Field of Science

Obama on science

Last year a movement started to push for a debate on science and technology policy. Since that time, we have gone through both republican and democratic primaries yielding John McCain and Barrck Obama as our candidates for the next election. We have also been immersed with issues of faith and god throughout the primaries and most recently for the general election at Saddlebrook in a "debate" run by Rick Warren.

I realize how important it is to many people in this country that our elected leaders have the appropriate belief in magical beings, Jesus walking on water and born of a virgin (no rape on god's part involved of course): REQUIRED; Tooth fairy takes baby tooth from under pillow and replaces it with inflation adjusted coinage (25 cents in the 1970's): UNACCEPTABLE. However, for a minority of us, we want to know how the candidates will approach real life issues with real life policies. Are they in favor of the Roe v Wade decision and how will they approach this issue? How and/or will they take any steps to avoid disasters like Katrina? What I find ironic is that it seems a segment of our society thinks continuous prayer and/or discriminating gays is one good way to prevent Katrina; however, prayer and gay discrimination isnt sufficient to reverse roe v. Wade, for that we need supreme court judges with an agenda.

Anyway, my candidate has responded to the 14 science and technology policy questions submitted to both candidates. Senator McCain has also stated that responses will be submitted. (Always going second, like at Saddleback, does give one an advantage although it begins to look weak). Read through the responses and see what you think.

Science Education in Minnesota: How Ugly is it?

Yesterday came the the press release from the Minnesota Department of Education discussing the recent New Science Assessment. The test was given to 5th graders, 8th graders, and high school students and the results for proficiency (across the state) were 39%, 38%, and 43% respectively. In other words, 6 out of 10 students did not meet the standard. Students were grouped as either DOES NOT MEET STANDARD, PARTIALLY MEETS STANDARD, MEETS STANDARD, or EXCEEDS STANDARD. To me I reclassify them as F, D, C, A respectively. So what does this mean and is it important?

Well damned if I know what it truly means or if it is important in any definitive sense but I have some thoughts that may be relevant.

First, a quick look at the Star Tribune article particularly the comments provides some insights. First, we have the comments of the nature "Since these tests have no effect on the test taker they are invalid." I see, so I expect individuals with these thoughts hate No Child Left Behind and punishments being handed down for poor school performance. I mean the math and reading tests do not impact the test taker directly either. Maybe, just maybe, students aren't lazy fucking pukes like the assholes writing these comments....unless of course these idiots reproduced and their kids are taking the tests.

Second, we have the people who have a political objection with science they don't like (kinda like our president (and republican candidate)). "Global warming and high standards - two myths we can live better without" See if you don't believe in global warming, then if a test has a question on global warming, the entire test is invalid. It doesn't matter what was in the standards, and presumably taught. No, it only matters what you personally believe at home watching FOX news and drinking beer (full disclosure Im drinking a beer right now, Surly's Furious, Mmmmm Mmmmmm good). You know if I am given a test in this country and a question reads Who was the son of god? A. Kukla; B. Fran; C. Olly; D. Jesus. I answer D, because I know that is what I was taught (obviously this would be a sunday school test), this is despite the fact I want to write in E. Are you kidding me? as the answer. Note the focus on some specific aspect of the test and then KABOOM everything is invalid.

While this was the first time this specific test was implemented the Trib article notes the following trend in science in Minnesota: 1995 8th graders ranked #2 world-wide behind Singapore (outstanding MINN!!!); 2000 #2 in the country; 2005 # 5 in the country. Nice downward trend there, but of course that just means the tests are invalid because everyone knows We're #1!, We're #1!, We're #1! There said it 3 times it must be true. Doesnt this seem disconcerting, 3 tests over a 10 year period and continual drops in the scores and now we have 60% of our students are not making what "we" consider the minimum?

Hey Lorax! Why was "we" in quotes like that in the previous sentence?
Glad you asked. In fact, by "we" I mean "not me." The minimum achievement in the current K-12 science standards were implemented under the auspices of Cheri Yecke. Cheri Yecke who came from the Dept. of Education in VA serving under George Allen (R) and Jim Gilmore (R), by way of the edukashun president for a year, before landing in our laps thanks to Tim "wishes to sit on Bush's lap in the Rose Garden" Pawlenty. Yecke left in 2005 (after being booted by the legislature) to fuck up schools in Florida and has since become the Dean of Graduate Programs of Harding University.

Based on that pedigree and a little knowledge, you may think to yourself, I bet she wasn't to keen on evolution. You'ld be right!
Under Yecke's watch our current science standards were developed and finalized. During that process, a number of educators and other citizens work diligently to integrate the needs of students in Minnesota with the basic sciences using National documents, other state documents, and a variety of professional resources all of which were developed by experts with tremendous amounts of experience elitists. These individuals spent many hours away from home work and family without recompense to develop these standards. Once drafted they are sent out for public review, HOWEVER Yecke and company decided to "spell check" the document, and by spell check I mean diminish any reference to evolution without the committee's knowledge. (Got to love to honest approach to life this type of evangelical christian has.) This led to a blow up from the committee and the document was restored. However, the damage was done. We are currently involved in redoing the Minnesota science standards and I am fortunate/cursed enough to be able to serve on that committee. However, all committee members had to agree before hand that we would include the following in the standards: "The student will be able to explain how scientific and technological innovations as well as new evidence can challenge portions of or entire accepted theories and models including but not limited to cell theory, atomic theory, theory of evolution, plate tectonic theory, germ theory of disease and big bang theory." The first part of this was inserted by creationists people with concerns who wanted to ensure evolutionary theory was in some way disparaged. Now the first part of this is true, no question, and it is taught as an integral part of the nature of science. However, it was not included as a mandate to make sure science standards were developed well, simply this was like the stickers on textbooks and statements read in classrooms, an attempt to force a specific biblical story into the classroom as fact. Now the second part of that phrase was the attempt of non-idiots to make sure it was apparent to thus of us who follow that the first part is ridiculous. The truth of the first part is that it is true for every single aspect and theory of science, evolution is not special in this way.

At the end of the day the current standards are pretty good, but there are clear places where someone's personal opinion got forced in. I actually expect this was from a committee member. However, once the floodgates of personal preference almost got rammed in by people not even working on the document, it seems like a natural consequence.

So for the last 8 years we've been teaching our students science using standards that were developed in a sub-optimal setting with what seems to be a far bit of outside malice. But our students did not do well on the science test? I don't get it.

Finally, No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Accountability for schools to make sure they in fact are educating our students. Sounds like a great idea to me (barring the fact that it was developed in large part by those who prefer indoctrination over education). However, maybe we could think about this a little, you know like more than 6 months in advance. First, we want our students to know how to read and do some math (not too much math or election debates might become more difficult). Now if students don't do well in those areas the schools could lose funding....Hmmm, what do you do if you run a school? Is this too hard to see? I have been told by K-12 teachers that administrators have said point-blank social studies and science is gravy if you get to it great but focus on math and reading. Math and reading are essential, but so are science and social studies for different reasons. Not everyone needs a degree in science, but don't call into Rush Limbaugh's show if you don't really know what the fuck an embryo or a stem cell is. Don't worry about someone's position on evolution/intelligent design if you use the C14 is a poor indicator of fossil age argument. Dont complain about the price of gas when you drop $20 on dietary supplements because Oprah thought it was a good idea. If you don't want to have any critical thinking skills, fine but don't be surprised that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that your non-vaccinated autistic kid gets the measles. By the way, speaking of critical thinking my point about what teachers have told me is strictly anecdotal, I could have made that up, like a cross in the sand. Of course, you could simply assume I did and discount my entire argument or you could go talk to a number of teachers in different schools and see what they say.

Ill leave you with this. Don Pascoe the assessment director of Osseo schools say this "Minnesotans are smart. They're going to see the disconnect between the standards set here and things like our ACT scores. There will be an initial bad reaction to the scores, but I think it'll soften quickly when people recognize how high the targets really are." Well is one sense Mr Pascoe is right, Minnesota was the 4th highest ranked state in 2007 for the ACT, but in another sense he's full of shit since only 38% of the Minnesota students taking the test scored as college ready in science (biology specifically, which all students take). Hmm, 38% ready for college, that's in line with the state test scores and kind of contradicts the idea thrown around about how high the science standards are. To contrast, Illinois which ranked 40th in state rankings, had 25% college science readiness. Big difference in college readiness, but every student in Illinois takes the ACT and only those considering going to college take the ACT in Minnesota, so we are dealing with a selected population and expect our scores to be much higher (in fact it looks like they should be much much higher, but they aren't). Anyway, Im sure Mr. Pascoe isnt biased in his opinion I mean Osseo schools scored as 32.4%, 31.9%, and 42.5% at the 5th, 8th, and high school levels, hmm, maybe Minnesotans are smart, but is this guy from here?

Why Im an Atheist, part XVI

So I should be a XXX, YYY, ZZZ, or any other major religion why again? Because it looks to me like individuals are essentially indoctrinated into whatever religious culture is en vogue. Am I wrong here?
I guess more importantly, for those of you who are in the predominant faith of your region (catholicism/protestantism or sunni/shia reflect opposite sides of the same coin in my opinion), why are you what you are as opposed to Buddhist (or Protestant if you happen to be Buddhist)?

If you changed mindset, why? Did this happen without being exposed to your current belief system prior to your change?

Suffice it to say, why do you believe what you believe? for example, I believe in science because it pays dividends, case in point: Moon landing, internet, corn, dogs, life expectancy, birth control, antibiotics, etc.

HT sandwalk

Good Books Gone Bad

I have been meaning to comment on Sharon Moalem's Survival of the Sickest for a while now, but I have been stymied by the real world. In short, I think this book is based on a truly interesting premise, but in presentation does a tremendous disservice to said premise. The idea behind this book is that many of the mutations that cause or predispose people to disease are actually beneficial mutations that were selected for in the distant past. One thing I took away from this book is that while I am a definite adaptionist, Dr. Moalem makes me look like a structuralist.

Now the idea that harmful mutations are really beneficial mutations in a different light is not new nor wrong. In fact the hallmark example for this is likely known to everyone reading this. It is sickle cell anemia. Sickle cell anemia is a blood disorder in which the classic concave red blood cell (the cell that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the cells of our bodies) as shown to the left and taken from here, has a sickle shape to the right. Now this shape in and of itself, is not a bad thing. The problem lies in the fact that these oddly shaped cells cannot move through blood vessels effectively, thus depriving tissues of much need oxygen. This causes lots of problems, not the least of which can be demonstrated as a 30 year decline in life expectancy. In case you were wondering, or need a refresher, sickle cell anemia is cause by a point mutation in the DNA (a single nucleotide change) that leads to a single amino acid substitution in the protein sequence of hemoglobin (by the way, most of a red blood cell is composed of hemoglobin). This mutation, causes hemoglobin sub-units to polymerize into fibers, which distorts the red blood cell, leading to its sickle cell shape.

Holy crap Batman! This sounds bad and should be selected against.

Indeed Robin, however, let's look at where this mutation is most often found. Yes boy wonder, Sub-Saharan Africa. Notice that malaria is prevalent in that area as well. What? You're wondering if there is a link? Damn Boy Wonder is you aren't just the cats meow (and by that I mean smart, yet pathetic). Indeed there is a link! You see, human beings who carry the sickle cell mutation (in other words have a normal copy and a mutant copy) or are homozygous for sickle cell (have 2 mutant copies and 0 normal copies) are more resistant to malaria.

Holy defecation Batman, that rocks! But if sickle cell anemia is bad, what the fuck? I mean that doesn't make sense.

Indeed it does Boy Blunder, I mean Wonder (wonder I don't kick his ass out of the Justice League). However, think about this. Malaria will sicken everyone, but kills children in the less than 5 year old range. Whereas, sickle cell anemia, while debilitating tends to kill 40+ year olds. So, if you live in a malarial invested area, its better for you to have the sickle cell mutation survive childhood, be hawt and reproduce, and die at 40 rather than not having the sickle cell mutation and dying in childhood.

Now while the evidence linking malaria/sickle cell anemia is well established, the scenarios described by Dr. Moalem are weaker. There is the  pubonic plague vs. iron overloading, diabetes and ice age (recent ice age not ancient), high cholesterol (which your blogmaster is dealing with) vs. vitamin D, and the list continues. Now I will not dispute any of the potential claims made by Dr. Moalem, but I will remain highly skeptical primarily because Dr. Moalem does a fantastic job writing to the lay public and an atrocious job writing to a scientist. Phrasology (if I can make up a word) such as "in the prestigous journal..." or the fact that nothing in science is understood until some asshat working on a mouse recapitulates what's been known in yeast and plants for decades (epigenetics).  Pounding the Barbara McClintock was relegated to the back burner mythology because MDs couldn't understand the importance of her work, although she worked alongside other seminal molecular biologists such as Salvador Luria and Max Delbruck, not to mention the fact that Dr. McClintock was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1944. Nope. The value of Dr. McClintock's work was not appreciated until mouse geneticists realized she was right.

Suffice it to say the idea behind the book is outstanding and deserves more intellectual consideration. However, the delivery of the book, after the first 1-2 chapters, reads more like any general woo-meister cook book rather than a scientific analysis. Worth it from the Barnes and Noble bargain bin, but only if you get the 10% member discount.