Monday, October 17, 2005

Students as a vulnerable population.

I just read Pat Shipman's article in the latest issue of American Scientist, in which Shipman cautions scientists not to be complacent about the Intelligent Design vs. Evolution brouhaha. Shipman makes a case that many scientists have made (especially in the blogosphere), but a few piece of this article really jumped out at me. The thing that connects them is the idea that children are being put at risk.

Speaking about the Dover case, Shipman lays out the standard reasons to take Intelligent Design as "scientifically unimportant," but then notes:
I might have settled back into complacency had I not learned that students in the public high school in my town—a town dominated by a major university—can "opt out" of learning about evolution if their parents send a letter to the school. Allowing students to "opt out" of learning the basic facts and theories of biology is about as wise as allowing them to "opt out" of algebra or English: It constitutes malfeasance.

Even if parents don't ask that Billy and Susie be excused from learning about evolution, they might not get to learn about it:
In at least 40 states, ID is being considered as an addition to the required science curriculum in public schools. This year a poll by the National Science Teachers Association showed that one-third of science teachers feel pressured to include ID, creationism or other "nonscientific alternatives" in their science classrooms. Some teachers are so intimidated by the threat of parental complaints that they skip material dealing with evolution in their classes.

In other words, what's on the menu in science class is being shaped in a significant way by public opinion rather than, say, by sound principles of science pedagogy. If there were a public backlash against the Law of Sines, would it be proper for Trigonometry teachers to drop it quietly from the curriculum? (Given current rates of "non-standard" punctuation among the general population, should grammar texts be consigned to the flames and graders wielding red pens be told to take a flying leap?)

Also in this article, Shipman brings up the case of Bryan Leonard, doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University. You'll probably recall that Leonard's Ph.D. defense was put on hold (by his advisor) because his committee wasn't properly constituted according to university policy, given that it lacked a faculty member with expertise in science education. This wouldn't have been news, except that Leonard testified as an expert witness at the evolution hearing held by the Kansas Board of Education. Leonard, a high school teacher, apparently wrote his dissertation on the research question:

When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time? What empirical, cognitive and/or social factors influence students' beliefs?

One might quibble with the precise wording of the question (especially given that the consensus view among biologists is that there aren't any scientific data that challenge macroevolution). Setting that aside, there is an interesting question here about what makes a scientific theory believable to a high school student. Knowing the answer to a question like this might have all sorts of useful implications for efforts to improve science education. But, if how you get at the answer is by "teaching" kids something that isn't science as if it were science, then again we're talking about actions that constitute malfeasance. As put by three OSU professors in a letter to the dean of the graduate school (quoted by Shipman):
There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice that we regard as unethical.

And, the professors asked the logical question: where was the IRB in this research involving human subjects?

Here's what the government has to say about research with children:
The issue of children as research subjects is a complex one since they are not considered able to make informed choices independently. Further, exposure of children, particularly healthy children, to more than minimal risks must be weighed carefully.

When including children in research, the role of the family should be considered in devising the protocol as well as in obtaining informed consent from the parents or guardians. If the research is based in schools, appropriate involvement and permission must be obtained from the school. Adequate measures must be developed to protect children's privacy and to ensure that their participation does not stigmatize them in the present or future.

The key question here is what the risks are to children who participate in the research, and how these compare to the potential benefits to the subject of participation.

One risk, it seems, it that the students could get an utterly misleading view of what science knows, and, more importantly, of how science works. Potentially, this could interfere with the students' ability to learn in subsequent science courses. (It might also discourage these students from pursuing further coursework in science.) Bad preparation in science could have a direct effect on the courses of study available to the college-bound students, and could impare the ability of the students to develop a sufficiently good understanding of scientific reasoning not to fall prey to all manner of quacks and charlatans (go ask Orac -- Orac knows). These outcomes are all too common given the current baseline of high school science education. It seems clear that the risks would be much greater if science education was actually designed to mislead in the service of answering Mr. Leonard's research question.

(Besides, in the rare cases when deception is part of an approved research protocol, afterwards the subjects are supposed to be told that they have been deceived, as well as why the deception was necessary to answer the research question. Did Mr. Leonard's research protocol do this?)

The overarching question here is what secondary education is supposed to do for (and to) the children who receive it, and whether certain ways of delivering it (including ID, leaving out evolution, misleading about the state of scientific knowledge or about the process of reasoning that produces that knowledge) undercut those aims. This is an important question to answer given that children are a vulnerable population. Their ability to make informed choices independently is not yet fully developed, and indeed education is supposed to help them develop this ability. Screwing around with this puts childrens' long-term well being at risk.

It might be objected that the parents should actually be the ones with the primary, or sole, responsibility for helping their children develop the ability to make informed choices independently. Unfortunately, some parents may not be able to do this, and others may actually view it as contrary to their own interests to make independent thinkers of their kids. (Certain teenagers make this view understandable.) Given that we have public schools (for a little while more, anyway), this seems to reflect a commitment to the idea that there are certain things children ought to learn, not only because it is good for them, but also because it is good for society as a whole. We owe the children a certain basic education, and we're better off as a society if they all get it. Similarly, we owe children certain basic kinds of protection regardless of what their parents might think about it. Is "excusing" your child from learning about evolutionary theory on the basis of religious objections ethically equivalent to denying your child a live-saving blood transfusion on the basis of religious objections? Perhaps not. But, I'm not sure it's as different as some science-semi-literate parents think it is.

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At 2:54 PM, Blogger seadragon said...

Wow. Many things to think about here, but I am most compelled to comment on Leonard's dissertation. It amazes me that his research would have gotten so far, and I know I'm not alone in this. How is it possible than an advisor for a science education project can be anything other than a science educator? Bizarre and amazing...

As you mention, the IRB is an important consideration here. If the high school students involved were under 18 (as most are), you normally have to get not only student but also parent permission. It seems unlikely that so many parents would consent to participate; though perhaps Mr. Leonard teaches at a private school that would embrace such a thing. The only other alternative is that he did not fully disclose the nature of the study, which adds another level to the lack of ethics involved. The whole thing is very disturbing, and your discussion of the potential impacts on developing adolescent minds makes it even more so.

Unfortunately, I live in a bubble of like-minded people when it comes to this debate. It's hard for me to understand those scientists and science educators who are proponents of ID. Every time I try to understand what's going on, I become more confused and (lets face it) rather irate. The solution can only be reasoned discussion and debate, but all of those I've seen involve little more than repeated cliches.

Science education has its work cut out for it.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Anna said...

It was always so. Students have always been being one of the most vulnerable population categories. Winstrol


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