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© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 1)

(Continued from “Science, interrupted“)

There are a few good ground rules for approaching a classroom issue. The first is to start with the teacher. Going straight to the principal or superintendent instantly escalates things. This is especially important if there’s any doubt about what happened — and there almost always is.

I don’t usually suggest email, since tone is hard to convey, but I used it this time to have a record of the exchange and took care that my tone didn’t become the issue. I’m trying to ensure that kids in our community are getting science in the science classroom. For that I need information, period. Is this teacher undercutting our state’s excellent science standards by tub-thumping against evolutionary theory in his (unrelated) class…or not? Is he inserting “intelligent design,” which the judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover said serves only a “blatantly religious purpose,” into a public school science class…or not? That’s what I need to know.

If he is, I want to use the information not just to spank him (which changes too little), but to make it less likely to happen again in any science classroom in the district.

It’s best to focus on a single question. His rant about “evolutionists” can’t be explained away, so there’s no need to give him an opportunity to muddy it. I stuck that one in the file for later. First, I wanted to check on that other red flag.

“Dear Mr. Taylor,” I wrote:

I was so pleased to see that my son Connor is taking science this year. He’s always had a great interest in the subject, and we often discuss what he learns in class each day.

Last Tuesday he came home a bit puzzled over something from the lecture, and I’m hoping you can clarify it. I’m puzzled as well, so perhaps something was lost in the translation.

He recalled you saying something like this: “Experiments (or evidence) today can’t tell us anything about what happened in the distant past. Since no one was there to see it, we can only guess.”

I’m not a science educator myself, just a fan, so I’d appreciate your clarification. It seems to me that much of science is devoted to examining the present for clues about the past. I remember learning about the 19th century debate between catastrophism and uniformitarianism, for example, two theories that attempted to understand Earth’s past by examining present clues. A strong consensus eventually converged on uniformitarianism, which is now the cornerstone of modern geology.

Can you point me to a citation or two so I can further explore this idea that we can’t use evidence in the present to understand the past? Or, if he misheard, I’d appreciate knowing that.

Best,
Dale McGowan

I Googled him for kicks that night (as I’m sure he Googled me). Found him on a social networking site of a sort. “I love God,” said the first sentence of his self-description. “He is the center of my life.” Of course this alone is not the slightest problem. I had a dozen colleagues and friends in my teaching days who were Christians and brilliant science educators. But combined with the odd evidentiary notion and the anti-evolution rant, I was starting to get the picture about Mr. T — a probably decent, hardworking man who is letting his private views compromise his professional responsibility to the kids in this community.

He replied the next day:

You can most definitely use evidence found in the present to understand some things that have happened in the past. Just like in law evidence found in the present can help prove a crime that occurred in the past. That would be nonsense to think otherwise. Let me ask you this question. Which would be considered more reliable evidence to you, you personally seeing something happen in front of you over and over again or you not seeing this event happen but you find circumstantial evidence indicating the event happened?

Mr. Taylor

Even without citations to the Institute for Creation Research, there’s our smoking gun. This is a hamfisted set-up for a creationist punchline: Evolution relies on “mere” circumstantial evidence, while God witnessed creation and wrote about it in his Book.

I replied, answering his question but quickly returning to mine:

Dear Mr. Taylor,

Oh good, thank you. I suppose he misheard. One way to be sure — he said it was on an overhead. Perhaps you can share that to help clear it up?

Your question is an interesting one. First, I’d note that what seems reliable to me is often not, including the apparent evidence of my eyes. That’s why eyewitness testimony is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the U.S. Circumstantial evidence is often misrepresented in popular culture to mean “weak” when it actually means “indirect.” DNA is circumstantial, yet one of the strongest types of evidence.

To answer your question: If my eyes told me Mary entered an apartment over and over, but the DNA indicated it was Susan, I would certainly go with the circumstantial evidence, as would the legal system.

Another example: my son witnessed your statement about our inability to know the past from the present, but I’d like to see the circumstantial evidence of the overhead — when you have a minute.

I do appreciate your time and help.

No answer for three days. Apparently I spoiled his punchline.

(Continued.)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

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This was written on Sunday, 05. September 2010 at 21:05 and was filed under action, Atlanta, belief and believers, Kerfuffles, My kids, Parenting, schools. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. It would be easy to write back “what I said was x. I was trying to make point y. This fits into big picture z.” He did not offer any explanation of what Connor DID hear- no classroom context, no reference to standards, no recap of the lesson. Instead, he sent a vague, equivocating “gotcha” question unrelated to the science curriculum. Fishy.

    Why not just explain transparently what actually happened – and attach the transparency himself?

    Comment: Allison – 06. September 2010 @ 8:17 am

  2. That was a very weasel-y response on his part, and your follow-up was *very* well-played.

    It’s like one of those counter-scripts to flummox a telemarketer–you can almost hear the frustration when you refuse to walk into his rhetorical trap.

    Comment: cognitive dissident – 06. September 2010 @ 10:23 am

  3. May I make a prediction?

    After a few more exchanges – or perhaps in the very next exchange – Mr. Taylor will stammer out the suggestion that Connor “might be more comfortable in another class.”

    Either that or he’ll dig in his heels and give us a couple weeks’ worth of entertainment.

    One of those.

    Comment: Weemaryanne – 06. September 2010 @ 10:43 am

  4. Dale,

    Thanks so much for sharing exactly how you are responding to this teacher. My kids are younger than yours but I’m worried about teachers is their future and my reaction to them. I worry that I’ll go of half-cocked and make things worse if something like this ever happens at our schools. I shall sit here and learn from the master for now ;)

    Comment: AmyS – 06. September 2010 @ 11:33 am

  5. Slam dunk, Dale.

    We encountered a similar “evidence” comment from a high school science teacher last year, but because of the high quality of summer reading choices (my daughter selected Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World”) I didn’t suspect he may have had a less than sciency view of the world. Thanks for the heads-up.

    Comment: Lynne – 06. September 2010 @ 11:44 am

  6. In addition to my comment regarding NCSE on the first post in this series, let me add this. A middle school science teacher with similar beliefs has created a situation that precipitated three legal actions, a state administrative hearing on his termination and two federal law suits in my local school district. It was enabled by an administration that for years averted its eyes from what the teacher was doing.

    It has so far cost my small rural school district $750,000 in legal expenses over and above what its insurance carrier has paid, and the situation is still not resolved. The costs will run to $1 million before it’s over.

    Comment: RBH – 06. September 2010 @ 1:54 pm

  7. Ugh. Hit “Submit” too soon. The moral of my story is to not be hesitant about involving the administration early. This kind of situation can be very very costly to the district if it’s not handled early and competently by the relevant administrators. That last — “competently” — can be problematic, unfortunately. Again, I urge Dale to contact NCSE now if not sooner.

    Comment: RBH – 06. September 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  8. I’m curious to see if your replies to him show up on ID-friendly sites seeking advice on how to respond.

    Comment: mikey – 06. September 2010 @ 3:19 pm

  9. Dale, this post is both depressing and encouraging.
    Depressing that the teacher actually was apparently planning to slip creationism and religiosity into the classes – and, even more depressing, he had the insufferable sense of entitlement to also think he could entrap you in his cult-ish argument (I cannot express this properly – I hope you follow). That depresses me even more because it confirms my fears that people like this are in no way worried about being “caught” sneaking around the Constitution in this manner. And that lack of fear is depressingly indicative of the power of religion in this country – and the frightening power of rising religiosity/increasing irrational thinking of followers/belief that they are “persecuted” (while in fact their having no fear of consequences for ignoring others’ constitutional rights is proof right there that far from being persecuted, they are a powerful majority) — ugh and on and on. So depressing. :(
    Thankfully, your response and your blog and the whole humanist movement encourages people like me, which is why I check online every day for another dose of sense, humor, rationality, balance and above all – reaching for the ideal of peaceful co-existence with the rest of humanity. When I read your blog, Dale, I can believe that it is possible. Bravo. Your letters were wonderful.

    Comment: niftywriter – 06. September 2010 @ 5:10 pm

  10. @Allison: Exactly. The fact that he refused to clear it up in one easy step says everything I needed to know.

    @RBH: Absolutely. The avoidance of expensive litigation is precisely why administrations nip these things in the bud. I am contacting the administration shortly. Ours is very competent, so I have reason to expect a good result. And please accept my sympathies for your district’s troubles.

    @nifty: I appreciate that VERY much.

    Comment: Dale – 06. September 2010 @ 6:59 pm

  11. [...] The Meming of Life » Dear Mr. Taylor (Part 1) Parenting Beyond … [...]

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  12. Boy–I was so glad to see this post! I’ve been holding my breath for days…:))

    Dale, you do dance so well to the tune of Can You Hear Me Now. I’m mightily impressed. The letters you posted will help parents around the country deal with similar situations in their own school districts, I’m sure.

    Sometimes I’m so glad I live in Japan–I’m just not the confrontational type…

    So what happens next? (deep breath, aaand…hold…)

    Comment: yokohamamama – 07. September 2010 @ 3:31 am

  13. Yet again, I read your blog and wonder. Not at you, but at the fact that this is even a problem. Not that you have a problem with the teacher’s actions, but that they occur at all. I taught in Botswana for 6 years, a highly religious country. Yet science (I taught art) was always taught ‘straight’ with no religious bias. Reading your posts makes me glad, over and over, that I live in Canada. Canada is not without its faults, and I can only speak for my province, but the idea of teaching ‘intelligent design’ or creationism would never come up in a science class here. Phew.

    Good luck!

    Comment: xianart – 07. September 2010 @ 7:51 am

  14. I like your approach here, but I’m not sure if the DNA analogy is entirely apt. DNA evidence can be contaminated, mislabeled, incompetently analyzed, or even deliberately planted. So when you say you would believe DNA evidence before the evidence of your own eyes, you are implicitly assuming that every single person in the chain of evidence is honest, conscientious, and scientifically competent, and that the procedures followed during evidence handling are designed to guarantee that neither fraud nor error can possibly pass unnoticed. That’s a pretty big assumption, in my view.

    Comment: Hamilton Jacobi – 07. September 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  15. @Hamilton: A good point. All evidence can be corrupted. Fortunately I did not and would not say DNA evidence is infallible. It is, however, a great deal more reliable and controllable than eyewitness evidence, which was the question.

    Comment: Dale – 07. September 2010 @ 4:21 pm

  16. [...] (Being the ongoing story of a parent responding to bad science in the classroom. See also Part 1, Part 2, Part [...]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Up the ladder Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 09. September 2010 @ 9:37 am

  17. “If my eyes told me Mary entered an apartment over and over, but the DNA indicated it was Susan, I would certainly go with the circumstantial evidence, as would the legal system.”

    Although I cheer your resistance to Creationist indoctrination in the classroom, this statement is faulty. No valid blanket statement can be made about the value of DNA profiling or any other laboratory test relative to the value of any and all eyewitness evidence, including the example you offer.

    Observing unexpected, chaotic, violent events — e.g., accidents or violent crimes — no doubt drastically lowers the average accuracy of eyewitness recall. But direct, repeated, unstressed observation of simple events involving people known to us must have an extremely low probability of major error (e.g., mistaken identity). If you are at least on a first-name basis with Susan and Mary (which your example seems to posit) — and they are reasonably distinguishable people (e.g., not identical twins) — and you observe Mary going into a room “over and over,” close up and in person — and you are of sound mind — then your knowledge that Mary, not Susan, entered the room on those occasions (at least while you were looking) is as sound as any knowledge _can_ be. You are no more likely to mistake Mary for Susan under such circumstances than you are to hallucinate, say, that a DNA profiling report in your hand says “Mary” when it actually says “Susan.” In contrast, DNA profiling per se may have an error rate as high as 1% (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2002/jan/27/ukcrime.research).

    No matter the nature of a chain of evidence, in the end we _always_ rely on our own senses, if only to inspect the terminal end of the chain. No “scientific” method of gathering evidence can have a higher intrinsic reliability than unhampered personal perception, because personal perception is the final, unavoidable step in learning what any “scientific” method has concluded.

    Of course I see that your Creationist was trying to trap you. To their tendentious question, I’d answer that I would indeed prefer my own direct, many-times-repeated observation of an event (assuming it is the _sort_ of event that I can witness properly, and that all psychological and physical viewing conditions are good) over any form of “circumstantial” evidence whatever. That the Creationist is fishing for this answer, intending to use it as raw material for their fallacy machine, is not a valid reason to not give it. No matter what that befuddled person thinks, such an answer does not imply that inferential chains of reasoning are inherently weak: on the contrary, many inferential chains are strong enough to bet one’s life on. Our whole body of scientific and technological knowledge is provided by such chains. It is merely to re-state the plain fact that the senses are highly reliable instruments under appropriate conditions (a good thing, because no instrument can be a more reliable source of knowledge than the senses we use to perceive it). If the Creationist wanted to introduce certain predictable fallacies later in the discussion, then those would just have to be dealt with when they appeared.

    It’s no good uttering illogic in an effort to head off somebody else’s illogic . . . . One scores not a point, but an own goal.

    Comment: AgentLG1 – 29. September 2010 @ 8:15 am

  18. @AgentLG1, et al: That’s fine. My statement was too black-and-white. I should have said, “In most circumstances, all other things being equal, I would ultimately be forced to recognize the far greater reliability of DNA evidence.” Onward.

    Comment: Dale – 29. September 2010 @ 8:41 am

  19. Addendum:

    It’s notable that the Creationist’s original question was not, in fact, about whether you see DNA profiling as more trustworthy than “eyewitness evidence”, but whether you would trust your personal experience over “circumstantial evidence.” So the Creationist pits a commonsense category (high-quality personal experience) against a quasi-legal one associated with weakness (“circumstantial evidence”). You respond by substituting a quasi-legal category associated with weakness (“eyewitness evidence”) for high-quality personal experience and choosing to interpret “circumstantial evidence” as inclusive of all knowledge gained by scientific means, e.g. DNA profiling. Judo flip! But in law — you introduce a court-value frame — DNA is not “circumstantial evidence” at all: it is “direct evidence.” So too, by definition, is firsthand witness testimony of a crime. The two are in the _same_ legal category (and as far as I can tell — I’m not a lawyer — it’s not true that DNA profiling automatically trumps direct testimony in real-world law).

    The point: if we strip out the posturing on both sides about quasi-legal categories, the exchange dissolves into meaninglessness. Do you trust your own experience? Yes, within certain bounds, if you are sane. Do you trust science? Again, yes, within certain bounds (everything has an error bar), if you are sane. So, what if very high-quality personal experience contradicts very high-quality science — which do you believe? It sounds like a probing question but isn’t. The answer is that if the quality of both personal observation (of events that can in fact be meaningfully observed) and scientific inference are cranked up high enough, they will inevitably agree, because they will both report the state of the real world.

    Comment: AgentLG1 – 29. September 2010 @ 9:11 am

  20. Sorry, I was composing while you posted. Onward, agreed, onward.

    Comment: AgentLG1 – 29. September 2010 @ 9:18 am

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