In defense of science and Kentucky's new standards

By Roger Guffey

As a scientist, I am excited about Kentucky's new standards for science education and flabbergasted that anyone could take umbrage with them. After reviewing the standards and the objections raised against them, I realized the fundamental problem.

The naysayers cannot separate their religious and political ideologies from science. The major objections are the teaching of evolution and climate change. Of all the standards, these are the only ones that are intimately related to humans and their activities. Opponents of the new standards believe that, as products of special creation, we humans are not subject to the laws of nature and can do with the Earth what we want because God gave us permission.

Opponents are also throwing out red herrings by criticizing the standards as weak on science facts. Just because a topic is not specifically listed in the standards does not mean it won't be taught. Chemistry classes will still teach balancing equations, physics classes will still teach Ohm's Law and all science classes will still teach the scientific method and theory.

Scientific literacy today encompasses much more than a recitation of terms and facts. We live in an age of information where anyone can access a host of facts on the Internet; what is needed is the ability to synthesize and assimilate these facts to reveal knowledge. Learning what osmosis is means little unless you can apply that knowledge to explain countercurrent exchange in the operation of the vertebrate kidney.

Science classes will continue to teach facts under these standards, but will also require students to delve deeper into understanding unifying principles. Science is about explaining how and strives to refrain from making value statements.

Consider that the value of the elements in a human body is about $5. Even looked at in terms of organs for transplants, the total value might run into the thousands of dollars, although most people would agree that the value of a life is much greater than the value of those organs. The value we place on our fellow humans is rooted in the religious and philosophical values we possess, and those belief systems lie completely outside the realm of scientific inquiry.

Science deals with facts and theories that can be tested, retested and denied or verified through repeated observations. The fundamental flaw of treating creationism as science is that it cannot be denied, verified or repeated. Therefore, it is ludicrous to try to use a non-scientific entity to explain the how of existing phenomena, which is all science can do. The choice to believe in a creator is a personal one that has no place in scientific inquiry.

The mere acquisition of facts is not useful in and of itself. Understanding the biological world requires an acceptance of evolutionary theory. For example, a successful farmer knows it is pointless to fertilize strawberry plants because that only encourages the plant to increase its asexual reproduction of runners. If nutrient levels of the soil were low, the plant would respond by producing more seed-bearing fruits to disperse its genes to new, more favorable environments. Understanding the evolution of the strawberry's reproductive strategy will save a lot of fertilizer.

The over-arching constants in biology that drive evolution are reproduction and competition. Any environmental factor that influences either of these will have long-term consequences. Whether or not the climate-change deniers accept the theory of climate change does not change the fact that we are seeing drastic changes in the distribution, reproduction, mortality rates and behaviors of plants and animals. Using the principle of Occam's Razor, the simplest explanation for all of these changes is climatic change.

In a country where people watch television shows that purport to find mermaids, Bigfoot and ghosts, far too many people are ignorant of science and its methods.

A searcher seeking purpose or validation of his or her life will not find it in a science book. The only real meaning to our lives is that which we give them, and that meaning must be found in our hearts and minds rather than in a test tube.