A goal to strive for

The American education system is a mess — thanks to the right wing cranks, we keep trying to apply free market principles to a process to which they don’t apply. Watching America deal with education is a lot like watching the old USSR trying to cope with competitive economies — that there’s a place for everything does not imply that one strategy is the solution for all problems.

What we ought to do is look at other countries around the world that have successful educational systems, and emulate them (isn’t that a good capitalist value? Steal the ideas that work?). I have a suggestion: Let’s steal Finland’s educational system.

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There’s a brief summary of how they did it. I think the first and most important step was making a decision that education was important.

[Read more...]

Wingers are such post-modernists

I had a strange and twisted conversation with Billy Hallowell, a writer for Glenn Beck’s lunatic site, The Blaze, and and also the creator of that poll we pharyngulated the other day. He was not happy. He was also more than a little obtuse. He has now posted a rather fragmentary and unrepresentative version of the interview on his site.

I had to explain to him more than a few times that these online polls are utterly pointless — they are just exercises in back-patting among the commentariat, where they give themselves a false sense of confidence that they really are the majority with skewed numbers generated from their own ranks, and that all we do is show up and demonstrate that there are other views out there, and their numbers go all wacky. I even told him the situation would play out the same if I were stupid enough to put up a poll, and Beckian microcephalics showed up en masse…I don’t do these open polls because you learn nothing from them.

It’s a measure of their insularity that Hallowell seemed quite shocked that their poll could be shifted around so much; he says I “ignited a mini-firestorm”! My post was a “battle-cry”! No, I casually put up a quick link to a bad poll, as I often do, and suddenly the creators of that poll were distressed to see that they didn’t have the comfortable majority they expected.

He’s now claiming that we were making an “effort to prevent Blaze readers from participating in the Adam and Eve poll”. You naughty, naughty Pharyngulistas. Were you visiting wingnut homes and slapping the mice out of their hands? That wasn’t nice.

He also has a bit of a blind spot.

Whatever happened to making a solid case and fairly proving it? What was the point of these atheists’ time-sucking exploits?

My point exactly. Why is The Blaze substituting a stupid poll for making a solid, substantive case? It’s empty of facts, and is only an opportunity for people to cheer for their side in a complete absence of evidence.

One thing that didn’t really make it into his article, though, was his insistence that everyone had a right to their own opinion and their own beliefs. When we discussed the subject of his poll, I pointed out that there actually is a right answer in it, one that is selected by virtually all intelligent, educated adults who are familiar with the evidence, and it doesn’t jibe with the one his readership selected. He was persistent in his belief that that didn’t matter: there are creation scientists, he said, who disagreed (I explained that any large group of people will have a tiny fringe of crackpots, and that’s who he was talking about), and that surveys show about 40% of Americans believe in creationism (scientific truths aren’t settled by popularity contests), and by golly, his people had a right to believe whatever they wanted.

And of course they do. They have a right to be wrong. We have a right to show that they’re wrong.

People can disagree in their interpretations of the evidence, and I went out of my way to explain that theistic evolutionists, for instance, try to have beliefs that are consonant with the facts, but also add their own peculiar explanations, like the ensoulment of humans, that aren’t contradicted by the facts, but also lack actual evidence supporting them. The literalist interpretation of the book of Genesis, though, is something different: that’s an explanation that ignores the majority of the evidence, and is even contradicted by that evidence. That his readers largely opted for the counterfactual claim is evidence that they are ignorant of the science, or willfully defying the evidence because it does not prop up their ideology.

He was happy at one thing, though. I told him that I had readers who loved exposing stupidity, and his site looked like a rich vein of inanity, so he could expect a few new readers who’d be looking over his nonsense with a critical eye. He just likes the idea of more traffic, I guess. But sure, have fun; the comments to his article are just full of blinkered Christian bigotry and foolishness.

A Y chromosome is worth the same as a Ph.D.

I’m glad I’ve got one, and I’m so proud that my worth is enhanced by my testicles, as this report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows.

The findings are stark: Women earn less at all degree levels, even when they work as much as men. On average, women who work full-time, full-year earn 25 percent less than men, even at similar education levels. At all levels of educational attainment, African Americans and Latinos earn less than Whites.

I have to thank Carl Zimmer for bringing that to my attention — when he isn’t writing about parasites and viruses, he also dabbles in other heartwarming subjects, like this.

(Also on Sb)

I guess I’m going to have to get a new tie

I’ve got a lovely crocoduck tie, but maybe I need a new pigbird tie. Look! Evolution is impossible! It’s like a flying pig!

This is some new awful short video from Answers in Genesis. It’s slick and fast and just babbles rapid-fire lies at the viewer — don’t stop, don’t think, you might catch on to the nonsense!

(Ugh, sorry, but WordPress thinks it is smarter than I am and refuses to let me imbed the video here. You’ll have to watch it at this link.)

It makes precisely two discrete claims that it claims disprove evolution. All you have to do is watch this video and yay, you’re done, you can forget that science stuff and move on to loving Jesus. Here are the arguments:


  1. There is no known observable process by which new genetic information can be added to an organism’s genetic code.

    Except mutations and gene transfer, of course. Oh, hey, they forgot those! That does sort of scuttle their whole point. I’m afraid we do know of observable processes that add measurable, quantitative genetic information to an organism (not to its code, though: that’s stupid. Whoever created this thing is one of those common ignoramuses who can’t tell the difference between a genome and a genetic code). Geneticists have seen this happen: look at copy number variants in humans, for instance, and geneticists have seen novel mutants in flies in which a segment of the genome is duplicated; parents don’t have it, progeny does. We also have evidence from gene families. We have five α globin genes and six β globin genes (some of which are dead pseudogenes), for instance, and they’re clearly derived by duplication and divergence.

    So sorry, guys, this one is simply a lie. I’d be happy to be confronted by a creationist peddling this bit of misinformation, since it is so patently bogus.


  2. Life has never been observed to come from non-life.

    Ooh, better. This claim is literally true and not a flat-out lie. It’s also irrelevant. One of the things you’ll discover as you get deeper and deeper into biology is that it’s chemistry all the way down. There are no vital agents working away inside a cell, adding intelligent guidance: it’s all stoichiometry and reaction kinetics and thermodynamics. In a sense, all life is built of non-life and denying it is like seeing the Lego Millennium Falcon and arguing that it couldn’t possibly be made of little tiny plastic bricks. Yeah, it is.

    But it’s true that we haven’t seen life re-evolving from simple chemicals now, and there’s a good reason for that: this planet is now crawling with life everywhere, and life’s building blocks that form nowadays don’t last long — they’re lunch. We also have only rudimentary ideas of what prebiotic chemicals were reacting in ancient seas, so we can’t even simulate early chemistry in an organism-free test tube, yet. Scientists are busily tinkering, though, and we do have protocols that spontaneously produced complex organic chemicals from inorganic sources, we just haven’t found the formula for a chemical replicator yet.

    But it’s an irrelevant objection, anyway. Nobody has shown me god conjuring people out of mud, either. Creationists have their own problem of demonstrating origins, and they aren’t even trying to puzzle it out — goddidit, they’re done.

The conclusion is, of course, to claim that they have now disproven evolution (they haven’t), and therefore…Jesus. Faulty premises and ludicrous leaps of logic make this one a pathetic foray into addressing evolution. It’s slick, though — maybe they should have used a picture of a greased pig as their header image.

(Also on Sb)