New science standards hold up against fear, propaganda

July 22, 2013 

Joseph P. Straley is the Provost's Distinguished Service Professor in physics and astronomy at the University of Kentucky.

  • At issue: July 5 commentary by Martin Cothran, "New science standards overdo focus on climate change"

Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation objects to the new Kentucky science standards, because they fail to mention a bunch of words and scientists, and because they lack "narrative." This involves a misunderstanding of what science is and does.

Science isn't about people. The personal histories of Einstein, Curie, Pasteur, Koch and Turing are not the subject of science; it is their ideas which advanced science. Scientists' names get attached to theories just as a convenience; the theory of evolution isn't about Darwin. The science courses we teach at the University of Kentucky are organized around the logic of the ideas, not the historical sequence.

Science isn't a vocabulary list. It's a technique for learning how the world works, so that we may apply that knowledge.

The science standards are not a comprehensive list of what is to be taught. Rather, they identify endpoints in understanding that we hope our students will reach. This understanding includes not just concepts, but knowing how science is done. The standards expect our teachers to fill in the many steps that are needed to lead their students to substantial competency.

The "narratives" of science are how a particular set of observations can be explained by the theories that have been developed. At various times in history, scientists have proposed that the Earth orbits the sun, that plate tectonics explains the history of the Earth, that there was a "big bang" that is the origin of the universe we observe and that the proliferation of life on Earth is the consequence of evolution.

Initially these were controversial, but they have proved to be the best narratives for explaining what we observe.

According to the global-warming theory, our energy technology is having an irreversible effect on the Earth's climate. Teaching about this theory is an excellent way to show how science works, precisely because it is a developing theory that not everyone believes. It gives the teacher a context in which to discuss physics, biology, geology, earth science and technology.

Finally, it has important implications: If the global-warming scenario is correct, your children will see consequences of our present energy policies. We should get beyond denying it could happen to discussing how we might respond to its possibility. The first step is to learn the scientific bases for the theory.

The climate-change theory plays a role in the new science standards because it is relevant.

Joseph P. Straley is the Provost's Distinguished Service Professor in physics and astronomy at the University of Kentucky.

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