Saturday, March 31, 2007

Scientifically and Technologically Literate Societies

The 2006 Education for All Global Monitoring Report focuses on literacy. It emphasizes that nations must strive not only for universal individual literacy, but to become literate societies.

In previous postings and comments (Click on the SandT literacy tag at the end of this posting to see them all.) this blog has explored scientific and technological literacy for individuals. The discussion made the point that there is a basic core of skills and knowledge about the natural, social and man-made environment that can be considered as defining the standard of individual S&T literacy. That standard will include the literacy necessary for the person's economic, political, familial, and other roles in society. It will differ from group to group within a single nation, as people in rural environments need to know different things than those in urban environments. People living in Alaska need to know different things than those in Hawaii or Maryland!

I suggest further that the standards of S&T literacy should differ from country to country. This is true since different nations have different cultures, social institutions, and natural environments. It is also true in that the economic level of a nation relates to the technology it uses, and thus in the core of technological knowledge its citizens should possess.

The standard of literacy should also depend on what is socially and economically possible. I see little advantage in setting a standard of individual S&T literacy that only a few if any citizens can actually achieve. Literacy as an objective should be reachable, not pie in the sky.

Similarly, the individual standard of literacy should not only change as the physical, social and man-made environment changes, it should be raised as levels of realistic aspirations rise!

S&T Literacy for Societies

Many previous postings have made the point that there is a false analogy between an individuals skills and knowledge and those of an organization or a society. The members of a society obviously command more knowledge collectively than any member does individually. Moreover, people specialize. Farmers know more about farming, healers know more about healing, teachers (should) know more about teaching.

I have pointed out that an organization or a society can "learn" in the sense of improving performance through information-based efforts, simply by bringing the knowledge its members already have more effectively to bear on the problems it faces.

There is an old joke, that heaven like a celestial hotel where
the French do the cooking, the Germans run the cleaning staff,
and the English the administration. Hell, on the other hand is
an infernal hotel where the English do the cooking, the French
the cleaning, and the Germans run the place.

Based on the premises described above, a society should set itself a standard of scientific and technological literacy such that it has the knowledge it can afford organized in such a way to effectively manage its affairs and approach the problems it faces.

I would think that one aspect of a scientifically and technologically literate society is that its members would have attained acceptable levels of individual scientific and technological literacy.
However, no society will understand its own natural, social and man-made environment, nor have the skills to manage and solve problems without geologists and meteorologists, economists and management scientists, engineers and public health experts. The standards of literacy for a society should include the numbers of members in these learned professions and their levels of preparation, as well as the standards for placement of these professionals where their knowledge can be brought to bear for the benefit of the society.

If a nation were really to set itself standards for scientific and technological literacy as a nation, they would be quite complex. Nations might, however, allocate their financial, institutional and human resources better were they to do so!

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On December 10, 1948 the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Click here for the full text .

I note the following Articles:
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7. All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8. Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10. Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.
Comment: Given the vital role of the United States in the creation of the Declaration, and the emphasis Americans place on the protection of human rights, I hope that all these rights are being fully respected by the United States government at home and in the "War on Terrorism". JAD

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Knowledge and Expression as Intangible Cultural Heritage

UNESCO has a program for the protection of intangible cultural heritage, and indeed is the repository for the international Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which entered into force in April 2006. As of February 2007, 75 States had deposited their instrument of ratification,approval or acceptance of the Convention with UNESCO.

It seems to me that the body of mankind's knowledge is perhaps the most important part of our intangible cultural heritage. I speak of modern scientific and technological knowledge, as well as traditional knowledge, and the knowledge of local communities all over the world. It includes many other forms of knowledge as well, such as the knowledge of legal systems, political systems and that embodied in economic institutions such as markets.

I was thinking in passing of some cultural knowledge that we have, and know is not true. Think about Santa Claus! In our society, we all know the story of Santa and his reindeer (including Rudolph), the workshop at the North Pole, and the need to place stockings on the mantle with milk and cookies. None of it is literally true, but that knowledge plays an important role in American culture.

That body of knowledge is growing more rapidly than ever before. The knowledge in that corpus is also depreciating more rapidly than ever before, as the world changes more rapidly than in the past, as we discover new things and discard outmoded beliefs and ideas, and as we forget (for example, mankind is forgetting how to speak many of its languages).

We think of the tangible cultural heritage -- buildings, monuments, etc. -- as durable and even permanent. The pyramids are thousands of years old. The intangible seems less permanent, but I suggest that we retain knowledge of agriculture and other arts that is older than the pyramids!

We winnow the stock of knowledge in a continuing process, sometimes tossing out the good with the bad, but surprisingly we as a species have been able to hang on to some important knowledge for millennia!

I think UNESCO's intangible heritage program is more directed at expressions of knowledge rather than knowledge itself -- literature, music, art, craft, and the like.

As with knowledge, we discard a lot of that material, but we manage to save a great deal for a very long time. We have the works of Shakespeare and Cervantes even though we have few physical artifacts from their time. Indeed, we have the bible and Greek and Roman literature from thousands of years in the past.

Of course, we have evolved a complex set of institutions, including schools, professional societies, libraries, symphonies, and museums to screen and select intangible expressions from the past and save and keep alive the best!

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Games and toys in the teaching of science and technology

Author(s): Norman K. Lowe
Published by UNESCO.s Division of Science Technical and Environmental Education
Year: 1988
Abstract: "Low cost educational activities for children in primary and early secondary levels of education. Toys and games, curriculum development trends and out-of-school activities. Examples of games and toys which can be used in the teaching of science and technology and in many other disciplines."

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Thoughts occassioned reading Iriye's "Global Community"

I have been reading Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World by Akira Iriye.

He argues that intergovernmental organizations and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essentially 20th century social phenomena, and now form a complex institutional network. This network is obviously important, but has been relatively little studied.

In terms of intergovernmental organizations, Iriye notes that:
  • There was just one in the year 1800.
  • There were 11 in existence in the year 1900.
  • The number declined from 13 to 9 during World War I.
  • The number had increased to 31 by 1930.
  • There were several thousand in the year 2000.
Starting from a low number in 1900, tens of thousands of international non-governmental organizations were created in the 20th century, with some 30,000 operating at the end of the century.

Iriye argues that the creation of these international organization is related to globalization. I agree. As countries came to interact more often and on more important matters, there was a need to institutionalize systems to manage their interactions. Imperial colonialism was seen (by the colonies) as an inadequate institutional framework, as was Communism by 1990, and international markets have become the dominant institution in gobalization. The network of intergovernmental organizations (and of bilateral treaties and multilateral conventions) helps to regulate the interactions, and international civil society (composed of these international non-governmental organizations) has developed to complement the for-profit private sector approaches institutionalized in multinational corporations and international markets.

Of course, all of this has been made possible by the growth of the transportation and communications infrastructure, which in turn has been made possible by technological advances. In transportation the internal combustion engine has made possible fleets of ships, trucks and airplanes. National highway systems interconnect within continents as sea and air routes interconnect the continents. The telegraph has been replaced by telephone, radio, television, and satellite, microwave and fiber optic networks. International transportation and communications, on a global scale, have become not only fast and available, but cheaper than would have been thought possible a century ago.

Iriye makes a really important point, almost as a throw-away. The new technology-based infrastructures not only allowed the development of the these international institutions, but they also revolutionized the nature of the nation state. The United States of 2000 was very different than that of 1900, and many of those differences depended on the huge expansion of the transportation and communications infrastructure. I would add that the infrastructure development also encouraged and was necessitated by the growth of regional institutions, ranging from the European Union, to the North American Free Trade Association, to ASEAN.

The 20th century also saw the triumph of industrialization in the North, the development of newly industrialized nations from the South, and the movement into post-industrial information economies in the North. These too involved revolutionary institutional changes, based on technological advances in automation through mechanization of manufacturing (and of other economic activities) and "informatization" with the advent of advances in information and communications technologies.

Without the increase in productivity, there would have been neither the growth of supply nor demand that stimulated economic globalization. Nor would there have been the economic freedom for so many people in the world to spend more time in education and participating in civil society organizations. Indeed, it would have been hard for a simpler and poorer world to support the hundreds of thousands of people working in intergovernmental organizations and international NGOs. These industrial and information revolutions also contributed (in my view) to the growth of the nation state, of regional institutions, and of global institutions such as the networks of intergovernmental organizations and NGOs.

New problems call for new solutions. The new global transportation and communications infrastructure and the industrial and information revolutions as they progressed in the 20th century changed the world. In a posting last week I mentioned the distinctions among
  • the natural world (studied in the natural science),
  • the social world (studied in the social sciences), and
  • the man-built world (of technological systems).
The three are clearly interrelated. Society builds technological systems to expand control of nature, but in the process not only is nature transformed, so too is society.

Iraye makes the point that the social transformations engendered in the last century are intuitively antagonistic. The strengthening of the nation state is a response to the same changes in technological systems as the growth or regional and global institutions. I would add to his point that these international institutions include not only the network of intergovernmental organizations and international civil society, but also the strengthening of global markets.

Yeats wrote "Things fall apart: the center can not hold." The situation here seems to be "Things come together: the centers get still stronger."

Friday, March 23, 2007

Two online books about learning

These are from the National Academy Press

How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom
Committee on How People Learn, National Research Council, 2005
This book builds on the discoveries detailed in the bestselling How People Learn. Now, these findings are presented in a way that teachers can use immediately, to revitalize their work in the classroom for even greater effectiveness. Organized for utility, the book explores how the principles of learning can be applied in teaching history, science, and math topics at three levels: elementary, middle, and high school.

How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition
Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning with additional material from the Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, National Research Council, 2000
This trade book, originally released in the Spring of 1999, was expanded to show how the theories and insights from the original book can translate into actions and practice, now making a real connection between classroom activities and learning behavior. It includes suggestions for research that could increase the impact that classroom teaching has on actual learning. It offers new research about the mind and the brain that provides answers to a number of compelling questions. When do infants begin to learn? How do experts learn and how is this different from non-experts? What can teachers and schools do-with curricula, classroom settings, and teaching methods--to help children learn most effectively? New evidence from many branches of science has significantly added to our understanding of what it means to know, from the neural processes that occur during learning to the influence of culture on what people see and absorb.

Bush Environmentalists Allow Killing of Grizzly Bears

Image: Courtesy U.S. Dept. Transportation. (C) Chuck Bartlebaugh

Read "Yellowstone Grizzly Bears to Come Off Endangered Species List" Environment News Service, March 22, 2007.

Lead: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is removing the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears from its status as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act."

There are now more than 500 grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem; that is a recovery from a population low of 136 in 1975. There are an estimated 1,100 to 1,200 grizzly bears in the continental United States, in five separate populations in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington. To my mind those numbers are very low, and the species is still perilously close to extinction in the continental United States, and especially in the Yellowstone ecosystem. This is especially true since the population is located in several non-communicating sites, and has passed through a very narrow genetic bottleneck recently.

The Service is now to manage the grizzlies under a conservation strategy developed by state and federal scientists and managers. "But conservation groups have misgivings about the future of Yellowstone grizzly bears."

Hunting is not permitted in national parks in the United States. However, the Yellowstone ecosystem extends beyond the national park. One assumes that if grizzlies wander off the park and are not protected as endangered species, they will be more vulnerable to hunters and poachers. (I have personally seen a grizzly by the roadside, just outside the national park.)

Could it be a Coincidence?

Read "E-Mails Show Machinations to Replace Prosecutor: Administration Worked for Months to Make Rove Aide U.S. Attorney in Arkansas" by Dan Eggen and Amy Goldstein, The Washington Post, March 23, 2007.

  • After the presidential election of 2004, would Carl Rove's attention not have turned to the presidential election of 2008?
  • Would he not have recognized Hillary Clinton as likely Democratic candidate?
  • Would he not have recognized a vulnerability for her in Arkansas (home of the White Water affair and her long term private law practice)?
  • Tim Griffin went to work in Rove's office in 2005. Griffin, raised in Arkansas had worked in the U.S. Attorney's office in Arkansas as a special assistant U.S. attorney. He was research director at the Republican National Committee during Bush's 2004 campaign.
  • Bud Cummins, the earlier Bush appointee as U.S. Attorney for Arkansas -- who did not qualify as what Department of Justice Chief of Staff D. Kyle Sampson called "loyal Bushies" -- "was recommended for removal as early as March 2005."
  • While the Patriot Act (enacted after 9/11) increased the power of the White House to appoint U.S. Attorneys, in 2005 the power for interim appointments was still limited to three months. For appointments lasting beyond that time limit, Congressional Confirmation was required or the judiciary would make the appointment.
  • The Senate allows Senators for a state to effectively block appointments to that state. According to the Department of Justice:
    A blue slip is the traditional method of allowing the home state senators of a judicial nominee to express their approval or disapproval. Blue slips are generally given substantial weight by the Judiciary Committee in its consideration of a judicial nominee. The process dates back several decades and is grounded in the tradition of "senatorial courtesy," which traces its roots back to the presidency of George Washington.
  • In 2006, the Patriot Act was amended giving the White House the authority to appoint an interim U.S. Attorney to a vacant post for the remainder of the president's term in office without Congressional confirmation nor judiciary review.
  • Newly released e-mails now show how Sampson "and other Justice officials prepared to use a change in federal law to bypass input from Arkansas' two Democratic senators, who had expressed doubts about placing a former Republican National Committee operative in charge of a U.S. attorney's office."
  • In April 2006, Tim Griffin sent Sampson a flattering letter about himself written by Cummins, the prosecutor he was trying to replace "internal e-mails released this week show."
  • Rove and Harriet Miers, then the White House counsel, were keenly interested in putting him in the position, (other) e-mails reveal."
  • "Cummins's dismissal differs from the firings of the seven other ousted federal prosecutors in several respects. Cummins was told he was being removed last June, and the rest were told on Dec. 7. Justice Department officials also have not publicly said Cummins's departure was related to his performance in office, as they have with the others. They acknowledged last month that he was fired simply to make room for Griffin."
  • "By June 13, about a week before Cummins would be told he was losing his job, Sampson wrote to Monica Goodling, senior counsel to (Attorney General) Gonzales, to tell her that a colleague had the necessary pre-nomination paperwork for Griffin. He said that he would speak the following morning with Michael A. Battle, chief of the office that oversees U.S. attorneys, and make sure that Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty's office 'knows that we are now executing this plan.'"
  • In August 2006, Griffin was hired into a political position in headquarters and transferred "immediately to work in the U.S. attorney's office in Little Rock and await his nomination."
  • "Griffin had been in Little Rock for more than a month when he received an official Justice Department notice that he would be interviewed for the position of interim U.S. attorney."
  • Griffin is now serving as the interim U.S. attorney in Little Rock, and would normally be expected to continue in that position through the primary season and 2008 presidential election.
Comment: So we have a long and complex process -- one which as evaded the normal checks and balances of our legal system -- which placed "an aggressive and accomplished Republican political operative" with close ties to Karl Rove as the U.S. Attorney in the state where the leading Democratic candidate for president is most vulnerable to adverse legal action. Does anyone thing it is a coincidence? JAD

Thursday, March 22, 2007

F.D.A. Rule Limits Role of Advisers Tied to Industry - New York Times

F.D.A. Rule Limits Role of Advisers Tied to Industry - New York Times:

"Expert advisers to the government who receive money from a drug or device maker would be barred for the first time from voting on whether to approve that company’s products under new rules announced Wednesday for the F.D.A.’s powerful advisory committees.

Indeed, such doctors who receive more than $50,000 from a company or a competitor whose product is being discussed would no longer be allowed to serve on the committees, though those who receive less than that amount in the prior year can join a committee and participate in its discussions."

Diabetes News - American Diabetes Association

Diabetes News - American Diabetes Association:

"Lifting the ban on taxpayer funding of research on new stem cells from fertilized embryos would better serve both science and the nation, the chief of the National Institutes of Health told lawmakers Monday.

Allowing the ban to remain in place, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni told a Senate panel, leaves his agency fighting 'with one hand tied behind our back.'

'It is clear today that American science will be better served - the nation will be better served - if we allow our scientists to have access to more cell lines,' Zerhouni told two members of the Senate health appropriations subcommittee during a hearing on the NIH's proposed 2008 budget. The NIH, with a nearly $29 billion annual budget, is the main federal agency that conducts and funds medical research."

Comment: Following my last posting, it also seems clear that there is a problem when people use their religious beliefs to interfere with the search using modern biomedical research approaches for new therapies and medical knowledge. JAD

BBC NEWS | Health | Alternative therapy degree attack

BBC NEWS | Health | Alternative therapy degree attack:

"UK universities are teaching 'gobbledygook' following the explosion in science degrees in complementary medicine, a leading expert says.

There are now 61 complementary medicine courses of which 45 are science degrees, the Nature journal reported.

University College London Professor David Colquhoun urged watchdogs to act, as complementary medicine was not based on scientific evidence."

Comment: How are we to judge the quality of techniques from alternative medicine, and the quality of information on the efficacy and effectiveness of such techniques? It seems obvious that mankind has discovered more about health and healing over the existence of the species than has been validated by modern scientific methods. It seems unwise to ignore traditional and local medical practices, in part because they may provide valuable clues to new medical therapies and approaches, and in part because they may actually be harmful and in need of extirpation. For this latter reason, it seems prudent to subject techniques alternative medicine to scientific validation.

Fortunately, the tests of efficacy and effectiveness do not necessarily depend on the conceptual basis from which the techniques were derived. Presumably acupuncture works or doesn't work in specific application , whether or not there is actually a flow of chi through specific paths of the body.

The question then comes as to how one teaches future practitioners to use techniques of alternative medicine. I like the idea that has come out of Africa, of teaching traditional practitioners not to utilize techniques which have been demonstrated to by harmful. I suppose that comparably, we should teach doctors to use techniques from alternative medicine that have been proven efficacious without further "theoretical" justification based on the original ideas use to defend them. Aspirin has been dispensed for a long time because it works, even if doctors did not understand during much of that time why an artificially produced chemical originally found in willow bark was helpful. JAD

About the Answers to Questions Put to an Organization

A variety of recent news articles made me think about the process of posing questions to organizations about past behavior. That process is obviously different than posing a question to an individual about the person's past behavior. The person presumably remembers or does not remember what he/she did. The knowledge of an organization's past behavior is spread among many people, and may best be unearthed from electronic and paper documents.

It occurs to me that there are two dimensions to the response:
  • Gathering the information,
  • Preparing the response to the query.
The effort to find out what the members organization actually did and how that action came about may be undertaken seriously, in a general way, as a token response, or not at all.

The formal response issued from the organization may seek to convey information discovered in a factual manner, spin that information, obfuscate, or simply lie.

When one looks at the Q&A therefore, one is seeking to place the response in a two dimensional field -- how much information actually was used by the respondent(s) and how was that information used in formulating the response.

People appear to differ widely in the standards they use to judge the quality of information. The hearings yesterday in which Al Gore testified about global climate change illustrate that point clearly. Republican legislators, especially, seemed not to be at all impressed by the information that emerged as a scientific consensus from a compilation of peer reviewed research finding. Gore on the other hand, could cite data and had clearly spent a great deal of time seeking to understand the scientific information and its credibility. Some people seem to believe that if they say something, it makes it so!

Too often these days we seem be be offered heavily spun answers from organizational spokespersons who do not place strong quality standards on the information on which those answers are based.

Of course, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Check the Wikipedia entry titled "The Big Lie."

Science and Technology Literacy Standards

Following up on the earlier posting and discussion on scientific and technological literacy, here are two sets of standards developed for K-12 education in the United States.

Technological Literacy Standards
The International Technology Education Association (ITEA) has published two books (online) and a set of ten videos on one compact disk (CD) explaining technology literacy standards. "Standards for Technological Literacy: Content for the Study of Technology, commonly called STL, and Advancing Excellence in Technological Literacy: Student Assessment, Professional Development, and Program Standards, commonly called AETL, are companion publications that together articulate* a complete set of technological literacy standards* and identify a vision* for developing a technologically literate citizenry." The first of these books was published in 2000 and the second in 2003.
National Science Education Standards
The National Science Education Standards, prepared by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, outline what students need to know, understand, and be able to do to be scientifically literate at different grade levels. There are six major substantive chapters: * Standards for science teaching. * Standards for professional development for teachers of science. * Standards for assessment in science education. * Standards for science content. * Standards for science education programs. * Standards for science education systems. Published in 1996, these have been of substantial importance in the U.S. educational system, and have served as a model for science education standards in other nations. National Academy Press.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

New agricultural research institute planned

The Scientist : New agricultural research institute planned:

"US lawmakers plan to introduce legislation within the next few weeks to establish a new research institute to manage peer-reviewed grants focused on basic food and agricultural science. Modeled after the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) would be an independent agency within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), overseeing up to $1 billion in competitive extramural research grants. "

Comment: About time too! But there is a lot of milk spilled betwixt the cup and the lip, and a lot of good ideas spilled between their introduction to the Congress and their becoming billion dollar programs. JAD

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Science and Technology Literacy

The 1990 World Conference on Education for All in Jomtien declared that:
The basic learning needs of youth and adults are diverse and should be met through a variety of delivery systems.
Literacy programs were call for, including for science and technology. I think many people (including me) think this was a step forward.

Since that time, projects have been developed to promote concepts of science and technology literacy, including
* UNESCO's Project 2000+

* The AAAS Project 2061
There are also standards and benchmarks for science and technology literacy, such as:
* The Project 2061 Benchmarks Online

* The ALA/ACRL/STS Information Literacy Standards for Science and Engineering/Technology
Let me modestly say, all these efforts, valuable as they are in their own contexts, seem to obscure what could be a key focus for education in the least developed nations.

Let me begin by suggesting that:
* Natural science creates/forms a body of information informing our knowledge about the natural world,

* Social and behavioral sciences create/form a body of information informing our knowledge about the social world and human behavior, and

* Technology creates/forms a body of information informing our knowledge the human-built world.
I suggest that all people need to understand their natural, social, and technological environments.

"Literacy", I think, generally implies a basic understanding. When one uses "literacy" or "numeracy" in the traditional sense, one is focusing on the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic, not the literary ability of a Pulitzer Prize winning writer or the mathematical ability of a Fields Prize winning mathematician. So too, when one uses the term "technological literacy" one should not be focusing on the technological ability of a Millennium Technology Prize winner. Indeed, professional education at the university level should not be about "literacy" but about advanced levels of knowledge and skills.

Scientific and technological literacy, therefore, should be taken in part to include basic understanding of sciences and technology informing and enriching the individual's basic understanding of the world a person lives in. It goes beyond understanding, however, to include something about skills.

At the university level, there is a fundamental difference between science and technology -- a difference that I understand to have been emphasized by Harold Foecke, the distinguished former head of science and technology education for UNESCO. For the science professional, the core skill is the ability to do research, while for the professional in technology the core skill is design.

Thus engineering education seeks to enable the student to learn design skill, the electrical engineering student to design electrical systems, the civil engineering student to design civil works, the mechanical engineering student to design machines. Medical education seeks to enable the student to learn not only to diagnose disease, but to design a course of treatment to cure or ameliorate that disease.

Science education at the graduate level seeks to impart research skills, and even at the undergraduate level to understand the process of science, and how research tests hypotheses and leads to the construction of bodies of theory.

It might be worth pointing out that, for developing nations, applied research has always been favored over research not designed for application. Countries need geologists to map their mineral resources and identify siesmic risks, epidemiologists to describe the pattern of diseases and the needs for public health programs, soils scientists to identify soils resources and their problems, etc.

At the level of the most basic literacy, however, the core skill for technology is operation and maintenance. While all of us will occasional improvise a technological solution to some problem, the vast majority of people are far more involved in operating technological products or processes designed by others. At this most basic level, the core skill informed by science may well be that of diagnostic -- the identification of the a potential for gain or the cause of a problem.

One of the key advances of the science and technology literacy movement has been the recognition that there are different literacy requirements for different purposes. Thus the technological literacy needed to function as a citizen participating in democratic processes is different than that needed to function as a farmer in an economic role, or as a jury member in the legal system.

It also seems that there are even different levels of basic knowledge needed for different roles in society. The basic scientific and technological understanding required for a legislator making national energy or environmental policy is greater than for the average citizen of that nation. While we do not expect our legislators to be professionally competent in a large range of sciences and technologies, if they are to make good policy they should have sufficient understanding to demand and utilize good advice from fully trained professionals.

Science and Technology Literacy for the Poor in Poor Countries

Poor people in poor countries don't go to school much. Often only a couple of years, sometimes not at all. I would suggest it is as important to prepare the children who do go to school as much as is possible in the time available for scientific and technological literacy as it is for traditional literacy and numeracy. Indeed, being able to read, write and do arithmetic is fundamental for the continuing learning involved in scientific and technological literacy.

Science and technology literacy should be about the world in which the student really lives. Thus the natural science literacy curriculum should be about tropical biology for a student living in the tropics, about the coastal environment for a student living on the coast. So too, social science literacy should inform the student about the culture and society in which he/she lives and technological literacy should be about the technological systems that surround that specific student.

If you continue to read, write and calculate, you generally only have to learn to do so once. Unfortunately, often poor people in poor countries do not continue to read and write after they finish their few years of school. Their literacy and numeracy often decays. But for most of us, the alphabet stays the same, and the arithmetic doesn't change.

In the case of scientific and technological literacy, there is decay even if the knowledge and skill is used regularly. The natural environment changes over time, and now with increasing velocity, as environmental degradation is occurring in response to continuing increase of mankind's footprint on the earth. Moreover, people move -- from rural areas to the cities, from one workplace to another, and sometimes from country to country. So too, economic and social development is a process of social and technological change, and change that seems to be more rapid now than in the past.

Thus, I suggest, scientific and technological literacy must be maintained through a process of lifelong learning. If you only have a kid in school for a couple of years, and that kid is going to see major changes in his/her life, one better not only provide a body of basic information useful at the moment, but also learning skills, understanding of ways and places to learn more in the future, and a will toward continuing education.

This is not to underestimate the importance of providing that basic body of scientific and technological information. I think it is unfortunate when a girl or boy who is going to be a working farmer doesn't learn in schoolabout plants and their growth, or when a girl or boy who will almost certainly be a parent someday doesn't learn something not only about protecting her/his own health, but also protecting that of her/his offspring.

An urban kid should learn something about the operation and maintenance of machines. Similarly, a rural kid should learn about operation and maintenance of machines. The machines will probably be different, and the urban kid may need to know about electrical machines while a rural area may not have electricity. It may be useful to teach kids things known to the ancient Greeks -- about simple machines such as levers and pulleys. (It tends to annoy me when people assume that science and technology literacy is about rockets and space, which have little to do with day to day life, and not about how to lift heavy objects and friction which are important to us all.)

I suggest that teaching scientific and technological literacy for kids who will not be in school much and who live in poor nations is very challenging. It is sad that the schools for the poor in poor nations are (not surprisingly) poorly equipped to do so. The teachers are poorly prepared themselves, and face huge classes who often are poorly equipped to learn for many, well known reasons.

Curriculum developers are few in number in poor nations, and probably too often lacking in the necessary understanding and skills. They are likely to develop curricula that leave too little room to adapt teaching to the natural, social, and technological environment of the school or to the learning needs of the students.

Final Remarks

I have focused in the past in this blog on higher-education for the training of scientists (especially applied scientists) and technologically-based professionals (e.g. engineers, doctors, agronomists). Fortunately, there are secondary schools that prepare students adequately to enter and take advantage of the opportunities offered by university departments of science and technology, as there are primary schools that prepare students for those secondary schools.

Programs of scientific and technological literacy, however, are also a critically important element in a national education system. The vast majority of people need to have basic understanding and skills to deal with the natural, social and technological worlds in which they find themselves; but they will never achieve professional mastery of even one area of science or technology.

Schools are a great means of starting the process of lifelong learning needed for scientific and technological literacy. The challenge confronting schools in starting the process is, I think, greatest in poor communities in poor countries.

There is a need also to institutionalize systems that support lifelong science and technology learning. The systems include vocational education and continuing opportunities for skills training and retraining. They also include popular science and technology education and communication, especially using the increasingly available electronic media. They include agriculture extension services and health education by professionals, paraprofessionals and the media.

Half the people in the world, more than three billion of them, are eking out existence on less than two dollars a day in income (including in-kind income). It is too bad that the thinking about scientific and technological literacy too often leaves them out. It is not that there is not a need to improve the systems of lifelong learning and skilling for the richer half of the world -- goodness knows they need improvement. But in comparison far too little has been done for the half the world who could most benefit from better knowledge, understanding and skills.

In honor of World Poetry Day -- Tomorrow

Mary Hynes
Blind Raftery

Going to Mass by the will of God,
The day came wet and the wind rose;
I met Mary Hynes at the cross of Kiltartan,
And I fell in love with her then and there.

I spoke to her kind and mannerly,
As by report was her own way;
And she said, "Raftery, my mind is easy,
You may come to-day to Ballylee."

When I heard her offer I did not linger,
When her talk went to my heart my heart rose.
We had only to go across the three fields,
We had daylight with us to Ballylee.

The table was laid with glasses and a quart measure,
She had fair hair, and she sitting beside me;
And she said, "Drink, Raftery, and a hundred welcomes,
There is a strong cellar in Ballylee."

O star of light and O sun in harvest,
O amber hair, O my share of the world,
Will you come with me upon Sunday
Till we agree together before all the people?

I would not grudge you a song every Sunday evening,
Punch on the table, or wine if you would drink it,
But, O King of Glory, dry the roads before me,
Till I find the way to Ballylee.

There is sweet air on the side of the hill
When you are looking down upon Ballylee;
When you are walking in the valley picking nuts and blackberries,
There is music of the birds in it and music of the Sidhe.

What is the worth of greatness till you have the light
Of the flower of the branch that is by your side?
There is no god to deny it or to try and hide it,
She is the sun in the heavens who wounded my heart.

There was no part of Ireland I did not travel,
From the rivers to the tops of the mountains,
To the edge of Lough Greine whose mouth is hidden,
And I saw no beauty but was behind hers.

Her hair was shining, and her brows were shining too;
Her face was like herself, her mouth pleasant and sweet.
She is the pride, and I give her the branch,
She is the shining flower of Ballylee.

It is Mary Hynes, this calm and easy woman,
Has beauty in her mind and in her face.
If a hundred clerks were gathered together,
They could not write down a half of her ways.

This is a poem by an ancestor of mine, in an anonymous translation,
from William Butler Yeats' The Celtic Twilight: Myth, Legend and Folklore.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Scientific Blogs

"Artists look different" posted on Cognitive Daily profiles a research result that suggests that grad students in the visual arts look at pictures differently than grad students in psychology, and presumably than most people. They are seen to search both the figure and ground of the picture. The rest of us focus primarily on the figure and neglect the background. This is another example of the fact that eye witness information is only as good at the witness, and that the trained eye takes in more than the untrained.

This is one of many interesting articles on Cognitive Daily, a blog on cognitive sciences.

This in turn is one of many Science Blogs on this commercial site (apparently making its money by online advertizing).

Check out, also, the Social Science Statistics Blog.

Egypt and Kazakhstan to Cooperate on Science and Technology

Read the full article by Wagdy Sawahel, SciDev.Net, 16 March 2007.

This is very interesting, as two Islamic, secular nations with a legacy of Soviet scientific and technological culture enter into a cooperative venture in key development areas including: "pharmaceuticals, agriculture, energy, food science, information technology, biotechnology and industrial research."

It will be interesting if the scientists from the nations can effectively span their differences -- Turkic versus Arab, oil rich versus struggling economy, etc.

If these two can cooperate on science and technology to advance more rapidly, they may provide a very important and leadership to the scientific and technological communities of the Islamic world.

Input of Contrasting Views Improves Decisions

Read "What the Bard and Lear Can Tell a Leader About Yes Men" by Shankar Vedantam, The Washington Post, March 19, 2007.

"Psychological experiments show that nearly everyone is susceptible to the lure of ignoring criticism....Kings, presidents and CEOs get to decide who surrounds them and what they will hear. Even those leaders who invite critics into their circle may not hear contrary views because the bravest of employees can find it difficult to tell their bosses things they do not wish to hear."
Social psychologists have long studied what happens to groups that exclude contrarian viewpoints, and in the 1970s Irving Janis first coined the term "groupthink" to describe the phenomenon. Two decades later, Philip Tetlock, a professor of organizational behavior and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, analyzed decisions around crucial moments in history, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs invasion, Richard Nixon's efforts to cover up Watergate, and Lyndon Johnson's escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

Tetlock found that leaders who encouraged dissent were more likely to make the right calls compared with those who discouraged dissent. But he found that leaders who welcomed contrary points of view were not guaranteed success -- Jimmy Carter's botched attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran being one example.
Comment: It is hard to listen to contrary opinions, but it seems something that we should all do. The person with the contrasting opinion can do his/her best to present it unemotionally. Similarly, the group can be open to differing opinions. As the article points out, it can be useful in decision making to insist that a number of realistic alternatives be presented with pros and cons.

It seems hard for a U.S. administration to do this. It has only a limited number of people it can appoint to lead the huge bureaucracy in the directions it chooses, and it is hard to include dissidents in that small band.

Without Comment -- Two from today's WP

Prosecutor's Firing Was Urged During Probe
The U.S. attorney in San Diego notified the Justice Department of search warrants in a Republican bribery scandal last May 10, one day before the attorney general's chief of staff warned the White House of a "real problem" with her, a Democratic senator said yesterday.
Justice Dept. Recognized Prosecutor's Work on Election Fraud Before His Firing
One of the U.S. attorneys fired by the Bush administration after Republican complaints that he neglected to prosecute voter fraud had been heralded for his expertise in that area by the Justice Department, which twice selected him to train other federal prosecutors to pursue election crimes.

"Iraq War's Statistics Prove Fleeting"

Read the full article by Karen DeYoung The Washington Post, March 19, 2007.

Lead: "The U.S. war in Iraq enters its fifth year today. That, and 3,197 U.S. military deaths reported by the Pentagon as of 10 a.m. Friday, are among the few numerical certainties in a conflict characterized from the start by confusion and misuse of key data." The administration has also reported on the numbers of U.S. soldiers who have been wounded. It is harder in the United States to find estimates of the total numbers of casualties from the coalition forces. It seems very difficult to find numbers for the foreigner casualties from the imported workforce who are employed under the billions of dollars of funds involved in supporting the military and reconstruction efforts.

I want to quote more extensively from the article:
Two categories of data -- insurgent and civilian Iraqi deaths, and the training and deployment of Iraqi security forces -- illustrate how flexible the numbers can be.

"We don't do body counts on other people," Rumsfeld said during the war's ninth month, a tacit reference to the statistical excesses of Vietnam. Yet that rule has been bent repeatedly, with scant explanation of how figures are compiled.

On April 6, 2003, the Pentagon listed 61 U.S. soldiers and Marines killed or missing in action, while officers in the midst of battle estimated that "2,000 to 3,000" Iraqi combatants had been killed during a single tank incursion into central Baghdad. A year and a half later, as the U.S. death toll topped 1,000, Rumsfeld observed that in August 2004 alone, U.S. and coalition forces "probably" killed between 1,500 and 2,500 terrorists and criminals. In January 2005, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., then the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, estimated that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed or captured 15,000 enemy fighters in 2004 -- three times as many as an estimate by Gen. John P. Abizaid, then-Centcom commander, of the total size of the insurgency about one year earlier.....

Civilian casualties have proved even harder to pin down. Before the war, the United Nations predicted that they could reach 500,000; once it started, critics claimed thousands of civilian deaths. But in his May 1, 2003, "Mission Accomplished" speech, Bush said the use of precision weapons had largely diminished noncombatant deaths.

On Dec. 12, 2005, Bush offered his first and only number of Iraqi casualties: "30,000, more or less," without distinguishing between enemies and noncombatants. The independent, London-based Iraq Body Count offered a similar figure for civilians only -- 34,516 to 38,661 Iraqis dead by early 2006.

The group's most recent tally, drawn from global media accounts, estimated civilian deaths between 59,287 and 65,121, as of yesterday. The British medical journal Lancet estimated 100,000 civilian casualties in the 18 months after the invasion, and in October it raised its total to 600,000. On the low end, the independent, U.S.-based Iraq Coalition Casualty Count placed the one-year total from March 2006 to last weekend, including Iraqi security forces, at 21,186.

The United Nations, using reports from Iraqi morgues, hospitals and local authorities, placed the 2006 figure at 34,000 -- three times the official Iraqi government count. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office ordered the country's health ministry to stop providing figures to the United Nations.
Comment: Having detailed information on deaths of one group of people, and no firm information on the much larger number of deaths in the same conflict of another group of people has grave consequences. Decisions are too often made on available information rather than accurate data. Moreover, the information that is "available" depends on how hard you look. Popular opposition to the war in Iraq in the United States would I believe be much stronger if the average citizen had a good idea of the massive suffering of the Iraqi people. JAD

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Digital Prosperity: Understanding the Economic Benefits of the Information Technology Revolution"

ITIF Description: "There have been surprisingly few attempts to catalogue what is known about the economic impact of information and communications technology (IT). In a new report, ITIF does just that, examining the impact of IT in five key areas: 1) productivity; 2) employment; 3) more efficient markets; 4) higher quality goods and services; and 5) innovation and new products and services. The report finds that the integration of IT into virtually all aspects of the economy and society is creating a digitally-enabled economy that is responsible for generating the lion’s share of economic growth and prosperity, both here and abroad, including in developing nations. Importantly, the “IT engine” does not appear likely to run out of gas anytime soon and should power robust growth for at least the next decade, provided that policy makers take the right steps. Toward that end the report lays out five key public policy principles for driving digital prosperity: 1) give the digital economy its due; 2) actively encourage digital innovation and transformation of economic sectors; 3) use the tax code to spur IT investment; 4) encourage universal digital literacy and adoption; and 5) do no harm."

This report, posted today, is a product of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. ITIF is a non-profit public policy think tank. It seeks to advance a pro-productivity, pro-innovation and pro-technology public policy agenda internationally, in the United States as a whole, and the individual states of the United States. According to the New York Times, ITIF "work is supported by companies like I.B.M., Cisco Systems and eBay, as well as by the Communications Workers of America and foundation grants." The website of this small thinktank provides news and reports, as well as information about the organization itself.

Read the New York Times article by Steve Lohr about the study's findings.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Rising Above The Gathering Storm:

Rising Above The Gathering Storm:

Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century: An Agenda for American Science and Technology, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. National Academies Press, 2007.

National Academies Press' Description:
In a world where advanced knowledge is widespread and low-cost labor is readily available, U.S. advantages in the marketplace and in science and technology have begun to erode. A comprehensive and coordinated federal effort is urgently needed to bolster U.S. competitiveness and pre-eminence in these areas. This congressionally requested report by a pre-eminent committee makes four recommendations along with 20 implementation actions that federal policy-makers should take to create high-quality jobs and focus new science and technology efforts on meeting the nation's needs, especially in the area of clean, affordable energy:

1) Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education;
2) Sustain and strengthen the nation's commitment to long-term basic research;
3) Develop, recruit, and retain top students, scientists, and engineers from both the U.S. and abroad; and
4) Ensure that the United States is the premier place in the world for innovation.

Some actions will involve changing existing laws, while others will require financial support that would come from reallocating existing budgets or increasing them. Rising Above the Gathering Storm will be of great interest to federal and state government agencies, educators and schools, public decision makers, research sponsors, regulatory analysts, and scholars.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzales Justice Department Political Profiling

Read "The Political Profiling of Elected Democratic Officials: When Rhetorical Vision Participation Runs Amok" by Donald C. Shields and John F. Cragan on ePluribus Media, 18 February 2007.

This article states:
We compare political profiling to racial profiling by presenting the results (January 2001 through December 2006) of the U.S. Attorneys' federal investigation and/or indictment of 375 elected officials. The distribution of party affiliation of the sample is compared to the available normative data (50% Dem, 41% GOP, and 9% Ind.).

Data indicate that the offices of the U.S. Atttorneys across the nation investigate seven (7) times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials, a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African Americans in traffic stops......

The current Bush Republican Administration appears to be the first to have engaged in political profiling.
Read also in ePluribus Media, about the seven U.S. Attorneys recently dismissed by the Attorney General:
* "The Gonzales Seven"

* "The Alberto Gonzales Appointments: How the Process Has Changed and Why this is so Important," by Adam Lambert, 30 January 2007
Comment: The first of these articles provides a nice example of a simple analysis of available information that yields an important fact. Knowledge that the Bush administration is playing politics with the investigative process of the Department of Justice may allow (the newly Democratic Congress) to take steps to stop such abuse now and in the future. JAD

Three Thoughts: Time and Technology

1. Technologies Mature and Strategy Should Depend on Stage of Maturation:

A recent article in The Economist ("Out of the dusty labs," March 1, 2007) says
Companies tinker with today's products rather than pay researchers to think big thoughts.
The article suggests that companies are reducing their attention to basic research, closing the gap between "research" and "development". The article also notes that it was companies that held monopoly power in the past -- IBM, AT&T -- that could afford the kind of research that wins Nobel Prizes. I suspect that there is truth in these observations.

The examples used in the article, however, come from the computer industry. The first computers were made more than a half century ago, and the industry has matured greatly in the intervening years. I suspect that, as a result of that maturity, the relative payoffs for searches for breakthroughs versus for marginal improvements of existing products have changed. Marginal improvements in products fighting for huge markets are lower risk and better for the current bottom line than the search for fundamental changes that will only produce future revenues (if the firm is lucky). Still, I think it is important that people keep working on quantum computers, since if they succeed in developing that technology it may be transformational.

But biotechnology, I think, is still in an earlier, less mature phase of its development. The balance between fundamental research and product development is different than for computer technologies. In comparison with computers, a larger portion of biotech research is fundamental and done in universities and less biotech product development is done in corporations.

I suspect that neurobiology and cognitive research will produce transformational technology in the not too distant future. Better, more scientifically-based educational techniques may transform schooling and learning. We may find the reasons for autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, allowing corporations to profit from protection and prevention of those and other problems related to brain functions. An aging population will pay for new technologies to prevent dementia and reduce the loss of mental ability with age. But, at this point for this research area, the balance must be, I would think, far more toward public and foundation funding of fundamental research than commercial funding of product development.

2. "High Technology" and Trade Statistics

It has been noted that international trade in high technology, that was dominated a couple of decades ago by the US, Japan and Europe, is increasingly dominated by China and emerging Asian economies. I suggest, however, that because the definition of "high technology" embodied in trade statistics lags, the statistics don't adequately measure trade in the "cutting-edge" technologies. Thus, the PC which was cutting-edge technology thirty or thirty-five years ago, has been commoditized. The assembly of PCs is now an industrial manufacturing process suited for industrial economies, while the building of computers in the 1950's was really "high technology" of that time. So too, the transfer of software production functions (of different types) to Ireland and India reflects in part a maturation and commodification of parts of the software industry. Look to trade in supercomputers, which are continually at the cutting edge of technological possibilities for a better measure of relative technological capacity.

International trade statistics are intended to allow comparisons over time as well as among exporting nations. The definition of what is a high technology product is based on industrial categories that must therefore remain unchanged for decades. As an industry matures and moves toward mass production of commodities, its activities tend to shift geographically to countries that have comparative advantage in the industrial production of commodities. That shift, however, may easily be confounded with a shift in the comparative advantage in what is truly "high" or "cutting-edge" technological capacity.

Knowledge-economy nations will continue to invest in fundamental research, and will continue to commercialize technological breakthroughs, creating new industries and new products. To remain successful, they will have to continue the process of replacing the maturing industries that they lose to industrial and industrializing nations with new sources of employment and economic growth.

Don't let trade statistics based on lagging definitions of what constitutes "high technology" distract attention from the real issues in maintaining competitiveness of a knowledge economy.

3. National Technology Transforms with Time

Economic development depends on increasing productivity, which involves producing more efficiently. That means, in part, that new technologies must must be introduced to improve productivity of labor and capital. (Of course, nations can also improve productivity by better organizing production and distribution.) Moreover, economic development results in changes in patterns of factor costs; the appropriate technology for a labor intensive economy is generally not the most appropriate for a more capital intensive technology.

"Natural" resources also depend on technology. Obviously, as the technology for inventorying mineral, forest, ocean, land and other resources improves, the available natural resource base changes. So too, as technology for exploiting and managing such resources improves, materials which once were not commercially viable become commercializable resources.

Globalization means that the international (and intra-national) patterns of comparative advantage matter more and more for all countries. The more rapid the rate of technological innovation, the more rapid the rate of change in comparative advantage, the more rapid must be the rate of technological innovation. Since, indeed, globalization is driven in part by technological improvements in communications and transportation, there seems to be an feedback loop to make change faster and faster.

"Invention" is often confounded with "innovation". Innovations in one society may be standard practice in another. As a general rule, it seems to me, invention will be more important in a knowledge economy than in an industrial or pre-industrial economy. In the latter, innovation will depend more on adaptation and deepening of technology and on technology transfer.

The vast majority of technological innovations everywhere must be based on existing technology transferred into the enterprise or community. Thus the United States, a large nation with a knowledge economy, produces only a third of the world's scientific papers. With five percent of the world's population, it does not and can not produce the majority of the world's inventions. Expanding the example, if one takes any of the 50 states in the union it must obviously produce only a small part of the worlds inventions.

Thus all national innovation systems must focus on the capabilities of their enterprises to identify, obtain, adapt, adopt and improve existing technologies. While invention is probably important in all societies, I would suggest that innovation in any society is based primarily on imitation.

Still, obviously, economies differ in their abilities to develop and utilize cutting edge technologies -- typically those technologies most nearly related to and most dependent on scientific knowledge. As countries develop economically and technologically over time, their innovation strategies can focus more on high technology inventions. While Rwanda may and should seek to strengthen its innovation system, it probably should not expect to develop a high-tech economy any time soon. Similarly, while Finland or Massachusetts may seek to improve their farming technologies, their comparative advantage will probably continue to lie in their highly educated people and in their economies' abilities to invent and to rapidly commercialize inventions.


Those who do not think of technology in terms of time -- of processes that take place over decades -- are likely to make serious errors. Technologies mature, and what is right at the early stage of development of a technological system is not necessarily right at a later stage. Patterns of comparative advantage change over time in our globalizing economies, and again, what is right at one time is not necessarily right later. Nations develop, and the right technological policy at one stage of development is not necessarily right at the next.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Intellectual Property Rights -- Local and Indigenous Knowledge

I was chatting with a student yesterday about IPR and local and indigenous knowledge. The topic is interesting. There is more concern now than there used to be about the rights people have to profit from the information they provide to the larger world. I think it is recognized that people will better conserve and preserve genetic diversity when they can benefit from the utilization of that diversity. Moreover, more people are concerned about the ethics of taking traditional remedies and traditional crops, improving them, commercializing them, and not giving anything back to the people who developed and maintained them. So too, the increased political power of indigenous and local populations allows them to militate more effectively that such rights be recognized.

I am here considering knowledge held by tribal peoples, but also by knowledge held in local communities which do not consider themselves and are not considered to be indigenous. In Latin America, Spanish speaking communities have in some cases lived for centuries in the same location -- long enough to have accumulated considerable knowledge and to have transmitted that knowledge from generation to generation through means that have been institutionalized for so long that they may be seen as "traditional institutions". Indeed, I think the urban slum dwellers also may be seen to have build knowledge traditions that don't depend on schools and other "modern" and "modernizing" institutions.

I would note that the knowledge possessed by indigenous and local peoples includes traditional knowledge, gained in the past and passed between generations through traditional institutions. It also includes new information acquired from others or created within the indigenous or local community. To deny that there is a process of knowledge creation in such communities is to deny that they can learn, and seems clearly to be false.

I suggest that, as in other (more modern) communities, indigenous and local knowledge also decays. Sometimes it is lost, as the only members of the community with that knowledge die off. However, sometimes knowledge can be regarded as discarded. Conditions change, and the knowledge of those conditions has to be updated -- the outdated outdated then discarded or at best archived in case conditions change back. Newly created knowledge thus proves more useful than old, and replaces the old.

While most of us think in terms of knowledge as that embodied in the minds of people, there are other embodiments -- in institutions, in machines, and indeed stored in books and now in digital form on the web.

I think of knowledge as most often socially constructed. Think about scientific knowledge. Experimental results are suspect until they have been replicated in other labs. Often experimentalists test hypotheses generated by others. New hypotheses, if they are to be successful, must be consistent with the body of previous, replicated experimental data produced by a community of scientists. Often scientists discuss the meaning of the experimental data and seek alternative conceptualizations of quantitative formulas.

As I have pointed out in this blog in the past, different institutions have different processes for construing knowledge. The judicial system has rules of evidence, formalized roles for judges and advocates, and the jury process. The Congress has hearings, professional analytic staffs, institutionalized systems for consultation with constituents, public debates, and indeed elections to replace legislators who displease their constituents with the ways they have embodied knowledge in legislations.

I am no expert, but it seems to me that local and indigenous knowledge too results from processes of social construction. A farmer, perhaps from and indigenous people, discovers a better way of using his land -- and in many poor farming communities, even those considered very traditional, there are farmers who are innovative and looking for better ways of doing things. If others learn of his success and copy it, the innovation diffuses to other farms. Knowledge of the innovative technique becomes part of the stock of that community, to be shared and passed down.

Similarly, a mother discovers a child ill from a disease unknown in the community. She finds a way to comfort the child, or does not. If the illness pops up again and again in the community, eventually a mother comes upon something that seems to work. Successful approaches can be shared with other mothers, applied to other children who appear to suffer from the same illness. The point being that the knowledge sharing among mothers related to the care of ill children is likely to be socially different from that among farmers related to better ways of farming. The flow of knowledge in the two cases institutionalized into different paths or channels within the communities.

I most often think of intellectual property rights in terms of patents and copyright -- the rights established in law. But of course there are other rights created and enforced in knowledge systems. The knowledge related rights of judges and lawyers in the legal system, or of members of the majority and minority party members in the legislative system differ and are carefully enforced. So too the "rights" of farmers or mothers in local communities in the knowledge systems of those communities seem likely to be related to their individual statuses within their communities. Who then has the right to warrant a finding as legitimate knowledge? Who has the right to discard a piece of knowledge as no longer useful?

I suppose that the situation is most interesting at the interface of two knowledge systems, such as a local and a national system. Whose right to warrant and transmit knowledge is most respected in the community -- the traditional tribal elder or the school teacher? The shaman or the health auxiliary in the government health center?

There are various programs supported by donor organizations dealing with indigenous and local knowledge. Often advised by professional anthropologists, planned and overseen by donor agency managers, and implemented by national agencies or organizations, their projects can reflect the interaction of four or more knowledge systems at the local level. How is knowledge creation and depreciation construed at the interface? What knowledge-related rights are recognized at the interface? By which participants in the processes? To which participants?

As we institutionalize efforts to program in ways that recognize local and indigenous knowledge, recursions abound in the interplay of various knowledge systems.

Of course, the concept of "rights" is itself a cultural construct. I don't suppose it generalizes to all cultures, although I don't know. I also suggest that there are other ways to conceptualize the roles of different participants in the knowledge system. Thus some farmers in a local community are probably known as the most innovative, and are watched by others, but are not seen as having the "right" to create new knowledge. (On the other hand, Michael Faraday and other commoner scientists were not thought by many of their aristocratic scientific compatriots to have the right to do innovative science. In the United States, apparently, there was a battle in the last century as to whether doctors or midwives had the greater right to provide advice and knowledge-based services to delivering mothers -- a battle the doctors won in spite of their worse records in the outcomes of the deliveries.)

There is, I think, a fertile are for intellectual development here, combining understanding of the anthropology of knowledge systems, theories of social construction of knowledge, and organizational theory.

161 exabytes growing at 57% per year

How much information is the world creating and copying in a given year? A new IDC study released by EMC Corporation finds:
  • The 2006 digital universe was 161 billion gigabytes (161 exabytes) in size.
  • IDC projects a six fold annual information growth from 2006 to 2010.
  • While nearly 70% of the digital universe will be generated by individuals by 2010, organizations will be responsible for the security, privacy, reliability and compliance of at least 85% of the information.
161 exabytes equals approximately three million times the information in all the books ever written – or the equivalent of 12 stacks of books, each extending more than 93 million miles from the earth to the sun. According to IDC, the amount of information created and copied in 2010 will surge more than six fold to 988 exabytes, a compound annual growth rate of 57%.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Of the four great instrumentalities available to nations for influencing the world around them -- diplomacy, armed force, money, and information -- the last is both the most powerful and the least understood.

Ithiel de Sola Pool
"Information Goals"
Foreign Service Journal
July 1963, page 24
Quoted in Digital Diplomacy: U.S. Foreign Policy in the Information Age by Wilson Hazard

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Genetics of the British Isles and Ireland

Read "A United Kingdom? Maybe" by NICHOLAS WADE, The New York Times, March 6, 2007.

According to this article, Stephen Oppenheimer suggests that "the principal ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived from Spain about 16,000 years ago, speaking a language related to Basque....about three-quarters of the ancestors of today’s British and Irish populations arrived between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, when rising sea levels split Britain and Ireland from the Continent and from each other, Dr. Oppenheimer calculates in a new book, The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story.”
Ireland received the fewest of the subsequent invaders; their DNA makes up about 12 percent of the Irish gene pool, Dr. Oppenheimer estimates. DNA from invaders accounts for 20 percent of the gene pool in Wales, 30 percent in Scotland, and about a third in eastern and southern England.

But no single group of invaders is responsible for more than 5 percent of the current gene pool, Dr. Oppenheimer says on the basis of genetic data. He cites figures from the archaeologist Heinrich Haerke that the Anglo-Saxon invasions that began in the fourth century A.D. added about 250,000 people to a British population of one to two million, an estimate that Dr. Oppenheimer notes is larger than his but considerably less than the substantial replacement of the English population assumed by others. The Norman invasion of 1066 brought not many more than 10,000 people, according to Dr. Haerke.
Bryan Sykes is cited as agreeing "that the ancestors of 'by far the majority of people' were present in the British Isles before the Roman conquest of A.D. 43. 'The Saxons, Vikings and Normans had a minor effect, and much less than some of the medieval historical texts would indicate,' he said. His conclusions, based on his own genetic survey and information in his genealogical testing service, Oxford Ancestors, are reported in his new book, Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland."

Comment: The roots of conflict among the Celtic peoples and the Anglo Saxon are, in my opinion, political and economic more than cultural, and cultural more than genetic. Still, knowledge that the peoples of the islands are genetically "brothers under the skin" may help to further in conflict resolution and reduction, if only marginally. JAD

Monday, March 05, 2007

High Temperature Superconductors

A magnet is suspended in midair using a high temperature superconductor.
Credit: Courtesy Argonne National Lab via the National Science Foundation

"The 'new age' of super materials"
By Jonathan Fildes, BBC News, 5 March 2007.

The article points out that, although many years have passed since the original hyped claims about high temperature superconductors, practical applications of the technology are beginning to appear:
"The typical time it takes from inventing a new concept to application is 20 years," (said Dr Dennis Newns of IBM). "And that is exactly what we have seen."
Summarizing by selected quotations:
Companies in Japan, Europe, China, South Korea and the US are forging ahead with applications.

In the US, American Superconductor has developed a way to "bend the unbendable", creating HTSC wires that can carry 150 times more electricity than the equivalent copper cables.....

Central Japan Railways uses coils of it for their superconducting experimental magnetic levitation (maglev) train.

American Superconductor has also developed an electric motor using coils of superconducting wire for use in the next generation of US Navy destroyers.....

New superconductors have been found. For example, a new mercury-based compound has a transition temperature of 134K (-139C)

"When we applied pressure we raised it up to 164K (-109C) - that's a record," said Professor Chu.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Shoule R be Divorced from D: No and Yes!

Read "The rise and fall of corporate R&D: Out of the dusty labs" in The Economist of March 1st 2007. (Subscription required.)

The article subtitled "Technology firms have left the big corporate R&D laboratory behind, shifting the emphasis from research to development. Does it matter?" notes:
AT&T's Bell Labs (pictured above) earned six Nobel prizes for inventions such as the laser and the transistor. IBM picked up three, two from its Zurich Research Laboratory alone. And Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) devised the personal computer's distinctive elements, including the mouse, the graphical user interface and the Ethernet protocol for computer networking (although it was criticised for failing to commercialise such leaps forward).

Now the big corporate laboratories are either gone or a shadow of what they were. Companies tinker with today's products rather than pay researchers to think big thoughts. More often than not, firms hungry for innovation look to mergers and acquisitions with their peers, partnerships with universities and takeovers of venture-capital-backed start-ups. The traditional separation of research and development enshrined by Bush in 1945 is rapidly disappearing, especially in the information-technology industry. Does this mean the days when companies came up with big breakthroughs are over, too?

Not necessarily. The approach to R&D is changing because long-term research was a luxury only a monopoly could afford. In their heyday, the big firms dominated their markets. AT&T ran the telephone network, IBM dominated the mainframe-computer business and Xerox was a synonym for photocopying. The companies themselves saw the cost of basic scientific research as a small price to pay for such power.
Comment: The article points out the merit of breaking down the old model that separated basic research from applied, and physically separated the scientist from the engineer and technology development.

The author(s) probably overestimate the separation that existed in the past. They are correct, I think, that there is an increasing recognition that science and technology are intimately linked, and the process of research and development has many close linkages and feedback loops;

However, there is a role for research simply intended to solve the riddles of nature, and historical experience indicates that very occasionally such research results in new knowledge that revolutionizes an area of technology, and thus of society. I value such research for itself, and the knowledge it creates as a "consumer good". We are fortunate when governments and philanthropies provide funds to such activities in adequate amounts that the revolutionary breakthroughs keep coming.

Examples of the Ignorance of Americans

Read "Blind Faith: Americans believe in religion -- but know little about it" by Susan Jacoby, The Washington Post, Sunday, March 4, 2007.

The article is a review of RELIGIOUS LITERACY: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't by Stephen Prothero.

Fewer than half of the people in the United States "can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount......The condition Prothero describes in Religious Literacy is unquestionably one manifestation of a more general decline in the public's cultural and civic knowledge. According to polls conducted by the National Constitution Center, only one third of Americans can name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.....Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and -- a finding that will surprise many -- evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts......It is less surprising but more dangerous, given America's role in the world, that the public knows even less about Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism than it does about Christianity and Judaism.....

"Yet 19th-century autodidacts, including Abraham Lincoln (who had less than a year of formal education) and Robert Green Ingersoll, the orator known as "the Great Agnostic," achieved both religious and secular literacy by reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible without any prompting from teachers."

Comment: I have wondered about the difference between schooling and education. It seems that for many in the past, there existed a culture which encouraged thought about serious issues and philosophic principles, even in the absence of formal schooling. Today we have a plethora of formal schooling, and an absence of serious thought.

If Americans don't know about religion, there is great room for bigots and Elmer Gantry's to have undue influence.

The author also notes:
The fervor of America's periodic cycles of revivalism, rooted in a personal relationship with God rather than in theology handed down by learned clergy, has always had a strong anti-intellectual as well as spiritual component.
Comment: We now have unparalleled access to the thinking of wise men. We have books dating back to thousands of years ago, and huge numbers have been published in the last century. We can buy those books cheaply, or read them free from the library or online, and have all sorts of tools to sort those which have been well regarded from those which have not. It is not only in religion that good sense suggests we learn from those who have thought most seriously in the past and left us with the fruit of their thinking. The anti-intellectualism of American culture, which ignores this opportunity and responsibility is breathtaking! JAD