Archive for October, 2017

Science Is As Science Does

by John Weckerle

Having reviewed the proposed changes to the New Mexico Public Education Department science standards, we join with scientists from numerous organizations and New Mexico’s most influential school districts (among others) in opposing the enactment of these regressive, anti-science revisions to the standards.

We’ll to take just a few lines here (an attempt at humor: no one can ever accuse of us taking “just a few lines”) to at least provide a little information on some topics relevant to this subject and (of course) some links to information that may provide further clarification. First, we’d like to dispense with any argument that ends with the phrase “is just a theory.” Arguments of this nature are misleading (in our opinion, deliberately and dishonestly so, and intended to play on the fact that most people do not recognize that there is a difference between the meaning of “theory” in science as opposed to what it means in common usage). In science, the word “theory” is in no way equivalent to “conjecture.” Theories, in science, are actually well-demonstrated explanations of how things work. We provide examples of some well-expressed explanations of the concept of scientific theory (we suggest  “clicking through” to the links to access some interesting information on the subjects):

  • From Scientific American (This is a really worthwhile article for many of our readers on the topic of misused science terms):

Climate-change deniers and creationists have deployed the word “theory” to cast doubt on climate change and evolution.

“It’s as though it weren’t true because it’s just a theory,” Allain said.

 That’s despite the fact that an overwhelming amount of evidence supports both human-caused climate change and Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Part of the problem is that the word “theory” means something very different in lay language than it does in science: A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing. But to the average Jane or Joe, a theory is just an idea that lives in someone’s head, rather than an explanation rooted in experiment and testing.

Scientific theories are rigorously demonstrated. It is important to note, however, that while scientific theories may explain laws, and often incorporate laws as part of the associated analysis, they do not, as a rule, eventually “graduate” to the status of scientific laws.

We move on, now, to the subject of skepticism as opposed to contrarianism/denialism. The idea that those who are willing to lend credence to scientifically demonstrated concepts are somehow “thoughtbound” – locked into a dogmatic adherence to some vaguely defined, poorly demonstrated explanation of “how the world works” –  is patently ridiculous.  Many critics of widely accepted, scientifically supported explanations of topics such as those associated with evolution and climate change are inclined to present themselves as “skeptics,” “free thinkers,” and so on – while providing no technically credible arguments to contravene the concepts to which they state opposition.

We again quote the aforementioned Scientific American article:

When people don’t accept human-caused climate change, the media often describes those individuals as “climate skeptics.” But that may give them too much credit, Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, wrote in an email.

“Simply denying mainstream science based on flimsy, invalid and too-often agenda-driven critiques of science is not skepticism at all. It is contrarianism … or denial,” Mann told LiveScience.

Instead, true skeptics are open to scientific evidence and are willing to evenly assess it.

“All scientists should be skeptics. True skepticism is, as [Carl] Sagan described it, the ‘self-correcting machinery’ of science,” Mann said.

We add this excerpt from a letter on the subject written earlier this year by the American Meteorological Society:

Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.

We wish to be clear (and your editor has the scientific background to understand the relevant issues) that we have yet to be presented with any credible, scientifically supported alternatives to the concepts of either evolution or climate change. Both are well-demonstrated by substantial and widely accepted analyses, and while there are – and should be – discussions regarding specific elements of the theories, these do not invalidate them as a whole. So-called “alternative theories” and “other ways of thinking” that lack any vestige of experimental or true empirical demonstration do not rise to the challenge of invalidating them, either. Similarly, the practice of examining elements of complex systems and their components, and working backward to a foregone “logical” conclusion is philosophical at best, but not scientific at all in any case.

Whether these criticisms arise from ignorance; self-interest; greed; an inability to adjust ingrained beliefs in the presence of overwhelming, contravening fact;  just-plain, garden-variety intransigence; or other factors is perhaps, itself, a matter for future examination. What we find of special importance to the current discussion is that those who clearly reject scientifically based concepts are becoming more and more influential – and that this influence is now extending into the teaching of science itself. We find ourselves wondering whether out-of-state interests – the American Legislative Exchange Council, the State Policy Network and similar entities – are once again attempting to insert “model” legislation and rule-making into New Mexico’s governmental processes. That these propositions seem always to serve corporate interests, religious positions, or some combination of the two, without any real demonstrable evidence to support their claims and/or criticisms suggests that they represent an essentially worthless, questionable, and potentially very damaging enterprise.

This tide – whether it is fueled by religious fundamentalists seeking to combat perceived science-based threats to their cosmological beliefs,  corporate interests seeking to enrich the shareholders just a bit more, or some combination of the two – must be turned. The idea that science, which has taught and brought us so much, should be suborned in its own venue, in our time, to corporate interests and religious fundamentalism is nothing less than alarming. Science education should be about science, and nothing more. Other issues should addressed in other areas of the adacemic curriculum.

Again: New Mexico Central emphatically joins those scientifically credible groups who have objected to the proposed revisions. Given that the proposed standards have been developed quietly and that the New Mexico Public Education Department has declined to disclose the identities of those who contributed to the standards (we are working on a New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act request to gain insight into the process), we see no reason that any credible scientific or academic organization would do otherwise.

Older, somewhat-related, and local articles New Mexico Central articles include: