Another Perspective on Saturday at AAAS

You’ll have to wait for my description of the day 1 afternoon since my laptop is acting up I don’t have access to the draft I wrote up. So instead of trying to keep things chronological I’m moving on to write up about today. It was both less busy and more dense to describe since both in the morning and afternoon I ended up attending longer sessions that took the time of two sessions such as what I went to yesterday. Despite dealing with a narrower range of topics today, I found the day very interesting.

For the morning session I attended “Brain on Trial” which was setup as a mock trial to show how scientific evidence is used in court.  I decided to leave names out of this description, since I don’t want to seem to be ascribing positions to people that may have been taken as part of the roles they needed to play for the mock trial. The case dealt with someone who had killed his neighbor after she broke up with him and was planning to move. The defense argued that an MRI could show that damage to the defendant’s part of the brain that is involved in high level thinking was significant enough to prevent him from being capable of the planning and intent needed to be guilty of first degree murder. The trial demonstrated two stages. The first stage dealt with the admissibility of evidence, requiring the defense to show that this evidence was relevant to the case and dealt with information that was generally accepted by the science community. Once this was accepted the actual evidence was presented.  The expert witness for the defense seemed to do be able to explain that the MRI was able to identify this kind of damage, and that such damage could result changes in behavior, with the famous example of Phineas Gage being described as analogous.  However the prosecution argued that while such effects are possible results, there wasn’t any evidence presented that this was the case in the particular defendant, much less that such an effect could be demonstrated at the time of the killing. This was supported by calling his own expert witness that testified how such similar damage may not always result in observable changes in behavior, just as behavioral changes may occur that are due to physical problems but may not show up on an MRI scan. The prosecution therefore argued that such images serve no value since they can’t inform one way or another what the defendant’s mental state was.

Once we got into the discussion it became clear that I wasn’t the only one that felt the question turned on what is considered reasonable doubt. Is it enough to simply demonstrate such an effect is possible, or should some link to the specific case be needed? Personally I eventually decided that without additional information presenting the MRI data didn’t add to the case. Possible false negatives and false positives made the defense’s argument seem no more powerful than saying intent isn’t possible because of the physical nature of our brains having an influence on actions.  A second significant factor was the fact that with the audience playing the role of the jury, there was a “high concentration of people with advanced education in Orange County” for today as one of the lawyers put it. In actual cases this information will need to be interpreted by people with much less knowledge about the issues and there is a danger of people being inappropriately convinced by scientific sounding arguments. At one point the prosecutor brought this concern up, and referred to studies saying that people would be much more willing to accept even wildly implausible claims simply by adding the words “neuroscience says” to the description.   

For the afternoon I went to “Science Literacy: How to Train Teachers, Engage Students and Maximize learning” which I was pleasantly surprised to see was organized by Mike Klymkowsky who is a professor in the department where I got my undergrad degree, the Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology department of the CU-Boulder. This was a really interesting session that covered a huge range of issues, which I think I might come back and address again when I have more time, though for today I’ll leave at a brief summary of the speakers. Dr. Klymkowsky started things off with an introduction describing the importance of ensuring the quality of science educators. As he put it, for people that stay in research there’s opportunity to fix problems we acquired as undergrads, once teachers graduate they’re pretty much independent and can “wreak havoc right away.” He was followed by Eugenie Scott from the NCSE whom Kate already mentioned. Today she spoke about how teachers should approach subjects where “teaching the controversy” isn’t a buzz word to justify bringing in non-scientific issues, but where actual controversy exists and can be useful in developing thinking skills. The third speaker was Erin Furtak, also from CU, who spoke about her research in how approaching how teaching culture can be modified to improve skills, particularly focusing on using “professional communities” where teachers can discuss their techniques to address student’s misconceptions on major concepts.

Following Dr. Furtak discussing how improvements can be made from the field, Martin Stordieck presented the work the National Research Council (a divison of the National Academies) is doing to review its recommendations for science standards. Interestingly their draft recommendations will be released publicly in late spring or early summer for feedback before the final report is published in the fall. This work can be followed at their website

This was followed by the presentation of Jo Ellen Roseman on her study of what material textbooks are cover and the relationship to students’ knowledge. Apparently the number of books that covered at particular topic and students’ ability to answer question on that topic even years later and following additional coursework in the subject very highly correlated. She argued that this demonstrates the need for quality textbooks,  since even with other factors, the material that makes it into the books is the generally the ceiling for what the students will be exposed to.

For more of an education policy overview the panel included Jim Gates who , in addition to being an university professor, also serves on both the Maryland State Board of Education and the Presidents’ Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The final speaker was Melanie Cooper, a chemistry professor from Clemson University whose work focuses on education, and whose talk was titled “Intro Courses: The Root of All Evil. ” This discussed how the nature of these large classes leads to many students not actually learning much from them, and instead reinforces their existing misconceptions. Since many educators don’t take more advanced science courses, this is the level they can only teach these subjects at a more superficial level and standards are written with these ideas in mind. That results in students having many misconceptions which get reinforced when they end up in intro college courses, and so the cycle continues.  It was an interesting perspective, though she while she said she’s working to find ways to break this cycle, not much of that aspect seemed to get into the talk, beyond the need to have standards and assessments that more accurately reflect the needs of a good science education.