Have you ever wondered what a Flash-based, ironically-modern 'explanation' of science would look and sound like? What would a science documentary by Xuxa be like? Click at your peril.


Republicans have taken comfort of late in a momentary spike in polling against HCR, and it has become one of their talking points.

It's understandable that they would seize upon ANY number in the low 60's as a mandate, given the fact that Pres. Bush's approval ratings in his last two years in office never at any time reached 40 percent and more often than not languished in the high 20's. President Bush, regardless of how I might feel about him personally, was wildly unpopular when he left office.

Contrast that with Bill Clinton, who left office with an unprecedented approval rating of 66 percent---three points ahead of Reagan!

Think about that: Clinton's two terms were marked by the same GOP conspiracy machine that seems to be energizing the 'Tea Party' movement. He was nearly impeached. Today, he is best known for his personal missteps rather than his governance, the tawdry details of various scandals more likely to be raised by the average citizen than any domestic or foreign policy initiative. But, as ABC News analyst Gary Langer put it, "You can't trust him, he's got weak morals and ethics — and he's done a heck of a good job."

Don't get me started on the Republican Congress. According to the Pew Research polls, their favorability rating hasn't touched 50 percent since 2002, and they are hovering in the low 20's to mid 30's, depending on the poll. The polls also show that since Mr. Obama took office, the approval ratings of Congressional Republicans have dipped 8-10 percent.

Can my fellow Americans who happen to be Republicans please unpack this for me? That's a losing trend you need to explain, and the overall polling numbers are a further indication of the demographic shift that is little-by-little eroding the ability of the GOP to be a truly national party, one able to form a broad coalition able to govern. They are increasingly isolated from the mainstream. Their response has not been to shift toward the center, but to move to the right...to move further away from the vast majority of Americans who are neither Republican or Democrat, but independents. The idea that they are somehow going to 'take America back' is delusional, because the 'America' they want to restore never existed. Exhibit A, from McClatchy....though hardly news to those of us who have been defending science education these last two decades.

So, from my perspective, the GOP leadership's grasping at poll numbers is predictable, but kind of sad. What will they do, I wonder, if they fail to make any gains in the mid-term elections, as the opposition parties typically do? Will they drift further into the politics of Michelle Bachman, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, appealing to a past that never was? Or will they finally start to see that their conservative ideals (which, at their best, are timeless) need to be retooled to meet the needs of a future electorate whose composition is significantly more diverse (and more interesting) than the GOP at present?



Tonight I run down south for a one-day jaunt to Long Beach, courtesy of my involvement with Bullard's School Site Council.

Truth to tell...I don't exactly relish the trek. But this actually kind of gets me in the mood:

A lot of the early punk stuff is poorly performed, poorly recorded junk. You can look at it as a historical document, but the music/performance is sort of secondary, especially the videos. This clip from what, 1977, easily rises above that. The band is great, the sound quality is really good, and a long-haired gap-toothed mouth is so confident about the whole thing that he does some cheezy gestures mid-way through to go with the lyrics. Truly, there is an Elvis, and he could be King.



This article by Richard Hughes is devastating in its simplicity and insight.

I'm not a big admirer generally of HuffPo, its interests or its content, but this is truly worth reading.

Every American citizen who identifies as a 'Christian' needs to read this article and then ask, 'What kind of 'Christian' am I?' More than anything I have read in memory, it describes to a 'T' how much of our 'Christian' experience is an 'American' experiment, in which a Gospel of individuality and affluence eclipses the Biblical witness.

If you are not a Christian, however, reading it might help you understand why some of us who so identify ourselves can say, with such confidence, that others who claim to follow Jesus are not truly his servants. I know, it's the 'No True Scotsman' argument, which is something of a fallacy.

But I dare anyone to read this article and not appreciate the depth of the divide. Well and wisely did Gandhi unfavorably contrast this sort of 'Christianity' with the Christ we claim to call Lord. God, have mercy on us.


The ever-fulminous Vox Day generously peels off a fairly long blog post in response to a comment that I left on his blog. Here's the original comment:

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.

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.

Having said that....I believe in assessments that focus on content, instructional practice and classroom management skills that research shows are effective and appropriate to grade level.

What makes an effective instructor? The answer to that question would have to be somewhat different for middle school and high school science instructors than, say, an elementary teacher.

Toward that end, I am in favor of developing a class of true 'master teachers' who not only have years of teaching experience, but who have demonstrated mastery of the entire curriculum within their bailiwick. For example, I have complete confidence that someone like myself could master all of the middle school and high school science standards. Why? Oh, because I've taught them all. That should be, at a bare minimum, a requirement for any individual assessing instructional performance in a standards-based course: intimate, first-hand knowledge of the standards and how to teach them.

Without any false modesty, really, people like me don't just fall off the turnip truck. There are very few people in the state of California who can say, as I can, that they have taught all four standards-based courses (Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science and Physics) multiple times. So there wouldn't be a huge number of people, initially, who would have that sort of background that (as a first step) would be essential to evaluate other standards-based instructors.

People who do have those skills, however, should be able to directly evaluate instruction. Evaluation should employ a mixture of observations, student assessments and feedback for the instructor. Districts should decide individually what the best mix is, in concert with community leaders. The process for implementing assessment should be negotiated into their collective bargaining agreements, so that individual instructors could not automatically hide behind the blanket of their union, but would have to go through a process to justify their individual practice.

Yes, it's another layer of bureaucracy, but it's a local bureaucracy I envision, not a state or federal body. And, if implemented properly, it would be a vehicle for promoting and recognizing teacher excellence as well as identifying low-performing instructors. Because the carrot that would make the stick go would be to tie performance to salary, rather than seniority.

Notice that I'm not proposing anything that would be easy, or likely to happen any time soon. I'm just describing what I think would be a better way to do things.

Vox also writes:

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 hear these urban legends too, but I have yet to personally encounter a science instructor who does anything like what Vox is describing. Even the creationists in the science teacher ranks (and there are many, sigh) spend virtually all of their time doing their job, which is actually teaching science. (The Freshwater case is sensational, but hardly typical of creationist science teachers in my experience.)

The thing is, the opportunity to spend significant instructional time pursuing your agenda can only come at the expense of covering the standards. And, the reality is, we don't have that much time. I have an earlier post this month that explains, in mind-numbing detail, exactly why we don't have that much time.

Finally, Vox writes, with respect to a California State Standard in Biology:

"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".

Vox, sorry, but you're misreading this. All the standard is saying, evolution (defined as genetic change in populations) happens, and that natural selection operates on those genetically-changing populations. These are facts. It is a trivial exercise to show that populations change genetically, and that in some environments some changes offer advantages, and others don't. Natural selection has been observed repeatedly in nature selecting for some groups, and against others, and in many cases it is possible to assess the relative contribution of selection with other forces. Consider, for example, this PNAS paper on Drosophila speciation in microclimates associated with canyons.

Keep in mind that 'evolution' and 'natural selection' are facts, whereas TENS is a proposed relationship tying such facts together in an explanatory framework to account for, among other things, the diversity of life. Please recall that, like all scientific theories, TENS is never 'proved'. Theories never become facts; instead, they are vehicles that drive scientific research, adopted because they are useful and productive, held provisionally until an improved model comes along. An improved model could be either a tweaked version of the present model, or else it could be a superior alternative that proposes an entirely different mechanism.

I am sure that you appreciate that, where biologists are concerned, we are more likely to regard the former as probable. That is what makes some of the hemming and hawing by the likes of a Richard Dawkins somewhat poignant. As an ultra-Darwinist, Dawkins has long argued that TENS is the be-all and end-all of biology, and his acknowledgment that there is a limit to the confidence we can place in such claims is certainly food for thought.

But, Vox, that has nothing to do with the standards I teach. The State of California is taking a position with the scientific consensus, that evolution occurs and that natural selection can cause evolution. These are well-established positions. The State of California takes no position on the less-established, technically interesting but not-all-that-critical question of the relative importance of natural selection in accounting for every known instance of diversification.

Richard Dawkins may be personally invested in that question, but I can honestly tell you that I am not, and I have yet to personally meet any biologist terribly invested in that point of view, or anyone who denies that processes other than natural selection can lead to speciation. I suspect, in fact, that Dawkins's caveats indicate his desire not to place himself inadvertently at odds with the emerging field of evo-devo. If so, he's being smart, because evo-devo is a happening field that is providing us clues to previously-unsuspected genetic mechanisms that certainly stand to enrich the now decades-old "modern" synthesis.

As always, Vox, I appreciate not only the traffic from your site, but the flow of ideas from your head.



OK, now I'm tired of politics, including my own.

So....here's something I could've shared at the beginning of Lent. Why wait another year to do so? Check out this awesome melding of electronics, dance culture and Third-World music:

It will make you happy if you dance to it!
But...you really do have to dance.
Why not now, in Holy Week?
(but, see Matthew 11:17)


Now here's a ridiculous thing.

Tim Tebow, like every other NFL prospect, takes the Wonderlic Test.

An anecdote (which is later denied) is put out there that the notoriously faith-headed Tebow ran an 'audible' right before the test was to be given. The original source is here.

Much blog commentary followed, mocking Tebow's score of 22 out of 50 and chortling at his below-averageness, and how of course it fits, given that he is a very public evangelical and passionate 'right-to-lifer' who was home-schooled.

Well, of course this criticism is ridiculous and misguided. It turns out that '20' would be an average score on this particular test, and that the anecdote in question is disputed. It's more than a little ironic when people who have supposedly made 'critical thinking' a cardinal value manifestly failing to think critically about claims like this.

After all, one of the things that I think I dislike the most about conventional belief systems is that they simply make it easier to rehearse one's prejudices. How is this different? In this case, the inference that '22' is a low score on an 'IQ test', and an uncritically-digested anecdote about a somewhat-fulsome Christian athlete was something of a perfect storm for the skeptic who mistakenly conflates their lack of faith with intelligence.

For the record, I took the test offered over at PZ's place and (five minutes later) had a score in the 40's. Yes, folk like us are exceptional, which is just another way of saying we are outliers. People like Tebow, who are exceptional in other ways, are pretty normal in this respect.

Such folk are understandably less interested in the question of how quick people like myself are at taking such tests, and how quickly people like me are willing to rehearse our own prejudices where athletes and people of faith are concerned.

For the record, I don't follow college footfall and I am not a Tim Tebow fan. I don't agree with his 'right-to-life' position, and I certainly am no fan of homeschooling, especially where science education is concerned. I just think that this 'story' is a case of people rehearsing their prejudices, rather than thinking critically, and thus a cautionary tale. Yes, well-educated bloggers are supposed to be better at such things, precisely because they are exceptional. But even outliers can fall prey to the seductive siren of their own beliefs. All of us, even skeptics, must recognize that the easiest person to fool is one's self!



Illustration from the New York Times, March 28, 2010, by Barry Blitt

I am departing again from my usual fare. I rarely blog about politics, as there are more political bloggers than virtually any other species and it's not really something that motivates me on a day-to-day basis. However, the last few weeks the spectacle of the health care debate and the tactics used by the Dems to ram it through have got my attention.

If it is sad that Mr. Obama and his Congressional allies had to abandon comity and bipartisanship, it is even creepier to see the sheer animus raised by the foes of health care in the 'Tea Party' movement. There's something oddly disproportionate about much of the rhetoric.

Now, I realize that a significant fraction of the American public believes, passionately so, that The New York Times is a liberal rag. That's probably true, in a lot of ways. Having said that, let me invite the reader to consider two pieces from the Times this weekend. Each makes arguments that touch on the future of the Republican Party. Do not, I repeat, do not waste any time as you read this article worrying about the conclusions of Frank Rich or Charles Blow. I realize that they may just be mindless liberals who can't think straight, like good, God-fearing conservatives.

Instead, let's just look at their premises, which are derived from demographics.

Rich writes:

Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

I invite anyone to explain why these premises are not true, and why they are not a concern for the GOP's future.

Blow echoes Rich's premise: there are demographic problems on the horizon for conservatives. As he puts it:

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Wednesday took a look at the Tea Party members and found them to be just as anachronistic to the direction of the country’s demographics as the Republican Party. For instance, they were disproportionately white, evangelical Christian and “less educated ... than the average Joe and Jane Six-Pack.” This at a time when the country is becoming more diverse (some demographers believe that 2010 could be the first year that most children born in the country will be nonwhite), less doctrinally dogmatic, and college enrollment is through the roof. The Tea Party, my friends, is not the future.

Again, I invite anyone to explain why these premises are either incorrect, or else not that big a problem for Republicans.

And, if you've been voting nearly a straight Democratic ticket for some time now, like me*, then ask yourself this: is it really in the country's best interests if one of the two parties in the two-party system has such a protracted, venomous breakdown in civility, in common sense, in effectiveness?

* Since Pat Buchanan's 'culture war' speech at the 1992 Republican presidential convention in Houston.