Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Rage overload

It has gotten lately that I can't look at the news without repeatedly screaming, "What the hell is wrong with you people?"

And I'm not talking here about people doing bad stuff themselves, although there is certainly enough to scream about in that category, too.  I'm talking about people being willing to cast their votes for idiots, liars, moral degenerates, and people who are out-and-out batshit crazy, so that they can get into government and do bad stuff on a grander scale.

Let's start at the top, with the President of the United States.  Donald Trump has been involved in cringe-worthy stuff on a daily basis since the American electorate chose for some reason to elect a narcissistic compulsive liar to the highest office in the land, but I don't think I've cringed quite so hard as I did yesterday.  Because Trump, who when he was in kindergarten evidently never learned the rule "Don't budge," said, "Move," and shoved his way in front of the Prime Minister of Montenegro so he could be at the front of the photo-op.  And because that wasn't humiliating enough, he gave one of his typical poorly-informed, word-salad speeches at a meeting of NATO leaders -- and it was so bad that the other members laughed at him and rolled their eyes.

World leaders not even trying to be subtle about laughing at Donald Trump

How's that Making America Great Again going for you these days, Trump voters?  It's turning out to be more Making America An International Laughingstock, as far as I can see.

It's not only things happening overseas that are making me wonder if I should admit that I'm an American when I visit South America this summer.  There's enough crazy shit happening right here on American soil for me to fill ten blog posts with non-stop ranting.  In the interest of brevity, let's just look at two.

First, this week lawmakers in Arizona saw fit to appoint one Sylvia Allen as chairperson of the State Education Committee.  Allen, who gives every appearance of being only marginally sane, has appeared in Skeptophilia before; first for babbling about chemtrails during a hearing about mine safety, and then for blurting out, during a hearing about laws governing concealed weapons, that all of the problems in the United States would be solved if we just made church attendance mandatory.

Oh, and did I mention that she's a young-Earth creationist?  There's that.

This, Dear Readers, is the person who will be overseeing the education of children in an entire state.

But nothing pegged my Rage-O-Meter quite as much as when I found out that Greg Gianforte had won the special election to fill the seat in the House of Representatives vacated when Ryan Zinke was appointed Secretary of the Interior.  Why is this infuriating?

Because two days ago, Gianforte assaulted a reporter.  In front of a large crowd.

Which, you'd think, would have been the end of it.  Game over, Gianforte loses.

But no.  Exit pollsters asked voters if the incident had changed their vote... and almost no one said it had.  One person even said, "It's about time our politicians start standing up to these damn reporters."

Yes.  You read that right.  This person thinks that our elected officials are justified in assaulting a person who was doing his job, which is to report to the public what our elected officials are doing.  In fact, this person apparently believes that the reporter was himself to blame for being assaulted.

So Gianforte went on to win the election by a six-point margin, with crowds cheering "You're forgiven!" when he brought up the assault in his election speech.  It's reminiscent of the comment Donald Trump made last summer, that he could "shoot someone in Times Square" and not lose a bit of his support.

Oh, and did I mention that Gianforte is also a young-Earth creationist?  There's that.

It's getting to the point that I regret it every time I look at the news, because I'm bombarded by more examples of how credulous and ignorant a significant slice of my countrymen are -- and how willing they are to overlook immorality, sociopathy, anger management issues, dishonesty, and downright looniness from the people they vote for, as long as the candidates trot out the party line.  "Values voters."  "Patriotism."  "Religious freedom."  "Small government."  "Deregulation."

And, as I mentioned earlier, "Make America Great Again."

As long as you say the magic words, it doesn't matter what you do.  The voters will still follow right behind you, mooing loudly, and pull the lever on your behalf.

Even writing this is making me have to check my blood pressure.  So I'll end this here, by simply repeating what I started with: What the fuck is wrong with these people?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pet peeve

A friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia, who also happens to be a veterinarian, sent me a message saying, "They're coming for me!" along with a link to a site entitled, "Autism Symptoms in Pets Rise as Pet Vaccination Rates Rise."

The site, which I hardly need to point out is rife with confirmation bias, claims that vaccinating pets against such diseases as canine distemper, feline leukemia, rabies, and Bordetella is triggering behavioral changes similar to the ones seen in humans that have been vaccinated.  The problem, of course, is that there are no behavioral changes in humans due to vaccination; as I have described repeatedly, there is no connection between vaccination and autism (or any other behavioral or neurological condition).  None.  Nyet.  Nada.  Bubkis.  Rien.

But a little thing like no evidence and no correlation isn't enough to stop some people, particularly people with an ideological ax to grind.  The author, Kate Raines, cites a Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who has studied compulsive behaviors in dogs.  Raines writes:
Presenting the evidence from his study at the 2015 American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, Dr. Dodman reported an autism-like condition, noting that “the vast majority of affected dogs were males, and many had other strange behaviors or physical conditions that accompanied the tail chasing, such as explosive aggression, partial seizures, phobias, skin conditions, gastrointestinal issues, object fixation and a tendency to shy away from people and other dogs.”  He and his associates were further able to establish that two biomarkers common to children with autism were also present in the affected dogs.
Which is all well and good, but doesn't establish any kind of correlation between those behaviors or biomarkers and vaccination.  The only evidence she brings out is anecdotal; that some dogs exhibit temporary increases in irritability or aggression following the rabies vaccine, and those symptoms "mimic the ones described in discussions of canine autism."

Oh, and there's the tired old Motive Fallacy argument; that since makers of vaccines profit from sales, they have a motive for covering up any bad side effects, which proves that said side effects exist.  The illogic of which you'd think would be apparent to anyone, but evidently not.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But there is something here to explain, and that's the "autism-like condition" Dodman and others describe -- and which I am in no way trying to dismiss.  Presumably it does have some underlying cause.  Raines kind of gives away the game herself by saying that the symptoms are "idiopathic... or congenital," both of which would imply that vaccines had nothing to do with it.  I have to wonder if some of it has to do with recessive genes affecting behavior showing up in inbred dog populations; Raines mentions that Dodman was studying compulsive behavior in Bull Terriers, which (like most pure breeds) have a very tightly restricted gene pool.  (The most extreme example of this is the English Bulldog, the entire breed of which is descended, over and over, from 68 individuals selected back in 1835.)

My veterinarian friend had an interesting perspective on this.  She writes:
[D]ogs don't have autism.  Most vet research shows OCD like behavior in dogs does have a genetic component, but these dogs don't have issues with being social with other dogs, being overstimulated, or anything else, and mostly recover if you give them a job to do, like flyball or herding...  Most of it we see in high energy high drive dogs (collies, guard dogs, those sorts) that are in home environments that don't stimulate them much - so they go find their own, whether that's herding small children or licking their legs until they bleed or spinning in circles for hours.  So superficially similar to some autistic behavior, but 95% of those dogs respond very quickly to environmental enrichment, and the rest to anxiolytics.
But once again, it is unlikely that the arguments of a person who is an expert in her field will sway someone like Raines, who clearly has no particular need for evidence or logic to convince her.

So the bottom line: vaccinate your pets.  You're not going to trigger them to develop autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder, but you will protect them from horrible diseases like canine distemper, which is fatal 50% of the time even with the best veterinary care. Your pets depend on you for everything -- love, food, shelter, protection, and medical care.  If you fall for Raines's claptrap, you will fail their trust in you, and in all likelihood, put them at a significant and unnecessary risk.

And, in general, don't be swayed by emotionally-charged, fact-free arguments.  Find out what the experts and researchers have to say, and think for yourself.  Don't forget that we make our best decisions with our brains, not our guts.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Good vibrations

My stance as a skeptic sometimes makes me something of a magnet for wackos.  There are the earnest types who are driven nuts by the fact that I scoff at their favorite brand of nonsense (homeopathy, ghosts, and conspiracy theories seem to be favorites).  And then there are the ones who find my blog because Google keyword searches seem to pick up on words like "psychic" and "haunting" and miss important words like "ridiculous" and "bullshit."

As an example of the latter, my blog was linked yesterday by Christie Marie Sheldon, who has a website called "Love or Above."  I include this link some trepidation.  So for those of you who would prefer not to look at it and thereby murder scores of valuable brain cells, I will include a summary of its main points.

The headline says, "Are your vibrations helping or hurting you?"  This is followed up by: "Your personal vibration frequency could be the ONE thing holding you back from abundance, happiness, and success.  Discover how to raise it, so you can finally start living from the vibration of Love or Above."

Allow me to interject that in the interest of keeping this PG-13 rated, I will consider the obvious joke about "Personal Love Vibrations" to be already made, and we will move on.

Christie's website then goes on to say, "Ever notice how some uncannily lucky people can almost effortlessly attract good things into their lives?"  These people, she claims, are leaders, have opportunities at work, good relationships, and a healthy attitude toward money.  Myself, I just figured that people like this were smart, hard-working, and well-adjusted, but no: it's because they have a personal energy vibration score, not to mention probably a credit rating, of over 700.

All emotions, Christie explains, vibrate at a particular frequency.  Shame, for example, vibrates at a frequency of 20. (At this point, I was shouting at the computer screen, "20 what?  Hertz?   Megahertz?  Pounds per square inch?  Fluid ounces?  Furlongs per fortnight? Where are the fucking units?" This caused my dog, Grendel, to look extremely worried because he thought I was yelling at him, meaning he was presumably "vibrating at a frequency of 20.")  Apathy vibrates at 50, Desire at 125, Anger at 150.  Then we move on to more positive emotions; Willingness is 310, Acceptance is 350, and so on.  She says, if you vibrate at 1000, you are an "Enlightened Master."   I guess that at that point, you're vibrating as fast as you possibly could.  Any faster and you might just vanish in a flash of Quantum Psychic Aura Energy, or something.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

She goes on to explain that the vibrational energy of the Earth, at the moment, registers at 207 on her Cosmic Vibration-o-Meter.  This is somewhere between "Courage" and "Neutrality."  So, basically, most people average out at somewhere between "Yes, I can!" and "Meh."  Which seems about right, frankly.  But then she says that we should all be vibrating at 500 or above, because 500 is the frequency of "Vibrations of Love."

As proof of how personal love vibrations work, she presents two experiments done by people we should automatically believe because they have "Dr." in front of their names. Dr. William Braud, of the "Mind-Science Foundation" in San Antonio, Texas, found that he could extend the life spans of red blood cells by having the owners of these red blood cells "think positive thoughts about them."   And Dr. Masaru Emoto did an experiment in which he sent a variety of positive or negative emotional thoughts into glasses of water, and then froze the water, and he found that the happy water made pretty, symmetrical crystals, and the unhappy water made disorganized, ugly crystals.  Christie then asks us a poignant question: since our body is full of red blood cells and water, what kind of damage could we be doing to ourselves with negative thoughts?  The implications are staggering.  I don't know about you, but if I ever froze to death, I would definitely want the water in my body to form attractive-looking crystals.  Think of the humiliation if at my funeral, my friends and family said, "I guess it's just as well he died.  Did you see those ugly-ass ice crystals?  He must have been vibrating at 180 or lower."

She ends, of course, with a sales pitch for her program, the "Love or Above Energetic Breakthrough Kit."  To show how awesome it is, she displays a photograph of herself at an event that I swear I am not making up: The "Awesomeness Fest."  There are further details, including descriptions of a technique called "Space Cleansing," but at that point my remaining brain cells were crying for mercy so I had to stop looking at the website.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard, being a skeptic, that people want to convince you.  After all, the word "skeptic" implies that there's a chance you might be swayed.  This is, in fact, true; but the difficulty, of course, is that what sways a skeptic is empirical evidence, or failing that, at least a logical argument.  When you have neither, all you have is a severe case of Doubt, which vibrates at a frequency of around 110.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Politics in the pulpit

New from the "Wow, You Really Didn't Think That Through All That Well, Did You?" department, we have: Texas Governor Greg Abbott signing into law a bill that will prevent the government from subpoenaing pastors based upon what they say in the pulpit.

This is yet another one of the so-called "Religious Freedom" laws, designed to give carte blanche to anyone who does anything as long as it's part of their religion.  Want to discriminate against someone?  Claim that your religion considers the person a sinner.  Want your kid to get out of having to learn about other cultures or other beliefs in school?  Claim that your religion considers the knowledge of such information a threat.

Or, now: want your pastor to be able to stump for a political candidate?  Claim that preventing him/her from doing so is allowing the government to "pry into what goes on in churches."

That, at least, is how Governor Abbott sees it.  Upon signing the bill, Abbott said:
Freedom and freedom of religion was challenged here in Houston, and I am proud to say you fight back from the very beginning... Texas law now will be your strength and your sword and your shield.  You will be shielded by any effort by any other government official in any other part of the state of Texas from having subpoenas to try to pry into what you’re doing here in your churches.
Which brings up a problem that I think about every time someone starts snarling about how much better it was when we had prayer in schools.  My first question would be, "What kind of prayers?"  Because generally the religion people want in schools -- and in all the arenas of public life -- is just one religion, namely their own.  It's curious how a lot of the same people who would love to see prayers to the Christian god reinstituted in public schools pitch an unholy fit when students even learn about Islam, and would probably spontaneously combust if students were told to bow down and pray to Allah.


Which is the problem with Abbott's new law.  Are the pastors who are now protected from subpoenas based on what they preach only the Christian pastors?  Because this law could easily be invoked to protect extremist Muslim mullahs preaching "Death to America" from their pulpits.  The whole idea of separation of church and state is that you are free to subscribe to whatever religion you choose, or no religion at all, and all religions are treated equally under the law.  What Abbott clearly intends here is that Christian churches have rights that other institutions do not have.

And the reason Abbott and the bill's author, Senator Joan Huffman of Houston, came up with this is abundantly clear.  There is an increasing push by evangelical Christians to consolidate their power in order to influence political races.  They wielded considerable clout in the last presidential election; without people like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. throwing their support behind Trump, you have to wonder if the election might not have gone the other way.  Some preachers went even further, and said that if you don't vote for Trump, you are committing a sin because you're going against God's Chosen One.

How a narcissistic, sociopathic, adulterous compulsive liar ever got to be God's Chosen One is beyond me.  But there you are.

Myself, I have no problem with a church getting involved with politics, as long as it brings with it the price of losing tax-exempt status.  Once churches become the religious arm of a political party, they should be paying taxes on donations the same way any other political organization does.

But Abbott would probably consider that "religious persecution."

So this is a law that is inherently unfair in intent, almost certainly will be unevenly enforced if it's enforceable at all, and is likely to be challenged in the courts in any case.  Another exercise in governmental waste of time, solely to grandstand a little and appease Abbott's hyperreligious base.

Because, apparently, our elected officials have nothing better to do.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cock-and-bull

The skeptic community (if such a thing actually exists) is all abuzz because of the recent publication in the journal Cogent Social Studies of an article by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay called "The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct."  If you read the article, you'll see immediately that it's a hoax.  It contains such passages as one in which they say the "concept of the penis" is responsible for climate change, and defend that claim thusly:
Destructive, unsustainable hegemonically male approaches to pressing environmental policy and action are the predictable results of a raping of nature by a male-dominated mindset.  This mindset is best captured by recognizing the role of [sic] the conceptual penis holds over masculine psychology.  When it is applied to our natural environment, especially virgin environments that can be cheaply despoiled for their material resources and left dilapidated and diminished when our patriarchal approaches to economic gain have stolen their inherent worth, the extrapolation of the rape culture inherent in the conceptual penis becomes clear.
Boghossian and Lindsay, both of whom write for Skeptic magazine, do a good bit of har-de-har-harring at the fact that their spoof article allegedly passed peer review, as does Skeptic's founder, Michael Shermer.  Shermer writes:
Every once in awhile it is necessary and desirable to expose extreme ideologies for what they are by carrying out their arguments and rhetoric to their logical and absurd conclusion, which is why we are proud to publish this expose of a hoaxed article published in a peer-reviewed journal today.  Its ramifications are unknown but one hopes it will help rein in extremism in this and related areas.
In fact, Boghossian and Lindsay hint that their hoax shows a fundamental problem with all of gender studies:
The most potent among the human susceptibilities to corruption by fashionable nonsense is the temptation to uncritically endorse morally fashionable nonsense.  That is, we assumed we could publish outright nonsense provided it looked the part and portrayed a moralizing attitude that comported with the editors’ moral convictions.  Like any impostor, ours had to dress the part, though we made our disguise as ridiculous and caricatured as possible—not so much affixing an obviously fake mustache to mask its true identity as donning two of them as false eyebrows.
Denigrating all of gender studies based upon a sample size of One Paper seems like lousy skepticism to me.  They didn't do a thorough analysis of papers published in the dozens of journals that address the subject; they found one journal that accepted one hoax paper uncritically.  Sure, it says something about Cogent Social Studies -- which, it turns out, is a pay-to-publish journal anyhow, ranking it a long way down on the reliability ladder -- but that no more discredits gender studies as a whole than the Hwang Woo-Suk hoax discredited all stem cell research.

To me, this is more of an indication that Boghossian and Lindsay, and by extension Michael Shermer, have an ax to grind.  The hoax itself appears very much like a cheap stunt that Boghossian and Lindsay dreamed up to take a pot shot at a subject that for some reason they hold in disdain.  When the hoax succeeded, they crowed that the field of gender studies is "crippled academically."

Kind of looks like confirmation bias to me.  Sad, given that these three are often held up as the intellectual leaders of the skeptic community.

[image courtesy of artist Ju Gatsu Mikka and the Wikimedia Commons]

I do think there's one important lesson that can be drawn from this situation, however, and it's not the one Boghossian and Lindsay intended.  It's that the old adage of "if it's in an academic journal, it's reliable" simply isn't true.  I recall, in my college days, being told that the "only acceptable sources for papers are academic journals."  This wrongly gives college students the impression that all journals have identical standards -- that Nature and Science are on par with Cogent Social Studies and The American Journal of Homeopathy.

This makes a true skeptic's job harder (not to mention the job of college students simply trying to find good sources for their own research).  It is incumbent upon anyone reading an academic paper to see what the track record of the journal is -- if its papers have been cited by reputable researchers, if the research they describe is valid, if its authors have reasonable credentials.  Boghossian and Lindsay did show that we are right to be suspicious of papers that appear in pay-to-publish journals.  Beyond that, what they did strikes me as a lot of mean-spirited dicking around.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Heavenly message delivery service

A while back, I wrote here at Skeptophilia about a business called "After The Rapture Pet Care" that (for a small fee) would pair holy pet owners up with well-meaning sinners, so that when the holy people were Raptured up to heaven, their pets would have someone to look after them.

Well, if that wasn't goofy enough for you, one of my Critical Thinking students ran across an even goofier idea last week.  His discovery?

A company called "MySendOff" that has a program they call "Sending Telegrams to Heaven."  The idea here hinges on the fact that most of us have friends or relatives who have died, and whom we would like to contact.  As the website puts it:
[W]hat if you had something you wanted to say to [a deceased loved one]?  Perhaps you had one last pressing thing you wanted your loved one to know but time wouldn’t allow it.  You maybe feeling somewhat guilty or unfulfilled for not saying that one last thing.  Some may even feel somehow responsible for the death and feel the pressing need to apologize and tell the deceased they feel responsible.  They may go on through life with a feeling of discontentment and frustration due to this self blaming.  Another reason for contacting the deceased may be that you want to inform them of new events that happened since their passing, a new birth in a family, a wedding etc.
I'm sure at least some of my readers can relate.

So here's what MySendOff will do for you.  For five dollars per word, you can upload a message to their website.  MySendOff will then find a volunteer who is terminally ill, who will memorize the message, and when the volunteer dies, (s)he will deliver the message to your loved one.

For their part, MySendOff agrees to periodically contact the volunteers to check up on them and make sure they still remember the message.  And -- special offer -- if the volunteer lives a year past the day (s)he was contracted to deliver the message, your fee will be refunded, and the volunteer agrees to deliver the message for free once (s)he does kick the bucket.

It's hard to know where to start, regarding how bizarre this is.  First, there's the idea that MySendOff is somehow getting in touch with hundreds of terminally ill people to act as couriers.  Second, the company is getting five bucks a word for basically doing... nothing.  Other than passing the message to the courier, that is.  You have no guarantee of delivery, given that they're not saying you'll ever know if the recently deceased, formerly terminally ill person successfully contacted your loved one.

I mean, think about it.  The odds are very much against it, right?  Think of all the billions of people who have died.  Even if you think they're all still kicking around somewhere in the Great Beyond, what's the likelihood of being able to find one of them, amongst all the people who have ever died?  Unless the afterlife is some kind of big, IRS-style bureaucracy, where each deceased person is assigned a tracking number upon arrival, so that they can all be located quickly if needed.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 12th century, St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

And I hate to bring this up, but what if the terminally ill person arrives at the Pearly Gates, only to find that your loved one is sort of... not there?  I.e., they ended up in hell?  I have to admit, considering most of my relatives, that's a great deal more likely.  Does the courier then have the responsibility to have the message handed over to someone to make a downward delivery run?

Or does MySendOff pair up sinful dead people with sinful terminally ill people, so that the message goes the right direction to start with?

Of course, for me the main frustration would be that I don't so much want to deliver a message to my deceased loved ones, I'd much prefer to ask some questions, which means that I'd like answers, something for which MySendOff provides no guarantee.  I'd especially like to chat with my grandma, with whom I was very close as a kid.  There are all kinds of things I wish I'd asked while she was alive.  How did she meet my grandpa?  (My grandma was from rural southwestern Pennsylvania, my grandpa from southern Louisiana.  They met during World War I, and I'm sure there was a story there, but I never found out what it was.)  After my grandpa died, how did she meet the Dutch expat Catholic priest for whom she became the live-in housekeeper -- a job that lasted forty years until his death at age 86?  And, most importantly, what is her secret chocolate fudge recipe, which I have tried for thirty years to replicate without success?

But MySendOff has no provisions for two-way communication, which is a pity.  I mean, it'd be nice to tell my grandma that I miss her, but if there really is an afterlife, I'm sure she knows that.

So I'm not gonna pay five bucks a word to send her, or any other dead people, a message.  Seems a little steep, frankly.  I'll just wait until I die and can carry my own messages.  It'll be too late to use my grandma's chocolate fudge recipe, but at least we'll be able to have a nice chat about old times.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Killing public schools

One comment I hear every time budgets for public education are discussed is, "You can't fix the educational system by throwing money at it."

This pisses me off on a variety of levels.  First, there's the sense that funding public schools is randomly "throwing money," as if it's inherently irresponsible to provide adequate resources for educating the next generation of citizens.  Implicit in this is that schools will just waste the money anyhow, that school boards spend their time looking for frivolous ways to spend their state and federal funding.

The worst part, however, is that this convenient and glib little quip ignores the truth of a different adage: "You get what you pay for."  If you want to obtain and retain quality teachers, ensure that they have manageable class sizes that optimize student success, and give them the resources they need to deliver top-quality education, you have to pay for it.

And it's not like if you refuse to spend tax money to fund schools, then somehow the money magically stays in your pocket.  Taxpayers will pay either for supporting schools, or for the consequences of a generation of poorly-educated, disaffected young adults whose career choices are constrained by a lack of opportunities in public schools, or who have chosen to go to college and racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that will take decades to repay.

All of which is why the proposed federal education budget is such a travesty.

The Washington Post calls this "Trump's education budget," which is a little doubtful, given that Trump gives every impression of having never written anything longer 140 characters, much less an actual budget proposal.  The specifics, honestly, have Betsy DeVos written all over them.  The Secretary of Education is a staunch believer in federal funding for private and religious schools -- which she refers to as "school choice" -- and for cutting damn near everything else to the bone.

Here are a few of the provisions of this proposal:
  • cutting a total of $10.6 billion from the overall budget for education
  • cutting funding for college work-study programs by half
  • cutting over a hundred million dollars from programs supporting mental health services and programs providing enrichment, honors, and advanced coursework in middle and high schools
  • ending a program to provide student loan forgiveness for college graduates who work in public service
  • cutting $168 million from grants to states for career and tech programs
  • cutting $72 million from programs for international education and foreign language training
  • cutting $12 million from funding for the Special Olympics
  • cutting $96 million from a program for adult literacy instruction
On the other hand, it:
  • expands support for charter schools and private and religious schools by $400 million
  • adds $1 billion to programs to push school districts to adopt "choice-friendly" policies
"It’s time for us to break out of the confines of the federal government’s arcane approach to education," DeVos said.  "Washington has been in the driver’s seat for over fifty years with very little to show for its efforts."

Betsy DeVos [image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

DeVos, of course, is in no position to make that kind of judgment.  She has never worked in a public school, did not send her children to public school, and her main claim to fame, education-wise, is pushing a program in her home state of Wisconsin that funneled $2 billion to private and religious schools despite peer-reviewed studies showing that these programs do not work.  And the situation in Wisconsin is by no means unique -- other states have tried voucher systems, and by and large they have been a dismal flop.  Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times gives one example:
A study released last February by a team of researchers led by Jonathan Mills of Tulane University found that students in Louisiana’s expanded program lost ground in their first two years in the program.  Those performing at average levels in math and reading — that is, at about the 50th percentile — fell 24 percentile points in math and eight points in reading after their first year in the program.  In the second year, they improved slightly in math, though they still scored well below non-voucher students, and barely improved at all in reading.
So let's take those results, and make them national by mandate!  That'd be a great idea!

It doesn't take an expert to recognize the terrible effect that such a diversion of funds has on schools.  You'd think this would be enough for even the most diehard supporter of "school choice" to say, "Oh.  I guess I was wrong, then."

But no.  Data, facts, and evidence have no impact on a doctrinaire ideologue like DeVos, who honestly doesn't seem to give a damn if public schools fail.  In fact, if by her actions public schools do decline, in her mind it will just prove what she's claimed all along; that education in America is in a tailspin.

 Look, I've worked in education for thirty years.  It's not that I think we're perfect.  There's wastefulness, there is misspent money, and I have long decried the increasing focus on trivial content and preparation for standardized tests.  But the solution is not to cut funding to the bone.  Faced with revenue loss, public schools have only one real choice -- reducing staff.  Most of the rest of the line items in school budgets are earmarked or non-discretionary -- school boards have no choice in whether to include them.  The only big-ticket item that boards actually do have control over is salaries.  But since the salary per teacher is set contractually, there's only one option: lay people off.

Which means higher class sizes, cutting of electives, and loss of program.

Not that DeVos would ever admit this.  But look at the actual results of voucher programs and charter schools, nationwide -- not the spin that DeVos puts on it, but real numbers coming from studies such as the ones described by Hiltzik in The Los Angeles Times article linked above.

The conclusion is unequivocal.  And the budget being proposed will, if passed, be a death blow to the schools that can withstand it least -- poor, overcrowded, inner-city schools.

Remember that next time you see Betsy DeVos smile her smarmy smile and say that she's pro-child.