How Science Works

Diane Ravitch is a labor agitator with a focus on the education sector. She is interesting to read if you care about union politics as it applies to education from a teacher’s (as opposed to student’s, parent’s, or nation’s perspective). As such following Diane Ravitch on twitter has the same sort of twisted excitement as, say, following a NAMBLA report on age-of-consent laws: they are definitely interested in the subject area, but for all the wrong reasons.

(I’m not sure if the effect of an individual child from a terrible education is worse than the effect of rape at a young age, though I suspect it is.)

In any case, Ravitch recently linked to a blog post, titled “Regents agree to give NY students data to limited corporation run by Gates and operated by Murdoch’s Wireless Gen.” The thrust of the article is that the not-for-profit Gates Foundation is providing funds to use test data to build more effective teacher assessments. The Gates Foundation wants to improve teacher quality, so that makes sense. And Ravitch is a labor agitator, so of course she is against this. So far, so good. Presumably drill-fitters would be against measuring the productivity of drill-fittings to a similar degree.

My friend Mark Safranski was curious about the story thouge. Mark mentioned, I don’t know if their data analysis is valid or reliable. Sounds like they don’t have a model yet but have a contract, and asked Why would this be figured out on the fly?.

The reason a model would be “figured out on the fly” is that this is how science works.

There is a cartoon version of science along these lines

Science is a method for understanding Truth. To understand Truth, a great scientist thinks deeply, and using the tomes he has read along with his powers of reflection, generates a Theory. Then, with great care, an elaborate contraption is created test the Theory. If the test works, the Hypothesis is Proven, and it becomes a Fact. Otherwise, the Theory is Wrong, and the cycle begins again.

This is a ridiculous view of how science works, and that Americans believe it is on prima facia evidence that our education system is deeply broken.

Science is a method for predicting variation. To better predict variation, scientists construct Theories, which are mental models that allow brute facts to be put in some sort of framework. For instance, the theory of Gravity explains the brute fact of an apple on a tree in one moment, and the same apple on the great in the next, into a narrative. Theories are opertaionalized using hypotheses, which generate specific predictions. So gravity on Earth can be operationalized as predicting that gravity acts like an acceleration that forces all object to the ground at a rate of 32.2 feet per second per second. Run enough experiments and you will begin to see this simple hypothesis mis-predict events, which will force you to generate other hypotheses. Eventually you will have a set of hypotheses which predict events enough to be useful to you.

Many individuals who hold the first view, on hearing the news about building a database of student test scores, would be confused. What is the Theory being tested? Why won’t the Great Scientist tell us? How will we easily know if he has discovered Truth, or he is Wrong?

Because this is not how science works, people who think this way believe in Pseudoscience.

Instead, actual scientists would be approach the work in a different manner. These scientists want to know what types of education best prepare students for life outside of school. They look at outcomes, such as health, income, years in college, degrees earned, social class, criminal convictions, and so on. To recognize that to the extent that ‘success’ exists, it is a latent construct that is only imperfectly, and with error, reflected in any one of these measures, using a Theory. These scientists also look at how one can objectively measure student achievement & teacher quality (two different things, certainly), also using Theories. A simple hypothesis is created, and tested on some data. Run enough studies, and the scientists will begin to see how this simple hypothesis mis-predicts events, which forces them to create more hypothesis. Eventually, the scientists have a set of hypotheses which predict student success enough to be useful to policy makers.

It is this process that Diane Ravitch and other labor agitators are deeply opposed to. A world where teacher quality can be assessed is one where bad teachers might be forced to become good teachers or be fired. This breaks worker solidarity, and means that some teachers will work harder, when any good labor organization wants to make working conditions easier for its members.

I believe in student welfare — and having a strong nation — more than I believe in labor agitation, so I support education reform, and oppose pseudoscience.

Zune 5k

Because of the variety of music I listen to with my ZunePass recent “heart songs” don’t show up in the visualitaion as quickly as they used to, but it’s still cool to catch these glimpses of some of what I’ve been listening to.

These day’s its mostly Christmas songs, by Mannheim Steamroller, Sufjan Stevens, and the McGarrigle Sisters, especailly. As I wrote this I’m listening to Winners Never Quit, a hard-to-categorize (reflective Christian post-rock?) album by Pedro the Lion.

Chuck Grassley v. Civil Society

Senator Charles Grassley’s attack on civil society is sickening. Conservatives should be skeptical of government power, and instead prefer to use voluntary associations whenever possible. Instead, Senator Grassley somehow believes that people pooling their resources to help their preferred charities is at the government’s expense.

This comment is tricky to write because of Grassley’s bizarre and Orwellian rhetoric — when he talks about money that is in the hands of voluntary associations, but he wishes were taxed, he complains that it is at the “taxpayer’s expense.” Of course, what he means is that if the government taxed these charitable institutions, the government would have more tax revenue.

If there’s a good part of the Republicans failing to win the 2010 Senate, it was that it kept Grassley from having more power than he does already.

Being Lovingly Kind by Letting the House Burn

Recently on Facebook my publisher, Fred Zimmerman, pointed me to this article, titled “Tennessee family home burns while firefighters watch

Vicky Bell told the NBC affiliate WPSD-TV that she called 911 when her mobile home in Obion County caught fire. Firefighters arrived on the scene but as the fire raged, they simply stood by and did nothing. “In an emergency, the first thing you think of, ‘Call 9-1-1,” homeowner Bell said. However, Bell and her husband were forced to walk into the burning home in an attempt to retrieve their own belongings. “You could look out my mom’s trailer and see the trucks sitting at a distance,” Bell said. “We just wished we could’ve gotten more out.”

South Fulton Mayor David Crocker defended the fire department, saying that if firefighters responded to non-subscribers, no one would have an incentive to pay the fee. Residents in the city of South Fulton receive the service automatically, but it is not extended to those living in the greater county-wide area.

The firefighters did the moral and ethical thing, which was to allow the home to burn.

The Bible repeatedly instructs us that the State is a tool of social order (this was a theme of my series, “Jesusism-Paulism,” and my monograph, Revolutionary Strategies in Early Christianity. Because it’s been a while since I talked about the concepts, some major themes of my work were

But anyway…

An unstated thought behind the entire series — one that is so obvious it is often missed — is that the State is a provider of security. This is the core competency of the State, and one that it does better than any other form of institution — indeed, when other service providers become effective in the security spaces, they in effect become micro-States unto themselves. (Indeed, the United States is explicitly designed to have multiple levels of security providers, one level of which are called “states” and the other is the “United States”!)

The State can achieve the scale necessary to provide security through its relationship with violence the State can MIHOP (make it happen on purpose) or LIHOP (let it happen on purpose). The State can throw individuals in prison, or simply direct local security officials to not intervene when violence befalls individuals. The State’s power to provide security is thus intertwined with the State’s power to tax: Without this understanding of what the State is for and what it does, Christ’s and Paul’s directives to embrace State power make no sense.

So, back the the story: a family chooses not to pay a State tax, and the State, in line with its policies, withdraws either MIHOPs or LIHOPs the family. This is as unremarkable as stating that a a man chooses to ignite a stove, and the ensuing flames warms his food. If the object (the State, the stove) did not have this function, why would we even have it?

Of course, whether MIHOP or LIHOP is a better method of collecting taxes is a policy question, that depends on the time, the place, and the culture. In more individualistic cultures, the Christian thing to do is probably co-opt the self-reliant streak in the culture and rely in LIHOP; in more collective cultures, MIHOP might be more appropriate.

In this case the State chose LIHOP. As the State in question is not only American but in an area where the Scotch-Irish frontier strain is predominant (Kentucky), LIHOP seems appropriate.

Good show!