Skeptics’ 2010 awards

Each year the Australian Skeptics, at its annual convention, makes a number of awards to recognise excellence in the face of pseudoscience and the paranormal. It also issues the Bent Spoon “dishonourable” award for an individual or organisation which, in our opinion, through their philosophy or actions, support and/or perpetuate pseudoscience or the paranormal.

At a ceremony held on Saturday, November 27 at the inaugural TAM Australia convention, the Skeptics awarded the Thornett Award for the Promotion of Reason, which includes a prize of $1000, to two people who have contributed in different ways to the same cause – Ken McLeod and Wendy Wilkinson – in recognition of their relentless campaigns to ensure that the Australian (anti)Vaccination Network’s activities are brought into the light of official scrutiny, and for their subsequent success in this campaign. Because their contribution was independent and the effect of their work cumulative, we decided that they should each receive their own award, with $1,000 awarded to each.

On a similar theme, the Skeptic of the Year Award went for the first time to an organisation instead of an individual – the Stop the AVN group is devoted to the cause of countering the misleading and harmful claims of the Australian (anti)Vaccination Network, and through the cooperative efforts of its more than 2000 members and supporters it has done so with diligence, honesty and ethics.

A special mention was made of the work of journalist and Lateline reporter Steve Cannane for his honest and diligent approach to journalism and the pursuit of truth in all of its aspects and wherever it may lead.

The 2010 Bent Spoon award went to the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) for its draft science curriculum.

While a national education curriculum may or may not be welcomed, the science component has been roundly criticised. In particular, the teaching of evolution – one of the fundamentals of modern science – has become virtually sidelined, appearing in one section of Year 10 only. The evolution of man is not part of the syllabus, and all the examples of evolution given as ‘elaborations’ in the draft syllabus deal with non-controversial or small scale applications of natural selection (eg “the impact of cane toads on the evolution of Australian predators such as snakes”).

The Science as a Human Endeavour strand of the curriculum specifically mentions dozens of scientists, including, in the biological sciences, the work of Linneaus, Mendel, Crick and Watson. But there is no mention of Charles Darwin or the co-developer of the theory of natural selection, Alfred Wallace. What?! Darwin, at the very least, is arguably one of the two best known and significant scientists in the last 200 years (the other is Einstein). So he’s left out?

And this particular strand of the syllabus apparently leaves open the possibility of schools specifically teaching creationism, a practice prohibited in most of the state syllabi this document seeks to replace.

In addition, the Science and Culture section of the Science as a Human Endeavour strand examines alternative knowledge systems including traditional Aboriginal beliefs. While it is valid to view science in its cultural context, and compare science to other belief systems, the way the syllabus is written leaves open the possibility that decisions to use Chinese and alternative medicine (to be taught in Year 5) could be taught as being rational alternatives to science-based medicine. The examination of alternative belief systems begins before a full understanding of the scientific experiment method is taught, and thus leave students without the tools to adequately assess the alternative. Understanding how Aboriginal people and other cultures view knowledge and the world is valuable, but this curriculum leaves too many grey areas, over-emphasises non-scientific ways of viewing the world, and allows sectarian schools to virtually ignore evolution altogether.

ACARA’s chair, Barry McGaw, has reportedly admitted that the science curriculum is a particularly difficult exercise, and is likely to be further developed. We hope so.

The science curriculum in its draft form is almost anti-science. Innovation and science move forward, and often have to do so courageously. The development of a national curriculum is just such a move. The content of this draft one, however, is less than courageous, and can be seen as a backward step in the education and development of Australian school students.

The awards were presented to the largest gathering of Skeptics ever held in Australia, with more than 600 people attending TAM Oz in Sydney. Speakers and audience members from around the world have attended, including leading lights of the Skeptical movement James Randi, Simon Singh, Dick Smith, Karl Kruszelnicki, George Hrab, Brian Dunning, Fred Watson, Catharine Lumby and the entire crew of the world’s most popular Skeptical podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.