Is how to engage with the crackpot at the scientific meeting an ethical question?

There’s scientific knowledge. There are the dedicated scientists who make it, whether laboring in laboratories or in the fields, fretting over data analysis, refereeing each other’s manuscripts or second-guessing themselves.

And, well, there are some crackpots.

I’m not talking dancing-on-the-edge-of-the-paradigm folks, nor cheaters who seem to be on a quest for fame or profit. I mean the guy who has the wild idea for revolutionizing field X that actually is completely disconnected from reality.

Generally, you don’t find too much crackpottery in the scientific literature, at least not when peer review is working as it’s meant to. The referees tend to weed it out. Perhaps, as has been suggested by some critics of peer review, referees also weed out cutting edge stuff because it’s just so new and hard to fit into the stodgy old referees’ picture of what counts as well-supported by the evidence, or consistent with our best theories, or plausible. That may just be the price of doing business. One hopes that, eventually, the truth will out.

But where you do see a higher proportion of crackpottery, aside from certain preprint repositories, is at meetings. And there, face to face with the crackpot, the gate-keepers may behave quite differently than they would in an anonymous referee’s report.

Doctor Crackpot gives a talk intended to show his brilliant new solution to a nagging problem with an otherwise pretty well established theoretical approach. Jaws drop as the presentation proceeds. Then, finally, as Doctor Crackpot is aglow with the excitement of having broken the wonderful news to his people, he entertains questions.

Crickets chirp. Members of the audience look at each other nervously.

Doctor Hardass, who has been asking tough questions of presenters all day, tentatively asks a question about the mathematics of this crackpot “solution”. The other scholars in attendance inwardly cheer, thinking, “In about 10 seconds Doctor Hardass will have demonstrated to Doctor Crackpot that this could never work! Then Doctor Crackpot will back away from this ledge and reconsider!”

Ten minutes later, Doctor Crackpot is still writing equations on the board, and Doctor Hardass has been reduced to saying, “Uh huh …” Scholars start sneaking out as the chirping of the crickets competes with the squeaking of the chalk.

Granted, no one wants to hurt Doctor Crackpot’s feelings. If it’s a small enough meeting, you all probably had lunch with him, maybe even drinks the night before. He seems like a nice guy. He doesn’t seem dangerously disconnected from reality in his everyday interactions, just dangerously disconnected from reality in the neighborhood of this particular scientific question. And, as he’s been toiling in obscurity at a little backwater institution, he’s obviously lonely for scientific company and conversation. So, calling him out as a crackpot seems kind of mean.

But … it’s also a little mean not to call him out. It can feel like you’re letting him wander through the scientific community with the equivalent of spinach in his teeth while trailing toilet paper from his shoe if you leave him with the impression that his revolutionary idea has any merit. Someone has to set this guy straight … right? If you don’t, won’t he keep trying to sell this crackpot idea at future meetings?

For what it’s worth, as someone who attends philosophy conferences as well as scientific ones (plus an interesting assortment of interdisciplinary conferences of various sorts), I can attest that there is the occasional crackpot presentation from a philosopher. However, the push-back from the philosophers during the Q&A seemed much more vigorous, and seemed also to reflect a commitment that the crackpot presenter could be led back to reality if only he would listen to the reasoned arguments presented to him by the audience.

In theory, you’d expect to see the same kind of commitment among scientists: if we can agree upon the empirical evidence and seriously consider each other’s arguments about the right theoretical framework in which to interpret it, we should all end up with something like agreement on our account of the world. Using the same sorts of knowledge-building strategies, the same standards of evidence, the same logical machinery, we should be able to build knowledge about the world that holds up against tests to which others subject it — and, we should welcome that testing, since the point of all this knowledge-building is not to win the argument but to build an account that gets the world right.

In theory, the scientific norms of universalism and organized skepticism would ensure that all scientific ideas (including the ones that are en face crackpot ideas) get a fair hearing, but that this “fair hearing” include rigorous criticism to sort out the ideas worthy of further attention. (These norms would also remind scientists that any member of the scientific community has the potential to be the source of a fruitful idea, or of a crackpot idea.)

In practice, though, scientists pick their battles, just like everyone else. If your first ten-minute attempt at reaching a fellow scientist with rigorous criticism shows no signs of succeeding, you might just decide it’s too big a job to tackle before lunch. If repeated engagements with a fellow scientist suggest that he seems not to comprehend the arguments against his pet theory — and maybe that he doesn’t fully grok how the rest of the community understands the standards and strategies for scientific knowledge-building — you may have to make a calculation about whether bringing him back to the fold is a better use of your time and effort than, say, putting more time into your own research, or offering critiques to scientists who seem to understand them and take them seriously.

This is a sensible way to get through a day which seems to have too few hours for all the scientific knowledge-building there is to do, but it might have an impact on whether the scientific community functions in the way that best supports the knowledge-building project.

In the continuum of “scientific knowledge”, on whose behalf scientists are sworn to uphold standards and keep out the dross, where do meetings fall? Do the scientists in attendance have any ethical duty to give their candid assessments of crackpottery to the crackpots? Or is it OK to just snicker about it at the bar? If there’s no obligation to call the crackpot out, does that undermine the value of meetings as sources of scientific knowledge, or of the scientific communications needed to build scientific knowledge?

Could a rational decision not to engage with crackpots in one’s scientific community (because the return on the effort invested is likely to be low) morph into avoidance of other scientists with weird ideas that actually have something to them? Could it lead to avoidance of serious engagement with scientists one thinks are mistaken when it might take serious effort to spell out the nature of the mistakes?

And is there any obligation from the scientific community either to accept the crackpots as fully part of the community (meaning that their ideas and their critiques of the ideas of other ought to be taken seriously), or else to be honest with them that, while they may subscribe to the same journals and come to the same meetings, the crackpots are Not Our Kind, Dear?

End-of-semester meditations on plagiarism.

Plagiarism — presenting the words or ideas (among other things) of someone else as one’s own rather than properly citing their source — is one of the banes of my professorial existence. One of my dearest hopes at the beginning of each academic term is that this will be the term with no instances of plagiarism in the student work submitted for my evaluation.

Ten years into this academic post and I’m still waiting for that plagiarism-free term.

One school of thought posits that students plagiarize because they simply don’t understand the rules around proper citation of sources. Consequently, professorial types go to great lengths to lay out how properly to cite sources of various types. They put explicit language about plagiarism and proper citation in their syllabi. They devote hours to crafting handouts to spell out expected citation practices. They require their students to take (and pass) plagiarism tutorials developed by information literacy professionals (the people who, in my day, we called university librarians).

And, students persist in plagiarizing.

Another school of thought lays widespread student plagiarism at the feet of the new digital age.

What with all sorts of information resources available through the internets, and with copy-and-paste technology, assembling a paper that meets the minimum page length for your assignment has never been easier. Back in the olden times, our forefathers had to actually haul the sources from which they were stealing off the shelves, maybe carry them back to the dorms through the snow, find their DOS disk to boot up the dorm PC, and then laboriously transcribe those stolen passages!

And it’s not just that the copy-and-paste option exists, we are told. College students have grown up stealing music and movies online. They’ve come of age along with Wikipedia, where information is offered free for their use and without authorship credits. If “information wants to be free” (a slogan attributed to Stewart Brand in 1984), how can these young people make sense of intellectual property, and especially of the need to cite the sources from which they found the information they are using? Is not their “plagiarism” just a form of pastiche, an activity that their crusty old professors fail to recognize as creative?

Yeah, the modern world is totally different, dude. There are tales of students copying not just Wikipedia articles but also things like online FAQs, verbatim, in student papers without citing the source, and indeed while professing that they didn’t think they needed to cite them because there was no author listed. You know what source kids used to copy from in my day that didn’t list authors? The World Book Encyclopedia. Indeed, from at least seventh grade, our teachers made a big deal of teaching us how to cite encyclopedia and newspaper articles with no named authors. Every citation guide I’ve seen in recent years (including the ones that talk about proper ways to cite web pages) includes instruction on how to cite such sources.

The fact that plagiarism is perhaps less labor-intensive than it used to be strikes me as an entirely separate issue from whether kids today understand that it’s wrong. If young people are literally powerless to resist the temptations presented to them by the internet, maybe we should be getting computers out of the classroom rather than putting more computers into the classroom.

Of course, the fact that not every student plagiarizes argues against the claim that students can’t help it. Clearly, some of them can.

There is research that indicates students plagiarize less in circumstances where they know that their work is going to be scanned with plagiarism-detection software. Here, it’s not that the existence or use of the software suddenly teaches students something they didn’t already know about proper citation. Rather, the extra 28 grams of prevention comes from an expectation that the software will be checking to see if they followed the rules of scholarship that they already understood.

My own experience suggests that one doesn’t require an expensive proprietary plagiarism-detection system like Turnitin — plugging the phrases in the assignment that just don’t sound like a college student wrote them into a reasonably good search engine usually delivers the uncited sources in seconds.

It also suggests that even when students are informed that you will be using software or search engines to check for plagiarism, some students still plagiarize.

Perhaps a better approach is to frame plagiarism as a violation of trust in a community that, ultimately, has an interest in being more focused on learning than on crime and punishment. This is an approach to which I’m sympathetic, which probably comes through in the version of “the talk” on academic dishonesty I give my students at the start of the semester:

Plagiarism is evil. I used to think I was a big enough person not to take it personally if someone plagiarized on an assignment for my class. I now know that I was wrong about that. I take it very personally.

For one thing, I’m here doing everything I can to help you learn this stuff that I think is really interesting and important. I know you may not believe yet that it’s interesting and important, but I hope you’ll let me try to persuade you. And, I hope you’ll put an honest effort into learning it. If you try hard and you give it a chance, I can respect that. If you make the calculation that, given the other things on your plate, you can’t put in the kind of time and effort I’m expecting and you choose to put in what you can, I’ll respect that, too. But if you decide it’s not worth your time or effort to even try, and instead you turn to plagiarism to make it look like you learned something — well, you’re saying that the stuff you’re supposedly here to learn is of no value, except to get you the grades and the credits you want. I care about that stuff. So I take it personally when you decide, despite all I’m doing here, that it’s of no value. Moreover, this is not a diploma mill where you pay your money and get your degree. If you want the three credits from my course, the terms of engagement are that you’ll have to show some evidence of learning.

Even worse, when you hand in an essay that you’ve copied from the internet, you’re telling me you don’t think I’m smart enough to tell the difference between your words and ideas and something you found in 5 minutes with Google. You’re telling me you think I’m stupid. I take that personally, too.

If you plagiarize in my course, you fail my course, and I will take it personally. Maybe that’s unreasonable, but that’s how I am. I thought I should tell you up front so that, if you can’t handle having a professor who’s such a hardass, you can explore your alternatives.

So far, none of my students have every run screaming from this talk. Some of them even nod approvingly. The students who labor to write their papers honestly likely feel there’s something unjust about classmates who sidestep all that labor by cheating.

But students can still fully comprehend your explanation of how you view plagiarism, how personally you’ll take it, how vigorously you’ll punish it … and plagiarize.

They may even deny it to your face for 30 additional seconds after they recognize that you have them dead to rights (since given the side-by-side comparison of their assignment and the uncited source, they would need to establish psychic powers for there to be any plausible explanation besides plagiarism). And then they’ll explain that they were really pressed for time, and they need a good grade (or a passing grade) in this course, and they felt trapped by circumstances, so even though of course they know what they did is wrong, they made one bad decision, and their parents will kill them, and … isn’t there some way we could make this go away? They feel so bad now that they promise they’ve learned their lesson.

Here, I think we need to recognize that there is a relevant difference between saying you have learned a lesson and actually learning that lesson.

Indeed, one of the reasons that my university’s office of judicial affairs asks instructors to report all cases of plagiarism and cheating no matter what sanctions we apply to them (including no sanctions) is so there will be a record of whether a particular offense is really the first offense. Students who plagiarize may also lie about whether they have a record of doing so and being caught doing it. If the offenses are spread around — in different classes with different professors in different departments — you might be able to score first-time leniency half a dozen times.

Does that sound cynical? From where I sit, it’s just realistic. But this “realistic” point of view (which others in the teaching trenches share) is bound to make us tougher on the students who actually do make a single bad decision, suspecting that they might be committed cheaters, too.

Keeping the information about plagiarists secret rather than sharing it through the proper channels, in other words, can hurt students who could be helped.

There have been occasions, it should be noted, when frustrated instructors warned students that they would name and shame plagiarists, only to find (after following through on that warning) that they had run afoul of FERPA. Among other things, FERPA gives students (18 or older) some measure of control about who gets to see their academic records. If a professor announces to the world — or even to your classmates — that you’ve failed a the class for plagiarizing, information from your academic records has arguably been shared without your consent.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that plagiarism is breaking trust not just with the professor but with the learning community. Does that learning community have an interest in flagging the bad actors? If you know there are plagiarists among your classmates but you don’t know who they are, does this create a situation where you can’t trust anyone? If all traces of punishment — or of efforts at rehabilitation — are hidden behind a veil of privacy, is the reasonable default assumption that people are generally living within the rules and that the rules are being enforced against the handful of violations … or is it that people are getting away with stuff?

Is there any reasonable role for the community in punishment and in rehabilitation of plagiarism?

To some, of course, this talk of harms to learning communities will seem quaint. If you see your education as an individual endeavor rather than a team sport, your classmates may as well be desks (albeit desks whose grades may be used to determine the curve). What you do, or don’t do, in your engagement with the machinery that dispenses your education (or at least your diploma) may be driven by your rational calculations about what kind of effort you’re willing to put into creating the artifacts you need to present in exchange for grades.

The artifacts that require writing can be really time-consuming to produce de novo. The writing process, after all, is hard. People who write for a living complain of writer’s block. Have you ever heard anyone complain about Google-block? Plagiarism, in other words, is a huge time-saver, not least because it relies on skills most college students already have rather than ones they need to develop to any significant extent.

Here, I’d like to offer a modest proposal for students unwilling to engage the writing process: don’t.

Take a stand for what you believe in! Don’t lurk in the shadows pretending to knuckle under to the man by turning in essays and term papers that give the appearance that you wrote them. Instead, tell your professors that writing anything original for their assignments is against your principles. Then take your F and wear it as a badge of honor!

When all those old-timey professors who fetishize the value of clear writing, original thought, and proper citation of sources die out — when your generation is running the show — surely your principled stand will be vindicated!

And, in the meantime, your professors can spend their scarce time helping your classmates who actually want to learn to write well and uphold rudimentary rules of scholarship.

Really, it’s win-win.

In the interests of full-disclosure — and of avoiding accusations of self-plagiarism — I should note that this essay draws on a number of posts I have written in the past about plagiarism in academic contexts.

The purpose of a funding agency (and how that should affect its response to misconduct).

In the “Ethics in Science” course I regularly teach, students spend a good bit of time honing their ethical decision-making skills by writing responses to case studies. (A recent post lays out the basic strategy we take in approaching these cases.) Over the span of the semester, my students’ responses to the cases give me pretty good data about the development of their ethical decision-making.

From time to time, they also advance claims that make me say, “Hmmm …”

Here’s one such claim, recently asserted in response to a case in which the protagonist, a scientist serving on a study section for the NIH (i.e., a committee that ranks the merit of grant proposals submitted to the NIH for funding), has to make a decision about how to respond when she detects plagiarism in a proposal:

The main purpose of the NIH is to ensure that projects with merit get funded, not to punish scientists for plagiarism.

Based on this assertion, the student argued that it wasn’t clear that the study section member had to make an official report to the NIH about the plagiarism.

I think the claim is interesting, though I think maybe we would do well to unpack it a little. What, for instance, counts as a project with merit?

Is it enough that the proposed research would, if successful, contribute a new piece of knowledge to our shared body of scientific knowledge? Does the anticipated knowledge that the research would generate need to be important, and if so, according to what metric? (Clearly applicable to a pressing problem? Advancing our basic understanding of some part of our world? Surprising? Resolving an ongoing scientific debate?) Does the proposal need to convey evidence that the proposers have a good chance at being successful in conducting the research (because they have the scientific skills, the institutional resources, etc.)?

Does plagiarism count as evidence against merit here?

Perhaps we answer this question differently if we think what should be evaluated is the proposal rather than the proposer. Maybe the proposed research is well-designed, likely to work, and likely to make an important contribution to knowledge in the field — even if the proposer is judged lacking in scholarly integrity (because she seems not to know how properly to cite the words or ideas of others, or not to care to do so if she knows how).

But, one of the expectations of federal funders like the NIH is that scientists whose research is funded will write up the results and share them in the scientific literature. Among other things, this means that one of the scientific skills that a proposer will need to see a project through to completion (including publishing the results) successfully is the ability to write without running afoul of basic standards of honest scholarship. A paper which communicates important results while also committing plagiarism will not bring glory to the NIH for funding the researcher.

More broadly, the fact that something (like detecting or punishing plagiarism) is not a primary goal does not mean it is not a goal that might support the primary goal. To the extent that certain kinds of behavior in proposing research might mark a scientist as a bad risk to carry out research responsibly, it strikes me as entirely appropriate for funding agencies to flag those behaviors when they see them — and also to share that information with other funding agencies.

As well, to the extent that an agency like the NIH might punish a scientist for plagiarism, the kind of punishment it imposes is generally barring that scientist from eligibility for funding for a finite number of years. In other words, the punishment amounts to “You don’t get our money, and you don’t get to ask us for money again for the next N years.” To me, this punishment doesn’t look like it’s disproportional, and it doesn’t look like imposing it on a plagiarist grant proposer diverges wildly from the main goal of ensuring that projects with merit get funded.

But, as always, I’m interested in what you all think about it.

Is it worth fighting about what’s taught in high school biology class?

It is probably no surprise to my regular readers that I get a little exercised about the science wars that play out across the U.S. in various school boards and court actions. It’s probably unavoidable, given that I think about science for a living — when you’ve got a horse in the race, you end up spending a lot of time at the track.

From time to time, though, thoughtful people ask whether some of these battles are distractions from more important issues — and, specifically, whether the question of what a community decides to include in, or omit from, its high school biology curriculum ought to command so much of our energy and emotional investment.

About seven years ago, the focus was on Dover, Pennsylvania, whose school board required that the biology curriculum must include the idea of an intelligent designer (not necessarily God, but … well, not necessarily not-God) as the origin of life on Earth. Parents sued, and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that the requirement was unconstitutional. If you missed it as it was happening, there’s a very good NOVA documentary on the court case.

As much as the outcome of this trial felt like a victory to supporters of science, some expressed concerns that the battle over the Dover biology curriculum was focusing on one kind of problem but missing many bigger problems in the process — for example, this dispatch from Dover, PA by Eyal Press, printed in The Nation in November 2005.

Press describes the Dover area as it unfolded for him in a drive-along with former Dover school board member Casey Brown:

We drove out past some cornfields, a sheep farm, a meadow and a couple of barns, along the back roads of York County, a region where between 1970 and 2000, 11 percent of the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and where in the more rural areas one in five children grows up in a low-income family (in the city of York the figure is one in three). Dover isn’t dirt poor, but neither is it wealthy. It’s the kind of place where people work hard and save what they can. Looking out at the soy, wheat and dairy farms while Brown explained that lots of older people in the area can’t afford to keep up with their mortgages and end up walking away from their homes, I was struck by the thought that this was a part of the country where, a century ago, the populist movement might have made inroads by organizing small farmers against the monopolies and trusts. These days, of course, a different sort of populism prevails, infused by religion and defining itself against “outside” forces like the ACLU.

Press also went to see what the students in Dover thought of the controversy:

What do the intended beneficiaries of the Dover school board’s actions make of the intelligent design debate? A few days before meeting Casey Brown, I drove out to Dover high school to find out. It was late in the afternoon and a couple of kids were milling about outside, waiting for rides. When I asked them what they thought of the controversy, they looked at me with blank stares that suggested I could not have posed a question of less relevance to their lives. “I think you should leave us alone,” one of them said. “Everyone just sleeps through that class anyway,” said another. I approached a third kid, who was standing alone. Nobody he knew ever talked about the issue, he told me; it was no big deal.

Press suggests that this is not just a matter of teen ennui. The schools in the area may not be up to the challenge of addressing the real needs of their students:

For the most part, though, kids in Dover seem perplexed that so much attention is being paid to what happens in a single class. It is a sentiment shared by Pat Jennings, an African-American woman who runs the Lighthouse Youth Center, an organization that offers after-school programs, recreational services and parenting and Bible study classes to kids throughout York County. The center, which is privately funded, is located in a brown-brick building in downtown York, next to a church. … A deeply religious woman who describes her faith as “very important” to her, Jennings nonetheless confessed that she hasn’t paid much attention to the evolution controversy, since she’s too busy thinking about other problems the children she serves face–drugs, gangs, lack of access to opportunity, racism. “When we are in this building there are no Latinos, blacks, Caucasian children–just children,” she explained after giving me a tour of the center. “But when I go out there”–she pointed to the street–“I’m reminded that I’m different.”

“There’s a lot of kids out there looking for something,” Jennings continued. “They have questions that need answering. They’re looking for someone to trust.” I asked her if she thought schools were providing that thing. She shook her head. “I don’t know if it’s the schools or the parents or whatever, but something is wrong. The kids I see lack discipline. They lack reading skills.” Listening to her, it was hard not to view the dust-up over intelligent design as a tragic illustration of how energy that could be poured into other problems is wasted on symbolic issues of comparatively minor significance.

Why those symbolic issues have assumed such importance in America has a lot to do with the fact that, in places like Dover, the only institutions around that seem willing to address the concerns of many people are fundamentalist churches.

I take it that Press is not primarily interested in taking scientists to task. Rather, his point seems to be that folks in Dover and places like it are much less concerned about “direction” of curriculum by fundamentalist churches because those churches are perceived as taking care of social needs that no one else — including the government — seems willing or able to address in these communities. It doesn’t seem altogether irrational to bend a little to the folks keeping things together, especially if the bending involves changing the curriculum that the high school students are going to sleep through anyway, does it?

This is a variant of the ongoing debate I have at my university about what is supposed to be going on here. As it occasionally plays out with students in my “Philosophy of Science” class, it goes roughly like this:

Me: A college education should help you understand different kinds of knowledge and reasoning. My class should help you understand what’s distinctive about scientific knowledge.

Jaded Student: Dude, I really just want to sit in the chair and do the minimum I need to do to get the three units of upper division science general education credit. Don’t bug me.

Me: You’re a college student! Learning this is good for you!

Jaded Student: I’m only in college so I can get a job that pays a decent wage. If I could do that any other way, I wouldn’t be here.

Me: How will you navigate the modern world without some understanding of science?

Jaded Student: Unless understanding science gets me a better salary it ain’t gonna happen. Learning for its own sake is for suckers.

And here’s where I want to say that, although Eyal Press is right that there are very bad things that are much larger than the details of the biology curriculum happening in communities like Dover, the fight over quality public education is central rather than merely symbolic.

Whether intelligent design is presented as legitimate and empirically supported scientific theory in the classroom is one piece of delivering quality education, but it’s not the only piece. Making sure schools have the funding they for current books, for lab supplies, for computers and internet connections is another piece. So is making sure teachers can incorporate active learning that is not completely driven by a standardized test. So is ensuring small enough classes that students can get the interaction with their teachers and their classmate that they need to learn effectively. So is finding ways to support student learning in more basic ways — say, by making sure kids get adequate nutrition so they can focus on what they’re learning rather than on gnawing hunger, and making their trips to and from school (not to mention their walks down the school corridors) safer. Each of these issues ought to be addressed. None of them strikes me as a place where it would be legitimate for us to give up rather than to fight for what kids deserve.

Education is not a dispensible luxury. Rather, it is an essential tool for people in making reasonable choices about their own lives. Education isn’t just about teaching specific skills for the workforce; it also lays a foundation with which to learn new skills to keep up with a changing economy (or, dare I say it, with one’s changing interests). Even more, education is supposed to open up a world quite apart from the world of work. The world may need ditch diggers (or repair technicians for the ditch-digging robots), but it would be a much better world if the ditch diggers (and repair technicians) not only earned a decent wage but also had enough left over to buy a few books and to think about things they wanted to think about. (Yes, I’m going on my “everyone deserves a life of the mind” rant. It happens.)

Making a better world may require choosing one’s battles. Some would suggest that the battle over science education is a high-investment, low-payoff battle. But my own sense is that the minute we decide a certain population of students don’t really need good science education, we’ve put up the white flag.

Do we help students who are in difficult socio-economic circumstances by reducing their future prospects to succeed in further science classes or pursue a career in science? Do we help these students when we throw them out into the world as voters and consumers without a clear understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced and of how it is different from other kinds of knowledge? Might it not reinforce the feeling that the larger society really doesn’t actually care much about you or your future if you find out that people with a voice didn’t even whimper as you were subjected to an “education” these people wouldn’t have allowed their own kids to suffer through?

One of the guiding ideals of science is that it is a project in which anyone can engage — provided they have the necessary training. Scientists try to work out accounts of what’s going on in the world that are tested against and built upon observation that human beings can make regardless of their home country, their socio-economic status, their race, their gender, their age. The scientific ideal of universality ought to make science a realm of work that is open to anyone willing to put in the work to become scientist. A career in science could be a real avenue for class mobility.

Unless, of course, we decide that public school students in less affluent communities (or more rural communities, or red states, or whatever) aren’t really entitled to the best science education we can give them. If keeping them fed and out of gangs and passing the standardized tests in reading and writing is the extent of our obligation to these students, maybe a sound science education is a luxury. But if this is the case, we probably ought to cut out the whole “American dream” story and admit to ourselves that this place is not a perfect meritocracy. Those who have the luxury of a quality education have an advantage over those who don’t, and by golly they should own up to that. Especially when budgets are being hammered out, or when elections are coming up.

Lately, of course, as public schools are trying to weather dramatic cuts in state and local budgets (and for those far from the action it keeps getting worse despite claims that the economy is showing signs of improvement), science instruction of any kind has come to be viewed as a frill, something that could be cut in favor of more focus on reading or math (the areas most important for the high-stakes standardized tests). Or perhaps science instruction will need to be cut because budgetary pressures require a shorter school day. Or maybe science instruction will end up being delivered in ever more overcrowded classrooms, with fewer materials for hands-on learning that might give students experience with something like scientific methods for inquiry. Sure, in a perfect world we might want to provide more opportunities for active learning and guided inquiry, but, we are told, we just can’t afford it.

But what does it cost us in the long run not to make this educational investment?

The kids in Dover, and Iowa, and Kansas, whose science classes have become the ground on which grown-ups play out their anxieties about science, are part of your future and mine. So are the kids in the public schools cutting back on science instruction for lack of funds. So are the kids in classrooms where teachers convey the message that one has to be really, really smart — smarter than they are, certainly — to understand anything about science. These kids are the electorate of tomorrow, the workforce of tomorrow, the people who will have to make sensible decisions in their everyday lives as consumers of scientific information.

Even if, as 15 year olds, they don’t fully appreciate the stand being taken on their behalf, I’m not willing to back down from taking it, just the same way I’m not willing to let jaded students out of my classes without some learning taking place. Valuing other members of our society means valuing their future options to set their own course and to find meaning in their own lives.

Making good science education is not sufficient here, but my gut says it may be necessary.