“The whole field of education theorists disagrees…”
On Tuesday, Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee allowed HB 368 to become law; it is the second of this new generation of creationist laws, along with a similar bill in Louisiana. Haslam refused to sign the bill, stating that it brought confusion, not clarity. He also noted that the bill had overwhelming legislative support (passing by roughly 3–1 margins in both houses), so a veto was unlikely to have any effect.
That morning, as Haslam weighed his options, balancing the concerns expressed by thousands of parents across Tennessee, and the concerns expressed by the state’s leading scientists and science teachers, I was part of a radio panel discussing the bill on KCRW’s To the Point, with Warren Olney. The program, which you can listen to here, started with a discussion between Larisa DeSantis, a parent and biologist at Vanderbilt University, who launched a petition against the bill, and David Fowler, a former state senator who used his new position at the Tennessee affiliate of Focus on the Family to promote the bill. The panel then expanded to including Larisa, historian Ed Larson (whose Summer for the Gods is perhaps the definitive work on Tennessee’s first monkey trial, in 1925), Disco. ‘tute spinner Casey Luskin, and little old me.
I’ll let you listen to the show yourself and decide who made the best case, but I was struck by a comment Casey made (starting just before the 30 minute mark in the MP3 version of the show):
Doctor DeSantis said this bill would somehow dumb down science education. The whole field of science education theorists disagrees with her. The whole field of science education theory today says that the best way to teach science is to teach students evidence for and against various concepts, let them weigh the evidence, wrestle with it, use these as critical thinking exercises, and learn to look at both sides of an issue. This is how students best learn science.
Casey’s claims on this point have expanded rather dramatically over the years. In June, 2010, he cited a single paper by science education researcher Jonathan Osborne to claim “Article on Evolution Education in Science Endorses Teaching Students Evidence ‘That Supports … Or Does Not Support.’ ” In that piece, Casey writes:
While I have no reason to believe that Jonathan Osborne himself is a skeptic of neo-Darwinian evolution, he does seem to be fair-minded. He argues that the very approach of — teaching the science that “supports … or does not support” is strongly supported by empirical studies of science education: …
Does This Apply to Evolution Education?
The obvious answer is yes, of course. But does Osborne have the courage to face the ridicule and suggest applying this approach directly to evolution-education? I can’t read Osborne’s mind…
There’s no need to be psychic to evaluate Osborne’s opinions, of course, but let’s first consider how Casey’s assessment of this single-authored paper has expanded since June, 2010. That October, Casey linked back to that first blog post to argue that the Disco. ‘tute’s creationist lesson plan matches the guidance of “leading science educators.” Whether or not he’s interpreting Osborne correctly (hint: he isn’t), that leap from the singular to the plural is utterly unjustified, as all he links to is the original piece about Osborne’s views. And his claim this week, in April, 2012, that “the whole field of educational theorists” backs his claims and the bill itself is, of course, absurd. If it were true, I’d think (among other things) that the bill wouldn’t have faced opposition from every major science education society and from the Tennessee Science Teachers Association. In Casey’s imagination, this single article by one man seems to have swollen to become the only thing written on the subject, and has shifted its meaning well beyond what Osborne wrote at the time, or his stated views since then.
Predictably, Casey is not even right about Dr. Osborne’s views in 2010, as he’d know from reading an exchange of letters that followed Osborne’s article’s publication in Science. The exchange took place in April, 2010, months before Casey’s first blog post on about Osborne’s views, so there’s really no excuse for him to have missed it.
Ze’ev Wurman wrote to Science, wondering at Osborne’s shift since an opinion essay he wrote months earlier, opposing creationist-inspired Texas science standards. At the time, Osborne had written:
The capability to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations is one of the primary skills required of the scientist, not the high school student of science. After all, the stock in trade of the school classroom is knowledge that has been placed beyond doubt. No school student is going to be able to seriously critique Newton’s Laws, the conservation of matter, or the atomic theory—or, for that matter, the theory of natural selection. They simply do not have the knowledge or the intellectual skills to engage sufficiently critically with the evidence in a manner that would be productive. … as it [theory of evolution] lies beyond criticism, it is hard to see what value any attempt to evaluate critically the evidence and logical reasoning on which it rests would serve.
Wurman tried to draw Osborne out by claiming this stance was inconsistent, writing: “This makes one wonder which Osborne to believe—the one who believes in the importance of argument and debate in science classrooms, or the one that does not. Or, perhaps, it is for Osborne more a matter of whose ox is being gored rather than a matter of science and pedagogy.”
Osborne replied, “Wurman is confusing the learning of science with the doing of science. And, just as the young violinist’s capacity to play improves by engaging in performance and studying how others play, so does the young person’s capability to argue and learn science improve by engaging in argumentation. However, just as such a young person is incapable of giving a concert performance of a Beethoven violin concerto, so is the learner of science incapable of mounting a critique of Newton’s Laws of Motion, Darwin’s theory of evolution, or any other elements of the standard canon of science, as they lack the necessary disciplinary knowledge.” This, essentially, is the argument I made on the radio show, as it was the point Larisa made, and which many scientists and science educators consistently made in legislative hearings and letters to the Governor.
Lest Casey think I’m quotemining Osborne now (as Casey has quotemined him for years), here is the rest of Osborne’s letter:
What they [students] are capable of doing is what I suggested in both articles that Wurman cites: exploring why the common misconceptions are wrong, what evidence leads to that conclusion, and what evidence supports the standard scientific idea. Why do we believe that day and night are caused by a spinning Earth when all your senses tell you that it is the Sun that moves and a simple calculation tells you that the speed at the Equator is larger than the speed of sound? Likewise, why do we believe in conservation of energy when daily experience gives the impression that energy is consistently “lost”? Engaging in such deliberations helps students to develop the critical skepticism that is the hallmark of the scientist and to comprehend the justification for the consensually accepted scientific idea.
When it comes to Darwin’s ideas and their teaching in K–12 classrooms, students would benefit by examining some of the evidence that led Darwin to propound his theories, or examining the evidence that leads us to believe that the Earth is approximately 5000 million years old and examining some of the evidence against that idea, rather than being taught such ideas as received dogma. However, as Wurman knows, simply to examine “all of the evidence,” as Texas would have its students do, is a field of disciplinary study in its own right.
The insistence that students examine “all the evidence” was totally unrealistic (i) because of the time required and (ii) because students in K–12 do not have the capability to undertake such a task. All the science teacher can do in such circumstances is select a partial set of evidence—both for and against—that the student can comprehend. However, the teacher’s ultimate responsibility is to ensure that the students understand why that evidence leads to a strong belief in the consensually accepted theory and why the counterarguments are wrong. By its subtle but inappropriate wording of this statement, I argued that Texas was attempting to use the work on argumentation that I and others have done to enact the impossible for ideological purposes. If the Texas standards had simply written that “students should have the opportunity to examine the evidence, both for and against, that leads us to believe in the accepted scientific idea,” I would have been delighted. But they did not, as it would not have served what I believe to be their purposes: using the science curriculum to encourage their teachers to give an inappropriate amount of time to accounts of the discredited evidence against evolution.
At most, Osborne is suggesting that students be taught the errors at the core of common claims advanced by the Discovery Institute and other creationist front groups. The language of Tennessee’s law contains some of the same phrases Osborne is criticizing in the Texas science standards, and his dismissal of this tactic in Texas applies no less forcefully to the Tennessee law.
In other words, the one education theorist Casey has ever cited to support his anti-evolution tactics, has in fact definitively denounced them. If the entire field of education theorists can be said to take any position on this point, it would seem to be exactly the opposite of what Luskin claimed on a national radio program.