Saturday, April 18, 2009

Evolution for Dummies? A Canadian Cabinet Minister and the Public Understanding of Science

Last month, Gary Goodyear (pictured left), Canada’s Minister of State for Science and Technology, created a scandal when he refused to answer a reporter’s question about whether he believed in the theory of evolution, stating that he felt that the question was “inappropriate” because it pertained to his religious beliefs. After a media frenzy ensued, Goodyear changed course, claiming that “of course” he believed in evolution. He then commented that we "are evolving all the time" and added, "That's a fact, whether it's to the intensity of the sun, whether it's to … walking on cement versus anything else, whether it's running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment, but that's not relevant and that's why I refused to answer the question."

Needless to say, this remark did not inspire a great deal of confidence among scientists. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory of evolution--Goodyear, evidently, thinks of evolution as a deliberate process that is somehow analogous to human beings' purposive choices.

A misunderstanding like this would be less likely in the United States. Cabinet members in the United States are (usually) subject matter experts, and a qualified scientist would (hopefully) be unlikely to make an error like Goodyear’s. However, in Canada, cabinet ministers are usually members of Parliament. The Prime Minister must choose the cabinet ministers from amongst the members of Parliament (MPs) from his party, which is, necessarily, a fairly limited pool.

Still, the Goodyear incident prompts several questions. One of these is whether he should have ever been appointed to this post--Goodyear failed to complete his undergraduate science degree and, prior to becoming an MP, he was a chiropractor (there is significant debate as to whether chiropractic is scientific). Perhaps most importantly, however, his initial refusal to answer questions about evolution was seen to indicate a lack of commitment to science. Surely, one would hope that the Minister of State for Science and Technology would not possess views that were inimical to the practice of science! (American readers, however, will know that the Bush administration has offered some “great moments in inimicality”—see, for example, U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and his views on the U.N.)

Yet this episode also raises a number of broader questions: what kind of understanding of science should a citizen possess? Does it matter whether citizens understand natural selection? Are there some aspects of science that are more important for citizens to understand than others? Certainly, even in his earliest work, Dewey was an emphatic supporter of the public understanding of science. He realized that, as the 20th century dawned, society was becoming increasingly reliant on science and technology. He felt that if citizens were to participate democratically in such a society, they should be able to engage effectively and intelligently with science and technology. As we know from School and Society and from the accounts of the Dewey School, this implied a deep commitment both to the experimental method and to key scientific and technological concepts.

Perhaps, if Gary Goodyear had received a Deweyan education, he would not have bungled the question about evolution so badly. At the very least, however, the whole incident has probably prompted the Minister to engage in an activity very much in the spirit of Dewey: a little bit of "lifelong learning" about the theory of evolution.


Brian Burtt said...

We Americans are, on the whole, disenfranchised from science. If one is not somehow involved in science (doing it, teaching it, etc.) then it's something "they"--those nerdy people we often need but don't entirely trust--do and "we" can never hope to understand.

The continuing prevalence of rabidly anti-intellectual forms of religious belief is one contributing factor. Science education is another. I spent most of my school years, and my first few years of college, passionately devoted to the plan of becoming a physicist, or later a chemist. Along the way I had overwhelmingly wretched teachers. I had several excellent ones as well, but just not enough compared to what I experienced once I started pursuing the humanities and social sciences. It's only in the past few years that I've realized that that passion's still there, and have returned to pursuing some self-education.

Science and the process of its progress are well suited to fascinate humans' innate curiosity. Spend much time with popular science writing and that becomes quickly evident. But the science teaching (math worst of all) that kids experience in school--and far worse in college--create antagonistic relationships to science.

There's a fascinating study that was written up as the book [Elaine Seymour, Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave The Sciences (Westview Press, 2000)]. The author's initial point of departure was the entirely reasonable thought that women and minorities find STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines inhospitable because they are predominantly white and male. It is true that those groups tended to leave STEM fields in greater numbers in their undergraduate years, but the interest question became "why?" And the answer (for white male students as well) had to do with tolerance for learning conditions perceived as close to psychological torture. Those with greater tolerance stayed, others left.

Michael said...

Being part of the STEM community, and to add a bit to Brian's synopsis, I can offer this train of thought. There are, in my opinion, two issues when relating both STEM disciplines and teaching that should be considered. The first is economical, and the second is more along a sociological means.

In terms of economics, it doesn't make sense to go into teaching at an elementary or secondary level if you have a degree in one of the STEM fields. You will on average make over double, and sometimes triple the salary in industry when compared to teaching. As a person with a degree in Mechaincal Engineering, I would actually love to be a teacher at the high school level, but economically I can not make it work. My degree and experience is worth anywhere from $100-$125K currently, and it is over double what I could make as a teacher. It would take someone who absolutely wanted to be a teacher to do so, or someone who is independently wealthy. Because that is usually not the case, and our society and class structure is based largely on the size of your wallet, the people who would be great at teaching a STEM discipline never chose the teaching route. So what we are stuck with are teachers who are teaching disciplines where they are not 100% comfortable, and really don't have the in depth knowledge of a subject as they would in say history or English.

The second reason has to do with adolescence, society, and the lack of aggression women have in general. This is by no means to stereotype or demean women, but just to state what happens in the classroom, and why some things are the way they are. As children are growing up, everyone is taught certain value systems and beliefs in life. As a child turns into adolescence, and the hormones start to churn in our bodies, everyone starts to feel insecure about themselves. They start to have doubts about who they are, and don't want to be singled out by anyone. Well, women for one reason or another, are not as aggressive in the classroom when it comes to STEM disciplines. They are just as smart as their male counterparts, but for some reason they are not the ones to ask questions any more, and stop excelling at the STEM disciplines. There have been studies done on the lack of role models of women in the sciences (Examining the cognitive processes used by adolescent girls and women scientists in identifying science role models: A feminist approach) which partially address the issue, but there is still obviously more work to be done.

It is a shame that Larry Summers was lambasted for his comments while the president of Harvard. He was challenging society to figure this problem out, and to find a solution to the issue. Unfortunately, when soundbites rule the world we live in, his quotes were represented as misogynistic in nature when they were not meant to be. It is definitely something that needs to be looked at, and I hope we as a society one day can come to grips with why things are the way they are in order to change them. . . but then again, isn't that why everyone becomes teachers in the first place? :)

Leonard Waks said...

When I read Mr. Goodyear's quotes I felt certain he was a displaced American of the US persuasion.

One story about why women leave STEM subjects aligns closely with Brian's. The subjects are presented in a lifeless, abstract and mechanical way. Females (on this story and in much of feminist ethics) are appealed to by matters of the heart and social relations. They find the STEM subjects revolting.

And the problem here is that there is no reason why science should be taught in this way: it misses most of the science and renders something alive into dead formulas. Taking the science out of science.

Michael's point is also relevant. When I was studying chemistry in college I had to put up with the highly aggressive and anti-intellectual nonsense of the pre-meds, who didn't care to explore any topic for deeper understanding, but only to get shortcuts to the highest grades. In one case, where I continued to push for a deeper explanation of hydrogen bonding even after the prof promised that it wouldn't be on the test, I was physically attacked after class by a group of enraged students who felt I was causing their time to be wasted, entertaining myself at their expense. It was terrifying!

All this said, the problem is deeper: as David's column shows, the scientific spirit has not yet penetrated to the core of our democratic societies. In the US, this led to 8 years of deeply anti-science decision making which has severely wounded us.

David I. Waddington said...

The comments in this thread are really interesting, particularly Brian's remarks about our disenfranchisement from science. People tend to see science as an alien activity, practiced by people who are not like them. I read a remarkable comment to this effect in a piece of qualitative research a few months ago--I'll try to track it down.

I'd like to share a Youtube link. If you haven't seen it already, here is Texas congressman Joe Barton questioning Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Barton actually thinks that he "stumped" Chu:

Amy Shuffelton said...

I think education philosophers actually have something to offer here, at least sometimes. I've started teaching my students about intelligent design/evolution, as part of a lesson on the philosophy of science. I use it as an example of why teachers need to think about this kind of thing (not obvious to my students.) The accounts I give them, as a case study, are not big time science, nor am I a scientist, of course. I think of what I'm doing as backing up science teaching, in a humanities-inflected context. Which makes some students who'd otherwise find it boring take interest.

Teaching these issues within educational theory can also make some of the science more palatable to the religiously inclined. I encountered a lot of resistance to the ideas until I pointed out that you could accept evolution as the best explanation of life on earth without accepting that science is the only truth there is. Science classes are less likely to tell you that, but the idea that "there are many roads to truth" made evolution a lot more palatable to some of my students.

Michael said...

Ugh, the old evolution debate, didn't we put an end to this in the 20's with Scopes? :p I jest I jest.

You do bring up a great point Amy, and it is part of the burden religion poses in relation to teaching and science. I have blogged about "breaking the shell" before, and I talked about similar things in terms of how to get people to remove the blinders imposed on them by their beliefs. Their beliefs can be religious, ideological, and sometimes it just has to do with not being able to accept the reality around them because of other psychological traumas when they were younger. When you can present the subject in such a manner so that it doesn't challenge the students or person's world view, you are allowing them to accept an alternative without totally "breaking their shell" of their reality. You can present the scientific evidence not as the "ultimate truth", but more or less as a "search for truth" with out all the answers, and this is a good tactic to use when relating to students. There will still be students who are far too blinded by dogmas to come to grips with the subject matter, but if you can get them to START to question things about life, you are doing a tremendous amount of good!

Isn't that the basic premise of philosophy though? To challenge your world view, and to look at everything from a different prospective? When I read Jung or Kant for example, I read what they have to say about society or the human psyche, and try to relate it to my own life. When I can't, I try to step outside of my world view and see what they are talking about. It is something I believe I learned through humanities courses, through life experiences, and not through science. The sciences are more Manichean in nature, and tend to have right and wrong answers, where as the humanities are more self examining and look more internally for answers dealing in a lot of gray, and a lot of opinions rather than facts. It can also be used as an example of the original premise about women in science, and a Manichean view of the world. Maybe the males, through the hunting and gathering techniques generated more of a Manichean world view, and women who were raising the children, were more gray because they were dealing with different issues. Could that possibly be a rationale for such a strong presence of males in STEM fields? I have no idea, just randomly throwing out thoughts against the wall to see what sticks ;) I completely went off on a tangent, but welcome to my world LOL!

In any event, I completely agree with what you are saying, and I can see how presenting such delicate matters to people with strong aversion to the issue in a different light is beneficial. Not just to the class, or even to the person, but to society itself, because the more people we have in society who can actually think about the issues, instead of being told what to think, the better off we will be in the long run!