Democracy Has Prevailed.

April 28, 2013

Oh, Good Lord!

From today's P-G we find this distressing assessment of our nation's educational system.

After framing the issue with a story of a young Duquesne student who received what she believed was an inadequate secondary school science education, David Templeton writes:
Her experience represents the ill-kept secret about public school biology classrooms nationwide -- that evolution often isn't taught robustly, if at all. Faith-based belief in creationism and intelligent design continues to be discussed and even openly taught in public school classrooms, despite state curriculum standards.
What follows is foul, odious and repulsive:
"Sometimes students honestly look me in the eye and ask what do I think? I tell them that I personally hold the Bible as the source of truth," said Joe Sohmer, who teaches chemistry at the Altoona Area High School. The topic arises, he said, when he teaches radiocarbon dating, with that method often concluding archeological finds to be older than 10,000 years, which he says is the Bible-based age of Earth. "I tell them that I don't think [radiocarbon dating] is as valid as the textbook says it is, noting other scientific problems with the dating method.
We've dealt with radiocarbon dating before.  Here's what I wrote back then:
[Radiocarbon dating is] a method of dating the age of once living tissue based on the rate of decay for an isotope of carbon (namely carbon-14). Isotopes, by the way, are atoms of the same element (hydrogen, uranium, and so on) that differ in their atomic weights because they have a different number of neutrons in their respective nuclei. Carbon-13 has, for instance, 7 neutrons and 6 protons in its nucleus while carbon-14 has 8 neutrons and 6 protons in its nucleus (7+6=13 and 8+6=14, get it?).

Science tells us that carbon-14 is very unstable and decays into an isotope of nitrogen at a known rate. It's formed constantly in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays interact with some of the nitrogen up there and filters down into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide where it enters the food chain (from CO2 to photosynthesis to animals). When something is alive the amount of carbon-14 in its system more or less matches the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. But once that thing dies, no more carbon-14 is added and the carbon-14 that remains begins its decay into nitrogen.

In a nutshell, by knowing the rate at which carbon-14 decays and knowing how much is left in the once living tissue, scientists can pretty accurately estimate when that thing died.
By the way for his work in first developing the science of radiocarbon dating, Willard Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960.

Wow, a Nobel Prize.  That must mean that a lot of very smart people looked over the process for a long time and found it very solid and very important.  So given that, I think it's completely possible that some high school chemistry teacher from Altoona, Pennsylvania has enough sound science to overturn their 53 year old error.

But there's more from Mr Sohmer:
"Kids ask all kinds of personal questions and that's one I don't shy away from," he said. "It doesn't in any way disrupt the educational process. I'm entitled to my beliefs as much as the evolutionist is."
Which does nothing but remind me of something Isaac Asimov wrote in 1980:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
We should remember that just because ignorance is Bible-based, doesn't mean it isn't ignorance.  In order to reject (as Joe Sohmer does) the science of radiocarbon dating one has to also reject such large tracts of physics (for example the science of radioactive decay) that there's little left of the science.  No matter how much he wants to believe it, the evidence overwhelmingly supports radiocarbon dating.  It's right, he's wrong and he's mistreating his students by leading them to doubt it.  That the Altoona school district is, in Mr. Sohmer's words, "comfortable with his [teaching] methods" is an indictment of their own tolerance of Bible-based anti-intellectualism.

Templeton points out the danger of that:
The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts have ruled time and again that teaching creationism in public schools violates the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which often is referred to as separation of church and state: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Those cases include Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in York County, which involved the district's decision to include intelligent design in the curriculum as an alternative theory to evolution. The 2005 federal court ruling said intelligent design -- the argument that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause -- and creationism were one and the same religious principle that couldn't be taught in public schools.

The school district's legal fees topped $1 million.

Regardless of the court decisions, creationism continues to find an audience in public schools, limiting students' education in one of biology's fundamental principles.
If you're curious to read it, please check out Kitmiller v Dover here.  Judge Jones conclusion starts this way:
The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs’ scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.
Templeton's piece is a good read. The only problem I have is found in this sentence:
Similar debate is occurring over the Big Bang theory, climate change and other controversial ideas of science.
And with it, unfortunately, he's giving rhetorical cover to the anti-intellectual anti-science folks everywhere.  The Big Bang and climate change are "controversial" only because those whose think their ignorance is just as good as someone else's knowledge have been shouting it from their pulpits sacred and secular for years.

With any honest assessment of the evidence, such "controversies" evaporate all too quickly.

Teaching anything but science in a public school science class is not only unconstitutional but it's damaging to our childten and the society in general.  I'll give Bill Nye the last word:


Social Justice NPC Anti-Paladin™ said...

I wish Bill Nye and his acolytes could answer this or show any real scientific discovery that relies wholly on evolution by natural selection.
Mailvox: evolution and the slippery slope
What scientifically significant predictive model relies primarily upon evolution by natural selection?

SamStone said...

Distressing is the right word. As Bill Nye laments, the US is one of the top countries in the world in terms of scientific advances, but the general electorate is woefully ignorant of even basic scientific principles. The mistaken belief that "My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge" sums it up very nicely.

SamStone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SamStone said...

Heir to the Throne - you must be joking. Evolution by natural selection forms the basis of all biology and, in turn, is at the heart of medical advances.

Of more direct interest, see the 2001 PBS special on Evolution and AIDS where they note "Evolution through natural selection can be seen happening in real time by observing HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV has been able to rapidly develop resistance to any drug developed to combat it due to the power of random variation acted upon by selective environmental pressure.

Evolution: "Darwin's Dangerous Idea."

Next time you talk to your doctor, ask if they "believe" in evolution. I think you will find the answer enlightening.

Social Justice NPC Anti-Paladin™ said...

So if you don't believe in Evolution, you can't understand that a species can adapt?

A virus gaining resistance to various drugs is the same as a virus evolving into a single cell organism.

Watch out from the HIV bacterium.