29 February 2008

Weekly sampler 8

It's snowing again. Cycling seems like a childhood memory. You'd think this would give me more opportunities to work on blog posts. Gah.

1. My friends and colleagues, Debbie and Loren Haarsma, were the subject of a nice local news story, focusing on their work as scientists and Christians. They have a superb new book out, which I've promised to review here sometime soon.

2. Is evolution too difficult or complicated for secondary students to grasp? This is a question that was discussed in the blogosphere recently, and even when religious/cultural debris is cleared away, I think the question is still a good one. (Add the religious/cultural influences back in, and you realize that teaching evolution at any level entails both the careful explication of the relevant principles and the careful dismantling of deliberately-introduced misinformation.) Some of the key concepts in evolutionary theory are decidedly non-intuitive. For example, I have the impression that it's just plain hard for people to get their heads around the notion of different species (let alone different families, orders, etc.) springing from a common ancestor. Maybe it's the ongoing influence of old errors (in this case, I think, orthogenesis), but I do wonder if common descent is one of those ideas that our kludgy brains just don't get straight off.

But of course that doesn't mean evolution can't be effectively taught to high schoolers. Algebra, after all, doesn't come naturally to most people, but I haven't seen anyone seriously propose that it be removed from high school curricula.

In fact, I think evolution is a lot like algebra. It takes time to teach right. It's a demanding subject, but it's within the capacity of high schoolers to understand. Levels of mastery and comprehension will vary significantly. Teachers who are poorly-trained and/or unprepared may do more harm than good. The main difference between evolution and algebra is this: there are no ministries or institutes devoted to hindering the work of algebra teachers. (Well, okay, there's MTV, but you get my point.)

3. And on that subject, PBS (WGBH Boston) has collaborated on the development of some resources for instructor professional development, with the aim of providing "the background and skills they need to counter pressures to present or address religiously based alternatives to the theory of evolution." The tools draw on materials from NOVA's "Judgment Day" episode on ID and Dover. I've only browsed, but there looks to be some very good stuff on the site. Maybe I'll comment further sometime.

4. Until this week, I was unaware of the ministry of Timothy Keller and Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Redeemer alone is an interesting and encouraging story, but now Keller has published a book in which he discusses (among other things) evolution. He was recently interviewed by First Things, and his comments were discussed extensively on the ASA listserv, where some errors (or simplifications) were dissected. It would be interesting to compare his thoughts with those of Tony Campolo: both accept evolutionary science, but "timidly" as one ASA commenter put it.

5. Oliver Sacks is now blogging (occasionally) at the New York Times, in a blog devoted to migraines. (Subtitled "Perspectives on a Headache." Ouch.) I'm not terribly interested in migraines, but if Oliver Sacks wrote an essay about sawdust, I'd read it with rabid anticipation. A recent piece on patterned visual sensations accompanying migraine auras begins with Sacks' description of his own experiences, and ends with musings on the potential universality of "self-organization," with the typical breathtaking Sacks prose beating the path. (Via Neurophilosophy.)

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