Some Advice for Scientists

As you’ll probably guess, this post is inspired by the debate my co-author and I had in the thread below. In the end, I remain uncomfortable with the idea that we should disqualify huge swaths of the American population for public office using what essentially amounts to a religious test, and my reason for this is simple: human nature.

The state of science education in the United States is abysmal — and it is not the fault of evangelical groups clamoring for “equal time” for creationism. Our students suck at science for the same reason our students suck at math, namely: we don’t properly educate our science teachers. But even if we had a wonderful teacher training program and a solid science curriculum, we still would not have students who are equal in their aptitude for or interest in the subject.

We can and should do everything humanly possible to expose our citizens to, say, the evidence supporting the theory of evolution, but I guarantee that a significant proportion of our population will imperfectly absorb that information. Not only do our native talents vary, but our incentives are also wildly different. A plumber in Kansas simply doesn’t apply the theory of evolution to the problems he faces in his daily life. Therefore, he makes a rational choice not to read up on it.

The truth of the matter is, even the very smart are limited in terms of what they can learn and understand. On the whole, we are equipped to be specialists, not generalists. Thus, I feel it’s a mistake to declare imperfect scientific knowledge a political deal-breaker.

Of course, a scientist might interject at this point and state that the theory of evolution is so basic that it’s not unreasonable to demand that our leaders comprehend and accept it. My response? Evidently, you scientists are wrong. According to Gallup, creationism persists even among the highly educated. 22% of those respondents whose highest educational attainment was “post-graduate” stated that they were creationists. 22% is low compared to the corresponding number for those who did not have college degrees, but it’s still not zero. And that means simple idiocy is not the sole explanation for creationism’s endurance. There’s something else going on, and it’s called human nature.

My degree is in Biological Psychology, which means that I spent a lot of time in college examining human behavior and its basis in the workings of the brain. Among the many things that I learned about our species during this course of study is the fact that we’re not infallible thinkers. For example, suppose you asked the average man on the street the following: “If you were traveling in Israel, which would you fear more: getting hurt in a car crash or getting hurt in a terrorist attack?” Well, that man on the street is likely to state that he’d worry more about the latter possibility even though the numbers indicate that he should worry about the former.

There’s also this little thing called confirmation bias, which means that we fallen humans tend to favor evidence which supports our preconceptions over evidence which does not. And no — this is not an inborn flaw unique to Biblical literalists or to those of low IQ. Confirmation bias is present throughout the intelligence spectrum, particularly when one’s entire worldview is at stake. Don’t believe me? Well, then I’d recommend you read up on all the 20th century intellectuals who defended Stalin and/or covered up his crimes.

A scientist might also note that because our political leaders are responsible for allocating scientific funding and appointing bureaucrats whose responsibilities impact the scientific community, said leaders should be scientifically literate. My response? Given human nature, it’s probably not the wisest course to depend upon the government for your funding. It seems to me that it would be easier to convince a few wealthy patrons of the utility of your research than it would be to convince an entire electorate and all of its representatives.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for an immediate privatization of all scientific study. But you might want to consider heading in that general direction — at least if you want to pursue your work free from political pressure. When you hold your hand out to the government, you leave yourself vulnerable to the whims of individuals who are not as educated as you are on matters scientific. And if politicians then interfere with your important research? Well, that’s your own damn fault, isn’t it? You’ve been hoist by your own petard.

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A Response to SABR Matt’s Comments In Re: Perry & Creationism

First, let me just state for the record what I believe about evolution and the planet’s age:

1) The case for microevolution is air tight. The case for macroevolution, while relatively strong, still needs work. Do I think evolution is the most likely explanation for why living things look and behave the way they do? Yes. However, I really don’t care for the strident dogmatism that often characterizes evolutionist rhetoric. (And I also don’t appreciate the evolutionists’ tendency to apply evolution to the fields of philosophy and ethics. Said luminaries are addicted to the naturalist fallacy; consequently, they draw many erroneous conclusions.)

2) The scientific evidence indicates that the Earth is roughly five billion years old. Young Earth creationists make their mistake because they fail to consider the audience for which Genesis was originally written. The ancients, you see, weren’t going to understand God if He started talking about the Big Bang and other scientific particulars through his inspired writers. On the other hand, the ancients would understand, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.'” (And by the way, God creates the world in six days in Genesis because the number seven indicated a covenant in the minds of the ancients. In other words, the inspired sacred writer here is telling his audience that God made the universe and did so as a covenant to mankind. He’s not saying that God literally made everything in a week.)

Okay — now that my personal beliefs are very clear, allow me to present my defense of Rick Perry. I’ll start by discussing a historical incident whose relevance to my argument will become clear momentarily. During the campaign of 1960, the Kennedy campaign received letters from American voters expressing concern about Kennedy’s Catholicism. At the time, many American Protestants were under the impression that Kennedy would obey the Holy Father first and the Constitution second. Indeed, in September of that year, ministers from the National Conference of Citizens for Religious Freedom issued a statement that openly questioned Kennedy’s patriotism on the basis of his faith.

Of course, the aforementioned anxiety was entirely false-to-facts — a product of lingering anti-Catholic bigotry. From the very beginning, Catholics have participated in the political life of our nation as wholly loyal Americans. In fact, the Declaration of Independence had one Catholic signer – Charles Carroll of Maryland – and the Constitution had three. Granted, those aren’t large numbers, but at the time, Catholics were a rare breed in the former British colonies.

What does all of that have to do with Perry? Well, it is my judgment that the concern over Perry’s beliefs in re: evolution is a reflection of a similar sort of bigotry — though this time, the bigotry is urban-centered and anti-evangelical. Now, before you get angry, Matt, I don’t think you personally are prejudiced. I do think, though, that a lot of people are, especially in the mainstream media — and the mainstream media is the primary source of information for most people who occupy the political middle.

The key passage from Matt’s article, in my opinion, is this one:

The odd thing is…the Texas teachers angrily replied to Perry’s comments, saying that creationism was mentioned as an alternative theory only in Biblical History and literature classes…not in any of the science classes in Texas. So…it’s not like Perry pushed a hard creationist-favoring agenda.

Maybe Rick Perry is a Young Earth creationist. But the evidence Matt provides here would seem to indicate that he doesn’t impose his evangelical beliefs on others – that he listens to the voters. That renders said beliefs just as irrelevant as was JFK’s Catholicism.

The upshot? I think it’s rash to disqualify Perry because of what he does or doesn’t believe with respect to evolution and the age of the Earth. I think we should wait and see how the Perry campaign responds to the criticism of Perry’s supposedly “anti-science” stance before we declare him utterly unelectable. If the Perry campaign can counter the media bigots’ anti-evangelical narrative and simultaneously reassure the middle that a theocracy is certainly not in the offing, then a Perry-led GOP ticket will still be in very good shape.

And by the way, a side note: A politician’s beliefs vis-a-vis evolution definitely wouldn’t be an issue if scientists were funded by private patrons. I’m just saying…

More Perry Commentary

Just thought I’d add a thumbnail for conversation here.

Two common complaints with Perry were not addressed by the articles my co-author contributed earlier today.

1) Perry doesn’t believe in evolution.

This came back to the front of the line just today when an activist mother in New Hampshire prodded her son (8) to ask Perry questions about evolution vs. creationism in Texas schools. The answer he gave was a little disconcerting.

How old is the world? I don’t know, son. It goes back a very long time, but I don’t think scientists know exactly how long.

I know your mother is asking about evolution. That’s a theory that’s out there and that has some problems with it. We in Texas teach both evolution and creationism because we assume you’re smart enough to decide for yourself what is the right answer.

I’ll tell you what my moderate liberal friends see when they read this: they see a guy who secretly believes in creationism but knows he cannot say so. They could be right…he is a deeply evangelical protestant from the south and it’s hard to escape the anti-evolution wingnuts in that atmosphere. The first answer is troubling to me as a scientist, because I know we do in fact have a very clear idea of how old the Earth is…well supported by the scientific literature. However, taken at face value, my reading on that would be that he believes people have the right to believe in either theory and that both theories should be explained in school, with the objective of allowed parents to choose which direction a student’s education proceeds. Normally, I’m all for this kind of freedom of religion.

HOWEVER – I think it does a grave disservice to a child to inculcate them into believing the literal protestant belief in creationism. The Catholics resolved their Bible vs. science conflict long ago…Protestants need to catch up. I think the place for creationism is not the science class, but the philosophy, history or theology classes that Texans have access to in high school. There is no SCIENTIFIC underpinning to creationism. Evolution is am imperfect theory, but it’s a scientific theory based on a collection of hard evidence. The gaps in that theory will be plugged scientifically…not with a sermon.

The odd thing is…the Texas teachers angrily replied to Perry’s comments, saying that creationism was mentioned as an alternative theory only in Biblical History and literature classes…not in any of the science classes in Texas. So…it’s not like Perry pushed a hard creationist-favoring agenda. I must, however, agree with my friends in the sciences that it’s troubling to me when a presidential candidate does not know some of the very fundamental things we’ve learned scientifically.

2) Perry is Anti-Science (especially anti-climate science)

Going along with his controversial stance on creationism, Perry is known to a great opponent of green energy stimulus, of the EPA regulation of CO2 as a pollutant, and of the entire premise that CO2 is causing global warming bad enough to merit mitigation and economic concern. He recently said, in fact, that anthropogenic global warming was “just a theory that hadn’t been proven,” and that “the agenda of government sponsored global warming science was clear,” implying that he didn’t buy global warming as a threat at all and that he suspected scientists and politicians of colluding to push new controls on the American people.

Moderates will read this as alarming. I do not. Everyone reading this blog regularly should know why. I think that although we are likely to be warming the planet somewhat, the actual magnitude is badly overestimated by current climate models and theory and that governments saw climate science as an opportunity to push for further control on the energy market. The scientists themselves probably aren’t as nefarious as Perry implied (with a few publicly important figureheads as possible exceptions) – though I do think they’re guilty of getting tunnel vision and not listening enough to opposing viewpoints.

That said…environmental policy has gone too far, IMHO, toward controlling free markets and ti needs to stop. I don’t care that Perry evidently believes that the climate scientists were guilty of malfeasance…I just want to see over-regulation rolled back. BUT!…it is kind of bad combination to win an election on…a combination that strikes me as somewhat anti-scientific and very likely to lose moderates. The anti-climate science stuff is fine on its’ own…but when mixed with some hint that he may believe in creationism is worrisome to me.

Right now, I cannot support Mr. Perry. That leaves me still without a candidate.

Working on the Right Problem

Although I would love to be able to support a pragmatist and business mogul like Herman Cain in a presidential race, I think it’s fairly clear that he lacks the necessary worldly knowledge and executive experience to be POTUS as of yet. I would encourage him to start smaller and run for Congress.

However! That does not mean I am ignoring what he says in this primary season. One of his biggest campaign slogans is this:

“We need to make sure we’re working on the right problem.”

We are presented with a classic example of the necessity for identifying the correct problem and solving it in the face of these so called “flash mob” attacks. In cities all across this country, a new fad is hitting our teenagers’ Twitter and Facebook accounts – the way it works is simple. A message goes out (usually in coded language) to a group of companions or perhaps publicly to known online gathering places. Kids learn that if they show up at some appointed time, they can join a crowd of looters in a quest to acquire free things ranging from electronics to candy, knives to footwear. They gather in a matter of minutes…descend on a store…ransack it…and scatter just as quickly as they gathered, long before police arrive.

All across the political spectrum, the question arises – why are these mobs occurring and how can we correct the system to encourage more positive behavior in our youths. This is a conditioned response. This question of WHY lawlessness occurs was bread into the political dialogue by social scientists over the last fifty years. Their theory has been that you cannot solve problems without understanding the underlying deeper causes. Intellectuals (and I would include myself in that class, though I try to avoid making an issue of my own abilities) tend to buy into that line of reasoning because in the hard sciences, and in our daily lives, we’ve made progress in our understanding and our standard of living by identifying deeper unifying theories and adapting our problem solving skills to synthesize new information.

Anne Coulter has even bought into this – and she considers herself a pragmatist and a STAUNCH conservative. She’s spent the last few months since the release of her book “Demonic” arguing that mob mentality is essentially always borne of liberal ideology. She documents various mob moments in history and makes the case that all of them were driven by people with a sense of entitlement and resulted in government becoming “bigger” – feeding the liberal cause. She thinks, for example, that the London riots have been spurred by an overly-protective welfare system that rewards laziness and leaves kids bored and empty. Maybe there’s some truth to that.

Countering that claim is another camp that argues that the more austere a government (the less they work to help the citizenry), the more people become lawless and violent. Logically, when you give people handouts…and then stop giving those handouts, people become angry. Sure enough, the data, when viewed in a straightforward manner reveals that governments in the process of cutting spending produce increases in crime rate and vice versa. There may be some truth to this as well – you give a kid candy every day for a year, and then suddenly tell him he’s too fat and needs to lose weight for his own good, he’s going to get upset.

But here’s a different answer – offered by Scott Ott over at PJTV.com – to the question of why the mobs are forming. Who cares?! Why are we busying ourselves trying to give the mob the benefit of the doubt and assuming that their bad behavior is caused by some failure in the system? Why do we hand them excuses like institutional racism, unemployment and economic turmoil when we should be hauling their butts to jail?

You see…social scientists have us so convinced that we need to try to solve the biggest problems first that we can’t even bring ourselves around to the more important question. We need to work on the right problem. The question isn’t why there is mob violence. The question is…how do we stop it? In Philly, the (urban Democratic!) Mayor seems to think the right answer is to pass a curfew and keep kids at home after 10 PM and arrest the ones that don’t comply. He – although a Democrat – is at least a pragmatist. Here is my main social comment on the issue of mob violence in today’s youth. You ready?

This problem begins at home.

Institutional racism can’t possibly explain it. The mobs in London were mostly white and the mobs in Philly – though mostly black (because that is simply the population of Philly’s inner-city districts) – carry out attacks on all races, not just their supposed white masters.

Class warfare doesn’t explain it either. In London, kids from good families were in on the rioting and the riots are in a nation that’s full of liberal welfare and job placement programs designed to protect the poor. Here in the US, there is a higher correlation between parental status (single, married, divorced) and mob violence than there is between economic standing and violence. Most of the rioters in both countries came from broken or neglectful homes – parents divorced or children born out of wedlock to single mothers. This causes a spurious correlation between economic standing and rioting because poorer families have disproportionate rates of illegitimacy and divorce…not to mention that even in stable marriages amongst the poor, both parents tend to work and kids are left unsupervised. The same spurious relationship exists in our minority populations. Blacks now have over 70% of their children out of wedlock (whites have 28% of their children out of wedlock), meaning there are a heck of a lot more black kids running around unwatched in the evenings.

If you want to find the deep, underlying problem, there it is. Parents need to do a better job and kids need both of them fully involved to stay away from trouble like this. There is much we can do in government to help with the illegitimacy and neglect problems we face, but those kinds of things take time. What can we do to protect the franchise owner of the attacked 7-11 from losing his business? How do we stop the mobs TODAY? That’s the problem we have to solve first. Stop the violence…then we’ll talk about what caused it.

We need to work on the right problem. The right problem right now…is the violence…not the many excuses there might be for the perpetrators. As soon as you even ASK why they did it…you’ve already lost. That has to wait until the violence ends. Because the rest of us have a right to our property, our health, and our lives. A start would be to authorize police to use area-effect weapons against mobs immediately – things like tear gas and stun guns should be standard issue when responding to flash mob complaints (I say stun guns because if you have them, you can shoot em all and let the judge sort em out without unnecessary bloodshed). Fast response, efficient mob-smashing gear, and harsh sentences for the offenders…that’s the only thing that will break this fad. The government OWES all of us, as citizens, a robust defense of our personal property and livelihood. Period.

Another help would be an expansion of our freedom to carry guns. I have no need of a firearm, but if you work in a 7-11, you should be able to whip out an uzi on the spot…and I’m not kidding around here. That doesn’t mean I want store managers gunning down looters left and right, but a pack of rabid animal looters isn’t going to be afraid of one store clerk carrying a simple 22 mm hand gun, let alone lesser weapons. They will only fear something that can do a lot of damage quickly.

Let the social scientists make excuses later…the only thing that stops a mob is overwhelming force.

All Eyes on Texas — and Rick Perry

As soon as Rick Perry jumped into the presidential race, polls placed him at the head of the pack. Personally, I think this is probably due to the “Yay! New meat!” phenomenon. We Republicans have had a lot of time to get to know the other candidates on the ballot, and speaking for myself, I have found reasons to dislike each and every one of them. Michele Bachmann? Her heart’s in the right place, but she needs more experience — and more “grooming”. Newt Gingrich? He’s one of the smartest individuals in the conservative movement, but his personal morality leaves something to be desired (and yes, personal morality does matter — at least to me). Mitt Romney? I perceive him to be competent but — well — rather boring. And he’s made too many compromises with the Democrats; the health care issue in particular is a huge weakness. Ron Paul? He makes common cause with the idiot left when it comes to our foreign policy, so there’s no way in hell he’s getting my vote. Etc. Etc. Etc. If any of these individuals – with the possible exception of Ron Paul – end up on the final ballot, I will still vote Republican. After all, my primary goal is to kick Obama out of the White House. But I won’t vote “R” with much enthusiasm.

So what about Rick Perry? Well, even before Perry announced his candidacy, the leftwing attack machine kicked into high gear. They called him “George W. Bush on steroids,” mocked his poor academic record, questioned the apparent success of the Texas economy, and dumped on Texas public education. Of those four complaints, I’m only concerned about the first. Perry is indeed more “Texas” than was George W. Bush, and that may not play well on the coasts, where urban snobbery is pretty well entrenched even among conservatives.

As for the other three complaints? Well, let me respond to them one at a time:

  • Perry got C’s and D’s in college. While my ideal candidate would have both “book smarts” and “street smarts,” I really chafe at the suggestion that only those who excel in school can be good leaders. I’ve worked with students who have learning disabilities, you see, and I’ve got to wonder how they must feel whenever someone’s academic record becomes an issue in a political race. Moreover, as any serious student of history knows, the fact that you are brilliant in the verbal sense (the type of intelligence most schools are equipped to reward) does not guarantee that you are not a complete moron when it comes to other things that matter. Hitler had his credentialed intellectuals — and so did Stalin.
  • The Texas job numbers aren’t as good as they look. Actually? Yes. Yes, they are. See also: Rick Perry and Texas Job Numbers. Of course, there are the people who say, “Well, the economy in Texas may be pretty good after all, but Rick Perry certainly had nothing to do with it!” But don’t these people realize that this is probably the best backdoor endorsement a politician can ever receive? Doing nothing is in fact an excellent approach to our economy. That’s why you will rarely see me mock Obama for his golf games. As a matter of fact, I wish he’d play more golf and stop mucking around in things he obviously doesn’t understand.
  • Texas is at the bottom of the pack when it comes to public education. To support this claim, people generally cite Texas’ low SAT scores, its high drop-out rate, etc. But as we’ve already established on this blog, stats like these are meaningless because they don’t take into account confounding variables. To put it another way: Texas is a border state, you dumbos! The schools there are dealing with more students who are poor, more students who come from historically under-served populations, more students who speak English as a second language, etc. When you break down, say, the most recent NAEP results by race and class, Texas comes out looking pretty good. For example, let’s take a look at Texas’ fourth grade math scores. In 2009, Texas placed 7th for white students, 3rd for black students, 9th for Hispanic students, and 12th for students who are eligible for reduced or free lunch. Oh, snap! According to these numbers, Texas is actually at the top of the heap. (By the way, Iowahawk also covered this topic in a brilliant post a few months ago. Go and read.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure I’ll see flaws in Perry eventually. Unfortunately, politicians don’t tend to represent the best that humanity has to offer. But the arguments discussed above are really, really piss-poor.

Warren Buffett’s Tax Dodge

Warren Buffett’s Tax Dodge
@ The Wall Street Journal

Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Buffett speaks about raising taxes only on the rich. But somehow he ignores that the President’s tax increase starts at $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. Mr. Obama ought to call them “thousandaires,” but that probably doesn’t poll as well.

The President needs to levy his tax increase at such a lower income level because that’s where the money is. In 2009, 237,000 taxpayers reported income above $1 million and they paid $178 billion in taxes. A mere 8,274 filers reported income above $10 million, and they paid only $54 billion in taxes.

But 3.92 million reported income above $200,000 in 2009, and they paid $434 billion in taxes. To put it another way, roughly 90% of the tax filers who would pay more under Mr. Obama’s plan aren’t millionaires, and 99.99% aren’t billionaires.

Mr. Buffett says it’s only “fair” to raise his taxes, but he’s lending his credibility to raising taxes on millions of middle-class earners for whom a few extra thousand dollars in after-tax income is a big deal. Unlike Mr. Buffett, those middle-class earners aren’t rich and may earn $250,000 for only a few years of their working lives. How is that fair?

Exactly.

Sign This Letter!

CASE’s Letter to the President:

Recently, in the midst of the debt-ceiling crisis, a group calling themselves the “Circle of Protection,” led by Jim Wallis of the activist group Sojourners, met with you and your staff to claim that biblical mandates preclude limits to federal programs for low-income people. The Circle includes representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals, Bread for the World, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Wallis and the “Circle of Protection” do not speak for all Christians. However laudable their intentions, the consequence of their action is to provide a religious imprimatur for big government and sanctify federal welfare programs that are often ineffective — even counterproductive. Contrary to their founding “Statement,” we do not need to “protect programs for the poor.” We need to protect the poor themselves. Indeed, sometimes we need to protect them from the very programs that ostensibly serve the poor, but actually demean the poor, undermine their family structures and trap them in poverty, dependency and despair for generations. Such programs are unwise, uncompassionate, and unjust.

Somebody from our local Catholic parish recently emailed me some “Circle of Protection” propaganda, so I practically bruised my fingers in my eagerness to affix my name to this document.

And by the way, “CASE” stands for “Christians for a Sustainable Economy.” Darn straight!

Iowans are Idiots.

Sorry, Steph…I know you will be annoyed with this sentiment, but people need to vote more wisely than they did in the straw poll.

How anyone could have watched the debate on Thursday and concluded that Bachmann was even CLOSE to ready to be our candidate to take down Obama is beyond me. Bachmann has no business running for President…she’s not ready…too young and too short on real executive leadership experience (and results, for that matter). We have GOT to pick more intelligently than this if we’re going to beat Obama. Not that I entirely fail to understand the desire for the uber-conservative hard-nosed fighter type…and not that I disagree with Bachmann’s views on most of the key issues (though I think she leans further to the right than I’m comfortable with, personally)…but it’s NOT ENOUGH to have strong beliefs and be willing to defend them at all costs. Whether we like it or not, the President has to play the game…they have to be a politician – savvy with the media and with the Legislature. They can’t take every issue as personally as Bachmann seems to…and they certainly can’t refuse to compromise AT ALL.

And frankly…do I have any reason to believe that Bachmann has command over global geopolitics, economics (beyond the basics), or military strategy? Where is her case for that? I’ve seen nothing in any of her public appearances that’s made me feel like she could actually GOVERN this nation. A nice lady…a fine businesswoman…a good mom…and no doubt, morally upstanding…but a President? Now? Not on your life. And not on mine, either.

Iowans…you have GOT to set a better example for the GOP than this, because, for some inane reason, you’re the first state in Primary season and you set the tone for the campaign. Character is a HUGE part of being a good president, but so is worldly knowledge and leadership experience. Bachmann has neither in sufficient measure to be our head of state. If she ends up at the front of our ticket, we’re SCREWED.

So there you go…I’m sorry, but if Iowans are going to vote like this…then Iowans are idiots. I’m not thrilled with most of the candidates…if I had to pick right now, it would probably be Rick Perry, but he’s got the benefit of being the new guy and I’m sure stuff will come out about him that will make me think twice before this is over. Failing that, I favor Newt Gingrich, who, for some reason, Republicans seem not to like. I confess I don’t know everything about his voting record in the 80s.

I just know one thing with clarity…Michelle Bachmann has ZERO chance of getting my vote in the NY GOP primary. ZERO. But in Iowa…all it takes to get elected are big, meaningless words about good intentions. Call me in eight years or so when Bachmann’s actually led a legislative effort in Congress that PASSED…and had beneficial results.