Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Teaching, Learning & "Covering" Science

In response to an very interesting discussion on teaching
evolution on the National Science Teachers Association
(NSTA) Biology list server, I had this to say...

A major problem with most curricula is that they are
primarily about "covering" large amounts of materials
rather than developing a robust conceptual understanding
of fundamental biological principles – there is little (that is,
not enough) time to learn and solidify the conceptual
foundations upon which modern biology is based.

This approach leaves students vulnerable, because they
retain many unacknowledged misconceptions about
science in general, and biology in particular (it is worth
looking at the video "A private universe" if you get a chance

Students often harbor very deeply held ideas about
randomness, mutation, selection, cellular continuity,
biological diversity, the relationship between genotype
and phenotype, the mechanisms and logic of reproductive
isolation, and how biological processes occur at the
molecular level, etc.

If these misconceptions are not directly addressed, they
remain to sabotage student understanding.

As a community, we need to take a more active stand to
bring back into line what content can be realistically covered,
based on the assumption that our goal is conceptual
understanding, rather than the ability of students to remember
the correct answers.

Working with some high school biology teachers last
summer, we started to devise a basic biology concept map
- if you have comments, I would l love to hear about them. 20concept_Web_PNG/index.html

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Counting on Religion to Defend Science?

Recently there was a furor over a comments made by
Cardinal Schönborn concerning the Roman Catholic
Church's position on the question of evolution.

The Cardinal claims that "evolution in the neo-Darwinian
sense is not true"  and that there is "overwhelming
evolution for design in biology".

What is somewhat surreal about this situation is the suprise of
some scientists at this statement; clearly they are not taking the
fundamental supernatural premise of the Church seriously, a mistake.

[click here for the response of
a number of Austrian scientists
- published in Science]

Often scientists, myself included, find it difficult to believe that
anti-scientific beliefs are strongly held, but they are. 

The same church that burnt Giordano Bruno and silenced Galileo is, perhaps, not the most reliable (or appropriate) partner in
defending the scientific enterprise.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Arguing with the anti-scientific...

What makes the science vs. anti-science debate so futile (from a scientist's or science educator's point of view) is that over-whelming evidence for one position has no apparent impact on its doctrinaire (and fundamentally irrational) opponents.

If creationist/anti-science ideologs were open to argument (or for that matter honest about their prejudices or true agenda), then discussion might be worthwhile.

There are, of course, many historical examples where the tentative nature of science has been forgotten by people who have attempted to the authority of science to support their political/ideological positions (think slavery and racist eugenics) - but the religious attack on rationality is despicable primarily because of its dishonest tactics.

Only the backing of the fundamentalist religious groups keeps this debate alive at all - from a scientific perspective there is no point in backing a bankrupt and obsolete position (although there still people trying to patent perpetual motion/free energy machine, advocating a flat-earth or trying to sell homeopathy).

As far as I can tell, the only appropriate response to anti-rationalist attacks on the scientific enterprise is to ignore or ridicule them.