17 February 2006

Rejoicing in Ignorance

PZ Myers already trashed this incredibly, painfully, dangerously, arrogantly stupid op-ed that appeared in the usually intelligent WaPo. PZ, as always, does a good job of informing this idiot that he is a stinky brown object floating around in the gene pool. Ordinarily, I wouldn't waste much time trying to add to what Myers wrote, but in this case I think there's something that he missed - and Cohen is just too damn stupid for me to resist commenting.

Richard Cohen wrote his article in response to an LA Times report about children dropping out of high school after repeatedly failing algebra. That is a legitimate problem, and it is one that we desparately, desparately need to address as a nation. We need to educate our children. All of them. Not just the ones who can afford to go to a private school, or the ones who are lucky enough to live in a good school district. Schools may be a local responsibility, but this has become a national problem, a national crisis, and it really is in need of a national solution.

Cohen, in his article, proposes a solution that is the intellectual equivalent of fixing an ingrown toenail by amputating the foot. His idea: if people can't pass algebra, don't make them take it.

Arithmatic - the part of math that Cohen claims to be competant at - teaches you how to answer a problem. Algebra teaches you how to set the problem up. It does, Cohen's pathetic assertions notwithstanding, teach you how to reason. In fact, it teaches you how to reason in ways that you really do use in everyday life.
Here's the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that.
That's a word problem, and it is the kind of thing that algebra teaches you to solve. Here's another example: You're at the gas station on your way home from work. You don't have a credit card, it's three days until payday, and you know that you are going to need to put five gallons into the tank to keep the car running until then. Gas is at 2.50, and you have 15 dollars left. You also need milk. If you buy a gallon of milk, will you have enough money left for the gas you need?

Word problems suck, but you rarely run into anything else in the real world. Some people may be lucky enough that it doesn't matter too much if they miss the answer by a little bit. Cohen may have enough money to pay the landscapers no matter how many are working. Others aren't so lucky. Gabriella may need to figure out how far she can stretch that last 15 bucks.

In fact, the educational disparities in this country make it much more likely that Gabriella will find herself in just that situation. I grew up in the Bronx. We weren't as poor as others in the neighborhood, but we weren't exactly rich - we sat right on that border between working-class and middle-class. When you are coming from that kind of inner-city background, there aren't a lot of ways to do better. A fortunate few might have the athletic or musical skills that can lead to fame and fortune. The military is an option for some, but you need to get through high school before they'll take you - especially if you want training in something high-tech. You might win a lottery jackpot. Or you can get educated.

For most people, education is the only way out of poverty. Education is the only way to get a job that will pay something more than minimum wages. Education is the only viable path to a better life.

That's simple reasoning, but it apparently escapes Cohen. Of course, that's not much of a surprise. After all, he has this to say about reasoning:
Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.
Let me see if I've got that right: Writing teaches reasoning better than math. We know this because people who are good at math are bad at writing. An example of this is someone who is good at math, but doesn't know where the Sahara is. Yeah, writing has definitely taught this guy how to reason.

I'm not trying to argue that the humanities and social sciences are unimportant, or even that they are less important than math and science. They're all important. They're all part of a good education. They're all things that you need to know if you are going to succeed in our modern society.

Especially if you're not lucky enough to start out ahead.

15 February 2006

Molecules and Evolution.

I spend a lot of time on this blog writing about evolution, and about Intelligent Design, and about why one is bad and the other good. This time, I'm going to try to do something a little different, and discuss one of the many lines of evidence for evolution: the similarities that we see when we compare DNA sequences from different animals.

The example that I'm going to use is hemoglobin from humans and chimps. Hemoglobin is a protein that is found in red blood cells. The hemoglobin picks up oxygen in the lungs and carries it to the different tissues. Hemoglobin is not a single molecule. It is a complex protein that is made of several smaller proteins. Each of those proteins is produced by a gene. We're going to look at one of those genes: alpha-globin.

The National Institutes of Health maintains a database known as GenBank. GenBank's basically Google for hard-core biology geeks. It's an international database where scientists store DNA and protein sequences. I rummaged around there, and came up with a alpha-globin DNA sequences from a human and a chimp. I'll put these sequences in pairs of lines, with the human sequence on top and the chimp sequence on the bottom.
Human: ACT CTT CTG GTC CCC ACA GAC TCA GAg AGA
Chimp: ACT CTT CTG GTC CCC ACA GAC TCA GAa AGA

Human: ACC CAC CAT GGT GCT GTC TCC TGC CGA CAA
Chimp: ACC CAC CAT GGT GCT GTC TCC TGC CGA CAA

Human: GAC CAA CGT AAG GCC GCC TGG GGT AAG GTC
Chimp: GAC CAA CGT AAG GCC GCC TGG GGT AAG GTC

Human: GGC GCG CAC GCT GGC GAG TAT GGT GCG GAG
Chimp: GGC GCG CAC GCT GGC GAG TAT GGT GCG GAG

Human: GCC CTG GAG AGG ATG TTC CTG TCC TTC CCC
Chimp: GCC CTG GAG AGG ATG TTC CTG TCC TTC CCC
That's only part of the sequence, but it's pretty representative. I showed the first 150 "letters" of the DNA sequence. There's one difference in these 150 bases, and the full sequence shows 99% similarity.

I've shown you that humans and chimps have very similar alpha-globin gene sequences, but so far that's all I've shown you. I haven't explained why I think that this similarity indicates evolution instead of something else. After all, it might just be that the gene does the same things, and that explains the similarity.

The gene does, in fact, do exactly the same thing in chimps that it does in humans. The gene makes a protein that is part of hemoglobin in both species. In fact, even though the genes are slightly different, the portion of the gene that I showed the sequence for makes exactly the same protein in both species. There is a difference in the DNA sequence, but not in the protein sequence.

Our proteins are strings of amino acids joined together in a line. There are twenty amino acids that we use in our proteins. The "genetic code" that tells our body the order that the amino acids should go in uses three letter DNA "words" to indicate each amino acid. There are four DNA letters, so there are 64 possible words. That's a lot more words than we need, so most of the amino acids have more than one "word" assigned in the code.

This means that there are literally hundreds of possible DNA sequences that could make exactly the same protein sequence that we see in human and chimp alpha-globin. The sequences that humans and chimps use are almost identical. They aren't exactly the same, but they are really close. The sequence for an orang-utan is a bit more different.

These slight differences, more than the similarities, are what makes us view this as evidence for evolution.

13 February 2006

Bloody stupid media

It looks like the media got a bit pissed at Scott McClellan during the press briefing today. Why? Because they weren't promptly informed that the Vice President accidentally shot his hunting partner.

Useless whining schmucks.

They have been routinely mushroomed by this administration over the past five years on a virtually limitless range of subjects. They have very rarely demonstrated anger about any of this. (Of course, it's possible that they still haven't noticed.) They could have gotten angry about being lied to on a policy story - it's not like that hasn't happened - but, no. Instead, they pitch a fit because they weren't told about a story that looks to be more fodder for the Daily Show than serious news.

12 February 2006

Dude, my bad.

Darwin Day

Today is the 197th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. In honor of this, I've tried to pull together a mini-blog carnival of posts related to Darwin and evolution.

The Darwin Day website has a list of events from around the world that were (or are being) held today in celebration of Darwin's birthday. Scanning the list, it looks like most of these are scientific lectures about evolution and evolutionary biology.

Scientists aren't the only ones who are giving talks and making presentations today. Today is being marked as Evolution Sunday in hundreds of churches across the United States. This event was put together by a the same person who started the Clergy Letter Project, which has collected over 10,000 signatures of clergy who support teaching real science in the science classroom. For those interested, their website has a list of links to some of the sermons.

Darwin's birthday and evolution have gotten some attention from bloggers recently, too. PZ has a picture and an excerpt from a biography of Darwin. Actually, pictures seem to be a real theme for today. There are a couple of other photographs on blogs, Olduvai George has a nice portrait of a young Darwin, and Jennifer Forman Orth gives us an iconic image of Darwin in an unlikely place.

There are also several blog posts that have gone up in recent days that fit this occasion well. Tara Smith, over at Aetiology, was kind enough to write a post about how evolution relates to her own research. 10,000 Birds wrote a post earlier this week that presents a nice discussion of evolution and birds. Over at Daily Kos, there's a brief history of the evolution of humans since the big bang. Alun touches on the evolution of religion in a post, and there's an article on evolution written by Niles Eldredge over at The Virginia Quarterly Review. Finally, I wrote a small piece about how we get new species the other day that seems to fit the occasion.

Happy Birthday, Charles.