The purpose of this blog is to formulate ideas - and as ideas can be molded and refined please feel free to comment with agreement or disagreement, as long as it is thoughtful.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How to deal with terrorism

Terrorism can be defined as non-state sponsored violence intended to publicize or support a position.

As non-state sponsored, nation states have little recourse - if a government or nation state perpetrated violence against properties or territories of another, economic, political and/or military recourses are possible.   As terrorists do not have public bases or cities etc., and are not elected or public officials and do not have an economic system that is open, there are often few responses that inflict an appropriate punishment or serve to reduce the likelihood of recurrance.

The good:
Terrorist acts, while often violent, are not yet sufficient to cause damage on even a small war scale.

The bad:
Terrorists have complete control of timing, logistics and targets.   As they operate in relatively small groups, and tend to be looking at long timeframes to achieve their objectives, they are in a position to wait for targets to become available (e.g. wait until security lessens, or wait until all operation objectives are in place), and have a significant strategic advantage of not worrying about civilian casualties (in fact, they tend to want them to be maximized).  They are not restrained by the "rules of war" or rules of diplomacy or statecraft.

As terrorism is a tactic toward a larger objective (otherwise, it is just random violence), the only tactic that can be leveled against it is to minimize the communications, fear and "advertising" value of any terrorist actions.  By removing the reporting of terrorist actions, the value of the action is reduced to the physical death(s) and destruction of the act.

The destruction of the World Trade Center on 9-11 in New York was a horrific act which resulted in billions in damage and death in the thousands.  However, it did not materially affect the U.S. economy nor did it do anything to reduce the military, political or manpower of the U.S. population.

However, on a larger scale, the 9-11 attack spread fear, caused changes in government (e.g. Homeland Security), changed practice in travel (e.g. airport processes) and caused widespread unease that was much larger and far-reaching than the physical damage of the attacks, including war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is this "terror" aspect that it is possible to control.  There does not need to be media frenzy, reminders, etc. that increase the power and value of terrorist acts.  In no way am I implying that the "behind the scenes" improvements to law enforcement, communications systems etc. be curtailed or ceased - these should be improved to avoid or respond to actions as they are taken.

What needs to happen is that the populous and the media need to re-proportion their responses to a level commensurate to a natural disaster of similar proportions.

By giving it higher public priority (again, increases in the military, intelligence and/or civilian agencies should be enacted as appropriate), the response provides the very value that keeps terrorist activities alive.  Any reports that deal with the terrorist causation of the actions should be very clear about the inappropriateness of the actions, point out other, more productive solutions to the underlying problems and bring in appropriate experts to support these alternatives.  For example, any 9-11 report dealing with the terrorist causes, should involve Muslim clerics who can knowledgeably argue that these types of actions are against Islam and are an affront to the teachings of the Koran.

This type of response works to reduce terrorism on numerous fronts - it reduces the fear and terror of actions, provides alternatives for action for others who may sympathize with the motivations of the terrorists (though hopefully not with the actions taken) and directly undermine the legitimacy and support of terrorism as a mechanism to achieve goals.  Further, this approach educates all sides about the issue(s) in question, which should server to reach appropriate solutions, and to reduce the anger, misunderstanding and hopelessness which provides the breeding grounds from which terrorists are recruited.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why teaching is hard

Teaching is a nice combination of social sciences.  As students come from a wide range of backgrounds, income levels, belief systems, and have differing levels of home support, parental involvement and even parental belief in schooling, it is difficult to maintain a fixed strategy for classes over time.

Thus, successful teaching requires knowledge diverse disciplines: teaching theory, handling groups, public speaking, content knowledge, communication skills & tech.

Sharing and understanding changes or progress in teaching also involves a critical, statistical understanding of research - will that strategy match the makup of my students?  will that strategy match the skills and abilities I bring to the table?  do I have the infrastructure and administrative support to apply that strategy?  How do I know if it works?

How do we prepare teachers?  Nine-month programs.  Very little, if any, research design and statistical skills, scientific method training, post-graduation training (most PD programs seem to involve wasting lots of time to fill a time slot and meet union requirements to have PD - is there any learning going on?).

It is relatively simple to see the problem with the training approach - just ask teachers how they are evaluated in their job performance.  Most will immediately point to union rules that only allow infrequent evaluations and very narrow windows of assessment - primarily attendance in school and at PD.  Assuming teachers behave as adults, go to school and attend their classes, and don't do criminal-level violations involving children, they are unlikely to ever be fired, re-trained, or otherwise identified as problematic.

As a job, great - security and stability.

As a way to actually teach students - not so much.

Discuss with teachers the use of standardized tests, and you'll immediately hear about differences in the composition of each class over time and how the teacher is not responsible for what comes through the door. Correct to a point, but if you think about it, you'll realize it is a re-statement of "the kids are stupid" hypothesis to explain any testing or potential evaluation methodology.

Note how many unions specify the maximum allowable number of minutes that a teacher can be asked to teach - and do the math - not a very large number relative to the stability and salary of the position (remember, summers off, 5 day week, Easter and Christmas and spring breaks reduce the number of days worked).  These restrictions are reasonable fodder for jobs - setting boundaries.  However, these are not a focal point in the theory or profession of teaching - this demands that the appropriate time be spend to discuss issues and identify learning opportunities.  Even coaching and yard supervision offer opportunities for learning in a non-classroom context - good for the profession, bad for the  job.

I think we need to evolve the profession of teaching.  Teaching needs to be a four year program - not a one-year add-on to another degree.  Each year needs to have classroom opportunities - make sure the actual teaching environments are experienced.  Social work, psychology, law all must be discussed in the context of teaching.  Teachers need to learn how assessments are done in the social sciences to understand that it is possible to design assessments that provide information that can be used for professional advancement, and can be separated (perhaps longitudinally) from the individualized characteristics of specific classes.  I'm not promoting this as a job-evaluation for promotion/dismissal discussions, but for legitimate professional development to happen.  If a teacher can be shown deficiencies in mathematics, for example, PD with techniques for teaching strategies, or specialized teaching geared to characteristics of the teacher's classes (e.g. low SES, special needs students) can be used and re-assessed later.

Only repeated failure over time to indicate learning or development from targeted PD, and an inability to create or build an environment in the school that allows for learning to occur for that teacher's students, would any direct job-related intervention strategies be considered.

Teaching is complex.  So is psychology, social work, law, medicine........  They are able to evaluate practitioners and separate legitimate issues with their "customers" from legitimate concerns raised regarding the services rendered.  So can teaching.

Teaching "associations' must support the profession of teaching - a much harder job than the protection of the job of teaching, but much more important.  It is more difficult because it gets into the messy business of evaluating how people are doing their jobs - and for teaching, this comes into how well students are learning.  However, in the absence of a proper support for the science and profession of teaching, what does the protection of teachers' jobs actually mean?

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Irreducible Complexity" Not a Killer of Evolution

I periodically get interested in looking at the "debate" between creationists and evolution.  I quote the word "debate" as I don't think there is any real debate between religion and science (see other blog posts).

However, the politics of the debate are intriguing.  The creationists have succeeded in several fronts with making their minority opinion on Intelligent Design seem like an actual scientific theory.  They've done so with marketing in a clever manner.  By arguing that schools should "teach the controversy" they are, in fact, creating the controversy out of nothing - very clever marketing.  The fact that the Intelligent Design worldview is not present in any significant numbers among scientists is lost in the seemingly fairness-based argument about teaching "both sides" of the issue.

The more insidious plot is the attempt for the creationists to set up a "straw man" arguments that will "kill" evolution as a theory.  As a science, evolution is subject to being "killed" through contrary evidence that can't be accommodated in the model, or in revisions of the model.  This holds for all scientific theories, and is the actual strength of the paradigm - when evidence is contrary to a theory, the theory must go, either "evolve" to a new theory, or be discarded.

Irreducible complexity is the idea that some aspect of an organism is so complex and interrrelated that removal of any part would destroy the function, and thus it could not have been derived through step-by-step evolutionary methods.  Thus, there is a search among creationist-scientists to discover a process or organ that is structured that it doesn't appear to allow for an evolutionary origin.  The eye is often cited, as is the flagella in bacteria.  Evolutionary arguments supporting the step-by-step development of both the eye and flagella have been produced.

The simple logic of irreducible complexity is compelling, but is based upon two problematic ideas.  Firstly, the fact that we can't "see" or understand the evolutionary history of a particular mechanism doesn't infer that it didn't evolve - we just might not be clever enough to deduce the chain of events.  The second problem is that some aspects of the evolutionary history may have been completely erased over time.  Imagine a suspsension bridge - remove the supports and it collapses.  However, there were supporting structures during construction, which are now gone, so it would be difficult to understand how the existing structure was created, only using the observation of the bridge.

Similarly, there may be a convoluted evolutionary path where the current structures are remnants of a more inefficient but easier to understand primitive set of mechanisms.  Parts that no longer required in a newer mechanism may be evolved away, assuming they "cost" energy but don't contribute to the organisms' fitness.  It would then be difficult to trace or understand the mechanisms of evolution that led to the current state because significant evidence no longer exists.  Thus, irreducible complexity creates a logic problem to explain, but no "kill shot" to evolution.

In one of Dawkins' books he talks about the fact that evolution, as a scientific theory, can be disproven by relatively simple evidence to the contrary (e.g. primitive tools from humans with dinosaur bones).  I agree that significant departures from the timing sequences of evolution and geological strata would be problematic to account for, I was more worried that some creationist was buying primitive tools and digging into dinosaur bone sites and planting them.

I think the "science" end of the debate should ignore the creationist end, as they tend to do, as any argument does seem to support the "controversy".  However, I also agree that Intelligent Design and other pseudo-scientific arguments need to be confronted when they begin to cause damage (e.g. change to science curricula in schools).  This paradox shows the cleverness of the current creationist arguments.

In reality, the history of evolutionary change is difficult to find, as fossilization only occurs under unusual circumstances and is best suited for large structures like bones.  Evidence of under-utilized structures in living organisms provides hints to evolutionary history as do developmental stages in growth cycles.

The real compelling arguments for evolution are not "back-facing" explorations of what happened to cause the current state, but the predictions of what will happen given current starting point and conditions.  Evolution of micro-organisms and viruses are real-world adaptations to the methods we devise to kill them - evolution in action.  Also the predictive power of evolutionary theory is what distinguished it as a scientific theory, not just an explanatory fiction.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Fighting or killing over religion

Faith is about looking upward, not side to side.  You might occasionally have to, or want to, explain why your are looking upward.  Because you are looking upward, you can never see if others are looking exactly where you are.

Every time you look side-to-side you aren't looking up.  Let others look up where or when they can.

Questioning your faith

Questioning your faith is like fighting with your brother.  You might be irritated with your brother, he might bother you, you might even hate your brother sometimes.

But...he'll always be your brother.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Favourite Quote

Scientific American - November 2010 - Michael Shermer

I have a new favourite quote from Michael Shermer's Skeptic column in November's Scientific American -
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” - Christopher Hitchens

I think this sums up lots of arguments and really sets up what "science" actually is....not opinion...not majority rules.  Science may not be everything, but it certainly sets a bar.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why Science Can't Disprove God

Regardless on your religious beliefs or your scientific background, the ultimate extreme question ("Does God Exist?") cannot be answered by science.

1) You can't prove the null hypothesis.  Every science experiment is set up to test, that is, disprove the null hypothesis (ie. there is no relationship) and "proof" in science is shown by finding enough of an effect through your experiment that you can establish an estimated probability that your null hypothesis is incorrect.
The more thorough and controlled the experiment, and the repeatability of the findings provides evidence that the effect under investigation is legitimate.  There is no scientific experiment that can prove that the null hypothesis is true - the best you can do is repeatedly show that you don't have enough evidence in the current testing environment to say it's not true - perhaps subtle, but a legitimate limit of science.

2) Religion is faith-based, not evidence based.  There cannot be an experimental finding that disproves God in a faith-based discipline.  It certainly may be possible to prove that some aspects of a faith-based system did not happen exactly as written, or that times/circumstances were not exactly as portrayed, but that does little, if anything, to affect the underlying belief system.  (e.g. you may cite geological evidence to dispute the timeline of literal Bible interpretations, but this does not necessarily alter the belief system - "days" can be re-interpreted to be longer intervals...).

3) There is likely no single point of conjecture that one could point to that would disprove faith.  Even at the extreme, if science could explain all aspects of existence in our universe (or even multi-verses), it still would not stop the argument that "God set it up that way".  Stephen Hawking's book "The Grand Design" postulates that M-theory comes very close to the "theory of everything" and that the presence of gravity alone can explain how the universe forms, how particles come into and out of existence etc.  However, this still can be countered with "That's how God intended it to be".

Please note, I'm not trying to be facetious - the realms of science and faith are fundamentally opposed - science doesn't rely on faith, and faith doesn't rely on science.  Any particular line in the sand drawn as "the" point between Science and Religion will likely be problematic (Richard Dawkins argues this point, as he is uncomfortable with considering Religion as being outside of science), but arguing for or against any particular "location" for this delineation doesn't fundamentally alter the fact that it is only a waypoint - not a destination - in the quest.

However there will always be the possibility (at least among faithful) that all of the universe was set in motion, exactly as uncovered by science, by an undetectable being.  Science is certainly welcome to design experiments to show that that hypothesis is either statistically unlikely, or irrelevant to the issue under investigation, but the very fabric of Science cannot disprove it.

This hypothesis is sometimes referred to dismissively as the "Flying Purple Spaghetti Monster" hypothesis, as science cannot explain <insert your favourite observable effect here> as not being caused by the Flying Purpose Spaghetti Monster.  Take away the dismissiveness, and this does show a natural and legitimate limit of science - the explanation of observed effects can change as more experiments are run and more complete understanding of issues is available (see the evolution of Newton to Einstein - a more complete understanding of the physical world altered the explanation of observations).

Explanations (theories and hypotheses) in science rely upon the ability to explain existing observations and to predict outcomes in novel experiments - the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be real, but that knowledge does not help predict what will happen in the next experiment, so as a scientific explanation it is discarded. Faith-based explanations (regardless of whether or not you think they are true, or if they are in actuality true) also fail as scientific explanations for the same reason (e.g. "God caused the chemicals to react and turn the solution blue" is fine as an explanation, but as a scientific explanation, it falls short, as it cannot explain what will happen in future circumstances when additional substances are added etc.).  Again, this is neither a failure of science, nor a failure of faith, just an illustration of the difference.

From a scientific standpoint, it would certainly be possible to prove the existence of God by setting up experiments that would provide differential results when God exists vs. when s/he doesn't.  Oddly, however, this experimental evidence may suffice for scientists, as it it based upon the scientific method, but would likely not be sufficient for the faithful.  Should any "proven" God not match the faith-based ideal, it is likely that it wouldn't be accepted, particularly if it should differ in significant and important ways from established scripture or teaching.

All in all, I don't see the clash between science and religion.  The fundamental underpinnings of faith cannot be changed by any scientific discovery or theory.