Saturday, January 31, 2009

SBOE Member Gail Lowe: A Life of Smug Ignorance

Looking back on the recent Texas SBOE foray in their religious war with Darwinian evolution I fell across some audio snippets from the January 19th hearing where “strengths and weaknesses” was voted out of existence, only to be supplanted later on by “sufficiency or insufficiency.”

These snippets can be found here.

I was particularly taken by a brief exchange between creationist board member Gail Lowe and a retired clergyman, John Yeaman. Yeaman testified to the awakening experience he had while taking a geology course when he was in college, and how knowledge of rocks and fossils had enhanced his and his family’s life experiences while visiting the mountains and canyons across the nation.

Mainly, the exchange conveys a sense of smug snarkiness that creationist members of the state school board possess.

It also conveys their wretched ignorance of science.

I transcribed the exchange which appears below.

Yeaman (concluding his 3 minute remarks)…to compete in the twenty-first century, we must prepare and inspire...

McLeroy: Thank you

Yeaman: …all of our youth to open and inquiring minds,

McLeroy: Thank you. Ah, Miss Lowe?

Lowe: I’m sorry I’ll make it brief. When you studied geology did you study about the theory of graduated accumu. . . gradually accumulated geologic columns … you know … that obviously the strata developed over millions of y... did you also learn about polystrate fossils?

Yeaman: Well fossils are in those layers.

Lowe: Did you learn about polystrate fossils?

Yeaman: Not specifically but . . .

Lowe: That would be a really interesting thing for you to . . . to look into

Yeaman: Good.

Lowe: Polystrate fossils

Yeaman: OK, Thank you

Lowe: See how that fits in with the theory of the gradually accumulated geologic columns.

Yeaman: Good, thank you.

Lowe: Welcome.

For those of you still scratching your heads over this exchange, I will translate.

Lowe was illustrating how science cannot explain certain geologic phenomena, but creationism can. She did this by offering the “theory of gradually accumulated geologic column,” a theory that cannot be found in any geology textbook – by that name, anyway – and the observation of polystrate fossils, fossils that are seen by creationists as proof of the occurrence of Noah’s Flood.

The “theory of gradually accumulated geologic column” is a now-discredited theory that is better-known by its more often used name Uniformitarianism. This was a revolutionary geological theory proposed in the early 19th century by natural philosopher Charles Lyell. Before Lyell, sedimentary rocks were all thought to have been deposited by Noah’s Flood, and that theory went by the name Catastrophism.

Lyell’s theory was revolutionary because for the first time a scientist was disputing the idea that Earth is young. Lyell held that sedimentary rocks were all deposited under conditions that exist in the present day, slowly, gradually, and continually.

This would make Earth at least in the millions of years in age.

Polystrate fossils are mostly fossilized tree trunks that are found upright in solid rock, usually within sandstone but sometimes in or near coal deposits. Polystrate fossils are creationists’ proof of Catastrophism in that it would appear that they were deposited all at once in a violent event – like a flood – and may extend through two or more distinct sedimentary layers.

I saw one of these once, in a road cut exposure of Cretaceous deltaic sandstone in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.

Lowe was pointing out that we can’t have it both ways, slow sedimentation and upright fossilized tree trunks.

But as our newly elected President would say, Yes We Can.

The linear thinking that goes part and parcel with being a conservative evangelical does not allow for acceptance of the fact that indeed, we can have it any way we want.

And this is because the “theory of gradually accumulated geologic column” or Uniformitarianism is only one in a great spectrum of sedimentary mechanisms that have occurred.

You see, Lyell was only partly right. Some sedimentary rocks are emplaced by present day processes. Some sedimentary rocks are emplaced by catastrophic floods. Some rocks are emplaced by catastrophic submarine landslides. I would say most of the geologic record, in terms of volume, is a record of successive catastrophic events. I would also say that most of geologic time is spent by slow deposition of intervening fine-grained rocks that we call shale.

And some portion of geologic time is taken not depositing any sediment at all.

But these things are unknown and unknowable by Gail Lowe, one of 15 who will be deciding the fate of science education in the state of Texas. Unknowable because in her world of reactionary religious dogma such thoughts are far too complex.

No, Gail Lowe is doomed to a life of smug ignorance. Texans can only hope that this in turn does not doom our school children to a substandard education in the 21st century – when competition to succeed in life and in careers is becoming truly Darwinian.

More than ever before, Americans are engaged in a global competition for resources, where only the strong – and the educated - will survive.

UPDATE: And now, a little more than 6 months after I put this posting on the blog, Governor Perry has elevated Gail Lowe to chairman of the State Board of Education. Discussed here. God help us all.

Friday, January 30, 2009

You Copy Cat, You Dirty Rat

You stole my mother’s baseball bat.

It makes no sense today, just as it made no sense when I uttered that little ditty when I was a kid.

But it seems completely appropriate to pick up the rock that the RNC hides under and yell it at the top of my lungs.

Not wanting to be outdone, today the RNC elected their own black man to lead them. Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, an African-American, was one of a 4-man ensemble who sought to oust Chairman Mike Duncan, George Bush’s hand picked political hack, who has presided over the most spectacular drubbing at the polls in decades. As balloting progressed today, it became clear that Duncan was losing support and Steele was gaining it.

So he dropped out.

And ironically, it wasn’t until one of the other four dropped out, Ken Blackwell of “Barack the Magic Negro” compilation CD fame, that Steele became the successful winner on the sixth ballot.

Blackwell, arguably the most conservative of the five, pulled out and endorsed Steele, arguably the least conservative.

But Republicans weren’t done for the day in their panoply of mimicry.

Not enough to go and get their own black man, Mike Duncan argued that he was withdrawing because “…obviously the winds of change are blowing.”

Gee, do you think?

And better yet, in Blackwell’s comments he just had to use the “H” word:
“I believe that the next chairman must inspire hope.”
But seriously, this choice signals a rebellion that has been fermenting in the latest batch of Kool-Aid that the party of the Dark Side has been brewing lately. A rebellion that, for all intents and purposes, today threw the right wing evangelicals under the bus.

Steele, in apparent anticipation of the dismay that is sure to spread from one cracker barrel to another, decided to put on the swagger that W left behind when he got on Air Force None for his last flight home, when he included this in his brief remarks after winning the chairmanship:
“We're going to say to friend and foe alike: We want you to be a part of us, we want you to with be with us, and for those who wish to obstruct, get ready to get knocked over.”
In other words, you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.

This is going to be fun.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

“Uh Oh, Lawsuit Time”

The title of this post is the entire text posted by a frequent commenter to FortBendNow. I used it because it is particularly snarky and indicative of the incredibly insensitive nature of those of the far right – of which the commenter is a fine example.

The FortBendNow story, a story that is also making national news, is about the outbreak of Salmonella poisoning over the past 2 years, an outbreak that resulted in over 500 known poisoning cases (known, because who knows how many got sick and simply suffered through it for a day) and directly responsible for eight deaths.

The commenter dryly notes that all of these people, and I assume the surviving relatives of the eight who were killed, will probably want to make some dirty lucre over this by filing big ticket lawsuits against the corporations that caused the outbreak.

Possibly the commenter didn’t get it, or read past the part about how the Georgia-based peanut product food processor detected Salmonella in its own products, but sealed and distributed these tainted products anyway. At least I hope that is the case.

They did this for 2 reasons you know.

They did this because their actuaries probably did a statistical cost analysis and calculated that it would cost the company more to destroy the tainted lots than it would to settle all of the lawsuits that would be filed as a result of becoming sickened – or dying – from consumption of the products.

They did this because the federal agency that is supposed to be watching over these self-interested corporations, the Food and Drug Administration, an agency that is supposed to protecti American citizens from being harmed by their own country’s corporate entities, has been asleep at the wheel for the past eight years.

The pro-business anti-consumer Bush regime had a bad habit of having its watchdog groups simply look the other way when there was a violation of the law.

The end result is just this: there is no accountability any more. There is a complete absence of corporate responsibility today.

The attitude or lack of one, apparently shared by this right wing fanatic.

Should Peanut Corporation of America be sued by any and all persons who were sickened by the corporation’s callous disregard for the health of its customers.

Be sued by the survivors and heirs of the eight souls whose lives were ended with such indifference?

I’ll go this nimrod one better. Should there be state and federal criminal investigations launched to find, try, and punish those who made the decisions to release the tainted food that ended human life? Try them for the crime of murder?

Is the President black?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Republicans: Want Some Mo’?

Well the US House passed the Obama stimulus package – a whopping $819 billion scheme to give our flagging national economy a much-needed shot in the arm.

The idea is to go aggressive and unleash a multi-pronged attack to launch both short-term and long-term projects that will begin to remedy what 8 years of a failed presidency has wreaked on working class Americans.

And in the spirit of bi-partisanship, President Obama met with the House Republicans yesterday to make his case.

And today, in the spirit of political polarization, not one House Republican voted for the stimulus package.


Republicans have not learned the lessons that American voters thought were delivered loudly and clearly last November. Their partisan behaviors before the November election brought out Democrats, moderate Republicans and Independents in droves to send two messages to the GOP: 1) knock it off and get serious -stop it with all the political games, and 2) Republican ideas are now out of favor with a majority of voters in a majority of states from coast to coast.

Or in the words of Barack Obama: “I won.”

But they didn’t get that message, did they?

Instead they delivered their own message to American voters: Sit on it.

But actually, it wasn’t completely unanimous among Republicans. All but 6 Republican congressmen voted against the bill. Those dissenting 6 abstained.

These six were Virginia Brown-Waite (R – FL-5), Jack Kingston (R – GA-1), John Linder (R – GA-7), Joseph Pitts (R – PA-16), Patrick Tiberi (R – OH-12), and Donald Young (R - AK).

My guess is that these 6 are from swing districts.

Democrats know how to be bi-partisan, Republicans apparently do not.

Twenty-seven Democrats voted against their party leader. Twenty-seven Nay votes. My assumption is that these are from the so-called Blue Dogs, the center aisle Democrats who vote with Republicans in funding votes.

Meaning, of course, that no matter what the election outcome in TX-22 last year, my congressional representative would have voted against the stimulus package.

So our work is still not done. Republicans still want some more punishing poll results.

No problem. Democrats can get behind that.

As the economy recovers, as it inevitably will, these Republicans will be labeled as partisan obstructionists, and more will find themselves booted out of office in 2010.

Not to be replaced by Democrats, mind you. Not all of them anyway. Republicans are starting a rebellion in their own party, one that rejects the kind of partisanship that finally ended the reigns of the Two Toms - Craddick and DeLay.

To this end, Pete Olson needs to be placed on notice. This TX-22 freshman congressman has launched his dubious career in elected office by siding with the rabid partisans – Culberson, Poe and the like. With the 2008 bluing of Harris County, and the imminent red to blue flip in Fort Bend, Olson could face a primary challenge by moderate Republicans who want their party to hold on to that seat.

And will definitely face a Democratic opponent.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On Taxing Texans, Tuition, and Fun in the Sunshine State

You have to laugh at the deep chasm that exists between the financial policies of the governor of my home state, California, and the governor of the state that continues its grip on my presence, Texas.

Today, Texas Governor Rick Perry issued his State of the State message to the state legislature, and reversed himself in two key finance areas: taxes and tuition.

Now get this, in 2003 the governor, in foreseeing a budgetary shortfall, urged the newly Republican-dominated legislature to de-regulate college tuition, saying that it would make colleges compete for FTEs (Full Time Equivalents) and drive down college tuition.

And then the opposite happened, and Texas state college tuition went through the roof, causing thousands to have to pull in their belts to afford these crushing fees, or to give up on higher education altogether.

And now, with an almost certain primary challenge by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison coming at him in 2010, who polls in the neighborhood of 60% in Texas as opposed to the governor’s 39%, Perry completely reversed himself and urged the legislature to freeze tuition costs for four years, so that incoming freshmen pay the same rate of tuition every year for four years.

Nice job.

And then there’s the business tax.

Over the howls of conservatives and business leaders, Rick Perry found a way to balance the state budget by instituting a tax on business.

One thing you don’t want to do to Texas conservatives is take away their guns. The other is to raise their taxes.

Businessmen across the state screamed bloody murder and vowed not to let him return to office in 2006, splitting their vote between a former Democrat and a comedian.

So to mollify the very people who voted for Kinky and Grandma in 2006 as a result of this tax, Perry is proposing to increase the gross receipts threshold that small businesses use to get a tax exemption from the state.

A complete reversal. Rick Perry remade himself today.

Contrast that to how California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes to raise revenue for his state’s budget crisis.

He wants to tax fun.

Interesting that California’s number one industry is the entertainment industry, and Schwarzenegger wants to tax it.

Taxes on admission tickets to Disneyland and any old amusement park that applies.

Taxes on a round of golf.

Taxes on concerts.

Taxes on baseball games.

And for some strange reason, he wants to tax fixing things.

Taxes on auto repairs.

Taxes on repairing your washing machine (this ought to boost the sales of Maytags, by the way).

Taxes on shoe repairs.

And he wants to tax Californian hair and fingernails.

That last one is diabolical. With the exception of some of us, hair and fingernail growth is incessant, making a tax on your haircuts and manicures not only unavoidable, but also unremitting.

And here is proof-positive that the Governator has no intention of going back to making blockbuster movies when his term-limited time in office ends.

He wants to tax movie tickets.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Hey GOP: Run Rush Limbaugh for Prexy in 2012

Now it’s a little early for most people to consider who is going to run against President Obama in 2012, but I have a modest proposal.

While Sarah Palin thinks that running for the GOP nomination in 2012 is a great idea, I think it’s safe to say that after her latest set of performances, she is pretty nearly alone in that notion.

And it doesn’t seem like there is any real standout in the party of the Dark Side any more.

But that’s only if you look around at the people in public service. Obviously, there is one real standout guy who represents all that is bad with the conservative base. And that man is none other than Rush Limbaugh.

Rush Limbaugh has become the de facto spokesman for the right wing of the Republican Party, and none other than President Barack Obama has pointed that out.

In a clear shot across the bow of the USS Obama, Limbaugh late last week expressed his sincere wish that Obama would fail. In a Fixed Noise interview with Sean Hannity, Limbaugh said this:

“I am hearing many Republicans say that — well, we want him to succeed and prominent Republicans. Yes, we wanted — they have laid down. They have totally — they're drinking the Kool-Aid, too. So I shamelessly say, no, I want him to fail.”

This has been a little hard for people to take. It is essentially a wish that America’s president fails in his job. And as we have found out over the past 8 years of presidential failure, that can have dire consequences for more than just Obama.

It affects millions.

That being the case, Obama fired back:

“You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.”

This has had its desired effect. It has elevated the inane comment to national attention, and the inane commenter to a national presence.

It has made Rush Limbaugh the leader of the Republican Party.

And wouldn’t you know it, the man bit down hard on that hook. He has accepted Obama’s offer for him to take the leadership of the GOP.

“He's obviously more frightened of me than he is Mitch McConnell. He's more frightened of me, then he is of say, John Boehner, which doesn't say much about our party.”

And there you are. Yes, President Obama fears no one in the Republican Party because there is no one there at his level.

No viable opponent.

Until now. Until today no one thought he had a chance against Obama. And when Republicans point out that they have their own ideas on what should be on a stimulus package, Obama agrees to listen, but pointedly comments about whether those ideas will be included, simply saying “I won.”

But now the GOP has someone who can and will take the reins of their party and put them on a course toward victory in 2012. Someone who, like Obama’s predecessor, isn’t afraid to make an idiot of himself on the national stage.

Someone who President Obama fears.

Rush Limbaugh for Presidential nominee of the Republican Party!

O please, please make it so.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Even Babies Get It

Every once in awhile I get email from my California cousin. My cousin from, you know, one of those blue states that helped to elect President Obama. This email was too good not to share with those six of you who read this blog on a regular basis.

You need to keep on scrolling down to come to the punchline.

Enough said.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Legality of “Baby Commissioners Court” Questioned by Morrison

It’s all here at FortBendNow, and in a related older article at The Chron.

Newly-seated Fort Bend County Commissioner Richard Morrison has instructed his staffers, all formerly serving under Morrison’s predecessor, Republican Tom Stavinoha, not to attend so-called “Baby Commissioners Court” regular Thursday meetings.

These meetings, Morrison says, may be in violation of the Texas’ Open Meetings Act, a law adopted in 1967 and revised in 1973 promotes transparency in state and local government by requiring prior public notice and allowing public attendance of any government meeting with a few notable exceptions.

Chron reporter Zen Zheng, new to the Fort Bend County beat in 2004, reported his amazement when he attended his first Commissioners Court meeting, amazement that the meeting took place so quickly and with little or no discussion of agenda items.
"In my many years of coverage of government meetings in different municipalities and counties for the Chronicle, I had rarely come across one that would be over before the ink in my notepad dried up. Bureaucratic discourses sometimes dragged for hours that they brought me to the verge of dozing off.” (But) “when I went to my first Commissioners Court meeting after I took over the Fort Bend beat 2 1/2 years ago, I was ill-prepared for what I was about to experience. There was little to none discussion on most of the items on the multiple-page meeting agenda …”
This, Morrison reports, is because agenda items for the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting are combed through by the Commissioners’ staffers the Thursday before, as explained by County Attorney Cordes “to provide county staff members with an opportunity to go over the usually lengthy agenda for each Commissioners Court session with an eye toward ‘administrative completeness.’”

This is not what Democratic County Commissioner Grady Prestage recalls.
“Prestage said the meetings began in the mid 1990s, when new state law had been created involving the legal concept of “taking,” or reducing the value of a business through some type of action. Then chaired by the county attorney, the meetings were meant to comb through the Commissioners Court agenda to make sure no action was forthcoming that could be construed to run afoul of the new legislative regulations.”
Continuing, Prestage disclosed that “’it morphed into a meeting to insure that all the information is available so we can make decisions’ efficiently during Tuesday Commissioners Court sessions.”

But now there is a question whether these meetings violate the Open Meetings Act, and whether conducting these meetings opens up the county government to being sued by someone who suffers a loss because of actions that take place behind closed doors at the Thursday meetings.
“…after some controversial decision by the Commissioners Court - such as changing the tax rate - some person or business with significant money at stake could institute legal action and elicit testimony from staff members who attend the Thursday sessions, which might suggest to a court that the Open Meetings Act had been breached. Under such circumstances, action taken in a subsequent open Commissioners Court session conceivably could be voided.”
Now while County Attorney Cordes claims that “that the meetings are conducted in such a way that they don’t violate the Open Meeting Act,” without really giving explanation of what this “way” is I have to wonder it the County Attorney is looking out for the best interests of county taxpayers, or just defending a procedure that allows County Commissioners to spend less time in Court and more time on the Course.

First of all, a meeting of these staffers can be considered as a government body in the strict definition of the Open Meeting Act. From Section 5:
“’Governmental body’ means:
(A) a board, commission, department, committee, or agency within the executive or legislative branch of state government that is directed by one or more elected or appointed members;
Emphasis is mine.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the actions, or perhaps more to the point, the lack of discussion that takes place at the Tuesday Commissioners Court meetings contradict Attorney Cordes’ claims.

From Section 5 E on “Advisory Bodies”:
However, if a governmental body that has established an advisory committee routinely adopts, or “rubber stamps,” the advisory committee’s recommendations, the committee probably will be considered to be a governmental body subject to the Act.
The very fact that a Commissioners Court meeting fairly flies through the lengthy weekly agenda is credible evidence that rubber stamps are in full use by the Commissioners.

Friday, January 23, 2009

It’s a Tie: Jesus 1 Darwin 1

Things seem to have split down the middle in yesterday’s wrangle at the Texas State Board of Education confab in Austin, where it met to vote on amendments to the 3rd draft of Chapter 112 of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills document. That document can be found here.

In what seems to have become a miraculous turn of events, the forces for Jesus and The Creator of the Universe seem to have suffered a setback, as the board voted and rejected two proposed amendments to return the “strengths and weaknesses” clause to the document.

A team of teachers and education experts have worked long and hard to come up with 3 drafts of a proposed document that will set the stage for public school science instruction as well as what actually gets written in science textbooks. In the documents 3rd incarnation, Line 3A was stripped from each and every science discipline included in Chapter 112 of the TEKS.

In the draft currently in force, approved in 1998, this language is found:

“(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to:

(A) analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;”

In the 3rd draft we see this language in the high school document:

(3) Scientific processes. The student uses critical thinking, scientific reasoning and problem solving to make informed decisions. The student is expected to:

(A) analyze and evaluate scientific explanations, using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing;”

Clearly, the phrase “as to their strengths and weaknesses” was deleted. The group deleted this phrase in a nod to the 21st century and the Supreme Court which has already ruled that creationism and intelligent design may not be taught in a science classroom. The “strengths and weaknesses” phrase was seen by the TEKS science committee as one that promotes the teaching of those two proscribed dogmatic ideologies that are nothing less than an attempt to teach religion in public school as science.

And yesterday, in two separate motions, two evangelical members of the school board sought to restore this language to the document.

An attempt that was narrowly defeated twice.

So it will not be part of the Texas science curriculum for students to evaluate Darwin’s theory of natural selection as to whether it adequately explains a known fact – that evolution occurs.

But they had to throw a bone to the vanquished, I think.

In a separate and very narrow challenge to evolutionary theory, the board voted 9 to 6 to include a phrase in the biology curriculum that specifically deals with species evolution.

In the 3rd draft’s section 43 (Biology) Line 7 reads like this:

(7) Science concepts. The student knows evolutionary theory is a scientific explanation for the unity and diversity of life. The student is expected to:

(A) identify how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies including anatomical, molecular, and developmental;

I guess this language was too strong and forceful for board chairman, Republican evangelical dentist Don McLeroy. He wanted the following idea added to water down what appears to be some factual certainty:

“…evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of scientific theories about common ancestry of different species.”

But at least he is getting away from the word “weakness.”

And at least they are being a little more intellectually honest by including this phrase as a direct attack on these scientific disciplines, rather than putting in every section of the document a “strength and weakness” phrase in some sort of attempt at looking even-handed, when an attack on evolutionary theory was the intent all along.

Besides, I always thought that the developmental evidence for the evolution of the phyla, “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” was a little hokey.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Texas School Board Set to Strike a Blow for Jesus

Here in the Bible Belt, in Texas, where people still cling to their guns and their Bibles, we have a religious war brewing.

A Jihad for Jesus, if you will.

The war is set to be fought in the meeting room of the State Board of Education, where 15 school board trustees are getting set to vote on whether to include an infamous phrase in each and every section of the state’s science curriculum.

Specifically, we are talking about the “strengths and weaknesses” clause. One requirement that is in the current curriculum, in examination of scientific theories holds that students should be able to “analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information.”

This clause is cut and pasted into every section of Chapter 112 of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that can be found at the TEA website here.

On its face it appears that the board wants Texas public school students to engage in higher level thinking where they evaluate the validity of scientific theory.

You know, like the Theory of Relativity, or the Kinetic Theory of Matter.

But in reality, the clause is really only meant to be used in one discipline, and really in one theory within that discipline.

Specifically, biology, and the “Theory of Evolution.”

Yes, the clause is there specifically to ensure that students would question the strengths and weaknesses of that theory, even though it is presently included as line 3A in every section of the chapter.

This is a fairly blatant attempt at appearing to be even-handed, even though whenever the clause is debated, only Darwin’s theory comes up.

And not Einstein’s Theories, or Superstring Theory.

Now here is the rub. Even though that clause has been in the TEKS for 10 years now, teachers generally ignore it.

And for good reason. Most science teachers that I am aware of are themselves not equipped to question the validity of scientific theories. This is really the stuff of ivory tower science, not something that can be adequately discussed in K-12 classrooms.

Why then, if teachers are not really qualified to question scientific theories, does the school board think that children are?

The truth is, they aren’t and that is where it gets really interesting. If teachers and students alike cannot make use of “scientific evidence and information” to evaluate a theory’s strengths and weaknesses, who can?

Answer: textbook authors.

See? It’s not about higher level thinking, it is about reading someone else’s evaluation of a theory and memorizing it for later regurgitation. That’s about as low as you go as far as complexity and quality of cognitive domains.

But what is really and truly insidious is that when textbook authors are required to include in their scientific discussion an evaluation of validity, it opens up the possibility of inclusion of analyses and opinions made in the past that have been offered and subsequently rejected.

But without some rather sophisticated knowledge that lies far beyond graduate school, students and some teachers have no way of knowing this.

Knowing, for example, that natural selection had nothing to do with the Cambrian speciation explosion, yet that event is held up as evidence that natural selection is a weak theory because it cannot explain the event.

Knowing, for example that evolution per se is not the theory in question. That “Darwin’s Theory” is not the “Theory of Evolution.” “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution” is a misnomer. Those words are shortened from the title of Darwin’s book “On the Theory of Evolution by Means of Natural Selection.” There is no real argument that evolution has not taken place. Evolution is a biological principle, not a theory. A biological principle simply states what happens. A theory attempts to explain how a phenomenon happens, not whether it does.

So it looks to me like the Texas State Board of Education is getting ready to really downgrade the quality of science education by making outlandish demands of textbook authors to lie, essentially, to young readers.

And quite frankly, this is not a state issue, it is a national one. Publishers have little desire to create multiple versions of a textbook, ones that are individually written to suit the demands of individual states. Texas, as it turns out, is a huge textbook customer so what is written for Texan tastes also get shipped to states with lower textbook demands. So what the Texas Board demands of publishers will have an effect on the quality of science education across the country.

So despite the fact that Bush and the Texas Mafia have made a sudden exit from the national scene, Texas keeps on giving the finger to the nation through its religious reactionary school board.

I am thinking of founding a new national organization: “Americans for the Secession of Texas.”

I bet I can get a pretty big membership list.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Fixed Noise: Is Obama Really President?

Well it didn’t take the crazies down at Fox News any time at all to glom on to the botched up oath that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts delivered to President Obama yesterday, did it?

Fox’s Chris Wallace, forever the constitutional law inept, gets it all wrong again.
“You know, Megan, I have to say, I’m not sure that Barack Obama really is the President of the United States because the oath of office is set in the Constitution and I wasn’t at all convinced that ah, even after he tried to amend it that John Roberts ever got it out straight and that Barack Obama ever said the prescribed words. I suspect that everybody is going to forgive him and allow him to take over as President but I’m not sure that he said what is in the Constitution there.”
Or you can watch his idiotic performance here.

Why is this so idiotic?

If the exact recitation of this oath is the acid test by which the very fact that a person becomes President is based, then this country has never had a valid President. Here is what it says in the Constitution:
“Before he enter on the execution of his office, he shall take the following oath or affirmation:--I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Yet every President since George Washington has added the final phrase, “…so help me God.” And by custom that phrase has even been included in the oath that the Chief Justice utters for the President to repeat. Washington added the phrase voluntarily.

So no President has ever taken the oath of office as set down in the Constitution.

Now as to who administers the oath, the Constitution is silent on that issue. But by convention and custom the task has fallen to the Chief Justice. So in reality, Obama did not have to allow the Chief Justice administer the oath. His wife could have done it (and as it turns out, should have).

And given their recent history that as US Senators, both Obama and Biden voted not to confirm Roberts as Chief Justice, perhaps President Obama should have considered the possibility that Roberts might intentionally create this mar on an otherwise near-perfect ceremony.

Not sayin’ that he did it on purpose. Just sayin’.

No, the only real foul-up in the ceremony was including the “Simple Gifts” quintet in the agenda. Now I really appreciated the big names that were called to perform this American classic, and the likes of John Williams to create the arrangement, but what they did to that otherwise pleasant song is truly a crime.

But that’s not the worst of it. The worst of it is while they were sawing through that abominable arrangement the seconds past noon were ticking and Bush’s term had already officially expired.

Had expired, and we didn’t yet have a President.

Well, actually we did. Since Joe Biden had taken his oath of office before the quintet ground out that atrocity, we did have a President. It was Joe Biden, and he continued to be President for a full four minutes.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pull Your Pants Up

With my television tuned to the all day coverage of inauguration weekend on MSNBC, I was listening to an interview with the new junior senator from Illinois, Roland Burris on this day when we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Burris was addressing all of the young men to straighten out their lives, and at one point actually said this: “pull your pants up.”
This is something a classroom teacher has to say repeatedly, especially when it appears that a young man’s jeans are just about to hit the floor.

So I was quite taken with Burris’ comment, one that I thought was unique until I discovered that he wasn’t actually the first to utter those words.

Barack Obama was.

It was in an MTV interview that Obama gave just before he won the election in answer to this question, posed by Sway:
“I know people have piercings, tattoos. Eric, in particular, is talking about a ban on sagging pants. Do (you) feel like people should be penalized?”
Obama replied:
“Here is my attitude: I think people passing a law against people wearing sagging pants is a waste of time. We should be focused on creating jobs, improving our schools, health care, dealing with the war in Iraq, and anybody, any public official, that is worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there. Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What's wrong with that? Come on. There are some issues that we face, that you don't have to pass a law, but that doesn't mean folks can't have some sense and some respect for other people and, you know, some people might not want to see your underwear — I'm one of them.”
“Brothers should pull up their pants.”

And you know what? If Martin Luther King were alive today, I think that he would be saying the exact same thing.

And not because Six 8 says so, too.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Did You See the “We Are One” Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial Today?

Yeah, I did too. It was an amazing production. And from the lineup of speakers and entertainers, it is apparent that Hollywood is on vacation for a few days.

Here is the list of performers courtesy of Billboard:

Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, Heather Headley, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, John Mellencamp, Usher, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor,, and Stevie Wonder.

I watched it with friends over a late lunch. We were all amazed when Garth Brooks sang three songs, not one of which was either Country or Western,

But the final event really wowed me. Pete Seegar joined this star-studded cast and sang his signature song, all 87 verses of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Well, I exaggerate a little, the Woody Guthrie song doesn’t have 87 verses.

But it very nearly does.

Pete Seegar.

You know, I made the observation to my friends that Pete Seegar was an old man when he became famous in the 60’s when he was an icon in the anti-war movement along with Joan Baez and all of those other old commies that helped to get us out of another unjust and illegal war.

And really, he doesn’t look much different now than he did then.

This coming May 3rd, Pete Seegar will turn 90.

I looked on You Tube to see if anyone had uploaded today’s performance, and all you can find right now is footage of Shakira (naturally) and a video taken from the video phone of some of the event attendees singing along with Pete. So I thought I’d settle with someone’s paean to Pete – they used a cut of the song that was made when Pete Seegar was a much younger man.

When he was about my age.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why Johnny Can’t Calculate Speed

FortBendNow has an interesting article that I just read, twice, about the state of science education in a local Texas school district. As a science teacher myself, I was interested to find out what administrators think about science instruction, and what they think will improve student performance.

Student performance as measured by a statewide science test, the Science portion of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills or TAKS.

A test that has become so discredited that it has been voted out of existence by the state legislature as of 2011.

From FortBendNow:

“Herron noted that while the district has made significant gains on many areas of the TAKS tests in recent years, the science portion of the test is not producing the results that teachers and administrators believe that students are capable of achieving.”

In other words, despite all of its best efforts, Texas’ elementary science instruction endeavors have failed to improve its students’ TAKS Science test scores.

Have you ever seen a TAKS Science test? You can, you know. They released the 2003 to 2006 tests to the public and it is available here.

TAKS Science tests are truly exceptional instruments, and I don’t mean that in a good way. These tests contain some of the most obtuse concepts. You see countless questions that test a student’s knowledge of “The Scientific Method,” a mythical series of steps in scientific inquiry that no one uses out there in the real world.

You see entire series of questions where an existing system, or even one that no longer exists, is analyzed with a wide variety of science applications. Now this sounds really nice but in reality, testing a student’s knowledge of science by requiring a sophisticated analysis of applied sciences goes way beyond what is taught.

Goes way beyond what is in the curriculum.

And this is something that is special to Science TAKS tests. The other tests are far more closely aligned with what is actually taught.

But enough ranting over TAKS. It is going away and like the final exit of the Bush Administration, that day can’t come too soon.

The FortBendNow article also reports the areas that have been targeted by the district audit of its elementary science instruction – areas where improvement can be made.

These areas are:

  • Professional development to build teachers’ science content knowledge.
  • Professional development to build inquiry-based teaching strategies.
  • Professional development to integrate technology into science instruction.
  • Professional development to increase the rigor of science instruction.
  • Enhanced resources for science instruction

Did you get that first one? Science instruction suffers because elementary school teachers don’t know anything about science.

Gee, no kidding.

Not to criticize my colleagues, but should anyone be surprised that a firm grasp of scientific concepts is not number one on the list of things elementary school teachers have? Or number 10?

But wait, there’s more. How many times does it happen that you tend to remember the first thing you learned about something? More often than not really. That’s something you learn when you take a class in the theory of learning. Elementary school teachers have the first crack at unleashing scientific knowledge on eager young minds. And sometimes, not surprisingly, they get it wrong.

I can’t count the number of students that I finally get as they are about to leave public school education who know for a fact that “the sky is blue because it reflects the ocean”.

Someone in elementary school keeps telling the kids this, and I want them to just stop it.

And finally, did you get the second one? Inquiry-based teaching strategies.

Someday someone is going to tell the school boards of this country the truth about inquiry. Yes, studies show that learning improves when the student is engaged in an inquiry-based activity. No one disputes that. Here are the two problems that an inquiry-based lesson has:

Inquiry-based lessons take too long.

For inquiry to occur, a student must be inquisitive.

After you subtract out all of the testing days, all of the days of distractions, that 183-day school year is more like a 120-day year. Given that, which lesson will a teacher opt for, a 2-day inquiry lab where Newton’s 2nd Law is rediscovered, or a 45 minute lab that reconfirms it?

I’ll tell you why the 45-minute lab is the way to go. Many of today’s science students are not very inquisitive. They just aren’t all that curious. What they want to do is to extract from the teacher what it is they are seeing in the lab and write that down quickly so they can get back to playing games on their scientific calculators and texting their friends about what is on the Biology test.

Sorry, but that is what a classroom teacher sees, as opposed to what an Education PhD reveals when they unveil their latest flavor of the day.

So what is the solution? Don't ask me, I'm just a science teacher. But I have a couple of suggestions.

When you stop making it all about the grades and the test scores, when you start respecting teachers again and start paying teachers a living wage that will attract high quality professionals to the classroom, when administrators stop building impediments by embracing false educational myths and flavors of the day, when you do these things you will start to see positive change in student performance.

And America can get back to work building better mousetraps.