Politics Archive

Friday, May 12, 2017

Debunking GOP Talking Points - Foreign Aid and Factory Jobs

Republican ElephantRecently, I was forwarded an email from the Republican National Committee, with the subject line, 'Week 15: A Rebirth Of Hope, Safety, And Opportunity'. You can read the full text on DonaldJTrump.com, though without the images included in the email.

Now, the whole thing was bad, but I got hung up right from the beginning just in the introduction. Below is a quote of that introduction, followed by my response, calling out the GOP for their misleading remarks on foreign aid and factory jobs.

Over the years, traditional politicians have failed to put America First. Our factories have been shut down, our steel mills slowed, and our jobs were stolen away and shipped overseas.

Politicians sent troops to protect the borders of foreign nations, but left America's borders wide open. They spent billions of dollars on one global project after another, while failing to keep our citizens safe and allowing gangs flooded into our country.

President Trump is not going to let other countries take advantage of us anymore, because from now on it's America First!

Just imagine what we could accomplish if we all started working together to rebuild our nation, the nation that we so dearly love. Our jobs will come back home and dying factories will come roaring back to life.

Our country is seeing a rebirth of hope, safety, and opportunity. Americans are being taught to love their country and take pride in our great American land.

Let's start by putting this 'America First' talk in perspective. The American government already puts America first (or at least - the politicians' donors). The U.S. only spends around 1% of the federal budget on foreign aid. All this rhetoric about 'billions of dollars on one global project after another, while failing to keep our citizens safe and allowing gangs flooded into our country' is extremely misleading. It's talk like this that contributes to Americans having such a skewed perspective of the actual amount the U.S. spends (the average American thinks foreign aid is up around 30% of spending - Politifact). For example, here was the proposed budget from 2016 (source: Washington Post):

U.S. Foreign Aid as Percent Spending

The U.S. spends over $4 trillion every year. Billions of dollars going to foreign aid may sound like a lot, but it's not that big in the overall scheme of things. Cutting all that spending wouldn't have a very big effect on the overall budget, at all. Even if the budget was balanced, that type of spending cut would amount to only a 1% reduction in taxes.

Here are some more graphs putting this in perspective - first, how much the U.S. spends on Official Development Assistance as a percentage of gross national income (not spending, which is why it's a lower percentage than the discussion above), and then second, how that percentage has changed over the years (source: CompareYourCountry.org).

U.S. Foreign Aid as Percent GNI
U.S. Foreign Aid History as Percent GNI

As a percentage of GNI, the U.S. is one of the lowest spenders on foreign aid among developed countries - only spending around half of the global average, and only 16% of what the most generous nation, Norway, spends. You can look at the history, too. Back in the '60s, the U.S. donated almost 0.6% of GNI - more than 3x what we do now. Granted, because the U.S. is the world's largest economy, that still amounts to the most absolute spending (but not by a whole lot). But as far as what we could afford to spend, compared to other countries, and compared to what we've done ourselves in the past, the modern day U.S. is not particularly generous when it comes to foreign aid. We already donate a smaller share of our resources than practically any other developed country.

Even if you don't care about helping the poor and destitute in other countries out of common decency, you can still look at it pragmatically. For one, U.S. manufacturers make a lot of money through the export market. Boeing can't sell 787s to failed countries. There's not going to be a big market for high end American made goods in regions where people are too poor to afford them. If we can give these regions a boost to help them on the road towards development, they could be potential customers a few years down the road. There's also the consideration of political stability (for a historical example, do you really think WWII would have happened if not for the Treaty of Versailles and the economic disaster that was for Germany?).

More Info: Brookings Institute - Myths about U.S. foreign aid


There was another statement that seemed particularly naïve:

Just imagine what we could accomplish if we all started working together to rebuild our nation, the nation that we so dearly love. Our jobs will come back home and dying factories will come roaring back to life.

Here's another figure (source: Economic Policy Institute). Take a look at American productivity. It's at record highs.

U.S. Productivity Growth History

Here's what the Cato Institute has to say about U.S. manufacturing. Note that the Cato Institute is a right-wing libertarian think tank.

Reports of the death of U.S. manufacturing have been greatly exaggerated. The fallacy that trade killed manufacturing has long been a pretense for protectionism and industrial policy. But by historic standards and relative to other countries' manufacturing sectors, U.S. manufacturing remains a global powerhouse.

Claims of "rapid deindustrialization" are misplaced and often based on the declining share of manufacturing value-added relative to the overall economy. Indeed, manufacturing's share of the U.S. economy peaked in 1953 at 28.1 percent, whereas in 2015 manufacturing accounted for only 12.1 percent of GDP. However, in 1953, U.S. value-added in the manufacturing sector amounted to $110 billion, as compared to a record $2.1 trillion in 2015 - more than six times the value in real terms.

Trade critics also tend to conflate manufacturing employment with the condition of manufacturing. But declining employment in a manufacturing sector that produces record-setting output year-after-year is a sign of greater efficiency, which frees human resources for other, higher-valued added endeavors. In 2015 the stock of FDI in U.S. manufacturing surpassed $1.1 trillion, more than double the value of FDI in China's manufacturing sector (and eight times the value in per capita terms).

Here's an article from the Cato Institute, Is Manufacturing Employment the Only Thing That Counts?. They started off with agriculture as an example. In 1910, agriculture accounted for 11.8 million jobs, and 31% of the entire U.S. workforce. Today, it has declined to just 2.5 million jobs, and only 1.6% of the workforce. But agricultural production hasn't gone down. In fact, it's gone up, keeping up with a growing population, and producing a surplus to export to other countries. Barring a catastrophe, there's no way we'll return to an economy where 1/3 of the jobs come from agriculture, because technology has made those jobs obsolete.

Now, back to manufacturing. Even though factory employment has fallen, the economic value added by the sector has continued to rise. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the United States set an all-time record for value added in manufacturing in 2015 of $2.2 trillion. Value added in manufacturing has risen every year since the recession ended in 2009. The United States is a competitive producer of a wide range of factory products, and ranks third as a manufacturing exporter behind China and Germany.

Given that the sector is growing year by year and is a major exporter, has the manufacturing base really been -- in the words of the White House -- "devastated"? An unbiased observer likely would conclude instead that -- as in agriculture -- fewer workers are doing a fine job of producing more goods of higher value.

Has the downtrend in manufacturing employment been driven primarily by globalization? No. An analysis in 2015 by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University showed that trade has, indeed, had a modest effect on manufacturing employment. The study found that roughly 13 percent of manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to international competition.

The other 87 percent of the decline, though, has come from greater automation -- robots and computers are reducing the number of workers required on factory floors. Just as in farming, productivity gains allow manufacturing employees to generate far more output than in the past. Many people would see this as progress.

U.S. manufacturing is doing quite well. There's no way that 'Our jobs will come back home', because most of them didn't go somewhere else. They simply evaporated due to things like CNC machines, robots, and other forms of automation. It's either naïve or dishonest to mislead unemployed factory workers into thinking that any type of government policies are going to bring those jobs back. (I could make a similar statement about the coal mining industry.)

This is a real problem. Factory workers are losing their jobs. Something obviously needs to be done to make sure they can find new jobs. But if you want to enact a realistic solution that's going to work and help these people, the first step is a realistic recognition of the problem. Solutions based on fantasy and wishful thinking aren't merely a waste of time - they're prolonging those people's suffering, and dragging down the overall economy for everybody else.


And that's just the introduction. I could have written just as much about pretty much every other subject in that email (and I could have written a lot more about manufacturing and blue collar jobs, too). It's just so frustrating and disheartening that this is an official email from what is currently the most powerful political party in the country. I don't know if they really believe what they write, or if it's just propaganda to try to drum up the base. Either way, it's not healthy for democracy or the country. Patriotic Americans should be denouncing these types of false narratives that do nothing to help the country and distract from the real causes of the issues we're facing.

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 15 - Time for Impeachment?

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Usually, this series is about a broad range of issues related to Trump. But this week, I'm going to focus on one abuse of power in particular that's so egregious, I think it is time to start talking seriously about impeachment. I know, Trump was damaging the country before. But bad policy and bad political appointees aren't impeachable offenses - that's what elections are for. And yes, a lot of his previous corruption and authoritarian tendencies were alarming and damaging to American democracy and government mores (demonization of the free press, nepotism, cronyism, conflicts of interest...), but they were only borderline worthy of impeachment, and the political reality is that Trump wasn't going to be impeached for giving his kids government jobs or flouting the emoluments clause.

But now, Trump has potentially crossed the line into obstruction of justice, by firing James Comey, the director of the law enforcment agency that was investigating his adminstration. Granted, it still has to be proven that that was Trump's intent, but that's certainly where all the arrows seem to be pointing right now. And if that does turn out to be true, then I say it's time to impeach Trump. That's an abuse of power beyond the pale, and the American people deserve far better.

Since this is such a huge issue, I'm going to quote more articles than normal on a single issue, and pull out more excerpts than normal from those articles.


Vox - Experts on authoritarianism are absolutely terrified by the Comey firing

"Trump has talked like a would-be authoritarian since day one. ... This is the first clear warning sign that he's attempting to [act like one]."

Those are the words not of a Democratic political operative or a fringe liberal Trump critic, but of Yascha Mounk, a respected scholar of democracy at Harvard, reacting to Preisdent Trump's abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey.

In the meantime, all we have to go on is what we know to have happened: The president fired the person who was investigating him and his associates.

To people who study the rise of authoritarian leaders, just those facts alone are terrifying.

"This is very common -- in semi-authoritarian and authoritarian regimes," Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver, tells me. "Purges, summary firings, imprisonment: These are all things that authoritarian leaders do when they attempt to rid themselves of rivals within government."

One of the first steps in this pattern is weakening independent sources of power that can check the executive's actions. Like, say, the director of your domestic security service who just happens to be investigating your administration's foreign ties.
Now, before you worry that the United States is going to go the way of Turkey or Russia, it's worth noting that the institutions checking Trump are far stronger than the ones in countries where democracy has collapsed. The courts, the press, and social movements have all done a pretty good job checking Trump's power so far; even Congress, by far the most Trump-subservient institution, has blocked some of his policy proposals and appointees.

But the Comey firing is by far the greatest test of the strength of American democracy in the face of Trump's authoritarian instincts so far. Whether American institutions keep up their strong performance in the face of this stress test may well determine its fate.

That actually doesn't happen very much anymore. Outright fascist movements were mostly discredited after World War II, and data on military coups shows a clear decline in their frequency since a peak in the 1960s.

But in the past 20 years or so, we've started to see a new kind of creeping authoritarianism emerge in places around the world -- something that, in the wake of Trump's recent actions, now has ominous parallels to the United States.

This is what makes the firing of Comey so scary for these scholars.

Dismissing the head of a national law enforcement agency is extremely rare, both in the United States and in other advanced democracies worldwide. Only one prior FBI director, William Sessions in 1993, has been fired in the 82-year history of the modern FBI, and that was because of a protracted corruption scandal involving his alleged abuse of government resources for his own personal use.

Comey was fired, it seems, precisely because his FBI posed a threat to Trump's authority. Trump is doing exactly what new authoritarians do in the early stages of their leadership.
The Comey firing itself doesn't herald the death of democracy in America, not even close. But it is a watershed moment for the country's future nonetheless. What happens now will shape the future of American democracy -- if not its survival, then certainly its health and ability to function smoothly. Both Congress and ordinary Americans can shape it for the better -- or for the worse, if they just let this pass and do nothing.

At the end of our conversation, Chenoweth left me with one parting thought: "This is not a drill." I believe her.


The Atlantic - Two Dead Canaries in the Coal Mine

Just after election day, Ben Wittes and Susan Hennessey cowrote a post at Lawfare, the web site Wittes runs for the Brookings Institution, titled "We Need Comey at the FBI More Than Ever." It began by acknowledging that Comey was unpopular among many Republicans and Democrats, then made a case for retaining him in his post:
...[4 paragraphs worth of explanation here]...

In fact, for those concerned that President Trump will trample the rule of law--liberals and conservatives alike--Comey's fate is one potential canary in the coal mine.

That canary is now dead.


The Atlantic - Will Republicans Check Trump's Presidential Power?

Richard Nixon's dismissal of the Watergate special prosecutor was met with bipartisan outrage. It's less clear whether the public, and its political leaders, will respond in kind to the firing of FBI director James Comey.
The question today is whether a deeply polarized nation can respond with equal determination to Trump's ominous assault on democratic accountability, which two legal scholars on Tuesday accurately described as "a horrifying breach of every expectation we have of the relationship between the White House and federal law enforcement."
A few Republicans frequently critical of Trump--among them Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Ohio Governor John Kasich--joined virtually all Democrats in raising alarms about Comey's sudden dismissal. But most GOP leaders issued tepid responses that minimized or obscured the core issue: Trump fired the law-enforcement official leading the investigation into his campaign for possible collusion with a hostile foreign government.

With that decision, Trump made clear his willingness to trample the formal and informal limits that have checked the arbitrary exercise of presidential power through American history. What's unclear is whether leaders and voters in both parties can summon as much will to defend those limits as they did after Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre. If Trump can decapitate the FBI inquiry into his campaign without real consequence--such as an irresistible bipartisan demand for an independent counsel to take over the investigation--his appetite for shattering democratic constraints is only likely to grow.


Vox - This Harvard law professor thinks Trump really could be impeached over Comey

It's not too soon to put impeachment on the table.

It's absolutely fair to put impeachment on the table right now. I don't think it's likely, but there's enough smoke around to suggest that there might be impeachable conduct that we should worry about. Ultimately, this will turn on whether the Republicans decide they've had enough and draw a line in the sand with Trump. But that's a political decision, not a legal one.

An impeachment hearing is a sign that the Constitution is working, not a crisis.

Impeachment itself is not a constitutional crisis, because it's actually in the Constitution. And so an impeachment means, on some level, that the Constitution is working. It means presidential power is being checked or executive overreach is being punished by the instruments of law. When a president can break the law without fear of impeachment, then we should really be worried.


Vox - By firing James Comey, Trump has put impeachment on the table

Nothing we've seen credibly reported thus far about Trump and Russia would amount to an impeachable offense, and indeed, it's not really clear what allegations of "collusion" on the campaign trail would really amount to even if proven.

Firing the FBI director in order to obstruct an ongoing investigation would be different.

Anonymously sourced journalism is not the same thing as sworn testimony or hard evidence. But it's also indispensable to uncovering official wrongdoing. And Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning already brought forth plenty of evidence of wrongdoing:

[A long list of examples that I would encourage you to read by following the link above]

Some or all of this reporting may prove to be false. But it has all been published by credible journalists in credible publications. And it adds up to a very clear picture of a president deciding to fire an FBI director to obstruct an ongoing investigation and then stitching together a shaky rationalization for doing so.


ThinkProgress - Trump's firing of FBI director could be an impeachable offense, constitutional law experts say

Constitutional law experts say that while President Donald Trump's decision to fire Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey was legal, it appears to be an abuse of power that could constitute an impeachable offense.

Trump's decision to terminate Comey, the head of the nation's top law enforcement agency, was announced Tuesday and sent shockwaves throughout the political sphere.

It's not unconstitutional for Trump to fire his FBI director as he has the authority to fire anyone in the executive branch, explained David D. Cole, the national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement to ThinkProgress.

"But if he did so, as appears to be the case, because he is concerned that Comey's investigation of ties between his campaign and Russian officials might have implicated him in wrongdoing, it's tantamount to an obstruction of justice," wrote Cole, a constitutional law expert and professor who is on leave from the Georgetown University Law Center.


Politico - Behind Comey's firing: An enraged Trump, fuming about Russia

President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn't call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.

He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn't disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.

Trump's firing of the high-profile FBI director on the 110th day after the president took office marked another sudden turn for an administration that has fired its acting attorney general, national security adviser and now its FBI director, whom Trump had praised until recent weeks and even blew a kiss to during a January appearance.


Guardian Op-ed - Donald Trump acts like an illegitimate president for a reason

The American people did not really choose Donald Trump. His presidency exists without the support of the majority of voters and, in turn, without a true mandate from the American people. Trump walks and talks instead like an authoritarian, and seems to believe he is above the people and the law, and need not answer to either. He wants to be untouchable. He behaves with impunity and acts as if legal standards like obstruction of justice don't apply to him.

Firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, demonstrates a whole new level of defiance of the rule of law and our foundational system of checks and balances. More bluntly, it proves just how dangerous an illegitimate president is to our democracy. His actions do not only undermine the legitimacy and credibility of his presidency; they are a direct threat to our constitutionalism and our democratic legitimacy.

This seems like an obvious demand at this point, but it's worth stating clearly that now, more than ever, we need a special prosecutor appointed to look into the continuing drip, drip, drip revelations about Russia. But even more than that, the United States must regain our democratic legitimacy by ensuring that no citizen, president or otherwise, is above the law or above the American people.


Emily Farris Twitter Posting

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Response to E-mail on the Pledge of Allegiance

I recently received an email forward with the subject, 'THIS SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED!!---WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!!!...' It was about Congressman supposedly refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, with the writer outraged, and proposing that those Congress members weren't fit to serve.

I couldn't resist replying. So, here's the original email and my response. Note that I cleaned up the text formatting a bit (it was large, bold, and multi-colored), and reduced the image size (though you can click on it to get the full size version, if you're really that curious).


The Original Email

If they won't stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance,

In my opinion...they have no place in our Congress!...

New York state senators protesting session
Any member of the house or senate that refuses to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the Chambers should be escorted out by the Sergeant of Arms until they comply If your allegiance is not with this country and our flag, just who is it with?

Why don't we ask someone like Minnesota's Muslim congressman Keith Ellison!

Let's cut off their pay -- and all benefits. Give the ingrates two days to decide to retire or be impeached!


The Facts:

  • That's a photo from the New York State Senate, not the U.S. Senate or the House.
  • The photo is from 2009, not recently
  • The seated state senators were protesting the session itself, and the political wrangling that had led to it, not the Pledge
  • The seated senators normally stand for the Pledge during normal, non-controversial sessions


My Commentary:

This photo doesn't have much to do with the commentary in the email, but I'll still add my two cents to that commentary.

I see this issue from multiple sides, and I'm kind of conflicted, myself. On the one hand, I'm note a huge fan of the Pledge to begin with. Forced loyalty oaths are for totalitarian governments, not the land of the free. Besides, Congressmen and Senators already take an oath when they first take office. If they're honest and will support the country, one oath should be enough. If they're not honest and patriotic, it doesn't matter how many times they repeat the Pledge - it's just empty words.

On the other hand, the Eagle Scout in me does get upset when people disrespect symbols of this nation. But then I go back to recognizing that everyone has their First Amendment rights to express themselves however they want. I mean, I just recently saw the clip of Donald Trump hugging an American flag at a rally (The Hill). And I'll be honest, it infuriated me. Talk about disrespect. He was treating the U.S. flag as a prop, not as a solemn symbol of our nation and all those who have fought and died to defend it. Has he ever even read the Flag Code? But, that's still his First Amendment right. I'm not calling for Trump to be impeached because of that sign of disrespect. So even if Congressmen and Senators (or Colin Kaepernick) decide to sit during the Pledge out of a principled protest, that's their First Amendment right, and I'll defend their right to do so.

And frankly, I have no idea why Keith Ellison was mentioned at all. He wasn't in the photo, and I've never heard of him refusing to stand for the Pledge. Was it merely because he's Muslim?

Short version: I'm not a huge fan of the Pledge, but as long as it's a custom, I would prefer that Congressmen and Senators stand and recite the Pledge appropriately. But if they decide to sit out of principled protest, that's their right to do so, just as it's Donald Trump's right to disrespect the flag by hugging it. And I'm not about to grant either party the right to start forcefully removing members of the other party because they deem them to be insufficiently patriotic.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Putting This Blog in Perspective

PerspectiveI wanted to expand on something I wrote a few years ago in the entry, The Misleading Image of Bloggers. If you come and visit this blog and read my entries here, I think it would be very easy to get a misleading image of what I'm like in real life, and maybe even some misunderstanding over just how strongly I really feel about certain issues.

First of all are the topics I discuss here. I write an awful lot about religion and politics on this blog, as well as skepticism in general. Those are topics that interest me, but I know they're not topics that interest everybody, and even if they did, they're not necessarily polite topics for dinner conversation. Nobody wants to be that guy that's always starting a religious or political debate every time you hang out with them. Granted, I do like to discuss these things when they come up, but I usually wait for other people to bring them up. If you happened to meet up with me on a Friday night to go grab a beer, chances are that these topics wouldn't even come up. So, this blog gives me an opportunity to write about these issues without boring my friends.

Plus, it's not like I only think about religion and politics. Like I wrote in that older entry, "Nobody except my friends and family really cares what TV shows I've been watching, what I've been eating for supper every night, the chores I did around the house last weekend, the grades my daughter makes in school, how she did at her piano recital, or many of the other things I do or talk about on a daily basis." I write about certain topics because I do think there's an audience that will like reading about them. And even if it's not a huge audience, at least it's a bigger audience than just my wife and parents, who are just about the only people that would want to hear about all my mundane day to day experiences.

Second is how I feel about the 'opposition'. I criticize religion, creationism, conservative politics, climate change denialism, etc. And while I may at times call out certain individuals holding those positions, I don't mean to imply that all people holding those positions are bad people, nor necessarily even the specific individuals I'm calling out. All people have a multitude of views on a multitude of issues, and I seriously doubt that any one person is going to agree with me on everything. So, when I criticize creationism, for example, I'm specifically criticizing just that one belief. I don't think most creationists are bad people. I think they're just mistaken about that particular issue.*

Moreover, while I criticize religion a lot and think that on balance it does more harm than good (see the previous entry, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, for plenty of examples of the harm of religion, including fire bombings and persecuting children as witches, or a recent entry, Christian Privilege, showing the undue privilege religion receives in our culture), I don't think it's universally horrible in every aspect. Religiously motivated soup kitchens and homeless shelters do good in the world. Christmas bazaars and pot lucks can foster a sense of community. People who have had traumatic experiences can often find comfort in religious beliefs.

In addition, I hold people to different standards depending on the situation. I've already written about this in the entry, Run of the Mill vs. Big Name Creationists. Most people never had evolution presented to them well in high school biology, and don't have much reason to study it, now. As I wrote previously, "It's hard to get good and pissed off at someone who believes something and hasn't ever been shown a good reason not to believe it." But when someone like Ben Carson, a respected neurosurgeon, goes and gives a presentation to the public, or participates in public debates, then I do expect him to have done enough research to understand the issue and speak about it knowledgeably. And then there are the prominent creationists / creationist organizations like Answers in Genesis, or Kent Hovind, or Ray Comfort, who I know have been exposed to credible science, yet continue to spread their falsehoods. And even though I just used creationism for my example, that's not the only issue where I look at things this way. It applies to politics, science, and a whole bunch of other fields. I get much more upset with people who should know better but continue to spread misinformation.

In real life, I have friends of all types of religious and political persuasions. I have friends ranging from fundamentalist Christians to Muslims to agnostics and atheists, from young and old earth creationists to evolutionary biologists, from die hard Trump supporters to people who are far more liberal than me, from gun rights absolutists to people who would like to see more gun control (though no one I know of who would advocate outright bans). We get along because most of the things we do on a daily basis are talk about work, or vent about personal problems, or get together for a crawfish boil, or go out to happy hour, or help each other move, or, well, all the normal stuff everybody does.

So, if you're reading this blog, and you think I'm attacking you personally, please keep in mind that that's usually not my intent. I try for the most part to be civil and criticize ideas, positions, or policies. If I've crossed the line and written something offensive, then I apologize, and I would ask you to point it out to me so that I could address it in the future.

And keep in mind that this entire blog is only a small slice of my views - the ones I think people would be interested in reading. If you ever met me in real life, even if we disagree about these issues, there's still a very good chance we could get along just fine and find common ground in other areas.

---


*As a side note on that, though, I'm not so naive and idealistic as to think that everybody is always acting honorably. I've written quite a bit about Ray Comfort on this blog over the years. I know he's been exposed to the science regarding evolution, but he repeats the same falsehoods year after year. And he still uses dishonest tactics like quote mining and selective editing to make documentaries. It gets harder and harder to believe that he's not knowingly using dishonest tactics.

Image Source: Return of Kings

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Texas State Board of Education Takes a Small Step Backwards on Science Education

TEA LogoAs described in the Austin American Statesman article, Texas education board approves curriculum that challenges evolution, the Texas State Board of Education has approved some troubling language for the state science standards.

If you want to see for yourself the full standards, you can find them here. Here are the four subject to the current controversy:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

You can read a detailed discussion in a report put out by the Texas Freedom Network, Texas Science Curriculum Standards: Recommendations for Dealing with Pedagogical and Scientific Problems (pdf).


The Bad

Yes, the motivation behind these standards really is to promote creationism / cast doubt on evolution. Here are a few excerpts from that TFN report regarding the motivation behind three of these:

[Regarding 7 B] In a final appeal to preserve his proposal, McLeroy stated that the purpose of his standard was to argue against: "...the idea that all life is descended from a common ancestor by the unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 7 G] During the board debate, McLeroy explained that this standard: "...questions the two key parts of the great claim of evolution, which is [sic] common ancestry by unguided natural processes."
[Regarding 9 D] During board debate, Don McLeroy, R-Bryan, explained that the new standard was "basically an origin of life amendment," referencing public testimony provided previously by Ide Trotter, a well-known promoter of intelligent design."

And the history of the first one, 3A, makes it clear that this was compromise language regarding the strengths and weaknesses gambit so popular among creationists.

Moreover, the Board had actually formed an expert committee to review the standards and make recommendations on improving them, and the committee recommended removing these four particular items because "they were vague, redundant or would require too much time to teach" (quoting the Stateseman article). So, the Board is going against the advice of experts to push standards that were originally motivated by anti-science positions.


The Good

The standards aren't actually that bad. All of them could be handled by textbook publishers and teachers strictly keeping to real science, and not injecting any creationism or other pseudoscience. Let's look at them again on a case by case basis.

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving to make informed decisions within and outside the classroom. The student is expected to:

(A) in all fields of science, analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations by using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing, including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations, so as to encourage critical thinking by the student;

Well, it says specifically 'all sides of scientific evidence'. Creationism is manifestly not science, so this shouldn't be a backdoor for creationism. As far as real science, this is a little overwhelming for a high school biology class. I mean, all sides of the scientific evidence supporting evolution in general could be an entire class unto itself. Even 150 years ago, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had an entire tome full of evidence for evolution, and the evidence has only grown stronger and more abundant since.

Granted, there are different 'sides' within current evolutionary biology - the relative influence of genetic drift vs. natural selection, how much of the genome is truly junk DNA vs. possible other functions, etc. So, teachers could delve into these current topics, but it seems a bit of a deep dive for high school biology.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(B) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record;

Well, if you're sticking to real science, this is simply a discussion of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium, and perhaps some background on taphonomy and taphonomic biases in the fossil record. And that's all a decent discussion to have, showing students the evidence in support of both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium. In fact, there's evidence for both, so it's probably not an either/or discussion, but rather how they represent opposite extremes regarding the rates of speciation, and what might drive the different rates of change. Although like I said above, this is getting pretty in depth for a high school biology class.

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(G) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning the complexity of the cell.

Well, yes, cells are complex. I remember learning about that back when I was in high school, and making a model stuffed full of organelles. And if you really want to get into the origins of the complexity, symbiogenesis is one of the topics to discuss in the origin of eukaryotes. And there's an entire field of study for abiogenesis, concerning how life first arose. But again, this might be more detailed than most people expect from high school biology.

(9) Science concepts. The student knows the significance of various molecules involved in metabolic processes and energy conversions that occur in living organisms. The student is expected to:

(D) analyze and evaluate the evidence regarding formation of simple organic molecules and their organization into long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.

Lots of good stuff to discuss here, as well. I'm sure that teachers would at a minimum bring up the Miller-Urey experiment, as well as other more recent experiments that used different conditions thought to be more representative of the early earth. Teachers could start discussions on the RNA World. And of course, there's that whole field of abiogenesis that I already linked to. But like I said for each of the other questionable standards, and like the expert committee said, this is getting awfully detailed for a high school biology class that has to cover all the other standards and curriculum.

---

So, it's troubling that these standards were motivated by creationist misunderstandings of science, and that the Board members went against the recommendations of experts regarding the standards. But at least the letter of the standards isn't horrible, and textbook publishers and teachers can stick to real science. I just hope teachers with creationist sympathies don't use these standards as an excuse to teach junk science.


Updated 2017-02-03: Made numerous small changes

Archives

Selling Out