Science Unfair

Creator or Not?Divinity vs Man — YOU DECIDE,” the science fair project said. I stared at it, glad that the student wasn’t there to bear the brunt of my anger and sadness.

Let me back up. Last week I was a judge for the state science and engineering fair. Well, I should caveat that: I wasn’t a full judge. A professional organization I’m part of was giving a special award for optics, and I was one of our judges for that special award.

I hadn’t been to a science fair since 12th grade. My own science projects vacillated between decent and bog-standard. One year I joined the ranks of the thousands who had built a tornado box. My best project was undoubtedly the one where I attempted to find any correlation between how well you remember your dreams on any given night and how well rested or tired you feel the next morning. My protocol was decent and I took a fair amount of data. It was disqualified at the regional level: I didn’t know I needed to have all of the participants sign waivers saying it was okay for me to experiment on them. The most fun project was the Faraday motor I built out of a bar magnet, a pool of mercury, and a car battery. Zzzzap!

An aside: at my school’s science fair, a guy I didn’t like very much came up to my Faraday motor and started poking his finger in the mercury. “That’s cool,” he said. I never did tell him how poisonous heavy metals like mercury are. When I took the project to the regional science fair, an official told me that I had to remove the mercury from my display and instead show it in a corked bottle. “That mercury’s unsafe,” he told me. He let me keep the car battery with its bare terminals and live wires in the display.

Back then I didn’t really know how science worked, so I wasn’t able to do truly outstanding projects. If I could go back in time I’d be much better now. If nothing else I now know cool things to do with lasers.

The fair had a junior and a senior division. The senior division covered grades 9 through 12; the junior division, grades 6 through 8. In the morning we looked at the senior projects, first without the students there, then with the students present for interviews. The afternoon was for junior projects.

Quality varied, as you might expect. There were a number of my favorite standbys. What does different colored light do to plant growth? How does music affect plant growth? What do colas and other liquids do to teeth? Then there were the interesting ones. A mathematical approach to generating Sudoku puzzles. An investigation into how shelf-life of products affects economic collusion where the student had performed a microeconomic experiment with high school students. Solar death rays were popular, though one of the students had used hers to perform calorimetric experiments. Cooool.

I had to leave after lunch, so I spent some time on the junior division displays before I left. One student had performed polarimetric experiments on honey to detect adulteration — a winner is her!

Then I saw it. “Creator or Not? Divinity vs Man — YOU DECIDE”

The title claimed we could decide, but the project left no room for vacillation. It started with a hypothesis that “The universe was created by an intelligent designer.” It went on to make the standard big number argument, and closed with the conclusion, “The universe was created by an intelligent designer.”

The big number argument: there are twenty amino acids. The average human protein has around 460 amino acids in it. Thus the number of possible combinations is a huge number. The age of the universe in seconds likewise is a huge number, but less huge than the number of possible amino acid combinations. Thus you would have to have been randomly generating these protien chains at the rate of bunches every second from the Big Bang to now before you got human protein chains. Clearly that didn’t happen; therefore, an intelligent designer did it. Quod erat demonstratum.

I’m not even a biologist, and I can see the holes in that chain of reasoning. For one, protein assembly is hardly random. For another, protein assembly didn’t go from zero to human. For a third, saying that a specific chain is highly unlikely is like saying that the randomly-computer-generated license plate that North Carolina handed me, with its 1-in-175 million chance of occuring, is so unlikely that it has to mean something.

This isn’t science. This is a piss-poor chain of logic wearing the discarded clothes of science and strutting around in an attempt to impress. What’s worse is that this project was presented at the state level. It had to pass at least a regional science fair. Not only must the student’s “science” teacher have accepted it as a project, the regional science fair judges must have given it better-than-passing marks.

I’m thankful I wasn’t around for the junior student interviews. Berating a sixth grader would do no one any good, and certainly wouldn’t fix the broken science education system on display.

Update: I mis-remembered the name of the project. A commenter at Pharyngula pointed out the correct name. He also pointed out that the project won an Honorable Mention in the Junior Division’s Math and Computers section. Oy.