Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Gallagher, Again

In this post from last month, I criticized an editorial by Richard Gallagher, editor of The Scientist. Gallagher believes that teaching ID in high school science classes is a good idea because, among other reasons, such a debate would “fire the interest of bright kids who will see through the paper-thin arguments being set out to discredit evolution.”

I made a number of points in reply. My main point was that Gallagher had been terribly vague about what, precisely, he wanted taught. What does “teaching ID” entail? I also argued that he was being naive if he thought that public squabbles about evolution and creation should be viewed as welcome opportunites to get the word out about evolution. Such squabbles get played out in brief newspaper op-eds and in front of school boards, you see. These are forums tailor-made for the promotion of pseudoscience. I also pointed out that plenty of scientists have been willing to engage the arguments of ID proponents, contrary to his assertions in the article, and that the only issue was whether high school science classes were an appropriate venue for this discussion. I made a number of other points as well.

P. Z. Myers also weighed in on the subject, making many of the same points, in this excellent blog entry.

In the current issue of The Scientist, Gallagher decides to have another go at it. Did he respond to any of the arguments that were actually made against his earlier editorial? Did he clarify what it means to teach ID or what he thinks scientists should be doing that they are not currently doing? Not at all. We consider his remarks in full:

I'm concerned about the state of science teaching. Over the past few months, three quite separate accounts have made me nervous. The first was an opinion published last month in The Harvard Crimson, the university daily, in which student Irene Y. Sun detailed her wretched experience in a science class. Describing the erosion of her intellectual curiosity by the relentless pursuit of grades by teachers and students alike, Sun wrote:

At what point did professors automatically expect that their students studied their subject matters because of career requirements rather than intellectual appeal? Why are so many of my fellow students so hell-bent on requirements instead of passion? What happened to that sense of academic adventure, excitement and curiosity?

She asks good questions.

Ms. Sun's editorial can be found here.

Coming from a Harvard undergraduate those are indeed good questions. So good, in fact, that I think her interesting editorial deserves a more detailed response, which I will provide in a subsequent post.

But I would expect the editor of a prominent science magazine to understand something about the realities of college teaching. He might have written an interesting editorial devoted entirely to the challenges professors face in having to appeal to a large class of students who come to the subject with different backgrounds and different motivations. Gallagher, alas, sees only a chance to take a potshot at professors.

The real action comes next, however:

The second prod was provided by the summary of a Science Advisory Board poll of scientists on ways to improve “scientific literacy.” Teaching teachers to teach topped the list, as it should have. But I'm not so sure about the conclusion that “preparing children for tomorrow depends upon a nation's willingness to invest – over the long term – in the training and tools teachers need to keep abreast with the leading technologies of today.” What about imparting a sense of curiosity, excitement, and experimentation? Isn't this what teachers should be best at, even more so than staying abreast of the latest technologies?

The summary in question can be found here.

Did a major science advisory board really elevate keeping abreast of leading technologies above imparting a sense of curiosity and excitement? No, they did not. When you follow the link Gallagher provides, you find this:

According to a poll conducted by The Science Advisory Board, scientists believe that governments can best improve the scientific literacy of their citizens by “teaching teachers to teach.” Sixty percent of those surveyed believe that countries will get the most return on their education tax dollars by supporting teacher-training programs.

Teacher-training programs are instrumental in helping bring advanced technology into the classroom. They assist educators in combining rigorous academic content with scientifically based research in their curricula. “Preparing children for tomorrow depends upon a nation’s willingness to invest--over the long term--in the training and tools teachers need to keep abreast with the leading technologies of today,” observes Tamara Zemlo, Ph.D., MPH, Executive Director, The Science Advisory Board.

So it wasn't a poll about ways to improve science literacy. Actually, it was a poll about what governments can do to improve science literacy. You see, governments can't do much directly to impart a sense of curiosity in students. But they do control large amounts of tax money that they can spend in ways that will be helpful to teachers. And, used properly, technology can be an effective tool indeed.

Gallagher, apparently, does not care about such details. He's too busy feeling morally superior. Which is ironic considering what comes next:

My third encounter has been a little more personal. You'll notice that we've foregone the Opinion article in this issue. In its place is an expanded Letters section, largely given over to responses to the Editorial of a couple of issues ago,3 on beating off the challenge to evolution from intelligent design. I am criticized by a fair number of the responses from “our” side, some rather strident. Here's an example from a blog:

“You know what I hate most about the evolution/creation debate? It isn't the ignorance peddlers of the Discovery Institute or the gibbering insanity of Answers in Genesis. It's not the semi-literate know-nothings who pollute the comment boards of blogs with their repetitive drivel. It isn't even the fawning press coverage these dangerous right-wing ideologues occasionally receive. No. What I really hate is the child-like naiveté of some scientists who really ought to know better.”

As I'm sure you can tell from the searing wit, penetrating insight and breathtaking eloquence of that paragraph, I wrote it. It was the opening paragraph of my original post on this subject.

Gallagher continues:

That's me. But I think I got off lightly. Even though I'm “most-hated” – is that anything like being granted “most favored nation&rdquo status? – it's for being a hopeless naïf, not an ignorant, gibbering, dangerous, semiliterate no-nothing polluter of bandwidth. Phew! Still, the question must be asked: Is this sort of self-important bluster helpful in the battle against proponents of intelligent design? I certainly don't see it as putting the best face on the pro-evolution argument to an interested public.

Pot to kettle: Thou art black.

If Gallagher thinks I was being unfair to Answers in Genesis or the Discovery Institute then let him say so. I will simply point out that most of my entries at this blog are devoted to establishing that the output of AiG and the DI merit the contempt I expressed. Gallagher does not seem to understand that while he is busy musing about the value of open debate and the benefits of critical thinking, the major organizations on the other side are more interested in promoting a political and religious agenda.

But since we're quoting opening paragraphs, let me remind you of how Gallagher opened his own editorial:

The current frenzied attack on the teaching of evolution in public schools in school boards across the United States is to be welcomed.

There, I've said it. And no, I'm not a fundamental Christian, a creationist, or a right-wing ideologue. What I am is someone who sees an outstanding opportunity to exchange views with the naysayers, and a rare public examination of a set of ideas that are pretty much taken as Gospel – sorry for the blurring of metaphors, but it drives home my point – by us in the scientific community. Played the right way, everyone – yes, including scientists – should come out enriched by the interaction.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide who has an inflated view of his own importance.

In two editorials now Gallagher has taken scientists to task for -- well, for what exactly? We're told we're supposed play something the right way, but he says nothing about what that means in practice. He says we're supposed to teach ID on an equal footing with evolution, but he does not tell us what teaching ID entails. He frets that science educators have lost interest in imparting a sense of curiosity, but shows no recognition of the realities under which educators have to work, and he says nothing that a teacher can actually apply in the classroom.

And this is the man accusing others of being self-important?

Gallagher concludes with:

But to get back to science teaching, worse still, some (nominally) pro-evolution correspondents harbor remarkable views of science teaching. Consider this missive from a blogger named “Desert Donkey”

“The impulse to compare and demolish is strong, but high school students are basically in a position where they are taught well-established truths in most subjects. Math classes don't spend time questioning the reality of prime numbers. Facts is facts. Some type of critical thinking class for inquisitive students might fly, but I still think it has no place in an actual science class.”

Critical thinking has no place in science class? Really? That bodes incredibly poorly for the future of science teaching. We're shelving our best weapon against intelligent design, and I find it incredibly sad that scientists who support evolution so strongly would have us shield growing young minds from the “dangers” of critical thinking.

If that's not dogma, I don't know what is.

Never heard of the blogger “Desert Donkey?” That's because the quote above comes not from a blog, but from a comment left in response to P.Z. Myers' blog entry, linked to above. That's right! A single comment to a blog entry whose substance Gallagher ignored completely is his sole piece of evidence that scientists want to shield students from critical thinking. Is Desert Donkey, whoever he is, even a scientist for heaven's sake?

For the record, I happen to disagree with Mr. Donkey. But Gallagher has a lot of nerve pretending that he is on the side of critical thinking while “scientists” are on the side of dogma.

I defy Gallagher to produce even one professional scientist who opposes teaching students to think critically about science. The issue here is not critical thinking. It is whether we should give favorable coverage in science classes to one particular form of pseudoscience, simply because that one form is well-funded and very vocal.


At 4:06 PM, Anonymous Ixpata said...

Very insightful breakdown that very clearly shows the weakness of Gallagher's argument. I probably would never have known the origin of the Desert Donkey comment if you had not pointed it out. Keep up the nice analysis.

At 10:39 AM, Anonymous farouet said...

I have always maintained that there is something in what Gallagher says. The position that we should not engage creationists in debate is head-in-the-sand. Like it or not, creationism is a force in American culture and has to be intelligently engaged. Of course it's twaddle. Of course there is "almost nothing to teach". So present it in all its inadequacy. I don't have the same faith that Gallagher does that students will see through it. Perhasp most of them won't. But we can't just run away from it, or give these regressive turkeys more grounds to say we're "repressing" and "censoring".

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As the aforemention Desert Donkey I can assure you that I did not say that there should be no critical thinking in Science class. The 'it' I referred to was in fact ID.

To clarify, because ID is a conceptual idea, but not science, any investigation of it should not be done in science class, but in a class where the purpose is to explore said conceptual (but untestable) concepts. ID is not a scientific proposition, maybe a social cultural proposition, and is most assuredly a stalking horse for a religious proposition.


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