It happened over delicious guacamole

This weekend, Jodi and I traveled to Wisconsin to celebrate the 3rd birthday of our twin nephews.  Over a delicious bowl of guacamole, I engaged in a conversation with a couple who were friends with my sister-in-law (the mother of the twins). We quickly came to the recent Republican plan to cut the Federal budget across the board, including the unique national agencies that spend on basic research in science. Quick and important fact: this conversation was held over a delicious bowl of homemade guacamole, in a kitchen in Franklin, WI, a town firmly in the district of Paul Ryan (R-WI). Congressman Ryan is a leading Republican in the fight to shrink the Federal budget.

From my previous posts in this blog, you pretty much should know my feelings about the importance of Federal investment in basic research. However, I was the one stunned into silence as my sister-in-law’s friend said, “It’s outrageous that at a time when the U.S. wants to maintain scientific leadership it is trying to cut basic research from the Federal budget. There are no companies that want to support this kind of research anymore. There are no more Bell Labs. You never know what this research is going to bring, and you never do it for the reasons that it’s useful later.” That’s a paraphrase, but these are all things he told me over the course of many minutes. And I didn’t once have to get on the soapbox. He dominated the conversation, and I was so happy.

It felt good to be the scientist standing in the kitchen, munching on chips and guacamole, stunned into silence by the words of a very passionate citizen with a deep interest in science.

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.

[1] http://community.adn.com/adn/node/102978

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.

[1] http://blogs.zdnet.com/Stewart/?p=826

[2] http://www.itbusinessedge.com/blogs/njl/?p=241

[3] http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/columns/open_letter_barack_obama_and_dncc_video_format

Presidential Candidates – an “out in front” analysis

I’ve avoided the Presidential race for quite some time in this blog. Mainly, I was irritated that the whole thing started over a year ago. I felt it was a distraction from the present – the damage being done to America by the present leaders. However, it’s getting to be that time when the race should matter. For a while, I’ve been looking at the two candidates’ websites. I reported some time ago on my impressions of the technical aspects of their sites [1].

I’ve returned to those sites many times, and I have to say that while McCain’s site has improved, overall, I still can’t subscribe to his blog in a global way. I am still offered only 4 subscription choices: Iraq, Health, Economy, Spending, Campaign [2]. None of these seems to encompass the postings in the blog I am interested in. For instance, the current top post is “New TV Ad: ‘Biden'”. If I click on these available feeds, I no where find this headline. Sigh. I wonder what the average age of people looking at this website is? There’s no way I’m going to have five feeds in my feed reader, especially since many of them share articles in common.

Right now, though, I am trying to avoid both campaigns’ headlines and go straight for their issues pages. Specifically, I was interested in comparing how they rank issues by their order of appearance on their issues pages [3] [4], and what little blurb they have next to their issue title. I was interested in seeing how far I have to dig to find out what they plan to do about the issues that matter to me.

First, let’s compare the order of issues. Here is McCain’s ordered list:

  1. Economy
  2. Energy
  3. National Security
  4. Healthcare
  5. Iraq
  6. Climate Change
  7. Veterans
  8. Immigration
  9. Education
  10. 2nd Amendment
  11. Judicial Philosophy
  12. Technology
  13. Fighting Crime
  14. National Heritage
  15. Agricultural Policies
  16. The Sanctity of Life
  17. Space Program
  18. Ethics Reform

Here is Barack Obama’s list:

  1. Civil Rights
  2. Defense
  3. Disabilities
  4. Economy
  5. Education
  6. Energy and Environment
  7. Ethics
  8. Faith
  9. Family
  10. Fiscal
  11. Foreign Policy
  12. Healthcare
  13. Homeland Security
  14. Immigration
  15. Iraq
  16. Poverty
  17. Rural
  18. Service
  19. Seniors and Social Security
  20. Technology
  21. Urban Policy
  22. Veterans

It becomes immediately obvious that McCain’s list has no pre-imposed order (numerical, alphabetical, etc), while Obama does. Therefore, one cannot conclude from Obama’s issues page what matters most, or what order his campaign thinks suits his supporters best, or best represents his current political positions. McCain, on the other hand, is either a specifically ranked list (in order of importance to him) or totally random. If it’s ranked, then we can already glean a few things from it.

First, McCain’s campaign has put the economy at the top. This suggests, but is not conclusive, that they are trying to portray him as economically savvy, something for which he’s taken fire. Interestingly, ethics reform is last. This is at least ironic, if not downright on purpose, since McCain-Feingold was supposed to be the big Congressional ethics reform bill of the past decade and it’s something he’s turned his back on. Seems like the campaign wanted to bury this in his issues list.

From my perspective as an active researcher, I am pleased to see Energy near the top in McCain’s list. However, I also recognize that education and technology are STRONGLY related issues. They are further down the list (Education is in the 56th percentile and technology is in the 39th percentile, which means that 44% and 61% of the issues he lists are above these, respectively).  The space program is related to this, since it involves putting important equipment in space to monitor climate, monitor the sun, solar wind, etc. The space program is in the 11th percentile. This suggests that McCain misses the point of energy policy – it’s about providing the foundation for a solid, new energy economy. Education is higher on his list, but certainly technology and a space program are important to this and they are WAY at the bottom.

What do the candidates have to say? Can I determine what they will do about issues important to me based on their blurbs under the issue title?

Let’s go issue by issue. The quotes are taken from each candidates’ issues webpage, referenced below.

  1. Education
  • McCain: Excellence, choice, and competition in American education. John McCain believes American education must be worthy of the promise we make to our children and ourselves. He understands that we are a nation committed to equal opportunity, and there is no equal opportunity without equal access to excellent education.
  • Obama: Throughout America’s history, education has been the vehicle for social and economic mobility, giving hope and opportunity to millions of young people. Our schools must prepare students not only to meet the demands of the global economy, but also help students take their place as committed and engaged citizens. It must ensure that all students have a quality education regardless of race, class, or background. Barack Obama is committed to strengthening our public schools to maximize our country’s greatest natural resource – the American people. Obama believes that we must equip poor and struggling districts, both rural and urban, with the support and resources they need to provide disadvantaged students with an opportunity to reach their full potential. Too often, our leaders present this issue as an either – or debate, divided between giving our schools more funding, or demanding more accountability. Obama believes that we have to do both, and has offered innovative ideas to break through the political stalemate in Washington.

Hmm. From McCain, the only concrete I get is that he wants to make education more accessible to the American people. That’s definitely a good thing. We already have a universal public education system, albeit with deficiencies in many areas. In physics, there is a growing dearth of teachers who are well trained in the field and also deeply interested in teaching the subject. There have been proposals recently to increase the incentives to train more science teachers, such as “10,000 teachers, 10,000,000 minds” [5]. It’s not clear to me whether this is what he’s talking about, but certainly this program has been bounced around in the same Congress of which McCain is a member. Interestingly, the effort to move this bill through Congress succeeded in the House and died in the Senate [6]. It never made it to a vote.

What about Obama? His blurb makes the connection between a well-educated citizenry and competition in the global economy. He, like McCain, sees it important to make sure Americans have access to good education, specifically citing poor urban and rural areas. McCain’s equal opportunity message presumably includes this idea – of making struggling schools better to give the same quality of education to those Americans as those in wealthy districts.

From neither candidate is it really clear what they would do. Obama says a bit more about accountability and funding, and points out the connection between education and competitiveness. McCain talks about some vagaries (” . . . the promise we make to our children and ourselves . . . ” – what promise?), and hits one concrete (the opportunity). I think McCain gets it, I believe Obama gets it, but from neither do I get a sense of what they would do. Digging deeper is required.

Continuing the surface analysis, let’s move onto the next issue:

  1. Energy
  • Obama: Senator Obama has been a leader in the Senate in pushing for a comprehensive national energy policy and has introduced a number of bills to get us closer to the goal of energy independence. By putting aside partisan battles, he has found common ground on CAFE, renewable fuels, and clean coal.
  • McCain: Our nation’s future security and prosperity depends on the next President making the hard choices that will break our nation’s strategic dependence on foreign sources of energy and will ensure our economic prosperity by meeting tomorrow’s demands for a clean portfolio.

Obama has some concrete things. His blurb points to his legislative credentials on the subject. He makes a point to note his support for things like CAFE (which appeals to people in his party), renewable fuels (also appealing to people in his party), and clean coal (definitely an “across-the-aisle” issue, as the left is typically skeptical of the honesty of this technology while the right wants to exploit the value of this abundant fossil fuel). From this, one can guess that Obama believes in a diverse energy portfolio – conservation, non-fossil energy, and fossil-based energy.

McCain speaks directly to the “foreign oil” issue, seen as a national security approach to the energy discussion. This implies he sees the value of expanding U.S.-based fossil fuels – coal and off-shore oil are obvious elements in this. He ties the energy issue to economics, which is good – certainly, I value the new energy economy as a means to reinvent American industry. He mentions the “clean portfolio” – this implies he values a diversity of energy sources, including non-fossil sources. Nowhere are conservation goals mentioned, suggesting this is not important to him.

Onto the next issue!

  1. Technology:
  • McCain: John McCain has a broad and cohesive vision for the future of American innovation. His policies will provide broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America, a commitment to a skilled and educated workforce, and a dedication to opening markets around the globe. He’s committed to streamlining burdensome regulations and effectively protecting American intellectual property in the United States and around the globe.
    Regarding the space program: “Let us now embark upon this great journey into the stars to find whatever may await us.”
  • Obama: “Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age. Let’s set high standards for our schools and give them the resources they need to succeed. Let’s recruit a new army of teachers, and give them better pay and more support in exchange for more accountability. Let’s make college more affordable, and let’s invest in scientific research, and let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America.”

McCain is straight onto concretes in this one! It’s interesting – so far, of the three issues I’ve listed, this is the one where McCain goes straight for concretes! He avoided them almost altogether on education, which outranked Technology in his issue order, and Energy had only slightly more concretes than Education. Technology, near the bottom of his list, is less fluff and more substance.

What does he say? He ties technology right to innovation, suggesting the “Innovation Agenda” (the Democrat name for the competitiveness issues) went straight to his brain. He’s big on the private business – relaxing regulation, taxes, more capital, open markets. Education factors in here, suggesting he gets the connection to innovation and competitiveness that he didn’t make in his Education blurb. Of note for me is his statement about protecting American intellectual property. I wonder how he feels about open source, or whether he even understands what that is?

Obama also goes right for the substance. He’s right onto the education issue as well, tying technology back to better schools. McCain and Obama at least have their message integration down. Interestingly, he mentions the recruiting of teachers, suggesting he also absorbed the issue in Ref. [5]. He notes trading better incentives for teachers for more accountability – this could be another play to lean across the aisle on this issue. He rounds out his blurb with three concretes: more affordable college education, more investment in scientific research, and more broadband access. Not bad! Certainly, all three of these are important to me.

Going back to McCain for a moment, he has this comment on the space program. This is probably the most say-nothing blurb in either of their two issues page. Why is this even on his site?

One final thing. In order to dig down into McCain’s issues details, you have to click each issue. Obama has chosen to provide a single printable document that outlines his whole platform. I’ll be pouring over these in weeks to come to learn more about the candidates on these  issues.

[1] “Comparing Campaigns: Tech Perspective”
[2] JohnMcCain.com: RSS Feeds
[3] JohnMcCain.com: Issues
[4] barackobama.com: Issues
[5]10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds” Science and Math Scholarship Act”
[6] List of major actions on HR362