Teaching Evolution

A blog devoted to teaching evolution, both in our schools and in our communities.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Private companies have little incentive to develop a vaccine for AIDS. The research and development costs would be high, and the company that developed the vaccine would immediately become the target of overwhelming worldwide pressure to give it away for free.

I thought the above statement was so obvious that anyone who had ever given it a moment's thought knew it, but apparently when the federal chief of AIDS research said it, it was "an unusually candid admission."

"If we look at the vaccine, HIV vaccine, we're going to have an HIV vaccine. It's not going to be made by a company," Dr. Edmund Tramont said. "They're dropping out like flies because there's no real incentive for them to do it. We have to do it."

What struck me as especially odd here is that the drug companies immediately denounced Tramont's comment. Why? I guess they want people to think they're deeply committed to public health. If instead they'd be honest enough to admit that (like all companies) what they're deeply committed to is their own profits, we could have much more intelligent discussions about the costs of health care.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Worst in Science and Statistics Reporting

Do you remember all the news reports about a CDC study that said it's not unhealthy to be overweight after all? I read a couple of them and sensed immediately that something was up. It was quite clear that the media were overreacting to a few statistically insignificant findings.

That was only the seventh-worst of the many lousy reports tallied in the annual “Dubious Data Awards,” issued by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University. It's a short post, so read the whole thing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Katie Couric, Handcuffs on a 13-year-old, and the Future of Journalism

I don't watch the Today Show and I don't watch the CBS Evening News. The media world is atwitter with rumors that Katie Couric will jump from one to the other. Here's why it shouldn't happen:

I saw about three minutes of the Today Show this morning because I happened to flip to that channel to find out how cold it was outside. Couric was interviewing the parents of a girl who was handcuffed on a school bus and their attorneys. I hadn't heard anything about this case, but I've now had a chance to read a bit about it, and I feel confident of two things:

1. The cop was wrong to handcuff the girl.
2. The girl was not harmed in any serious way.

Ordinarily, this would be a minor story that no national news outlet would carry. But because the school bus had a security camera, that makes it huge news in the eyes of the Today Show. Fine. I really don't care what the Today Show broadcasts.

I do care, though, about fairness to people like the police officer, who, because he was the subject of a national news story will now likely never live down what was, ultimately, a rather minor mistake. And there was nothing fair at all about this interview. Couric gravely intoned that the girl was injured so badly that she had to go to the hospital. Not an ounce of skepticism came from Couric's mouth, even as the home audience was treated to a laughable photograph of the girl's wrists. The parents said they took their daughter to the emergency room, where she was treated for a contusion. Do you know, dear reader, what a contusion is? It's a bruise. The girl's wrists were slightly reddened. If you have fair skin like the girl in question, you can make your own wrists red right now. Just firmly grip your right hand around your left wrist, let go, and you have a contusion. Do you feel the need to go to the emergency room?

So what does this have to do with the future of journalism? The person who sits in the anchor chair at CBS Evening News isn't just a reader of a TelePrompTer. He (or, perhaps soon, she) is the public face of important news events. The next time truly serious news breaks, millions of Americans will turn to the person in the anchor chair at CBS. If that person is Katie Couric, viewers will be hearing about history in the making from the kind of person whose news judgment prevents her from knowing the difference between bruised wrists and police brutality.

Judge Bars 'Intelligent Design' From Pa. Classes

The Dover School Board members who lost at the polls have now lost in court.

Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said. Several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs, he said.

The school board policy, adopted in October 2004, was believed to have been the first of its kind in the nation.

"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy," Jones wrote.

How much money did the school board spend on legal fees? Do you think a school district could find better uses for that money?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds

This is discouraging news, but not for the reason that the Department of Education seems to think.

Three percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated "below basic" literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.

Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believed that the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.

"We're seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it's showing up in our literacy levels," he said.

If college graduates are failing tests at basic literacy, the probelm isn't television or the Internet, the problem is that colleges are handing out diplomas too easily. If the Department of Education really wants to do some good, it will publicly release the information about which colleges graduated these illiterates to publicly shame the schools.

I get angry when I read people blame television and the Internet for the illiteracy of our nation because I spend a lot of time watching television and surfing the Internet. Yet, somehow, I'm able to overcome my use of these mind-deadening devices, and I make my living as a writer. (Obviously, most time people spend on the Internet involves reading and writing, so it's just plain stupid to blame the Internet for low scores on reading tests.)

So how about this as a solution to the problem: Next time the Federal government conducts one of these tests, they announce that the colleges graduating people who can't perform on basic literacy tests will no longer receive federal funding.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mirecki Treated after Roadside Beating

Kansas University professor Paul Mirecki reported that he was beaten up by two guys who made reference to Mirecki's controversial statements. Among those statements are that he planned to teach intelligent design as mythology in an upcoming course. He wrote it would be a “nice slap” in the “big fat face” of fundamentalists.

I hate to speculate like this, but conservative activist John Altevogt has accused Mirecki of making the whole thing up, and, frankly, the details are so sketchy that that seems entirely possible.

The Onion is, of course, on the case.

Hat tip: dhodge.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't.

Is imitation the simplest form of learning? It doesn't seem that way. This piece compares how young children learn to solve a puzzle with how chimpanzees learn to solve the same puzzle. Money quote:

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

ABC, ESPN Join Fox, Turner in NASCAR Television Deal

One of the things I want to do with this blog is debunk some of the common claims we hear in the media that are simply false. A good example is this:

"NFL ratings for 2004 were the only national regular-season network viewer numbers higher than Nascar's, at 9.2 percent of U.S. television homes."

That is, technically, true. It is also completely irrelevant to the rest of the article, which is about why NASCAR is a valuable property for a TV network. Notice how the writer slipped in "regular season"? In NASCAR, everything is considered regular season. So the most-watched program, the Daytona 500, is being compared to, say, a July Braves-Brewers game. If you compared the Daytona 500 to baseball's most-watched program, the World Series, you'd find that many more people watch baseball than auto racing. Same with basketball and the NBA Finals and March Madness.

Yes, NASCAR has a devoted core audience, and if ABC and ESPN have determined that they'll make money off this deal, more power to them. But I'm tired of reading that NASCAR is "the second most popular professional spectator sport in terms of television ratings". It simply isn't. The real order is pro football, the Olympics, Major League Baseball, college football, pro basketball, college basketball, NASCAR.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Hubris of the Humanities

You need TimesSelect to read it, but Nicholas Kristof's op-ed today is very good. He points out that only 13 percent of Americans know what a molecule is, then writes:

But put aside the evolution debate for a moment. It's only a symptom of something much deeper and more serious: a profound illiteracy about science and math as a whole.

One-fifth of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth, instead of the other way around. And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.

The problem isn't just inadequate science (and math) teaching in the schools, however. A larger problem is the arrogance of the liberal arts, the cultural snootiness of, of ... well, of people like me - and probably you.

What do I mean by that? In the U.S. and most of the Western world, it's considered barbaric in educated circles to be unfamiliar with Plato or Monet or Dickens, but quite natural to be oblivious of quarks and chi-squares. A century ago, Einstein published his first paper on relativity - making 1905 as important a milestone for world history as 1066 or 1789 - but relativity has yet to filter into the consciousness of otherwise educated people....

Without some fluency in science and math, we'll simply be left behind in the same way that Ming Dynasty Chinese scholars were. Increasingly, we face public policy issues - avian flu, stem cells - that require some knowledge of scientific methods, yet the present Congress contains 218 lawyers, and just 12 doctors and 3 biologists. In terms of the skills we need for the 21st century, we're Shakespeare-quoting Philistines.

I can't count the number of people I've met who seem almost proud of their ignorance of math and science. It amazes me. I have about as little formal training in math and science as you can get and still be a graduate of the University of Illinois, but I enjoy reading science-related books and learning new things. It's a shame how many educated adults have so little curiosity.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Hooked on the Web?

If you've been reading this blog, you know by now that I really hate it when the news media trivialize science. This article is a good example of that. Addiction is a serious matter. I don't doubt that people who would answer yes to all of these questions have messed up lives, but to take the fact that a lot of people use the Internet all day and conclude that "6 percent to 10 percent of the approximately 189 million Internet users in this country have a dependency that can be as destructive as alcoholism and drug addiction" would be offensive if it weren't so stupid.

You have to wait until the 20th paragraph to learn that "there is little hard science available on Internet addiction." Better for the New York Times to have acknowledged that in the lead paragraph. Better still not to write the article at all.