Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Science, well sort of….my dog ate my GMO’s!

OK…Imagine this scenario…there is an issue that is being debated in the public sphere that is heavily informed by science.  But within the scientific community there is little real debate and in fact there is a broad, overwhelming consensus.  All leading scientific organizations, national academies around the world, and international agencies agree.  But there is a small group of folks who question or deny the science….and their influence on the policy debate is disproportionate to their numbers.  They may be at times motivated by economic interest, but almost always by an adherence to ideology over scientific data.  They utilize long debunked but well-worn methods in furthering their cause, such as cherry picking data to skew results, impugning the motivation of the scientists and using fear as a weapon in their fight. They ask science to provide what it cannot, absolute certainty, and cite this failure in their cause. Many are veterans of previous campaigns.

You’d be forgiven if you thought this was a summary of the battle lines in the climate change debate…but that’s not the issue I’m describing here today..... sorry folks…this is about the debate around GMO’s.  I’ve consciously not weighed in on this one to date (ugh, which would have meant reading a whole bunch of sciencey stuff…who has the time these days?), but I can’t sit on the sidelines any longer.  And while there are a host of battle lines in this issue as well, today I’m going to focus on the debate around food labeling as embodied in California’s Proposition 37.

I’ll start by saying I’m honestly not trying to sway the opinions of the firmly decided.  Many have staked out their positions on both sides of this debate, and I can appreciate their perspectives.  Nor am I going re-litigate the whole GMO debate in this limited space. It is, however, my objective to share my thought process on how I have come to the conclusion that I will be voting “no” on Prop 37.

First, it claims to be simply a right to know issue, as in “we have a right to know what is in our food.”  What could possibly be wrong with that…well a few things.  Implicit in the argument for the “right” to know is a “need” to know, that this information will somehow benefit or protect the consumer.  Here comes the pesky science… the simple fact is that after decades of both laboratory (experiments to see if this stuff is bad) and real world (billions of people and animals eating billions of tons of GMO’s) results, there has been no data to show this stuff is bad for us. Now, the use of GMO’s may in fact lead to other consequences we might wish to debate, such as the value of large agri-business over local organic farms, the use of pesticides, etc.  But here, too, when we look at the data, we get a mixed bag of results.  While some GMO crops lead to more pesticides, others lead to less.  Many are drought resistant which, in a rapidly changing climate, is a good thing.  And while I love and eat almost exclusively organic foods, I can afford to, and I’m not yet convinced we can feed the world’s population using only organic methods.  So for me, and the folks at the National Academies of Science, the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, the AMA, and the Royal Society of Medicine to name just a few, there is no scientifically based “need” for this labeling.

But wait, you say, all those scientists have been wrong in the past…shouldn’t we play it safe, just in case?  I appreciate how attractive and benign the use of the precautionary principle feels here.  But my concern is that the real intent of this proposition is to slow or completely stop the use of GMO’s.  As I’ve said, I believe the consequences of that are potentially far more detrimental than some minute and as yet unproven risk, so I’m drawing my line in the sand here.

Other problems with Prop 37 for me include that even if we stipulate that the theoretical risk of GMO’s does constitute a “need” for labeling, how is it that the proposition excludes meat and dairy producers, as well as restaurants from labeling? This just makes no sense to me, and leads me to question the judgments of those behind this initiative (…yup, I do that too).

Finally, I feel it is very important for all of us, if we are to win the larger debates around public policy as impacted by science, that we are consistent in our approach to the science underlying those debates.  If by default we pick and choose our “science” based on our ideology, what our friends say or some blog on the internet, how can we effectively stand up to other science denial around issues such as climate change and evolution.  And perhaps most importantly, our kids are watching us…they have finely tuned BS meters that can ferret out our inconsistencies…how do we arm them for their future, and embolden them to think critically,  if we ourselves don’t follow the course we wish for them.

So, what do you believe?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reflections: Integration of new technology in both formal and informal educational settings

This past year I had the opportunity to sit on the California State Superintendent of Education’s Education Technology Taskforce.  Comprised of primarily educators and school administrators ( I was an outlier), we had the charge of providing Superintendent Torlakson with a series of strategic recommendations that would help shape his California Education Technology Blueprint; essentially a plan for how to transition, if not transform education in the era of modern technology.  Our report can be found here: California State Superintendent of Education’s Education Technology Taskforce Report.

Some fascinating facts to set the context for our work…currently, it can take up to six years for the State to adopt a new textbook into the approved curriculum.  Technologies are born, mature and then die within that timeframe.   A newly introduced text today would not even mention the IPhone, let alone Twitter or the whole App phenomenon. How can a traditional textbook keep up with this pace?  Second, while most students, and nearly all by the time they reach high school, are digitally savvy and connected, utilizing and indeed developing new ways to integrate technology into their everyday lives, they are required to turn their devices off in school.  So one of the most powerful tools for communication, creativity, information and learning is shut off by policy in the very setting it could and should be most useful.  Finally, instruction continues to be measured and indeed funded by formulas that value hours of time students are sitting in the classroom rather than the quality of the learning.

Clearly some daunting challenges…  Combine these with reduced resources, pockets of resistance to change from every corner (teachers, school boards, administrators, textbook publishers, etc.), and an ever changing playing field, more and more at an accelerating pace, one can appreciate the depth and breadth of the challenge for formal education.

And while I encourage you to read our recommendations, and indeed take the opportunity to engage in the process of transformation, for the purposes of our field I think there are some interesting lessons and parallels from these challenges that we should be paying attention to.

First, there needs to be the simple recognition of the fact that the world outside is moving at a pace of change and innovation that our institutions are rarely able to adequately adapt to.  I’ll use some recent work here at Chabot Space and Science Center as an example.  In conjunction with our Bill Nye’s Climate Lab, we developed a highly engaging interactive website designed to connect and integrate the visitor experience with the Climate Lab.  We used an award winning design firm and indeed created a rich and wonderful site…in fact we were nominated for a Webby for our work….One problem…at the time we started the development of the site, the only robust option for the integration of video into the content (and we had lots of it) was to use Adobe Flash.   By the time it was launched, the IPhone and IPad were well on their way towards market dominance, and Apple had made the decision to not support Flash…oops. 

So back to the drawing board, we have decided to abandon the site, and migrate the entire online experience to a mobile game format that will be available across all platforms…but here again, even during the time of development, IOS 6 is launched and Amazon comes out with the Kindle Fire.   We’ll be able to deal with this, but the point is, what will happen 6 months after we launch…after one year? Look around your institution…how many cool digital exhibits or interactives look dated or downright ancient, at least by modern tech standards.  The point is, I feel we need to seriously rethink how we go about integrating technology into our exhibit development cycles.   One approach is to figure out how to best use our visitor’s devices, rather than trying to impose our judgment on which platform will best serve the user…unless we do so, my feeling is that we’ll be wrong more often than we’ll be right. 

Another point from the task force is that in formal education we need to ensure that there is a connection with learning and the real world.  A short hand way of thinking about this is moving from theory to practice or applicability.  A simple example might be that rather than having lectures on chemistry, have the student work in a lab or a brewery to see and experience the application of chemistry in the real world…Beer!  For our field, I feel that too often we do a great job of laying out the theory, and even compelling examples of it, yet rarely connect back out to current applicability.  The challenge here is that our examples are often static, fixed in time and place (and yes, even if they are “digital”), while the real world is dynamic.  Again, tough to keep up, yet that’s what is expected of us in today’s world.

Finally, another principle from the taskforce that I think has some applicability for us is that learning should occur “any time, any place and at any pace”.  This speaks to the point that learning can, should and does take place at times other than sitting in the class listening to a lecture.  In fact, many argue that little real learning occurs in such a setting.  Yet like the classroom with its Victorian era constructs, we too often require the museum visitor to take us on our terms rather than meeting them on theirs.  I feel that long term this is not sustainable.  Like every other content provider (look what’s happening in journalism, television, music and yes, text book publishing) if we do not actively participate in our own creative destruction, we will become the victims of its outcomes rather than the master.