Friday, September 4, 2009

A Double Standard on the Texas Science Standards

GUEST POST by Ze'ev Wurman

In this week's Ed Week, Jonathan Osborne, a Stanford Ed School prof., has an interesting article on teaching science in Texas.

Prof. Osborne seems unhappy with the proposed Texas science standards, which chose to promote scientific inquiry and through inquiry, activities that are probably aimed at chipping away at the theory of evolution.

Now, I agree with Osborne that an effort to promote "scientific" chipping away at evolutionary theory is a fool's errand. However, the Texas School Board's approach to this issue, is -- on the face of it -- quite difficult to attack.

The proposed standards say that students

"In all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student."

Based on exactly this statement, it is comparatively easy for a good science teacher to clearly show why from a scientific point of view creationism or intelligent design do not meet the basic criteria of scientific theories.

Sad to say, many teachers, in Texas and elsewhere, are not up to this task, and some may (mis)use the proposed language to attack evolution. But that is probably also true for many other, less controversial, aspects of science--that teachers may mischaracterize or give incorrect explanation of natural facts due to insufficient knowledge.

Be that as it may, Prof. Osborne chose to attack the language in the Texas science standards based on the argument that learning science, and doing science, are quite different things, and that some inquiry, reasoning, and critiquing skills are not really necessary for school children and inappropriate in a K-12 learning environment. This stance is rather peculiar, given that Prof. Osborne clearly likes and approves of inquiry-based education--at least so long as it does it not stray into a critical thinking or scientific reasoning about evolution.

Hence we find Prof. Osborne saying:
"[T]he capability to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations is one of the primary skills required of the scientist, not the high school student of science" (emphasis in original).

He gives as an example:
"[A]s [evolution] lies beyond criticism, it is hard to see what value any attempt to evaluate critically the evidence and the logical reasoning on which it rests would serve."

Yet at the same time, Prof. Osborne says:

"Offering students insights into the evidence for the many strange beliefs we ask them to accept--that we live at the bottom of a sea of air, that there is force of gravity in space [...]--is vital if science is to convince [...]"

Prof. Osborne has a double standard on the standards. His writing puts politics rather than rational thinking first, and thereby muddles things. He essentially says that empirical evidence and its critical evaluation is important in science -- except when it comes to theories that are more difficult to defend or are politically uncomfortable. It would be better to treat those theories as dogma.

Somewhat peculiar, coming from a science educator.