Another kind of attack on science

A few months ago, I wrote about some of my concerns with anti-science behaviors and beliefs. I received several responses I did not approve for posting, from people who displayed the same ignorant biases I wrote about. I received only a few items in support. That may be a reflection of my readership, or it could be further evidence of the problem.

In the months since then we have had a number of things pop up that have reinforced my concerns. One example was the amendment  introduced by Senator Coburn to the Federal budget that curtailed some of the funding for the NSF in social sciences. Another is the recent indication that Representative Smith is trying to change the fundamental mechanisms of funding for NSF to exclude science he (or his political cronies) don’t understand or don’t like. Many other bloggers have written about the attacks on science, such as this one in Slate.

There is now news of a much more insidious attack, and one that represents both the increasing cultural hostility towards inquisitiveness and extreme paranoia about “terrorism.” See this article and this article for an overview of the details. In summary, a young woman tried an ad hoc chemistry experiment, based on something she viewed online. An older version of this would have been putting baking soda into vinegar; this version was some toilet cleanser and aluminum foil. It basically popped the container it was in. Some school administrator saw this and called the police. She was charged with felonies similar to what one might use against a terrorist, and expelled from school — all for something that most of us have done as children.

There is a petition open at change.org on this issue. I have signed it. I encourage you to consider also signing.

However, I went a step further and sent email to three of the decision makers in the process: the school principal (Ronald Pritchard), the school superintendent (John Stewart), and the Polk County Sheriff (Grady Judd). My letter is enclosed. You might wish to send your own letters. Or not.

[Update: the email address for Grady Judd does not appear to work any more.]

My letter:

To: Ronald.Pritchard@polk-fl.net, pio@polksheriff.org, john.stewart@polk-fl.net
From: Eugene H. Spafford <spaf@purdue.edu>
Date: May 2, 2013
Subject: What a terrible message you are sending….

Gentlemen, I am a senior faculty member at Purdue University. I hold patents and international awards for my research. I have been an advisor to the President of the US and testified before Congress.

As a child I was interested in science, particularly in chemistry. I conducted ad hoc experiments in my yard, and via my school. Those activities encouraged me to ask “why” and investigate further, leading to a career of science-based activities.

What you have shown, with your blind application of law and regulations to Mr. Kiera Wilmot, is not only a significant lack of common sense, but a lack of appreciation for curiosity and initiative. This was not a case of someone with a handgun shooting up the school, or creating an explosive device out of a pressure cooker. It was a young girl trying (perhaps unwisely) an experiment she found online. This is barely different from experimenting with combining baking soda and vinegar in a pill bottle — something you yourself may have done as children.

Ms. Wilmot’s curiosity suggests potential for a future in a STEM discipline — and our country (and the world) need more experts in these fields. Ms. Wilmot, as a minority female, is especially rare among my colleagues in the sciences. Your actions not only may quash her interests, but serve as a severe inhibitor of curiosity by any other young people in your area. Rather than being educators and promoting your community, you are serving to stamp out curiosity, ambition, and learning.

Your proper course of action would have been to explain to Ms.Wilmot the dangers of trying such experiments without permission (and presumably, without safety considerations, such as goggles), and then used the incident as a teaching opportunity for her and her peers. Not only would you have deflected other such ad hoc activities, but you would have been directly addressing your mission of education…if indeed that is the mission you see for Polk schools.

Simply stated, you have overreacted in the extreme and made yourselves the butt of pointed comments around the world. You have also hurt that young woman and her future, and initiated a ripple of damage to your community. Shame on you.

You still have an opportunity to make things right: rescind the expulsion order, drop all legal charges, and make an effort to encourage Ms. Wilmot’s interest in science, rather than to punish her for curiosity.

Sincerely,
Eugene H. Spafford, Ph.D., Sc.D
Professor and Executive Director
Fellow of the AAAS, ACM, IEEE, ISC^2, ISSA
http://about.me/spaf

Disclaimer: Purdue University is listed for identification purposes only. My opinions do not necessarily represent any official or public position of the university or any of its personnel other than myself.

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3 Responses to “Another kind of attack on science”

  1. Jacalyn Bracewell Says:

    This young lady might have a defensible position except that every online post about this ‘chemical reaction/experiment’ uses the word BOMB in the title. If she is an intelligent well behaved student then surely her vocabulary is sufficient to equate “bomb” with “don’t try this at school!” Sorry, the felony charges may be a bit much, but I fully agree with publicizing them and later pleading it out to a lenghty probation.

    Like

    • spaf Says:

      The cleanser and foil form hydrogen gas. The gas can burst the container it is in (similar to a dry ice and pop bottle “bomb” or a baking soda and vinegar “bomb”). If there is an ignition source nearby you get a quick “whoosh” and flame, but unless you are using lots of cleaner and aluminum, it is small.

      The “bomb” in these titles is on the order of putting a rubber band on your outstretched finger and calling it a “gun.”

      No way does this warrant any arrest, let alone a felony.

      Like

  2. Our Daily Fred Says:

    Polk County is the heart of Tea Party country, home to Lakeland, many retirees, and it’s along I-4 as you travel between Tampa and Orlando. Grady is a modern, smart, and well-organized sheriff. A few years ago when there was a pre-dawn pileup on I-4 in Pokl County, people were killed, parts of the highway were burned, and quite a few trucks and other vehicles were destroyed. It was caused by sudden dense smoke from an organized burn by the state that went rogue.

    All the organizations involved were there for the morning news conference. They spoke in order of federal, state and then county. The Feds spoke about how they would be investigating the incident. The state guys spoke about Florida Highway patrol investigating, and there would be an investigation of the controlled burn. So far, no valuable information.

    Finally it was Grady’s turn. He was the first one to give the casualty figures, the dead, the hospitalized, the hurt but not hospitalized, and the toll free number to call if you are trying to locate loved ones. He then explained there were vehicles that could not be repaired, there were vehicles who needed repairs in order to be driven, and there were vehicles which were blocked in by other vehicles, and those would be moved, and he explained where they would be. He also gave another toll free number for people who wanted to know what happened to their vehicle.

    Basically, he was the only one who was organized with helpful information for anyone. I give him a lot of credit for that.

    But the man is very religious and that perhaps leads him into the hands of those who would have him look at things from a different perspective than that of someone schooled in the sciences.

    As well, Polk county has a lot of crime, and it would no doubt have more if Grady wasn’t in charge. But in this case, I am sure the subtleties are lost.

    having said that, I agree with Spaff, that this was more like a prank at worst, but also a very teachable moment. For what it is worth, I’d be willing to bet that Grady would win a poll for the “best politician in Florida” as he is a crowd-pleaser among his constituents and those in the Tampa Bay area. But that could also be because the bottom end of that scale is very crowded.

    Like


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