Intentions, intentions. Don’t let anyone have any cause for suspicion that you might have the slightest bit of sympathy for intelligent design or creationism, or you are not allowed to make critical remarks on anything. To be portrayed as a sympathizer you don’t need to make any actual statements on either subject… if you raise questions on any topic which might possibly be construed as having possible creationist overtones, any subject they’ve ever considered supported their claims, you will be immediately suspect and your arguments are in danger of being perforce invalidated.
At least, half of the establishement seems to be run that way.
There is an interesting exchange in this month’s Journal of Chemical Education. Last July Wiliam Howard wrote an article on critical analysis in the chemistry classroom; entitled The Relationship between Balancing Reactions and Reaction Lifetimes: A Consideration of the Potassium–Argon Radiometric Method for Dating Minerals , it described how one might use an analysis of potassium-argon dating, a subject with the potential for generating a fair bit of student interest, to teach critical thinking in science and how to be good chemists.
Science educators share a common objective: to familiarize students with critical thinking. An instructor may select a topic of current interest from the scientific literature or from the popular media and ask students to write critical essays concerning some aspect of this topic. For instance, students may criticize bond stretch isomerism (1), gallium–gallium triple bonds (2), the nature of carbon compounds in an alleged Martian meteorite found in Antarctica (3), or some other fun and controversial topic. Participation in such projects allows students to practice the scientific method firsthand. The students must gather facts concerning what is known, intelligently criticize published explanations of the facts, create imaginative and alternative explanations, and formulate experiments that could potentially falsify the explanations. Such an experience is a very important part of a thorough education in science.
This was too much for Karen Bartlett of Eureka University, and she wrote an angry letter in response. William Howard was trying to create confusion, clutter scientific thinking with red herrings, bring in nonsense criteria and false analogies . Her scathing review finishes: "The Journal of Chemical Education should pull this article from its Web site. You goofed."
The reviewers disagree. Richard Fireston, of
I may have been naïve about Howard’s intentions, and I agree with her concerns about intelligent design, but this paper must be considered on its merits, not on perceived intentions. The Howard paper should be credited for teaching students to be critical in their analysis of data . . . It is not the job of the Journal of Chemical Education to create a litmus test for what papers might or might not have hidden intelligent design meanings
Reed Howald of Montana State University writes along the same vein:
Karen Bartelt’s letter is not a fair evaluation of the William A. Howard paper. There are educational advantages of getting students involved in the scientific analysis of even controversial topics like the potassium–argon method of dating minerals.
And in Howard’s own response, he clarifies something that has been brought up here:
Radiometric dating is a well-established field of science, but this fact should not be used to intimidate someone from asking questions. Scientific knowledge advances only when well-established practices are questioned, and questioning radiometric dating is the responsibility of all professional scientists everywhere.
When teaching chemistry, I introduce my students to a number of theories, such as Atomic Theory, Quantum Theory, Valence Bond Theory, Molecular Orbital Theory, Crystal Field Theory, and more! These theories are well-established and supported by a great deal of experimental evidence. Nevertheless, I encourage my students to question the experimental support and to think of new experiments that could potentially falsify the theories. This activity is extremely important for producing first rate scientists. The students are well aware that these theories are not “controversial”, and that we question these ideas simply as an intellectual exercise.
I guess the crucial question… does the possiblity that something is not perhaps brute fact, that it may perhaps be questioned, have such a great probability of hopelessly confusing our poor undeveloped brains that we shouldn’t be allowed to entertain the possiblity? Is an attempt such as Howards to teach "skeptical chemists" too prone to produce students so muddleheaded we can’t think at all? Is teaching us all science as "fact" really the only way to deal with such issues? Note that the discussion here was college classes, not highschool.