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May 2012 Archives

 From the Herald's website, we hear that

[a]ll children are psychic and they're tuned in to their abilities now more than ever, according to one of Australia's top intuitives.

Oh, really? 

And there's more: 

"We're starting to see little kids who can see spirits, who can actually validate who it is. It's different to a child saying, 'I've got a monster on top of my bed'. We know that's imagination.

And seeing 'spirits' isn't imagination? How does a little kid 'validate' who a 'spirit' is supposed to be? Often children will have seen photos of various family members (some deceased); how does our Australian 'intuitive', Sue Bishop, know that the child is not simply populating the usual childhood imaginary world with faces from those albums? It's certainly a simpler (& more likely) option than suggesting that the 'spirits' are real. And encouraging children to believe otherwise is not exactly helping to develop their critical thinking skills.

(Apparently, the ability to 'see' this stuff depends on the state of your skull. No, seriously - we're told that once the fontanelle atop the skull closes off, kids are cut off from the spirit world.)

Mind you, Ms Bishop also seems to believe in reincarnation:

"I believe that each evolution carnates to bring a new gift, a new awareness to help us grow and expand also to deal with the problems created from the former generation," she says.

Which leads me to the next question - rather than parroting the claims for juvenile psychics, why on earth wasn't the Herald's reporter asking these questions? What on earth has happened to investigative journalism, when material like this is given page space with no questions asked?

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Carl Sagan was a great science communicator with a wonderful turn of phrase. I found this quote a little while back & think it's still apt today:


sagan on science & society.png


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 I've written before about the so-called 'Miracle Mineral Supplement', or MMS: a substance that is no more, & no less, than industrial bleach. Regardless of its actual nature, MMS continues to be touted as a panacea for just about every ill known to mankind. The other day Orac posted a piece on MMS, & so I settled down to read the anticipated lengthy article full of Respectful Insolence (TM). The story he told saddened, angered, & horrified me (in roughly equal measures.

Why? Because it turns out that there are people who tout MMS - remember, we are talking bleach here - as a 'cure' for autism. And others who use it for that purpose. They deliver it in drinks, & via enemas. Frequent enemas: 500mL water + 10-15 drops of 28% sodium chlorite, administered into & left in the colon for 20-30 minutes, 2-3 times a week . I can (sort of) understand consenting adults using the stuff, although I would regard them as being ill-informed - but to force it on children simply beggars belief.

'Appalling' is probably too mild a term to use...

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I have spent a lot of time lately advising students on their programs of study. (This is one of the reasons my blogging has been sparse of late: I have been filling in while we are 'between' registrars & as a result have almost nil 'spare' time.) One of the things we often talk about is which major(s) a student should study, where a 'major' is the subject that they will devote most time to over the second & third years of their degree.

This is an important decision for first-year students as it pretty much determines how they're going to spend much of their study time in the ensuing years, and so we take quite a bit of time to talk about the various options, and I often find myself asking 'where do you see yourself in in 5 years' time? It's serious stuff as you don't want to get it wrong, and sometimes I encounter someone who is just a bit confused by the various majors on offer & how they're structured - but happily I have yet to meet anyone with the views parodied by the good folks at xkcd :-) (Thanks to my friends at Number8Network for passing this on, and yes - someone has already had a go at singing it!)

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Recently, while lurking at Orac's place, I noticed a couple of comments about a report by the Swiss government that apparently endorsed homeopathy. The Natural News website is having a ball with this, with its author saying things like 

[t]his breakthrough report affirmed that homeopathic treatment is both effective and cost-effective and that homeopathyic treatment should be reimbursed by Switzerland's national health insurance program.

Now, if this were true, it would surely mean that the Swiss government (or its representatives) had been persuaded by evidence that the laws of physics and chemistry had been overturned, and treating people with what is essentially water (or sugar, if you go for the pills) really does have health effects beyond helping someone who's dehydrated. Is that really what the 'Swiss government report' says?

Well, no. No, the policy-makers of Switzerland don't say that at all - something that has already been amply demonstrated by other bloggers, including Zeno (who provides a link to all relevant documents) and Andy Lewis at the Quackometer. The claim that the Swiss government has endorsed the use of homeopathy is simply an attempt at an argument from authority, for in fact the document claiming efficacy for highly diluted substances (which can include things like Berlin Wall, Tyrannosaurus rex, and antimatter- yes, really) was written, not by those policy-makers, but by a group of homeopaths and edited by academic staff at a private German university specialising in alternative medicine.

What did the Swiss government really have to say about this document? Well, it was hardly a ringing endorsement & certainly didn't affirm the efficacy of treating illnesses with water &/or lactose. In fact, it agreed with an overall review panel that said

[I]t is very obvious that all or some of the authors have a positive attitude towards the treatments in question or are convinced about their efficacy. Unquestionably, strict proponents of the usual hierarchy of evidence will regard the presented evaluations as scientifically untenable and unreasonably positive...

You can read more (much more) at the Quackometer & at Zeno's blog.

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 Via my colleague Daniel Laughlin comes this link to what he describes as "a simple & elegant description of critical thinking." It's a visual description, not a whole bunch of words, & strikes me as being a Really Useful Resource for classroom discussion around critical thinking & the nature of science. Enjoy :-)

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 I've been following the various media reports on class sizes and performance pay for teachers with considerable interest. This afternoon I was sent a link to an article in the National Business Review - the article itself was quite... interesting (surely the number of teachers in this country hasn't increased from 10-11,000 to 52,500 over the last decade? Why didn't the reporter question that statement?), but it's something in the comments thread that I'd like to address here.  'Anonymous' remarked that

Police should get a lot more pay than teachers. They put their lives on the line every day , they have to deal with some of the worst members of our society on a daily basis , they work 8 fullon hours each day and usually 10 hours(with no extra pay) unlike teachers who have plenty of free time , they work shift work which is very disruptive to family life and they only get the 20 days holiday each year that most workers get . Compared to those in the police,school teachers have the good life believe me.....

I agree, members of our police force do all of this & earn every cent of their salaries. But I can't agree with the implication that teachers, & the job teachers do, are somehow less valuable to society. Just how much value do we place, should we place, on those people society expects to prepare our young people for the increasingly complex demands of the world beyond school?

We need to remember, too, that in some cases teachers' lives are also on the line.

And I must strongly disagree with the statement that teachers get 'plenty of free time'. I've worked with an awful lot of dedicated, highly skilled teachers over the years since I moved back to university from my own secondary school classroom, and both my experiences & theirs belie that 'free time' statement. Teachers spend around 5 hours a day actually in the classroom, with up to 30+ students at a time (with the possibility of more, under the changes recently flagged by the Ministry). Typically there are meetings before & after school, & grounds duty on a rostered basis - and let's not forget that a teacher doesn't 'just' teach in a particular subject area but spends time on things like pastoral care as well.

The extra-curricular activities that add so much richness to students' school experiences wouldn't be possible if teachers didn't offer their services in lunch breaks, after school, in weekends & holidays: something for which they don't get extra pay, either, and which - from personal experience - can also be very disruptive to family life. (The NZ International Biology Olympiad teams, for example, owe their considerable success to the fact that classroom teachers give up evenings, weekends & holidays to coach, assess & mentor them.) And then there's the marking, lesson-planning, report-writing, keeping up with all the other paperwork, parent-teacher interviews, all of which chews into the evenings & weekends, & those on-the-face-of-it generous 'holidays' as well. 

Free time on a daily basis? I don't think so.

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 I occasionally (very occasionally, right now, with my workload the way it is) watch the Symphony of Science series on youtube. Today I took a few minutes & watched "The world of the dinosaurs", which is quite good** in a techno- sort of way.

Why am I mentioning this? Because when I was taking part in Primary Science Week, dinosaurs did get a mention. Most children seem fascinated by dinos (partly, I suspect, because they are big, dangerous, & safely extinct, as Stephen Jay Gould once remarked), and that fascination can lead them into all sorts of science-based questions. Perhaps we should make more use of dinosaurs, in primary education. (Plenty of opportunities there for building dino-science into literacy and numeracy work, after all!)

** although the pedant in me insists on noting that pterosaurs, pliosaurs, & their ilk were most definitely not dinosaurs!

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As I mentioned in my last post, this week is National Primary Science Week, intended to provide science-focused professional development for primary school teachers and competitions, activities,and resources to support science teaching. I'd been asked if I'd contribute to the local program in Hamilton, & so today I trotted off to Berkeley Intermediate Normal School with a small selection of skull casts clutched in my arms (I discovered a few years back that this habit had earned me the moniker of "the Skull Lady"!). I'd been asked to run an activity on teaching about evolution: the best way to do this, to me, has always been to model it, & the hominin skulls where there to give us a bunch of talking points.

So there I was, with a room full of eager youngsters, their teachers, the bones and a whiteboard. The time flew by - in fact, we went well over time, talking for nearly 2 hours rather than the scheduled one. The students were great - attentive, courteous, curious, enthusiastic, & deep-thinking, and the questions they asked were at times really challenging. We talked about common descent; relatedness; common ancestry (& why the common ancestor of humans & chimps would look different from both); why infant chimps and humans look more similar than the adults; natural selection; mutations; human migration patterns; why carnivores have bigger brains than herbivores; how scientists actually 'do' science and why their ideas on an issue might change; what the two words in a binomial name tell us; radiometric dating; how to tell the age of an individual at death; how to tell the gender of a set of human remains; why Neanderthals became extinct... and along the way we somehow got onto anencephaly, & ethics! 

I think we all enjoyed it, and everyone gained some new knowledge. Personally I found those two hours great fun, but also challenging and, well, quite tiring! I don't know that I could manage to be a primary school teacher, actually :-)

One of the key things I got out of today, actually, was a reminder of the huge enthusiasm that young students have for science. The desire for knowledge, and the thinking skills, that I saw today were truly inspiring. But that keen scientific curiosity is also something that we need to feed, and support, and encourage. Primary school teachers, in particular, need all the help they can get in this area. So next year, if you're asked to contribute to National Primary Science Week - say 'yes"! In fact, why wait until then? I rather think your local primary school might be glad to hear from you now :-)

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The Education Review Office's report on primary school science is all over the news today: here at Yahoo, for example. You'll find the original paper, Science in the New Zealand Curriculum: Years 5 to 8, on the ERO website. It does not fill me with joy and the following quotes from the report's Overview should show why:

Effective practice in science teaching and learning in Years 5 to 8 was evident in less than a third of the 100 schools [surveyed for the report]. The wide variability of practices between highly effective and ineffective practices was found across all school types.


Few principals and teachers demonstrated an understanding of how they could integrate the National Standards in reading, writing and mathematics into their science programmes. In the less effective schools principals saw science learning as a low priority. They struggled to maintain a balance between effective literacy and numeracy teaching, and providing sufficient time for teaching other curriculum areas, but particularly science.


Knowledge-based programmes were evident rather than interactive thinking, talking, and experimenting approaches... Student involvement in experimental work was variable.

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