Thursday, August 26, 2010

The 48 Percent Part 1

I am not a professional, credentialed, scientist – I am just a guy with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Science (IS) with an emphasis on science communication and the public understanding of science. I do consider myself a serious amateur and in that context, I do what I can to be, in Carl Sagan’s memorable phrase, “a candle in the dark,” a voice for reason in our “demon-haunted world.” I deliberately switched majors to IS from Electrical Engineering because I was so deeply concerned about the lack of appreciation and understanding of what science and critical thinking are, even among very bright students in engineering programs.

My undergraduate thesis involved a planned NSF-funded “Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory.”[1] The State of South Dakota, and especially the Governor’s office, made a big deal about how much the planned laboratory could do for science education and attracting high-tech jobsthose involving Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM for short)to the state. My thesis looked that these hopes in light of the realities “on the ground,” considering the fact that South Dakota is very conservativeboth politically and religiously. The seed of this research was planted by an incident involving the local YMCA. Rather than “reinventing the wheel”, I will quote from my final paper:

‘Part of the impetus for this Capstone project came from the opening of The Arts and Science Center at the Rapid City YMCA (YMCA ASC) in 2005. Initially, staff at the YMCA hoped to get students and faculty from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSM&T) in Rapid City involved and the SDSM&T student Paleontology Club was especially enthused about the Center as they were to have a room showcasing dinosaurs. When plans for the room were discussed though, it turned out that the room was to consist of little more than colorful murals showing dinosaurs and people, together. As it was, a conservative, home-schooling, Christian mother was a primary financial benefactor of the Center and refused to have anything showing dinosaurs (or people) in their proper geological and evolutionary context. The student Paleontology Club refused to have anything to do with such an intellectually dishonest enterprise and the faculty of SDSM&T likewise has had nothing to do with the Arts and "Science" Center since this issue came to light. From first hand experience, this author also notes that the YMCA ASC also has an astronomy, or “outer space,” room that is completely devoid of any hint of the scale, in both time and space, of the cosmos.”

My research and writing unfolded over an 18-month period. The first task was to convince my readers that there was indeed a problem, so I looked at comparisons between the
United States and other first world nations in science literacy and academic achievement and as one might surmise, the United States did not fare well. My research also looked at Math and Science Partnerships (MSPs) which are, as the name suggests, joint ventures between k-12 schools, federal and university laboratories, and industry, aimed at creating the workforce the United States will need to compete and prosper in a 21st century world. Not surprisingly, the intended metric for the success of such endeavors was through standardized tests.

It was never my intent to answer specific questions, but to pose them. This was the approach that Daniel Dennett took in
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.[2] Asking my reader’s indulgence (hopefully) one last time, I will quote the final paragraph from my paper:

To truly prosper, as a free society and as individuals, it is not enough to merely do well on standardized tests. What is needed are citizens that do not fall for the idea that vaccines cause autism, that do not spend millions, if not billions, of their precious health-care dollars on homeopathic remedies that do not work, and parents that are not so certain of the “power of prayer” as an efficacious treatment for disease that they refuse conventional (i.e. double-blind tested and verified) medical treatment for their sick child. It is quite possible to believe all the things above, and still do well on standardized tests or write sophisticated software for a modern computer. This research, while in no sense conclusive, will hopefully encourage these important issues to be examined in the development of ongoing “Education and Outreach” strategies surrounding the Sanford Lab, and hopefully, the NSF’s DUSEL.

As my research drew to a close, I was bothered by some nagging questions. In my research, I made a point of discussing the probable relevance of the “Five Factor Model” of personality in describing what personality variables may go into fostering “scientific habits of mind.”
[3] The personality traits included in the FFM are:

· Openness to Experience: curious, creative, non-dogmatic
· Conscientiousness: self-disciplined, seeking to avoid error
· Extroversion: outgoing, assertive
· Agreeableness: generous, easygoing
· Neuroticism: anxious, critical of self and others

These traits are not binary qualities, like whether or not a male is circumcised, but are a continuum like height or weight (okay, maybe not weight so much, what with the epidemic of obesity). While the applicability of the FFM to understanding what goes into creating “scientific habits of mind” seems obvious, none of the literature I found gave even a hint of how these traits might be distributed in any population. This is unlike the robust empirical and statistical data showing the distribution of intelligence (or IQ) in a given population. This seems like a good place to stop for now and also a makes a nice segue for the next installment.

[1] "Sanford Laboratory at Homestake". South Dakota Science and Technology Authority. Last modified date not given. 25 August, 2010.< .

[2] To the best of my recollection, I was not intentionally aping Dennett because while I was aware of his book and knew something of what it was about, being a poor student and having purchased Richard Dawkins The God Delusion in hardback, I had to wait until the paperback version of Breaking the Spell came out. By time I could afford to by Dennett’s important book, I had already settled on my research questions and goals for that research.

[3] Shermer, Michael. The Borderlands of Science: Where Sense Meets Nonsense. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.