Monday, September 25, 2017

Science Standards in New Mexico

Sent this to the Public Education Dept. Their email address is in this New Mexican editorial on that subject.

To: Jamie Gonzales, Policy Division, New Mexico Public Education Department
RE: Proposed revisions of New Mexico Science Standards

Dear Mr. Gonzales

I am writing to you as a career professional scientist, not as a K-12 educator.My background includes a Ph.D. in geosciences from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where I studied the early evolution of the earth's continental crust. From there I went on to an appointment on the graduate faculty in geosciences at the University of Hawaii's School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, where I researched topics in igneous petrology and environmental geochemistry. Finally, I landed at Los Alamos National Laboratory's Chemistry Division where I applied geochemical principles to nuclear forensic analysis. My comments here represent my opinions alone.

I found some aspects of the proposed New Mexico Stem standards laudable insofar as they include a lot of opportunities for teachers to teach the scientific method, which is critical to understanding how we arrive at an understanding of scientific "facts". Whether it be climate change or the age of the earth or any other natural phenomenon, the critical piece we need to teach young people is the scientific process by which we collect observations and make sound interpretations, i.e., the scientific method. Indeed, I am sometimes loath to say scientific "facts" because science is the method of weeding out what we know from what we think we know and from what we don't know and its amazing the caveats we put on what we "know". Robert Pirsig said it best in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you actually don't know".

Most important to this discussion is having excellent teachers. I was very lucky as a high school student to have an Earth Science teacher with a master's degree in Geology. He was such a good teacher that he won the New York State Academy of Sciences award for excellence in high school science teaching. Mr. Milton Babcock was a master of creating simple but challenging scientific problems out of everyday events. One I still remember was his creation of a week long "puddle watch" experiment where we made, and wrote down carefully, quantitative measurements on the evolution of rain puddles and mud cracks after a spring storm. Indeed, part of the test of a good teacher is deciding the appropriate level of how to teach the scientific method.

What disturbs me about the draft standards is where it appears we are either watering down or evading the teaching of scientific knowledge that some may find uncomfortable. I will give some brief examples and stop there.

]4-ESS1-1 NM: asks students to identify "possible" explanations offered by rock formations and fossils. What we really want are plausible, scientifically justifiable explanations based on scientific methodology. 2. MS-ESS1-4. Many have complained about eliminating the age of the earth. MS-ESS1-4 asked students to use rock strata to organize earth history but eliminated the actual age of the earth from the topic. Actually, one cannot use rock strata to determine the absolute age of the earth, so taking out the reference to 4.6 billion years is appropriate for that topic as strata give us relative time scales. But somewhere in the curriculum students must think about the actual age of the earth and how geologic ages are unambiguously determined. This is a critical oversight. Our understanding of the age of the earth evolved as we learned more about the chemistry and physics of atoms, nuclear processes (in both stars and atoms), and chemical systems. We know that lacking modern instrumentation, Bishop Usher calculated the age of the earth from Biblical genealogy. Later on, scientists estimated its minimum age from indirect means including how long it would take to salt the oceans (Joly) or how long it would take to cool the earth from a molten mass (Lord Kelvin). There were other estimates as well; I once taught an advanced Geo 101 section on how our knowledge of the age of the earth evolved. It was not until the development of radioactive dating in the mid twentieth century that we obtained an age that was based on absolute chronological measurements rather than indirect inference. Even that work, by Caltech Professor Clair Patterson, was difficult. Geochronology, by the way, is my background. The "evolution" of our understanding of the Earth's age is great story of science as it progresses.

One of the early criticisms of a young age for the Earth was that it did not allow adequate time for evolution, as pointed out by Lyell. Evolution seems another topic with which the PED is uncomfortable but is a critical scientific paradigm that cannot be avoided, regardless of who is queasy. Indeed, biological evolution is interwound with the earth's geochemical evolution, such as oxygenation of the atmosphere, and both topics must be taught, to some degree of understanding, if students are to understand how their world got to where it is today and where it might be in the future.

Finally, it is inappropriate to talk about climate fluctuation and gloss over climate change. Both are important processes that have acted over the age of the earth. Indeed, one of the biggest struggles we have in predicting whether forward models of climate change are accurate involves understanding decade to century long climate fluctuations so as to confidently understand long term trends. But the bottom line is that by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in vast amounts, humans are now, without a doubt, an agent of climate change. Getting students to understand that dynamic is critical to their being able to make value judgements on both scientific and political issues. Let's not duck the problem.

My recommendation is to send this draft of the standards out to a knowledgeable committee of scientists and science teachers for revision. We cannot afford to get this wrong and from my read of not only the standards but this morning's Albuquerque Journal, a lot of New Mexicans think this draft needs work.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mothers Demand Action, Live at Los Alamos Voices


Well, I attended, and the event was quite civilized in spite of the worry that if some of us "black hats" attended things would get rowdy. Frankly, the most animated comments didn't come from the gun nuts in the audience and while comments were not always accurate reflections of facts, were always within the bounds of civilized discourse. I was a little uneasy when a lady glowered at me and told me that her right to be safe and secure in her home was violated by the fact that some of us own guns.  Such all or nothing scenerios don't leave much room for cooperation.

LA Monitor reporter Tris DeRoma ran into me at the end and asked me what I thought. I told him I could have spent fifteen minutes, had I been one of the presenters, trying to separate gross generalizations, inaccuracies, and assumptions from what we know is defensible observation. As it was, I felt rather uncomfortable offering as many comments as I did as it was not my show.

The topic is quite obviously polarized, even in this safe community, where one is far more likely to be hit by a car than be shot. The comment from the lady in paragraph 1 goes to the well-studied phenomena of how people rank real vs. perceived risks. To some degree, nothing was about to change that polarized state. I suggested to Moms that rather than enduring yet another faceplant in the Legislature (which is what happened to HB 50, the Everytown-sponsored background check bill in its original form), folks try to pare down their demands to those which would not only cover the critical issue (see below) but get at least some acceptance from Those Other Guys (who those "other guys" are depends on which side of the fence you are on) rather than what one side or the other demands.

Taryn Nix, who I believe is Stephanie Garcia-Richard's political advisor, was a breath of fresh air trying to keep the discussion centered, reminding the crowd that what is politically reasonable is more relevant than what the various purists desire. That was good to hear; people forget that laws are about political sausage being made. But actually, the New Mexico Constitution  (including this interpretation) is even stronger on gun rights than the US Second Amendment and that is probably worth reflecting on as the discussion moves forward.

Looks like Voices will invite New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence to speak in a few months. Stay tuned. For better or worse, I'll probably be back there, next time as a speaker as I am a NMTPGV member as well as an LA-SC member. Which explains some of my bipolar ideas on this topic.


Moms Demand Action, a gun control group supported by New York City billionaire Michael Bloomberg, will be in town this Monday speaking at the Unitarian Church for the group Los Alamos Voices. There is an article about that here by Tris DeRoma in the Monitor. I was quoted in that article.

I'm actually a member of the grassroots group New Mexicans To Prevent Gun Violence, as well as a member of the Los Alamos Sportsman's Club. Note that I don't claim to speak for either organization, only for myself. Lord knows that on most topics even the family dog growls at me in disapproval, say nothing of the opinions of other people.  I come down sort of in no-man's land between the classic gun control and gun rights communities. Of course there is a danger in hanging out in no-man's land as you can get both friendly and unfriendly fire from both sides. But rather than expound here on my views of gun laws and gun rights, anyone that curious can peruse this blog for the many posts on that subject. The Blog Archive is on the right or you can do a search on "guns" in that little search box in the upper left hand corner of the blog page.

Although I welcome Moms to town, its not with flowers and open arms but with the hope that dialog between concerned parties can cure many ills. My principle beefs with Moms/Everytown are that they tend to treat gun owners as if we constantly need more "controls" on us, and that they tend to decide what they want to do at fifty thousand feet and as the joke goes, fly in and act like seagull managers. Last year they showed up for the legislative session after writing checks to key legislators (including our own 43rd District rep), pushed an identical background check bill here as well as in Maine and Nevada, and now are back to plan a future strategy. Their bill died in committee here, was defeated in Maine, and barely passed with 50.1 percent of the vote in Nevada, primarily on the basis of votes from urban Clark County (ie. Las Vegas, where the robbers one has to fear are of the one-armed variety in casinos).

I worked on that bill to try to craft something that would focus on the real problem, i.e., selling a gun to an unknown private party who could be anything from a nice guy in search of a deal to a grandmother murderer planning on taking out the local fire department. The bottom line should not be to micromanage all gun owners, few of whom get on the wrong side of the law, but to prevent a transfer to a bad guy like mass shooter William Spengler Jr, who obtained his guns by virtue of a naive neighbor who made straw purchases for him (hence the sometimes over-hyped background check system did not stop him). The takeaway message is that if you cannot vouch for someone from strong personal knowledge, get a background check. That should be the ethical as well as legal bottom line for every gun owner.

I had hoped to see a bill that would get at least some GOP and gun owner support. The bill's wording only changed in the waning hours of the legislature when the Everytown version was about to be taken off of life support, and too late to get something more reasonable out of committee.  Actually, the final form of the bill was near identical to a version I emailed Rep. Garcia-Richards although I don't know who actually crafted the version she introduced as the substitute bill during that last week push. The take home message should be to talk to people outside one's own bubble as well as to local sympathetic grassroots groups. Not only talk to, but listen to.

We have gun violence problems in New Mexico but one cannot treat the whole state like a black box. Anyone with a local news subscription or who researches violence knows the violence problems are localized and the guns are among the destructive tools, not the cause, of troubled communities such as found in parts of Albuquerque. It would take a historian to discover the last murder in Los Alamos.

State laws should be tuned to local needs and local solutions, not what a national gun control group wants to push for its own narrow interests. NMTPGV pushed a domestic violence restraining order bill last year that the legislature actually passed but that Gov. Martinez vetoed. That bill had broad support from family violence prevention specialists and prosecutors. I wish Moms would have pushed hard on that bill rather than pissing off gun owners and the GOP with their own poorly aimed efforts. Similarly, a bill that would provid tax credits for gun safes and for increased security at gun shops, along with carefully considered security requirements for safe gun storage, would perhaps be useful in reducing the burglary of guns and their diversion to crime. Not to mention, to help reduce the risks of kids blowing their own or each other's heads off. That said, as we know from Clovis, a gun safe only works if it is kept locked and access is restricted to responsible adults. It doesn't take many unlocked safes, or adults too generous with the combination to cause a Clovis or Spokane, which is why my fellow GVP gun guy Mike Weisser is sour on promoting gun safes.

Bottom line? I welcome Moms to Los Alamos in the hope that some dialog with the local community will make a positive difference and reduce the wrongful use of firearms. The last thing we need is a continued standoff between gun control and gun rights advocates while the shootings go on.And as Jimi Hendrix sings below, this has been going on for a long time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

William F. Buckeley vs. James Baldwin, 1965

Posting this here so I don't forget to watch it. And thanks to Bari Weiss in the New York Times for including this video in her article about Ben Shapiro visiting Berkeley.

Friday, September 1, 2017

How would a points-based immigration system (RAISE) predict the future?

I sent this to the Daily Post but has not appeared. At any rate.


In her Daily Post letter attacking a county proclamation supporting immigrants, Lisa Shin states that "...The RAISE Act would establish a skills-based points system and place a responsible limit on permanent residency for refugees..."

What I would be curious to know is how such a system would predict the future. For example, my grandfather and grandmother came over from Italy with few high level skills. Perhaps their most important skill was getting on the boat and then surviving Ellis Island. They raised five kids, one of whom was my mom. I recall, when staying with my grandmother as a kid, her commenting while canning the produce from my step-grandfather's orchard and garden,"grandpa and I were in the iron and steel business: I would iron and he would steal". She taught herself English (and Polish, since it was a mixed immigrant neighborhood) and had a wonderful sense of self-depreciating humor.

Grandpa died young in a motorcycle accident, leaving grandma to raise the brood. Their five kids grew up to be two WW II veterans, one of whom was an Army Corps of Engineers technocrat who worked on the Mount Morris Dam in Western NY after returning from the Southeast Asian Theatre. One worked on rockets as an electrical technician down at White Sands Proving Ground near Alamogordo after returning from battles in France and Germany. Younger brothers Joe and Al became well known musicians in New Orleans and Florida; Joe was one of the pioneers of be-bop. My mom was a legal secretary, singer, and social worker in Buffalo.

As far as my step-grandfather Mike, another Italian-American immigrant who worked in an auto plant and annually raised an acre of produce? His nephews (his brothers immigrated with him) became MD's.

I have one brother, a high tech guru, who was invited to be on President Obama's IRS Oversight Board and another who is a white collar supervisor with the Erie County Water Authority.

So it seems to me that what my grandparents may have lacked was opportunity in the old country, rather than innate talent, based on their kid's success. So unless these RAISE Act programs can somehow predict the future, I would wager that had such programs been functioning in the early 20th Century, we might have been short several WWII veterans, some musicians, a raft of doctors, and other variously-talented riff-raff. Just from my family alone. As far as "Making America Great Again" I think my barely-educated grandparents, if they are looking down at their offspring, have nothing for which to apologize.

Admittedly, its hard to predict if someone will be a success or a bust once they are here in the US, but suggesting RAISE will help rather than hurt the nation is speculation at best and arrogance at worst.

Khal Spencer, Ph.D.
Trying to keep up my Italian-American family's tradition of not being a slouch.