The Conundrum of the Layman

Brad DeLong quotes a blogger reflecting on the disadvantages of the non-scientist when trying to decide whether to believe a scientific theory:

For Jason Kuznicki says he does not grok relativity:

“I’ve read several books about evolutionary theory, and they seem convincing to me. I’ve read Darwin. I’ve read Gould. I’ve read Dennett. In college, my physical anthropology textbooks made sense to me, although I admit I’ve forgotten their authors’ names. I haven’t read Dawkins, but I suspect I can do without him. I’m already quite convinced.

Now this is not always the case when I read about science. I’ve also read several books about relativity, and I’m not convinced. The stuff just makes no sense to me, and I sort of have to shrug and give up. Where my rational side agrees that evolution is correct, I’m taking relativity on the authority of others. You don’t really want to hear what my rational side says about relativity. It’s too embarrassing.

I strongly suspect that most non-scientists who say otherwise about relativity are either talking out their asses or else have turned relativity into a sort of well-boundaried micro-religion… They can’t explain it, but fie on you if you don’t believe. Now, plenty of people do not, in fact, believe it, and not because it is nonsensical to them, but because they have never tried to understand it — what they’ve heard about it gives them the howling fantods, and they give up before they try.”

Continue reading “The Conundrum of the Layman”

“Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science”

In the news today from PNAS (open access article):

“Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science”:

Explanations for women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields of science often focus on sex discrimination in grant and manuscript reviewing, interviewing, and hiring. Claims that women scientists suffer discrimination in these arenas rest on a set of studies undergirding policies and programs aimed at remediation. More recent and robust empiricism, however, fails to support assertions of discrimination in these domains. To better understand women’s underrepresentation in math-intensive fields and its causes, we reprise claims of discrimination and their evidentiary bases. Based on a review of the past 20 y of data, we suggest that some of these claims are no longer valid and, if uncritically accepted as current causes of women’s lack of progress, can delay or prevent understanding of contemporary determinants of women’s underrepresentation. We conclude that differential gendered outcomes in the real world result from differences in resources attributable to choices, whether free or constrained, and that such choices could be influenced and better informed through education if resources were so directed. Thus, the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing, and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort: Society is engaged in the present in solving problems of the past, rather than in addressing meaningful limitations deterring women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers today. Addressing today’s causes of underrepresentation requires focusing on education and policy changes that will make institutions responsive to differing biological realities of the sexes. Finally, we suggest potential avenues of intervention to increase gender fairness that accord with current, as opposed to historical, findings.

So, instead of forcing overburdened grant reviewers to attend gender sensitivity training sessions, what should we do? The authors put forward some recommendations, which I wholeheartedly endorse:

Gender Equity Committees have suggested adjusting the length of time to work on grants to accommodate child-rearing, no-cost grant extensions, supplements to hire postdocs to maintain momentum during family leave, reduction in teaching responsibilities for women with newborns, grants for retooling after leaves of absence, couples-hiring, and childcare to attend professional meetings. The UC-Berkeley’s “Family Edge” provides high-quality childcare and emergency backup care, summer camps and school break care, and reentry postdocs and instructs committees to ignore family-related gaps in CVs. Research into these strategies is needed to identify which are promising.

Missouri’s zombie creationism bill

More recent creationism news, close to home: the “teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution” bill returns from the dead yet again in the Missouri State Legislature:

The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, superintendents of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues, including biological and chemical evolution. Such educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution.

Legislation that specifically singles out evolution nearly always fails, but even if this bill didn’t fail, I don’t see how creationists think this will help them stop their endless string of court losses. As shown yet again in the recent Freshwater case, teachers enthusiastic about teaching the “scientific weaknesses” of evolution pretty much always end up pitting the mainstream science curriculum against “supplementary material” from religious organizations, which is a legal non-starter.

Yep, this should get you fired

An Ohio 8th-grade creationist science teacher with a habit of branding crosses on his students’ arms has been fired, after a long and tedious process and a lawsuit that cost the school district some big bucks.

The referee who evaluated the case for termination nicely summed up in one sentence (PDF) exactly what you can’t do when you’re a public school science teacher:

…He persisted in his attempts to make eighth grade science what he thought it should be – an examination of accepted scientific curriculum with the discerning eye of Christian Doctrine.

Continue reading “Yep, this should get you fired”

Politics matters…

… as depressing as that may be to hear. Some friends recently described their December trip to India, the first time they’ve visited in years. India’s economy is on fire, unleashing some tremendous pent-up economic demand. What was striking, my friends related, was how strongly India’s economic development is geared toward the future, towards not only catching up with wealthier, more developed nations, but also towards anticipating and meeting economic challenges that loom in the future. This is in stark contrast to the US, which seems, at best, focused on defending the status quo.

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post points us to a speech just given by John Kerry on this very topic. He asks:

Do [we] want a government too limited to have invented the Internet, now a vital part of our commerce and communications? A government too small to give America’s auto industry and all its workers a second chance to fight for their survival? Taxes too low to invest in the research that creates jobs and industries and fills the Treasury with the revenue that educates our children, cures disease, and defends our country?

Critically, Kerry points to our political ossification as our potential Achilles’ heel. While I’m disappointed that Kerry doesn’t offer specific solutions beyond “senators need to learn to work together,” this speech is a must-read for anyone interested in the role of science and tech in our societal health. (Follow the link to Klein’s blog for the whole thing.)

More below the fold to whet your appetite: Continue reading “Politics matters…”