Field of Science


Science education versus religious thinking

A recent commentary (Science Education and the Future of Humankind) by Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, asks, “Can we modify our educational system so that all high school graduates emerge with a science way of thinking?”

And of course he calls upon scientists to get involved especially in educating science teachers. Who can actually argue with this? No question about it, teachers are the key component, especially those in elementary education for two reasons. One, they reach kids during formative stages, and two, they are among the most woefully poorly trained to teach science.

Now I’ve recently commented on increasing the amount of science in liberal arts core curriculum, but I’m not going to hold my breath about any change there. We can probably teach teachers to become better at instructing science, but not without drastically changing the way we educate teachers. Teaching is a profession. Can you name any other profession that does not demand post-graduate education? Part of the problem is that teaching gets the shorted in terms of educational demands. How can anyone become proficient in a subject area and proficient in a profession is a 4-year curriculum? I maintain that it is not possible, although many teachers do manage to do a fine job, it is in spite of their education not as a result of it. Teachers should earn a regular BS/BA degree before embarking upon professional study to become proficient in teaching.

But even this isn’t going to solve the problem because deeply rooted religious beliefs are antithetic to scientific thinking. All those people who seek accommodation between religion and science are on a fool’s errand because very few religious practices are fully compatible with science (Unitarians being the one obvious exception).

I have seen the conflict first-hand in too many students. If they accept an evidence-based way of thinking, their religious experience is threatened and they find themselves faced with accepting ideas that they do not believe or want to accept on the basis of their religious beliefs. If faith is important, then evidence is not, and vice versa.

In a senior seminar class of mostly biology majors I presented a lesson on the morality of stem cell research. I am careful not to present anything that might be considered my position. Most agreed that human life began at conception, except one Jewish student who said it begins at birth. I had them seek information and discuss other ideas of when human life begins. As they got more sophisticated and were exposed to more different ideas, many of them modified their positions as they gained knowledge, for example, in the UK embryos less than 12 days old are used because up until this time twinning can occur. This one simple fact was very significant to many students, as was the idea of brain death and the commencement of higher level brain activity at around the 25th week of development. However a few dogmatically stuck to their guns (“life begins at conception”), forcing them to ignore or dismiss any information that ran counter to their religiously-based positions.

Pitting scientifically based learning in school against religious indoctrination at home and at church will only increase the divide and probably generate more pressure to publically fund religious schools or allow people to opt out of public school taxes on religious grounds.

Lederman is one smart guy, but he hasn’t been down in the educational trenches in a long time, if ever, and he just doesn’t know what most people are thinking.

Yellow Moutan (tree) Peony

The combined demands of gardening and field work often do not leave me with enough time to "smell the roses" especially in May. After a Sunday of garden toil, it only seemed fitting to devote the cocktail hour to enjoying the fruits of all this labor. The shrubs on the far side of the lily pond were alive with migrant birds (redstart, chesnut-sided warbler, orioles, scarlet tanager), and the late afternoon sun often illuminates portions of our gardens with long, low rays.

And there, in quite lovely lighting, was a yellow Moutan peony. After discovering this plant quite by accident many years ago, tree peonies have become quite a favorite of mine. Paeonia suffruticosa is a shrubby plant with big dark green compound leaves and large flowers of diverse colors. Tree peonies often have flowers 7-8 inches in diameter. Although they do not have the biggest flowers, the yellow-flowered ones remain special, probably because yellow-flowered varieties have been absent (until very recently) among standard herbaceous peonies. My other tree peonies have flowers ranging from white across several shades of pink, pale pink, coral, red, to purple, but as if not wanting to be common, the yellow ones always flower later, after the others are nearly done. The flower pictured is about 5 inches across. The flowers only last for 5-7 days, typical enough of flowering trees and shrubs, all of which have brief bursts of reproductive glory. So it is important to take enough time to appreciate these sunlit little suns during their annual display.

Students should learn more about science

An article in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education caught my attention, "Business students should learn more science." Who can argue with that given the technological basis of so much business. The authors of this opinion do a good job of justifying their position, they just don't go far enough. Everyone should learn more science.

Let's take a look at general education at a typical large midwestern public university. Unless you are a science major, students only have to take 7 hours of science courses, about 15% of their common curriculum. Everything else except for math (3 hours required) are subjects that exist because of human activities, and in a very broad sense of the definition, humanities. So students spend 15% of their general education learning about life and the universe, and over 75% learning about human artifacts.

Now I like literature, history, and art as much or more than the next person, and I certainly do not intend to diminish their value, but each and every subdiscipline of human artifact gets a bite from the apple (tree of knowledge), and science gets lumped together for one bite. Sorry, but I think life and the universe being relegated to just 15% of the curriculum says a great deal about our egocentric approach to knowledge, and very little about our appreciation of science.

The point that I'm making is simple: is this a fair balance in terms of what we know? I took an American literature course, and I enjoyed the readings, even the poetry, but quite frankly what transpired in terms of the dialogue and associated writings was just so much subjective opinion. Oh, there is a good exercise there; read something and think creatively about it. But does it really stack up to genetics or evolution? So it's sort of ironic that many of these people are precisely the academics that toss off evolution as "just a theory", which is an extremely, short and succinct phrase for declaring the depth and breadth of your ignorance.

We can take the comparison further. About 90% of the faculty are in the humanities studying human artifacts. That leaves 10% of us in the sciences to study life, the universe, and everything else. When stated this way it doesn't quite seem to balance out does it? Nor does 7 credits to study everything except subjects that study human artifacts.

One of my colleagues has a master's degree in literature, and when pushed they reluctantly will agree that such scholarship pales in comparison to science. Oh, but that isn't politically correct.

Science in theory and practice

My current field work deals with the ecology of a hemiparasitic plant, which is both green and photosynthetic and an obligate parasite. To try and determine why its both green and parasitic, and test our evolutionary stable strategy hypothesis, which differs from the switch-hitter and way-station hypotheses, my collaborator and I designed an experiment. The simplest and most logical treatment was eradication of the hemiparasite.

Hey, sounds so simple "in theory", but in practice its turning out to be a pain, in the back. The hemiparasite is a very successful on our prairie study site, i.e., numerous, and what with other treatments and all combinations, together with replication, the subject of this research must be eradicated from over 50 one-square-meter quadrats. And that alone is not enough because of the root zone (it's a root parasite), so a 50 cm wide buffer zone must be cleared of the hemiparasite around the study quadrat. That's a total of 4 square meters per quadrat! Under good conditions and working quite hard, two of us can do 3-4 quadrats an hour. This amounts to an awful lot of dirty, down-on-hands-and-knees work just for this one treatment. The picture shows the high-tech equipment used in plant ecology, and the recently removed hemiparasitic plant.

This is the problem with field work. You make sound, logical decisions, and get started and it's like grabbing a tiger by the tail. You can't let go or you lose everything, your whole investment. And it's a five year experiment so the treatments must be checked and redone every year.

But that's the way science goes, and what it takes to demonstrate if your ideas are correct and the old ideas wrong. The effort and time explain why so few long term field experiments are done. And I do not recommend such work to young colleagues who lack tenure.

And it's not the work I mind, but just that it's at ground level, and it's much further down, and back up again, than it used to be. Of course, the solution is to have a squad of young backs while I sit back in my research director's chair and point to the next quadrat. Any volunteers?

Wildlife friendly yard to a point

My wife and I own a most excellent property, a big park-like yard right in the middle of our city. Properties like ours are rare, especially when their fate is usually to be subdivided and developed. Indeed, the former owner worried that an unscrupulous buyer would take advantage of a buildable lot to make a quick buck. Our goal is to garden.

Our yard is certified friendly to wildlife, and indeed many animals live in and stop by. Night before last we watched a little red bat swooping over our lily pond to grab drinks of water. The birds are certainly a constant delight. But there are times when my love of wildlife wears a bit thin in the rodent department. The rabbits are a bit annoying, but the fox squirrels and woodchucks can be a downright pain.

My early kitchen garden was coming along quite nicely: spinach, lettuces, broccoli, snap peas, scallions. And they were fenced to keep the rabbits at bay. But a woodchuck pushed under the fence and made quite a nice feast of our early garden. Small gardens only provide a modest meal for such gluttons, and here I publically declare war. Live and let live extends only as far as the boundaries of my garden. I cannot say how it will be done, but with some luck and our superior intellect, a truce will be reached whereby the garden goodies will be eaten by the people raising them and a woodchuck will continue their life of plant consumption elsewhere, a distant elsewhere.

I'm all for ecology within limits. So let this be a warning to the squirrels. A repeat of last year's consumption of every single strawberry long before they were ripe will have severe reprecussions. You've been warned. Exile awaits.