"No Mo Po Mo"
It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope.
We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to
the song of that siren, till she transforms us into beasts...
Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see
not, and having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern
their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of
spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know
the worst and to provide for it.
Science Education and Scientific
We have noted, in The Online Gadfly, the deplorable
condition of science education in the United States. In addition, we
have criticized the "fact-funding" approach to science education,
whereby the content of science is given primary consideration
over the activity and function of science. Due to this
approach to science education, we have encountered all-too-many
college undergraduates who, while familiar with various scientific
"facts" and "laws," are quite unable to appreciate why science might
be a superior means of ascertaining knowledge of the natural world.
Such students can complete an undergraduate education still
perceiving no reason to prefer (for example) astronomy to astrology.
Such scientific mis-education provides fertile soil for the
"post-modernism" and "deconstruction" that is corrupting our communal
In early 1998, the Third International Mathematics and Science
Study (TIMSS) reported some shocking findings about the state of
scientific education in the United States. Two editorials in Science, the journal of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, thus responded to that report.:
The science and mathematics education community is
still recoiling from the latest results on student performance in
[TIMSS]. Although scores were not expected to be high, the
fact that the nation's 12th graders were among the lowest
performers was disheartening... US 12th graders performed
below the international average and among the lowest of the 21
TIMSS countries that participated in the general science knowledge
assessment. And in the advanced physics assessment, US 12th
graders performed among the lowest of the students from the 16
Earlier TIMSS data indicate that when compared to other
countries, US [science] teachers lack support throughout
their teaching career and feel isolated from their teaching
colleagues. They teach more classes per week than their Japanese
counterparts, and there is no time set aside in the US school day
for teachers to learn from one another and share strategies about
teaching. Science teachers also face the challenge of having to
teach subjects outside their field of expertise. US Secretary
of Education Richard Riley notes that, in the physical sciences,
"Almost half of American students are taught by teachers without a
major or minor in that field." (March 13, 1998. Gerald Wheeler,
Executive Director of the National Science Teachers
By the broadest definition, more than 90% of Americans are
scientifically illiterate -- an appalling statistic by anyone's
standards and possibly a threat to our well-being. Yet with all
this agreement we see astonishing ambiguity -- and to different
definitions of scientific literacy. The first emphasizes practical
results and stresses short-term instrumental good, notably
training immediately productive members of society with specific
facts and skills. We call this science literacy, with its
focus on gaining units of scientific or technical knowledge.
second is scientific literacy, which emphasizes scientific
ways of knowing and the process of thinking critically and
creatively about the natural world. Advocates of the second assume
that it is good o have critical thinkers, that scientific literacy
is an intrinsic good -- on moral and other principled grounds.
Being scientifically literate helps people to live "good" lives
(in the philosophers' sense of reflective and fulfilling, and not
in the distasteful sense of eating good-for-you bran flakes).
According to this view, science is beautiful, exciting, and fun.
Becoming scientifically literate produces skeptical, creative
habits of mind that are valuable for everyone. (August 14, 1998.
Jane Maienschein and students, Arizona State University).
Science and Religion in the
If polls are to be believed, 100 million US citizens believe that humans
and dinosaurs were created within the same weak as each other, less than ten
thousand years ago. This is ... serious. People like this have the
vote, and we have George W. Bush (with a little help from his friends in the
Supreme Court) to prove it. They dominate school boards in some
states. Their views flatly contradict the great corpus of the sciences,
not just biology but physics, geology, astronomy, and many others. It
is, of course, entirely legitimate to question conventional wisdom in fields
that you have bother to mug up first. That is what Einstein did, and
Galileo, and Darwin. But our hundred million are another matter.
They are contradicting -- influentially and powerfully -- vast fields of
learning in which their own knowledge and reading is indistinguishable from
Richard Dawkins, Free Inquiry
We are now in an awfully pious period in our own
country... We are a churchy nation -- far more so than any other Western
country. The Swedes, the Brits, even the Italians seldom go to
church. Americans go regularly. Those nations have lower rates of
violent crime and other social maladies, but so what? The efficacy
of religion is considered proven, even if it is not.
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post
March 6, 2001
The Bush budget includes cuts, after accounting for inflation,
to the three primary sources of ideas and personnel in the high-tech
economy" the National Science Foundation is cut by 2.6 percent, NASA by
3.6 percent and the Department of Energy by an alarming 7.1 percent...
The 21st century economy will continue to depend on scientific
innovation. Economists estimate that innovation and the application of
new technology have generated at least half of the phenomenal growth in
America's gross domestic product since World War II. Keeping that
economic source productive is critical to both national prosperity and federal
The proposed cuts to scientific research are a self-defeating
policy. Congress must increase the federal investment in science.
No science, no surplus. It's that simple.
D. Allan Bromley, New York Times, March 9, 2001
(Bromley was the Science Advisor to Pres. G. H. W. Bush)
Scan the shelves of a bookshop or a public library and you will see that
most of the books are about the evanescent concerns of today... They take so
much for granted, whole forgetting how hard won was the scientific knowledge
that gave us the comfortable and safe lives we enjoy. We are so ignorant
of the facts upon which science and our scientific culture are established
that we give equal place on our bookshelves to the nonsense of astrology,
creationism, and junk science. At first, they were there to entertain,
or to indulge our curiosity, and we did not take them seriously. Now
they are too often accepted as fact. Imagine a survivor of a failed
civilization with only a tattered book on aromatherapy for guidance on
arresting a cholera epidemic. Yet, such a book would more likely
be found amid the debris than a comprehensible medical text.
Science, 8 May, 2000
The Evolution of Ideas
"All new and truly important ideas must pass through three stages:
first dismissed as nonsense, then rejected as against religion, and finally
acknowledged as true, with the proviso from initial opponents that they know
it all along."
Stephen Jay Gould, Paraphrasing Karl Ernst von Baer.
In Defense of Reason
"The general public no longer views science, let alone
the ultimate truths of the universe, with a sense of awe and
mystery, but instead considers it conservative and mundane,
"trapped" in logical thinking. It is as if the shackles of
rigidity have -- thank God -- been removed when "open-minded"
attitudes are conveyed on television, in books, in movies about
ESP, UFOs, or any of a thousand other varieties of alleged
paranormal phenomena. The great danger, in my estimation, is not
so much that vast numbers of children and adults will be sucked
wholesale into truly goofy belief systems (channeling, abduction,
and so on), but that they will be misled into accepting the
implicit message that science is boring, conservative,
closed-minded, devoid of mystery, and a negative force in society.
Again, this message is not overt, but tacit, perhaps not even
consciously intended. Yet it is precisely this subliminally that
makes it so insidious and dangerous.
"I have no quick fixes. I do not know how to quickly and easily
repair decades of damage. I do not even fully understand why the
sands have shifted so radically. All I can do is look on in
sadness and worry about the future of rational inquiry, bemoaning
the loss of awe toward genuine mysteries that our society was once
lucky enough to possess."
"Popular Culture and the Threat to Rational
Douglas Hofstadter, Science, 24 July, 1998
What's wrong with a [belief] that brings comfort to
so many people? That's a bit like asking what's wrong with a
lobotomy, a steady diet of happy pills, or a group like Heaven's
Gate. Charismatic authority figures are always disconcerting,
especially when they malign rationalism and exhort us to abandon our
critical thinking powers in order to realize spiritual
growth.... No one who demands worship, however, covertly,
Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials
For decades now, we have been told that "knowledge" is not a
legitimate goal of striving but merely a shibboleth for enforcing
the dominance of a class, race or gender. From that position it
follows that the correct way to assess an idea is not to test its
congruence with established facts but simply to ask whose interest
it serves. And once this anti-empirical habit comes into play, it
automatically creates sympathy for whatever notions are rejected
by the ruling group. This process of rehabilitating "marginalized"
conceptions stops a nothing -- not even ... at the most comical
excesses of the [alien] abduction mania.
The New York Review, 7/28/98
There have always been two kinds of original thinkers, those
who upon viewing disorder try to create order, and those who upon encountering
order try to protest it by creating disorder. The tension between the
two is what drives learning forward. It lifts us upward through a
zigzagging trajectory of progress. And in the Darwinian contest of
ideas, order always wins because -- simply -- that is the way the real world
Edward O. Wilson,
Risk assessment data can be like the captured spy: if you torture it long
enough, it will tell you anything you want to know.
William Ruckelshaus, Former Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
My experience with academics is that they have a short
attention span and are also pretty clueless as to what needs to be done to
make a political change. They then to think that if they write a letter
to the editor, they have done their duty.
Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education.
Quoted in Science, December 3, 1999, p. 1843
"Plus ça change, plus la même
In our recent
rereading of Orwell's 1984, we encountered a passage
that vividly reminded us of our recent classroom encounters
with "postmodern" students . Recall the quotation by Paulo
Friere (in "Yes, Virginia, There is a Real World," this site):
"Education ... denies that the world exists as a reality apart
"But how can you control matter?" [Winston Smith] burst
out. "You don't even control the climate or the law of gravity.
And there are disease, pain, death ---"
O'Brien silenced him with a movement of the hand. "We control
matter, because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull.
You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could
not do. Invisibility, levitation, anything. I could float off this
floor like a soap bubble if I wished to. I do not wish to, because
the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those
nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the
laws of nature."
. . . .
"But the world itself is only a speck of dust. And man is tiny
-- helpless! How long has he been in existence? For millions of
years the earth was uninhabited."
"Nonsense. the earth is as old as we are, no older. How could
it be older? Nothing exists except through human
"But the rocks are full of the bones of extinct animals --
mammoths and mastodons and enormous reptiles which lived here long
before man was ever heard of."
"Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not.
Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was
nothing. After man, if he could to to an end, there would be
nothing. Outside man there is nothing."
"But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some
of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach
"What are the stars?" said O'Brien indifferently. "They are
bits of fire a few kilometers away. We could reach them if we
wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the center of
the universe. The sun and the stars go round it. . . . Do you
suppose it is behind us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The
stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you
suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten
Alan Sokal -- Call your office!