Sunday, 22 April 2007

Toying with the Truth in Science - part 6

I recently spotted a group called "Science Just Science" (SjS) - now listed in the links on the left of the page.

SjS have done an analysis of much of the Truth In Science materials. I recommend you pop over and have a look at their site.

I will be continuing to work through the TiS materials myself but I will be drawing on the SjS material for inspiration and will provide direct links to the relevant articles there for you as well. They have kindly agreed to allow me to do this and even allowed the use some of their work if appropriate - thank you Science Just Science.

The SjS analysis of the teachers manual can be found here.

SjS have an approach which gives you many more links to background materials and suggestions for further reading, whereas I try to keep things fairly self contained in each posting although I do of course link to other materials as well. So whichever style you prefer you do at least now have a choice.

Anyway back to the Teachers manual sent with DVDs to all UK Schools and Colleges in Sept 2006 by the creationist group Truth In Science (TiS). I have covered the letter which accompanied this material in a previous post. The letter claims that the materials is not just OK for use in schools but will help children pass their exams. This claim gets even harder to accept when we see the title for section 4 of the "learning outcomes" which is entitled "How did life begin?" and we realise that this whole topic is not part of the curriculum.

Looking through my son's GCSE revision guide I did manage to find an "exam style" question and answer as follows;

1) How long ago do we believe that life began on Earth? (1 mark)
2) What are two different theories about how life first began on earth? (4 marks)

Let's look at the actual textbook answers and then compare them to the TiS material and you can judge for yourself how many marks your kids would get if your school was using the TiS DVDs.

AQA Science GCSE Biology give the following answers;

1) 3500 million years ago.
2) It arrived from another planet, possibly by meteorites, or there was a particular mix of chemicals on Earth; lightning provided the energy to create life from this mix.

Whereas TiS say the following;

Understand that Darwin concentrated on how new forms and structures arise in living organisms, and only briefly described how life might have originated in the first place.

Recognise Oparin's theory of chemical evolution.

Understand that proteins are a major component of all cells and carry out many essential processes.

Understand that proteins are made up of precise sequences of amino acids , and this determines a complex 3D structure which is essential to their function.

Recognise that a protein sequence is analogous to a sentence.

Understand that the chance of a simple protein of 100 amino acids forming in a chemical soup is vanishingly small.

Know that the simplest cells contain 600 different proteins of over 100 amino acids in length.

Recognise that mainstream scientists no longer believe that chance alone could have caused the formation of the first functional protein.

There is a very rich vein of rubbish in this but nothing which actually gives you any answers which might help you to pass the exam. Passing the exam is supposed to be the point.

Lets dive into their list of points and see how many mistakes, irrelevancies and misconceptions it contains - hold your nose.

The first point about Darwin is very true, the origin of life is a whole field in itself called abiogenesis and is not part of evolutionary theory at all. However, he way in which TiS present this fact appears to use it to attempt to cast doubt on Darwin's work. The fact that Darwin did not propose a detailed theory on the origin of life has no bearing on the accuracy of his theory.

The second point is rather odd - I can't find any reference to this at all in the revision guide for GCSE Biology - so whilst he did exist and did some ground breaking work in abiogenesis, I can't see how knowledge and understanding of Oparin would help anyone pass their exam - see here for more details.

The next two comments would seem to be harmless. This is unusual - perhaps they are merely prepare the ground for something more tasty?

The odds of a 100 amino acid protein forming from random combinations of amino acids is vanishingly small.

Ah! Now we see it. "Wow, how can the silly scientists pretend this isn't true?"

Well, scientists do not claim that this is how the first proteins were formed. This is a good example of the dishonest creationist tactic of producing very large numbers to impress people, when these numbers have no real bearing on the arguments. In addition to this always remember that this entire topic is not even in the curriculum.

. . . contains 600 different proteins . . .

"And you need how many? - Well - No chance at all then - Silly scientists!"

First of all you need to understand that scientists do not claim that the first living beings resembled even the simplest of modern cells. They use the idea of a protocell as an example of a system that preceeded modern cells. As remember that abiogenesis is a different subject from evolution and is not even in the curriculum.

And this next learning point rivals the classic "Have you stopped beating your wife?" question;

Scientists no longer believe that the first proteins were formed by chance.

In addition to the fact that no one has ever said that it was chance alone, this comment also harps back to the incomplete and vague descriptions of evolution theory we have already seen from TiS talking about "blind chance" and "random processes" etc. High school kids who have been taught the basic facts about evolution can explain that random variation plus natural selection is the key here. Missing out a major part of the theory and then making statements to prove it couldn't work is a favourite tactic of TiS.

As always, suggestions and corrections always gratefully accepted.

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