“Censoring” Science

NOTE: While at first this may not appear to be directly related to the purpose of this blog, once you read it you will see why I think it is.

On Tuesday, 1/24/17, I noticed an increase in tweets from several of the people I follow on twitter. These tweets were all focused on attempts to what I call the “censoring” of science over the last few days. There are probably hundreds of articles available on the internet addressing this problem. Some of the ones that I found most helpful are herehere, here, here, and here.

As you see in the above links, there are a few problems. *Disclaimer: Things are changing so fast that this list could very well be outdated by the time I publish this post. But I can always change it.

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Employees were told to stop issuing press releases, blog updates, or social media posts. Additionally, the Trump administration imposed a freeze on all grants and contracts, with one person referring to this as being in a “holding pattern.” Now there are reports that the EPA website will be cleaned up. An earlier report indicated that the climate science section on the EPA website was to be completely removed. There is some confusion on this at the moment, but considering how drastically the climate change section was changed on the White House website (it’s gone) and Trump’s past comments about climate change, this is definitely a concern. See here and here for responses to some of Trump’s past comments on climate change. Update, 1/25/17, 5:45 pm EST: According to recent reports, academic papers will have to undergo review by political appointees (i.e. not scientists, as in, not the typical peer review process).
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): Scientists and other employees working at the USDA research facility, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), were told to stop publicly sharing things like “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content” early Tuesday morning. Thankfully, this gag order was rescinded later in the day.
  • National Park Service (NPS): Several tweets from the twitter account of Badlands National Park in South Dakota were deleted because they referenced climate change. This is what started everything for me because messages were flying all over the place encouraging supporters to take screen shots of the tweets and to re-tweet them. An interesting development today is the introduction of an unofficial twitter account to continue tweeting about science. Definitely check it out.

One other thing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) responded to these developments yesterday afternoon.

Now, to be fair, some have claimed that all of this has been done just because it is a time of transition between the Obama administration and the Trump administration. And things like this have happened before during previous transitions. If that’s the case, one may ask why is everyone freaking out?

It is abundantly clear that Trump’s views on climate change and science in general are anti-science. Several of his cabinet picks have a history of attacking science, especially his pick to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has a troubling history with the EPA and his views on climate change are also troubling.

I am not interested in debating the science of climate change or the consensus about climate change. All I will say is that the scientific community’s current understanding of climate change indicates that humans are causing global warming. The consensus on this is overwhelming (between 90% and 100% depending on which study you read with most reporting 97% agreement). If you want to know more, Skeptical Science is a fantastic resource if you want to learn more. RealClimate is another valuable resource. So is the Climate Change Indicators report from the EPA.

One thing I will say about the discussion over climate change is that I think people should really think about what it means to say “climate change is a hoax.” Think about what it would take to make that possible. You’re talking about a scientific field that has been around since the early to mid 1800s. A scientific field that has probably been studied by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of scientists in that time. For this to actually work, pretty much all of those people would have had to come to a secret agreement to lie to the world for 150-200 years. Now, how likely is that?

My Take

These current efforts to undermine the integrity of science are very troubling to me. I’ve talked at length with my wife, friends, and colleagues about these efforts. Personally, I believe that what is currently happening is an attack on our foundation as a society. Additionally, these efforts will not help us as a society. They will not help “make America great again.” The world is using more and more renewable energy. This is a fact. If you look at what the Trump administration says about energy, you will notice that there is no reference to renewable energy. Yet, a majority of Americans want to pursue renewable energy. My question then is how will increasing the focus on drilling for energy resources and lessening the focus on renewable resources make us great? My concern is that as the rest of the world continues to explore renewable energy, our influence in the future of this field will diminish. The new technologies could most likely come from other countries. How is that making America great?

I’m concerned that this ban on communication is just the beginning. I’m worried that if the scientific community continues to feel threatened by the Trump administration and their allies, they may leave the US. If that does happen, our role in the global scientific community will be greatly diminished. That’s troubling to me. It should be troubling to everyone. If you think this is a good idea, just take a look at the device you are reading this on. That device wouldn’t exist without science.

Science is not a belief system. Science is based on evidence. The Trump administration and their supporters can declare they “don’t believe” in climate change all day, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. If the Trump administration and their allies try to censor what is shared with the public, they will do more harm than good. If they think that stopping scientists who work in the United States will stop this field of study, they are very much mistaken. Climate change science is pursued by scientists all over the world from many countries. Simply censoring scientists in our country will not stop the scientific community as a whole.

What Can You Do

First, follow different groups on twitter who promote science (look at the groups linked above in different places). Others to consider are Scientists’ March on Washington and Indivisible Guide. The latter was developed by former progressive congressional staffers. So if you don’t like that it is political, then don’t follow it. But I can tell you that the suggestions they have are good no matter your political views. Second, call your elected officials. Don’t email them, call them. Go here to get their info. It really does make a difference (see here). Third, remember that our elected officials work for us. That’s important. I remind myself of that simply because I truly believe that as a US citizen part of my responsibility is to hold elected officials accountable. Now think what would happen if everyone who cared about science did that. Finally, while looking for information for this post, I found something really interesting: a political action committee was recently launched to help scientists get elected. Check it out!

Latest research on Science and Religion-ASTE 2017 Presentation

Mark and I are about to present some of our research that we conducted on my students a few semesters ago at the ASTE 2017 conference in Des Moines, IA. The conference is 1/12/17 to 1/14/17. A working draft of the paper can be found at Academia and ResearchGate. I’m pretty sure both of those places are free. I made it possible for anyone to give us feedback on the paper at Academia. It is currently in review at one of the science education journals and I’m hopeful it will be accepted for publication. But, I wanted to address some things here first. My goal is to share our research with the general public, so pass on this post so we can get it out.

This research project, titled Recognizing Science from Non-Science: Preservice Elementary Teachers’ Perspectives on Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design (ID), was an exploratory study. We weren’t necessarily interested in students’ views on evolution, creationism, and ID (although now we do kinda wish we had used one of the current protocols available to measure this). Our interest was on what students would do if they were presented with a hypothetical scenario.

Let me provide some context. This study was done with preservice elementary teachers in my elementary science methods class. The class focused on teaching science. Several topics related to teaching science were addressed throughout the semester. Additionally, I included several lessons/activities that focused on the scientific endeavor.

Now for the scenario. It was entitled “Science in the Public Schools – School Board Scenario.” The activity was designed by the us and was intended to assess the students’ conceptions of science and then to challenge them to use their definition of science to justify the inclusion or exclusion of creationism and ID into the public schools’ science curriculum. The scenario proposed that the local school board is considering a motion to alter the science curriculum by introducing creationism and ID to the unit on biological evolution and the students will be offering their informed recommendations. Students were directed to first provide their own definition of science. Before soliciting their opinions regarding this issue, a general explanation of evolution, creationism, and ID was provided. They were then asked to write down their opinions of each (using their own definition of science to justify their position) and to draft a mock letter to the school board to provide their final recommendations.

The results were really interesting, at least to us. First, here is a graph showing their decision.

figure-1

Note each person was categorized for this graph based on their decision to teach or not teach creationism and/or ID. The five categories are: yes to creationism/yes to ID, yes to creationism/no t0 ID, no to creationism/yes to ID, no to creationism/no to ID, and only mention them (but not explicitly teach). The largest group was the No/No group (42.1%), followed by the Yes/Yes group (34.2%), then only creationism (11.8%), only ID (7.9%), and just mention (3.9%).

This isn’t the interesting part. The interesting part is their reasons for their decisions. Now, it should be noted that this paper is the first of two, probably three papers out of this data. I won’t get into everything here. I hope you will read the paper and let us know what you think. Start with the results and discussion if the lit review stuff doesn’t interest you. I like knowing what others have learned based on their research, but that may not interest you. I’ve gone on long enough, so I’ll sign off for now. I’ll dig into their reasons on the next post.

Addressing Climate Change in a Church Setting

In the fall of 2015, Father Kevin Brown and I co-taught a series of classes on science and faith that addressed climate change. Kevin Brown is the rector at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter, an episcopal church in Charlotte, NC. This was the second series of classes we have taught on science and faith. In the fall of 2014, we focused on evolution. When we started this blog I referred to these classes in my first blog post. Of course, life happens and I stopped focusing on the blog. I hope to change this in the future.

What I want to talk about in this post is the class I taught with Kevin on climate change. I plan to address how the Episcopal Church addresses climate change in a later post, so stay tuned. Note that I won’t plan to go into too much detail here as I have a lot to say already. Here is a general overview of what we did:

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New Pew Research Center survey on religion and science

The Pew Research Center released a new survey today on religion and science. The subtitle reads “Highly religious Americans are less likely than others to see conflict between faith and science.” That definitely intrigued me, so I had to read more. I encourage anyone interested in the area of science and religion to read the report. Here are a few key points that really stood out for me.

1. The first graphic really got me thinking. Here’s what they said in their analysis:

People’s sense that there generally is a conflict between religion and science seems to have less to do with their own religious beliefs than it does with their perceptions of other people’s beliefs. Less than one-third of Americans polled in the new survey (30%) say their personal religious beliefs conflict with science, while fully two-thirds (68%) say there is no conflict between their own beliefs and science.

Most Americans Say Science and Religion Conflict, But Fewer Say Their Own Beliefs Conflict With Science

This is really interesting. So while the majority of people in the survey believe that science and religion are often in conflict, less than a third said science conflicts with their own beliefs. Clearly a perception issue. People hear from others or read articles arguing that there has to be a conflict, yet they don’t think science conflicts with their own beliefs.

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Science, Religion, and the Classroom

On Thursday, June 11, 2015, I was interviewed for the Live Wire, UNC Charlotte’s online news program about my work with science, religion, and the classrooms. I primarily discussed some of the work I did while in Louisiana associated with evolution, but this gives a nice overview of what we are currently facing when it comes to Academic Freedom legislation. There are some really good readings available on the history of the anti-evolution movement. Most of the resources that I can think of at the moment require a subscription to the journal. Here are a few:

  • Matzke, N. (2010). The evolution of creationist movements. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 3, 145-162. (NOTE: This journal is now open access. Go here.)
  • Binns, I. C. (2013). Academic freedom legislation: The latest effort to undermine the integrity of science and science education. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 24, 589-595.

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Science or Faith: You Don’t Have to Choose

“It won’t matter. You won’t be able to make a difference.” This was said to me by one of my colleagues when I was a faculty member at Louisiana State University in spring of 2011. We had just discussed my efforts to stop proposed legislation (HB 580) at the Louisiana State Legislature that would have drastically changed the textbook adoption process for K-12 textbooks; namely, it would have replaced the state board’s power to “prescribe and adopt” textbooks and instructional materials with the power merely to “recommend” and it would have allowed local school boards to adopt and purchase textbooks and other materials that were not on the state list with no spending limits. This legislation was proposed because of a failed attempt in fall of 2010 to stop the adoption of biology textbooks. Nevertheless, I was determined to move forward with my efforts. I was the only person to testify against the proposed legislation in the House and Senate Education Committees. The bill sailed through both committees and the full House, but was stalled in the full Senate and died with the official adjournment of the Louisiana legislature on June 23, 2011. Go here if you want to know more about these efforts and read an article I wrote about them here. If I had listened to my LSU colleague or paid attention to comments in the newspaper, I would have just given up. Yet, I believed that it was too important for me to just give up.

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Why we started this

We are Ian Binns and Mark Bloom. We have worked together for several years on various research projects but always found ourselves discussing the intersection between science and faith. Recently I suggested to Mark that we should start this blog as a way to be more involved in the world outside of academia. We both recognize the importance of academic research, but we also recognize that we want our work to have a broader impact than the academic world.

I anticipate that we will delve more into our interests in future posts. I want to end this with a link to the conference that Mark and I attended along with some other friends on Friday, March 13th. We attended the Perceptions Project conference and met some really incredible people. We hope that this will be the start of some fruitful relationships and collaborations.

That’s all for now.