Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

McLeroy Out

Woo Hoo!In yesterday's primary, the incumbent State Board of Education member, Don McLeroy, lost to the challenger, Thomas Ratliff. I can't say how happy I am that McLeroy is going to be off the BoE. Most of the news stories I've read about the primary bring up McLeroy's stance on evolution, which is certainly a major problem, but it certainly wasn't the only one. I've covered a lot of this recently, so I'll just direct readers to this blog entry for a brief summary of McLeroy's shenanigans (English standards, social studies standards, back door dealings, 'standing up to the experts'). Or, go read this essay from McLeroy's own site, where he downplays teaching children critical thinking skills. The election was close, though, so those of us in Texas will have to remain vigilent in future elections. But for the time being, we can breathe a little easier, knowing that there's one less kook affecting our children's education.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Science & Engineering Indicators 2010

NSB LogoIt's that time again. The latest NSF report on Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 has been released (I'm actually over a month late in blogging on it, but considering that the report only comes out every two years, I figure that's not too bad). I've made previous entries for the 2004, 2006, and 2008 versions of the report. There really isn't anything new this time. The long term trends are relatively constant, and the overall literacy is still depressingly low.

First, here's the table that compares the scientific literacy of several countries. This table was taken from the section, Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding. The numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

Figure 7-11
Correct answers to scientific literacy questions, by country/region: Most recent year
(Percent answered correctly)
Questions EU-25 (2005) Malaysia (2004) India (2004) China (2007) Russia (2003) South Korea (2004) Japan (2001) U.S. (2008)
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) 86 58 57 49 NA 87 77 84
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) 59 13 NA 40 35 48 56 70
It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) 64 38 38 55 22 59 25 62
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) 47 19 NA 20 24 31 28 49
The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True) 87 45 32 44 40 87 83 77
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) 66 71 70 78 NA 86   72
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) 46 26 30 22 44 46 30 53
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) 46 16 39 21 18 30 23 54
NA = not available, question not asked

EU = European Union

aChina and Europe surveys asked about “mother's gene” instead of “father's gene.”

SOURCES: University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2008); Japan–Government of Japan, National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, The 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology in Japan (2002); South Korea–Korea Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2004); Russia–Gokhberg L, Shuvalova O, Russian Public Opinion of the Knowledge Economy: Science, Innovation, Information Technology and Education as Drivers of Economic Growth and Quality of Life, British Council, Russia (2004); China–Wei H, Chao Z, Hongbin G, Chinese Public Understanding of Science and Attitudes towards Science and Technology, 2007, China Research Institute for Science Popularization, Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (2008); India–National Council of Applied Economic Research, India Science Survey (2004); Malaysia–Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre, Public Awareness of Science and Technology Malaysia 2004 (2005); and EU–European Commission, Research Directorate-General, Eurobarometer 224/Wave 63.1: Europeans, Science and Technology (2005).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

Now, here's the table detailing the U.S. history on these questions over the past several years (with the year 1985 removed to let the table fit on this page - but don't worry, the only data from 1985 was for the question about the continents).

Appendix table 7-9
Correct answers to scientific terms and concept questions: 1985–2008
(Percent)
Question 1988
n = 2,041
1990
n = 2,005
1992
n = 1,995
1995
n = 2,006
1997
n = 2,000
1999
n = 1,882
2001
n = 1,574
2004
n = 2,025
2006
n = 1,864
2008
n = 1,505
The center of the Earth is very hot.(True) 80 79 81 78 82 80 80 78 80 84
The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.(True) 80 77 79 78 78 80 79 77 80 77
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) 73 73 71 73 73 72 75 71 76 72
It is the mother’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.(False) NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA 71a
It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.(True) NA NA 65 64 62 66 65 62 64 62a
All radioactivity is man-made.(False) 65 63 73 72 71 71 76 73 70 70
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.(False) 26 30 35 40 43 45 51 54 56 54
Electrons are smaller than atoms.(True) 43 41 46 44 43 46 48 45 53 53
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year) 45 48 46 47 48 49 54 NA 55 51
Lasers work by focusing sound waves.(False) 36 37 37 40 39 43 45 42 45 49
NA = not available, question not asked

aQuestion about "father's gene" asked of 1,251 survey respondents. Question about "mother's gene" asked of 254 survey respondents.

NOTES: Table includes all years for which data collected. "Don't know" responses and refusals to respond counted as incorrect.

SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1985–2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); and University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006, 2008).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

And for something new compared to my previous blog entries on the science and engineering indicators, here's a graph of the above data to make it easier to see the trends.

U.S. Scientific Literacy History

Just look at those results - around a quarter of Americans think that the Sun goes around the Earth, half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms, and half don't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun! Keep that in mind whenever you hear people citing public opinion polls on the validity of concepts like global warming or evolution.

It's always a bit depressing to see those numbers. It's hard to believe that the people of our nation are so ignorant. If there's one lesson to take away from these results, it's that we need to vastly improve our education system.

Update 2010-02-26: I updated the graph to add a title and labels to the axes. Also, the night after I wrote this entry, I went home and asked my 10 year old daughter the questions from the survey. She managed to get 9 out of 10 correct.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Texas Board of Education in NY Times Magazine

TEA LogoWhen I tell people from outside Texas what a bad board of education we have, I don't think they realize just how bad it is. They seem to think it's the general complaints about governments that everybody has. But the board of education down here really is horrible. I've blogged previously about the science standards (and again, and again), the language arts and reading standards, and the Chris Comer affair.

Now, there's a very good article in the NY Times Magazine describing their shenanigans in regards to the new social studies standards. I highly recommend this article. Here are a few highlights to wet your appetite.

Don McLeroy, a small, vigorous man with a shiny pate and bristling mustache, proposed amendment after amendment on social issues to the document that teams of professional educators had drawn up over 12 months, in what would have to be described as a single-handed display of archconservative political strong-arming.
...some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society. As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next."
McLeroy makes no bones about the fact that his professional qualifications have nothing to do with education. “I’m a dentist, not a historian,” he said. “But I’m fascinated by history, so I’ve read a lot.”

I'm not a doctor, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.

McLeroy remains unbowed and talked cheerfully to me about how, confronted with a statement supporting the validity of evolution that was signed by 800 scientists, he had proudly been able to “stand up to the experts.”
Merely weaving important religious trends and events into the narrative of American history is not what the Christian bloc on the Texas board has pushed for in revising its guidelines. Many of the points that have been incorporated into the guidelines or that have been advanced by board members and their expert advisers slant toward portraying America as having a divinely preordained mission.
when Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., testified at the board meeting last month in opposition to the board’s approach to bringing religion into history, warning that the Supreme Court has forbidden public schools from “seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religious values through the curriculum,” and in the process said that the founders “did not draw on Mosaic law, as is mentioned in the standards,” several of the board members seemed dumbstruck.
One recurring theme during the process of revising the social-studies guidelines was the desire of the board to stress the concept of American exceptionalism, and the Christian bloc has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity should be portrayed as the driving force behind what makes America great.
Besides the fact that incorporation by reference [trying to tie the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence] is usually used for technical purposes rather than for such grandiose purposes as the reinterpretation of foundational texts, there is an oddity to this tactic. “The founders deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution — but not because they were a bunch of atheists and deists,” says Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” “To them, mixing religion and government meant trouble.” The curious thing is that in trying to bring God into the Constitution, the activists — who say their goal is to follow the original intent of the founders — are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.
What is wrong with the Texas process, according to many observers, is illustrated by the fate of Bill Martin Jr. The board has the power to accept, reject or rewrite the TEKS, and over the past few years, in language arts, science and now social studies, the members have done all of the above. Yet few of these elected overseers are trained in the fields they are reviewing.
To give an illustration simultaneously of the power of ideology and Texas’ influence, Barber told me that when he led the social-studies division at Prentice Hall, one conservative member of the board told him that the 12th-grade book, “Magruder’s American Government,” would not be approved because it repeatedly referred to the U.S. Constitution as a “living” document. “That book is probably the most famous textbook in American history,” Barber says. “It’s been around since World War I, is updated every year and it had invented the term ‘living Constitution,’ which has been there since the 1950s. But the social conservatives didn’t like its sense of flexibility. They insisted at the last minute that the wording change to ‘enduring.’ ” Prentice Hall agreed to the change, and ever since the book — which Barber estimates controlled 60 or 65 percent of the market nationally — calls it the “enduring Constitution.”

Those quotes are only a taste of the article. Go read the whole thing.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Young Earth Creationism - Is It a Modern Phenomenon?

Note: I'd originally posted a lot of this information in a comment on Pharyngula, but I figured it was worth a blog entry, so I worked on it a bit and posted it here.

Adam & Eve with Some PterosaursI've been hearing a lot recently that creationism is a fairly modern American movement, and that Christians were more nuanced in their understanding of scripture before that. For example, there was a recent entry on Pharyngula, summarizing a lecture by Ron Numbers, describing how creationism is really the product of Ellen White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism. I've also heard Richard Dawkins make the claim a few times that young earth creationism is something new. There are certainly quite a few Christians today who interpret Genesis figuratively or allegorically, and quite a few of those who argue that it's obvious that Genesis isn't meant to be interpreted literally.

But how true are those claims? I went to the first place that all of us lazy researchers go - Wikipedia. Granted, I'm aware with the problems of trying to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but it's usually pretty useful.

The Wikipedia article lists examples of Christian creationism going all the way back to the beginning of Christianity (as well as numerous flavors of creationism of other religions predating Christianity). Even Saint Augustine, so often quoted for telling Christians not to speak about natural phenomena of which they were ignorant, thought that pretty much all of Genesis except for the creation story was literal, and seemed to think that the Earth was still only a few thousand years old.

They are deceived . . . by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed. (City of God)

Sure, there were people that thought the Earth was much older, but young earth creationism doesn't appear to be a particularly new phenomenon.

I think that when people talk about creationism being a modern phenomenon, they're actually referring to a modern resurgence. By the 1800s, geologists were starting to learn enough about the history of our planet that it was pretty obvious that it was very ancient. They didn't have the techniques to pin down the age as well as we do now, but their estimates ranged from millions to billions of years. For anyone who studied the evidence, it was no longer possible to be intellectually honest and still maintain a young earth perspective. So, educated Christians who hadn't already done so switched to non-literal interpretations of Genesis. Day age and gap theories were among the popular interpretations.

It was in response to this 'liberalizing' of Christianity, as well as in response to the Enlightenment, that fundamentalist Christianity sprang up. And it was against this backdrop that young earth creationism had its resurgence, including the visions of Ellen White.

I think another point that's worth bringing up is the difference between what educated and uneducated people believe. I don't mean for this to sound condescending - merely factual. As I bring up over and over on this site, just look at the Science and Engineering Indicators put out by the National Science Foundation. One in four people in this country don't realize the Earth orbits the Sun (it's even worse in Europe), and one half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms. Of course, practically anybody with a good education knows those simple facts. But, consider what future historians would think about our society's understanding of those facts. If it wasn't for polls like those, all they would have to go on would be books, articles, and other written records. And it's mainly people with good educations who leave those records. Outside of polls and similar research, written records are biased towards the educated. Now, considering young earth creationism, I think there might be a similar bias going on when we try to figure out what people believed in the 1800s and even earlier. What gets recorded in books written by educated priests is not the same thing as what was believed by the uneducated population.

So, it seems a bit misleading to claim that young earth creationism is a modern phenomenon. You could get away with talking of a modern resurgence, but young earth creationism appears to be as old as religion itself. And to claim that Genesis is clearly figurative or allegorical seems a bit of a stretch, as well, considering how many intelligent people accepted it as literal before we knew enough about the history of our planet to know otherwise. It's tough to know what people were thinking thousands of years ago concerning the creation stories now recorded in Genesis, but it certainly seems possible that they were accepted at face value.

Friday, November 20, 2009

E-mail Forward - Obama's Reaction to Ft. Hood Shootings

I got another e-mail forwarded to me to research that hasn't yet been covered by Snopes. There is an official statement from one of the parties implicated in the e-mail, but the misleading nature of the e-mail makes people less likely to actually go to that organization.

The e-mail is about Obama's reaction to the recent shootings at Ft. Hood. It claims that Nidal Hassan was an advisor to Obama on homeland security, and that Obama has been quiet in his response to the shootings for this reason. As evidence, the e-mail provides a link to notes from a meeting that lists Hassan as a participant.

For the most part, this e-mail is false or misleading.

The link provided goes to the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI), not the federal government's Department of Homeland Security. The HSPI describes itself as follows.

Founded in 2003, The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) is a nonpartisan “think and do” tank whose mission is to build bridges between theory and practice to advance homeland security through an interdisciplinary approach. By convening domestic and international policymakers and practitioners at all levels of government, the private and non-profit sectors, and academia, HSPI creates innovative strategies and solutions to current and future threats to the nation.

Nidal Hasan is listed in the pdf link, and this is the same Nidal Hasan responsible for killing the people at Fort Hood. However, he is listed as a participant, or in other words, an audience member. The presenters are listed earlier in the pdf, and Hasan is not among them. The HSPI has released a statement on Hasan's connection to the institute (currently available on their homepage). Here is the first paragraph of that statement.

In his capacity as Disaster & Preventive Psychiatry Fellow at the Uniformed Services University School of Medicine, Nidal Hasan registered ("RSVP'd') to attend as an audience member a number of Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) events in the period June 2008 to February 2009. All of these events were open to the public. At no time has Nidal Hasan been affiliated with HSPI or The George Washington University.

So, Hasan was an audience member, or at least RSVP'd, for a meeting on homeland security organized by a university think tank. I think it's disingenuous to try to use that to try to show that Hasan was connected somehow with the president (other than the fact that as commander in chief, Obama was Hasan's boss, though removed by many levels of supervisors).

The full text of the e-mail forward is available below the fold.

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