Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not-so-curious George

There has been a little tempest over George Will’s recent column on the subject of changes in sea ice and its relationship to global warming. For example, Rick Piltz got on it right away, writing in ClimateScienceWatch. Joseph Romm also put it rather strongly to Will on the Climate Progress post. The overwhelming response of the scientific global climate science community has been that Will doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That may indeed be so, but I’m not sure that this is all that needs to be said in dealing with conservatives of his ilk.
While George Will strikes many as an unappealing, opinionated curmudgeon, he is not a dummy. It behooves those who don’t care for his political and social views to at least respect his power to influence public opinion. When he writes about climate change he isn’t really examining the scientific evidence, but rather operating from a certain political, social and moral stance. In his way of looking at things, ideas that carry implications for change in the social order, particularly those that call for large scale actions, are tainted with the potential for limiting individual freedom, and are to be looked at skeptically.
An important part of the conservative stance on all such matters is a distrust of authority that emanates from sources other than a narrow canon of conservative orthodoxy. This makes for rejection of assertions resting on scientific premises. Conservatives love to go back to materials that seem to show that scientists have often been wrong in the past. In the February 15 column dealing with sea ice, Will runs off a bunch of quotes from about 35 years ago, when there were headlines claiming that the world might be heading into another ice age. He quotes widely from newspaper and magazine articles, though- significantly- not from scientific sources. The implication is that science was incorrectly crying wolf then, and is likely to be just as wrong now in predicting serious consequences of global warming.
Interestingly, Will also reprises the story of Paul Ehrlich’s wager with Julian Simon on whether the costs of five natural resources would increase or decrease over a 10 year period. Conservatives love to tell this tale; Erhlich lost his bet on all five of the metals he chose. This example is supposed to illustrate that social progressives such as Ehrlich tend to be drama queens, continually promoting notions of impending shortages, environmental distress and lowered quality of life. Ehrlich may be an appropriate target for ridicule; more than once he seemed to be too quick and a bit over the top with dire predictions. But whether one person in a prominent role occasionally makes a fool of himself has little to do with the broad issues at stake. Julian Simon was dead wrong in his idea that human ingenuity will always find a gainful pathway out of the cul-de-sacs into which it lurches because of improvident disregard for the planet’s limits. Ten years does not provide a test of the notion that there are limits to the availability of materials, of energy, of space for people to live in.
Years ago, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign I occasionally played squash with Julian. We sometimes ended up sitting on the squash court floor arguing about some of his ideas. I believe Julian simply didn’t understand basic science concepts. He had this libertarian, no-holds-barred view of how society should be run, and anything that didn’t fit within its laissez faire structure was dismissed as being of no essential consequence. He was fun to be with because he challenged one’s assumptions, but it became obvious that the laws of nature were not going to get in the way of his vision.
There is some of that stubborn determination to let ideology take precedence over the facts in George Will. On matters relating to science’s interface with society, as in the climate change debate, Will seems to simply deny the authority of science to pronounce on the basic science involved. Nitpicking one’s way through the voluminous literature on climate change provides plenty of opportunities to note inconsistencies in the claims issuing from various sources, or to focus on some short term weather changes or more localized changes that have little weight in comprehensively assessing the overall direction of global change. The global climate is the product of an enormous number of variables, many of them interactive with one another. Science has been making steady progress in building reliable models for this incredibly complex system. It is noteworthy is that predictions of the increases in the planet’s temperature that will result from a given amount of carbon emissions have not really varied much over the past few decades, as the models have become increasingly sophisticated and reliable. The implications of significant climate change are there, and they are sufficiently dire that responsible scientists who understand this particular area of science feel obliged to call for responsive actions.
Ah, at this point they have stepped on George Will’s toes. He does not seem to be truly interested in where this global experiment in climate change will eventually take the human race. Like Julian Simon, he simply has the idea that if we just don’t limit people’s free choices the challenges will be met and all will be well. His reluctance to accord science an epistemic authority in matters that bear upon societal affairs is but one more example of the manifold ways in which science’s epistemic and moral authority are contested. The irony is that if we were to follow George Will and Julian Simon down the path they advocate, science would be our only source of rescue from the horrible messes that would result.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Darwin, the Reluctant Antagonist

D. Graham Burnett and Chris Mooney recently wrote a piece on the website Science Progress, entitled “Darwin Day: A Celebration of Science, Not Conflict”. They argue that the commonly held view that science and religion are in essential conflict over evolution, and have been so from the beginning, is basically wrong. At the very least, they argue, more attention should be paid to the fact that in Darwin’s time and into the early twentieth century, Christian thinkers found it possible to reconcile the tenets of Darwinism with their religious beliefs.
I don’t believe, though, that the authors’ argument is well-supported by the historical references they cite. Certainly there is little doubt that the scientific theory of evolution is not widely accepted among people of faith, especially in the United States. Indeed, the authors themselves quote Gallup poll figures that show some 45 percent of those surveyed agreeing with the statement: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Surely no person with a modern scientific outlook could reasonably hold to such an opinion.
It was interesting to see in the several posted comments that the column engendered the sort of bimodal distribution of attitudes that we always see in these circumstances. There are those who think that anyone who holds religious beliefs that are patently inconsistent with modern scientific finding is hopelessly irrational. There is no point in even trying to discuss the topic. On the other hand there are those who find the claims of science to be entirely unconvincing: “Darwin is the best example of how an unproven hypothesis can become a “Scientific Fact” without any proof.” Comments like this are seen by scientists as prima facie proof of an irreducibly obdurate attitude toward scientific knowledge.
While it is possible for many to come to some sort of accommodation of their religious beliefs with scientific rationalism, conflicts will arise. In the end every educated person needs to decide whether to accept the epistemic authority of science or the traditional authority of an established religion. For those who have been nurtured in early life in a conservative, Christian fundamentalist environment, a break with the belief systems instilled there is bound to be painful. The same could be said for those whose formation occurred in a conservative Muslim culture, or many other established religious traditions. Historically, science has wrested epistemic authority from other societal sectors as it gained practitioners and made increasingly important contributions to day-to-day societal life and culture. Organized religion provides the most salient examples of these contests, as exemplified by the Galileo case and the subsequent growth of scientific influence during the Enlightenment. How far this process will take us remains to be seen. Certainly, in the United States, the persistent influence of evangelical Christian churches is evidence of the power of early cultural conditioning to imprint attitudes and outlooks.
There has been a good deal written of late on the notion that our evolutionary heritage has left us with an inherent propensity for holding religious beliefs. To the extent that this is true, we can’t really expect that people will fully embrace scientific naturalism as the guiding framework for their thoughts about their lives and the world they live in. One can hope that the sense of wonder, fear and awe that overtakes many as they contemplate the world and our place in it will be increasingly channeled into social activities that do not demand dogmatic belief in a creator who is some transmogrified version of ourselves. But there is the problem that rational methods of inquiry and thought are not part of intellectual and cultural formation in the lives of most children. By the time science appears in their lives they have become locked into a worldview that does not recognize authority based upon rational inquiry. I have dealt with this topic in a forthcoming book, Imperfect Oracle, due out in September.
In summary, I don’t believe that rational arguments will prevail in attempting to convince religious conservatives of the validity of evolution as a scientific theory. Those who see a naturalistic, scientific outlook as the most tenable framework for gaining new knowledge and thinking about how to use that knowledge to improve human welfare will just need to keep making the arguments for it. Some will see the light, but most will not. If it is indeed true that human society makes progress, in the sense of evolving away from tendencies and practices borne of our evolutionary development and toward naturalistic, rational habits of mind, science will eventually win out. Not because Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris have changed any human hearts, but because the old will have given way to the new through the multitudinous little ways in which society changes in response to the instrumentality of science. Granted, not all such change is for the good, but change it is, and it will wear away the old as water wears away the rocks.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Hey, college science teachers! Time to Play Baseball!

The distinguished scientist Bruce Alberts, formerly President of the National Academies of Science, is now Editor-in-Chief of Science, one of the top voices for science both within and outside the science community. He has a bully pulpit, and he’s using it these days to beat the drums for reform in science education. He led off the year 2009 with an editorial entitled “Making a Science of Education”. He argues there that we need to use all the new tools placed at our disposal by technological advances to deliver science education to young people in both school and non-school settings. But as Alberts has made clear on other occasions, improving science education will depend on much more than implementing new technologies. As he says, in addition to emphasizing a knowledge of the facts and figures of a given science, or rote knowledge of how to use formulas and diagrams, three additional goals “of equal merit and importance are to prepare students to generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations, to understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and to participate productively in scientific practices and discourse.” These goals must be addressed if we are to have a scientifically literate citizenry, and if we are to inspire young people to consider careers in science. But he goes on to ask of science courses taught at the college level: “Why do most science professors teach only the first one [of these four goals]?”

It’s not as though there were no evidence bearing on this subject. For starters, consider the format of learning. It has been known from several studies that the amount of conceptual understanding conveyed in a typical science lecture is pitifully small. Eric Mazur, professor of physics at Harvard University, has been teaching introductory physics to undergraduates for many years. In a recent Perspective on Education in Science Mazur describes how he came to realize that while lecturing is a great ego trip for him, as it is for all “popular” science lecturers, he was conveying very little conceptual understanding to his students by that mode of delivery. He describes the techniques he now uses to impart greater conceptual understanding of physics. They involve dynamically engaging the students during class in active discussions of the concepts needed to come up with a correct answer to a question. The students come to class now to do real intellectual work!

His methods have been adapted by others; there is a great paper in that same issue of Science on how in-class peer discussion improves student performance on measures of conceptual understanding in biology as well as physics. These successes are readily understandable in terms of cognitive science principles. Frederick Reif, in his new book, “Applying Cognitive Science to Education”, shows that the standard lecture format does not get at students’ conceptual misunderstandings. They memorize a lot of stuff they are told they should know, but the process does nothing to help them overcome their limited and often incorrect beliefs of how things work in the world. Reif shows that to overcome this sort of blockage to understanding, students must be presented with questions and problems that stimulate them to rethink their beliefs, that produce a reorganization in their conceptual frameworks. Reif writes about teaching mathematics and physics, but what he, Mazur and others have to say applies as well to chemistry, biology or any other introductory science course. (Reif’s book is reviewed in Science)

Given that the methods employed in teaching introductory science courses fail to convey genuine understanding of the subjects, one has to wonder why science departments and faculty persist for the most part with the traditional format. Sure, we now have Powerpoint presentations and visual aids to enliven lectures, but the underlying metaphor that sustains this mode of instruction remains the same. It was powerfully analyzed many years ago by Michael J. Reddy, in his classic chapter in the book “Metaphor and Thought”. I can’t do justice in this short space to Reddy’s analysis of the underlying concepts we hold of how we communicate, but a much bowdlerized version is as follows:
Ideas are (metaphorically) objects. Our minds are (metaphorically) containers that hold these objects. Communication consists in putting these thoughts or ideas into other containers -words, sentences or paragraphs. We communicate by placing our thoughts and ideas into these containers- words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on-that are then sent from one person to another through some sort of conveyance-direct talk, TV, telephone, writing. The recipient, takes them out of the conveyance and places them in his/her mind. If you are not into conceptual metaphor theory this will sound weird, but believe me, it is a powerful and useful way to understand what people believe, mostly unconsciously, about how they communicate. The wonderful book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors We Live By” contains a discussion of Reddy’s conduit metaphor, in which they show that this metaphor underlies much of our understanding of human communication. One consequence of the conduit metaphor is that we think of communication as a passage of an “object” from speaker to listener, and that this process occurs without any change in the object. Whatever it was to the speaker, it is to the recipient. In Reddy’s words, we “transfer human thoughts and feelings.” So in lecturing we imagine that we are transferring ideas from ourselves to the students, and they absorb these ideas in the form and shape that we gave to them as we uttered them. But as Reddy. Lakoff and Johnson make clear, that’s all wrong! We know full well from a multitude of psychological and cognitive studies that it doesn’t work that way. What a thought means to the speaker may not match at all what that thought means to the recipient. Thus, the lecture format, in which the intended meaning of the lecturer’s words is mostly not conveyed, is a poor means of transferring ideas, and particularly conceptual understanding.

So why do science educators at the college level keep to this failed method of education, especially in the context of the large lecture hall? There are several reasons, some not so flattering to the professoriate:
· Ignorance. Not many teaching faculty in the sciences pay much attention to the literature of science education, nor are they aware of cognitive science results that might inform their decisions on how to teach more effectively.
· Inertia and stubbornness. It has always been done it this way, and it seems to be satisfactory. Clearly, in this response there is a lot of denial, laziness and hubris. The problems are with the students, not with us.
· Lack of commitment. It would take too much effort to change to another system. To busy faculty, whose teaching duties often take second place to their research ambitions, the effort needed to research best practices, prepare an entirely new set of materials for conducting the class, and implement new technologies such as the “clicker” responders that Mazur and others use seems overwhelming. It is easy to just keep at the same old way of doing things.
· Lack of support from departments and colleges. Many faculty who might be willing to make an effort to instigate change are not encouraged by the administrations of their departments and colleges.
· Assessment. It is difficult to properly assess a student’s conceptual understanding of material, especially when one is dealing with large classes. Try writing a multiple choice test that really gets at whether students have a conceptual understanding of the material. It is much easier to test for whether students can “name that compound” or “plug and chug.” Much has been written about all the grievous failings of programs that call for assessments based on test scores. But even after taking account of the ways in which such standards are gamed- for example by teaching to the test – the simple fact is that there are no really good instruments for evaluating conceptual understanding that can be conveniently applied to large groups of students. Ever try grading an essay question administered to 1,200 students?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it does illustrate the impediments to real change. But as Alberts has written, if the model set by the colleges doesn’t change, it is doubly difficult to instigate change at the K-12 level. So we need to keep working at this, at every level.
As a coauthor of a widely used general chemistry textbook, I feel obliged to say that the problem is not with the textbooks available, or at least not with the ones I am familiar with. Good textbooks do of course provide loads of factual information, nomenclature and so on, but they also encourage conceptual understanding and application of science to the real world. These texts are precisely what a teacher needs to build a format based on problem-solving and conceptual reasoning.

My previous blog had to do with baseball and science. I hope to come back to that analogy in further discussion of science education. For now, just imagine you are a little league coach with a new bunch of kids who don’t know a lot about baseball. Imagine teaching them baseball as if you were a college level chemistry lecturer. Would that work? Or conversely, imagine that you are responsible for teaching some kids about chemistry. Imagine teaching them chemistry as if you were a little league baseball coach. The one mode is “learn by listening”. The other is “learn by doing.”

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Science is a baseball game. Well, sort of.

Alex Rodriguez a baseball superstar with the New York Yankees, recently admitted that he used steroids, performance enhancing drugs, during his playing days with the Texas Rangers. This news came to my attention just as I was completing a review of a manuscript for a social sciences journal. The authors were making the claim that a particular group of scientists they had interviewed saw their professional activities as a kind of game. This did not strike me as a particularly interesting claim on the face of it; don’t we all at times view our professional and even our private lives as a game? From the viewpoint of conceptual metaphor theory, particularly as advanced by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, it is easy to see how the elements of a game, particularly a sports game, could be mapped onto those of one’s work life.
But as I began to think through some of the implications of this metaphor as it might apply to scientific work, it became more interesting. Let’s begin with a brief analysis of the sort that cognitive scientists would term structure mapping. It reveals some of the ways in which a sports game like baseball is analogous to the pursuit of science.
· Baseball has rules, standards of conduct. Science also is carried out according to certain rules and conventions. Just as in baseball there are rules forbidding intentional beaning of the batter or interference with a base runner, in science there are rules forbidding plagiarism, requiring a sharing of credit, mandating truthful reporting and so on.
· Baseball is competitive. Every baseball game played is a competition. Players strive to be the best at their position: pitcher, second baseman or hitter. Everyone would like to be an MVP. Teams compete to be the best in the league. In science, analogously, individual scientists strive to be considered one of the best in their field of endeavor. They work hard to be chosen for prestigious awards and election to honorific societies or academies. Similarly, universities, departments, laboratories and institutes aim to be ranked among the best in national or global surveys.
· Baseball is played for audiences of fans. Clearly, a professional sport such as baseball could not exist were it not for the interest shown by its fans, their willingness to attend games or watch them on TV, purchase baseball-related paraphernalia and so on. Science has its fan base also; those who use scientific results in their industry, in government regulatory agencies, in education, in environmental agencies both governmental and non-governmental, and among those who appreciate the elegance of scientific studies and what they reveal of the natural world.
· Baseball is dependent on patrons, or owners. Professional sports teams are owned by individuals or companies, some of whom hope to profit from them, and others of whom simply want to be owners out of love of the game, pride of ownership, publicity or from some other motivation. Science similarly relies on its patrons. These may be government funding agencies, private foundations, institutions such as universities or institutes with various sources of funding, including industrial support. Just as unproductive baseball players are dropped from a team, unproductive scientists lose their research support and are forced to discontinue their research or at least reduce its scope, and undistinguished research institutions may lose support and just have to shut down.
· Star baseball players get special treatment. We are all familiar with the fact that superstars such Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez have drawn huge salaries, and are, or were, accorded other special considerations. These superstars have been recognized for their accomplishments on the baseball field, but they also often have compelling personal stories or personality traits that appeal to fans. Science also has its superstars, those who have made important new discoveries, who have made game-changing new inventions, or who have been involved in high profile science such as the genome project or discovery of the AIDS virus. Analogously to baseball, scientific superstars come to prominence both within the science community and outside it through a combination of scientific accomplishment and skillful public relations.
I could go on, but this much serves to convey the idea: Metaphorically, the pursuit of science is playing baseball.
You may already have thought of many respects in which baseball and the pursuit of science are entirely dissimilar. Of course! One of the characteristics of any metaphor is that it has a limited range of applicability. For example, in the present case, baseball and science have different motivations. Baseball is played for entertainment, science is pursued for the purpose of gaining new knowledge of the natural world. How could one hope to convincingly link two such different entities? But we should think of this analogy from the perspective of the baseball player or scientist. Secondly, to consider baseball as merely an entertainment is to ignore much of its appeal. As conveyed in the writings of Jim Bouton, George Will and others, baseball itself is a metaphor for much deeper matters. As to the motivations of scientists, it is fair to say that like baseball players, they keep at what they do because they love the game they are in: The competitions, the day-to-day fun of doing their work, and the hope that burns, perhaps more brightly in some breasts than others, of receiving special reward and recognition.
There is much more than could be said about this interesting metaphorical connection, but I will close with a return to Alex Rodriguez. On February 9, at the first press conference of his presidency, Barack Obama spoke in response to a question about A-Rod’s admission. He took it seriously, and made the point that baseball as an institution was responsible in some measure for allowing drugs to have assumed such a large role. He said that the game of baseball is diminished by such transgressions, and the wrong message is sent to youngsters who look up to baseball players as heroes. In the same way, when ethical violations in science come to public attention they have the unfortunate effect of reducing science’s expert and moral authority in society at large. If scientists can get away with publishing fabricated or falsified data, how can society trust what science has to say on issues of societal importance? Just as those responsible for the governance of baseball must ensure that the game is played in strict accord with reasonable rules, those responsible for monitoring the processes within science that go into forming what society regards as “scientific opinion” must ensure that those processes maintain vigilance in guarding against unethical and fraudulent behavior by scientists. It is not an easy job in either case, but the first and most obvious rule is: don’t take anything for granted.
There are further insights to be had by regarding the pursuit of science as a game with respect to science education; that will be matter for a future blog.