Prepping for Science Debate 2012


Do you think they’ll call it “forensics”?

To get in the political mindset for the upcoming election, Ryan and I recently started watching The West Wing. Well, it was a choice between that and Deadwood, since we just moved to the Wild West. Anyway, in one of our (frequent) pauses to discuss the actors/the script/the overdone music/the similarities or differences to today’s politics, we somehow landed on the topic of the Science Debate. I hadn’t heard about the failed attempt in 2008 to get the presidential candidates to debate science, but this year both President Obama and Governor Romney have agreed to tackle some science, which makes for one debate that I will actually try to watch in full instead of catching the SNL version.

Why have a science debate when a) the candidates aren’t scientists vying for a grant or professorship and b) there are so many other issues of concern, like the economy? Because science is being ignored or outright denied in favor of opinion, and it will have long term effects on our country and the rest of the world.

In light of the recent deaths of Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and the landing of the Mars rover Curiosity, many have wondered what will happen to our once-great space program. If NASA isn’t able to set and then act upon lofty goals, where will innovations in technology and engineering come from? The spreading anti-vaccination mindset is also of national concern, especially in an age where international travel makes the spread of diseases that much easier. It would be good to know not just whether the candidates accept that climate change is an existing phenomenon, but what (if anything) they plan to do about it.

While I think the list of questions for the Science Debate are pretty good, the question about science education is very generalized so I doubt that one topic near and dear to my heart will come up, and that’s evolution. Yes, there’s more to science education than evolution, but I think this one topic can be viewed as a microcosm for a lot of the issues we’ll face with regards to science acceptance.

While I was living in Tennessee, Governor Haslam passed a bill into law that basically allows teachers to talk to students about their reservations about evolution. Upon being asked about my own science background and replying that I had focused on evolution and mechanics of organisms, I was told by both the Zoo where I interned and the middle school science class where I volunteered that they try to avoid the “E” word for fear of controversy. This is a problem! We’d probably think English or Math teachers were not doing their jobs if they refused to deal with Shakespeare or pi, but for some reason we don’t think it’s crazy for biology teachers to not teach a fundamental aspect of the field, one that experts in that field embrace. As Bill Nye recently pointed out, this sort of thinking shortchanges everyone:

  • Kids who go on to take a college-level biology class without understanding the basics of evolution are at a disadvantage. I remember meeting a pre-med undergrad at Cal who didn’t believe in evolution, and wondered how she was going to handle the pre-reqs. These students either have to catch up, coast through their classes, or just be turned off of biology. This means we’re potentially losing out on a whole crop of ecologists, doctors, researchers, and other scientists, which in turn means we’ll be less competitive in a global market. True, people can be convinced by evidence — Ryan is a perfect example, coming from a background that didn’t acknowledge evolution, confronting the topic in college, and going on to get his degree in ecology and evolution. I doubt this is a common occurrence, though.
  • Professors, teachers and scientists are forced to spend time on circular arguments from evolution deniers (arguments that other academic fields don’t face). Then of course there’s the money wasted in court cases about just what counts as science and can be taught in a classroom.
  • Kids who decide early on that biology or science is not for them rarely get another chance in their adult lives to really learn about evolution. They deserve a solid education the first time around, which is such an obvious statement but somehow it still isn’t happening. Now, there are some great museum exhibits and science podcasts out there, and even a few comic books about evolution and Darwin and any other sciency topic you can think of, but you have to know what to look for, and you need to be interested in the first place. Unlike Newton’s apple, science doesn’t always just fall into your lap.
  • Teachers who avoid talking about evolution because they aren’t comfortable with the discussions that may ensue shouldn’t just be allowed to skirt the subject. It’s unfair to the kids, and it’s actually unfair to the teachers, since they’re not reaching their potential. There should be some form of training to help them better understand evolution, and also be better prepared to talk about it with their students (sort of like museum docent training). Additional training and workshops in general would be useful in pretty much any topic, from physics to algebra to geography. Let’s just say that it’s probably a good idea to support teachers in their endeavors to educate, shall we?
  • Not all kids will grow up to be researchers, and that’s ok. However, we do still need a future generation of scientists, and we also need the rest of the population to understand and appreciate what they do, and be able to think critically about the policies, prescriptions and proposals placed in front of them. Sharon Begley called this basic critical thinking BS detection for Bad Science, which is a nicer word for Bull Shit (or to be scientific, bull scat), but you get the idea. Without BS detection, you have people who advocate for laws based on misconceptions of female anatomy and physiology, you have the news media giving equal credence to people who think tides are a mystery, and figuring out which endeavors to fund becomes a total crap shoot.

Now, while I’m glad that people are forcing the presidential candidates to flex their science muscles, I wish we’d hold the members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology a bit more accountable… but that’s a whole other blog post.



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