Teaching Scientific Thinking

Finally, I’m answering comments that others posted to the entry below, on teaching evolution and Intelligent Design in public schools. If you’re just arriving, you might start by reading the next entry down, and then the comments that others added. I’m starting with a new entry because a lot of visitors don’t drill down to the comments. But take a look: there’s thoughtful discussion there.

Okay. Following my assertion that we ought not to pretend the Intelligent Design contingent doesn’t exist when we teach evolution in schools, Norton said:

High school science…rarely teaches about the process of science. It usually presents the results of scientific research that has been published and evaluated by the scientific community… Evaluating scientific claims is not easy…If we are going to start presenting dubious scientific claims to high school students, we would also need to modify the curriculum to spend considerably more time talking about the philosophy of science and how different claims are evaluated.

Yes, and yes. I think there’s a serious gap in our high school (and middle school) curricula on precisely this score. There might be less time to teach facts if we devoted time to talking about how to assess claims, but I think that’s a tradeoff well worth making. Norton was lucky enough to go to a high school that had a philosophy class, but I doubt that many school do—and even if they did, what percentage of kids would take them?

And yet, all kids are headed into a world that’s full of claims, whether about the latest diet, or UFOs, or Intelligent Design, or how to avoid a heart attack, or the latest from the Hubble telescope. Not all claims are equal. But do we teach kids to distinguish among them? I don’t think so. Not nearly well enough, anyway.

I’m not talking about assessing claims at the PhD level. I’m talking about doing it as ordinary citizens—the way web-savvy people must learn to evaluate the trustworthiness of things they read on the net.

Face it, when we teach science in middle and high school, we’re not teaching most kids to become scientists. We’re teaching them to become informed citizens. They’re going out into a world that’s awash with purported facts, and they aren’t going to have peer-reviewed journals at their sides. But they might have a better chance of applying reasonable judgment to claims if they have some idea of how science is done, and why findings that have passed peer review and been supported by follow-up research are more reliable. Otherwise, why should they believe Discover Magazine over The National Inquirer? Why should they pay attention to the “scientific establishment,” which from time to time appears arrogant, disconnected from ordinary people, and filled with researchers who fake data? Why, in fact, do a large number of people in the U.S. distrust science?

When I suggest that Intelligent Design (ID) ought to be addressed in the school curriculum, I don’t mean to teach it as a co-equal with evolution, but to raise it for discussion in the above context. I wouldn’t mind seeing this happen in middle school. In fact, I wouldn’t mind seeing a unit in the curriculum addressing a range of fringe science, doubtful science, and pseudoscience. Don’t just stand at a distance and dismiss the claims, but talk about where the claims fall short (as they generally do), and how to make reasonable judgments when confronted by claims. And yes, how to recognize the boundaries between faith and science. (Not to set up one as superior to the other, but to clarify that they are different, and they serve different functions in life.)

In short, do a little teaching in how to think.

Evolution and Intelligent Design in the Classroom

I said I was going to write on producing video next, but so much interesting stuff about the Evolution/Intelligent Design controversy in science teaching has crossed my radar screen recently that I just have to hit that first. (My wife says I’m guilty of bait-and-switch. Sigh.)

“The Connection” on NPR had a good segment the other day (which you can listen to online), featuring two biology teachers, one a proponent of teaching evolution only, and the other calling for adding Intelligent Design to the curriculum. Everyone agreed, at least, that you have to make clear what science can and cannot answer. One telephone caller, after noting her own belief in an intelligent designer, went on to say that the discussion of it belongs in the philosophy or religion class, not the science class.

That’s a position I used to hold, but I’m wavering. In one form or another, the belief in a guiding intelligence is a part of the national landscape (whether it’s creationism and biblical literalism, or so-called Intelligent Design theory, which claims to apply scientific inquiry to the question of whether evolution is a blind, random process or a guided process). I forget the numbers from the latest polls, but a huge majority of Americans believe in a creative intelligence behind it all. That’s not going to go away, and how we treat it affects how scientific inquiry is understood and perceived in the U.S. I don’t think we’re doing our young people any favors by teaching the theory of evolution without any reference to the other viewpoints.

My friend Rich says if he were a science teacher, he wouldn’t want to touch Intelligent Design—because, for one thing, you’d risk being seen as attacking people’s religious beliefs, and for another, you’d be implicitly legitimizing fake science, or at least empty science. (God of the Gaps: if you can’t explain the complexity, it must be the design-work of God.) I grant the danger. I haven’t seen anything convincing yet in the science writing of Intelligent Design proponents. (For a good read on this, look at http://www.actionbioscience.org/evolution/nhmag.html, where three proponents of Intelligent Design present their views, each responded to by a proponent of evolution. One of the respondents is Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist from Brown and author of Finding Darwin’s God, who notes his own philosophical belief in a designer, but finds no merit in the scientific claims of the ID writer.)

But the thing is: What a great opportunity to teach real scientific and critical thinking! Why can’t the question be raised? (Beyond the political agenda—more on that in a second.) Maybe, probably, it is outside the realm of what science can or cannot answer. But how will we know if we don’t ask the question? How can students understand the strengths and limitations of science if we rule one of the most interesting (and toughest) questions out of the arena? How can they learn to evaluate scientific claims if they don’t look at controversial claims as well as widely accepted claims? If there’s any value to the scientific claims of the ID people, let’s look for it. If there’s no value, let’s show students why.

Heretic! you say. How dare you insult my religion?! Wait a minute…who said anything about your religion? I’m not attacking your religion. I didn’t even mention it. We’re talking about scientific evidence or lack of evidence. Maybe science can’t show any evidence of God; that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist, it just means we have no testable, repeatable scientific evidence. Or maybe we just haven’t found it yet. What would really be an insult would be to dismiss your claims of evidence without even discussing them.

Well, okay—maybe it’s not going to be that easy. But how easy is the present situation?

The real thorn here is the real or perceived hidden agenda. Is all this just a ruse to get religion—specifically, conservative Christian religion—into the schools? For some proponents, I’m sure it is. For others, I don’t know. It’s a real danger. The religious divide in America is threatening to tear this country apart. And I don’t mean the divide between Christians and those stinkin’ secular humanists—I mean the divide between those who want to impose their own particular brand of faith on the rest of us, and…well, the rest of us. And the rest of us includes Christians, Jews, Muslims…and yes, secular humanists.

Are we caving to the agenda if we talk about intelligent design (lower case) in the same classroom as evolution? Maybe. But if we bar the doors and hope they go away, aren’t we just deepening the divide? What are kids to think who believe in ID or creationism, but aren’t given the tools to examine for themselves whether it’s real science, or another kind of thinking camouflaged by the words of science?

It’s not an easy question. But if we don’t teach the thinking skills, we’re in trouble.

For more on this, read The Slate’s What Matters in Kansas: The evolution of creationism and Creation vs. Intelligent Design: Is There a Difference?

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow—Unless You Videotape

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Well, the play is over, and I am reaaally tired. The play was “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by our local children’s theater. (“Children” being defined as from about ages 7 to 17. A wonderful chance for kids of various ages to work together, become friends with each other, miss each other when it’s over, and look forward to the next time they’re together again. This group draws from a number of towns, so it really does break down boundaries. And because most of the work is done by parent volunteers, it’s affordable for everyone.)

But I digress. The play was terrific. Both my daughters had a great time—one as Philostrate, and one as Quince—both parts usually for guys, but who cares. I’m the only one for whom it’s not over, actually. I videotaped it, and now I get to make DVDs for all the families. I bring this up mainly as a lead-in to a future blog entry, which I don’t have energy to write now. (I’ve got that book to finish, you know?)

People keep asking me how I get from tape in the camcorder to video DVDs, just using my computer. So that’s what I want to write about next.

Award Categories

Seems I created a little confusion with my post about the Nebulas. Here are the formal definitions, quoted from the Nebula® Rules:

  • Short Story: less than 7,500 words.
  • Novelette: at least 7,500 words but less than 17,500 words.
  • Novella: at least 17,500 words but less than 40,000 words.
  • Novel: 40,000 words or more. At the author’s request, a novella-length work published individually, rather than as part of a collection or an anthology, shall appear in the novel category.

I believe the Hugo Award uses the same (or very similar) definitions.

The Nebula, by the way, is awarded yearly by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and is a peer award voted on by the active membership of SFWA, or at least those who have time to read.

The Hugo is awarded yearly by the membership of the annual World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon), and is a fan award. (Some of those fans are also members of SFWA, but most are simply avid readers and, well, fans.)

If you’d like to know more about the Nebula Awards, browse the many entries on SFWA’s Nebula Awards page.

Nebula Awards ® 2005

The results are in from the Nebula Awards ceremony held last weekend in Chicago. Here are the winners:

  • Best Novel: Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Eos, Oct03)
  • Best Novella: “The Green Leopard Plague” by Walter Jon Williams (Asimov’s, Oct/Nov 2003)
  • Best Novelette: “Basement Magic” by Ellen Klages (F&SF, May03)
  • Best Short Story: “Coming to Terms” by Eileen Gunn (Stable Strategies and Others, Tachyon Publications, Sep 2004)
  • Best Script: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson (New Line Cinema)
  • Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement in the field: Anne McCaffrey

Congratulations to all the winners, and all the nominees!

More info at: http://www.sfwa.org/news/05nebwin.htm
Photos at the MidAmerican Fan Photo Archive http://www.midamericon.org/photoarchive/05neb01.htm

Young Adult Award Coming
Next year, for the first time, the Science Fiction Writers of America will be presenting an award for outstanding young adult science fiction/fantasy, with the first annual Andre Norton Award—to be awarded concurrently with the Nebulas.

Acting and Theater

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My younger daughter is passionate about acting in theater, and last summer played the part of Huck Finn in our local theater group’s production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We were all amazed by the way the kids (who came not just from our town but surrounding towns as well) gelled, after spending six weeks working together. The camaraderie was astounding. They cried by email for weeks afterward, when it was over. We just had a fun reunion: a bunch of the group got together to see another kids’ theater put on the same show. The spirit hasn’t diminished a bit since last August.

It was interesting to see how differently two theater groups can put on the same show. For me, it was the first chance I’d had to compare two productions like this, in a close time frame. The differences in the sets, in the selection and presentation of songs and live orchestra, the interpretations of characters by the actors (our group had 2 casts, and both Hucks were played by girls). And, since I ran the sound board in our theater, some of the technical tricks! (I’m definitely an amateur, but I’ve now done sound for several of our big shows, and I enjoy it.)

For a change, this weekend, I’m doing lights—both daughters are performing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I can’t wait to see it.

Faramir — or Jar-Jaromir?

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No, tsmacro, you weren’t the only one bothered by what the LOTR movie did to Faramir! (I’m responding, by the way, to a comment posted to the blog entry directly below this one.)

Have you seen Jar-Jaromir? You must look. Click the link.

Oh—and I’m glad you like the blog!

Questions about Writing #5: Personal Perspective

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I got an email the other day from a college student, who said he was doing a paper on my work, and would I answer a few questions? Now, if that isn’t flattering, I don’t know what is. I wrote the answers to his questions, then thought—wait, this is blogstuff. (Is that a word? It should be, if it’s not.)

He asked why I became a science fiction writer. My answer:

Because SF was what I always loved to read as a kid, in college, and after college. I got some early encouragement from my family and a couple of teachers, who thought I had some talent for writing. So when I set out to write some stories, it was just natural that I wrote SF. It’s still my favorite form of literature, though I don’t have as much time for reading now as I once did. I love SF because it challenges the mind, stretches the imagination, and takes us to fascinating times and places that we probably won’t get to visit in the flesh. It lets me think about science and art and the human spirit, and a lot of other things, all wrapped up in one. (I also love, as a writer, sticking my characters into strange realities and seeing how they react.)

What’s my favorite book?

Oddly, it’s not SF–it’s fantasy. The Lord of the Rings. I’ve read it at least 15 times. I love Tolkien’s visions, and I love Middle Earth for its magical likeness, and yet distinctiveness from, our own world. I love the mountains of Middle Earth, the forests, the Ents, the elves. And somehow this book hooked me as no other book has in its portrayal of the eternal struggle between good and evil, and the price paid for victory.

Why do I live in New England?

I came East as a college student, and never left. I love the land here, the ocean, the history, the intellectual ferment of all the universities and the culture. And the New England fall–you just can’t beat it.

Thanks, Jeff from Plymouth State University, for giving me a blog topic!