Politics Archive

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Science and Engineering Indicators 2016

NSB LogoThe NSF has released their Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2016. It's a great report put out every two years documenting many aspects of Americans' relationship to science and engineering. For the past several reports (2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, & 2014), I've made it a habit to examine one specific aspect - public understanding of science. In particular, I've examined the data on how many questions people can correctly answer on a short quiz of basic scientific questions, how that has changed over the years, and how the U.S. fares against other countries on those (mostly the) same questions.

For all of the tables I'm about to publish, note that I copied the data and notes from the NSF report, but I've formatted the tables to fit onto this blog. I made the graphs myself to help visualize the data, as these particular graphs weren't in the report.

First, here's the table showing how Americans fared on a question by question basis on some basic scientific facts. The table includes data from 1988 on up to the most recent poll in 2014.

sei_2016_trend.png

Those results aren't particularly encouraging. I point this out nearly every time I cover this report, but around 1 in 4 Americans don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and around half of Americans don't know that electrons are smaller than atoms! Those are simple, basic, scientific facts.

To help visualize that data, especially the trends on how it changes over time, here it is plotted on a graph by year.

sei_2016_trend-graph.png

Americans' knowledge has remained largely steady over the past decade and a half, though there were a few changes. Americans' knowledge on antibiotics improved the most, but has kind of plateaued since around 2006. There does appear to be a recent trend of improvement on the questions concerning the Big Bang and human evolution. Hopefully that trend is real and continues on into the future.

Next, here's the table showing how the U.S. compared to other countries.

sei_2016_comparison.png

I played around with different ways of plotting that data, but there's just so much that it's too confusing to put it all on one graph. If you're interested in seeing a graph for each individual question, you can click on the thumbnail below to embiggen* the graphs.

sei_2016_comparison-graph.png
Click to embiggen

However, I did come up with a way to do a comparison of sorts - I took an average of the percentage of people that correctly answered questions. As an example, if it was only two questions, and 100% of people answered the first question correctly, while only 50% answered the second question correctly, the average would by 75%. I did this average three ways - overall, the physical science questions, and the biological science questions. If a country didn't pose a certain question, it wasn't included in that country's average. I admit that this is a very rough way to do a comparison, but here's how each country fared.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg.png

The U.S. actually does rather well in this comparison. It's not number 1, but it's not too far off.

I also suspected that America's over-religiosity might be affecting those questions that contradict a literal young earth creationism interpretation of the Bible, so I redid all those averages exluding the Big Bang and evolution questions.

sei_2016_comparison-graph_avg_no_yec.png

As suspected, this did improve America's performance. This is heartening, that creationism hasn't caused huge damage to Americans' scientific understanding overall.

One lesson from this that I've pointed out before, is to keep these results in mind every time you see a poll showing people's attitudes towards anything scientific. For example, every time you see a poll showing that the majority or plurality favor teaching creationism in public schools, or a poll showing high levels of skepticism towards global warming, remember that this is the same public where a quarter of all people think the Sun orbits the Earth, and where half of all people don't realize electrons are subatomic particles. How informed can they be on scientific issues when they don't even know such simple facts?

The other major lesson is that we need to do a lot better job of teaching science. When you live in a democracy and everyone has a say in the government (at least by way of voting for representatives), you really need a well educated populace for it to work effectively. This is especially true of science in the modern age, when so many pressing issues require accurate understanding of science.

I suppose that on the plus side, as much as alarmists decry the falling quality of American education, at least in this one area, the data shows that Americans' knowledge has stayed largely the same. There's definitely room for improvement, but at least we haven't gone backwards.


*'Embiggen' is a perfectly cromulent word.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

White House Petition to End Criminal Occupation in Malheur Wildlife Refuge

White House LogoIf you're anything like me, you're probably tired of seeing a bunched of armed insurrectionists occupying the Malheur Wildlife Refuge up in Oregon. It's criminal, anti-American treason, bordering on terrorism. These thugs have taken over public land that belongs to all of us, recently vandalized portions of it, and there are even reports that they've been following local citizens to their homes and sitting outside their houses in cars to watch them. And they have the gall to call themselves Patriots. Granted, they're out in the middle of nowhere, and haven't yet done anything to endanger to the public, so escalating this into an armed conflict is probably taking it too far. But currently, these criminals can come and go with impunity, and the authorities haven't even cut their electricity, yet (source - NPR). If you'd like to send a message to the feds that it's time to do something about this, click on the link below to view and sign the petition:

Arrest Ammon Bundy and the armed occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

For reference, here's the text of the petition:

President Obama,

We respectfully request that you end the armed occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge immediately. At the very least, you owe the American people an explanation as to why the area has not been isolated. Members of their organization can come and go as they please, members of the community can visit the occupied facility, and other right-wing extremist groups such as the Idaho III% can show their support.

Law enforcement inaction up to this point is an egregious violation of public safety and emboldens their erroneous assertions that the US Government has no Constitutional Authority.

Please end the siege of the refuge and arraign Ammon Bundy as soon as possible.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Answering Quora - If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it?

A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the PromiseWell, I spent some time on Quora again this week, taking away my normal blog writing time, so I'm going to recycle a Quora answer here. The question someone asked this time is the title of this entry, If you were to build an advanced civilization optimized for economic and technological progress and growth, how would you go about it? They went on to add just a tiny bit of clarification, "How would you structure its government, economy, culture, etc.?" I put a little bit of thought into an answer, which I've copied below.

---

First off, I wouldn't want to optimize civilization for 'economic and technological progress and growth'. I'd want to optimize it for the maximum welfare of the people. And while economic and technological progress and growth are certainly part of that, they're a means to an end, not the goal itself, and shouldn't take precedence over the ultimate goal of maximum well-being.

And to be honest, while I have plenty of gripes over specific issues with government, I'd still follow the general pattern of the U.S. and the world's other prosperous democracies. First off, it would be a democracy (or more accurately, a representative democracy or republic) to ensure that laws were based on the will of the people. And even though individuals don't always know best, the Wisdom of the crowd phenomenon shows that group decisions are often very good. But, to protect against the tyranny of the majority, I'd have something like the Bill of Rights to ensure that basic rights for everybody are encoded right into the structure of government. I'd also want separate branches of government, all with equal power, to provide oversight to keep any one branch from becoming too strong.

As far as the economy, it should be a mix of a well-regulated free market and public institutions. Free markets are great at optimizing a good many things, but unregulated free markets lead to situations like a Charles Dickens novel or the robber barons of the 19th century U.S. Even well regulated free markets don't always produce the results we want for society at large, so robust public funding for basic research is also essential for long term progress. Just consider the current failure of the free market economy to produce new antibiotics. We, as a society, would really like those medicines to combat disease, but they're just not profitable enough for drug companies, so there's very little private research into new antibiotics. This is where public funding through the government should come into play, either funding research directly, or providing strong incentives for the private sector. As another example of the interaction between the public and private sector, consider GPS. The required satellite system was a huge investment, and probably wouldn't have been undertaken by any private company. But now that the satellites are in place, private industry and the free market have found many, many innovative ways to use that system.

To promote technological progress in the private sector, a patent system is essential. It's the best way to reward innovation, giving the incentive for people to come up with new ideas, knowing how much they could profit from it, and that the idea can't just by copied by anybody.

Education is critical, both for citizens to make well informed decisions when voting, and also if you want a work force of intellectuals who can drive your economic and technological progress and growth. I would structure education slightly differently that it's currently done in the U.S., mainly on funding (but not so different from other nations). I'd fund schools on the national level, not the local level as is currently done, since the current system puts the most money into rich areas where many students are already advantaged, and the least money into poor areas where many students are already disadvantaged. At the least, spending per pupil should be equal for all students, but it should probably even be skewed to put more funding into poor areas to help overcome disadvantages and get them on a more equal footing with rich areas. How much untapped potential is there in the current system?

For higher ed, I'd make it at least cheap enough to where a person could work to pay their way through school, without incurring a huge debt in the process. Even better would be free university education. It's an investment in the future intellectual workforce of the country.

So, I guess the short answer is that I'd go with pretty much what already exists in the prosperous democracies.

Image Source: A cropped portion of Robert McCall's mural,The Prologue and the Promise, downloaded from ImagineeringDisney.com

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video

Note: for a list of all my Carson related entries, go here.

Ben CarsonThis is my third entry inspired by a speech Carson gave a few years ago, but was just posted to YouTube in June of this year. The first entry was Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers, where I mostly described popular science writers' reactions to the video. Then next entry was Yet Another Look at Ben Carson's Views on Evolution - His Creation vs. Evolution Speech, where I mostly explained why this speech made Carson unfit for the presidency. But I didn't really rebut Carson's misinformation in either of those entries. I merely stated how wrong he was, without demonstrating it. That actually was on purpose, since as I wrote in that second entry, "I'm tempted to go into a point by point refutation of Carson, but there are so many falsehoods and misunderstandings, it would make this post extremely long." But, since I know not everybody studies evolution as much as I like to, I realize that not everybody might understand just how wrong Carson is in this video, so I have decided to do a more detailed rebuttal to his claims. Even ignoring politics, this is an opportunity to educate people on some common creationist misconceptions. Like I expected, this has made for a very long post.

First, just to repeat a theme I've written in both of those previous entries, the aspect of this video that's so damning of Carson isn't merely his ignorance of evolutionary theory, but that he was unable to recognize his own ignorance on the issue, and that despite this ignorance, he was arrogant enough to give a prepared lecture to a crowd of people. As I wrote in the second entry, "Most of us are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues." How can we trust Carson to recognize his own limitations?

I know this is a long entry. In fact, some individual answers could stand as their own entries. But I decided to address Carson's mistakes on evolution comprehensively, and he had so many mistakes. On the plus side, many of these mistakes are common creationist mistakes not limited to Carson, so addressing them comprehensively does offer an opportunity to educate others. But, if you want to just skim over this entry and only read the portions that catch your eye, that's understandable.

To keep this entry from growing even longer than it is, I mostly limited myself to discussing evolution, even though Carson discussed a few more topics. However, a few of his statements on those other topics were just too tempting to pass up, so they're discussed here, too.

Continue reading "A Response to Ben Carson's Creation vs. Evolution Video" »

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on the Removal of the Okalahoma Ten Commandments Monument - From Cowboy Churches to Silly Memes

Ten Commandments Monument RemovalIt's been a few weeks now since the monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma Capitol has been removed. But a story that just made the headlines here locally has reminded me of it, Local pastor plans to deliver Commandments on horseback. That's right. A pastor from Wichita Falls, John Riggs, upset by the Supreme Court decision that the statue must be removed, is going to personally deliver a hand-held sized granite tablet to the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, who herself opposed the removal of the monument. Apparently, Riggs thinks that Christianity is under attack in the U.S., that "The ACLU is trying to wipe it out." Riggs "never thought we would have to defend our Christianity, especially here in the Heartland. It's a sad day in America." Yes - it's terribly sad when the Supreme Court upholds the First Amendment's establishment clause, and doesn't let politicians impose their religious beliefs on their entire constituency.

In another article, Cowboy Church takes 10 Commandments to Capitol by horse, Riggs further explained his motivation.

We're going back to the grassroots, because it's not easy, but we want people to know we need to go back and not forward. Go back to things we've left behind, which is primarily one nation under God.

I understand nostalgia, but one thing our country doesn't need to do is go backwards, turning back all the progress that's been made. When the country was founded, women couldn't vote, while black people could be owned as property. After the Civil War, at least slavery was illegal, but Jim Crow laws kept black people disenfranchised for generations. It wasn't until the '50s and '60s that the Civil Rights Movement finally got these laws overturned. Universal women's suffrage wasn't enacted in the U.S. until 1919 - over a century after the ratification of the Constitution. And it's only been this very year that marriage equality has been extended to homosexual couples. And that's not even addressing issues like poverty rate, violent crime, literacy, or any other host of factors that show that the modern day U.S. is a much better time to be alive for most Americans. Progress isn't always inevitable or smooth, and there are troubling trends right now that do need to be addressed (like income & wealth inequality), but at least that progress has happened.

Well, Briggs and the others traveling with him plan to make it to Oklahoma some time tomorrow. We'll see if they make any more headlines.

Related to this monument removal, I saw a really bad 'meme'* the other day on Facebook. I now forgot whose Facebook feed I saw it on, but I came across it again on Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Here it is:

Stupid Meme

That image would have it seem that in the name of secularism, the U.S. is destroying religious iconography in exactly the same way as radical Islamists are destroying iconography from other religions. What that meme conveniently leaves out is the same scene from just a bit later:

Ten Commandments Monument Removal

Those damn destructive secularists seem to be taking awfully good care of that religious monument. And according to the New York Times article from which that picture was taken, the monument is currently standing, intact, just a few blocks away.

The meme also leaves out the history of this particular monument. It wasn't installed until 2012**, when the lawmakers of Oklahoma already knew it was controversial and that they'd likely face legal challenges. It's not some timeless artifact, but a very recent breach of the separation of church and state.

Anyway, I'm glad the monument was removed from public property, and I'm glad it was done in such a way that the people who like the monument can save it and put it up somewhere else, as long as that somewhere else is private property, not government property.

Thumbnail Image Source: UlizaLinks.co.ke


*The scare quotes around meme are because I prefer the original definition of the term coined by Dawkins.

**Actually, the monument being removed is a replacement, installed in 2014, after the original was destroyed when a man crashed his car into it. Of course, it should go without saying that even though I disapproved of the monument in the first place, I strenuously disapproved of somebody intentionally destroying it.

Archives

Selling Out