The Australian and attacks on science

The Australian newspaper (one of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited broadsheets) has a long history of getting science wrong. In fact, over at Scienceblogs’ Deltoid it’s a very common topic.

So it was perhaps not surprising to see this headline at the top of their paper today:

They then quote a few lines from a statement introducing the (presumably new) syllabus for Queensland Years 11 and 12:

Explanations of natural phenomenon may be viewed as mental constructs based on personal experiences.

Science students are encouraged to appreciate the social and cultural perspectives of science.

Accepted scientific concepts, theories and models may be viewed as shared understandings that the scientific community perceive as viable in light of current available evidence.

The article pooh-poohs these points. There’s also an editorial doing the same, saying that science must be a rigorous search for truth. They quote the executive director of the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

I can only assume that the director was fed these handful of lines in isolation. Either that or some other misunderstanding must have happened, because I don’t see how anyone could have a problem with these.

First, it seems to me that these statements might be an attempt to implement the guidelines being put forward by the national education assessment authority, which I blogged about recently, because some of the language sounds quite similar. If that’s true, then these are only a couple of statements in a lengthy set of documentation that clearly establish science as a rigorous, truthful discipline.

But to heap rebuke on science education because of these few statements seems to me like the act of an organisation with an axe to grind against science. I see nothing worrying in them.

It’s patently true that our explanations of natural phenomena are mental constructs based on what we experience. The ancient Chinese came up with a dragon eating the sun as their best guess for an eclipse. Now we have more precise ways of explaining it, and so we do. But we’re still coming up with models for things like string theory, and wave-particle duality, and quantum states: we don’t understand any of these things completely, but come up with mental models based on whatever evidence we have. The statement doesn’t imply that we make a New Age guess despite the available evidence of whatever explanation we find convenient.

Anyone examining political attitudes around the climate change “debate”, or around the existence of famine, or stem-cell theory, could not deny that there are social and cultural aspects to science.

And while it’s true that consensus does not make truth, educated consensus does, in fact, constitute accepted scientific theories and models.

Cheap shots and cherry-picking. Yep, sounds like typical anti-science ignorance.