It was reported a couple days ago that some people in the Oklahoma legislature were trying to ban funding for Advanced Placement US History courses. The main objection is that the course guidelines are insufficiently patriotic (i.e. focus too much on negative aspects of history). The objections appear to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the goals of a history course. A history course – and an advanced high school course in particular – should not simply be about regurgitating names and dates. The goal should really be to use factual evidence to make arguments about historical events and historical trends. Knowing the impact of ideas and events on society and how that shapes future events is more important than being able to name every president or recite the Declaration of Independence from memory. This often will mean that greater focus should be given to events that don’t exactly portray society in a positive light. Those events often have a greater impact in setting the course of future history than the exploits and accomplishments of individual heroic figures. Studying the latter too easily devolves into little more than learning propaganda and mythology. Looking at the sample exam provided by the College Board, it seems that the AP US History test has deemphasized simple multiple choice questions about basic facts and now focuses much more on responding to passages by placing them in their historic context and deciding what the text says about historical events. I think this is exactly what the test should do.
The Oklahoma bill passed through a legislative committee by a large majority. Fortunately, it now appears that the bill will be modified before coming up to a final vote after the massive public outcry since this became widely reported in the media.
President Obama will be giving the State of the Union address tonight. It starts in less than 20 minutes. Not much else to say about it right now.
In a huge and unexpected story today, it was announced that the US and Cuba will resume diplomatic relations for the first time in over 50 years. This is quite possibly the biggest story in the Caribbean region since I was born. While easing restrictions on Cuba is not really that unexpected, the timing is. The negotiations were held in secret, so people are only finding out about everything today. This also comes along with the US and Cuba swapping some prisoners and Cuba releasing some political prisoners. The embargo is still in place, but many travel restrictions are being eased and embassies will reopen in the next few months. Congress has to end the embargo since that’s controlled by legislation, but the embargo doesn’t seem to be very popular in the US anyway. It’s failed to do any good for decades so ending the embargo can’t really be any less effective than keeping it. With this, the US now has diplomatic relations with all but four countries (according to Wikipedia).
It appears that the big news story of the week will be the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings in its investigation into the CIA interrogation (i.e. torture) program that lasted through most of the Bush administration. The executive summary (it only runs to 528 pages!) contains 20 key findings which can mostly be summarized as: the program involved immoral and almost certainly illegal interrogation techniques that can be legitimately described as torture; the CIA avoided proper oversight from Congress, agencies within the Executive Branch, and even internal dissent; and the program wasn’t even effective at gaining useful intelligence or protecting the US and its interests. These are pretty damning conclusions. You can find the executive summary (the full report hasn’t been declassified at this time), and some responses/rebuttals here. The story dominated Tuesday’s news cycle and the opinion pages of many newspapers (at the time of writing this, Wednesday’s papers aren’t out yet).
Obviously, at least some of this has been known for years, but having the imprimatur of a Senate committee adds a great deal of legitimacy to criticisms of the CIA and the various programs put in place after the 9/11 terror attacks. Already some are decrying the report as a partisan attack on the CIA or are questioning why it’s necessary to even release any information at all. However, we’ve already largely been prevented from having an honest conversation about these programs for more than a decade. Had American society properly discussed and debated many of the issues raised in the report before these programs were even implemented maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation today.
It’s election day in the US. Don’t forget to get your ballot in before polls close.
The Atlantic has a new article on how people get drawn into the anti-vaccine movement. Ultimately, the reason why many parents end up opposing vaccinating their own children seems to be that people are terrible at judging risk in a rational manner. The parents end up weighing the generally rare threat of dangerous disease against the even more rare but also more immediate threat of vaccine complications and decide that the minuscule threat from the vaccine is more dangerous. A more rational result would be that while the threat of disease is low, it is generally higher than any threats from the vaccine. Additionally, the only reason why the threat of disease is low is that nearly everyone is vaccinated, preventing many dangerous illnesses from spreading throughout the population. While one child not getting vaccinated does not change this, too many children going unvaccinated could allow for diseases such as measles and whooping cough to return. This has already been happening in a number of places. With the vaccination program, society has decided to accept a very small number of serious complications in order to prevent a much worse outcome from allowing these diseases to spread.
The article highlights the fact that many people place more weight on personal anecdotes than actual evidence (i.e. blinded studies using statistical analysis). In the words of one parent “data could be flawed … but someone’s story … I trust that more.” Obviously, data could be flawed, but scientific studies have at least attempted to remove biases and will almost always be better than talking to some non-random sample of people (by construction a flawed dataset). There’s even a doctor who uncritically accepts his patients’ beliefs about what caused their children’s medical problems as evidence that vaccines are dangerous. Doctors are supposed to listen to their patients, but also need to correct patients when they make unfounded claims. Just because someone says a vaccine hurt their child doesn’t make it true. It doesn’t make it untrue either, but the number of people claiming to have encountered vaccine complications is vastly higher than what would be expected from the scientific literature.
The article does a decent job of juxtaposing the arguments of the people opposing vaccines against some of the reasons why their views are (if we take the most charitable explanation of their views) misinformed. Too often the media prefers to frame every controversy as a debate between two equal sides when in many cases there is only one side with any significant supporting evidence.
The New York Times reports that since 2012 the NYPD’s much-hated stop and frisk policy seems to have finally ended. Stops have declined by more than 90%. The stop and frisk policy, where the NYPD would (obviously) stop and search random people to look for contraband or evidence of criminal activity, was widely seen as a convenient way to harass marginalized communities. Only a small fraction of stops resulted in arrests while the poor communities where stops were most concentrated felt as if they were under siege from the police. Not only was stop and frisk not very effective, but it may have even been counterproductive by reducing trust in the authorities. Interestingly, while stop and frisk became famous under the Bloomberg administration, which strongly supported the tactic, the precipitous decline in stop and frisk occurred well before the election of de Blasio and also well before the policy was declared illegal by a judge in August 2013.