Analysis and rationality in a nonrational world

February 10, 2011

What’s really wrong with education?

Filed under: Government, Media, News reporting — analysis @ 3:28 pm

I agree with George W. Bush in his general belief that we need a way to measure the effectiveness of our nation’s schools. I disagree with the state-by-state approach, which defeats much of the purpose and allows for the use of poor and biased measures, but I agree with the general idea of universal testing — which, incidentally, is the how nearly every other nation does it.

But let’s say No Child Left Behind worked perfectly, which it doesn’t (as a great big unfunded mandate with all sorts of odd provisions.) It would still only mean that we were teaching our children the wrong things, but doing it well.

Let’s look at our schools’ curriculum. We are generally very good on science trivia — what’s the temperature on Mars? Which planet is biggest? What are the rings made of? — but almost no American understand how science actually works. The scientific method is not something politicians usually like, because it replaces ideology with pragmatics. In short, the scientific method is a way of figuring out whether your belief system works or not.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a psychology or a physicist, the basic methods are the same — test your idea in a manner designed to eliminate your personal bias from the equation (this is most important in social science), and publish your methods along with your findings, in detail, so others can find flaws in your research. It’s that type of science that has brought us to the point where medicine helps more people than it hurts, but that type of science is hated by ideologues. After all, how can you say that vaccines are dangerous and irresponsible if you’ve read the research? How can you justify trickle-down economics — which no conservative should ever have endorsed — when there are so many studies showing it to be, as George H.W. Bush said, “voodoo economics”?

All sorts of policy decisions from both Democrats and Republicans would disappear if the scientific method was commonly used. But it’s rarely used, because very few people understand it. You practically need to apply for a doctorate to get starter courses — you can graduate college without understanding the first thing about research and testing.

So we teach science trivia well, but we don’t teach science at all in most schools.

Likewise, we teach pointless math. I’m not just referring to the University of Chicago’s insane method of teaching six ways to do addition and five ways to multiply — when everyone does it one way. That confuses students and causes needless studying and pain and probably hurts learning overall, versus the tried-and-true methods (including, by the way, learning the multiplication tables by rote.)

No, I’m referring to teaching trigonometry and calculus in high school, and ignoring probability and statistics. I believe that every student should be able to learn how probability and statistics work, to the point where they know when to apply a mean versus a median, a t-test (and what kind of t-test), when you have enough cases in the sample (or in each cell), how correlations work and don’t work, and all the other useful aspects of statistics. I would not care if they could calculate standard deviation by hand, but I’d want them to know how to use PSPP or another free statistics program, and I’d want them to be able to use it well and responsibly to test real data. Only then can ordinary people really understand how research is done, and then evaluate studies reprinted by the mass media (usually by people who don’t understand them) — and conduct their own research to test their own theories.

We’ll get on to language and culture later…


January 10, 2007

Bad reporting, wrong conclusions

Filed under: News reporting — analysis @ 3:06 pm

Some mainstream news media accurately reported the statements of Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats and Republicans in Congress: they would not support any more troops being sent to Iraq until George W. Bush provided a goal for our presence there, and the conditions under which we would leave.

Given how many goals we’ve heard for the war in Iraq, that doesn’t sound unreasonable. Originally we were told we would enter Iraq, eliminate Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction, and leave. We’ve done that – not that there were any weapons to eliminate. At some point, though, especially with the Bush and Cheney families making so many millions of dollars off of the war, one begins to wonder if that was ever really the goal.

It seems insane to be in a war without a stated purpose or any sort of end plan. That becomes an occupation, not a war. Indeed, it becomes colonization. If that’s why we’re there, saying it outright would certainly help the military. Then we could change our tactics and strategy to colonize instead of acting like targets for the benefit of private contractors.

The sad thing is that many news sources, particularly Fox, are mis-reporting the escalation-opponents’ argument, and they are doing it in exactly the same way as the Bush apologists – that is, claiming that the Democrats (Republicans who feel the same way are ignored so it can sound more partisan) are demanding an immediate unconditional surrender or withdrawal. Well, that isn’t true. They have said they’d happily support sending more troops, if there was a reason to do it other than “George Bush said so.” But so far, that’s the only reason we have.

It’s not good enough – and shame on those who lied to their readers or listeners so the Democrats would sound like a bunch of drug-addled 1960s hippies. We’ve had enough slams. Now that Democrats and Republicans are working together, all the media should be doing their part by reporting on it accurately and without bias. Unfortunately, some companies and commentators make more money when they get their audience riled up by spreading lies and hatred; and they’re misleading a good number of patriotic Americans, spreading dissent at home for their own benefit.

June 30, 2006

Link – how to make fake news

Filed under: News reporting — analysis @ 7:09 pm is a great in-depth description about how fake news gets accepted as reality.

As one who gets apocryphal stories in the mail every day, telling me I should be horrified by those tree-hugging liberals banning Christmas/Easter/church and/or making the world part of the United States, I appreciate his effort in exploring a story that’s been picked up through the country’s established media and even withstood attempts at removal at

Blog at