One Long Argument:
One small primate helping to defend science education against the advance of neocreationism.
Monday, August 08, 2005
August and everything after

You don't want to waste your life baby
As August began, President Bush answered a reporter's question by saying both evolution and intelligent design should be taught in school. If you didn't know that already, you've been far, far away from the political or scientific corners of the blogworld. A part of the reaction has been compiled by PZ Myers of Pharyngula here.

Because I don't get no sleep in a quiet room and...
Among those responding online was UWM paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who argues that "there has been far too much foaming at the mouth, and far too little constructive thought . . . Scientists cannot defeat this . . . with extremism." PZ replies:
screw the polite words and careful rhetoric. It's time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots. If you don't care enough for the truth to fight for it, then get out of the way.
Frankly, I don't think PZ takes this issue seriously enough. Now is not the time for soothing words! But anyway, Hawks says something I find very interesting:
The task of science education should be to explain scientific failures as well as successes, by explaining how science leads to changes in ideas. Right now, science education does a really bad job of this.

So people turn to common sense. Common sense expects fairness. It is usually more important to people than correctness. And rightly so: most people will never be judged by their knowledge of the scientific method, but everyone is judged by whether they are fair in their dealings with other people. Advocates of creationism -- including intelligent design -- have had their greatest successes by arguing that presenting a critique of evolutionary theory is fair in a way that science classes presently are not.
And this, of course, made me think of the Wason selection task.

Imagine I lay four two-sided cards down on the tabe:

E                      R                      2                      7

I tell you that if there is a vowel on one side of the card, then there is an odd number on the other. Of course, I'm a dirty Darwin-believing atheist lacking any objective moral standard, so I could be lying. So, using the least number of moves, which cards would you have to turn over to see if I'm telling the truth?

Ok, so you almost certainly turned over the E. Then you either stopped or turned over the 7. That would put you in with about 90% of people. The E is good but not sufficient, and the 7 doesn't tell you anything helpful. You would have had to turn over the E and the 2, the card that could disprove the rule by having a vowel on the other side. (If you did, congratulations. Only about 6% of college students picked this - and you probably have something in common with them.)

Pass me a bottle, Mr. Jones
Huh? Well, before we go on, let's try something slighly different. Pretend I lay down four more two-sided cards:

16                      21                      Beer                      Coke

People under 21 can't drink beer. Imagine you're a harried bartender and the cards are people at the bar. Spending the least time possible, who would you have to check to make sure that everything was all legal?

Ok, you picked 16 and Beer, and with hardly a moment's thought, too. The first task was a clear-cut but fairly abstract problem of formal logic. The second was the same (or similar - there's a debate) task as the first, but using familar social rules and experiences. Why the difference?

Why? I don't know
There are various interpretations (of course). It's been argued that this is evidence: for a domain-specific module in the brain that evolved to detect cheaters, that the two tasks aren't the same, that people are drawing (or not) on background knowledge, that they're relying on everyday language use and misunderstanding the question, or that they're using "a Bayesian decision making process" (this whole discussion is based on Mixing Memory's quite comprehensible post on the subject). Y'all 90-percentagers aren't just wrong in that first example - something else is going on.

And every time she sneezes I believe it's love
Mixing Memory discusses the idea that instead of using formal abstract logic and rationality the way they're supposed to, people often use heuristics, quick-and-dirty commonsensical rules of thumb used to "make decisions, come to judgments and solve problems, typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information". They're eminently practical, and mostly reliable, but under some circumstances can lead to certain biases. One example is the availability heuristic, when people figure out the probability of an event going by how easy it is to imagine (makes sense, right?). In such cases, "vividly described, emotionally-charged possibilities will be perceived as being more likely than those that are harder to picture or are difficult to understand". One illustration immediately presents itself, given the nature of the discussion. (Around this time last year, Louis Menard had a very interesting article in the New Yorker involving heuristics and voter behavior.) I could go on, but one large category of examples seem to be the result of commonsense, practical social rules and expectations coming into conflict with formal logic. (Others just seem to show that people think really funny.)

Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Hawks' fairness is a cultural value, for certain kinds of talk; it's also a kind of heuristic. Do you have two competing views that you maybe don't know much about? Teach them both! Let people make up their minds. The truth is probably in-between. Split the difference. In many cases, this would be a good decision. In certain specific ones, it's nonsense (the classic example being whether 2+2 equals 4 or 6). In our case, why evolution and not ID should be taught in science class, many people don't have all that much information. Giving them more is a standard and important response ("while in everyday English a "theory" means just a guess . . . "). At the same time, it's something that is presented in fairly abstract logical terms, not concrete everyday-social-world ways. This can't help.

When I think of heaven
Of course, this is only one aspect. Varieties of religious belief plays a major role, from subtly tilting people in favor of ID (this sounds familar, like my beliefs) to drastically tilting people away from evolution (isn't it anti-God?). And don't forget politics. But there's a more interesting question. What gets people thinking using all that crazy logic anyways? So let's move from soused 16-year-olds to the ideas of a former Swiss zoologist and schoolteacher.

She says "Shhh I know it's only in my head"
That would be developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who had a major influence on education theory. Piaget argued that little people went through different stages of cognitive development, resulting from brain growth, the child's process of discovery, and the attempt to match what's in our heads with what's outside (either through adding to what we know or, if that won't work, eventually modifying/replacing the ways we interpret things). In a sense, the Piagetian child is like a Kuhnian scientist. Or something. One of the things Piaget and folks in this tradition did was to give children simple tasks and ask them questions. For example, pouring water from a narrow glass to a wide one and asking them what happened to the amount of water. Showing them a picture of blue flowers and yellow flowers and asking whether there were more blue flowers or more flowers. Having them pick out a picture that showed a differently placed doll's perspective on a scene.

"Oh", she says, "you're changing." But we're always changing
The results seemed to indicate that children were bizarre creatures who thought there was more water in the narrow glass than the wide one, more blue flowers than total flowers, etc. Children who when shown pairs of sticks could easily figure out that if stick A was longer than stick B, and stick B was longer than stick C, then A must be longer than C, were stumped when asked a hypothetical version of the question (that sounds familar, somehow). Now, being science, Piaget's ideas were ruthlessly tested, probed with greater intensity than a convention hall full of alien abductees. Some of his findings have held up, and many haven't. In some cases, it seem that other factors (to some degree, a kind of cognitive overload on young children's developing facilities) partially explain these oddities; in others, it seems he was on to something. In my child development textbook (Berk, 2003), the main source for this description, while Piaget's account "is no longer fully accepted, researchers are a long way from consensus on how to modify or replace it" (and the book goes on to present a variety of approaches, none of which, however, rely on divine intervention or other non-scientific factors).

It's been years since we were born
Abstract thinking skills? Piaget saw them as part of the formal operational stage, beginning around 11 years of age and extending into adulthood. Here research has been fairly kind to our Swiss friend. While younger children aren't completely illogical (honest!), they run into pretty drastic difficulties compared to adolescents and adults. Specifically, they have serious problems with propositional thought (abstract logic divorced from real-world experience) and hypthetico-deductive reasoning, a whopper of a word that ends translating into something very close to 'scientific thinking.' Even many college students and adult just hit a wall with (the often highly academic) formal operational tasks - but they do much better in terms of situations they're more familar with. The more academic training one has, the better one does in terms of discipline-related problems. In some cultures and settings, it seems that people never manage formal operational tasks - or more accurately, they refuse to indulge your bizarre and useless flights of hypothetical fancy, but often have the capacity (especially, I hear, if you ask them something like how a complete fool might answer). The abilities and usages Piaget was getting at clearly have something to do with education.

I am not worried - I am not overly concerned
But what does all this have to do with science education and the ID debacle? One occasional claim from pro-science people is that we should teach the controversy!, as a way to help students understand how science works. It will, they say, liven up the class, adding some drama while supplying illustrative, relevant examples. Plus, they add, students will come to realize how ID isn't science after all, and this whole controversy just a tempest in a Victorian teapot.

But then I start to think about the consequences
And in some cases, that might be the case. However, there is reason to think that it's not at all that simple. We've seen, for example, that people may tend to view easy-to-understand, "vividly described, emotionally charged possibilities" as more likely than "harder to picture . . . difficult to understand" ones. Under many circumstances, I suspect any such contest between ID and evolution would just be a complete beat-down (the image I get is ID mocking a stunned, swaying Chuck Darwin before executing a Mortal Kombat-style fatality upon him, such as ripping out his head and spine and displaying it the cheering crowds), although I haven't seen research specifically examining this. Additionally, many of the adolescents in 9th and 10th grade biology classes will still be struggling with the kind of thinking. Presenting it in such a emotionally loaded form will not necessarily help them master it; indeed, it may make it harder. Nor should one assume that the resolution will be as obvious to all fourteen-to-sixteen year-olds as it would to college-educated adults having undergone some degrees of rigorous academic training.

Does he tell you when you're wrong?
One topic in science education is the existence of misconceptions, or naive theories: scientifically inaccurate ideas students may have formed about various science topics. These are extremely hard to change. More perniciously, students harboring such misconceptions can go through school putting the right answers on tests, with the truth only coming to light after more accurate assessments are performed. The student may simply pick the answer they know the teacher wants, or possibly a concept or fact is temporarily memorized only to fade away due to lack of intellectual rootedness. Since much of science education builds on previous knowledge, it can end up perched on a very shaky foundation indeed (Martin, Sexton, & Gerlovitch, 2001; Victor & Kellough, 2004). Seemingly successful controversy-teaching may conceal deep-seated misunderstandings.

But what would you change if you could?
Now, perhaps more realistic and relevant settings - such as a ID/evolution debate - would help teachers do a better job of education and assessment. However, as we've seen above, this might not be developmentally appropriate for 9th or 10th graders, given both cognitive development and the heavy emotional significance of the topic (older adolescents might be a different story; this very well could be a good college exercise).

but I'm sure there's something in a shade of gray
The legal definition of heuristics, after all, is another kind of rule of thumb used when "when case-by-case analysis would be impractical." Examples include the legal drinking age (or driving age, enlistment, or age of consent). Certainly adolescents differ in their level of maturity (sometimes from minute to minute). Nevertheless, it's not legally practical to decide on an individual basis when people are able to make mature decisions about drinking (etc.), so we settle on a more or less reasonable, hopefully good-enough age. Should we attempt to do so for this issue? Perhaps.

Because I'm lonely for the big towns
Anyway, one odd feature of such pro-science teach-'em-both suggestions is an apparent belief that high school science classrooms and students somehow exist ex nihilo, hermetically sealed away from outside influences. This is nonsense. Communities matter. (And families. And even former pro football player endorsements.) I have on my kitchen table a study asking why evolution seems intrinsically harder to understand than creationism (Evans, 2001). It argues, as far as I understand, that exposure to evidence can help students "suspend [apparently intuitive beliefs] . . . and shift towards an evolutionary explantion . . ." but in creationist contexts where such beliefs are "not only reified but also deified," this will likely not be sufficient. I hope to write more about this soon; until then, here's an article about teaching evolution at Rock Bridge High School, MO - part of a series in the Columbia Missourian.

Berk, L. (2003). Human development (6th ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Evans, E. M. (2001). Cognitive and contextual factors in the emergence of diverse belief systems: Creation versus evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 42, 217-266

Martin , R., Sexton, C., & Gerlovich, J. (2001). Teaching science for all children (3rd ed.) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Victor, E., & Kellough, R. D. (2004). Science K-8: An integrated approach (10th ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

And remember, if you show a young child a row of several stones, spread them out, and ask them if the number of stones changed, they may have trouble for high numbers of stones (ie, 5 or 6); however, if you tell them that a magic bunny moved the stones, they will (apparently) do better.

No, I have no idea why.

If I did, I suspect I would understand a great deal about how religion works. And no, I honestly don't mean that in a mocking "your God is like Santa Claus/the Easter Bunny/a magic fairy/a Neolithic sky god" way.* One of religion's jobs is (often) moral development, and while a lot of this involves communal/interpersonal interaction, something like this may help explain how individuals can move beyond where they are . . . (regardless of any other factors that might lay outside the realm of even social-science hypothesizing).

* Unless your God is a Neolithic sky god, in which case that's certainly fine. Really! Uh-oh. Otzi's gonna get all glaciated on my behind . . .

Section headings from Counting Crows' (1993) debut album, August and Everything After. Of course.

posted by Dan S. on 12:40 PM |

"As this whole volume is one long argument, it may be convenient to the reader to have the leading facts and inferences briefly recapitulated . . ."
Charles Darwin, "On The Origin of Species"

The debate: FAQs and facts
Science and creationism (NAS)

National Center for Science Education
Defending the teaching of evolution in public schools: with evolution/creationism news updates and many resources.
Understanding Evolution
Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science
Evolution - Education and Teaching

Grandeur in this view of life . . .
Tree of Life web project
Evolutionn Entrance (UCMP)
Evolution (PBS)
BBC Education: Evolution
Macroevolution (UTexas)

TalkOrigin's Index of Creationist Claims.
Find them all here!

The law
Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)
McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1981)
More to come

Pending legislation
Ongoing attempts to mandate the teaching of neocreationism in science classes
New York State Bill 8036 (died in committee)
Pennsylvania House Bill 1007

In the schools
Dover, PA
Dover biology: Ongoing reporting from the York Daily Record
Dover C.A.R.E.S. Intelligent Design FAQ

Science/evolution-ish blogs
Transitions: The Evolution of Life
The Panda's Thumb
The Loom
Evolution Blog
Evolving Thoughts
Philosophy of Biology
Thoughts From Kansas
Red State Rabble
The Questionable Authority
Unscrewing the Inscrutable
The Biology Refugia
Deinonychus antirrhopus
Law, Evolution Science, and Junk Science

The Evolution Project: Documenting evolutionary biology being used!

Intelligent Design

The infamous Wedge Document. Read it!
Uncommon Descent
More to come!

The library (shelving in progress)
On The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
Chance in the House of Fate: A Natural History of Heredity, by Jennifer Ackerman
Tower of Babel: The Evidence against the New Creationism, by Robert T. Pennock
Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological, and Scientific Perspectives, by Robert T. Pennock (Ed.)
Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution, by Kenneth R. Miller
Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Carroll Forrest and Paul R. Gross
At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea, by Carl Zimmer

Master Planned: Why intelligent Design Isn't, by H. Allen Orr, The New Yorker
Wedging Creationism into the Academy, by Barbara Forrest and Glenn Branch, Academe
The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name, by Jerry Coyne, The New Republic


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