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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rick Scott's Bizarre View of Higher Education

Governor Scott continued his assault on education in Florida with a late Friday veto of the so-called 'market rate tuition bill' (SB7129). The veto came after cutting 300 million dollars from University budgets across the state. Perhaps the most surprising (and purely political) move was his approval to create yet another state university in the midst of all these cuts. In essence, Scott has handcuffed higher education in the state of Florida while chasing the notion that Universities should ‘reinvent themselves’ to fit current market conditions. Unfortunately, University systems around the country are increasingly trying to become more business-like in their approach to education with new budgetary models that rely (partly) on how many students they can stuff into a classroom (or into online courses). There are real problems with these ‘new’ approaches to higher education. The first problem is that Universities should be in the business of creating well-educated citizens who can function in an advanced society. That means we need engineers who are able to write coherently, scientists who are able to explain the significance of their work to laypeople, English majors who understand the fundamentals of science, mathematicians who are able to comprehend the intricacies of art and medical professionals who are well-versed in a wide range of religious beliefs. This is the function of a strong Liberal Arts education such as the one provided by the University of Florida. Secondly, the University should be keenly aware of current employment trends. Programs that put graduates in a position to become gainfully employed upon graduation need support. At the same time the University should be keenly aware that what is ‘hot’ today, maybe ‘cold’ tomorrow. Governor Scott feels that we should chase the market instead of training a citizenry who are flexible and can smoothly transition into a new field of employment. The emphasis on STEM education is only part of building a well-educated citizenry capable of transitioning to new market demands. It is both narrow-minded and near-sighted to focus solely on STEM education. The University must not get caught up in trying to satisfy the whims of politicians. Politicians should not be in the business of handcuffing (or over-promoting) the educational system. Governors should not whimsically strap Floridians with new universities when the economic situation makes it difficult to support the established system. The University understands that in a time of economic austerity, budget cuts are going to happen. We are fortunate in this state because higher education remains one of the cheapest investments an individual can make. As the father of three young men who will (too) soon decide whether or not to attend college, I worry about paying for the costs of that education. I have also seen the economic benefits of higher education and know that education remains a solid investment. Lastly, I note the irony of the current political situation in Florida that is supposed to be ‘pro-business’. The State government speaks about the University system using business terminology and demands that institutes of higher education behave in a more business-like manner. Conservative politicians (in particular) seem to favor a supply side economy driven by market forces. Senate Bill 7129 was, in one sense, a confirmation of this conservative viewpoint. It would have allowed the best educational institutions to request ‘customers’ pay market rates. It also seemed to be a perfect proposal for a tea-party governor. Rather than laying the burden for higher education in the hands of taxpayers, it would place more of the burden on those ‘customers’ who choose UF/FSU for their education. Sadly, no one in Florida wins with the recent decisions of the state and governor. If the governor truly supported higher education, SB7129 would not have been necessary. For the citizens of Florida, the message from the politicians was very clear “We don’t value education in Florida”. There is no way to spin this message any other way.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Earth Magazine Article July 2011

Steve Newton of the National Center for Science Education has a very nice piece coming out in next month's issue of Earth. The article is entitled "Creationism Creeps into Conferences: Are creationists taking geologists for a ride?". The article discusses events that took place during the 2010 meeting of the Geological Society of America national meeting in Denver. The article focuses on a field trip led by young earth creationist 'scholars' to Garden of the Gods. It is even handed and compliments the leaders on a nice field trip (even if their thinly disguised motives are clear). It also mentions at the end, and exchange between myself and creationist Marcus Ross.

I don't know if Geological conferences are the only place these things happen, but creationists have been welcome at both AGU and GSA (our biggest conferences) for years and as far as I know there is no movement to limit their participation. I think that's a good thing since they could claim censorship (ala the now bankrupt "expelled"). I do think that when they choose to participate, they should also realize that they will be challenged if they speak from two sides of the coin. Marcus Ross can't make a living out of claiming that he has scientific evidence for a 6000 year old earth and then claim he also has good evidence for a millions of years old ammonite!

Anyway, it's a good read and the magazine does a nice job.


Joe Meert

Friday, March 11, 2011

Senator Wise Evolution Bill

Senator Wise singles out evolution for critical analysis, but the real question is what is he really aiming for? The Sunshine State Standards ALREADY MANDATE that all science is critically evaluated and that includes evolution. Consider the standards as written:

Standard 1: The Practice of Science ...C: Scientific argumentation is a necessary part of scientific inquiry and plays an important role in the generation and validation of scientific knowledge.
Benchmark: SC.912.N.1.3 Recognize that the strength or usefulness of a scientific claim is evaluated through scientific argumentation, which depends on critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain the data presented.

So it's right there in the Sunshine State Standards. Why do we need to single out evolution in a bill that includes a whole lot of hokey nonsense to make the true goal (teaching creationism) somehow more palatable. Consider too that the standards state very clearly:

Standard 15: Diversity and Evolution of Living Organisms A. The scientific theory of evolution is the fundamental concept underlying all of biology. B. The scientific theory of evolution is supported by multiple forms of scientific evidence.
Benchmark: SC.912.L.15.1Explain how the scientific theory of evolution is supported by the fossil record, comparative anatomy, comparative embryology, biogeography, molecular biology, and observed evolutionary change.

Again examination of the evidence is mandated in the Science standards so Senator Wise is merely spending taxpayer money on a nonsensical bill that is really a stealth bill for getting religious ideas (HIS OWN RELIGIOUS IDEAS) into our classrooms! Don't we have more important things to worry about here in Florida, Senator Wise?


Joe Meert

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In Florida... Teachers get ready to take one up the butt

So not only is the conservative house and senate now intent on all kinds of silly changes to the teaching standards, they also are now going to assure that potential teachers steer well clear of the state. The legislature is fast-tracking a bill that will (a) tie teacher's salaries to standardized tests and (b) eliminate tenure in favor of yearly contracts. The arguments made by the republicans are that by rewarding good teachers, more of the good teachers will want to come to Florida and teach. Sounds good in a perfect world, but Florida is not a perfect world and teaching is not a perfect profession. So let's look how this might actually affect teachers in the state. Consider:

(1) Teachers in Florida:Average salary is about $43,000 . The national average is somewhat higher, but as usual it's tough to compare state to state as cost of living factors in. The site linked above puts Florida about mid-way in terms of comfort level with that average salary. Someone has to be in the middle, so why not Florida, right?

(2) So given that Florida is right in the middle in terms of salary and comfort level, what's going to attract better teachers? The legislature seems to think that teachers are going to flock to Florida for a guaranteed one year (ok 9 month) salary with the hope that they can teach to the test enough that they will get a second one year contract and a raise. Pay for performance, sounds normal? I think that there are only a handful of teachers who feel that performance should not be tied to salary, but there is a strange dynamic in public schools. Performance on standardized tests are tied not only to how well the teacher can prep the students on the tricks of ST, but also depends on the family environment and the resources available to the teacher. So let's say a really strong teacher comes into a low performing district and raises the average performance of his/her group by 50%; however that 50% increase only brings the class average to the 10th percentile in comparison to the rest of the state? Is the teacher non-renewed because of failure to meet test standards? In Florida, that's what would happen.

(3) It can easily be argued that most jobs involve a trial period and job security is tied directly to the individual's performance. Perfectly understandable. Suppose you are hired to a new management position and your job and raise depends on your ability to raise production by 50%. As manager you can fire the underperforming worker. You can request additional resources that may be required to raise productivity. Management is unlikely to tell you that you must raise productivity without also giving you the free rein to alter how things are done. A teacher cannot expel students for not being up to par on the test. They cannot expect to receive additional resources to raise performance levels. They must deal with what they have and do the best they can.

(4) In short people in the private sector do have some form of job security. It's not perfect and it is possible that a top-performing worker could lose their job for economic reasons. Believe it or not, that is also true for the tenured teacher. A tenured teacher can also be dismissed for other reasons. Post-tenure reviews are a good idea and most support this notion, but it's unlikely that a state can expect people to flock to their teaching ranks for 9 months of security with their hands tied.

I am also of the opinion that standardized testing measures nothing more than the ability of a student to learn the tricks of the standardized test. In college, students cringe at tests that require more thought than multiple choice. Teaching to the test doesn't create an environment conducive to producing the best and the brightest. So I don't have all the answers and certainly the Florida legislature thinks this is something that's needed in our state. Time will tell, but I'm betting that this results in more problems than it allegedly plans to solve.

Joe Meert

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Senator Stephen Wise (Florida) Bigoted Bill

Senator Stephen Wise (Florida State Senator) has introduced a bigoted and prejudicial bill into consideration. Specifically SB1854 makes a mockery of this country's rich and diverse history. Consider that the bill requires the following:

(1)The history of African Americans, including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society.

(2)The study of women’s contributions to the United States.

(3)The study of Hispanic contributions to the United States.

All of these are admirable goals and extremely worthy of inclusion, but one wonders exactly what sort of prejudice Senator Wise holds against the Native American population and their contributions to the United States. This, in a state that contains a rich history of Native American culture and life. One wonders why Wise does not care to mandate a discussion of the contributions of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and Asian-Americans? This bill fails to acknowledge the contributions of different religious groups to the US from the Quakers, the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims! Senator Wise needs to stand up and admit that he is bigoted and narrow-minded in mandating that ONLY the contributions of African-Americans, women and hispanics should be taught in our schools. The very fact that he disregards the contributions of so many others that make this country great makes this proposal laughable in its extreme. Consider that SB1854 also mandates:

Kindness to animals

Wise apparently thinks that being kind to animals is far more important than acknowledging the contributions of those stated above. Senator Wise, why do you ignore the contributions of so many Americans? You claim to follow Christ, but I ask you WWJD? Yes, he would be kind to animals, but not at the expense of disregarding the contribution of ALL Americans to our great society. He would not ignore the Native Americans in such a callous manner. But Wise's bigotry and hatred doesn't end there. Wise also singles out evolutionary biology for criticism under point #1 of this rambling legislation:

(1) A thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.

Why can't teachers present critical analyses of other sciences? Why has Wise chosen evolutionary biology for thorough analysis? Why not the scientific theory of gravity? Under this legislation, will I have the duty to present a critical analysis of quantum gravity? String theory? Or am I stuck teaching Newtonian gravity? Why does the bill not mandate that our students learn a thorough understanding of plate tectonic theory? In an era where petroleum is once again over $100 a barrel, it seems imperative that our students understand basic geology. Why doesn't Wise mandate that students learn to critically analyze "Plates versus Plumes"? This bill is bigoted towards science as well mandating that only one scientific theory be analyzed critically. Should we teach the controversy about 'historical Jesus' as well? If we are going to mandate the criticisms of one theory, shouldn't we mandate the criticism of all ideas (historical, scientific and philosophical)?

C'mon Senator Wise, step up to the plate and teach all the controversies or teach none of them. Stop the bigotry towards scientific education.

Senator Wise I notice that the bill mandates:

The true effects of all alcoholic and intoxicating liquors and beverages and narcotics upon the human body and mind.

That would include the health benefits of red wine, the uses of medical marijuana for pain as well as the many other benefits of alcohol on the human body. Surely that was your intent?

Senator Wise also mandates a thorough teaching of the holocaust which again is an admirable goal, but shouldn't we also teach of the great human carnage brought about by Pol-pot? The massacres during the Crusades? Genocide in Africa (Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia) and all the other horrible genocide in human history? Should we not also teach the role of religious bigotry in those events? C'mon Senator Wise don't ignore all the other horrific tragedies.

Senator Wise, show you are not a bigoted anti-Christian man. Step up to the plate and either withdraw this bigoted piece of legislation or make it so that all contributions by all people that make up our great country are acknowledged. Don't single out one scientific theory and ignore the controversial aspects of all the others. Don't ignore all the other genocidal events in Human history. Make this a fair piece of legislation or remove it from consideration.


Joe Meert

Monday, March 07, 2011

As Predicted Academic Freedom Bill comes to Florida

Shortly after the elections last fall, I looked over the different Florida house and senate races and saw the 'perfect storm' for the so-called Academic Freedom bill to be reintroduced. Sure enough SB1854 was introduced by Stephen Wise (also in the prediction). Stay tuned to see how this plays out. It doesn't look good for the pro-science education groups in Florida as the conservatives control both the house and senate by a wide margin and Rick Scott is sympathetic to creationism.

What's particularly interesting is that the anti-evolution legislation is tucked into a bill that is basically a rant of conservative 'principles'. This reminds me of the scene in American graffiti where the underage Toad goes into the store to buy liquor. He asks for everything under the sun and then slips in 'a bottle of old harper' with the hope that the guy will just fill the list because it all sounded so harmless.


Joe Meert

Friday, March 04, 2011

National Geographic Channel

Is showing the premiere of its new CGI animated Story of the Earth program. I had the good fortune of being one of the scientific consultants for this film and am anxiously awaiting the premiere.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Terry Jones can't get enough

Well, "Dr." Terry Jones just did not like the brevity of his 15 minutes, so he's at it again. About a week ago, he parked a trailer outside his church (now numbering a weird 20 or so members) calling for "International Judge a Koran Day" on March 20, 2011. Apparently some of his more intelligent followers might have told him "You do know that some could judge the Koran to be 'excellent literature' or 'the word of God' or other superlatives"? Today, he amended the signage to what you see pictured above. Now he is calling on people to "Burn it", "Drown it", "Shoot it" or "Shred It". My sincere hope is that the news media will just ignore him this time. It led to far too much stress for our quiet little neighborhood last time.

I've e-mailed Ryder truck rental to ask if this is the sort of press they might be seeking.


Joe Meert

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Decay Rates are not Constant?

Ok, now that I have the attention of the young earth creationists, I can report on a just published study in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters (Nebel et al., 2011 "Evaluation of the 87Rb decay constant by age comparison against the U–Pb system, v301, p.1-8).
The paper is significant because it proposes the first revision since 1977 for the decay constant of 87Rb. Steiger and Jager (1977) calculated a decay constant of 1.42 x 10-11 yr-1. Nebel and colleagues used analyses on the same rock samples to recalibrate the 87Rb decay constant by comparison with the U-Pb system. The 'new' decay constant is 1.393 x 10-11 yr-1. That may not seem like a significant revision, but it means that age determinations using the 'old' constant are off by about 2%. Sorry creationists, but the new constant makes things about 2% OLDER so definitely not a find in your favor. Perhaps more interestingly, it appears to be moving back toward the 'old' standard of 1.39 x 10-11 yr-1. We'll have to wait and see if the new 'constant' holds up to further analysis, but certainly in the examples given by the authors it brings the U-Pb and Rb-Sr ages into better agreement.

Oh and just in case you take refinement of this numerical value to signify that decay rates are not constant, that is not what the paper is about. It's about refining the exact value of the decay constant which is subject to both analytical and experimental error. Nevertheless, this isn't going to result in the Earth becoming 6000 years old.


Joe Meert

Thursday, December 23, 2010



Discovery by UF geologist rekindles debate on origins of multi-cellular life

Filed under Research, Sciences on Wednesday, December 22, 2010.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A recent discovery by a University of Florida geologist may lend support to the theory that one of the defining moments of evolution may not have occurred as currently thought.
While studying the ancient microcontinents that make up the geography of central Kazakhstan in Asia, geological sciences professor Joe Meert and colleagues uncovered evidence that multi-cellular organisms may have evolved 100 million years earlier than previously thought, well before the Cambrian Era. His findings are published online today in the journal Gondwana Research.
The Cambrian era is known for an explosion of multi-cellular life, including the first hard-shelled organisms. Most modern species can trace their evolution back to this event, which is unique in the evolutionary record. Prior to the Cambrian era, the fossil record becomes more cryptic, as the soft-shelled organisms of the era leave relatively few fossils. The prevailing theory is that multi-cellular life developed just after a series of glacial episodes 750 to 653 million years ago.
Meert discovered the fossilized remains of two Ediacara fauna, Nimbia occlusa and Aspidella terranovica, in a rock formation that predates the earliest glacial period by more than 50 million years.
“I am sure that the fossils will be controversial due to their enigmatic nature and the fact that they are more than 100 million years older than similar fossils” Meert said.
While the findings may support the theory than metazoan life developed much earlier than previously assumed, the exact nature of Nimbia Occlusa remains a subject of controversy. Scientists are split on whether it is a multi-cellular animal, a bacterial colony, or a microbial mat. The new fossils are identical to those that appear in the fossil record up to 150 million years later, meaning it passed through tectonic, climatic, oceanic, and atmospheric events without significant change.
The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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