Politics Archive

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Richard Dawkins' Litmus Test

Richard DawkinsI just wrote an entry, 2012 Political Litmus Test, where I explained that I would have a very, very hard time voting for candidates who didn't accept evolution or anthropogenic climate change, and then listed the stances of several candidates on those issues. Well, I just found out that Richard Dawkins wrote an article for the Washington Post, titled Attention Governor Perry: Evolution is a fact, where he made very much the same point in regard to evolution (he even called it a 'litmus test'). So, if you want to go read something more eloquent than what I could write, by someone much more influential than me, go check out that article. Here are a couple snippets to whet your appetite.

There is nothing unusual about Governor Rick Perry. Uneducated fools can be found in every country and every period of history, and they are not unknown in high office. What is unusual about today’s Republican party (I disavow the ridiculous ‘GOP’ nickname, because the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt has lately forfeited all claim to be considered ‘grand’) is this: In any other party and in any other country, an individual may occasionally rise to the top in spite of being an uneducated ignoramus. In today’s Republican Party ‘in spite of’ is not the phrase we need. Ignorance and lack of education are positive qualifications, bordering on obligatory. Intellect, knowledge and linguistic mastery are mistrusted by Republican voters, who, when choosing a president, would apparently prefer someone like themselves over someone actually qualified for the job.
A politician’s attitude to evolution is perhaps not directly important in itself. It can have unfortunate consequences on education and science policy but, compared to Perry’s and the Tea Party’s pronouncements on other topics such as economics, taxation, history and sexual politics, their ignorance of evolutionary science might be overlooked. Except that a politician’s attitude to evolution, however peripheral it might seem, is a surprisingly apposite litmus test of more general inadequacy. This is because unlike, say, string theory where scientific opinion is genuinely divided, there is about the fact of evolution no doubt at all. Evolution is a fact, as securely established as any in science, and he who denies it betrays woeful ignorance and lack of education, which likely extends to other fields as well. Evolution is not some recondite backwater of science, ignorance of which would be pardonable. It is the stunningly simple but elegant explanation of our very existence and the existence of every living creature on the planet. Thanks to Darwin, we now understand why we are here and why we are the way we are. You cannot be ignorant of evolution and be a cultivated and adequate citizen of today.


As a side note, I debated whether "Dawkins'" or "Dawkins's" was the appropriate possessive form. According to this page, since Dawkins ends in a hard 'z' sound, it's the convention to just add the apostrophe. For someone like me, who's last name ends in a soft 's' sound, "Lewis's" would be the preferred form.


Added 2011-08-26 I just found out that there is actually a whole series of essays on this topic. It's in the On Faith section of the Washington Post, under the title, On evolution, can religion evolve? I haven't read all of them, yet, but most of the ones I have are pretty good. I can say that Paula Kirby's essay is excellent. For a truly awful example that will make you want to scream at your monitor, go read the one by Cal Thomas. Its one virtue is that it's short. For another awful example, but without the virtue of brevity, read the one by John Mark Reynolds.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

2012 Political Litmus Test

Update 2012-01-23 As the campaign progress, the politicians have begun pandering to their base and changing their tune. Go read the update to see how things have changed.

Litmus PaperI've written before about my own political litmus test. Basically, it would be very, very difficult for me to support any politician who doubted evolution or advocated the teaching of creationism in schools, or who doubted the reality of anthropogenic global climate change. To nearly quote myself, for someone to take those positions requires that they lack knowledge of the issue, are willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and/or are willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology. None of those traits are something I want to see in the politicians representing me.

I use evolution and climate change in particular because they're well known issues - you can't claim that you've never heard of them, and, for evolution in particular, the evidence is simply overwhelming. I'm not trying to be a single issue voter. I view these issues nearly on par with things like the spherical Earth or heliocentricism. If, as a politician who will have to deal with a broad range of issues, you can't accept reality, I don't really care what you have to say on other issues, because you've already blown your credibility.

So, how are the current front runners looking on these issues? Here's a quick table. I put Obama on top (since I'm pretty sure the Democrats aren't going to run anyone against him), and some of the leading Republicans after that, in alphabetical order by last name. Note that I'm only trying to give a quick summary in the table below. Politicians are by nature slippery in stating their positions, or willing to say different things depending on the crowd, so it's sometimes a little hard to pin down their actual stances (not that a politician refusing to unambiguously come out in favor of either of these positions is much better than flat out rejecting them).

Candidate Evolution Anthropogenic Climate Change
Barack Obama Accepts Accepts
Michele Bachmann Doesn't Accept Doesn't Accept
Newt Gingrich Accepts Accepts
Mike Huckabee Doesn't Accept Accepts
Jon Huntsman Accepts Accepts
Sarah Palin Doesn't Accept Doesn't Accept
Ron Paul Doesn't Accept Doesn't Accept
Tim Pawlenty Doesn't Accept Doesn't Accept
Rick Perry Doesn't Accept Doesn't Accept
Mitt Romney Accepts Accepts
Rick Santorum Doesn't Accept Doesn't Accept

So, out of the Republican candidates listed above, only three are even worth starting to consider. And honestly, only one of them, Romney, has much of a chance of getting the Republican nomination. It really does scare the hell out of me that the people who reject the science on these issues are even contenders.


Here's a bit more detail on the candidate's positions:

Obama

Evolution:

Here's what Obama had to say in his own words:

I’m a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state.

But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there’s a difference between science and faith. That doesn’t make faith any less important than science. It just means they’re two different things. And I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.

Source - Bad Astronomy


Climate Change:

Obama at least pays lip service to the threat of climate change, but it's disappointing that he hasn't gotten more accomplished in the time he's been in the White House.

Source - NY Times Blog


Bachmann

Evolution:

According to a blog by the name of The Stillwater Tribune, Bachmann has a very, very muddled understanding of evolution:

Bachmann’s personal definition of what evolution is became unclear at that point, but she went on to say that a grain of wheat plus a starfish does not equal a dog, and that this was what evolutionists were teaching in our schools.

She's also pushed for the teaching of creationism in schools.

Source - Stillwater Tribune
Source - The Bachmann Record


Climate Change:

This quote from a speech Bachmann gave on the House floor reveals a very ignorant position on climate science.

Carbon dioxide is natural. It is not harmful. It is a part of Earth’s life cycle. And yet we’re being told that we have to reduce this natural substance and reduce the American standard of living to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in the earth.

Source - Environmental Law Prof Blog

She also treads dangerously close to conspiracy theories, implying that much of climate science is "manufactured science".

Source - Think Progress


Gingrich

Evolution:

Here's what Gingrich had to say in an inteview with Discover magazine back in 2006.

Do you view evolution as "just a theory" or as the best explanation for how we came to be? Evolution certainly seems to express the closest understanding we can now have. But it's changing too. The current tree of life is not anything like a 19th-century Darwinian tree. We're learning a lot about how systems evolve and don't evolve. Cockroaches became successful several hundred million years ago and just stopped evolving.

Where do you come down on teaching intelligent design in schools? Do you think the ruling in the Dover, Pennsylvania, case was appropriate?
I believe evolution should be taught as science, and intelligent design should be taught as philosophy. Francis Collins's new book, The Language of God, is a fine statement that combines a belief in God with a belief in evolution. I do not know enough about the Dover case to critique the judge's decision, but I am generally cautious about unelected judges establishing community standards—that is the duty of elected officials.

Source - Discover

However, he has been a bit cagey recently in not trying to admit to accepting evolution, presumably in an attempt to not alienate the creationists among the Republican base.

Source - Sensuous Curmudgeon


Climate Change:

Gingrich has not made it a secret that he accepts climate change is a real problem. As just one example, in an ad with Nancy Pelosi, he explicitly said, "We do agree our country must take action to address climate change."

Source - Daily Caller


Huckabee

Evolution:

There's the infamous example from the 2007 GOP debate, where Chris Mathews asked the candidates which among them did not accept evolution, and Huckabee raised his hand. He's tried to do a bit of back-pedaling since then, but he's never come out in full support of evolution, nor denial of young earth creationism.

Source - Wired
Source - Mike Huckabee fansite


Climate Change:

Back in 2007, at least, when he was in support of a cap and trade plan, Huckabee said of climate change that "it’s all our fault and all of our responsibility to fix it."

Source - Think Progress


Huntsman

Evolution & Climate Change:

In the wake of some of Rick Perry's anti-science statements, Huntsman made his now famous Tweet:

To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.

Source - Huffington Post (ugh, I feel a bit dirty linking there)


Palin

Evolution:

In her book, Going Rogue, Palin basically admitted to being a creationist (if you follow the evolution debate enough, you'll know that many young earth creationists treat 'microevolution' differently from 'macroevolution'.)

I believed in the evidence for microevolution—that geologic and species change occurs incrementally over time, But I didn’t believe in the theory that human beings—thinking, loving beings—originated from fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the sea. Or that human beings began as single-celled organisms that developed into monkeys who eventually swung down from trees; I believed we came about not through a random process, but were created by God.

Source - The Daily Beast


Climate Change:

Back in July of 2008, Palin appeared to accept climate change. Here's what she had to say back then:

Alaska's climate is warming. While there have been warming and cooling trends before, climatologists tell us that the current rate of warming is unprecedented within the time of human civilization. Many experts predict that Alaska, along with our northern latitude neighbors, will warm at a faster pace than any other areas, and the warming will continue for decades.

Source - Seattle P-I

However, once she hit the national spotlight, her tone began to change. In an editorial she wrote for the Washington Post in December of 2009, she had the following to say:

But while we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.

That editorial also reveals that she bought into the manufactured Climategate controversy.

Source - Washington Post


Paul

Evolution:

Here's my transcript of a YouTube video of Paul speaking about evolution, leaving out a few stutters and ums.

I think it's a theory, the theory of evolution, and I don't accept it, you know, as a theory. But I think [video glitch or edit] the creator that I know, you know, created us, every one of us, and created the universe. And the precise time and manner and all [or you know] I just don't think we're at the point where anybody has absolute proof on either side.

Sources - Dispatches from the Evolution Wars
More Info - Ron Paul fansite


Climate Change:

In a November 2008 interview for New York Times / Freakanomics, Paul appeared to at least accept climate change and some measure of human effect, but he questioned just how much of an effect humans had.

It is clear that the earth experiences natural cycles in temperature. However, science shows that human activity probably does play a role in stimulating the current fluctuations.

The question is: how much? Rather than taking a “sky is falling” approach, I think there are common-sense steps we can take to cut emissions and preserve our environment. I am, after all, a conservative and seek to conserve not just American traditions and our Constitution, but our natural resources as well.

Source - Ron Paul fansite

However, he later changed his tune, calling climate change a hoax in an interview with Fox Business.

You know, the greatest hoax I think that has been around in many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on the environment and global warming. You notice they don’t call it global warming anymore. It’s weather control.

Source - Ron Paul fansite


Pawlenty

Evolution:

Pawlenty both accepts creationism himself, and feels that it should be taught in schools. Here are some of his responses to a Newsweek interview.

QUESTION: Let me ask you about social issues your party has been dealing with. In her book, Palin claims that McCain’s handlers wanted her to be silent about her belief in creationism. How would you describe your view?

ANSWER: I can tell you how we handle it in Minnesota. We leave it to the local school districts. We don’t mandate a curriculum or an approach. We allow for something called “intelligent design” to be discussed as a comparative theory. It doesn’t have to be in science class.

QUESTION: Where are you personally?

ANSWER: Well, you know I’m an evangelical Christian. I believe that God created everything and that he is who he says he was. The Bible says that he created man and woman; it doesn’t say that he created an amoeba and then they evolved into man and woman. But there are a lot of theologians who say that the ideas of evolution and creationism aren’t necessarily inconsistent; that he could have “created” human beings over time.

Source - Sensuous Curmudgeon


Climate Change:

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Pawlenty said that he thinks the climate is changing, but that it's a natural occurrence and that humans aren't' influencing it.

Well, there’s definitely climate change. The more interesting question is how much is a result of natural causes and how much, if any, is attributable to human behavior. And that’s what the scientific dispute is about.
But I think it’s fair to say that, as to whether and how much -- if any -- is attributable to human behavior, there’s dispute and controversy over it.

At least this is slightly more sensible than the people who just completely flat out deny climate change altogether.

Source - LA Times


Perry

Evolution:

Of course, there's the recent example where he told a little boy that evolution was "a theory that's out there", and continued with "It's got some gaps in it. In Texas we teach both Creationism and evolution." (BTW, creationism isn't taught in Texas schools.) But previously, back in July, he was even more explicit.

There are clear indications from our people who have amazing intellectual capability that this didn't happen by accident and a creator put this in place.

Now, what was his time frame and how did he create the earth that we know? I'm not going to tell you that I've got the answers to that. I believe that we were created by this all-powerful supreme being and how we got to today versus what we look like thousands of years ago, I think there's enough holes in the theory of evolution to, you know, say there are some holes in that theory.

Source - New York Magazine


Climate Change:

Not just does Perry doubt climate change and humanity's influence, he's come out and basically said it's part of a conspiracy:

...there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.

Source - CBS News


Romney

Evolution:

Here's what Romney had to say during a 2007 primary debate.

I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe, and I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.
I’m not exactly sure what is meant by intelligent design. But I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation. And I believe he used the process of evolution to create the human body.

Source - Daily Beast


Climate Change:

Here was Romney's response to a question on climate change during a Town Hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire.

I don't speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that. I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer.

No. 2, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don't know how much our contribution is to that, because I know there's been periods of greater heat and warmth than in the past, but I believe we contribute to that. And so I think it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and global warming that you're seeing.

Source - Politico


Santorum

Evolution:

Here's part of what Santorum wrote in an editorial for the Washington Times.

This opposition to intelligent design is surprising since there is an increasing body of theoretical and scientific evidence that suggests an alternate theory is possible. Research has shown that the odds that even one small protein molecule has been created by chance is 1 in a billion. Thus, some larger force or intelligence, or what some call agent causation, seems like a viable cause for creating information systems such as the coding of DNA. A number of scientists contend that alternate theories regarding the origins of the human species - including that of a greater intelligence - are possible.

Therefore, intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.

It's the standard creationist canards.

Source - Access Research Network


Climate Change:

As for solutions like carbon taxes, cap-and-trade legislation and other government efforts to control our energy consumption, however, I think most Americans don't believe Al Gore and the hysterics (good rock band name) have made the case.

Could it be that Americans know that over time the Earth goes through natural cooling and heating cycles?

Could it be that they recognize that most of the doomsday scenarios are not scientifically supported and that even the "consensus" projections are just that - projections based upon highly interactive questionable assumptions over long periods of time?

Or could it be they suspect that no one really knows the role that man-made carbon dioxide plays in the larger scheme of climate change?

Or maybe Americans are coming to understand that global temperatures have actually cooled over the last 10 years and are predicted to continue cooling over the next 10.

Source - The Inquirer


I suppose I should explain my confidence in evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

I've written extensively about evolution on this blog, so there's a lot of information if you just look around. One of my posts that originally was fairly minor turned into a good source for external links to information on evolution.

Here are a few of the better entries I've written on evolution. Of course, there's far more than this.

Here are two articles I wrote on this blog concerning climate change:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Texas Education - Follow Up to the Follow Up to the Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoI wrote a few weeks ago about the vote then taking place for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials, and followed up with a post explaining how everything had gone mostly well, but that there was one sticking point left. A young Earth creationist had made it onto one of the review panels and made several bogus objections to the materials from Holt McDougal, even though none of the other members of his panel agreed with him. The compromise reached during the meeting was to let Holt McDougal work with the commissioner, Robert Scott, to come up with a satisfactory response to the objections. Scott stated that he would work with appropriate experts to ensure that the materials stayed scientifically sound.

Well, earlier this week, the TEA announced that the issues had been resolved, and it looks like nothing was watered down or changed for the worse. So, it's just more good news for Texas students.

Read more in the links below, including a memo from the TEA detailing Holt McDougal's response.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Follow Up to Texas Education in the Budget Crisis

TEA LogoGood news everyone. I wrote back in April about teachers being laid off here in Wichita Falls due to funding cuts. Well, that was in preparation for a worst case budget scenario. As it turns out, instead of the Wichita Falls Independent School District (WFISD) budget being cut by $11.5 million, it was 'only' cut by $5.6 million. So, as the headline of the local paper says, WFISD to rehire most teachers. According to the article:

In an interview after a work session Tuesday, WFISD Superintendent George Kazanas said he expected to bring back "90-plus percent" of the teachers who were let go purely for budget reasons.

It still sucks that school funding is being cut at all, but at least it's not as bad as it could have been.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Texas Education - Follow Up to Science Instructional Materials Debate

TEA LogoWow. I think this might be my first blog entry about the Texas Board of Education where I'm not complaining about them (at least, not much).

I wrote a few days ago about the vote taking place today for the final adoption of supplemental science instructional materials. The worry was that given the past behavior of certain board members, there might be some last minute dealings that affected the adoption process. Of particular concern was the material submitted by International Databases, which explicitly supported Intelligent Design.

Well, the debating took place yesterday and the final vote today is now done. The end result was almost entirely good for our state's kids. The ID material was rejected outright, and most of the panel's recommendations were accepted.

The one snafu in the whole process was the recommendations of a particular member of the review panel, David Shormann, described by Steven Schafersman as "an aggressive and dogmatic Young Earth Creationist." Shormann suggested numerous changes to the biology materials from the publisher, Holt McDougal. TFN Insider has a copy of his recommendations, along with challenges to those recommendations from the publisher. As an example of the quality of Shormann's suggestions, here's one of them:

Whale evolution- 4 fossils is hardly a "transition". 400 intermediates would work. Also, research has shown that there is no reason to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal. Also, no complete skeletons have been found, but the picture shows a full skeleton, which a major factual error. It is erroneous to include it in this example. Ambulocetus also shows a full skeleton, which is another major factual error, since no complete Ambulocetus skeletons have been found.

Here's how the publisher responded to that one:

There is no scientific basis to the assertion that hundreds of intermediates would be required to establish a transition in the fossil record. Four forms are shown here as a representative sample to illustrate the transition. There are, in fact, many more species in the fossil record linking the earliest forms in the lineage to modern cetaceans.

The text in this figure explicitly states that Pakicetus was a land-dwelling mammal. However, the panel's comment that "research has shown that there is no reaon to believe Pakicetus was ever anything but a land mammal" is not quite accurate. Research suggests that it was mainly a land animal living in seasonally flooded marshes and likely feeding in aquatic systems by wading and possibly paddling. The ear structure shows it as a taxa near the base of the lineage leading to modern whales. It should be no surprise that basal members of the group would not be aquatic animals, since cetacenas are derived from terrestrial ancestors.

It is true that no complete skeletons have been found of Pakicetus and Ambulocetus, but extensive sets of fossil evidence do exist. See the attached photo of fossil bones for a single specimen of Ambulocetus, which shows a nearly complete reconstruction of the skeleton (Source: website of Dr. Hans Thewissen, leading expert in cetacean evolution) In fact, complete skeletons are rarely found for any species in the fossil record, but it is not necessary to have a complete skeleton to make strong deductions about the form of an animanl, how it lived, and its evolutionary relationships.

As an indication of how some members of the board operate, the publisher was denied the opportunity to defend themselves against Shormann's comments. It also came out that Shormann's recommendations were never agreed to by the other members of the panel, even though one of the ultra-right wing SBOE members had claimed that all members of the panel had signed them off. So, one crank on the review panel had somehow gotten his recommendations to the publisher and into the SBOE debate about the educational materials.

Anyway, after a bit of discussion about what to do with Shormann's recommendations, a compromise was reached, whereby, in the words of Schafersman, "the biology materials can be adopted with the provision that Commissioner Robert Scott examine the eight passages and rewrite them in a way that is scientifically-accurate and satisfactory to the publisher." Schafersman wrote that he's talked with the commissioner, and that the commissioner intends to talk to appropriately qualified experts when resolving this issue.

So, it looks like the recent changes to the SBOE makeup due to the last elections have been good. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come, and we can hope for better results for our children in the future.

More Info:


Updated 2011-07-27 - Added the links to the NCSE articles.

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