Sunday, November 30, 2008

Enemies of science

I mentioned in my last post that the Discovery Institute is the public enemy number one of science education. There are, however, enemies everywhere, and many occupy influential positions in large churches near you. As I was gaily going about my business the other day, I flipped the radio to WMBI (Moody Radio), since there was nothing particularly stimulating on The Score. It's an obvious alternative I know. I tuned in just at the moment when pastor James MacDonald was reaching one of his trademark climaxes. For those not in the know, MacDonald is the CEO of one of the largest, and most successful, (if you measure success in church by attendance) suburban churches. Like other successful pastors of the new, young, attractive, media-savvy, seeker-sensitive breed, he had the good sense to locate in an affluent area. Consider Rick Warren and Bill Hybels (the latter the founder of the hyper-mega Willow Creek located in that suburban slum Barrington). I know, the rich also need converting too and, as we read in the Bible, wealth is the biggest obstacle to faith; so these people really have a tougher challenge than the folks that labor in the fields of the poor and needy - like shooting fish in a barrel there I guess. MacDonald made the news a couple of years ago by shelling out a few mill for a mansion once owned by former Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Also, like many modern pastors, MacDonald is in tune with the modern communications methods and has a blog. I note that he has adopted the shaved-head look - a sort of ecumenical Tom Collichio. Hmmm.

I'm just getting hopelessly sidetracked here, but I wanted to set the scene. Anyway, the moment I tune in, MacDonald is at the pinnacle of a major moment: "Evolution is the biggest lie run up Satan's flag pole." he screams. He goes on to question why this "lie" is defended. Apparently, "they," scientists I suppose, want to deny the truth of God's creation. He then proceeded to trot out some of the wonders of nature, like bugs that spit out two chemicals from opposite sides of their mouths that form an explosive mixture when combined, as proof of God's creation. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times; but the argument proves nothing. It is a false argument.

Why James, why? Why are you and so many of your ilk so committed to keeping your flocks believing in fairy tales? You say so many good things, and do many good things, but when it comes to the principles of science it all goes horribly wrong. And all for what? Is our salvation dependent upon disavowing evolution? I think not.

The evangelical anti-scientific bias was clearly manifested in Sarah Palin. If for no other reason than Sarah Palin would not be Vice President was I profoundly relieved by Obama's election. Apart from the more obvious problems like her belief in Creationism (which to her credit she did not make a big deal of), or skepticism about global warming (more worrying given her location), was her profound ignorance of the importance of basic scientific research. She mocked, for example, the funding of research on fruit flies in France, as if this was a ridiculous misuse of public funds. She was unable to connect that research with its profound economic implications for agriculture in California. Overall, I found the U.S. press to be rather soft on Palin's grotesque deficiencies and utter lack of suitability for a position of public importance. Lawrence Krauss in the New Scientist did not pull any punches in his assessment. "...she is ignorant." "She is also uninterested:..." "She is unqualified:..." "And she is so inarticulate..." All of these positions are unarguable. And yet, shockingly, she was popular. Even educated people thought she was "smart."

Warming to my task of outing champions of ignorance and anti-science, I will conclude with an observation on the most vile and loathsome creature that haunts our radio stations. I'm talking, of course, of the odious Limbaugh. On Dulcie and Aylwin's big beer adventure across the western wastes that the Giants in the Earth had settled little more than a century before, we found that the vast emptiness of the land was mirrored by a similar vacuity in the air waves. There was one constant to keep us company on those long hauls across the plains: Rush Limbaugh. With ceaseless, unflagging commitment (must be the pills I guess), he talked to us at seemingly every hour of the day. Well when I say "talk," I really mean rant. If it was not Rush, it was another of his ilk, Sean Hannity for example. It's hard to tell them apart since they all sound alike. It all sort of melded into a background drone of hyperbole and exclamation points. Eventually you go mad, buy a pick-up and hang a giant American flag out the window.

It was truly terrifying. Whereas I felt strong enough to withstand the relentless assault on reason, I'm sure the vast armies of loyal listeners had been completely and irrevocably corrupted. I was shocked, though I probably shouldn't have been, by Limbaugh's antipathy towards the alternative energy crowd. Limbaugh has a very simplistic view of life; he espouses no deep principles; he invites no discussion of ideas; ultimately he says very little in fact. His rant is one of pure destruction. So, I was a little taken aback by the vitriol spewed over any that promote the need for developing new energy sources and demand that global warming be treated seriously. All such people are liberal, left-wing idiots out to delude the American people. All. That includes me I suppose. Now I take personal offense. This was at the time of the "drill baby drill" anthem and that business about inflating one's tires. Of course they had a field day with that on shriek radio.

I want to ask Limbaugh one thing. Well, I don't really want to ask him because, in all honesty, I don't care what that idiot thinks. But, for the sake of argument, let's say I want to ask him one thing. What is deeply offensive to you, sweet charming Rush, about developing alternative energy? Simply from a business sense alone it represents the best hope for the future. The world is pregnant with opportunity in the development of a new era of energy businesses that will profit Americans rather than criminals, terrorists and despots. Whatever the future holds for climate change, the world will, sooner or later, be reliant almost entirely on other energy sources. Why not be in the forefront, rather than entrenched in bitter denial?

Boards gone wild

To borrow the SL from Dean Dad's (pseudonym or real?) blog posting, which made it the third article to appear in national publications discussing the events at the last board meeting. The first posting on I mentioned previously. The other appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And I'm not including in that tally articles in the local papers and the Tribune.

I can't imagine that the BOT anticipated this kind of publicity when it launched into this o'erly hasty and ill-conceived policy "revision." Not surprisingly, the item that got the attention of the education press was the "Academic Bill of Rights" known as ABOR. Academic freedom is a dreadfully sensitive topic to my fellow academics. They naturally bristle at the right-wing-inspired ABOR penned by leftie-turned-rightie David Horowitz. Perhaps, like reformed smokers or new convert to religion, there is nothing more dangerous than a reformed leftie. On the surface of it, there is nothing particularly offensive in its language. I was going to reproduce the eight principles (eight rather than the canonical seven?) here, but they are too long and boring. If my interested readers want to study them then I supply a link to my number one source of information, wikipedia of course.

The dangers are all in the subtext and the motivation of the people behind the promotion of ABOR. It's still unclear as to the motivation of the two BOT members responsible for its appearance in the proposed policy manual, where parts of it appear largely verbatim under "educational philosophy." Was it simply a matter of borrowing high-sounding language to avoid the labor of coming up with their own? Or are they motivated by the same zealous philosophies that drive the likes of the Discovery Institute, public enemy number one of science education? Time may tell I suppose, though the elections in April will hopefully render the question moot.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In the news

Congratulations to the BoT for making the national news. An article covering the policy-making zeal of some of its members appeared in

Unlike the local papers that seemed to provide a slightly nuanced account of events, this article exposes the extreme-right motives of the architects of the new policies.

Most people, myself included, are blissfully unaware of the "Academic Bill or Rights," known as ABOR, and its architect David Horowitz. It turns out that the "Educational Philosophy" in the BoT's proposed manual is an essential lifting of the language from ABOR. At first I didn't understand why some of my more clued-in colleagues were upset. On the surface it all seems harmless enough; on the surface the language seems inoffensive and indeed entirely reasonable. Below the surface lurk the dangers; for the ABOR was devised to wrest academic institutions away from the overly left-wing faculties that supposedly controlled them. The ABOR could be used, for example, to insert Creationism (see archives for comments on that) into the teaching of biology and so on. The extremists have become very cunning at adopting language that seems unarguable as a kind of Trojan Horse to infiltrate unwary academic institutions. The Intelligent Designers did not die in Dover; they have simply morphed into other even more subtle forms.

Now here we are at our little community college, in the shallower pools and further ebbs of higher education, seemingly having to deal with this nonsense. Even more reason to be vigilant come April.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Board Games

Forgive me Father for I have sinned; it has been eleven days since my last post. My loyal readers (all four of them) are doubtless yearning to be fed and I have been negligent in my duties; not because I have been short of things to say, far from it in fact, as thoughts continually bubble up within me like marsh gas in a stagnant pond, but rather short of time to put them down. Yes, even this idle, highly paid educator has been busy, though I'm sure that my close personal friend Head of the Family from the Herald discussion board wouldn't believe me.

COD made the paper three times this past Friday - even the Tribune was there - on account of the rousing Board meeting on Thursday evening. While you might think that the somewhat controversial selection of Dr. Breuder, later of Harper College, to be the next Pres would be the main topic, in fact the seemingly far duller subject of the Policy Manual was the main event.

What started out in the summer as a fairly harmless directive to review the policies transformed dramatically into a firestorm, that put all the other bad decisions into the shade, when new-boy-on-the-block, appointed (not elected) Mr. Atkinson, surprised the entire community by presenting an entirely new policy manual back in October with the recommendation that it be adopted in November. The college community was grudgingly invited to submit comments to an e-mail address. Review of the manual revealed it to be a power grab that was as massive as it was clumsy and preposterous.

Students, community members, and even the faculty were shaken from their slumbers to respond. This past Thursday, the night the policy manual was originally urged to be voted on, saw more than a hundred people attend the meeting and thirty or so speak out over a period of more than an hour. Students were upset, rightly so, because the new policy inserted the president as the boss of the newspaper. A good old-fashioned protest was staged. I'm not so sure the electrical tape and teeshirts were necessary, but I did observe many make impassioned, bold statements. Faculty are upset, rightfully so, for many reasons, most of which involve the board absconding with the curriculum and control. The board sat there in silence, absorbing one withering blast after another. The tone was set by Tom Tipton, who, with quite searing clarity, denounced the proposed revisions would represent the worst decision ever made. The session was neatly book-ended by a similarly thunderous wallop by community member Tom Wendorf.

The process has been slowed, but will it be changed. The grand architect of the scheme seems unrepentant judging by his remarks to the Naperville Sun,

'He made no apologies for what he and the rest of the board are trying to do with the policy revision.

"It would be an abdication of our responsibility as trustees to surrender our policy making to the faculty or any other constituency," he said."'

Makes for an interesting winter of discontent ahead.

There is an election in April where four members of the current board are up, including the appointed grand architect. Let the community decide what it wants in their BOT.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Daddy's gone to Knoxville

As I enter the echoing halls of Chicago Orchard's terminal 2 in the monstrously early hours of a Sunday morn, for once scarcely a soul about, I'm greeted once more by the somber monotone informing that the security threat has been "elevated" to orange. There follows the various admonitions about what to do with baggage, and how much liquid one can carry on - in a zip-lock bag of course. Well of course it's orange! It always has, and always will be, for otherwise how can it be justified that we be subjugated to the absurd humiliations that constitute passing through the narrow way that is security? I must at all times be showing some "Government-issued ID," though on occasion my Oxford Bodleian Library card has sufficed, along with the boarding pass; people wearing blue latex gloves intently scan them both as if they were forgeries. And what, pray tell, is the function of the zip-lock? Is a sandwich bag without a zipper insufficient containment for my liquid? On this particular journey I felt the economic pain of heightened terrorist awareness. It is my custom when making journeys to foreign parts to carry a tincture of my pleasure to ease the boredom of the lonely hotel room in some far-flung clime devoid of the civilizing aspects of home. Said tincture, now being viewed with the deepest suspicion, must be packed in the checked luggage. Now I must be checking said luggage for a fee of $15. Total cost of my slightly sinful pleasure: $30. All because some dopes in England allegedly tried to make bombs from liquids a few years ago.

Enough of the preamble. I was being taken to Oak Ridge National Laboratory as part of the inaugural Science and Energy Research Challenge (SERCh) sponsored by the Department of Energy. One of my students, Amanda Manley, had entered a poster based on her work done at Argonne over the summer, and was accepted into the finals. The result: expenses-paid trips for both of us. You can read the press release here:

I had not been to this part of the world previously (I think I had been to or near Memphis previously); this part of the world being in or near the Smokey Mountains. At this time of year the scenery was mildly beautiful with the fall colors still maintaining their hold. Oak Ridge National Lab is deep within a vast tract of woodland, even more vast than Argonne. The buildings I visited all seemed brand new; what, no war-time piles and ancient lavatories - the hallmark of Argonne?

The weekend was something of a forced march, allowing little time for rest as we were shuttled on and off buses between airport, hotel and lab. Many was the person to be seen nodding off, including the SSCP, during yet another presentation. Though, to be fair, many of the presentations were excellent in both being entertaining and scientifically interesting. We were shown the sights, being treated, to some extent, like schoolchildren being wowed by the wonders of big science. We saw a room full of giant computers that are almost instantly obsolete by the time they are installed. They do amazing calculations. I was duly amazed. They also consume huge amounts of electricity and water. We saw the brand new Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) (I note my Mozilla spell-checker does not recognize "spallation"), the opening of which was largely responsible for the shuttering of the grand old IPNS at Argonne earlier this year; though the abruptness of the latter's closing on the day after Christmas or something, as noted in an earlier post on this column, was more due to cost cutting. The SNS is another super-mega instrument that consumes huge quantities of resources but provides, in the blink of an eye, structural information on complex molecules. My mind wandered back to the days of my youth when we wandered over to A.E.R.E. Harwell to do neutron diffraction using the neutrons that emerged from an ancient nuclear reactor. Even a simple structure would involve days of data collection, followed by months of refinement, and quite probably unsuccessful. We were being wooed to submit proposals to use it. Note to self: must submit proposal to SNS.

The main event was the poster session. There were five categories and prizes of real cash were awarded to three students in each, with one overall winner getting an additional $10k. Serious coin here. I know that in the evening of my late youth I can be inclined to occasional cynicism, but I have to say in all honesty I was really awed by the quality of the work, the quality of the presentations, and the quality of the students. The presentations at the end of the FaST program at Argonne can often be quite embarrassingly bad. Here I was overhearing earnest, confident discussions among students that were totally over my head; things about dark matter and weird quantum stuff; and they understood it.

One of the division winners was a lad from Naperville. For those unfamiliar with America's third best place to live (or whatever it is), there are four high schools associated with Naperville. The two downtown schools in District 203 are traditionally associated with academic excellence. Then there is the provincial District 204 with its fancy palace called Nequa (the place that Je$$e Jack$on gets all upset about), that all the nouveau riche want their children to go to (easy access to pot). The fourth school is the one no one wants to go to - too close to Aurora. Needless to say this student came from that school. A nicer and more intelligent person would be hard to find.

My goat girl did not win anything. The fact that she was there at all was pretty amazing though. Must do it again next year.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

God among the gearboxes

Naturally the whole country is currently tuned in to Speed Channel to watch the F-1 finale in Sao Paulo. With British darling Lewis 7 points ahead of the Brazilian Felipe, it is surely his to lose (again). Both have revealed in the course of the last few days their strong faith. In this most materialistic and glamorous of sports, any mention of God seems very out of place. Of course, the late (and definitely not immortal, despite his sublime brilliance) Ayrton Senna, the thinking man's racing driver, was also deeply spiritual. Nonetheless, the public face of F-1 is much more that of Flavio, silver-haired, aging-trendy boss of Renault, who has never met a girl he wouldn't shag. Have to note now that Lewis, a humble lad from south London, has now acquired a pop tartlet: not a Spice Girl but a Pussycat Doll? As I'm sitting here waiting for the start, God, evidently paying attention, has clearly demonstrated a sense of humour as he has sent a downpour on to the starting grid moments before the getaway. The start has been delayed 10 minutes as teams fiddle with the wets. This yet again shows why F-1 is vastly superior to vulgar NASCAR: in the event of rain, the whole show in the latter case stops and they bring out a giant vacuum cleaner and some squeegees.

Fast Forward to the finish. God again displaying a sense of humour as rain arrives in the last four laps and the drivers dive for the pits. Lewis wins, loses and wins again the title on the final two laps. Mind-blowing drama. No fake cautions required here. Does Lewis' success in the relatively exclusive backwater of F-1 foreshadow success of an ethnically similar gentleman on the larger world stage this coming week?