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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

There’s a provincial election in the air here in Ontario, and the stink of religious politics is permeating it. According to ctv.ca, Conservative leader John Tory has suggested that creationism could be taught alongside evolution should private schools be brought into the public system. He then suggested that they might not be treated equally in a science class. While it annoys me to see this nonsense make its way here from south of the border where this asinine debate has been raging for years, Tory’s words betray the same fundamental misunderstanding of how science works as seen in proponents of creationism (and its dolled-up evil twin, intelligent design):

“It’s still called the theory of evolution,” Tory said. “They teach evolution in the Ontario curriculum, but they also could teach the fact to the children that there are other theories that people have out there that are part of some Christian beliefs.”

Of course the word ‘theory’ here does not mean what he thinks it means. A theory in science is a broad framework that provides an explanation for a variety of observed phenomena. It is not an idea that has a yet to be verified – a theory is the highest honour that can be given to a scientific principle, and the moniker is only applied to ideas that have considerable experimental scrutiny. There is no such a thing as an absolute truth in science because everything is verified by empirical evidence, and therefore, in principle, a single contradictory observation suffices to disprove a theory (in practice the process of rejecting a full theory is more complicated and generally involves a paradigm shift). If Tory wants to claim that creationism is a scientific theory capable of explaining the same broad range of phenomena that evolution can explain, I invite him to demonstrate how creationism is scientific and how it explains everything that evolution also does. Then we may speculate on whether it is appropriate to include in school curricula.

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Now playing: The New Pornographers – Mass Romantic
via FoxyTunes

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Eugene Volokh has a nice post up about the Supreme Court’s free speech decision in Morse vs. Frederick, in which the court ruled that school officials are able to restrict speech that can be construed as advocating illegal drug use (“Bong Hits 4 Jesus”) without impacting their right to comment on drug policy. Volokh discusses the unsoundness of Alito’s opinion on the matter:

The trouble is that “speech that a reasonable observer would interpret as advocating illegal drug use” often also “can plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue.”

Consider, for instance, “legalize marijuana because marijuana is safe and fun.” While this doesn’t expressly advocate illegal drug use, a reasonable observer might well interpret it as so advocating: After all, the statement does say that marijuana is fun, and fun and safe things are often worth doing. Yet the statement that marijuana is fun is an important part of the comment on the political or social issue. While one might well support legalizing marijuana even if it weren’t fun, the claim that marijuana is fun — and thus, implicitly, that people are losing a good deal of pleasure because of the marijuana ban — is an important argument against the ban.

It’ll be fun to see how this plays out in subsequent student free speech cases.

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We had an interesting discussion at today’s Journal Club talk regarding people’s ‘grandfathers’, by which is meant their supervisor’s supervisor(‘s supervisor(‘s supervisor(‘s supervisor(you get the idea)))). It turns out the Stephane’s great-great grandfather was Alexander Fridman of cosmological fame, and he supervised George Gamow, who supervised Vera Rubin, who supervised Sandra Faber, who supervised Stephane Courteau. That’s quite the lineage. Meanwhile, Kayll Lake’s great-grandfather was none other than Eddington (and he seems to have been a rather poor supervisor). Rob’s is Martin Rees. James, my office mate, has John Landstreet from Western as a grandfather, and it turns out that my grandfather is Michael Turner of Chicago. I don’t know anything about him, but I was just curious.

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Carleton University’s student council voted today to ban resource allocation towards pro-life groups by a not-very-narrow margin, one member of the council arguing that ‘[the] campus is supposed to be about human rights, diversity, mutual respect. Well, there isn’t respect when you want to throw women into jail for choosing abortion.’ I’m inclined to suggest that believing in human rights and diversity also implies accepting diffferent points of view from what the majority of your members may believe; it’s fundamentally inconsistent and hypocritical to argue for human rights, and then deny the most most basic and fundamental political right (free speech) under that guise. The resolution as worded will prevent pro-life groups from using space allocatred by the student’s association, receiving funds that go to student groups or even any type of recognition from the association. The result is that debate on campus will be suppressed. This move is discriminatory towards pro-life groups.

Eugene Volokh discusses this and brings up a point that’s relevant: all Carleton students are automatically enrolled in the association and pay fees on the assumption that it will allocate access to university property fairly. If it were a private organization, it would be entitled to allocate resources however it wishes. Since it is student (and possibly government) funded, it should not be allowed to discriminate against those with whom its members disagree.

Funny how invoking diversity and human rights can cause one to violate those very principles.

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Here are some interesting things that I should be blogging about:

  • This is probably not the best way to go about doing research, but after returning from my vacation in Montreal last week I learned that we’ve changed the way we analyse our galaxy parameter space for the second time in less than a month (see my university web page for more info). We started with a downhill simplex method, which sort of worked but didn’t lend itself to a systematic application; then we moved on to a gradient method, which was more systematic but gave occasionally wierd results; and now we’re working on Markov chain Monte Carlo methods to which we will subsequently apply Bayes’ theorem. This is actually the most promising approach, but i remain slightly put off by the seemingly regular changes in strategy. That being said, I’m thinking of changing strategies again to a Hamiltonian Monte Carlo approach to speed up the process of modelling the chi-square space. (At least this way I get to write my own code in a language that isn’t Fortran instead of using my supervisor’s.)
  • Anything to bring down the price of textbooks and make them more accessible (financially) is a good thing. The Global Text Project (globaltext.org, posting from old browser at school again) will use a wiki-style approach to create textbooks – i.e., a collaborative approach where many people can contribute. In this case, the process is overseen by academics and experts in the field, distinguishing it from most wikis. Besides making such knowledge available at a much lower price to students, it should allow such knowledge to flow more freely among students in developing nations, who are less likely to be able to afford the exorbitant prices charged by textbook publishers. This will hopefully force textbook publishers to rethink their business model; with quality free texts widely available, they should be less able to charge high prices for textbooks.
  • Somehow, Hewlett Packard’s chairperson thinks it’s okay to spy on HP’s executives using the unethical and very likely illegal method of ‘pretexting’ to find out who leaked some info to the press. Somehow, leaking info to the press is a serious breach of personal integrity. It doesn’t seem consistent to believe that the former is fine while the latter is not, but that’s exactly the impression that HP’s own statement on the matter gives (see techdirt). You can’t claim that you uphold your own employees’ (as well as customers’) privacy, say that you expect them hold high standards of personal integrity, and then break both of those tenets to find out who leaked the information (which does not appear to have been particularly interesting). It sounds like what Dunn did was far worse than what Keyworth did; making matters worse, most of the board, with the exception of Tom Perkins, does not seem to care (or at least sided with Dunn on the issue). Makes you wonder what types of people run the company. This may seem to be a fairly irrelevant matter to most people, but it reflects very poorly on the company when the board implicitly sanctions such actions from the chairperson. There’s something so repulsively hypocritical about this that it makes me question whether or not I should consider buying from HP at all in the future. What type of attitude do you suppose they take to their own customers’ privacy?

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