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Bloggingheads
04-19-2008, 12:29 PM

Nate
04-19-2008, 01:47 PM
It didn't appear that the book tour schedule that George mentioned (http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/10337?in=00:03:52&out=00:04:35) was in the links section, so here it is for anyone interested:
http://sciwrite.org/glj/10tour.html

thprop
04-19-2008, 02:07 PM
I am looking forward to John's interview archive - and to hear the rest of his interview with Chandra. I met Chandra and listened to a few of his lectures. He is definitely one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. I was a math major at the University of Chicago - not physics so I never took a class with him. I think I would have been too scared to.

Chandra thought up the Chandrasekhar limit (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandrasekhar_limit) when he was 19. It was 1930, he was on a ship to England to begin work on his Ph.D. at Cambridge. When he first spoke about it publicly in 1935 at the Royal Academy, Eddington (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Eddington) ridiculed him in almost racist terms. I don't think he called Chandra a "silly wog" but it was close.

Chandra completed his Ph.D. in 1933. I don't think he was ever comfortable in Europe as long as Eddington was around. He came to the University of Chicago in 1937 and spent the rest of his life there.

The most amazing thing about Chandra is that he kept finding new things to work on. His bio at the Chandra X-Ray Observatory site (http://chandra.harvard.edu/about/chandra.html) shows these periods. Most theoreticians do one big thing in their life - and they do it young. Chandra did eight big things. He would work on something for 5-10 years, complete it and move on to the next thing. His last work resulted in the book that led to John's interview - Newton's Principia for the Common Reader. (http://www.amazon.com/Newtons-Principia-Common-Physics-Psychology/dp/0198517440)

Glaurunge
04-19-2008, 04:41 PM
The very beginning of the diavlog not included in the topics list made me chuckle when it reminded me of last week's south park episode, Over Logging On. (http://www.southparkstudios.com/episodes/166179/) You can watch the whole episode for free, and if you do then you'll see what I mean.

In a word: Barnacles
04-19-2008, 05:23 PM
http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/10337?in=00:2:10&out=00:2:51

The clear subtext here is porn, rite?

bjkeefe
04-19-2008, 07:41 PM
http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/10337?in=00:2:10&out=00:2:51

The clear subtext here is porn, rite?

Well, of course. That's why George would prefer free Internet access to TV -- much more choice!

bjkeefe
04-19-2008, 08:23 PM
John:

I enjoyed this diavlog, as I always do whenever you and George are on.

I was, however, deeply disturbed by your support of the "teach the controversy" idea. I suspect you weren't being absolutist about this, and I will also grant that it's possible for some adherents to current scientific thinking to be dogmatic.

But still.

When a student is first being introduced to a topic, particularly a scientific one, it does that student a disfavor to suggest that one point of view is as good as another. One has to get the basics down first. A student with no knowledge of a subject is utterly unqualified to make a judgment, and hearing a bunch of he said/she said, on the one hand/on the other hand lectures is not going to help.

For something like evolution compared to creationism, the former is a vastly preferable explanation. Could it be wrong? Conceivably. But it is about as well-established as any scientific theory. The ideal science teacher might say note that not everyone accepts the theory, but he or she should also emphasize that virtually everyone with a real grasp of biology does. The ideal science teacher will say, for any topic, something like, "To be fair about it, this is the best understanding we have so far. Science is a process, and it's always worth keeping in mind that a scientific theory is subject to revision or even refutation. However, this theory is well-established from X years of research, experimentation, and analysis, and at minimum, it's a very useful framework for developing an understanding of the topic."

Should an introduction to geometry just state the Euclidean axioms and work from there, or should the teacher, on Day 1, spend half the lecture saying that the parallel postulate can be discarded? Should students just learning how to construct proofs be beaten about the head with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem? Should an introductory class in physics start by saying that Newton is wrong? Should a beginning chemistry class refuse to treat electrons as well-defined particles orbiting a nucleus composed of just protons and neutrons?

I realize I'm being hyperbolic here, and I expect I know what your answers would be to these slightly ridiculous questions. But where do you draw the line? Were you speaking with the assumption that what we're talking about is grad students, since that's whom you usually deal with?

If so, I think your support of "teach the controversy" has a little bit more merit. Grad students, after all, are expected to know the basics and are often studying topics more on the leading edge.

If not, then I must say this attitude of yours is troubling. I think you're letting your iconoclastic instincts get the better of you. If individual scientists are sometimes too abrupt in dismissing speculation that questions their entire field, you're partly right to criticize them for this. However, you're also partly wrong, for failing to take into account how irritating it is to have to fight the same stupid battles over and over again, particularly with people who haven't the slightest idea what they're talking about. At some point, listening to people with no training trying to dispute established scientific thinking becomes akin to dealing with a three-year-old who keeps asking, "But why?" (cf. (http://cosmicvariance.com/2008/04/16/what-should-i-say-if-someone-asks-me-will-the-large-hadron-collider-destroy-the-world/))

We've come a long way in our scientific understanding of the world, and I'll be the first to admit that we have farther to go. But to take the attitude that what we have accomplished is still as subjective as political opinion or tastes in art is neither respectful nor respectable. It is also harmful, because it gives the know-nothings further reason to wallow in their willful ignorance, and forces the rest of us into re-deriving the wheel every time we're trying to make a little progress.

bjkeefe
04-19-2008, 08:26 PM
thprop:

Great post. Thanks for the personal reflections and the links.

aarrgghh
04-19-2008, 11:56 PM
more to the point, the creationists aren't even arguing in good faith (no pun intended) and are insisting controversy exists where it does not. pick any of their critiques and you'll find an argument that's been thoroughly debunked time and again and time and again.

that isn't controversy -- that's just plain mulishness. but then again, their goals aren't in the interest of the advancement of knowledge, but a retreat into ingnorance by muddying the waters. to "teach the controversy" is just to pointlessly indulge them.

allbetsareoff
04-20-2008, 09:45 AM
George, maybe you felt euphoric in Baltimore because you had descended 7,000-odd feet from Santa Fe to sea level and were buzzing on the richer oxygen content. (Just don't try it August.)

Wonderment
04-20-2008, 03:48 PM
I thought those were charmingly romantic ideas, and I would add Gandhi to the short list of super-geniuses, centuries ahead of the rest of us.

Gandhi discovered a viable model of nonviolent conflict resolution suitable for the abolition of war.

Epicurus
04-20-2008, 07:37 PM
Come on John. The movie is disingenuous and disgusting. Ben Stein talks with wilfully ignorant arrogance. He just doesn't understand evolution. I mean trying to put the holocaust on the feet of Darwin. A horrible disgusting revision of history. From a Jew no less. Doesn't he understand the history of the jewish people?

His film isn't all laughs. Check the commotion it caused in one persons mind http://richarddawkins.net/article,2488,An-Open-Letter-to-David-J,Richard-Dawkins

Bloggin' Noggin
04-21-2008, 01:32 PM
Brendan,
I first should confess I haven't yet watched this diavlog, but I think that in the case of evolution teaching the controversy could be quite helpful -- if it were done by people who genuinely understood the state of the evidence and were not creationists themselves. (The danger that the controversy would be unfairly presented in the real world is the one thing that would worry me.)
The NOVA program over the Dover trial (which re-enacted portions of the trial) was VERY illuminating: it showed pretty clearly where the ID types were just waving their hands and obfuscating, and it showed some powerful pro-evolution evidence, while (as I recall) clarifying the claims of Evolutionary Biology in response to the misunderstandings of the ID proponents.
I don't know what John said, but in my view, to teach the controversy is NOT AT ALL to presume that there is no right answer or that both sides are equal. Science is too often presented as, in effect, just a body of dogma and mathematical rituals. A debate can clarify the theory itself and clarify why science is not just another religion to be accepted on the authority of experts. I'd like to have long-dead historical controversies revived in the science classroom, so that students get a clearer picture of a) the excitement of science, and b) the nature of scientific evidence. If this were fairly applied to evolution, I think students would emerge with a better sense of how hard it is to reject evolution than they currently do.

You suggest that this could only work for grad students, but in the case of Evolution, I think there's much evidence that's not at all abstruse or technical. There's some of that kind of evidence too, but the very simple, easily understood evidence is still overwhelming.

LordBaltimore
04-21-2008, 02:36 PM
John, you can't be serious about defending that slimy lying con-man Ben Stein, who along with his producer Mark Mathis has made a dishonest propaganda film intended to destroy biology education in the U.S. Stein actually has he gall to say that teaching natural selection leads inevitably to fascism and the holocaust, and he has already riled up the rubes to the point that they are sending threatening letters to the likes of Michael Shermer (http://richarddawkins.net/article,2488,Open-Letter-to-a-victim-of-Ben-Steins-lying-propaganda,Richard-Dawkins).

I know you like rebels, John, but Stein is a self-styled fake rebel; a really bad guy.

Wonderment
04-21-2008, 03:02 PM
John, you can't be serious about defending that slimy lying con-man Ben Stein,

John "defending" Ben Stein is a bit over the top. All he said was that the scientific establishment didn't have to act like one movie was the storming of the Bastille.

Ditto for "teaching the controversy." John didn't say, "Let's present intelligent design and evolution as two separate but equal theories."

Teaching the controversy means simply what it says: telling students there is a controversy. That would probably amount to, "the overwhelming majority of scientists in many disciplines all over the planet accept the basic principles of Darwinian evolution. Some religious cults and a tiny minority of scientists question evolution. Most of this can be classified as fringe or pseudo-science. Intelligent design proponents, for example, propose....."

End of story.

Now I know that many scientists won't "debate" evolution any more than they want to engage in debate about a flat earth, alien abductions or the immaculate conception. "Debate" -- at this stage of the game -- lends credibility to the arguments.

But students, who in many cases need to overcome a decade or two of religious indoctrination have often already been exposed to other "theories." A quick examination of the "controversy" is helpful to them.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 04:22 PM
BN:

In the abstract, I can see your point, and it also should be said that I'm not exactly sure what John meant here. My problem is, "teach the controversy" is, and has been for too long, code-speak for "all theories are equal," with the further implication that "theory" is used in its colloquial sense, not its scientific sense. My reaction was aggravated by John's "what's the big deal?" attitude toward the movie Expelled, also briefly mentioned in the diavlog.

I don't have a problem with mentioning that some people don't accept the theory of evolution, just as I have no problem with mentioning that, say, Einstein didn't believe the uncertainty inherent in quantum mechanics, or that people used to think the universe was only a few thousand years old, or the earth was flat, or whatever. I also think it can be helpful to describe earlier ideas and how they were overturned.

All that said, however, I don't agree that the way to teach science at the introductory level is to act as though nothing is settled. I know you're not saying that, exactly, but I wonder how far in that direction you'd go.

I also think you're coming at this without keeping in mind how much training and practice you have had in critical thinking. The reason that the Nova documentary on the Dover trial was so illustrative for you, for example, is that you had a firm basis from which to view it. There's an enormous difference between your mind and that of someone just starting high school or younger.

One of the things about scientific theories that's important to bear in mind is that they are not often intuitive, which is why it took until very recently for most of them to be formulated. Given our "Middle World" view of things, as Richard Dawkins has labeled it, it's very hard for our minds to grasp times shorter than a second or longer than a century, or objects smaller than a grain of sand or bigger than a mountain. When you're introducing science to a young mind, you're working against these limitations and preconceptions. To give such a mind the ability to make a reasoned decision when faced with a controversy, you have to take the time, first, to present the science without dwelling on the ambiguity or uncertainty at the fringes. A student first has to know the alphabet before arguing about the subtext of a sonnet.

I agree that science can sound like dogma the way some individual scientists talk about it, but the thing is, when you start learning science, you're presented with a body of knowledge that's so well-established that it is, to first approximation and well beyond, fact. Kids in the 101-level classes are not hearing much about work on the leading edge. They're being given an overview of what has been rigorously established. In principle, sure, anything in science could turn out to be wrong, but the odds of this are remote to many decimal places. To return to the "Middle Earth" idea, an untrained mind cannot differentiate between the remoteness of this possibility and something that happens every once in a while in everyday life. I offer as evidence the booming sales of lottery tickets.

Here's an example. I took a great course, halfway through college, called "Modern Physics." The approach of the course was to follow the timeline of topics like the development of the understanding of the atom. Much of the journey down the timelines was spent going down the same blind alleys that the original researchers did. This was instructive in teaching how physicists think, but it was borderline overwhelming to keep straight all the details. Had I gone into this course without several years of introductory coursework in physics and chemistry, I can well imagine I might have been swamped, and would have come out of the course with no real sense of the correct view of the structure of the atom.

Here's another. One of the most memorable homework assignments that I had In Linear Algebra was to prove p = p. It was an exercise in logic, to show how choosing a different starting set of axioms could allow axioms from another system to be derived as theorems in the new system. As useful as it was to wrestle with this, I hardly think that it would be helpful to start teaching arithmetic by suggesting that p = p has yet to be established.

Remember also that most students are unlikely to pursue science beyond what they're required to take in high school. They will then spend the rest of their lives beset by crackpots, from creationists to promulgators of woo. Often, they will have to make political or financial decisions on matters that depend on some understanding of how science works. I think we're already woefully scientifically illiterate as a population, and I don't see the value in wasting the few months of science class, that are all most people will be exposed to, by presenting the scientific side as unsettled.

I read yesterday on a blog somewhere a discussion of this diavlog. The blogger observed that John has an tendency to favor the guy who bucks the system. I think this predisposition of his, combined with his impatience for things like string theory, tends to make him view all of scientific thinking the same way -- as equally subject to change and replacement by tomorrow's discovery. I think such an attitude borders on know-nothingness, and is not at all helpful when considering education at the introductory level. The exaggeration of the view of science as a process also provides ammunition to those who delight in their willful ignorance, and the clout of such people is a real hindrance to our society.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 04:30 PM
Wonderment:

John "defending" Ben Stein is a bit over the top. All he said was that the scientific establishment didn't have to act like one movie was the storming of the Bastille.

I disagree. I haven't seen the movie, but I've read numerous accounts from those who have and I've seen clips. Expelled is a piece of propaganda that is astounding both in its dishonesty (http://www.expelledexposed.com/), from the tactics used production and marketing to the material presented within, as well as its efforts to equate a belief in evolution with a fondness for Nazism. Yeah, yeah, Godwin's Law, but in this case, I'm not exaggerating.

It is entirely appropriate to mount a vehement response to this piece of trash and to belittle people like John who act like it's no big deal. It is a big deal when people lie, particularly about a subject that we've wasted too much time on already, and particularly when the presentation of the lie works in such a concentrated fashion on people's fears and ignorance.

jh in sd
04-21-2008, 05:08 PM
If anyone is interested in more insight into the politics of the scientists of the arms race, these are two good reads: Memoirs by Edward Teller and Brotherhood of the Bomb by Greg Herken. John Wheeler is mentioned frequently in Teller's book.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-21-2008, 05:44 PM
Remember also that most students are unlikely to pursue science beyond what they're required to take in high school. They will then spend the rest of their lives beset by crackpots, from creationists to promulgators of woo. Often, they will have to make political or financial decisions on matters that depend on some understanding of how science works. I think we're already woefully scientifically illiterate as a population, and I don't see the value in wasting the few months of science class, that are all most people will be exposed to, by presenting the scientific side as unsettled.

It's precisely because I was remembering this fact that I prefer that students get the hang of reasoning like scientists, dealing with problems, evaluating evidence than that they be taught a whole body of expert scientific knowledge which they will forget if they don't go on in science. Darwin's theory did originally compete with Natural Theology. I'd like those inclined to believe in creation to be aware of the problems that such a theory faces -- many of them quite clearly explicated by Stephen Jay Gould in his popular essays. (e.g., would a designer have planned to make Panda digestion so inefficient? why would a designer who could start from scratch have constantly jury rigged new organs out of old ones, etc.) Darwinism seems to face the problem of complex structures like wings. The explanation of how these can come about through natural selection is not something terribly abstruse and difficult. Anyone of normal intelligence can get it -- it may have taken a genius to think of it, but we can all play Watson to Darwin's Holmes and see how obvious it is after the fact.
You seem to assume that I want students to be exposed to the uncertainties of scientific reasoning (or to have that aspect exaggerated). I don't at all. I just think that science taught as a body of knowledge, rather than as a series of problems and solutions, leaves behind a mass of unmotivated and forgettable details in a student's mind. I want students to understand the motive or point of scientific theory and the very real degree of support it has. I'd like the students to see why scientists believe what they believe rather than just have them accept each theory on the teacher's authority. There's a good chance that more would stick with them after the class -- perhaps even some scientific habits of mind, as opposed to mere dead facts. If an ID person tries to fool them with an argument about how wings could evolve, they might at least remember that they used to know the answer to taht, and go look it up again in Gould or Wikipedia or something.


I read yesterday on a blog somewhere a discussion of this diavlog. The blogger observed that John has an tendency to favor the guy who bucks the system. I think this predisposition of his, combined with his impatience for things like string theory, tends to make him view all of scientific thinking the same way -- as equally subject to change and replacement by tomorrow's discovery. I think such an attitude borders on know-nothingness, and is not at all helpful when considering education at the introductory level. The exaggeration of the view of science as a process also provides ammunition to those who delight in their willful ignorance, and the clout of such people is a real hindrance to our society.
Yeah, John does have that bias. But your feeling that understanding science as process destroys confidence in science surely gives science too little credit. Science is all about testing received authority against experience, yet you seem to be afraid of teaching science except AS received authority. But if we teach it as received authority, how far are we really teaching science?
Of course, it's an empirical issue whether high school students can get what they need to out of this kind of science education. Your doubts could be right. But on the basis of what I said above, I'm convinced that, if my approach could work, then it is the better approach. And I'm not convinced that high school students can't grasp the nature of the problems and solutions in some sciences -- biology in particular. You remind me that I have had more training in thinking than a high school student, but you have to start teaching people to think somewhere. (The biggest question in my mind is whether the teachers would be up to it.) You cite various courses you took that forced you to think in new ways that would have been hard for you at the beginning. I'm sure you're right that AS DESIGNED, they would have been difficult as beginning courses -- but then they were probably not designed as beginning courses.
I certainly don't want to change the high school curriculum from my armchair, but I'd like to see some really good biology teacher try teaching the controversy as an experiment. I'd also like us to find a way to evaluate such experiments, not only right after the class, but a few years down the line -- e.g., a few years after the class give these students and a group of conventionally trained students an argument against evolution and see whether they can reconstruct what the defender of evolution would say in response.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 05:55 PM
BN:

All very well said, and I find nothing to disagree with in your rebuttal.

You put your finger on the real problem -- the lack of really good science teachers, especially at the introductory level. Since this is the reality of the status quo, and since I don't see any solution to this problem anytime soon, I worry that naively embracing an approach of "teach the controversy" will lead too often to a considerably more simplified result than what you and I would like to see. As I said, it's easy to start from this point and devolve into the sort of treatment that the MSM gives, memorably characterized by Krugman's imagined headline: "Shape of Earth: Views Differ."

So, as I say, we're much more in agreement than not. I just wanted to register my admittedly extreme point of view to balance what I see as John's excessive relativism.

Wonderment
04-21-2008, 06:16 PM
You put your finger on the real problem -- the lack of really good science teachers, especially at the introductory level.

increase teachers' salaries, reduce class size, dump "No Child Left Behind," hire only science majors to teach science, and you won't have this problem.

Getting class size down to 15 students (the average at fancy prep schools) where they DO hire science majors because they can often get beyond the ridiculous credentializing bureacracies, is an attainable goal if we ever get a pro-education (as opposed to pro-war) government.

As to the intelligent design "theory," it seems in BN's comments that he excludes an ID that is compatible with evolution. I mean, dont' some of these guys (like the Pope) say, "God is perfectly compatible with evolution. He just jump-started it." I suppose the Adam and Eve story needs some tweaking in this version, but isn't that what most people believe at the end of the day?

ANYONE who believes in God has an implicit intelligent design theory. So to dismiss it entirely is to obliterate the philosophical underpinnings of the American mind.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 06:34 PM
Wonderment:

increase teachers' salaries, reduce class size, dump "No Child Left Behind," hire only science majors to teach science, and you won't have this problem.

Well, yeah. I should have been more precise: it's not that I believe that no solution exists, it's that I don't see the solution being implemented in the foreseeable future.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 06:40 PM
Science is all about testing received authority against experience, yet you seem to be afraid of teaching science except AS received authority. But if we teach it as received authority, how far are we really teaching science?

Saying I'm "afraid of teaching science except AS received authority" is a gross exaggeration. There's a real difference between believing in this and believing in the desirability of starting students out with an unambiguous presentation of the facts.

What I am afraid of is how eagerly anti-science types leap upon any hint of scientific debate and claim how it shows, therefore, that the entire field is suspect. If some kid is only going to take one high school biology class in his or her life, I'd prefer that the kid come out with the understanding that evolution is established, and not "just a theory." Is this imperfect and a little dogmatic? Perhaps. But it's far better than having the kid leave the class with the mistaken impression that creationism is equally plausible.

For however much I err on the side of wishing to prohibit nonsense from polluting introductory teaching, I think you err in the other direction in having too rosy a view of the average untrained person being able to discern the truth at first glance when presented with all the complications up front. There are any number of reasons for the continued strength of the creationist movement, and I believe that wishywashiness in teaching at the introductory level is one of the main ones. In fact, a large part of necessary elementary education is presented as received authority. There is no other way to make the next step to teaching kids how to think unless you first give them some basis from which to work. We don't entertain a myriad of past superstitions in science class or any others, and we should add creationism to this category as well.

Wonderment
04-21-2008, 08:18 PM
There is no other way to make the next step to teaching kids how to think unless you first give them some basis from which to work. We don't entertain a myriad of past superstitions in science class or any others, and we should add creationism to this category as well.

I think you are missing the point that creationism in its most vulgar literalist form has been finessed into "intelligent design" in the wishy-washy form that is accepted by maybe 90% of the American people, including high school science teachers, who use "a Greater Power" or the equivalent as their default position.

In other words, if Sophomore Sally asks her bio teacher, "Does this mean that God doesn't exist?" s/he will probably reply, "No, God and evolution can co-exist," which is a (benign?) version of intelligent design.

It doesn't really matter if they teach what Stein might call the scientific version of ID, since they end up there (and in church) with or without it.

Of course, it would be nice if teachers could teach biology AND philosophy. Then you might be able to raise questions about "believing" in things without any evidence that they exist, but that's asking a bit much of the high school faculty.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 09:13 PM
Wonderment:

It has long been a mystery to me why religious people can't accept a version of creation that says that God used the process of evolution, knowing that it would result in human beings. After all, implicit in the use of any aspect of modern technological life, from a religious point of view, is the acceptance that God created the universe with observable and comprehensible physical and chemical principles, and that these lay dormant until humans started taking things apart and putting them together in new ways.

I am also perfectly happy to state that belief in evolution does not require disbelief in God. For one thing, evolutionary theory says nothing about how life was created in the first place. It only speaks to how life, once in existence, ... uh, evolves.

However, none of this has anything to do with learning science. In particular, I reject wholeheartedly and at the top of my lungs that there is anything scientific about "Intelligent Design." It begins and ends with the claim that what we see around us is too complicated to have gotten that way without a guiding hand. Full stop. ID makes no testable predictions. All it does is carp at elements of evolutionary theory by picking out something and saying, "Ha! Explain this!" Every objection they raise is quickly shot down, whereupon they move the goal posts and say, "Ha! You still haven't explained it!" Or they make ridiculous demands, as in their insistence that fossils for every microstep of evolution be found to document the transition from one form of life to the next, as if fossils were the sole basis of evolutionary theory in any case.

I also reject the notion that just because most people believe in God, it is therefore required to add God to the mix in every class. The name of the game in science is to see how much we can understand without resorting to supernatural explanations. You wouldn't, I feel certain, think it useful in a geology class to say that volcanoes erupt because Zeus is angry, or to say in a physics class that things fall to the ground because God wants them to return to their natural position.

Finally, I don't agree that "it would be nice" to teach biology and philosophy at the same time, at least not at the introductory level. You'd likely end up with the kind of superficial mish-mosh that you get if the only exposure you have to quantum mechanics is reading The Dancing Wu Li Masters. As I've said elsewhere in this thread, you have to give young and untrained minds some basics to start with. It's easier to make progress, as with all other procedural aspects of life, if you take things one step at a time. Besides, it's not like young students only take biology -- they have several other classes to attend each day as well. It's a bit artificial to compartmentalize the fields of human inquiry, I'll grant, but it's better to postpone grand syntheses until people actually have some idea what they're talking about.

Wonderment
04-21-2008, 10:19 PM
Brendan,

I think our disagreement is semantical.

If by ID you mean a detailed curriculum purporting to show a designer-friendly view of biology, then I agree, it has no place in the classroom. Waste of time.

If, however, ID just means the general consensus (which I, as an atheist, do NOT share) that God or a Higher Power created everything, then I think it might be a good thing to "teach the controversy." Why not tell kids how scientific discoveries in many disciplines have gradually reduced the plausibility of religious claims? Why not at least ask kids to really take seriously a universe without a Creator?

I also reject the notion that just because most people believe in God, it is therefore required to add God to the mix in every class.

I agree that would be ridiculous.


The name of the game in science is to see how much we can understand without resorting to supernatural explanations.

Of course. But in real life, kids who have been indoctrinated or influenced by religion to one extent or another, have questions for teachers. The questions often get to the heart of their ultimate concerns. I think it's a good thing to address the questions, and I think maybe that's what John meant on Science Saturday. (Maybe he can clarify next week.)

AemJeff
04-21-2008, 10:40 PM
Brendan, I could be convinced otherwise, but what I heard Horgan saying was less a defense of Stein (the diavlog section titles notwithstanding) than just a continued flogging of one of his hobbyhorses, using Stein as a convenient foil. I think he also managed to make a pretty good point about people speaking on behalf of a scientific viewpoint not making the mistake of sounding as if they were ex officio in the "Church of Science." Using Stein for that rhetorical purpose wasn't the best possible choice, but I don't imagine that his point of view is literally to "teach the controversy," or even remotely to attempt to equate ID and biology.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 11:18 PM
Wonderment:

I agree with your last post -- we're not really that far apart in what we see as the way to teach science. I'll add that I don't advocate an absolute ban on discussing God in the classroom, particularly in response to students' questions. However, I do not think such discussions should be any part of the curriculum. I'd say: deal with it as it comes up, but don't plan lectures that include God.

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 11:39 PM
I think he [John Horgan] also managed to make a pretty good point about people speaking on behalf of a scientific viewpoint not making the mistake of sounding as if they were ex officio in the "Church of Science." Using Stein for that rhetorical purpose wasn't the best possible choice, but I don't imagine that his point of view is literally to "teach the controversy," or even remotely to attempt to equate ID and biology.

I take your point, but I think that the whole notion of people speaking as though they represent the "Church of Science" is something that John exaggerates, as do many others. The overwhelming majority of scientists take pains to stress how science works; e.g., subject to constant review and modification, fundamentally never certain, always in a on-going state, and so on. Certainly this was how I learned it from before I can remember, and there was nothing particularly special about my schooling. I am not one of those rent seekers from Harvard whom we've heard so much about lately. ;^)

I am going to speculate here. One thing that I think has affected John is that he has gone into a lot of interviews with scientists who have heard his skeptical questions before and who consequently -- sometimes -- react impatiently, both because they've heard such questions countless times already and because John probably manages to convey a combination of hostility and obvious lack of training.

More generally, I think a lot of scientists are beset by cranks, from creationists to those who claim to have disproved relativity, squared the circle, rationalized pi, or worry that the LHC will create cataclysmic black holes. A person grows weary of nonsense, and it is unreasonable to expect the hen-pecked never to resort to abrupt dismissal. But catch practically any scientist in a mood other than on the edge of irritability, and you won't be able to get him or her to shut up with the qualifiers.

To your other point about how far John was going, either in defending Expelled or advocating "teach the controversy," I grant that I am unsure to what extent he meant either. I think I said so in the post that I opened this thread with, but I am happy to repeat it. In particular, I don't believe he equates IDiots and evolutionary biologists. As far as I know, I mean.*

That said, even a feint in that direction is something that I think demands notice, and ideally, clarification from John himself.

===========
* Shameless sideswipe at Hillary. Sorry. Couldn't resist.

Wonderment
04-21-2008, 11:49 PM
D'accord....

bjkeefe
04-21-2008, 11:53 PM
C'est bien.

(And isn't the 10-character minimum infuriating?)

Wonderment
04-22-2008, 12:03 AM
No shit!!!

bjkeefe
04-22-2008, 02:13 AM
John Horgan has a post up on his blog that touches on some of the concerns I raised. See here: http://www.stevens.edu/csw/cgi-bin/blogs/csw/?p=139

It doesn't read as a direct response to my comments, but it does address some of what I said. (I am not trying to make this all about me; just explaining why I posted this comment where in the thread that I did.)

I'll note for the record that I do not at all agree with his characterization of others' critical reaction to Expelled as "over the top." I won't belabor this, as I have already said so elsewhere in this thread.

aatish
04-22-2008, 05:12 AM
There's a line in the transcript with Chandra that reads "But the whole (inaudible) the press probably need to remain."

That's a mishearing. I think it should say "But the whole manuscript will be with the press, probably in April or May."

Bloggin' Noggin
04-22-2008, 01:05 PM
I don't want wishy-washiness. What I'd like is for a student to understand the arguments, be able to reconstruct the debate in their heads. I'm actually less concerned to get students to believe in evolution than to understand the evidence for it and what they would have to do to offer a satisfying creationist or non-Darwinian view. If they understand the arguments and the challenges to "alternative" theories, they're actually much less likely to be persuaded by silly arguments like those often offered by anti-evolutionists.

I had two years of high school biology, but I had to wait to read Stephen Jay Gould to really get the idea of how there can be intermediate forms leading to complex structures like the eye or a wing. And it's not because the concepts involved are hard to understand: as I'm sure you know, the explanation is that each stage along the way to an eye or a wing has to be useful to the organism, but not necessarily for the same purpose that it is now used for. So you might start with forelegs, have a kind of flap added for other reasons, this could prove useful for gliding and this could be further refined into wings. Or you start with a very simple light/dark photo-receptor which gets gradually added to until you get an eye. Gould has some nice examples which drive the point home and clarify it beautifully, and they are certainly intelligible to a high school student.
A class that taught me THAT concept could have skipped any number of dissections and still have provided me with much better preparation for handling pseudo-scientific bamboozling. It would have prepared me better for the normal layman's interaction with science than my actual classes did.
And I happen to think that the best way to present any information is in a context that makes it relevant -- shows it as the solution to a problem or challenge -- and the developmental stories in Gould's essays ARE solutions to a problem (and in fact a problem that seems quite obvious to common sense). They ought to be presented as such, and that's actually exactly what Gould does, and that's why they stick in the mind.
The problem of the evolution of complex structures certainly worried me. I was a believer in evolution, but after all my biology classes, I thought about it and couldn't come up with an answer, until I mentioned the problem to a philosophy professor in college and he put me on to Gould. If I hadn't been inclined to believe in evolution, I'd certainly have thought of the problem and I might have just regarded it as a huge flaw in evolutionary theory.

I'm not saying that we should take science students through every twist and turn in the history of science, nor am I suggesting we start them off with Thomas Kuhn. I do feel that science classes, though clearly among the best, most contentful classes in high school, have a tendency to lay down a kind of veneer of scientific technique on top of pre-scientific common sense confusion, without really engaging that pre-scientific common sense or fundamentally affecting the student's world-view. Except among those who eventually become scientists, the veneer is quickly sloughed off after test time, leaving very little real advantage from all that study. I suspect students would learn a lot more physics from a study of Gallileo's dialogue (or some updated version) defending the Copernican system than from a text book that just tells them Newton's laws of motion -- for one thing, they might get an idea how counter-intuitive Newton's first law is (surely some force is needed to keep a body in motion!).
I especially think fairly obvious problems (e.g., evolution of complex structures) should be dealt with as problems -- a presentation that hopes to finesse such questions with an air of authority rather than deal forthrightly with it as a problem (one which has been brilliantly SOLVED), is not going to help.
My emphasis would not be on uncertainty, but rather on how difficult the problem can seem, and then how beautiful and elegant the solution is when you see it.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-22-2008, 01:18 PM
As to the intelligent design "theory," it seems in BN's comments that he excludes an ID that is compatible with evolution. I mean, dont' some of these guys (like the Pope) say, "God is perfectly compatible with evolution. He just jump-started it." I suppose the Adam and Eve story needs some tweaking in this version, but isn't that what most people believe at the end of the day?

ANYONE who believes in God has an implicit intelligent design theory. So to dismiss it entirely is to obliterate the philosophical underpinnings of the American mind.

Something like Paley's argument from design is the natural theoretical competitor of Darwin's theory of evolution, and I believe Darwin was well aware of this. Darwin shows that direct design (God as watchmaker of the animals and plants) is a less adequate explanation of the animals and plants that we actually observe than his own theory. Even a human designer beginning from scratch and designing animals wouldn't engage in all those kluges.
If religion doesn't claim (as "natural theology" used to do) to be the best explanation of the facts, but rather a matter of faith that is consistent with the facts, then there is no immediate competition. If God delegated the design of animals, then he is not their direct designer and the kluges don't cause as much of a problem (though at a philosophical level, they probably still remain something of a problem). My remarks about intelligent design were addressed to quasi-scientific theories claiming that we must invoke an intelligent creator as direct designer of animals and plants (or at least certain parts of animals and plants).

bjkeefe
04-22-2008, 01:24 PM
BN:

Well said, and again, when you detail how you'd like the ideal science class to be taught, I find nothing to dispute.

I don't really have anything more to say on this topic, besides repeating my worry that a lot of high school science teachers are not up to teaching in the way you propose. As you point out, you weren't able to understand some aspects of how evolution worked, even after all the biology that you took in high school, when the concepts are actually not that abstruse.

I also worry in the "camel's nose under the tent" sense -- there are so many fundamentalists out there determined to jam creationism into science classes that I fear an official policy to present it, even just to show how it isn't a satisfactory theory, carries the risk that, eventually, it gets presented as an equally good theory, at least by some teachers. I grant that I'm being a little extreme here, and as I say, in an ideal situation, I wouldn't be so rigid.

Bloggin' Noggin
04-22-2008, 01:43 PM
BN:

I don't really have anything more to say on this topic, besides repeating my worry that a lot of high school science teachers are not up to teaching in the way you propose. As you point out, you weren't able to understand some aspects of how evolution worked, even after all the biology that you took in high school, when the concepts are actually not that abstruse.



But the reason I didn't understand this basic solution was that it wasn't ever faced head-on (as far as I can recall), not because my teachers couldn't have handed me one of Gould's essays.
My science and math teachers in high school were really pretty good, whereas English and Social Studies were kind of a joke.
The biggest problem in the case of evolution (though not in the case of Gallileo's dialogue) is probably political pressure (or the fear of it).
I don't know how it would work out, but I'd be curious to see whether one could co-opt the ID types by saying "sure, we'll teach the controversy" -- and then teach it well, without any claim that "all theories are equal."
Given their attitude toward "values clarification", I don't suppose they'd be happy with that.
I really would like schools to teach students how to think, how to sift information for themselves and how to argue rationally and civilly about things close to their hearts. Especially in a Democracy, that seems like the primary point of education. Given just students and teachers, it would be achievable too, but politics may prevent it.

Wonderment
04-22-2008, 03:27 PM
If God delegated the design of animals, then he is not their direct designer and the kluges don't cause as much of a problem (though at a philosophical level, they probably still remain something of a problem).

Yes, it's another example of religion retreating to an ever smaller sphere of claims as its copes with the advance of science. In that sense, ID as a "scientific" theory is surprising. Most liberal Christians, Jews and Buddhists (the religions I'm most familiar with) had already retreated to the general design explanation; i.e., God can have a universe full of kluges (they don't use that langauge), since He merely creates evolution and lets it play out. Or he creates life and lets evolution do its thing randomly.

My remarks about intelligent design were addressed to quasi-scientific theories claiming that we must invoke an intelligent creator as direct designer of animals and plants (or at least certain parts of animals and plants).

Right. The term ID is ambiguous. It can mean the pseudo-science you -- and presumbaly John Horgan were referring to -- or just a divine Jackson Pollock who splatters the paint of the universe on the canvas. It doesn't require a god either. If we were an "ancestor simulation," for example, we would merely be created by our higher-tech descendants in the future, not Gods.

jhorgan
04-22-2008, 03:49 PM
I would have hurled myself into this moshpit sooner but I couldn't figure out how to register. You'd think BHTV would make it easy for a contributor, but NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

After knocking string theory and multiverses in my talk with Sean Carroll I was a hopelessly naive positivist. Now I'm a know-nothing relativist cuz I stick up for creationists' right to have their say, even if they're obnoxious. From my pov I'm perfectly consistent and reasonable. I ain't no relativist, Brendan, you should know that by now. I believe that scientists can achieve truth, even Truth. It's because they have this enormous power that I hold scientists to extremely high standards, which of course string theorists, SSRI peddlers, evopsychos and many others don't come close to meeting. That's also why I get uncomfortable when scientists act like bullies, whether ridiculing IDiots or insisting that everyone in America sit through a Presidential debate about boring scientific stuff. Scientists are my heros! And that's why I give them a harder time than lesser beings. Hope this clears things up.

Wonderment
04-22-2008, 04:19 PM
Thanks for checking in on the comments, John, for all your books and articles, and for making -- along with George and Carl Zimmer -- Science Saturday the enormously entertaining, illuminating and stimulating program that it invariably is.

bjkeefe
04-22-2008, 04:35 PM
John:

Thanks for checking in. Now that you've overcome the registration hurdle, I hope you'll be back early and often.

In between that post on your blog and your remarks here about holding scientists to a higher standard, I think you've answered most of my questions. Thank you.

In the same spirit, please be aware that because we (I) hold you in high esteem, we (I) will continue to challenge, parse, and dissect everything you say. Hope you see it as us (me) making demands of someone who can live up to them, and not just as mindless carping.

arg11
04-25-2008, 04:08 PM
The quote from Sartre is somewhat off. He didn't say that his writing was just an attempt to get sexual partners. He said, "How do I know that my writing is not just an attempt to get more sexual partners?" In other words, it was not an affirmation, but a questioning of motive.

Bloggin' Noggin
05-08-2008, 09:52 PM
Anyone else see George Johnson on the Colbert Report? He was hawking his new book, _Ten Most Beautiful Experiments_. If George had any reason to resent the Colbert interviewing style, he certainly got his own back. Colbert touches George's apparatus (not as homoerotic as it sounds) and...well let me see if I can find a link...
Here (http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_colbert_report/index.jhtml) it is.

graz
05-08-2008, 10:11 PM
Anyone else see George Johnson on the Colbert Report? He was hawking his new book, _Ten Most Beautiful Experiments_. If George had any reason to resent the Colbert interviewing style, he certainly got his own back. Colbert touches George's apparatus (not as homoerotic as it sounds) and...well let me see if I can find a link...
Here (http://www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_colbert_report/index.jhtml) it is.

I asked the same question in a Life, the universe, etc...
I was half asleep, but it seemed like George was money.