflate what science is and make it confusing,” he says. “It makes us more inspired to make it understandable.”

… the new Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is much larger, dedicated to paleontology, and filled with text and graphic displays about the fossil record. At first, Fremd says, he worried that the new displays would be too complex, but he is now pleased by how many people spend hours reading the fine print. Prior to visiting the park’s center, Fremd says that it is easy for people to think that bones in one layer of a fossil bed could have been the result of Noah’s biblical flood. But with the rigorous explanations in the museum, visitors can begin to put the data together and understand the complexity of evolution.
Part of the problem, which can lead to nonscientific ideas such as ID, is that some museums, rangers and docents are apologizing for how complex the story is, Fremd says. “But it is the very complexity that makes it interesting. Don’t apologize for making it complex.”

Interesting opinion column

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

Here’s an interesting opinion piece that ran in a Naples paper. It mentions some other article supposedly published in the same paper about an opposing view, but I couldn’t find that other piece.

Stay safe out there, folks!

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006

It turns out that even the simplest of experiments and science classroom projects can be dangerous in some way.

A few months back, the fifth-graders at Franklin’s Jefferson Elementary contracted salmonella, a nasty bacterial infection, from owl pellets, grayish, hardened clumps of regurgitated material that students dissect to figure out what the bird ate.

The packages they arrived in indicated they were sterile.

“People sincerely thought these were risk-free,” said Dr. Bela Matyas, a state disease sleuth who tracked the outbreak, which caused illness but no permanent health problems. “They thought this was no different than making a Mother’s Day present.”

But it was different. The pellets, it turned out, harbored salmonella. It was easy enough for the germs to make the leap from pellet to student, especially because the project extended over several days.

“There could easily have been a situation where a child would prod the pellet with their pencil and then put the pencil in their mouth,” Matyas said.

At an Illinois school nearly five years ago, a chemistry teacher was demonstrating how the color of a flame can indicate the presence of sodium chloride, potassium chloride, or some other salt. It is a staple of high school chemistry.

Suddenly, a fireball erupted, lunging at three students and burning them severely. It wasn’t the first time such an accident had happened.

Even material used in basic experiments has changed. In the past, when teachers wanted to demonstrate how food contains energy, they used nuts.

“But we don’t want to do that now because we have so many students who may have peanut allergies,” Decker said.

Instead, they substitute cheese puffs in the calorie-burning experiment.

“If you do that experiment, though, you’ll never want to eat a cheese puff again,” Decker said. “Because the stuff that comes out – oh my God, the grease, everything.

“But that’s science.”

Mind of the Manatee

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

Research on the manatee shows that it’s no dummy. I especially loved the part about not liking fish and so being hard to motivate. Does that make them smarter than dolphins since they can’t be bribed so easily?

The manatee, sluggish, squinty-eyed and bewhiskered, is more likely to have its rotund bulk compared to “a sweet potato,” its homely, almost fetal looks deemed “prehistoric” — terms applied by startled New Yorkers this month to a Florida manatee that made an unexpected appearance in the Hudson River.

Cleverness is unhesitatingly ascribed to the dolphin. But the manatee is not seen leaping through hoops or performing somersaults on command, and even scientists have suspected it may not be the smartest mammal in the sea. Writing in 1902, a British anatomist, Grafton Elliot Smith, groused that manatee brains — tiny in proportion to the animals’ bodies and smooth as a baby’s cheek — resembled “the brains of idiots.”

Far from being slow learners, manatees, it turns out, are as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate. They have a highly developed sense of touch, mediated by thick hairs called vibrissae that adorn not just the face, as in other mammals, but the entire body, according to the researchers’ recent work.

And where earlier scientists saw in the manatee’s brain the evidence of deficient intelligence, Dr. Reep sees evolution’s shaping of an animal perfectly adapted to its environment.

But he also suspects that rather than the manatee’s brain being unusually small for its body, the situation may be the other way around: that its body, for sound evolutionary reasons, has grown unusually large in proportion to its brain.

For now, the question of how intertwined the sensory abilities of manatees might be remains unanswered. Yet even what is known reveals a degree of complexity that argues against labeling them as sweet but dumb — peaceable simpletons.

Dr. Domning of Howard could not agree more.

“They’re too smart to jump through hoops the way those dumb dolphins do,” he said.


Monday, August 28th, 2006

FlCfS board member Pete Dunkelberg submitted this for posting here.

Creationism Now

A new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (PIGDID) provides a very good catalog of current creationist arguments. The author, Jonathan Wells, is a Discovery Institute (DI) Fellow who has dedicated his life to destroying Darwinism. The DI is throwing a party for the book, so PIGDID is as authoritative and strong as this sort of thing gets.

PIGDID is being reviewed chapter by chapter at The Panda’s Thumb. Reading the book along side the reviews will be a revelation to anyone who doesn’t know how creationism works. I can’t think of any better way for School Board members and candidates and the press to come up to speed on the subject.

Does Wells succeed in destroying evolutionary biology? Or does PIGDID turn out to show that ID creationism, despite first appearances, has virtually no scientific content and 21st century creationism amounts to propaganda against science? If Wells or the DI or any creationist authority could have established the claims in PIGDID under oath at the recent Dover trial, it would have been a resounding victory for creationism. Did they simply forget all these devastating claims, or are there other reasons why the claims were not made under oath?

Read the book along with the reviews and you will learn the answers. The review process is just starting, and chapters may not be done in the same order as they appear in the book. Chapters one and three are already done.

The review so far is really good and insightful. Be sure to check it out! I think a review of chapter 9 is now up.

A lifelong love affair

Monday, August 28th, 2006

The West Palm Beach library is offereing science seminars for kids.

West Palm Beach· The building blocks of science were laid out on the table. Baking soda, vinegar, a two-liter soda bottle, apple juice and Alka-Seltzer tablets. A half-dozen children gathered around in wide-eyed anticipation.

“Everything in your life is science,” ocean scientist Mark Fischer told them. “That makes every one of you a scientist.”

“The key is making science less intimidating for kids,” scientist Trish Fischer said. “Get them interested early so you can create a lifelong love affair with science and how the world works.”

I don’t think Pluto really cares

Friday, August 25th, 2006

I just love how newspaper stories about the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf play up the whole personification of the solar system thing. It’s as if there is some seismic shift in planet hierarchy and the planets’ feelings have been hurt. It’s just silly.

Anyway, I do like how the nature of science is highlighted in this CNN story.

Whitsett, who is the president-elect of the NSTA, emphasized that the refigured solar system can energize teaching the true meaning of science.

“It’s not a collection of facts. It’s a process. It’s a way of solving problems. As our understanding of these facts changes, then the science changes a little bit,” he said.

Science and understanding change, but this change is not so earth-shattering, he said.

“The solar system right now is exactly like it was 24 hours ago,” Whitsett pointed out. “Nothing’s changed in that time period — just the name by which we define each of these things.”

And I also like how we can possibly seize upon this story to give science education in general a boost.

Whitsett believes the change will focus attention back on science, which he thinks has been relegated to a supporting role in recent years.

“Ever since No Child Left Behind was passed, there’s been a tremendous emphasis on reading and math, and as a result, especially in elementary schools, science has taken a back seat,” he said.

“What we have is something that’s been making a lot of press. Students are going to be asking questions, and I’ve always found that the best time to teach is when kids are asking questions, ” Whitsett said. “Anything that gets kids engaged and thinking about science has got to be a good thing.”

Nation’s top young scientists

Friday, August 25th, 2006

The countdown to choosing the nation’s top young scientist has begun, as Discovery Communications announced 400 students from around the country selected as semifinalists in the 2006 Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge.

Florida’s semifinalists include Anne Moenning of Punta Gorda, a sixth-grade student at Canterbury School of Florida, and Ashley Krueger of North Port, who attends fifth grade at Cranberry Elementary School. Anne’s project was “How a New Cervical Collar Affects Healthcare Worker Acceptance,” and Ashley’s entry was “How to Remove Fingerprints from Unusual Places.”

Also see the main website at Discovery Communication.