Able was I

Two plane trips, two trains, one bus, one boat, one cab, and 30 hour without sleep, and it was all worth it. I’m currently on the island of Elba, off the west coast of Italy. The BaBar collaboration is meeting here, perhaps for the last time in this locale, to get ready for the summer conference cycle. A lot of us are here, catching up on data, computing, analysis . . . you name it. Jodi is playing “physics wife” this week (as I played “physics husband” last year at the Fermilab dark matter symposium), working a little and reading on the beach. Meetings go all morning, with a four hour break in the afternoon, followed by meetings until 7:30, then dinner.

I’ll write more as I can.

Senate Language on the Science Supplemental

The tumultuous Iraq War Supplemental lumbers forward [1]. Despite the President’s threat to veto the bill if it contains domestic spending, about half the Senate Republicans voted to include domestic spending in the bill. Whew. This one gets thicker every day.

The AIP has highlighted the money proposed for NSF ($150 million) and DOE ($100 million) research. The specific language on the DOE follows [2]:

The Committee is aware that the final fiscal year 2008 appropriation was essentially flat with fiscal year 2007 in many areas of the Science budget. The result of flat funding shows up in reduced hours of operation of equipment and facilities, reduced service to users, staff layoffs, reductions to education and training programs, and other negative impacts. This increase to fiscal year 2008 funding will restore the jobs of 10 to 30 people who were terminated and prevent the reduction of 200 additional employees. Specifically, $55,000,000 is for Fusion Energy Sciences and $45,000,000 is for High Energy Physics.”

Here is the Chicago Tribune’s story on Fermilab and Argonne’s perspectives: [3].

[1] http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080522/ap_on_go_co/congress_iraq_funding

[2] http://www.aip.org/fyi/2008/057.html

[3] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-labs-saved-bill_web_23may23,0,6020439.story

A Life of Inquiry: Academic Freedom Redux

It’s easy to forget that until the famous case in Dover, PA in 2006, the Discovery Institute and its passionate fight for the right to have intelligent design taught alongside evolution was succeeding in a number of test cases. The wedge strategy, a strategy to make intelligent design an equal to evolution in the mind of the public, rested on three principles. First, legitimization of I.D. through scientific writing and publicity. Second, the shaping of public opinion to make social equality for ideas like I.D. Third, cultural confrontation and renewal (shudder).

The first step has been going on for a while. Things stalled a bit, thanks to the Dover case, in the second step. There was a public outcry in the Dover school system, bringing neighbor into conflict with neighbor, over the idea of biology teachers being required to read a statement to their class saying that evolution is only a theory, not a fact, and it has many flaws which mandate the exploration of alternative ideas, such as intelligent design.

As I have become exposed to these situations more and more, my thinking has certainly changed. Three years ago, I would have opposed the whole business of I.D. on the basis of its scientific infancy, an idea deserving zero time in the classroom since it had never made a single testable prediction. While this is still true – proponents of I.D. seem to spend most of their time noting flaws in evolution without offering alternative predictions based on I.D. – I see the value of having I.D. in the classroom. Not the science classroom, but in current events, special topics in social studies, and even a comparative religion or philosophy class. Ideas that propose an unnamed external force with seemingly supernatural abilities, capable of leaving behind evidence of itself in nifty chemical structures, seem best relegated to the realm of cultural discussion or science fiction. But science? Give me something testable, I say.

The wedge strategy has not gone away. Dissuaded from the approach of bypassing the normal scientific process and going straight into U.S. classrooms and school boards, the Discovery Institute has now turned its attention to bypassing the scientific process and instead amending the law. If you cannot work within the law, as Dover noted, go above it by changing it, I guess. That’s democracy. And it worries me.

Let me give a specific example. Legislatures in Michigan, Missouri, and Lousiana are pursuing laws that purport to expand the academic freedom of teachers, encouraging them to point out flaws in evolution, climate change, human cloning, and other topics. The buzz over these laws has intensified with the release of Ben Stein’s “Michael Moore’esque” documentary called “Expelled,” which explores the stories of academics “expelled” from their communities for pursuing intelligent design.

According to the article referenced above, the bill in Lousiana says,

. . . the state board of education “shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators” to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and objectively review scientific theories being studied,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” A teacher would be allowed to “use supplemental textbooks” in addition to the textbooks in use. In addition, the bill says it “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine.”

The Michigan bill

 . . . would allow teachers to help students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”

Both are pretty vague, and intentionally so, I suppose. It seems like a good idea, until you really stop and ask just whose academic freedom has, until now, been limited? If a teacher wants to pursue special topics in society and science, I see no reason that they should take flak for it. Maybe that’s what’s happened, though I doubt it’s systemic. I’d wager that most of the cases where teachers have gotten in trouble are like Dover, where teachers or board members made incriminating statements tying their own religious faith to dislike of a powerful scientific theory. I have no trouble with science teachers, or other teachers, working these current topics in society into the curriculum; that is, assuming they’re covering all the things the students will actually need to understand the natural world.

It all sounds innocuous. But the Republican in me looks as this and thinks, “The danger of introducing a law so specific in its scope, which doesn’t solve a widespread existing problem, invites abuse in the name of the law.” I look at needless laws like this as the government telling teachers how they should do the job of explaining that science is an evolving process, by listing specific ways in which they are to do this. I look at laws like this, well-intentioned, as adding a new part to an already complicated legal framework, which invited abuse in the name of executing the law.As for academic freedom, I’ve written on my thoughts about academic freedom before. They are still relevant to my current thinking, so I’ll repeat them here:

It is central to academia to be able to ask questions without fear of retribution. But with inquiry you must accept criticism. This is part of the rigor of peer review that vets different ideas, and spurs innovative experimentation to test the original idea. However, with the liberty to question comes the responsibility to act. Any scientist who spends a life asking questions but never working to answer them is wasting somebody’s money. They are no scientist. They are a philosopher. Do not confuse such people, no matter how many PhD’s they sport, with scientists. A real scientist daily struggles to inquire and to answer. A real scientific theory makes predictions, testable with repeatable experiments. That’s real science. Any academic who engages purely in the advancement of an untestable idea deserves neither pay nor respect as a scientist. Let them pursue tenure in a different field.  [2]

Keep an eye on this new approach to executing the wedge strategy. Remember a few things. Scientists who claim to be pursing I.D. as a scientific theory seem to have a very hard time finding a way to predict something, or finding a way to make a positive test for evidence of design over evidence of evolution through natural selection. Creating a law which does not solve a specific, widespread problem, bring with it the possibility of inventing new legal problems. Teachers, already burdened with the difficult job of educating students, shouldn’t need a law that explains how they are to do their job. They may be employees of the state, but that doesn’t mean the state should stick its nose into their job anymore than the federal government should get a say in what computer program I write to understand a subatomic particle.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

[1] Bills would give teachers freedom teaching evolution

[2] A Life of Inquiry

Politics makes me tired

It’s unbelievable. I had my popcorn, a nice cold beer, and a stats sheet. I was all fired up to watch the unfolding grudge match of the Iraq War Supplemental. Now, I’m just tired of it. Who can keep track of it all? Democrats bypass the appropriators in the House. Republicans revolt, against that and the $90 billion in additional non-war spending in the bill. Blue-god Democrats revolted. The vote was postponed a week. The bill was broken into three votes, one on the war spending, one on the troop withdrawal, and one on the domestic spending. The latter two passed, the first failed. The House sent it to the Senate in this unfinished state, and the Senate appropriators have already done their work.

Who can keep track of all this? I haven’t even been able to keep track of whether or not the proposed science spending made it into the domestic portion, and to be honest I don’t even care anymore. This process could, for all I know or care, be considered a masterpiece of politics. To me, it’s just a confusing mess. Not only that, but the partisan stain impolitely marking this affair makes me want to have nothing to do with any science money that results from it.

What a mess, mess, mess. Like I said, it just makes me sleepy.