“Study: Learning science facts doesn’t boost science reasoning”

“Study: Learning science facts doesn’t boost science reasoning”

From EurekAlert, a terribly dangerous finding:

A study of college freshmen in the United States and in China found that Chinese students know more science facts than their American counterparts — but both groups are nearly identical when it comes to their ability to do scientific reasoning.

Neither group is especially skilled at reasoning, however, and the study suggests that educators must go beyond teaching science facts if they hope to boost students’ reasoning ability.

[Link: Study: Learning science facts doesn’t boost science reasoning]

What’s the danger? Evolution, says Michael Ruse, is a fact, Fact, FACT! And it is the facts that must be taught in high school! Meanwhile Texas is under condemnation for approving science standards that include being able to “analyze and evaluate” scientific theories.

The article later notes,

How to boost scientific reasoning? Bao points to inquiry-based learning, where students work in groups, question teachers and design their own investigations. This teaching technique is growing in popularity worldwide.

The danger, in other words, is that this finding might actually apply to evolutionary studies. Maybe just teaching fact, Fact, FACT! isn’t necessarily the best thing for science students. And to question teachers? My daughter sat through six weeks of evolution studies last year and was never allowed to ask a question. (We have discussed this with the principal, and confirmed that this was the case.)

But an unquestioning, unchallenged, party-line approach to teaching evolution is supposed to save America’s science future from going down the tubes. That’s the line from the NCSE. Does NCSE really stand for National Center for Science Education?

19 thoughts on ““Study: Learning science facts doesn’t boost science reasoning”

  1. Have you ever noticed that few people – and I’m talking particularly about guys like Coyne, Dawkins, Dennett, etc – seem to care if people understand biology or evolution in any way? What they care about is whether people say they believe it.

    I always find that downright disturbing.

  2. The study does not support the idea that teaching falsehood! Falsehood! FALSEHOOD! does students any good at all.

    Creationism has been falsified. Intelligent design is a slight philsophical, mainly semantic twist on creationism. Teaching creationism does not improve a student’s knowledge of science at all, by definition.

    Is there a study that shows that teaching the wrong stuff helps kids understand? I can’t find it.

    While knowing a broad range of trivia may not improve one’s logic abilities, it’s better than knowing nothing.

  3. Score yourself 10 Irrelevance Points for this, Ed.

    Have you ever read me recommending that ID be taught in a classroom? Have you ever read me recommending that creationism be taught in a classroom? Do you know of any ID leaders who are recommending either of those? Does the new Texas science standard, so vilified by those who fear it, call for either of those to be taught?

    Politicians are well practiced in the technique, “if you don’t want to deal with the question that was asked, then just change the subject.” That’s what you did here, Ed, you just changed the subject, which was developing the ability to analyze and evaluate scientific theories, and ask questions about them—and that evolution ought not to be considered so sacred it can’t be one of the theories that gets subjected to analysis, evaluation, and question-asking.

  4. Here’s a statement to analyze and evaluate, just an impression of the way some people seem to want biology to be taught:

    “Repeat after me, class: There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory. There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory. There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory…. Now, class, analyze and evaluate that sentence, bearing in mind that under no circumstances can there be any weaknesses in evolutionary theory…

    “Yes, James? Very good, James, you said ‘There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory,’ and that is just an outstanding, insightful analysis! Thank you for not asking any of those horrid questions some people sometimes ask, I’m glad you know better! Good for you, James!

    “Now, is there anyone else here who would like to analyze and evaluate ‘There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory, There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory, There are no weaknesses in evolutionary theory …?'”

  5. I was being charitable — thinking you were advocating ID would be better than the backwards, crabby view you misattribute to science and education, IMHO. Here in Texas the chairman of the State Board of Education has been quite upfront about it — he wishes creationism could be taught. He can’t make a case for it that will stand up to legal scrutiny, so he’s doing sort of what you do in this post: He’s claiming that science is evil and authoritarian. He avoids all meetings with scientists (we’ve had three national science groups meet in Texas this year, all of which invited the SBOE to show up, but the creationists on the board don’t show).

    What’s the difference between authoritarianism and refusing to listen?

    NCSE has never advocated a dogmatic view of science as you describe it. All they’ve said is that science should be taught in science class. If you think that’s authoritarian, then, it seems to me, you don’t know science.

    And that’s the problem. Are you advocating the teaching of evolution theory, Tom? If so, it’s way too subtle for me to catch. Are you advocating something else? Then you’re advocating that we don’t teach the facts, the truth, the stuff that makes science go.

    And you know what? We should be rather authoritarian about that. We Christians believe it’s sinful to mislead children. Won’t you stand with the NCSE on that point, at least?

    If one studies science, one studies the “strengths and weaknesses” as they really are. But the proposals here in Texas, while they use the language of strengths and weaknesses, were intended to muzzle teaching of the strengths.

    But you’re probably more fair than our SBOE chairman, Tom — tell me, which strengths of evolution do you think should be taught, and which one’s censored? If you’re really for academic freedom, of course, you don’t want any discussion of science censored — so in that case, just list the top 15 strengths of evolution theory you want taught.

    And, since you seem to think there is some inherent, probably fatal weakness in evolution, which is why we would treat evolution theory differently than all other science theories, tell us what the alternative theory is that you want taught, since it’s not ID and not creationism?

    Clearly there was a lot more you left out of that post. What did I miss?

  6. I’m on my way out to a concert in a few minutes. I could just wait and answer this later, and give a complete answer then. Instead I’m going to give you a partial response now, and ask you to trust that more will come by tomorrow.

    The partial response is this: is there any answer I could give to any of what you have asked, that would change the point of what I wrote in the original post? Texas decided to allow students to analyze and evaluate subjects including evolution. The research I quoted says that’s a good thing. Evolutionists have been jumping down and screaming at how bad it is to include that in a state standard. I want to know, what’s bad about it? I don’t think anything you’ve said here, Ed, is anything but a diversionary tactic with respect to that question.

    Later this weekend I’ll answer some of your diversionary questions, just because I don’t want you to think I don’t have answers. I think it’s worth starting here though, with this reminder that what you’re asking may still be earning you the same kind of points as your last comment—what do some of you others think?

  7. P.S. Quick red herring alert: have I claimed that “science” is evil or authoritarian? Careful now: what, in that accusation, does the term “science” stand for?

    Gotta run. Dublin Symphony, starting at 8 pm.

  8. Okay, I’ll confess, I’m assuming the identity of your red herring. What is it’s real identity? Who is it you claim is evil and authoritarian? You identify a couple of practitioners, your daughter’s biology class (or should we assume it’s the teacher, or the entire education establishment?), and you’re pretty rough on the NCSE, and I’ve already noted I think you fail to understand what they do.

    So who is your real target?

    [back off the sidetrack] I got to this post from Telic Thoughts, where (it seems to me) very few missed the connection that ID was the preferred alternative. Do you disagree with that discussion? Can you define any differences?

  9. Tom, let’s be clear: Inquiry-based learning doesn’t mean questioning solid theory with foolish, irrelevant or poorly thought-out questions. For example, the heckling questions urged by the Discovery Institute for kids to ask their biology instructors don’t qualify as inquiry-based learning. Probably more to the point, no one who urges this heckling of biology teachers, or physics or astronomy teachers, really wants kids to use inquiry-based learning. They take the same stand the church authorities did when Galileo offered them the chance to view Saturn through his telescope: They wouldn’t look, because they didn’t want to know. God’s universe was challenging the authority of the Pope, and they had to do everything they could to avoid such challenges.

    So, what would an inquiry-based study of biology look like that didn’t involve teaching evolution theory?

    The reason we teach that 2+2=4 isn’t because we wish to be authoritarian and crush those religionists who insist the answers should be different, or those who argue that Pythagoras was a pagan and teaching the Pythagorean Theorem taints children. We teach that 2+2=4 because it does, in base 10.

    We teach evolution theory for roughly the same reason. It doesn’t matter how much you wish it were different, God’s universe is not different.

    Teaching kids something other than evolution would be dishonest, not “inquiry-based.”

    This study didn’t say that learning the facts of science handicap anyone. It only says that, by their freshman years, both Chinese and U.S. students lack the reasoning skills they need to be successful in research. A follow-up study may indicate that we do best to teach science reasoning to science novices who know nothing about the stuff. But I’d wager that those students who know more facts about science learn the reasoning skills faster, too.

  10. Ed,

    First, this is disingenuous:

    NCSE has never advocated a dogmatic view of science as you describe it. All they’ve said is that science should be taught in science class. If you think that’s authoritarian, then, it seems to me, you don’t know science.

    Where did this term “authoritarian” come from? This herring is redder than the planet Mars. A google search of < "Don McElroy" science authoritarian> yields only accusations that he and the school board are being authoritarian. Do you have evidence that he has used that term?

    Anyway, NCSE fails to distinguish between ID and creationism; it tendentiously places “flat eartherism” on one end of what it calls a continuum from evolution to creationism,” when “flat eartherism” has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the issue (the few paragraphs in support of that huge misconception notwithstanding); they absolutely incorrectly claim that “The reason ID proponents are so vague about an actual picture of what happened is that they strive to include YECs, progressive creationists (PCs), and theistic evolutionists (TEs) among their theorists and supporters;” and they promulgate outright falsehoods like,

    Is the universe a few thousand years old or billions? Most ID proponents will, if forced, uncomfortably confess that they accept an ancient age of the earth, but they are quick to dismiss the question as unimportant, presumably to keep the YECs in their anti-evolution tent.

    and that ID proponents say that “Teachers are supposed to teach that evolution did not happen.”

    So is NCSE authoritarian? Wrong question, red herring. The NCSE is just wrong, at least in the way they represent those who disagree with them. And they are wrong in the way they represent the goals behind initiatives like the Texas science standards. The goal is this: that students would have opportunity to evaluate and analyze, and to ask questions. To that end it seems appropriate to point out, more openly than has often been done, the evidences on both sides of the evolution issue.

    You asked for a list of fifteen strengths of evolutionary theory. Here we go, in entirely random order (except for #15):

    1. The fossil record showing increasing complexity over time.
    2. Homologous vertebrate limbs
    3. Currently observable microevolution. (If you don’t like that term, by the way, take it up with Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould. Unfortunately they have both passed away, but I think you get my point in naming them.)
    4. Ring species
    5. Similarities of sequences in non-coding (as far as we know right know) segments of DNA.
    6. Similarities of sequences in coding DNA, approximately correlating with similarities in observed body structures.
    7. Shared biochemistry, such as HOX genes
    8. The existence of organisms today with varied levels of function; i.e., the fact that some animals have very primitive light-sensing functions indicates that a primitive light-sensing function may well have been a step on the evolutionary path toward complex mammalian or other eyes.
    9. Malthusian competition and struggle, which is assumed to be the foundation for selection’s effects in winnowing out the less fit.
    10. Genetic and phenotypic variation, which provides natural selection with the material to work with.
    11. The universal plan of life from prokaryotes on up (all organisms based on cell structures with a nucleus and numerous other shared organelles, for example).
    12. Adaptation to ecological niches.
    13. The rise of mammals after the extinction of dinosaurs opened a niche for them.
    14. Genetic algorithms in computers allegedly showing that evolution can produce new functions, new structures, even irreducible complexity without intelligent design.
    15. A desperate, metaphysically-driven need among some persons to find explanations within the natural order.

    Are you advocating the teaching of evolution theory, Tom? If so, it’s way too subtle for me to catch. Are you advocating something else? Then you’re advocating that we don’t teach the facts, the truth, the stuff that makes science go.

    I’m gratified to learn that I’m too subtle for you, Ed. Actually, I have told my kids they need to understand evolution better than anyone else in their classrooms. I’m advocating that they learn it. I’m advocating that they learn things like the above 15 things, as well as some of its evidentiary challenges, like,

    1. The unresolved question of the origin of life, which is inseparable (even though conceptually distinct) from evolution.
    2. Patterns of stasis and sudden change in the fossil record.
    3. Failure over the past 150 years to find as many transitional forms as had been predicted.
    4. Failure to observe any speciation of any organisms, where such speciation involves an increase in genetic information in the organism.
    5. Failure to observe any evolution of irreducible complexity.
    6. Failure to explain IC in multiple different manifestations—in spite of failed attempts like the TTSS for the flagellum.
    7. The massive and unresolved difficulty that naturalistic evolution faces in explaining human consciousness, reason, meaning and purpose, ethics, and more, without explaining them away.

    And so on.

    Relative to Telic Thoughts—I have not read all 130 comments, and I’m not going to do that just to answer your question.

    Now, to your further comments, here and at the Bathtub. There’s a one-word description that fits your recent post there, and also this one:

    For example, the heckling questions urged by the Discovery Institute for kids to ask their biology instructors don’t qualify as inquiry-based learning. Probably more to the point, no one who urges this heckling of biology teachers, or physics or astronomy teachers, really wants kids to use inquiry-based learning.

    The one word is stereotyping. The prejudice evident both in your blog post and in your comments here is astonishing, considering what we know in the 21st century about stereotyping. You present no evidence here, only what you consider to be the case about myself and others who recommend allowing inquiry of this nature.

    Your post at your Bathtub blog is incredibly far from the truth, where you point to Telic Thoughts and to this blog, and say,

    If knowing a lot of science doesn’t improve logic, why bother to learn science? the creationists asked. Especially, why not teach creationism in biology, since teaching evolution seems to them rather authoritarian.

    (I’m not going to bother linking to the post—readers who really want to find it will find a way to do so.)

    So, on to some related business. I banned you once previously from this blog, Ed, and you raised a big stink about it in your own tub. Somehow—maybe your IP address has changed—you’re here again. I’m willing to take the risk of you raising another stink, as I go ahead and re-apply the ban that existed earlier. This time, it’s not at all because of what you’ve written on this thread, it’s because (a) there was never a reason to lift the earlier ban, and (b) you have seriously stereotyped and misrepresented me on your own blog. It doesn’t pass the Starbucks Standard.

    I recognize that I have asked you one question here, without giving you opportunity to respond. That is my choice. This blog is open to discussion with anyone who will approach it reasonably, but as I have made clear with you previously, side discussions on other blogs count toward whom I do or do not consider as taking a reasonable approach. A blogger who will misrepresent me (or any other commenter) on his own blog as you have done, does not have the privilege to bring his opinions here.

    P.S. The last time I did this you said it was because I couldn’t stand to face disagreement. Evidence like this shows quite the opposite. This might be another item for you to be careful not to fall into the dirty trap of stereotyping.

  11. I’m a few moments late, but I thought it would be helpful to deconstruct Tom’s list.

    “1. The unresolved question of the origin of life, which is inseparable (even though conceptually distinct) from evolution.”

    No evidentiary challenge here. (Unless Tom knows of some positive experimental evidence that says otehrwise- my bet is he doesn’t.)

    “2. Patterns of stasis and sudden change in the fossil record.”

    Something that can be observed, studied, and explained, and that poses absolutely zero problems for evolutionary theory is am “evidentiary challenge”? I find the reasoning here curious.

    “3. Failure over the past 150 years to find as many transitional forms as had been predicted.”

    Please, Tom, point to the peer-reviewed publications that give us a good estimate of the numbers of transitional forms, and then point to some studies that compare both what is known today with the trajectory of discovery with this estimate that you seem to be privy to. I think many readers would like to know of this body of work.

    “4. Failure to observe any speciation of any organisms, where such speciation involves an increase in genetic information in the organism.”

    Speciation has nothing to do with information. In any case, the fascinating case of the Hawaiian silversword alliance lays this “evidentiary challenge” to rest, decidedly.

    (Then there is that untidy but observed fact that CSI as defined by IDists does not exist in living things …)

    “5. Failure to observe any evolution of irreducible complexity.”

    Not true.

    “6. Failure to explain IC in multiple different manifestations—in spite of failed attempts like the TTSS for the flagellum.”

    Wrong in so many ways. Here is something that is unassailable (although I would dearly love to talk polyadenylation with an antievolutionist – there is so much to have fun with …). (Note that the linked essay is one of a series, and all of them need to be read to appreciate just how deeply wrong Tom is.)

    “7. The massive and unresolved difficulty that naturalistic evolution faces in explaining human consciousness, reason, meaning and purpose, ethics, and more, without explaining them away.”

    I’ve never seen an antievolutionist explain this criticism. They always resort quickly to “we don’t know, thus evolution NO!” (Or “the experiment has not been done, thus evolution NO!, or “we don’t know everything, thus we really know nothing, thus evolution NO!”).

    Fact is, brain evolution holds no special, or even possible, problems for evolution. Given this, objection #7 seems pretty strange.

    (Maybe Tom is arguing that society is not subject to evolutionary forces. Who knows.)

  12. Tom said,

    “The partial response is this: is there any answer I could give to any of what you have asked, that would change the point of what I wrote in the original post? Texas decided to allow students to analyze and evaluate subjects including evolution. The research I quoted says that’s a good thing. Evolutionists have been jumping down and screaming at how bad it is to include that in a state standard. I want to know, what’s bad about it? I don’t think anything you’ve said here, Ed, is anything but a diversionary tactic with respect to that question.”

    So if I understand correctly, you’re saying it’s a good thing for teachers in public schools to allow students an open forum for debating the materials the teachers are attempting to teach? Little to nothing can be accomplished if the teacher has to stop everything and qualify him/herself every time a student protests something being taught by opening the subject for discussion. There is simply not enough time in a school-day. The point of primary and secondary school is not to advance the current scientific (or any) establishment. Teachers simply teach the most well-established knowledge society has to offer and call that true. In a science class, evolution meets this criterion–and as far as I know, no other proposal does.

    On the other hand, free thought and inquiry should not be stifled, but class in primary and secondary school is not the place for students to work on this skill. Students should always ask questions, but not always in class. If students are really bothered by something, they should do whatever they can to find an answer on their own time. If the students can’t find answers, there happens to be a place perfectly suited for pursuing them—college. For that matter, parents play a much more important role in developing their child’s critical thinking and logical reasoning skills than teachers should. The role of teachers is to inculcate what they are told to, not to dispute what they are told to teach. [If teachers dispute something, they need to get the attention of people who can substantiate their claim]. Students do with that knowledge whatever they want to. Even if the student knows for a fact that he/she is right and can even provide proof, their classroom is not the place to enact reform. If you bought a product that was made incorrectly from a supermarket, would you hold the supermarket accountable for the flaws in the product (assuming how the supermarket received the product is exactly how they sold it to you)? This is why many scientists and evolution proponents are up-in-arms over what’s going on in Texas.

    That said, I do not agree with how you have interpreted the original article.

    The article says,

    “Neither group is especially skilled at reasoning, however, and the study suggests that educators must go beyond teaching science facts if they hope to boost students’ reasoning ability.”

    To which you said,

    “What’s the danger? Evolution, says Michael Ruse, is a fact, Fact, FACT! And it is the facts that must be taught in high school! Meanwhile Texas is under condemnation for approving science standards that include being able to “analyze and evaluate” scientific theories.”

    Somehow, you think ‘go beyond teaching science facts’ implies ‘“analyze and evaluate” scientific theories.”’ To me, “going beyond simply teaching scientific facts” means employing other teaching methods, not critiquing current scientific theories. Again, I don’t think the research you are hinting at belongs in high school, at least not with how the education system currently works in America.

    The article later said,

    “Bao points to inquiry-based learning, where students work in groups, question teachers and design their own investigations.”

    To which you commented,

    “The danger, in other words, is that this finding might actually apply to evolutionary studies. Maybe just teaching fact, Fact, FACT! isn’t necessarily the best thing for science students. And to question teachers?”

    Again, no mention made about questioning the legitimacy of accepted scientific theories. You made a connection that I don’t think the article intended to make. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine that you made a connection that the article didn’t explicitly make, but what bothers me is how you violently attacked Ed’s comment, especially when it seems to me that he did to your comments what you did to the article. For instance, you specifically applying the article to evolution could easily be interpreted as an attempt to find weaknesses in evolution. Maybe Ed knows more about you personally than I do, but if I knew you believed a certain way, it would be easy to see how your comments could propagate some sort of creationist agenda. If a creationist agenda is to ultimately have creationism taught, then Ed’s comments can easily be seen as simply extrapolating from your original comments.

    However, I hardly know anything about you so I can’t say for sure whether or not that is the case.

  13. Arthur, thank you for dropping by.

    No evidentiary challenge here. (Unless Tom knows of some positive experimental evidence that says otehrwise- my bet is he doesn’t.)

    The challenge is just what I presented it to be: there is no viable proposal on the table yet, to my knowledge, for the origin of the first life. This is not a matter of neo-Darwinism per se, but a naturalistic origin of life is very much conceptually tied to naturalistic development of species throughout natural history. This remains a significant problem to be solved for the general naturalist scenario.

    Something that can be observed, studied, and explained, and that poses absolutely zero problems for evolutionary theory is am “evidentiary challenge”? I find the reasoning here curious.

    It’s a matter of the quality of the explanations, which seem ad hoc to me.

    Please, Tom, point to the peer-reviewed publications that give us a good estimate of the numbers of transitional forms, and then point to some studies that compare both what is known today with the trajectory of discovery with this estimate that you seem to be privy to. I think many readers would like to know of this body of work.

    I think readers would like to see a body of work showing that transitional forms have met predictions made in the past. Where’s the burden of proof here?

    Speciation has nothing to do with information. In any case, the fascinating case of the Hawaiian silversword alliance lays this “evidentiary challenge” to rest, decidedly.

    (Then there is that untidy but observed fact that CSI as defined by IDists does not exist in living things …)

    You’ve missed my point in saying “speciation has nothing to do with information.” The point was not primarily speciation but increase of information; so I could have phrased it this way instead: “Failure to observe natural (unguided) process resulting in new structures or functions based in novel genetic information.” Speciation is secondary to that. The silversword alliance speciations seem not to have been observed, by the way, but inferred.

    Points 5 and 6 I will return to in a moment.

    “7. The massive and unresolved difficulty that naturalistic evolution faces in explaining human consciousness, reason, meaning and purpose, ethics, and more, without explaining them away.”

    I’ve never seen an antievolutionist explain this criticism. They always resort quickly to “we don’t know, thus evolution NO!” (Or “the experiment has not been done, thus evolution NO!, or “we don’t know everything, thus we really know nothing, thus evolution NO!”).

    If you haven’t seen it explained, you haven’t looked; it’s all over the philosophical literature (mind/brain, axiology, existential philosophy, the argument from reason….). It’s not just “we don’t know.” It’s that what we do know about the nature of physical systems in general, and the nature of these other phenomena (consciousness etc.), are in many ways deeply incompatible on a philosophical level. Whether there are problems with brain evolution or not is beside the point: there are deep difficulties in explaining mind on the basis of the brain. There are deep difficulties in explaining objective ethics on the basis of natural history. I don’t have time to go into it all here now, though you could do a search on my blog and find many prior discussions on these points, which are areas in which I have specialized.

    “5. Failure to observe any evolution of irreducible complexity.”

    Not true.

    “6. Failure to explain IC in multiple different manifestations—in spite of failed attempts like the TTSS for the flagellum.”

    Wrong in so many ways. Here is something that is unassailable (although I would dearly love to talk polyadenylation with an antievolutionist – there is so much to have fun with …).

    I confess I’m out of my league with your links here, Arthur. Biology is not my area of specialty. If you have some links to suggest that explain these things in language suitable to a well-read layman, I would like to learn from them. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, and I would want to know about it.

  14. Happy Academic Freedom Day, Tom!

    It’s been awhile since you posted this but I simply haven’t had the time to think and write lately. As a physics teacher this study speaks directly to me, and we’ve been discussing it in our science department. I’ve also been thinking about the current state of science education, especially in light of all the court cases over state standards for the teaching of evolution. I’ve posted some thoughts on this in my newest entry on reasonable answers: Will Evolutionists turn Teachers into Preachers for Evolution?.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: