Associated Press: Many Americans skeptical about evolution, human contribution to global warming (OK, so this barely qualifies as news…but still…)

Released by the Associated Press yesterday.  I’m a teetotaler, but perhaps you want to get a beer or a glass of wine before reading this, even if there aren’t any surprises here.  The main document is here.

It just seemed like the right time to put this in the blog.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths get further from our own experiences and the present time, an Associated Press-GfK poll found.

Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

Rather than quizzing scientific knowledge, the survey asked people to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.

On some, there’s broad acceptance. Just 4 percent doubt that smoking causes cancer, 6 percent question whether mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain and 8 percent are skeptical there’s a genetic code inside our cells. More — 15 percent — have doubts about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines.

About 4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection, though most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority — 51 percent — questions the Big Bang theory.

Those results depress and upset some of America’s top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, who vouched for the science in the statements tested, calling them settled scientific facts.

“Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts,” said 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley.

The poll highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

And scientists know they’ve got the shakiest leg in the triangle.

To the public “most often values and beliefs trump science” when they conflict, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Political values were closely tied to views on science in the poll, with Democrats more apt than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change.

Religious values are similarly important.

Confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises, according to the poll. Likewise, those who regularly attend religious services or are evangelical Christians express much greater doubts about scientific concepts they may see as contradictory to their faith.

“When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can’t argue against faith,” said 2012 Nobel Prize winning biochemistry professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University. “It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable.”

But evolution, the age of the Earth and the Big Bang are all compatible with God, except to Bible literalists, said Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine. And Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and an evangelical Christian, agreed, adding: “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1, and there is much profound biblical scholarship to demonstrate this.”

Beyond religious belief, views on science may be tied to what we see with our own eyes. The closer an issue is to our bodies and the less complicated, the easier it is for people to believe, said John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and historian of technology at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Marsha Brooks, a 59-year-old nanny who lives in Washington, D.C., said she’s certain smoking causes cancer because she saw her mother, aunts and uncles, all smokers, die of cancer. But when it comes to the universe beginning with a Big Bang or the Earth being about 4.5 billion years old, she has doubts. She explained: “It could be a lack of knowledge. It seems so far” away.

Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect from Bridgewater, N.J., pointed to a warm 2012 without a winter and said, “I feel the change. There must be a reason.” But when it came to Earth’s beginnings 4.5 billion years ago, he has doubts simply because “I wasn’t there.”

Experience and faith aren’t the only things affecting people’s views on science. Duke University’s Lefkowitz sees “the force of concerted campaigns to discredit scientific fact” as a more striking factor, citing significant interest groups — political, business and religious — campaigning against scientific truths on vaccines, climate change and evolution.

Yale’s Leiserowitz agreed but noted sometimes science wins out even against well-financed and loud opposition, as with smoking.

Widespread belief that smoking causes cancer “has come about because of very public, very focused public health campaigns,” AAAS’s Leshner said. A former acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Leshner said he was encouraged by the public’s acceptance that mental illness is a brain disease, something few believed 25 years ago, before just such a campaign.

That gives Leiserowitz hope for a greater public acceptance of climate change, but he fears it may be too late to do anything about it.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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Tax credit scholarship expansion bill reemerges in the Florida Senate: So much for science

The tax credit scholarship expansion has reemerged in the Senate though an amendment to SB 1512, which has now been adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Everything science education advocates need to know about this amendment is contained in this language in lines 17-20:

The purpose of this section is not to prescribe the standards or curriculum for private schools.  A private school retains the authority to determine its own standards and curriculum.  

If the changes to the tax credit scholarship program specified in this amendment are approved by the full Legislature and signed into law by Governor Scott, science will not be allowed to intrude in the program.  That’s too bad.


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Picking my way through the contradictions: Science and Florida’s tax credit scholarship program

A line from an op-ed in Saturday’s Gainesville Sun written by Alachua County School Board member Eileen Roy (and brought my attention via a tweet from Florida Citizens for Science Communications Director Brandon Haught) has stopped me dead in my tracks:

Teaching children that science is corrupt is no way to equip them for the modern world and will cause them and society future harm.

Not that science is perfect.  Any human endeavor is subject to the imperfections in human nature.  But using scientific evidence to draw conclusions about the laws of nature has been and continues to be foundational to society’s technological and economic progress.

But that wasn’t what stopped me.  What has me in a bit of a spin is that this argument was used to oppose the expansion of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, in which some of the participating schools are run by religious organizations that reject scientific conclusions about nature on doctrinal grounds.

It is beyond debate that some of the students attending these schools are doing so because their parents do not want them exposed to the scientific consensus on evolution and cosmology.  Certainly some of the parents who can afford to pay tuition at schools like North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee are paying so that their children can avoid the instruction on evolution and cosmology offered (admittedly imperfectly) in Leon County’s public schools.

How many of the 60,000 students using tax credit scholarships in 2013-2014 are attending their schools specifically to avoid being exposed to the scientific consensus on evolution and cosmology?  It is at least difficult and perhaps impossible to say.  But here is a vexing question:  If parents of means can steer their children to North Florida Christian School to avoid instruction on evolution and cosmology that is based on Florida’s science standards, should the State of Florida provide less affluent students such an opportunity, too?

This isn’t to say that all children being served by the tax credit scholarship program are in the program because their parents do not want them being taught about evolution and cosmology.  I know from personal experience that some of the schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program have exemplary science instruction – notably Catholic schools.  And many or most of the students in the tax credit scholarship program are participating to escape schools that are generally doing a poor job in instruction or to escape a personal situation in a public school that makes learning untenable there.

And this is where I depart from Eileen Roy’s argument that the tax credit scholarship program should be terminated simply because it is public money going to private schools.  If you think all school choice is bad simply because it diverts money from traditional public schools, give yourself a chance to read the story in The Atlantic on Tuscaloosa’s Central High School.  Alabama does not have a charter school program nor a tax credit scholarship program.  The kids in Central High are stuck there without choices, and that is very bad.

Nevertheless, I am stuck on the link between the tax credit scholarship program and the insistence by some parents that their children not be exposed to the teaching of science as a field based entirely on experimental evidence untouched by doctrinal considerations.  After all, on the day that Florida’s science standards were approved by the State Board of Education in 2008, we were warned by evolution education opponent and President of the Florida Family Policy Council John Stemberger of an “exodus from public schools”.

Advocates for the expansion of the tax credit scholarship program presently being debated in the Florida Legislature should attend to the fact that the science education argument keeps cropping up.  A certain segment of the electorate – me, for example – would actually support the expansion if only tax credit scholarship schools would agree to accept the same accommodation that traditional public schools and charter schools adopt in towns and cities where religious objections to evolution and cosmology are widespread.  In those schools, teachers acknowledge their students’ religious beliefs and make a deal with these students and their parents:  The teachers will not attempt to tear down their students’ religious beliefs as long as the students agree to learn about the scientific consensus on evolution and cosmology.

In practice, the way we know this accommodation is in place in the traditional public and charter schools is through Florida’s statewide testing program, which includes general science tests in 5th and 8th grades based on the science standards the state adopted in 2008 and an end-of-course exam for the state’s standard high school biology course.

And here is where the discussion once again makes contact with the debate in the Florida Legislature.  The expansion of the tax credit scholarship program would have sailed through the Republican-dominated legislature except for one rather large personality – Senate President Don Gaetz.  He has said unequivocally that he would support the proposed expansion of the program if the schools participating in the program would adopt Florida’s standardized testing program – including the science tests – so that parents can compare tax credit scholarship schools with charter schools and traditional public schools based on academic performance data.  Tax credit scholarship advocates have remained stubbornly opposed to Gaetz’s proposal, and any day now their intransigence will sink the expansion proposal for the year.

Accepting the Gaetz proposal will not make Eileen Roy happy, but it will make me and (more to the point) President Gaetz happy.  My advice to the tax credit scholarship advocates:  Take the deal.  Declare victory.  And maybe some of your students will be a little better equipped to participate in the technological economy they will be entering once their schooling days are over.


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Florida education leaders should keep in mind that science and math are indispensible in preparing leaders

A survey of Fortune 500 CEO’s conducted by the executive search firm Spencer Stuart and published in 2008 showed that the most common bachelor’s degree major among this elite group was engineering.  The 22% of CEO’s that held an engineering degree led two majors that most people would expect to top the list, economics (16%) and business administration (13%).  Accounting (9%) and the general category of liberal arts (6%) were farther behind.

The importance of scientific and technological expertise for 21st century leadership shouldn’t be a surprise.  That is why it is a shame that the science and math that are at the core of technological progress are being crowded out of Florida’s educational agenda.

The implementation of the Common Core, which sets basic levels of education in English language arts and math, is an important and noble task.  However, it has distracted Florida’s policy-makers from the task of developing leaders for our state’s economy from among our own students.

For example, the focus on the Common Core has driven the fact that Florida’s science standards need some serious work from the minds of policy-makers.

The state’s educational leaders rightly brag about the broad-based success our state’s high school students have in Advanced Placement courses in English, social sciences and Spanish, where Florida is among the nation’s leaders.  Yet, in the Advanced Placement calculus and science classes that prepare students for college majors in engineering and science the state is only average.

When Florida’s high school graduating class of 2014 receives its diplomas in May and June, some of the graduates will be designated “scholars” on the basis of requirements set by the Legislature in 2013 and signed into law by Governor Scott.  But even this effort to encourage higher achievement levels is terribly watered down in science and math.  The mathematics requirements for the scholar designation are Algebra 2 and “one credit in statistics or an equally rigorous course”.  By not requiring a year of calculus or even precalculus, the scholar math requirement falls far short of what is necessary to prepare for college majors in engineering or other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.  The science requirements for the scholar diploma designation are similarly flawed.

Florida’s economy needs home-grown leadership, and the state’s students deserve the opportunity to compete for these leadership roles.  Our students will only have these opportunities if our state is willing to look beyond the Common Core to provide our students with the science and math they need to excel.

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Will you be teaching AP Physics 1 next school year? (Or did you teach your Honors Physics class as AP Physics 1 this year?) If so, shoot me an e-mail to let me know.

Those of you who have been following my blog for years will not be surprised to learn I am up to my neck in AP Physics 1 and 2 stuff.  No, I don’t teach it – I’m a university professor.  But I’m trying to compile as much information as I can about the status of the AP Physics 1 and 2 project.  I am trying to monitor adoption at colleges and universities through my roles at the American Physical Society.  I’m also trying to find out who is teaching AP Physics 1 and 2 in the fall in Florida.  One teacher who has already been in touch with me did as the College Board recommended and turned this year’s Honors Physics classes into AP Physics 1 classes so that her students could take AP Physics 2 next year and both exams (1 and 2) in May of 2015.

The Florida Department of Education has to consider whether AP Physics 1 and 2 should be awarded credit for the two-semester algebra-based physics sequence at the state’s public colleges and universities, and it has not yet done so.  I’ll keep you posted on progress there.

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What invisible looks like: Science literacy and the science and engineering pipeline disappear from the state’s educational agenda

It was sort of funny, actually.  Yesterday, State Impact Florida proclaimed the passing of the FCAT, complete with an illustration of a gravestone.  I responded to their tweet advertising their post by pointing out that their statement was incorrect, that in fact the Science FCAT, which is given to 5th and 8th graders, is scheduled to continue indefinitely.  I had a little fun, comparing the Science FCAT to zombies and – later in the day – sending a tweet that included a link to the Monty Python “I’m not dead yet” skit.  Eventually State Impact Florida acknowledged that indeed the Science FCAT would continue on, and they were kind enough to attribute the correction to me.

Meanwhile, the national education news outlet Real Clear Education picked up the State Impact Florida FCAT death notice, but never corrected it.  It just didn’t seem important enough, I suppose.

The neglect of science education news is hardly surprising, given the disappearance of science literacy and the science and engineering pipeline from Florida’s education agenda.    The focus on Common Core standards in math and English language arts and the new AIR Florida assessments (or is it AIR Utah?) has driven the fact that Florida’s science standards need some serious attention from everybody’s minds.  The hot new STEM field is computer programming, which is an important technological tool for students to learn but is not science and not math (despite national efforts to replace science and math requirements for high school graduation with programming courses).  Florida’s revised school grading scheme, which eliminates bonus points for students who take multiple AP courses, will remove an incentive for schools to properly serve their top quartile students, as did the suspension of class size limits for advanced high school courses several years ago.  The state’s “scholar” high school diploma option remains terribly underpowered in science and math.  You can still earn a scholar diploma without taking precalculus or physics, a situation that makes no sense in our new technological society.

Even the new AP physics courses, which may be the single most important tool we can implement to improve the science and engineering pipeline in Florida’s schools, fell into a black hole for a year.  This left parents, students, teachers and administrators wondering if Florida’s colleges and universities would even grant useful credits for the courses or whether they would fall into the same never-never land that AP Environmental Science occupies.  Florida is a leader in involving more students in AP courses, as long as they aren’t calculus or science courses.

As far as science literacy and the science and engineering pipeline go, it doesn’t matter that there are 17 days left in the legislative session.  For all practical purposes, the session was over a long time ago.

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The rollout of AP Physics 1 and 2: Many leading universities embracing new courses

Responses from 35 postsecondary institutions to an inquiry by a unit of the American Physical Society show that many leading universities are planning to award credit to students who score well on the new algebra-based AP Physics courses.

AP Physics B, the AP program’s present algebra-based course, is being taught for the last time during the present academic year.  Next year, exams will be offered for the new courses, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2, which are each intended to cover about half the content covered by the present AP Physics B course.  Most postsecondary institutions awarded credit for the entire two-semester algebra-based physics sequence for a passing score on the AP Physics B course.  In contrast, AP Physics 1 is intended to result in credit only for the first semester algebra-based course, while AP Physics 2 would provide college credit for only the second semester algebra-based course.

The “breaking up” of AP Physics B into two courses has allowed the developers of the new courses to add topics such as rotational dynamics to the syllabus.

Postsecondary institutions must run the new courses through an approval process for college credit that hasn’t been necessary for previous revisions of AP science courses.  While revisions of AP Biology and AP Chemistry have been rolled out during the last few years, the course titles have remained the same and previous credit-granting policies for those courses were unchanged.

Postsecondary institutions responded to an e-mailed inquiry sent by the APS Forum on Education to its members.  The institutions responding covered a range from elite to community college.

The results as of April 10:

Credit for both semesters of algebra-based physics for scores of 5:  Notre Dame, Purdue

Credit for both semesters of algebra-based physics for scores of 4 or 5:  Brigham Young University, Colgate University, Portland State University, Randolph College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, Sarah Lawrence College, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Credit for both semesters of algebra-based physics for scores of 3, 4 or 5:  Colorado State University, Ohio public university system (including Ohio University and Ohio State University), Roosevelt University, University of Arkansas

Credit for first semester of algebra-based physics with score of 4 or 5:  Davidson College

Will not award credit:  Hudson Valley Community College

Do not offer algebra-based physics and therefore will not offer credit for Physics 1 and 2:  Amherst College, Colorado School of Mines, Georgia Tech, Goshen College, University of California-Santa Clara, Wabash College

No decision yet:  Auburn University, Baylor University, Cal State System,  Florida public colleges and universities, Emory University, James Madison University, Lafayette College, Northern New Mexico College, Oral Roberts University, Tufts University, University of Colorado, University of Hartford

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