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The State of Science Education

17 Apr

Spotting-Bad-Science-v2.pngI’m not sure how I came to be reading this article, especially strange because the byline states that it was published over a year ago in The American Spectator. I expect it was mindlessly following some click-bait on Yahoo that brought me there, but what I found was the tragic remnants of a mind denied a proper education in scientific method, logic, and mathematics.

Emily Zanotti wrote up her impressions of a scientific study she had uncovered in an article titled, “Study Finds John Kerry Worst Secretary of State in the History of Ever. John Hayward wrote a similar piece for Breitbart the same day, as did the Washington Post, under the slightly less scathing headline, “Scholars votes put Kerry last in terms of effectiveness.” So, why focus on this minor publication’s reporting over more mainstream outlets? I don’t have much reason other than the fact that I found the article there first and the visceral nature of the title held my attention best (remember, I found it by following click-bait while trying to find a reasonable source of right wing news).

I really don’t care (at least for the purposes of this discussion) one bit about the actual question, but would rather focus on how these data were interpreted for the popular press (using Ms. Zanotti’s article as my example).

First, the data:

The articles I found pointed to Foreign Policy Magazine as the source, the actual data in the rawest form I could find can be found here.

Who was polled? (because this is an opinion survey):The poll was sent to International Relations (IR) faculty from colleges and universities around the country. Responses were received from 1,615 IR scholars drawn from 1,375 U.S. institutions.

The question about Secretaries of State was one of many, and was phrased as, “Who was the most effective U.S. Secretary of State in the past 50 years? ” We’re told that the number of responses to this particular question was 655. I think it’s rather strange that only half of the respondents answered this question, especially given that one of the most popular answers was ‘I don’t know’ receiving 18.32% of the vote, or 120 ballots.

The Results were reported as:

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 4.19.07 PM.pngIf you count them up, there were 13 distinct answers given –

only 12 are people if we drop out the ‘I don’t know’..
This is interesting because the headline read that Kerry was the worst

I agree that he is last on this list, but depending on how you want to count, the number of people who sat in that office for the past 50 years was either 15 actual Secretaries of State or 28 Secretaries + acting Secretaries.

Either way you slice it, we’re missing some people from this list. A quick look at trusty Wikipedia show us who we’re missing (See below). Where is Will Rogers in the poll? Edmund Muskie? Apparently these poor souls got zero votes, so they don’t show up in a percentage-based calculation.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 4.20.46 PM.png

At 0.31%, poor John Kerry received only 2 votes as the most effective Secretary of State (SoS) in the past 50 years. But Rogers and Muskie apparently got zero. It’s hard to see that this puts Kerry in last place.

But that’s not all. The question asks, “who was the most effective SoS?” which isn’t the same as asking respondents to “rank the SoSs according to effectiveness.” What would the percentages look like if two Secretaries (say, Bob and Hank) were the clear front-runners and everyone agreed on that point? Moreover, imagine that everyone also agreed that a third Secretary(Sally) clearly came in right behind the two front runners, but couldn’t compare to the undeniable efficacy of the first two. My guess would be that Bob and Hank would split the 655 votes, and no one else would get any. Not even Sally. Everyone else ties for last place.

Ms. Zanotti’s piece continues, “John Kerry is the worst Secretary of State in history according to a survey of professors at the top 25 foreign policy schools conducted by Foreign Policy Magazine, losing out, even, to ‘Don’t Know.'”

bad_science1.jpgBut no one was asked to name the worst SoS. What is true of this survey is that very few people think Kerry is the best. As for ‘Don’t know’, I imagine that these are the people who simply can’t decide between Bob and Hank, from the example above. Those two are just too close to call. Further, since ‘Don’t know’ came in second, it’s hard to say that Kerry was beaten by this answer in any meaningful way.

She continues, “Of the scholars who responded, Kerry earned exactly two votes, and came in after Lawrence Engleberger who was Secretary of State for a whole six weeks at the end of George H. W. Bush’s second term, and spent most of that time keeping the chair warm for the Clinton appointee.Which had me wondering if perhaps one of the best ways to be an effective SoS is to not have much happen, as is the case when someone is in office for only a very short time.

One last statement on the data before going to her conclusion… In reporting the results of the poll, she mentions that, “James Baker — who was actually the most effective secretary in the last 50 years” came in third at 17.7%. Wait – what? Where is this “who was actually the most effective secretary” come from? Was there another measure that we haven’t been provided with? My guess is there was not, but that this is the author’s admission that she has already determined the right answer and that no data applies to this opinion.

Ms. Zanotti then ends her essay with this strange statement, “At any rate, it’s nice to know our collective impression of Kerry’s effectiveness is objectively verified. ”

I guess she knows her audience, so the “our collective impression” probably makes sense saying, but what about the idea that Kerry’s effectiveness has now been objectively verified?

What about an opinion poll could ever result in an objective verification? I suppose she might mean that it is now verified that many people hold some opinion, but it’s hardly objective. To arrive at this conclusion, we have to accept that the sum of many (at least 655) subjective opinions is equal to an objective conclusion.

This is equivalent to saying that a poll of 400 Yahoos objectively verifies that the sum of 2 and 2 is 8. All we have is a group of opinions. They might be the opinions of very smart people who are speaking within their field, but there’s no logical necessity that they are correct.

So, to return to my title. I can only assume that this hot mess of an essay comes from a completely science deprived education. Who is the author, Emily Zanotti? I had never heard of her and had her pegged for a one-off writer who wasn’t really involved in the world, but I stand corrected. She’s apparently well known amongst the Right as an outspoken libertarian. Her twitter bio reads, “Writer, blogger, comedian, nerd. Cosplayer. Catholic. Political reporter. Resident geek . Libertarian. Opinions my own but should be yours.” Her R Street bio calls her, “a columnist for the The American Spectator  and an associate fellow of the R Street Institute. She is a ten-year veteran of political communications and online journalism based out of Chicago, where she runs her own digital media firm. Her work has appeared at her former blog, NakedDC, and across the web. She has a law degree from Ave Maria School of Law with a focus in intellectual property and technology law” (Sic).

I’d never heard of the Ave Maria School of law, so I had to look that up too. The Miami New Times  had this to say about the school:

Meanwhile, Ave Maria — founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan and relocated in 2009 from Ann Arbor, Michigan — continues to plummet, finishing dead last with a horrific 47.8 percent of students passing the [Florida Bar Exam].

However, this poor performance is apparently relatively new, with  former Ave Maria law professor, Charles Rice, stating in the same article that the school’s performance was good prior to the move. Together, these statements make it difficult to use the school as any proxy assessment of the person’s education. Regardless, her R Street bio suggests that she’s not a fool. Therefore, I’m left wondering… how did this article happen?

 

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Posted by on April 17, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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