I'm from Missouri

This site is named for the famous statement of US Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver from Missouri : "I`m from Missouri -- you'll have to show me." This site is dedicated to skepticism of official dogma in all subjects. Just-so stories are not accepted here. This is a site where controversial subjects such as evolution theory and the Holocaust may be freely debated.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Science educators should not define basic scientific terms

IMO science educators should avoid trying to define basic scientific terms like "theory" and "science," particularly in state science standards. These efforts to define these terms only increase confusion and misunderstandings. One of the problems is that these definitions are often written by people who have an ax to grind -- e.g., promoting evolution by calling it a "scientific theory" and then defining "scientific theory" as being very strong. The definitions of basic scientific terms should be left to standard dictionaries.

In an editorial titled "Why the philosophy of science matters" in the October issue of The Scientist magazine (you will need to register to see the complete articles), Richard Gallagher wrote,

You might expect that newly minted science graduates -- who presumably think of themselves as scientists, and who I'd thought of as scientists -- would have a well-developed sense of what science is. So it's pretty shocking to discover that a large proportion of them don't have a clue. At least that's the case in the UK, going on the evidence of our Opinion author James Williams ("What Makes Science 'Science'?"). He found that a sizeable proportion of science graduates entering teacher training couldn't define what is a scientific fact, law or hypothesis. One young innocent, for instance, defined scientific theory as "an idea about something, not necessarily true." If that isn't playing into the hands of creationists, then I don't know what is!

The opinion article by James Williams says,
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As a science educator, I train science graduates to become science teachers. Over the past two years I've surveyed their understanding of key terminology and my findings reveal a serious problem. Graduates, from a range of science disciplines and from a variety of universities in Britain and around the world, have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple terms and are unable to provide appropriate definitions of key scientific terminology. So how can these hopeful young trainees possibly teach science to children so that they become scientifically literate? How will school-kids learn to distinguish the questions and problems that science can answer from those that science cannot and, more importantly, the difference between science and pseudoscience? Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I've surveyed to date:

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.

The recently-adopted Florida science standards say that students should --

-- Recognize and explain that a scientific theory is a well-supported and widely accepted explanation of nature and is not simply a claim posed by an individual. Thus, the use of the term theory in science is very different than how it is used in everyday life.

Saying that a "scientific theory" is by definition "well-supported and widely accepted" is just plain wrong -- there are strong scientific theories and weak scientific theories. I presume this definition was added to the standards because the name "scientific theory" was added to evolution in the standards. And the Florida science standards not only give a bad definition of "scientific theory" but say that students are expected to "recognize and explain" this definition.

Darwinist ideologue Steven Schafersman, self-styled president of the Texas Citizens for Science, said of the proposed Texas grades 9-12 science standards,

National Academy of Sciences on Scientific Explanations

Another issue was the language about observational evidence and the nature and testability of scientific explanations that some disciplines added to the introductions of their revised standards. The language is from the National Academy of Sciences' new book Science, Evolution, and Creationism, p. 10. One version of the language is as follows:

Scientific explanations must be based on naturally occurring phenomena, and must be capable of testing by multiple independent researchers. If scientific explanations are based on purported forces that are outside of nature, scientists have no way of testing those explanations. Unless a proposed scientific explanation is framed in a way that some observational evidence could potentially refute it, that explanation cannot be subject to scientific testing.

I am certainly in favor of this addition to the various disciplines' TEKS. However, I notice that several science disciplines did not add this excellent language at all: IPC, Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy. In fact, it appears that only Biology, Aquatic Science, and Earth and Space Science added the NAS language, each with different wording, and Environmental Systems added a similar paragraph that does not use the NAS language. I can't account for the discrepancies, but I will recommend that each discipline adopt a uniform version of this excellent language that separates science from pseudoscience. Obviously, the pseudoscience that the NAS language addresses so well is Intelligent Design Creationism.

The above NAS paragraph was added verbatim (page 35) to the proposed Earth and Space Science standards, which is not surprising considering that Steven Schafersman was on the Earth and Space standards-drafting committee. To see the versions of this NAS language that are used in other disciplines, search for the word "explanation" (the search function is the binoculars icon in the top border of the PDF file).

IMO the above NAS statement is a philosophy of science and therefore should not be added in any form to state science standards. And this NAS statement could backfire on Schafersman because a lot of evolution theory would not qualify as science under the testability and falsifiability criteria of the statement.

In the final analysis, it really doesn't matter how these scientific terms -- e.g., theory, hypothesis, law, and fact -- are defined, because even if we agree on the definitions, we are going to disagree over the attachment of these terms to different ideas. For example, some people consider evolution to be a fact and others consider it to be just a hypothesis if even that much.
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