Teach the Wedge

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In Florida, we have just finished writing new science standards for all grades of public schools. The standards are intended to be a core of fundamentals that will be taught and tested. I am commenting on an email sent to a number of the standards writers by Fred Cutting of Florida. Cutting has some suggestions for the new Florida School Science Standards, and concludes a longish email with these two proposed additions:

1. Standards requiring students to learn about the anomalies to all theories (standard models) including standard models for the origin and evolution of life;

2. Standards requiring students to learn about the abuses and misuses of science in America’s recent history.

Update: now crossposted to Florida Citizens for Science

The first of these is supposed to accomplish many things:

“…teaching in greater depth the basic concepts (theories). To stimulate the creative thinking abilities of the students, the anomalies with the theories should also be taught. By studying/discussing the anomalies, creative thinking will be stimulated. Equally important, such an approach will teach students that we do not have all the answers and that it is the job of scientists to challenge old ideas and make new discoveries. This will give students the freedom to question theories and thereby be creative thinkers. More importantly, it will give them a deeper understanding of the theory being taught.”

Is teaching really that easy? Or will teaching a bunch of alleged anomalies to beginners struggling to grasp the basics just confuse them, or perhaps turn them into sterile contrarians?

In fact the standards writers are already trying to accomplish the high sounding goals. Whatever specific topics serve those ends are already included, within the limitation of not having too many standards. Stressing the process of scientific inquiry, for example, is supposed help those who go into science to be productive and creative.

Who would decide what counts as an anomaly? Would a general rule to teach so called anomalies open the door to crankery? Let’s see what sort of anomalies Cutting has in mind. He is especially concerned with biology, and gives several quotes, for instance

In 1996 biochemist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago stated: “there are no detailed Darwinian accounts for the evolution of any fundamental biochemical or cellular system, only a variety of wishful speculations.”

and later (2001) Franklin Harold said something very similar. James Shapiro’s statement was a bit hyperbolic. Evolution of the Krebs cycle for example was already fairly well understood. Harold’s repetition in 2001 was more hyperbolic, and since then the river of research has become a flood. If you don’t read scientific journals, the archive of The Panda’s Thumb alone will show you a fraction of a percent of recent research and give an idea of what scientists are now able to uncover.

But where is the anomaly? Only in fairly recent times have we had the tools and techniques and accumulated knowledge to allow scientists to dig deeply into evolution at the molecular level in the distant past. Not knowing something before there is means to know it is not an anomaly. Scientific progress is not an anomaly. That research is hard work is not anomalous.

Cutting’s first recommendation singles out the origin of life (OOL):

… anomalies to all theories (standard models) including standard models for the origin and evolution of life;

There are no standard models for the origin of life yet, but nevertheless here is Cutting’s sample anomaly:

The cover story of the June 2007 issue of *Scientific American* starts with the sentence: “The sudden appearance of a large self-copying molecule such as RNA was exceedingly improbable.”

Would a high school student guess that the very next sentence is:

“Energy-driven networks of small molecules afford better odds as the initiators of life”?

And the article ends with this from Stuart Kauffman: “If this is all true, life is vastly more probable than we have supposed. Not only are we at home in the universe, but we are far more likely to share it with as yet unknown companions.” So this article, by Robert Shapiro, is suggesting another path to life than RNA first. Shapiro’s hypothesis is not an anomaly but one of the main ideas in OOL studies. Just how unlikely RNA first is depends on whether one contemplates a long RNA string first (no one does as far as I know) or just a minimal unit; Shapiro dismisses RNA to easily as an insert by Benner shows.

At this point, most readers will not be surprised to learn that Cutting is an active creationist.

Cutting’s second proposed standard: “… learn about the abuses and misuses of science.” is there ostensibly just because it appeals to Cutting. Why not learn about the abuses and misuses of the Constitution, or religion, or indeed fresh water?

Taken together, Cutting’s proposals (along with his version of anomalies) would in effect teach that science, especially evolution, is both wrong and bad. In other words, he is proposing The Wedge Lite. “Teach the anomalies” turns out to be another version of “Teach the controversy”, and Cutting’s second proposal is a step toward the rest of the Wedge.

For those who don’t follow creationism on a daily basis, let me explain a few things about the serious creationist mind. Science is presumed wrong in many important respects, because it just has to be. It is important to lead others to this conclusion. Furthermore, science being wrong is tantamount to creationism being right, which they are now schooled to phrase as “evidence of design”. In the attempt to get this into school curricula they use one euphemism and rhetorical gambit (for instance: it’s only fair to teach “both sides”) after another. They insist that they are not pushing creationism at all. They are merely against “dogmatic”, i.e. correct, science. But whatever the euphemism, if it is accepted it turns out to mean (to them) much of The Index to Creationist Claims.

What sort of evidence that science is wrong do creationists offer? Two main types of evidence are quotations from scientific articles (often used wildly out of context, but even if not, just someone sounding off; see Quotations and Misquotations and The Quote Mine Project) and, believe it or not, new discoveries. Interesting new research is sometimes accompanied by a press release announcing a “revolutionary” discovery or the “first” something or other. Creationists seem to see this as evidence that all previous science in that area was wrong. For instance, Cutting is at pains to tell us that a real expert, Rudolf Raff, liked this book. It is a book of more or less speculative essays on evolution, notably exploring the possible influence of epigenetics. We are only beginning to appreciate the influence of epigenetics in the short term, much less in evolution. There was a NOVA program on short term epigenetic effects just this week. The possibility that epigenetics has been important in evolution is quite intriguing. Why wouldn’t Raff like the book? But in creationism, a new idea means that science is wrong, and Raff’s endorsement of the book shows that experts agree. This sort of thing happens time after time with creationists on the internet. They can’t see why others don’t see it that way.

17 Comments

It’s been a while since I said this but: I hate creationists.

They are lying idiots. They bug me.

I do not hate creationists, I pity them for having become a victim of a destructive cult. Recovery takes time and comes at great efforts, but it can be done. Many have gone down the path.

Now now. The professional creationists intend to bug you. Everyday creationists are our friends and neighbors and dear family members.

Registered User:

It’s been a while since I said this but: I hate creationists.

They are lying idiots. They bug me.

This discussion group is full of anti-Creationist RAID, if you care to check it out:

http://www.care2.com/c2c/group/evol[…]on_education

How about having the schools teach about how religions oppose scientific ideas that are true and oppress and murder scientists. They could start with the torching of Bruno, go through Galileo, and end with the persecutions of two professors in the US midwest a whole 3 months ago.

For a separate course, the religious roots of violence should be taught. The reformation mega massacres which wound down in N. Ireland a few years ago after 400 years of ridiculous warfare. This could even be a current events class.

So far this year: A Xian terrorist has threatened to kill more than a few evolutionary biologists.

Shiites and Sunnis kill each other daily in the ME as do the Israelis and Palestinians.

The Hindus and Moslems mix it up routinely.

Unlike creationism, the above are true and well documented. You can even watch some of this on the evening TV news.

raven Wrote:

They could start with the torching of Bruno, go through Galileo, and end with the persecutions of two professors in the US midwest a whole 3 months ago.

According to the Wedge Document, Darwin and Naturalism are the causes of all the atrocities in the world. Apparently everything before that was just the deity’s people “doing the right thing” as commanded by their holy book.

Are they are now feeling thwarted by the rise of rationality or do they think there was no history before Darwin? We never hear them explain the atrocities in their own holy book, or the Crusades, or all the other nasty things that happened before Darwin showed us how to be bad.

The anomalous thing about biology is that science denialists, especially creationists, are focusing on it.

This is something we should note at every opportunity, also in the class room. It also the reason why scientists in general makes an extra effort to support biology.

this book

Which book? The search link seems bro ken.

Link for book http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/ite[…]&ttype=2

_))(^&^% Links were tested before posting, but I see now that “&” in the link was changed into “&”.

Book info: Origination of Organismal Form Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology Edited by Gerd B. Müller and Stuart A. Newman

Table of Contents and Sample Chapters

The field of evolutionary biology arose from the desire to understand the origin and diversity of biological forms. In recent years, however, evolutionary genetics, with its focus on the modification and inheritance of presumed genetic programs, has all but overwhelmed other aspects of evolutionary biology. This has led to the neglect of the study of the generative origins of biological form.

Drawing on work from developmental biology, paleontology, developmental and population genetics, cancer research, physics, and theoretical biology, this book explores the multiple factors responsible for the origination of biological form. It examines the essential problems of morphological evolution–why, for example, the basic body plans of nearly all metazoans arose within a relatively short time span, why similar morphological design motifs appear in phylogenetically independent lineages, and how new structural elements are added to the body plan of a given phylogenetic lineage. It also examines discordances between genetic and phenotypic change, the physical determinants of morphogenesis, and the role of epigenetic processes in evolution. The book discusses these and other topics within the framework of evolutionary developmental biology, a new research agenda that concerns the interaction of development and evolution in the generation of biological form. By placing epigenetic processes, rather than gene sequence and gene expression changes, at the center of morphological origination, this book points the way to a more comprehensive theory of evolution.

Gerd B. Müller is Professor and Head of the Department of Theoretical Biology at the University of Vienna. He is a coeditor of Origination of Organismal Form (MIT Press, 2003) and Environment, Development, Evolution (MIT Press, 2003).

Stuart A. Newman is Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy at New York Medical College.

Endorsements

“This volume challenges the primacy of both neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and developmental genetics as complete explanations for the phenomena of evolutionary developmental biology. The contributors take a refreshing variety of approaches to classic problems such as homology, developmental constraints, modules, and roles for environmental factors in development. This original and well-argued contribution is essential reading for anyone interested in the evolution-development synthesis.” –Rudolf A. Raff, Distinguished Professor of Biology, Indiana University

Thanks Tor

”…but I see now that “&” in the link was changed into “&”.”

Huh? In my comment above, it got changed back, so you can’t see what I meant. Oh well, it’s late and Dr Who is on. hmm, that changed part of the link is something like the Tardis: larger on the inside.

Pete, thanks, that part of the post is clearer now.

It was a software issue. I’ve now fixed it.

Cutting has missed something very, very basic. An statement doesn’t count as an anomaly for a theory. Only some sort of established/verified fact or observation can be an anomaly.

Otherwise, I quite like the idea of teaching about recent abuses of science. I’m presuming, of course, that he’s talking about the Bush administration.

Cutting’s somewhat unusual (one might say anomalous) usage of the word anomaly to refer to counterarguments rather than atypical phenomena has some precendent. The Ohio science education standards of a few years ago use the word in the same way. I think we can probably trace back Cutting’s inspiration not so much to the Wedge Document as to the Ohio standards, and thus perhaps to Icons of Evolution, which inspired them.

Maybe the NCSE should come up with a handbook for teaching the anomalies in Creation Science. Starting with, why would Genesis describe a day as “the evening and the morning” unless the authors thought the earth was flat? If you want to teach kids anomalies, it makes more sense to pick a theory like creationism where anomalies are thick on the ground. Surely, if Cutting is only interested in teaching critical thinking he can’t object, can he? Can he?

“Teaching abuses of science” : well, perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to teach how science is being abused for political and/or religious reasons. Mooney’s “Republican War on Science” would be a good textbook, but isn’t it a bit of a hard read for schoolkids ?

And talking about ID/creationism, just read today that the new governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal is a proponent of “intelligent design” as an alternative theory to evolution, suggesting it may be appropriate in school science classes.

Louisiana, Bobby Jindal is a proponent of “intelligent design”

Oh gee. Louisiana has so many problems. Not least, their major city New Orleans was destroyed by a hurricane and hasn’t been rebuilt to any great extent.

To make things worse, it will always be below sea level and the flood control structures failed once and probably aren’t much better this time around.

Plus more than the usual amount of social problems.

Doesn’t this clown have anything better to do than violate the US constitution and feed lies to little kids?

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Pete Dunkelberg published on October 20, 2007 12:25 PM.

Science v Intelligent Design: Denyse O’leary to teach a pastoral class on ID was the previous entry in this blog.

Science v Intelligent Design: Behe versus ERV 0-2 is the next entry in this blog.

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