Where They Stand on Science

By Sean Carroll | September 2, 2008 10:36 am

Not to give in completely to nepotistic back-scratching, but Jennifer has done the thankless task of combing the web sites of John McCain and Barack Obama for statements about science, and reports back on what she found. This comes on the heels of Obama’s answers to a set of questions from ScienceDebate2008 — McCain hasn’t answered yet, but he’s expected to soon.

I would never have the patience to do something like this myself, as stuff that appears in prepared statements on websites is likely to be bland and inoffensive, right? (One could go even further and comb through their legislative records, but that’s a truly Herculean task better left to superhumans like hilzoy.) But as it turns out, you can learn things.

Nowhere is the difference between the two candidates more stark than in their stated policies on education. McCain predictably champions No Child Left Behind (NCLB), when every educator I know considers the program to be a major FAIL. Beyond that, his education policy is inexplicably vague and obsessed with giving parents greater control over where their kids attend schools — so much so, that I suspect it’s a bit of a “dog whistle,” i.e., code for something else that only those tuned to that particular frequency can hear. There is no specific mention of math and science education. At least he recognizes the potential for online learning through virtual schools, and offers financial support to help low-income students pay for access to those online resources.

But again, Obama also supports online educational tools, with far broader financial support for educational opportunities of all kinds, and offers many point-by-point specifics. He supports the need for accountability in schools, but recognizes that NCLB has failed in large part because funding promises weren’t kept by the Bush Administration. His policies seek to address not just teacher training and retention, but also high dropout rates, soaring college costs, and the need for high-quality childcare to assist working parents (particularly single moms). And he wants to make math and science education a national priority.

I don’t especially enjoy constantly bashing the modern Republican Party and contrasting them unfavorably with Democrats. There certainly is a respectable intellectual case to be made for small-government conservatism, and even if I didn’t agree with all of the particulars, it would be interesting and worthwhile to engage in policy debates from the perspective of mutual intellectual respect. Nor do I especially think that Democratic politicians, as a group, are anything to be that excited about. But at the current moment, the Republicans have so cheerfully given into anti-intellectualism and cultural backwardness that there isn’t much to have a debate about.

Better conservatives, please. It would be good for the country.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics
  • http://jacobrussellsbarkingdog.blogspot.com Jacob Russell

    Off topic apologies… but this is too much!

    Large Hadron Collider Rap

  • sdrawkcaBgnikroW

    I suspect that education is one of the weakest areas of Democratic policy:
    http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/2008/05/02/rhee-mccain-has-best-education-plan/
    I have a high opinion of Mrs. Rhee’s efforts in DC so far, so I’m inclined to trust her opinion:
    http://www.washingtonian.com/articles/people/5222.html (a bit long and biographical)
    As regards NCLB as an ‘unfunded mandate’, my understanding is that the correlation between school spending and performance is very little after taking income into account.

  • tacitus

    This is Karl Rove’s legacy. He proved the GOP could win elections if you win the enthusiastic support of the religious right.

    Sadly, he also proved that a government allied with the religious right prides ideology over competence, and that we all are paying the price for that.

    McCain was forced to pick Palin — the new darling of the religious right (and they are truly stoked) — over his better judgment. He wanted a moderate like Tom Ridge or (heaven forbid) Joe Lieberman, but there was a massive push back from the religious right on even the hint that he was heading in that direction.

    Given the evidence so far, I marvel that serious political pundits like David Brookes can still claim that McCain would be different from Bush in this regard. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be, it’s that he can’t if he wants to keep the support of the base. Until the GOP is no longer in the thrall of Christian fundamentalists, they are not to be trusted with the reins of power in America.

  • Luke

    I think that it would be helpful to step back and look at the larger issues regarding education. In our federal system education is mainly a state and local issue. If you think that there is a problem with the schools in your city or state, you should take that up with your local school district’s board, your state legislators, or your governor.

    Personally, I think that there would be some benefits to having the federal government getting more involved in ensuring better results in K-12, but we should come to a national consensus about that change first. Instead, we have had decades of increasing federal government by stealth. That’s really not the best way to do things.

    Now, let’s take a look at the summary of Obama’s policies:

    His policies seek to address not just teacher training and retention, but also high dropout rates, soaring college costs, and the need for high-quality childcare to assist working parents (particularly single moms). And he wants to make math and science education a national priority.

    I like the fact that high school dropout rates and teacher retention are on the list. Our national dropout rate is around 30%. It’s really one of our biggest national problems in the area of education and it doesn’t get enough attention. I hope that Obama can really find the relevant experts and do something about the problem.

    The issue of teacher retention is also important. The issue really has to do with the fact that teaching is not a great job. It’s a great paradox of our society that we consider education to be very important and, at the same time, we don’t respect the teaching profession much or pay them well (in most places). It really makes no sense.

    Unfortunately, the total cost of implementing Obama’s list would be very high. I hope that he can make a little progress.

  • J.J.

    Sean, I’d like to commend you for your excellently crafted penultimate paragraph. I’ve been lazily considering actually sitting down and composing a similar sentiment for a while now, and never got around to doing so. It is indeed frustrating to not be able to bear witness to an honest debate because one of the major participants is constitutionally incapable of taking that debate seriously.

    This tangentially reminds me of a Cectic cartoon about chess:
    http://cectic.com/069.html

  • jpd

    could #2 clarify this:
    “my understanding is that the correlation between school spending and performance is very little after taking income into account.”

    sounds like the correlation between A and B is very little after taking A into account.

    yes i think the correlation of B and 0 (=A-A) would be very small.

  • http://collateraltales.blogspot.com/ gyokusai

    Jennifer sez:
    Beyond that, his education policy is inexplicably vague and obsessed with giving parents greater control over where their kids attend schools — so much so, that I suspect it’s a bit of a “dog whistle,” i.e., code for something else that only those tuned to that particular frequency can hear.

    True. In this
    2006 Gubernatorial Candidate Questionnaire, all candidates were asked:

    Will you support the right of parents to opt out their children from curricula, books, classes, or surveys, which parents consider privacy-invading or offensive to their religion or conscience?

    To which Palin responded:

    Yes. Parents should have the ultimate control over what their children are taught.

    Well. There goes math. Oh, and physi … now biol … hey, wait, where’s everybody going!

    A fine-tuned dog whistle, isn’t it—next thing you’ll hear in science class will be the chirping of the crickets.

    ^_^J.

  • Kurt

    For several months that seemed like an eternity, I never saw MAYBE one posting about maybe one small issue maybe about the the issue and policy differences of Obama vs. Hillary. There were enough to have at least one blog posting- Healthcare, Energy, Iraq, Education (Hillary was an original author of HeadStart) , etc. Or maybe talking about who is most able to pass a bill through the gauntlet of tests.
    So it is TOO LATE to make this election about issues. This election is about ONE thing- OBAMA on the democratic side. On the republican side I do not what the heck it is about. Foreign policy maybe or “country first”. Who knows!

    For example, no one takes Obama seriously on the economy anymore than McCain. Like Paul Krugman says Obama speaks with no authority, confidence or passion.

    As Bill Clinton says
    Suppose, for example, you’re a voter, and you have candidate X and you have candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything but you don’t think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that, on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver.

    This is the kind of question that I predict – and this has nothing to do with what’s going on now – but I am just saying if you look at five, 10, 15 years from now, you may actually see this delivery issue become a serious issue in Democratic debates because it is so hard to figure out how to turn good intentions into real changes in the lives of the people we represent.

    candidate x = Obama.

  • http://ReRamsden Ray

    NCLB has become No Child Allowed to Advance. Schools have cut programs for top students in order to fund programs for low-performing students. Fortunately, I grew up in a state/county/town that valued education. Stchools, teachers and students all know some students were brighter than others. Even the ‘less gifted’ studends knew it. That was the case, that is the case, that will always be the case.
    Trying to legislate equality does not work in any area – finance, education, lifestyle, etc. Education $ should go toward making sure each student can achieve his/her potential. In the case of some students, that may just mean teaching them to flip burgers and count change correctly. For other students, it may mean extra, advanced classes, special projects or mentoring.

  • anon

    so kurt, are you saying if she weighs more than a duck then logically
    she is a witch?

  • sdrawkcaBgnikroW

    #6:
    Sorry, I mean the income of families in the school district.
    e.g.
    http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2008/08/my_schooling_ch.html

  • jpd

    i still dont follow,
    school districts with wealthy families have more money.
    wealthy schools perform better.

    actually in the link you provided, some one had the same question
    which was not fully answered.

    “…But no one controlled for the relative wealth of the school district. The control in KdeRosa’s work was percentage of students that receive free and reduced meals…”

    i am pretty sure the percentage of students that receive free and reduced meals
    is directly correlated to the wealth of the school district.

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    “As Bill Clinton says
    Suppose, for example, you’re a voter, and you have candidate X and you have candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything but you don’t think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that, on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver.”

    Kurt, this is pretty much a straw man argument: maybe Candidate X can’t deliver on ALL the issues, but chances are, s/he will be able to deliver on a significant fraction, and that is STILL better than voting for someone who will deliver not just on issues you support, but many that you DON’T support — and the latter may very well prove to be the most critical ones.

    Everyone knows that campaign promises always run up against hard reality when one tries to put them into practice — and finding the money tops the list. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Do you _honestly_ think Obama doesn’t know that? You don’t have to like him, or agree with him, but please — he’s not a fool.

  • sdrawkcaBgnikroW

    Okay, I think I see what you’re getting at. It turns out there is a fair amount of variance in the amount of spending per school district that isn’t explained by the % poor students. (actually, a lot more than I would expect)
    See the last graph here:
    http://d-edreckoning.blogspot.com/2008/03/data-shows-you-are-wrong.html
    Controlling for the % poor students, there isn’t an obvious correlation between that spending and performance (schools performing better than predicted by their wealth are actually spending less than schools performing worse than predicted by their wealth).

    That said, I think the first commenter at the Econlog link may have a point. Quite possibly schools that are underperforming are then chosen for additional funding, which would undermine a spending-success correlation. At the same time, I’ve heard complaints that NCLB was denying funding to schools that failed to meet its standards, which is a pressure in the opposite direction. Probably worth further investigation. . .
    Hopefully I’m more clear now.

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Sheesh. So much for American education. Nobody like these ignorant conservatives could ever be elected in just about any other country in the world, even the conservative ones.

  • http://vacua.blogspot.com Jim Harrison

    I have to protest the notion that the Republicans are a small government party. While they frequently talk about small government, government budgets and personnel have increased in every Republican administration going back to Nixon. In office, Republicans are big-state authoritarians.

    People who really favor small government currently have no home at all.

  • Pingback: It’s the science, stupid « Peculiar Velocity()

  • jonm

    There are lots of intellectual Republicans whose policy positions are worth considering seriously, and who accept evolution and the Big Bang and all the rest.

    However, there’s no hope that the Republicanparty will adopt sensible views on science when the Christian fundamentalist nutters form such a huge part of its electoral base.

  • Paul Murray

    The “dog whistle” is possibly something to do with the rollback of forced integration at schools. Remember: in the USA, *everything* is about race.

  • Kurt

    In 2000 Bush II talked about changing Washington. Everywhere he went he talked about changing Washington and the same old politics. He said he was the uniter and marketed himself as the outsider. He added “The buck stops with me” ” I want you to hold me responsible” Boy did he change Washington!
    “Some of what Obama says, his overall message, is very similar to the one we ran on in 2000 about changing the way Washington works and what I had so much hope in,” said McClellan, who became the White House press secretary in 2003 after serving as spokesman for President Bush when he was the governor of Texas.
    Many other candidates have run similar campaigns throughout history.
    So what?

    Obama’s entire campaign is about change and getting rid of the same politics. He is talking about real and some say radical necessary change!
    We must all hold him to a higher standard and expect more from him because he wants us to!

    But then you see him pandering to Iowa voters and selling them on the hopes of corn ethanol, for example, which we know is a sham and voting for FISA after stating “I am sick and tired of democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans”

    His consistent inability to live up to his own high standards
    (he is the same old politics in a clever disguise) coupled with a lack of ANY major policy accomplishments (has he ever fought for anything?) should make all good scientists just a little skeptical. That is my main point.

    Is he better than McCain? I really do not know but do not expect even a small fraction of great things we have been promised from an Obama presidency. And do not expect any great changes in Washington politics. It will be better than Bush (it really can’t be worse?) but don’t expect anything too progressive like investments in science and technology or energy policies.

  • Elliot

    As an ex-school board member, my strong impression was that NLCB was a thinly disguised attack on the teachers unions and had little to do with improving the quality of education. How Kennedy ever got sucked in on this one, I’ll never know. So now teachers are forced to teach to the test instead of teaching kids how to think and solve problems. Thats a giant step backward IMHO.

    Accountablity sure. But lets start by paying teachers salaries commensurate with their contribution to society. Then you might attract a larger pool of people who choose teaching as a profession and improve the product.

    e.

  • http://rightshift.info Traums

    I don’t know the exact workings of the system in America, but has anyone tried the merit-based selection approach?
    Provide more funds to schools which are performing well, and have lower percentage dropouts.
    That will prove a good incentive to hire top-class teachers, and retain them, increase their salary, invest in good equipment, yada, yada.

  • Jen

    This just made the rounds in our local newspaper (I live in Oak Ridge, TN, and there is a columnist dedicated to the issues at ORNL, Y-12, and general science news):

    http://blogs.knoxnews.com/knx/munger/2008/09/obama_couldnt_do_that_could_he.html

    Has anyone heard anything like this? It seems ridiculous on its face, but amazingly, that claim alone doesn’t win arguments.

  • Ryan

    Hello all,

    The “dog whistle” is a reference, I believe, to the right’s policy of privatization as applied to the primary education system. The “right to choose”, so to speak, sounds an awful lot like “free market actor”, “rational self-interest”, etc; the idea being that schools, like everything else, will improve if subject to market competition.

    A good place to look for recent application of this agenda is in post-Katrina New Orleans. There have been many pieces on this, the most recent is a overly fair treatment by Paul Tough at the NYT: (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/magazine/17NewOrleans-t.html?_r=1&oref=slogin).

  • Matt S.

    “The “right to choose”, so to speak, sounds an awful lot like “free market actor”, “rational self-interest”, etc; the idea being that schools, like everything else, will improve if subject to market competition.”

    I think the “free marked” for education would work about as good as the “free-marked” for alt. med and “supplements”, ie. deregulation would result in a wide-spread pseudo-scientific agenda. Just think about schools in areas where fundamentalism has a strong foothold. You wouldn’t want those to be deregulated. Free-market principles are only useful when people know what’s good for them and, unfortunately, they often don’t, when it comes to these subjects.

  • http://collateraltales.blogspot.com/ gyokusai

    Ryan, no, really, this is a bit far-fetched.

    Check out the link I posted in (7). This dog whistle is tuned to be heard by those people whose religious beliefs are offended by what is taught in our class rooms, especially in science class, and particularly in biology.

    ^_^J.

  • spyder

    Well if you want a view of McCain/Palin take on education and science try reading this horrendous, vicious document. Education section begins on page 43; but i strongly recommend you also read the section on “protecting our values.” That Palin advocates for ID and abstinence only teaching in public schools probably says a great deal about McCain’s and the party’s attitude.

    http://www.gopplatform2008.com/thankyou.htm

  • spyder

    Traums asks: I don’t know the exact workings of the system in America, but has anyone tried the merit-based selection approach? Provide more funds to schools which are performing well, and have lower percentage dropouts.

    One of the underlying reasons that the wealthier schools generally demonstrate greater performance on standardized testing has to do with infrastructure. A richer school is a cleaner school; a richer school is a more attractive and aesthetically satisfying school; a richer school has more staff to disperse to cover various programs under un-, and under-, funded mandates; a richer school has diverse and open athletic programs; a richer school as real libraries with updated materials; and so forth.

    We only have so much room in our colleges and universities for high school graduates. We only have so much wealth we can use to fund those institutions and students. Yet we try (for still as yet unexplained philosophical constructs) to educate 100% of our students to be successful university students. Most quickly figure out that they “ain’t” gonna be one of them, and choose paths outside of education. The better schools and school districts (and one’s that have money) are now diversifying their curricula to include more vocational and skill-based education. Academies are springing up everywhere within schools to train future emergencies services personnel, IT workers, machinists and electricians, etc. et al. This is a good development, but sadly only in those districts with larger discretionary funding. And no “merit-based” system will ever account for their success.

  • Chris W.

    See this interview with Judy Estrin, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and technology executive, and author of Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy. In particular, consider this exchange:

    You write that the U.S.’ innovation ecosystem is “even more eroded and unstable than you ever imagined.” Not exactly an optimistic, “morning in America” message, is it?

    Estrin: I’m not an alarmist by personality. I have to be hopeful because we have no choice. We really have to address these issues or else we’re just going to keep going down.

    When I was interviewing people, some of the people I interviewed would say to me, “You know, give it up. America has just lost it. It is no longer a superpower, it is in decline and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Then I would talk to other people, who would say, “This is just all about market cycles and the market will take care of itself. So, go write a business book on innovation, but from a country perspective, there’s nothing the government could do.” It was almost like they wanted to say, just recognize time constraints and the market will take care of itself.

    I don’t believe the market can take care of itself this time because one of the problems is that the market has become very, very short-term focused… I’m not one of those people that says the government can solve all our problems, but I believe that where we are right now actually is somewhere in between those two perspectives. We need leadership from the top to provide the inspiration and the spark. There are some places where we need some policy changes and some strategically placed funding to be able to get the incentives aligned to solve some of these problems. Then we need business and educational and nonprofit leaders to work with government to figure out what we’re going to do to.

  • Mike Schuler

    I read all of these comments and links, and then finally, Spyder’s next-to-the-last-comment # 28 makes the exact point I was going to bring up. I went to public grade school in the ’60s, and looking back, it is very clear that every single student was expected to go to a 4 year college, and then be employed in some kind of office setting environment, or continue as a professional student in the classroom.

    Some people are born to be construction workers. Where would any of you be without plumbers and electricians? Did you know that these two aforementioned crafts can earn a person just as much and often more wealth than a doctor or lawyer with comparable length of experience?

    Some people are born to be heavy equipment operators. How do you think they built that office you work in?

    Neither side in the political contest gives even the slightest whit of a care about education, science, or technology. All either side cares about,… is getting elected. That’s it. That’s all they really care about, and they’ll stake their positions on how they calculate it will swing or sway the media, and in turn, the electorate, because it is well known that most voters choose to vote for who they are predicting will win, not wanting to “waste” their vote on the “losing” candidate.

    Education has to look at itself and within its own system for the solutions. The government will always fund education no matter which side is in charge. The future construction workers are not being helped by forcing them into an office worker mold, or the high-tech specialist mold. A mediocre 12 year old who hates math, and doesn’t do well, may fall in love with hydraulic engineering, and then suddenly find the interest and aptitude to master mathematics. By forcing students into a certain mold, you actually create future prison inmates. And I mean that literally. Go get your high school yearbook and track down your former classmates and see how many of them ended up in prison or dead of some kind of drug addiction or criminal activity. How many of them would be saved had they been given the opportunity to lay PVC pipe in trenches for a brand new parking lot, instead of being tortured in a boring classroom and wasting the taxpayer’s resource?

    It is the education system itself that has to change and advance. Start recognizing the future skilled and semi-skilled workers when they are about 12 years old, and give them vocational opportunities then, and they’ll have the best training there could be. Which is better, training a future electrician starting at age 12, or at age 29 when they get out of prison the first time?

  • Clara

    I have to protest the notion that the Republicans are a small government party. While they frequently talk about small government, government budgets and personnel have increased in every Republican administration going back to Nixon. In office, Republicans are big-state authoritarians.

    People who really favor small government currently have no home at all.

    I think the point is that the Republican party is ostensibly about small government (being “conservatives”), but failed on that point, and is currently engaged in a campaign to destroy the intelligence and free thinking of our nation as a whole.

    Also, isn’t there a Libertarian party for small government proponents?

  • Elliot

    In some European countries, Germany most notably, children are tracked very early into blue collar, white collar, and academic funnels.

    I think in the U. S. that would be culturally unacceptable but I do think that there is a lot of inertia in the system that could use some fresh thinking.

    Here is an example of something I have never understood.

    In most Public High Schools, the normal science sequence is biology -> chemistry -> physics

    It seems to me that this is exactly the opposite of how it should be taught as chemistry naturally builds on physics (electron shells etc.) and biology naturally follows from chemistry.

    Is it only me who thinks we are doing it backwards?

    e.

  • Mike Schuler

    “I think in the U. S. that would be culturally unacceptable but I do think that there is a lot of inertia in the system that could use some fresh thinking.”

    Corporal punishment for children is no longer acceptable, but using drugs for behavior control is.

  • Michael Bacon

    REPUBLICAN CLASS (AND RACE?) WAR.

    “The Harvard-educated couple that the Democrats want to install in the White House are part of an elitist, “uppity” class, a Republican congressman said Thursday.
    Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a two-term Republican who represents some of Atlanta’s suburbs, commented about class when asked about the performances under pressure of his party’s vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the Democratic nominee’s wife, Michelle Obama, as they introduced themselves to the nation in their separate convention speeches.

    “Honestly, I’ve never paid that much attention to Michelle Obama,” Westmoreland said. “Just what little I’ve seen of her and Senator [Barack] Obama, is that they’re a member of an elitist class…that thinks that they’re uppity.”

    Palin was tough and mocking. This election is not going to be a cake-walk. I read so many people saying what “Obama” should do. You should give money to Obama if you can, and work for the campaign if you can.

  • rpl

    Sean,

    I’m a little puzzled by this post. You chose to title it “Where They Stand on Science,” but the bulk of the material you quote is about education. Education is not the same thing as science, not just because we educate students about other subjects besides science, and not only because we do science outside the scope of education, but also because education is bound up with the wants and needs of teachers, administrators, and government officials, not all of whose interests aligned with students 100% of the time. In light of that, it is entirely possible for two people who are both pro-science (whatever that means) to start with different assumptions about how the myriad actors in the educational system will respond to various incentives and to arrive at different conclusions about educational policy because of it.

    Moreover, you seem to accept without comment the (implied) claim that because “every educator I know considers [NCLB] to be a major FAIL,” then NCLB must be bad policy. However, if you admit the possibility that a policy could be good for students but bad for educators, then the opinion of educators tells us nothing about the quality of the program. We would expect them to oppose it whether it is good or bad.

    I also think you don’t exercise nearly enough skepticism about phrases like “making math and science education a national priority.” What does that mean, really? Are we going to up the standards for math and science in assessment tests? Provide extra funding earmarked for math and science (what should we spend it on?)? Take steps to erase the “nerdy” public image of math and science (how?)? Any of these might or might not fix the problem, but all would have unintended consequences of one sort or another. A promise that vague is at best a neutral factor in evaluating a candidate.

    In the end, I think your post shows a lot of muddled thinking, and no small measure of confirmation bias. The truth is, neither party is the party of science. As another poster stated, politicians care about one thing only, and that is getting elected. Science is usually a casualty, not a product, of this one overriding drive.

    Likewise, both parties are guilty of anti-intellectualism at times. One need look no further than the Clinton primary campaign to see it in action in the Democratic party; she made extensive use of it to attack Obama.

    Finally, I will grant you that lately the Republicans have been worse than the Democrats when it comes to opposing science, but I think it’s a mistake for us as scientists to assume that that makes the Democrats our friends. The minute science gores one of their sacred cows, you can expect them to dig in their heels and fight it. It’s what politicians do.

  • Chris W.

    Elliot (comment 32),

    The normal science sequence is biology -> chemistry -> physics probably because, roughly speaking, that represents a progression from concrete and particular to abstract or universal. Most people are more comfortable with the former than the latter. In addition, the statement of even simple principles in physics benefits from some (albeit not too much!) mathematical precision and formality, but most people are leery of that as well.

    Historically, one can say that physics grew out of a fusion of philosophy and metaphysics inherited from the Greeks with the vigorous new empiricism of the 17th and 18th century. A willingness to grapple with unifying abstractions that do not seem obviously consistent with the unanalyzed evidence of the senses was inherent in this fusion. Arguably this only appeals to a minority of students in the typical secondary or primary school. Of course, that might be simply a commentary on the uninspired teaching of science that most students are regrettably exposed to.

  • Elliot

    Chris,

    That is an interesting perspective. I was obviously focused on the hierarchy of complex systems instead of looking at it from the point of view of an observer of the world.

    But what you say does make sense.

    e.

  • Chris W.

    PS: To put it more succinctly, the teaching of science in schools tends to follow the path of least resistance.

  • Michael

    “I will grant you that lately the Republicans have been worse than the Democrats when it comes to opposing science, but I think it’s a mistake for us as scientists to assume that that makes the Democrats our friends.”

    rpl,

    The points you make are true only in the most abstract sense. Any fair summary of Republicans vs Democrats — the personal views of each party’s participants and supporters — would, I believe, demonstrate that among Republicans generally there is a much higher proportion of religious, superstitious and anti-intellectual thinking. Not just that, but it is something of which they are proud and use as wedge issues to win elections.

    Sure, both parties are bad in many respects. Sure, some of my best friends are Republicans. However, in an effort to give the appearance of objectivity “in the end, I think your post shows a lot of muddled thinking.”

  • rpl

    Michael,

    Your points are well-taken, but I have three quick observations:

    First, I’m not sure that the difference in religious and superstitious belief between the two parties is as stark as you believe. Surveys show that non-religious people are a minority in this country by a wide margin (which is why Democratic and Republican politicians alike make a public spectacle of their church attendance), so for Democrats and Republicans to be as close in national polls as they generally are, there must be a fair proportion of religious Democrats.

    Second, wedge issues are a staple of politicians everywhere. Indeed, if you take away the wedge issues, there is precious little daylight between the two parties’ platforms. Lately, Democrats have taken to using science as a wedge issue, and science always comes out the worse for it. For example, the 105th Congress passed the Byrd-Hagel resolution on global climate change by a vote of 95-0, which is about as bipartisan as you could ask for. Then, in the 2000 campaign Al Gore turned the issue of climate change into a political football, the battle lines were drawn, and the result was less progress on fighting climate change, not more. Politics wins, science loses, which is pretty much always the case when science and politics mix.

    Finally, do you dispute that Democrats would throw science under the bus in a heartbeat, if a scientific finding conflicted with a cherished plank in the Democratic platform? We’ve already seen plenty of anti-intellectualism in the Clinton campaign, but perhaps the Obama camp is different. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

    I suppose my thinking is a bit muddled, inasmuch as I am not even sure what I am trying to convince you of. Certainly I’m not suggesting anyone should vote Republican. I suppose it just bothers me to see so many of my friends and colleagues so willing to be duped. The pursuits of power and science are not consistent with one another, and we should never forget which one the political parties have chosen. In the end, I think we want to believe that there are good guys out there who will crusade for what we know to be right. Having identified the bad guys, we assume that the people who oppose them are the crusaders we seek. We then put away our “baloney detection kits” and give them a pass on any ridiculous thing they might say. I think that’s a mistake. I think it’s more important to debunk the ridiculous things espoused by “our” guys than the ones by “their” guys, and if you ever find yourself at a loss for something ridiculous from your favorite candidate, it’s then that you need to worry most that you’ve been taken in.

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  • John Knight

    I notice the Obama camp is running an ad criticizing McCain as “out of touch” because he allegedly does not use e-mail. Actually, McCain does use e-mail & is considered quite Net-savvy by those who know him. However, because of his war injuries to his hands & arms, it is physically painful for him to use a keyboard for any length of time.

    Criticizing a decorated veteran for his war injuries. Now that’s out of touch.

  • Elliot

    John,

    We don’t need the daily “talking points” memo from the McCain campaign cut and pasted for us. If we want to read them we can go to the campaign web site.

    Are you next going to tell us the story of how his loving wife Cindy sits there every night and types his e-mails for him?

    Stephen Hawking is in much worse physical shape than McCain and I personally saw him responding to an email himself. He was discussing climate change with Al Gore.

    e.

  • John Knight

    Elliot, thank you for illustrating the desperation of Obama supporters.

  • Elliot

    John,

    Check the latest polling numbers. Palin’s 15 minutes are up.

    e.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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