07 April 2006

The Latest Newspeak

Today's nearly-hysterical attempt at redefinition comes to us from the Ministry of Truth White House Press Office:
The President believes the leaking of classified information is a very serious matter. And I think that's why it's important to draw a distinction here. Declassifying information and providing it to the public, when it is in the public interest, is one thing. But leaking classified information that could compromise our national security is something that is very serious. And there is a distinction.
So, let's see...

Giving a selected few reporters selected crumbs of information = in the public interest.

Telling the public that big brother might be lithere is a "terrorist surveillance program" in which the government claims the right to listen in on some phone converstations without any due process = not in the public interest.

I'm glad they've cleared that one up.

More on the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise Affair

A number of people commenting on my last article noticed and highlighted the disappearance of stories related to the Pianka affair from the website of the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise. Dave Thomas picked up the story, and posted it on The Pandas' Thumb. I'm going to provide a bit more detail on the scope of the paper's dishonest and despicable conduct, along with the text of an email that I've sent them.

As Dave pointed out, the paper archives stories for at least one month. Strangely, however, the stories that involve Eric Pianka all seem to have disappeared from their archive. I mean that literally. I went to the paper's search page, entered "Pianka" as the search term, and received 0 hits.

That's very strange, because stories about Eric Pianka appeared on the front page of the print edition of the paper on three separate days this week: April 2nd, 4th, and 5th. The links to those dates are to the front-page images currently available on the paper's site. Should those pictures also become unavailable, I will post the copies that I've saved. The website lists the news articles for each of those days. If you look at the pages (2nd, 4th, and 5th), you will find that all of the front page stories except the ones mentioning Pianka are still listed. That's the case at the moment, anyway. It's anyone's guess what the situation will be tomorrow.

The disappearance of the material is clearly not a technical error. What we have seen is the deliberate deletion of all material related to Eric Pianka from the paper's website. What we have not seen is any explanation for this inexcusable conduct on the part of the paper. They have not replaced the Pianka articles with anything other than a file not found message. There is no retraction available, there is no reason given for the removal of the files, there is not even any acknowledgement that the files ever existed.

That behavior is beyond dishonest. It is despicable. It is disgusting. It is irresponsible. It is cowardly. It is...somebody get me a thesaurus, I'm running out of words for it.

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise's initial article sparked enormous amounts of criticism of Pianka from bloggers, newspaper columnists, talk radio hosts, and other media sources. He was demonized in front of a national audience. He has received death threats as a direct result of this publicity. He was questioned about his views by the FBI. All that can be traced directly back to the publicity that resulted from the Gazette-Enterprise's actions.

If they no longer stand behind those articles - and that is exactly what the selective deletion of the material from the website implies - then the paper owes the public an explanation and the professor an apology. What they have done so far in removing the articles without any sort of explanation demonstrate a degree of moral cowardice that is entirely inexcusable. If the paper wishes to cling to its last remaining shreds of professionalism and dignity, they will have to do better. And soon.

06 April 2006

The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise and Misrepresentation of Pianka.

**Update- 7 April 06, 18:00 HST -**
All of the Sequin Gazette-Enterprise articles linked to in this article are no longer available through those links, and I am currently unable to find them as live links elsewhere on their site. I will be emailing the paper for comment shortly, and will attempt to contact them by phone for an explanation if that does not work.

It's been several days since the attacks on University of Texas ecologist Eric Pianka first began, and there's no end in sight. Yesterday, Texas governor Rick Perry's office compared Pianka to the Nazis, and today he is being required to talk to the FBI so that they can make sure that he's not a terrorist. Meanwhile, various portions of the right-wing community are continuing to rave against Pianka - the Uncommon Descent folks alone have no less than four posts up on the topic today.

Also today, the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise (the local paper that got the ball rolling on this whole affair) posted the transcript of another, more recent, speech by Pianka. This is interesting because the transcript is for the same speech discussed in the April 2nd Gazette-Enterprise article that was picked up by the Drudge report, sparking the national outcry. Having the transcript available makes it much easier to critically examine the news article about the speech, and to see how well the material in the article reflects what was actually said.

The easiest way to do this, I think, is to look at the way direct quotes are used in the article, and then at the same quote within the context of the speech. It's as close to objective as I'm going to be able to get. The direct quotes will be placed in a bold font to make them easier to find.

From the article:
A University of Texas professor says the Earth would be better off with 90 percent of the human population dead.

"Every one of you who gets to survive has to bury nine," Eric Pianka cautioned students and guests at St. Edward's University on Friday. Pianka's words are part of what he calls his "doomsday talk" - a 45-minute presentation outlining humanity's ecological misdeeds and Pianka's predictions about how nature, or perhaps humans themselves, will exterminate all but a fraction of civilization.
From the transcript:
Now it is only a matter of time until Ebola got here evolves and mutates a little and it will be airborne, and then I think we might finally get a take. And when it sweeps across the world — we're gonna have a lot of dead people. Every one of you that is lucky enough to survive gets to bury nine. Think about that. I doubt Ebola is gonna be the one that gets us. I think it will be, uh, something else.

But did you ever wonder why things like SARS and now what the Avian Flu are continually cropping up? They're cropping up because we were dumb enough to make a perfect epidemiological substrate for an epidemic. We bred our brains out, and now we're being pegged. The microbes are gonna take over. They're gonna control us as they have in the past. Think about that.
If you look closely, you will see that the two sentences in bold do not entirely match. The newspaper quoted Pianka as saying "every one of you who gets to survive." The transcript has him saying "every one of you that is lucky enough to survive." It's a small difference, I know, but I think it is significant - especially since it seems to be part of a trend.

A little later in the article, we read:
So what's at the heart of Pianka's claim?

6.5 billion humans is too many.

In his estimation, "We've grown fat, apathetic and miserable," all the while leaving the planet parched.

The solution?

A 90 percent reduction.
Looking at the transcript, here's what we see in context:
The great North American saltgrass prairie and we just took it and turned it all into agricultural lands. We exterminated the bison, wiped out the Indians, totaled the prairie dogs and those black-faced ferrets. We just erased an eco-system. Now this is very nice for Americans because that rich topsoil has allowed us to grow food and we can feed ourselves and the rest of the world and we've grown fat and apathetic and miserable as a result of it. We've lost the bison — we've lost an awful lot and we'll never be able to recover.
I do need to give the author some credit here - Pianka did use the quoted words. He did not do use them to refer to humanity as a whole, as the Gazette-Enterprise implied, and he didn't use them in reference to population growth per se. But he did use those words in pretty much that order.

I'm not sure that the same thing can be said about the next quote I'm going to look at:
"[Disease] will control the scourge of humanity," Pianka said. "We're looking forward to a huge collapse."
I realize that I didn't provide much context for that, but I didn't really think that it was necessary. I've got nothing to compare it to. Neither "scourge of humanity" nor "looking forward" appear anywhere in the text of that speech. Those phrases are also absent from the incomplete transcript of the Texas Academy of Sciences speech posted at the Pearcey Report earlier today. It is entirely possible that Pianka said those things at some point in time, but it does not appear that they were included in the 31 March speech. The page with the transcript does note that there are some missing portions, so I'll give the paper the benefit of the doubt for the moment, but the omission is troubling.

Here's another chunk from the newspaper article:
As of press time, Pitts - who sent his appeal via email Saturday - had received no response from the university, but he says, "It's too early for any responses to have been made." Meanwhile, Pianka urges humanity to heed his call to be prepared, saying "we're going to be hunters and gatherers again real soon."

"This is gonna happen in your lifetime," he told his St. Edward's audience. "Do you wanna go there? We've already gone there. We waited too long."
I apologize, but I won't be able to provide a single quote that contains both phrases. It would be far too long - over 1100 words separate "hunters and gatherers again real soon" from "This is gonna happen."

Here's the context for the first part:
It's just a matter of time until the planet changes really bad. Some meteorological people have models that show thresholds where it shifts just instantly overnight. What I'm waiting for is when you go to the supermarket and there are no more Triscuits on the shelves and you say to yourself, "Hey, where did Triscuit come from, anyway."

We've lost touch with the reality of where food comes from. We're completely mislead. It's just a commodity that's bought and sold and people make money on it. You've got to think, you've got to think — and remember, humans were hunter/gatherers not that long ago and I think we're gonna to be again very soon.
And the second:
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife recently released caribou off the islands off of Alaska to help the Eskimos, the Aleuts, get protein. And the herds from these islands — there were several islands — all grew exponentially just like the human population's been growing for quite a few years and then they ate everything they could eat and the populations crashed.

This is what's going to happen to us. This is gonna happen in your lifetime. Does that look like fun? Do you want to go there? You've gone there. We waited too long.
Both of those quotes, read in context, are alarmist. But they are talking about completely different threats. Coupled together, they say do make a nice quote, but it's not what Pianka actually said. As was the case with the other quotes, it's a fairly small difference, but the cumulative effect is to cast Pianka in the worst possible light.

I'd almost be willing to write off the misquotes to poor memory and notetaking by the reporter, but the same trend shows up in a quote taken from written material:
The professor's not the only one who can articulate this concept. Because Pianka includes his doomsday material in his coursework, Ebola and its potential play a notable role in some students' studies. A syllabus for one course reads:

"Although [Ebola Zaire] Kills 9 out of 10 people, outbreaks have so far been unable to become epidemics because they are currently spread only by direct physical contact with infected blood. However, a closely-related virus that kills monkeys, Ebola Reston, is airborne, and it is only a matter of time until Ebola Zaire evolves the capacity to be airborne."

It is here that some say Pianka ventures from provocative food for thought to, as Wilkins said, "very extreme material" that violate many people's views - including his own - about the treatment of human life. While many praise Pianka's boldness and scientific know-how, others say he crosses an ethical line in his treatment of Ebola's viability as a killer.
The quote does not actually appear in Pianka's course syllabus. Instead, it appears on a website that lists reasons to take the class. Here it is in full context:
During the past quarter of a century, world population has increased from about 3.4 billion people to over 6.4 billion, an increase of over 85%. In some parts of the world, human populations are growing even faster.

If humans do not control their own population (and we seem unwilling and unable to do so), then other forces will certainly act to control our population. The four horseman of the apocalypse (conquest, war, famine, and death) are all candidates. Most likely, lethal virulent microbes like HIV and Ebola zaire will set limits on the growth of human populations. HIV, by allowing infected hosts to survive years while they spread the virus and infect new hosts, has already become a pandemic, but it will be years before it decimates the human population. Although Ebola kills 9 out of 10 people, outbreaks have so far been unable to become epidemics because they are currently spread only by direct physical contact with infected blood. However, a closely related virus that kills monkeys, Ebola reston, is airborne, and it is only a matter of time until Ebola zaire evolves the capacity to be airborne.
It's clear that Pianka is not advocating the use of Ebola as a weapon in this passage. Instead, he is warning that a devistating epidemic is a likely outcome of continued population expansion. Interestingly, the reporter doesn't bring that up later on, when speculating on Pianka's motives for discussing ebola:
Though Pianka turned down requests for a sit-down interview, he maintains he is not advocating human death.

Does he believe nature will bring about this promised devastation? Or is humanity's own dissemination of a deadly virus the only answer? And more importantly, is this the motive behind his talks?

Responding to these very questions, Pianka said, "Good terrorists would be taking [Ebola Roaston and Ebola Zaire] so that they had microbes they could let loose on the Earth that would kill 90 percent of people."
This quote appears to come from an exchange captured in an audio recording posted on the paper's website.

Here's my attempt at a transcript:
Reporter: "My question is, do you believe that this is something that's going to come about naturally? Do you believe that this is something that humanity needs to take a step to cause? Because that's what's being said..."

Pianka: "Oh..."

Reporter: "...and there's a big difference in that."

Pianka: "Oh.. I think that umm [incomprehensible- I honestly can't tell for sure whether or not he used the word "good" there, but I don't think he did.] er... terrorists would be taking one of these and one of those other ones and trying to combine them so that they had a microbe that they could [let/set?] loose on the earth that would kill 90% of the people. I don't think they are that sophisticated...

Reporter: "...OK, but yes or no question, do you advocate that?"

Pianka: "I don't advocate killing people."

Reporter: "OK."

I have a hard time looking at the quote from the article, listening to the audio of the actual exchange with the reporter, and viewing what was written as anything other than a deliberate attempt to make Pianka look bad. It seems clear to me that the first part of Pianka's answer was the result of him mishearing or misinterpreting the reporter. I think that was clear to the reporter, too. She cut his answer off to ask him point blank whether he was advocating terrorism.

The article in the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise contains numerous misquotes and out of context quotes. All of them err in the same direction - making Pianka look bad. It is almost impossible to believe that this is the result of anything other than deliberate effort on the part of the paper.

05 April 2006

On Science Education (or: I Want To Be PZ Myers)

I have a confession to make. (Yes, another one.) I want to be PZ Myers when I grow up and finish my PhD. Well, a sort of watered down version of him anyway. I'm not so sure about the whole agressively godless thing. And I can almost certainly do without the cephalopod fetish.

Ok. So I don't really want to be PZ. I just want his job. Or one a lot like it. I like doing research. I enjoy new problems, and I love finding solutions. But I also like to teach - I really enjoy it - and professors at research universities just don't do enough of it for me. Most of the professors in my department spend a quarter or less of their time in the classroom. I want more time working with undergraduates than that.

That's the big advantage that I see in teaching at a liberal arts college instead of a research university. The smaller schools exist to teach. In the research universities I've seen, the undergraduates may be the excuse for having a department, but the departments exist to do original research. Teaching seems to come in second as often as not.

Here's the thing, though. To get to the point where I'm reasonably qualified for a position teaching in the science department at a liberal arts college, I need to complete a PhD in the sciences. The PhD program I'm in is, like most others, entirely research focused. This means that the expectation is that the grad students will put most of their time into their research, take only classes related to their research, and do as little teaching as possible. We're required, at least in theory, to have one year of teaching experience before graduation. It is uncommon for students to TA for more than a year unless they can't find any other source of funding. Many advisors actively discourage their students from taking classes that are interesting but unrelated to that student's specific research area.

My department is not atypical in this regard. In fact, the majority of the faculty have been very supportive of my desire to get more teaching experience. Several of them have helped me with questions I've had about teaching, and in improving my skills. Ultimately, however, I am a student in a program that's designed to produce researchers. It is definitely not designed to produce educators.

So how does this tie in with science education?

As Janet pointed out in a post on her blog earlier today, the folks who teach science at the K-12 grade levels are not usually people who majored in science. They are people who took some science classes in college, but most majored in education. Of the fraction that completed an undergraduate science major, few have done any graduate-level work in science - which means that few have had substantial exposure to the practice of science.

Once a student reaches college, they get to take science classes taught by a real, live scientist. That's someone who has finished a PhD in their field, conducted original research, and knows how the scientific community functions. Their graduate program was almost certainly like the one that I'm in - focused on producing the next generation of researcher.

To put it another way, the people who teach students science before college have lots of training in education and little in science, while those who teach student science in college have lots and lots of training in science, but little to no formal training in education.

I'd like to go out on a limb here, and suggest that this situation is absolutely insane. It's bloody stupid. Look, and education degree is fantastic. If I've learned one thing from TAing the last two semesters, it's that teaching is a hell of a lot more difficult than it looks. Being able to effectively teach a subject requires much more than knowledge of the subject. To teach well, you have to be able to structure the course appropriately, present the material at a reasonable rate, present the material in a way that can engage at least a few of the students, write exams that actually test what you teach, explain why an answer is wrong instead of just saying that it is - and that's just a partial list. But you do need to understand the material.

The current system is set up to produce people who are skilled in either teaching or science. It isn't set up to produce people who are trained in and good at both. That needs to change. If we are going to have any hope in fixing science education in this country, we will need lots of people who can do both.

04 April 2006

Guilty Pleasures

I have a confession to make.

From time to time, in my own home and out of view of my children, I yield to temptation and read something written by Tom Clancy. It's wrong, I know, but it's hard to resist. The man's politics might have started to the right of John Birch Society (and drifted rightward over time), and his the mindset of his characters is overly righteous and simplistic, but his stories are decent escapist novels. If I need to turn off my brain for a while, Clancy isn't the world's worst way to do it. The thing is, though, unlike a large number of wingnuts, I know that it's just a story.