Entries Tagged as 'science'

Creationism Gains Ground in Tennessee

April 8th, 2011 at 2:43 am 74 Comments

Tennessee House Bill 368, buy the creationist friendly legislation that we have previously covered on FrumForum, help has passed through of the Tennessee House on a vote of 70-23. The Senate is expected to take up the bill for a vote on April 20th.

As many observers had feared, the bill passed successfully on a near-party line vote. 8 Democrats joined with 62 Republicans and one independent to vote in favor of the bill, while 22 Democrats voted against it.

WPLN News has a good collection of some of the statements that were made in support of the bill by lawmakers:

Anti-science rhetoric was common as the House debated the bill. Williamson County Representative Glen Casada says science proponents are intolerant of dissent.

“But there’s now the new religion of evolution. And they in turn are now trying to suppress questioning and free thought.”

Representative Sheila Butt, Republican from Columbia, says things she was taught in high school turned out to be untrue.

“I remember so many of us, when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aquanet hairspray. Do you remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming. That that aerosol in those cans was causing global warming.

Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can, because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays, and was keeping us from global warming.”

Representative Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, called the bill a return to common sense.

“And ever since the late ’50s and early ’60s, when we let the intellectual bullies hijack our education system, we’ve been on a slippery slope.”

Dr. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald, says a scientific theory is…well, more theory than science.

“Every theory is… just that, it’s a theory. And many scientific theories that we’ve heard from, that people claim, every scientist believes a certain theory, that’s certainly not true.”

One Republican did vote against the bill however, Representative Bob Ramsey. According to his website, Ramsey also holds a B.S. in Biology.


Creationism Makes a Comeback

March 30th, 2011 at 5:00 am 163 Comments

The wave of Republican victories in state legislatures has led to a more favorable environment for creationist friendly legislation to advance.  Most of those bills will die in committee but one that has the best chance of passing is an “Academic Freedom” bill currently being debated in the Tennessee legislature. The bill will empower and protect teachers who want to go off their curriculum and teach creationism or intelligent design in their classrooms.

Tennessee House Bill 368 is similar to a Louisiana “Academic Freedom Act” that became law in 2008. It passed out of the Tennessee General Sub-committee on  Education on March 16th with a near party line vote, site with eight Republicans and one Democrat voting for and four Democrats voting against. The bill was also approved in the House Education Committee on March 29th. Observers are concerned that the bill could become law if it continues gaining support along party lines.

The bill works on the assumption that teachers who want to explain the controversies in topics such as evolution are being bullied or suppressed. The bill’s main sponsor, stuff Representative Bill Dunn told FrumForum:

“It says to teachers, ‘if there are strengths and weakness in the theory or hypothesis you are teaching, and the weaknesses are based on scientific facts, you don’t deserve to be bullied because you present them.”

This is the key language from the bill which allows creationists to go off-curriculum:

Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught. …

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Steven Newton, a Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education believes that teachers sympathetic to creationism will learn of this law and use it as cover to bring creationist material in their classrooms: “Imagine a teacher who tells their class, ‘This textbook we’ve been using discussed the strengths of evolution, now we will discuss the weaknesses of evolution with the help of this video from the Discovery Institute.’”

For anyone who cares about teaching good science in schools, this law is obviously troubling but the real outrage is that Tennessee currently has an awful science curriculum. According to a study by NCSE, Tennessee gets a “D” grade for the quality of its science curriculum. The study notes that the Tennessee curriculum has an “improved treatment of evolution” (in 2000, the state received a grade of “F” when the Fordham Foundation measured it) but the study also adds that the state currently teaches “no human evolution.”

The irony is that in the past, creationist institutions and advocates used to be allies of laws and reforms which would give a stronger role for a parents choice in their child’s education, whether through voucher programs, charter schools, or even homeschooling. There is a logic to this approach: rather than tear towns and communities apart over protracted and agonizing legal battles, simply give parents the power to choose what education their child can have.

Laws such as HB 368, and other “academic freedom” bills are not about giving parents more options about where they can get their children educated. They are about empowering and protecting those creationists who are already in the public education system and are waiting to be given the legal cover to evangelize and teach bad science.

Follow Noah on Twitter: @noahkgreen


NASA Budget Grounds Space Probes

March 10th, 2011 at 8:00 am 8 Comments

For decades, generic there was debate among space exploration proponents about the relative merits of manned versus unmanned missions. Enthusiasts of sending astronauts argued that manned missions captured the public imagination in a way that robotic probes never could, decease besides serving the grand purpose of building a human future in space.

Space probe proponents, including many scientists, emphasized the lower costs and far greater scientific payoff of robotic missions. They also noted the daunting difficulty of sending humans to Mars, let alone to the outer solar system where probes already travel.

The debate is now effectively over, and both sides have lost. A cherished notion long held by many probe advocates — that cutting back human space exploration would free up money for the robotic version — turns out to have little practical meaning.

NASA’s manned space program is under much-noted budget pressure. The space shuttle fleet is winding down to its final missions, plans for a human return to the moon have been scrapped and it is unclear what combination of governmental and private-sector activities will enable human access to orbit in the coming years, or how successful such efforts will be.

The robotic space program, meanwhile, also faces a future of fiscal squeezes, political uncertainty and diminished expectations. The Obama administration’s 2012 budget proposal foresees NASA’s annual planetary science funding dropping from its current $1.36 billion to less than $1.2 billion in 2016. The Obama 2011 budget had projected the figure to rise to $1.6 billion by 2016.

Congressional Republicans show little interest in defending robotic space exploration. Rather, their focus has been on cutting NASA’s budget overall (and, with particular zest, slashing Earth climate science) or, among NASA defenders (often based in states such as Texas and Florida with large NASA facilities), on preserving funding for manned space missions. Space probes don’t show up as vividly on the political radar.

The National Research Council, which advises the government on science policy, just released a report setting priorities in planetary exploration. The report raised the possibility that NASA may need to scrap one or both of its “flagship” missions: the Mars Astrobiology Explorer Cacher, (MAX-C), aimed at determining the Red Planet’s past or present suitability for life; and the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO), focused on Jupiter’s moon Europa, which evidently has an ocean beneath its icy surface and thus too is a candidate for possible life.

Of course, times are tough all over and space probes cost money. Before taking the budget ax to robotic space exploration, though, consider how much it costs and what it achieves. Planetary science accounts for less than 10 percent of NASA’s budget, which in turn accounts for about 0.5 percent of the federal budget. For every $100 in federal spending, NASA gets about two quarters, and puts less than a nickel into space probes.

Until a few decades ago, humans knew little about the rest of the solar system. Now we have a wealth of data and images from Mercury to Neptune. The Voyager 1 probe, launched in 1977 for a tour of the outer planets, is still returning data from the edge of the solar system. Beginning with the Viking missions in 1976, we have been getting information directly from the surface of Mars, a place once relegated to science fiction. Probes have physically touched Jupiter’s atmosphere and Saturn’s moon Titan, among other celestial sites.

Gaining such knowledge and up-close pictures of our cosmic environs is unprecedented in history. Besides being enlightening, it provides practical benefits, such as technological advances (as when digital image processing for probes helped give rise to CAT scans) and insights into Earth science (as when Venus’ greenhouse effect raised questions about our own). Furthermore, robotic space probes are vital for building human capital. What kind of scientific and technological workforce would the U.S. have without the educational tools and interest in science generated by planetary exploration?

Don’t let space probes get crushed in Washington’s gravitational field.


Will GOP Give Climate Science a Fair Shake?

March 8th, 2011 at 10:59 am 22 Comments

House Democrats persuaded Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) to hold a hearing today on climate science. At a time when bipartisan gestures are hard to come by, I suppose that this hearing should be viewed as a positive development.

It’s too bad that any credible testimony on climate science is likely to fall on deaf ears in a subcommittee that is stacked with a veritable who’s who of GOP climate change skeptics and shills for fossil fuel interests.

Chief among these is Joe Barton (R-TX) who last week summed up his view on carbon emissions by saying:

I expel carbon dioxide at about 40,000 parts per million … so how in the world can that be a pollutant?

Perhaps someone should point out to Congressman Barton that he, like everyone else, also emits methane and fecal coliform bacteria. Would he use the same logic to argue that those are not pollutants?

There will be a few well-respected climate scientists on hand, such as Dr. Richard Somerville and Dr. Christopher Field, who could set Mr. Barton straight—unfortunately they were invited by the Democrats.

The Republican witness list includes two well-worn contrarians, Dr. John Christy and Dr. Roger Pielke, who basically assert that predicting future climate change is a futile and worthless endeavor, or that there is nothing mankind can do to effectively address it. Thankfully their “can’t do” attitude was not shared by scientists of the past who have cured diseases, sent men to the moon, or helped solve past pollution problems.

The GOP list also curiously enough includes Dr. Donald Roberts. Dr. Roberts is not a climate scientist, but rather a professor of tropical medicine who happens to be a huge fan of the pesticide DDT.  He actually wrote a book on DDT called The Excellent Powder and blames the environmental movement for its banning in the U.S. and sparse use around the world.

Ideally, congressional hearings should represent an honest search for facts by open-minded lawmakers who want to make informed policy decisions.

At a House Science Committee hearing last November, then Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) encouraged climate scientists to welcome the coming GOP led hearings, saying:

Those will be difficult hearings…But I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.

The only hitch in that wise advice is that teachers need students who are willing to learn.

In all likelihood today’s hearing will be nothing more than an adversarial dog and pony show where scientific facts meet impenetrable hard heads, narrow minds and ill-conceived smoke screens.

For all of the efforts of GOP lawmakers to wrap themselves in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, they fail to emulate the resolve for problem solving and thirst for knowledge that led him to heed the warnings of climate scientists and address ozone depletion.

Reagan fully understood his obligations as a public servant and what the stakes were. He articulated this well in his famous 1964 A Time for Choosing speech:

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.

If the Republicans at today’s climate hearing want to justify their brief moment here, a nice step in the right direction would be to open their minds and learn from the real climate experts in the hearing room—no matter who invited them.