Missouri Legislature v. Gravity

I suppose it was only a matter of time before the War on Science came back to my home state of Missouri. Let’s take a look at House Bill 1266, creationists’ latest attempt to attack the teaching of evolution. This bill is so bad, it would require that Intelligent Falling be taught side-by-side with gravity.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at what the bill says. It starts off with some unusual definitions:

170.025. 1. This section shall be known and may be cited as the “Missouri Science Education Act”.

2. As used in this section, the following terms mean:

(1) “Substantive”, equal to or greater than. Each public school district may modify or expand this definition as necessary within the meaning of substantive for local use;

We haven’t even gotten to the science bits yet and already we’re given a head-scratcher. Apparently 3 is substantive 2? Someone needs to point the legislature to Dictionary.com — “substantive” is not a comparison operator!

Yes, the rest of the bill makes it more clear what the intent behind this definition is, but still.

(2) “Verified empirical data”, information representing physical reality based upon repeated independent human observation, measurement, and experimentation with consistent results. Verified empirical data is without significant inference and is not theory, hypothesis, conjecture, speculation, estimated data, extrapolated data, or consensus of scientific opinion.

We then define a new term which seems to just mean “raw experimental data” without any interpretation or analysis applied to it. A cursory Google search for the term shows the top hits are all references to this or similar proposed legislation, so this isn’t some pre-existing scientific term. But at least this definition isn’t sheer nonsense.

You may be wondering why the bill defines a new term for “raw experimental data” when “raw experimental data” seems just as good. Patience.

Now the set-up:

3. Public elementary and secondary school science teacher instruction for sixth grade through twelfth grade courses in physics, chemistry, biology, physical science, earth science, and other natural science courses shall comply with the following best practices, subject to the availability of teaching material but no later than five years after the effective date of this section:

(1) Teacher classroom instruction shall use the following best practices to support the truthful identity of scientific information and minimize misrepresentation while promoting clarity, accuracy, and student understanding:

All right, best practices! Who wouldn’t want teachers to use best practices in the science curriculum? Gee, I wonder just what those “best practices” are…

(a) Information that appears to be verified empirical data, but is not, shall be identified to distinguish it as separate from verified empirical data. Verified empirical data needs no specific identification. Inability to determine if specific information is verified empirical data shall not invalidate such best practice;

So, anything presented as raw experimental data must actually be raw experimental data, right? It seems pretty hard to object to that; fudging such data would set a bad example for students. I’m reminded of an anecdote from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! where, when giving a talk about why Brazilian science education is a failure, Feynman takes a science textbook being used and points to the only time when experimental data is presented to demonstrate a topic. But he points out that the numbers are faked — had the authors actually performed the experiment, they would’ve gotten completely different results.

But hang on; is this possibility really what the bill is trying to address? There’s that phrase again: “verified empirical data.” Sure, we defined it to mean “raw experimental data,” but it sounds a lot more like “things we can demonstrate are true,” doesn’t it? As opposed to “unsubstantiated guesses,” I guess. Surely creationist legislation wouldn’t try to exploit confusion in terminology to their benefit, right? After all, it’s not like they ever use “theory” in its colloquial meaning of “guess” and not its scientific meaning of “a falsifiable model that predicts observable phenomena.”

(b) Information representing scientific thought such as theory, hypothesis, conjecture, speculation, extrapolation, estimation, unverified data, consensus of scientific opinion, and philosophical belief shall be identified to distinguish it as separate from verified empirical data;

Wow, am I psychic or what? The bill wants to keep “verified empirical data” distinct from “theory.” If we’re being careful with our definitions, this seems so obvious as to be silly to even mention; how could you possibly confuse raw experimental data with a falsifiable model that makes predictions about observable phenomena? The latter makes predictions of what we expect to see in the former, but they’re hardly the same thing.

And look at the company that “theory” keeps in that sentence. Hypothesis. Conjecture. Speculation. Extrapolation. Estimation. Unverified data. Consensus of scientific opinion. Philosophical belief. You don’t suppose they’re trying to improperly conflate scientific theories with guesses, do you?

(2) Teacher classroom instruction shall use the following best practices to support the objective teaching of scientific information and minimize dogmatism while promoting student inquiry, healthy skepticism, and understanding:

Isn’t it cute how creationist legislation is careful to explicitly state it’s trying to “minimize dogmatism”? Almost as though reading the rest of the bill would lead to the opposite conclusion….

(a) When information other than verified empirical data is taught representing current scientific thought such as theory, hypothesis, conjecture, speculation, extrapolation, estimation, unverified data, consensus of scientific opinion, and philosophical belief, such information shall be within the purview of critical analysis and may be critically analyzed. Critical analysis includes the teaching of anomalous verified empirical data, contrary verified empirical data, missing supporting data, inadequate mechanisms, insufficient resources, faulty logic, crucial assumptions, alternate logical explanations, lack of experimental results, conflicting experiments, or predictive failures where applicable;

Wait. We’re teaching “verified empirical data”, a.k.a. “raw experimental data”? That doesn’t make sense at all. Raw data, by itself, tells us nothing about the world around us. When I pushed a 5 kg block with 14 N of force, it accelerated by 2.8 m/s2 in the direction of the force. So what? That tells me nothing about what will happen if I push the object with a different amount of force, or if I push a different object, or if I pull instead of pushing, or even if I try doing the exact same thing again. That one piece of raw experimetal data tells me nothing useful.

It’s not until raw experimental data is integrated into a theory that it becomes scientifically useful. I can try my experiment with different masses and forces, and from looking at the data I collect I can hypothesize a relation among the force, mass, and acceleration. Then I can test that hypothesis by using it to predict what will happen under different conditions, and see if it works. As more and more predictions are verified, we have a theory supported by raw experimental data which we can use to predict new data. Knowing that F = m a tells us far more than a pile of raw data ever will.

Of course the theory or model isn’t the same as the raw experimental data; it represents our understanding of how the natural world works. As science progresses our theories become better and better approximations of reality as we collect new data and refine our theories. (F = m a works pretty well, until you start getting close to the speed of light.) That’s the scientific method in a nutshell.

But when you look at the bill, that’s not the picture it presents about science at all. It distinguishes between raw data and theory, but with the intention of calling the raw data good and reliable and the theory unreliable and full of holes. No theory is perfect, but that hardly means that every theory has a scientifically viable alternative or is on the verge of collapse.

(b) When information other than verified empirical data is taught representing current scientific thought such as theory or hypothesis regarding phenomena that occur in the future or that occurred previous to written history, a critical analysis of such information shall be taught in a substantive amount. If a theory or hypothesis of biological origins is taught, a critical analysis of such theory or hypothesis shall be taught in a substantive amount.

You know, just in case it wasn’t clear the primary target here is evolution.

Particularly disturbing here is the mention of “phenomena that occur in the future” as something needing so-called “critical analysis”. Anything in science that makes predictions about the future — in other words, everything in science — should be viewed with the same suspicion the creationists levy against evolution. The very notion that we can learn about the world around us by observing it is repugnant to creationists.

We also see here the appearance of that curiously defined term “substantive”. Not only do we have to “teach the controversy” (invented or otherwise) about every single scientific theory presented, but we have to exert effort “equal to or greater than” that used to present the science. Not only do you have to criticize evolution (amongst other things), but you better spend at least as much time doing so, if not more, than you do actually teaching evolution!

In other words, at least 50% of the science curriculum must be aimed at dismantling science. Creationism, of course, need not have any scrutiny applied to it whatsoever.

4. No public elementary or secondary school science teacher shall be refused employment, disciplined, denied advancement, transferred, or otherwise discriminated against for teaching in accordance with the best practices in subsection 3 of this section within the time allotted the affected subject matter by the course curriculum.

Just in case you’re a school that does care about science education, you can’t do anything about it. Even if a teacher’s sole scientific “credential” is believing science is an evil liberal plot to destroy America, you can’t do a thing to stop him or her from indoctrinating students in the science classroom.

5. The state commissioner of education shall ensure that any assessment or competency testing of public elementary and secondary school pupils for academic performance used by the state and whose content may be modified by the state complies with the best practices in subsection 3 of this section by the proper identification of scientific information and critical analysis. If questions regarding information within the purview of paragraph (b) of subdivision (2) of subsection 3 of this section are included in a test, questions regarding critical analysis of such information shall be included in a substantive amount.

And just in case students do learn science despite the legislature’s best efforts, at least 50% of any science test must focus on alleged criticisms of science.

Now, what would a lesson on gravity entail under these science standards?

Let’s start with some “verified empirical data,” since the science standards love them so much. Pick up the textbook, drop it on the floor. Verified Empirical Datum #1: When I stood at this exact spot and let go of this exact book at that exact moment of time, it fell to the floor. Pick up a stapler, drop it on the floor. Verified Empirical Datum #2: When I stood at this exact spot and let go of this exact stapler at that exact moment of time, it fell to the floor. Pick up a pencil, drop it on the floor. Verified Empirical Datum #3: When I stood at this exact spot and let go of this exact pencil at that exact moment of time, it fell to the floor.

Now the so-called theory of Newtonian gravity. Some elitist (who wasn’t even American) claimed that every two objects in the universe exert an attractive gravitational force on each other directly proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Better jump ahead to the “best practices”:

  • “Anomalous verified empirical data”: The Moon goes around the Earth. Scientists say this is because of gravity. But that doesn’t make sense, since gravity supposedly makes things attract, not move around in circles.
  • “Contrary verified empirical data”: Look at that plane. It isn’t falling to the ground. Seems like gravity isn’t so universal after all.
  • “Missing supporting data”: There’s all kinds of gaps in the gravitational record. Scientists haven’t even come close to measuring the alleged gravitational force between every pair of objects in the universe.
  • “Inadequate mechanisms”: Please. Gravitons? Gravity waves? Curved space-time? No one’s ever seen any of these. So how is gravity supposed to work?
  • “Insufficient resources”: NSF isn’t funding anybody to measure the gravitational force between every pair of resources in the universe to try to verify this “theory”. See, even scientists know gravity is a dying theory on its last legs, but they don’t want you to know that.
  • “Faulty logic”: If everything attracts everything else, how come the universe isn’t one giant katamari? Scientists even claim the universe is expanding. What happened to the gravity there, guys?
  • “Crucial assumptions”: Gravitational theory assumes the “laws” of physics apply throughout the universe. How can they so cavalierly assume Aristotle was wrong?
  • “Alternate logical explanations”: Intelligent Falling theory states that God an unnamed pusher is responsible for pushing objects down. You can read more about this explanation for falling by reading the book Of Dropped Pandas and People in the school library.
  • “Lack of experimental results”: No one has ever demonstrated that a black hole’s gravity is so large that even light cannot escape.
  • “Conflicting experiments”: Photons passing near a star have their trajectory bent by gravity. I don’t see the light in this room being bent by gravity. Which is it?
  • “Predictive failures”: Gravitational “theory” predicts that any two objects I drop will fall at the same rate. Watch as I drop this science textbook and this page I ripped out of it (which just so happens to be on “evolution”, a “theory” with so many problems we won’t be covering it because “best practices” for it would take so long; trust me on this). The page fell more slowly than the book. Looks like gravity isn’t right after all.

Class dismissed.

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DND ‘n’ D&D

[Editor's note: be sure to read the above title aloud for full effect.]

Lately in my spare time I’ve been tinkering with writing a graphical mail app (or a “MUA” in Unix terminology) as a way to get some practice with Python and, ideally, end up with a lightweight mail app with a decent user interface. (I’ve been using Mutt for years now, but it doesn’t quite fit my needs these days.)

The thing I’ve been wrestling with it lately is getting drag-and-drop (or “DND” in GTK+ parlance) from the message list to the folder list to work the way I want it to. The tree view control in GTK+ has some nice DND support built in, but it insists on letting the user drop messages between two items in the folder list, which doesn’t make sense for this program. I’ve had to resort to some lower-level manipulation of the DND events, but things still aren’t quite working right.

Even more puzzling, it’s somehow possible for messages to disappear entirely from all folders, even the “show all messages” one. Which shouldn’t even be physically possible with my design, so there’s definitely something screwy somewhere. I’m not sure if it’s tied in to my DND bugs or if it’s something else.

I can say that using GTK+ in Python is much easier than in C, largely due to the different type systems used by the two languages. Rest assured, once of these days I’m planning on writing a multi-part series on typing in programming languages which will probably interest one-third of my readership and alienate the other two-thirds. Should be fun!

In other things-that-sound-a-lot-like-DND news, I seem to have unwittingly picked up playing Dungeons & Dragons (or “D&D” as the kids call it). There’s a surprisingly large intersection between the set of people in or closely affiliated with the Ship of Fools and people who play D&D, which is how I first got roped into introduced to the game.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to hold my own in the campaigns I’ve been in despite being far less experienced than everyone else. The sorcerer I’m playing in Kevin’s long-running campaign in particular has been instrumental in winning most of the battles so far, despite not being able to make a Listen check to save his life. Using spells in non-conventional ways is particularly fun, such as using Rope Trick as a campsite instead of a way to hide, and using Fireball when fighting a large fire monster successfully.

I’ve even gotten to the point where I’m not asking everybody questions about the rules every five minutes. Borrowing non-roommate Adam’s PHB this week while creating a character for his upcoming one-off campaign is helping quite a bit too; now at least there’s an underlying framework to everything instead of just seeing a bunch of arbitrary rules.

Yes, I do own my own set of polyhedral dice. No, I am not as bad as these guys.

(And if you’re wondering just how you use Fireball against a fire monster, it works like this. Wander out onto an ice sheet above a sea. Cast Fireball straight up in the air as a signal flare to draw the monster’s attention. When it comes to the shoreline, cast Fireball directly at it to goad it into running out onto the ice sheet. Then hope like hell your companion can slow it down enough so it lingers over one spot long enough to melt through the ice and plunge into the water, extinguishing it. For extra credit, use Rope Trick to produce a rope to use to rescue said companion should he also fall through the newly melted hole.)