Reports of the National Center for Science Education
November 17, 2008
Review: A Kansan's Guide to Science
A Kansan's Guide to Science
Paulyn Cartwright, Roger L Kaesler, Bruce S Lieberman, and Adrian L Melott
Lawrence (KS): Kansas Geological Survey: 2000. 20 pages.
David C Kopaska-Merkel
The Kansas Geological Survey is one of the nation's largest geological surveys and has a well-deserved reputation for excellence. It was therefore with some measure of excitement that I wrote away for a copy of this new science-education publication. My anticipation was honed to a sharper edge by the recent successful battle to keep science in the newly revised K–12 science standards for Alabama.
Not long ago, Kansas scientists and educated persons everywhere received a wake-up call from the Kansas Board of Education (BOE). Responses varied. Some Kansas responded with their votes, and the election of new members to the Kansas BOE resulted in dramatic improvements to the state's science standards. Some scientists responded by writing this book. As the authors put it: "the challenges to the immensity of geologic time, the nature of evolution, and the origin of the universe that motivated the BOE decision [to eliminate or de-emphasize these topics in the Kansas public school curriculum] were ... not backed up by any actual data." The authors of this book (two of whom, Adrian L Melott and Roger L Kaesler, are NCSE members) set out to create a resource that would help nonscientists learn about science and specifically about evolution. If their goal was to produce a concise, clear, and accurate account, then they succeeded.
The book contains four chapters: "The nature of science", "Understanding evolution", "The history of the earth and the history of life", and "The origin of the universe". In "The nature of science", the authors explain the scientific method, making clear the distinction between the experimental and historical sciences, but also drawing attention to their similarities. For instance, both depend on the development of testable hypotheses. Pseudoscience is contrasted with legitimate science: "Creation science, unlike legitimate sciences, does not seek to derive explanations through observations and testing of the natural world but instead begins with a belief system and then seeks to find evidence to support this view."
The second chapter, "Understanding evolution", addresses topics such as the nature of evolution, facts and theories, and the evidence for evolution. The authors make some important points: for example, that "people ask scientists and teachers, in the interest of fairness, to present the evidence against evolution. Scientists and teachers do not present such evidence because there simply is no such evidence". I think that the authors miss the boat in their otherwise excellent discussion of microevolution and macroevolution. They make no mention of historical examples of macroevolution, of which there are many (for example, Grant 1966; Filchak and others 2000; Greene and others 2000; Hendry and others 2000; Pfrender and others 2000).
"The history of the earth and the history of life" covers just that, with an emphasis on what was happening in Kansas. Despite the regional focus, the chapter is comprehensive and its contents are relevant globally. In "The origin of the universe", the authors summarize the history of the universe in 1.5 pages. The Big Bang theory is really the only topic treated adequately in this section, but it is the most important in the context of the creationist opposition to evolution. The book ends with a short list of references, a brief glossary, and suggested readings and educational resources.
A Kansan's Guide to Science obviously draws heavily on other recent publications about the nature of science. It would be a good model for anyone contemplating writing a booklet on the subject. The book's strengths include a low price, conciseness, and clarity. Its chief weakness is also one of its strengths: brevity. I recommend this book especially for people who know little about science and want a quick introduction. If you know a little and want to know a lot more, this is not for you.
The references on historical speciation were given to me by the evolutionary biologists Victor Albert and Brian Axsmith.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.