Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Matter of Due Process? Chicago Public Schools Promotion Policies at Academic Centers

I find myself involved in a bit of a policy dispute with the Chicago Public Schools.
It involves how decisions are made whether an 8th grade student is promoted to 9th grade. (Yes, the issue is personal, in a way, but it also holds some wider professional interest for me.)

CPS has two policies related to promotion: one at the elementary school level, and one at the high school level.

The Elementary School Promotion Policy (605.2) applies to promotion at the "benchmark" moments at the end of 3rd, 6th, and 8th grades. In the past, ISAT scores and grades were used in these decisions. But this year, with the ISAT having been abandoned, a revised version of the policy (for the current academic year) was created that uses the NWEA (otherwise known as "MAP") scores.  The revised policy is fairly intricate. Without going into the details, you can see its intricacy just by glancing at this screenshot:

Students are divided into "achievement levels" based on their NWEA percentiles, and then promotion (and the need for summer school) are determined from grades. NWEA percentiles "in both reading AND math at or above the 24 percentile"  and "passing grades for reading and math" are necessary for the top achievement level, which indicates promotion without summer school (and in 8th grade, participation in the graduation ceremony). Elsewhere in CPS policies, "passing" is defined as a "D average or higher."

All well and good.

The High School Promotion Policy (605.1) is different. It doesn't rely on the NWEA scores, but instead relies on number of credits and number of "passing" scores in the "core courses" (English, Math, Science, and Social Studies). For promotion from 9th to 10th grades, for example, a student has to complete the year with at least 5 units of credit, and must pass at least three of their core courses (during both semesters).

Again, all well and good.

The interesting situation (and the one that I'm now wrestling with) is in the so-called "Academic Centers," which are selective enrollment schools that serve 7th and 8th grade students and are located in high schools. In the academic centers, 7th and 8th grade students (who are admitted based on their scores on an entrance exam) take high school classes. According to the larger Elementary Promotion Policy (605.2) that is still in effect (except for the use of the ISAT),
"Eighth grade students attending an Academic Center, as described in the Board’s Magnet Schools and Programs Policy, are enrolled in a high school and taking high school level courses and therefore are not subject to the requirements of this policy."
(I don't know what "the Board's Magnet Schools and Programs Policy" refers to, except maybe the admissions policy, 602.2, which doesn't mention "promotion.")

So, what policy applies to the 8th graders in the academic centers? Not the Elementary School Promotion Policy, clearly. Then the High School Promotion Policy? That's not clear, because the high school promotion policy doesn't actually mention students in the academic centers. Nor does it deal with 8th graders. Specifically, the policy doesn't spell out how many courses need to be passed, at what level, or how many high school credits are needed for promotion from 8th to 9th grades.

So what's the applicable policy?

Well, I've inquired about this. The answer I got from a principal of a high school that contains an academic center is somewhat surprising. He refers to another policy (605.5), which is "Awarding High School Credit and Placement for High School Level Courses Taken by Elementary Grade Students." Interestingly, this policy also does not mention "promotion."
However, according to the principal, this policy on awarding high school credit provides the criteria to determine whether an academic center student is promoted from 8th to 9th grade.

UPDATE 4-30-15: I have been in contact with someone in CPS's central office and she tells me that the principal is actually wrong, and said that someone will be in touch with him to correct his interpretation.

UPDATE 2, 4-30-15: This isn't over.  The principal just sent me an email defending higher promotion standards for academic center students because they are gifted. (!)

What's somewhat troubling about this is that the standard is higher than it is for promotion in either the elementary promotion policy or the high school promotion policy. A "C average or better" is used to determine if elementary students (including academic center students, apparently) have "passed" their high school classes. My guess is that this is intended to "raise the bar" for elementary students getting high school credit: if they can't get a "C" or better in a high school class, well, then, they shouldn't get credit but should have to wait until high school to get that credit.(I suppose this makes sense?)

So according to this principal, an 8th grade student in an academic center must get at least a "C" average in his "English and math" courses in order to be promoted to the 9th grade. Keep in mind that the English and math courses that an 8th grade academic center student is taking are high school courses.

So, according to this principal, the standard for an 8th grade student at an academic center to be promoted to the 9th grade is significantly higher than for a regular 8th grade student (i.e. one not at an academic center) to be promoted to the 9th grade. Let me spell this out. According to this principal's interpretation:
  • An 8th grade student at a regular CPS elementary school is promoted to the 9th grade if his NWEA percentiles in reading and math are at or above 24 and if his grades in his 8th grade reading and math courses are passing (i.e. "D" average).
  • An 8th grade student at an academic center is promoted to the 9th grade if his grades in his 9th grade reading and math courses are a "C" average or above.

In other words, it is easier for an 8th grade student at a regular elementary school to get into 9th grade than it is for an 8th grade student at an academic center to get into 9th grade. WHAT?!?!

In the specific case that concerns me, if the student had stayed in his regular elementary school, he would have to get "D" averages or better in his 8th grade reading and math classes (and get above a certain score on the NWEA) in order to be admitted into 9th grade at his neighborhood high school.

But because he scored high enough on the academic center selective enrollment exam in 6th grade, he needs to get "C" averages or better in his 9th grade reading and math classes to get admitted into 9th grade at the very same neighborhood high school. And his scores on the NWEA are not relevant to the decision.

Is it just me, or does this raise due process issues?

(Comments welcome.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

On Learning A New Metaphor for Learning

This past week, I attended the American Educational Research Association annual meeting here in Chicago. More than 12000 educational researchers filled hotel meeting rooms all over downtown with discourse about education in all its flavors.

From what I could see, almost all of them had a rewarding and enjoyable time, personally and professionally.

Once, a long time ago, a longtime colleague/friend of mine, David Hansen (who is now director of the philosophy of education at Teachers College, Columbia University) told me that you can't expect a great deal out of a conference like AERA.

This is Philip Jackson and some of his students. David Hansen in the back left.

At this particular conference, there were over 18000 papers and presentations. A lot of sessions were sequences of research reports "delivered" (using Powerpoint of course) by relatively young researchers who are trying to prove themselves to get jobs and tenure, which often means doing work with relatively simple concepts. These sessions are sometimes simply boring.

But one great thing about AERA--because it is so big--that there are also a lot sessions with reflective, often brilliant, knowledgeable scholars from many fields of research interacting with each other in stimulating ways.

David told me if you only get one valuable thing from a session, or from a day of sessions, or from a whole conference, you should be happy.

I have learned to modify this principle: if you get just one valuable thing out of BEING AT the conference, be happy with that.The good stuff doesn't always come out of official sessions.

For me, the highlight of AERA is the parties and receptions that happen at Special Interest Group business meetings and also after hours. I love these social events because they provide a time to catch up with people I've known for years and also to meet some new and interesting people. Catching up with especially the close personal friends involved in educational research once a year over an over-priced glass of wine or good food is what keeps many of us in this business coming back to these conferences for more.

Sometimes I see close and brilliant personal friends only once a year at a conference.

For example, I had Dim Sum on Sunday with Martha Wagner Alibali, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Martha and I went to graduate school together a long time ago, and are the best of friends. Dim Sum was also an opportunity to introduce a my much newer friend, Katariina Holma, a critical thinking theorist at the University of Helsinki, to Martha. Needless to say, it was a great conversation. Both women are brilliant, extremely well-respected in their own fields, and just a lot of fun.

Katariina, me, Martha, after Delicious Dim Sum.
Martha is a very special friend. I tell anyone who will listen that I met almost all of my friends through Martha, and it's true. One great example is Mitchell Nathan, a professor of educational psychology at Madison with whom Martha often collaborates. Mitch and I have become great friends, too, over the years. Here we are (also Sunday) having the best Buffalo Shrimp I've ever had.

Shaw's Crab House, Mitch, Shrimp, Craig

Mitch is an electrical engineer who became a learning scientist. He is brilliant and generative. He thinks about learning in very interesting ways, using very interesting concepts and data, across multiple domains.

I often ask the people I see at conferences what questions or topics or activities are interesting them right now. This is often a lead in to talking about some hugely important and interesting stuff.

Mitch's answer this time came completely out of the blue. He offered a metaphor for thinking about the relationship between thought and action, one that I had never considered. In the couple of days since our conversation the metaphor has found its way into the center of my thinking.

The metaphor is really simple yet needs some explaining, but it connects immediately and directly to what I have been thinking about lately, which is the function of systems in complex situations. It also fits nicely into Martha's work on gesture and cognition (which is partly why the two collaborate. Surprisingly, it also connects immediately and directly to what Katariina has been thinking about related to the emotional aspects of critical thinking. (Katariina and one of Mitch's long-time friends, Michael J. Jacobson, a brilliant educational technology professor from the University of Sydney, joined us later at dinner.)

Katariina and Michael
The interesting way the metaphor worked its way so quickly and deeply into the different foci of our respective works was what has made me so excited about this metaphor.

So let me now reveal it and explain the metaphor.

The metaphor is "transductive systems," or just "transduction."

The word "transduction" is pretty complex. (See

A "transducer" is a a device that transforms one type of information or energy into another, but in a way that the same device can transform in BOTH directions (

Here's how Mitch explained it to me. He started with a simple example.

The simplest example is a microphone and a speaker. Both convert energy between sound energy and electrical energy.

These two transducers are STRUCTURED the same way. In fact, you can use a microphone as a speaker and vice versa.

Another example is an LED. Put electrical energy through it and light energy comes out; put LIGHT energy on it and electrical energy comes out. (I didn't know that LEDs are the same a photovoltaic devices (solar cells). Mitch, the electrical engineer, does!)

A third example is the generator in a car. It converts kinetic (motion) energy into electrical energy. If you reverse the direction of the energy flow, a generator is a motor.

So by now the metaphor should be at least somewhat clear:
  • Electrical/acoustic energy is transduced by microphones/speakers
  • Electrical/light energy is transduced by LEDs/photovoltaics
  • Electrical/kinetic energy is transduced by motors/generators
 In each case, the devices on the right are the same, structurally.

Now, the really INTERESTING part (from my standpoint) is how this metaphor can be transDUCED into working in a sphere such as the relationship between cognition and action (which is Mitch's issue), emotion and critical thinking (Katariina's issue) or between universities and entrepreneurship (something Michael has been thinking about) or the interaction between a living system and its environment.

So to repeat what I just did above with the bullet points:
  • The relationship between cognition and action/gesture is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between emotion and critical thinking is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between universities and entrepreneurs is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between a living system and its environment is transduced by ...
  • The relationship between teaching and learning is transduced by ...
Now, pay attention to the differences in these two sets of bullet points. The first one is a set of physical devices that transduce energy or signals. The second is a set of complex relationships that educational researchers are working on figuring out. These concepts are sometimes treated in isolation from their counterpart, which treats complex reality too simplistically. The latter group also lack "devices" that transduce. The transduction might be done by very complex systems that have to be modeled and figured out.

We need to rethinking some of our dualistic conceptions about how learning and other parts of nature work. Thinking about transduction as both a real transformation and also a metaphor of interaction is, to my mind, extremely generative. You can thank Mitchell Nathan for this the next time you see him at AERA.

Oh, and the conversation didn't stop there! It generated new ideas for HOURS.

Translating ourselves across the Chicago Cartesian grid for more transductive and transformational conversations.
(Language itself is transductive.) But I can't talk about that right now. I have to transPORT myself home so you'll just have to wait for the next part of this conversation.

Monday, February 16, 2015

"Remember when they told us the Moon was made of cheese?"

In a recent discussion on Facebook, my friend Doug wrote:
recall that we were told that Katrina, the ten following years, would produce multiple category 5 storms. In fact, storms of that size would become the norm. Has anything even come close?
When I read this, I wanted to ask: "You were told this by whom, Doug?" And I imagined his answer: "Them. The so-called 'climate scientists'."


(Warning: gratuitous video next!)

The implication of a statement in the form "Recall when we were told..." or "Remember when they told us...") is that they are untrustworthy, because they have said things-or predicted things--that haven't come to pass. They have lied to us; misled us; caused us to have unrealistic expectations.

They were wrong before, so we can't trust anything they say!

Indeed, what they said was, not only unreliable, but laughable!

You see this kind of statement all over the Internet.

Let me give some many examples.
In the following, click on the ? if you want to see the source of the example. The links that aren't in the ? are mine; follow them to learn more about the issue. Note that I've corrected some spelling and and added the word "that" in most of the following. If you wish, you can skip most of these examples.
Examples of:

"Remember when they told us...

...not to speak to strangers on the Internet?"

...that you can dream high and you can reach it if you wanted to?"

...that we would use nothing but cursive in high school?" high school to go to college for programming because the demand was so high?"

...that you couldn't subtract past zero?" (This example is interesting; I actually think that teachers often lie to their students as part of instruction.)

...that resumes should not be longer than one page?"

...that CEOs would be blogging every day, and customers would be so enthralled with this level of authenticity that they would open their wallets in approval?"

...that MIDI music downloads wouldn’t work on Q-Link  because of their size?"

...that everything was already in place at the ports in preparedness for the ebola virus?" (This illustrates that often the writer of the "Remember when they told us...?" question is writing from a particular time and place.)
that everything was already in place at the ports in preparedness for the ebola virus - See more at:

...that we were all gonna die from swine flu?"

...that we didn't have enough flu vaccine?"

...that HIV was not a serious threat?"

...that diseases like polio and measles were 'eradicated'?"

...there would be very very few of the rare sunsthat had planets around them?"

...that there were 9 then 8 then kinda 9 but really 8 planets in our solar system?"

...that we couldn't confront a burglar?"

...that having the Duke of Edinburgh Award on our CV would make us super employable?"

...that this information [about personal income collected in the census] would be used by the Federal government to determine how money will be apportioned in the future?"

...when they told us right after nine eleven that the air was safe to breathe?"

...that the Ground Zero Victory Mosque was not so much a mosque as a 'community center'?"

...that underneath the [World Trade Center] buildings was molten liquid metal flowing like a river...part of the reason it was impossible to find the black box?"

...that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?"

...that Iraq's oil revenues would pay for this "liberation" and not American taxpayer money?"

...that this combined recession and period of recovery would last decade or more?"

...that gas would cost less [after the Iraq war]?"

...that the army had been ambushed and a female, Jessica Lynch, had been captured?"

...that 87987235498673954 Iraqis were killed during the war while attempting to fix flat tyres?"

...that Obama was smart and Sarah Palin was dumb?"

...that the Obama administration would improve relations in the world after Bush screwed them up so bad?"

...that  Obama was make the world love us?"

...that that the world would love and respect us again just as soon as Bush was gone?"

...that if TARP wasn’t passed, the country would fall into a recession?" pass the bailout and everything will be fine, remember when they told us to pass the debt ceiling and everything will be fine?"

...that the old [health-care] plans were worse ['sub-par']?" necessary it was that 'we provide the 40-45 million uninsured' with a health policy and that it would lower everybody’s health insurance cost $2500 a year?"

...that Obamacare would improve selection?"

...that only “the wealthy” would be paying more out of pocket during The Big Barry Era of Enlightenment and Prosperity™?"

...that Barry was gone lose to Mitt Romney after that lying ass debate?"

...that we were doomed because Democrats were going to resurrect it [the Fairness Doctrine] when they took power?"

...that we should not expect to enlarge the nominal bike lanes at the expense of car lanes?" bad composite implant materials were, or adjustable loop fixation, or all suture anchors?"

...that epoxy grout was the way to go for our bathroom and that we would never have to regrout if we went with epoxy grout?"

...the world will end in 6/6/2006?"

...the the world was going to end on December 21, 2012?"

...that autism was because of emotionally cold and lazy mothers?"

...that cholesterol was bad - killer bad?"

...that margarine was better for us than butter?"

...that saccharine caused cancer and it was banned?"

...that butter, red meat, saturated fats, eggs and salt would kill us?"

...that coffee was bad?"

...that that CDs wouldn’t scratch?"

...when they told us not to sit near the TV?" the early 90's that all these kids playing with video games were going to be doctors and doing surgery with this technology?"

...that 'low energy' light bulbs would mean lower Electric Bills?"

...that computers would make our life easier, our work weeks shorter, utopia?" and here

...that the Internet would expand freedom?"

...that the future was in the cloud?"

...that that online learning would make education available cheaply to everyone?"

...when they told us to put the computer in the family room so you can monitor your child's Internet usage?"

...that the new 2400 baud modems were as fast as they would ever get on copper phone lines?"

...that you couldn't get more than 56K down a copper wire?"

...that 'flat' panels were revolutionary?"

...that plant automation would make everyone's life easier; more free time, better quality of live, etc.?"

...that our interest rates were going to go down when the Fed last lowered the prime?"
ag would never come back?”

...that ag[riculture] would never come back?

...that we would not have enough oxygen because of logging in the amazon?"

...that social security numbers would never be used for purposes of personal identification?"

...that they want to 'save social security' and were determined not to siphon off trust fund surpluses?"
that social security numbers would never be used for purposes of personal identification? - See more at:

...that marijuana would make us crazy?"

...that if Barbie was real she’d just topple over because her proportions are so out of whack?"

...if Proposition 13 passed they would have to shut down the police departments, and schools, and fire stations etc. etc?"

...that the SRPL [Sunrise Powerlink] would mean lower rates?"

...what a good thing NAFTA was supposed to be and how it would keep the illegals in Mexico?"

...that Beyonce is pregnant with another child?"

...that fracking (or here) would decrease our dependence on foreign energy?"

...that if [the California lottery] passed it would all go to our schools and fix them?"and here

...that 'other women will be drawn to the church as they see how happy and different the mormon women are'?"

...that we would lose a million jobs rather than gain a million jobs?"

...that nicotine was not addictive?"

...that coconut milk products were bad? And avocados?"
coconut milk/ products were bad? And avocados?

...that thalidomide is as safe as milk for pregnant women?" only use ten percent of your brain?

...that we had to switch (or here) from paper bags to plastic to 'save the trees'?"

...that Compact Fluorescent Lites (CFLs) would last longer but don't?"

...that the future would be ours?"

...that shutting down the government was a bad thing?"

...that we were about to be overrun by emerging cicadas?"

...that we would all freeze from global cooling?" (and here)

...that the next ice age was just around the corner?" (warning: B.S. ahead!)

...that it was our aerosol cans poking holes in the ozone that were causing the ice age?" (and here)

...that kids wouldn’t know even what snow was?" (This is a notorious example  of "Remember when they told us...?" It is used by many climate bloggers skeptics deniers!)

...that 2006 would be the worst hurricane season ever?"

(Um, it is getting gradually worse when you combine natural variations and anthropogenic effects.)

...that it [hurricane activity] would only get worse?"

(Um, it is.)

...that CO2 is causing global warming?

(Um, it does.)

And, my absolute favorite:

...that the moon was made of cheese? 

Who "told us" that the moon is made of cheese? Who are they?

When writers ask the "remember when they told us...?" question, they typically are making an explicit argument about what is true.  But these arguments are also about power, because who gets to define what's true is pretty much equivalent to who has the power.

The power argument is often implicit. That is, the reference to who has the power is often oblique.
(This is an example of why we need to teach our kids how to think critically: to examine conscientiously why certain people have certain beliefs.)
What happens when people aren't conscious of what they believe?

Look at what "Guest DERR UFO" wrote:
Remember when they told us 4 or 5 years ago the web was gonna run outta space? haha wow...never trust predictions by experts.Trust me.
Why should we trust DERR UFO?

Derr is saying that he's more reliable than "experts."What an amazing thing to say: "Never trust predictions by experts. Trust me."

Maybe he never told us anything that is not true. Maybe he never predicted something that might become true.

Or maybe he's just frontin'

What does the person who asks "Remember when they told us...?" mean by asking this question?

Often, the answer to the question is left hanging, as if the implication is obvious. (This is what Doug did in the Facebook conversation referred to above. My father, with whom I've been debating climate change for years, responded "Yes. Thanks Doug." My Dad remembers when "they" told us there would be more category 5 storms.

I "remember" it, too.

But what's the implication of our remembrance?

Looking at the prior conversation, my Dad had written:
"Climatologists can’t even answer most questions we have about the weather we are having from year to year."
Doug's "remember when...?" was intended to validate my Dad's claim: it served as an example of climatologist's predictions being wrong. (

Of course, Doug and my Dad "remember" that category 5 storms were supposed to get more frequent, but they forget that most climatologists predict that this won't be visible in the trends until late in the 21st century.

Sometimes a writer tells us explicitly what they mean. Sam, for example is responding to Hector's claim about a miracle:
Remember when they told us that if you had enough faith, God would move the mountain. So of course I went to the window, looked at the mountain and said, “Move the mountain.” It’s still there. 
Sam is indicating his skepticism about the miracle proclaimed by Hector by showing an example where Sam believes he was misled about his powers to move mountains.

Sometimes writers will admit that they don't actually remember when they said whatever they said:
"I mean, I don't specifically remember that declaration," as Anne wrote after she asked, "Remember when they told us paper was dead?" She goes on, "but I do remember e-cards being pushed on us for a while. And now stationary's getting an even bigger comeback."
This shows that often (maybe most of the time), the question is rhetorical. It's not about a specific event of someone saying something, but about the beliefs shared by a particular set of people or set of claims. "

They" seemed to believe this at that time,

This proves that "they" can't be trusted.
(Or, perhaps it's we who can't be trusted. Sometimes we see the "Remember when they told us...?" question is when the writer wants to show how our response to something "they" said back then was wrong, so we should be careful about our response now. This turns the tables on the implication: it's not the experts we shouldn't trust, but our reactions to the experts. An example is here, where the writer asks, "Remember when they told us that one day everyone would own a computer? Oh, how we laughed!" But let's leave this alternative aside for now and go back to the most common use of the question, where it is "they" whose reliability is questioned.)
The rhetorical nature of the question is central to understanding it. Functionally, it is an easy way to establish commonality. It connects the writer with the reader, as if to say
"You and me? We're on the same team because we both remember when they told us, and we both know that they didn't prove it over time."
We tend to believe people whose pronouncements and predictions prove accurate, and those who speak in compatibility with our own experience.

This does ignore the tremendous complexity of some predictions, such as those having to do with climate. If some scientists predict more category 5 storms but some other scientists think their long-term variability will continue to override the effect of global warming, what do we think "they" are telling us? This illustrates the centrality of the selection of "they" and the fact that memory of predictions of any kind, especially climate predictions, is tremendously selective.)

In many of the examples I've collected above, the expertise of  experts (them) is called into question.

Who are they

[more here]

Most often, it's the failures of the predictions that liberal, progressive, establishment, and often academic experts make.

Most of the people who ask "Remember when they told us...?" questions are establishing themselves as anti-establishment, or anti-liberal.

Consider this archetypal example from the blogosphere.
The author, Miguel is discussing a shooting that has occurred in Miami involving an "AK-type" assault rifle. The police chief and mayor have used the occasion to call for a renewal of the federal assault weapons ban, "which according to the zeal you hear them talk about will eliminate crime, reduce male impotence, bring back the housing market and bring Michael Jackson back to life." :-)

But Miguel disputes the effectiveness of an assault weapons ban. According to his research (which happens to come from the Daily Mail), Britain is the most violent country in the world--far more violent that the US. Miguel continues:
You folks remember how tough Brits got on private possession of firearms and how the politicos went to the extreme of de facto criminalizing any type of self defense ... and promising all British Subjects a more peaceful and human living in the kingdom.  Apparently it did not happen and Great Britain has beaten everybody in violent crime.
(A chart is given that shows Great Britain WAY at the top of the world not only in the rate of violent crimes, but in the absolute number, too, even above the USA. Of course, Miguel ignores the fact that the definition of violent crime in the UK and in the USA is quite different, and the fact that the US rate of firearm homicide rates is WAY higher than most other countries in the world, including Great Britain. Guns do in fact kill people.)

But that's not what I'm here to discuss. Miguel's next paragraph contains the rhetorical question:
Damn, it seems the problem was not the guns as the “intelligentsia” was tired of telling us. Remember when they told us to watch “advanced” countries like UK and adopt their ways so we could live a better life? Well, it seems that not only socialized medicine failed but also the concept of the Nanny State defending you against all evil if you gave up the right and tools to defend yourself. By the looks of it, England’s criminals are having a fair thanks to the government-sponsored nationwide Gun Free Zone.
Miguel's "Remember when they told us....?" isn't linked to any specific claim (and I couldn't find a specific instance of them telling us that), but that's not the point. Miguel's target audience, like him, know that the "intelligentsia" have thought that the US should emulate the UK and other "advanced" countries in gun control and other things (like "socialized medicine").

(I'm sometimes amazed at how much the members of like-minded groups know and think the same things as other members of those groups. For example: about climate change.)

Let's summarize:
  • The question "Remember when they told us....?" is used rhetorically.
  • Invoking the question isn't so much an actually request for the reader to remember something but is a way of creating a sense of connection, or shared reality.
  • "They" is intrinsically vague, not referring to any one person in particular, but a vaguely-defined group that isn't the writer and the reader.
  • "They" is also typically some kind of establishment or "uppity" group that thinks it's better than the writer and the reader and therefore worth bringing down
  • The inherent complexity of prediction in a particular domain is ignored or at least downplayed. 
  • There's a kind of "guilt by association" at play here: if "they" lied to us in the past, "they" must be lying to us now.
  • Use of the question (if it's not intended to remind the reader of his or her own gullibility) is typically intended to obfuscate what's actually true.
  • Facts don't really matter. 
  • Generally, only people who are trying to argue a position unsupported by the facts uses this form.
The form of the question is really what follows:
Remember/imagine/imagine-that-you-remember/isn't it-easy-to-imagine-that-you-remember/you-can-probably-convince-yourself-that-you-remember
that X
the case


I don't specifically remember that declaration
paper was dead?

Monday, January 26, 2015

The 'pounding jackboots of progressivism' and climate change

People who know me know that I periodically post on Twitter and Facebook on the topic of climate change. Some find this extremely irritating; most just ignore it.

I post on the topic because I am concerned about it, especially what it is doing to the lives of my children and my children's children, but also because I am especially fascinated with articles and blog posts that purport to show that climate change is a hoax, or is (almost) completely natural, or is nothing to worry about. I find that the techniques of writing and use of statistics in these articles provides a vivid window into how some people think about science, and how other people exploit the ways that people think about science to advance their own viewpoints.This fits into my professional interests in the quality of education, especially STEM education, and in how people think about systems and complexity.

So, on January 19, I posted a link on Facebook to an article on entitled "Global Warming: The Most Dishonest Year on Record." My comment was:
This is how it's done.

Obfuscation. Apparent objectivity. Denial.
Indeed, the article is an exemplar of the genre. It takes a scientific claim supportive of the view that are planet is warming due to human activities (primarily burning fossil fuels) and undermines it--not by arguing against the importance of the claim or whether it is in fact true, but by arguing against something else. Ideally, articles like this argue against several something elses, to give an overall impression that the original claim is suspect.  This particular article picks at the claim--made by some--that 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history. In truth, it's only the hottest year in the 135 years in which humans have kept track of global temperatures. The article goes on to cite "good evidence that the Earth has been warmer than it is today"--although, if you read carefully, you see that this isn't "good evidence" of that at all: it's anecdotal, or it's partial, or it's incomplete.

That is, if you read carefully. While the article claims that "scientists" have generated that "good evidence," the links that are provided are actually to other opinion pieces at pseudoscientific web sites like and The first of these cites "evidence" from a report published by the Science and Public Policy Institute and CO2 Science, both of which are linked to organizations such as ALEC and Frontiers for Freedom). The second interprets a Science article as suggesting that recent warming isn't particularly interesting from an historical perspective, when the article seems to say that "recent oceanic warming is happening at a historically unprecedented rate." The article also links to three posts on that are by the same author as the article, Robert Tracinski. Tracinski is at least consistent in denying that global warming is anything to worry about. (Linking to one's own work is certainly common, but that doesn't excuse it, especially when such links are characterized as providing further evidence.)

This, indeed, is how it's done.

But that's not actually what I want to write about. In response to my Facebook post, I got some comments. Several of those were supportive of my original intent, but some were dismissive. One of those was by my good friend, Harlan. On January 21, he posted a link to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Climate Reporting's Hot Mess." (The article is now behind a paywall.)

Harlan's comment:
 The author raises valid points. 

The author, Holman Jenkins, Jr.--a member of the Journal's editorial board--extended the main point in The Federalist article cited above that news reports about 2014 being the hottest year overstated the case by failing to mention the limitations of the data. The author was especially vexed by the fact that the differences between 2014, 2010, and 2005 are smaller than the margin of error of the measurements.

I don't quite get why it matters much which of those three years was really the hottest. All three of these years are part of a pretty obvious warming trend since 1980:

The column also includes the truly distracting claim that any actual global warming will likely stop when new battery technologies are developed to allow energy sources like wind and the sun to be used more efficiently. (That's an interesting if somewhat speculative claim, but what does THAT have to do with whether human emissions of CO2 are warming the climate and whether global temperature data demonstrate that?)

So, after reading the piece, I commented back to Harlan:
Sigh...upon reading the article, nothing of any interest. "Valid points," Harlan? Only if you are looking for reasons to doubt the scientific consensus. Which readers of the WSJ Business World might.
 Then, after re-reading the article, I posted another comment:
Oh, I revise that. Jenkins correctly points out that "the climate problem, if there’s a problem, likely won’t be solved by some supreme effort of global bureaucratic will." I agree with that!
Harlan, however, clearly didn't like my take on the article. He shot back:
Oh Craig *sigh*. Please. So typical. The pounding jackboots of progressivism will tolerate nor consider any opposing viewpoints. *sigh*.
Knowing Harlan, I figured there was a bit of hyperbole in this comment. So I wrote:
Harlan! I've got to believe you are kidding (at least a bit). "Pounding Jackboots"?
To which he promptly replied:
^well, not you of course. You're more like clacking stilettos.

Honestly, this made me laugh out loud! 

I'm quite taken with this image: clacking stilletos. It certainly conjures up a different image than "pounding jackboots"! Perhaps something like this:

Or this: