A science teacher responds

Scott Hatfield replies to my post supporting his call to reject a proposal to further federalize education:

Vox’s reply is interesting and wide-ranging. I can only touch on a few points (in fact, three) that might be said to fall in my area of knowledge. Vox writes:

“I’m curious to know how Scott would prefer to see teachers evaluated.”

This is a thorny question, in that there are political realities at work. Most teachers are affiliated with teacher’s unions which tend to resist objective measures tied to student performance on standardized tests, for reasons that Vox acknowledges. Unfortunately, many unions tend to resist objective measures in general, and many educational professionals in administration and in government are so wedded to ‘standards-based reform’ that considering a different approach is unlikely to occur during my teaching career. I’m not punting, you understand, just acknowledging that there are practical reasons why we have the impasse that presently exists in terms of assessing instructor performance.

One of the things I enjoy about discourse with Scott is that unlike so many other evolutionists, he is open to the possibility that skepticism about TENS is not intrinsically related to one’s religious faith; this happens to be a position that is also in accord with the observable fact of numerous irreligious evolutionary skeptics. Nevertheless, I have to take some small exception to Scott’s belief that I misread the 8a of the California standards, specifically the second sentence quoted: “Students know how natural selection determines the differential survival of groups of organisms.” Because there is insufficient scientific evidence to indicate that natural selection even exists beyond the tautological level, I don’t see how anyone, let alone students, can presently know how it determines the differential survival of anything, including groups of organisms.

And in the interest of forestalling all the poorly read evolutionists who will be tempted to claim that I don’t understand the science due to their failure to keep up on the latest research, please note that the erroneous basis of most of the evidence presently cited in support of natural selection isn’t something you should take up with me, but rather, with Masatoshi Nei, Shozo Yokoyama, and Yoshiyuki Suzuki. And yes, I know they still believe in natural selection despite their criticism of the statistical evidence, but then, their personal opinions are neither science nor the point.

Political science

The UK attempts to whitewash Climategate:

The first of several British investigations into the e-mails leaked from one of the world’s leading climate research centers has largely vindicated the scientists involved.

The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee said Wednesday that they’d seen no evidence to support charges that the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit or its director, Phil Jones, had tampered with data or perverted the peer review process to exaggerate the threat of global warming—two of the most serious criticisms levied against the climatologist and his colleagues.

In their report, the committee said that, as far as it was able to ascertain, “the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact,” adding that nothing in the more than 1,000 stolen e-mails, or the controversy kicked up by their publication, challenged scientific consensus that “global warming is happening and that it is induced by human activity.”…

Lawmakers stressed that their report—which was written after only a single day of oral testimony—did not cover all the issues and would not be as in-depth as the two other inquiries into the e-mail scandal that are still pending.

Translation: we found nothing too terribly damning… mostly because we were careful not to look very hard. Please, please, please be sure to notice all the qualifiers we were careful to insert so we don’t look like we were covering anything up when more in-depth investigations reach opposite conclusions.

The stonewalling didn’t work. Neither will the whitewashing.

Water cooler conversation

This may explain a certain amount of workplace inefficiency. The context for this, as will no doubt be completely obvious to the casual reader, is firmware updates via USB.

MK: By the way, do you reject the doctrine of infallibility of the original scrolls of the Bible? Because, as the PUOSU states, I had assumed at least that of the reader, and if you reject it, there is no reason to even respond, because you would fall outside of the scope of the argument. In terms of forming an opinion with an evolutionary algorithm, this would mean a cost of irreconcilable conflict between two passages being similar to thisAlgorithmBecomingSkynetCost. Without the doctrine, the costs are different, and one can reach an opposite conclusion based on the same information.

VD: I believe so, assuming that I understand what you mean by “doctrine of infallibility” correctly. My position on the overall message being correct and the various details not necessarily being correct is reasonably well-known at this point. The part that most people fail to understand is that we are not capable of determining the perfectly correct from the not perfectly correct, so we should regard it as being correct to the greatest extent possible.

MK: Right, but there is still a division between inerrancy and infallibility. The former means that all statements that are given with the “voice of the narrator” in the Bible are true, and infallibility means that all THEOLOGICAL statements are true.

VD: I think something can be true without being perfectly or even properly understood. So, I’m not sure I can say that I reject infallibility.

MK: Where the difference plays out in practice, is the cost of a conflict when interpreted according to the various doctrines. If there is an interpretation that resolves the conflict but feels a tad iffy (and the conflict is in a theological statement), the infallibility believer will always take it. Whereas the disbeliever may say “that’s just one verse, so it could be wrong.”

VD: Right, particularly when there are other verses pointing in another direction. In this context, I would say that I am not a subscriber to the infallability doctrine. If anything, I am a subscriber to the ineffability doctrine.

MK: Of course, I’m still interested to see the response, but just so that I understand that you assign the costs differently in the algorithm. You are the first person not to give the textual equivalent of a blank stare, by the way.

VD: I am not as technical as you, but neither am I an idiot.

MK: Just my frustration with how there are perfectly concise ways to describe certain theological issues, that would otherwise take like five sermons, but I can’t use them due to the “huh?” problem.

VD: Imagine how God feels trying to explain things to us… in fact, this tends to metaphorically support the ineffability doctrine.

MK: But God would be able to accurately predict when the problem is going to happen, and wouldn’t even take the trouble of saying it. Which would force us to conclude that when He does say something, it is possible to understand it…. Can’t BELIEVE I didn’t see your argument coming, though. Total sucker punch.

Mailvox: take another look

HR asks an unexpected question:

I am reading your book and find it fascinating. I really appreciate your laying out the several possible scenarios and the arguments pro and con as well as identifying their supporters. The chart on your blog of “Debt Outstanding 2004-2009” I find quite convincing for your position on the key question of inflation vs deflation. However I also find that the Fed Statistics (see page 9 of this link) seem to show quite different trends and support the opposite conclusion. What is the source for your chart?

I’m glad HR finds it worthwhile reading. My source for the sector debt is the Federal Reserve flow of funds account. Notice how the red line for Federal debt on the chart ends a little below the $8,000 billion line. If you look a little more carefully at the linked PDF, you’ll see that this corresponds rather neatly with the $7,805 billion reported in 2009-Q4 for the Federal Government. The reason for this is that the Federal Reserve flow of funds account is, in fact, the very Z1 report that HR cited.

In other words, you have to look at the bottom of the page, not the top, since those are the 1978 numbers. It’s a bit easier to see this in the online version, in which the years run from left to right.

Mailvox: a waste of time and effort

The Baseball Savant questions my time allocations:

Leaving aside the fact that we pretty much disagree about everything when it comes to Christianity, the one thing I have a problem with in reading your blog the last couple of years is your fight in atheism/religion. Admittedly I haven’t read “TIA”, but I think for this discussion I get the gist that you basically used the same logic that the unholy trinity provided to disprove atheism or at least show that it’s more unlikely than religious thought/belief. I might be oversimplifying it, but I think you get my point. My problem though is that you spend an enormous amount of time on this very topic. That I don’t understand. I would think even as an open theist we would have similar views on eternal perspective and the problem that I have is that your writing of TIA, although interesting, doesn’t further that cause too much.

I can certainly see the rationale behind it if you believe that you are the first domino to fall in that equation in that


But the last part is very dicey. There are a million religions in the world, and it seems your argument is only that atheism is illogical. I agree with it. I guess I’m just wondering the end? Not that everything has to be done with eternal perspective in mind, but this is something that I think definitely coincides with that sort of thing because you are delving into religious matters. Does open theism teach that God is pleased if something comes to religion even if that religion is still pagan in nature and hell is the final destination for the person who converts to that religion from atheism?

If it’s all for intellectual masturbation then I get it, but you seem too bright to waste time on an endeavor such as this with no real cost/benefit analysis in the end.

Obviously you write for you. You’ve always said as much, but the time aspect is odd for me. What do you think?

First, I don’t spend anywhere nearly as much time on the subject as most people think. Because I read very fast and think a bit more quickly than the norm, it doesn’t take me very long to notice the flaws in an argument and use them to pick it apart. The only thing that occasionally takes an amount of time is doing the research to prove what I already have concluded to the satisfaction of others. Second, as always, I highly recommend reading the relevant material before commenting on it.

Because the Baseball Savant hasn’t read TIA, he isn’t aware that my ambitions for the book have always been modest. I not only think the last link in his chain is very dicey, I think the one preceding it is too. TIA is not a work of Christian apologetics nor is it even a theological work, the one speculative chapter notwithstanding, as it is nothing more than a work dedicated to destroying a collection of spurious, illogical, and demonstrably false arguments by a small group of well-known intellectual charlatans. Convincing the reader to disregard a specific form of atheism is the most that the book was ever even potentially going to achieve, and it’s quite clear that it has been very successful in that regard. The feeble and insubstantial protestations with which the Against the New Atheism slideshow has been met is testimony to the way in which even the most militant atheists have largely abandoned certain arguments they once believed to be powerfully effective.

Removing a bar to belief isn’t always going to lead to belief. I would even say that it usually isn’t. But, having seen so many well-meaning Christians struggle so ineffectively against unoriginal and outdated arguments that were fundamentally flawed, I thought it was worth the small effort it took to dismantle them in such a comprehensive manner that practically anyone who has read the book can now do the same with ease. I expect that I will continue to tear apart their future arguments since it costs me nothing and I find it more entertaining than sitting down and watching 151 hours of television per month like the average American. Needless to say, I will be providing a detailed critique of Sam Harris’s all-too-characteristically incoherent argument in favor of utilizing science to answer moral questions at some point in the future.

The truth is that I spend far more time on what could be characterized as even less important matters. I am currently designing five games, none of which are of any importance to the human race and only two of which will be potentially profitable to me. I am spending a great deal of time and money on a superior input device which will allow people to do useful, useless and even harmful things on a computer up to 50% faster. I am writing a sequel to a novel that probably didn’t sell more than 500 copies. I play board games and computer games, alone and with others. And I just finished reading a novel by Balzac that wasn’t particularly interesting and has taught me nothing useful.

The ironic thing about this email is the way it shows how people, even those who haven’t read the book, are still far more interested in discussing The Irrational Atheist than they are in discussing either of the two books I have published since. And this is despite the fact that we’re now in the midst of the very economic contraction that I describe in The Return of the Great Depression!

Time passes whether we spend it wisely or not. I have numerous regrets for opportunities and time I have wasted in the past, but writing TIA and discussing the related issues is not one of them.

Mailvox: Obama vs science education

Scott Hatfield of Monkey Trials writes about the standards of science education:

I invite you to read the state science standards for high school biology in California. You’ll find those on pages 51-56 of this PDF file. It’s true that evolution is in there, but there is absolutely no requirement to teach ‘scientific history.’ I admit that I give one lecture on Mendel and his experiments when I teach genetics, and one lecture on Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle and how that (and the thought of others, like Malthus) influenced his thought.

Other than that, the other 178-days of instruction are pretty much the concepts and facts that you can see on the standards, which are in fact voluminous. I can’t speak for PZ and Dawkins, but I assure you that I care very much about the fact that there is less time for experiments and far too much time spent prepping for the standardized tests which, under NCLB, are used by the states and the fed to rate schools.

By the way, if your looking for a way to improve science ed, then please join me in rejecting the OBAMA administration proposal to tie teacher evaluations more closely to testing. A rare offer for you and I to unite in a criticism of the present administration!

Again, check out what we actually have to teach. There’s a lot to cram in 180 days, and to do it, we typically are sacrificing labs, especially the highly-instructive but time-consuming ones that take weeks to complete.

I have no problem whatsoever condemning the Obama administration proposal. Teacher evaluations and education standards are not Constitutional concerns of the U.S. federal government and Obama has no business attempting to dictate such things. Now, I’m certainly not against the use of standards in evaluating teachers; one reason for the drive towards objective standards is that the political power of the teachers unions is completely out of hand in some states. Given that testing can be an over-blunt club, I’m curious to know how Scott would prefer to see teachers evaluated. And while I don’t understand how opposing a proposal for a change can improve the current situation, I am happy to oppose it nonetheless.

Obviously, a science teacher whose black, inner-city, public school students score an average 80th percentile is probably a much better teacher than one whose Chinese, suburban, private school students average 85th percentile. And it’s also clear that straightforward teaching to the test will tend to restrict a teacher’s ability to focus on whatever aspects of his subject he thinks is important. But I’m sure Scott also realizes that for every good science teacher who wants to push his students and expose them to actually learning how to utilize the scientific method, there are several who would spend the entire school day haranguing their students on anything from Marxism and patriarchal oppression to Genesis and Scientology if given the opportunity.

I don’t have an answer myself. But I’m curious to know what Scott’s recommendation would be. As for “science history”, that’s often what is taught in lieu of science. Whether one considers the cult of Adam Smith or the cult of Charles Darwin, even a moment of reflection should suffice to determine that the Great Men of Science theme is actually a historical theme, not a scientific one. An astronomer has absolutely no need to know if it was Pythagoras or Copernicus who thought the Sun orbited the Earth in order to calculate the orbit of an extrasolar planet just as a biologist has absolutely no need to know if it was Darwin or Paley who articulated evolution by natural selection when he is figuring out the utility of junk DNA.

Don’t get me wrong, I think scientific history is tremendously interesting and knowledge of economic history is actually quite valuable in understanding how and why the present orthodoxy went so badly awry. The more unsettled a science is, the more important the historical knowledge will be. Reading Joseph Schumpeter’s mammoth History of Economic Thought played a major role in my critical revisitation of Ricardian free trade, then Friedmanite monetarism. But repeating anecdotes about finches and shoemakers should never be confused with actually calculating debt/GDP ratios or collecting butterflies.

For the record, I no more object to teaching evolution than I do to teaching Keynesian macroeconomics or any other extant idea. In other words, I insist on them being taught and being taught accurately. It is only when you have fully and correctly understood a concept that you can truly grasp the intrinsic and/or potential flaws in it. For example, I found this requirement to be more than a little amusing: “8. Evolution is the result of genetic changes that occur in constantly changing environments. As a basis for understanding this concept: a. Students know how natural selection determines the differential survival of groups of organisms.” I should, of course, be very interested to know how they know that, given that even Richard Dawkins has now admitted that the science is still unsettled on whether Darwin was fundamentally wrong about the very core of his so-called “dangerous idea”. The logic is at least superficially sound, but is the science? After all, that is precisely what still remains to be determined.

But to be clear, it must be understood that while I am an outright Keynesian Denier, a Marxian Denier, and a Friedmanite Denier, I am but a mere Darwinian Skeptic.

Derbyshire is correct

In case you’re wondering why the USA is utterly dooomed, consider the results of a recent Right Wing News poll on which right-wing figures 80 right-wing bloggers like and dislike. (Full disclosure: I was one of the 80 polled.)

How do you feel about Ron Paul?
Strongly like: 7% (6 votes)
Like: 23% (19 votes)
Dislike 28%: (23 votes)
Strongly dislike: 40% (32 votes)

How do you feel about George W. Bush?
Strongly like: 30% (25 votes)
Like: 56% (46 votes)
Dislike 11% (9 votes)
Strongly dislike: 1% (1 vote)

When Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan are on the most unpopular list and Michelle Malkin and George W. Bush are among the most popular among self-styled conservatives, the only logical conclusion is that John Derbyshire is entirely correct. American conservatism is absolutely doomed.