Category Archives: Science And Society

Half Educated?

Chad Orzel has a couple interesting posts about the relative value of literacy versus numeracy in both society and the academy.

…I do think there is an imbalance here, and it bothers me. If a student were to come in and say “You know, I just can’t handle literature classes. I’m no good at reading, and I’m not comfortable with it, so I don’t want to take any English classes,” most faculty would think that there’s something wrong with that person. And yet, I hear functionally equivalent statements about math every time I bring this subject up. Bright people will say “I think science is really neat, but I just can’t handle math,” and see nothing wrong with that.

If a student professed a distaste for reading as frankly as some express their distaste for math, we’d think that they were intellectually stunted. Illiteracy is a sign of a learning disability, while innumeracy is shrugged off as just one of those things.

I do think that one could argue that in fact much of critical theory in literature is unadulterated crap. Does anyone think that it would be as easy (or even possible) for an English major to hoax a physics paper as it was for Alan Sokal to mock postmodernists? Clearly Sokal understood much more about the literary theories (to the slight degree that they’re not nonsense) than any of the humanity professors will ever know about physics–at least enough to pull the wool over their eyes.

What’s dismaying to me is that for many, it’s not only acceptable to have no ability at math, but many take perverse pride in it, and are often rewarded both in academia and in life.

[via Derek Lowe, who has additional commentary.]

The Core Of The Issue

In the midst of deconstructing Michael Behe’s latest channeling of Bishop Paley, Ron Bailey agrees with moi about the Intelligent Design controversy (not surprisingly), and identifies the real problem:

It is not the role of public schools to confirm the religious beliefs of their students. Parents who want their children to benefit from the latest findings of science would reasonably be irked if evolutionary biology were expunged from the public school curriculum. There is another way around this conundrum. Get rid of public schools. Give parents vouchers and let them choose the schools to which to send their children. Fundamentalists can send their kids to schools that teach that the earth was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Science geeks can send their kids to technoschools that teach them how to splice genes to make purple mice. This proposal lowers political and social conflict, and eventually those made fitter in the struggle for life by better education will win.

My comment was:

if science is a religion (in the sense of a belief system, which I think it is), then is it a legitimate subject for public schools? As I’ve said previously, this is largely a symptom of a much larger problem–the fact that we have public schools, in which the “public” will always be at loggerheads about what subjects should be taught and how. But given the utility of learning science (something that I employ every day, whenever I troubleshoot my computer network, or figure out what kinds of foods are good or bad for me), I think that it is an important subject to which everyone should be exposed. But if I were teaching evolution, I would offer it as the scientific explanation for how life on earth developed, not a “fact” or “the truth.”

The problem arises when some scientists, blind to their own faith and its tenets, come to believe that their beliefs represent Truth, and that those who disagree are fools and slack-jawed yokels. And with that, I come full circle in once again agreeing with Hugh that the media does a disservice to the debate when it doesn’t respect the beliefs of those who feel that their children are being indoctrinated away from their faith.

We will never resolve this conflict as long as so many continue to insist on a “one-size-fits-all” school system.

[Update a few minutes later]

Along those lines, here’s a pretty scary story (though not a new one, to anyone who’s been paying attention), or at least it should be for parents with kids in public schools:

According to benchmarks for middle school education, the top objective for the district’s math teachers is to teach “respect for human differences.” The objective is for students to “live out the system-wide core value of ‘respect for human differences’ by demonstrating anti-racist/anti-bias behaviors.”

Priority No. 2 is where the basics come in, which is “problem solving and representation

The ID Wars Rage On

John Derbyshire has been fighting the good fight over at The Corner. He describes why I’m always hesitant to get into this subject, and why the battles never end over at Free Republic:

I like a good knock-down argument as much as the next person, but I must say, ID-ers are low-grade opponents, at least if a bulk of my e-mails are any indication. They are still banging away with the arguments I first heard when the whole thing first surfaced 10-15 yrs ago. “What use is half an eye?” “The odds against this are a trillion to one!” etc. etc. There is nothing new here. I understand why biologists get angry and frustrated with ID-ers. All the ID arguments have been patiently refuted many times over. The ID-ers response is to come back with… the same arguments.

Derbyshire co-blogger Jonah has some thoughts as well.

Suicidal Canadians

If this story is right, they have helped seal their doom by signing Kyoto:

At the peak of the last ice age, which began 70,000 years ago, 97% of Canada was covered by ice.

The research showed that without the human contribution to global warming, Baffin Island would today be in a condition of “incipient glaciation”.

“Portions of Labrador and Hudson Bay would also have moved very close to such a state had greenhouse gas concentrations followed natural trends,” said the scientists.

The experiment had probably underestimated the amount of ice that would exist today in north-east Canada without human interference, they said.

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but particularly in light of the broken hockey stick, I find it just as plausible as the hysteria coming from the global warming types. And if it is right, apparently we aren’t doing enough to stave off the return of the glaciers.

Time to go out and fire up the ol’ SUV.

A Victory For Political Correctness

All the mau-mauing by the faint-hearted women scientists and feminists has compelled Larry Summers to back down from his perfectly reasonable speculation on one of the causes of the numerical disparity between men and women in the professions of science and math. Too bad.

I hoped that he would say something like the following: “I’m sorry that my remarks were so misinterpreted by so many who should be more capable of calm, rational analysis. I hope that they’ll go back and read them again. I also regret that this incident has shown so many in academia to be antithetical to the spirit of debate and free inquiry. Perhaps, though, this can be a lesson for us all, and used as a basis to discuss the broader issues of how dissenting speech has been shut down on campuses all over the nation.”

Alas, it was not to be. Sadly, he basically retracted instead. I hope that when he left the press conference, he at least muttered, under his breath, “E pur si muove…”

Works For Me

I’ll be that a lot of mothers, wives and girlfriends are going to be emailed copies of this story:

“We know that mites can only survive by taking in water from the atmosphere using small glands on the outside of their body.

“Something as simple as leaving a bed unmade during the day can remove moisture from the sheets and mattress so the mites will dehydrate and eventually die.”

More Crushing Of Dissent

Errrr…except that the dissenter is getting his story out in the Washington Post. I’m always amused by these major newspaper stories about the brave dissenters who think that they’re being oppressed, and that the public isn’t getting the “truth.”

But the article contains a couple of key nuggets:

“I’m strictly trying to understand the Earth as a planet,” said Hansen, who started his career studying the clouds around Venus but switched in 1978 to climate modeling.

Great. Go for it. But what makes you think that renders you a policy expert, particularly on matters that affect the national and global economy?

John Marburger, the president’s Science Advisor is quite pithy on this point:

“I take his work seriously. His work has had a big impact on this administration’s climate-change policy,” Marburger said. “But he’s not an economist. The fact that he’s a good scientist does not necessarily make him the best person to formulate policy that would affect the economy.”

That’s what most people in the policy debate miss. Kyoto and CO2 reduction enthusiasts complain that the people making the decisions don’t understand the science. But what makes them experts on all the other aspects of policy that would be affected by their nostrums?

Et Tu, David?

I hate to resurrect the ID debate just when it’s finally dying down, but in a disappointing column from the usually smart David Warren, he makes the following false assertion:

“Evolutionism” is the prevailing speculation, that by minute alterations in traits, in continuing response to environmental pressures, an isolated group within a species “evolves” to the point where its members can breed with each other but no longer with others, and — presto! — you have a new species. But the “presto” has never been observed in nature, and there is a universal paucity of transitional forms. The speculation may even seem plausible, but remains an act of faith. It isn’t science, because it isn’t falsifiable: there is no way to test if it might be wrong.

There are many ways in which to test if if might be wrong, and so far it passes all tests (DNA relationships, location in strata, etc.)–I’m aware of none in which it’s failed (e.g., the classical pre-Cambrian rabbit). To say that there are no transitional forms is not only false, but meaningless, because all forms (other than perhaps ourselves, since we now control our own evolution) are transitional forms.

I really have no idea where he came up with this, and I don’t have time to go into this in depth right now, but these assertions are just flat out wrong.

[Update on Monday morning]

While a comment in this post doesn’t necessarily apply to David Warren, and it wasn’t made in this post, I thought I’d respond here to keep it near the top of the page. Cathy Young (of Reason fame) asks:

Why on earth would you take seriously, and bother to respond to, the comments of someone who states upfront that he believes the Earth is less than 10,000 years old?

I respect religion, and I don’t think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ’s resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any “respect” when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence? It’s worth noting that all this talk about the need to respect even irrational beliefs is limited to beliefs that (1) have the cachet of tradition and (2) are shared by a large number of the population. No one is asking for respect for believers in astrology. Nor would any conservatives feel compelled to show “respect” for the opinions of radical environmentalists who argued the recent tsunamis were caused by Mother Earth’s anger at pollution and global warming.

I’m not sure what “take seriously” or “respect” mean in the context of this discussion. If by that you mean that they’re a legitimate point of view that I have to consider to be possible, I do that only in the limited postmodernist, Goedelian sense that anything is possible, and that there’s ultimately no way to prove the tenets of science. It doesn’t mean that I would spend any amount of time wondering whether or not I should change my opinions on them. But the problem arises in the statement “…I don’t think anyone should be mocked for believing in things that can be neither proved nor disproved (God, life after death, Christ’s resurrection, etc.). But why should people be entitled to any “respect” when they promulgate theories about the material (not spiritual) world that are laughably at odds with scientific evidence?”

The problem with proving and disproving things is that proof and disproof is relevant only to people who use those as tools to attain knowledge, or consider the scientific method to have value. I’m certainly one of the latter, as (presumably) Cathy is, but if you think that knowledge comes from a divinely inspired book, then proofs and disproofs are beside the point, and there’s no way to prove them wrong, even to someone who believes in proofs, but certainly not to them. The scientific method only works for people who believe in it. It can only be claimed to be “better” in the context of its own beliefs (e.g., materialism).

She makes a good point that the degree of respect afforded to a point of view seems to be function of the number of adherents to it (it’s been noted that there’s little difference between a cult and a major religion except the number of believers). That’s not a rational point of view from the standpoint of evaluating the belief system, but it is one from the standpoint of not involving oneself in religious wars that may be unwinnable because one is outnumbered. And of course, the West and the enlightenment are in fact at war with one of the world’s largest religions, at least in its most extreme form, many of whose beliefs (e.g., misogynism, indivisibility of church and state, intolerance of other religions), are in fact intolerable to us. Intolerance is the one thing that our modern society apparently won’t tolerate (unless it’s intolerance of Christians and Israel), and I suppose that makes sense when it comes in as extreme a form as Wahhabism.

I’m not sure that I have an entirely satisfactory answer for her, other than to recognize the practicality that a large number of good people do feel their faith threatened by some of the teachings of science (particularly when many of its practitioners and evangelists, such as Richard Dawkins, are so vehemently and needlessly anti-religious). I would hope that my view represents a reasonable compromise–that people of faith are entitled to believe whatever they wish, as long as they don’t impose it in a science classroom, and in turn, scientists should be less dogmatic about their own views as representing reality, rather than simply being the consequence of a belief in objectivity and materialism.