Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ignore that man, he knows nothing

One of the pillars of modern science is a strict rejection of appeal to authority arguments. Reputation, esteem, or even experience are not enough to convince others of the validity of your positions. Statements must be supported by evidence, and the strongest evidence wins disagreements. It is an aspect of science that I still find inspiring, and gives me a special delight every time I see individuals challenge better established or more respected scientists in their field.

This, of course, doesn't mean statements made by experts in a field don't carry more weight than statements made by laypersons or people with a track record of being wrong. Obviously, if an expert on orchids and “Dancing” Dave (an old drunk guy at a dive bar I frequent) give me conflicting information on orchids, I'll be more inclined to accept the information from the expert. Just as I would be inclined to, when discussing torture, place a higher value on the opinion of a person who has actually been tortured than someone who has not. 

When arguing with someone with more experience or greater expertise on a topic, the onus is on me to prove my position has more validity. And the greater the disparity in our experience or expertise, the greater my evidence must be. Pointing out that an expert opinion cannot be simply dismissed without evidence if you disagree with it is not an appeal to authority argument.

Now, all of this up to this point has simply been a superfluously wordy justification of calling Rick Santorum an asshole without sounding like I'm making an argument from authority. 

John McCain, who was tortured for intelligence during his 5 ½ year stay in a North Vietnamese POW camp has been arguing against the use of torture. McCain, though I'm sure it's a natural temptation, has not been using an appeal to his own authority as the basis of his arguments, but has actually come to the debate armed with facts and evidence. This is politically inconvenient for Rick Santorum, so Santorum has simply dismissed McCain by saying “He doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works.” What the fuck? He doesn't understand how it works? 5 ½ years. That's long enough for McCain to have earned a PhD in the effectiveness of torture.

Here's Rachel Maddow with the whole ugly business


I wouldn't take McCain's position simply out of an appeal to authority argument, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand either. And I certainly wouldn't say he doesn't understand how torture works. It's not an appeal to authority to say if I disagreed with McCain on this issue I would feel obligated to come to the duel with more than a creepy smile and my middle class upbringing.

Being authoritative about a topic doesn't make someone automatically right. But it does mean they have to be shown to be wrong. 

By the way. This is not, in my opinion, the most disgusting thing Rick Santorum has ever said in a political debate:

I suppose I can bring myself to understand how Bob Casey Jr. 'senate candidate and son of a popular former governor' could sit inches from a guy telling him his dead father would be disappointed in him with no reaction other than a pained smile. But having buried my father in the Appalachians of Pennsylvania where I grew up, I will never understand how Bob Casey Jr.   'Irish-American kid from Scranton' didn't reach over and beat some much needed respect into Santorum.

If you have never had the misfortune of having Rick Santorum represent you in Congress there is no way you could understand just how repulsive I find him.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Blasphemy Day!

September 30th is International Blasphemy Day.  But it's not just a day to pointlessly offend people (not that I'm opposed to that), it's about activism and celebrating free speech and human rights.

Blasphemy day is almost over and I think a good time was had, but let's end this on a serious note.  In 1988 a masterful writer named Salman Rushdie published a great novel called The Satanic Verses.  The Supreme leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, declared the book blasphemous against Islam and issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie.  The leader of a nation went on international TV and publically called for the assassination of a British citizen.  In the following years there were protests and riots against Rushdie, publishers and translators involved with the book were killed.  Right here in the United States bookstores were firebombed just for having the book on their shelves.  Rushdie spent much of his life in hiding and there are still bounties totaling tens of millions of dollars on his head.  To this day the fatwa is still in place.  The worst part of all of this was the reaction from western religious and political leaders.  They placed the blame on Rushdie.  He shouldn't have committed blasphemy.  He shouldn't have written something that would offend religious people. 

5 years ago this day, a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting Muhammad as a suicide bomber.  Again riots and blood in the streets.  Again public calls for assassinations.  And again western leaders blamed the artists and publishers.  They shouldn't have committed blasphemy.  They shouldn't have published something that would offend religious people.

Last year Random House Publishing Company bought the option for a book called The Jewel of Medina.  Based on the merits of the book they decided to buy and publish it.  After consulting an Islamic scholar who told them it could spark the same type of outrage as seen in the Satanic Verses aftermath, they decided not to publish it.  We can not read that book because it might offend Islamic extremists.

In 2009 Ireland passes a law imposing a 25,000 pound fine for blasphemy.

Free speech does not end when it reaches religion and until everyone understands that we must continue to remind them.

Krishnas  -  men have walked on the moon

 Muslims - Jesus, son of Mary, is the incarnate son of God

Christians - Jesus, son of Mary, is not the incarnate son of God

Scientologists - L Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer.  Everything he wrote was science fiction

Seventh Day Adventists - the earth is 4.5 billion years old

Witnesses - trinity

Frustratingly Ironic

It's banned books week, but the net filter at school prevented me from accessing an article about banned books.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Back to School

So my alarm clock went off in the morning, like it does now that the school year has started.  I showered.  I shaved.  I put on the shirt and tie, like I do now that the school year has started.  I drove to school and stood there eyeing up a fresh new batch of ninth graders, after I worked so hard all of last year to train the last batch.  I have to say, I just wasn't feeling it. 

Perhaps it was just the beginning of the year feeling of drudgery.  Perhaps it was the dulled nerves from spending so long precariously balancing multiple stressful jobs and school work as I teeter on the brink of an abyss I had just worked so hard to climb out of.  Whatever the case, I really wasn't feeling it.  I wasn't feeling the whole teaching thing, I wasn't feeling the friendly (sometimes not so friendly) bickering with the right-wing extremist teacher in the room next to mine.  And I certainly wasn't feeling wearing a shirt and tie in my sauna of a classroom. 

I had decided even though I no longer desired friendly bickering over politics with my radical right colleague, that didn't necessarily mean I would avoid confrontation.  I just wouldn't be friendly anymore.  I didn't care anymore.  I don't know why exactly, but I fired the first shot that day.  Just before lunch I sent him this email:

    To:  Him
    From: Me
    Subject: The cult of Glenn Beck

It was actually a pretty interesting blog post about the marketing techniques Beck uses to sell himself and create a whole culture with him as the leader.  With someone else, perhaps a good dialogue would have followed.  I knew even as I sent it that wouldn't happen here.  I knew he wouldn't even read it.  But I sent it.  He replied:

    To: Me
    From: Him
    Subject: The cult of Al Gore

Of course.  Let's blame the lunatic at the Discovery Channel building on Al Gore.  I had just read a post by someone trying to blame those actions on Charles Darwin, so I was already primed to blow on this subject.  What follows is the complete transcript of our email exchange that day (the body of the messages anyway).  The arguments may not be well crafted, or even grammatically correct, we were after all doing this in the few precious minutes we could steal while not giving students our undivided attention.  It's true, by the way.  What you are thinking.  This is what teachers do.  Think back to your school days.  That week your 9th grade civics teacher had you working on that George Washington poster?  He was picking his fantasy football team.  That day your 11th grade English teacher asked you all to write a creative response to the poetry read the day before?  She was emailing funny cartoons to the science teacher.  That time your algebra teacher made you spend the entire class period working on a practice sheet of polynomials?  Well, he was probably just being a jerk, but you get the point.  People wonder how anyone can spend all day everyday trapped in a small space with hundreds of adolescents. This is how.  Small distractions that get us through the day.  Small, glorious distractions. 

    To: Him
    From: Me
    Subject: Re: the cult of Al Gore

    hahaha.  It's like right wing paranoid fantasy porn.  Now, if you had actually read what I sent you, you would have seen that the case wasn't being made that because a single mentally unbalanced person happened to like glenn beck I was calling it a cult.  Try to once in a awhile actually read something and think (note, thinking does not mean cramming everything into your pre-formed view of the world handed to you by faux news).  The article was making the point that beck is intentionally trying to build up a culture (cult) around him by deliberately using marketing techniques (not necessarily a bad thing, just pointing out that he is doing it).  I had faith that even you would be able to read that list of techniques and easily see how beck is using it.  Thank you for ridding my being of yet another bit of useless faith.  I supposed if I had applied logic and reason to the situation I would have come to the correct conclusion that you are in deed far too brain washed and blinded by ideology to treat any type of criticisms of your false idols with anything more mature than closing your eyes, covering your ears and screaming "No, you are!" like some kind of slightly retarded five year old.

    To: Me
    From: Him
    Subject: Re: Re: the cult of al gore

    (My Name)-----  The Cult of Al Gore

    To: Him
    From: Me
    Subject: Re: Re: Re: the cult of al gore
    Does Jesus know you are cheating on him with Glenn Beck?

    To: Me
    From: Him
    Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: The cult of Al Gore

    To: Him
    From: Me
    Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: the cult of al gore
    I know facts and reality don't matter to you, but if you ever actually wonder why I tend to disregard anything glenn beck says (I know, you'd rather not think about it.  Just continue to tell yourself it's all because I disregard anything I don't want to agree with [not true, but look in the mirror sometime and ask who that does apply to]), it's because if we are playing the odds, it's a safe bet to not believe anything that comes out of Beck's mouth

    To: Me
    From: Him
    Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The cult of Al Gore

    (My Name)-----  The Cult of Al Gore

    To: Him
    From: Me
    Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: the cult of al gore

    You're like a mentally challenged monkey that just learned how to pleasure itself.

This one came right after the dismissal bell:

    To: Me
    From: Him
    Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The cult of Al Gore

    the cult of Al Gore

This was on day 3.  177 school days to go.  If we can extrapolate from our limited data, that means about 10,620 more ounces of coffee and more than likely enough political email exchanges to get both of us fired.  I'm not going to lie, writing this out right now, I'm kind of looking forward to the midterm elections.  Maybe I am a bit of a masochist.  Maybe I do enjoy wallowing in my own misery.  Or maybe, no matter how mad my right-wing friend sometimes makes me, it's a nice distraction from everything else.  Despite the great things about teaching, and all the times students make me laugh, there are some things I need to be distracted from.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Michael Specter's TED talk: The danger of science denial

I love the TED talks, and this might be one of my favorites so far.  Michael Specter gives a magnificant talk about science denialism, or perhaps more accurately, the current anti-science mentality in our society. 

California Teacher Cuts

Thousands of teachers in California have been laid off this year.  I've been discussing this with people and thinking about, but put off writing about it because it seemed so overwhelmingly bad.  It still seems overwhelmingly bad, and I still don't want to put myself through writing about it.  Luckily, thanks to Megan Fox, I don't have to.  Enjoy.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Stand Up for the Rights of Your Students, Get Suspended

I just came across an article from the National Education Association (NEA) about two teachers in a mulitple disability classroom in Washington state.  The teachers, at the request of the parents, refused to administer the state standardized assessments.  They have now been suspended without pay.  Now because most people have no experience with or knowledge of multiple disability students some issues raised in the article may seem odd. For instance, when the teachers state:
Although the test was modified, it measured our students achievement against grade level standards. Because our students are cognitively at ages six months to two years, the assessment was not at their level. It had nothing to do with the goals and objectives designed for them.
Some people without experience with this population of students may wonder why we wouldn't want to assess whether or not students -- even students with cognitive impairments -- are performing at the expected grade level.  Why shouldn't students take the test if it is modified?

While I don't have any personal experience multi disability students (I've never even worked at a school with a multi disability class).  My mother is a multi disability teacher, so I have more insight than I would otherwise.  Most of my mom's students will never function above a kindergarten cognitive level, with many well below that.  In addition to the cognitive impairments, she has students with no motor control, students who survive by feeding tubes and respirators, students unable to communicate at a level to even express hunger or pain. 

She has told me about the pride and joy she felt when, after years of working with a student, that student was finally able to indicate (nonverbally) when he needed food or wanted out of his chair.  She told me a story about a grateful mother saying she had cried when her middle school daughter came home from school able to read a kindergarten level book (again, this took years of dedicated work).  All of this was done while attending to the feeding tubes and respirators of other students.  From what little I know, from these few anecdotes, I have decided teachers who choose to work with multiple disability students are a rare and beautiful breed of teacher.  And unfortunately all too often these teachers do their work in schools with administrators that want nothing more than these students to be kept out of sight and out of mind. 

So when the teachers in this article say the grade-level assessment had nothing to do with the goals and objectives for their students, this should be considered an understatement.  As they state:

Our goal might be to teach them to hold a spoon or recognize their name in print, and the test covered fractions. In fact, one student would start crying every time we got to the part on fractions.
 Administering these tests for these students is at best worthless and at worst emotionally damaging.  After the parents were informed of the situation many were rightly angry. 

They said it was ridiculous. One said, “If I had known you were doing this, I would have told you to stop.” Another said, “I’m sick of tests that tell what my child can’t do. I want to see what he can do.”
In the interest of best serving their students, the teachers did research on their own and found that parents had the right to refuse state assessments.  With that knowledge, and having the parents already express their opinions, the teachers did not give the tests during the next assessment.  Unfortunately, they also did not get anything in writing from the parents.  The school suspended the teachers without even contacting the parents. 

Dinosaur iPhone App

The American Museum of Natural History just released their first official iphone app, and it's all about dinosaurs!

DINOSAURS: American Museum of Natural History Collections contains more than 800 images from the Museum's archive, woven together to create a striking image of the world's most famous dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Double-tap or pinch to zoom into the mosaic and inspect individual photos. Tap the info button to flip the photos and read fascinating information about the science and personalities of the Museum's world-renowned fossil collection: each interactive photograph includes information of where the fossil was found and the paleontologist who uncovered it. There's a dinosaur enthusiast lurking inside all of us, and this app will inspire the next generation of paleontologists to start digging!

Everyone loves dinosaurs, and this is a great app, so if you have an iphone or ipod touch check it out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

NCLB Changes

Obama administration and Dept of Ed are proposing changes to No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The full extent of the changes aren't clear yet, but so far they seem to be sounding good. They plan on maintaining the focus on closing achievement gaps among subgroups of students and continuing to assess teacher quality (we'll see what methods this entails). Best of all, though, it sounds like adequate yearly progress (AYP) provisions will be gone as well as the 2014 deadline for 100% proficiency. This seems to be good news so far. More info to come.

Agreeing to Disagree on Facts

Coming to us from the great state of Utah, a stunning example of just how frustrating this idea that 'balance = accurate' can be for those of us who try to live in the reality based world. The state legislators were voting on a bill that I can only image was one of those "we can't outlaw abortion but we can make it as hard on the women as possible" kind of bills.

A bill that would give a woman seeking an abortion the option to first view her ultrasound passed the Utah House on Friday.

Before HB200 cleared the chamber in a 53-15 vote, Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to delete language he believed to be flat-out false, referring to viewing the heartbeat of a fetus at three weeks.

"It is not medically accurate," Litvack said. "It's not possible. It does not exist."

Litvack read from a physician's e-mail that said you could expect to see embryonic cardiac activity at about six weeks from the woman's last period.

Rep. Carl Wimmer, the bill's sponsor, disputed Litvack's claim.

"There are arguments on both sides of the issue," Wimmer, R-Herriman, said.

There are arguments on both sides of the issue? No. There aren't. When it comes to facts, there are not two equally valid sides. One side is right, one is wrong. It's like saying, "well, you say the world isn't the center of the universe, but there are arguments on both sides of the issue."

Our politics are so divided we can no longer agree on facts.

I'm more of a Journey fan anyway

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Guilt and Betrayal in the Bookstore

I am a fairly anti-corporate kind of guy. I try to avoid giving my money to big corporate chain stores. With great passion I will explain to anyone who will listen that they should not eat at corporate restaurants (seriously, don't eat at corporate, chain restaurants). I get a special kind of jolly from buying the things I need at local stores and I love eating at restaurants where the owner knows me and I know the owner's food suppliers. So it is with great difficulty that I admit publicly one of my guilty pleasures is big box book stores. I know, I know, I am a terrible person. But what can I say, all those books. Borders, Barnes and Noble -- they just have so many books. Can anyone here honestly say they don't get a little aroused by walking into a store that is two or three floors of wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books? And let's not even talk about, which as an entity probably knows more about me than my mother.

This current town of mine has a Borders and a Barnes and Noble across the street from each other. I like the atmosphere of the Barnes and Noble better than Borders. The Barnes and Noble is also a little bigger and a little better selection in most categories. The one category this Borders destroys Barnes and Noble in, and why I subsequently end up going to Borders more often, is science. The Borders here has (or had) a much better selection of science books.

Recently I walked into this particular Borders and I saw a disturbing sight. I walked back to the science section, only to find I was not standing in the science section. I was confused, a little afraid, a creeping sense of dread began to overcome me. Luckily my senses soon returned and I don't think I stood there too long, mouth agape, in the grip of a fear induced paralysis. I saw I was standing in the midst of Fiction/Literature, so I did the sensible thing and meandered on over to the section that used to be Fiction/Literature. Naturally I was assuming this would now be Science, but I was wrong. So very, very wrong. Science wasn't there. Now I started to freak out. I began doing frantic laps around the store as if looking for a lost child. Thankfully I must have looked so unapproachable that none of the employees tried to make contact with me.

I finally found the Science section, but I'm afraid my discovery did little to easy my rattled nerves. Science went from its old place of glory, occupying an entire corner. Walking into the Science nook and you were surrounded on three sides of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves bursting with science. It was my little science cave. Now the Science section was just a little chest-high single bookshelf by the restrooms.

I wish I could say this discovery was the low point of my trip to the bookstore, unfortunately I just couldn't leave it alone. Fiction/Literature was where Science was, so what was where Fiction/Literature was? In my frantic search for Science I hadn't even taken notice, so I decided to return to that section. I would spend the whole rest of the day reconstructing this rearrangement of knowledge if I had to.

I didn't have to. It was actually pretty straight forward. Other than Fiction/Literature and Science, there were only two other changes. Fiction/Literature's old spot was now Religion, which was now expanded from its old home right next door. And Religion's old spot? The subject so very important that it (along with Religion) required Science to become the basement child, downsized and shoved into the corner. What could possibly be so important?

New Age Nonsense.

So this is now the Borders in my town.

Religion vs. Science


Metaphysics vs. Physics


Astrology vs. Astronomy

At least my liquor store never lets me down.

Photosynthesis Rap

Say what you want about the current state of hiphop and rap -- I am certainly a harsh critic of much of the rap coming out these days -- but these kids know photosynthesis.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Francis Collins on Colbert

Francis Collins, the head of NIH, had an appearance on the Colbert Report and I think he did a great job on what can sometimes be a tough forum. He was funny, made the case for good science and medicine, and explained to Stephen the challenges involved in using stem cells to give a person crab claws.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Francis Collins
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

Mahlon Hoagland died last week

Mahlon Hoagland died last week. The name probably isn't familiar to many people. I'll admit that I wouldn't have recognized it either, unfortunately. He discovered transfer RNA and the mechanisms behind protein synthesis, laying the foundation for the modern study of genetics and molecular biology. has a very nice write up about him, so go and read it. Perhaps if he had been an actor in some cheesy action movies, or on an 80s sitcom this would have made more of a splash in the news. As it is, a man who was such a major part of establishing our modern knowledge about life and science, helping to bring about huge changes in our society through biomedical research dies and I only find out a week later from a relatively obscure (obscure by traditional media standards) online science news site. When Billy Mays died there was a week long marathon of coverage on all the cable news stations.