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.

33 thoughts on “Science Unfair

  1. The real crime here, of course, is that this kid is going to grow up thinking that this is legitimate science. That’s what kills me. The activists in this saga are damaging their own chidren’s science education. Don’t we as a country typically get pretty low rankings in science education anyway without muddying the water like this?

    I realize this is coming from the guy who is never going to have children, but this just sounds like reason number 6 million or so why it’s SO important for parents to be involved and have at least some idea what their children are learning (no matter which side of this issue you’re on).

    We seem to be moving further and further into a culture where some very vocal subset of parents are deathly afraid of their kids seeing or hearing ANYTHING they don’t agree with. So, they’re trying to use legislation to build a shield around their kids. This just seems to be doomed to fail. It seems like if these people spent a tenth of that energy talking with their kids and encouraging them to bring disturbing ideas and thoughts to them to discuss, it would work MUCH better. Kids are going to see and hear things. Period. Thus, isn’t it incredibly more important to be involved and have a communication channel open?

    Another way of putting it: if a few lessons in science class about evolution are enough to turn a child away from the beliefs and faith that his/her parents want to instill (which seems to be the fear), then there’s something wrong with that faith to begin with. Messing up the science curriculum ain’t gonna fix that.

    Like I said, no kids, so take that with the appropriate boulder of salt. *shrug*

  2. Thanks for the post, Stephen. That’s great work. I guess the next obvious question is how did this happen in the first place? Could the previous judges have been truly impressed with the project, or do you think they may have been afraid that by criticizing it as unscientific they would be getting mixed up in the politics of the issue? Maybe it was something else altogether, but I would love to find out.

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  4. Uuurgh. The flawed argument is bad enough, but this looks like a five minute copy-and-paste job. How did this make it to the state level?

    The equivalent mainstream science fair project would be:

    “What shape is a DNA molecule? You decide!

    “[Color picture of a DNA molecule]

    “Watson and Crick say it’s a double helix! And they won the Nobel prize so probably they had a convincing argument!”


  5. I just have to respond to Jeff’s comments because I teach these little rascals and I agree with what Jeff said. Parents are so afraid today that if their children are exposed to different ideas/beliefs that it will mess with their minds. What the parents are not thinking about is that if their kids are not exposed to different ideas/beliefs, then this is what will mess them up and they grow into adulthood with tunnel vision and will not accept anything that is different from their own beliefs. Jeff, you are on the mark!

  6. Can I ask what state this was in? I came across your blog via Pharangula so I’m not familiar…

  7. You don’t even want to get me started on this. I definitely agree with Jeff, but stuff like this makes me really sad. I love science, but this is not science; to me, it is someone with a religious agenda dressed up as science. I am in no way trying to pick on anyone who is religious and scientific or one or the other. But as a scientist, it seems that some people are under the impression that all scientists are athiests and need to be saved from themselves. (This is based on my personal experiences only, I am by no means trying to make blanket statements or anything). The way I see it, not all scientists are athiests…so why can’t we all just get along. Afterall, we all have to play in the same sandbox. Maybe if we taught our children and ourselves more about tolerance, this sandbox wouldn’t be in such a mess.

  8. Oof, I’d mis-remembered the project’s name. I’ve fixed it in the post. And Geof, you lose your bet: the student was from Zora Ellis Junior High School in Talledega. The student also won an “Honorable Mention” for the project.

  9. I suppose I see this differently than the rest of you, but I see no real problem with this project. I agree that while it probably shouldn’t have made it to the state level, for it seems poorly researched, it is after all a junior high project. The point of a science fair is not to “let the viewer decide”, it is to make a hypothesis, and then by the end, either state that you believe you have proved or disproved it.

    As far as being scientific, I applaud the student for choosing a subject that is being debated and has relavance for today. I think it is honorable that a junior high student tried to tackle an issue that means so much to so many people, and can we really criticize a 12 year old that didn’t research the subject to its fullest. Scientists have spent their whole lives studying the origins of man, and have only scratched the surface, how much can we expect a junior high school student to know. I would certainly rather have a student show interest in a topic like this rather than choosing to chart the relationship between time of sand falling, and the size of a hole in an hourglass.

    In closing, it seems interesting to me that this story has been posted on several blogs, and all of them seem to be criticizing it. A junior high school science project gained national attention, I see that as a victory for science, not a defeat. Whether the student was right or wrong, she picked a topic that people care about, and got other people to pay attention to it. That, to me, is what a science fair is all about.

  10. While the project’s lack of scientific merit and research is disappointing, that’s not what makes it a tragedy and a shame. That it is a shoddily-supported argument cut-and-pasted from an Intelligent Design book is. The Intelligent Design movement has shown itself to be devoted to tearing down science. To pretend that this student is engaged in anything but presenting ID propaganda is disengenuous.

    This is not a victory for science. It’s a victory for Intelligent Design, a decidedly anti-science philosophy.

  11. Make no mistake here. I’m not criticizing the student (nor do I think was anyone else who commented here). I’m criticizing whoever taught the student that this was valid science. I can almost guarantee you that that person’s motives had nothing to do with furthering true scientific discovery.

    I will not debate the validity or lack thereof of the religious beliefs behind ID, but trying to disguise it as science and say that there is “significant debate in the scientific community” about whether it is a valid scientific theory is at best (as Stephen said) disingenuous.

  12. I’m a science teacher, and I can only apologize on behalf of my profession. What really irks me, though, is the fact that the painstaking measures we go to to get quality judges is obviously flawed. The simplest and most obvious miscalculation is that this assumes that there is only one source of generation of new protein sequences, whereas in reality there is one source for every organism alive on the planet. As this gets into the quadrillions, this should more than suffice for the technical sum of ‘bunches’. sheesh.

  13. I wouldn’t take 6th grade science projects too seriously. I remember doing mine on (gasp!!) astrology!

    No one ever told me it wasn’t science – but I figured it out for myself by the time college rolled around. ; P

  14. The Comment by Tyler

    “Whether the student was right or wrong, she picked a topic that people care about, and got other people to pay attention to it. That, to me, is what a science fair is all about”

    supplies much sad commentary on why science education continues to degrade in the US. ID/Creationism(IDC) is not science and, that being the case, the student exhibitor should have been counseled to that effect. The exhibit should not have been allowed for many reasons.

    One reason is that IDC has no content of its own – all the data on protein sequences, lengths, the big number arguments, are all snatched from science disciplines, allowing IDC to appear to be authentic science, though it clearly is not. We should not, but we clearly do, start children’s science education on the wrong foot which can debilitate many of them forever. IDC is a marketing campaign, and that is all it is.

    Also, science, and science fair are not about attracting attention. If a science result is sufficiently significant, it will draw the attention itself, but that is not the reason to perform the science. This student’s project did not gain notariety due to the quality of the work — the nature of IDC itself tells us already that the student did not do any science. The attention the project has received is not for science, its or anyone else’s, but rather for the questions it raises about how such fairs are judged and how the future of science is being squandered.

  15. This example should be seen as more of an opportunity to help teach true science. This student has obviously been fed this ID Schtick by her parents. Her science teacher should have sat down with her and gone over this project with her, arming her with the type of information Shumit mentioned, then with the “correct science” she may have revised her assumption and eventual conclusion and maybe, just maybe teach her parents a lesson too. She has come up with this project innocently given the data she has been fed, correcting this information should be the goal, rather than simply putting her down. I visted that homeschooling link and found these comments regarding a DK book on fossils – “Please note: there are several references to specimens being billions of years old and accepted as “fact” without any reference to the lack of evidence to support this theory. There is also a two-page discussion of the geological column that evolutionists have developed based on artificial aging concepts.” This is the real war on science, parents going “la, la, la” when faced with facts and pulling the wool over their childrens eyes & ears, especially the homeschoolers. Finding a kid like this and having the opportunity to undo the damage is paramount.

  16. I’m partly with Sandra. The kids may just grow out of it. But I also think that given the topic — as distinct from astrology, which does at least offer falsifiable hypotheses — it is less likely.

    Nice post.

  17. Sandra:

    “I wouldn’t take 6th grade science projects too seriously. I remember doing mine on (gasp!!) astrology!”

    As I said earlier, it’s not the poor science of the project that disturbs me. It’s that it is from a movement that is involved in actively tearing down science in support of an agenda. This wasn’t a science project as much as it was a piece of propaganda. At least astrologers haven’t banded together to get astronomy information in textbooks weakened or removed entirely.


    “This example should be seen as more of an opportunity to help teach true science. This student has obviously been fed this ID Schtick by her parents. Her science teacher should have sat down with her and gone over this project with her, arming her with the type of information Shumit mentioned, then with the “correct science” she may have revised her assumption and eventual conclusion and maybe, just maybe teach her parents a lesson too. She has come up with this project innocently given the data she has been fed, correcting this information should be the goal, rather than simply putting her down.”

    My goal certainly wasn’t to put her down — it’s why I’m glad I didn’t have the opportunity to face her, as I would have had a hard time being polite. But it would have been better if I could have discussed the project with her and maybe undone some of the damage to her view of science.

  18. Nobody can fault the kid, but I fault the judges. The tragedy that I see is that some other kid didn’t qualify (assuming there’s a fixed number that get approved) because this kid’s pseudoscience project gets green lighted.


  19. *grin* To me this is a reason for us TO homeschool–there’s far too much of this kind of cr*p going on in public schools. But yeah, our reasons are a bit different from most–this homeschooling thing sure does make for strange bedfellows.

  20. In line with comments by Shumit, Russ, and particularly Tim Fuller:
    Unlike Stephen, I’ve been a science fair judge at the regional level (admittedly in social science, but the rules were universal to the event). Part of the problem exemplified by this travesty lies with teachers, part with judges, and part with rules.
    1st, if a student–or teacher for a student–enters wisely, that student is virtually guaranteed advancement regardless of the project’s value. The top three entries in a division or subset WILL advance. If competition doesn’t appear, by default the one, two, or three entries in that group WILL advance regardless of value.
    2nd, the goal, particularly with honorable mentions, is to foster the sense of self-worth/self-esteem, the inculcation of which is very high on the agenda of current education (public or private is immaterial; the teachers have the same training). To paraphrase Yoda, “There is no fail, there is only do.” Well, do and praise.
    3rd, general science education (including social science) focuses on content and does a poor job of inculcating in students a sense of what science (natural or social) is and how it differs from other disciplines: What questions does it ask, how does it do so, what information illuminates possible answers, and how should that information be evaluated?
    4th, education is a cultural artifact. Science fairs are part of that cultural milieu and, like all education, reflect the much-balleyhooed “culture wars.” As long as we remain a nation in which religion (in its broadest sense) is presented as antagonistic to and therefore trumps science as a belief system, and as long as we remain a nation in which politicians (religious and secular) play to people’s prejudices and emotions (ie, demagogue issues) rather than to their “better angels,” science will always have to “try harder” to make itself heard against competition in the marketplace of ideas.

  21. This is the stuff that lead to anyone seriously considering “intelligent design” as anything more than another reach of faith.

    Ain’t no scientific method in ID, just lots of hope and mysticism.

  22. What was the science experiment?
    This student rationalized from some data that she/he did not generate?
    You can not tell me that poor reasoning, not logic, is an experiment!!

    Was data collected / documented??

    A hypothesis – answered, not proven, by conclusion is not scientific.
    Yes I do judge science fairs.

  23. I am a scientist who just finished working with my son and two next door students for district science fair. I was utterly amazed at what rules have turned science fair into now a days. Since I am a scientist, I trained my son and two other students to use bound lab notebooks. One set of judges told my son that his fingerprint mounting cards could not be in his labnotebook since they constituted experimental evidence and that only pictures could be put into his lab notebook. His fingerprint mounting cards were raw data. They judged his graphs (double Y -axis) not necessary since he was focusing on the quality of Latent prints and the fuming chamber environmental parameters did not count. What has happen to science? I was training these young men to do science and record in a professional manner and these public school teacher did not understand the project. Real professional in the latent prints field understood it? We will not be competing in this competition again but compete in a competition that values real science research.

  24. Alice, to be fair to the judges, that sounds less like complaints about the science and more like complaints about the presentation. I’m guessing the judges were given blanket rules about how data were to be presented to make things easier.

    Do you know of competitions other than local science fairs? My son will eventually be doing science for science fairs, and I’d like to know what options we have.

  25. I wish this were an insightful, witty comment, but it isn’t.

    Only wishing to inform you that I misread What do colas and other liquids do to teeth? as What do koalas and other liquids do to teeth?

    Can you imagine a liquid koala? That would be horrible.

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