Palin, Pawlenty, Science, Creationism

Something on the Sunday talk show, “Meet the Press”, caught my attention. Today’s show was hosted by Tom Brokaw, a  favorite of mine in the news business. He interviewed Gov. Tom Pawlenty of Minnesota, Co-chair of the RNC convention in the Twin Cities. Gov. Pawlenty was acting as a “Vox VP” for the Republican VP nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin. I was only half paying attention to this interview – it seemed to be hitting the same issues that everybody has been raising the last few days – until we got to this:

Brokaw: In the governor’s race she refused to be specific about her views on creationism versus evolution, but, as I understand it, she did say that the two should be taught side-by-side in public schools.

Pawlenty: I saw her comments on it yesterday and I thought they were appropriate . . .  if there are competing theories and they are credible, her view . . . was  . . . allow them . . . both to be presented so students could be exposed to both, or more,  and have a chance to be exposed  . . . to the various theories and make up their own mind.

Brokaw: In the vast scientific community, do you think that creationism has the same weight as evolution and at a time in American education when we are in a crisis when it comes to science there ought to be parallel tracks for creationism  versus evolution in the teaching?

Pawlenty: In the scientific community, it seems that intelligent design is dismissed. Not entirely – there are a lot of scientists who would make the case that it is appropriate to be taught and appropriate to be demonstrated . . . In Minnesota, we’ve taken that as a local decision. I know Gov. Palin has said intelligent design is something that should be taugt along with evolution in the schools . . .

Brokaw:  . . . Given equal weight?

Pawlenty: . . . intelligent design is something which in my view is plausible and credible . . .  and something I personally believe in, but more important from an educational and scientific standpoint it should be decided by local school boards at the local school district level.

(“Meet the Press”, Sunday August 31, 2008. Ellipses indicate text that didn’t change the meaning of the surrounding text, such as verbal pauses or repeated phrases)

I won’t go into my complaints about the specifics here – you’ve probably heard them all before (science is not a democracy of ideas, but a rigorous method by which ideas are included or excluded; there is no evidence for intelligent design, only claims of gaps in the theory of evolution; a theory is not just an idea, it’s an experimentally tested idea that produces new knowledge and new tests; lots of scientists believe lots of wrong things; etc.). I will say this – it was hard to disentangle Pawlenty’s views from Palin’s.

It took me a little work to find something resembling a transcript of the October 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debate. I found an article from the Anchorage Daily News , October 25, 2006 [1], with some of the text of the debate. I found that the specific question asked of the candidates regarding evolution and creationism was this:

Toward the end, moderator Michael Carey . . .  looked to change things up with a pair of curveball questions about religion:

Is it OK for religious leaders to endorse candidates, and should public schools teach alternatives to evolution (such as creationism and intelligent design?)

I note that the question DOES NOT say “should public school science class” teach alternatives to evolution, but just “public schools”. I’ve not had a problem with the idea of teaching such things in a current events class, or even something like a comparative religion class. Those would be very valuable, putting creationism and intelligent design in their social context (since they lack a scientific one). One of the debaters, Andrew Halcro, answered as if he recognized the difference between teaching the idea in public school and teaching it in the science classroom:

HALCRO: “I think anything that is religious-based in, in concept, you know, really should, needs to be taught in the proper channel – philosophy, sociology . . . I don’t think it should be taught as a science.”

Former AK Governor Tony Knowles, another debater in the forum, sounded less informed on the issues but delivered one central point in the argument:

KNOWLES: “… The answer is no. The reason why is we don’t want politics in our science. We actually want more science in our politics . . . We don’t want to just teach all things because it may be politically correct. We want to teach the best science there is, and there is overwhelming evidence, there’s almost incontrovertible evidence that evolution is the science that, that we know . . . And that’s what we should always teach, to never compromise on the principals just because it’s politically popular.”

I can see why he lost – he sounds pretty unsure on, at least, this issue. I presume this must have affected him in other issues. His central point – more science in politics and less politics in science – is a good point, bordering on a sound bite, but he didn’t quite drive it home.  Halcro was, at least, to the point.

Gov. Palin’s response was also direct and to her point:

PALIN: Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information . . . Healthy debate is so important and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both . . . And, you know, I say this, too, as the daughter of a science teacher. Growing up with being so privileged and blessed to be given a lot of information on, on both sides of the subject — creationism and evolution . . . It’s been a healthy foundation for me. But don’t be afraid of information and let kids debate both sides.”

She makes no distinction between science class and other classes, just goes straight for the “teach both” argument. She also doesn’t make any statements about credibility or plausibility, like Pawlenty does. She makes the classic argument that avoiding intelligent design is keeping information from our children. It suggests she’s misunderstood that science is a process of vetting ideas, and that you have to teach that process. Science is not a conclusion, it is a process. ID represents an excellent case of an idea not only unvetted, but proposing no test that can vet it in the first place – a classic non-scientific idea. You ave to equip students with good science methods first, before asking them to go and differentiate between a testable and an untestable idea.

If controversy like this – between a non-scientific idea and a scientifically established principle – is a foundation of her thinking, I do worry about how her decision-making process is informed.


Science Policy: Answers from Obama

At breakfast today, a friend of mine informed me that Obama had finally responded to the 14 science policy questions sent to the candidates months ago [1]. These questions arose from the “Science Debate 2008” grass-roots effort, an effort supported by 38,000 signers to get the presidential candidates to engage on science policy issues. Recently, when the candidates participated in a religious forum moderated by a “megapastor”, some of my colleagues grew even more frustrated with this year’s presidential process. Why wouldn’t they engage on science issues, we wondered?

Obama finally has. McCain has promised to respond, by Obama’s responses are in. Ref. [1] lists the questions and all of his answers. Globally, these responses are full of policy details, lots of them. I was VERY pleased to see the campaign take this so seriously, and respond with many levels of detail to the many questions. I also like that Obama clearly sees the interconnections between many of these issues – research, education, competition, energy – he draws connections in the answers that point to a deep and interwoven science policy view, a policy with many options on the table.

I had a few responses I wanted to comment on. You should read them and find your own issues.

Investment in Research

My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs.

This language is right in line with the “Innovation Agenda”. I was very pleased as a young researcher to see a focus on encouraging and supporting my peer group. Entering a faculty position, and knowing that I am competing against established physicists for the same cruddy pot of cash, is already difficult. A policy like the one Obama supports would additionally remove the frustration of knowing that granting agencies will weigh a researcher with a track record against young researchers trying to establish a track record. A policy like this can prevent this dangerous cycle from getting off the ground.

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education

STEM education is no longer only for those pursuing STEM careers; it should enable all citizens to solve problems, collaborate, weigh evidence, and communicate ideas.

This, I really like. Science education is  indeed NOT just for scientists – it’s a key ingredient in critical thinking. While not everybody is going to take to it, it should be available and encouraged for everybody. Every one of us has a scientist in us (I had this very conversation with an older gentleman named Arthur at the Farmer’s Market this morning), but realizing it and embracing it is critical to being an active and informed citizen. Bravo to Obama for seeing this important feature of STEM education.

I recently introduced the “Enhancing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Act of 2008” that would establish a STEM Education Committee within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to coordinate the efforts of federal agencies engaged in STEM education, consolidate the STEM education initiatives that exist within the Department of Education under the direction of an Office of STEM Education, and create a State Consortium for STEM Education.

I noted this because I feel it points to some of the actual actions Obama has taken as a Senator. Every Senator introduces legislation; I am pleased that Obama highlights a positive aspect of his record in the Senate. I wish, however, that he and McCain had bothered to show up in the Senate back in 2007 for the Omnibus bill vote. That was also critical for science, and there they both failed to act.

High-Risk, High-Return

. . . we can provide greater support for high-risk, high-return research and for young scientists at the beginning of their careers.

Nothing more to say here. It’s a good policy. Jodi and I have discussed the role of senior and junior faculty in the grant process. Mentoring and transition are both important for the younger faculty. We need more policies that encourage senior faculty to step aside and make the junior faculty the principal investigators on grants, after mentoring them for years on how to do this job. Universities need to come up with policies for this, too; taking some steps at the Federal level can’t hurt.

Obama and Senate Experience

I also recently sponsored an amendment, which became law, to the America Competes Act that established a competitive state grant program to support summer learning opportunities with curricula that emphasize mathematics and problem solving.

I like this because it points to a specific action taken by Obama that became law. In one sentence, he highlights his prowess as a Senator by enacting something important to him in the ACA. Sadly, the ACA is authorization; not much has happened at the appropriations level to realize the ACA.

Stem Cells

I recognize that some people object to government support of research that requires cells to be harvested from human embryos. However, hundreds of thousands of embryos stored in the U.S. in in-vitro fertilization clinics will not be used for reproductive purposes, and will eventually be destroyed. I believe that it is ethical to use these extra embryos for research that could save lives when they are freely donated for that express purpose.

I like that Obama addresses the ethical and practical issue head on. The issue of disposed embryos has always been a serious weak point in the ethical argument against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. For instance, as I and other have commented when Bush vetoed the stem cell funding bill in front of kids born from frozen embryos, the argument falls flat since those kids can’t have been made from disposed frozen embryos [2]. Rather than try to take on moral and ethical issues “above his pay grade”, I am glad to see that Obama approached this from a pragmatic viewpoint.

Basic Research

Federally supported basic research, aimed at understanding many features of nature— from the size of the universe to subatomic particles, from the chemical reactions that support a living cell to interactions that sustain ecosystems—has been an essential feature of American life for over fifty years.

All research is important. Doesn’t matter whether it’s “basic” or not. But, chemistry and math and physics are so critical to all areas of research it’s a damn shame to neglect them in favor of sexier things. I am glad to see Obama nod to the important of the subatomic and the cosmic in the lives of Americans. He goes on to note:

While the outcomes of specific projects are never predictable, basic research has been a reliable source of new knowledge that has fueled important developments in fields ranging from telecommunications to medicine . . .

Federal support for the physical sciences and engineering has been declining as a fraction of GDP for decades . . . As a result, our science agencies are often able to support no more than one in ten proposals that they receive, arresting the careers of our young scientists and blocking our ability to pursue many remarkable recent advances.

Again, he nods to the young researchers. He hits the issue of connecting science and society, through medicine and technology. Good. These arguments we in the science community have made for years are ringing, and that makes me feel good.

Ultimately, what matters are the policies a President puts in place for the Congress to act upon. Only together can Congress and the President establish a new respect for science and education. Only together can we Americans pick up the sprint and get back to the head of the pack in science and technology. I hope that these answers stand against rhetoric on the specificity of Obama’s promises. I just hope that either candidate sticks to what they say – but, I always hope that. I also hope McCain responds to these questions soon. I need to see how both of them approach these issues.



Friends in frustration

I found out on Friday that I am not the only one sending letters to the DNC about their choice to shut out the Linux community. A friend of mine told me she also sent a letter, and it sounded like it was a much more pointed statement than mine. I was curious if other people, people I don’t even know, were complaining about this choice of Silverlight/Microsoft as the gatekeeper to DNC-branded democracy.

My little websearch turned up one interesting fact about the RNC – they’ll be having Google as their techology provider [1]. That suggests to me that the RNC will at least provide Google Video, which is Flash-based. While Flash has a history of annoyance in the open-source community, at least it’s something we can all use these days. I’m interested to see whether Google goes as expected on Tuesday.

I also found some articles basically telling the Linux community to shove it [2]. One counterargument is that disenfranchisement amounts only to preventing me from voting. By that level of argument I could make the case that we do away with a tax-supported public education system, since I could argue that “book learnin'” is useless and all that matters to the economy is hard work.  Voting, the hard work of democracy, isn’t the only means to disenfranchise people – depriving them of the information they need to fulfill the Founders’ vision of an informed populace actively participating in the democratic process has got to be part of that.

Separate from the semantics arguments (I could instead watch on TV or read in a newpaper), there is a philosophical one. Why can’t a party that claims to want to be inclusive go with a more inclusive technology? The above article cited that only 3% of computer users use Linux (those are home desktop users, I presume). Why should the DNC care about including in their form of democracy just 3% of the U.S. population?

Most census estimates suggest that somewhere between 1-3% of U.S. citizens are Muslim. I doubt the Democrats would make the argument that they’re not worth including in the democratic process. Why, then, is it so easy to dismiss a passionate group of people who believe that expression through technology, like religious expression, should be free?

To the point, my friend and I aren’t the only ones pissed off about this [3]. Thank goodness Obama went with YouTube on his website, or I’d have to do all that paperwork to be an independent. Let’s hope the DNC follows his lead.

From the open letter to Obama and the DNC [3],

To the members of the DNCC: your choices affect all citizens of the United States. By choosing to restrict access to corporate-owned and corporate-controlled operating systems, you have chosen corporations over citizens. Is this an indication of the direction of the Democratic party? Can we expect continued government support of corporations over citizens in the future?

The author of this letter blames Obama in this. He’s his party’s nominee, not the leader of his party (not unless he becomes President). Folks like Pelosi and Dean call the shots for the party for now, and it is at them we should be directing our frustration. Obama’s website indicates he gets it. He’s on our side of this issue, whether he knows it or not.