Evolution & Dawkins – the Greatest Show on Earth

I’m embarrassed at how late to the party I am with this, but PZ Myers has a great review of Richard Dawkin’s new book on what I’m going to take to calling the Fact of Evolution.

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Have a read here.


Access to health services should be a right

To anyone outside the US it is apparent that the provision of adequate, affordable health care is a muddied and confusing political issue. A recent study should be a wake-up call for opponents of government involvement in the assurance of this service. In short, access to health care is a moral, not political, issue.

The Johns Hopkins Childrens Hospital claims that 17000 children have died in the US within the last 20 years because their families were unable to afford adequate private health insurance. Further, sociodemographic trends predict the likelihood of a child dying; people in economically depressed areas need help.

Surely sanity needs to prevail? If the poorest people in a community can’t afford access to health care, then a secular government must intervene. How can you oppose a system of gauranteed universal health care and still claim to be an ethical citizen?


From the department of the ‘Bleedin’ Obvious’ …

Apparently, you can’t just throw computers at kids and expect them to learn better! Who would have thought??! Amazing!

Surely this isn’t news? Yet here we have C|Net reporting on a major technology conference, Future in Review 2008, where educators (again, of course, who else?) are identified as the ones failing kids… Blah blah blah.

It seems to me that the responsibility for improving the use of technology in schools ought to be shared. At the school level, for instance, support staff need to take a less active role in determining the constraints placed on learning policy. Allow imagination to drive the use of technology a little.

At the system level, we could do with greater flexibility in tertiary-entry exams to allow a greater choice of tools: students at some technology-rich schools are actually disadvantaged when they sit down at the end of Year 12 to a pen & paper exam like their grandparents faced. Teacher-training courses need to better integrate technology in every single area of teaching methodology and abandon the idea of ICT being a subject in its own right.

Teachers have to accept and prioritise the important – and, yes, time-consuming – responsibility of becoming thoroughly familiar with technology.

And finally, commentators would do well to back off on painting this issue in such black and white terms. The next time someone uses the term digital native or digital immigrant I’m going to scream. I know it makes for snappy headlines and seminar titles, but really…

Technology and education are a match made in heaven. But a cooperative approach is needed.


Getting ID confused with Science. Still happening…

Woah. Where to begin with this one?

Turns out that, according to a study of science teachers in the USA, 1 in 6 believe that humans have been on Earth fewer than 10,000 years. 1 in 8 present Creationism to their students as “a scientifically valid alternative to evolution”. During a school year, biology teachers might be lucky to spend 5 hours on the topic of human evolution. Nearly a half of these teachers believe that a supernatural being has a hand in evolution.

This boggles the mind.

Firstly, if this is correct then there is a significant number of American science teachers who are completely unaware of the meaning of the term ‘theory’ as it applies to their area of (alleged) expertise. Here is what Wikipedia has to say on it:

In science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation.

I could have picked any one of a variety of similarly phrased definitions from ’round the web (go look for some yourself), but the point that it can be tested is critical; no faith-derived explanation can be, and future predictions from a faith perspective are notoriously imprecise or just plain wrong.

Secondly, it is probably against the law. Several recent court judgements in the US have underlined the need to keep ID out of the science classroom. Unfortunately, without any kind of standardised curriculum, the materials taught in Science classes are still vulnerable to being hijacked by the superstitious.

For a concise analysis of the highlights, I can recommend this blog entry, at LayScience.net

I imagine this happens in Australia too, although I’m proud to say that I know of no-one in my school or in my extended professional circle who would do this. Still, it could happen…

(cartoon from http://www.fsteiger.com/theory.html – a precis of the argument against ID)


Popular image of Biotechnology = BAD

I came across this report on attitudes to biotech arising from its portrayal in films, by the Australian Institute for Biotechnology, and it made for some pretty interesting reading.

We all like a good yarn, and in the last 10 years or so we’ve seen some films that were absolute crackers where science – and particularly biotechnology – has been central to the plot. I’m thinking of Jurassic Park and Gattaca and The Island and you can probably think of more.

A problem arises, though, when creating an exciting story leads writers to take liberties with the scientific principles: for the audience, probably unfamiliar with the technologies, a degree of accuracy is then assumed which is simply inaccurate.

Cloning is a perfect example: the processes involved are never accurately shown and the outcomes are almost universally bad/evil… Which leads most people to have at least a subconscious belief that the same technology in the real world is bad.

I wonder if schools, at least here in Australia, are doing enough to counter this trend? Or are we too afraid to be seen to adopt a position that we, as educators, are complicit in this widespread ignorance?


Hack your sleep

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What initially attracted me to this article was the blog’s title: Four Hour Work Week – what a fantasy!!! Anyway, the post is a list of 5 simple steps that you can take to improve your sleeping habits.

I found this a few weeks back, and it struck a chord. The author is clearly very knowledgeable about the neurochemistry of sleep. Too many folks out there offer advice which is baseless or wishful…

And then yesterday I found another article along the same lines: this one is less scientific, but has some useful info nonetheless.

So I thought it would be valuable to spread this info; I’ve seen my fair share of students whose capacity to concentrate during the school day is being wrecked by inadequate sleep.


Feb 12 – World Darwin Day

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, naturalist and author of one of the most profoundly important books of the last 2000 years: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

To observe World Darwin Day, you could read about his life, his work or simply ponder the importance of his theory of evolution.

And that is probably the most important legacy: remember, scientists use the word Theory in a different way to its common usage. A scientific theory is not an unproven guess, but rather a rational and logical explanation of the observable facts based entirely on existing evidence. Theories like Darwin’s concept of evolution can and should be subjected to rigorous and continuous testing to ensure their robustness. And there is little that can honestly be said to challenge his theory’s veracity.

Personally, I reckon that approach beats the alternatives out there.

More info on WDD here and here.