Travel day!

I’m flying away today, on my way to New York to attend a little event honoring the winners of the second annual Seed science writing contest. This is really good stuff: the contestants tried to explain what it means to be scientifically literate in the 21st century, and make suggestions for improving scientific literacy for the future. The winners are Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse by Thomas W. Martin and Camelot is Only a Model: Scientific Literacy in the 21st Century by Steven Saus — if you haven’t read them yet, do so!


  1. Charley says

    It’s interesting that Martin gets a lot of students in his honors program who ace their advanced placement science tests yet believe in creationism. These are smart students who seem to lack the critical thinking skills to sort out fact from fiction. I blame the church, which fosters credulity in the absence of evidence and steadfastness in the face of contrary evidence. This is the opposite of the scientific mind set.

  2. Fernando Magyar says

    This was the random quote displayed next to Martin’s comment when I read it. It kinda says it all.

    “In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination.”

    [Mark Twain]

    Hopefully by becoming scientists the critical thinking skills that they by force must acquire will spill over into the compartment of their minds that has been clogged by their unnecessary religious baggage.

  3. Nutmeg says

    I’m curious what neurobiology (or more likely psychology) tells us about how difficult it is to reject things learned from authority figures in one’s extremely formative years. How likely is it that Fernando’s hope will actually come true, in the light of how difficult it is to displace these early formed “beliefs.”

    As a former science teacher, one thing we learn is that early experimentation by children creates some misconceptions about the natural world. To truly teach them something, we must first show them WHY and HOW their misconception is wrong, and then show them the proper way to interpret their observations and learn the new, accurate rule.

    But these misconceptions about natural phenomena aren’t based on blind faith, or indoctrination, they were based on the child’s own observations. Our animal brains are so strongly set up in our early years to follow our parents and elders, do what they do and listen to what they say, lest we die before we make it reproduction (that’s a strong selective force). How hard is that to overcome with observation, questioning and rationality… especially when those things necessarily don’t come until much later (when a child has left the sphere of their immediate and equally indoctrinated community).

    As in most other things, I’m not too optimistic about our chances.

    And off topic, I was infuriated yesterday when I saw two “id” books on the science shelf at B&N… right next to all the actual science.

  4. Richard Harris, FCD says

    I thought that the winner was suggesting that the outspoken atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, etc., were too bombastic.

    Well, we’re all allowed opinions, but it’s a shame that that one helped get the first prize. I don’t think that we can be too outspoken. Nonsense is religion is nonsense, period.

  5. Jsn says

    /Nonsense is religion is nonsense, period./

    I thought you were just in a Gertrude Stein mode. I rather liked it.

  6. says


    Your comment made me think of a recent review paper I read in Science – it seems to mesh so well with what you’re saying that I wonder if you’ve already read it.

    The absract:

    Resistance to certain scientific ideas derives in large part from assumptions and biases that can be demonstrated experimentally in young children and that may persist into adulthood. In particular, both adults and children resist acquiring scientific information that clashes with common-sense intuitions about the physical and psychological domains. Additionally, when learning information from other people, both adults and children are sensitive to the trustworthiness of the source of that information. Resistance to science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies where nonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.

    You say:

    these misconceptions about natural phenomena aren’t based on blind faith, or indoctrination, they were based on the child’s own observations.

    While Bloom and Weisberg refer to studies which show that:

    Children’s belief that unsupported objects fall downward, for instance, makes it difficult for them to see the world as a sphere–if it were a sphere, the people and things on the other side should fall off. It is not until about 8 or 9 years of age that children demonstrate a coherent understanding of a spherical Earth

    and other examples demonstrate how such misconceptions can persist into adulthood if not challenged.

    If you can’t get access to the article let me know – my email address is on my blog page – and I can probably send you a copy of it

  7. says


    I thought that the winner was suggesting that the outspoken atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Myers, etc., were too bombastic.

    I got that impression as well – from a couple of comments at the end.

    They must do this despite clear cases of prominent scientists falling into petty, acerbic (and therefore counterproductive) exchanges.


    When scientific celebrities fail to set a good example for students…

    A couple of cheap shots, which didn’t really add anything useful to the essay. Should have been left out.

  8. MyaR says

    I think it had more to do with this

    As noted recently in Seed, leading disciplinary practitioners who feel threatened by unorthodox new findings will sometimes band together to suppress such information, with the explicit intention of blocking its appearance in the journals.

    than with Dawkins, Dennett, Myers, et al.

  9. fardels bear says

    I haven’t read the Martin book so perhaps those who have read it have more information to share about his claims. In the linked article, I didn’t see the “acerbic exchanges” among “scientific celebrities” as having anything to do with atheism. After all, Steve Gould, Richard Lewontin, Dawkins and E.O. Wilson all said some pretty pointed things to each other on matters that in no way touched on the existence of god.

    Also, Hitchens is a political writer and Dennett is a philosopher. So I don’t know that they count as “scientific celebrities.”

  10. Richard Harris, FCD says

    Yes, possibly I’ve put the wrong interpretation on this. I’ve not read the essay, just a report on it, & this is probably mangled in my memory.

    Can we have a definitive statement on this from someone? (I’m too busy to search for the entire essay….sorry.)

  11. Louise Van Court says

    Science educators have a difficult role in our society because as our knowledge goes forward and new details emerge constantly, they have to teach that which is still being discovered or is not fully understood. I like what the second placed winner (Steven Saus) had to say.

    “The edifice of science is not in danger of crumbling; it is under constant renewal. Each generation’s orthodoxy was the prior’s heresy. Many commonly-accepted “facts”–plate tectonics, quantum mechanics, birds’ relation to dinosaurs, the Big Bang, RNA’s role in the cell, punctuated equilibrium, global climate change, good and bad cholesterol–were extremely controversial not so long ago. And the process continues, with ongoing challenges to accepted models both in their details and in their broad brushstrokes.”

    I also liked what the first place winner (Thomas W. Martin) says.

    “The reason science does manage to be astonishingly effective is not because large groups are automatically wiser or less prone to self-deception than individuals. History adequately demonstrates that, if anything, the opposite is more nearly the case. Science works because its core dynamics–not its methods or techniques per se–are rooted in pitting intellects against one another. Science eventually yields impressive answers because it compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.”

    I think diversity of thought is healthy for science and science education in general and educators and scientists need not worry if students hold to various philosophies. The idea is not to suppress certain types of thinking. Thinking outside the box has its place.

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    Richard Harris, FCD: thanks. I have myself have trouble answering questions which are incoherent.

    Council of Europe to vote on creationism next week

    PARIS (Reuters) – Europe’s main human rights body will vote next week on a resolution opposing the teaching of creationist and intelligent design views in school science classes.

    The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly will debate a resolution saying attacks on the theory of evolution were rooted “in forms of religious extremism” and amounted to a dangerous assault on science and human rights.

  13. Mike Fox says

    I wonder what the psychological development from ignorance to intellect is. Maybe it is something like the Cross’s theory of nigrescence – (see below the big, square advert)

    If so, perhaps a lot of ignorant people jump from preencounter to immersion. The consequence, of course, being that they don’t know what they need to have the right kind of intellect. Of course, this jump might be as a result of going through a similar development in different areas, such as religion.

  14. Nutmeg says

    I’m pretty sure our library has access to Science… I mean.. I’ve never looked… but really.. it’s Science.

    I haven’t read that abstract… I am just repeating what I learned in my teaching science in secondary school courses (oh.. .. 6 years ago now). I’ll definitely look up what Science has to say on the matter… much thanks.

    (apologies for all typing and grammar errors.. irritated 9 month old in lap)

  15. says

    if you have time to swing by the AMNH and need someone to let you in, drop me a line! All my contact info is over on my website.

  16. ichthyic says

    mikeM, I’m certainly no fan of the raving loon, but there appears to be some dispute as to what he actually said in this case:

    Go to this link and listen to the interview yourself.

    It was taken out of context. He was talking about how blacks are stereo-typed. Dont believe everything you read without figuring out stuff for yourself.

  17. SteveC says

    Reginald Selkirk @ #14 – Where is the evidence that free will is a coherent concept which actually exists?

  18. wildcardjack says

    #17 WRT the peanut butter jar….

    I have a hypothesis that proto-life (macromolecules) happen frequently and regularly where the elements are present. We don’t notice them because they fall into the background noise of other things like amino acids or are consumed by bacteria.

    The reason we don’t have to worry too often about peanut butter is that even the most basic pathogens are highly evolved entities. That is why PB has a limited shelf life.

    BTW, PZ is a lucky lucky man to have such trips. I’m waiting for an email detailing my future from Schlumberger and I know that any future location will be a real hole in the wall, middle of nowhere assignment. Hopefully my free time will include the occasional opportunity to attend a Long Now S.A.L.T. seminar.

  19. says

    Beautiful essays, they bring a tear to my eye.

    To do our part in promoting scientific discourse the Bayblab (a Canadian graduate student blog) is calling for nominees for the First Annual “Socrates” Awards – The Bayblab Awards for Scientific Discourse. Please visit and post your nominees. We need to hear from you! Neither Dawkins or Hitch have been nominated yet…

    Thanks for your input!