Matt Young posted Entry 2385 on June 17, 2006 06:55 PM.
Trackback URL: http://degas.fdisk.net/cgi-bin/mt/mt-tb.cgi/2380

A few days ago, on June 12, 2006, I attended the second, more-or-less annual symposium on “Teaching Evolution: Meeting the Challenge” at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The symposium was organized by Sarah Wise, a teacher turned graduate student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department (EEB), along with fellow graduate student Mike Robeson and Cathy Russell of the university’s Science Discovery unit. It was aimed at public school and college teachers, including elementary-school teachers. The symposium’s purpose was to “feature a full day of practical one-hour workshops and panel discussions on Teaching Evolution, interspersed with opportunities to interact informally with other participants. Additionally, resources for teaching evolution will be available to look at, including books, posters, software and other products to facilitate the teaching of evolution.” You may find information on the workshops here
http://www.colorado.edu/eeb/EEBprojects/teaching…
and many of the materials presented here
http://www.colorado.edu/eeb/EEBprojects/teaching…

Approximately 70 people attended the symposium. Of those, approximately 50 % were high school teachers, 15 % were teachers from middle or elementary levels, 25 % were university faculty, staff, or students, and 10 % were from other scientific organizations such as the Denver Zoo and the Boulder Open Space department. In a survey given in conjunction with the symposium, 57% of respondents reported that they self-censor their teaching of evolution at least somewhat and/or receive indirect pressure to avoid teaching evolution from their school or community. I do not have any further information, but we may note that only 65 % of the respondents were school (noncollege) teachers, so the fraction that self-censors or receives pressure not to teach evolution may be as high as 85-90 %.

Dave Sutherland, a Naturalist with the Open Space and Mountain Parks division of the City of Boulder, presented what amounted to the keynote address, “Evolution FUNdamentals.” You can read the blurb about each talk for yourself at the conference Web site, so I will not repeat them. Mr. Sutherland gave a nice, informal talk – indeed, a chalk talk with good audience interaction and no prepared slides whatsoever. He began by noting that the Colorado Model Content Standards for Science contain all the right concepts concerning evolution but not the E-word itself. He anticipates an attack on the standards: pressure to drop them, to present the E-theory as flawed, or to demand equal time for some kind of C-concept such as intelligent-design creationism.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Sutherland’s attempt to define a scientific theory did not go well and foundered, in part, on whether evidence was necessary. Still, with the aid of the audience, he listed a number of Theories (with a capital T), such as quantum theory, atomic theory, heliocentric theory, relativity, and evolution. He argued that evolution is a fact, and natural selection is one of the theories that explains that fact. I think it might have been better to say that descent with modification is a fact, and the modern theory of evolution, which includes natural selection, is the best explanation of that fact.

I will let you read the rest of Mr. Sutherland’s presentation by following the link on the workshop resources page. He did not follow the outline exactly and went off on a number of audience-induced tangents, but you can get the gist from the link. Indeed, we spent a lot of time discussing how hard it is to define a species and how that gives fodder to creationists. I learned a great deal, but I do not know whether the material was too elementary for a biology teacher.

Unfortunately, the conference diverged into parallel sessions, and I had to choose among “The Concept of Race,” “Paleoclimate Education,” “Teaching Macroevolution,” and “Computing Molecular Evolution.” Tough choices, but finally I chose “Computing Molecular Evolution,” led by Mr. Robeson. Mr. Robeson discussed phylogenetics and its relation to molecular clocks and mutation rates. He distinguished between phylogenies that presume a constant clock rate and those that do not. Then he demonstrated a computer program for calculating a phylogeny and also for randomizing the result to test its robustness. Fortunately for me, he never got to the point of allowing us to try the programs ourselves – an embarrassment narrowly avoided.

After lunch, I had another choice to make: the panel on “Preparing for Challenges,” “The Nature of Science,” and “Simulating Natural Selection.” I chose “Simulating Natural Selection,” presented by Paul Strode, a teacher at Boulder High School. Dr. Strode had been a teacher for 8 years before he returned to school to pursue his PhD. He noted that he used to be nervous about teaching evolution before he finished the degree, but now spends 6 weeks overtly discussing evolution and also uses terms like adaptation and selection routinely. He told me privately, “During grad school I took several classes with evolution as connecting thread and also had a very tough committee member that made sure I didn’t leave the University of Illinois without a clear understanding of evolution by natural selection and how it played into my research.”

After a discussion of the evolution of the rock pocket mouse on lava flows with varying backgrounds, Dr. Strode assigned us his simulation. He gave each of several teams a collection of differently colored beads perhaps 2 millimeters in diameter and a swatch of gaily colored cloth with a flowered pattern. The beads represented a plant or animal that reproduces parthenogenetically and has one offspring per generation. One member of the team sprinkles 70 beads (10 beads in each of 7 colors) sort of randomly on the swatch of cloth. The swatch must have been the better part of 1 meter on a side. A different team member, the predator, plucks the first bead she sees from the cloth, turns away, and repeats the process until she has collected 35 beads, which is a normal meal for the predator. The beads that remain on the cloth then reproduce; that is, the first team member adds one bead of the correct color for each remaining bead and shuffles. The predator then selects 35 beads as before. The process is repeated.

Dr. Strode introduces the students to the chi-squared test, and they calculate chi-squared for 6 degrees of freedom. They look up the p-value and continue the experiment until p 0.05, a common value in field work. Additionally, the students use a linear transect method to estimate the relative areas of each color on the cloth and draw a scatter plot to decide whether the cloth in fact biases the outcome.

My colleague Susan Kowalski attended the panel discussion, “Preparing for Challenges,” with Bob LaRue of Fairview High School in Boulder, Mr. Robeson, and Ms. Wise. She reports, “These panelists focused on what teachers can do (in an effort to avoid common pitfalls down the road) before ever starting to teach a unit containing controversial topics such as evolution. As in harassment cases, the ‛victim’ defines whether or not a certain topic is controversial. The panelists maintained that, although many teachers fear teaching evolution, what we really need to fear is that we may not teach what we should teach because of external pressures. Many of those pressures can be countered with thorough background preparation, administrative support (at the building level), and awareness of resources available (helpful URL’s and handouts were distributed).”

The next period included “150 Million Years of Mammalogy in Colorado” and “Hands-On Hominid and Ape Skulls,” but, alas, I was committed to serve on the panel on “The Intersection of Science and Religion” with Dr. Russell, Carol Cleland of the Department of Philosophy, and Dan Snare, Science Coordinator with Jefferson County Public Schools. It was hard to take notes while participating, but I can tell you approximately what I said in response to 2 questions asked of me by the moderator, Ms. Wise:

“Perhaps in principle they [science and religion] should not overlap, but in fact they often do. If religion makes a truth claim, and science shows that claim to be false, then that claim is false and needs to be reevaluated. That is not an outrageous statement. There is precedent for reevaluation of religious claims in light of scientific evidence: we no longer burn people at the stake for claiming that the stars are suns like ours nor sentence them to house arrest for holding that the earth goes around the sun.”

“Religion perhaps has something to say to an individual scientist. Since science is fact-based and religion is not, religion as such has nothing to say to science. Science, however, has much to say to certain dogmatic religions when those religions make truth claims that are known to be false. The earth is not 10,000 years old. Humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor. You may have a legal right to believe otherwise, but you are wrong. Period.” We agreed that ethics or morality has something to say to science, but those do not descend from religion.

Somewhere along the line, Prof. Cleland stopped just short of accusing me of scientism, so I supplied the word for her. Mr. Snare was asked how public school teachers should handle evolution-denying students; he replied: with a certain amount of humor, show your expertise, build your case, introduce the historical perspective. Not a biologist, he uses instead plate tectonics and presents all the evidence he can muster; by the end of the year, some of the young-earth creationists will admit that the earth is “pretty old” − perhaps not 4.5 billion years, but not 10,000 either. That, argues Mr. Snare, is progress, and they will go off to college better prepared to learn.

Referring briefly to process theology, Dr. Russell defended the idea that all major religions are compatible with evolution. Only scriptural literalists have any problem in reconciling the two (so, I would add, do certain dogmatic atheists). Dr. Russell noted that over 10,000 clergy from all denominations have signed the Clergy Letter, which underscores their acceptance of both evolution and religion. In addition, over 466 churches from all Christian denominations participated in the first Evolution Sunday on Darwin’s birthday this year to show solidarity with the science of evolution. She further said that religion and evolution can be mutually enriching – she calls herself an Evolutionary Evangelist – but, if my notes are accurate, Prof. Cleland expressed doubt that evolution could be reconciled with a personal God and indeed with any religious belief besides deism, the belief that God set the world in motion and then kept hands off.

In response to a question, “Will there ever be an end to this conflict?” from a student teacher in the audience, Mr. Snare noted that it took several hundred years for heliocentric theory to be fully accepted, but it was eventually accepted. I would say, however, that evolution is more threatening to an anthropocentric view of the universe than is heliocentrism, so I am not so optimistic as Mr. Snare. In addition, Copernicus worked at the very dawn of modern science, before its benefits had been demonstrated and its efficacy empirically verified. If people still deny scientific truth because it pleases them to do so, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, then I see little hope for general acceptance of evolution within my grandchildren’s lifetimes. Indeed, I will be surprised not to see evolution denial eventually spread to Europe and all of the advanced “Western” nations such as Canada and Australia. It is already prominent in the Muslim world.

Ms. Kowalski also attended the talk, “150 Million Years of Mammology in Colorado,” by David Armstrong of the EEB department. She reports, “Dr. Armstrong presented an overview of evolutionary changes in mammals, particularly as supported by the fossil record. These changes reflect the two most dramatic events in Colorado history: the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary mass extinction (65 million years ago) and the arrival of humans (15,000 years ago). In this discussion, he highlighted fossil-rich areas in Colorado that would be appropriate for school field trips, including Pawnee Buttes and Porcupine Cave.”

OK, 3:30 and another choice, this time among “Evolution and Development,” “Molecular Evolution: Hands-On Activities,” “Historical Science, Experimental Science, and the Scientific Method,” and “Evolution, Intelligent Design Creationism, and Physics.” The decision was made easier by the fact that I had already heard the last, a splendid talk by Colorado physics professor Jamie Nagle, which you may find here http://spot.colorado.edu/~naglej/ under “Nagle Presentations.” In view of the earlier difficulty defining Theory (with a capital T), I flirted with Prof. Cleland’s presentation on “Historical Science,” but finally decided on “Evolution and Development,” which was led by Noah Greenberg, another graduate student in EEB.

Mr. Greenberg made the point that a great deal of evolution is fueled by changes in development, where here development means that of the embryo before birth or hatching or whatever. Comparatively few genes may therefore be involved, because novel features use existing genes with differing expressions. He traced developmental biology in its most rudimentary form to the Greek philosopher Anaximander. He somewhat surprised me by lukewarmly defending Ernst Haeckel, whose drawings I thought were considered grossly exaggerated if not virtually faked.

I did not get a chance to interview any of the participants at the symposium, but I queried Ms. Wise, who told me that the general reaction to the event by respondents to her questionnaire was very positive, and the majority said that they will attend next year’s symposium if given the chance. Respondents were enthusiastic about every workshop they attended. Many also said that attending the symposium boosted their confidence in teaching evolution and that they will incorporate some of the classroom-ready activities presented during the event into their curriculum. While Ms. Wise hopes to graduate before next summer, other graduate students in EEB have expressed interest in organizing outreach events like this one in the future.

Acknowledgement. Thanks to Cathy Russell, Dan Snare, and especially Sarah Wise for reading and commenting on a draft of this manuscript, and to Sue Kowalski for her reporting.

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Comment #106347

Posted by Pete Dunkelberg on June 17, 2006 08:08 PM (e)

Thanks Matt for an excellent account of an excellent symposium. Next, we need to organize similar symposia in each state.

Comment #106349

Posted by Sarah Wise on June 17, 2006 08:47 PM (e)

My thanks go to Matt too for his support of the event and his contributions as panelist/journalist.

Anyone interested in organizing a symposium or set of workshops like this in their state is welcome to contact me at: [Enable javascript to see this email address.]. This event did not add an overwhelminig amount of time or duties to my already full grad student life. I estimate I spent 50h on the event over 6 mo, with an additional 30h during the final week.

Events like these are very fun and rewarding and completely doable, especially if you can corral 4-6 willing volunteers (read: grad students) for assistance the day of.

Comment #106361

Posted by Mega swan on June 18, 2006 12:35 AM (e)

Loves it - poopy pants

Comment #106367

Posted by Registered User on June 18, 2006 01:20 AM (e)

I see little hope for general acceptance of evolution within my grandchildren’s lifetimes. Indeed, I will be surprised not to see evolution denial eventually spread to Europe and all of the advanced “Western” nations such as Canada and Australia. It is already prominent in the Muslim world.

That’s truly pessimistic.

If in fact the entire world goes the way of the script-reciting moron who looks to his preacher and/or preacher-politician for “God’s Truth” then evolution denial will be the least of our problems.

While evolution denial is a big problem in the United States right now, it’s not as big a problem as reality-denial generally. As long as we have a country which pays lip service to fundamentalist religious preachers and their bleeting bigoted ignorant flock, we’re screwed.

And so is everybody else.

Referring briefly to process theology, Dr. Russell defended the idea that all major religions are compatible with evolution. Only scriptural literalists have any problem in reconciling the two (so, I would add, do certain dogmatic atheists).

Is George Bush a “scriptural literalist”? Given the extraordinary ability of conservative fundamentalist Christians to read the Bible “literally” so it means whatever they want it to mean,, I’m not sure what is meant by the term “only scriptural literalists”. I think “willfully ignorant fundamentalists” might be a better term. Unfortunately, there are a lot of those in the United States.

Comment #106371

Posted by Registered User on June 18, 2006 01:56 AM (e)

Speaking of teaching evolution I’ve been meaning to note here a hilarious turn of events over at the Cornell Creationists website (http://designparadigm.blogsome.com/).

As regular readers here will recall, the Cornell Creationists belong to the so-called “IDEA Club” where little propagandists are trained by Sal Cordova among others to recite the latest scripts (like the latest fad where “ID theory” as some sort of a “seed” for inspiring research, “just like it inspired Kepler!”).

And regular readers of PT will also remember that the quintessentially pointy-headed and “just-a-tad arrogant” Cornell professor Allen McNeill is all set to teach a summer course to the Cornell Creationists where they will spend time actually reading lengthy texts of utterly debunked baloney by Discovery Institute fellows (unless the syllabus has been changed recently).

So one of the Cornell Creationists posts some Lord of the Rings passage sans context and one of the commenters (“Don Baccus” — not a creationist, as far as I can tell) brings up the ivory-billed woodpecker. Simultaneously, another commenter (“Amy Lester”) brings up the ivory-billed woodpecker. But here’s the best part: Don (maybe because he is a Cornell student?) feels inspired to defend the ivory-billed woodpecker “rediscovery” paper in Science while Amy thinks the paper was garbage.

So how does it all end? In classic creationist fashion, the entire discussion (about 100 comments last time I checked) is obliterated but not before its existence is immortalized over at Tom Nelson’s excellent Ivory-Billed Skeptics blog:

http://tomnelson.blogspot.com/2006/06/it-smells-…

I recall some discussion here about the Ivory Billed “rediscovery” and the dubiousness of the “evidence.” It looks to me as if things are going to turn out badly for the Cornell team (and not just because the ivory billed is almost surely extinct). Either way, it’s an interesting story about good science, bad science and the fickle nature of contemporary “journalistic neutrality”.

Comment #106373

Posted by Popper's Ghost on June 18, 2006 02:23 AM (e)

Referring briefly to process theology, Dr. Russell defended the idea that all major religions are compatible with evolution. Only scriptural literalists have any problem in reconciling the two (so, I would add, do certain dogmatic atheists).

Aside from being obviously false (RU mentions GWB, but there are numerous others such as Behe and Dembski), the statement isn’t even coherent. What “two”? The claim is that “all major religions” are compatible with evolution. Scriptural literalists say that the bible — as written — isn’t compatible with evolution, and most people (with a few wacko exceptions like Judah Landa and Carol Clauser) agree (what differs is which they think is inaccurate). And contrary to the dogmatic dig about “certain dogmatic atheists”, I don’t know of any atheist who denies that *some* major religions (but not, say, evangelical Christianity, which is indeed a major religion) declare themselves to be compatible with evolution, or that any religious person can declare their beliefs to be compatible with evolution. What a number of atheists do claim is that those folks generally have to compartmentalize, putting reason and logic in one compartment and “faith” or “belief” in another, and continually retract empirical claims, converting what once were definite factual claims into “metaphorical” and “symbolic” statements as the gaps close. Compatibility is cheap; introduce any false premise into a logical system and all other claims become “compatible” in the sense that “p and q” becomes a theorem in the system for all possible p and q.

Comment #106374

Posted by Sir_Toejam on June 18, 2006 02:40 AM (e)

While evolution denial is a big problem in the United States right now, it’s not as big a problem as reality-denial generally. As long as we have a country which pays lip service to fundamentalist religious preachers and their bleeting bigoted ignorant flock, we’re screwed.

You nailed that one.

The situation is becoming so bad, that politicos known for their moderate stance for basically their entire career, now apparently feel they literally HAVE to pile on the fundy bandwagon if they want to run for president on the republican side of things. Check out McCain’s shiftorama over the last year or so. scary stuff.

The dems, while not piling on the bandwagon per se, are also not doing a very good job of pointing out why not.

*sigh*

Comment #106375

Posted by Sir_Toejam on June 18, 2006 02:48 AM (e)

What a number of atheists do claim is that those folks generally have to compartmentalize, putting reason and logic in one compartment and “faith” or “belief” in another, and continually retract empirical claims, converting what once were definite factual claims into “metaphorical” and “symbolic” statements as the gaps close.

or never make them to begin with. many don’t.

as to “a number of atheists”, any possibility you ran across a specific reference?

I’ve been spending a bit of time lately collecting references relating to compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance, and how this relates to the commonality of behavior we see in “creobots”.

Comment #106379

Posted by Ritchie Annand on June 18, 2006 03:47 AM (e)

Registered User wrote:

just like it inspired Kepler!

*laugh* Wow, Kepler is a great analogy to use! He worked for years trying to get the orbits of the planets to work properly with Platonic solids. The solar system as Dungeons and Dragons dice just never quite worked. The ellipses we know and love today came at great heartbreak.

One can only hope that the ID-“inspired” researchers, after trying to get mysticism to work to no avail, will come to the proper honest conclusion :)

Comment #106395

Posted by 'Rev Dr' Lenny Flank on June 18, 2006 09:08 AM (e)

What a number of atheists do claim is that those folks generally have to compartmentalize, putting reason and logic in one compartment and “faith” or “belief” in another

Of course, ALL humans do this. It’s part of, well, being human.

I’m pretty willing to bet that no scientist or atheist on this list used the scientific method or logic or reason to choose a life-partner. I’m pretty sure they all used irrational illogical emotional intuitive factors.

Unless their name is “Spock” and they recently attained “Kohlinar”. The way some atheists talk, ya’d think they were all Vulcans or something.

Comment #106396

Posted by Torbjörn Larsson on June 18, 2006 09:09 AM (e)

“or never make them to begin with. many don’t.”

How do they not? For example, deism is making empirical claims (first cause, finite time) that has definitely problems with modern cosmology. Can one remove deism and still have a solid basis for a faith?

I’m curious. I guess one could propose completely empirically empty dualisms. But non-empty dualisms have been found incompatible with science, and empty dualisms, while not making any empirical statements, ought to have problems with the similar rationality (parsimony) that is used within science. If one use different rationality, is that not to compartmentalize?

Comment #106397

Posted by Torbjörn Larsson on June 18, 2006 09:13 AM (e)

“The way some atheists talk, ya’d think they were all Vulcans or something.”

I’m not a Trekkie, but aren’t Vulcan’s pantheists? Kohlinar and similar Vulcan ceremony also points to religion of some sort.

Comment #106400

Posted by Torbjörn Larsson on June 18, 2006 09:25 AM (e)

Uuups. Time for a break - googling easily finds that “The Kohlinar is a rigorous discipline intended to purge all emotions and embrace pure and total logic” ( http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/9299/flash.ht… )

Meditation with ceremony, perhaps. But the effects of meditation is easily gotten with video games and similar activities, if memory serves. So it still seems like a nod to religion.

And indeed, Vulcans pray for deads, believe in souls, and “So, while imperfect, the analogy of Vulcan beliefs to Buddhism stands as the best.” ( http://www.memory-alpha.org/en/wiki/Vulcan )

But maybe you think of this digging for facts as Vulcan.

Comment #106403

Posted by Anton Mates on June 18, 2006 10:08 AM (e)

'Rev Dr' Lenny Flank wrote:

What a number of atheists do claim is that those folks generally have to compartmentalize, putting reason and logic in one compartment and “faith” or “belief” in another

Of course, ALL humans do this. It’s part of, well, being human.

I’m pretty willing to bet that no scientist or atheist on this list used the scientific method or logic or reason to choose a life-partner. I’m pretty sure they all used irrational illogical emotional intuitive factors.

Actually, if they did make that choice without the scientific method or logic or reason, they probably aren’t with that partner anymore (unless they had kids). “I believe that this person meets my needs because I really want to believe that” only gets you so far.

Comment #106410

Posted by Popper's Ghost on June 18, 2006 12:28 PM (e)

Actually, if they did make that choice without the scientific method or logic or reason, they probably aren’t with that partner anymore (unless they had kids). “I believe that this person meets my needs because I really want to believe that” only gets you so far.

Quite so. It seems that some people can’t distinguish a silly TV caricature of logic and reason as “without emotion” from actual logic and reason.

Comment #106411

Posted by Popper's Ghost on June 18, 2006 12:56 PM (e)

P.S.

Most people blindly (irrationally) accept the myth that emotion and rationality are opposites or at least are in conflict, without considering what it actually means to be rational, and what function emotions might have (why evolution resulted in them being a central part of human cognition). Here’s a little thought experiment that might help shake up these unexamined assumptions:

Imagine yourself on an island with your child, little chance of ever being rescued, and very little food. You have the option to consume your child, or not; which is the more rational choice?