Eric Feuerborn

Science, Education, Faith Issues Examined in Emerson-Wier Symposium

Friday, April 3, 2009

Six great minds argued various perspectives on the future of science and education at the third annual Emerson-Wier Liberal Arts Symposium at the University of Science and Arts March 26. Among the issues on the table were science literacy, interdisciplinarity in science and the evolution vs. creation debate during the program called The Promise of Science and Challenges of Science Education.

Dr. Robert Frodeman, director of the University of North Texas Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, discussed What Does an Interdisciplinary Science Look Like?

"There are three components in most societal issues today -- an ethics or value component, a scientific component and a policy component." Considering these three components, science will look different in the future than today, Frodeman said.

"The 21st century is the end of the age of science, but not the end of science. Science will be with us in one form or another. There is a questioning of the scientific method. Is there one standard approach to all knowledge?" Frodeman says that the future of science may look a lot more interdisciplinary.

"Scientific method may be replaced by a multi-perspective, interdisciplinary approach where we learn to blend different disciplines. The different disciplines fit together, but not in a unified way, but as different aspects or views of the world. We never settle on one discipline as the king or queen of all knowledge."

Frodeman is the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Interdisciplinarity – to be published sometime this year – and co-editor of Encyclopedia of Environmental Ethics and Philosophy. Throughout his work, he emphasizes the role that philosophy can play in addressing ongoing controversies such as acid mine drainage, global climate change, and Hurricane Katrina. His most recent work focuses on the theory and practice of interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge.

Why Science Matters was the discussion topic of Dr. Kenneth R. Hobson, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Oklahoma.

"My answer to why science matters comes in several parts. Science has innumerable, tangible, real-world benefits, but this is not its only or most important goal. The ultimate goal of science is to prove what is true.

"Science disproves urban legends, manipulative advertising, spin, superstition, mysticism and misinformation which are all abundant today. Science gives us a way to think for ourselves -- to critically evaluate the facts and decide what we believe.

"The pursuit of scientific knowledge is one of the greatest gifts we have -- one of the greatest pleasures that we can know as humans," Hobson said.

Hobson works to understand the causes and ecological consequences of insect behavior. Much of his research has dealt with scolytid bark beetles and in understanding the causes and ecological consequences of insect behavior. He has been involved in research projects with the Department of Zoology and Sam Noble Museum at the University of Oklahoma, the School of Forestry at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the University of Wisconsin, Utah State University, USDA Forest Service, the University of California, and the University of Washington.

Dr. Edna Manning, current and first president of the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics (OSSM), discussed Building a Premier Science and Mathematics High School in Oklahoma.

"The main difference between OSSM and a typical high school is that the focus is always on academics. If we were honest about the typical high school today, we would say that it is focused on activities and academics is something we slip in among the activities that take the time and resources.

"The real key to our program is, of course, the faculty. They want to focus on teaching. What we give them to help that focus is small classes, bright students and a focus on academics," Manning said.

"We set high standards for our students, but the best thing we do is to help them achieve and reach those standards. We improve performance and that's the key to our success and the student's success."

Manning served as assistant superintendent of Edmond Public Schools and superintendent of Shawnee Schools. She was also superintendent of a suburban Corpus Christi school district. She has taught mathematics at both the high school and college level.

She was named one of the “Top 100 School Administrators in North America” by a publication of the National School Boards Association and was inducted into the Oklahoma Educators Hall of Fame in 2007.

Obstacles to Science Literacy was the discussion topic of Dr. Keith B. Miller, a research assistant professor of geology at Kansas State University. Miller outlined three challenges to the definition of science.

"Within science itself, you cannot address or test supernatural actions. The idea is that science, because it is confined to looking at natural phenomena, is therefore an expression of atheism. The idea is that we have to allow other belief systems an equal share of the discussion.

"Christian philosopher Paul deVries said 'if we are free to let the natural sciences be limited to their perspectives under the guidance of methodological naturalism, then other sources of truth will be more defensible. However, to insist that God-talk be included in the natural sciences is to submit unwisely to the modern myth of scientism -- the myth that all truth is scientific.'"

The second challenge is that science deals with unchangeable facts. "Science is not a mastery of a body of unchangeable facts. Observational facts by themselves do not yield understanding. Theoretical inquiry is the essence of science. Theories integrate diverse observations and give them meaning and coherence," Miller said.

The final challenge to the definition of science is that historical sciences are not testable. Some believe historical events can’t be understood scientifically because they are unrepeatable and unobservable.

"Testable expectations generated by hypotheses in the historical sciences are continually tested by new observations. Research in the historical sciences proceeds by an almost continuous process of hypothesis creation and testing."

Miller is involved at both the state and national levels in the advocacy for quality public science education and public science literacy. He believes that modern science is not a threat to Christian faith and that people need not feel forced into a choice between evolution and creation.

The fifth and final panelist, Joseph Thai, Presidential Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma School of Law, discussed Intelligent Design as a Challenge to the Separation of Church and State.

Thai outlined four levels of a "wall of separation" between church and state as defined by the establishment clause in the Constitution -- state religion, direct coercion, indirect coercion, endorsement and purpose/effect.

"Most would agree that the establishment clause prevents the establishment of a state religion. On top of that, everyone in the current Supreme Court would also say that the clause would go a little further and prohibits the government from forcing people by threat of law into religious exercise or into not engaging in religious exercise.

"A majority on the court also believes that the government cannot indirectly coerce people into practicing religion. Beyond that, historically the court also holds that the clause prohibits government from endorsing religion -- from taking a position to make religion somehow relevant," Thai said.

Most of the court cases surrounding the separation of church and state come at the purpose/effect level, Thai said.

"The principle behind these types of laws (laws and court cases based on the Scopes trial, creation science and intelligent design) is not to advance science inquiry, but to advance and to promote a particular religious worldview. This is simply prohibited by the Constitution for the government to promote one view or another, " Thai said.

Thai teaches Supreme Court decision-making, First Amendment, criminal procedure and Constitutional law. He was named the outstanding faculty member of the OU College of Law in 2005 and 2008. Students also named him the university-wide outstanding faculty member in 2005. He received the President’s Associates Presidential Professorship in 2007.

Dr. Edward O. Wilson gave closing remarks at the conclusion of the panel discussion. Wilson was the featured speaker during the evening session of the Symposium. He is one of the world's most distinguished biologists and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.

USAO’s Emerson-Wier Liberal Arts Symposium series is sponsored annually by the USAO Foundation and was inspired by endowment funds created by Oklahoma College for Women alumnae Gladys Anderson Emerson and Nance Foules Wier.