As the Titanic of Science slowly sinks…

Peter wood,executive director of the National Association of Scholars, has penned an interesting article looking at the decline in science in the USA. This has grown out of Bill Gates testimony before the  House Committee on Science and Technology about the abject failure of American schools, colleges, and universities to prepare students for advanced study in the sciences.
I have previously blogged about this issue with respect to Australia although I have to admit the USA is in a much worse predicament than us. When it comes to developing science, the country is truly retarded. And now they are starting to pay the price for this short sightedness. After recently spending a month in the USA I was struck by the pessimistic outlook of nearly everyone I met. In a few words… the USA is no longer great. Part of this is the incompetence in financial management at the federal level leading to record levels of national debt and at the local level the deregulation on the housing loan markets is currently coming home to roost with a distressing level of foreclosures. These are not good signs in any countries books. On top of this we have misadventures in the Middle East and a political system that now seems far from democratic with well funded lobby groups forming the major influence in their political system.
And to top this all off we now have people like Bill Gates having to rap the government over the knuckles and fund the creation of over a 1000 new high schools. Now as much as Windows sucks we do have to tip our hats to Bill for his philanthropy.
Although the attack on science has not been as severe in Australia as in the USA the same symptoms are starting to show. Immigration are actively seeking skilled people in the sciences, engineering and IT industry. We too are sliding down the slippery slope the USA is rapidly approaching the bottom of. Whilst at the same time our neighboring countries are seeing the benefit of such careers and are doing their utmost to bring their countries to the highest standard of education they can.
The irony is that the quotation “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”, clearly applies now as we can see what is happening in the USA but we are apparently making the same errors in our education system. Unfortunately we don’t appear to have our own Bill Gates to help out…

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Teachers and student reporting

After a month traveling in the USA and visiting TAM6 this little black duck has made it back to Adelaide. Stories from the United States of Woo will appear as I regain my grasp on reality, it took a dent over the 3 weeks and 4000 miles of driving on the wrong side of the road.
Anyway, in todays Advertiser we have a story of teachers yet again complaining about having to grade their students (or are they called “customers” in this postmodern world of woo?) using an A->E system. Evidently such a system may be “damaging to students’ self-esteem”.
Heaven friggin’ forbid we actually tell students when they are crap or need to pull the finger out. The reason to pull the system? “It’s a “hangover” from a previous government”. So that’s the criteria? Sheesh. Having had 2 children go through the public education system I feel I have ability to comment on the system of public education we have.
It’s crap.
Pure and simple crap and most of the issues stem from exactly the same people who lead the teachers. The current state of our science and math education in public primary schools is abysmal, science rooms converted to store rooms, no science teachers and teachers with other backgrounds in the arts shoehorned into teaching maths badly and without any enthusiasm.
And yet whenever their is an idea that sounds progressive, like grading students objectively or even  grading the quality of teachers and rewarding them for performance it is pooh poohed by the teaching union and the political lackeys with close ties to teaching. And here  we have  these same people wanting to pull an objective  measuring system for one based on words.
I hate to be the bearer of  bad news but our children will be competing for education and employment and careers in a world where objectivity and reality are the norm. Sticking your head in the sand and not calling a spade a spade when little Johny or Mary is struggling with learning is verging on child abuse. You are lying to children to protect them from reality. In no way does this help a child with their self esteem, good bad or indifferent.
My wife and I have many friends with teenage children, many are now finishing off high school and there is a disturbing trend. Throughout their (public) school life they got great grades and everything was rosy. However when it came to the independent SACE exams which contribute to a SACE score and is used for higher education entrance they flunk out. Everyone seems surprised until you ask about the grades the public schools were giving. Now, we know these kids and have known many from kindergarten and if a kids not too bright then it’s pretty apparent. And yet the schools were giving great grades. Sure, it made the teachers look OK but the kids are stuffed when their plans fall into a heap and reality strikes. IMHO this is very, very cruel however the system responsible seems to put the welfare of the teachers career above that of their children. And that sucks.
From first hand experience many teachers need a serious amount of retraining, to put it politely. In a private school they would simply be sacked. And yet at every twist and turn many teachers and their union put their members welfare and careers above that of their students. They will block teacher grading, student grading or any suggested the public education system is broken.

You may wonder why I’m talking about this, what has it to do with skepticism? Well, we are currently looking at where we can get the best bang for buck in promoting science and critical thinking in general and school age children have the best opportunity for developing these skills. (Adults have missed the boat but thats a separate story.) However to promote critical thinking, math and science in schools we are going to need to work with the system and there’s the rub.
The sort of people of run the countries education systems do not even recognise that objective measurements and comparisons are useful.
Although considering how few have any scientific background this should not come as surprise. With such a blatant ignorance of objectivity and disconnect with reality this will not be an easy task. However the world of Woo has similarities with Wack-a-Mole, it doesn’t go away easily and if there is something that is apparent after the last few decades,it  is that fighting woo as it raises it’s head is not a winning long term strategy.
Now before I get flamed I’m not saying all teachers are crap. Ok, just most of them. And the last thing they want is any system that will allow a measurement of their performance. Either directly or through their students grades. It’s perfectly natural and I understand the psychology behind such things. However in the long run it’s damaging to a lot more that just esteem and the declining ranking of Australian students in various internationally measures is not good. Until the teachers union sorts it’s leadership out with a serious dose of reality I’m afraid it will be same ol’, same ‘ol.

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Female Australian scientist, want money?

The L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowships are intended to support Australian female post-doctoral scientists no more than five years past their PhD.

Three Fellowships worth $20,000 each are awarded annually to women who have shown scientific excellence in their career to date and who have an appropriate research plan that will be assisted by the one-year Fellowship.

Applications for the 2008 Fellowships open on 19 May 2008 and close on 20 June 2008.

See this site.


Halal Dolls in Iran??

After noticing that Iran is about to be destroyed, not by tactical nukes, but Barbie dolls I thought I’d follow up the mention of acceptable dolls for Iran’s children. I was wondering how different Sara and Dara might be from Barbie, expecting the worst. Having found this article from a few years ago.And here is a lovely little picture of Sara and Dara.

Sara and Dara dolls

Not too disturbing, until one realises this:

A complete doll is haram (Arabic for “forbidden”) under strict Islamic law. Unless a part of the body is missing on the doll, the doll is not halal (permitted). It would be considered idol worship.”

Initially I was wondering if an arm or leg may be missing but then I realised.. there’s probably a shitload of that doll missing! Like teeth or toe-nails for starters. I’d bet it hasn’t a heart nor a brain either.

But then I realise, “idol worship“? What part of any of a kids doll meets the criterion of “idol”, which according to Wiktionary means

A graven image or representation of anything that is revered, or believed to convey spiritual power.”

Please correct if I’m wrong but they shouldn’t really be concerned with Barbie.. revered?? Don’t think so.

“Convey spritual power”? The only thing Barbie and friends, let alone Sara and Dara, have in common with spiritual power is that the plastic used to make them could also be made into motor spirit to power a car.

So here’s a big hint to Iran, don’t worry about dolls being Halal, none represent real humans, least of all Barbie. If you really care about kids keep them away from that brain sucking bitch because they seriously screw with girls heads. Remember the Mattel stuff up “Math class is tough” from the 1990’s? That company still does it’s best to keep girls in boxes, and not just the plastic kind. So about the best thing Iran could do is forget about the dodgy reasons for dumping Barbie and go with the real reasons. And if they feel like it, others have gone before them in improving Barbie’s personality to something less pathetic.

And while I’m putting in links for Sniggle , here’s their rather good pseudoscience page.

For a totally rant against Bratz, see this. Totally agree.

Currently MGA, the maker of Bratz, and Mattel, the maker of Barbie, are busy suing the ass off each other.

Hopefully the judgment is that differences are settled with nuclear weapons at 10 paces.


Free Skeptical brochures

Currently I’m reading Dan Ariely’s book “Predictably Irrational’ and in the chapter on the cost of free I realise that Skeptics SA have something to offer for free, our brochures.

Here’s a list of what’s there. Plus we have some brochures from NZ. Enjoy.

Acupuncture
Does this traditional Chinese treatment really work?
Alchemy
Turning base metals into gold
Alien Encounters
Are people really being abducted?
Atlantis
The fabled lost continent
Australian Skeptics
About the organisation
Automatic Writing
“I wrote meaning sentences, without any intention or knowing what they were to be…”
Bach Flower Therapy
Vitalism revisited
The Bermuda Triangle
Mysterious disappearances
Breatharianism
Can you really exist on just fresh air and sunlight?
Chiropractic
Real treatment or quackery?
Clairvoyance
Seeing…
Creation ‘science’
Is the earth really less than 10 000 years old?
Crop circles
Mysterious patterns appearing in cereal crops
Crystal power
Healing, energy…
Dihydrogen monoxide
The dangers of a common substance
Feng-Shui
The ancient Chinese art of placement
Firewalking
Are your feet warm?
Glossolalia
Speaking in tongues
Homeopathy
‘Dilutions of grandeur…’
Horoscopes
What do the stars have in store for you today?
Hypnosis
‘You will do as I tell you…’
The Law of Karma
A real law of the universe?
The Loch Ness Monster
What’s lurking in the loch?
Mysterious energies
Energies unknown to science
Naturopathy
Is the‘ healing force’ real?
Nazca Lines
What are those shapes in the desert?
Near-death experiences
Are they real?
Nostradamus: 17 June 1999
Were we right to be afraid?
Nostradamus
Did he really see the future?
Numerology
The answer lies in the numbers
Ouija
Yes, yes…
Qakatak
Dealing with ‘alternative’ medicine
Reincarnation
What were you in a past life?
Reverse speech
What‘s hidden in the sounds?
Runes
Viking wisdon or New Age scribbles?
Some common scams
How to avoid wasting your money
Scepticism
What does it mean to be a sceptic?
Scientific method
Science versus pseudo-science
Seances
Messages from the ‘other side’
The Shroud of Turin
The real burial cloth, or pious fraud?
Spontaneous human combustion
Could you catch fire?
Stigmata
The marks of the cross
Tarot
Your life in the cards
UFOs
What’s that in the sky?
Immanuel Velikovsky
The fantastic history of the planets
Eric von Däniken
Chariots of what?
Xenoglossia
Speaking foreign tongues
Miracle at Yankalilla
What’s that on the wall?

Australia does well in student science literacy

Australia does quite in science literacy according to this result. The PISA 2006 science scale measures scientific literacy in 15 year old students across a huge range of counties and we came in in 8th position although due to the uncertainty of the score it is more accurate to saw somewhere between 5th and 10th on only 5% off the top score.

The USA comes in between 24th and 35th. For the richest country in the world which spends the most of education this is simply pathetic and would seem to show that the USA has no freakin’ idea about understanding reality.The full results will be out on the 4th December and will include mathematics and literacy.

Until then the only other comment I will say is think about why the most religious countries are down towards the bottom and those with a large proportion of atheists are near the top.


Andy Thomas article…must read

It took me a while to get around to reading this article,  originally in the Bulletin, and it is excellent. Here’s the last two paragraphs:

That is why federal education policies are so important to the country’s future. That is why it was never smart to suggest that not everyone need have the chance for tertiary education, a point that has actually been in debate in Australia. That is why it has not been smart to allow the tertiary education system to become eroded, as it has over the past 30 years. That is why it is not smart to fail to invest in research and development areas just because they do not have an immediate or short-term payback. Just think how much better off the country would be today if long-term water management and desalinisation investments had been made 20 years ago. Or think how much stronger national security would be if the country had made strategic investments to develop a viable space program of remote sensing. These and many other programs are ultimately crucial for the country’s long-term economic and strategic well-being. It is not smart or healthy for the nation to ignore them.

Because being smart is about nation-building, it is important to acknowledge and recognise the smart people within the community. It allows them to be rewarded and thanked. They do not have press agents like so many of the celebrities, sports figures or media glitterati who embellish the community. In many instances, the Smart 100 are people the paparazzi would never want to track down. Yet, they are important because their contributions do more than just embellish the community, they help build the nation. The diversity of skills and capabilities captured in the Smart 100 speak well for the country’s intellectual resources. These people will have a long-standing legacy and their acknowledgement here shows where the intellectual strength of the nation lies and points to the possibility of a very positive future. But it is up to all of us to also be smart to ensure that this future does indeed come to pass.”

It was, if I recall correctly, recently mentioned on the ABC’s science show that William Brag, another local lad, won his Nobel prize when younger than Britney Spears is now. Until we manage to get science to be noticed and appreciated and ensure our primary school children share the interest the following hit rates from Google will reflect how well our society respects the people who do great things in the world.

William Bragg: 414,000 hits (discoveries save millions of lives)

Britney Spears:16,800,000 hits (????)


Making stupid people

It was reported in the local paper that people are considering removing the pre-requisite special maths for students studying engineering, science and maths at Adelaide University. As someone who has a degree in engineering I find this rather bizarre because there is simply no way in a pink fit you could get that degree without being skilled at maths, and for good reason. Maths is important. It forms a fundamental cornerstone for a whole range of subjects such as fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, stress analysis, acoustics and pretty much everything else. Now some might argue that we need to turn out graduates who are practical orientated and this sort of theoretical underpinnings are not what industry need.

Having worked in academia, private industry and and now public research there is real limits to what graduates with a hands on, practical approach can do. I have worked with graduates from all the local Uni’s and many of our readers are aware of the philosophical distinctions between them. In fact 2 of the 3 universities have already dropped this pre-requisite according to the papers. This might be fair enough for some places if say the demand for such skills is non-existent but for heavens sake, not all Uni’s and you better have a good reason, one I’m yet to hear.

What I have heard though is that the reason is not enough students are doing these courses so the entry requirements need to be eased off. What a stupid solution to the wrong problem. The issue with falling numbers of students starts in the primary schools and the disgusting lack of resources put into teaching maths and science in primary schools in South Australia. If kids don’t get to enjoy these subjects, let alone even get exposed to science, there is no freakin’ way they are going to spend their lives with maths or science as a part of it. I went to a local public primary school and my kids have now done so to. And there seems to be a pretty big change in the quality of teachers from the 70’s as compared to today. I have read the curriculum and I’ve seen the teachers and I’ve seen the science rooms turned into other uses. And now we are complaining about a lack of skilled workers and needing to dumb down uni to get enough students.

Every year SkepticsSA sponsor a prize at the Oliphant awards and it’s great to go along and see the great work from the kids. We actually donate about 10% of our budget to this, that’s how important we think it is. However most of the kids are from private schools because the public schools either don’t have the resources or the teachers, but most likely both. There are a few public schools involved and the science teachers  here do a fantastic and admirable job. However I think the education department really isn’t helping. Every year I see first hand what is happening to science and maths at the primary school level and I think it’s about time we put out to pasture some of the post-modernist wankers who seemed to have taken over the system. The clueless twits with their air headed views based on a vacuous philosophy are simply not helping society in dealing with the demands and challenges of the 21st century.  This sort of philosophy at it worst leads to the sort of bullshit with creationism being seen as an equal to evolution and at best watering down, to a moronic and useless level, of the sciences and maths. This might be seen as a simple ad-hominem attack but I base my views on my observations over the decades of the level of scientific understanding in the general community and the ability the think scientifically.

It’s not getting better and the interest in the sciences, the number of students going on to higher education in these fields and the skill shortage in South Australia in well educated technical type people is further evidence of the perceived unimportance of science.

If we really want to solve our skills crisis, if we really want an educated and intelligent society that can deal with huge demands of a rapidly changing world then the best place to start is with our primary school kids. We need more science and maths teachers with a passion for the subject and we need a government that is willing to fund the education department to a suitable level. Yes, it will cost money but that’s what I pay taxes for.

If we did this we wouldn’t have to dumb down out entry requirements to university. If we don’t do this we might as well practice flipping burgers and selling souvenirs to the tourists.

..and don’t get me started on the state government allowing our premier science education centre to close down..or the lack of support from industry.


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