Thursday, March 22, 2012

An Open Letter to Gov. Haslam and the Tennessee Legislature

An Open Letter to Gov. Haslam and the Tennessee Legislature:

As a lifelong resident of the state of Tennessee, educated in public school as well as at a private Baptist college, I am compelled to write and express my deep disappointment and grave concerns over pending legislation, Senate Bill 893, regarding how Science is to be taught and not taught in our state.

Since it was brought forward in 2011, the aims of this law are crystal clear - it seeks to add room in our Science programs for non-scientific information. Our education system - and our young students - requires the strongest support from our Governor, our Legislature, and our communities, but this legislation instead claims that Biology and Science are flawed and mistaken at every level. It assumes controversies exist at their very foundations. It devalues Education itself.

If the state demands we "teach the controversies" regarding Science, then why not demand that the clergy preach about the controversies of their Religion? That would be ridiculous for the state to mandate, wouldn't it? This proposed law is equally ridiculous.

Holding Science accountable to Religious or Social systems will not encourage or nurture Education. 

It's worth noting that educators and scientists or biologists across the state did not propose nor support this legislation. Certainly, all our educational curriculums should - and for the most part already do - encourage critical thinking and respectful debate. Do you, Governor Haslam, believe otherwise or have any such proof of a dire lack in our schools? Or do you work instead to increase the level of skill and understanding demanded today in Science, Math, and Technology?

I understand and accept that political landscapes are constantly changing - allowing the ebb and flow of politics to override our Education system can only create errors in critical thinking.

So I encourage you to defeat this measure and to provide a stronger voice for Education and Science in Tennessee. 

This legislation stands in stark opposition to the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Programs your office has been actively supporting. I feel you have to make a choice, sir, as to which educational approach you support.

Joe Powell

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

State Pushes Anti-Science Laws To Governor Haslam

Grade school and high school are the academic locations Tennesseee's politicians want to use to determine the value of science and that of religion too. Yep. Science is some dubious scheme to make you doubt Jesus, according to the state legislature.

Nearly one year after this ridiculous idea first shambled into the legislature, the bill to order teachers to say science is a controversial topic is waiting for Gov. Haslam to sign it. Knox Rep. Bill Dunn has allowed Hixson Senator Bo Watson to run the legislation through this time. 

"The idea behind this bill is that students should be encouraged to challenge current scientific thought and theory,” said state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson."

Yeah, forget education about the value of science or math or biology - let kids decide classroom by classroom if they believe any of it.

"Knoxville Rep. Bill Dunn was very careful in presenting HB 368 so it hides the anti-science goals, but the result is clear - science classes must present science itself as controversial and the bill promotes a deep lack of understanding of what "scientific theory" means. As for who should help create these low standards - not scientists, of course - but administrators. The bill only defines as "controversial" a select set of areas: "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." And, as noted below, Rep. Dunn's legislation is the creation of evangelical Christians.Rep. Dunn's aim of injecting politics into school science classes is a dangerous act. And his proposed new state law is a part of a nationwide effort to use the schoolroom as a political tool to promote political agendas. These bogus ideas are labeled "Academic Freedom" bills, which sounds nice, but really point to a desire to eliminate critical study and reject the history of scientific investigation, and the legislation is drafted by evangelical organizations:

... 'academic freedom' bills that are being introduced by state lawmakers around the country instruct educators to teach students about “both sides” of controversial issues—most notably on evolution. The Seattle-based, pro-intelligent design Discovery Institute is behind efforts to introduce many of these bills and has proposed sample legislation for lawmakers to follow.
Since the Louisiana bill was passed (making it the only state to have actually passed an academic freedom bill into law), proposed bills have included global warming and human cloning on the list of “controversial topics,” as they encourage “thinking critically” about the “relationships between explanations and evidence.”
More recently, in Kentucky, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”

Other troubling aspects of this dumbed-down educational law includes the following confusions for teachers:

"Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects."

Whose expectations? Those of the uneducated and misinformed? The really loud folks who think science is a colossal hoax?

Schools must also insure " ...respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues."
Respect for the scientific method, peer review, and the actual scientific meaning of the concepts of "theory" and "experimentation" .... well, let's just push that aside. Since new data and observations are made in most scientific fields of study as a result of the work of scientists, then, yes, concepts and theories are often revised. But it's a huge leap in thinking to claim that science is mostly mistaken guesswork and inherently controversial."


Among those expressing opposition to the bill are the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, the American Institute for Biological Sciences, the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Nashville Tennessean, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, whose president Becky Ashe described (PDF) the legislation as "unnecessary, anti-scientific, and very likely unconstitutional."

Best Political Video of the Year

So very much of the talk from our leaders in government from the state to the federal level suffers a debilitating lack of vision. Instead, with the help of media reports aimed at the lowest levels, we are hearing instead about policy debates on personal behaviors and the limp campaigns for elected office.

Government and business are mired in a relentless pursuit of money - we all deserve so much more and we should be demanding it too.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

East TN Legislators Harassing Women?

East Tennessee state legislator David Hawk has been charged with domestic violence against his wife, who is also the head of Greene County's Republican Women organization.

"Rep. David Hawk returned to the state Legislature on Monday afternoon, just hours after his first court appearance on a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence resulted in an order for the Greeneville Republican to have no contact with his wife.

Hawk accepted handshakes and well wishes from fellow lawmakers at his desk before stepping out of the chamber to meet with reporters.

"Yesterday morning my wife had a gun and told me that she was going to put a bullet in my head while I was holding my baby," Hawk said.

Hawk's account of the incident stands in contrast to the criminal complaint obtained by The Greeneville Sun (, which describes Cristal Hawk saying her husband grabbed her by the arm, struck her in the face and knocked her to ground in an altercation at their home.

Crystal Hawk said she was holding their 11-month-old daughter at the time. She said her husband then took the child and went to a neighbor's house.

The criminal complaint states that the victim "had bruising and swelling on and around her right eye, an abrasion (to) the upper and lower right side of her lip, and a large bruise on her left upper arm."

Hawk, 43, denied striking his wife and said he didn't know how she had received the bruises"

Meanwhile, since Jonesborough's state legislator Matthew Hill wants massive publication of information about doctors who perform legal abortions, Southern Beale wonders if "harassment of women" is a part of the Republican agenda:

"Really, what is the deal with these white, middle-aged men in the legislature? You guys just got vaginas on the brain or something? Is that all you people can do is sit around and dream up ways to harass women?"


Truth: Fictional and Factual

There are several powerful lessons to be learned from the recent retraction of a story reported on the radio program This American Life about working conditions for thousands of electronics workers in China (mentioned here and here).

TAL's report (their most-downloaded story) was based largely on the one-man-show presented theatrically by Mike Daisey, a well-known theatrical writer-actor-producer. Once other reporters began digging into the claims from TAL's story, they found Daisey had "fabricated" information, which so angered and disturbed Ira Glass of TAL that he issued a full retraction of the story, telling listeners he felt he had been lied to, that the report should have never aired.

Daisey admits to creating a "truthful" stage production, Glass says the standards of journalism demand more than "truthiness", that journalism demands a different standard, and he's right about that. However, in challenging Daisey, Glass said he felt Daisey's shows should bear a disclaimer or warning that the show may not be 100% fact.

Ira Glass: I know but I feel like I have the normal worldview. The normal worldview is somebody stands on stage and says ‘this happened to me,’ I think it happened to them, unless it’s clearly labeled as ‘here’s a work of fiction.’

I must challenge that perspective - if a reporter decides a one-man theatrical show demands attention for it's powerful claims and evocations, then it seems clear to me the reporter has the obligation to report on the show as just that, a "show". For thousands of years, writers and performers have forcefully confronted many real-life issues in the guise of fiction, and most all of us know that watching a "show" and reporting are two different forms of communication.

"This American Life", certainly a news show, is made using very dramatic styles and breaks and revelations. That's one of the program's strengths, compelling stories. Daisey's works had previously been hailed as masterfully blurring the lines between fact and fiction - and perhaps that is the real issue which, however clumsily, Ira Glass and "This American Life" is trying to highlight.

It's one thing for Glass to admit he was "fooled" by Daisey's story - but to demand Daisey re-package his show to suit journalistic standards is mistaken. And Daisey was wrong to let journalists report on his show as factual. And certainly, further reports on conditions in these Chinese factories have shown some brutal conditions.

And yet ...

How often do major news outlets - especially television - rely on metaphorical, if not utterly faked, emotions to drive a story? Hours are filled with "opinion" and not "fact", because the passion of opinion will always attract an audience.

If Daisey's work must be clearly "labeled", then so should so-called "news" programs be properly labeled as well -- "This hour of program features opinions about facts, and therefore is not 100% factual."

That won't happen - criticizing writers for creating passionate fictions is too easy. Criticizing journalists/panelists/experts/producers for creating passionate fictions is big business, from "reality" programs to "news" programs. And they see themselves as "too big to fail" or "too big to be criticized".

Much cable news - and especially radio programming like Rush Limbaugh - are dramatic creations, carefully designed to elicit an emotional response, all falling under the sway of attracting an audience.

And it is precisely those creators and writers and performers of "news" who should label their creations for audiences.