Teach the Wedge

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.