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Selective Critical Thinking at the National Center for Science Education

Should students be allowed to critically analyze the findings of science or assess the strengths and weaknesses of scientific hypotheses and theories? Our friends at the National Center for Science Education can't seem to make up their minds about that. Try to propose inserting the phrase "assess the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories," especially with respect to evolution, into any state's science standards. The NCSE and their allies will unleash a torrent of vitriol on you. Indeed, they portray such language as "code" for sneaking Biblical creationism into public school science curricula.

However, in other areas, apparently it's fine to encourage students to critically analyze and assess the strength and weaknesses of scientific ideas. At least that's what the NCSE's programs and policy director, Mark McCaffrey, seems to think. Writing at the NCSE's Science League of America blog ("Teachable FREAKIN' Moments"), McCaffrey discusses a developing technology that involves replacing existing roadways with a type of road-worthy solar panel that captures the heat from the sun and converts it into usable energy. He includes a link to a video that explains the concept. (The video is well worth watching.) The inventors are trying to raise capital for the venture through a crowd-funding source. The concept really is cool, and if it can work as advertised, it could potentially be a significant game changer in the generation of usable power.

McCaffrey sees this as a wonderful teaching opportunity for students on climate change and energy and all the rest, which undoubtedly it is.

Too good to be true? Maybe. But if you are looking for ways to get kids excited about science and technology...and even (gasp!) math, plus plant seeds in their minds for possible new career pathways that don't even yet exist, have them check out the Solar FREAKIN' Roadways videos. Then have them come up with a list of opportunities -- and challenges -- that solar roadways present.

Students should obviously be encouraged to be skeptical of the claims and to "do the math" themselves, asking critical questions about what would really be involved with deploying the vision. Advanced students -- perhaps as part of their performance assessment relating to specific Next Generation Science Standards -- may be able to roughly calculate how much energy and what materials would be required to manufacture the glass hexagons out of recycled glass, or the various solar cells, LEDs, and microprocessor components.

It's odd, yet telling, that McCaffrey has no problem with teachers encouraging students to "come up with...challenges," "be skeptical...[and]...ask critical questions" on this, even as his NCSE colleagues go into a tizzy when the same thing is proposed in the context of evolution. Why is evolution off limits? Of course, one obvious answer is that having students assess the scientific merits of building a solar road doesn't carry the worldview implications that materialistic Darwinism does. But if that's true, then so much the worse for the NCSE and their allies who insist it's all about preserving, protecting and defending real "science." Or maybe the real worry for McCaffrey and his colleagues is that students may come to see why so many science educators just don't get evolution, as I pointed out recently.

If the video of a proposed solar roadway is such a compelling "teachable freakin' moment," offering, as McCaffrey says, "ways to get kids excited about science," why would allowing students to weigh the evidence for Darwinian theory in the same way not offer equally compelling, teachable moments? What harm would students suffer if, for example, they were allowed to see our recent video on the walking kinesin, "The Workhorse of the Cell," and then assess the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian explanations for it? If, as the NCSE wants us to believe, Darwinism is as "firmly established as the theory of gravity," why fear allowing students to critically evaluate its claims with respect to a specific cellular structure? Surely so well established a scientific concept could withstand the scrutiny of K-12 students!

McCaffrey and his colleagues have no qualms with teaching students how to critical analyze and assess scientific concepts per se. It is only when students might turn that critical analysis and assessment on the dogma of Darwinism that they get into a dither. As some states have wrestled with inserting language into their science standards about allowing critical assessment of the claims of evolution, it would be interesting to ask opponents of such proposals, such as the NCSE, why its perfectly fine to teach critical thinking skills in other areas of science, but not evolution. I would even quote McCaffrey directly, that it is the position of the NCSE, apparently, that "Students should obviously be encouraged to be skeptical of the claims and to 'do the math' themselves, asking critical questions," etc.

Whatever the response, you can be sure of one thing: none of it will have anything to do with actual science.

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