Death of science by multiple organ system failure

Science fairs usually have a few pleasant surprises, a lot of ho-hum projects done by rote with little thought (sometimes clearly done the night before), and a few stinkers that reveal nothing but the student’s ignorance. The science teachers are supposed to screen the project proposals to prevent that from happening, though, so the really bad projects usually don’t get through. There’s also a hierarchy: local to county or regional to state, and only the best are supposed to progress. State science fairs usually have some very impressive work and some that might be naive, but at least the student has enthusiasm. This description of a state level science fair project is disturbing, not just because the student’s work was substandard, but because it somehow made it through what should have been multiple levels of screening.

Then I saw it. “Creator or Not? YOU DECIDE”

The title claimed we could decide, but the project left no room for vacillation. It started with a hypothesis that “The universe was created by an intelligent designer.” It went on to make the standard big number argument, and closed with the conclusion, “The universe was created by an intelligent designer.”

The big number argument: there are twenty amino acids. The average human protein has around 460 amino acids in it. Thus the number of possible combinations is a huge number. The age of the universe in seconds likewise is a huge number, but less huge than the number of possible amino acid combinations. Thus you would have to have been randomly generating these protien chains at the rate of bunches every second from the Big Bang to now before you got human protein chains. Clearly that didn’t happen; therefore, an intelligent designer did it. Quod erat demonstratum.

That’s extremely distressing. It’s sad that some kid has such a poor knowledge of logic and evidence, but it is even more troubling that the educational system has rotted out so much that shoddy work like that can actually advance that far. We should worry about individuals, of course, but this is a sign that the educational infrastructure that leads to good scientists isn’t working—there was a complete failure from parents to science teacher to fair judges, and all of those people ought to be ashamed of themselves. This is not how we get kids into the Siemens Westinghouse competition.

(via The Scientific Activist)

Education and Invasion

A Carnival of Education is up! I don’t know that the plague theme is entirely encouraging, but as we creep towards the end of the term, it feels like it is entirely appropriate.

Also, tomorrow is the Invasive Species Weblog‘s fourth birthday (I know, she’s really, really old), and Jennifer Forman Orth is celebrating with a contest—send her a link to an invasive species-related post by midnight Thursday and you might just win a prize.

Beckwith’s tenure decision

More details are dribbling out about the decision to deny Francis Beckwith tenure. It’s a little bit odd, because these things are supposed to be confidential, and I will note that Beckwith, to his credit, is not commenting on the decision while trying to appeal it. I hope his appeal does not succeed, however. I agree completely with this fellow, Dr Jim Patton, who clearly states a legitimate reason for kicking Beckwith out (warning: Free Republic link):

When tenure time approached, the anti-Sloan [Sloan was the former Baylor president who had hired Dembski and Beckwith] interim president, William Underwood, appointed psychology professor Jim Patton, the chair of the anti-Sloan faculty senate, to Mr. Beckwith’s tenure committee. In an e-mail message about another faculty member shown to WORLD, Mr. Patton wrote, “I clearly do not think highly of anyone who claims ID theory is science.”

I get to vote on tenure decisions at my university, and I can assure you that if someone comes up who claims that ID ‘theory’ is science, I will vote against them. If someone thinks the sun orbits around the earth, I will vote against them. If someone thinks fairies live in their garden and pull up the flowers out of the ground every spring, I will vote against them. Tenure decisions are not pro forma games, but a process of evaluation, and I’d rather not have crackpots promoted. Beckwith may be a nice fellow with a commendable publication record, but when it gets right down to it, his untenable position on intelligent design puts him smack in the middle of the tinfoil hat brigade. And that position on ID is a focus of many of his publications, so it is certainly a legitimate criterion for judging him.

(Before the inevitable trollish twit starts claiming this is a sign of intolerance, I’ll short circuit that by stating that whether a person is Christian or Muslim or atheist, Republican or Democrat or Green, is not an issue in tenure decisions and would not be and has not been a factor in any tenure votes I’ve cast. I do not object to differences in opinion among my colleagues. I do object to keeping fools around.)

Calling Dick Wolf!

Hey, I’d watch it: an an academic police procedural. It also sounds like my life right now. Although I did clear away half the piles of clutter on my desks last week, I once again foolishly scheduled exams in both of my courses for the very same week, so I’m frantically scribbling up exams and planning to field lots of student questions for the next few days, and then this weekend I’ll have another big stack of stuff to grade.

Only about five more weeks to the end of this term…

Francis Beckwith and the cold, cruel realities of tenure

Way back in the dim and distant past, like two years ago, there was a bit of a disturbance in the blogosphere, a minor contretemps after a certain Harvard law student, Lawrence VanDyke, published a “book note” in the Harvard Law Review. It was rank creationist nonsense, a work of pathetic scholarship, and it got publicly shredded by Brian Leiter, and I also got in the act. The book reviewed was an apologia for Intelligent Design by Francis Beckwith. In a later amusing twist, NRO published a defense of VanDyke and Beckwith by an anonymous “Texas free-lance writer”, who it was later discovered was Beckwith’s grad student, Hunter Baker. It’s all tortuous ancient history now, of course, and no one but those few of us involved in the dustup remember it.

What brings it all back is the news that Francis Beckwith has been denied tenure at Baylor. Hunter Baker hasn’t learned his lesson, and has written an overwrought defense, again in a pathetically semi-anonymous way, as “Graduate Student X”.

I have two things to say about it all.

One is to offer my personal sympathy to Francis Beckwith. Tenure is a brutal, evil machine that puts everyone through a hellish torture, and often spits out the deserving and rewards the undeserving. Do not ever judge someone by whether they have got tenure or not—it’s too arbitrary for that, and often represents a kind of insubstantial and subjective matching or mismatching between a person and an institution. So on a personal level, I wish Beckwith well and hope he and his family move on to a satisfying position elsewhere.

The second is that although it is nearly impossible to speculate on what’s going on in tenure committees—he could have been denied tenure on the whim of some old fart with a grudge—it’s hard to imagine that the politics of Intelligent Design did not play some small part in it. Beckwith tied his fortunes to those of the Discovery Institute and the ID movement, and at the very least we can say that that was not enough to salvage his tenure at Baylor. In fact, given that he has a respectable publication record and seems to be a personable fellow, it’s hard to avoid the speculation that they might have wanted to steer Baylor away from the disaster of Intelligent Design. A solid record of publishing large quantities of something that is being shown to be utter crap is not helpful to one’s tenure chances.

Is that a legitimate reason to deny someone tenure? Sure.

Hug a high school teacher today!

My morning was spent at the local high school today, talking to the biology classes about the evidence for evolution. This wasn’t in response to any specific worries—in fact, talking to the instructor, it’s clear that they’re doing a decent job of covering the basic concepts here already—but that my daughter is in the class, and she thought it would be fun to have her Dad join in the conversation. I will say that it was very obliging of the Chronicle of Higher Ed to publish this today:

In a packed IMAX theater in St. Louis last month, a middle-school teacher took the stage and lectured some of the leaders in the American scientific establishment. In a friendly but commanding style honed by three decades in the classroom, Linda K. Froschauer told scientists that it was time for them to get involved in elementary and secondary education.

“Go home. Identify science teachers in your own neighborhood. Offer to help them,” she said. “Go to the board of education and speak up.”

Excellent advice! It gives an overworked teacher a brief break, lets you see what’s going on in the classrooms, makes the students a little more familiar with college faculty, and maybe it makes a few of them think and gives them a tiny bit more background. It was generally a very positive experience, although it does make me appreciate the work our secondary ed teachers have to do.

I gave a very informal lecture in which I confronted the whole ‘controversy’ about humans evolving from apes. I brought along a few transparencies and a human skull, and gave them an overview of three lines of evidence: transitional fossils, similarities in genes and chromosome structure, and “plagiarized errors”. I kept it fairly simple, using little of the technical vocabulary and defining what little I had to use, but tried to introduce some important concepts, like the taxonomic hierarchy and diagnostic characters and repetitive DNA and pseudogenes. I was also impressed that the students asked good questions, so I think they were grasping what I was talking about.

Boy, but high school teachers have a very different burden than I do. Having to give the same talk 3 times in a row is challenging—I was getting bored with me! The students also range in ability and interest far more than I’m used to…there were many who were attentive and curious (more than I’d expected, which is a very good sign), and there were some who were bored and rather disruptive (but not as many as I’d feared.) I tried not to completely neglect the troublemakers and engaged them a few times with questions, but I had it fairly easy since the regular teacher was there to hover over them and keep them in line. There’s a bit of drill sergeant rigor required in high school teachers that I don’t need at the university as much, I think.

I’d do it again, gladly…as long as I’ve got a few weeks to recover between days at the high school. The grade schools are where we have the most need to get more science into play anyway, so it feels like a productive birthday for me when I can talk to a few 10th graders. And any high school teachers out there—you’re doing an important job, and those of us up in the ivory tower of the university really do care about what’s going on in our schools. Don’t be shy about asking your local college science departments if we’d be willing to contribute in your classroom, I think there is a fair number of us who’d be happy to share our perspective.

A grim start to Spring Break

Spring break starts…NOW. I’m done with classes for the day, and just have to make a trip out to St. Cloud to pick up my son for the weekend and my obligations are temporarily over, sort of.

Way back at the beginning of the term when spring break seemed far, far away, I scheduled an exam for my physiology course (75 students) and my introductory biology course (35 students) for this week; I also had my intro students turn in a writing assignment this week, and because they had done poorly on one rather important exercise, had also assigned an extra paper, also due now. There is a rather terrifyingly full box of papers sitting on my desk, growling softly to remind me of its existence now and then. I know that if I neglect it it will glare more ferociously and grow claws and fangs and get increasingly vicious; if I wait until the last weekend of the break to deal with it, it will try to kill me. So I’m going to take it out early. I swear, I will annihilate the contents of that evil box this weekend, splattering every page with red.

That box is evil. I hate it. I will gut it soon, one page at a time.