Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Project Steve

In 2001 The Discovery Institute, a fundamentalist conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle, Washington, released a document named A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. This is a list of scientists who were prepared to state that they were 'sceptical about the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life' and 'dispute that all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution'. As of the August 2008 update, it consisted of 761 signatures. The Discovery Institute and other creationist organisations such as Answers In Genesis regularly refer to the document to support their view that intelligent design should be taught as a genuine science.

I think it is one of the more persuasive arguments of creationists, however it is fairly easy to see some fundamental flaws in the tactic of producing a list of supporters to uphold a knowledge claim. Firstly, a list of this size represents only around 0.023 % of the world's scientists (Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins,  Denis Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers (eds), Chicago University Press, 2001). Secondly, a closer perusal shows that many of the scientists have no affiliation to the biological sciences (although of course one has to be careful not to fall into the trap of authority worship). Thirdly, The Discovery Institute appears to have gathered their signatories under an extremely sweeping statement. Doubting that 'all known scientific evidence supports evolution' does not necessarily equate to a belief in creationism or intelligent design. The wording of the statement itself appears to me to be rather specious, since the modern understanding of evolution includes mechanisms other than random mutations and natural selection (including, for example, genetic drift).

In an effort to counter the impact of A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, the National Center for Science Education produced its own list of supporters of Darwinism. In a demonstration of 'scientific humour', the list is limited to scientists with the name 'Steve' or variations thereof (it was named in honour of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould). Since Steves represent around only 1% of scientists the pool of signatories is therefore small. Despite this, the list is larger and contains more biologists and more eminent scientists than the original. The 300th signature was that of Stephen Hawking. At the time of writing, the Steve-o-Meter stands at 1271 signatories, and can be accessed here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists

Nutritionism is (a rather pejorative) term which describes the idea that it's an individual nutrient, not food, that is healthy, and that effectively 'good' and 'bad' nutrients exist. While scientifically recognised experts in diet and nutrition exist in many countries (usually referred to as 'dieticians'), nutritionists are unregulated and may be self-taught.

If it is not a recognised science, and therefore not subject to scientific rigor and peer-review. is it therefore acceptable to refer to nutritionism as pseudoscience? Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science) argues that is is. In this two-part podcast he investigates the rise of the celebrity lifestyle nutritionist and argues that the advice they give may be dangerous and in some cases fraudulent:

episode 1
episode 2

Monday, June 3, 2013

In Defense of 'Useless Knowledge'

I had a conversation with my head teacher a while ago in which he told me his thoughts about how the education system is likely to evolve in the near future. He feels that education is moving away from the learning of facts and more towards the development of skills. This is perhaps undeniable - for example TOK itself is supposed to develop the skills of critical thinking rather than rote learning. Eventually the role of the teacher (at least in the way we understand it today) may become redundant. Knowledge is so easily accessible today that it is becoming externalised (specifically to the internet). This means that students are becoming freer to concentrate on subjects that interest them or those which will be more useful in their chosen career.

A few interesting things occur to me here. Firstly, the externalisation of knowledge is reminiscent of European society prior to the Renaissance. At that time, the population at large was happy to leave (religious) knowledge in the hands of the Church, and in a previous post I discussed how St. Thomas Aquinas was instrumental in changing this and introducing the basic ideas of scientific thinking. Does acceptance that general knowledge should be left in the hands of others really therefore represent progress? After all, many teachers would say they are currently fighting a losing battle against insidious 'wikipediaism'. Secondly, will the society of the future be made of people with very specific skills but very little general knowledge? At the very least, that would certainly make games of trivial pursuit rather boring.

My feeling is that total dependence on skills-based education could lead to diminishing the enjoyment of learning for its own sake (although perhaps this is a bit extreme). I also have given some consideration to the idea of how we decide what knowledge is 'useful' or 'useless' for our students (or perhaps whether there is such a thing as 'useless knowledge'). This reminded me of an essay by Bertrand Russell, which I've reproduced below. Interestingly, he worries about the pressure that society at that time was putting on students to learn skills rather than gain knowledge. Upon reading, it does appear dated now (he published it in 1935). He consistently refers to the education of 'boys' rather than 'children' and his representations of women come across as a little sexist. He defends the assimilation of knowledge for its own sake, the satisfaction that learning brings and the dangers that a lack of knowledge pose in a society. It is, of course, a product of the time in which Russell was writing - Europe had been through a World War less than a generation before, and Nazism was on the rise. Russell was a pacifist (at that time) and a fervent opponent of Nazism. He felt that the rise of Hitler and increased militarism was brought about by lack of knowledge within the German populace.

I came across a nice anonymous quotation recently which is relevant here:

'[Specialistists are] people who know more and more about less and less, until they know all about nothing.'

from A Short History of Everything, by Ronald Wright, Carroll and Graff (2005).

Bertrand Russell - Useless Knowledge