Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Pensive Peregrinations I: Science Education

Under the heading of "things related to the life" and not necessarily "the music" of Shaun Cromwell, I thought I would post something about the plight of science education here in the United States. I know, right? Just... please bear with me...

Prior to my formative musical studies, I was, at one time, a fledgling biology student at Michigan State University. While my academic performance was less than stellar, I did have an aptitude toward the sciences. As a professor of mine once said to me, "Shaun, most of these people don't get this stuff, but you're just not trying." Anyway, my inadequacies as a student aside, I did cultivate a basic understanding of, and an appreciation for, all things science; in particular, the extreme breadth and expanse of the wondrous field of Biology. To illustrate, the foundational theory of biology is referred to as The Modern Evolutionary Synthesis; it combines Gregor Mendel's Genetics, with Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution by Natural Selection and was later extended to include the findings of Ecology and Developmental Biology. On the whole, it is less than 100 years old, and constitutes the basis for everything we can claim to know about life on this planet. Without it, literally nothing (including any internally-consistent-conjecture that some might proffer) even remotely makes sense in light of the evidence surrounding the diversity of life. (As an aside, it should be noted that while I could just as easily refer to other aspects of science-denialism, I'll limit my focus to Evolution...) So, it's profoundly demoralizing to see Evolution so maligned (despite its being as well understood and evidenced as anything that human beings have come to count as knowledge) in service of what we here in the United States euphemistically call "the culture wars." It's as if a large segment of the U.S. population views scientists as simply one more interest group trying to foist their propagandized demagogic claims on an unsuspecting and gullible American public. This demonstrates an unfortunate level of ignorance, one that is being fostered in many communities throughout the US of A.

Without delving too deeply into the history of the anti-evolution movement in this country–one that dates back to at least 1925 with the Scopes Monkey Trial–I'll just point out the latest strategy. It is the persistent attempt at circumventing the scientific process through partisan legislation. Legislation that seeks to give broad interpretive leeway to science teachers, allowing them to either: not teach evolution, or to erroneously represent it as "just a theory" among many possible theories (usually emphasizing one of the many brands of creationism). As a result, those who are antagonistic toward the underlying naturalistic aspects of the scientific method, seek to broaden the scope of science to include the supernatural. I won't delve into the philosophical aspects of why this is absurd; suffice it to say, those proffering "alternative theories" to evolution, have yet to flesh out an actual theory, only untestable hypotheses. While these hypotheses are certainly fodder for curricula associated with courses such as: "Comparative Religion"; "Philosophy of Religion"; even "History of Science",  et. al., they do not belong in biology class or, more generally, science courses. It is important to point out that the scientific methodology that is used in amassing the knowledge that makes up Evolutionary Theory, is the very same methodology used in the study of medicine; in fact, medicine is often dependent on the ideas inherent in Evolutionary Theory. What is acceptable for one branch of science–and all that it produces–is good for all the rest, as the underlying methodology is exactly the same! The key point here is that science is not some abstract thing done somewhere off in a laboratory with test tubes, bunsen burners, lab coats, and such; it is that–narrowly, but broadly, it's the endeavor of people attempting to understand the world through the use of our various cognitive faculties. It uses the same exact tools that we use daily to solve all sorts of quotidian problems (albeit in a highly formalized way): deductive and inductive logic; creativity; finely honed intuitions; observation; careful testing and analysis of data. We use these tools to elucidate the best explanations available to us, of the various phenomena we encounter in this universe. Science is never done. As better equipment, techniques, and more detailed knowledge becomes available, we can always refine that which we've learned. Certain things, however: Gravitational Theory, the Germ Theory of DiseaseAtomic Theory, and the Theory of Evolution are firmly established. These various ideas represent the closest thing we have to certainty. If you have any doubt of this, you owe it to yourself to follow some of the links that I have provided.

Scientific ignorance, especially when it is institutionalized, could very well damage the well-being of our society; not only from an abstract intellectual standpoint, but also economically. Without a solid educational foundation in both the facts, methods, and processes that make up what we–collectively–refer to as science, we will both individually and as a country, fall behind in job creation and profit generated from the products and intellectual properties that stem from scientific and technological innovation.

If you live in a state that is affected by the type of legislation I've described, please write your representatives to tell them how you feel, and contact organizations such as the National Center For Science Education with any related complaints.

Congratulations if you made it to the end!

Yeah Science!

1 comment:

  1. so, so true- nonsense should not be taught to children whether its called creationism or "intelligent" design. :)