Thursday, December 8, 2016

We Only Have Education to Guide Us: A Pledge

The glaciers of Glacier National Park, which once numbered more than a hundred, will be gone by 2030 or so.

The recent election has seen the loss of many things, which in terms of science and scientific understanding is truly tragic. The nation didn't vote for it, but representatives of ignorance and unrestrained capitalism managed to eke out an electoral college victory, and now a parade of political appointments are making a mockery of our commitment to clean air, clean water, and responsible stewardship of the land. Decisions about the future of our nation are now in the hands of people who are guided not by science, but by the profit motives of corporations. First and foremost is the abject denial by those who are about to take office in the reality of global warming and climate change.
Corals of the Great Barrier Reef are dying off at an appalling rate because of abnormally warm seas.

In so many ways I despair. But there is always hope, and I will not back off my commitment to the teaching of science and logic in my career.  Those now in power fear an educated electorate, because they used fear and ignorance to gain the power they will now yield. This must not continue.
Intense drought, a predicted aspect of global warming, has killed more than 100 million trees in California, including on the floor of iconic Yosemite Valley

I've been looking for the appropriate words to employ at this moment, and I found them in the Anti-authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct of Rachel Barney, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto. They appear below, only slightly edited (because I'm not an administrator). These statements have always been a part of my educational and academic philosophy, but it's good to have a reminder of what we stand for. Consider this a pledge between me and my students, and with society at large.

1. I will not aid in the registering, rounding up or internment of students and colleagues on the basis of their religious beliefs.

2. I will not aid in the marginalization, exclusion or deportation of my undocumented students and colleagues.

3. I will, as my capacities allow, discourage and defend against the bullying and harassment of vulnerable students and colleagues targeted for important aspects of their identity (such as race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.).
4. I will not aid government or law enforcement in activities which violate the U.S. Constitution or other U.S. law.
5. I will not aid in government surveillance. I will not inform.
6. As a teacher and researcher, I will not be bought or intimidated. I will present the state of research in my field accurately, whether or not it is what the government wants to hear. I will challenge others when they lie.
7. I will not be shy about my commitment to academic values: truth, objectivity, free inquiry and rational debate. I will challenge others when they engage in behavior contrary to these values.

8. I will stand with my colleagues at other institutions, and defend their rights and freedoms.
9. I will be fair and unbiased in the classroom, in grading and in all my dealings with all my students, including those who disagree with me politically.


Chris Reeve said...

I agree with much of what you've said. I want to add some important concerns with regards to the way we teach scientific controversies ...

Why not teach students how to actually think like a scientist by having them engage actual ongoing scientific controversies?

Climate change is hardly the only one, and information on these controversies remains dispersed and unorganized. We need people to participate in bringing the details together, so that others need not spend years doing the research themselves.

What we know from the history of science is that some of these controversies will become known as mistakes in textbook theory. On the other side of those debates -- when the experts are wrong -- is a new set of innovations.

Let's teach controversies as a topic, so that students can learn their patterns and formulate a tacit sense for these debates.

Let's present students with the best critiques of science ever written, in order to spur two thoughts where there was formerly one, and in order to teach students science's biggest weaknesses, so that they stand a chance of reforming academia where it has gone astray.

The future is full of possibilities and things which have not been tried.

When science becomes contested, let's teach students to think like a scientist instead of teaching them to think what scientists think. Scientists don't lead with conclusions, and neither should students. Students who are taught to lead from conclusions will extend that anti-pattern to other controversial subjects, eventually stifling creative problem-solving and innovation in the sciences. We have to teach students how to clearly think about scientific controversies -- not to simply defer to authority, lest we create an information cascade where each person is simply looking to what their elders before them believed.

Follow me as I build out the world's first controversies of science curriculum ...

Controversies of Science

When a theory becomes contested, we should look to the constructivist educational approach to teach it.

Garry Hayes said...

A fair point. I teach about such controversies whenever I can, and that is how science is "supposed" to work. The problem with climate change is that the deniers are not arguing from a scientific point of view, but from a political point of view, one that is supported by those who stand to lose profits if they have to accept responsibility for their role in trashing our planet. Teaching the "controversy" of climate change is like teaching the controversy of the flat earth. I do of course acknowledge the presence of a political controversy, but not of the validity of their arguments, which are lacking in scientific credibility.