Politics Archive

Friday, September 5, 2008

Political Litmus Test

Litmus PaperI try not to vote for candidates based on single issues. I realize that most of the problems we face are complex, and can be viewed many different ways. I understand that smart people can look at the same problems as me, and come up with different solutions. So, just because I may disagree with a particular candidate on any one particular issue, it's not usually enough to make me automatically against them.

However, there are two issues that I use as a kind of litmus test. I won't necessarily support a candidate just because I agree with them on these issues, but it would be very, very hard for me to support a candidate with whom I disagreed - their opponent would have to be pretty darn bad. Those two issues are teaching evolution in school, and accepting that global warming is anthropogenic.

Why those two issues? Well, they're both well supported by evidence, and overwhelmingly supported by experts in the respective fields, so neither one should be controversial. However, they are controversial, which means that practically everybody has been exposed to them. Nobody can say they don't know anything about them because they've never heard of them before.

Let's look at evolution. First of all, evolution is something that everybody should learn about in high school biology. I mean, we're not talking about a cutting edge theory, here - Darwin and Wallace first proposed natural selection to the world almost 150 years ago, and the modern evolutionary synthesis occured over 50 years ago. Second, as I've discussed on this blog before, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Seriously. I'm as certain that a chimp, a blue whale, a carrot, and I all evolved from the same eukaryotic ancestor as I am that the Earth's a big hunk of rock in orbit around the Sun. But more important than me being that sure, is that the vast majority of biologists who actually study it are quite sure. So, to doubt evolution requires that someone isn't educated enough, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology. All three of those things are very bad for an elected official. Given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, if a candidate accepts it, but still promotes teaching "alternative theories" in science classes, then they're simply pandering. They're trading their principals for votes, when they should be ensuring a sound education for our country's youth.

Global warming may not have as long of a history as evolutionary study, nor the huge, overwhelming evidence to support it, but it still has enough that we can be quite certain that it's real, and that human activity is causing it. (I've written about this before, too.) Well, the actual fact of global warming does have huge, overwhelming evidence to support it. It's only whether or not it's anthropogenic where the evidence is just huge, but maybe not quite overwhelming. Still, when there's as much certainty about something with as big of a potential impact as there is for global warming, policy makers shouldn't be quibbling over minutiae. How to deal with climate change, is something different, since there are so many possible avenues. But to reject anthropogenic global climate change altogether requires, as with evolution, that someone lacks knowledge of the issue, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology.

I realize that candidates that don't accept reality on these two subjects tend to be right wing. But left wing politicians need to be careful, too, as it seems that some on the left have a tendency to support alternative medicine, or buy into myths like vaccines causing autism. I don't think those make for quite as strong of a litmus test, since they're not issues that people have heard as much about, so people can have an excuse for being ignorant about them. But still, policy makers should be making informed decisions. So, while supporting alternative medicines might not turn me off from supporting a candidate quite as fast as the two issues above, they better hope that their opponent is worse, because I'm sure not going to be excited about voting for them.

I guess what it comes down to is that I want the politicians representing me to be well educated, informed about current issues, to be able to think rationally about issues, and not ignore evidence because it contradicts their ideology. Is that too much to ask?

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Update 2015-01-09
It's been a few years since I've written this, and the two litmus tests I discussed still hold for the same reasons. However, I now feel like there are two additional tests to add, one of which I actually discussed in this entry originally. Those two new tests are marriage equality, and support for evidence based medicine, particularly vaccinations.

Marriage equality is just a basic human right, that finally even has majority support in this country. Only a bigot would be opposed to marriage equality.

Evidence based medicine is so important because of the dire consequences of alternative medicine in certain circumstances. The case I discussed in a recent entry, Tragic Death of a Girl due to Alternative Medicine & Religious Beliefs, drives home just how dangerous alternative medicine can be. A little girl had about a 75% chance of beating a form of leukemia if she'd stuck to chemotherapy, but her parents pulled her out to take her to a quack in Florida who used alternative medicine, and she died as a result. The anti-vax movement is also very dangerous. The plethora of measles outbreaks in recent years, including the Disneyland case that's made recent headlines, shows that these anti-vaxers really are endangering their children and others. For a sobering look at the number of illnesses and deaths due to the anti-vax movement, go visit Anti-Vaccine Body Count.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Right Wing E-mails

Right Wing PropagandaThere's a strange phenomenon I've noticed with e-mail. I kind of hinted at it in an earlier blog entry, How to Spot an E-mail Hoax. I was fairly neutral in that entry, saying to be wary of politically related e-mails in general. But the thing I've noticed, is that the vast, vast majority of dubious politically related e-mails I've received are from the right side of the spectrum. In fact, I can't recall a single chain e-mail I've received personally that has denigrated Republicans, social conservatives, or the religious right. But I've received plenty that criticize or demonize their opponents, almost always by either stretching the truth or by outright fabrication.

At first, I wondered if this just had to do with sampling bias. I do live in Texas, after all, which is pretty well known for being a "red" state. But after doing a Google search for "are all e-mail forwards right wing," I found that I'm not the only one that's noticed this correllation. A guy by the name of Chris Hayes published an entry on his blog, The New Right-Wing Smear Machine, which examined how this phenomenon has spread. I found a blog entry on The Blog From Another Dimension dealing with this very issue, which even addressed an e-mail that I've covered before here. There's even a blog, My Right Wing Dad, devoted entirely to posting examples of these types of e-mails.

So, assuming this is a real phenomenon, what I don't understand is why. It would be tempting to quote studies such as this one, which indicates that "liberals are more likely than conservatives to have a strong response in the area of the brain used to inhibit responses at the time when they are supposed to inhibit response" (which could be taken to mean in relation to this e-mail question - stretched beyond the actual resuls of the study - that liberals would be more likely to question the validity of an e-mail even when it confirms their political biases). You could also point to this article. One of the paragraphs states:

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers--John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley--found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

But, as those articles also point out, political affiliation is a pretty complicated thing. Plus, even if you were willing to say that on average liberals were smarter, or more interested in checking the veracity of claims, could it really be such a big difference as to account for my inbox getting a dozen dubious right-wing e-mails per week, and no such left-wing e-mails in the last five years? I mean, there are also liberals who don't always have such a good grasp of reality. What keeps these people from spreading all types of false e-mail rumors about the right? And is it really just the right-wingers that forward on all the other e-mail hoaxes?

I don't know, maybe it's still a sampling bias. Maybe I just happen to be finding all the bad examples of right-wing e-mail, while other people find all the bad examples from the left-wing. No matter what the case, could everybody just please do a little fact checking before clogging my inbox with all these false rumors?


Updated 2013-06-17: Fixed three links:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

TAKS Test Day

Test Anxiety, from http://cms.colum.edu/psychobabble/features/A very short entry for today (hopefully I'll get a real entry out later this week). Today is the day for the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test, better known as the TAKS test. These tests are very high stakes for elementary school students - the children must pass this one test today in order to graduate to the next grade level. If they bomb it, they're doomed to repeat their grade, no matter how good they might do in school otherwise. (update 2008-03-05- Actually, the students get 3 chances to pass.) My daughter and one of her cousins are taking the test this year, and they're both fretting over it. 3rd graders, almost as nervous as college students at finals time. There's also the major concern that with the importance of this single test, teachers focus on teaching their students how to do well on it, instead of trying to give them a more general quality education.

Anyway, I found a good blog from a Texas teacher discussing this, Education in Texas. Take a look specifically at this entry,
Time For Some State Sponsored Torture of 8 Year Olds. He also has a few others dealing with this issue.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Texas Education Agency - Chris Comer

I've been very late in blogging about this - the story broke a couple weeks ago. Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency resigned. There's still a fair amount of controversy surrounding this. Many are quick to jump to the conclusion, which is based on Comer's side of the story, that her resignation was forced because of her support for evolution. In particular, she forwarded on an e-mail announcing a talk by Barbara Forrest, author of "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse," and a key witness in the Dover trial, which prompted an e-mail from Lizzette Reynolds calling for her to be fired:

This is highly inappropriate. I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities. This is something that the State Board, the Governor's Office and members of the Legislature would be extremely upset to see because it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports.

Well, I would hope the agency supports sound science teaching, but this e-mail wasn't an official TEA statement, so I'll move on. It was very soon after this that Comer was forced to resign, and the memo recommending her termination included the FYI e-mail as one of its reasons. So, it seems that her support of science was a big reason for her forced recommendation, but the only reason I'm holding out is because of the list of other reasons given in that memo. Comer and others called those other reasons trumped up charges, which they might very well be, but call me naive, I just really want to give people the benefit of the doubt, so I'm not going to assume that the people at the TEA are that malicious.

So, I'll hold off judgement on why Comer was fired, but another statement from the memo does damn the school board:

Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.

Must remain neutral?! Looks like Reynolds' statement wasn't so far off from what the TEA board thought as a whole. But it's all ludicrous. Isn't the TEA's whole raison d'etre to provide quality education to students? How can remaining neutral on the issue of science vs. pseudoscience be fulfilling that mission? What if Comer had forwarded an e-mail about a lecturer addressing issues of holocaust deniers or HIV denialists - is the TEA to remain neutral on pseudohistory and pseudomedicine as well?

Given that the current chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a creationist (who doubts anthropogenic global climate change, to boot), and in the past has openly advocated Intelligent Design and old school creationism in the classroom (heck, you don't even need to look at his opponents - just go visit McLeroy's own site to see the type of craziness he believes in), and considering that school science standards are coming up for review in 2008, it makes Comer's resignation all the more fishy. I think everyone in this state needs to keep a close eye on how things play out in the coming months.

Much more information on this whole affair can be found at the website of the National Center for Science Education.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Iraq Death Toll - Rebuttal to a Chain E-mail

The other day, I got an e-mail titled, "Statistics on Military Deaths," claiming to put into perspective the deaths caused by the Iraq War. It examines total military fatalities since 1980, showing that there were actually higher fatalities in the 80's than there are now, during the war. Since the information came in an e-mail forward, I was skeptical right off the bat, and decided to research it a little. The total death statistic is accurate, however, it's misleading in a number of ways - ignoring the causes of deaths, and ignoring the total number of people in the military over that time span. So, for anyone who's gotten this chain e-mail, I'm posting the reply I wrote to clarify it.

Continue reading "Iraq Death Toll - Rebuttal to a Chain E-mail" »

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