AAAS Annual Conference: Saturday

Exploding Myths on Reactor Security, Harm Reduction, and Genetically Modified Organisms

Day 2 started off with a very interesting although potentially one-sided panel aiming to dispel common misconceptions concerning three major global science policy issues. The first talk was given by Dr. Roland Schenkel, a nuclear energy consultant from Germany. The main theme of his talk was that keeping nuclear energy is imperative to a successful global future. His reasoning behind this was that nuclear energy is sustainable, it addresses climate change issues, and will secure long-term energy supply and thus reduce global tensions pertaining to gas availability. Additionally, he claimed that a new generation of safer and more efficient reactors are ready for deployment and solutions for waste disposal management are already available. Dr. Schenkel explained that although there are 30 countries with nuclear reactors, the regulations and policies involved varies substantially. He stressed that there needs to be pressure to establish a global regulatory framework for safety with internal benchmarks and that all work pertaining to nuclear energy needs to be open and transparent in order to increase public acceptance and dispel common misconceptions. The second talk was given by David Oriely, the Group Scientific Director for British America Tobacco. The main point of his presentation was that smoking harm reduction can be obtained by producing and marketing safer sources of nicotine. He presented data showing that people who use solely nicotine products such as snus or smokeless tobacco have an extremely decreased incidence of lung and other cancers. While I admit the data demonstrating that nicotine alone products are safer was convincing, the issue still exists that people will be ingesting nicotine, which will still hijack your brain reward pathways and produce adverse effects such as cross sensitization to other drugs of abuse.  Dr. Guy van dee Eede from the Joint Research Center gave the final talk of the session which dealt with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). His main thesis was that GMOs are a revolution in evolution in that they are subject to evolution themselves and therefore should not be viewed as so foreign. He maintained that GMOs are an integral part of the future of global food supply and that work needs to be done to increase public knowledge and expel myths regarding GMOs. Overall I do agree with the myths presented and dispelled but I also would have liked to have heard from a similar panel presenting the opposing view on these controversial issues.

 

Carl Wieman, A Scientific Approach to Science Education

 Dr. Carl Wieman is the Associate Director for Science in the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the U.S. President and gave one of Saturday’s Topical Lectures. He described an alternative science teaching method to the typical teacher stand in front of a class and lecture from a textbook. He described that many teachers, including himself as a young professor, believe that when a student does not understand a seemingly basic concept it is because they are not trying hard enough and thus the answer is to teach them the same material again with that belief that eventually the student will get it. The new approach draws from the basis of how scientists think and then applies that to the classroom setting; scientists are experts that have a mental organizational framework that they can access and apply, they can see complex relationships and patterns, and have the ability to monitor their own thinking and learning process.  The approach is to, instead of lecturing to a classroom about scientific concepts already explained in the assigned textbook, give the students challenging but doable tasks and questions with the explicit focus on expert-like thinking, feedback, and reflection. An example of this new method is to first pre-assign the textbook reading of the material and give a subsequent online quiz. Next, because the reading has already taken place, the class becomes about problem solving and critical thinking. Each student has a hand-held answer remote and the class begins with a multiple-choice question pertaining to the previously read material (data shows that when a student is forced to give an answer that they are accountable for they are more invested in the answer and think more deeply). Before the answer to the question is shown, small groups of students debate the various multiple-choice answers, then the class as a whole discusses the different answers, and finally the answer is shown and the problem is explained by the teacher. Dr. Weiman gave numerous examples of improved class performance using this new teaching strategy. An example taken from an introductory UW biology class showed that not only did some of the students improve with this teaching method but that the whole bell curve shifted to the right (including low performing and underrepresented or minority populations). Based on this very convincing real world data one would think that teachers around the world are accepting and using this new strategy, but in reality change has been hard to bring about. Dr. Weiman concluded his talk with speculation about why it has been so hard for teachers to give up the traditional methods but also with hope that with new efforts by organizations such as AAU, APLU, professional societies, and NAS, increasing numbers will begin to adopt these new strategies.

 

Beyond Evolution: Religious Questions in Science Classrooms

I was very excited to attend the session on religion and science, as I have on many occasions had to address these issues with friends and family. The talks focused on teaching evolution and climate change to religious students. Dr. Ken Miller from Brown University showed data demonstrating that as the level of education increases, even throughout the four years of college, the acceptance of evolution increases, regardless of religious view or political beliefs. Additionally data shows that as education level increases students stop believing in the idea that science and religion have to be in conflict and that either one or the other is correct. Surprisingly, while this increased belief in evolution is progressing, students in the sciences are also becoming more, not less religious! Unfortunately many students and the general public are shown anti-evolution propaganda and taught that science is evil and will destroy morality. Examples of Rick Santorum’s stance on science and evolution and documentaries like Expelled narrated by Ben Stein were given. Dr. Miller closed with a three-part strategy: one to teach more science, two to teach science as a process and not as a doctrine, and three to teach the interconnectedness of science and religion. His bottom line was that instead of adhering to the conflict model and pitting science against religion we should be teaching more and better science. Dr. Mark Mecafery next discussed the issues of teaching climate change to religious students. His talk focused on the history of climate change research, started in the early 1800s by contemporaries of Darwin. Studies done in the 1950s postulated that by year 2000 temperatures would be increasing and melting of the polar ice cap would be seen. Dr. Mecafery suggested that so many people deny that climate change is occurring because certain groups have made the environment and climate change into a new religion, again pitting science against religion and teaching an either/or belief. As far as solutions go, he also echoed Dr. Miller that we need to teach more, better science in an attempt to expel the now common notion that science is anti-religion and thus threatening to the sanctity of life.

 

Plenary Panel Science is not Enough

I ended the day with attending the Plenary Panel Science is not Enough. The panel was moderated by Dr. Frank Sesno and included Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Olivia Judson, and Dr. Hans Rosling. The panel addressed why even in the face of overwhelming data and support for climate change by the scientific community so much of the American public is in disbelief, and focused on the increasing need for outreach and communication by scientists. The panel was videotaped and will be available online, so instead of describing it, I will provide a link to the video when made available to the public.

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