Now What?

So we’ve survived the first week of Trump’s presidency. Have some cake. If you were one of the many people who took part in activism, pat yourself on the back. If you weren’t, it’s not too late to start.

It’s great that everyone’s riled up. And while we’re pumped up and paying attention to government, it might be worth figuring out what our long-term plans should be. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

Gerrymandering reform

In case you forgot, gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative districts to favor one party (see, for instance, this map of Maryland). Gerrymandering is one of the factors pushing divisions between the left and right: Representatives can be attacked for being insufficiently ideologically pure, which pushes them away from the center, and have no real incentive to compromise.

For me, as a Marylander, it means that the Republicans have written me off, and the Democrats take me for granted. I’d like both parties to court my vote, and for the biyearly congressional elections to be a meaningful referendum on Representatives’ job performance.

Electoral College reform

I think everyone agrees that while the Electoral College may have been useful at one time, it’s not the XVIII century anymore. Time to get with the times and implement majority vote.

Since the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution, there’s no way to eliminate it without an amendment, which is difficult. But there’s a hack: each state can pass its own laws about how its Electors vote. And in most states, they have to vote the way a majority of that state’s voters voted, which makes perfect sense. But what if each state had a law saying that its Electors will vote whichever way the entire US voting population voted?

Obviously, people in Massachusetts will be upset if a Republican gets all of their Electoral votes just because he won a majority of the US vote, just as Oklahomans won’t like their Electoral votes going to a Democrat. But this already happens, in effect, in that people get a president they don’t want.

Of course, you don’t want your state to be the only one that apportions its Electors this way. This only makes sense if there are enough states doing this, that they can decide the outcome of the election — that is, if there’s a group of states that adds up to 270 Electoral votes or more.

Thankfully, there’s a project to do exactly that. Contact your state legislators and encourage them to join in.

Ranked voting

This one’s more of a long shot than the others, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. In our current system, you can only vote for one candidate, and whoever gets the most votes wins. This leads to a problem with third-party supporters. In 2000, if you were liberal, maybe you liked Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, could tolerate Democrat Al Gore, and disliked Republican George Bush. So do you vote for Nader, knowing that he can’t win, and that you’re taking away a vote for Gore (and against Bush)? Or do you hold your nose, vote for Gore against Bush, and help confirm the idea that third parties don’t stand a chance?

Under ranked voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, you vote for multiple candidates, ranking them in order of preference. Our hypothetical voter, above, might vote

  1. Ralph Nader
  2. Al Gore
  3. George Bush

meaning “I like Nader, but I’ll settle for Gore.”

Yes, there are problems with ranked voting, and there are situations where it fails. But its problems are rarer and less severe, I believe, than those with our present system.

Campaign finance reform

This is related to the previous item, in that the current systems helps perpetuate a system where only the major players have a chance. If candidates were treated equally, say all given $100 million to make their case, then it would make it more likely that candidates are judged by their experience and policies, rather than their ability to raise money.

On the other hand, there’s a danger that extremist whackjobs might appear reasonable by virtue of being treated as equals with sane-party candidates. But then again, given who’s living in the (Oh So Very) White House right now, we may be past that point already.

While I don’t have a firm opinion on this topic and am open to being educated, I do think the Citizens United SCOTUS decision needs to be overturned. In case you forgot, that’s the one that said that donating money to a campaign is political speech, and since you can’t abridge free speech, you can have unlimited amounts of money pouring into politics.

Education, education, education

This one is fundamental. We need better education, and more of it.

People complain about American jobs being shipped overseas. But most of those are unskilled jobs. It’s never going to be cheaper to hire an American than a Bangladeshi, or a robot. So let’s prepare our population for better jobs.

For starters, we can fund elementary and high schools properly. I’m ashamed for my country every time I hear of a teacher having to buy supplies out of her own pocket. Federal funds can help with this: when I pick up the phone to talk to tech support, I might get someone who went to school in Arkansas or Oregon, so it’s in my benefit to help education in other states.

College is crazy expensive. The University of Maryland, a state university, estimates that it’ll cost $25,000 per year to send your child there. $47,000 if you’re not a Maryland resident. That’s mortgage-level expensive.

Why can’t we bring the costs down? One simple approach would be an education tax. Raise taxes on everyone by a bit, and bring tuition costs down a lot for those going to college. This would have all sorts of knock-on effects: more people getting educated; more people inventing new things, or writing books, or starting businesses; more people making a better living; more people hiring other people.

And I think that’ll do it for now.

Learning to Learn

The Aug. 29, 2011 episode of 60-Second Science talks about a finding that drawing helps scientists develop their ideas.

I can’t say I’m terribly surprised at this. Drawing seems to me to be more concrete than speech (or raw thought). Just as a simple example, I can say “two circles”, or I can draw two circles. If I draw two circles, rather than just talking about them, I must necessarily place them next to each other, or one above the other; close together or far apart; of equal or different sizes; and so on. Depending what the circles represent, these small choices might matter, and force me to think about some aspect of the problem.

Chabris and Simon’s The Invisible Gorilla describes something similar: pick some object that you know well — the example they use is that of a bicycle — and draw a diagram of it. No need for artistic verisimilitude, just try to get all the important parts and how they relate to each other. Now, compare your drawing to the real thing. Are the pedals attached to the frame? Do the pedals go through the chain? Is the chain attached to both wheels, by any chance? According to the authors, a lot of people make glaring mistakes. I think it’s because, while people know how to use a bicycle (or a stove, or a TV set), we rarely if ever need to think about the way the parts have to fit together to actually work.

Which brings me to my own field:

It has often been said that a person does not really understand something until after teaching it to someone else. Actually a person does not really understand something until after teaching it to a computer, i.e., expressing it as an algorithm.

— Donald E. Knuth, in American Scientist:61(6), 1973, quoted here

What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that’s really the essence of programming. By the time you’ve sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you’ve learned something about it yourself.

— Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Computers have a nasty habit of doing exactly what you tell them, and only what you tell them (or at least they did back when I learned programming; since then, they’ve occasionally attempted to be helpful, which usually means they’re not even doing what you tell them). This means that to write any kind of program, you have to think about absolutely every step, and make decisions about everything. And the machine isn’t at all shy about letting you know that YOU GOT IT WRONG HAHAHAHA LOSER!, although it usually lets you know through a cryptic error message like segmentation fault (core dumped) or dropping your Venus probe into the Atlantic.

But in most disciplines, we are not so lucky to have such stupid students, or to receive the kind of feedback that programmers do, so we need to resort to other methods.

Explaining things to someone else helps, probably because it forces you to explicitly state a lot of the things that you can just gloss over when you’re thinking about it. John Cleese has talked about the importance of test audiences in improving movies: they’ll tell you about all sorts of problems with the film that you never would have noticed otherwise. One of the cornerstones of science is peer-review, which basically means that you throw your ideas out there and let your colleagues and rivals take pot-shots at them. And the study I mentioned at the the top of this post says that it helps to draw pictures of what you’re thinking about.

It seems to me that the common element is looking at every aspect of a design, the better to try and make its flaws evident. The human brain is a remarkable organ, but it’s also very good at rationalizing, at overlooking details, at making connections that aren’t there, and the like.

But the good news is that we do have techniques like doodling, explaining, soliciting feedback, and so on. And that suggests that we can learn to think better. Genius may not be something innate, something bestowed by whichever Fates decided your genetic makeup, but rather something that you can learn over time and improve through practice, like playing piano or baking a soufflé.

I hope this is the case. It would mean that our children can be better than we are, and there’s something we can do about it. Heck, it would mean that we can improve ourselves.

About that Abstinence-Only Study…

In case you missed it, a study was recently published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine showing that abstinence-only sex ed programs were more effective than others at getting young people to hold off having sex. Or at least that’s the message you probably got from the news.

Ed Yong points us at a post by Petra Boynton explaining why the paper’s real conclusions aren’t quite the same.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the paper, and the library only has the January issue, so I can’t check Boynton’s assertions. But nothing in her article jumps out as strange. Basically, student volunteers were split up into four groups; each group got a series of 8-12 one-hour sessions on Saturdays. One group focused on abstinence, another on condoms, a third combined abstinence and condom use, and a fourth just covered health issues in general. This last group served as a control. The study found that students in the abstinence-only group were more likely than the other three groups to have put off having sex.

As with any study, there are problems and potential problems. For one thing, these students were volunteers (and presumably they participated with their parents’ approval). So presumably they take sex ed seriously enough to take time out on Saturday to do something about it, and their parents support them in this. Thus, they may not be representative of the general population.

Secondly, the results were all self-reported. So there are various potential biases like people lying, or misremembering, or just wanting to please the researcher by giving the “right” answer.

But the biggest “however” lies in the description of the “abstinence-only program”:

Abstinence information only
Focused on abstinence (not having sex) to “eliminate the risk of pregnancy and STIs including HIV. It was designed to (1) increase HIV/STI knowledge, (2) strengthen behavioural beliefs supporting abstinence including the belief that abstinence can prevent pregnancy, STIs and HIV, and that abstinence can foster attainment of future goals and (3) increase skills to negotiate abstinence and reduce pressure to have sex. It was not designed to meet federal criteria for abstinence-only programs. For instance, the target behaviour was abstaining from vaginal, anal or oral intercourse until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the consequences of sex. The intervention did not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone. The training and curriculum manual explicitly instructed the facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected”

In short, this program was something like “Of course you want to have sex, and that’s great. But it’s easier to go through college and get the job you want if you don’t have a baby to take care of. Here are some ways to resist people who are pressuring you into sex.”

Whereas the that the wingnuts have been pushing have been closer to “If you have sex before you’re married, you’ll make Baby Jesus cry and he’ll send you to hell. Using a condom won’t help you, because they don’t work.” Not quite the same thing.

Having said this, I’m still surprised that “abstinence-only” beat out “comprehensive”.

Another question I have is addressed neither by the study nor Dr. Boynton, and concerns the ultimate effects of the programs.

The reason we want to teach sex ed to young people is not that sex is evil or that abstinence is a good thing in and of itself. Rather, it’s because we don’t want them to catch a disease, or wind up supporting a child before they’re ready.

Other studies have found that with Jesus- and fear-based abstinence-only programs, students will put off sex for a teensy bit, but that when they do have sex, they’re far less likely to be safe about it. I’d be interested in seeing what works best as far as avoiding undesirable consequences.

Fundamentalist Education

Over at Pharyngula, PZ presents this appalling video:

and points out

The really awful pedagogy. Over and over again, the creationist says some stock phrase and then pauses, waiting for his kids to fill in the missing word. This is simply demanding rote learning. Similarly, he leads the kids in asking a good question — “how do you know?” — while training them to ignore any answers. Right there on the wall is a description of radiometric dating methods, for instance, and they turn their back on it.

This seems to be of a piece with other fundamentalist traits. The oft-repeated assertion that morality and human rights come from God. Appeals to the Bible. Attempts to disprove evolution by discrediting Charles Darwin (or Richard Dawkins, or PZ Myers, or whoever’s the antichrist this week).

Continue reading “Fundamentalist Education”

Crippling Brains for Jesus

Does anyone need more proof that Ron McLeroy, the newly-appointed Texas State Board of Education Chairman, is a superstitious asshat who’s out to cripple the state’s education system? Here’s what he told his church in 2005:

“Whether you’re a progressive creationist, recent creationist, young-Earth, old-Earth, it’s all in the tent of intelligent design,” McLeroy said. “And intelligent design here at Grace Bible Church is actually a smaller tent than you would have in the intelligent design movement as a whole, because we are all Biblical literalists…. So because it’s a bigger tent, just don’t waste our time arguing with each other about…all of the side issues.”

“Modern science today,” McLeroy complained, “is totally based on naturalism,” thus “it is the naturalistic base that is [our] target.”

What’s frightening is that this assclown is in charge of education in Texas. And as bad as that is, the effect of his militant ignorance won’t be confined to one state: Texas is the second-largest market for school textbooks (after California). This means that publishers will tone down the science in their books if they think it’ll make them more likely to sell in Texas.

Maybe we need a new rule: that someone in charge of X must not be ideologically committed to destroying X.

(HT Texas ObserverTexas Freedom NetworkAmericans United)

Criminally Incompetent Teachers

Over at Kent Hovind’s Whinery, I ran across this comment:

I am a high school science teacher. So far I have been able to teach creation science a couple years without being stopped by administration. I spend as much time if not more teaching creation science as I do going thru the textbook they make me use. Of course, I skip all the chapters with evolution. I use Dr. Hovind’s seminar notebook and his book Are You Being Brainwashed. In a couple weeks I will be going at it again. I pray I can continue to do the same as I have been.

Hopefully, this guy is just lying, and has made the whole thing up. Because if not, that means he’s not just failing to teach the kids science, he’s teaching them antiscience, filling their heads with nonsense that has to be unlearned before they can be properly taught. He’s skipping important parts of the curriculum. He’s bringing in “teaching” materials by a wackjob so far out there that even other young-earth creationists have asked him to stop. And if this has really been going on for years, we have to consider the possibility that the school administration knows about his activities, but is turning a blind eye to them.

How would one go about subpoenaing’s httpd logs to see where this clown posted from, to see whether any of it is true?