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Real vs. fake controversy

I liked this essay comparing areas in evolutionary biology where there is genuine controversy -- i.e., where people who are actually collecting data and publishing on a topic disagree -- vs. the phony controversies imagined by creationists. Group selection may still almost qualify as a controversy, a question I may address in a later post, but age of the earth, common ancestry of all species (at least those studied so far!), and the power of natural selection to solve difficult problems are not at all controversial among those actively publishing on related topics.

The question of how much exposure high school students should have to genuine scientific controversies seems a bit more complex to me. I agree that helping students get enough of the basics to understand active controversies in any depth is a big challenge. On the other hand, I've been amazed how many high school students (and their parents) think that the only definition of "research" is looking up information in a library or on the web. If we want students to understand that scientific research is an exciting, ongoing activity, some kind of exposure to areas where scientists disagree seems essential. Areas of research that are easier to understand, like the mindless screening of drugs, don't convey the intellectual excitement of real science.

Here's a seminar class I've thought about for either high school seniors or first-year college students. First, let's set the minimum standard for a scientific controversy as: at least two conflicting points of view, each represented by data-containing papers from at least two nonoverlapping groups, in journals with an impact factor of at least 1.0. Each week we consider one question, such as:
1) What causes AIDS?
2) What is killing amphibians around the world?
3) How old is the earth (within 10%, say)?
4) What living species is the closest relative of chimpanzees?
Students get points for showing that each topic was controversial, at least at one time, with a big bonus for whoever shows controversy most recently. Then we could make a time-line, showing when each question was settled (pending new data, of course!).

Comments

I'm waaay behind on reading and just catching up. I think this is an excellent idea, especially the requirement for published paper! I'd imagine that high school students would need lots of help in interpreting the papers though. We weren't introduced to the primary literature until the first year of undergrad and even then it took a lot of getting used to.

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