Blather from Kansas

In what may be the worst attempt ever to have your cake and eat it too, Sam Brownback offers this editorial explaining is contorted views on evolution and religion. While he makes some salient points:

The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.

But then asserts his ignorance by saying:

It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

Neither science in general or evolution in particular exclude the possibility of design or purpose. They do not require it, but they do not exclude it. These are crucial, not subtle differences. His rhetoric will do nothing to keep the rational public from continuing to believe he’s a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal. I expect his attempt to defer, at least somewhat, to science will not sit will with the hard-core creationists. His only accomplishment was perhaps to appease those who won’t read his diatribe too carefully or don’t care too much about the issue anyway. And those people likely won’t read his editorial, nor did they see the debate, and probably don’t know who Sam Brownback is in the first place.

Stick a fork in him…


One Short Amendment

The following Charles Krauthammer column sums up my views on the current immigration bill which just recently cleared the Senate. I’ve copied it below as the link requires registration.

The Amnesty Compromise Needs a Caveat

Friday, May 25, 2007; Page A19

As the most attractive land for would-be immigrants, America has the equivalent of the first 100 picks in the NBA draft. Yet through lax border control and sheer inertia, it allows those slots to be filled by (with apologies to Bill Buckley) the first 100 names in the San Salvador phone book.

The immigration compromise being debated in Congress does improve our criteria for selecting legal immigrants. Unfortunately, its inadequacies in dealing with illegal immigration — specifically, in ensuring that 10 years from now we will not have a new cohort of 12 million demanding amnesty — completely swamp the good done on legal immigration.

Today, preference for legal immigration is given not to the best and the brightest waiting on long lists everywhere on Earth to get into America, but to family members of those already here. Given that America has the pick of the world’s energetic and entrepreneurial, this is a stunning competitive advantage, stunningly squandered.

The current reform would establish a point system for legal immigrants in which brains and enterprise count. This is a significant advance. But before we get too ecstatic about finally doing the blindingly obvious, note two caveats:

(a) This new point system doesn’t go into effect for eight years — eight years of a new flood of immigrants chosen not for aptitude but bloodline. And who knows if a different Congress eight years from now will keep the current bargain?

(b) It’s not enough to just create a point system in which credit is given for education, skills and English competence. These points can be outweighed by points given for — you guessed it — family ties, which are already built into the proposed point system. There are already amendments on the Senate floor to magnify the value of being a niece rather than a nurse. ( Barack Obama is proposing to abolish the point system entirely in five years.) A point system can be manipulated to give far more weight to family than skills — until it becomes nothing but a cover for the old chain-migration system.

As for the bill’s provisions about illegal immigration, let’s not quibble: It grants the essentials of amnesty. True, there is a $5,000 fine (for a family of five!) attached to registering for legal status in the United States. But the truly significant penalty for illegal immigration is deportation — which undoes everything the immigrant has built in America. When the feds raid a sweatshop, the fear is not that the agent will grab you and yell, “We are here to collect a fine.” The fear is that he will yell, “We are here to deport you back to the subsistence and misery you fled in China.”

From the moment this bill is signed, every illegal alien who does not have a criminal record can register with the U.S. government for temporary legal status. Moreover, as soon as the president certifies that certain border enforcement triggers have been met, this cohort of 12 million becomes eligible for the new Z visa — renewable until death– which allows them to stay and work and travel and reenter.

This is amnesty — and I would be all in favor of it if I believed in the border enforcement mechanisms in this bill. If these are indeed the last illegal immigrants to come in, let us generously and humanely take them out of the shadows. But if we don’t close the border, that generous and humane gesture will be an announcement to the world that the smart way to come to America is illegally.

In this bill, unfortunately, enforcement at the border is all bureaucratic inputs and fancy gadgets: principally, a doubling of the Border Patrol to 28,000, lots of high-tech sensors and four unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). And 370 miles of fence — half of what Congress had mandated last year.

Does anyone imagine these will stop the flood? Four UAVs? And how does 370 miles of fence close a border of 2,100 miles? And if fences work (of course they do: look at the San Diego fence), why not build one all the way?

The amnesty is triggered upon presidential certification that these bureaucratic benchmarks are met — regardless of what is actually happening at the border. What vacuous nonsense. The trigger must be something real. I propose a single amendment, short and very concrete: “The amnesty shall be declared the morning after the president has certified (citing disinterested studies) that illegal immigration across the southern border has been reduced by 90 percent.” That single provision would guarantee passage of this comprehensive reform because most Americans would be glad to grant a generous amnesty — if they can be assured it would be the last.


The Assault on Reason

Borrowing from the title of Al Gore’s new book, and perhaps continuing yesterday’s rant on the decline of critical thinking skills in this country, I am focusing today on the decline of gray in this country. No, no… I know we’re all getting older and there is no shortage of gray hair. I won’t even argue the shortage of gray matter, since I think there’s plenty of it about – albeit often overly focused on Gamecube strategies and the fate of Anna Nicole’s baby.

Rather, I think we we need to regain the ability to see issues and arguments in shades of gray. The world is far too complex a place to see in black and white. Yet this is what we seem to demand, especially of public figures. Pick a side of the fence and stand firmly there. You’re either with or against us; so choose. Further, we seem intent on trying to interpret gray area positions as polar so that we can stand against them. The latest evidence comes courtesy of Mitt Romney.

John Edwards, who supports a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq, said he would keep the country safe by going “after terrorists where they are.”

Mitt Romney retorted,

“Remember that old Edmund Burke quote, it’s a famous quote, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ And that, I am afraid is the boiled down version of what John Edwards said, is that good men should do nothing. Put their head in the sand and hope it all goes away,”

This is clearly not what Edwards said. Edwards is taking a pretty rational middle of the road position. Yes, terrorists are a threat. Yes, we need to be vigilant against them. We need to continue and even increase efforts to take out terror cells at their roots. But he’s acknowledging the reality that the Iraq war has nothing to do with the war on terror and is in fact, defocussing what should be highly specific and direct action against actual terrorists.

Is Al Qaeda in Iraq? Yes, they are now. And they still will be once we pull back and stop trying to mitigate what is largely a civil war. Which is part of way we can’t just pull out entirely and go home. Al Qaeda is also in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and probably many other places. We can’t reasonably take on the government of every country in which they set up operations. Al Qaeda is opportunistic, and will exist where ever it’s easy and fruitful for them to be. Is our presence in Iraq focusing the Al Qaeda operations? Probably. But is it rational to hold a war in what was arguably a neutral 3rd party country just so we have a battlefield of operations with Al Qaeda? That’s more than a bit nuts. We could do them much more damage through covert activity, intelligence work, black ops, and surgical military strikes then we are doing with our massive and expensive efforts in Iraq. This is what Edwards is proposing.

However, Romney polarizes the issue. He wants to stay the course in Iraq. He positions the opposite as running home and sticking your head in the sand and doing nothing. Then asserts that if you are not with him, then you are obviously the polar opposite. This is like saying that I like to play Volleyball. If you don’t like to play volleyball, then you sit on the sofa all day and pick your nose. Then when I meet you, I can ask if you like to play volleyball. If you say no, I feel justified in my assertion that you are a nose-picking couch potato.

We’ve had enough of this sort of demonizing polar logic over the last 6 years. It’s time to recognize that the world is a pretty complicated place – way more complicated than can be conveyed in a 30 second TV spot. It’s high time we start acknowledging the people who do think deeply through the complexities. And it’s time we start showing the ones who pander to the sound bite to the door.


Creation Wins!!!

The Christian Academy Science Fair winners have been announced. Now most of the projects and awards sound like typical middle school science fair fare:

Lake Algae: How Best to Chemically Remove It.
What Is the Best Electroplating Material?
Does Calcium in Milk Strengthen Bones?
How Do Fears Change with Age?
Can We Build an Environmentally Friendly Electric Generator?
Can a Polarized Lens Affect a Digital Photograph?

Heck, my own 6th grader did his project this year on how fat content effects the melting rate of ice cream. And just a helpful hint… on a scorcher of a day, treat yourself to top quality heart-stopping artery-clogging ice cream to allow yourself the best opportunity for a drip free cone.

However, the science teachers at The Christian Science Academy should be taken out and flogged for not only allowing young Brian Benson to pursue his misguided project, but for then giving him First Place in the Life Sciences category.

Brian Benson, an eighth-grade student who won first place in the Life Science/Biology category for his project “Creation Wins!!!,” says he disproved part of the theory of evolution. Using a rolled-up paper towel suspended between two glasses of water with Epsom Salts, the paper towel formed stalactites. He states that the theory that they take millions of years to develop is incorrect.

“Scientists say it takes millions of years to form stalactites,” Benson said. “However, in only a couple of hours, I have formed stalactites just by using paper towel and Epsom Salts.”

The faults with this project are almost too numerous to mention. Let’s start with the fact that he won for Life Sciences despite his project having absolutely no biology content. Maybe then we could talk about the fact that evolution says absolutely nothing about stalactite formations (or anything else about geology for that matter).

But we’ll give the poor boy the benefit of the doubt and assume that what he was really trying to do was prove that the Earth was only a few thousand rather than a few billion years old. And we’ll ignore that even at the middle school level, students are expected to have their purpose, experiments, and conclusions at least all on the same topic for an acceptable (much less a winning) project.

Still, Epson salts are made of magnesium sulfate. Stalactites are made of calcium carbonate. There’s no reason the growth rate between these two substances should be the same. It would be like assuming that since I can bake a cake in 20 minutes that this should be ample roasting time for my holiday turkey.

And even then, the boy’s assertion about “millions of years” of growth are wrong. I would be very surprised if he got more than a couple inches of “stalactite” growth from his salts in a few hours. Let’s assume 2 inches. Stalactite growth is anywhere from 0.1cm/thousand years to much higher rates depending on conditions (acidity, moisture, etc.) Even at slow growth rates, this gets us a 2″ stalactite in hundreds of thousands of years, not millions. So his comparison numbers aren’t even in the right order of magnitude.

The point of a science fair is to encourage students to use the scientific process. It rarely results in original findings and often the topics are downright trite. But the key is whether or not the students were able to pose a question or a problem and then determine an answer using the proper method. This boy’s work fails miserably on those goals. It is nothing short of disingenuous for the faculty to have encouraged much less rewarded that behavior.

I’m sure young Brian was just picking up on the fairly common claim by creationists that the rapid growth of stalactites proves that the Earth could be much younger than scientists claim. And under the right circumstances, stalactite growth can be fairly quick (on a geologic time scale). But the claim that this proves the Earth is young is faulty logic. Under the right circumstances (four-leaf clover in both pockets, blue moon, lucky underpants on) I can sink a half-court shot with nothin’-but-net. That’s certainly no reason to expect that to be a typical outcome.

Creationists are free to believe what they will. Science is in no danger of being debunked by them. But by training children in this illogical approach to analysis are we raising a generation of kids doomed to be Enron accountants, Justice Department attorneys, and media spin doctors?? Kids who are predisposed to let the desired outcome drive the facts? Critical thinking and analysis skills are vital to many, if not most occupations. They are also pretty important in your personal life for things like making sound financial decisions and… well… voting. These skills are not limited to the realm of science. But they are learned in school under the banner of science.

If your school’s science curriculum is teaching your child that this crap passes for good science. Then I hope the English curriculum is teaching them to say clearly over a cheap loudspeaker, “You want fries with that?”