A Trip to a Catholic-School Science Fair

Science Fairs are great.  At their best, they allow students some freedom to experiment and learn on their own.  At their worst, they still provide hilarious examples of wacky adolescent science.  Recently, we saw a field report from the National Center for Science Education blog.  Peter Hess asked the question: What passes for “science” at a Catholic science fair?

In these pages, we’ve eagerly read reports from the field as science mavens visit various sorts of science fairs.  P.Z. Myers has argued that creationist students actively use science fairs to subvert the mind-numbing mental boundaries imposed by creationism.  Greg Laden visited a creationist homeschool science fair and found that some of the science was not bad.  At least not much worse, Laden thought, than the crappy science on display at non-creationist science fairs.

Cutting-edge science from a non-religious science fair...

Cutting-edge science from a non-religious science fair…

Hess found to his great relief that his kids’ Catholic school promoted mainstream science, without adulteration from theology.  Students came up with ambitious projects, such as measuring the distraction levels posed by cell phones and texting.

How distracted are drivers? This kid was not looking to the Bible for answers...

How distracted are drivers? This kid was not looking to the Bible for answers…

Hess also talked with some of the teachers.  Those teachers, too, did not see any conflict between Catholicism and teaching mainstream science in their classes.  One teacher offered an opinion that echoed the view of the late Stephen Jay Gould.  As middle-school teacher Joseph Nagel told Hess,

I sometimes consider science to be the constant investigation of the external world, a quest to analyze and understand the physical world, exclusive of human experience.  Religion I see as the eternal internal investigation, a search to explore and understand what lies within and between us, an examination of the human experience.  If science is our understanding of the world, religion is our understanding of us.  Maybe science is the ‘how’ and religion is the ‘why.’

Of course, different Catholic schools might have different approaches.  But my experience matches up closely with that of Hess.  I taught for a decade in Catholic schools in Milwaukee.  Though we sometimes had arguments about the novels we’d teach or the theology we’d teach, there was never any glimmer of controversy over the science we’d teach.

In fact, at least one of our science teachers also taught biology (or was it chemistry?) at a local public, secular community college.  When I asked him if he taught science differently at our Catholic school, he responded just as did the teachers Hess talked to: “Why would I?”


What Should The Science Guy Say?

It’s coming up. 

In just a few short weeks, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” will debate the scientific premise of creationism with Ken Ham at Answers In Genesis’ Creation  Museum.

What should Nye say?

Science writer Greg Laden offered this morning a short list of points he’d like Nye to make.  In general, Laden suggests that Nye focus on the unscientific nature of creationism.  The debate over divinity was real and important in the history of science, Laden points out, but that debate has come and gone.  Laden doesn’t use the phrase, but his argument is reminiscent of philosopher Philip Kitcher’s definition of creationism as “dead science.”  In this vision, it makes no sense to debate the science of creationism, since creationism is not even bad science.  Creationism, rather, represents an understanding of science that has been thoroughly and completely discredited.    

Laden’s debate prep brings up two important questions.  First, what would people advise Ken Ham to say?  And second, do we agree with Laden’s advice to Nye?

First things first: What do you think Ken Ham should say?  For those of us who live mental lives outside the boundaries of religious creationism, is there anything he could say that would convince us that his creation science should be taken seriously?  For me, the answer is no.  I’ve defended Ham in the past and taken heat for it from ardent anti-creationists.  But in this case, I’ll be flummoxed if Ham uses any arguments beyond his scriptural stock-in-trade.  That is, I don’t guess Ham will try to convince people like me who are not moved by references to Biblical passages. 

I’m thinking Ham will likely harp on the scientific merits of young-earth creationism, when in fact his argument would be much stronger if he tried a different approach.  To people like me, at least, Ham’s scientific credentials have no leg to stand on.  But as religious dissenters young-earth creationists can claim much more wiggle room in education and culture.  If Ham wanted to reach out to people beyond the ranks of his current religious supporters, he should argue for creationists’ rights as aggrieved minorities, as a religious group, not as a contender for scientific legitimacy. 

But Ken Ham is not likely to take this approach, since he has built his career on the promise that young-earth creationism is better science than mainstream science.  He will likely trot out his compelling but ultimately vacuous arguments about observational science vs. historic science.  He will likely ask Bill Nye some variant of his ultimately senseless question: “Were you there?”  If Ken Ham hopes to maintain his role as the charismatic leader of the young-earth creationist movement, he can’t really do anything else. 

Question two: What should Nye say?  I don’t think Laden’s advice is the first best answer.  IMHO, the most effective answer to young-earth creationists such as Ken Ham is a theological one, not a pop-science one.  As do the folks at BioLogos, I think the most effective message young-earth creationists need to hear is that Biblical faith does not require faith in a young earth.  As science pundits tend to agree, young-earth creationism is not really science, it is something else.  It is an outgrowth of a particular religious understanding.  Therefore, the strongest arguments against it are religious, not scientific. 

Also, I don’t think Nye should use his precious exposure to creationists to blast the dead-science nature of young-earth creationism.  Many creationists will expect a hostile attack on their belief system.  They will not be moved by it.  They will not be convinced by it, since they will not credit its source.  I think it will be more effective for The Science Guy to do what he does best: explain what science is.  Young-earth creationism is based on a very different way of defining knowledge.  If Bill Nye can explain what real science is—instead of attacking the reasons why young-earth creationism doesn’t meet that definition—he can expose some of the creationists in the debate audience to a very different way of understanding the entire debate. 



No More Talk: Popular Science Closes Its Comments

Why can’t we ever have a civilized conversation?

That’s the lament we hear all too often when it comes to issues such as evolution or climate change.

As science pundit Greg Laden noted recently, a new editorial policy at Popular Science shuts down conversation entirely.  The online version of the magazine will no longer be open to comments from readers.

Why?  Such comments, online editor Suzanne LaBarre explained, could have a negative impact on the way readers understand science.  She cited academic studies in which readers of hateful comments had changed their opinions about the scientific content of essays and articles.  “Trolls and spambots” had a negative impact on readers’ understanding of key scientific issues.

LaBarre concluded,

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

As a result, Popular Science.com comment forums will be closed.  Are such policies draconian?  Totalitarian?  Orwellian?  Is it a symptom of defeat among mainstream science popularizers that they can no longer accommodate disagreement?

Or, more chilling for those of us who want to see more and better science education in all sorts of institutions, could this new policy be a sign that mainstream academic science has been defeated at the popular level?  That is, is this new policy a sign that small-p popular science has become utterly unmoored from its connections to mainstream academic science?

When commenters, “cynical” or not, can close down the public conversation at such a storied institution as Popular Science, it demonstrates an epochal popular victory for non-mainstream science, whether that be creationism, climate-change denial, homeopathic medicine, or anything else.


A Visit to a Creationist Homeschool Science Fair

What would a creationist homeschool science fair look like?

Greg Laden at ScienceBlogs described his recent trip to one in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Laden offered more than just a snarky blanket condemnation of the creationism and science on display.  Some of the exhibits, Laden wrote, were actually pretty good.  In one exhibit, students created and explained plant tissue batteries, for instance.

Some students, though, conducted experiments that disappointed the mainstream scientists.  One student, for instance, made salt stalactites to prove that they could form more quickly than some mainstream scientists believed.  According to Laden, mainstream science already knew that even limestone stalactites could form fairly quickly.  Another student retreated from science to explain animal behavior.  Faced with a question he or she could not answer, one student told Laden that “a certain problem would be solved because ‘God put something in the animal to make that happen.'”

Non-creationist science fair...

Non-creationist science fair: “Is Ham Tasty? Hellz Yeah”

Best of all, IMHO, Laden recognized that some of the weaknesses of student presentations were not due to religious belief, but rather due to the age of the presenters.  As Laden put it, “many of the limitations and shortfalls of the less than stellar posters were typical of small scale school science fairs in general, not peculiar to these students.”

This point is clearly one that could use more study.  We observers of creationism and evolution education often lament the fact that relatively few students learn any real evolutionary science.  But we must remember the broader point: relatively few students learn any real anything in too many of America’s schools.  It is not fair to assume that students’ generally weak grasp of evolutionary concepts is necessarily due to religious dissent.  Rather, we should measure the successful teaching of evolutionary concepts alongside other basic concepts such as the appreciation of literature, the history of the founding of the country, or algebra.  My hunch is that the “shocking” weakness of most American adults in mastering the basic concepts of evolutionary theory might not look so shocking compared to the weakness of American adults in mastering other basic concepts.