Monday, January 31, 2011

When Education Doesn't Help

Over a Fox "news", they now have a video up of Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren, pointing out that those that deny climate change are in need of some education.

In reality, climate change and global warming is entirely a scientific question. We can collect data, compare it to models, make testable predictions, and everything else that is done in science. And as Holdren points out, the conclusions are in; overwhelmingly, we know the climate is changing and we're a big part of that, not the sun, not natural cycles here on Earth.

But while this should be a question of scientific merits, it's not been and I thin Holdren fails to recognize it. Look at the section in which Fox listed this clip: They don't list it as science. They list it as "politics". And to go further, Fox poisons the well from the get go, calling Holdren a "Czar", likening him to a dictator.

This is all too familiar. It's the exact same tactic that the ID/Creationist camp has been trying to take with their anti-science; remove the science and make it about "worldviews", or "academic freedom". Sadly, this is a very strong strategy for them. Especially so when you have a large portion of the population from which they're drawing their support not only being anti-science, but anti-intellectual. Reading through the comments is exceptionally depressing. It's a long list of people calling schools "indoctrination".

As a teacher, I can easily say the exact opposite is true, and that's part of the reason I have problems with the current movement in educational circles. Presently, we're obsessing over trying to teach students critical thinking, especially in science. There's so much emphasis on that process (which is the opposite of indoctrination), that we're losing out on passing along the basic facts on which all higher order thinking rests, that students may be able to follow the process, but they completely lack the knowledge base from which to even ask an intelligent question to solve. All we're giving them is confusion.

So what we have is a bunch of uneducated anti-intellectuals who sneer at the facts and treat them as negotiable, "political" points, or dueling "worldviews". They're not. But until we get these clowns to accept that, there's no amount of education in the world that can change their minds.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Evens or Odds

When taking over some new classes this semester, my new students were quite upset when I told them how I managed homework. Their previous teacher assigned only even problems from their book. In most books today, the evens are the students favorite because they have answers in the back of the book so they can "check" their answers. Or, if they can't quite figure out the answer, they can look and try to reverse engineer it.

I don't particularly mind this. Checking the answer lets you know if you made a mistake and, if you did, you get practice finding mistakes as well as correcting them. Reverse engineering problems makes flexible thinkers who can view math as a set of tools that goes two ways instead of a strict linear process that can only be applied one way in one situation.

Still, I don't like students to rely on this too much. They argue that homework is still learning (which it is) so they should have as much help on it as humanly possible. I remind them that they already have a pretty phenomenal amount of resources available to them: They have my lecture (from which I hope they took notes), the book complete with examples that are exactly the same with swapped out numbers, and in many cases, each other. So I don't feel too much pressure to give them all even numbers.

So on this first homework assignment I gave a mix of odds and evens. Some they could "check". Some they couldn't.

In general, I found two common patterns for mistakes. The first was simply not reading the instructions. When it asks how many solutions a set of linear equations has, that question needs to be answered. Don't just draw the graph and leave me to do the rest of your thinking by seeing it only has one, or none, or an infinite number.

The second common mistake was (oddly enough) only on even problems. It was students having the answer to the next even problem. They'd written the problem right, gone through some algebra voodoo magic, and then amazingly arrived at the answer for the next problem. The only way I can explain this is that they did what they felt was enough work to arrive at the answer, "checked" it, wrote down the book's answer but because the answers are all squished together in the back, wrote down the wrong line.

So much for actually "checking" anything or taking that solution and reverse engineering it to meet your work. I'll be sticking to the evens now.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another reason to keep religion out of marriage laws

According to the pope, the denial of marriages isn't reserved for gays. The Catholic Church is now wanting to exert its authority over straight marriages. According to him, even when it comes to straight marriages, "No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony".

That's right. To the Catholic Church, getting married isn't a right. It's a privilege that they should get to bestow as they see fit. Fortunately, America has kept such nonsense out of our laws when it comes to straights, but hypocritically uses religious reasoning to prohibit gay marriages. Living in a country by secular laws, there is no excuse for this.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Just as Valid

Given the recent hubbub over the Zodiac getting a shot of realism, of course, it was ripe for parody from the Onion. Let's take a look at mine.
Libra Sept 23 - Oct 23
Wait, if an existing constellation has that great an effect on one's destiny, then why didn't anyone make a fuss about Eris, Sedna, and Quaoar, the planet-sized objects in the Kuiper belt?
Good question. Oh but wait.... that's my old sign. Fortunately, taking a look at Sagittarius' forecast tells me how I should deal with change:
Just keep repeating: No matter what, you are still a Sagittarius. You are still a Sagittarius. You are still a Sagittarius.
These are about as accurate as any "real" horoscope, but infinitely more intelligent.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Isn't that a bit backwards?

So I'm preparing the new intro for the talk I'll be giving next week at Illinois University. In it, I'm quickly discussing where the motivation for the talk came from (combating bad science) and demonstrating particular failures of public understanding.

Of course this means I'm looking over the Science and Engineering Indicators from this most recent year. In it, it lists the general "prestige" with which the public views various professions. Although Americans don't do very well on understanding science (but not much worse than most other nations except on some important issues), they generally rank Scientists as having a very prestigious career. The only one that beats it (by a mere 1%) is firefighters.

Meanwhile, down near the bottom, we find "actors". So can someone explain to me why the public isn't dying to see "Science Tonight" instead of "Entertainment Tonight"?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sign of the Times

As noted over at Bad Astronomy, today's been a big wakeup call for Astrology nuts. Apparently the word got out that, due to Earth's precession, the "signs" astrologers have been peddling are off. Astronomers have known this and pointed this out for a long time.

Meanwhile, the word has also gotten out that there's a 13th constellation in the zodiac (the collection of constellations through which the ecliptic, or the Sun's path, passes). It's Ophiuchus. I popped on Twitter to see what the BA was saying and looked at the comments in which "Ophiuchus" appeared. Apparently people are freaking out that their signs changed and now their tattoos are wrong.

But never fear! The Astrologers have a nice explanation for why it doesn't matter. According to ZodiacLife, "Ophiuchus would only apply to those born since its appearance in 2009."


So here's this funny thing. Astronomers get excited when a supernova, not even visible to the naked eye appears in a relatively nearby galaxy, or when something suddenly brightens that was unexpected. You'd think that an entire freaking constellation appearing with several stars visible to the naked eye would have the astronomical community freaking out. Like to the extent that they'd maybe even get a front page headline or something. And not just them. It would require the violation of all sorts of physical laws to suddenly *poof* at least a dozen solar masses worth of matter into existence. Physicists would be flipping out too.

In reality, Ophiuchus has always been there.

So ZodiacLife clarifies: "There is no previous record of the Sun passing thru this sign until 2009."


Actually, there is. It does it every year. The path of the Sun on the sky is called the ecliptic, and unless the Earth's orbit suddenly changes, that path isn't changing.

And it's not just ZodiacLife spouting this junk. Every "official" astrologer seems to be echoing the same lines. This shows just how little Astrologers really know about Astronomy. And obviously the public knows even less.

Really, I don't expect people to be able to define the ecliptic or be able to have a ready mental picture of 2D projections inside a sphere of a 3D solar system that could quickly show how much nonsense things like this are, but here's the thing: If you're going to start following something so closely that you make major life choices based on it, knowing the basics should be a prerequisite. This is why I spend so much of my free time working to promote critical thinking and science literacy.