Tag Archives: evidence

Don’t Confuse Her With Evidence….

Students at one of America’s historically Black colleges recently booed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who had (inexplicably) been invited to deliver the graduation speech. Many of the graduates also turned their backs when she spoke.

This behavior was rude–but it was understandable.

Like most of Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos is manifestly unfit for public office. She is an ideologue in the Pence tradition; a theocrat with a rigid and limited worldview who has demonstrated a lack of engagement with, let alone understanding of, the issues that face the department she’s been tapped to head.

DeVos has been a “Betsy One-Note,” focused on voucher programs that despite misleading rhetoric, actually replace public schools with religious ones. She insists that private schools do a better job, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. As the New York Times recently reported,

The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education was a signal moment for the school choice movement. For the first time, the nation’s highest education official is someone fully committed to making school vouchers and other market-oriented policies the centerpiece of education reform.

But even as school choice is poised to go national, a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them. The results are startling — the worst in the history of the field, researchers say.

Voucher advocacy has gradually become part of GOP ideology, and as Republicans have assumed power in the states, voucher programs have expanded–especially in Indiana. That expansion has allowed researchers to make comparisons that had been less reliable when there were fewer schools to compare, and the results of that research began to emerge in late 2015.

Here are some of those research findings–conclusions that would make an intellectually honest educator revisit her preconceptions:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

This is very unusual. When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.

It is important to note that these results come from voucher proponents as well as voucher skeptics. As the Times article noted,

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

DeVos has been an outspoken opponent of even minimal efforts to regulate schools that accept vouchers, but it has become clear that such regulation is necessary and salutary:

The new voucher studies stand in marked contrast to research findings that well-regulated charter schools in Massachusetts and elsewhere have a strong, positive impact on test scores. But while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of “school choice,” the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less “private” that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.

If DeVos has seen these studies or addressed their findings, I haven’t seen it reported.

Betsy DeVos is certainly entitled to live in her own alternate universe. What she isn’t entitled to is a public position that allows her to inflict considerable damage on the rest of us.

THIS Is What’s Wrong With America

A Facebook friend who lives in Todd Rokita’s Congressional district attended his recent Town Hall. In a post following the event, she reported on an exchange she had with the Congressman:

My question was “What evidence do you require in order to revise your opinion on climate change?”

His response was “No evidence could ever exist that would change my mind. It’s all Liberal science.”

If the constituent who posted this conversation transcribed it accurately–and I have no reason to doubt that–this is a disturbing and revealing admission. Don’t confuse me with facts. I’m a zealot who’s impervious to evidence. 

This one exchange is a (horrifying) example of what is wrong with Rokita, with today’s Republican Party, and –to the extent people of this ilk dominate our government–what’s wrong with American politics.

As appalling as I find the sentiment–“I’ve formed an opinion that cannot be altered by evidence or reality”–what is truly illuminating about this exchange is the immediate resort to labeling. Rokita and those like him find no need to engage in reasoned debate, no need to defend their positions; instead of providing grounds for their opinions, they simply dismiss opposing perspectives by labeling them “liberal.”

(Perhaps that response is inadvertent confirmation of the snarky observation that “reality has a well-known liberal bias…”.)

I cannot think of any position more disqualifying for public office–or for any responsible job–than one that refuses in advance to even consider evidence that might be inconsistent with one’s prejudices.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so surprised: evidence has never been Rokita’s strong suit.

Todd Rokita was the Indiana Secretary of State whose discovery of (vanishingly rare) “voter fraud” led to his championing of the state’s Voter ID law, which (entirely co-incidently, I’m sure) disenfranchised poor minority voters who had a deplorable tendency to vote Democratic.

I really never expected to live in a country where science and empirical research required defense, but evidently Luddites aren’t simply historical oddities. So later this morning, I will join other Hoosiers at the Statehouse to participate in a “March for Science.”

As the website for the March explains,

The March for Science is a celebration of science.  It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.  Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?

People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.  We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely.  Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford.  We must stand together and support science.

The application of science to policy is not a partisan issue. Anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they harm everyone — without exception. Science should neither serve special interests nor be rejected based on personal convictions. At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers.  It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.

As Neil DeGrasse Tyson likes to say, science is true whether we believe it or not. What he implies, but doesn’t say, is that rejecting reality is a prescription for disaster–and so is continuing to elect people who find science unacceptably “liberal.”

 

“Alternative” Realities

Bizarre as he is, Donald Trump does embody the GOP’s longstanding effort to substitute fantasy for evidence, and to act on the basis of the former.  

Forbes Magazine recently reported that Republican lawmakers have buried a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, because the findings debunked their preferred  (fanciful) economic worldview.

The research study found absolutely no correlation between the the level of top tax rates and economic growth. The belief that taxing the rich slows economic growth is a key tenet of conservative economic theory, so rather than considering evidence contrary to that theory, Senate Republicans suppressed the report.

This has become the standard reaction of Republican lawmakers when inconvenient reality–facts, evidence, what your lying eyes tell you–conflicts with their preferred beliefs and/or the interests of their donors.

The question is: how long can a war on reality be maintained?

It isn’t just economics. An interesting article in a recent issue of the New York Times compared the anti-science assault of the new Trump Administration with a similar effort mounted by Stephen Harper, a previous Prime Minister of Canada.

I was surprised by the article, since Canadians seem so sane and reasonable in comparison to the United States. (I look rather longingly at Justin Trudeau…). Evidently, however, waging war on facts, evidence and empirical investigation are not solely an American phenomenon.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Less than a month into the Trump presidency, and the forecast for science seems ominous.

Scientists at federal agencies have been hit with gag orders preventing them from communicating their findings, or in some cases, attending scientific conferences. Social media accounts and websites have been censored, and at least one agency was asked to identify personnel who worked on climate policies. Now there are proposals for slashing research budgets and gutting funding that could affect the training of the next generation of scientists. To top it all off, President Trump’s cabinet nominees and senior advisers include many who are climate deniers or doubters.

Canadians experienced a similar assault on science a decade ago under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The author of the article, a Canadian scientist, shared the experience of that country’s scientific community in the hopes that it might prove helpful here. The parallels were striking:

Starting in 2007, shortly after Mr. Harper became prime minister, new rules were issued that prevented federal scientists from speaking freely with the media about their research without clearing it with public relations specialists or having an administrative “minder” accompany the scientists on interviews or to scientific conferences. More often, the government would simply deny permission for a scientist to speak with reporters if that person’s findings ran counter to Mr. Harper’s political agenda. Inquiries from journalists became mired in an obstinate bureaucracy, and media coverage of government climate research dropped 80 percent after the rules were imposed.

This censorship also had a chilling effect on scientific inquiry. A survey of federal Canadian scientists revealed that 90 percent felt they could not speak freely to the media about their work. If they were to speak up about science that affected public health or the environment, 86 percent felt that they would suffer retaliation. Nearly half of the scientists knew of specific cases of political interference hampering efforts to protect the public.

The article detailed the destruction of research libraries, and other “cost saving” measures. Research on pollution and environmental contaminants was de-funded;  monitoring stations were closed. Environmental protection laws were repealed.

Fearing the continued erosion of even the most basic protections for food inspection, water quality and human health, Canadian scientists filled Ottawa’s streets in the Death of Evidence march. That theatrical mock funeral procession became something of a cultural touchstone. It was a turning point that galvanized public opinion against Prime Minister Harper’s anti-science agenda. By the next election, Justin Trudeau’s center-left government swept in on a platform that put scientists’ right to speak and the promise of evidence-based decisions alongside job creation and economic growth.

In a very real sense, America’s political divisions are not between rational Republicans and Democrats, or conservatives and liberals. Our divisions are between people willing to examine evidence, value and trust expertise, and grapple with the complexities of modern life, and people who are unwilling or unable to do so–people frantic to avoid both ambiguity and evidence inconsistent with their religious or political fundamentalism.

A number of pundits have opined that the demonstrations and marches being held around the country will have little effect on political decision-making. The Canadian “Death of Evidence” march–and more recently, the “pussy hats” of the Women’s March–suggest otherwise.

Reason is an adaptive characteristic. It will prevail. Unfortunately, a lot of harm can be done in the interim.

The Social Safety Net and the Ideologues

I know I tend to harp on the difference between thoughtful policymaking and ideology. Good policymaking depends significantly upon expertise and research, learning from experience (otherwise known as trial and error) and careful empirical observation; ideology dismisses poor results and unfortunate side-effects as irrelevancies or attributes them to insufficiently thorough implementation.

Congressional Republicans, led by Paul Ryan, and with the likely concurrence of the Senate GOP and Mitch McConnell, are determined to make drastic changes to American social policy. To the extent they are not prompted by corruption (that is, acting on behalf of and at the behest of their donor base), their desired changes to Social Security, Medicare and Obamacare are entirely ideological. They don’t want to improve these programs; they want to dismantle them.

It has long been an article of Rightwing faith that welfare programs—indeed, social insurance of any sort—creates unhealthy dependency. (Somehow, that belief does not extend to corporate welfare. But that is a post for another time.)

The evidence, not unsurprisingly, suggests otherwise.

There is substantial research suggesting that countries with more robust social safety networks experience fewer socially undesirable behaviors: less crime, less divorce, less child abuse…the list goes on. Rates of murder, robbery, burglary, rape, and other serious crimes are generally much higher in the U.S. than in industrialized nations offering universal health care and other social supports. Homicide rates in the U.S. have consistently ranged between three and twenty times those of other industrialized countries.

It is particularly notable that Canada’s murder rate is far below that of the U.S. (running around a fourth of our levels). For homicides committed by youth, the U.S. rate has been as much as ten times the Canadian levels. Yet Canadians watch American television, log onto American websites, read American publications, share our culture. There is also widespread gun ownership in Canada.

What most differentiates us is the fact that Canadians have guaranteed health care and less social insecurity.

The U.S. is more economically stratified than any other advanced country. Its levels of income inequality and relative poverty are triple those of other wealthy nations. Scholars tell us that developed countries having relatively low levels of income inequality have low crime rates; in countries where one segment of the population has great wealth while another segment is in extreme poverty, crime rates are high.

As a 2015 article in The Week noted, the differences in approach to social welfare are ideologically based.

Conservatives often want to tie safety net programs to having a job, so that people aren’t tempted by handouts to hold off working. There are work requirements for food stamps. More heavy requirements were added to traditional welfare in the late 1990s. And now Republicans are suggesting requirements for Medicaid as well. This makes little sense. The much more generous European systems have higher labor force participation, and the U.S. economy has done progressively worse over the last three decades at actually creating enough jobs for everyone to have.

Add it all up, and it’s not surprising that most other advanced Western countries have much lower poverty rates than America.

Recent research has tied declining rates of marriage to poverty, and has confirmed that “failing schools” are typically those trying to educate children from impoverished homes—that growing up in poverty creates identifiable physical and emotional impediments to learning.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that a strong social safety net reduces crime and other social dysfunctions that cost Americans significant tax dollars—and that the availability of such social supports does not discourage workforce participation.

Evidence, however, is no match for rigid ideology. Americans should expect a full-court effort to gut Social Security and Medicare by zealots impervious to evidence.

When Evidence Doesn’t Matter

Political Animal recently reported on negative reactions from rightwing bloggers to a statement made by President Obama.

Now, granted, reporting the fact that rightwing activists would criticize this President falls under the “sun rose yesterday” category of news, but this reaction was unusually revealing, given the point the President was making: that evidence should trump theory.

Here’s Obama’s entire paragraph, so that the context is clear:

I guess to make a broader point, so often in the past there’s been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist. And especially in the Americas, that’s been a big debate, right? Oh, you know, you’re a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you’re some crazy communist that’s going to take away everybody’s property. And I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don’t have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory — you should just decide what works.

The point being made in the rest of the article is the fairly obvious one (obvious, at least, to folks who follow politics in the real world)–the reactionaries who currently control the GOP are obsessed with ideology to such an extent that when reality doesn’t confirm their beliefs, they opt to retain the beliefs rather than acknowledge the reality. Thus

A simple statement from the President that economies should simply pick solutions that work, somehow becomes a fundamental betrayal.

We see this reaction everywhere. The article refers to Kansas and Louisiana, both of which are in a world of hurt after several years of GOP orthodoxy, and the very different experience of blue states like California. I’ve previously compared Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, where Koch brothers ideology reins, to Mark Dayton’s Minnesota, where the economy is booming despite the imposition of new and higher tax rates and increased public investment in education.

In a functional political ecosystem that would be a cause for reckoning and introspection, but no acknowledgement of failure has been forthcoming from the GOP. Instead its candidates are doubling down on more of the same. For them, conservative orthodoxy cannot fail; it can only be failed.

In the alternate reality built by committed ideologues, changing one’s position because the evidence has demonstrated that the position is in error makes one a “flip flopper.” In the real world, amassing evidence of what works and what doesn’t is called “research,” and successful humans do it in order to bring our beliefs into conformity with facts that can be empirically demonstrated. (In the academy, we call that process “learning.”)

A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. By that definition, the GOP has gone insane.