Saturday, September 20, 2003

Testimony from the Texas State Board of Education Hearings

This speech was delivered before the Texas State Board of Education on September 20, 2003.

My name is Russell Glasser. I'm a software engineer at IBM. I have a ten-year-old stepdaughter who studies science in the Round Rock school district, and a sixteen-month-old son who will someday do the same. My parents both have PhD's in physics, and my father is involved in fusion research at Los Alamos National Lab.

Fourteen years ago, my father taught me what happens when you do science without sticking to the scientific method. Two chemists named Pons and Fleischmann claimed to have discovered something called "cold fusion". If true, it would mean that we could produce a virtually unlimited supply of energy at very low cost.

But Pons and Fleischmann chose to promote their ideas in a questionable manner. Instead of publishing papers in scientific journals that told other scientists how to repeat their experiments, they went straight to the press and told them that they'd made a breakthrough.

Their ideas were dead wrong, but they couldn't have known this because they didn't invite outside criticism. They didn't follow the peer review process that is a vital part of science. By trying to skip that process and go straight to the public, they wound up embarrassing themselves.

Unfortunately, I can see the same thing potentially happening to science education in Texas. Since evolution is scientific, there are legitimate criticisms of it. Science thrives on criticism. But many books that attack evolution come from outside the scientific community.

An example of such a book is Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells. Dr. Wells is a member of the Discovery Institute, and an advisor of this school board. He holds a PhD in Biology, but like Pons and Fleischmann, Dr. Wells has failed to follow the scientific method. His assaults on evolution are published in a book that's only found in popular bookstores, and not papers in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific journals.

One example of Wells' work is his treatment of the peppered moth. In the papers that I have distributed to the board, I describe how Wells falsely used research done by geneticist Michael Majerus to make it appear that it refutes evolution. Majerus himself explains how Wells misrepresented him.

Science is designed to be self-correcting, and that's a good lesson to teach in our classes. But ultimately, published scientists figure out what constitutes legitimate science and then schools teach what they have found. It makes no sense to do this process backwards.

The purpose of a science class isn't to let kids "decide for themselves" whether fringe science is real science. We don't put holocaust deniers side by side with World War II historians in history textbooks and let students "decide for themselves" which ones are right. And we don't spend time in physics classes teaching cold fusion. A reasonable plan would be to let scientists agree on what is correct science first, and then bring their work to Texas textbooks.

Jonathan Wells and the Peppered Moth

(This was not read during the hearings, but handed in as part of the written testimony)

Jonathan Wells is a member of the Discovery Institute and the author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? In his book, Wells argues that scientists frequently "misrepresent the truth" when presenting the evidence for evolution to the public. The book runs through ten such "icons," frequently using the work of mainstream scientists to bolster his point. Ironically in light of his thesis, Wells misrepresents the content of the work that he cites. His discussion of the peppered moth in chapter seven is an example.

Many biology textbooks use peppered moths as an illustration of natural selection in action. Typically, the books contain a series of photographs that display a light-colored moth and a darker moth side by side on a light-colored tree trunk, and the same moths on a darker tree trunk. These pictures show how moths blend in against certain backgrounds, making them safer from predators. Scientists have observed that birds find (and eat) fewer light-colored moths in areas dominated by light-colored wood, and they find (and eat) fewer dark-colored moths in areas dominated by darker, polluted wood. As a result, most peppered moths in light-colored areas are light colored, and most peppered moths in dark-colored areas are dark.

In Icons of Evolution, Dr. Wells bases his arguments on a book by Michael Majerus entitled Melanism: Evolution in Action. Wells argues that the peppered moth story is fake. He relies on two main points. First, he suggests that scientists are being dishonest because the moths in the pictures are dead moths pinned to trees. But the books do not claim to be showing an action shot of moths. They are merely illustrating how color affects visibility.

Second, Wells claims that the pictures are irrelevant because "Peppered moths don't rest on tree trunks." This is false, as he would have known if he had actually bothered to read all of Majerus' own book. As Dr. Majerus himself said in an online rebuttal of Wells' claims:

"This is just wrong. Dr. Wells, who gives the impression in his response that he has read my book, obviously has not. If he had, he would have seen that in Tables 6.1 and 6.2 I myself have recorded 168 peppered moths on tree trunks or at trunk/branch joins. If Dr Wells' wishes his views to be taken seriously, he should ensure that his research is thorough."

A scientist must start with the evidence and let it lead him to a conclusion. Instead, Wells started with his conclusion and distorted or misunderstood the facts in an effort to support the conclusion he had already reached. Using Jonathan Wells as an authority to attack science in textbooks is bad policy.

Sources:
Letter from Michael Majerus to Donald Frack
"Icon of Obfuscation": an online review of Icons of Evolution
Majerus, M. E. N. (1998). Melanism: evolution in action. Oxford University Press

2 comments:

  1. I loved your statement. Nicely done. What was the outcome?

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  2. The creationists lost, and no major changes were made to the textbooks.

    By the way, this is a very old post you're replying to. The only reason it showed up in your feed reader today is because I went through and updated a bunch of old tags, causing them to appear new again.

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