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Monday, December 24, 2007

What's wrong with science education today?

Some friends and I were discussing what is wrong with science education today. One person asked, "I wonder whether anybody else gets tired of the continually repeated suggestion that intelligent design (or even young earth creationism is the factor that's going to hold the US back in science education and achievement?"

My friend is an American, so I offered him some suggestions as to how to respond: In addressing such claims, I think you must insist that people explain what they are talking about. Here is what I usually say, when confronted with similar claims:

1. Quit crying wolf. The United States has been a world leader in science since at least World War II and there is no good evidence that that is changing significantly. Of course, there is always some evidence supporting any given trend claim, which is why the half century picture is so important. Fifty years ago, people were saying that the United States was falling behind in science. Yeah? Tell it to the Mars Rover.

2. Quit comparing apples and oranges. Many countries do not have a No Child Left Behind Act, let alone great concern about gender equity or minority disadvantage. Some countries have few resources and put all the ones they do have into the high performers. But they are not a useful comparison because the United States would easily outstrip them in their own area of expertise (producing geniuses) if it did the same thing. Check out the math genius school at Princeton in the film, A Beautiful Mind, for example ....

For reasonable and useful comparisons, compare - say - a prosperous U.S. state like New York with a prosperous contiguous Canadian province like Ontario. Absent cherry-picking, I wonder how big a difference one will find.*

*It might be quite easy to find inner city schools in New York City that perform worse than similar inner city schools in Toronto (Canada's largest city and the capital of Ontario) . But New York is much larger than Toronto so there may be room for more statistical anomalies. The significant question is, do average New York State students receive a significantly poorer education than average Ontario students, and if so, what might be the real-world reasons?

3. Quit engaging in fact-free discourse. Does young earth creationism (YEC) actually result in poorer individual scores on standardized tests? Less knowledge of Darwin's theory? I suspect that one reason Darwin activists in your area are not making an issue of test results - but rather sticking to generalities and suppositions - is that the results may show the exact opposite of what the activist wants the public to believe. If so, it is probably due to the fact that the YEC student may actually be expected to learn what he is supposed to dissent from. The worst aspect of propaganda masquerading as education is that it kills the desire for knowledge. All you need to know is what they want you to parrot back, and - because you MUST parrot whatever they tell you back without question or dissent - the exact nature of the foolishness in which you are being indoctrinated is unimportant.

Actually, that's not even the main problem, in my view. What's wrong with science education today is what's wrong with all education today: Feeling good has replaced doing well. And fixing that would require the replacement of much of the current education establishment, which takes time. People who are looking to blame this or that social group - as a group - in the meantime are opportunist agitators who should, in my opinion, be ignored.

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