SGU Episode 138

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SGU Episode 138
March 12th 2008
SGU 137 SGU 139
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
O: Ola Fincke
Quote of the Week
'When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.'
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Show Notes
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

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Interview with Ola Fincke (33:47)[edit]

* Ola Fincke is a member of the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education

Professor and evolutionary ecologist in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma. She received an M.A. in science education from Tufts University, and taught high school science in the US and Europe before getting her Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Iowa. She was a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and a NATO Fellow at Oxford University. Her research focuses on the evolution of reproductive behavior, sexual conflict and speciation, and consequences of tropical forest fragmentation on insect populations. At OU, she teaches evolution, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary ecology.

S: Joining us now is Ola Fincke. Ola, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

O: Thanks.

S: Ola is a member of the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. She's also a professor and evolutionary ecologist in the Department of Zoology in University of Oklahoma. Ola, we asked you to talk with us this evening about a bill that has passed the House Education Committee in Oklahoma. Can you tell us about that?

O: Well, it's, yes, it's House Bill 22-11; and it's a similar one has been put up in other states. And it's one that is really, I think, an excuse to undermine science education in the state of Oklahoma. The bill is about its entitled religious viewpoints; anti-discrimination act. And it basically, it's a rather hard bill to understand, but it basically says that school districts have to treat the voluntary expression by a student of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner that they would treat the expression of a secular viewpoint.

And so, when you think about it, that may just, to a nice person, they might not object to that. But when you think about what that means if you are, say, a science teacher – particularly a biology teacher – somebody like me, who is, who teaches evolutionary ecology, and evolution at the undergraduate level, I think you can see that you could get into real problems if say, a student answered a particular question on an evolution exam and basically just said, "I believe in creationism; and that's the answer."

S: Right.

O: I mean, I think that this is the kind of bill that would open up educators to lawsuits and vice versa; and the school district to lawsuits. I think it's a horrible bill.

S: Yeah, so if a student gave as the answer to a question on a science test that the Earth is 6000 years old because that's their religious view, they couldn't be marked wrong for that answer.

O: That would be my understanding. And I suppose the proponents of the bill would say, "Oh no. That's not what we mean." But it's certainly not clear, given the wording of the bill, that one couldn't say that.

B: But couldn't you phrase the question in such a way you could say something like, "According to evolutionary theory, explain this process." Or, "According to this ..."

O: Yeah, but should we have to ...

B: No, we shouldn't have to do that

O: make our test twice as long. And in fact, it wouldn't be just according to evolutionary theory; something like the age of the Earth is not according to a theory, really. I mean, it would consider that a fact, a theological fact. And if somebody doesn't want to accept that fact, and doesn't want to learn that fact, then they should be marked down. But I think this bill just opens it up to several interpretations.

And, you know, I mean, you can talk about evolution as fact. Evolution is a theory, but we define evolution as a change in gene frequency over time; and in that sense, evolution is a fact that you really can't argue with. So again, if some one didn't want to accept that fact, and said, "Well, that's against my religion." I don't know. I think it would just open up a can of worms.

S: Right. But it seems that the law then, is unnecessary, because it's obvious that in a science classroom, you're asking about scientific facts, and in the currently scientific beliefs. And they are by definition, neutral with regard to any other belief system, right?

O: Right. I wouldn't even call it a belief system. We accept science. You either accept it or you reject it based on the evidence. So it's not really a belief system.

S: I agree with that. I didn't mean to imply that it was a belief system.

O: Right, right.

S: But a system of knowledge. And that someone ... if it conflicts with someone's religious belief, it doesn't ...

O: It is neutral to belief.

S: It is neutral to belief, right. So, and here's an example. About 5 years ago, there was a professor at Texas Tech University, Professor Michael Dini, who was under investigation because he refused to give a letter of recommendation to any student who did not profess to believe in evolution.

O: Right, I ....

S: Remember that case? And the solution, actually, was, I think, perfectly reasonable; which they said, "Okay, I just want the students to demonstrate that they understand the theory of evolution. They don't have to profess to believe in it." And that's kind of the same solution in this kind of situation, where you don't have to abandon your religious beliefs. You don't even have to necessarily believe the conclusions of science. You just have to demonstrate that you understand them.

And if you're being asked in a science classroom what the scientific answer to a question is, that's what you should give. You shouldn't be able to substitute your religious belief for a scientific answer.

O: Right. And as I say, the way the bill is worded, a proponent might say, "Well, we're not asking you to accept religion as the answer on an evolution test." But I just think it's ...

S: But if not, then what's the purpose of it?

O: Yeah. Well, you hit it on the head!

S: Yeah. And is the sense there that this is a back door mechanism for getting creationism into the schools?

O: Oh, definitely! Oh, definitely! These kinds of bills come up every year. And I wish tax payers would understand how much money is wasted indirectly by confronting these bills, and (inaudible) them every year. As I said, I'm not retired. I have courses to teach; I have research to do; but when we have to take time out to address these kinds of issues, it's actually cutting into my time, and what I'm supposed to do at OU. It's career-related, and so I'm spending time. So, I mean, it's legitimate, but it's a waste of time and money. And it comes up every single time.

And the other thing is, it comes up in multiple states. And it's basically the same bills come up. And so, they're not even, it's basically plagiarism. They're not original to the people that propose them.

S: Right. This is identical, in fact, to a bill passed in Texas a year ago.

O: Right. And Oklahoma should at least wait and see how it plays out in Texas. How much money is spent as a result of that bill in terms of lawsuits? And, yeah, it's totally unnecessary. I mean, I'm not aware of religious discrimination at OU, for example, or in the public schools. And I don't even think that the proposers of the bill have brought up examples of why this is needed. They basically said, "It could happen."

S: Right. So it's a non-problem.

O: It's a non-problem. And so, you have to ask yourself, "Why are they doing it?" Well, and then you look at who proposes them, and it's the same people year after year that propose these kinds of things; and it's very transparent what the reason is.

S: Yeah. But there does need to be groups like yours that are vigilant about it, because the moment you turn your backs, there'll be some, these crackpots will come up and try to pass these stealth laws in the dead of night with these ulterior motives.

O: Right. And that's why I'm very grateful for people like Vic Hutchinson, who have the time and energy to be vigilant on this, and alert people like me, who don't have the time to look into everything.

S: And he runs your group, just for our listeners. Mr. Hutchinson

O: Vic runs the listserv, the evolution listserv. And it goes out to lots and lots of people on the state, and educators, and it's a huge help. But, yeah. We have to be vigilant. And I guess the other problem – one of the real problems is that increasingly, the public is, I think, has been confounded and confused on issues regarding evolution, such that members of the lay public don't understand what a theory is; they don't understand the difference between a theory and a law. A past governor of the state of Oklahoma just was kind of trying to be neutral, but said, "After all, evolution is just a theory. It's not a law." Well, it will never become a law, you know.

Quantum mechanics is just a theory. All science is just a theory. And that is as good as it will get. And I think, for that reason, increasingly, the public is becoming less and less literate on matters of science, and I guess that makes it even more important for groups like Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education to be out there. But it's discouraging to me that ...

S: Yeah. And your state has been somewhat on the front lines of the creation-evolution political controversy. 'Cause again there's no scientific controversy, but have there been efforts in your state to insert intelligent design or creationism in the public schools?

O: Oh, yeah! I think it's the most blatant, and the closest that they got to doing that had to do with that textbook disclaimer.

S: Yeah

O: And fortunately, that failed in the end. But, yeah, they won't let up. And I think the current, and now, in this bill, this reflects the current evolution of their fight, if you like.

S: Right.

O: In that they, I think they're, since of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School DistrictDover ruling, I think efforts to get ID into the schools on par with evolution are kind of bleak. But they can got this other route, which is basically to just let people have their say; let them express their religious ideas; and get it in that way.

S: And if nothing else, make the teaching of evolution so controversial and politically difficult that people just stop doing it because it's more trouble than it's worth.

O: Yeah, yeah, right. And, you know, I'm protected. Being at a university, teaching at a university level is much less problematic than if you were a high school teacher in this state, or if you were an evolutionary – excuse me – an elementary teacher wanting to talk about science. At that level, I think it's much more difficult to really teach evolution if you have any parental objection, or you have pressure in some of these school districts not to. I think it's just easier not to do it. Whereas I am not at all fearful about that.

S: Right.

O: I do know that it's an issue among high school teachers. The other thing that we do, Vic Hutchinson and another retired professor – W. Frank Sanlightner – have organized a teacher's workshop on evolution every year at the biological station. And I participate in that. And so, we can talk to teachers, and hear their stories about, you know, problems with teaching evolution, and you're right.

Well, two things are at work: First, there's a lot of resistance, and you've got a lot of pressure from parents. It's easier not to deal with anything that's controversial. And secondly, I think teachers themselves, a lot of them, may not have a good background in evolutionary theory simply because, you know, it wasn't taught in their high school.

S: Right.

O: And it's not required to teach biology in the state of Oklahoma. In fact, evolution isn't even mentioned in the state science standards.

S: Wow, that's terrible.

O: And so, again, if you're not totally comfortable with the subject, and there's some public resistance against doing this, it's easy not to do it. I don't blame high school teachers.

S: Now, there's still an opportunity to stop this bill, because it's now gonna go before the Senate Education Committee, is that correct?

O: Yes, yes. So, we're hoping it will die in that committee. But some can go forward. Even rebills can spill out of there, even if they reject them. So, we still don't know what the fate of this is gonna be. Hopefully, it will fail.

S: Right. And we will link to your website, and on there, you have the email of the Senate Education Committee members, where anyone could email them to express their opinions about this bill. And in other states, in the past, it actually has been quite successful when country-wide public attention focuses on a state that's about to do something horrendously anti-scientific. And it has in the past embarrassed them out of doing things like this. So that seems to be the strategy that you're going with here.

O: Yes.

S: Yeah.

O: Yeah, and that is probably a strategy. But I find it kind of horrific that Texas passed it. I mean, I guess I like ... Texas is home to the University of Texas at Austin (inaudible). They have a lot of prestige in that state with regards to science institutions, and yet it passed there.

S: Yeah, well, Texas is definitely shaping up to be a problem. The governor is on record as being a creationist, and he fired – I can't remember the exact position – but somebody on the education board just because they were pro-evolution.

O: Yes! No, no, no, they fired her, well, she, I think resigned, basically.

S: Right.

O: But she was under pressure simply because she emailed colleagues that Barbara Forrest was speaking. Barbara Forest was the author of a book about the history of intelligent design, of course.

S: Right.

O: She didn't do anything except email, and she got reprimanded for not being neutral.

S: Right. Neutral with regard to evolution, yeah.

O: Yeah, as if intelligent design is a neutral issue, or on par with evolution.

S: Right. So it was a total scandal, and it's definitely clear where the political powers in Texas are headed.

O: Yeah. But, I mean, it's terrifying to me to think that they went that route. And I hope they have lots of problems with (laugh) the bill that they passed.

S: Yeah. Well, I think ridicule and scorn is a good method to counter some of this. But it's deserving. I think, that it has worked in the past. And it's part – again, it's why your group, I think, is important; it's also why we discuss these issues, and again, we'll give the link to our listeners so they could barrage them with emails, and let them know that they can't do these things under the stealth of night, and get away with it, basically.

O: Right. Well, yeah. And politicians are, I think, responsive to response from their constituents. So, every time these bills come up, I mean, we just kind of automatic, I have an automatic letter (inaudible).

S: Right.

O: So, hopefully, it won't pass. But it will be up again.

S: Yeah. These things never go away.

O: Something like it will be up again. I don't know where it's ever gonna end.

S: Right. Well, thank you for the work that you're doing in your group, and thanks for talking to us about this important issue.

O: You're very welcome.

(Unknown speaker): Thank you.

B: Thank you.

O: And thanks for doing this work.

S: Okay, take care.

O: Okay, take care. Goodbye.

S: Bye bye.

Randi Speaks ()[edit]

  • The Uncompromising Observations of a Veteran Skeptic

    James Randi returns to give his skeptical commentary in his own unique style.

    This week's topic: Gary Schwartz

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Question #1: Astronomers have discovered grains of sand around distant stars. Question #2: Scientists have discovered that within the Earth's inner core is yet another layer, or an inner inner core. Question #3: Contrary to the theory of island dwarfism, paleontologists have uncovered on the island of Micronesia fossils of prehistoric humans averaging over 6 feet tall.

Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.'-Thucydides

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions and other feedback, please use the 'contact us' form on the website, or send an email to 'info @'. If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us to spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • After this episode aired, the anti-evolution bill 2211 in Oklahoma was vetoed by the governor thanks in part to the good work of Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education.


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