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Science education: Keep on marchin’ marchin’ — into oblivion, unfortunately

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From an op-ed at Nature:

Scientists might have made a difference, had they protested against laws that now threaten what can be taught in our classrooms, argues Brandon Haught

Haught is complaining about an academic freedom law in Florida that restricts the use of science courses for propaganda purposes:

Advocates of the law were widely quoted as claiming that evolution is just a theory and that anthropogenic global warming is in doubt. It would have been invaluable if scientists at local universities had issued simple statements: yes, evolution is a fact; the word ‘theory’ is used differently in science from how it’s used in casual conversation; and the basics of human-caused global warming need to be taught. Perhaps authoritative voices from the state’s universities would have swayed a senator or two. More.

Yes, evolution is a fact because change over time is a fact. But why didn’t people in Haught’s position complain when the world’s best-known Darwinians, Dawkins and Dennett to name two, were using evolution to promote naturalist atheism? Does Haught really think that such a stance would be without consequence in a free society?

One thing that has become clear in the last few years is that current high level concerns about science education are misdirected. Put simply, the Bible-quotin’ hillbilly is not the enemy. The stingy politician is not the enemy either.

The faculty lounge seatmate promoting intersectionality (anti-Semitism) and the racism of algebra are the people science boffins need to fear.

The boffins cannot bring themselves to face them, for fear of becoming the targets of the abuse previously unleashed on others, about which they themselves did nothing. They imagined themselves to be above all that. So they have few allies against a dark new age when their only defense is to continue to misunderstand the problem.

Rob Sheldon, our physics color commentator, offers:

The danger of this piece is not that the topics are so indefensible, but that they want to harness science to politics. When we harness politics with religion, we get state churches, Islam or Communism, but what we don’t get is religion. When we harness politics with charity we get welfare and poverty but what we don’t get is charity. When we harness politics with medicine, we get year-long delays for surgery, we get death panels, but we don’t get health. When we harness politics with education we get “optional algebra” and “whitewashed history” but what we don’t get is an ability to think for ourselves.

Why oh why would anyone want to harness politics with science? Are these op-ed writers actually doing science, or are they just apparatchiks Nature hires to comply with political paperwork? Because the one thing guaranteed to happen, regardless of whether you love global warming or hate it, whether you love Darwin or hate him, is that science stops being done. And surely, surely that would not be what Darwin intended.

See also: Nature: Stuck with a battle it dare not fight, even for the soul of science.

Marchin’, marchin’ for Science (Hint: the problems are back at your desk, not out in the streets)

Post-modern physics: String theory gets over the need for evidence

The multiverse is science’s assisted suicide

4 Replies to “Science education: Keep on marchin’ marchin’ — into oblivion, unfortunately

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    I suspect that, while there have been genuine attempts at community outreach, much of the scientific establishment, like much of the political establishment, has largely ignored the great mass of ordinary working people who usually have nothing to do with it, except when they want money and support.

    That people do not understand what is meant by the theory of evolution or what “fact” and “theory” mean in science suggests that these topics are either not being properly taught in school or the teaching of them is being actively opposed and even suppressed by local religious and political interests.

    There is absolutely no reason why Christians or members of any other faith cannot learn what the theory of evolution says without having to believe it, just as I can study the fine details of Christian or Muslim theology without having to believe any of it.

    As for the recent upsurge in atheist advocacy, I see that as no more than a reaction to the centuries of often violent and bloody suppression of atheism at the hands of the world’s religions, which in many parts of the world is still ongoing.

    The danger of this piece is not that the topics are so indefensible, but that they want to harness science to politics. When we harness politics with religion, we get state churches, Islam or Communism, but what we don’t get is religion. When we harness politics with charity we get welfare and poverty but what we don’t get is charity.

    Granted the only people who actually like politics are the power-hungry, it is naïve to think that all these topics can be detached from it. Politics is the way all these topics are implemented in society. The raising, allocation and distribution of limited resources, reconciling the many contending claims for those resources is why we have politics. It’s a very imperfect, frustrating way of working these things out but, other than going to some form of dictatorship, what other way is there? Would you prefer some North Korean-style Dear Leader who calls all the shots and executes anyone who doesn’t applaud his decisions enthusiastically enough? Actually, there are disturbing signs we may already have one, at least in a nascent form.

    When we harness politics with medicine, we get year-long delays for surgery, we get death panels, but we don’t get health.

    This attitude enrages me beyond belief.

    I know of someone in the UK who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer a few years ago. The treatment comprised an four-hour operation to remove the primary growth followed by a course of chemotherapy. During the operation a second site was found on the abdominal wall which they couldn’t reach. After this person had recovered sufficiently from the chemotherapy they were re-admitted for a second procedure to be perfomed. This operation took eight hours and I leave it to your imagination as to what the bill for all that would have been in the US. Yet this person didn’t pay a penny for it. Not up front, at least. In practice, they had paid throughout their working life through taxation which pays for the UK’s National Health Service.

    The fact remains that no one – but no one – in the UK goes bankrupt in the UK because they can’t pay their medical bills. Compare that with the US private health insurance system in which thousands of people each year are driven to bankruptcy by medical bills they can’t pay, even when thy have insurance.

    As for “death panels”, what do you call a private insurance system which, at one time, effectively priced something like 45 million people out of the market, other than a death panel on a massive scale? As far as the private insurers were concerned, they had shut out a large population that would have been the most burdensome to take on and they would just have to get sick and die if they couldn’t afford the insurance.

    Unfortunately, all this is why we have politics – and journalists.

  2. 2
    Axel says:

    A good post on the welfare-state theme, Seversky, and eloquently expressed.

    Rob Sheldon’s criticisms of socialised medicine and our welfare-state could only have been written by an American, economic right-winger. They were transparently vapid to European ears – puerile enough to have been written by inAyn Rand.

    And I thought I had a recollection of him as one of the good guys, and you, just one of the atheist rogues and vagabonds.

  3. 3
    News says:

    Seversky at 1 writes

    I know of someone in the UK who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer a few years ago. The treatment comprised an four-hour operation to remove the primary growth followed by a course of chemotherapy. During the operation a second site was found on the abdominal wall which they couldn’t reach. After this person had recovered sufficiently from the chemotherapy they were re-admitted for a second procedure to be perfomed. This operation took eight hours and I leave it to your imagination as to what the bill for all that would have been in the US. Yet this person didn’t pay a penny for it. Not up front, at least. In practice, they had paid throughout their working life through taxation which pays for the UK’s National Health Service.

    The fact remains that no one – but no one – in the UK goes bankrupt in the UK because they can’t pay their medical bills. Compare that with the US private health insurance system in which thousands of people each year are driven to bankruptcy by medical bills they can’t pay, even when thy have insurance.

    Canada has a different public health care regime from either of the two you compare which, due to a massive general lack of interest, I will not trouble the reader just now by describing in detail.

    The best way of understanding health care systems is also the simplest: Absent wars and emergencies, in comparable countries, how long does the average resident live? It is reasonable to think that Britain, Canada, and the United States (an Anglosphere, if you like) are comparable for these purposes and here are figures I have found for 2015:

    Britain (United Kingdom) 80.54
    Canada 81.76
    United States: 79.68

    I am not seeing a lot of daylight between these figures.

    Not much daylight either between Afghanistan (50.87), Guinea-Bissau (50.23) and Chad (49.81) at the bottom.

    Which amounts to saying that most residents of these unfortunate bottom countries could add thirty years to their lifespan if they lived in one of the Anglosphere countries (or a similar one). But the three Anglosphere countries all have different health care regimes.

    I think too much time is wasted on arguments about the details of health care regimes and not nearly enough time spent on spreading the benefits worldwide.

  4. 4
    goodusername says:

    But why didn’t people in Haught’s position complain when the world’s best-known Darwinians, Dawkins and Dennett to name two, were using evolution to promote naturalist atheism?

    Maybe because Dawkins and Dennett aren’t school teachers being paid with tax dollars to tell a captive audience of children that God doesn’t exist?

    Do you really not see the difference?

    People can write books advocating Holocaust denial if they want, but IMO teachers shouldn’t advocate such a thing in the classroom and use such books as textbooks.

    The rules governing what teachers can say and advocate in the classroom are different from what we can say and advocate in society – and they should be.

    I do have a disagreement with Haught though. The scientific method should be taught in school, not just the theories, and part of the scientific method is that theories are, to varying degrees, open to being disproven.

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