Friday, April 29, 2005

Why Jesus?

I'm responding to Makigirl's comment here about the importance of Christianity in American religious life. And I think she has a very good point.

I don't believe that it would be good to throw up Jesus' words all over the place. Having either Jesus' or Moses' words all over the wall creates an environment of intolerance to people from other faiths and to people, like me, of no faith. However, I still think it would be fun to stick Jesus into the fundementalist's faces, and I think that Democrats/Liberals need to learn how to fight on typically conservative turf.

For too long now, religion has been wrongly associated with conservativism. My bet (and I've read this elsewhere, I just forget where) is that it has alot to do with media laziness. It's easy to write a story about pious conservatives, but to draw the connections between progressivism, religion, and social justice takes alot more column inches than the typical coporate newspaper/tv station is willing to do. So, we repeatedly get told that conservatives are religious/moral, while all liberals are godless. In order to win more elections, Democrats do have to figure out how to present their ideas in the context of Christianity, because unfortunately, those beliefs aren't going away anytime soon.

About the second question, I'll be flip, because I don't feel like spending the time giving a long speach, or writing a dissertation on the impact of religion on American life. I think this Christianity business is so important here (as opposed to Europe and Europe-like countries) because all the wackos who used to live in Europe either moved to the US (notice all the towns in New England named Canaan, Bethlehem, *_Haven, Providence, Goshen, Lebanaon), or they died in various wars. Once they got here, there was always room to out wacko each other by continuously moving west.

Also, the (supposedly) egalitarian nature of the US, I think, plays into people's ability to become wacko and think they've got everything right. The more rigid class structures of Europe may prevent some of our cult tendencies (not that I would want rigid class structures).

In the end, we've never had a war here about religion. The middle of of the population who just wants to get along and have a normal life has never had to confront the bad stuff that hyper-religion can produce. Thus it seethes, and in times like now, when there is a whole lot of money pushing organized religion because of various other (corporatist) desires, things can look pretty bad to the non-Christian/non-believer. I have a feeling that the next few years are going to be very interesting.

Just Shocking

From astro-ph today:

"The Shocking Properties of Supersonic Flows: Dependence of the Thermal Overstability on M, alpha, and T_c/T_0"

Yeah, I'm just positively shocked. Do they think that more people will read their paper because of the title? I'm hoping against hope that the authors are being ironic.

Hopefully, I'll write about some astronomy education later today.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Dragon Goes all Religified

Nothing educational today, but a post at mydd caught my eye yesterday about how we confront the 'conservative menace'. (N.B. I may have got the wrong post, but this one's still a good read anyway.)

The post talks about some article's attempt to brand Democrats as being the party that provides 'freedom from fear'. Somewhere along the way, the discussion turned to Christ's 8 Beatitutudes, which are much more of a Democratic position as opposed to the republican, fatherly 10 commandments. Now, I'm fully atheist, but I've always felt a strong attaction to these statements. Here's the full text of the 8:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful,for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure of heart,for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers,for they shall be called children of God.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

So, here's my proposal. Any time conservatives try to put up the 10 commandments somewhere, liberals should respond by trying to put up the Beatitudes right next to it. The conservative manipulators would not be able to resist, because how could they put up Moses without putting up Jesus and still call themselves Christian?

In the end, the ACLU would bring all the signs down, but Democrats would get to show that they do have faith, and people might actually be forced to confront the fact that Jesus (if he existed at all) was a rather progressive revolutionary.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

On Things Not Overwhelmingly Important

I've got nothing really to comment on today. I didn't find anything that really struck my fancy. There was this opinion piece in Edweek that I found interesting today. I think the catch quote is particularly important as we think about schools:
"The tools for achieving productivity common in virtually every other sector in America are not used systematically in our schools."

This article goes back to my question of a few posts ago, of 'what about the children?' Who is looking out for their best interest, and is a school more about the adults or more about the children?

There was also this nice confirmation of something I've been saying for the past couple of years about the importance of small district size on student success. Now, granted the research report originated in the conservative Manhattan Institute and it wasn't particularly peer reviewed, but hey, at least I'm write. I also completely dissagree with the author of the study's conclusion about why smaller districts produce higher graduation rates. I don't think it has anything to do with mobility. I lived in an incredibly small district surrounded by other incredibly small districts and no one I knew ever thought about moving just for the schools. People move their families because their job (or lack there of) forces them. Most families won't move if they don't have to. For me, the reason why smaller districts work better is simply people (both parents and students) have a larger feeling of affect within the school system. With a small district, you still need people to be on the board and fill in support roles, but there's less people to draw from, so the average person ends up knowing people intimately involved with the school without really trying. If one wanted to, one could make an impact on the system.

Oh, and my friend is quoted here . Go Heather.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Our Un-informed Leader

And no, it's not even W this time.

A couple days ago, MSNBC posted this article describing the differences between Einstein an Darwin, and why the Theory of Relativity is generally "accepted", while Evolution is not. The article is based on an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, who has in many ways become a leading public voice of astronomy.

You see, that's a shame, because Dr. Tyson just blows it in this interview. The new public spokesperson of astronomy throws out misconceptions about biology, the history of science, and how the public percieves physics. After reading this article, I really don't have to wonder why we have such a hard time teaching science to the general public. With leaders like this, who needs creationists.

Quoting Dr. Tyson from the article:

"So there’s that factor that distinguishes Einstein from Darwin. But I think there’s a stronger factor: There is no science in this world like physics. Nothing comes close to the precision with which physics enables you to understand the world around you. It’s the laws of physics that allow us to say exactly what time the sun is going to rise. What time the eclipse is going to begin. . .it is the powers of understanding, derived from the fundamentals of physics, that give you that capacity to basically predict the future with high precision. . . Darwin’s theory of evolution is a framework by which we understand the diversity of life on Earth. But there is no equation sitting there in Darwin’s “Origin of Species” that you apply and say, “What is this species going to look like in 100 years or 1,000 years?”"

We've heard this one before. Physics/Astronomy are predictive, all the other sciences are just classification. It seems that the good director took his arrogance pills on the day of the interview. Yeah, it's nice that astronomers can predict the time of the sunrise or an eclipse, but that's because the Earth-Moon-Sun system is incredibly simple (3 bodies that don't touch). Now, when you deal with a system containing 40,000 genes, 21 amino acids, and extrodinarily large numbers of protiens, it becomes difficult to predict things. If we're really going to compare apples to apples, then I would ask Dr. Tyson if he could predict from first principles the detailed structure of the local group (Why two large spirals instead of 3?). He couldn't do it because the system is too complex. Similarly, he couldn't predict the evolution of the local group much beyond a Hubble Time (if anywhere near that) because the system again becomes too complex (e.g. the local group would interact with other galactic groups/clusters).

Even at that, Evolution is predictive, however. If we take a small number of individuals from one species and separate them from the rest of the species and then place them in a slightly different environment, we know that decent through modification will occur. Come back to that separate group in 1,000 years maybe, and either the decendants will have died off, or they will likely be something close to a new species. We can also predict that if we introduce foreign speicies into an environment those new species will compete with the native species for similar niches, and only the most well adapted to the environmental conditions will survive. That's natural selection as well. Both cases are experimentable and predictive.

Furthermore, isn't one of the fundemental underpinnings of 20th century physics something called the "Uncertainty Principle" (which Einstein didn't like by the way)? And doesn't the UP say that we can't predict everything to infinite precision, because we affect systems just by watching them? How does that fit into our wonderfully future determining physics model?

Dr. Tyson's physics arrogance comes through in other ways. In his second paragraph, he talks about how Relativity overturned the paradigm of physics where Evolution merely filled in knowledge gaps. This could not be further from the truth. Darwin's theory of Decent with Modification was ground breaking. To suggest that species change was only a result of local environmental variables, and not governed by some invisible hand guiding life towards man, was something no one else at the time was saying. I don't know what else you would need to call it a huge paradigm shift. It is exactly this paradigm shift that causes so many problems for evolution. If there was an invisible force of progress, we could chalk that up to "God", ID, or something, but without that, we're left with what we have here on Earth. That a scientist of Dr. Tyson's stature would not value the importance of Darwin's Theory, is frankly frightening.

Speaking of theories, Dr. Tyson is again incorrect in his science history, when he says:
And I would add this, just to nip this argument over “theories” in the bud: Until Einstein, all tested, confirmed physical theories were labeled laws. There’s Newton’s three laws of motion … the laws of gravity … the laws of thermodynamics.

Well, that's not exactly true, because Maxwell (who was involved with everything in the 19th century) developed both the Kinematic Theory of Gasses, and the Electromagnetic Theory. These theories have held up pretty well, and were holding up as theories well before Einstein came along. Face it, for all the popularization of the old guy with the white hair, he's not that important,.

One last thing. Throughout the article, Dr. Tyson claims that Einstein's theory is more readily accepted because it is physics and thus testible/predictive, while Evolution is not accepted because it does not possess these physics properties. I'd like to offer a simpler theory. Relativity is "accepted" largely because it is poorly understood by all but a few physicists. The general population views it as something that smart people deal with, and have no idea about it's implications. Evolution on the other hand is at least seamingly comprehensible, and thus the creationists and ID'ers of the world can try to bring it down. This is why you rarely here creationists attack the age of the Earth/Universe through astronomical arguements. They simply don't understand them, where saying that Man is related to Monkey is something they can go after.

Physicists are limited in their teaching of physics when they do not properly appreciate other sciences. From simply a pedagogical point, being able to link the science that underlies physics to the science that underlies biology and chemistry is an extremely useful tool to draw in more students who would have been previously intimidated by physics. Understanding the similar bases for other sciences would also help physicsts to understand how remarkably misinformed people are about physics (and Relativity for this article). Dr. Tyson believes that it is only a small minority of people that stand opposed to Evolution. He should get out of New York more often. He would probably be even more shocked by the number of people who would dismiss the predictive powers of relativity if they only better understood what it was saying. There aren't prime time shows about aliens for nothing.

I fear for the future of science education if this article exemplifies the best we can do in talking about physics/astronomy's relationship to other sciences. A spokesperson for astronomy should have been a bit more prepared for this interview.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

But What About the Children?

So, I've collected these stories over the past couple of days, because I find them very interesting in our side's pursuit of education as an important electoral issue.

First off is this article from the Washington Post about graduation rates in Virginia And guess what, 4 year graduation rates have gone down for black and latino students since the state's high stakes test has been implemented. Of sickening note is the data at the bottom of the article that says the graduation rate in Fairfax is over 70%, while the rate in Norfolk is on the order of 40%. I'm not sure if this is entirely true. 40% is incredibly low, but I've learned to never underestimate the level of failure in American schools.

Many people would fault the implementation of high stakes testing for the decreased graduation rates in Virginia. Often you hear teachers talk about how students are not ready to take the test, and are just going to fail anyway, and their self-esteem will fall through the floor. Tests also put a heavy burden on states. Someone has to make these tests, collect all the data, and pay for that to happen. Connecticut has decided to sue the Federal government over the money that hasn't been given to them to carry out all this testing. This article has some background regarding that issue.

Now, I'm pretty up in the air as to whether Connecticut should be suing in this case, and whether they should win. The Federal government has created an unfunded mandate by not apporpriating the money that it promised when it passed NCLB, so there is something there. Connecticut may have a point about it not being absolutely necessary to test students every year, and its possible that it should have been granted the waiver it asked for from the Ed Dept. Finally, and possibly most importantly, I like anything that gives W some trouble. However, I'm not sure about the Constitutionality of the case, and whether or not Connecticut should just suck it up and deal when it comes to doing everything possible to educate its children. (Just go ahead and try to tell me that Kathy Lee and Martha Stewart pay what they truely owe in property taxes.)

But, the whole Connecticut dispute and the problems with graduation requirements shouldn't cause us to throw NCLB out the window, as this article tries to do.

My overused and joking title to this post ends up being exactly my point when I read the previous article. Passages such as this:

The harsh reality is that No Child Left Behind's annually stiffer requirements quickly become unreachable. They are pie-in-the sky targets based either on incredibly naive assumptions about how quickly schools can be reformed using "scientifically based methods,"


Excellent schools and school districts cannot be cloned. They are relatively fragile environments that evolve over time under stable, inspiring leadership.

lead me to wonder about who the author is really caring about. Ok, so standardized tests aren't perfect. Great, but how else should we measure students and teachers. Because we know full well, if we don't measure all students in a state and demand that they learn something from year to year, the kids in Greenwich will be learning a whole lot more than the kids in Bridgeport. And yeah, schools are large, complex human structures, which are very difficult to duplicate. But the second quote sounds to me like a lot more handwashing than anything. Schools, just like people, are often going to need a push to grow. I'd rather try to duplicate environments that work and fail, rather than sit around and wait for the right set of environmental variables to coalesce. Because, again, we know in some places (because of poverty, lack of exposure, or previous failures) that simply isn't going to happen.

What about the children? What about the kids who can't read today? What about my kids? Because I know for damn sure that the author of the last article would be demanding accountability and be looking to have teachers' and principals' heads on a stick if his children were growing up in a school system where only 40% of its students graduated.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Ever Popular "Women in Science" Post

Yeah, I don't really have alot to say about these, other than to express my general cynicism. In Oregon they had a real nice day bringing girls in to do some gee-whiz science projects. I appreciate the intent and the effort. I sincerely hope that some of those girls really do consider careers in the sciences. But, those girls have to go back to their real schools the next day and face some real structural challenges, some of which, hopefully will be discussed in this meeting.

I think the data would show that we do a decent job of getting girls interested in science these days. Although horrible attitudes remain amoung high school teachers, I think they are in many respects on the way out. The average girl scores equally poor in science standardized tests as a boy does now. But I think we can both say that we were witness to the destruction that undergraduate and particularly graduate education inflicts on women in the sciences.

I think it's very important that we continue to excite kids about science in any way possible (even in one day gee-whiz activities). But of even higher importance:
"Scientist, heal thyself."

Some of our friends are getting pricey

It would seem that some of the people associated with this blog are getting a bit full of themselves. Does it really cost this much to get the best physics education in the country?

What about the little people makigirl? Would you think about them just once?

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Problem with Freshmen

In today's Boston Globe, there is an article discussing the promotion of 9th graders. The data in the article are for Massachusettes schools, but my bet is that high schools all around the country have similar difficulties.

The article illustrates the ever present achievement gap, in that students from poorer, high minority high schools are more likely to be held back in 9th grade than students in weathier schools. Data from NAEP (you'll have to do the data mining yourself) shows that the achievement gap often isn't so bad at 4th grade, but it grows wide and then enormous through 8th and then 12th grade. Poor/minority high schools are often the victims of failing middle schools. But to their own discredit high schools often are not able to focus their resources on solving the problems they inherit. So, it's everybody's fault.

The article lists some ways that schools are dealing with the problem of unprepared and overwhelmed rising 9th graders. Typically these solutions focus on creating small academies within high schools, decreasing class and aparent school sizes, utilizing teachers who only focus on the 9th grade transition classes, instituting marginally high expectation curricula, and providing extensive external supports. These programs, when run effectively and honestly, seem to work.

To me, the fact that these programs work indicates that we need to re-evaluate what "high school" really means. Are we doing a disservice to even the highest performing students in traditional settings? This country (and really no country) has never really evaluated what we want out of education. Similarly to the world of physics, we accept what has happened before us, becuase it seems to work for those of us still standing on graduation day. What would a model educational system look like? How much of that education should occur within the traditional school model? What do I want for my child, and what should I demand for every child? Hopefully, the stresses put onto the system by NCLB will help more people address some of these questions.

--An addendum. In the article, one of the school administrators is made to feel defensive about their school's policy of holding back 9th graders whom the school does not feel can pass the state test. The administrator denies that the decision is based on the student's ability to pass the state test and is actually based on the ability of the student to perform well in classes. Many critics of NCLB would point to that administrator and shout "liar", because 9th graders who are held back do not have to take the 10th grade test, thus inflating the school's test score numbers, and further that the test scores are meaningless.

I would say not so fast. Yes, it's unfortunate that student's come to high school woefully underprepared (maybe 5 grade levels below), but by the end of 9th grade, the high school has only had one year to do anything about the problem. If the student is that far behind, then they shouldn't be taking the state test yet, and they should be spending their time learning more in order to catch up. If the school does a good job in keeping that kid in school for the next 4-5 years (admittedly hard), then the work that the school did in the student's second 9th grade was worth it, and the test worked just the way that it should have.

Because, without the test, we all know that the underprepared student would have just been passed along and graduated with no skills. The test causes the school to worry about that student. The school may not handle the student perfectly, but at least now they have to worry.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Truth Day

In response to a Florida High Schools students' participation in a "Day of Silence/Tolerance Promotion," a community pastor had this to say:

"If they go ahead with this," Franklin said, "We'll push for a Truth Day, a Jesus Day, so that students from a Christian persuasion can get together and talk about what they want to talk about."

Yeah, because Christians are just so freakin' oppressed in this country. There's not a church on nearly every street corner of every town. Christmas isn't a federal holiday. Schools don't give winter break around Christmas, and spring break around Easter. TV and radio stations are not allowed to broadcast religious messages. No President of the United States has ever been a practicing Christian. I feel really bad for those people. Gay people have it so much easier.

When are these charlatans going to stop pretending that every discussion of tolerance and diversity is a secret come on from the gay community? When are the papers going to stop facilitating hatred and stop printing what these charlatans have to say?

When are the rest of us (the majority of us) who believe in tolerance, who believe in liberty, who believe in America, going to start saying what we believe?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Junk Science in Florida Schools

No, it's not creationism, it's Scientology

Apparently, two state legislators in Florida have introduced a bill prohibiting minors from getting state funded psychiatric care.

Yeah, that makes sense. In a time of school violence, gangs, teen pregnancy, and drugs, we really shouldn't be giving kids the opportunity to talk to trained professionals. No, let's hook them up to an Engram or whatever.

As further proof that our schools is failing, consider this quote from the editorial:

"Jim McDonough, who heads the state office for drug control and suicide prevention, has spoken out against the bill and urged lawmakers to stick to modern science. His efforts have caused Scientologists to flood him with public records requests and demands that he prove "the medical basis of mental illness."

No, that's absolutely not proven in   these   journals.   Scientology is much more sensible.

These Scientologists sound a lot like the Chairman of the Education Board in Kansas.

And just in case you were wondering, the sponsors of the bills aren't New Age Hippy Types, they're Republicans

Monday, April 11, 2005

Oh Kansas (The Dragon Returns)

Well, Kansas just can't get it's act together .

Here's my favorite quote:

"If they've got the guns on their side to defend it (evolution), then why not defend it? Instead, what they are going to do is take potshots, they are going to do the one-liners, they are going to do the 30-second sound bite instead of coming in and trying to testify and defend a position that they say is the only position in the world.”

Yeah, and the collected volumes of Nature, , Science, and the Journal of Evolutionary Biology are just "thirty second sound bites" and "pot-shots".

The Kansas School Board is the number one piece of evidence that Kansas Schools are failing.

P.S. Welcome back to the dragon.