Thursday, June 17, 2010

School Board’s Expert Witness: Debating Is for Politics, Not Science

The following testimonies took place 10:09 a.m—11:15 a.m. and 2:25 p.m.—4:52 p.m. on 6/08/10.

Allowing eighth-grade students to debate would give them the wrong impression of how science works, Patricia Princehouse said. Debating, she said, is used in politics but is not used in science.

Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater did allow one of his science classes in 2007-2008 to debate creationism and evolution. Freshwater previously testified that debating was something his students wanted to do and that his involvement was only instructing them to research their position, giving them a few rules and supervising the debate to keep it civil.

Princehouse and another expert witness were brought by Mount Vernon Board of Education attorney David Millstone to testify about whether debating is appropriate and to interpret both Freshwater’s 2003 proposal “Objective Origins Science Policy” and his teaching materials.

Patricia Princehouse


Princehouse teaches at Case Western Reserve University. Although she is not included on the list of faculty within the biology department, she is listed as a “Lecturer in Philosophy” in the department of history and philosophy of science. 

In addition to her work at the university, Princehouse is active in promoting evolution in the public sector. She serves on the board of Ohio Citizens for Science which she helped found.

(Princehouse is a signatory of the National Center for Science Education’s “Statement of Concern” regarding the Answers in Genesis’s creation museum. Highlighting added.)

Princehouse’s website includes the following description of her activities: “Believing firmly that academics must not isolate themselves from the public square, Princehouse has become a major voice in the struggle to secure the integrity of science education in America's public schools.”


Princehouse said the debate format is not appropriate for the science classroom. Even at the college level, debate skills would not come naturally to all students and the students would become bogged down trying to learn those particular skills, Princehouse said.

(The NCSE provides helpful advice to aspiring Darwinists—don’t debate creationists. Highlighting added.)

Instead of debating, scientists discuss things and do testing, Princehouse said. She gave the example of scientists looking to see whether particular fossils could be found where they were expected. She said that if the results do not support the hypothesis then the scientists correct their idea and test it again.

Freshwater’s 2003 proposal

Princehouse said Freshwater’s 2003 proposal to the school board was “very cleverly worded.” Although it was clever, she was able to determine that the proposal was to teach creationism.

The clues that Princehouse was able to use to deduce what Freshwater was really up to included his use of terms such as “critically analyze.”

After Princehouse reviewed the Science Curriculum Committee’s written response to the proposal—which said that the proposal was both illegal and addressed by school board policy regarding controversial issues—she said that there are issues in the proposal that are legitimate but that the proposal also brings in things that are not.

The only thing in Freshwater’s proposal that comes close to inclusion of creationism or intelligent design is this statement: “understand the full range of scientific views that exist regarding the origins of life and its diversity, and understand why origins science may generate controversy.”

The language of the proposal contained no statement that creationism was part of “the full range of scientific views.” For Princehouse to come to the conclusion that the proposal was to teach creationism, she first had to accept creationism as science. However, in her testimony she stated that creationism was religion and not science.

(Bertrand Russell helps explain Princehouse.)

The department of philosophy at CWRU has the following quote by Bertrand Russell on its website: “The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.”

Teaching materials

Princehouse said that the terms “specified complexity” and “irreducible complexity,” which were included in one of Freshwater’s lesson plans, are terms used in ID.

Freshwater’s attorney, R. Kelly Hamilton, asked Princehouse whether she would expect an evaluation of the lesson plan, by two teachers, to include a comment on the inclusion of the terms. Princehouse said that the teachers might not be familiar with “creationist labels.”

The lesson plan was made about four months after the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision that dealt with ID.

Princehouse said that it could happen that a student would bring up the topic of the court case in class. She added that a teacher shouldn’t include the topic in the lesson plan even if a student previously asked about it in class. Her reasoning was that the discussion of current events belonged more in a social studies class.

Test scores

Princehouse said that she has issues with the grading standards in Ohio. The state is lowering the bar further and further to the point that a student could do well on the Ohio Achievement Test and yet not know very much, Princehouse said.

The OAT results for Freshwater’s five classes during 2007-2008 came to an average of 415.2. (The state average was 407 and the school average was 413.)

Princehouse said that it is not Freshwater’s fault that the bar was lowered.

Although Princehouse said the test is not the best method to know how well the students perform, she acknowledged that it is the method used. She added that it is very hard to measure what student’s have learned.

Teacher’s ownership of books

Princehouse said that the possession of books on the topic of ID does not mean that the person teaches ID in class. She said that she also has books such as Icons of Evolution by Jonathan Wells.

Steve Rissing


Steve Rissing teaches at Ohio State University. He is a professor in the department of evolution, ecology and organismal biology.

When the Ohio academic content standards were revised, Rissing served on the advisory committee.

Rissing serves on the board of OCS and is a signatory of the NCSE’s “Statement of Concern” regarding the AIG museum.

Rissing said that he does know Richard Hoppe, who has been writing about the Freshwater hearing on, but that he has been avoiding reading Hoppe’s writings. Rissing said that he has worked with Hoppe on several projects.

(Hoppe is also a signatory of the NCSE’s “Statement of Concern.” Although Hoppe is not listed as being on the board of OCS, he is one of three contact people listed at the end of the OCS article “Creationist Pseudo-Museum Displays to Mislead Students.” )

Rissing said that during the last few weeks he did talk with Princehouse three or four times about coming to the Freshwater hearing. (Princehouse stayed after her testimony and joined the gallery to listen to Rissing.)

Hamilton asked Rissing if he was involved in Bryan Leonard’s doctorate evaluation. Rissing said that he knows Leonard but that he was not involved. (For more information on this controversy, see the article by Jerry Bergman, “The Strange Case of Steve Rissing.” 35.20 KB PDF )

Hamilton also asked Rissing if he had in any manner protested in front of the AIG museum. Rissing answered that he had not.


Using debate in science class is bad “pedagogy,” Rissing said. He went on to explain that “science is not a debate” but instead “science is a discussion.”

Rissing said that debate has a connotation of an athletic event in that there are winners and losers. He said he never does science that way.

Test scores

Rissing said he knows there is an OAT and that while he doesn’t know a lot about the test he imagines that a test called that would be intended to assess whether the students have “achieved” the standards. He said students would achieve proficient on the OAT if they were being taught the standards.

The method of teaching that Rissing said he uses is an “inquiry” approach instead of just directing the students in how to do projects and giving them rote memorization tasks such as fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

Rissing said that the state standards mention not memorizing terms.

Rissing did agree that different students require different methods of instructions.

Teaching materials

One of the standards for the eighth-grade states: “Explain why it is important to examine data objectively and not let bias affect observations.”

Freshwater previously testified that up until 2003 he used some worksheets called the “giraffe and woodpecker,” which were created by a former student, to show examples of improper use of the scientific method. (Click here for copy of the woodpecker worksheet. 137.77 KB PDF.)

Rissing said that using these worksheets to discuss the issue of bias with students would not be a proper way to teach the standard. What the writers of the standard had in mind regarding bias, Rissing said, was the issue of someone dismissing an explanation because of a preconceived notion.

Rissing did some research and found what he believes served as the basis of the two worksheets—The Evolution of a Creationist by Jobe Martin. Rissing said that the sections in the book about the giraffe and woodpecker are “great” and that “we can do that in the U.S.” He has students that believe in a creator but, he said, a teacher should not be asking questions about that.

Inside Rissing’s classroom

As it turns out, Rissing does incorporate discussion of religion into the biology classes he teaches at the college level. He even uses material developed by his students to facilitate that discussion.

Rissing said that he put together, from student research, a chart about diseases that contrasts 14th century beliefs and responses with that of the modern understanding about those diseases.

The column with the 14th century explanations for diseases includes “Devil,” “God,” “Sin,” “Hand of God” and “God’s wrath.”

Rissing explained that one of the learning objectives that he is following with this chart is discussing the history of science.

At the bottom of the chart, Rissing labeled the 14th century beliefs as “non-scientific” and the modern understanding as “scientific.”

When Rissing teaches the class, he said he cuts up the information from the chart and gives it to the students to discuss in groups. The students compare notes and talk about the differences between the columns. He said that it is appropriate for students to compare information that is scientific to that which is non-scientific.

Rissing, who happens to write a column on biology for The Columbus Dispatch, said that it is acceptable for teachers to discuss current events in class.

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