Sunday, April 29, 2012

False Equivalence

Several weeks ago Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam allowed an education bill to pass into law without his signature. This law, often referred to by critics as the 'Monkey Bill' in reference to the 1925 'Scopes Monkey Trial,' allows the discussion of alternative scientific ideas in classrooms. On the surface, this seems innocuous and perhaps even pointless to enact as law, but the one thing it does is open the door just a crack to challenge scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.

Here's an excerpt from the Bill Summary: "This bill prohibits the state board of education and any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or principal or administrator from prohibiting any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming."

Don't get me wrong, I am all for discussion and debate in general, even more so in an academic setting. But I don't think grade school science class is the place for such free wheeling, anything goes exchanges. School, particularly grade school, is there to, as quickly and efficiently as possible, build up a student's basic foundational knowledge of the currently accepted theories and practices. With this foundation they can then bound off in whatever direction life and their own imagination takes them. This includes challenging the validity of the accepted wisdom. My main problem with this law is that by saying it's OK to debate pretty much any idea in class, it quietly creates a false equivalency between supported scientific theories and faith based beliefs.

Look, we don't know everything and sometimes our reality gets turned upside down with new discoveries, but you can't teach on the basis of 'might' or 'could'. You go with what, so far, seems to be correct and encourage kids to always question and evaluate based on new data. Science is about what can be supported by data and observation and is also repeatable. It is not about belief or faith. And don't forget that teaching evolution does not preclude students considering other ideas, but you don't start students off by telling them any crackpot idea is as valid as a theory put forward by decades of scientific study! If someone wants to believe in creationism or its modern cousin, intelligent design, that's their right. But that is no basis for grade school science class! What's next? Do we spend hours of limited class time on an alternate explanation for why we don't fall off a spherical stellar body? This is just another attempt to artificially elevate unsupported beliefs, usually theological based, to the level of science. They are not the same thing, no matter how much some wish it were so.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Message Obscured

On Wednesday, Democratic Strategist and DNC adviser Hilary Rosen set off an uproar with a comment about Mitt Romney's wife Anne. In an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, talking about the GOP's recent issues with women voters, Rosen was quoted as saying, "Guess what, his wife has actually never worked a day in her life.” This prompted Anne Romney herself to dive onto Twitter to respond, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." This was followed by the automatic and predictable avalanche of tweets, comments and press releases, with conservatives using the gaff to claim Democrats don't respect Mothers and liberals falling all over each other in an attempt to distance themselves from Rosen.

There is no doubt that the sentence, taken in isolation, came off as insulting to stay at home moms, but let's just pause for a moment and take a deep, cleansing breath. Before we pile on, perhaps it would be prudent to review the entire relevant section of that interview. Rosen was speaking about Mitt Romney and what she sees as his disconnect with women:

"What you have is, Mitt Romney running around the country saying, “Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing."

Guess what: his wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kind of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and why do we worry about their future."

There are still some questionable wording choices, but taken in context I think her point comes across clearly. This is very much a case of the message being obscured by the wording. Yes, it came off as rather insulting, but the substance was entirely valid. Rosen was speaking in direct response to some of Romney's recent comments, such as this: "My wife has the occasion, as you know, to campaign on her own and also with me, and she reports to me regularly that the issue women care about most is the economy." Ruth Marcus, at the Washington Post put it well in an online article on Tuesday when she commented on this quote, "Note to candidate: Women aren’t a foreign country. You don’t need an interpreter to talk to them. Even if you’re not fluent in their language, they might appreciate if you gave it a try." Rosen was obviously following a similar path with her comments. The problem was that she was sloppy in how she put it and should have been more careful in choosing her words. After all, she does this for a living. But we shouldn't let that obscure the valid argument that she was making. And, make no mistake, it is valid.

Now I have nothing but respect for any parent, not to mention one who raises five kids, but this hardly makes her the avatar for the America woman!  It's not easy to forget that while Anne may have had to deal with a lot of the same parenting issues as average Americans, that was about the only thing she has in common with them.  In March, during a Fox News interview, Anne said, “We can be poor in spirit, and I don’t even consider myself wealthy, which is an interesting thing, it can be here today and gone tomorrow.” In fact it is "an interesting thing" since Mitt Romney's net worth is estimated to be in the $200 million range. That's wealthy by anyone's yard stick! To put that kind of number into some context, Romney makes more in a day than the average American makes all year. This isn't to say that being rich, even this level of rich, is wrong or something to be ashamed of, but both Romneys should at least be aware how much distance this puts between them and at least 99.5% of American voters. Romney's comments, making his wife his prime source on women's issues, just seems to show once again how removed from everyone else’s reality this family is.

Look, the Romneys are very wealthy and there is nothing wrong with that. But Mitt Romney is running for President of the entire United States, not just the top tier. And while nobody should expect him to have first hand experience with living paycheck to paycheck, we should expect him to make an effort to pay some attention. Yet just about every time he opens his mouth, out comes another line that illustrates a man who seemingly has no awareness of what most of the country is actually going through. Comments holding Anne Romney up as his window into the souls of women is more of the same. It shows once again a complete disconnect from the life most American's live. Rosen's error was in how she phrased it, but her underlying sentiment was dead on.  Anne Romney is about as in touch with the concerns of a single Mom in Arkansas as Mitt Romney is with an unemployed construction worker in Baton Rouge. And what's worse, they don't really seem to care.