February 19, 2008

Florida Board of Education members earn a B on science standards, and their spines earn a C in principled decisionmaking

The Florida Board of Education approved science standards with evolution, but if still appending the words "scientific theory of" before the word "evolution." The department staff earns enormous credit for giving the standards-writing project to a large team of scientists and science teachers, who firmly put evolution in the center of the standards, only to have the process jeopardized by a politicized attack on teaching evolution. I'll let others spin the news and just give some impressions

My slim observations about the hearing and debate

My car was getting its 30,000-mile checkup early this morning, so I started up the live webcast for the state board hearing on science standards about two-thirds of the way through. One of the most disheartening things to observe is how several speakers against the standards took the writings of Stephen Jay Gould and Karl Popper out of context. As one example, Gould's idiosyncratic views on the pace and path of evolution (I'm guessing the quotation I heard was from his writing on punctuated equilibrium) were twisted to become part of a criticism of natural selection's central position in evolution (certainly not Gould's position). The misleading nature of the anti-standards speeches today convinces me that the issue for those speakers is not one of different frames of looking at the universe, not of culture (as some of the comments on my prior entries on the subject state). Instead, there were outright misstatements of the writings of scientists and scientific philosophers. To my ears, they sounded like debating points made by taking statements out of context, or out-and-out lies about what Gould and Popper meant.

After the break, the FDOE staff focused on economic competitiveness and the need to teach to science standards that are in common across the world. That was also the argument of board members Ashkay Desai, who voted against the alternative wording along with Roberto Martinez. The group who drafted and revised the proposed standards overwhelmingly opposed adding the term "theory" in fears that the popular misunderstanding of what a scientific theory is would undermine the teaching of evolution in the classroom.

General comments on "theory"

In science, the word theory is a term of art, referring to a well-tested broad model rather than a speculative hypothesis. In the broader world (and in the social sciences), theory is used more casually ("I have a theory about parking on campus"), and the institutional opponents of teaching natural selection often rely on the popular definition to undermine the teaching of the neo-Darwin explanation of evolution.

To what extent is this partly a consequence of scientists failing to educate the public about that term of art, or failing to pick something like confirmed model? Hmmn... ask Daphne Patai and Wilfrido Corral about theory in the humanities context. Or ask parents or patients irritated by the slinging of jargon by professionals. To the extent that terms of art serve a distancing function, they cut both ways; live by expertise and you can also die by expertise in public debate. In the long term, the maintenance of a term like theory may be a strategic mistake (much larger than qualitative education researchers' claiming that they have exact parallels to reliability and validity, but that's a separate topic). At this point, I suspect it would take a huge job to shift the discourse away from theory. We're stuck with explaining its special meaning in science.

Having said that, I am still concerned by the Board of Education's decision, which may signal permission for local boards and teachers to claim that the serious scientific debate in biology is over the general validity of natural selection instead of the paths and variations in natural selection. In this way, the terminology may be different from the symbolic meaning of adding those words at this point.

Commissioner Eric Smith recommended that the board approve the alternative wording. The board members are politically appointed, and Commissioner Smith was hired by them, but I'm still disappointed. He knows the problems with the previous batch of standards, and he should know the dangers of the wording that the board approved today. I may be wrong-and I hope I am wrong-but I share the standards-writing group's and Florida Citizens for Science's concerns about this. I hope these concerns don't pan out in Florida's classrooms.

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Posted in Education policy on February 19, 2008 10:14 PM |