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Education United States Science

The Problem With Congress's Scientific Illiterates 509

Lasrick (2629253) writes "Brian Merchant at Motherboard examines the March 26th House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's 2015 budget request hearing. White House adviser Dr. John Holdren addressed the committee to defend funding for science programs. Video clips show comments that are difficult to believe, when you hear them. From the article: '"So, when you guys do your research, you start with a scientific—what do they call it—postulate or theory, and you work from that direction forward, is that right?" Representative Randy Weber (R-TX) said. "So, I'm just wondering how that related, for example, to global warming and eventual global cooling." He paused to make a joke about getting the scientists' cell phone number so he could call to ask when to buy a coat, before concluding that science just isn't up to the task.'"
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The Problem With Congress's Scientific Illiterates

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  • by Assmasher ( 456699 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @07:40PM (#46655959) Journal


    Please note that I didn't say blame Christianity, or fundamentalists, I said blame dominionism.

    Their goal is to subvert and abuse the very words people use to describe things like 'science' (i.e. 'historical science'), 'liberty', and 'freedom.' They want nothing to do with science and they're spending amazing amounts of money electing people who are willing to espouse their causes - anything to get elected.

  • Re:Idiocracy (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Gavrielkay ( 1819320 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @08:31PM (#46656447)
    The problem is more fundamental than that. It is us as Americans. The politicians know their market very well, and in fact pay lots of money to mold the market into ever more gullible sheep. Most Americans have a cursory education in science at best. We've got it drilled into us to treat everything we don't want to hear with skepticism and to think elections are pointless because they're all losers so we may as well vote for the one with the most TV ads.

    Until Americans stop considering educated people to be elitist and stop voting for the guy they'd want to sit next to at an outdoor bar-b-que, you aren't going to get anything fixed.
  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03, 2014 @08:31PM (#46656451)

    The point isn't to fix them.
    The goal is to ridicule them, shut them up, use them as an example that scares students into paying attention in school and then actually voting, and then to replace them in future elections.

    It's not going to turn into a better world without large-scale attempts at education, so don't give up just because this particular turd is un-flushable.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @08:59PM (#46656657) Homepage Journal

    I was making just this point about the Supreme Court striking down limits on campaign contributions. The Romans never quite admitted to themselves that their republic was defunct. They remained deeply attached to republican forms and institutions, even when those things had withered to ceremonial appendages of a corrupt imperial state. It was necessary for people to go through the motions of democracy; the ambitious plutocrats needed to maintain the fiction they were serving Rome, when in fact Rome was serving them.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:09PM (#46656725)

    Your comment is anti science considering that the facts say otherwise [].

  • Re:Idiocracy (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:15PM (#46656771)

    In business, if a manager doesn't know their product, their market, the employees and the job - they are junk.

    A few weeks back I was talking with a reasonably famous scientist about the problem of administrative overhead: that it's increasingly common for scientists to be a situation where it would be technically feasible to perform some interesting experiment on a time scale of weeks but that getting the necessary administrative approvals can easily take months or even years. And he said, yes, that it often happens that the administrators forget that they work for us (the scientists).

    I actually watched some of the hearing and what was striking to me is that the politicians were doing a lot more talking than listening. Real science is about exploring the unknown - like a maze of paths through an unexplored forest. Sometimes you really want to go forward but the way forward is blocked. Other times you discover easy paths to exciting new discoveries that you didn't expect. If the leaders aren't listening to the scientists on the ground then the process will be incredibly inefficient - efforts focused on paths that are obviously (to the scientists) blocked while ignoring exciting new directions.

    For example, this year the price of whole genome sequencing has fallen to about $1,500 and all you need is about a milliliter of saliva that can be mailed to the sequencing facility at room temperature. Now the best sequencing facility is in Korea and the best tubes are made in Canada . So the USA isn't exactly out in front on this. But it's now technologically possible to sequence every newborn at birth. This is an incredible opportunity to detect all kinds of rare genetic disorders at birth - what's needed is the software analysis pipelines. And I wouldn't necessarily expect the general public in the USA to be aware of this.

    But in an ideal world, the political leaders would be sufficiently tuned into (listening) to the scientists to know what's going on. Instead you have Obama's FDA shutting down 23andMe with all kinds of inane bureaucracy. If some kid was suspected of having a brain tumor and the parent wanted to do some exporatory surgery on the dining room table with a set of power tools and instructions provided by 23andMe then I'd say, sure, shut 'em down. But what if some kid is suspected of having a genetic condition and the parent wants to look through the kid's genome on his personal computer with some tools provided by 23andMe? I mean, yeah, the parent probably isn't going to be successful and, in the ideal world, it would be easy for the parent to get some help from someone with a PhD in molecular genetics. But where's the harm?

    If the fundamental problem is lack of access to the PhD in molecular genetics then listen to the scientists and solve that problem! Don't just crush the (USA's) future with inane FDA bureaucracy.

  • GMO crops (Score:2, Interesting)

    by globaljustin ( 574257 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:22PM (#46656827) Journal

    that link is about GMO doesn't have any Democrats being "anti-science" in any way whatsoever...

  • by globaljustin ( 574257 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:27PM (#46656873) Journal

    Again, AC has posted that link saying it somehow is evidence of Democrats being "anti-science"....ITS NOT...

    the link is a Nytimes article about GMO crops...opposing or regulating GMO crops is not anti-science in any way...maybe anti-factory farming...but not "science"

    link above is not counter-evidence

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by al0ha ( 1262684 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:31PM (#46656909) Journal
    >> most of this country is horribly undereducated and ignorant of how the world actually works.

    Yep and that is part of the cloaked Right Wing agenda that is turning the US into an oligarchy. Every politician since time imemorial has stated education is their top priority, but the facts of the state of the educational system in America proves they are liars, every one of them. Now the worst of the Bush II Presidency has just been revealed with the latest Supreme Court ruling on money in politics.

    In the government and in politics it's far worse than simple ignorance of scientific fact, there is active anti-truth campaigns funded by big money Super PACs. Now with the recent Supreme Court folly the Tea Party and other scientific denier whackos will have even more Super PAC money to continue their dirty work in the name of the 1%.

    Our only hope to continue as a true Democracy is to figure out how to use the Internet to get money out of politics completely. That is what every brilliant mind should be working towards if we want any hope for the future generations.
  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by flaming error ( 1041742 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @09:35PM (#46656953) Journal

    " I can keep shooting you down all day"
    Perhaps you could. Shoot down Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I'll join your team.

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bill_mcgonigle ( 4333 ) * on Thursday April 03, 2014 @10:40PM (#46657427) Homepage Journal

    CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Not the most potent, but the primary driver.

    Except for water vapor. That's why it's so important to get the cloud response models right. CO2 molecules last longer than water vapor molecules, but if the amount of water vapor increases permanently then that distinction becomes less important.

    Since the industrial revolution began,
    a) Atmospheric CO2 has gone from 280 ppm to 400 ppm (40% increase)
    b) ocean pH has gone down 0.1 (30% increase in acidity).

    Indeed. One unanswered question is why the current spike started in 1830 (see Scripp's sea bed sediment research). That's the year the first train service started in the UK, but Faraday wouldn't discover electromagnetic current until the next year. The next few decades would see the invention of gasoline, concrete, steel, and electrical generation on a large scale, but there just wasn't that much new emission happening in 1830 as compared with the preceeding decades. This kind of increase should be very linear and the ocean response should be similar. Yet we have this spike that's yet to be properly explained.

    The core science is not in dispute. It is accepted by every established scientific association on the planet, for every branch of science.

    Some people claim to know exactly what's going to happen and why. Others claim to know when. But nobody really knows how the atmospheric system works fully yet - none of the models are great predictors yet. We still need better models - even the people who think they have the best models are still writing grants to build better ones!

    It's basically accepted by everyone except one political faction in one scientifically illiterate country.

    What's accepted? Surely not that we're done with the science! Be careful of people who have religion at either extreme of such debates.

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by umafuckit ( 2980809 ) on Thursday April 03, 2014 @10:54PM (#46657519)

    It would be tolerable if these people were just conspiracy nuts ala the "moon landing were faked" folks. We could laugh at them and move on with our lives. These people, however, are in seats of power in the government and are making big decisions about scientific funding.

    And they're there because they were voted in by people who sympathise with these views. We get the government we deserve because, as a nation, the bulk of the US is scientifically illiterate. There will continue to be illiterates in power as long as the people are illiterate. Somehow we need to find a way to promote science as a way of thinking and do so without hurting the feelings of the religious right.

  • no problem (Score:2, Interesting)

    by stenvar ( 2789879 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @12:16AM (#46657939)

    The idea that government should be based in a significant way on science is a hallmark of progressivism. In politics, science is just used as an excuse by special interest groups to push their agenda; what passes for science is often simply speculation or guesswork couched in scientific terms. Or, as in the case of climate change, a kernel of scientific truth, a lot of speculation, and a complete neglect of economic and moral issues.

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by artor3 ( 1344997 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @12:17AM (#46657941)

    Somehow we need to find a way to promote science as a way of thinking and do so without hurting the feelings of the religious right.

    No, see, that's the problem. You're aiming at the wrong group. These congressmen aren't ignorant because they're religious. They're ignorant because certain entrenched interests pay them ENORMOUS SUMS OF MONEY to remain ignorant. You can never, ever compete with that. No education, no promotion of science, will ever make a dent.

    If you want it to get better, you need to get serious campaign finance reform. And that can't happen until you get rid of the current SCOTUS. Which means that our one and only chance to fix this is in the next presidential election, since the winner might, maybe get to replace a conservative justice. If we get a Republican president, Scalia and Kennedy will retire, and we will be damned to another 20 years of oligarchy.

    If we manage to get a Democratic president, Scalia and Kennedy will try to hold on as long as they can.

    Absolute best case scenario (barring a miracle heart attack), we might be able to start fixing this around 2025.

    It will probably be too late by then.

  • by globaljustin ( 574257 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @02:03AM (#46658333) Journal

    LOOK AT POLICY VOTES...that's all that matters to this discussion...Republicans oppose science and prop up Oligarchy

    the only time the GOP cares about science is when it can enrich their corporate donors

    the GOP votes to:

    > put creationism in textbooks
    > defund research
    > deny global warming

    You have no answer for these and the countless other ways Republicans are anti-science

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by VortexCortex ( 1117377 ) <VortexCortex AT ... trograde DOT com> on Friday April 04, 2014 @03:48AM (#46658763)

    Then there are those who grew up as scientists then wondered why the scientific method wasn't used for all policy and law, then looked into the systems of governance and found them defective by design largely due to gerrymandering. [] That's a process whereby your votes do not matter anymore because whomever draws district outlines selects the winners (Protip: don't register as a party [they ask at the DMV] nor answer political surveys unless your population is nomadic). Some places are trying to fix this particular blatant exploit of our democratic-republic, but found the powers that be one step ahead so our vote tallies themselves have been hacked. [] And now that we don't have paper ballots to verify the insecure digital tally with, we might as well just ask the NSA or CIA or FBI to appoint people they like.

    Speaking of which, if you apply a bit of observational power you'll discover those secret agencies answer to no one and have a long history of silencing any form of activism [] -- you know, because protest was the only avenue left to affect the government. It's hard for a scientist to survive mentally in a country that's hell bent on leveraging disaster capitalism [] regardless of public benefit: Humans will do whatever it takes to survive the disasters our government plans for us [] -- including compete for lower wages offered by immortal corporations.

    Some of us have taken a step back, done some calculations and realized that some fights are entirely unwinnable: We've got to the point where the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment allows a senator to read a passage from the bible and declare it as proof man can't change the climate -- only god can. [] Listen up, newbie, that's corporate oil interest speaking, leveraging religious fundamentalism against science from the very panels addressing climate change -- What can you do? Replace them and get a new panel bought off? It's not just congress, your executive and legislative branches are sock-puppet parades too. The government fights wars at the behest of corporations and Habeas Corpus has been revoked, FFS. It's not that everyone is stupid and we're "getting what we voted for"; The 'republic' part of our democratic-republic is designed to fix that: The dumb elect folks who are smarter, but our forefathers didn't count on the majority of congress being corrupt so the whole system became utterly broken. They did leave us the option to call an emergency session of congress and wield a vote of no-confidence, so next time you see the "fire congress" carousel go round, hop on board (not that it'll fix anything, but it'll scare some straight).

    So, what? Organize some activism and try to fix the illegitimate rulership system that has benefited the powerful all too well for well over a hundred years? Then you're an "anti-government extremist" / terrorist, and the plan to silence that disastrous shit is already so firmly in place they can keep the worst of it even if PRISM is leaked to the public. To me the innefectual occupy movement was a test to see how quickly the elites and FBI will work their magic on the police to silence dissent, and to see how effectively the news is controlled by corporate statist interests. [] There were protesters shoulder to shoulder filling a large swath of Wall Street one day of the protest and the local news in my southern town mentioned nothing. Days later I had to pull up video and images of the event to convince my clueless friends and neighbors it even happened. They scratched their heads, "Why wasn't this on the news then?" -- indeed. Can you

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) * on Friday April 04, 2014 @07:37AM (#46659585)

    That said, let's not get sidetracked by the breeder-vs-DINK arguments. We have one very simple, fundamental problem with getting scientifically-literate people in office:

    None run.

    That's because, for the most part, they're well aware of the fact that they're unelectable. I myself would be interested in running for local office, but

    1. a) my platform would be too logically-consistent (and therefore "non-mainstream" compared to the standard Democrat or Republican platform),
    2. b) I'm not charismatic enough to get sufficient funding in using grass-roots campaigning,
    3. c) as a consequence of both previous points, I wouldn't be able to get endorsements or funding in the "traditional" (party-backed) way either, and
    4. d) solving any of the previous issues -- not to mention, doing the "wheeling and dealing" required to be effective after getting into office -- would require altering my character in a way that I am not able, let alone willing, to do.

    I strongly suspect most scientifically-inclined people run into the same problems. Even if one were to overcome them, the best one could hope for is to match Jimmy Carter. He managed to make it to the Presidency, sure, but the widely-held view (deservedly or not; it doesn't really matter) is that he kind of sucked at it...

  • by Overzeetop ( 214511 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @08:42AM (#46659867) Journal

    On the contrary - you come up with a hypothesis and then you test to see if that hypothesis is true.

    You make guesses from observations, such as "God strikes down the unworthy" and then you attempt to find worthy people and unworthy people and follow them to see whether the unworthy are striken down in supernatural events at a statistically greater rate than those who are worthy. By using a second set of scientists or clergy who are unfamiliar with your research, you can sort into various forms of unworthiness to see if there is a type bias - sexually deviant, unfaithful, unrepentant, vanity, boastfulness, and others. Your belief that certain unworthiness will result in smiting by a deity is then tested and you review your data.

    You may find that God's wrath is not statistically biased towards the unrepentant sinner. Being wrong isn't a problem in science - it's just a path to being right. So, for instance, if you find that your original hypothesis that God strikes down the unworthy is not just incorrect, but backwards. If it seems the virtuous are more likely to get stricken down, and that those of greatest natural virtue are our youth, you can then present this. It may, in fact, then be used to change behavioral patterns and encourage participation in activities. The great researcher into this particular effect, Billy Joel, was instrumental in bringing this research to light, indicating in one of his more widely distributed papers "only the good die young."

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cusco ( 717999 ) <brian.bixby@gma i l . c om> on Friday April 04, 2014 @09:31AM (#46660219)

    The author of TFA assumes that the congresscritters don't act because they are uninformed, that perhaps with the adequate education they would change their minds. He's wrong. It's not that they don't understand the science, it's that they don't CARE what the long-term affects would ever be. Climatologists say things like "within a century" and "in 50 years", which clues the pols that they don't HAVE to give a shit since they'll be out of office and maybe dead by then. They are, as a herd, immensely self-centered and short-term thinkers. The only way to get them to act is to somehow demonstrate to them the IMMEDIATE value of action, how either they're going to get a lot more money or a lot more power by acting. Want Inhofe to act? Promise him the presidency if he does, or offer him the chairmanship of a bank. No other incentive would ever work, and he wouldn't give a flying fuck whether he understood the science or believed in the climatologists' conclusions.

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @09:37AM (#46660253) Homepage

    I don't oppose improvements to education, but New York state's implementation of Common Core is worse than the old way, not better.

    I didn't want to get into this here, but...

    First off, it gives teachers scripts that they must follow. For this ten minutes, you need to say these words to the students in this manner and ask them this exact question using this exact example. They must answer you in this exact way. Next, you must move on to this topic in this manner. There's no room for teachers to adjust their teaching techniques to either assist kids who'd learn the material in a different way or to help advance kids who are ahead of grade level. All kids *MUST* learn in the exact same way.

    Secondly, EngageNY is idiotic with math. There's no more working with numbers. If you have 1.62 divided by 0.27, you don't actually do the math. Instead, you draw 162 little boxes. Then you circle them in groups of 27. Then you count how many circled groups there are to get your answer. This doesn't teach kids how to do math and, even worse, it doesn't scale. What if the problem was 1.625 divided by 0.25? Would they need to draw over 1,600 boxes?

    Thirdly, the high stakes tests are tied to teachers' jobs. If their kids do poorly, the teacher could be booted. So any chance the teacher would stray from the provided curriculum is reduced. The teacher MUST teach to the test because any time spent on non-test preparation increases the chance that their kids will fail. Add in the fact that the content of the tests is super-secret. Nobody is allowed to see them except the students taking them. Not parents, teachers, administrators. Nobody. The tests are taken, mailed to Pearson where they are graded and destroyed. Then the scores are released. How does knowing that Johnny had a grade of X help the teacher teach Johnny if you don't know what he got right and what he got wrong?

    Finally, this constitutes an attempt by corporations to take over and profit from education. The big supporters of this curriculum are big corporations who will profit quite nicely over it. (Bill Gates Foundation, Pearson, Wal-Mart, etc.) I don't trust big corporations to write a "one size fits all" curriculum that will help my boys succeed. In fact, since they make more money off a kid who fails than one who passes (additional books, courses to help students/teachers/administrators, etc), they have a monetary interest in kids failing.

    Don't mistake change for improvement. There are plenty of ways you can change education to improve it. Common Core/EngageNY/High Stakes testing is *NOT* one of those ways.

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Artifakt ( 700173 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @09:44AM (#46660305)

    Right now, as the very end of the tax season looms, I have exactly 20 clients scheduled who I know are engineers. 10 of them are my usual clients, and 10 of them did their own taxes last year and assumed that they were smart enough to figure it out, and got an IRS letter for their trouble. I've already heard three rants about the stupid, stupid government designing forms that the smart engineer can't use, and have two clients who are swearing they will go to prison for life rather than yield an inch on their interpretation of the regulations. One of those last has the soon to be ex wife's lawyers to deal with over what he tried to do last year and they already have a court order restricting his filing times and methods so they can get copies in time to file their own cleint on time. He's actually argued with an IRS agent on the phone, telling him that being required to divulge to his wife whether he has taken itemized deductions or not is unconstitutional and he has half a mind to punch the agent in the snoot, and because of that, I have already gotten a formal letter requesting I disclose any information I have indicating if he poses an actual threat before he goes in for an in person hearing. This guy is the first to brag about how much smarter he is than these dummies who make up most of my customers, and of course, the IRS.
              I get these persons referred to me because they usually ask something along the lines of whether anybody at the firm has a science or engineering degree or experience. I usually work corporate, and only take a few individual clients a year outside my old regulars. This has been an unfortunate year where I've wasted many of the spare slots on people I don't partcularly want as regular customers.We will be refusing service in the future to some of these people before this is over (and the firm's only actual lawyer partner is strongly recommending we should refuse service to a certain one this year despite what will obviously be a lawsuit if he stays out of prison long enough to file it - we are not real big about one of our phone numbers being used to make a threating call).
              When you say "one of the huge problemss...", I don't think it's hyperbole. . .

  • Re:Don't bother. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by microbox ( 704317 ) on Friday April 04, 2014 @10:21AM (#46660577)
    I don't believe that stupidity comes from "not knowing", as you suggest. It is more a case that moral values drive a world view that "facts" are shoe-horned into. And if you're wrong about the facts, then that is like being a bad person -- and almost everyone thinks of themselves as a good person.

    Examples: patriarchy is socially constructed, because otherwise women will be oppressed for ever. (Obviously fallacious.)

    Whether or not vaccines cause autism, they are unnatural, and harm the body's natural ability to fight disease. (Obviously fallacious.)

    Global warming must be wrong because it is immoral for the government to interfere with the economy. (Obviously fallacious.)

    Every hot button issue I've ever encountered has this quality to it. And the very same psychological defense mechanisms are always present. For example, we all see ourselves as "nuanced" and "reasonable", so it must be the other guy who is an ideologue. Projection, denial, externalization and intellectualism all derive from the need to resolve this type of cognitive dissonance, and at the heart of it all is the notion of what is "right" and "sacred" and must be protected -- which itself seems to be quite arbitrary.

    Just my 2 cents.

Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that in the last analysis the entire field of psychology may reduce to biological electrochemistry.