Saturday, October 29, 2005

Protecting the meaning

Science, by its nature, is an activity that has communication built into it. It's a big world, so scientists need to split up the job of figuring out what's going on with it, and they need to report their findings back to the team. Moreover, the sharing of information between scientists is a way for the individual scientist to be sure what she's observing is a real phenomenon rather than an equipment malfunction or a figment of her imagination. And, of course, scientists pass on information to non-scientists, whether practical information ("Hey, you might want to cook that at a higher temperature if you want to eat it and not get violently ill.") or more esoteric information ("Here are the cool things we could learn by accelerating particles and smashing them into each other; can we have some money?)

A perennial source of frustration for scientists who go to the trouble of telling lay people what they've found is that lay people manage to misunderstand the scientists so frequently. Certain science journalists have been known to make the problem worse by quoting scientists out of context or by playing "balanced reporting" games that don't accurately reflect the center of gravity of scientific opinion. In some ways, this seems like a risk inherent in any kind of communication: whatever you say (or write) can be misinterpreted by someone. Short of spending all your time trying to straighten out the folks who are confused or just not sharing any information in the first place, what are you going to do?

If you're the National Academy of Sciences or the National Science Teachers Association, you're going to do something that makes Dr. Free-Ride very, very proud.

You see, NAS and NSTA have published science education standards. They went to great lengths to make them good, and to put them into words that communicate clearly what students ought to understand about what science knows and how science knows it. In writing and publishing these standards, these organizations clearly hoped that they would be put to use in designing quality science classes.

They did not hope that their standards would be taken and modified in such a way as to remove or alter key parts of what NAS and NSTA were trying to communicate about scientific methodology and scientific knowledge. According to NAS and NSTA, that's precisely what happened when the Kansas State Board of Education took the two sets of standards and substantially altered them to create the state's science education standards. And, rather than let the Kansas State Board of Education misuse and misrepresent these carefully crafted standards, NAS and NSTA have decided to withhold copyright permission.

To really grasp the righteousness of this decision, it's worth looking at a chunk of the Kansas Science Education Standards, and the NAS response to it. I've taken both from the NAS review of the Kansas Science Education Standards, 14 pages of downloadable shock and awe.

First, from the statement on the deveopment of the Kansas standards:
The 1998-2001 science standards committee was able to build upon and benefited from a great deal of prior work done on a national level; the National Science Education Standards published by the National Research Council; Benchmarks for Science Literacy from Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); and Pathways to the Science Standards, published by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA). This allowed the foundation for the Kansas Science Education Standards (2001) to be based on research and on the work of over 18,000 scientists, science educators, teachers, school administrators and parents across the country that produced national standards as well as the school district teams and thousands of individuals who contributed to the benchmarks.

Now, the response of Barbara Schaal and Jay Labov, the NAS reviewers:
This statement suggests that the Kansas Standards are based in large part on these three documents from the NRC, AAAS, and NSTA. However, all three documents are clear about the central role of evolution to the life and physical sciences. Because of the changes that a minority of members of the Kansas State Board of Education made to those state standards in removing aspects of biological and physical evolution and related topics, all three organizations denied copyright permission to the Kansas Board in 1999 (see When the composition of the State Board of Education changed in 2000 and these areas of science were returned to the Kansas Science Standards, our three organizations jointly issued a statement praising this action of the Board (see

In other words: If you're going to put together standards that fundamentally mislead about the state of scientific knowledge and the proper methodology of science, you'll have to do it without trying to anchor your standards in the authority of NAS and NSTA.

And indeed, it is clear, from the point-by-point analysis presented in the 14 page review of the standards, that this is exactly what the Kansas State Board of Education was trying to do. Download it, read it, and marvel.

No one is stopping the folks in Kansas from crafting their own science education standards. But to craft standards slipped carefully into the published standards of NAS and NSTA indicates that they thought the authority of NAS and NSTA on matters scientific was important. Indeed, in order to protect that very authority, NAS and NSTA essentially called shenanigans on the Kansas State Board of Education. And that's a use of copyrights I can really get behind.

(Hat tip to Jack Krebs at Panda's Thumb, whose post brought this matter to my attention.)

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