Recently, the Thomas P Fordham Institute, a private think-tank focused on analyzing and critiquing the US public school system, issued a report regarding the state of each US state’s science education standards across a broad spectrum of qualitative measures from the clarity of the standards to content to rigor of the science. It is an impressive and detailed report analyzing science education state-by-state with links to science education standards and other information. It is worth reading, even just to find out how your state is doing.
[pullquote]Science is the foundation of engineering, biomedical research, and many other fields. Without science, Intel cannot figure out how to make faster processors. Without science, we don’t have better vaccines and cancer treatments. Without science, we have people who think that homeopathy works, or that the world is only 6000 years old, or that acupuncture works. The whole anti-vaccination lunacy requires a complete misunderstanding of science and research.[/pullquote]
The good news
- California is one of two states (the other being DC) to get an A on the science report card. As a resident of the Golden State, I’m proud of this news, though I am somewhat concerned that the state of the economy and budget crisis is not going to help in the future. It’s also amazing what DC has done given that it is tiny jurisdiction, and that it received a C in 2005. But since I’m a California, here’s what the report says about my state:
❝The California science standards are truly excellent. The standards themselves are reasonably succinct yet quite comprehensive. This is especially true in high school chemistry, where topics are covered that are rarely seen in other K-12 standards documents. The continuity from grade to grade is superb, thanks in part to the introductory commentary, and context that the state provides, which relate grade- pecific learning to standards that have been covered in earlier grades, and those that will be covered later.❞
- Four other states, Virginia, Massachusetts, South Carolina (which surprises me), and Indiana (despite an ongoing unconstitutional attempt to push creationism on its students) received an A-.
- Seven other states received B’s. However, if we are to accept a B as an acceptable result for science education in the US, the one area of study that is critical to American economic and technical leadership, then US science education will fall further behind the booming economies in Europe and Asia.
The bad news
- Given the above information, 38 states had a C or below grade. In fact, the average “grade” for science education in the US is a C. Average. Mediocre.
- Ten states had F grades, which must indicate that they occasionally use the word “science” in a spelling test. Some of these states had F’s in the 2005 report, so they’re not even trying to improve. Even Wisconsin, which has a top-rated university system, received an F for their students. Maybe the University of Wisconsin’s science programs only accept out-of-staters and international students.
- Many of the lower performing states don’t even lay out a basic curricula for science.
- The variability in standards and implementation is inconsistent across the country. Why should a California child be better trained than one from Alabama? Of course, the result of that science education is that California has a world-class university system (3 of the top 100 universities in the world are UC-Berkley, UCLA, and UC-San Diego) and is the world leader in computer technology. Alabama, of course, has good football teams.
The authors of the study gave a few reasons for the low quality of science education in the US. They listed four reasons that should give us all a reason to worry about the falling science knowledge in this country:
- An undermining of evolution. Many of us have been writing about the regular demand by conservative Republican state legislatures to foist creationism on their students. In the famous words of Theodosius Dobzhansky, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Evolution is one of the four principles of biology (also including cell theory, genetics, and homeostasis), so without a deep and thorough understanding of evolution, medical research will fall apart. How are we to save lives and treat diseases if students can’t even understand the essentials of biology?
❝Of course, most anti-evolution efforts are aimed more directly at the standards themselves. And these tactics are. far more subtle than they once were. Missouri, for example, has asterisked all “controversial” evolution content in the. standards and relegated it to a voluntary curriculum that. will not be assessed. (Sadly, this marks a step back from that state’s coverage of evolution in 2005.) Tennessee includes evolution only in an elective high school course (not the basic high school biology course). And Maryland includes evolution content in its standards but explicitly excludes crucial points from its state assessment.
Other states have undermined the teaching of evolution by singling it out as somehow not quite as “scientific” as other concepts of similar breadth. A common technique—used to a greater or lesser extent by Colorado, Missouri, Montana, and West Virginia—is to direct students to study its “strengths and weaknesses.”
Far too often, important evolution content is included, but minimally. Some states mention evolution just once in their standards and never revisit it. Others—including. Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Nebraska— unnecessarily delay it until high school.
Even some of the nation’s best standards subtly undermine. the teaching of evolution. In California, for example, students are told to “understand science, not necessarily [to] accept everything taught.” In New York, students learn that “according to many scientists, biological evolution occurs through natural selection.” (This is not according to “many” but, in fact, all true scientists.)
Finally, conspicuously missing from the vast majority of states’ standards is mention of human evolution—implying that elements of biological evolution don’t pertain to human life. This marks a subtle but important victory for creationists: even states with thorough and appropriate coverage of evolution (e.g., Massachusetts, Utah, and Washington) shy away from linking the controversial term with ourselves. Only four states—Florida, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Rhode Island—openly embrace human evolution in their current science standards. (Pennsylvania, which. referenced human evolution in its previous standards, has omitted it from the more recent version.)❞
- Propensity to be vague. Some standards are so unclear and ill-defined that teachers actually have little guidance as to what to teach their students. California, for example, lists out what students should “know” about electricity upon completion of a physics course. Within that list, a good science teacher (like the one I had when I was in high school, who developed my interest in sciences) will create a lesson plan that is both invigorating and builds knowledge. Maybe the intent of some school boards are vague guidelines to inspire independent teaching, but in a subject as critical as the sciences, strict standards are necessary–and good science teachers will use those strict standards to build exciting, challenging and inspiring curricula.
- Poor integration of scientific inquiry. Science isn’t all about memorizing muscles, organism names, or how to create the Kreb’s cycle given CO2, H2O and NH3 (my single question in a Biochemistry final exam many years ago). It’s about the scientific method, the critical and analytical process that essentially leads an individual from observations to a scientific theory. It’s how science works, it is what distinguishes it from all other forms of thinking. Apparently, most states don’t guide the teacher on how to provide this type of teaching to their students, a major deficiency.
- Where did the numbers go? If evolution is one of the foundations of biology, then mathematics is the foundation of all sciences. Students need algebra, at a minimum. But calculus and statistics needs to be integrated into the teaching, as it is critical to analyzing data and understanding how the data makes sense. Even if someone is going to forsake the sciences for business in college, algebra and calculus are also critical to accounting and finance.
The poor state of science education has effect on everything from the economy to bad medical choices. Science is the foundation of engineering, biomedical research, and many other fields. Without science, Intel cannot figure out how to make faster processors. Without science, we don’t have better vaccines and cancer treatments. Without science, we have people who think that homeopathy works, or that the world is only 6000 years old, or that acupuncture works. The whole anti-vaccination lunacy requires a complete misunderstanding of science and research.
At least California is doing it right.
Source: The State of State Science Standards in the US, a 2012 Report
I am not a fan of Charter Schools for reasons that aren’t relevant to postings about skepticism and science. One of my issues with them is that the appear to be not very well regulated. In fact, the basic definition of charter school is that they receive public monies and less regulation as long as they produce results (usually higher standardized test scores). The definition of a charter school, according to the National Education Association (NEA), is:
Charter schools are publicly funded elementary or secondary schools that have been freed from some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools, in exchange for some type of accountability for producing certain results, which are set forth in each charter school’s charter.
NEA believes that charter schools and other nontraditional public school options have the potential to facilitate education reforms and develop new and creative teaching methods that can be replicated in traditional public schools for the benefit of all children. Whether charter schools will fulfill this potential depends on how charter schools are designed and implemented, including the oversight and assistance provided by charter authorizers.
This does not give them carte blanche to violate the constitution of the United States, specifically the Establishment Clause. A charter school in Michigan, the Byron Center Charter School, had this statement on their website (as recently as last week):
Byron Center Charter School cannot promote a certain religion, it can however, teach both creation and evolution as a theory, and use the Bible as a historical reference.
Let’s break down that sentence. Yes, the school cannot promote a certain religion. Several Supreme Court rulings say they can’t, so it’s good to know they understand the US Constitution. No, they cannot teach both creation and evolution as a theory, since only evolution is a theory and creation is fairytale based on not one single bit of science. And to use the Bible as a historical reference? Well, there are some historical references in it, but they are infrequent, and frankly wrapped into fairytales and myths. So, that sentence could be cut down to “Byron Center Charter School cannot promote a certain religion.”
Apparently, they have changed their website this week to remove the offensive, unconstitutional statement. But just because they removed it from their website does not mean that they’re not teaching creationism in clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I hope that the State of Michigan determines if they’ve been in violation of the law then shut them down.
As the NEA states, “Charter schools should be monitored on a continuing basis and should be subject to modification or closure if children or the public interest is at risk.” The public interest has been put at risk.
Source: Michigan Charter School Teaching Creationism? | Dispatches from the Culture Wars.
Because I’m so annoyed by the anti-vaccination gangsters, I tend to read nearly every article, blog, and CDC statistic (seriously, I’m a vaccine geek) about vaccines. While doing some background reading on the Patriot Nurse (read about her if you haven’t), I found a blog called Autismum (it’s been promoted to my favorite blogs in the side bar). Once I start reading a blog, I keep going back to see what’s up.
She wrote a short post about the French movie, Le Mur (the Wall). It’s a French documentary about some of the abusive practices in the French medical system for autism, including le Packing, which is a procedure (no, a procedure is evidence based, this is just plain medieval) where an autistic child is wrapped in cold wet sheets. Now, I’m a Francophile. My ex-wife is born and bred Parisienne. Both of my daughters’ first language is le Francaise. I love French food (mostly). I find the myths about France and the USA to be amusing and untrue.
But this nauseates me at the basic level. How can a modern country allow this practice? What’s worse is that the French government is censoring the movie because, I suppose, it offends them. This makes me despise French political system and hope that whatever we do to improve the US healthcare system, let’s not emulate France.
If you do anything else, read Support the Wall, and give them whatever verbal, monetary, or political support you can.
Source: Le Mur – Censored « Autismum
The California Department of Public Health announced this week that there were no whooping cough (pertussis) deaths in California for the first time in 20 years, although there were still over 3000 cases of the infection identified in the state. As a comparison, there 9000 cases and 10 deaths in 2010 in California. The state worked closely with hospitals, schools, doctors and clinics to get more people vaccinated against whooping cough, a bacterial infection that afflicts the respiratory system. Despite the myths that whooping cough is harmless, pertussis can be dangerous to infants because they cannot be fully vaccinated until they are six months old.
Despite the protestations, denialism and disinformation from the anti-vaccination gang, this is evidence of how vaccinations can have a positive impact on the public.
Colorado health officials mulling mandatory vaccinations | Vaccine News Daily.
Healthcare workers should be obligated to receive influenza vaccinations, mainly because they can be a nexus of spreading of the disease. I personally don’t get why a healthcare worker should invent non-evidence based excuses for not getting the vaccine (I’ve heard them all), but it happens.
That the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons opposes this law is because it is a politically conservative group of physicians. They’re opposed to mandatory vaccinations of any kind (even children), don’t support Medicare and Medicaid , even considering it evil and immoral, and are, of course, deeply opposed to Obama’s health care plan. I don’t care that there are conservative physicians, but I expect them to use evidence-based decision when dealing with medical and healthcare policy questions. This group is incapable of evidence-based thinking. Personally, I wouldn’t visit a physician who belonged to this group.
Nevertheless, if you observe Association of American Physicians and Surgeons opposing anything in healthcare, be very skeptical. Extremely skeptical.
Gates contributes $750 million to Global Fund | Vaccine News Daily.
Bill Gates, founder and former chairman of Microsoft, is contributing a huge amount of money to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. The Global Fund provides grants (through an application process) to evidence-based and cost-effective healthcare interventions for infectious diseases. They are large supporter of vaccines as the primary step to prevent infectious diseases.
I’ve never been a fan of Microsoft, but I think Bill Gates’ legacy is probably going to be more about his charitable work than Microsoft Windows. And his contribution to the Global Fund, about which there are unsubstantiated rumors (my assumption is that Gates wouldn’t have contributed $1.00 if they were true) regarding their finances, is critical to their strategy of eliminating infectious diseases. Global Fund’s success is documented:
New HIV infections are declining in many of the countries most affected by the epidemic. More and more countries are in a position to target the elimination of malaria from their territories. The world is on course to halve TB mortality by 2015 in comparison with 1990.
Since its inception in 2002, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been a major engine driving this remarkable progress.
We should applaud Bill Gates and the Global Fund.
Erin Brockovich to probe New York ‘mass hysteria’ case – latimes.com.
Erin Brockovich is really getting involved with the cluster of alleged neurological issues in teenagers in the Leroy, NY area. The article describes the symptoms as “Tourette’s-like”, but I’m troubled by the lack of a definitive description (let alone diagnosis). Brockovich, as discussed previously, is still focused on the 1970’s train derailment which spilled arsenic and tricholorethylene. The speculation about what is causing these issues run from mass hysteria, even outright feigned behavior, to something environmental, such as vaccines or chemicals.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on. I am almost certain that during the next few days or weeks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will get involved, interviewing and testing the students, and trying to determine if there is some correlation and possible causal factor. We probably should wait until the real scientists get involved and provide some real analysis with evidence.
Indiana creationist bill passes committee | NCSE.
Midwestern U.S. states are attempting to foist creationist or intelligent design teaching on their public school students, all the while trying to circumvent the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights.
Indiana’s Senate Committee on Education and Career Development just reported out of committee by an 8-2 vote their version of a creationist bill. The vote was strictly on party lines with 8 Republicans voting for it and 2 Democrats against it (Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Indiana Senate 3:1). Even during the committee discussion, religious leaders spoke out against it and asserting the bill’s unconstitutionality. I wonder if these Republican politicians understand how much it will cost in tax dollars to defend this bill in Federal Courts. And lose in Federal Court.
Activist Erin Brockovich looking into teens’ mystery ailment – USATODAY.com
I keep running into this story in various locations on the internet. During the past few months, 15 teenagers, mostly students at LeRoy (NY) High School just outside of Rochester, NY, reported neurological symptoms that resemble Tourette’s Syndrome.
Erin Brockovich, namesake of the Julia Robert’s movie, is investigating whether a train wreck in 1970 that spilled 35,000 gallons of cyanide and trichloroeythylene (TCE) near the high school caused or partially caused the symptoms. Then we have anti-vaccination blogs that blames it on the HPV vaccine, Gardasil, of course, without one tiny little bit of evidence.
The school district has reported that there are no known environmental issues in the air and water. Given very strict privacy laws, we don’t know if there’s some other medical link (like HPV vaccine). Of course, if HPV vaccine or some other pharmaceutical were involved, it would be very curious that only a small, rural, upstate New York town would be involved.
TCE is a well known contaminant of groundwater all over the world. There is some evidence that TCE may be involved with Parkinson’s Disease, though the effects usually take many years.
Right now, there is no evidence that points in any direction. If you hear that it’s vaccines, you may as well blame alien abduction, because there’s no evidence for that either. Everything is just speculation.
This morning, I was reading a posting by Orac, the nom de guerre (or nom de blog, according to him) of a rather snarky, humorous, and brilliant (yeah, I think he’s brilliant) surgeon hiding somewhere in the midwest. In his article, The Tactics and Tropes of the Antivaccine Movement, he amusingly and pointedly exposes the pathetic myths of the anti-vaccine movement. Seriously, it’s not that hard dismissing the unsupported claims of the vaccine denialists, but the postings from the evidence-based crowd are necessary to make sure those people who make decisions through the University of Google Medical School have some accurate information. At least that’s the theory.
So what is a trope? If you’re talking about a religious service, it’s a musical embellishment, which sounds about right. But in writing, a trope is a word or words that are used in a sense that is different from their literal meaning. Hyperbole, used frequently by the vaccine denialism gang, is an example.
Orac listed several tactics, then the tropes, of the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s clear that they are used by the Big 3 of pseudoscience, Climate Change Denialists, Evolution Denialists (creationist) and Vaccine Denialists. There are others, of course, like the HIV/AIDS denialists (claiming that HIV does not cause AIDS), and Physics Denialists (homeopathy). First their tactics (liberally paraphrasing and embellishing on what Orac wrote):
- Skewing the science. This involves cherry picking studies, quote-mining, and attacking science that doesn’t support their denialist point-of-view, while trumpeting any report or study that supports them. The Big 3 of Denialism even attempt to rename their pseudoscience into “science”, with creation science and the “theory” of Intelligent design by way of illustration. Case in point, Generation Rescue, Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy’s vaccine denialism website, contains a list of ingredients in vaccines and the side effects. No citations. No list of the concentration of ingredients. No description of the actual risk of said side effects. In other words, it looks like science. But it doesn’t even meet the standards of a high school science paper or Wikipedia.
- Shifting hypotheses. Using a football metaphor, Orac calls it, “moving the goalposts.” The denialist crowd changes either their requirements for evidence or just dismiss whatever evidence that doesn’t support their point-of-view. One of the best examples (of so many good ones) is the old macro vs. micro-evolution canard used by creationists. For scientists, macroevolution (change in a large population of organisms over geologic time periods) and microevolution (change at a species level over a relatively short period of time, usually one that is observable) are both driven by the same mechanisms, that is genetic drift and natural selection. Creationists will regularly state that they “believe” in microevolution but not macroevolution. Science answers questions, and it thrives on answering new ones. But artificial questions that are just invented to shift the emphasis is a waste of time.
- Censorship. This is an extreme characteristic of all anti-science movements. For example, the Age of Autism does not allow dissenting comments in any of their discussions about vaccines. Answers in Genesis, the evolution denialist website, only “answers” questions that are moderated. Real science loves these discussions. If some vaccine denier came to this website, I’d engage them in debate (except it’s hard to debate someone who doesn’t use real evidence).
- Attacking the opposition. Dr. Paul Offit, a respected pediatrician, is regularly attacked by the anti-vaccine gangsters (sorry, I fell into hyperbole, please pardon the mess), because of his writings on the subject of the safety of vaccines. His 2011 book, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All, probably angered those gangsters (oops, once again) as much as anything. Orac himself apparently had an email campaign written about his evil ways passed along to his university (I guess his nom de blog isn’t that secret). I once spent a substantial amount of time editing Wikipedia anonymously, focusing on vaccines, evolution, and alternative medicine articles. I was very careful with my identity, but someone found my address in California and began spamming my email and regular mail. They contacted my employer, but since it was my company, I wasn’t too concerned.
And now the tropes (mostly from the vaccine denialist mob):
- “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccines.” Of course, there’s no evidence that vaccines are unsafe, but this sounds good. A similar one is the evolution denialist “I believe in microevolution, but not in macroevolution.” Or the climate change version, “sure, the temperature is rising, I just don’t believe humans are involved.”
- Vaccines are toxic. Thoroughly debunked and debunked.
- A demand for absolute safety. As anyone who’s in medicine states, every medical procedure, technique, injection, device, pharmaceutical, or whatever else has some risk. When the benefits outweigh the risk, then the choice is clear. When the benefits outweigh an invented risk, then it’s extremely clear.
- A demand for absolute “proof” that vaccines are safe. I hate these arguments. Science doesn’t work in absolute proofs, it works to provide evidence that supports a hypothesis. Science is open-minded, so it demands the best possible evidence, but leaves the possibility that an alternative hypothesis may supplant the original one.
- “Vaccines didn’t save us.” Pure delusion.
- Vaccines are “unnatural.” This trope is used by the alternative medicine world every day, because, they state, without any evidence, “natural” is better than real science. In fact, there’s nothing more natural than inducing an immune response, since it happens billions of times. Debunked.
- Choosing between “vaccine injury” and disease. What injury? Last I checked, the real evidence doesn’t support vaccine injury. So, there is no choice, since the real disease is worst.
What is troublesome about these tropes is that they are simple to state. “Vaccines are toxic” is a three word statement that is scary, even if not supported by evidence. To discredit it, one needs to discuss each of the ingredients, providing real evidence, and then try to tie it all together. That’s way beyond three words. I once heard Paul Offit on NPR, and his answers were intelligent and correct, but they are so nuanced and complex, the listeners defaulted to the “vaccines are toxic” meme.
I believe that patients should be informed about their health and their healthcare choices. But searching the internet for this information has always troubled me. If you google “vaccines and autism”, you get over 7 million hits (with number 2 being the Jenny McCarthy Body Count, so that’s comforting). But what is the quality of these hits? Is Wikipedia a good choice? Well, I’ll answer that question because I know a couple of physicians and medical researchers watch over it carefully. In todays world of the interwebs, readers tend to accept every website as being “the truth”. I know people who actually count the number of websites that support a particular point of view!
Where are the critical thinking skills? I bet the various science deniers will state that they are thinking critically, but mostly what I see is trying to support a viewpoint by manipulating the information, instead of being openminded. It is difficult to engage in this discussion with such individuals.