Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Money, allegiance, and faith

Someone I know posted a cartoon on social media a couple of days ago.  It had a pissed-off looking old woman on it, and the caption was, "It's 'One Nation Under God," or bite my ass and leave."

I've always been a little mystified about the fervor with which some people demand that those words be in the Pledge of Allegiance.  The same fervor is invoked when anyone mentions taking "In God We Trust" off our currency.  Besides the fact of marginalizing people in this country who are not religious -- a number that by recent polls now amounts to one in five -- these statements also imply that Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other religions who do not worship the Judaeo-Christian god have no place here.

More to the point, however, I've never heard a cogent argument for why those phrases should be part of our statement of allegiance to our country, or on our money.  In the first case, you're expecting people either to recite a statement in public that is, for them, a lie, or else refuse (or at least refuse to say that line) and invite censure.  But even more mystifying is the statement of faith on currency.  What happened to "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) and "Render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar's, and unto God those things that are God's" (Mark 12:17)?  It seems to me a little odd to put a religious statement on something that the bible repeatedly derides as bad.  (Remember "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?")

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Be that as it may, every so often you hear vitriolic attacks launched against people who, like me, would like that language removed, not because we object to other Americans believing in any god they want to, but because the implication that we all have to believe that way is exclusionary.  You can pray anywhere you like; contrary to popular belief, you are free to pray in public schools, as long as (1) those prayers don't interfere with what's going on in the classroom, (2) you're not requiring anyone else to pray along with you, and (3) such prayer is not school-sponsored.  (I'm guessing there's a lot of praying going on immediately prior to my final exam, for example.)  Why the demand that there be public, government-endorsed language that seems to exist only to make a good quarter of American citizens feel that they aren't welcome in their own country?

As more and more people recognize that such statements are not only disrespectful but unnecessary, the people who want to keep them where they are become more and more desperate.  Take, for example, what religious writer Jessilyn Justice had to say last week about her views and those of radio talk show host Paul McGuire. Apparently, Justice and McGuire think we have to keep "In God We Trust" on the dollar bill, because otherwise we're going to initiate the End Times:
Money and spirituality are heavily intertwined, says eschatology professor and prolific author Paul McGuire.

"The world system is a control system that is both spiritual and economic," McGuire said at the Prophecy in the News conference.  "Money is all about captivity, slavery and control.  That is its essential purpose.  It's [sic] essential purpose is not an economic instrument of exchange.  It's about control and the occult and spirituality." 
McGuire points to one of the founding theories of atheism, Darwin's theory of evolution, and Space Odyssey co-author Arthur C. Clarke to connect atheism, money and the occult: Science is magic. To remove God from the money would allow the occult to take over. 
McGuire says the dollar bill is bursting with blatantly occult symbols, meaning the United States economic system is based on magic and sorcery opposed to logic and principles.

"The world system of economics is based on magic and illusion.  It's based on your willingness to believe in it," McGuire said.  "It's about the manipulation and control of the masses. That's what Jesus is talking about when he's talking about Mammon and the world system."... 
The answer?  To keep God in money, McGuire says, which could mean leaving Him on the bills, as well.
Well, first of all, Arthur C. Clarke didn't say "Science is magic," he said, "Magic is science we haven't understood yet," which is kind of the opposite.  And second, I don't think having "In God We Trust" on our currency has had much effect in keeping money from being about manipulation, power, and control.  If that's why the phrase is there, it's not working.

But third, something I've found puzzling is why a lot of the Christians go on and on warning us about preventing the End Times.  You'd think they'd be knocking themselves out to encourage us atheists to do stuff to bring the End Times on, because don't they believe that the first thing that will happen is that all of the holy people will be assumed bodily into heaven?  Meaning that after that, they won't have to deal with all of the annoying people who don't believe exactly like they do?  You'd think they'd be saying, "Go ahead.  Take "One Nation Under God" out of the pledge.  See what happens next.  Ha ha ha."

But they don't.  Most of the stuff I've read is all about making sure that individuals and governments do everything they can to prevent the End Times, which is a little peculiar if you really believe that you're going to get your eternal reward in heaven and all the bad guys are going to get their just deserts.

Almost sounds as if they aren't completely convinced that stuff is true, either.

So the bottom line is, unless you believe in some sort of occult magical significance of the words, there's no good reason to keep statements of religious faith in the Pledge of Allegiance and printed on our money.  But given that McGuire was right about one thing -- this isn't about logic and principles -- I'm expecting that change isn't going to happen any time soon.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The cost of scientific ignorance

Arrogance (n.) -- having or showing the insulting attitude of people who believe they are better, smarter, or more important than other people; exaggerating one's own worth in an overbearing manner.

There.  Just thought I'd clear that up, right at the outset.  Because evidently Jeb Bush needs to consult Webster's before he starts throwing the word around.

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

The subject comes up because of a campaign stop in New Hampshire that the presidential hopeful made earlier this week, in which he brought up the topic of climate change.  He was specifically responding to President Obama's comment that climate change was a national security risk -- something just about every climate scientist in the world would agree with, given its projected effects on sea level, storm intensity, and shifts in rainfall.

Bush, however, disagreed.   "If the president thinks this is the gravest threat to our national security," he told the crowd, "it seems like he would say, 'let's expand LNG (liquefied natural gas) as fast as we can to get it into the hands of higher carbon-intense economies like China and other places. Let's figure out ways to use compressed natural gas for replacing importing diesel fuel, which has a higher carbon footprint,'"

This conveniently ignores the role that methane itself has in climate change.  It is true that natural gas produces less carbon dioxide, both per pound of fuel and per kilowatt-hour of energy, than coal does; however, leaked natural gas from fracking is already outweighing any savings in the carbon budget that would be accrued from switching from coal to gas.  In a paper from last October by Schneising et al., the authors write:
In the past decade, there has been a massive growth in the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of shale gas and tight oil reservoirs to exploit formerly inaccessible or unprofitable energy resources in rock formations with low permeability.  In North America, these unconventional domestic sources of natural gas and oil provide an opportunity to achieve energy self-sufficiency and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when displacing coal as a source of energy in power plants.  However, fugitive [i.e., accidental/unreported] methane emissions in the production process may counter the benefit over coal with respect to climate change and therefore need to be well quantified.  Here we demonstrate that positive methane anomalies associated with the oil and gas industries can be detected from space and that corresponding regional emissions can be constrained using satellite observations... calling immediate climate benefit into question and indicating that current inventories likely underestimate the fugitive emissions.
But then, Bush goes even further, accusing the scientists who have brought such data to light "arrogant:"
Look, first of all, the climate is changing.  I don't think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural.  It's convoluted.  And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you.   It's this intellectual arrogance that now you can't even have a conversation about it.
Governor Bush, let me clarify some of the "convolution" for you; speaking with authority about a topic on which you are an expert is not arrogance.  Arrogance is when you exaggerate your knowledge for the purposes of self-aggrandizement.  (Cf. the above definition.)  And ignoring the evidence, and stating that the science is "unclear" when it is not, is one of two things; if it's done unwittingly, it's called "ignorance;" if it's done deliberately so as to placate voters and tell them what they want to hear even though you know it is untrue, it's called either "pandering" or "lying outright," depending upon how harsh you want to be.

And of course, it is exactly this sort of thinking that is why the House passed a bill last year forbidding scientists to give expert testimony on their own research.  Can't have those arrogant scientists tooting their own horns, dontchaknow.  Gotta make sure we're only taking advice from reg'lar folk.

You know, folk who don't know what they're talking about.

I don't know how we got here, in a place where being knowledgeable about a field makes you arrogant, and being an expert on a topic makes you biased.  The politicians, I think, have largely forgotten that in science we're talking about facts and evidence, not opinions and beliefs.

Put succinctly, stating that the data support a causal connection between fossil fuel use and climate change is not arrogant.

It's simply true.

Thursday, May 21, 2015


One of the most frustrating things about the country I live in is the extent to which money drives policy.

So often, it doesn't matter if you're right; all that matters is whether you have enough cash to sway the people making the decisions.  Questions of justice, fairness, even of truth and falsity, are superseded by whoever can buy the most influence.

Every so often, though, someone will try to change that.  It's an uphill battle, of course.  Trying to reduce the influence of wealthy people is hard, because the people who want things to stay this way are... wealthy.  They've bought themselves into power, and will buy their way into remaining in power if they possibly can.

One of the worst aspects of this is the SLAPP -- strategic lawsuits against public participation.  SLAPPs are suits initiated by rich people or corporations for one reason only; to tie up their less well-heeled opponents in protracted, expensive legal battles.  The ones filing the SLAPP couldn't care less if they win.  Winning isn't the point.

Bankrupting their enemies is.

[image courtesy of photographer Brian Turner and the Wikimedia Commons]

The two most commons sorts of SLAPPs are those filed by industry against environmental organizations, and those by charlatans against their critics.  The cost for the legal feels to defend oneself against a frivolous lawsuit is astronomical, and it's often easier to cave in -- to stop the environmental activism, or withdraw the criticisms, than it is to pursue the defense in the courts.

Dr. Steven Novella, for example, has been dragged for several years through the ordeal of defending himself from a libel suit by Andrew Wakefield, author of the discredited study that linked vaccination to autism.  In spite of the fact that Wakefield's study was withdrawn by The Lancet as "utterly false," and Wakefield's devastating smackdown in 2010 by the British General Medical Board (Wakefield was convicted by the board of three dozen charges, including having acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in his published research), he has still pursued a vindictive lawsuit against Novella, who has been one of his most outspoken critics.  Novella writes:
What I learned when I became the target of a SLAPP suit (that is still ongoing) is that anyone with money can take away your free speech at will. It works like this: if you express an opinion publicly that someone else doesn’t like because it is critical of them, their beliefs, their business, etc. then they can hire a lawyer and send you a cease and desist letter. You are now faced with a dilemma – take down your blog, article, podcast, video, or whatever and allow your free speech to be suppressed, or potentially face tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. 
Except for those few states with effective anti-SLAPP laws (California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and the District of Columbia – Florida just passed one which has not yet gone into effect), if you refuse to remove your free speech and you get sued, then expect to spend large sums of money and years of your life defending your rights. Here’s the thing – even if the case against you has zero merit and no chance of winning in the end, the lawsuit is a financial game of chicken. There is no way to shut the case down early. There is no bar for meritless cases. 
The net effect of this is that if someone has money they can shut down your free speech at will. This, of course, has a chilling effect on free speech that can go way beyond the one instance of speech being targeted.
A similar case is that of Harvard medical researcher Dr. Pieter Cohen and three other scientists who are being sued by Hi-Tech Pharmaceuticals, Inc., for a scholarly paper they wrote regarding a supplement that may contain biologically significant doses of an amphetamine isomer.  Cohen et al. wrote:
Consumers of Acacia rigidula supplements may be exposed to pharmacological dosages of an amphetamine isomer that lacks evidence of safety in humans. The FDA should immediately warn consumers about BMPEA and take aggressive enforcement action to eliminate BMPEA in dietary supplements.
Hi-Tech has sued the researchers for a total of $200 million in compensatory and punitive damages for libel and slander.

Both the environmental and the free speech aspects of this practice are profoundly distressing to me.  The idea that rich corporations are driving our environmental policy and squelching the ability of scientists and writers to criticize, or even bring to light, what is going on, is something that should raise red flags for anyone who values the truth and fair play.  The implications cut deep; even as a blogger, I've had my worries about pissing someone off, and getting sued.  I can't afford the legal fees -- so whether I was in the right or in the wrong, such a lawsuit would have the effect of shutting me down pretty much instantaneously.

There's a hope, though; Representative Blake Farenthold (R-TX) has introduced a bill into congress called the SPEAK FREE Act, which would have the effect of establishing a procedural mechanism for dismissing frivolous lawsuits rather than pursuing them at the expense of the defendants.  The defendant has the right to file a motion showing "that the claim at issue arises from an oral or written statement or other expression by the defendant made in connection with an official proceeding or about a matter of public concern."  It then falls back on the plaintiff to demonstrate that his/her case has merit.  If that cannot be established, the case is summarily dismissed, and the court costs are borne by the plaintiff.

In other words, this acts as an anti-SLAPP law.  It takes nothing away from legitimate libel and slander suits; it simply makes it far harder for wealthy individuals or corporations to pursue frivolous lawsuits that have, as their sole aim, bankrupting the people they're attacking.

I strongly urge you to support this legislation.  You can find out ways to make your voice heard here.

So as disheartening as our Money-Talks system of government can be, here in the United States, it's encouraging that sometimes people stand up.  It happened only a couple of weeks ago, with the unprecedented slapdown of billionaire Harold Hamm, CEO of the petrochemical corporation Continental Resources, Inc.  Hamm had demanded that the University of Oklahoma fire scientists who were researching the connection between hydrofracking and earthquakes, reminding the administrators along the way of the huge amount of financial support he'd given the university.

The effort backfired.  An email from Larry Grillot, Dean of the College of Earth and Energy, was made public, and it said in part, "Mr. Hamm is very upset at some of the earthquake reporting to the point that he would like to see select OGS staff dismissed."  Grillot came down on the side of the scientists, saying, "Foremost for us is academic freedom," and politely told Hamm to shove off.

This announcement was tempered, however, by the passage immediately afterwards of two bills in the Oklahoma state congress that makes it illegal for community governments to ban fracking.  So the news, as always, was a mixed bag.

But the University's stance, and the anti-SLAPP bill, are both important steps toward reducing the influence that money has on policy.  We have a long way to go before our government can be called anything but a plutocracy; but we should all support any movement in the right direction.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Font of knowledge

Punching yet another hole in our sense that humans are at their core a logical, rational species, filmmaker Errol Morris has done an elegant experiment that shows that our perceptions of the truth value of a statement are influenced...

... by what typeface it's set in.

Morris conspired with The New York Times to run a part of David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity that looks at the Earth's likelihood of having its habitability destroyed by an asteroid collision.  (Deutsch's conclusion: not very likely.)  Afterwards, the readers were invited to take a survey entitled, "Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?" which ostensibly measured the degree of pollyanna-ism in the reader, but was really set up to see to what extent readers bought Deutsch's argument that humanity has no real cause to worry.

The variable was the font that the passage was written in.  He used six: Baskerville, Helvetica, Georgia, Comic Sans, Trebuchet, and Computer Modern.

40,000 people responded.  And the results were as fascinating as they were puzzling; Baskerville had a 5-person-out-of-a-thousand edge over the next highest (Helvetica), which may not seem like much, but which statisticians analyzing the experiment have declared is statistically significant.  Cornell University psychologist David Dunning, who helped design the experiment, said:
(The score spread is) small, but it’s about a 1% to 2% difference — 1.5% to be exact, which may seem small but to me is rather large.  You are collecting these data in an uncontrolled environment (who knows, for example just how each person’s computer is rendering each font, how large the font is, is it on an iPad or iPhone, laptop or desktop), are their kids breaking furniture in the background, etc.  So to see any difference is impressive.  Many online marketers would kill for a 2% advantage either in more clicks or more clicks leading to sales.
The whole thing is a little disturbing, frankly -- that our perceptions of the truth are so malleable that they could be influenced by a little thing by what font it's set in.  Morris writes:
Truth is not typeface dependent, but a typeface can subtly influence us to believe that a sentence is true.  Could it swing an election?  Induce us to buy a new dinette set?  Change some of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs?  Indeed, we may be at the mercy of typefaces in ways that we are only dimly beginning to recognize.  An effect — subtle, almost indiscernible, but irrefutably there.
 Morris was interviewed about his experiment, and was asked a particularly trenchant question: When people read this for the first time, how do you hope that will change their own perception of the world?  Morris responded:
I'm not really sure. I'm not even sure what exactly to make of the results, in truth.  Everything I do—everything I write about and everything I make movies about—is about the distance between the world and us.  We think the world is just given to us, that there's no slack in the system, but there is.  Everything I do is about the slack of the system: the difference between reality and our perception of reality.  So in the sense that this essay lets us further reflect on the world around us, and even makes us paranoid about the slack in the system, then I think it's a good and valuable thing.
And I certainly agree.  Anything that makes us aware of our own biases, and the faults in our logic and perceptual systems, is all to the good.  We need to realize how inaccurate our minds are, if for no other reason, to reinforce how important science is as a tool for improving our knowledge.  Science, relying as it does on human minds for data analysis and interpretation, is far from perfect itself; but as a protocol for understanding, it's the best thing we've got.  Without it, we have no way to winnow out the truth from our own flawed assumptions.

So watch for more and more articles and advertisements appearing in Baskerville, because you just know that the media is going to jump on this study.  And I hope that this once and for all stops people from using Comic Sans, because I can't see that font without thinking of Garfield, and heaven knows that's not a good thing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

That rabbit's dynamite!

After dealing in recent posts with such topics as standardized testing, controversies over legislation allowing the teaching of creationism in public school science classes, and the consequences of civil disobedience, I'm sure what you're all thinking is, "Yes, but what about BunnyMan?"

BunnyMan is a cryptid I'd never heard of, that apparently haunts the town of Clifton, Virginia, in Fairfax County.  And according to an article over at Mysterious Universe, we're not talking some gentle, fuzzy little Peter Cottontail, here.  BunnyMan is more like the scary evil rabbit from Donnie Darko.

Author Brent Swancer, who is also the person who four years ago warned us about giant Sky Jellyfish attacking Japan, tells us that sightings of BunnyMan have been going on for over a hundred years.  The whole thing started with the escape in 1904 of two inmates from an insane asylum, Douglas Grifon and Marcus Wallster, in the woods near Clifton.  Wallster was eventually found, hanging from a bridge railing, with a note saying, "You'll never catch me, no matter how hard you try.  Signed, The BunnyMan."  Grifon was never found.  And thus began a century's worth of mysterious deaths and sightings of guys in bunny suits.

You may be laughing by now.  I know I was.  Swancer, however, is entirely serious, and describes numerous encounters with the long-eared lunatic.  And he tells us that this thing is the most foul-tempered rrrrrodent... -- well, let's hear an example or two in his own words:
Two of the most intriguing and bizarre accounts of the Bunny Man surfaced in 1970.  The first incident occurred on October 19, 1970, when an Air Force Academy cadet by the name of Bob Bennett was allegedly with his fiancĂ©e and parked his car on Guinea Road in Burke, Virginia, so that the couple could talk.  It was at this time that they noticed a white figure moving outside of the vehicle.  Moments later, the front window was smashed into a cascade of glass, and an ominous voice warned “You’re on private property and I have your tag number.”  The horrified couple sped away and as they screamed down the road they noticed a small hatchet on the floor of the car.  When questioned later by the police, Bennett would insist that the attacker had been decked out in a full bunny suit, and he told his superiors at the Air Force base the same thing.  As ridiculous as the story sounded, Bennett would continue to insist it was true long after the incident.
Then, later that same year, BunnyMan had another run-in over people trespassing in his private Carrot Patch:
Just two weeks after the Bennett incident, the Bunny Man struck again.  Paul Phillips, a private security guard for a construction company, reported that he had seen a man-sized rabbit in front of a house under construction.  When approached by Phillips, the rabbit was reported to have said “All you people trespass around here. If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to bust you on the head,” after which it started to furiously hack away at the unoccupied house with an axe.  Allegedly, when the startled Phillips went back to his car to get a firearm, the “bunny” swiftly escaped into the woods and disappeared.
Swancer's article is chock-full of other stories about people meeting this buck-toothed bad guy in northeastern Virginia.  In fact, the Colchester Overpass, the site of numerous suicides by hanging, has also been the site of so many appearances that it's supposedly called "BunnyMan Bridge" by locals who don't mind losing any credibility they might have had.

What strikes me about all of this is the proximity of Clifton, Virginia to the CIA Headquarters in Langley.  The two are only separated by twenty miles, as the rabbit hops, which I'm sure can't be a coincidence.  After all, I've watched historical documentaries in which Fox Mulder and Dana Scully found out about all sorts of horrible things the government was involved in, including alien hybridization experiments.  So the next step, evil-wise, would be hybridizing humans with various animals, some of which would inevitably escape and terrorize the countryside.  Just be glad it was BunnyMan.  It could have been WeaselMan, PigeonMan, or, god forbid, HornetMan.

I've been at this blog for five years, and by this time, I thought I'd run into every cryptid in the book; but I have to admit, before yesterday I'd never heard of this guy.  So thanks to Brent Swancer for another example of hard-hitting journalism, uncovering the depredations of a vicious rabbit only a stone's throw from our nation's capital.  I feel safer now.  As Elmer Fudd teaches us, forewarned is forearmed.

Swancer ends his article on a cautionary note:
Who, or what, is the Bunny Man?  Is this a case of a ghost, an unsolved crime, a psycho on the loose, some mystery animal, or merely the delusional human psyche working upon its inner fears to create a phantom construct in the real world in the form of scary stories and myth?  The story of a man-sized bunny running around terrorizing, even murdering, people seems to cross over the line from mystery into preposterousness, but many urban legends doubtlessly have their origins in some grain of truth, so who really knows?  For the case of the Bunny Man, no matter how ludicrous it may sound, it might be a good idea to stay away from the Colchester Overpass at night, just in case.
Of course, he misses one possibility, which is "people impersonating a figure from a local legend to stir up trouble," which I think is the most likely solution.  Given the propensity of pranksters to keep such stories going -- consider the copycat phenomenon in the case of crop circles -- it's no wonder that once BunnyMan started being a thing around Clifton, he continued to be seen over and over again.

Any notoriety is better than obscurity, I suppose.

So that's our hare-raising tale for today.  If you're ever down in Fairfax County, keep your eyes open, especially at night.  You might want to bring some carrots along as a peace offering.  I hear BunnyMan has quite a temper.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Knowing the score

One of the beautiful things about science is that it self-corrects.

If the data don't support the prevailing theory, you double-check the data to make sure you're not misinterpreting it, re-run the experiments to make sure they're well controlled, and then if you get the same results...

... you alter your model.

You have no other option.  Science is a method for understanding the world based upon logic and evidence.  If you accept that as a protocol for knowing the universe, you are dedicating yourself to following where it leads, even if you don't like the conclusions sometimes.

A pity, isn't it, that we can't introduce this approach into other fields?

Like, for example, education.  I'm a hard-core linguistics geek; in fact, my master's degree is in Scandinavian linguistics.  (Yes, I know, I teach biology.  It's a long story.)  So one of the things that galls me about education is the fact that we've known for decades that children learn languages better, more easily, and become more fluent the earlier you start them.  Kids put into language immersion classes in preschool learn a second language nearly as easily as the first, without tedious memorization of vocabulary lists and conjugations.

And when do most school districts begin language classes?  Middle school.  Right around the time kids' brains start getting bad at learning languages.

We don't need no scholarly research, educational leaders seem to be saying.  We've done it this way for years, and it's working just fine.

So with that scientific-method approach to analysis in mind, let's look at a piece of research regarding the current fad -- high-stakes standardized tests, now being used to evaluate not only students, but teachers, schools, and entire school districts.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

Christopher Tienken, associate professor of Education Administration at Seton Hall University, has just published an interesting, and disturbing, paper in the Journal of Scholarship and Practice.  In it, he shows that he can predict how a school population will perform on standardized tests, using only U.S. Census data.

You read that right.  Give Tienken information on demographics, ethnic makeup, socioeconomic status, community size, and so on, he can tell you how the school will do on standardized tests before the students actually take them.  Tienken writes:
In all, our regression models begin with about 18-21 different indicators.  We clean the models and usually end up with 2-4 indicators that demonstrate the greatest predictive power.  Then we enter those indicators into an algorithm that most fourth-graders, with an understanding of order or operations, could construct and calculate. Not complicated stuff.

Our initial work at the 3rd-8th and 11th grade levels in NJ, and grades 3-8 in CT and Iowa have proven fairly accurate.  Our prediction accuracy ranges from 62% to over 80% of districts in a state, depending on the grade level and subject tested.
I hope you recognize how devastating this is to the claim that standardized tests tell you anything worth knowing about teacher competence.  If census data alone predicts student performance, then how are "underperforming" teachers supposed to improve their scores?  Tienken's research implies that poor teachers will suddenly become more competent... if they move to a different district.

Tienken doesn't mince words about the implications of his study:
The findings from these and other studies raise some serious questions about using results from state standardized tests to rank schools or compare them to other schools in terms of standardized test performance.  Our forthcoming results from a series of school level studies at the middle school level produced similar results and raise questions about the appropriateness of using state test results to rank or evaluate teachers or make any potentially life-impacting decisions about educators or children.
Now, Tienken isn't saying that teachers make no difference; we all, I think, can attest to the power of a truly skilled teacher in making a difference to a child's life.  I had three teachers who stand out as having turned the course of my life in some way -- my high school biology and creative writing teachers, and my first-year college calculus teacher.  Each of them engendered in me a passion for learning and a fascination with the topic, such that I looked forward to each and every class and wanted more when I was done.

But the point is, this sort of thing is not measurable with a standardized test.  The real value of truly gifted teachers is their capacity for making learning relevant and engaging, making dry academic subjects come to life.  And whatever standardized tests are measuring -- a point no one, even the policy wonks at the state and federal Departments of Education, seems to be entirely clear on -- they certainly don't measure that.

So teacher evaluation, astonishingly enough, is best done by a competent administrator, who knows the teacher, the subject, and the students, not by some paper-and-pencil exam.  Who'd'a thought.

And it'd be nice if the people in charge would look at Tienken's research, and do a forehead smack, and say, "Wow!  We were wrong!  Better reconsider how we're applying standardized test scores!"  But given that scientific rules of validity and analysis don't seem to apply to education, I have the feeling that the result of Tienken's study will be: nothing.  We will almost certainly keep moving down the same road, letting test scores drive more and more decision-making, up to and including teacher salaries and retention.

Can't let a little thing like facts get in the way of educational reform, after all.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The problem with Seymour

A few months ago, I made the point that the fallacy called appeal to authority is not as simple as it sounds.

On the surface, it's about not trusting authorities and public figures simply because they're well-known names.  You can convince anyone of anything, seemingly, if you append the words "Albert Einstein said so" after your claim; it's the reason I fight every year in my intro neuroscience class with the spurious claim that humans use only 10% of their brains.  You see this idea attributed to Einstein all the time -- although it's unlikely that he ever said such a thing, adding "apocryphal quotes" as another layer of fallacy to this claim, and the claim itself is demonstrably false.

The problem is, of course, there are some areas where Einstein was an expert.  Adding "Einstein said so" to a discussion of general relativity is pretty persuasive, given that relativity has passed every scientific test it's been put through.  But notice the difference; we're not accepting relativity because a respect physicist thought it was true.  Said respected physicist's ideas still had to be vetted, retested, and peer-reviewed.  It's the vindication of his theories that conferred credibility on his name, not the other way around.

The situation becomes even blurrier when you have someone whose work in a particular field starts out valid and evidence-based, and then at some point veers off into wild speculation.  This is the core of the problem with an appeal to authority; someone having one or two right ideas in the past is no insurance against his/her being wildly wrong later.

This is the situation we find ourselves in with Seymour Hersh.  Hersh is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist whose work on exposing the truth about the My Lai Massacre and the torture of prisoners of war by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib was groundbreaking.  His dogged determination to get at the facts, even at the cost of embarrassing the American government and damaging the reputation of the U.S. overseas, earned him a well-deserved name as one of the giants of journalism.

Seymour Hersh [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

The problem is, Hersh seems to have gone badly off the rails lately.  His latest piece, which he's pursuing with the tenacity of a bloodhound, is about the claim that the public version of the death of Osama bin Laden is a complete fabrication -- that the United States had captured bin Laden all the way back in 2006, and with help from the Saudis was using him as leverage against al Qaeda.  When his usefulness began to wane, they had him killed and then faked a raid against his compound in Abbottabad, then made public the story of the brave soldiers who'd risked their lives to take down a wanted terrorist.

The problem is, as is described in more detail in an article in Vox, the claim is supported by little in the way of evidence.  Hersh's two sources admittedly have no direct knowledge of what happened.  The story itself is fraught with self-contradictions and inconsistencies.  And then, to make matters worse, Hersh has recently begun to claim that the United States government has been infiltrated by members of Opus Dei (a Roman Catholic spiritual organization made famous, or infamous, by The DaVinci Code), that the chemical weapons attacks in Syria were "false flags" staged by the Turkish government, and that the U.S. is training Iranian terrorists in Nevada.

None of these, apparently, have any evidential support beyond "an anonymous source told me."  Hersh, seemingly, has slipped from being a hard-hitting investigative reporter to a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist.

He's not backing down, however.  He granted an interview to Slate in which he reiterated everything he's said.  He seems to spend equal time during the interview defending himself without introducing any further facts, and disparaging the interviewer, journalist Isaac Chotiner.  "What difference does it make what the fuck I think about journalism?" Hersh asked Chotiner.  "I don’t think much of the journalism that I see.  If you think I write stories where it is all right to just be good enough, are you kidding?  You think I have a cavalier attitude on throwing stuff out?  Are you kidding?  I am not cavalier about what I do for a living."

And only a moment earlier, when asked a question he didn't like, he said to Chotiner, "Oh poor you, you don’t know anything.  It is amazing you can speak the God’s English."

This is a vivid, and rather sad, example of why a person's reputation isn't sufficient to establish the veracity of their claims.  No one -- including both Albert Einstein and Seymour Hersh -- have the right to rest on their laurels, to expect people to believe something just because they've appended their name to it.

Claims stand or fall on the basis of one thing; the evidence.  And what Hersh has brought forth thus far is of such poor quality that about the only one he's convincing is Alex Jones.