Politics Archive

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Civic Duty

With all this talk of civic duty going on right now, I can't help thinking of a certain line over and over (not safe for kids, and probably NSFW)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Texas Science Standards Review Panel

TEA LogoOh boy, it looks like we're in for an ugly mess down here in Texas. For a bit of background - the current chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, Don McLeroy, is a creationist, who has openly advocated the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools (transcript & recording). Last year, Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail announcment of a lecture by Barbara Forrest critical of Intelligent Design. This past May, McLeroy pulled some shenanigans with a last minute cut and paste job of the English standards - having the BoE approve the new standards before anyone had sufficient time to review them, all after a three year process by teachers and experts to develop the new standards. At the end of that post, I wrote, "And don't forget that the science standards are the next in line to be reviewed. If the board can be so underhanded on a topic as uncontroversial as English, I fear just what stunts they're going to pull when it comes to subjects like biology and geology."

Now, the Board of Education has just named the six people who will be on the Texas Science Standards Review Panel:

  • David Hillis, professor of integrative biology and director of the Center of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Texas at Austin;
  • Ronald K. Wetherington, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence;
  • Gerald Skoog, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Education at Texas Tech and co-director of the Center for Integration of Science Education and Research;
  • Stephen Meyer, director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture from Washington state;
  • Ralph Seelke, an ID proponent and biology professor at the University of Wiconsin, Superior;
  • Charles Garner, an ID proponent and chemistry professor from Baylor.

The first three of those members are the type of people you'd expect on a science standards review panel. But the last three are certainly worrying, especially given the past actions of the BoE. For anyone unfamiliar with the Discovery Institute, it is nominally* a conservative think tank, whose main purpose seems to be promotion of Intelligent Design and attempts to discredit evolution. Meyer, Seelke, and Garner, have all signed the Discovery Institute's "Dissent from Darwinism" statement. For an idea of how relevant that list actually is, consider Project Steve. Meyer and Seelke are even co-athors of the book,
Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. For a good review of the Discovery Institute and this book, take a look at the review on ars technica. The conclusion, although a little less than polite, sums up the book pretty nicely:

But the book doesn't only promote stupidity, it demands it. In every way except its use of the actual term, this is a creationist book, but its authors are expecting that legislators and the courts will be too stupid to notice that, or to remember that the Supreme Court has declared teaching creationism an unconstitutional imposition of religion. As laws similar to Louisiana's resurface in other states next year, we can only hope that legislators choose not to live down to the low expectations of EE's authors.

I'd hope I wouldn't have to mention that evolution is in fact true, and that it's well supported by evidence and the scientific community, but unfortunately, with the state of things right now, I think I do have to say that. For a discussion of some of that evidence, take a look at a previous blog entry of mine, A (Somewhat) Brief Introduction to Evolution.

While the current mantra of ID proponents seems to be to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, you have to question their motives when they say that. On the face of it, it doesn't sound too bad. Science is not a dogmatic acceptance of the teachings of your mentors - it's all about questioning the world around you and looking for evidence. Questioning the weaknesses of a theory is where you find the interesting discoveries. However, creationists tend to single out evolution with this approach. Currently, our understanding of gravity is a whole lot worse than our understanding of evolution, but you don't hear an outcry for schools to teach Intelligent Falling, or to point out the strengths and weaknesses of that theory. You also have to question just what will be taught, considering what creationists suppose are weaknesses of evolutionary theory. When you still have people asking 'what use is half an eye?', you can just imagine what they'd want the science curriculum to be. I'm not saying the review panel is that ignorant, but consider that it will be up to individual teachers to present these weaknesses.

Anyway, if you live in Texas, or if you just promote reality based education, there are several resources for this issue:

*I use the word nominally here, because it's more of a propaganda institute than anything else.

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?


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.


Selling Out