February 05, 2006

It's Just a Theory

Last night the science wing and the reason driven political wing of the blogshere (Chris Mooney, John Lynch, DarkSyde, World O'Crap, Sean Carroll, Tim F., Phil Plait, Amygdala, John in DC, Altrios, Mark Kleiman, PZ Myers, Mike the Mad Biologist) lit up with righteous indignation over a report in the New York Times by Andrew C. Revkin that told of an email from a 24-year-old presidential appointee, George Deutsch, to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students instructing him to add the word "theory" after every occurrence of the expression "big-bang." The email reportedly included this less than astute observation,

It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator. . . . This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.

So, I thought I would try to find the piece on the NASA website. And I think I did. It is called Einstein and Beyond and is written for grades 5-8. The piece was put on NASA's website on January 1, 2005. It also talks about the big bang (theory). In fact, it mentions "big bang" five times and "big-bang theory" twice.

More disturbing then the two occasions of "big-bang theory" was this,

Scientists think that the universe is almost 14 billion years old. There are different theories for how the universe began. The big-bang theory says that it began when a tiny but dense mass of energy exploded.

I don't suppose I'd think twice about it if it weren't for the Deutsch email but in the context of that email the second of these three sentences is of concern. It's easy to over reach, and if the article said, "There are a few alternate scientific theories for how the universe began," I might just be OK. But what alternate scientific theories there may be are minority theories at best and there is no reason to bother 5th to 8th graders with them.

Posted by DuaneSmith at February 5, 2006 09:53 AM | Read more on Science - General |

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Comments

Hey, dude? I really don't know who the hell you are, but your logic..is pathetic.



I could spout off some definitions of how a theory must be replicable, etc. But there are several problems with this approach:

1) It probably wouldn't communicate my point to you. You seem very self-involved, and you'd probably cast disdain on whatever I proffered.
2) I can find a definition to support whatever point I'd like to make. For any given point, there is at least one dude with a Phd. that has written a paper to support said point.

3) Your arguments, being purely emotion-driven, are best defeated with Pure Logic.

Saying that the Big Bang is the only "real" theory (that explains the origin of the universe) is as unto saying it is the only theory (that explains the origin of the universe) at all.



That said: who decides what is a "minor theory" and what is a "major theory"? Who decides what theories are Good Enough to be Seriously Considered? You? The scientific community?



Now, I'm not a "creationist". Yes, I believe in evolution. I am not a "jesus nut". But for your own sake, to blatantly disregard alternate theories as "minor", and not worth naming..is a discredit to yourself, not to the persons who you name.



With these statements in mind, I beseech you that you cast aside your self-oriented dialoge. You are the one who looks like an idiot.



PS: Threatening to ban people only works if they care about your site, and it would utterly destroy the lives of said persons if the content of their site was denied to them.



PSS: I can get a new IP in twenty keystrokes. Ban me. Delete my comment. Or, email me your rebuttal.

Posted by: DarthFredd at February 6, 2006 09:08 AM

Hey DarthFredd,

You are correct that this post was more of a rant than an exercise in logic, but let me make this as simply as I can. The big bang theory is the overwhelmingly dominant theory in modern cosmology. All other scientific theories are in one way or another reactions to it. To understand those reactions requires an understanding of mathematics that is well beyond the ability of all but a very few middle schoolers. For this reason, it is of pedagogical importance to stay with the mainstream theory until students develop the tools to understand the alternatives.

Of course, one can find a PhD that will support almost any position that there is to support. That is way lay people need to either withhold opinion or align their positions with the consensus of scholars who actually study the subject at hand.

I'm not sure where you got the idea that I might ban you. Your remarks are well within the acceptable limits outlined in my comment policy. I did delete the duplicate comment but that is more a site management issue than anything else. You are correct that IP banning doesn't work, so that is only one of the tools I use if I decide to ban someone.

Posted by: Duane at February 6, 2006 10:01 AM

That said: who decides what is a "minor theory" and what is a "major theory"? Who decides what theories are Good Enough to be Seriously Considered? You? The scientific community?

Posted by: rationalist at February 6, 2006 12:23 PM

Hmmm -- I'll try that again:

The scientific community decides. That is how science works, by submitting assertions derived via the scientific method to peer review.

It has worked pretty well thus far--you should check it out sometime.

Posted by: rationalist at February 6, 2006 12:25 PM

Duane,

I guess I have to say that I disagree with you on that one. Sure, the Big Bang is the main theory at this point, but it is still only a theory, and who knows what it will be in 20, 50 or 100 years? furthermore, and more importantly, I don't believe that we should "hide" the fact that there are other theories to school kids. Quite the opposite, kids learning science should be made aware from the start that scientific theories are not cast in stone, and that it is the essence of scientific work to challenge the established theories. To me, this is more important than learning the theories themselves.

Being a scientist myself (Ph.D. in physics), I began to have fun with science when I started my graduate studies, and did my own experiments. All the stuff I learned before was in fact really boring, because it sounded so old and rigid. But finding new stuff, however insignificant it may be, boy that's the real thrill of a scientist's life.

So my view of science education is a bit of a heresy I guess. If I had to teach the Big Bang to young kids, I would start asking them: "How do YOU think the Universe began?", and then ask them "How would you prove your theory?". You could gather the various answers and then present known results and explain how they agree or not with their various theories. At the end of this, it would come to the fact that the Big Bang is the best theory SO FAR.

I think the same of evolution. Not that ID is an interesting theory to discuss. But I just had a chat with my 18 year old daughter about it the other day, and she was convinced that Lamarckism must be how it works. She didn't say it like that, because she didn't know what Lamarck said. She was just convinced that if you spend your life in the water, you'll grow fins, and your children will have them. And that's great! Because it can be proven wrong! So teaching about evolution should start by looking at alternate ways of explaining it, and explain how most of these alternate explanations don't stand the test of experiments or observations. As for ID, it is NOT science, because it can't be proven wrong (as per Popper). That's an important fact that young kids should learn early: what it is that makes science what it is. From the start (going back to Hippocrates), science was a refusal to accept supernatural explanations.

Learning the mechanics and philosophy of science should be done early, instead of feeding the kids with formulas and theories. That way, we wouldn't end up with stupid debates like ID vs evolution.

Sorry for the long post!

Kanzi

P.S. I hope you've not been reading my blog lately. I just haven't had the time to post, being busy looking for a job... Now it seems that I'll get one, so it's back to work for poor old Kanzi. But I have a long post on the origin of language that is still awaiting completion. I've also been busy reading on climate science, another fascinating debate...

Posted by: Kanzi at February 10, 2006 03:54 PM

Kanzi,

At least at one level I am more sympathetic to your position than my post on this topic might have implied. I agree with your pedagogical observation,

If I had to teach the Big Bang to young kids, I would start asking them: "How do YOU think the Universe began?", and then ask them "How would you prove your theory?". You could gather the various answers and then present known results and explain how they agree or not with their various theories. At the end of this, it would come to the fact that the Big Bang is the best theory SO FAR.

But note you do say, "If I had to teach the Big Bang. . . "Would lead the kids from their naive views, by the introduction of evidence and argument, to Big Bang cosmology. You would not lead them to a steady state theory or a Biblical cosmology for example. In fact you, yourself would not suggest these as alternatives unless you wanted to put the whole thing in some historical perspective. At least that is what I think you are saying. Your point about ID seems to me to be along the same lines.

I am concerned with the use of the word "theory" in your comment. Because you are a scientist, you likely understand the word theory in a more rigorous sense than the way it is used in popular conversation. My concern is that when some people use the word "theory" they mean it in a popular way as something between a pure guess and a reasoned hypothesis. The way the word is used by most scientists is well outside of this range.

My concern was with the teacher (or NASA) introducing ideas that do not rise to the level of scientific theory or even implying that there are such things, particularly when many non-scientific "theories" are motivated in dogma rather than evidence.

I hope this helps you understand my position.

I do miss your blog. My French needs a lot of work.

I'm glad to hear you have a job. Congratulations.

Posted by: Duane at February 10, 2006 09:21 PM

Duane,

You and I agree. But my point is just what you said: "when some people use the word "theory" they mean it in a popular way as something between a pure guess and a reasoned hypothesis. The way the word is used by most scientists is well outside of this range. "

See: the "popular" view of what a theory is is very different from the "scientist" view, and my point is that science education, starting very early, should be about teaching the kids what a "theory" really is, and not about teaching them that science is "the truth".

In the ID debate, the message propagated by ID proponents is that all theories are equal. But they're not. Some are definitely better at explaining observations than other. Which does not mean they are "true"! Newton's theory is very good at explaining a lot of observations. Is it "true"? In a sense, yes, but in another sense, no. Yet we teach it in high school. One could then argue that we should start with general relativity, but I think we would lack competent teachers!...

So what I am concerned about in the ID debate is the argument by pro-evolution that evolution is "true". The same with the Big Bang. Nobody was there, so we don't know if it's really true. As I said, it's probably the best theory so far, and that's what we should emphasize, not that it is the true theory.

When science presents itself to the general public as the holder of the truth, no wonder it has problems when it's pitted against religious beliefs, that also claim to be the truth! Science should be the domain of the skeptics, those who are always willing to question their own theories. When challenged, scientists should not reply by "our theory is true!", but by "what's YOUR theory, and how is is better than ours?".

Anyway, in this instance of the big bang, the teacher who would introduce another "theory" would be right to do so, but would be wrong to teach the kids that they are "equivalent". If you want to be fair, as those religious nuts claim we should be, then the teachers should present ALL theories, however dumb they are. That doesn't make any sense. So it's all right to focus on the big bang theory, but not, in my opinion, at the expense of hiding the fact that it IS just a theory.

Posted by: Kanzi at February 12, 2006 09:40 AM

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