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Wells’s Promiscuously Incorrect Guide as High-Stakes Test for science education

September 15, 2006 by Tony Whitson · No Comments · blog, Evolution, Standards & Testing

first, a little fun with Wells’s title, and then to the point of this post:

The title: Wells’s book is part of Regnery’s series of “Politically Incorrect Guides” to whatever hot-button topics will sell product to their right-wing readership.

The book is getting thorough critical review on the Panda’s Thumb.

A number reviewers and commenters have noted that the book’s incorrectness is not only political–it is also incorrect scientifically, historically, legally, factually, logically, and just about any other way you might want to consider. Some have taken to referring to the book as Wells’s “Simply Incorrect Guide”; and others have come up with different titles to express how thoroughly the book is wrong in all respects.

In my own search for an appropriate re-titling of the book, I have considered:

  • Persistently Incorrect Guide,
  • Pervasively Incorrect Guide,
  • Perversely Incorrect Guide,
  • Perniciously Incorrect Guide,
  • Profusely Incorrect Guide, etc.

(I did want to keep the PIG initials, to maintain consistency with how others are referring to it.)

The alternative that I’ve settled on is “The Promiscuously Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.” I think it best reflects both the frequency and the reckless irresponsibility of the inaccuracies.

Now, to the substantive point: It seems to me that Wells’s PIG could perform a positive service, one that I have not seen discussed heretofore. Educators are always concerned to find ways to assess the effectiveness of their curricula. It seems to me that this PIG provides a test — a “high stakes” test, indeed — of science education for the general public. If non-scientists with high school diplomas are unable to see pervasive and profound errors and inaccuracies in this PIG, that can be used as evidence that science education for non-scientists in our schools has failed to accomplish the goals of “scientific literacy” or “science for all Americans” (cf. AAAS – Project 2061). This can provide a focus for reworking science education within general education (i.e., for non-specialists) so that high school graduates would pass the test (a test for science education, more than for the graduates as individuals) of having learned to understand the nature of science well enough that they could not be taken in by something like this PIG.

Of course, non-scientists (like myself) would still depend on specialists like the Panda’s Thumb contributors to explain errors that can be recognized only with specific knowledge that non-specialized lay people would have no reason to know. The lay person who has a solid general education in science will often still need help from specialists to see through the Gish Gallop, as explained on PT by Richard Hoppe:

Like all creationists, Wells stuffs his screed with false claims (a tactic immortalized as the Gish Gallop, each claim expressed in a sentence but requiring paragraphs to rebut).

But the Wells PIG also is replete with errors and inaccuracies that the generally-educated high school graduate should be able to see, simply on the basis of understanding the nature of science, without the need for help from specialists. Please note: I am not predicting, here, what I would currently expect from high school graduates. Rather, I am proposing that we could take advantage of this PIG by using it to think about the kind of understanding that our science curriculum should be designed to achieve among our graduates, and to test how well we do in that regard.

We can differentiate between, say, beta-type errors and inaccuracies, that would not be apparent to readers without specialized knowledge, versus alpha-type errors and inaccuracies, which any high school graduate should be able to spot. To give just one example of an alpha-type error:

Owen and Agassiz did comparative biology, yet they rejected Darwin’s theory. … So comparative biology, like most other fields in biology, owes nothing to Darwinism. (79)

Wells uses statements such as this as supposedly disproving the position of Dobzhansky (1973) and others who say that nothing in modern biology makes sense without evolutionary theory. The senses in which that point should be understood might call for some elaboration by the specialists (see Matt Brauer, for example), but the logical fallacy and implicit factual inaccuracy of Wells’s claim about Agassiz and modern comparative biology are things that lay readers, with an adequate high-school science education, should be able to spot without such help.

What do you think?

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