It’s not all strawberry versus chocolate ice cream!

Now, I am a mint-chip ice cream (-loving) person myself, and dismiss vanilla* for being merely useful as an ingredient base for other treats. And of course, I’m entitled to my opinion. In turn, you all are free to express your own opinions about flavours of ice cream, including your total disinterest in eating ice cream.

(* It may be that I lack some kind of flavour receptor[s] to fully perceive vanilla/vanillin, because no matter what sort of sweet or quality of material, vanilla has never seemed to be particularly interesting or tasty to me.)

But there are opinions and there are other opinions, and Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, teaches his students that they are not entitled to have their opinions.

In a recent article, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” he immediately acknowledges this sounds a bit harsh, but explains that the point of a philosophy class  is learning how to create sound arguments, instead of leaning on beliefs, emotions, and misconceptions of what we think we know. Although opinions may be owned or expressed, not all opinions are equally valid.

Stokes skillfully distinguishes between the different things that fall under the vast umbrella of opinion:

But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

It’s the conflating of being able to express one’s tastes, preferences, and beliefs — and then expecting those statements to be taken as seriously as fact-based, logically-sound argument — that is the major problem.

It is a major problem in everyday discourse, and in heated debates within and between countries, and it is an especially prevalent problem in various media. There’s the tired trope* of “getting balance” by interviewing “both sides” even though there are often more than just two sides (life is messy that way), and the problem that the opinions of both “sides” do not necessarily carry the same factual value (life is reality-based that way).

(* More on the problems with the news media and “balance” in my earlier post, “Both Sides Now”.)

Not all the information one finds or hears is equally valid. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

Stokes further explains:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Wait a minute — can’t anyone have an opinion about anything? Of course!

Can’t anyone express their opinion about anything? Of course!*

(* Although it really helps if people take the time to ensure their protest signs are properly spelled and punctuated. Otherwise much hilarity ensues and one ends up with derisive and/or dismissive infamy rather than being taken seriously.)

But what unfounded opinion cannot do is carry equal weight when discussions require expertise.

Back to our ice cream opinions:  I know that vanilla bean pods come from a variety of orchid, because that’s a tidbit of horticultural knowledge and I am a horticulturalist. Being a foodie, I have long known that vanillin was synthesized as a less-expensive alternative for use in commercial products, and that it is the primary ingredient in the artificially-flavoured vanilla extract sold at the market.

BUT, I cannot be an expert witness or speaker on vanilla.

Likely, neither can the majority of you.

Not on the cultivars, growing, agri-ecology, processing from raw material to diverse flavouring forms, business economics, grower’s social justice issues, distribution and packaging, artificial synthesis of vanillin, culinary chemistry, historical usage, future trends of natural versus artificial flavouring … none of that stuff. Nor anything else that didn’t come to mind, albeit I was able to come up with a longish list just because I have that horticultural background and was able to extrapolate what accessory topics could be included.

You are entitled to have and to express your opinion, but that does not mean it must to be taken as serious fact; pointing that out is not being disrespectful to you as a person — it means that your opinion is insufficient to the case.

‘Personal Opinion’ is not some cloak of factual immunity that one can wear to suddenly become a creditable expert.

(Oh, and speaking of public persons with opinions but who are not experts, guess who came along to comment upon Stokes’ article …)

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What Would Molly Ivins Say?

Oh, boy howdy! This article by Laura Hibbard, “Texas Republican Party Calls For Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Corporal Punishment In Schools” nearly made me choke on my cuppa tea. She described just a few of the details the 2012 Republican Party of Texas wants for their state schools. (The article also includes a nicely scrollable copy of their entire Platform Report.)

You know me, I’m a science person, with keen interests in education and social justice.  And I was flabbergasted. It’s like a car crash — you can’t help but gawp in horrified fascination. Well, I had the day off work, so after a house-painting break, scanned through most of the document. It’s one thing to hear soundbites on the radio or in video, but quite another to actually be able to read an entire position. For one thing, it gives a person the chance to notice internal inconsistencies, and look things up.

In addition to the aforementioned items listed in the title of Hibbard’s article, the Texas GOP’s document lists a lot more in their “Educating Our Children” section. For example, they also want to eliminate preschool and kindergarten, and require daily pledges of allegiance to the US & Texas flags (because that somehow makes one patriotic).

Ooh, get this:

“Classroom Expenditures for Staff – We support having 80% of school district payroll expenses of professional staff of a school district be full-time classroom teachers.”

You realize that means giving the ability to hire a number of part-time classroom teachers (and paraprofessionals if they opt to include some) who can be paid WAY less, which will keep a district’s budget way down. “Fiscal responsibility” as a loophole for loading up on part-time staff. Who of course often don’t get benefits — unfortunately, a common practice in education and other industries. (Yes, I’m calling education an industry.)

And of course, this next incredible ::head-desk:: concept that (for me) underpins a great deal of their platform:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Because you know, mastering the subject material and learning how to think critically will undermine the GOP’s fixed beliefs and enable challenging authority. Any challenges to authority will be dealt with accordingly:

“Classroom Discipline –We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas.”

Under the “Promoting Individual Freedom and Personal Safety” section, this concept continues as, Read the rest of this entry »

Reasoning for a good cause

“Same thing,” she said, waving off the comment and walking off toward the time-clock to punch out.

“But– no, it’s not …” I protested, and then stopped talking as I saw her leaving not only the the doorway where I stood, but our conversation as well.

If you could call it a conversation; I’ve had longer dialogs with fellow elevator riders.

It was hard to stop my rebuttal. I so wanted to explain, and having to force myself to stop in mid-sentence (hell, mid-mini-monologue) is hardly my style. But I diligently keep practicing social skills, including noticing when others have quit a topic.

Having already clocked out, I gave up, left the building, and even waited to get into my car before expressing my complaints aloud to no one — except a fruit fly uselessly orbiting the fragrant-but-empty lunch bag I had just tossed onto the floor.

And a fruit fly doesn’t give a gnat’s ass about the seemingly subtle difference between reason and cause. No, it is not mere semantics, and they are not exact synonyms.

“So how was your trip?” she had asked as we met in the hallway. We had not yet crossed paths that day, delaying the obligatory Monday morning chit-chat.

“Oh it was lovely, except for missing a connecting flight, so I was only there two days,” I began. And I was proud that I had even mindfully planned ahead to next ask her if she’d ever been to Boston, thus fulfilling my offering volley in the chit-chat process — when she gave me that totally unexpected, inexplicable response:

“Well you know, ‘Everything happens for a Reason’ !” She chirped, nodding sagely.

“You mean a cause,” I began.

“Same thing,” she said, waving off the comment and walking off toward the time-clock to punch out.

“But– no, it’s not …” I protested.* Read the rest of this entry »

Naturally, I love chemicals!

This is a continuation on my previous post, “Attention, grocery shoppers!”

So the other night my daughter was complaining of her ingrown toenail that’s been bothering her for the past month.

“Why don’t you soak your foot in Epsom Salts?” I suggested.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“See that blue milk carton atop the fridge?” (That’s where we keep our first-aid/pharmacopeia.)  “It’s magnesium sulfate*.  Bath salts. It’ll help draw out the inflammation and such.”

“Salt?!” She winced

“Mineral salt, not sodium chloride table salt,” I added, while refraining from explaining about ionic bonds.  Her hubby the medic prepared her a foot soak and explained that magnesium sulfate is a natural mineral salt that’s mined and used for all sorts of things.

While she soothed her cold, sore feet in warm water, I had a mental chuckle over “natural chemical”.  To many people, the two words are antonyms — and very distant opposites at that.  As I’ve said before, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.  Minerals are chemicals.  So are sugar, water, caffeine, theobromine (mn chocolate), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), all the ingredients in your can of soda, and so on.

Natural means that something is found in nature, with or without some processing.  Apple juice and olive oil are natural because they squeeze the bejeezus out of those fruits.  (Botanically, fruits are the parts of the plants with the seeds inside; olives and tomatoes are vegetables insofar as cookery and taxation are concerned.)  Vanilla extract is a natural flavor because vanilla beans are used.  Other natural flavors use plant and animal products.

Artificial, which is what many people really mean by the word “chemical”, means a substance produced synthetically.  In my organic chemistry lab, we made (minute) quantities of isopentyl acetate, which most of us are familiar with as artificial banana flavor used in candies or instant puddings. Imitation banana flavor is obviously pretty fake!  But imitation wintergreen is not so readily identifiable, nor is it dissimilar from naturally-distilled wintergreen essence, aside from the fact that the natural distillation will have additional “impurities” that add more depth to the flavor.

The divisions between natural and artificial are fairly straight-forward.  But the definitions of “organic” aren’t!  That’s because we have different meanings for the word organic in different contexts.

Once Upon A Time, O Best Beloved, there was just chemistry, that field of natural philosophy that the scientific method dragged out of the abyss of alchemy.  Organic materials were those which came from natural sources, and were deemed special and beyond the production of the laboratory; they were somehow still deemed to have a “vital force”.  However, in the early 19th century, urea (yes, the stuff of urine) was artificially synthesized, thus dispelling that last thread of medievalism.

Nowadays, organic chemistry occupies itself with materials composed of hydrocarbons, that is, molecules with both Carbon and Hydrogen atoms.  So instead of natural materials, there are a lot of well, unnatural materials involved, such as plastics, drugs, fertilizers, house paints … ordinary everyday stuff, most of which we wouldn’t want to live without.

In addition to the chemistry definition of organic, we have a couple of other usages.  When I’m teaching about composting, we use the term organic in its original sense of “from something living”.  If it used to be alive, you can compost it and create lovely humus (although fatty things will smell, so we leave meats & dairy items out).

Organic gardening and farming is yet another story.  Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot be used, and transgenic plants are most always frowned upon as well.  (I have mixed feelings about transgenics; not about the processes, which are simply more specific means of breeding, but about other economic and agro-ecological issues.)

Unfortunately, the history of organic growing is fraught with heavy doses of woo, including planting by moon-signs, astrology, companion planting, and whatnot.  Fortunately, the professional realm has abandoned these, because professional growers have a lot of energy, money, time and effort invested (and of course, documentation work, because nothing officially exists without documentation).  They can’t afford to waste time on nonsense.  Unfortunately for the gardening end, lots of this woo still propagates through the vacuum of teh interwebs.

Last on my list of definitions is the oft-misapplied sense that anything “natural” or “organic” must therefore be safe.  This is bullshit.  There are lots of natural poisons!

Conversely, artificial does not automatically mean dangerous. For example we’ve been using synthetic acetylsalicylic acid (commonly known as aspirin) for decades, instead of the salicylic acid derived from willow bark that was painful to swallow and digest.  The name salicylic acid comes from the genus Salix, in reference to the willow. (Interestingly, wintergreen flavoring can be made from … aspirin!)

There are many organic materials that can be derived both naturally or artificially, and the molecules have no magical memory about where they came from previously.  A nitrate is a nitrate is a plant fertilizer, and a pan’s a pan for all that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to nom on some banana Laffy Taffy.

* Technically magnesium sulfate heptahydrate, for chemists and those who actually care — you know who you are.

“Attention grocery shoppers!”

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.

It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.

And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).

One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.

Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?

My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.

Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.

“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”

“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.

“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”

Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.

“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)

Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.

And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.

But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.

I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.

“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”

“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)

“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”

Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Welcome to the Ivory Tower, Internet

My daughter shares this story:

Research is to English majors what coffee is to the general college student. Essays are ramen and reading material naps, if you’re curious. (Note that literal naps often overlap with these figurative ones.) So caught up in the glee of primary sources and minutia of MLA, we forget that not all of our academic brethren are blessed with this area of education.

Also, people are stupid.

So I’m sitting in my philosophy professor’s office, chatting breezily about feminist interpretations of Aristotle and (conventionally enough) existential crises in modern films. A flustered gentleman comes crashing through the doorway pleading for an audience. She invites him in, and he begins his protestations before I have a chance to vacate and thus offer privacy.

“Why did I get an F on this paper?” he whines, gesturing to the scarlet letter like it were the very knife Brutus plunged into Caesar’s back.

“Because it was a research paper,” she answers, “and you only had one source.”

“And?”

“And it was Wikipedia.”

“And?”

“And that’s not a credible source.”

“Nu-uh!” he cries, despondent in the face of life’s cold injustice. “I know it was! I posted the information myself.

Seated on the bridge of the Enterprise, Captain Picard does a pained face-palm

Seated on the bridge of the Enterprise, Captain Picard does a pained face-palm

Cool thoughts

[Not-quite Wordless Wednesday]

M’s wisdom, via poetry magnets on our fridge:

word magnets reading, "We Value Information As Our Power"

word magnets reading, "We Value Information As Our Power"

Let me spell this out for you,

I’ve been absent from bloggery due to the work load as we near the end of the semester; this past weekend I graded five exams and a bunch of extra-credit assignments.  So far I have two students who have BLATANTLY just copied-pasted stuff from Web sites. This despite my having told them in the assignment handout,

All of the text should be in your own words, a synthesis of the information you have gathered, put into complete sentences.

The Student Code of Conduct explains the kind of misrepresentation that qualifies as plagiarism:  [URL link]

What, like they think I can’t tell this isn’t student writing, or won’t bother to type in a URL they listed in their bibliography?  One student just “re-gifted” an assignment obviously written for another class, which is just tacky as well — it’s one thing to recycle some information you’ve already researched and edit it to fit the requirements of a new report, but this stuff wasn’t even changed to fit what I’d asked for.

So I discussed the issue with the dept dean, and was given the suggestion of explaining the problem with the student, and offering them the opportunity to re-do the assignment correctly, or else take a 10% reduction on the Final Exam grade.  I like this option, because there are still significant consequences, but the student gets to decide what they’re doing.

One student left class before I could talk to him.  The other one I talked to, and his point of view was that:

(1) He didn’t see why using the same assignment for two classes was a problem. (“It needs to match the requirements of what I asked for.  Go back and re-read the assignment page.”)

(2) He didn’t see why copy-pasting information was a problem (“The course syllabus AND the assignment page both describe what plagiarizing is, and the assignment page specifically says it needs to be In Your Own Words.  When you quote something, it has to be offset, or in quote marks or otherwise marked.”)

I had to reiterate that I had talked with the Dean who had seen his paper, and agreed to this plan.

And golly gee if he didn’t go and do what I suspected he would!  He outright said that he’d submitted this same paper to his other prof, and that prof had no problems with the paper. (Somehow in his mind, this was supposed to be a strong argument; because you know, if you get by with cheating once, then it shouldn’t be a problem if you do it again.)  I explained that was between the other prof and him.  I knew this was plagiarism, and I wasn’t going to accept the paper.

GAH.

Things that mystify me

Not big, cosmic questions. Little stupid piddly-ass stuff. Like:

People who wedge open the flaps to trash cans by sticking their drink cups partway in. Why not simply push the flap just a bit further in and drop your rubbish into the can? Why leave it wedged open?  This makes the OCD-ish part of my brain hurt.

When someone asks, “Why is it always in the last place you look?”
“Because,” I finally replied to my clueless coworker, “once you find it, you quit looking!”
“Oh! I never thought of that.”
(I regret that I am not making this up.)

This was a rant from last week, by one of the secondary teachers: Read the rest of this entry »

The sum of good intentions

Feel free to insert the more familiar or acceptable word of your choice.  But regardless of your word choice, the equation stands:

Good Intentions plus Bullshit still equals Bullshit

It doesn’t matter if you are a parent earnestly trying to help your child improve lagging developmental skills — if the information you are disseminating to newbies or news agencies is based upon bogus treatments and world-wide conspiracy theories, then the information you are giving others is still bullshit. (Example: vaccines cause autism and/or dozens of unproven “cures” for all sorts of developmental/educational difficulties.)

It doesn’t matter if you are an elected official trying to get funding for projects that could potentially improve the local economy — if your cherry-picked “experts” assert that there are no ecological problems, but the overwhelming majority of experts from agencies around the world say there will be serious consequences, then your assertions are still bullshit.  (Example: Sarah Palin on global warming, oil pipelines, and polar bears.)

It doesn’t matter if you are a news reporter trying to ensure “balanced coverage” of a story by quoting from “both sides” — when one of those “sides” lacks credibility and just presents distraught protagonists ranting over perceived injustices because fact-based reality keeps intruding upon belief systems based upon magical thinking and millenia-old folk tales, then your editorial judgment is weak and the news is full of bullshit.  Respecting others’ feelings and beliefs does not mean that those should usurp sound legislative, educational or economic practices, or be allowed to trump everyone’s civil rights.  (Example, Creationism/Intelligent Design being taught in science classes.)

Nope; the earnestness and good intentions part cannot gloss over the huge piles of bullshit.  Crap is still crap, and the best thing we can do with crap is to put it with the rest of the dead stuff and compost it, until the bacteria and worms and arthropods have broken it down into something useful.

Dark, stormy days

It’s not just the weather.

Christschool’s recent post, “Fleeting Innocence, Captured Before It’s Gone” got me thinking and connecting distant points, much in the manner of the orb-weaver spider that connects a broadening spiral of nodes across our back door each night.

We slide further into a scarier world.  It is not just a world where there is less freedom and diversity plus more violence and hate-crime, but rather a world that not only publicly accepts and condones, but even demands the necessity of violence.

It’s there in the realm of education, where the requirements for instruction and inclusion have created new opportunities for some spiteful people to create long-lasting terror for those forcibly obliged to attend.  When children are harassed and bullied and tormented in school to the point they finally react, their persecutors (and those who allow such events to continue) strike back and complain, “We must be allowed to forcibly control and harm those misbehaving children so we can ‘protect’ everyone.”

It’s there in the realm of employment, where the openness of accommodations and efforts of ordinary people to use them for work, shopping and leisure has provided some people with new bases for the discrimination and harassment of their coworkers, employees, and customers.  “They shouldn’t be there if they don’t want to deal with the problems they’re going to create by existing in the public sphere.  It’s too much money or trouble, or uses up resources that Real People need.  They should just stay at home or be gotten rid of.”

It’s there in the realm of national security, where anyone who is suspected of activity can be detained for years without legal process, and tortured as well.  Even ordinary, law-abiding citizens cannot expect to have the same safeguards for rights and liberties that they used to.  “Freedom isn’t free.”

Whereas violence was previously ignored, or dismissed as unimportant, or officially diminished (downgraded) as being less severe than it was, now we have an increasing number of situations where violence is seen as not only inevitable, but also as excusable, desirable, beneficial and even necessary.

Freedom and safety are obverse and reverse of the same coin; when we seek to increase one, we lose more of the other.

Sadly, as economic and political times get more anxious, groups of people withdraw back to their tribal units in paranoia.  The backward, rigid end of conservatism or tribalism reacts to uncertainty and fear by enforcing greater controls.  To some, eliminating tolerance for the Other and superstitiously making sacrifices to appease divine forces seems to be the only way to ward off Bad Things from happening.  Somebody has to pay.  It must be Somebody’s fault.  If Somebody who isn’t behaving exactly as the codes specify is punished, then divine pleasure might be gained.  If Somebody can be blamed for causing our problems, then swift and great revenge is appropriate and balance will be restored.

But scapegoating and harming the few of the outgroup does nothing to ensure that all are safe.  Hardly anyone in the larger public will even listen, and most don’t even want to hear what’s really happening.  We are sinking in insidious evil that is frosted-over in colourful “truthiness” sugar-coating, and is obscured by galas of newslessness about celebrity foibles and the nonsense over manufactroversies.  The bits that do get reported are so shouted-over with “spin” that great chunks of the public can’t even hear them, much less realise the cognitive dissonance.  Such platitudes are just the 21st-century version of Orwellian Newspeak, where we are being sold the terrifying message that

“PAIN IS SAFETY”

Don’t you believe it.  Be careful when there seems to be a break in the clouds; sometimes it’s just the eye of the hurricane.

The War On … Idiotic Metaphors

I think that ’bout sums it up.

Not Flapping My Lips

(“Flapping one’s lips” is American slang meaning to stand around talking, usually about nothing important, or gossiping, e.g., the disdainful address, “Don’t you just be standing around there flappin’ your lips.” )

“All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
~Edmund Burke

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”
~Judith Herman

I’m planning ahead for a script to use sometime again soon, because like many people I suffer terribly from l’Esprit de l’escalier, and can never think of the bon mot or good retort or thought-provoking reply until the moment has long passed …

Sometimes when I get excited, I flap a bit. As in, my hands shake rapidly from side to side, causing my (long, limber) fingers to dually perform that single-handed clapping.  In the recent years, I have learned that “flapping” (done in many different ways) is one of those “stereotypies” associated with autism, or with Down’s, or with cognitive disabilities (mental retardation), or with any number of differences that are often socially ostracised.

Which to me does not make a whole lot of sense.  Seriously, WTF?  It does not harm anyone.  And if you have spent much time in North America and seen game shows like The Price Is Right, then you will have observed a lot of (ostensibly) neurotypical/normal people jumping up and down and flapping in their excitement at being called up to play.  But of course, someone will be sure to point out that is a “special circumstance” and that people who are chosen for the audience are selected because they are excited about the opportunity, and are outrageously dressed, and will generally perform in such highly exaggerated manner, and thus be good television fodder.  Well, perhaps.  But my point is that we all engage in stereotypies. (In a previous post, “Stimulating Topics of Conversation”, I noted that fiddling/stimming is another stereotypy that everyone does.)

Unfortunately, we also engage in stereotyping — it is almost impossible not to at some level, as creating such thought patterns is how the brain organises the world.  But we can be aware of and work against negative stereotypes that are socially harmful.

Of course, to deliver that reply effectively, I have to have a script that is not only thought-provoking and easy to remember (without tripping over the words), but is also SHORT.  And if you have read more than two of my posts, you know that brevity is not my strong suit!

But I know how to get around that in my brain. Read the rest of this entry »

Freedom for Thought

“The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.”
~H. L. Mencken

The 4th of July is Independence Day in the United States. I have a couple of reports to finish, so I don’t have time to write what would be an involved rant. So here are some of my favorite quotes, and a couple of graphics for you, regardless of where you live. (Graphics described for the print-impaired.)  We miss the recently deceased George Carlin; good humorists and satirists are always sorely missed!  For the young and/or those living abroad, Walter Cronkite was a news announcer of the thoughtful sort, before the era of ‘anchor desk personalities”.

Let’s just say that I am not impressed with knee-jerk patriotism (especially the drunken sort) that lacks critical thinking and the willingness to be informed.  I will say that within the realm of governance, freedom and safety are obverse and reverse of the same coin — when you have more of one, you have less of the other, and the current administration has sold an alarming amount of loss of freedom under the flag-waving of “safety, patriotism and national security”.

“The people who cast the votes decide nothing, the people who count the votes decide everything.”
~Josef Stalin

“The heights of popularity and patriotism are still the beaten road to power and tyranny.”
~David Hume

“If crime fighters fight crime, and fire fighters fight fire, then what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that to us, do they?”
~ George Carlin

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”
~Walter Cronkite

“People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
~Søren Kierkegaard

ditto: “Too often we…enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
~John F. Kennedy (former US president) Read the rest of this entry »

Two more species of Fallacies

After you’ve become familiar with a variety of stupid political arguments or with spotting pseudo-science, you find yourself making a mental game of it: Name That Fallacy. It’s gratifying to know that there are terms for the sorts of things that used to “make your brain all hurty” because you knew they were wrong. Such terms are a great time-saver in discussions: being able to assign those names means that others know what you’re talking about, and that you don’t have to explain why the fallacious thinking is not correct.

But every now and then I run into something that cannot be easily defined by a term. Such things may be multifactorial in the numbers of cognitive biases and argumentative fallacies; there’s no one reason why the reasoning is bad. But boy, are they off the mark!

Right now, I have two fallacies I would like to discuss. (Maybe there are names for these that I’ve not yet run into — let me know; they could be from fields that I’m not well-versed in.)

~ I ~

I call this first sort of über-fallacy-bias Read the rest of this entry »

My Favourite Oxymorons (and other “woo”)

And now for something light, because it’s been heavy blogging lately, and there’s more around the corner.

Once Upon A TIme I used to be a newspaper proofreader. And once a proofreader, always a pain in the ass, because I pay attention to the wording of the things I read (and hear). Here are some things that drive me abso-bloomin-lutely-nutz, from the realms of horticulture, entomology, and the exciting intersection, er, catastrophic collision of science and marketing. Disclaimer: these are all my own unbiased opinions.

Some years ago, a student came in and said that she wanted a “carefree garden”, one that bloomed all the time and required virtually no care. I blinked a few times in disbelief and could only reply, “Plastic?”

There’s always good, clean dirt. Although a person can have fumigated soil or “sterile” seedling media (that’s nursery-sterile, not surgically sterile, meaning free of pests and pathogens), but dirt by definition is what gets tracked across the kitchen floor, lodged under your fingernails, or ground into the knees of your pants. “Detoxifying mud bath” should join that for all-around absurdity.

Then there’s trying to explain to my students Read the rest of this entry »

Remedial Learning Lessons

“Let me get this straight — the student is not doing well in class. They’re not able to learn the material from the way it’s taught. So your solution is to give them remedial learning lessons, to try teaching them how to learn the ‘right’ way. All this remedial learning process is getting the student and the parents and the teachers frustrated, and the student is getting further and further behind their peers academically.”

I keep hearing about how some teachers or therapists or ABA workers feel that they have to teach their autistic (or other) clients “how to learn” before they can teach them content. This is absurd! Every child knows how to learn, and automatically learns. Even incredibly simple organisms like wasps can learn without being taught “how to learn”.

What these people are really meaning is that their clients and students do not learn the “right” way, meaning the way that is expected of the student in narrowly-defined settings. They don’t learn or demonstrate their learning the same way as “all the other children”.

“But the child doesn’t even know how to sit at the work table!”

I rather doubt that the child does not know how to sit at a table. Rather, the issue is that the child does not understand the instruction (or the need for following it), or cannot remain at the table for very long. Being forced to sit at the work table may even have acquired a negative connotation that the child is trying to avoid.

So for example, how does such a problem get resolved in a secondary school setting? Read the rest of this entry »

False Dilemmas: How to Sell Pain

This post is a part of Blogging Against Aversives 1-14-08

When a business tries to sell a product or service that no one else has, they might be on the cutting edge of invention or they might have something that no one else wants to sell.

There is only one place in the United States where electrical shocks are doled out repeatedly throughout the day to residents (many of whom are school-age children) as a means of punishment. These two-second shocks are described as feeling like a bee sting, and people to whom this is prescribed must wear the equipment through their waking hours, so such stings to their torso or limbs are unavoidable. According to a recent article in Mother Jones:

Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten. Nearly 60 percent come from New York, a quarter from Massachusetts, the rest from six other states and Washington, D.C. The Rotenberg Center, which has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charges $220,000 a year for each student. States and school districts pick up the tab.

The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. Over its 36-year history, six children have died in its care, prompting numerous lawsuits and government investigations.

JRC is called a “special needs school” because the student-age residents sit at computers every day to do instructional programs. Many of the residents have a variety of psychiatric or learning difficulties, including autism, cognitive disabilities, ADHD, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or other problems. No psychiatric medications are allowed, and counselling is minimal; whatever the sources of the resident’s problems, the treatment is the same.

The problem inherent in such a single-solution scheme is that it does not address the causes of the resident’s problems, just the inappropriate behavior that results from them. It’s no small wonder that even when people leave, the root problems are not solved, and they continue to have difficulties. Therapeutic approaches need to be individualised — what works for a child with depression and OCD is going to be different than what works for a student with Asperger’s and ADHD. Treatments cannot be designed by diagnostic labels (which are generally descriptive rather than prescriptive) but more by what their individual problems are, and how those problems developed.

The Rotenberg Center does not sell something cutting edge; pain aversives were first trialled in the 1960’s, but have not been used by anyone else, and has been considered to be not within “best practice” for years. Even by the 1980’s, Dr Skinner had an about-face on the use of aversives, and declared that they are not beneficial; although they may temporarily stop a problem behavior, they are not effective in the long term, and the recipient responds by escaping, attacking back, or sinking into the apathy of learned helplessness.

Centers like JRC that bill themselves as solutions for intractable children play upon parents’ fears, and describe problems in exaggerated terms. The premise — and promise — is based upon a giant false dilemma, that there are no other options, it’s the place of last resort, and it’s use their methods or else the child will simply go wild. Parents who have not previously found an effective solution are willing to hand their children over because they are desperate.

JRC is unique because they have cornered the market on a service that no one else wants to sell. That does not make it a good or a necessary thing. I find the whole concept utterly horrifying.

Other posts on JRC:

A Very Painful Problem Certainly, zapping someone with unavoidable, painful electrical stings on bare skin will stop them in their tracks. It stops the self-injury by that default. Punishment will stop people from doing something, at least while the threat of punishment still exists. But it doesn’t help us figure out why the person was hurting themself. It doesn’t teach them how to identify when they are stressed, and to learn different, effective, safe ways of dealing with those stresses. There are students who have been incarcerated at the Judge Rotenberg Center for years past their legal majority. That system does not provide them much in the way of tools to live successfully outside of the institutional environment. …

If hurting yourself is bad, and hurting others is bad, how is it then okay to use intensely painful aversives on someone? We don’t even use things like this in prisons. Why is it deemed “okay” by school districts and courts for children with learning disabilities and emotional problems to be subjected to this kind of treatment? People who injure themselves have a very painful set of problems. But we as a society have an even greater problem. Allowing such treatment to happen and continue is unconscionable.

I Didn’t Ask for That Situations like these really aren’t choices; given more than one option, they are dilemmas or predicaments between bad option and worse option or intolerable option. Some “option” indeed. Sometimes the situation is couched in the language of “choice”, but has nothing to do with the person choosing for their self.

The Crime of Punishment Aversives in the form or corporal punishment (such as the electroshock apparatus used at JRC) teach both the giver and the recipient that aggression and inflicting pain are acceptable and appropriate ways of responding to people when they don’t do what someone else wants them to do. Unfortunately, lots of people have learned this “lesson” all too well … Not only does punishment as behaviour modification set up and maintain coercive power systems, but it also distances teachers and others from their students, and puts them into antagonistic roles, rather than as partners in education (contrary to what many school districts’ mission statements assert).

Making Sense of Rules Being given absolute rules circumvents the learning process, and later when they need to adapt to novel situations, leaves the learner in the lurch, stranded without the knowledge of how to devise new strategies. They only have a limited number of tools in their social toolbox, and little knowledge of how to build new kinds of tools. If we go telling children what to do for their entire lives, then we shouldn’t wonder that they become young adults without the ability to think for themselves and to be responsible without someone monitoring their actions.

Being Unruly People who are heavily invested in punishment and reward systems, invested ego-wise, security-wise, and/or financially-wise (such as the JRC), will try to assert that not using the punishment and rewards to control behaviour will result in gross misbehaviour and chaos. This is a false dilemma; there are other ways of teaching our children.

New page

My latest post is actually a “page”, one of those postings that stands independently from the usual time sequence.  It’s titled, “Distinctions”.  I think you’ll enjoy it, and hopefully it’ll spark all sorts of useful thoughts.

Building Blocks

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
~Noam Chomsky

Every now and then I run into a word that sounds like a good thing. “Tolerance” is one such word, which I’ve blogged on before. Surprisingly, consensus can be another. Mind you, it’s not always, just sometimes. Groups of people try to reach consensus so they can agree upon a plan for accomplishing something without anyone being left out of important decision-making, or without missing good ideas to be gleaned from a variety of viewpoints.

But “consensus-building” exercises can sometimes have the terrible effect of watering everything down to the lowest common denominator, and eliminating novel ideas in favor of mediocrity. Other times they just result in the dread ‘paralysis by analysis’. In worst-case scenarios, they can “railroad” decisions through an unsuspecting group, leaving individuals feeling slightly queasy and dissatisfied at the results, but not understanding why that would be because they seemed to have reached that consensus from a lot of thoughtful group effort.

I’ve sat through a lot of meetings in my life. Usually they begin with lots of carbohydrates & caffeine, useful additions to the social grooming-behaviour necessary to boost bonhomie and settle the humans down to coöperative activity. After the pleasantries, we start off with a positive programme goal, the sort of thing that everybody can agree upon. That’s cool. We now begin with shared vision and collective purpose.

Then at one meeting I felt like everything went sideways and inside-out, a sort of seminar-vertigo. Worse, no one else seemed to be experiencing it. Read the rest of this entry »

Asking questions

Well, it’s horribly hot outside, which means that the classrooms are either quite stuffy and humid-sticky, or due to HVAC design errors, uncomfortably cold for 95% of the personnel using them. The faculty, staff and students are all yawning from screwed-up sleep schedules, and from being bombarded with mind-numbing amounts of new information, masses of new people to become acquainted with, and multiple changes in their schedules. In other words, it’s once again the first days of school.

Once we get past the obligatory, “Here’s what we’re gonna learn, and here’s the class rules” lecture, we get to finally sink into the actual teaching-learning part of the class. Alas, there is a definite sinking feeling in the classrooms, as for the first few periods of the day many of the students are still half-asleep (a few gave up and have totally succumbed), are often suffering from low blood-sugar levels because they skipped breakfast, and/or just generally cannot rouse enthusiasm for studying biology, algebra, government or whatever subject was given to them for 7:40 a.m. (Omigod, these are teenagers — if pedagogy actually followed research-based practice, none of them would have class until 10 a.m. when they would physiologically be ready to be awake. But of course, that would –godforbid– mess up the sports practices.)

So the teachers are desperately trying to keep their charges engaged by encouraging dialog. You say, “Let me know if you have any questions.” Judging by the general lack of responses regarding the lecture topic, the blank stares, and the mass confusion when given labwork and projects, the students should be asking questions. Or, should be asking more appropriate questions.

But actually, this issue is not the proximate question of, Read the rest of this entry »

More than an uncomfortable trend

I shouldn’t read the news before breakfast — it’s bad for the happy digestion of my food. These Acts, Bills and Executive Orders keep piling up. It reminds me of the scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Professor Dolores Umbridge took over as Head Master, and the walls of Hogwarts were being smothered in edicts. The latest item is just one in many, which creates a more than uncomfortable trend. It’s now a disturbing reality. Let’s see, now we have: Read the rest of this entry »

“Ooh, shiny!”

I got a shiny award; I’m so tickled.*

thinking blogger AWARD

I’ve been meme-tagged! Twice, no less. I shoulda’ said something after the first time, but I got busy with the end of the school spring term (and a few blogposts that grabbed me by the collar and demanded to be written), and then I got tagged the second time and that got delayed because of the beginning of the school summer term (ditto more demanding blogposts — my Muses are very assertive). Mea culpa.

The Thinking Blogger Award is a blogging meme meant to aid in the dissemination of thoughtful blogging (as opposed to the more mundane chit-chat kind of blogging, e.g. “Today I found a cute frock on sale”). Unlike some memes, this one is highly codified in that it has concrete rules, and requires ongoing documentation, which is guaranteed to make historians and literary pundits absolutely delighted. The rules read as follows:

  1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
  2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
  3. Optional: Proudly display the ‘Thinking Blogger Award’ with a link to the post that you wrote.

The first award was nominated by Read the rest of this entry »

The Words

They lied.

One sentence; two words. Together, two very powerful words.

As the beginning, those two words beg more questions than they answer. Who lied? What about? To whom? When, where, and why? Read the rest of this entry »

Solitude

Solitude is something I have been much lacking of late. I work six days a week, and spend the evening hours and the remaining day catching up on domestic stuff. Meanwhile, I also have a variety of thoughts, assorted necessary bloggery, clogging up the generative pool in my head. Such cognitive log-jams need time and personal space to untangle. Hence the dearth of recent posts.

Solitude is not universally appreciated.

Here’s a really interesting dinner group: Aldous Huxley, Andy Warhol, Goethe, and Carl Rogers. Read the rest of this entry »

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