The latest issue of American Scientist includes a fascinating article on the importance of nonschool science experiences for achieving scientific literacy among both children and adults (non-members of Sigma Xi, the research society that sponsors the magazine, will be able to read only the abstract, alas).
The authors, John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, point out that it's a deeply held, mostly unquestioned assumption that school learning is, and should be, the primary vehicle for science education:
The "school-first" paradigm is so pervasive that few scientists, educators or policy makers question it. This despite two important facts: average Americans spend less than 5 per cent of their life in classrooms, and an ever-growing body of evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school.
This body of evidence includes international assessments of adult science literacy:
. . . for more than twenty years, U.S. adults have consistently outperformed their international counterparts on science literacy measures, including adults from South Korea and Japan, as well as Western European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom. If schooling is the primary causative factor affecting how well the public understands science, how do we explain these findings?
Indeed, how do we?
It isn't that science education is all that great in our public schools, particularly in elementary schools, where studies show that very, very little time in the classroom is spent on science. But interestingly enough, it's just when more class time is devoted to science that childrens's scores on international tests drop compared to their peers in other countries. U.S. elementary school kids do well on the tests despite the lack of time given over to science in the classroom, while older students do poorly compared to children in other nations.
So it appears that it's time to give up the illusion that school is where science learning takes place. As any homeschooler can tell you, though, the assumption that school is the primary locus of learning (of any kind) is one that most people, including policy makers, are loath to relinquish.
Falk and Dierking point out that children benefit from out-of-school science experiences, such as trips to zoos, aquariums, museums, and national parks, and exposure to educational television and radio. They quote the Harvard Family Research Project:
The dominant assumption behind behind much current educational policy and practice is that school is the only place where children learn. This assumption is wrong. Forty years of steadily accumulating research shows that out-of-school, or "complementary learning" opportunities are major predictors of children's development, learning, and educational achievement. The research also indicates that economically and otherwise disadvantaged children are less likely than their more-advantaged peers to have access to these opportunities. This inequity substantially undermines their learning and chances for school success.
But school success isn't the only thing undermined by inequity of opportunity. Life success may also be at risk, and certainly life enrichment is diminished when both children and adults are denied such opportunties.
For adults, the Internet provides an enormous amount of information to those looking for it. An example most of us may be familiar with is the search for information about a particular disease or health problem. It's easy to be curious about news stories involving science (tsunamis, oil spills, etc.) and to dig for information beyond the headlines. Adults also may have hobbies such as astronomy, raising fish, gardening, making model rockets, and so on that involve acquiring scientific and technical knowledge.
Those of us who have long questioned the efficacy of many of this country's educational policies will not be surprised at Falk and Dierking's conclusions. Somewhere recently I also read that Americans love history--they just don't love it as it's taught in schools. Give them Ken Burns's series on the the Civil War, though, and they watch enthusiastically.
There's something wrong with the way we educate our children in our public schools. There's something wrong in clinging to the notion that school is the primary place for learning--clinging to the extent that we are probably not appropriating funds efficiently. There's something wrong when a college student is heard to say (as one of my students once said), "After I graduate I'll never have to learn anything again!"
Learning is natural for humans, because curiosity is natural. When we can freely choose to learn, when we learn something because it's fun or because we want to or because it's useful to us, then learning is far from an onerous task. It's way past time that we gave up the absurd notion that school is the only, or even the best, place to learn.
The first high-speed collision of large, intact spacecraft occured yesterday:
Two big communications satellites collided in the first-ever crash of its kind in orbit, shooting out a pair of massive debris clouds and posing a slight risk to the international space station. NASA said it will take weeks to determine the full magnitude of the crash, which occurred nearly 500 miles over Siberia on Tuesday.
How big was the collision? Via TocqueDeville's diary on Kos, we learn from a Discover blog that given the sizes, speeds, and angles of the Iridium and Cosmos satellites,
the explosion resulting from the energy of impact would have been about the same as detonating 5 tons of TNT.
That’s a lot. It’s easily enough to totally destroy both satellites, and in fact the U.S. Space Surveillance Network has detected a substantial amount of debris, at least 600 pieces.
At the moment, that debris is expanding in a cloud, and is still too high to threaten the space station which orbits at less than half the height where the satellites collided… but eventually the debris will pass through the altitude of the ISS. It’s not clear yet how much danger the station is in. Satellites in similar orbits as the two that hit are in the most immediate danger, but again it’s unclear what will happen.
You'll be relieved to know that despite Mr. Plait's concerns (above quotation), the risk to the space station (with three astronauts aboard) is believed to be low, and that the collision is not thought to present a danger to the space shuttle set to launch February 22 with seven astronauts.
But it's been predicted for years that such a collision was inevitable. Worse, scientists have been worried about the cascade effect of space debris and space collisions: more debris means more collisions, and more collisions mean more debris ... you get the idea. Check out this site for illustrations of the space debris problem and more detailed information on just how much junk is out there.
Too much debris makes space exploration riskier and riskier, and even threatens satellite communications. Mitigation measures have been proposed (see above link); without them, conditions in space will only worsen in regard to collisions and space junk.
That was one hell of an explosion, and I hope there's some follow-up in the news at some point as to just how much debris was generated and how much of a threat it poses. The world depends a great deal on satellite communications, and seeing the danger of just letting space debris accumulate illustrated in this dramatic way should (should, but may not) cause scientists--and communications companies--to give the matter some serious thought.
All winter long we enjoy watching the birds that come to our feeder, from the black-capped chickadees to the redbellied woodpeckers. And now it's time for the Great Backyard Bird Count, which is this weekend, February 13-16. It's easy to participate and requires only a little of your time--as little as 15 minutes. Of course, you can birdwatch for longer than that, and you can count birds on more than one day and in more than one place. Get all the details here. You can download a tally sheet to keep track of the species, but then you simply enter your data on-line. And here's a nifty poster that you can print out or e-mail to fellow birders.
Why should you participate? Because each checklist contributes valuable information about such things as distribution of species and migratory patterns:
In 2008, GBBC participants documented the huge southward movement of northern finches from Canada, as well as the expanding ranges of the Eurasian Collared Dove and the Redbellied Woodpecker. Northern Bobwhite and Eastern Meadowlark numbers continue to decline. Some species showed up in GBBC reports for the very first time.
Indeed, the Audubon Society just released a report showing that climate change is affecting bird populations. (Sorry, I couldn't get the link to open for me; the name of the report is Birds and Climate Change: Ecological Disruption in Motion.) The AP did a story on it here.
When it comes to global warming, the canary in the coal mine isn't a canary at all. It's a purple finch.
As the temperature across the U.S. has gotten warmer, the purple finch has been spending its winters more than 400 miles farther north than it used to.
And it's not alone.
An Audubon Society study to be released Tuesday found that more than half of 305 birds species in North America, a hodgepodge that includes robins, gulls, chickadees and owls, are spending the winter about 35 miles farther north than they did 40 years ago.
The purple finch was the biggest northward mover. Its wintering grounds are now more along the latitude of Milwaukee, Wis., instead of Springfield, Mo.
Bird ranges can expand and shift for many reasons, among them urban sprawl, deforestation and the supplemental diet provided by backyard feeders. But researchers say the only explanation for why so many birds over such a broad area are wintering in more northern locales is global warming.
You can be part of documenting these changes, and it's easy and fun--and a great activity for kids. The GBBC site can even help you learn to identify species. Browse the site to see what it offers (including some great photos by last year's participants), but do plan to spend just fifteen minutes of your time this weekend helping scientists and conservationists understand the changes bird populations are experiencing--and what that might say about environmental and climate change as well.
Judging by recent actions in France and in the U.S., the answer to that question is a tentative "yes," with the usual formulaic "more studies are needed to confirm the risk."
France has recently taken action to protect children against overexposure to cell phones:
New laws cracking down on children's use of mobile phones are to be introduced in France amid growing fears that they may cause cancer and other diseases.
All advertising of the devices to children under 12 is to be prohibited under the legislation – announced by the Environment Minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, last week – and he will also take powers to ban the sale of any phone designed to be used by those under six.
The French government will also introduce new limits for radiation from the phones and make it compulsory for handsets to be sold with earphones, so that users can avoid irradiating their heads and brains. And one of the country's largest cities last month started an advertising campaign to discourage the use of the phones by children.
calling for a re-examination of cell phone health risks saying that past studies related to cell phone radiation need to be re-examined given the recent rise in mobile devices and their use. This follows a recent suggestion from the U.S. National Research Council advising further studies should be conducted on children and pregnant women to determine if cell phones or other wireless devices could damage health.
At issue is long-term use of cell phones and the accumulative effect, particularly on children, whose brains are still developing and whose skulls are thinner than adults'. With a significant increase of cell phone use by children, more research seems to me a good idea.
Skeptics pooh-pooh the idea that cell phone use leads to an increased risk of tumors and brain cancer, but as cell phone use becomes heavier, and as cell phones replace land lines, research on frequent and long-time cell phone use might give us a clearer picture of what, if any, risks are associated with the ubiquitous device. It's also worth noting that
mobile devices are used differently than in the past. Newer phones have built-in antennas and because more people use them for texting and Internet access, phones are held closer to other parts of the body, the report [by the 13-nation Interphone study] found.
I'd really like to see some long-range studies with a huge number of participants to anwer this question.
Interesting. It will take more investigation to find out whether this assembly of megaliths 40 feet beneath the surface of Lake Michigan is random or purposeful, but the people who discovered the stones believe they may be a sort of Stonehenge.
In 2007 Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan College, saw a series of stones in the sonar images he'd taken during a survey of shipwrecks on the lake bottom. Holley believes there is a mastodon carved on one of the stones.
If these really are megaliths, they could be as much as 10,000 years old.
Michigan does have a number of petroglyphs and standing stones. But only further research will show if these Lake Michigan stones were actually erected by humans.
Do go check out the link for some amazing images.
[Thanks to Balloon Juice for bringing attention to this most interesting discovery.]
Two nights ago Jim and I watched Nova's (that's on PBS) program "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial," a show about the court case in Dover, Pennsylvania that followed the 2004 decision of Dover's school board to require mention of ID as a possible alternative to the theory of evolution.
It's quite frightening to me to see religious fundamentalist attempts to discredit science and to argue that their religious myths should be treated as scientific theory. It has often been noted that without evolution, the biological sciences simply don't make sense. I don't know a lot about evolutionary theory, but I know enough to think it an elegant, beautiful framework for understanding the differentiation of species and the unfolding of all the diversity of life on this planet. So many people who say "I don't believe in evolution" really have no clue about Darwin's work--or about science, or even the basis of scientific thought and the scientific method.
Anyway, the crux of the Dover issue can be briefly summed up this way:
Dover's lawyers tried to argue that ID is science and, therefore, that teaching it does not violate the principle of the separation of church and state in the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of the trial, Judge John Jones issued a 139-page verdict supporting the teaching of evolution and characterizing intelligent design as a religious idea with no place in the science classroom. It was a landmark decision, all the more so because Judge Jones was appointed by President Bush and nominated by Republican Senator Rick Santorum.
What was fascinating to me was the argument in court of just what constitutes science. What it comes down to is that scientific inquiry requires a testable hypothesis. Those who argue that life on earth was designed by an intelligent agent simply do not have a testable hypothesis: how can you test such a claim? Evolution is a theory that poses testable hypotheses, and over and over again evolutionary theory has met these tests.
Another aspect of arguments involving evolution is the misunderstanding of the word "theory" as used in scientific fields. People behave as if "theory" means "wild-assed guess" (WAG) or a hunch on the part of a scientist or some other such thing more approaching a whim than what scientists mean by the word. Thus people say, "Well, it's only a theory, it's not a fact." True, but "theory" doesn't mean "guess." From Wikipedia:
Obviously, this is much more rigorous than "conjecture" or "speculation." But usually when people say dismissively "it's just a theory," they're assuming that a theory is nothing more than a conjecture, of which one is as good as another.
Intelligent Design does not actually provide a rival theory for the origin of species and the changes that take place over time within species. There is no coherent framework. Rather, when faced with challenges (such as its favorite bugaboo, "irreducible complexity"), it simply throws up its hands and says there is no explanation other than an intelligent designer. This is akin to, if not actually the same as, superstition. It is certainly not conducive to exploration, to the whys and hows a scientist will typically probe when confronted by a puzzle.
And what, really, is an Intelligent Designer if not God? There's just no getting around the idea that Intelligent Design is creationism by another name. The convolutions and contortions the ID-ers go through to try to look scientific would be laughable if they weren't so dangerous. Yes, dangerous, because the ID-ers are out to subvert science and science education. They've received lots of help from the notoriously anti-science Bush administration and the religious fundamentalists who read the Bible literally and argue that their view of how life began is every bit as valid as evolutionary theory.
What happens when people take the Bible literally is that they end up with ridiculous claims about how the earth is only 10,000 years old or that kangaroos originated in the Middle East. One has to reject all of what science has shown about geology and biology in order to believe such nonsense.
Millions of people have no trouble being both religious and scientific. To teach religious belief as if it were science is where the trouble begins. The scientists were so compelling in the Dover case that even a judge appointed by George W. Bush could not see his way clear to ruling other than as he did, in favor of evolution and against the idea that ID is science. (For his trouble he received death threats against himself and his family, and federal protection had to be called in. Sadly, this doesn't surprise me.)
Unfortunately, we probably haven't seen the last of such court cases. Those who want to force their religious beliefs on the rest of us will no doubt continue to press on. Bizarre though it is to those of us who consider ourselves rationalists, such people will continue to insist that their belief in Biblical inerrancy ranks right up there with rigorous, testable scientific hypotheses and theories. That's fine and dandy--as long as they don't seek to impose their beliefs on the rest of us while arguing that Bible stories are science.
I just gotta express my joy that Al Gore was a co-winner, along with the International Panel on Climate Change, of the Nobel Peace Prize. And you can express your joy and gratitude here.
Really, there is no other award that one could win that would loom larger than this one. But I think that Gore--and the panel--deserve it and should celebrate deliriously.
Sure, I'd love to see Gore run for Prez, but he won't--and who could blame him? He's found another path of activism; he can't have fond memories of how the press treated him last time; and the mess he'd inherit would make a sane person back off. As someone once said, the only person worthy of being president is the one who doesn't want it--which makes Al eminently desirable. But he's not gonna do it, and i can't blame him.
Can't you imagine it if he did? The harpies, vultures, and sadistic predators of the right would be all over him and how he was exploiting his Nobel Prize for low, political reasons. Even though we know that if any of their favorites had been chosen, they'd have been selling tickets to watch the Great One blow his nose.
But Al isn't going to want to sully such a great honor with political aspirations, and I think he's right in this, despite the fact that I really wanted him to run. As a Nobel Peace Prize winner, he needs to be beyond politics, at least for this cycle, and continue to focus on what is really the great problem confronting the entire planet. I believe that he feels he can do more outside the political arena, reaching out globally to challenge people to become aware of the dangers to our planet.
But boy howdy, am I geeked that he won! Not too many leaders I can admire these days, but he is definitely one. Oh yes.
Although I'd read several reviews ofThe God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, I wasn't prepared for such a witty, entertaining, lively read. What lodged in my mind, I suppose, were opinions that Dawkins was over the top and confrontational, leading me to wonder whether I'd find him offensively belligerent, even nasty.
Well, I suppose some people do find him nasty (most likely because they find frank disavowal of religious ideas nasty), and he certainly is willing to be confrontational. He doesn't soft-pedal any of his exuberantly atheistic beliefs, nor does he think that we should make an exception for religion in terms of challenging its claims to truth.
A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts--the non-religious included--is that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offense and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. (20)
He then quotes Douglas Adams on the topic:
If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue abut it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand when somebody says "I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday," you say, "I respect that."
* * * * *
We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any others, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be. (20-21)
It's this aspect of the book that I really appreciated, because we have debate stymied by this idea of "respect." Not only that, but it's gotten to the point now that religious fundamentalists in the United States are demanding that the rights of certain of our citizens--the LGBT community--continue to be abridged out of respect for some Christians' religious beliefs! That's taking "respect" a little too far, don't you think? And yet religious groups demand this "respect" all the time. If we talk about sexual behavior, or debates (which we shouldn't even be having!) about homosexual rights, some leader of a religious group--usually the wingnuttier the better--is trotted out and we are to listen to this person with the greatest respect because of his (and it's usually his, not her) religious leadership.
Dawkins has little patience, either, with the late Stephen Jay Gould's concept of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), the idea that science and religion occupy two different realms, and never the twain shall meet. Dawkins challenges that idea, saying,
Why shouldn't we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn't ... the Flying Spaghetti Monster equally immune from scientific skepticism? ... A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter? (55) [link added by me]
What are these ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honored guest and science must respectfully slink away? (55)
He goes so far as to talk about "the Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists," those who tamp down criticisms of religion or play down their own atheism in order to enlist the aid of non-extremist religious people who will help in the fight against creationism.
Some book reviewers have said that Dawkins alienates potential readers, just as his critics say he alienates people who might be on the side of the evolutionists if only people like him (and other like-minded thinkers) didn't go too far. And how does he go too far? He does not respect religious belief--that is, accept religion's claim to have a special dispensation when it comes to subjecting it to analysis and debate.
That's what's really got people's shorts in a knot. He won't abide by the rules that the religionists have made up.
In any case, it's a great read, and how can it not be satisfying to see the Intelligent Design folks and the creationists (two names for the same thing) skewered? Dawkins deftly shatters their claims to such things as "irreducible complexity" and also addresses the issue of why religion is so universal, using his expertise as an evolutionary biologist to do so.
I was struck by Dawkins's explanation of how life could come to be, a question much exploited by the creationists and ID-ers as one that "proves" the existence of God. For them, the origin of life is one thing that cannot be explained by science, for how could life come from non-biological chemistry? Dawkins says,
. . . we can make the point that, however improbable the origin of life might be, we know it happened on Earth because we are here. . . . there are two hypotheses to explain what happened--the design hypothesis and the scientific or "anthropic" hypothesis. The design approach postulates a God who wrought a deliberate miracle, struck the prebiotic soup with divine fire and launched DNA, or something equivalent, on its momentous career.
Again ... the anthropic alternative to the design hypothesis is statistical. Scientists invoke the magic of large numbers. It has been estimated that there are between 1 billion and 30 billion planets in our galaxy, and about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Knocking a few noughts off for reasons of ordinary prudence, a billion billion is a conservative estimate of the number of available planets in the universe. Now, suppose the origin of life, the spontaneous arising of something equivalent to DNA, really was a quite staggeringly improbably event. Suppose it was so improbable as to occur on only one in a billion planets. A grant-giving body would laugh at any chemist who admitted that the chance of his proposed research succeeding was only one in a billion. And yet . . . even with such absurdly long odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets--of which Earth, of course is one. (138)
With a billion to one odds, life will still have arisen on a billion planets. So with even longer odds, how could life not arise on just one planet? Wow. Just wow.
So I learned a little physics, a little biology along the way, and along with Dawkins I marveled at the intricacies and surprises of nature and the universe. One of the things I like best about him is his absolute delight in nature and in the science that reveals nature to us. He revels in the idea that science is our key to solving mysteries, and he outright rejects the valorizing of religious mystery, castigating the creationists as those who would urge us not to investigate, not to question, not to search. During the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case (plaintiffs took issue with the school board's decision to require the teaching of Intelligent Design), creationist Michael Behe claimed that the immune system is an "irreducible complexity" that cannot be explained by evolution and is therefore an "unfruitful" area for research. Dawkins quotes Eric Rothschild, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs, summing up:
Thankfully, there are scientists who do search for answers to the question of the origin of the immune system. It's our defense against debilitating and fatal diseases. The scientists who wrote those books and articles toil in obscurity, without book royalties or speaking engagements. Their efforts help us combat and cure serious medical conditions. By contrast, Professor Behe and the entire intelligent design movement are doing nothing to advance scientific or medical knowledge and are telling future generations of scientists, don't bother. (133)
Other issues taken up by Dawkins didn't intrigue me as much, since they are by and large familiar ones given my long history as an agnostic/atheist: arguments for the existence of god, morality's independence from religion, the impossibility (well, not quite, as Francis Collins and others prove) of a rationalist taking the Bible literally, the confused authorship of the Bible's various parts, the puzzle of a "loving" god allowing evil and suffering in the world, the evil done in the name of religion, and so on. It's Dawkins's refusal to tread softly out of "respect" for religion--he's been labeled a "fundamentalist atheist" by some--that delights me. And I have to agree with him about the sheer majesty, sweep, and awe-inspiring intricacies of our earth and the universe. No belief in a god is necessary to experience joy and wonder in the face of the vastness of it all and the gift we are given in being alive.
I'll leave you with this thought from Carl Sagan, quoted by Dawkins (12):
How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?" Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.
An excellent diary on Kos sums up some of the research compiled by the Congressional Research Service as well as testimony by experts before the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture.
There are multiple working teams gathering in Washington this week. As a testament to how seriously this is being taken, they say they intend to pool their resources to determine the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder.
The diary quotes Rick Pettis of the US Agricultural Research Service:
If the bees were dying of pesticide poisoning or freezing, their bodies would be expected to lie around the hive. And if they were absconding because of some threat -- which they have been known to do -- they wouldn't leave without the queen.
And that's just what they're doing: disappearing and leaving their queen behind. They're not swarming any more, moving en masse to different nest sites. They're just vanishing--without the queen.
Just a reminder of why we should care about this: honeybees pollinate over 90 fruit and vegetable crops worldwide. In the US alone, honeybee worth is estimated at nearly $15 billion, and it's estimated that a third of our diet is dependent on the honeybee. The bees are also important to native plants in the ecosystem.
The bees' systems seem to be immunosuppressed, but there are concerns also that their orientation behavior and navigation have been disrupted (see this post).
Do read the diary to find out what questions researchers are trying to answer, what possibilities might explain the disappearance of the bees, witness lists in the Congressional hearings, links to resources, and other important information.
It's crucial to solve this problem. Let's hope that by working together, the scientists from various groups, government offices, and universities can do so quickly.