Saturday, May 28, 2011

Strange, and not-so-strange, happenings on the justice front

The Supreme Court just handed down a 5-to-4 ruling stating that California needs to reduce its state prison rolls by more than 30,000 prisoners. The overcrowding in California prisons presents a violation of the constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment, according to the court -- and if you've seen or heard anything about our prison system in recent history, it's hard to argue with that.

So where are all these prisoners going to go? Well, one option is local jails -- though that's hardly a step up in many places (looking at you, Los Angeles). What about release? This, to me, would make the most sense. Schwarzenegger took some steps to increase the number of parolees, which is a sensible, and much cheaper, option for low-risk offenders. Of course, it's hard to convince the public that it'd be a good thing putting 30,000 prisoners out on the street.

And in other news, the FBI released its crime statistics for last year, which found a drop in crime rates across the country. In Los Angeles, we're seeing decade-low murder rates. This is most definitely a good thing, but also somewhat confusing -- crime usually tracks pretty closely with the economic situation, so seeing an actual decrease in crime in the middle of the biggest recession in 80 years is... unexpected.

What's the deal? Have anti-crime measures and policies enacted during the boom times paid off dividends? Or is our current slump different in kind, somehow? I don't have an answer, unfortunately. I'm tending to lean away from the latter, though, considering that so far the "recovery" has passed over the average non-working stiff, making things most difficult for those most likely to fall into crime.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Better than creationism? Or fueling the fire?

ResearchBlogging.orgLast year, Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer put out a monograph, titled "Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms." It describes their nationwide survey of public high school teachers on their views and practices in regards to teaching evolution or nonscientific alternatives.

Now, what's clear that evolution is winning in the courts, as time and again efforts to "teach the controversy" are shot down as violating the establishment cause. (Never mind that none of those who are advocating all this controversy-teaching would be able to recognize a legitimate scientific controversy if it hit them in the face.)

The more troubling thing, and what Berkman and Plutzer highlight in a recent commentary in Science, is that despite clear-cut legal - and, obviously, scientific - mandates, there is still a large proportion of high school biology teachers out there who fail to promote evolution in their classrooms. In their survey, Berkman and Plutzer asked these teachers whether they consider themselves to be advocates of evolution, creationism (or intelligent design), or neither. By "advocates," they mean that considerable class time is spent portraying the given theory in a positive light.

The good news (comparatively?) is that only 13% of biology teachers actively advocate for nonscientific theories in class. The worse news is that only 28% of teachers actively advocate for evolution -- meaning that a whopping 60% of teachers fall into the wishy-washy "neither" camp. A majority of our public biology teachers don't teach their students the fundamental tenet of modern biology. This is a problem.

So what are they teaching, if not evolution? Attempting to skirt controversy, many follow the traditional creationist canards, such as focusing on microevolution, small changes and adaptations within a species, and ignoring macroevolution, the evolution of one species into separate species. Macroevolution is hardly a controversial proposition -- well, from a scientific perspective -- as it has been demonstrated and documented countless times, even in controlled studies.

In line with the previously mentioned "controversy," many teachers in this 60% say that they just present all options to their students, trusting them to make up their own minds. Most people have to study evolution for 5-10 years before they really understand it well enough to accurately weigh evidence and claims, but somehow these teachers feel they can do just as well in one semester.

Just because they're not actively promoting creationism doesn't mean that this 60% of teachers isn't doing something destructive. The excuses that they use to justify sidestepping teaching evolution are picked up by creationists as arguments against evolution. In reality, though, these are simply arguments from ignorance, lack of confidence, or simple laziness. Teachers who have never taken a class specifically on evolution are more likely to fall into the 60% camp, which argues that simply educating teachers will make them more likely to become evolution advocates.

Of course much of this is likely to come down to cultural and social differences. A teacher in a conservative, religious community is not likely to see much support for teaching something that most of the community members disagree with ("Inherit The Wind," anybody?). So another way to reduce this 60% is to show support for your teachers. If you live in one of these conservative communities, you may want to get to know your local biology teacher. If she or he is truly an ally in teaching science, I'm sure it will mean a lot to know that there are others out there who are willing to go to bat.

Berkman MB, & Plutzer E (2011). Science education. Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not in the classroom. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6016), 404-5 PMID: 21273472