That Creationist science quiz

Phil Plait has a pretty good jeremiad on the infamous Creationist 4th-grade science quiz:

The thing that gets me is not the issue of legality here, nor necessarily who is promoting it. What really makes my heart sink is the reality that this is actually being taught to young children. Kids are natural scientists; they want to see and explore and categorize and ask “why?” until they understand everything. And we, as adults, as caretakers, have a solemn responsibility to nurture that impulse and to answer them in as honest a way as possible, encouraging them to seek more answers—and more questions—themselves. That’s how we learn.

But this? This isn’t learning. It’s indoctrination. It’s the exact opposite of inquisitiveness: it’s children being told what the creationists want the answer to be, despite the evidence. And it’s not just that these children are being told something that’s wrong; it’s that they are also told to simply accept it and deny the actual evidence they come across.

If you haven’t seen the quiz, you can go to Snopes, among other places, for details. Snopes is of course the cataloguer and debunker of urban legends. They have a piece about this because, when the quiz first started circulating, lots of people thought it was a hoax. It always seemed utterly plausible to me that it was real, unfortunately.

In addition to lamenting, Plait provides some links to useful resources about evolution and creationism, including one from Nature called 15 Evolutionary Gems, which I hadn’t seen before and which looks good.

On a related note, Eugenie Scott, longtime head of the National Center for Science Education, is retiring. Plait again:

Genie has been a tireless fighter against nonsense; for years as head of NCSE she kept up with and kept after people who try to wedge religious indoctrination into schools. Whether it was creationism or its mutant offspring Intelligent Design, she was always there, in the courtroom or on stage or writing about it. The NCSE is a shining example of what needs to be done in this never-ending affair.

That reminds me that I haven’t sent any money to the NCSE for a while. I’m going to do that. You should too.

Does Lamar Smith really want to get rid of peer review?

Most of the time, when someone gives a post a title that’s a question, they have an answer in mind that they’re trying to convince you of. This one is a sincere question, to which I don’t know the answer.

Science bloggers are erupting at the moment over a draft bill proposed by Lamar Smith about National Science Foundation funding. Here’s Phil Plait, for example:

To start, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who is a global warming denier, by the way, is the head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He has recently decided that the National Science Foundation—a globally respected agency of scientific research and investigation—should no longer use peer review to fund grants. Instead it should essentially get political permission for which research to fund.

(Incidentally, if you’re not reading Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog, you should be.)

This story, sadly, is extremely credible. Many Congressional Republicans, very definitely including Smith, are pushing an anti-science agenda and would love to take science funding decisions out of the hands of scientists. But when I went looking for the actual language in which Smith advocates removing peer review, I couldn’t find it.

The journal Science‘s piece on this would seem like a good place to go, especially as it links to a draft of Smith’s proposed legislation. The legislation would require the NSF director to certify that all grants are

1) “… in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) “… the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) “… not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.”

I can’t see anything in here to justify the claim that the legislation goes after peer review. If the legislation passed, the NSF director would presumably have to change the criteria given to the peer reviewers, not eliminate peer review or even alter it all that much.

That’s not to say that the legislation is a good idea — it definitely isn’t — but the response to it seems quite overblown. The first two criteria actually seem mostly harmless: I don’t think that the NSF director would have any trouble certifying that funded projects “advance the national … welfare … by promoting the progress of science” or that the various superlatives in item 2 apply. NSF could rephrase the current “intellectual merit” criterion to include both of those without changing much of anything about the review process. The “not duplicative” language in item 3 is arguably the worst part — some duplication is good — but I suspect that very few purely (or even mostly) duplicative grants get funded anyway, so as long as there’s a bit of leeway in interpreting the language I don’t think that this would make much difference either.

I’ve looked at a bunch of other pieces on the subject, and they generally repeat the “attacking peer review” claim without citing specific evidence. Hence the question in the title, to which I would sincerely like to know the answer.

I feel a bit bad about even raising the question, as it feels like I’m giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And I use the term “enemy” advisedly: there is a strong anti-science contingent in the US Congress, housed almost entirely in one political party, who do want to do very damaging things. But I’d still like to know.

I’ll give xkcd the last word:


Conspiracy theorists may be crazy, but they’re not irrational

Scientific American has a piece about a study from a year or two ago about the belief systems of conspiracy theorists. It has some good information in it, but one aspect of it is misleading, in the same way as a piece I wrote about last year on the same subject.

For example, while it has been known for some time that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, we would expect contradictory conspiracy theories to be negatively correlated. Yet, this is not what psychologists Micheal Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Suton found in a recent study. Instead, the research team, based at the University of Kent in England, found that many participants believed in contradictory conspiracy theories. For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same time.

That’s a misleading description of what the study actually found. The actual finding was that people who believed that Bin Laden might still be alive are more likely to believe that he might have been dead before the raid.

Those beliefs are, in my opinion, stupid and wrong, but they’re perfectly consistent with each other. Even if statements A and B contradict each other, there’s no contradiction between the statements “The probability of A is significantly different from zero” and “The probability of B is significantly different from zero.” (Unless “significantly different from zero” means “greater than 50%, but there’s no indication in the study that that’s how participants thought of it.)

With this in mind, I don’t think that the positive correlation is the least bit surprising. Both beliefs presumably spring from the same source: a belief that the standard mainstream view is wrong. If that’s your starting point, then it’s only natural that your assessment of the probability of a bunch of different non-standard stories would go up.

As the authors of the original study put it,

The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.