The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Is Secularism Making a Comeback?

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 22, 2013

As I’ve written before, it seems that there is a growing secular and non-religious demographic in the United States that is starting to speak up.  This topic is the subject of a recent opinion piece that I read on the Washington Post’s Guest Voices blog, and I found the analysis by the author, Jacques Berlinerblau, to be worth noting…

Is secularism making a comeback?

By Jacques Berlinerblau

 When it comes to not making optimistic, pie-in-the-sky pronouncements about American secularism I have almost unparalleled street cred. For years I have rued and bemoaned and lamented the fate of this poor mangled –ism.

But in the past few months there have been some positive and unexpected developments both here and abroad as well.The first is far less obvious than it might seem. By far, the best thing that has happened to American secularism in about half a century was that the reactionary 2012 iteration of the Republican party, while not McGovernized, was pretty thoroughly thrashed. To the long list of those in this country who were perplexed and repulsed by this aberrant version of the GOP (e.g., Latinos, African-Americans, gays, women) let us add secular Americans. …

… I want to stress that Republicans, historically, have not been anti-secular nor should the same be said about many of their core convictions. The shift occurred with the synergies that developed between Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the  late 1970s. In fits and starts the relation between the Christian Right and the Republicans has grown for three decades. Did it crest in 2012? Will a humbled GOP shuck the divisive God-botherers in its midst? That is the question that secularists are eagerly—nay, gleefully—posing. …

Indeed, I can be counted among those secularists who are hoping quite strongly that the Republican party can finally free itself from the stranglehold of the religious right.  Unfortunately, the religious right is dug so deeply into the GOP that they will not go quietly nor easily; methinks the Republican party is in for a long and nasty internal fight.

However, there is a note of caution to be heard…

… I am a pessimist by nature so let me raise a few caveats about the political potency of the nones. The first is that their Election Day turnout was somewhat underwhelming (they were 12 percent of the electorate though they are nearly 20 percent of the population). They actually gave less of their ballot to Obama in 2012 than they did in 2008 (70 percent down from 75 percent).

Most crucially, they are not an organized, disciplined, well-funded political juggernaut like the Christian Right, but a category on a demographer’s clipboard. The Democrats will need to organize and mobilize them (and perhaps this is why Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast gave them a shout out when he referred to “those of no faith that they can name”).

This is why I want to note, buzzkillingly, that 2012 was more a victory for secularism than a victory by secularism. But a victory nonetheless! Moreover, secularists can’t help but wonder if the pope’s recent resignation signals, at the very least, a set back for the global anti-secular platform.

So, long story short, the “nones” should be happy to celebrate this victory, but we should not be so naive as to think that progress on those secular issues important to us will simply march along all by itself.  The moment that we take our eye off the political ball, I think the religious right – which is more well-funded and organized than the secular movement – will swoop in and attempt to drag us all back to the Dark Ages.

Rather than rest on our laurels, this moment should serve to motivate us to become more involved in secular issues.  We need to make sure to defend church-state separation, stand up for strong science education, and seek to curb the influence of sectarian religious groups upon our government.  My suggestion is that you take some time to learn more about groups like the Secular Coalition for America and consider signing up with them.  Get involved, get active, and we can make a more secular nation a reality! :)

Posted in politics, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Congressional Answers to Science Debate 2012 Questions

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 16, 2012

As many of you know, I have been touting the Science Debate effort for many months now, because issues of science, technology, and science education are too important to be sidelined in our political discourse (especially in an election year!)  This year, the fine folks at Science Debate have not only been holding the presidential candidates’ feet to the fire, but they have also been putting Congressional candidates on the spot.  And now some Congressional candidates have answered the challenge :)

Congressional Answers to the Top American Science Questions

ScienceDebate.org and Scientific American asked 33 leaders of science-oriented congressional committees to respond.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Washington — October 16, 2012. Americans have all heard about the scandalously anti-science comments made by certain members of the House committee on Science, Space and Technology. ScienceDebate.org and our media partner, Scientific American, the nation’s oldest continuously published magazine, wanted to see what other members of congress in key leadership positions relative to the nation’s science policy had to say about science.

We prepared a subset of eight of the fourteen Top American Science Questions which President Obama and Governor Romney have answered, ranging from climate change to science in public policy, and asked thirty-three members of congress in leadership positions on the nation’s science-oriented congressional committees to respond.

Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded.

“Americans should be concerned that only nine of the thirty-three key leaders on science-related congressional committees feel the need to let the public know their views on science,” said Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate.org. “As to the nine who did respond—members of both parties—their leadership should be applauded.”

Senators who responded

Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, Chair, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Tom Harkin, D-IA, Chair, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Jay Rockefeller, D-W, Chair, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Representatives who responded

Timothy Bishop, D-NY-1, Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

Ralph Hall, R-TX-4, Chair, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

John Mica, R-FL-7, Chair, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Nancy Pelosi, D-CA-8, House Minority Leader

Chris Van Hollen, D-MD-8, Ranking Member, House Budget Committee

Henry Waxman, D-CA-30, Ranking Member, Energy and Commerce Committee

Their responses, including those who declined or failed to respond, can be found at http://www.sciencedebate.org/congress12/ and at Scientific American.

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Update from Science Debate 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 30, 2012

I recently recieved the following encouraging update from Science Debate 2012.  Please take a few minutes to read it and consider donating some money towards this worthy attempt to push issues of science, technology, and science education more into the forefront of the political discussion!

The coverage of the the ScienceDebate responses continues to expand, and we are moving the conversation into other races.

In addition to coverage in hundreds of media outlets, specific organizations like Scientific American and The National Academies Press have used the questions as a basis for a series of further explorations.  This is helping to slowly steer the juggernaut of US political news coverage toward focusing more on key science issues, and encouraging candidates to engage.

Additionally, project media partner Scientific American has assembled a team of science policy and editorial advisers to grade the Obama and Romney answers.  Those grades will be announced on October 16.

We are also expanding the effort in other ways.  ScienceDebate and Scientific American invited about three dozen members of congress who lead key science-related committees to respond to a congressional subset of the questions, and will be publishing their responses on October 16.

ScienceDebate has also been working with the Northwest Science Writers Association to refine a subset of six of the questions that are most appropriate to a Washington State gubernatorial debate, and today invited the candidates to respond.

By continuing to work to expand the conversation, we hope to remind candidates and citizens alike of how critical science and engineering topics are to our success as a nation.

Please give today to support these efforts.  It’s tax deductable, and we can’t go on without your support.  And thanks.

Best,

-Shawn Otto and the team at ScienceDebate.Org

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

U.S. Presidential Candidates Answer Science Debate Questions

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 7, 2012

I am happy to announce that both presidential candidates – President Barack Obama and his rival Mitt Romney – have answered the top questions posed by Science Debate 2012.  You can read more about their responses below:

Candidates’ Answers, a Side by Side Comparison

Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity
Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health
Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Members of U.S. Congress Refuse to Address Science Debate Questions

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 2, 2012

As I’ve written more than once this election season, there is a big effort by Science Debate 2012 underway to get the U.S. presidential candidates – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – to address questions oriented around science, technology, and engineering as part of their campaign.  Thankfully, both campaigns have agreed to address those questions.

By extension, the Science Debate team decided to expand their effort to include key members of the U.S. Congress, including both the House of Representatives and Senate.  Unfortunately, to date, only two members of Congress have responded to these questions!  Shawn Otto from Science Debate has more on this…

I’m a pretty reasonable guy, but this is stunning to me.  Of the many committee leaders in Congress who deal with the nation’s science policy, just two — Reps Henry Waxman and Chris Van Hollen — have responded to the ScienceDebate questions.  And House Speaker John Boehner’s team has outright declined!

Science drives over half of US economic growth and lies at the center of several of our most critical challenges and opportunities.  Many of the leading science organizations in the United States arrived at a consensus on the Top American Science Questions: Congressional Edition, and the effort is supported by nearly two hundred science organizations and universities, and tens of thousands of individuals, ranging from concerned citizens to Nobel laureates and corporate CEOs.

And yet, members of Congress are ignoring the ScienceDebate questionnaire, submitted to them by Scientific American magazine, or declining to answer any questions about their policy views!

Please contact the following Congress Members’ offices right now and ask them to respond to the ScienceDebate and Scientific American questionnaire immediately.  Be respectful, and tell in your own words why this is important.  Ask them to send their responses back to submit@sciam.com.

Thank you!

Senate

Lamar Alexander: Tennessee (R)—ranking member, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Barbara Boxer: California (D)—chair, Committee on Environment and Public Works

Jim DeMint: South Carolina (R)—member, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchinson is retiring)

Michael Enzi: Wyoming (R)—ranking member, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Dianne Feinstein: California (D)—chair, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Tom Harkin: Iowa (D)—chair, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

James Inhofe: Oklahoma (R)—ranking member, Committee on Environment and Public Works

Mitch McConnell: Kentucky (R)—Senate minority leader

Patty Murray: Washington State (D)—member, Committee on the Budget (Chairman Kent Conrad is retiring)

Lisa Murkowski: Alaska (R)—ranking member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Harry Reid: Nevada (D)—Senate majority leader

Pat Roberts: Kansas (R)—ranking member, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Jay Rockefeller: West Virginia (D)—chair, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Jeff Sessions: Alabama (R)—ranking member, Committee on the Budget

Debbie Stabenow: Michigan (D)—chair, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Ron Wyden: Oregon (D)—member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (Chairman Jeff Bingaman is retiring)

House of Representatives

Timothy Bishop: New York State–1 (D)—ranking member, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

John Boehner: Ohio–8 (R)—speaker of the House

Scott Garrett: New Jersey–5 (R)—vice chair, Committee on the Budget (Chair Paul Ryan is the Republican vice presidential candidate)

Bob Gibbs: Ohio–18 (R)—chair, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

Ralph Hall: Texas–4 (R)—chair, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Doc Hastings: Washington State–4 (R)—chair, Committee on Natural Resources

Eddie Bernice Johnson: Texas–30 (D)—ranking member, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Frank Lucas: Oklahoma–3 (R)—chair, Committee on Agriculture; member of Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Edward J. Markey: Massachusetts–7 (D)—ranking member, Committee on Natural Resources

John Mica: Florida–7 (R)—chair, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Nancy Pelosi: California–8 (D)—House minority leader

Best,

-Shawn Otto and the team at ScienceDebate.Org

Folks, we need to change this situation.  These are our elected officials, placed onto committees which decide issues of great scientific, technological, engineering, and educational importance which affect all of our lives.  Most especially if you are a constituent of theirs, please consider contacting the Congressmembers above and tell them you want them to respond to the Science Debate challenge.

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Good News from Science Debate: Both U.S. Presidential Candidates Accept!

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 25, 2012

As I reported last month, President Obama’s campaign has accepted the Science Debate 2012 challenge to address their Top Science Questions.  I am now happy to report that Mitt Romney’s campaign has also accepted the challenge :)

For your reference, here are the Science Debate questions:

Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity
Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health
Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health

Let us hope these candidates take the time to make it a priority to seriously consider these important issues of science, engineering, technology, and education.  Stay tuned to the Science Debate website for the candidates’ responses!

In addition, the folks over at Science Debate have also now launched a Congressional version of their candidate challenge:

House Committee on Science, Space & Technology member Rep. Todd Akin’s recent remarks regarding a woman’s body’s natural ability to “shut that whole thing down” and prevent pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape” help illustrate why science needs to be a higher priority in the national dialogue when selecting candidates for office.

Working with America’s leading science organizations, we’ve developed the Top American Science Questions: Congressional Edition to help address this need.

Working with us, Scientific American has asked key Members of Congress who have influence over science policy to answer these eight critical questions.  So far, only a handful have indicated they will.

If you are a constituent of one of the following Members of Congress, please contact the Member’s office and ask them to respond to the ScienceDebate and Scientific American questionnaire immediately.  Be respectful, and tell in your own words why this is important.  Ask them to send their responses back to submit@sciam.com.

Thank you!

Senate

Lamar Alexander: Tennessee (R)—ranking member, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Barbara Boxer: California (D)—chair, Committee on Environment and Public Works

Jim DeMint: South Carolina (R)—member, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation (Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchinson is retiring)

Michael Enzi: Wyoming (R)—ranking member, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

Dianne Feinstein: California (D)—chair, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development

Tom Harkin: Iowa (D)—chair, Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions

James Inhofe: Oklahoma (R)—ranking member, Committee on Environment and Public Works

Mitch McConnell: Kentucky (R)—Senate minority leader

Patty Murray: Washington State (D)—member, Committee on the Budget (Chairman Kent Conrad is retiring)

Lisa Murkowski: Alaska (R)—ranking member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Harry Reid: Nevada (D)—Senate majority leader

Pat Roberts: Kansas (R)—ranking member, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Jay Rockefeller: West Virginia (D)—chair, Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Jeff Sessions: Alabama (R)—ranking member, Committee on the Budget

Debbie Stabenow: Michigan (D)—chair, Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

Ron Wyden: Oregon (D)—member, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources (Chairman Jeff Bingaman is retiring)

House of Representatives

Timothy Bishop: New York State–1 (D)—ranking member, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

John Boehner: Ohio–8 (R)—speaker of the House

Scott Garrett: New Jersey–5 (R)—vice chair, Committee on the Budget (Chair Paul Ryan is the Republican vice presidential candidate)

Bob Gibbs: Ohio–18 (R)—chair, Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment

Ralph Hall: Texas–4 (R)—chair, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Doc Hastings: Washington State–4 (R)—chair, Committee on Natural Resources

Eddie Bernice Johnson: Texas–30 (D)—ranking member, Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Frank Lucas: Oklahoma–3 (R)—chair, Committee on Agriculture; member of Committee on Science, Space and Technology

Edward J. Markey: Massachusetts–7 (D)—ranking member, Committee on Natural Resources

John Mica: Florida–7 (R)—chair, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Nancy Pelosi: California–8 (D)—House minority leader

Posted in politics, science funding, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Birthers Hit a New Low…

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2012

So there’s this nutjob… err, I mean law enforcement officer… named Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona who has apparently taken it upon himself to “prove” that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen (a conspiracy theory known as “birtherism“).  This has consisted of basically engaging in rampant conspiracy mongering that President Obama’s birth certificate (which you can see here) is a forgery, despite the fact that it has been certified as authentic repeatedly.  Well, in their quest to pursue their bigoted… err, I mean intense and serious… investigation of the citizenship of the POTUS, they have hit a new low.

And here it is:

The Globe Magazine… that bastion of journalistic excellence.  *Sigh* ‘Nuff said.

Posted in conspiracy theories, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Election 2012 and a Reminder that Pollsters are B.S.

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2012

As we ramp up for yet another frenzied political season where, no doubt, there will be much drama and mudslinging, I’d like to leave you all with this one thought: for the most part, political polls and pollsters are bullshit.

This article does a good job explaining why…

Pay no attention to the pollster behind the curtain

There are many ways to keep score on whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney has better odds of winning the general election, which is almost exactly six months away. Here at The Signal, we are fervent evangelists of the political prediction markets, where people place real money on the line to bet on the winner. These markets proved to be more prescient than polls in the Republican primary.

Many journalists prefer to stick to reporting on raw daily polls. While these surveys offer valuable information, it is dangerous to read too much into the daily fluctuations, especially this far in advance. Currently, Rasmussen has Romney leading Obama 49 to 44, while Rueters/Ipsos has Obama leading Romney 49 to 42. This disagreement is due to several common sources of error that occur on any poll. Averaging several polls to get an aggregate figure, as RealClearPolitics does, helps ameliorate these errors.

Upcoming work by Bob Erikson of Columbia and Chris Wlezien of Temple, recently presented at the Midwest Political Science Association conference, demonstrates a second problem with following the daily polls too closely. The researchers looked through past presidential elections, aggregated the national polls, and created the most effective forecast based on that data. They found that, even when properly aggregated and averaged, national polls do not have predictive power at this point in the cycle. … [emphasis added]

You can read the entire article to get the gist of how untrustworthy most politically-oriented polls can be, but I think it is said even better by skeptical magicians Penn & Teller :)

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Cognitive Dissonance in Partisan Politics: The Case of Gas Prices

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 9, 2012

In a follow up to my recent posts (here and here) on the issue of rising U.S. gas prices and how the President and Congress really have little power to affect them, despite the belief by some that they do, I heard an excellent piece on NPR this morning about this very subject.  Of course, in NPR fashion, they went a bit deeper and actually started to discuss in a scientific fashion why it is that Republicans are blaming President Obama for higher gas prices now whereas a few years ago it was Democrats blaming then President Bush for higher gas prices.  Check it out…

Partisan Psychology: Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?

Charlie Reidel/AP — President Bush and then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry shake hands at the end of a presidential debate in 2004 in St. Louis. Researchers want to better understand why partisans’ views of the facts change in light of their political loyalties.

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard. …

Click here to read the entire story

Posted in economics, politics, psychology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 27, 2012

I was inspired to write the following JREF Swift blog post as a result of my earlier posts (here and here) on the question of gasoline prices in the United States and the powers (perceived or real) of the U.S. president.  I hope you find it enlightening…

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

On my blog, I recently put together a post – Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction – about higher gas prices and how people are blaming President Obama for it.  As I pointed out there, Republicans blaming him for the increase in the price of gasoline (and oil in general) are wrong for the same reason as when Democrats blamed former President Bush back in 2007: the President doesn’t really have that much power to influence oil and gasoline prices.

So, if it is true that no such power exists for the leaders of our government to affect the price at the pump (and that is true, as the prices are set more by market factors such as global supply and demand of oil), why is it that people want to lay blame upon our mostly blameless leaders?  I struggled with the answer to this question for some time, but I think I have finally hit upon a possible answer: many people, either consciously or not, attribute powers to the President of the United States and Congress that simply do not exist.

And that asks the next obvious question: why do people attribute such powers to our political leaders?  Why is it that many of us assign almost god-like abilities to our decidedly non-god-like and wholly fallible authority figures?

I think the answer is multi-faceted and can give some interesting insights into how we think about a lot of things, especially regarding politically oriented topics.  In addition, an analysis of this topic can lead us into a deeper discussion of a philosophical concept known as “agency”.

First, I think (somewhat cynically) that there are some, if not many, politicians in government who, either actively or inactively, encourage the notion that they have more power than they are in reality.  After all, this is one of the reasons why people vote for candidates running for political office: because they make promises and we expect them to deliver on those promises, whether or not those promises are in any way, shape, or form realistic to achieve.  This also goes for the various subsidiaries which surround the government, such as lobbying groups, political action committees, etc.  But it’s too easy to stop there.

Second, I think that in many ways we are somewhat hard-wired to make inferences to the existence of things which are not there.  In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as “agency”, where we assign some kind of powers and abilities to an entity through our beliefs about that entity or our behavior towards it.  For example, how many of us have been in the middle of some very important work on the computer when suddenly the program crashes?  No doubt that many of us then engaged in a certain amount of cursing at (not necessarily about) the computer, as if it could not only hear but understand us.  (Aside: my wife works with computers for her career, and she will swear up and down that “they know what we’re thinking”)  The computer itself is real enough, but what about the agency which we assign to it?

But when you step back and think about it, it’s downright silly to rant and rave at the computer.  The most obvious reason for this is that it simply doesn’t work.  Yell at the computer all you want, but that won’t fix the problem; actually trying to solve the relevant hardware and/or software problem will fix things.  The other reason is that, let’s face it, at the end of the day the computer is simply a collection of circuits, wire, switches, and assorted electronics.  Does it really have a mind with which to interact?  The answer, so far with today’s common technology, is a negative, yet for some reason we engage with the computer as if it did have such a mind.  And in so doing, we assign agency to the computer. …

Click here to read the rest of the post

Posted in economics, philosophy, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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