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 »

I bequeath the world a neologism, because there is need:

Te·di·a [tee-dee-uh]
noun
1. a plural of tedium.
2. the quality or state of multiple media being wearisome; irksome; tedious.
3. the quality or state of overwhelming tedium resulting from multiple, unrelated sources.

Overcome by the tedia of so-called “news” coverage and inane blather that displaced any real information, she resorted to drawing political cartoons and posting them on the Web.

Lacking sufficient mental stimulation from either of his jobs, and commuting without a working radio, he found himself daydreaming and telling himself jokes to allay the suffocating tedia.

_____

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“To Serve Man”

Holy Crap.

So why am I taking Crap’s name in vain?  This bang-head-here piece of news:

Sen. Danny Martiny, R-Kenner, has filed Senate Bill 115 on behalf of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Conference lobbyist Danny Loar said the bill is designed to be a “pre-emptive strike” against scientists who might want to mix “human and animal cells in a Petri dish for scientific research purposes”

(Shouldn’t that be human and other animal cells?  What am I, a petunia?)

So, if this mosquito sucks my blood, and I squish her and drop her (with my blood cells inside her) onto a Petri dish, would that be illegal?

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

a mosquito sucking blood from my arm

Yeah, they’re trying to prevent stem-cell research; but come on, no one is going to make centaurs or Fly-Human monsters or Playboy bunnies.  And I don’t believe that theoretical smear of biological mush I’ve just rubbed onto the agar contains crumbs of my soul in the red white blood cells, nor did any of my eggs (fertilized or otherwise) that were shed over my lifetime.

When I teach a class on seed-starting and we are talking about how to take cuttings of coleus, geraniums, Swedish ivy, or rosemary, I describe how we stick them in rooting hormone (if needed), and then in media to grow more of the same kind of plant. I tell my students, “You’ve just cloned a plant.  It’s genetically identical to the parent plant.”

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

Coleus cuttings rooting in water-filled champagne flutes on a window sill

I then go on to explain in brief (as this is a non-credit class), that there are dormant cells in those plant stems that can grow into any kind of cell, such as a root cell.  Because plants have these “totipotent” cells that can become any other kind of cell, we can take cuttings and roots will grow where there were no roots before.

We can also cut the very tip of the stem off, place it into culture medium with tiny amounts of plant hormones, and encourage those cells to grow into lots more cells — and that’s another way how plants are cloned, by using tissue culture to produce hundreds and thousands of the same plant, and they’re even free of diseases and pests.

Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Clear plastic box containing dozens of tiny plantlets from tissue culture

Gee, if we could take a few cells from people, we could grow you new skin for burn victims, new livers for people with liver cancer, and so on. Best of all, those pieces of tissue or organs would not be rejected by the body because they would not be foreign cells, the would be your own. (Nor would you need heavy doses of drugs to suppress your immune system to keep it from reacting to the foreign donor organs.)

But we can’t, because although plants have totipotent cells, we don’t.  After a certain stage in development, we don’t have these stem cells.  (I pause for a couple of seconds, and it’s great to see the “light bulb effect” pass through the room as people get the concept.)

Ooh, human cells with other cells, scary.  Do the bishops not realise that each human is an entire ecosystem, with millions of bacteria in our guts and on our skin, and an astonishing number of infinitesimal mites living on our eyelashes and brows?  Do they not realise that their mitochondria has its own DNA, different than the nuclear DNA?  Do they not realise that we already use genetic recombinant technology to make insulin for diabetics?

Um by the way, isn’t this piece of legislation mixing government and religion in a Petri dish?

Hope against fear

I rarely get choked up listening to speeches.  I’m just not a terribly sentimental person as far as patriotic stuff goes.

Except for this bit from Obama’s inauguration speech today:

We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Oh, I do hope so!

Fruit flies like a banana

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

Some of my special interests are insects, science and special education. The three subjects rarely intersect, but you can bet that when they do, it’s going to be interesting! Populist politics is once again — or rather — still degenerating into vast bogs of anti-intellectualism.  As noted across many news-editorial and science blogs, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin positively excels at scorning science.  It shows up not only in her stump speeches, but also in her belief in young-earth creationism and stance on teaching Intelligent Design in classrooms. One of the latest foofaraws is her denunciation of funding for research on fruit flies.

“You’ve heard about some of these pet projects, they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good,” Palin said. “Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” [YouTube link]

What does Palin have against this line of science?  Well, that’s a bit puzzling, especially when we look at the subject of her first policy speech.  The VP candidate was talking about special education services and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  But all the pro-funding talk was a bit of a turn-around for the Alaskan governor, who had previously cut the funding for Special Olympics in half.

What really stood out is that within her speechifying, the intent of her points about science funding collided with the actual content of part of what she was saying. Palin was (among other things) advocating for 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.

You can find the coolest things on the Web!

Source: Democratic Stuff.com (an amazingly wide variety of interest groups are represented, besides Bug Enthusiasts.)

Potpourri

Updates on several stories:

In a post from almost a year ago (“That Kind“), I discussed three cases of discrimination against autistics. Cindy Earnshaw was an animal control officer and has Asperger’s, and is now filing a suit against her former employer, the city of Overland Park.

Another old post (the wheels of law grind v e r y slowly, indeed) was about “Waiting For GINA”, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.  The bill passed the House of Representatives last year, and has just been passed (unanimously!) by the Senate, and awaits signing by Dubya.  Keep your digits crossed or whatever …

More good news:  just in case you were flying ’round the dark side of the moon and somehow missed the news, Kathleen Seidel has won her Motion to Quash the absurd SLAPP-type subpoena against her, which also required information related to dozens of bloggers from her of the Neurodiversity.com Weblob blogroll, including myself. w00t!

An update to a recent post, “A shot in the arm, A slight kick in the butt” about vaccine hysteria and rising rates of highly-infectious and dangerous diseases.  A couple years ago we had mumps breaking out in several states, and now there is largest outbreak of measles since 2001, with at least 72 people in 10 different states around the country reported as having been infected (mind you, that’s just the rate of officially diagnosed and reported, which may be less than the actual prevalence), and of those people, 14 are so ill they had to be hospitalized.  The article states,

Before a vaccine was introduced in 1963, more than half a million people got measles in the United States and 500 died annually. Thanks to the vaccination program, measles is no longer endemic in the United States, and ongoing transmission of the virus was declared eliminated in 2000.

Of all the infectious diseases that can be prevented by vaccine, measles was and still is the most deadly, and is the cause of half of the one million deaths that could be prevented. The World Health Organization says that,

Children usually do not die directly of measles, but from its complications. Complications are more common in children under the age of five or adults over the age of 20.

The most serious complications include blindness, encephalitis (a dangerous infection of the brain causing inflammation), severe diarrhoea (possibly leading to dehydration), ear infections and severe respiratory infections such as pneumonia, which is the most common cause of death associated with measles. Encephalitis is estimated to occur in one out of 1000 cases, while otitis media (middle ear infection) is reported in 5-15% of cases and pneumonia in 5-10% of cases. The case fatality rate in developing countries is generally in the range of 1 to 5%, but may be as high as 25% in populations with high levels of malnutrition and poor access to health care.

I’ve also previously described the various fallacies around the conspiracy theories related to vaccines in my post, “Epidemics of bad science, vs Epidemics and bad science”. There have been studies done in four countries showing no causality between vaccines and increased rates of diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders.

Well, off to deal with the crisis du jour … more later.

I’m not very “hopefuller”

This is why I don’t read the morning news in depth. It’s bad for the happy digestion of my breakfast, and would endanger the computer screen from being hit by coffee-spew. (I save reading the news for evening, after practicing my equanimity by being surrounded by students with emotional & behavioural issues.)

Recent comment made by the president regarding the No Child Left Behind Act:

“As yesterday’s positive report card shows, childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured.”
~George W. Bush, Sept. 26, 2007

Just in case you missed some earlier Bushisms (also known as, “why I generally don’t watch news on television”):

“Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?”
~George W. Bush, Jan. 11, 2000 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 »

Waiting For GINA

This is one of those days when it feels like you’ve slid into some cheesy sci-fi flick on the late, late movie channel. I’m waiting for GINA to happen. For some people, “ignorance is bliss”. It’s easier to be somewhat fatalistic and decide that one’s fate is in divine hands. Que será será. (Whatever will be, will be.) However, many people would like to have some idea of what’s lurking around the corner, even if it’s only the possibility.

The possibility of what? And why are people waiting for GINA? Read the rest of this entry »