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There Must Be an Idiom

                                 St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

A couple of days ago I read something that I found very disturbing and I was reminded of it today. It illustrates the challenge we have in educating the public about science and, perhaps, why it is so challenging. There must be an idiom which fits. Perhaps you have some suggestions.

So, first I will tell you what I read, then I will tell you why it was more disturbing than what I commonly encounter. If you want to skim, I cannot stop you, but please scroll down to the bottom for the shocker.

The offending paragraph was found in a review of Daniel Loxton’s wonderful children’s book, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be which appeared in CM Magazine, a publication of the Manitoba Library Association.

Although the text is very good in describing the theory of Evolution, there are points in the book where the author makes comments that could imply that Evolution is more than a theory. For example, “…Charles Darwin revealed the solution to the mystery of evolution” (p. 7). He also makes the comment that Evolution is the most important idea in all of biology (p. 7). Such phrases may lead the reader into thinking that scientists completely understand the theory of Evolution which would be incorrect, else Evolution would be a principle or a law and not a theory. As well, it is a bit bold to claim that evolution is the most important idea in all of biology – biology is a huge field of study with other key discoveries.

This text could be read by a young reader for ‘fun.’…

First, let me address this criticism because it is a common one made by evolution deniers and because it preys on a misunderstanding of science that many laypeople have.

As with most words in the English language, the word “theory” has multiple meanings. In general use among non-scientists, it is often used to express “conjecture”, “speculation”, or some other unproven or untested guess.

None of those definitions are what a scientist means when they use the term “theory”.

Neither a “principle” nor a “law” is a theory which is “completely understood”, either. Laws are simple statements which describe, not explain.

The descriptions given by Dr. Genie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, of the definitions of fact, law, hypothesis, and theory. It occurs about 3:50 into the video.

                    

Theories vary in strength from very weak to very strong. The theory of evolution through natural selection has withstood 150 years of rigorous testing. It is one of the strongest theories in science.

And, yes, it is, by far, the most important idea in biology. It is probably the most important in all of the life sciences including behavioral sciences like psychology. Of course, this is a statement of opinion and I am not a biologist. However, I cannot imagine a biologist of any quality who does hold this opinion. I offer as evidence the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom Theodosius Dobzhansky quoted in his 1973 essay in American Biology Teacher titled “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution“:

(Evolution) is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow — this is what evolution is.

So, to summarize so far, a theory is an explanation – it is a set of testable and tested statements about relationships among variables which explains a given phenomenon. Ideas are not called “theories” because we do not know if they hold true. The strength of a theory depends on the quantity of observable facts explained, the quality of the explanation, the amount of testing it has withstood, and many other factors.

Evolution is an amazingly strong theory.

The author of the review does not understand the term “theory” as it is used in science, nor does she understand “law” and “principle”. Although these are often misunderstood by laypersons, they are fundamental to science. They are the language of science.

What is so shocking?

The review was written by an Assistant Professor of Science Education.

Katarin MacLeod is an Assistant Professor in Science Education at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. Her areas of interest include physics educational research (PER), and the incorporation of science, technology, society and environment (STSE) outcomes into science courses at all levels to help students understand the relevancy of science, increase scientific literacy, and to promote citizenship.

That, my friends, is disgraceful.


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A Brief Introduction to Youth Perception of the Skeptic Community: Something’s not quite right.

What does science mean to skepticism? A large portion of the individuals involved in spreading information and awareness about skepticism come from academia and possess advanced degrees. Even our organization, The Woo Fighters, defines its members as “defenders of science”. The terms “scientist” and “skeptic” can be used almost interchangeably, with scientists seeking to make conclusions based on evidence as freely as possible from human biases, and skeptics seeking to emulate that same thought process.

The advent of the popularity of online blogging has given skeptic organizations a large amount of flexibility when it comes to teaching the fundamentals of skepticism. From these articles, some individuals from the growing audience of readers are recruited to the scientific school of thought. But what are they really being recruited to, what do they believe they’re a part of, and how does this affect the public’s overall perception of skepticism?

As affirmed by several reputable sources, skepticism is a methodology for gaining knowledge through critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning. And that’s it. The definition of this word can never go beyond that point, and if you try to add any qualifiers you’ve already gone against what you hold most dear. Even if languages are living, breathing things, the process of skepticism is in the method, not the word. If this is supposed to be what skepticism means, what are new skeptics being exposed to?

One important thing to note is that online skeptic communities draw a younger crowd than they did before the popularity of the internet. The Woo Fighters are currently a group of twenty-something students, and I wasn’t even alive before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We’re talking young, young people who may not even be aware of Carl Sagan’s first use of the term “scientific skepticism”, or early groups such as the James Randi Educational Foundation. What we start with is what we believe science to be, and what we learn about skepticism is what we find available on the internet.

So what is the information we start with? Pop science! 3-2-1 Contact was a bit before my time, but Bill Nye the Science Guy was just perfect. It even has “science” in its title, so you know it must be legit. Stephen Hawking and his Brief History of Time is practically the face of what it means to be a brilliant thinker in the eyes of the public (although there are of course others who are idolized in rather amazing ways). As I alluded to before, promoters of skeptic thought tend to be people who highly value the pursuit of knowledge. And this is where we’re coming from as children. A new, younger generation, who may or may not try to define skepticism in the image of what they believe it to be.

And what are we finding? If you type “Science Blogs” into Google, your first hit is going to be P.Z. Myers’ Pharyngula, and while it’s only a personal blog, it’s still one of most admired and linked to blogs by many skeptics. If you search for “Skeptic Blogs”, you’ll find yourself at Skepticblog, a collaboration of many different authors such as Brian Dunning, Phil Plait, Daniel Loxton, and countless others. There are even skeptical blogs written almost entirely by women, such as SheThought and Skepchick. These blogs are all directly related to one another in the material and events they choose to cover. There are of course hundreds of more blogs relating to skepticism not mentioned here. I need only to focus on a small number involved in skeptical “current events” to illustrate my point:

The definition of skepticism is elegantly simple, yet there are so many organizations in conflict. Why are some skeptics angry about P.Z. Myers’ recent leaps of logic? Why does the previous blog even exist? Why did the Skepchick community recently fragment, aren’t they all fighting to promote the same skepticism? Not all, but many skeptic organizations have become exclusive communities, all fighting for their very own version of critical thought, their own version of the singular definition of skepticism.

The young, burgeoning skeptic grew up with an idea of what it meant to be a scientist, learns what it means to be a skeptic, and finds that something isn’t quite right. The skeptic community is in conflict with itself, completely obscuring even the most basic idea of why many came together in the first place. Separate skeptic organizations exist not as mutually beneficial groups (as they should), but as factions. And this is what we see, and this is what we’re taught skepticism to be, and this is what we become. Everyone can’t be right, so who is?

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