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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science in Society"
September 9, 2005

Paul Grobstein and Kate Shiner ('06)


Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Paul opened the discussion by describing his experiences "violating state law" while teaching biology in a federal poverty program in Nashville, Tennessee, where the decision made in the Scopes monkey trial was "still on the books" in the 1960's. He also spoke about his current work with K-12 teachers, most of whom not do not teach evolution, because it conflicts either with their own religious beliefs, or with those of their students and their parents. Saying that it is a mistake--"both intellectually and metaphysically unnecessary and politically unwise"--to set religion and science against each other, Paul distributed an essay he'd written on Intelligent Design and the Story of Evolution: No Need for Drawing Lines in the Sand.

Kate shared some of her experiences in her home state of Kansas, where E.O. Wilson's appearance at the University met with protests, and where evolution was (temporarily) banned as part of the state standards. She also described her own "evolution" in these matters; while she once thought that religion and science should be "kept in their own spheres," she now sees that the spheres "do overlap," that "discussing evolution creates religious questions that need to be discussed."

Participants had a range of views on these questions:

  • intelligent design is at the forefront of a cultural curriculum that "threatens the secular nature of public education"
  • there is an important distinction between education and science education; intelligent design should be kept out of all biology courses
  • "I have no conflict. I am religiously deficient."
  • "Evolution is a big idea, and I had a delayed appreciation of its significance."
  • science is about us: how can we promote inquiry that doesn't threaten the deepest notions of self?
  • what is profound about evolution is that it tells us that "all we see could have happened without the hand"
  • "I like the debate; I'd like to figure out how we can talk with each other across these differences without drawing lines."
  • science is threatening to people with faith, but both realms are important in human history
  • a child who was taught the creation story in Genesis believes that the dinosaurs didn't exist
  • "we are connected," and so cannot allow the argument to stop; anytime it does, "life freezes," and "the system closes down"
  • we are talking about the same thing, using different vocabularies
  • no: these are two different ideas, with different implications
  • one of the implications is this: if we are animals, we need to think differently about how we treat animals
  • students are not blank slates; they come in with stories (whether we teach them or not)
  • "I wouldn't trust someone who told me that everything my parents had taught me was wrong"
  • we have separation of church and state in this country
  • we should teach science not on the basis of what we believe, but on the basis of what we are willing to inquire into, to be skeptical about
  • these two ideas are only in conflict if one asserts that one of them explains all reality
  • evolution accounts for the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria; it says nothing about the existence of God
  • never start a conversation by telling someone they are wrong: it leads to alienation
  • these are not beliefs, just ways of accounting for what we understand
  • we can emphasize that evolution is just a possible solution to a question
  • no, we cannot open the public conversation to religion
  • intelligent design is not an empirically testable theory, and to be taught in a science context, it must be
  • "I just have a knee jerk reaction: I don't want people to be blind"
  • religionists find scientists to be equally intransigent, not willing to look, not being open to revision
  • problems arise, both locally and globally, in our various "gut reactions" to these issues.

Further discussion of such questions is invited in the on-line forum area. A related set of problems--"Multilingualism and Education in the US"--will be addressed next Friday, September 16, by Eric Raimy (Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College). The 2000 Census reports that 18.4% (9,779,776) of the US population between the ages of 5 and 17 speak a language other than English in their home. This is a substantial number when we consider the fact that this age group is the one that is served by our educational system. Only 6,286,648 of these children speak English 'very well' with the remainder being considered to not have an effective control of English (about 3.5 million).

Although there is general agreement that children in the US school system who do not have an effective control of English should gain this skill as part of their education, there are diverse approaches to achieve this goal. Much of the debate on ESL education is unfortunately misinformed because the general populace (including politicians) does not know what linguists know about ESL education.

The bulk of the talk will present the different possible approaches to multilingual education, what the general results are for the different approaches and how improving science literacy on these issues will improve the public debate on what type of multilingual education we should have in the US.

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