Archive for August, 2008

Science on the national political stage

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Just some brief notes about science in the presidential campaign here. Barack Obama responded to 14 science-related questions posed by ScienceDebate 2008. Question 4 is about science education. Here is his response:

4. Education.  A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th.  What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

All American citizens need high quality STEM education that inspires them to know more about the world around them, engages them in exploring challenging questions, and involves them in high quality intellectual work. STEM education is no longer only for those pursuing STEM careers; it should enable all citizens to solve problems, collaborate, weigh evidence, and communicate ideas. I will work to ensure that all Americans, including those in traditionally underrepresented groups, have the knowledge and skills they need to engage in society, innovate in our world, and compete in the global economy.

I will support research to understand the strategies and mechanisms that bring lasting improvements to STEM education and ensure that promising practices are widely shared. This includes encouraging the development of cutting edge STEM instructional materials and technologies, and working with educators to ensure that assessments measure the range of knowledge and skills needed for the 21st Century. I will bring coherency to STEM education by increasing coordination of federal STEM education programs and facilitating cooperation among state efforts. I recently introduced the “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008” that would establish a STEM Education Committee within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to coordinate the efforts of federal agencies engaged in STEM education, consolidate the STEM education initiatives that exist within the Department of Education under the direction of an Office of STEM Education, and create a State Consortium for STEM Education. These reforms will strengthen interagency coordination at the federal level, encourage collaboration on common content standards and assessments for STEM education at the state and local levels, and provide a mechanism for sharing the latest innovations and practices in STEM education with educators. I also recently sponsored an amendment, which became law, to the America Competes Act that established a competitive state grant program to support summer learning opportunities with curricula that emphasize mathematics and problem solving.

My education plan is built on the recognition that teachers play a critical role in student learning and achievement. My administration will work closely with states and local communities to ensure that we recruit math and science graduates to the teaching profession. Through Teacher Service Scholarships, a Teacher Residency Program, and Career Ladders, I will transform the teaching profession from one that has too many underpaid and insufficiently qualified teachers to one that attracts the best STEM teaching talent for our schools.

We cannot strengthen STEM education without addressing the broader challenges of improving American education and other priority issues. In addition to a focus on high quality teachers, my comprehensive plan addresses the needs of our most at-risk children, focuses on strong school leaders, and enlists parent and community support. My proposals for a comprehensive “zero to five” program will ensure that children enter school ready to learn. And when they finish school, I will make sure that through the new $4,000 American Opportunity Tax Credit, they will have access to affordable higher education that will provide them with the science fluency they need to be leaders in STEM fields and across broad sectors of our society.

John McCain has yet to provide his answers. However, his selection of running mate has raised some serious concerns when it comes to science education.

The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor’s race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state’s public classrooms.

Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night’s televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, ‘Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.’

We did it!!

Friday, August 29th, 2008

Attention Florida science nuts: We did it!

Back on August 7, Florida Citizens for Science (FCS) launched a fundraising campaign focused on helping science education here in the Sunshine State. We worked through the DonorsChoose website where teachers propose classroom projects or equipment needs they can’t afford on their own or through the school system. FCS originally chose five science education projects proposed by Florida teachers and challenged you to make those wishes reality. The initial challenge had a target of raising $600 in donations and then FCS would match that amount, bringing the total to $1,200. Well, that was the original plan. Three weeks into the month-long challenge you donated much more than $600; you rocketed all the way to $912.

Since FCS still needed to add its promised $600 to the pot we added a sixth teacher project to our challenge. Today, FCS used that pledged $600 to push the challenge over the finish line a week early. All of our projects are now fully funded. Congratulations!

Here is what we did to help Florida science education:

  • Safety goggles are going to Claude Pepper Elem School, Miami.
  • Preserved animal specimens for biology “show and tell” are going to Edgewater High School, Orlando.
  • A set of magnets is going to Royal Palm Charter School, Palm Bay.
  • Five microscopes are going to Quail Hollow Elementary School, Wesley Chapel.
  • Impact cars, a projectile launcher and other related lab equipment is going to Avon Park.
  • A stereo microscope is going to Country Oaks Elementary School, Labelle.

We’re not done, though. FCS still has $116 left to spend of its pledged $600. So, you have one last homework assignment. Find one more project on the DonorsChoose website that we can use the last of our money on. I would prefer that we fully fund a project if one can be found that we can afford. Offer your picks in the comments here.

I hope you feel good about what we’ve done. I know I do!

Response to that Apple guy

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Sorry, I have been real busy lately and so haven’t had much chance for posting here. While I’m getting things back to normal, here’s a response from Chad Miller to the horrible little anti-evolution opinion piece I mentioned a little while ago.

———————

Hi Doug. I’m sure I’m not going to convince you of much, but I can’t bear to see someone argue publicly by lack of personal credulity.

First, the title is awfully anthropocentric. “We”, humans, did. As did oak trees. And mold.

But, if you mean “we”, living stuff, then no — most of everything alive today (“most” measured by all of by-count and by-volume and by-weight) are still single-cell organisms. In fact, as an example, inside your body you have about ten times the number of single-cell “germ” organisms as you have human cells. Most are in your gut area. They are of course miniature Chihuaua-sized, relative to the plump house-sized human cells.

First of all, it’s amazing that we have taste buds and actually enjoy food so much. Second of all, it’s amazing that our bodies take that food and use it for energy. In addition to the pleasure, food literally keeps us alive.

Agreed it’s great. Some large people-like organisms don’t taste the way we do. Consider cats — they can’t taste sweet or sour, but they can taste fat-like stuff. (We call this taste “umami”, and humans have it too. Thus our like for meats and cheeses and foods with MSG artificially added.) If cats were hominid and didn’t have the tools to hunt and could live off of apples (ha), then eventually the ones who mutated the equipment to discern the difference between rotten apples (which might kill you 1% of the time) and fresh apples (always good), would live longer and raise more kittens that share their genetic “defect” of taste.

Humans who can’t tell the difference between poison and sustinance are likely to die from eating the wrong thing. Those who can, are far more likely to pass on their genes to lots of copies of themselves.

And you’re trying to tell me that just sort of happened randomly, a really lucky accident? Think of the odds of that happening. A mouth develops on its own? A mouth that eats and tastes? And it just so happens that it eats things that energize the body? The odds are so staggering that it’s actually impossible. It is impossible that such a thing happened without a creator.

There are about a dozen discrete factors, here, and each of them gives benefit, and all of them can occur naturally.

Mutations happen all the time. The biggest misunderstanding creationists have is thinking that mutations are goal-driven. They’re not. Every new offspring has a chance of having some birth defect. Almost all of them are fatal, and the offspring dies in development in the womb and is miscarried. For the ones that survive birth, almost all of them are crippled in some way. Think of cleft palates, or albinoism, or deafness, or spina bifida, … I could go on for pages.

There are plenty of ways to be alive, but *vastly more* ways to be dead.

Almost everything that mutates is dead. In the one-in-several-million where a mutation makes the offspring better able to cope with the environment, be healthier, and have more children, then that is an evolutionary step. Some mutations don’t affect anything at all, and we just carry them around; a good example in homo sapiens is attached earlobes. Your genetics informed your children’s earlobes and whether they are attached to the neck, or the dangle from the ear.

There is no goal in mutation. Every so often, extremely rarely, something is useful, and offspring live better because of it.

Eating is very old. Eating is older than bones are. Eating predates multicellular organisms, depending on your definition of “eating”.

When I think about such things, all I can do is look up and marvel at our great God.

Now try this. Try slipping the Adam and Eve story in on your science teacher. They will likely laugh you right out of the building. But take a good, hard look at what they believe instead.

Let’s say by some miracle we did evolve from a single cell organism. If so, how did they reproduce? Oh, they just divided, you say. They just multiplied. Oh. Okay. Then let me ask you this. If that system worked so well, why did it switch over to requiring two people to procreate?

Why did it switch? Oh, that’s easy. It didn’t — you’re simply wrong about that.

Sexuality isn’t even exclusively multicellular. The oft-cited flagellate, supposedly irreducably complex, has a previous history of being used to inject other germs with its DNA. That counts as sex, I’d say.

Your continued use of “people” is endearingly and naïvely anthropocentric. Most of the critters in the world still reproduce asexually. It works just fine.

If you had an efficient system of procreating by simply multiplying yourself, why would it ever evolve into requiring two organisms? And how did it make that leap?

Your underlying question is: Why evolve sex? The answer is that it makes mutations happen much more often, and that makes those critters better able to thrive and adapt, and grow to the size that Mr Apple can see them with his eyes and incorrectly conclude that they’re the only thing around.

The snails in your backyard are probably hemaphroditic, where two will fertilize each other or one will win a fight an literally emasculate the other and live to spread its genes around even more.

The world is bigger and stranger than your old-asexual -vs- new-sexual taxonomy can handle. Sorry.

I’m telling you, asking these questions is like taking a machine gun to a football. It rips it full of holes and lets all the air out.

Oh, but throw in millions of years. That’s our answer to everything. Gee, that’s a really long time. I guess anything could happen if you give it a million years.

Or more. We have something like 3 thousand of those millions of years to use. And life isn’t linear. Most of these bits of progress, like the eye in reptiles, squids, fish — happened in parallel. There’s no need to squander any of those three thousand millions.

Now let’s go back to that Adam and Eve story. What an incredible and beautiful thing, this idea of a man and a woman. Without them both, there is no procreation.

Indeed, it’s a nice story. Except, who was the next generation? Let’s just ignore the implication of incest or spouses from civizilations who magically already exist over the horizon, eh?

One can’t produce babies without the other. And it’s not some scientific duty. The whole man/woman thing is an amazing cocktail of excitement and thrills. Take a look at the internet. What websites dominate? Things having to do with men and women, everything from dating sites to sex sites to relationship advice, and on and on. I’m not saying it’s all good. I’m just saying it dominates the internet, showing how powerful the man/woman thing is.

Indeed. Sex is really important to passing on one’s genes. Everyone who is genetically predisposed to be ambivalent about sex, doesn’t have kids and pass on those genes that make you think sex is boring. Score one for evolution, in making us want to make copies of ourselves.

Some will say that “evolution” gave us that great desire for one another in order to propagate the species. Oh really? Which came first, the desire or the mechanical ability to procreate together? You know what? It better have happened all on the same day! Otherwise how would it have happened at all?

Oh, no. Procreation came first. By far. Mold doesn’t have desires. It still procreates.

I’m telling you, it makes no sense. It is impossible. It couldn’t have slowly evolved from one thing to another. It all had to happen at once, all of a sudden. The mechanics. The ability. The desire. The pleasure. The results.

I know many otherwise intelligent people scoff at the idea of Adam and Eve, but to me it makes perfect sense. All of the billions of wonderful details that had to be in place at the same time to make the whole man/woman thing work. Again, I just look up toward heaven and say, “God, You are awesome!”

If you think Adam and Eve story, both accounts which happen to contradict each other, makes perfect sense, then your idea of sense is seriously deranged.

Now let me ask you, have you ever studied about the earth’s “magnetosphere”? It’s a magnetic shield around the planet that protects the earth from the sun. Now I’m no sun expert. I just saw this on a DVD from the library. But it pointed out how powerful the sun is (remember, they say at the core it’s like 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.) It’s so powerful that it would hammer the earth – if it weren’t for that magnetic shield.

(Did they really use Fahrenheit instead of Celcius or Kelvin? Must have been dumbed down a bit, eh?)

Now, are you going to try to tell me that we have evolution to thank for that shield?

No. It would be stupid to say that.

And evolution to thank for the sun?

No.

And, praise evolution, it all happened at once, because the sun sustains life on this planet, yet at the same time we must be shielded from the full affect of the sun.

Explain the “yet” in that sentence? You left a leg off your straw man.

It all had to happen at exactly the same time. What are the odds of it happening by chance? It’s impossible!

I find it amusing that you feint at odds and then say “impossible” instead of “improbable”.

In any case, congratulations — your “sun/magnetosphere” straw man is dead. May I suggest tilting at windmills as a hobby?

There is only one way that we could have the infinite complexity of life we enjoy on planet Earth, with all these things clicking along simultaneously. It could not possibly have happened by chance, and it could not have evolved from some simple organism. It had to be designed and created and kicked off at the same time.

So, yes, many people scoff at the story in Genesis and the whole idea of God creating the world and Adam and Eve. But all I can say is, compared to evolving from a primordial soup, the creation idea makes much better sense to me.

So of course your conclusions are wrong.

I hope this helps.

–chad

FCS in the New York Times

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Florida Citizens for Science board member David Campbell has been working with New York Times reporter Amy Harmon on a story of hers for quite some time now. Finally, the fruit of the labor is out there for all to see: A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash.

ORANGE PARK, Fla. — David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

But at the inaugural meeting of the Florida Citizens for Science, which he co-founded in 2005, he vented his frustration. “The kids are getting hurt,” Mr. Campbell told teachers and parents. “We need to do something.”

The last question on the test Mr. Campbell passed out a week later asked students to explain two forms of evidence supporting evolutionary change and natural selection.

“I refuse to answer,” Bryce wrote. “I don’t believe in this.”

It wasn’t just Bryce. Many of the students, Mr. Campbell sensed, were not grasping the basic principles of biological evolution. If he forced them to look at themselves in the evolutionary mirror, he risked alienating them entirely.

The discovery that a copy of “Evolution Exposed,” published by the creationist organization Answers in Genesis, was circulating among the class did not raise his flagging spirits. The book lists each reference to evolution in the biology textbook Mr. Campbell uses and offers an explanation for why it is wrong.

When the bell rang, he knew that he had not convinced Bryce, and perhaps many of the others. But that week, he gave the students an opportunity to answer the questions they had missed on the last test. Grading Bryce’s paper later in the quiet of his empty classroom, he saw that this time, the question that asked for evidence of evolutionary change had been answered.

Those snippets don’t do the five-internet-pages story justice. Go and read it yourself. It’s a revealing look at the individual and personal aspect of the science/anti-science battle. Our sincere appreciation goes out to David for putting the time and effort into working with Amy on this story. He really put himself out there for this. Good job!

For those of you stopping by here via Internet searches because you are looking for a way to contact Dave, feel free to leave a comment here, or send me an e-mail (bhaught(at)flascience(dot)org) and I’ll make sure he gets your message. If you are interested in learning more about the fight over Florida’s science standards, visit our Projects page. As the NYT article states, Dave did play a big role in writing those standards and fighting on their behalf. Our main website has all sorts of other useful and interesting resources, too. Check it all out.

[edited to add] The comments on the story at the NYT are so far very, very positive. It’s refreshing to see so many supportive folks! This comment is great:

I second comment #3. Bless Mr. Campbell. He was my high school biology teacher, and this article only begins to illustrate all the ways in which he is an amazing teacher. He constantly challenges his students to think for themselves, to analyze, and to test hypotheses rather than simply accept things at face value. He was the first teacher who ever taught me how, not what, to think, and Mr. Campbell is the reason I am now a biologist, studying evolutionary biology. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, and all biology teachers like you, who, in teaching evolution well, nurture the natural curiosity in young minds.

— Natalie Wright, Gainesville, FL

And this one:

If every classroom had a teacher like David Campbell, our schools would be much better places.

— SKAN, DC

And this one:

Mr. Campbell is a true hero. We need more like him.

— Matthew H, Iowa

Science Fever

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Anyone in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties want to help kids catch the science fever? Here’s your chance:

I LOVE Science (Increasing Local Opportunities for Volunteers Enthusiastic about Science) is looking for volunteers interested in leading monthly, one hour hands-on science activities in fifth-grade classrooms during the 2008-2009 school year. Training for volunteers will be on August 27 at 5:30 pm at the Gulf Power Corporate Office on Bayfront Parkway.

Volunteers are partnered directly with classroom teachers in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. They are given activity guides, materials and training on the lessons. Volunteers do not need to be scientists; they just need to care about science education.

In other news, Ocean Breeze Elementary School recently got a new science room.

After all the bake sales, family-night dinners, talent shows, and community festivals, the Parent Teacher Organization that is charged with organizing the school’s fundraising activities finally met its goal.

The money raised went to create a new science lab for students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Silly season in Brevard

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Florida Today makes some recommendations for the Brevard County School Board.

The four other candidates for the seat [District 4] — Richard Contreras, Karen Henderson, Dean Paterakis and Tom Wuchte — also want to boost education in Brevard, but lack expertise or promote flawed policies.

All support the teaching faith-based intelligent design as an alternative to science-based evolution. Three — Contreras, Wuchte and Paterakis — favor proposed constitutional amendments that would drain dollars from public schools already in a funding crisis and give them to private or religious ones through voucher programs.

He’s [Stuart Rowan, District 5] also a firm believer in the separation of church and state and rightly says it’s very inappropriate to teach religious doctrine such as creationism or intelligent design in the science classroom.

Mr. Apple, go back to school

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

I’m neck deep in college work this week. I’m dealing with molar volume of an ideal gas right now, but will quickly move on to oxidation and reduction. Surprisingly, this stuff hasn’t been too hard. (I might not be saying that, though, once I get my grades back!) But it is time-consuming. So, I haven’t had time to poke and prod a certain Mr. Apple in Wakulla. So, perhaps you folks would like to do so yourselves. There’s plenty in Mr. Apple’s piece to skewer. How about this:

Let’s say by some miracle we did evolve from a single cell organism.  If so, how did they reproduce?  Oh, they just divided, you say.  They just multiplied.  Oh.  Okay.  Then let me ask you this.  If that system worked so well, why did it switch over to requiring two people to procreate?  If you had an efficient system of procreating by simply multiplying yourself, why would it ever evolve into requiring two organisms?  And how did it make that leap?

I’m telling you, asking these questions is like taking a machine gun to a football.  It rips it full of holes and lets all the air out.

Oh, but throw in millions of years.  That’s our answer to everything.  Gee, that’s a really long time.  I guess anything could happen if you give it a million years.

This one is even more ridiculous:

Now let me ask you, have you ever studied about the earth’s “magnetosphere”?  It’s a magnetic shield around the planet that protects the earth from the sun.  Now I’m no sun expert.  I just saw this on a DVD from the library.  But it pointed out how powerful the sun is (remember, they say at the core it’s like 27 million degrees Fahrenheit.)  It’s so powerful that it would hammer the earth – if it weren’t for that magnetic shield.

Now, are you going to try to tell me that we have evolution to thank for that shield?  And evolution to thank for the sun?  And, praise evolution, it all happened at once, because the sun sustains life on this planet, yet at the same time we must be shielded from the full affect of the sun.  It all had to happen at exactly the same time.  What are the odds of it happening by chance?  It’s impossible!

Do you get the impression that this guy doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about? Yup, me too.

You’re welcome to rip him apart in the comments, or send me your response to Mr. Apple via e-mail. I’ll then put the best slice and dice up as a regular blog post. Have fun.

How did your lawmakers rate?

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

The Christian Coalition of Florida issued a legislative scorecard listing all of the bills from this past session the group deemed important enough to support or oppose. The group then listed all the members of the Senate and House and graded them on how they voted on those bills. Listed as bill “Z” is the deceptively-named Academic Freedom bill. You can see a copy of the scorecard at the Central Florida Political Pulse blog of the Orlando Sentinel.

One thing I noted was how the media is reporting this so far. From that Sentinel blog:

The region was also home to one of the three Florida senators who scored perfectly in the Christian Coalition’s eyes: you guessed it, Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, who was among a distinct minority within the 40-member chamber to score perfectly on their anti-gambling, anti-evolution, anti-abortion measuring stick.

And take a look at Palm Beach Politics blog of the Sun-Sentinel.

The Christian Coalition graded legislators on their votes on abortion issues, school vouchers and an anti-evolution bill allowing teachers to discredit Darwin in the classroom.

Notice that the media so far is not buying the “academic freedom” angle. They’re labeling it simply as anti-evolution. Period.