Friday, March 28, 2008

Science Expelled

In April, a new film called Expelled will attempt to poison the well of public opinion about science education. It is a propaganda piece for Intelligent Design. Even astronomy teachers should be aware of its message. Here's why.

Science is not a dogma. It is a process.

A major responsibility we have in teaching any introductory science course, including astronomy, is to discuss how the scientific process works and the differences between science and pseudoscience. In the curriculum I have put together for my Astro 101 course, I include a few days on these topics (I should really have more!). In class, we discuss Occam’s Razor, falsification, peer review, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies, just to name a few topics. A major issue that I feel is important to bring up is that science has built in agnosticism. The idea that there is an invisible, omnipresent and omniscient God (or gods) that created the Universe and the life within it is an un-falsifiable hypothesis. There are no observations that we can make of the Universe before time zero. If anything was happening before the Universe started, we will probably never know about it. Any predictions made about what was happening before the Universe, whether they are the colliding branes of string theory, or the machinations of deities, are un-testable and so cannot be verified by science. Science must be agnostic when it comes to the origins of the Universe.

Science is also apolitical. It is merely a process by which we can discover ever more useful models that explain the workings of nature. The results of these models do not tell us whether we should join a Kyoto Protocol, they only give a range of possible outcomes. The results of scientific models have never said outright that the manufacturing industry should be regulated. The results only give detected levels of heavy metals in soils and water sources. Science has nothing to say about what people and politicians should do. It only provides data and models that can possibly be used in making pragmatic decisions.

Teaching science in the science classroom

An introductory science classroom should be about learning the results and processes of modern mainstream science. If I went to my curriculum committee and said that my school should teach Newton’s Laws in the World Religions course, I would be laughed at. But this is the kind of scenario we are witnessing across the country. Politically and religiously motivated people have decided that the results and processes of modern science are incongruous with their deeply held beliefs. They petition local school boards to adopt new definitions of science that inject supernatural causes into models of nature. They ask that equal time be given to other explanations (well, just one actually) of the Universes origins. They ask that if evolution is taught, then students should be subjected to a laundry list of (logically and scientifically unsound) “problems” with evolution.

The people who oppose the results and processes of modern science know that creationism and Intelligent Design will not gain a foothold within the scientific community. The reason is simple: these explanations make ZERO useful predictions that can be verified through observation and experiment. I have been careful to place the word “useful” in the last sentence. Certainly predictions can be made from following the reasoning of creationism. If the Biblical story of creation is to be taken literally, then we should occasionally find human fossils (or even horses, etc) among the ancient strata that actually do contain fossils of less developed organisms. In all of paleontology, no such observation has been made. Does this mean that it will not be made? No, but the likelihood is so small as to make the search for a human fossil there a waste of time. The best creationism and Intelligent Design can do is to generate philosophical and scientifically illiterate objections to evolution. Merely making objections does not qualify a set of ideas as a modern science.

Because of the failure of creationism and Intelligent Design to make any useful predictions about nature, there are very few peer-reviewed journal articles published that promote these ideas. Creationism and Intelligent Design are not likely to contribute any new and exciting ideas to modern science. Any scientific model of nature that wishes to become the dominant explanation of biology needs to be at least as useful as the current model. The current model is evolution. Modern biological evolution is useful and makes many novel predictions and retrodictions. However, contrary to what the anti-evolutionists say, biological evolution has nothing to say about what caused life to appear on the Earth in the first place.

Creationism and Intelligent Design have failed to gain traction within the scientific community because they are useless ideas. So, proponents of these ideas go to the courts and the school boards. It does not appear difficult to convince a school board to adopt educational standards that include the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in science classrooms. It does, however, appear difficult to get a court to agree on that point (just look at the Dover, PA court case on Intelligent Design).

ID proponents claim that scientists are part of a conspiracy

A new tactic has become the norm within the creationist and Intelligent Design community. It is a psychological tactic, meant to prey on the sense of fairness that Americans largely have. ID proponents now claim that mainstream science is suppressing their research and actively engaged in keeping ID out of the classroom. If ID is being kept out of the science classroom, it is because of the reasons I outlined above. It is not a useful model of nature and has no foreseeable promise as a part of modern science. But that is not what ID proponents are giving as the reason their ideas are rejected. They say that mainstream science is filled with “materialism”, a emotionally-loaded and nebulous term which asserts that scientists deny God and any sort of spirituality.

It is true that an individual scientist may be an atheist. But if they have that position, it is not because the process of science dictates it. Remember, science is agnostic. When ID proponents call mainstream scientists “materialists”, they are poisoning the well of public opinion. A scientist may just as well be a Christian or a Buddhist or an atheist. Such a position does not matter in the overall scope of the scientific process. But, of course, this is not the message ID proponents want people to know about.

To disseminate the message that scientists are close-minded “materialists”, ID proponents, mainly funded by the Discovery Institute (the major pro-ID organization), have produced a film called Expelled (subtitle: “No Intelligence Allowed”). It appears to be a documentary containing interviews by the mildly-recognizable Ben Stein. The ads for the film have taglines that say “Big Science has expelled smart new ideas from the classroom”. Did you see what they did? “Big Science”. It sounds like “Big Tobacco” or “Big Oil”.

Reports are in from those who have seen the advance prints of the film. Expelled tries to equate evolution with eugenics, implying that evolution was the cause of the Holocaust. The producers filmed interviews with prominent evolutionary scientists, such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers. The interviews were under false pretenses. Dawkins and Meyers were told that the film was called “Crossroads” and that it was about science and religion. They were not told it was an Intelligent Design propaganda piece.

To Ben Stein, and creationism and ID proponents, I say this: “If you want to teach ID in the classroom, that is fine with me. Now, what is the specific, useful, and testable model that you will you teach?” This simple question should be enough to give pause to anybody who thinks scientists are trying to “expel” ID from the classroom.

This issue matters to all science teachers

So why am I writing about this in the Teaching Astronomy blog? Inevitably, when teaching about the nature of science and the difference between science and pseudoscience, you will have students ask you about this film (either in class or after class). It is best to know about these major salvos before you are told about them by students. You do not need to engage in a debate with students over religion, but you should have a stock of responses to the main points that the ID proponents are making today. You do not need to know how to respond to every claim that creationists make, but you should know where to direct students to find reliable information, such as the Index to Creationist Claims.

Introductory astronomy, earth science, astrobiology teachers must all discuss ideas that are controversial to the creationist set: the age of the Earth, age of the Universe, formation of stars and the creation of heavy elements, to name a few. I'm sure that we all understand the dangers of allowing creationism to enter the class through school boards and the courts. But now we must be aware of this new campaign based on emotional nudging. If a students says that science is "materialistic", remind your class about the agnostic nature of science. Science is not a dogma, it is merely a process.

~Paul Robinson

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Advice to New Astronomy Professors

Lecture is often the process by which what is written on the professor’s notes gets transferred into students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either.

It seems like all the hard work should pay off, doesn’t it? You’ve been working feverishly on preparing your lecture notes to carefully cover all the many ideas for the topic. You’ve been madly searching Internet sites to find just the right image or animation to share with the audience that you hope will make complex ideas crystal clear. You’re allocating considerable time to organize as many of these resources as possible into projected PowerPoint presentations that can be shared electronically with listeners and maybe even building multi-layered www sites with countless hyperlinks to even more detailed information than you’ll have time to adequately describe during lecture.
One has to wonder if all of this is really worth it? Faculty often report that, for the first time they give a lecture, they allocate at least three to five hours for preparing. Then, during coffee and dinner conversations after the lecture, even the most knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and dedicated lecturers find that too often far too many people missed the big idea. All the bases are covered, and yet no one is fully satisfied in the end. How could this possibly be?
It is possible that as you read this, you are saying to yourself, “oh, no, not me, not my lectures. Everything is going great in my lectures.” Well, that might well be true as there are some amazing teachers out there who are doing amazing things during their lectures. However, it is my position that every lecture can be improved. Sometimes it can mistakenly appear that everything is going just fine, when it really isn’t. In too many lectures, students quietly tune out using a strategy that they can just “copy it down now and try to figure it out later.” This is because many professors and students have a sort of “hidden classroom contract” with one another. In brief, this hidden classroom contract implicitly states something to the effect of, “the professor will tell the students what to memorize and will only ask students questions directly related to this list on the exams and, in exchange, students will dutifully memorize the material given during lecture and, if students fail to adequately memorize the material, students will not complain too loudly if a poor grade is assigned.”

Rethinking Your Lectures to be Learner-Centered

The first step is to accept that much of the responsibility for learning resides squarely on the listener—not actually on the professor. Faculty can motivate, inspire, and build a series of experiences that make the discipline more accessible; but, faculty can not do the learning for them. In fact, this notion has encouraged us to adopt the perspective, “it’s not what the instructor does that matters; rather, it is what the students do.” But, there is still plenty for the lecturer to do!! The role of lecture in a learner-centered teaching perspective still exists, but is radically shifted from dispensing knowledge in a conventional course to a focus on guiding students through meaningful learning experiences as a learner-centered experience. So, the pathway to giving great lectures is to change listener behavior from passive to active! Here, allow me to suggest some interactive teaching strategies that have been shown to significantly increase the amount of student comprehension. These approaches do dramatically reduce the number of words you get to say as a lecturer; but with a little preplanning, it does not drastically reduce the amount of information you can cover. This works incredibly well and few people who have gone down this alternative road have ever gone back to their old ways.

The most valuable role of an expert is not to simply tell students what they know; rather, it is to use their unique expertise to build rich scenarios for students to analyze using novel ideas.

Faculty in the sciences have the distinct advantage over faculty in other disciplines in that demonstrations, whether physical or computer-based, can be provocative, provide illustrative clarification, and, most importantly, excite the learner through direct experiences with unexpected physical phenomena. However, the research on the actual effectiveness of demonstrations is clear. The most important part of the demonstration is asking students to predict what they will see—predictions committed to in writing—and for students to predict what will happen when particular variables are changed. It is the act of predicting and rationalizing these predictions where most of the learning occurs from demonstrations and simulations. So, stop, and take the time to ask “what do you think you’ll see?”
The central part of a learner-centered approach is to ask questions. To be sure, a pointed suggestion of asking students some questions during a lecture might seem a tad silly. However, the number of faculty who actually pose non-rhetorical questions is surprisingly small. Probably the biggest mistake that faculty make is to pose cognitively low-level questions that are too easily answered by students relying on preexisting declarative knowledge. Students responding quickly, and in unison, is often mistaken for meaningful dialogue between a professor and the class. Questions should be intellectually challenging and be carefully crafted to lead the students to deeper levels of understanding or to illustrate the power of scientific ideas. In a similar way, questions such as “does everyone understand?” and “do you have any questions?” do not provide faculty with the desired insight into whether or not students actually comprehend the ideas being presented.
Particularly in the context of a large-lecture hall, it is very easy for faculty to hold a discussion with only the students in the first few front rows. It doesn’t take too many class sessions before students farther back in the classroom to realize that questions posed by the professors without accountability systems don’t actually need to be contemplated because only the first few rows are required to respond. As a result, some system that holds all students accountable needs to be implemented to be effective. Some faculty draw names at random from a hat to ask specific students questions and evenly ask all students to participate. One popular technique is to write names on popsicle sticks using a color code that distinguishes male names from female names so that faculty can evenly alternative between males and females even though the process appears random to students.
Probably the most easy teaching skill to understand, yet most difficult to actually implement is to ask meaningful questions and then patiently WAIT. The most common error in leading classroom discussions is a lack of wait time. Researchers that carefully track classroom dynamics have found that faculty who too quickly provide clarifying information or respond to the first person who answers a question completely squashes further discussion and divergent thinking. The common advice is to wait at least ten seconds before saying anything after posing a question. If everyone in the audience can answer your question in less than ten seconds, then the question isn’t conceptually challenging enough. When you pose a question, it is reasonable to ask students to think for a little while before raising their hands to offer answers. One particularly useful strategy to help fidgety faculty be certain that a full ten seconds elapses before accepting a range of student responses is to fill the time by turning away from the class, taking a sip of coffee, or flipping through lecture notes without looking at the class. Moreover, it is important to ask students to explain the reasoning behind their answers and not revealing if the offered response is correct before accepting several other answers.

Tim Slater
University of Wyoming CAPER Team