free debate

December 14, 2011

Book Review: Poor Economics

This is our first book review here at Scientifica, but I think it is long overdue. I'm not sure how often we will be able to do these but it something that I have wanted to do for some time now. Hopefully you will find some books that interest you and if you have any recommendations, please put them in the comments.

Poor Economics is not one of your typical skeptical book. It doesn't talk about ghosts or people who think the Earth is hollow. Instead, it dives into poverty and the solutions that people offer to the poor. As someone who is a fan of critical thinking and has done a fair about of service work, this book was the best blend of the two I have ever seen.

Humanitarian efforts are almost always run by people who really want to make a difference in peoples lives. Unfortunately, sometimes people get so caught up in trying to help that they never ask if what they are doing is working. It is easy to just go off anecdotes to justify your work and to some degree that is OK to do. However when it comes to putting in place programs that are really going to try to make an impact on social problems and increase peoples standard of living we should demand evidence. These programs are not free and like any consumer we should want the most bang of our buck.

Poor Economics does a really impressive job of reviewing the mixed and often limited data around poverty. Do people use a bug net that was given to them for free? Is a lack of food what keeps people poor? Are the poor one loan away form being thriving business owners? These are hard questions that have complex answers. Even if you don't read the book I strongly recommend you peruse their website. There is a lot of good data there as well a some resources for teaching about poverty.

The Bottom Line: This book is excellent. It doesn't matter if you know nothing about poverty or if you are engrossed in these issues. This book tries gives the reader understanding of why the poor make the choices they do and what can be done to help improve their lives.

As an aside, it is the end of the year so if you are looking for good charities I recommend you look at and Foundation Beyond Belief. Give Well reviews charities that address lots of difference social issues. Like the authors of Poor Economics, they review the evidence for a charities effectiveness and rank them accordingly. Foundation Beyond Belief organizes secularists to donate to charities on a variety of issues. If you are able, please give back to humanity this holiday season.

December 9, 2011

Why Intelligent Design Doesn't Belong in a Science Class

I try to stay away from politics for the most part on this blog, but when it threatens science education I can't stay silent. For readers in other countries, the U.S. is currently in the middle of the Republican party (GOP) primary elections to see who will run against current President Obama in 2012. Last Thursday, the Huffington post reported on GOP candidate Michele Bachmann's stance towards evolution and intelligent design. In the video linked to by the article she equates not teaching intelligent design with "censorship on the part of government". Michele Bachmann is by no means the only GOP candidate that supports the idea of teaching Intelligent Design in public schools.

This idea that our students need to learn both intelligent design and evolution in their science class is wrong for several reasons. The purpose of a science class, especially in a K-12 school, is to give students an understanding of the best science we have and (ideally) an idea of how science works. By itself, that is a ton of content. I have yet to meet a science teacher who actually thinks they have enough class time to fully teach all the material in their curriculum. To give you a feel for how much content there is: when I was working in a middle school in Chicago, we were given the school year to teach our sixth graders all of Earth sciences. That may sound like a ton of time but consider that Earth sciences includes: the motion of the planets, the seasons, the lunar phases, the different types of rocks, basic tectonics, earthquakes, how pressure systems impact weather, reading weather maps, what is climate, and global climate change. All this while trying to teach them how science works and give them some experience using lab materials. So as it stands many teachers don't have time to give students a good understands of the most fundamental topics. There simply isn't time for controversial or fringe science.

This brings me nicely to my second point. Intelligent design shouldn't be taught in public schools because it's not science. It makes no testable claims that could ever falsify it. I am also not aware of any scientist who has made a discovery that stemmed from their belief in intelligent design. Any paradigm which makes no testable predictions and does nothing to further our understanding of the universe really can't be called science in any meaning full way. If it's not science, then clearly it shouldn't be in taught in a science class.

If intelligent design isn't science then, what is it? Religion. The first amendment of the United States says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". This is in place to protect government from religion, and religion from government. So if intelligent design is religion, it cannot be taught in public schools without violation of the constitution. In 2005, this very issue came up in Dover, Pennsylvania. The judge John E Jones III concluded the following in the official decision "We have concluded that... ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." You have a right to teach religion, just do it in church.

I have no problem with intelligent design being a part of a comparative religions course. I also think it would be really cool if maybe some larger high schools were able to offer a course on evolution that discussed the specific claims made by intelligent design proponents. Students will make up their own mind on all issues and I don't think anyone wants to stop them from doing that. What I want is for them to understand what's science, what's not, and what the difference is. That way, they will be making up their mind in an informed way. Along the same lines, how important this issue is to how you vote is up to you. I certainly am not trying to say this is the only reason to support or distance yourself from a candidate. I just find it sad when the people who are asking us to let them run this country do not understand the facts behind such a widespread issue.

If you are now sightly depressed, want to learn more, or both I highly highly recommend this clip of Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson from his interview with Sam Ogden of Skephick.

December 7, 2011

What is Science? - Skewed Views

"Evolution is just a theory."

As a paleontology student, I hear that argument a lot. There seems to be a common misunderstanding of the language of science. This video delves into the problems of arguing against science using emotion or by appealing to incomprehension.

If you found this interesting, we have written a whole series on what science is:

Hat tip to Steven G via Fraser Cain on Google+

December 5, 2011

Practical Science: Exercising to Sleep

 NASA astronaut Steve Lindsey, commander of STS-133
exercising on the International Space Station
Photo credit NASA via Wikimedia Commons
I write a lot about science that overturns everyday notions. More often, though, I find science confirms what most anyone on the street could tell you. Even if those stories don't make as catchy headlines, they can still be really important. Case and point, a new study to be published in the December issue of the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity has found that people who do moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week sleep better and feel less drowsy during the day. Not just a little more sleep either: a full 65% increase in reported sleep quality.

I have found this to be true in my own life as well. The nights I don't sleep well are when I am trapped inside all day writing a paper or watching videos on the Internet. My uncle is a rancher in Wyoming and says he has never has trouble sleeping. It is really nice to see a study like this to confirm my own anecdotal experience.

So, if you do have trouble getting through the night, try to find a half hour each day to ride a bike, run, swim, hike, lift, climb, whatever works for you.

December 1, 2011

Looking for Other Worlds

The search for exoplanets has gone from being an unlikely dream 20 years ago to being a booming area of research in astronomy and planetary science. The first true exoplanet discovery, according to NASA, was in 1994. Since then, 687 have been discovered, and more are being found all the time. This video from Cosmic Journeys takes you through some of the highlights of exoplanet discovery, particularly the search for Earth-like planets.

Hat tip to Ciro Villa on Google+