Monday, February 25, 2013

Yabba-dabba-doo-doo! Dino and Friends take an outing

Some things aren't actually concocted by Hollywood even if they seem so implausible that they must be in some sort of animated fantasy film.  If it's true, and not just a joke, that Oklahoma is about to pass a law that makes it illegal to fail students in science classes if they disagree with actual scientific findings ("academic freedom"), then Hollywood has a competitor, and it's not Bollywood.

Creation Museum diorama; Wikipedia
If one can assert that people were contemporary with dinosaurs then there isn't much one can't assert.   Actually, years ago there was a professor (not named Barney Rubble) where I was a graduate student who actually taught that.  Well, evolution wasn't his specialty, so one can be forgiving!

The fact that with all the money and effort we spend on education, all the TV shows that make even more money purveying hyper-excited science, magazines, videos, and so on, we still have not just a trivial fraction of people who could possibly hold the views that apparently represent the majority of the citizens of Oklahoma (or, at least, the drubs they elect to the legislature), is a remarkable fact.

The problem here is that this legislation is not a corrective to over-stated or over-confident science, which certainly does exist.  Hyperbole is the order of the day.  And it must be said that a lot of, if not the majority of scientists teaching subjects like biology at the university level are filtering through their particular take on the unknowns.  Students may rarely be aware of this, given the tendency to oversimplify or overstate.  But this isn't a matter of blind anti-sciencism!

Dino and Friends take an outing!
Similarly, who are we passing through our schools of education and then certifying to teach K-12 science?  It is said that in some Scandinavian countries, to get such jobs you must graduate in the top third of your university class!  In Finland I was recently told that that is not so.....but that it's harder to get into a school of education than into medical school.  Well, some countries have standards.

A Mother Jones article on the Sooner Stupor story says that some in this country are as blindly dogmatic in such ways, as Islamic fundamentalism is.  One might view this as a broad historical phenomenon, that we mirror our enemies.  We were more socialistic when we had opposition from communism, and now that we have opposition from Islamic fundamentalism, we are that way, too.

Unfortunately, that's not entirely convincing for situations like this.  There has been blind anti-scientism for a long time in this country, and anti-evolutionism has been the view of some prominent western biologists (in the late 19th and early 20th century).

The story also quotes Erik Meikle, director of the National Center for Science Education, saying that "An extremely high percentage of scientists will tell you that evolution doesn't have scientific weaknesses."  This is of course totally false as stated and hopefully a reporter's misquote!  But it is also a common sort of overstated, even misleading statement by the NCSE.  Their own publications, very useful as they are as an antidote to creationist insanities, are also often sanitized relative to the real issues in evolutionary science.  There have been since Darwin, and remain, many open issues about the nature of evolution, the role of various factors such as natural selection, chance, genes, various functional roles played by DNA and the environment and so on.  These are hotly debated as they should be--and we reflect those issues regularly here on MT.

If the NCSE meant, as we hope they did, that 'the fact of evolution is not seriously questioned by science', that would be more accurate.  But if we had no 'weaknesses', we'd be out of our jobs.  Often one hears that propaganda must be countered by opposing propaganda, but we don't hold that view.  If knowledge and education--real education--are our object, then we can't just fill our teachers' heads with propaganda of our own.

We commented on something similar a year or so ago in Texas, where we used to live.  At the time, we noted that, despite frequent appearances, there are reasonable people in Texas, and we know for a fact that this is true for Oklahoma as well.  But apparently there aren't enough of them when it comes to somehow allowing the living dinosaurs to turn the statehouse into a madhouse.

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