The Scientific Activist (Archives)


Apr 13, 2006

And I Thought My Science Fair Projects Were Bad....

I may not have always had the best Science Fair projects when I was in middle school, but at least my projects were based on science, as it is generally defined. In Alabama, though, pseudoscience is apparently a winning concept, as physicist Stephen Granade reports in his family’s blog Live Granades.

While at the Alabama Science and Engineering Fair earlier this month—judging projects for an award given by a professional organization he’s affiliated with—Granade came across a display that was decidedly not scientific:
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….

…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.”

Granade goes on to describe the project in more detail, as well as some of the more scientific entries in the fair, and his post is definitely worth checking out. Based on what he describes, it is unfortunate that the whole experience was overshadowed by this project. The fact that a student would enter such a project into a science fair at all is a terrible indictment on our education system and our current political culture, but that’s not even the worst part:
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.

In my understanding, making it to a state science fair is a pretty decent accomplishment (my best project in middle school only made it to a regional science fair). To get there, this project would have had to withstand multiple stages of scrutiny. Although it should have been shot down as unscientific from the very beginning, the project instead passed each stage unscathed, awarded with serial promotions from one level to the next.

This begs the following question: how the hell did this happen? Were the judges somehow impressed by the project or were they afraid of getting caught up in a political controversy? Whether incompetence, intimidation, or something completely different was at play here, this is a sad state of affairs that merits further investigation.

The other question that comes to mind is whether this is indicative of a new trend, a question that so concerned Granade that he approached me to see if I had come across such a situation before. Fortunately I had not. Granade had not either, in his experience or elsewhere. Therefore, using our scientific reasoning, we can conclude that this is probably an isolated incident… for now, at least. Given the current political climate—and the gravity of the issue—I don’t think we can take anything for granted here, despite the reassuring nature of the data. The last thing we want is for middle school science fairs to become another battleground in the culture wars.

Update 15 April 2006 19:26 - I updated the post to take into account a change in the quoted material from Live Granades (a correction in the science fair project title).


  • Urk, this is depressing. I wonder if the judges were playing CYA in letting this project in? Better to allow the entry than risk the whole fair being buried in bad publicity when some IDiot cries that the kid is being oppressed by "Darwinists" afraid to "teach the controversy"?

    It may be a tough call to risk all the other projects, the worthy ones, getting lost in the cacophany of a mini-Dover flap, but, IMO, the science-defenders, the students who did real science work, would be better served with a rigorous bunch of judges dropping this kid's ID project early on, with a simple explanation of why it was substandard.

    It would likely have never become an issue, but even if it did, even if the kid - or, more likely, the kid's blustering ministerial supporters - publicly argued with the decision, it would be a lesson in the notion that scientific work must stand on its own merits, not popularity of an unexamined premise like ID.

    By Anonymous Skeptyk, at Fri Apr 14, 05:28:00 PM  

  • Good point. That's probably the most likely explanation of how this project made it that far, and I think a detailed timeline of its progress through the stages and who was involved at each point would be very telling.

    By Blogger Nick Anthis, at Fri Apr 14, 05:36:00 PM  

  • It has always been my impression that "passing the buck" does not include the colon.

    By Blogger Alan Kellogg, at Fri Apr 14, 09:45:00 PM  

  • Horrible that the few "tests" this "project" (more quotes?) had to pass only reinforce what is obviously some indoctrination by the doomed child's parents. While some kids of creationistas and IDers have a small chance of being enlightned by their school science teachers, this child stands little chance.

    But what do you expect, it's Alabama.

    oh crap, what the hell am I saying, I live in South Carolina....

    By Blogger Rev. BigDumbChimp, at Sat Apr 15, 01:43:00 AM  

  • It is regrettable that the judges had so little knowledge of scholarship that they can't tell the difference between science and philosophy. Attempts to rationally prove the existence or non-existence of God, no matter how well done, are simply not science.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Apr 21, 10:38:00 PM  

  • good article and the comments are interseting too. I have a friend who is currently doing his PHD on a realted subject so I will pass this blog information onto him and also your new deatils which may be of use to him for his research.

    Regards Simon Dumville

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Dec 02, 09:27:00 AM  

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