Thursday, April 27, 2006

Pass This on to W.

"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin.

"But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag... We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language... and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

Theodore Roosevelt 1907

There was a different breed of men in 1907, apparently. Few who have any visibility in Washington today would have the pluck to say something like this for fear that some editorialist at the New York Times or Washington Post would write something mean about him. To assert some bold truth like Teddy did might cause one to be called shameful names like racist, chauvinist, or xenophobe. Unlike TR, our modern politicians are deathly afraid of offending the arbiters of political fashion in the media.

Unfortunately for them, the visages of such tremulous souls will never adorn a future Mt. Rushmore.

Teaching Evolution, Pt. I

John Timmer of Ars Technica reports on a New York Academy of Sciences program titled Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science. His report is in three parts which, unfortunately, don't link to each other. Part I is found here. Timmer writes:

As readers of this Journal know, science literacy in the US and its close cousin, the teaching of evolution, are major concerns of mine. So, when the New York Academy of Sciences announced a program entitled "Teaching Evolution and the Nature of Science", I got in touch as soon as I found out about it, and received a press pass to cover the event. The talks were specifically targeted to science teachers at the high school and college levels, as well as policymakers, and took place on the west side of Manhattan. The sessions were formatted to allow two 30 minute talks on related topics, followed by a half hour of discussion, and I was able to attend the majority of them. The talks and discussions were generally very good, and I'm planning on covering them in three entries to be posted on consecutive days.

Teaching evolution even in the absence of controversy can be a challenging thing. Focus too much on the detailed evidence, and the big picture can get lost. Present the broad overview of evolution's explanatory power, and it's easy to skip over the wealth of data that supports the theory. Things get much worse when students come prepared with creationist arguments and the teachers are faced with opposition from a combination of the school administration, the school board, and the state government. The meeting was intended to provide a status report, teaching suggestions, and advice for how to handle the controversy in the future.

Made worse? Why is it a bad thing for students to question the orthodoxies of the scientific establishment? Why is it a bad thing for students to ask questions and challenge the information they're being presented by their teachers? Here's a possible answer: It's bad because it embarrasses teachers who, by and large, don't really understand evolution very well themselves, let alone the criticisms of evolution, to have their lack of knowledge, depth, and preparation exposed to their students.

The first session was on the nature of science and biology, presented in part by Robert T. Pennock of Michigan State, who testified at the Dover trial. He suggested that teachers should present evolution as part of a discussion of the nature of science, as the development of the theory is an example of science done right....Ultimately, however, he suggested that the key feature of evolution is that it passes the pragamatic test: evolutionary processes work in both engineering and computer programming, producing efficient products that would not have been proposed by intentional design, including an antenna used by NASA.

I'm not sure I understand what Timmer is saying here, but if I read him correctly he's claiming that Pennock employs the success of engineers and computer programmers as models of the ability of evolution to generate novel designs. If this is the correct reading it's a most peculiar example that Pennock is using. To the extent that engineers and programmers assist in the evolution of novelty the fact simply confirms ID since the input of the engineer or the programmer is the input of an intelligent agent. What Pennock needs to show to discredit ID and support materialist versions of evolution is that this novelty, whether in some physical system or in a computer program, arises without the supervision or input of an intelligent being.

Pennock's talk was supposed to detail the "scientific virtues", but he only got to these at the very end. He considers them to be curiosity, skepticism, attentiveness, meticulousness, objectivity, and integrity.

Skepticism? It's certainly not a virtue in the scientific community to be skeptical of materialistic evolution. In fact, there's a word for scientists who are skeptical of any established dogma. Their colleagues refer to them as "crackpots."

The next speaker, Bruce Alberts, formerly the president of the National Academies of Science, [gave a talk the first half of which] was devoted to his research on DNA polymerases, and included a mind-blowing real time animation of the enzyme at work making a copy of the DNA. Oddly, he explicitly and repeatedly used the term "machine" to describe this collection of proteins, despite acknowledging that ID proponents had used his words to suggest such enzymes were analogous to human designed machinery.

The people who work in the labs just can't help themselves. The systems they study are indeed biological machines, and they can't avoid calling them that despite the telic implications of their own language. Biologists have to constantly remind themselves that what they're looking at is not designed by an intelligence but is rather a product of purely blind, mechanical forces.

Alberts was the first to raise what also became a recurring theme at the meeting: the science education system is broken from the top down. This starts in the colleges that train our teachers, which rely on the same general science education classes that those on the research track take, and provide little help in training future teachers to present science to a general audience. Nobody takes responsibility for ensuring that the teachers-to-be have a general understanding of the nature and practice of science.

This is true. A lot of high school science teachers are really not scientists themselves in any but a superficial way. They're simply dispensers of information. Many of them perform this task with considerable skill and artfulness, of course, but they have limited experience actually doing science themselves. Until they start doing graduate work (and sometimes not even then) they have little familiarity with the practice of science except what they gain as a student sitting in a classroom. One way to remedy this would be to require prospective science teachers to serve an internship in a research lab, or doing field research, as part of their education. The experience of actually doing science under the tutelage of a genuine scientific researcher could be very helpful in giving the future teacher a deeper, fuller appreciation of what science is all about.

We'll comment on Part II of Timmer's report tomorrow.

Welfare Reform Ten Years Later

Ten years ago Congress reversed the decades old welfare programs that had sentenced generations of mostly black people to life imprisonment in the American underclass. When we finally decided that we had wasted enough money subsidizing dysfunctionalism, the left vigorously opposed legislative change. Dire predictions of impending catastrophe for the poor were heard throughout the land. We can't just throw poor mothers into the workforce, we were told. Children will starve, we were guaranteed. In fact, none of that has happened.

Maggie Ghallagher summarizes a lengthier piece in City Journal and brings us up to date on the effects of welfare reform. It's worth copying in its entirety:

This year is the 10th anniversary of the 1996 welfare reform bill. Kay Hymowitz marks the occasion in the current issue of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal by asking a penetrating question: "How is it that so many intelligent, well-intentioned people, including many experts who made up the late 20th century's Best and Brightest, were so mistaken?"

In 2004, The New York Times called welfare reform "one of the acclaimed successes of the past decade." But at the time, the same Gray Lady denounced it as "draconian." New Jersey's Sen. Frank Lautenberg predicted "children begging for food, 8- and 9-year old prostitutes." Sen. Ted Kennedy called it "legislative child abuse," and Connecticut's Sen. Chris Dodd denounced it as "unconscionable."

But 10 years later, what has actually happened? First, caseloads fell dramatically, dropping 60 percent between 1996 and 2004. The proportion of single mothers who held a job increased steadily to more than three-fifths, or about the same employment levels as married mothers. With little education, most took low-wage jobs. But their wages are supplemented by the Earned Income Tax Credit. And like other workers, their salaries rise with time. Only 8 percent of working single mothers who are high school dropouts earn the minimum wage.

In 2004, distinguished family scholar Andrew Cherlin announced after reviewing the evidence that he had changed his mind about workfare. Mothers, he said, "derive a basic dignity" from work, and "as a result of what I have seen, I now think the term 'dead-end job' is a label that often doesn't fit the perceptions of low-income workers, and I will not use it again."

What about the kids? Christopher Jencks and Scott Winship found "food insecurity" among single moms actually dropped between 1995 and 2000. Poverty rates among single mothers (and their children) are at all-time lows. Studies of children of former welfare mothers suggest little or no evidence of deleterious effects. The pessimists were wrong, but so were the optimists: The work of the mothers does not appear to translate in any direct way into better outcomes for children, on average. No worse, but no better either.

Welfare reform was associated with a sustained pause in the growth of illegitimacy, which does hurt children. But it has not reversed the long-term trend toward more children born outside of marriage.

The critics, concludes Hymowitz, were badly wrong about welfare reform because they underestimate how much culture matters. Welfare reformists, by contrast, argued the way to improve the lives of poor, unwed mothers was to get them to adopt bourgeois habits, like work and marriage.

We've succeeded with the former, but it may be in the long run the latter that matters more for children. Here Hymowitz relapses into the pessimism of the right: Welfare reform can encourage work, but the government cannot do much to help poor mothers make and sustain good marriages. But the Bush marriage initiative, relentlessly opposed by the same people who fought welfare form, is a tool for encouraging civil society to do what Hymowitz says is necessary: Educate the next generation of young people about the importance of marriage for themselves and their children.

Check back in 10 years. The marriage initiative may fail, in which case a several hundred-million-dollar effort to address our most important social problem in a trillion-dollar federal budget will have been wasted. If it succeeds, in 10 years there will be a network of inner-city churches offering scientifically validated programs that actually succeed in helping young people make and sustain decent, loving marriages.

If this happens, it will not be because conservative public intellectuals exhorted them in urban journals to do so. It will be because George Bush decided in his stubborn way to do something good, even if it had no profound public constituency.

Imagine that. The worst president in history completely reversing a cultural trend that condemns people to transgenerational misery. What are the chances that that could happen?

The answer, by the way, to Kay Hymowitz's question in the first paragraph is that intelligence has very little to do with why so many people were so wrong. When you start from faulty ideological assumptions it doesn't matter how smart you are, you're going to wind up on the wrong side of the truth. Liberals are often very intelligent people, but if they start from the socialist assumption that government is perfectly competent to replace the traditional institutions of family, church, and work their policy prescriptions are likely to be disastrous.

Liberals are good at calling the attention of the rest of us to problems that we might not otherwise see, but once they have sounded the alarm they have frequently exhausted their potential for making a positive contribution to solving it. The solutions to the problems they so keenly discern are best left to those who have a better understanding of human nature.

Overstating the Case?

Our friend Byron takes us to task for overstating the case when we accuse the left of being indifferent to whether tax cuts help the economy or not (See the next post below). Our point was that the left despises the rich and any policy which allows the rich to remain so will be unsatisfactory to them. He chides us for over-generalizing, and perhaps we're guilty. He makes his case on the Feedback page.