New Horizons, old hoaxes

As if I hadn’t learned my lessons with Tribal Science, I’m about to embark on another insane journey with a follow-up book. A pitch is with the publisher, who has asked for a sample chapter.

The roots of this one stretch back some way, to about 2006 when I delivered a public lecture to a young audience on the topic of energy. After the crowd had left, a curious couple came up to ask me about ‘living energy’. It inspired me to take a closer look at the impact theories involving vital forces have had on our history of biology.

One related topic of interest is the theosophical field of noetics – a branch of metaphysical philosophy that holds that thoughts and mental constructs have material properties (or at least are immaterial subjects that have an influence on the material universe). In other words, noetics is primarily concerned with the point at where the two branches of dualism intersect.

Modern noetics has the classic features of a pseudoscience – it uses scientific terms and incompatible theories and principles to confuse the metaphysical with the material. Research related to this field varies from relatively rigorous (if anomalous and unrepeated) studies of the likes of Dr Duncan Macdougall, to hints at research that I can only conclude is at best a fabrication, and at worst a hoax.

In hunting down 20th researchers who have attempted to measure material properties of thoughts, mind or soul, I came across numerous mentions of two scientists by the name of Becker Mertens and Elke Fisher. Even relatively skeptical blog articles cited them. It’s alleged that in 1988, they concluded based on research that human thoughts amounted to a mass of about 1/3000th of an ounce. While no source is provided for the research’s publication, it’s implied that at least some mention of it was made in a German magazine by the name of Horizon.

This claim is so pervasive, it is repeated in the new age magazine, New Dawn (special issue 15, page 70), not to mention a variety of blogs and online articles. Its original source seems to be a Weekly World News Article.

Given there’s no sign a German science journal named Horizon ever existed (there is a media/advertising journal named Horizont), and no evidence of scientists by the names of Becker Mertens or Elke Fisher, we can be fairly confident that we’re dealing with fiction here. I’m not overly surprised by that, given Weekly World News isn’t exactly known for its academic rigour. Yet it is a rather good example of how pseudoscience relies on a reluctance of authors to ask critical questions of what they’re presenting as fundamental facts.

Published in: on March 21, 2012 at 10:28 pm  Comments (10)  

The other religion

girl in prayer

'But who will I pray to about my existentialist angst now, Mummy?'

I’m quite sure she won’t mind my saying so, but for all purposes, I suspect my mother is an atheist. There might be some vague inkling of ‘something more’, at least on some visceral level, but practically she expresses virtually no belief in the supernatural. Until recently, however, she quite enjoyed going to church with my stepfather.

Like many, she enjoyed the social aspects of singing hymns, warm handshakes and sincere platitudes. When it came to the ghost stories and tales of ancient magic, she was comfortable enjoying them as culturally relevant fiction.

There were also aspects of the church gathering she abhorred, such as the bigotry and cliquish coteries of  hypocrites. In the end there were more reasons to stay at home than to venture out on a Sunday morning, and today she is one of the many millions of non-church attending Australians who will agonise over whether to tick ‘no religion’ on the upcoming census. Raised with the conjoined twins of virtue – Christian and Australian – it’s difficult to admit to being one and not the other. Not out of a belief in (or fear of) a ruling metaphysical entity, but out of a sense of social belonging. ‘Christian’ identified her familial values.

In time, there’s a good chance we’ll see this relationship change. An increasing number of people continue to hold values of neighbourly respect and an altruistic sense of charity without them being affiliated with a religion. ‘Christian’ is rapidly failing at being shorthand for ‘good’. But for now, there are still many ‘religious’ people in Australia who have little vested interest in the supernatural.

Another influential, highly intelligent woman in my life was cut from the same cloth. No doubt, my mother took many influences from her own maternal role model. In her final years, my grandmother was a Christian agnostic with tendencies to being atheist when discussion dared to dig deep enough. Miracles didn’t matter, nor did the divinity of a human-born saviour.

Now, those on both sides of the theistic divide can argue she wasn’t a ‘true’ Christian. But with the box ticked on a census form, such debates of logic are irrelevant. Statistically, that was what she subscribed to.

Conversely I also know of a good many ‘non-religious’ citizens who are secure in their belief in a supernatural creator. Whether deistic, inchoate, pantheistic or merely ‘spiritual’, an absence of canon and community inclines them to avoid religious labels while still believing in less materialistic systems of universal governance.

I have no data on either of these demographics. However, it’s enough to make me question how to use figures that describe a percentage of Australians as ‘non-religious’. There is currently a campaign being waged by Australian Atheists encouraging people to consider their religious affiliations in depth before ticking the ‘religion’ box. I think it’s a good suggestion, yet have an uneasy feeling that more will be read into any potential increase in ‘non-religious’ numbers than statistics will provide reason for.

Perhaps one day we can hope to have an ‘atheist’ box to tick on the census paper. Until then, I’m not entirely sure what to make of such census figures other than ‘non-religious’ simply means ‘other’.

Published in: on July 25, 2011 at 3:42 pm  Comments (1)  

A response to Almost Diamonds

Normally I hate blog-to-blog discussions. I much prefer them to be kept to comment threads. However, given the length of my response and technical difficulties posting, I figure I’d simply post it here.

For a bit of backstory, the sequence of relevant blog posts can be found at Greg Laden’s Blog, my own response, and Stephanie Zvan’s ‘Almost Diamonds’ blog. There are two issues here – one is the role of multiple strategies in atheist outreach, the other being the definition and representation of subcultures within the community (namely those who believe more in accommodating diverse views/evaluating communication styles, and the others who strongly advocate the use of confrontation and ridicule).

My response is to Stephanie’s post:

I appreciate the attempt to challenge criticisms levelled against so-called confrontational New Atheists. For the most part, if I read between the lines, I think we might even agree more than disagree.

There seems to be a lot of assumptions about what ‘the other’ is saying with regards to the ‘New Atheist’ vs. ‘Accommodationist’ debate, however, leading to straw man attacks and blind assertions. I won’t exclude myself from this, as much as I find it frustrating. For example, I’ve lost count on how often I’ve been accused of claiming confrontational language, ridicule or ‘snark’ should never be used. I’ve only ever said that for any of its benefits, there’s a good chance it produces consequences which may (depending on your goal, and that of others) be undesirable, especially regarding language which attempts to demean or create emotional anxiety in a target.

If your challenges were created with me personally in mind, I can’t see how you’ve avoided misrepresentations of my position. If I take them as directed non-specifically at any atheist, they’re worth considering.

Challenge 1:Decide whether this is important to you.

Is confrontation as a tactic among atheists an issue you think needs to be addressed? Will it really change the world if you can get a few people to follow your advice? Or are you annoyed by some people who have stomped on your feelings on the blogosphere?

These aren’t frivolous questions. You’ve got work to do. They’ve got work to do. And change, as you already know, is hard. You should also know that if you do this wrong, you’re going to entrench the bad blood over this issue even further. Every little thing you (and everyone else with any kind of platform) say on the topic goes on record these days. If you don’t care enough to do this right, maybe it’s time to shut up about it, at least in public.

For me personally, this isn’t a simple matter of avoiding the risk of feelings being hurt, but a question of a community of people who pride themselves on their rational thinking being open to critically discussing tactics and methods and presenting evidence for why they believe they’ve succeeded, or at least articulating their goals.

Does confrontation need to be addressed? I think it needs to be understood objectively in context. If a person is going to justify using it, and values reason over emotion as a reason for action, they’ll need more than ad hoc reasoning, and go beyond a sense of wanting to punish people they don’t like.

I think criticisms should be met with something more reasonable than indignant hostility, which seems to be an all too common response.

Challenge 2: Know your audience.

Who are you trying to reach? Are you talking to published “New Atheist” authors? Are you talking to atheist groups that sponsor ad campaigns or social meetups? Are you talking to groups that lobby and pursue legal action? Are you talking to blog commenters? Are you talking to forum campers? Are you talking to unaffiliated atheists who just want religion to leave them alone?

These types of groups have very different goals. They have different tactics. They have different degrees of centrality and authority. They have different religious backgrounds and degrees of education. You have to take the time to understand them–ask them real questions and listen to the answers–if you want to know what language to speak and what problems you’re going to offer to help them solve.

You also have to understand that you frequently can’t address multiple groups using the same message. They’re just too different. Being an atheist only gives you so much in common with other atheists. At the same time, however, any individual atheist may belong to many of these groups. You’re never going to have the luxury of addressing just one set of concerns at a time, and you’re going to have to go to extraordinary lengths to keep from generalizing between groups based on the cross-group memberships of certain individuals.

A good criticism, and one I should well take on board. I admit my earlier post was a shout into the ether (as most blogs are) more than a well targeted response – my audience was at atheists in general, which in hindsight is a rather broad demographic.

To be honest, however, it is a goal I struggle to define clearly, should I want to specifically target confrontational NA. Where atheists are adamant that snark, criticism and confrontation are useful in changing minds and attracting attention, how does it stand that it shouldn’t be used against them? Once again, I reiterate that I don’t think snark is useless (even if it is a polarising device). I object more to intentionally demeaning or offending a target, which I have never intended to do.

By the same token, by my own admission it is a polarising force – one that makes non-confrontationalists (ironically) feel supported but irritates those who disagree. In fact, with few exceptions, I’ve personally found many of those who justify ridicule and confrontation are difficult to engage in rational discussion on the topic, deferring to childish ‘because they started it’ retorts.

So, how to progress from here? Obviously communication is always a work in progress. In response to your challenge point, I can only personally say I’m also still learning how to best engage in discussion.

Challenge 3: Learn to see privilege.

Being an atheist won’t get you killed very often. In many environments, being an atheist is entirely invisible. In some, it’s perfectly respectable. That does not put atheists on par with the religious. Unless you understand where the differences are, you will never be able to effectively address the concerns of atheists.

Read a privilege checklist or two. Understand what it means to have an area of your life that you choose to keep hidden because there are consequences of doing otherwise. Understand what it means to be watched for signs that you represent a degenerate type. Understand how much time and energy it takes to answer questions whenever you identify yourself. Understand how much it takes to run constant calculations on whether to go with the flow or upset the social order. Understand what it means to watch people take the time to decide whether they really knew you at all when you come out. Understand what it means to hear political debates on whether you’re ruining modern life.

Only once you get all that can you actually understand what you’re asking otherwise.

I admit, I am totally lost on what this has to do with the discussion at hand. I understand the notion of privilege and the role of religion as an oppressing force. I understand the resentment, the sense of injustice, and the decisions people are forced to make. Asking people to consider whether their confrontation is more about their anger than a real attempt to change the behaviours of others is not to be unsympathetic to their emotions – it’s to be critical of their application of them.

If you feel that the only way to address privilege is to ridicule it and demean those who hold it, I’d need to see evidence of it beyond assertions, as I disagree.

Challenge 4: Recognize the limits of your own expertise.

There is a fair body of cognitive science having to do with communication. It doesn’t begin to approach the complexity of real-world (meatspace and electronic) communications. There is a lot of information to be had from these studies, but this is a very new science, given the size of the topic. It can only tell us so much.

One of the things it can and has told us is that the power, privilege and out-group status of the speaker have an effect on how the speaker’s message is received. We know that whether we are trusted or even heard as speakers is often largely out of our hands. What we don’t know, what cognitive science, or at least those presenting the cognitive science, has yet to tell us despite our very real need for the information, is how to overcome this problem.

Until that happens, asking people to understand the cognitive science is reasonable. Asking people to replace current behavior is not. Confrontational tactics for minority groups may not be supported in the cognitive science literature, but neither are they shown to be worse than any other tactics for minority groups. In the presence of privilege, we simply don’t expect any communication tactic to have a high rate of success. (Legal tactics, on the other hand….)

Meanwhile, there are other disciplines that do suggest the confrontational approach has merit. The history of social movements is plastered with groups taking approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. It is also plastered with groups succeeding with approaches that make people feel uncomfortable and threatened. And frankly, familiarity with this sort of social history shows just how mild “confrontational” atheists of the current sort are by comparison.

Even if you aren’t concerned with social change directly, recognize that attacking the privilege problem directly is a communication tactic with the potential to succeed. Privilege gets in the way of effective communication. We can go around this with the appropriate tools when cognitive science gives them to us. Until then, we can do our best to go through.

This is another straw man, that cognitive science has all the answers. It doesn’t. It presents a starting place for discussion. It offers some insight into human thinking, as you’ve conceded. There are aspects which are applicable, and some which might not be. Determining which takes more than a blanket dismissal or a claim that it is all ridiculous.

I couldn’t disagree more with your claim in that how a message is received is ‘largely out of your hands’. Interestingly, this evening I was at a sci-com lecture held by somebody studying the emotional responses of audiences to instances of outreach, regarding science rather than atheism. There are no certainties, but some methods are definitely better than others in communicating within diverse contexts. If you think as a communicator you can’t sway your audience, I wonder why you’d bother even trying. I do admit, however, that I might have misunderstood your position here, so please feel free to clarify it.

Speaking personally, I don’t think I have ever told people what to do or not to do in a generalised suggestion, other than to objectively consider all the consequences of their communication, and to think critically about it. I have pointed out where I feel communication might cause undesired results, asking for clear expression of goals.

Challenge 5: Recognize others’ work and expertise.

This is the point where I tell you to drop the word “but” from your vocabulary. Atheists, even highly annoying ones (whichever set that may be for you), have made major accomplishments in the past couple of decades. Best-selling books, wide blog readerships, social mobilization for political action, communities that support out atheists and those who have left religious communities, successful events at the regional to international level, cogent social criticism, historical scholarship, increased visibility of abuses of power despite a hobbled press.

Is there crap being produced as well? Of course. Sturgeon’s Law. That doesn’t make the accomplishments I just mentioned any less real.

It also doesn’t exempt anyone from the requirement to deal with the accomplished as, at the very least, people with as much to teach as you believe they have to learn. The lessons they have to teach may well include the fact that what they do is so more difficult than it appears on the surface–requiring extraordinary timing, wordsmithery, and humor–that most people may as well not try. You’ll never learn it if your approach is to say, “Yeah, they wrote a best-selling book, but it’s only because….”

Have atheists produced communities of like-minded individuals? Definitely. I can’t say this is a bad thing. For many individuals, this might be their only goal, in which case the evidence of success is clear. If PZ Myers only ever wanted to set out to make snarky atheists feel at home in mocking stupid religious people, I can only say he’s done well.

Beyond that? We’d need to discuss the evidence.

In any case, there is often a difference between output (numbers of people you reach) and outcomes (achievement of a goal). Many rationalists make the mistake of conflating them.

Lastly, being successful in any field should not put anybody beyond criticism. I have no doubt that Dawkins is a successful writer. That’s obvious. I couldn’t say for certain what his goals are, however, as much as I could speculate.

There is also evidence of atheists coming out of the closet as a result of reading his stuff. Great. But does that mean other consequences of his writing, either specifically or in general, are beyond discussion and criticism?

Being able to point out potential flaws in a particular effort should not be a privileged position. If you don’t like being criticised (especially when criticism of others is your main discourse), maybe speaking up is a bad thing.

Challenge 6: Offer something better.

The problem of addressing religious privilege while simultaneously working around the bald fact that the religious hold most of the political power is tough. It’s ugly. Nobody who is trying to do both thinks it’s simple. Your final challenge is to deal with the real difficulty of that problem.

However, the people who are tackling that work aren’t going to be lured by a message that is, in essence, “Ignore the privilege problem in order to solve problems that require political power.” Privilege is power. Your audience knows that solving individual political problems while allowing the privilege to persist is fighting a hydra. Offering a sharper sword only makes the heads multiply faster.

However, offer the equivalent of a torch, and you’ve got something. If you want to shape how atheists communicate, figure out how to offer them something that undermines religious privilege at the same time.

No, I don’t know what that is either. All I know is that if you offer something short of that, you’re offering less than what atheists ultimately want and need, and that won’t work. That’s why you need to decide up front how important this is to you. That’s why it’s a challenge.

I feel the only way ‘something better’ will be achieved is when critical discussion is seen as a virtue that strengthens communication rather than compromises a sense of community. This means meeting criticisms with reasonable claims, discussing evidence objectively, putting effort into evaluation, and proposing changes.

Could I do any of this better myself? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s a worthless goal.

(Edited to include quotes for challenges)

Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 9:05 pm  Comments (6)  

The two species problem of New Atheism

The dove's Tarzan impression went down a treat at parties.

One claims to be friendly. There’s an asshole around somewhere. A number are accused of being militant. There is a multitude who are silent out of either fear or choice. A whole bunch like to distinguish themselves from the old variety. They can be polemical, loud, reasonable, bigoted, intellectual, philosophical, pragmatic…in fact, the only trait they all share is a lack of belief in a supernatural, personal creator of the universe.

And yet, if you were to stumble across a community of godless ones, you could be forgiven for naively thinking there were just two distinct species – Accommodationis warminfuzziness, and Newatheist confrontationist. The former are fratricidal backstabbers who are sleeping with the enemy, while the latter are brash bigots who risk making a mess of things by frightening off the customers.

Every week a blogger somewhere will point out how dangerous New Atheism is for Old Atheism. This will quickly be followed by another blogger using accommodationist as a pejorative, listing how their criticisms against fellow atheists is simply not cricket, and how they coddle those nasty Bible bashers. Each article will proceed to spawn a fetid tail of comments that gradually decay into barely coherent sentences that might be illogical if they weren’t initially illegible.

And so the conversation goes. On. And on. And on.

To what end does this occur? There’s a question worthy of a sociological PhD. What initially seems to be quite obvious quickly becomes something of a mystery.

On the surface, this maelstrom appears to ultimately be about science. Religion is antagonistic to science, you see, so to make science better, you need to do something about the religion problem. Atheism – the absence of a belief in supernatural personalities who govern nature – is the pill to cure the ill. Simple.

Science is about specific terms. About precision. A reasonable evaluation of the evidence and criticisms of beliefs and methodology. It’s a brutal ecosystem of predators where only the fittest ideas survive. Yet when one looks at the New Atheist discussion, science is the last thing that you’ll find.

So while it might well be under the guise of defending science literacy, there is the unmistakable smell of bigotry tainting much of the discussion. People aren’t just mistaken, they’re stupid or evil. Hyperbole is common place, where all religion is always bad. While individual opinions vary, a culture persists which has turned the discussion into a bloody, muddy battlefield of traded insults, fabricated facts and barely contained hostility.

Criticism is a dirty word. Evidence is dismissed for spurious reasoning, assumptions, wishful thinking and faithful claims. Definitions are vague and quickly dissolve into strawman and ‘no true Scottsman’ fallacies. In short, what we understand to be ‘New Atheism’ has all the heat and anger of science but little of the rigor or mutual respect. And it claims to be defending it.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

Science communication suffers from a lot of confounding factors in the community, of which religious faith is but one. To atheists, it’s an important one. Making ground on these problems will take good information and calm, rational thinking. If atheists feel that there is a specific problem attacking science, what better tool to solve it than the tools of science itself?

ACARA’s Bent Spoon: A cowardly end

Adam and Eve

Human evolution 101 in the new Australian Curriculum...apparently

The backstory to this article is relatively simple in concept, even if complex in detail. For the details, please feel free to browse through ACARA’s Bent Spoon 1, Part 2 and Part 3. For those who feel it’s ‘tl,dr’; at TAMOZ 2010, the Australian Skeptics ridiculed the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for their draft proposal of the National Curriculum. I could summarise their initial reasoning, however it’s best to go straight to the source nomination made by English teacher Michael Adams.

In any case, on the back of this criticism the Australian Skeptics decided to review their decision. Four months later, they’ve come to a decision – it stands.

In their review media release, they acknowledge that criticism existed;

At the time, some bloggers and commentators criticised the Skeptics for this decision, citing the draft nature of the curriculum. Others responded with approval of the Skeptics’ stance.

There were three individuals who openly voiced their criticisms via blogs. Mine was one. Deb Hodgkin’s ‘She Thought’ article was another. The third was Bruce Everett’s ‘Thinker’s Podium’ article. There were other sympathisers, however for all purposes these are the three that address the decision to present the award to ACARA in detail with an explicit opinion. There are no other blog articles – supportive or critical – that I know of. And the criticisms went far beyond any concern for whether it was a draft or not. In fact, only one blog even mentions this – in an offhand set of parentheses – as a point of contention.

That there was so little response isn’t all that surprising. For one thing, it’s my view that few people would have a strong opinion on the matter either way. Although it’s education (which typically ranks highly in the concerns of the average citizen), the mechanics of educational policy and pedagogy is a field few people can discuss with citations, experience or clear understanding. Another reason is that the award has a low profile, with little to no media coverage, therefore not many people even knew of the ‘controversial’ awarding outside of those who attended TAMOZ or read the Australian Skeptics website.

In any case, within these three blogs can be found specific criticisms of the claims made by Australian Skeptics, which reflect what is felt to be a lack of understanding of the curriculum. None have been presented. No alternative links, criticisms or views have been quoted or even paraphrased.

Before I tease apart their media release on their review, I want to make clear as to why I’ve taken the time to address something few people know or care about. I don’t for a moment think it’s had any real impact on the decisions made by ACARA (in fact, from what I do understand, few – if any – within the authority – seem to even know of the award’s existence or seem to hold much concern for the views of Australian Skeptics), nor on the implementation of the national curriculum. It was a toothless exercise.

What does concern me is that where education is the key to developing effective thinking skills, Australian Skeptics have demonstrated no understanding of the system or practice they are criticising. Far from role modeling effective evaluation of a topic, presenting facts and data, engaging relevant experts, and directly addressing criticisms, they’ve arrogantly chosen to engage in ridicule without substance and avoid addressing the actual criticisms of their decision.

The media release states that the reviewers requested to remain anonymous. I have no desire to know who they are specifically, as it’s irrelevant. However in order to validate if they have experience which lends confidence to their contributions, their qualifications and relevant history would go far.

Australian Skeptics have chosen to make this decision public. If a media article supported a spurious claim by citing reference to ‘a number of experts’, I wonder how many of these skeptics would feel satisfied that it was so? Yet here, it’s acceptable.

Their justification starts with,

both in their appraisals and in the curriculum content that there is some confusion between a ‘syllabus’ and a ‘curriculum. The draft document is a curriculum that has the role of delineating topics to cover and basic premises inherent in those topics. As such, the draft fails on several fronts.

In general terms, a syllabus is the course material that is to be taught by a school, such as the actual content and assessment items required in order for it to qualify as a board subject. On the other hand, the curriculum informs this by way of providing a cohesive structure.

The claim that a national curriculum is supposed to delineate ‘topics to cover and basic premises inherent in those topics’, is overly simplistic to the point of risking being wrong. Since it forms a core reason for their award, it pays to examine this against a more involved explanation of what a curriculum does, as the difference makes it clear why their claim is without merit.

ACARA describes a national curriculum as per the following;

The Australian Curriculum sets out what all young Australians are to be taught, and the expected quality of that learning as they progress through schooling. At the same time, it provides flexibility for teachers and schools to build on student learning and interest.

In a nutshell, it’s not just the content, but the expected quality of it presented in a way that allows teachers as professionals to apply it with an appreciation of their students’ diversity. It is not a ‘delineation’ of content into topics, so much as a collection of skills, values and contexts that insinuate and suggest ‘what’ to teach so children across the country are all at the same level of understanding.

For some points, specific content will be secondary. It won’t matter if a child from Queensland has read ‘Animal Farm’ while a child from Tasmania hasn’t (but who has covered ‘1984’ in detail), for instance, so long as they’re each capable of critically evaluating a narrative, or discussing the importance of effective governance.

In other cases, content is important. The periodic table of elements is vital for understanding chemistry in later years of science, so is included in the curriculum in year 9.

There is always going to be some overlap between a syllabus and a curriculum, as the syllabus extends the curriculum by way of providing a practical schema. A good explanation of the difference can be found here. So, to state there is ‘confusion’ between the two after boldly misrepresenting the national curriculum’s aims doesn’t bode well for our alleged experts.

Nonetheless, moving on…

The claim is further expanded upon by stating;

For example, evolution is mentioned for the first time in courses for Year 10, which is the final year covered by the curriculum. We consider that this fundamental concept is intrinsic to studies in prior years, and therefore should have been raised much earlier.

On one hand, they’re claiming that there is ‘confusion’ on the fact that the national curriculum is being presented in some ways as a syllabus, only to have them wish evolution was explicitly raised earlier. The fact of the matter is that aspects important to understanding evolution are common throughout the curriculum. What isn’t present is the word ‘evolution’, as that topic specifically covers some complicated material that relies on that prior knowledge. For it to be more explicit, it would start to represent a syllabus by describing the content in greater contextual detail.

For example, in year 5 biology students are required to understand ‘Living things have structural features and adaptations that help them to survive in their environment‘. Adaptation is defined as a ‘physical or behavioural characteristic which is inherited and which result in an individual being more likely to survive and reproduce in an environment’.

No, evolution is not mentioned as a phenomenon here. Evolution is more than adaptation, and explaining this is not the role of a curriculum document, but at best a resource or (on the outside) a syllabus. Yet adaptation is necessary in understanding how evolution works, hence this particular topic breakdown is important within the structure.

Going further,

There are many missed opportunities to explain how science works and address scientific method. Frequent imprecision increases the risk of the teaching of science being contaminated with pseudoscience.

I can find a large number of statements such as ‘Suggest improvements to the methods used to investigate a question or solve a problem’ (Year 5, Science Inquiry Skills) which makes me wonder if they’ve even read the same document as me. Could there be more shoved in? Possibly, however one of the concerns of teachers is the amount of material required to be covered in a school year, which led to a revision that caused substantial cuts (including, ironically, a mention of Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace whose alleged ‘omission’ initially formed a significant focus of the original award nomination) to lighten the curriculum.

It is presented as a major concern by critics that Australian Skeptics were criticising a ‘draft document’. Perhaps some did. I didn’t. Deb didn’t. Bruce mentioned it once in brackets, admittedly. I was more concerned that there was no suggestion of their engaging in the review process beyond an exercise of ridicule.

We acknowledge this observation, but point out that a draft curriculum is an important position statement on course development and content, and even at that stage is presumably not without considered and considerable input.

If the Australian Skeptics were so adamant that the draft is an ‘important position statement’ and that it required ‘considered and considerable input’, why didn’t they do just this? Why use mockery, when involvement in the actual consultation would have been far more productive?

In summary, the review substantiated the original decision using the same vague, unsupported justifications;

Overall, the reviews substantiated our own assessment that the draft curriculum was weak. A curriculum should set minimum standards, but this draft created too many openings for less able teachers to make errors or to introduce pseudoscientific concepts as proven; there were too many missed opportunities to establish correct methodology; and there were not enough mentions of important tenets of science, including scientific method and evolution.

After detailed expert review, we have concluded that the 2010 Bent Spoon award to ACARA was justified and should stand.

Far from demonstrating an understanding of how the education system works, they refer to nameless ‘experts’ while presenting a simplistic view of what they’re criticising. And rather that present the criticisms clearly and plainly, they’ve chosen to generalise and evade.

There is little more than can be said on the topic as it draws to a close. Australian Skeptics – or, to be fair, a small but significant representative panel of this community – have chosen to distance themselves from the politics of our education system rather than engage with it. It is a unfortunate act of short sightedness on their behalf, yet one I can only be grateful for since this embarrassing behaviour sadly represents their view of what constitutes good critical thinking on matters that they are emotionally attached to.

Published in: on April 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm  Comments (9)