|Classroom Discussions of Controversial Scientific Theories?|
|by Dr. Robin Zimmer|
|May 23, 2011|
The Wall Street Journal reported that 80 percent of our high school seniors nationwide are now scoring below proficiency in science and mathematics (January 26, 2011). Moreover, our Country has now slipped to 31st in world science and math education. Alarming? You bet it is. It seems that something is very wrong with our approach to science teaching in our public schools and a course reversal is needed.
America’s growth from a fledgling English colony to the world’s greatest and most powerful nation has been fueled by a blessed wealth of natural resources, an industrious work ethic, and a “can do” mindset – buoyed by a superior scientific and technical educational system. Yes, the United States of America has truly been blessed. But is our fundamental technical education in a state of decay? Recent statistics seem to indicate so. I would argue that deteriorating education will soon be followed by a declining nation dependent upon others to provide technical and scientific breakthroughs to fuel economic growth. This is the proverbial slippery slope. Can this course be reversed?
I am certainly not a professional public educator. But it seems to me that our public schools are too intent on teaching marginal science and mathematics to all public students while failing to provide creative technical education to those with an aptitude for advanced studies. It seems that too many public science classrooms “spoon feed” quasi-scientific doctrine to students rather than foster an environment of critical thinking and analysis.
What about scientific theories that continue to be debated in professional circles? Are these to be presented as doctrine without debate or critical analysis in the public high school science classroom? Education based on regurgitating a teacher’s perspective or text book prose on test day fails to elicit critical thinking and analysis that is fundamental to developing basic scientific and engineering skills. The New York Times reported in its February 7, 2011 edition that 60% of public school teachers nationwide dance around the specifics of controversial scientific theories such as Darwinian evolution. Evasion or denial is no way to teach science and our falling national aptitude reflects this.
But, there is a glimmer of hope here in Tennessee. A Bill was recently introduced to the Tennessee State legislature by Representative William Dunn (House Bill 368). This timely Bill offers an improvement in our approach to science education. The Bill simply proposes that public teachers be permitted to encourage students to employ critical analysis of scientific theories within the public classroom. As a Ph.D. with 30 years of experience within academia, government and industry I was appalled that anyone interested in improving science education could be opposed to Tennessee’s House Bill 368. But apparently the ACLU and teacher’s union argue that a critical analysis of theories such as Darwinian evolution is a strike against separation of Church and State and is really nothing more than a facade to introduce religion into our public schools. In reality, the Bill’s sponsors have no plan to carry creationism or religion into our public classrooms. The Bill is simply an attempt to reverse the course of our crumbling science education by fostering critical analysis. A few university professors have testified in opposition to the Bill, and what strikes me as odd is how academic scientists could argue with an approach that, in all honesty, molded them into the professionals that they are today. What I am talking about is advanced critical thinking and analysis that lies at the very core of a scientist’s world. A well functioning peer review system challenges a scientist’s thinking and ensures critical and constructive discourse. This is the scientific process. Why would we deprive our future scientists from understanding how to critically challenge and assess scientific theories?
Are there controversies associated with theories such as full Darwinian macro-evolution? Sure there are. Michael Behe, a Biochemist from Lehigh University, recently published a book entitled: The Edge of Evolution, the Search for the Limits of Darwinism. In it he notes that Plasmodium falciparum, a parasite which causes Malaria, has developed resistance to new drugs. This is indeed a form of evolutionary change through adaptation. But why is it that these parasites have not evolved significantly in other ways? Why is it that malaria is still confined to the tropics and has not evolved to thrive in more temperate regions? He then argues that there are limitations or boundaries to classic Darwinian evolution. Dr. Behe is not alone in questioning the limitations to natural Darwinian evolution. Dr. Richard Sternberg, a former Smithsonian Biologist and now a researcher with the Biologic Institute, questions the whole concept of “junk DNA” as remnants left over from evolutionary change. He and others are finding that our DNA is a large and complicated treasure trove of messages turning genes on and off while moving and rearranging others. In addition there are numerous scientific papers recently published in refereed journals challenging key points within the theory of macro-evolution. And no fewer than 850 Ph.D. scientists from around the globe have signed a petition questioning the extent of this theory.
I am not arguing for or against macro-evolution or any other scientific theory. But the bottom line is that critical thinking and analysis fosters good science. For high schoolers, their love of science and acumen for it will not come from memorizing and repeating text book prose, but rather by diving into the strengths and weaknesses of theories such as evolution.
The 20th century has gone down in history as the century of energy fueled by the atom, and the 21st century promises to be the century of medicine propelled by the gene. Amazing biomedical advances are on the horizon, and these will drive economic growth in the decades to come. Good scientists are needed to lead these advances, and the seeds of creativeness and innovation are sowed early in the high school years. Let us not deprive our kids and our nation of this opportunity to regain our world prominence in science, technology and economic might.