Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dumbing it down with Donnelly

Kevin Donnelly is the "go to" pundit for newspapers and television commentary about the supposed dumbed down and politically correct school curriculum in Australia (curricula really; doesn't matter which, it's all dumbed down and politically correct). He even wrote a book about it. But, in fact, it is Donnelly who deliberately dumbs things down with his straw man mischaracterisations.

Donnelly simply trots out the same few facile points over and over and seemingly has fooled the media, and now apparently the federal government, into thinking he is an expert in educational standards. (To be fair to the media, he is the "Director" of Education Standards Institute. On a completely unrelated note, I'd like to take this opportunity to announce that I am now the CEO and Lord Commander of the Institute of Standards for Sciolism. The standards are pretty high in News Corp publications...)

The latest example is his attack on the Australian Curriculum which, along with the journalist who wrote this article, either shows a complete lack of understanding or is a deliberate misrepresentation.

Donnelly, who typifies a LAME self promoter, was quoted as saying:
...the existing curriculum was "a mile wide and an inch deep" and demanded more "academic rigour".
I don't take issue with Donnelly stating that the curriculum should focus on rigour and depth. But this is a non-statement when it comes to education. Who doesn't say or believe this? Who doesn't want to "raise the standards", have "rigour" in maths and science, and have "high quality teachers", for example?

Where is the evidence for the lack of rigour? The article seems to go on to provide it:
In every subject - from science to physical education - children must study Aboriginal culture, environmental sustainability and Australia's engagement with Asia, under the national curriculum forged by the former Labor government.
Politically correct red alert! The article gives some examples from maths:
And Year 4 kids learning about fractions will "investigate the use of fractions and sharing as a way of managing Country: for example taking no more than half the eggs from a nest to protect future bird populations.'
Year 10 statistics involves "investigating biodiversity changes in Australia since European occupation."
Shock and horror. I can't believe the curriculum would force teachers to focus on such non-core mathematics!

But of course, the writer,'s "Social Editor"... has stacked the deck and cherry picked examples. She fails to disclose these statements are from the content elaborations, which are not mandatory. These are just some examples of how content descriptions, that are mandatory, could be taught.

Could... not must.

The actual content descriptions that are to be taught, related to these examples, are, in Year 4:
Count by quarters halves and thirds, including with mixed numerals. Locate and represent these fractions on a number line (ACMNA078)
And in Year 10:
Investigate and describe bivariate numerical data where the independent variable is time (ACMSP252)
This sounds like maths to me... The other non-mandatory elaborations associated with these, in respective order, are:
Year 4: converting mixed numbers to improper fractions and vice versa
Year 10: constructing and interpreting data displays representing bivariate data over time
Yet more maths.

As far as rigour goes, I'll give a couple more examples from the curriculum:
Foundation: Subitise small collections of objects (ACMNA003) 
Year 3: Recall multiplication facts of two, three, five and ten and related division facts (ACMNA056) 
Year 6: Multiply decimals by whole numbers and perform divisions by non-zero whole numbers where the results are terminating decimals, with and without digital technologies (ACMNA129) 
Year 8: Extend and apply the distributive law to the expansion of algebraic expressions (ACMNA190) 
Year 10: Expand binomial products and factorise monic quadratic expressions using a variety of strategies (ACMNA233)
The curriculum is published online here: The curriculum includes achievement standards which have samples of student work associated with them. Judge the depth and rigour of mathematics for yourself.

There are about 280 content descriptions (i.e. must be taught) in the curriculum in total. The article does not cite a single one of these as an issue.

The article cites a total of five non-compulsory (that is, they can be completely ignored) elaborations as examples of what they see as politically correct or woolly statements. There are about 420 elaborations in total, which are just examples!

This in not to say the curriculum is perfect or that there aren't issues with education in Australia. There clearly are. The devil is in the detail and as per usual, Donnelly (and the journalist) are clearly short on such detail. Worse than that, either through intellectual ineptitude or bankruptcy they incompetently or deliberately paint a false picture; straight forward examples of a straw man and observational selection with some stacking the deck.

The article calls for more rigour and depth in the school curriculum... The irony. How about some more rigour and depth in discussions about education, instead of the usual superficial generalities and "go to" punditry? We won't make any progress in "raising educational standards" if the basis of our decision making is false and self-serving.
Source: Education Minister Christopher Pyne questions teaching Aboriginal and Asian culture in maths classes - Herald Sun. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

A scientist as Minister for Science?

The recent election win of the Liberal-National coalition means Australia will have a bunch of new Ministers. It was assumed that the Member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella was going to get this port lose her seat, so she has ruled herself out.
As such, the only scientist elected to the House of Representatives, Dr Dennis Jensen, has put his name forward. Ordinarily I’d be in favour of such a thing. (But then again, how often do any Ministers have expertise in their portfolios….)
Unfortunately, Jensen is a climate change denier. This is itself I do not have an a priori issue with. I do have an issue when the denier is a scientist who misunderstands some of the basic rules of logic and reason. From the Age article:
Dr Jensen has made headlines by questioning the scientific consensus that humans are contributing to global warming.
Dr Jensen believes carbon dioxide is contributing somewhat to global temperatures, but not as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is suggesting.
Moreover, Dr Jensen does not think governments should be taking urgent action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. “In the climate area there is appeal to authority and appeal to consensus, neither of which is scientific at all,” Dr Jensen told Fairfax Media on Thursday.
“Scientific reality doesn’t give a damn who said it and it doesn’t give a damn how many say it.” It was wrong to accept the view of the 97 per cent of climate scientists who agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely caused by human activities, because “the argument of consensus … is a flawed argument,” Dr Jensen said.
(Source: The Age:–20130912–2tltt.html#ixzz2eknuPxj9)

Dr Jensen misunderstands the Appeal to Authority and what a consensus view in science means. An appeal to authority can be fallacious on two grounds:
  1. An appeal to a false authority. For example, if someone appealed to Dr Jensen’s authority as a scientist about his views on climate change, they would be making a false claim of authority. Dr Jensen is not a climate scientist.
  2. An appeal to a real authority but one that is not backed up by evidence or argument. I.e. One, if questioned about a position, should be able to provide some evidence or argument that the authority themselves provide.
He is right in saying that “reality doesn’t give a damn….” He is wrong in saying the argument of consensus is flawed. A consensus among scientists is hard fought and should be respected. Over years the experts in a field have studied “X” and the significant majority come to understand that “Y” causes (or doesn’t cause) “X”. By what basis can anyone outside that field challenge this view? Only someone within the field has any legitimate ability to challenge the consensus, and then, not by dismissing the consensus arbitrarily, or claiming they are the “next Galileo”. They have to convince their colleagues by doing more science.

Dr Jensen’s espouses a view that is essentially no different to post-modern relativists, anti-vaccination cranks and advocates of intelligent design.
Update: Who needs a science portfolio anyway... "For the first time since the creation of a science portfolio in 1931, Australia does not have a science minister."

Friday, September 06, 2013

Federal election predictions

Australia is having a federal election tomorrow. Here is my prediction for when the Liberal/National coalition wins. All across social media I'll see the following comments, in order of likelihood:

1. I'm moving to NZ / Canada / somewhere "more enlightened"

2. If only people were more educated, then they'd have made an informed and intelligent decision and voted the same way as me.

3. The biased media is why the stupid people voted for the Lib/Nat coalition. 

4. I am ashamed/embarrassed to be Australian

5. This country is filled with racist homophobic bigots.

6. People should have to do a test about the basic policies of the major parties before being able to vote.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Facebook comments about ousted Australian PM Julia Gillard

Just in case you didn't think people's treatment and views about Julia Gillard weren't coloured by her gender, here's a selection of comments from Facebook. One of the great things about Facebook is that people do use their real names...

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Appeal to Authority

Other Terms and/or Related Concepts

Appeal to eminence; appeal to "the great and the good".


This fallacy in reasoning occurs when an advocate appeals to an "authoritative" person or agency in support of his or her own viewpoint, based solely on that person's authority. The authoritative source may have some prominence in the field under consideration or the person/agency may be prominent in an unrelated field. In the latter case, the gullible advocate is relying on the generalized "eminence" of the authority in an attempt to sway the opponent, rather than the presumed expertise of the authority.


Bryan Bladderpocket is an academic with an interest in social policy. He is giving a seminar on multiculturalism to a small group of postgraduate students. One of the students, Mark Gonzo, says: "You claim you're an advocate of multiculturalism, but you're not really - any immigrant group which doesn't conform to liberal middle-class values is anathema to you. Many values of many different cultures conflict with Western conceptions of human rights."

Bryan (the advocate) replies: "I don't accept your point – just last Wednesday, Sir Ernest Willynillly wrote in his opinion column in the East Coast Thunderer that the norms of all known cultures are consistent with universal human rights – and I shouldn't have to remind you that Sir Ernest is a Nobel Prizewinner."


Bryan has cited Sir Ernest Willynilly's views on human rights in support of his own position. What he hasn't said is that the Nobel Prize Sir Ernest won was for Physics. In such a case, there is no reason for presuming Sir Ernest's views on any social issues have any more weight than anyone else's views.

The seeker after truth is in principle unimpressed by the prominence of the person expressing a viewpoint on an issue. Even if Sir Ernest did have qualifications in relevant social research, Mark would be entitled to be skeptical about his opinions. Without explaining why an authority holds a particular viewpoint, an advocate's argument is weak. Further to this, there are many historical examples where the consensus views of experts in a field of inquiry have been completely overturned in the light of later investigation.

Deceitful advocates often appeal to authority in order to bolster their position. The appeal to authority fallacy is a significant problem in contemporary debate on social issues.

Journalists and editorial staff in the news media often seek the views of "eminent persons" for no better reason than their availability and visibility. Journalists are under pressure of remorseless deadlines. Television, Print and online media proprietors are naturally concerned with ratings, circulation figures and page views respectively. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that the lazy option is often taken – contact one of the "usual suspects" who can be depended on to comment with affected gravitas on any subject. Preferably a public figure who is popularly seen as humble and self-effacing despite having ruthlessly collected honours, distinctions and personal wealth all his or her working life.

The skeptical viewer will realise (for example) that when Sir Dean Sillybilly, an obscenely rich former supreme court judge and retiring Governor of New South Holland is pontificating on remedies for the plight of the poor during a valedictory television interview, he is more likely to have been part of the problem than part of the solution.

Similarly, the skeptic will realise that when the recently and widely acclaimed Father of the Year – Justice Gustav Flatus OAM, presumes to lecture the rest of us on child-rearing practices, he may not be doing so from credible standpoint. Despite his recent honour, he may not in fact be an exemplary parent. He is in a position to pontificate on parenting because he has managed to achieve a high level of visibility in the community through his "non-fathering" activities. Perhaps he has actually been a workaholic absent father whose long-suffering wife has had to be both mother and father to their children. There is no way of knowing for sure. But we do know that some past recipients of the "Father of the Year" award have put their own careers before the needs of their children.

The prominence of a person is evidence that the person is capable of securing prominence, quite possibly through a meticulously planned, single-minded campaign of self-aggrandizement. It is not evidence that he or she speaks with genuine authority on any matter.

When an advocate appeals to an authority, they are fallacious unless they explain why and how the authority has come to their view.