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Save Liberal Arts

A new movement is afoot to end liberal arts degrees and transform higher ed into trade school

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 19, 2011

Salon runs this article about the benefits of killing the liberal arts degree.

Stanley Fish wrote of this sort of triumph of small-mindedness in 2010 in an eloquent criticism of Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, a set of recommendations made by an independent panel to the British government. It advocated “student choice” in funding higher education.

Among the report’s palliatives: “Our proposals put students at the heart of the system.” “Our recommendations…are based on giving students the ability to make an informed choice of where and what to study.” “Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.” The idea is that the money follows the students. Courses that compete successfully for student attendance survive and prosper; those that do not wither and die. The assumptions of market economics have triumphed: Ideas are now considered commodities.

Shaming Michele's Thinking

We have to shame antiscience thinking into submission just like we did racism

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 18, 2011

Yesterday I spoke on the Netroots Nation 2011 panel Science Policy in Unexpected Places with some amazing copanelists here here here and here.

My comment that “Science is never partisan, but science is always political,” and that “we need to shame antiscience thinking into submission, just as we shamed racism” was picked up, tweeted and posted by Think Progress's Brad Johnson. It caused quite a discussion.

At the same time, my old state senator Michele Bachmann spoke at the other end of the Mississippi and reiterated her old position about intelligent design and how "we should teach the controversy."

Can Regulation Increase Freedom?

The Tea Party's hatred of government regulation is misplaced

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 15, 2011

If there was a theme to today's Tea Party politics, Adam Smith might be it. Do we really need laws and regulations? Can't private industry take care of everything, and do it better and cheaper?

In 1776, Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that an individual, who “intends only his own gain” was, in a shared economy, in effect “led by an invisible hand” to promote the greater public interest, since willing buyers and willing sellers will always arrive at a natural price for things, and the highest value and efficiency will be obtained. “Nor is it always the worse for the society that [the individual’s intention to do social good] was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

The argument was so well made that it has become an axiom of economics: just get out of the way.

But is it true?

Was Cap and Trade Oversold?

Environmental Leader Says Democrats Were Too Quick to Appease

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 14, 2011

Democrats and many members of the environmental movement are too quick to appease industry voices and have lost their focus, says a leading attorney forcing the climate change debate in the United States. Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity says she is "disappointed" with the Obama administration's approach to environmental issues. "Perhaps the president himself just doesn’t get it," she told me. "He certainly doesn’t have a background in environmental matters."

Siegel forced the Bush administration to list the polar bear as a threatened species, raising the ire of energy industry lobbyists, climate change denialists and antiscience radio commentators and prompting oil industry-funded pseudoscience papers arguing the bears were doing fine, like this one, partially paid for by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil Corporation.

The Archbishop, Gay Marriage, and Science

Nienstedt's misstatements about children erode credibility

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 13, 2011

The Catholic Church doesn't exactly have a great track record on matters of science - for example, the shameful and ridiculous indictment of Galileo:

The proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures.

The proposition that the earth is not the center of the world, nor immovable, but that it moves, and also with a diurnal action, is also absurd, philosophically false, and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith.

After that day, science passed Italy by and it faded as a world power.

So it's surprising to see Saint Paul-Minneapolis Archbiship John Nienstedt's latest effort to promote a proposed Minnesota state constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage relying on science:

In Praise of Older Cabins

The North Woods Summer Tradition and the Age of Simplicity

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 11, 2011

There is something about summer, lakes and cabins that calls to children of all ages. The cool, shadowy, calm mornings like today's (above), or the fun, hot splashy summer afternoons in the waves.

One week to Netroots Nation

Panel on talking about science in unexpected places works to counter GOP retreat from reason

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 10, 2011

I'll be there speaking on a panel about talking about science in unexpected places. This is a critical topic in a time when the GOP is retreating into unreason and science becomes, in their view, a partisan topic. This week, for example, Rush Limbaugh's response to Mitt Romney's statement that he "believes" in climate change was "bye bye nomination."

Tree of Life: Skip it for the Real Thing

Why a brilliant director's award-winning film falls flat

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 09, 2011

It's not often when a heralded filmmaker makes a stinker, and when it happens those of us in the biz are often reticent to point it out - both because it's a way to make enemies in a social pool the size of a large high school, and because we might be wrong. But Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, and produced in part by Twin Cities native Bill Pohlad, left me feeling, well, mad.

America's Climate Beliefs

New numbers show the press is doing a lousy job of reporting climate facts

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 08, 2011

Anthony Leiserowitz is out with the Yale Project on Climate Change's annual polling data on Americans' beliefs about climate change.

The Science of Political Sex Scandals

Why politicians risk it all for a little nookie

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 07, 2011

Anthony Weiner has admitted his virtual affairs. What makes powerful men (and I say men because it seems so far to be predominantly a male trend, but as more women enter public office that may be revealed not to be the case) - what makes powerful men risk it all? On the surface of it, it seems crazy. But there are reasons from neuroscience. Let's start by looking at a short list of recent political sex scandals. More after the fold.

T-paw, learn a thing from Mitt - or maybe not

At least one GOP prez candidate isn't pandering to nut jobs, but that doesn't mean he's making any sense

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 04, 2011

Today Mitt Romney admitted what the educated world already knows: global climate change is real, it's human-caused, and we need to do something about it. It's a lesson in good old American courage to lead that the other "moderate" GOP candidate, my old friend Tim Palwenty, could take a lesson from - almost.

Join me at Netroots Nation

I'll be speaking at the national social action conference on Friday June 17

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 03, 2011

Netroots Nation is going on its sixth year, and this time the annual gathering of online experts, social change agents, bloggers, non-profits, social entrepreneurs and writers will be in Minneapolis.

Why I'm not worried about my cell phone causing brain cancer

The World Health Organization's cancer "risk" is indistinguishable from chance

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jun 01, 2011

Today the big news is a release by the World Health Organization about a "possible" link between brain cancer and cell phone use. They class the use in the same risk category as - get this - eating pickled vegetables or drinking coffee. Seriously?

My step mom died of glioblastoma multiforme. It was a particularly horrible way to go. But I'm not worried about my brain, my wife's brain, or my son's brain, at least from cell phone use. Why? Physics.

On Shooting Movies and Stars

Digital cameras now do the unthinkable - capture a far better image than film

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | May 31, 2011

Disclaimer: You may have to be an astronomer, director, dp, cosmologist, or visual effects geek to appreciate the wonder in this post. My pal Clark Graff is a great visual effects artist, with experience creating visual magic on films like the Lord of the Rings and the Matrix. He turned me on to a terrific post by Snehal Patel over at fearless productions blog, recounting the 2011 Zacuto Hollywood Great Camera Shootout.

Governor Perry, please abstain from running

Why Texas Governor Rick Perry should "just say no" to his urge to run for president.

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | May 30, 2011

Texas Governor Rick Perry is toying with a run for president. He may be an excellent choice for a GOP that is retreating into unreason, but he would be bad for America because Perry makes governing decisions based on his own personal version of reality, even when it is contradicted by the facts.

Consider Texas's approach to sex ed. A few years back, Texas lawmakers cut sex ed from two six-month courses to a single unit of “abstinence only” education.

Poetry and Science

Charting astronomy's emergence from religion, and the ties that bind them

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | May 27, 2011

The English poet Alfred Noyes was on hand on the night of November 1, 1917 as George Ellery Hale’s only invited guest for the dedication of the Hooker 100-inch telescope on the top of Mount Wilson, which Edwin Hubble would use to discover the expansion of the universe. “Your Milton's 'optic tube' has grown in power since Galileo,” Hale had written his friend. Hale ordered the giant telescope to be trained, like Galileo’s had been, on Jupiter and its moons.

American Denialism

Public statements by GOP lawmakers (listed here) show ideology trumps knowledge in America's new anti-science government

By Shawn Lawrence Otto | May 22, 2011

Science is inherently political. If those who disagree with its findings are allowed to harass and intimidate scientists or quash those results, all Americans lose, and democracy loses. Such acts are cowardly, tyrannical, and deplorable. They should be condemned in the same terms used to castigate anyone who seeks to suppress freedom.