Politics Archive

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Texas State Board of Education Takes a Small Step Backwards on Science Education

TEA LogoAs described in the Austin American Statesman article, Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution, the Texas State Board of Education has approved some troubling language for the state science standards.

If you want to see for yourself the full standards, you can find them here. Here are the four subject to the current controversy:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

You can read a detailed discussion in a report put out by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Science Curriculum Standards: Recommendations for Dealing with Pedagogical and Scientific Problems (pdf).


The Bad

Yes, the motivation behind these standards really is to promote creationism / cast doubt on evolution. Here are a few excerpts from that TFN report regarding the motivation behind three of these:

[Regarding 7 B] In a final appeal to preserve his proposal, McLeroy stated that the purpose of his standard was to argue against: "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 7 G] During the board debate, McLeroy explained that this standard: "...questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 9 D] During board debate, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, explained that the new standard was "basically an origin of life amendment," referencing public testimony provided previously by Ide Trotter, a well-known promoter of intelligent design."

And the history of the first one, 3A, makes it clear that this was compromise language regarding the strengths and weaknesses gambit so popular among creationists.

Moreover, the Board had actually formed an expert committee to review the standards and make recommendations on improving them, and the committee recommended removing these four particular items because "they were vague, redundant or would require too much time to teach" (quoting the Stateseman article). So, the Board is going against the advice of experts to push standards that were originally motivated by anti-science positions.


The Good

The standards aren't actually that bad. All of them could be handled by textbook publishers and teachers strictly keeping to real science, and not injecting any creationism or other pseudoscience. Let's look at them again on a case by case basis.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

Well, it says specifically 'all sides of scientific evidence'. Creationism is manifestly not science, so this shouldn't be a backdoor for creationism. As far as real science, this is a little overwhelming for a high school biology class. I mean, all sides of the scientific evidence supporting evolution in general could be an entire class unto itself. Even 150 years ago, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had an entire tome full of evidence for evolution, and the evidence has only grown stronger and more abundant since.

Granted, there are different 'sides' within current evolutionary biology - the relative influence of genetic drift vs. natural selection, how much of the genome is truly junk DNA vs. possible other functions, etc. So, teachers could delve into these current topics, but it seems a bit of a deep dive for high school biology.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

Well, if you're sticking to real science, this is simply a discussion of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and perhaps some background on taphonomy and taphonomic biases in the fossil record. And that's all a decent discussion to have, showing students the evidence in support of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. In fact, there's evidence for both, so it's probably not an either/or discussion, but rather how they represent opposite extremes regarding the rates of speciation, and what might drive the different rates of change. Although like I said above, this is getting pretty in depth for a high school biology class.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Well, yes, cells are complex. I remember learning about that back when I was in high school, and making a model stuffed full of organelles. And if you really want to get into the origins of the complexity, symbiogenesis is one of the topics to discuss in the origin of eukaryotes. And there's an entire field of study for abiogenesis, concerning how life first arose. But again, this might be more detailed than most people expect from high school biology.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

Lots of good stuff to discuss here, as well. I'm sure that teachers would at a minimum bring up the Miller-Urey experiment, as well as other more recent experiments that used different conditions thought to be more representative of the early earth. Teachers could start discussions on the RNA World. And of course, there's that whole field of abiogenesis that I already linked to. But like I said for each of the other questionable standards, and like the expert committee said, this is getting awfully detailed for a high school biology class that has to cover all the other standards and curriculum.

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So, it's troubling that these standards were motivated by creationist misunderstandings of science, and that the Board members went against the recommendations of experts regarding the standards. But at least the letter of the standards isn't horrible, and textbook publishers and teachers can stick to real science. I just hope teachers with creationist sympathies don't use these standards as an excuse to teach junk science.


Updated 2017-02-03: Made numerous small changes

Monday, January 30, 2017

Trump's Cowardly & Heartless Immigration Ban

This is pulled out & slightly modified from a previous entry, 2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 14, Foreign Policy, Xenophobia, & Isolationism, but in light of recent news regarding Trump's odious immigration ban, it deserves special emphasis.

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There's a poem hanging inside a certain statue in New York City, the end of which reads:

Statue of Liberty Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

I like to think that statue and the words hung inside of it mean something. They're a symbol that America is welcoming, is the land of opportunity, and that we will take in victims of oppression and give them the chance for a new life here. They are not symbols of cowardice, of refusing to help the downtrodden and refugees because of some miniscule chance of danger.

To put this danger in perspective, chances of being killed by a terrorist in any given year are roughly 1:20,000,000 (source). That compares to the following risks (all taken from Mongabay.com - The most common causes of death due to injury in the United States):

1:18,585 Car Crash
1:21,581 Accidental poisoning by and exposure to noxious substances
1:354,776 Firearms discharge
1:423,548 Fall involving bed, chair, other furniture
1:485,549 Drowning and submersion while in or falling into swimming-pool
1:668,218 Fall on and from ladder or scaffolding
1:807,349 Drowning and submersion while in or falling into bath-tub
1:841,914 Accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed
1:911,609 Alcohol
1:2,780,869 Electric transmission lines
1:3,441,325 Legal execution
1:5,005,564 Contact with hot tap-water
1:5,098,259 Contact with hornets, wasps and bees
1:5,506,120 Lightning
1:9,176,867 Explosion and rupture of pressurized devices
1:10,588,692 Bitten or struck by dog
1:20,000,000 Terrorist Attack

Now, I certainly don't intend that to mean that we should ignore the risk of terrorism. But this definitely puts it in perspective. Terrorism is not the huge risk that fearmongers make it out to be. You're far more likely to drown in a swimming pool or suffocate in your own bed than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack.

And who are we turning away to protect ourselves from this tiny threat?

Syrian Reguee CrisisImage source: CBC News
 
Syrian Reguee CrisisImage Source: News Deeply
 
Syrian Reguee CrisisImage source: Raven Foundation
 
Syrian Reguee CrisisImage source: N.Y. TImes

If those pictures make you uncomfortable, they damn well should. That is the human cost of refusing to help these refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people have already been killed in Syria or trying to flee. And we have cowards like Trump refusing to help them because of a threat less dangerous than sleeping in your own bed at night.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

To All the Violent Anti-Trump Protestors - Knock It Off

I meant to write an entirely original entry on this, but came across an article on Scientific American that already says what I wanted to say, and says it much better than I could do. Here is the link to the article:

Dear Anti-Trump Protestors, Please Renounce Violence

And here are a few excerpts.

Protesters who smashed windows and punched police on Inauguration Day are mirroring the violence they supposedly abhor
Part of me, I admit, admires the courage of these rebels, but the rational part of me loathes their violence. Like the Weatherman and other deadly activists of my generation, these young people have been seduced by the macho glamor of violence and by the rough justice of combating state oppression with brutality of their own.
The activists do their cause a disservice by mirroring the brutal values of the culture they oppose. History teaches that violent uprisings, if they succeed, often breed more violence. Think of the horrors that followed the French and Russian Revolutions. Political scientist Erica Chenoweth has shown that nonviolent resistance is far more effective than violence. I wish "disruptive" activists would take their lead from great nonviolent leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Gene Sharp.

I'll add an anecdote of my own. On Sunday, we had a few people over to watch the football game, and politics came up during conversation. And the main thing most of them talked about regarding the protests was the rioters, and how stupid it was to go around smashing up stores and attacking police. They didn't discuss the motivations, or the political goals, or any of the reasons why protestors might have been opposed to Trump. They didn't even talk much about the Women's March from the following day, because in their mind, all the weekend protests got lumped together. The message of the protests was entirely lost.

That article had a link to a related article:

How to Resist an Unjust Regime Nonviolently

Here's an excerpt from that article.

He advocates nonviolence for practical rather than spiritual reasons. He rejects religious exhortations that we should turn the other cheek and love our enemies. People in power often deserve to be despised and fought, he contends, but violence, even in the service of a just cause, often causes more problems than it solves, leading to greater injustice and suffering. Hence the best way to oppose an unjust regime is through nonviolent action. Nonviolent movements are also more likely than violent ones to garner internal and international support and to lead to democratic, non-militarized regimes. (Other scholars, notably Erica Chenoweth, have done empirical studies demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent social activism.)

So all you violent protestors and rioters, stop it. You're not advancing any progressive goals, and worse, you're actively harming fellow citizens.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Trump's Climate Denialism on Inauguration Day

Well, that's a little embarrassing. I saw some articles about how the Trump administration had dropped the pages about climate change from the Whitehouse website. I even checked on the WayBack Machine to make sure those URLs actually used to go somewhere in the past. However, the truth is not quite what was implied by what I originally wrote. The truth is, pretty much every administration in the Internet age has had a brand new website ready to go at their inauguration, which doesn't necessarily match page for page with the old site. So, there's no reason to expect the Trump Whitehouse website to have the exact same URLs as the Obama Whitehouse website, as implied in the original version of this entry.

However, the new version of the website still pretty much drops any support for taking action on climate change. The only mention of climate change is to dismiss it, "President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule."

More info:


That didn't take long. Trump has been president mere hours, and his climate denialism is already having an impact. Compare these two links, one from the WayBack Machine, archived just this morning, and then the live version from right now.

In case you're too lazy to click - the WayBack Machine has an actual archive of the page that used to exist. The live version returns "The requested page "/energy/climate-change" could not be found. "

It's going to be a long 4 years.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Today's Silver Lining

Oh America, by Gee Vaucher

Today is a sad day. Donald Trump becomes president of the United States of America, with Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. I fear the damage that will be done to the country in the coming years. However, I came across an op-ed in the USA Today that offers a slim silver lining for today. The article, titled simply Trump is our president was written by Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

Turley wrote, "...I believe that this week is about celebrating the 71st time that a democratically elected president has taken the oath of office (and our 58th formal inauguration)." Later in the op-ed, he wrote, "We are celebrating not a particular victor but the fact that there was a victor -- a democratically elected victor followed by a peaceful transition of power."

So yes, there is that. Amid the Russian attempts to sway the election, questionable actions by James Comey of the FBI, an archaic electoral college system that didn't reflect the will of the people, and an utterly terrible person taking the highest office in the nation, we can still at least be thankful that this is a peaceful transition of power, neither a revolution nor a coup, and that we'll have an opportunity in 4 years to elect a competent president.


Image Source: Oh America, by Gee Vaucher. The particular file I used came from The Mirror. There's a good article about the piece on The Guardian. And, for the next few weeks, it's on exhibit at Firstsite in the UK.

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