Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Yokel Effect

Joe is ignorant.

Kate tells Joe something he didn't previously know.

Joe is embarrassed that he didn't already know that.

Joe resents Kate for inducing this embarrassment.

Joe rejects anything else Kate may have to say.

Joe remains ignorant, but on purpose this time.

Michele Bachmann will try to make her religious dogma into law.

Joe wants religious laws, so he likes Michele Bachmann.

Michele Bachmann is wrong about US history and state policy.

Kate the News Anchor reveals that Michele Bachmann is wrong.

Joe is embarrassed that he didn't know she was wrong.

Joe resents Kate for making him feel embarrassed.

Joe rejects what news anchors say about Michele Bachmann.

Joe votes for Michele Bachmann.

(A Summary of Matt Taibbi's article in Rolling Stone.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Plants, Pies, and Little Neighbours

So, WindoPlant is looking happier than it has in months:

This rhubarb and strawberry pie (recipe courtesy of Smitten Kitchen, discovered thanks to my dear Kim is still cooling on the rack RIGHT NOW.

I came across this little fella sleeping in my garden when I came home from the shops yesterday afternoon (and yes, he was breathing--it's always a bit iffy when it comes to London foxes. They're not the healthiest of creatures.)

But These boys live next door and come over to say hi to me almost every day. That's Squidge in the front and Mooney standing behind. They're very sweet. Squidge is a bit simple (he's a fully-grown tom who still chases his tail) and Mooney can be a bit aloof but they both come around right after dinner for a head-scratch. (Before we met the new couple next door, but after the cats started coming around to say hi, we called them Ackee and Saltfish.)

That's all.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Miss Apologist

I just watched the reel of Miss USA contestants' answers to the question "should evolution be taught in schools?" and wow, it made me sad.

Most of them said yes, but qualified it with some sort of higgledy-wibbledy "and creationism should be taught too, so the child can decide what to believe in." Several made disparaging comments regarding the fact that it is a theory, comments which clearly evidence their ignorance as to what the word "theory" actually means. This is pathetic, but demonstrates not their own idiocy, but the failings of their education systems.

In Fort Mill, in the year 2000 I learned about the theory of evolution in Biology 1. The teacher prefaced the unit with a well-rehearsed speech, one that chills me even now as I remember how directly she had to undermine her own intelligence every year. She looked fleetingly in each child's eyes as she said "this is a theory. I'm required to teach it to you. You are not required to believe it, and you will not be tested on your belief in it. But you need to be aware of it, especially those of you who want to study science in college or work in science when you grow up." She then fielded a number of protestations from the class members who wished to sit out because it was offensive to them. They couldn't, so some just didn't show up for the rest of the week and took a zero for the unit. Most kids, though, didn't care, and sat through the lessons exactly as they would any other lesson.

The trouble was, though, that the explanation in the textbook was weak, confusing, and disjointed. The diagrams didn't make any sense and examples seemed almost deliberately obscure. And all the while students whispered "it's just a theory, it's just a theory." as though this somehow negated it.

I'll admit, when I first learned about the evolution of human beings from an ancestor in common with contemporary apes, I was...not sceptical, not dubious, but somehow offended. I didn't like the idea that my big beautiful brain and fur-free face had a root in something so ugly. I didn't want to be part of such a humiliating lineage. But it nevertheless made sense. And in the end, that's all that mattered, because other ideas didn't.

But what got me was the repeated assertion that this was "just a theory" as though it wasn't a fact, just an idea that a few people believed in. But that's not a theory. An idea that makes sense but hasn't been proven or disproved is a hypothesis. The 45-odd identical young women in the interview reel who wanted to teach "both", side by side seemed to think that the word Theory means unverified claim, much like creationism. The only way evolutionary science could be taught alongside creationism is if no one had ever tried to test the hypothesis of evolution.

See, creationism never made it past the hypothesis stage. It did not hold up under experiment or examination. It was disproved. Evolution, on the other hand, has held up under experiment and examination. It has not been disproved. Does that mean it has been proven? Well, that's not really how the scientific method works. And anyone who has paid attention in science class beyond fourth grade knows that. The best you can hope for, really, is to be not conclusively disproved many, many times. Evolution has passed this scrutiny many many times, so it gets to be a theory--a generally agreed-upon-as-true concept. Creationism, and later its watered-down quasi-evolutionary sneaky-inny concessionary re-try versions have failed under this scrutiny many many times, so it gets to be a crock of bullshit. We know it is false. It has never stood up to reasonable verification measures. It is not a theory. It is wrong.

In answering "it should be taught alongside other theories, like creationism" these young ladies have only actually managed to say, "I don't know what the word theory means, so I'm not qualified to answer this question."

But that's what the system teaches them--so long as teachers can say "it's just a theory" and expect most parents to equate that with saying "it's just this insignificant idea" then they can teach their science classes in peace. In parents' minds no one has actually directly stated "this is the truth. All other ideas are wrong." so they don't raise up to protect their bullshit. Even though the teachers actually have said that. Just from a rather oblique grammatical angle. Evolution is the only explanation for biodiversity and the links between various species that has not been proven false.

But also (!) what is this BS about kids getting the option of believing in what they want to believe if all the cards are laid out on the table? No. Evolution is true whether or not you believe in it. It is belief-proof. You can stand in your living room or sanctuary all day and wave your hands around saying "la la la, I don't believe" but when you break for dinner, your relationship to the chimpanzee in the local zoo is still irrefutable.

School isn't about providing avenues for belief, and it sure as hell isn't about teaching religious fairy stories. It exists to provide young people with the basic knowledge and thinking skills they need to either undertake further education or do a grown-up job. Note, I did not say "critical" thinking skills. Just thinking. You don't get to think critically until at least your junior year of university.

The mere idea of providing a middle schooler with two contradictory ideas of where human beings came from, one which is true but kinda dry and the other which is clearly false (but is nevertheless presented as "as potentially true" as the other) but tells children that they're somehow special out of the entire universe, then leaving them to pick one, is clearly nonsense. Kids are dumb--not just insufficiently informed, but mentally undeveloped. They're not able to think critically or objectively. They just want to feel safe, fed, and special. That's why we don't argue with them or ask them to make choices. We simply present information to them as irrefutable and expect them to absorb it. And they do.

That is why it is so very vital to keep BS like creationism out of schools. Kids are too dumb to realize that their stupidity and credulity are being exploited by adults who want them to believe popular lies in the face of valid evidence to the contrary. Children believe their teachers with a sort of relaxed empiricism that can get them into trouble. (e.g. I'll believe it because someone much smarter than me believes it and appears to have done some research. Therefore whatever the teacher tells me is factual.) If you tell teachers to present evolution and creationism as equally-potentially-true approaches toward explaining some big unknown, you only confuse the simple-minded monkeys in your class. Tell them what actually is true, and let their churches lie to them.

The sad fact is, most of these contestants in some way acknowledged that kids' understanding of evolution is vital to our nation's progress. We can't make advances in medicine or biotech without it, or with a belief that something else is true. How can you hold two such directly conflicting ideas in one head? On the one hand, you can clearly observe the leaps and bounds technology has made since people accepted the Origin of the Species, you can acknowledge that this scientific understanding is vital, but on the other you can say "but I believe something different." I know this is true, but I don't personally believe in it. GlaDOS would explode.

I'll explain it. You believe the theistic lies because you were told them when you were very young, before you were really capable of examining them yourself. You were told them by people you loved and trusted so you never questioned them. And now, fifteen to twenty years later, they've gelled into a bizarre permeable sense-barrier. You can both know a truth and disbelieve in it, not because you have faith, but because you really just haven't thought about it. Or much at all.

Yes, the most important reason to keep creationism out of schools is that, if we allowed it, the dumber kids would turn out just like you, Miss USAirhead.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Spot the Difference!

Look closely...

April 30, 2011

June 12, 2011
I saw a documentary recently about the conservation challenge of non-photogenic endangered species, such as the Dominican Chicken (a big frog with tasty legs) which are on the verge of being wiped out (in the case of the Chicken, by over-hunting and an infectious fungus that was probably brought in by a tourist). It's strange--amphibians have been around for millions and millions of years, and even this particular species has been around for ages, but they are so very specifically adapted to their habitats that they're two degrees from extinction at the best of times (well, at least since the industrial revolution). I guess when you have a fairly permeable skin layer protected by a rather pH specific mucus, the slightest environmental change can wreck your defences and cause catastrophe. Like the white perch in Baltimore Harbour--almost all of them have an intestinal infection (that starts at the anus) by midsummer because the bay's acidity changes during fertilizer season, burning through their protective layer right when the algal bloom is reaching its peak. This illness, plus depleted dissolved oxygen levels (courtesy of the opaque slurry of dead algae) prevents many of these little ugly fish from reaching sexual maturity, so spawn counts are lower, which means the animals that eat them are going hungry...but they're not big or fluffy, so no one really cares. Holistic ecology is lost on most people.

Friday, June 10, 2011

I Attended A Quiet, Nerdy Lecture

and this happened.

Yeah. Protesters. They were upset about AC Grayling's proposed new school, a frou-frou private humanities college that would cost £18,000 a year and offer intensive scholarship to a rather specific student body. Richard Dawkins has agreed to do a few lectures a year there in science, and has made it clear that all of the money he receives for doing them will go to charity. The students don't like the idea of a new private, expensive school in the UK and want Dawkins to refuse to be a part of it on ethical grounds (e.g. the school is too expensive and takes the "best teachers" away from the public schools because it will pay them more.)

The protest lasted about forty-five minutes (the entire duration of which was spent with the audience hurling abuse at them and telling them to sod off), until the back-up police officers arrived, filed in, and escorted them out quietly. The lecture hall was completely packed--about 1,000 asses in seats--and maybe up to four attendees had any sympathy for their concern. The proposed university certainly wasn't the point of the talk or the reason why any of us had shown up. We'd come to hear a bit of give-and-take, perhaps some dorky science jokes from two of our favourite atheists.

In all honesty I got the impression that the whole point of the talk was to give PZ Myers an opportunity to say hi to some of his London readers, and maybe even have a drink with some of us. As it was the police made a point of shunting us and the professors out of the building as quickly as possible so as to avoid any other ugly encounters that they'd then have to deal with. I can't say I blame them, but it was a shame that the asshat brigade prevented what might have been a nice reception.

See, I have absolutely zero sympathy for these kids. Righteous as their anger must undoubtedly feel to them, I grew up in the USA where higher education is considered neither right nor privilege, but investment. A degree represents an investment of time, effort, and money in your personal future. The state does help students pay for it--not with giveaways, typically, but with low-interest loans and scholarships for the best students. This scholarship system may be considered a sort of sliding scale: the degree itself may be achieved either through more effort or more payment, within certain constraints. If the student consistently earns Cs she can still graduate with money, but if she earns As she can pay for it with merit.

This system worked for me: I earned damn fine grades throughout my undergraduate career and left school with only the debt I accrued through housing costs. The state of South Carolina paid my tuition all four years, and USC gave me a pat on the head in the form of the three words Magna, Cum *hehe* and Laude after my qualification. I'm so clever they had to tell me in Latin.

A lot of students started on this, the LIFE scholarship. It's quite simple, really--in the state of South Carolina, if you graduate high school with at least a B average and at least 1100 on your SATs, if you go to a SC university the state will cover your tuition costs, no matter what you study. In order to keep receiving this every semester all you have to do is remain in full-time study and maintain a B (3.0) average. You can even get LIFE if you didn't meet these criteria at the end of high school, but do well in your first few terms of uni. Sadly, though, most students who start on a LIFE lose it for one reason or another. Either their grades slip, or they drop down to part-time, or they transfer out of state, or they get in too much trouble (I think there's something about not getting convicted of felonies) or a variety of other things happen that cause them to not get funded. The state sees them as a failed investment and withdraws, which gives them a choice: either invest in themselves, or do something else.

Beyond this, nearly 40% of all students who start university drop out after two years--a fact that course designers actually depend on, but a huge pain in the ass in every other respect. Yes, third and fourth year modules benefit from small class sizes and intimate, direct discussion and tuition with teachers, but at what cost? The system has to filter through and crush the dreams of thousands of hopefuls every semester.

But let's look at this from a financial standpoint--unless you quit before you start, if you quit after a term you're left with money spent for nothing. Now, if the "state" pays for most of it, then you're only accountable for at most £4,500 per term that you kept it up. As an individual, that's not so bad. But think for a second--40% of all students drop out. That means the big nebulous "state" is accountable for the remainder of the actual cost of failing to educate all of you--a far greater amount per student than what you pay. Now who is that state? Oh right, it's your friends and neighbours. Y'know, me. We have footed the bulk of the cost so you could fart around and do nothing for a couple of years before giving up and moving back in with your mummy. Thanks for nothing. Excuse me, thanks for less than nothing. Thanks for thieving. That's right. We've given universities millions of pounds so you can come out exactly as employable as if you hadn't gone at all.

Yeah, I actually do want you to get something out of your education--a job. I'm depending on you getting a job. We all are. That's what society is built on. We all chip in--for roads, for schools, for hospitals, for common defence--and we all need jobs in order to do our bit. It is in the best interest of the government And the people for me to have a decent-paying job, because it means I can pay my taxes. I can provide my share of the responsibility of keeping my country running.

(And yes, it's even better for the UK for me to have a job, despite the fact that I can't claim unemployment benefits. Even if I'm not mooching off the state, if I'm not earning money I'm not putting anything into it either.)

Say what you want about reasonable taxation, it's there for a reason. It's not going away. Unless you want to form your own militias and let private companies run the trains for maximum profit, you're going to need to ensure that you have a solid government that is trying to represent the interests of the majority of people in your nation.

So the UK accepts that 40% of all people who start uni aren't going to graduate. That's 40% of the money they have chosen to invest in your future that they're counting on going to waste. That's stupid.

A better system is one that recognizes an investment in the students who are most likely to succeed. A system that rewards high grade earners and diligent attenders by lifting the financial burden from them, and encourages people who don't actually want to work hard for an education to get into a more appropriate field quickly. A system wherein individuals earn investment in their potential by proving that they have it.

In South Carolina I made a number of my fellow students unhappy with this assertion--that is, that I supported the financial arrangements I had signed up for by going to a local school. "I lost my scholarship, so now I have to work to pay for school, which interferes in my ability to go to school and study, so my grades have suffered even more" is a big one. And a huge f'ing crock. No. You don't have to. If you actually gave a crap about the education itself, if you didn't have the grades to start with or lost the good ones you had, you could take out a student loan. If you'd rather work for money than study, that's your own concern, but don't make it out like the state ought to keep paying for you to not attend school. The state has a responsibility to promote the general welfare of the people as effectively as it can. Your empty chair in the Economics 201 room is not counted as "people".

What loans and merit-based scholarships do is create not a two-tiered finance-based system, but a multi-tiered interest-based system. For kids who want to learn and are willing to put in the effort, the state supports that education. For the huge numbers of people who don't want to spend more time in a classroom learning abstract ideas and debating philosophy, there are opportunities to learn skills for a lower cost (both in terms of money and time) that can help you find good employment. For people who seek neither education nor skills, there are jobs available sweeping floors and digging ditches. Some people like that. Who am I to argue?

My point is you do not have a right to higher education. Your state has given itself an obligation to ensure that the most capable individuals can get into careers that on some level benefit everyone--even if the only benefit it provides is a taxable salary. If you can pay tax and save lives, so much the better. Get off your damn high horse of middle class entitlement for a second and recognize that it's not all about you, and never was. Your state has been foolishly squandering money on you for years, and they've learned their mistake. The majority of people do not need higher education--they need stable jobs. Most jobs don't actually require a BA-level education to be performed well, but a BA has become the benchmark of competence thanks to you pushing higher education on everyone. Thanks to your "education is a right" bollocks, kiddos, your education has become valueless.

If you want someone to be upset at, don't wave your hands around at academics who want to set up their own private schools. They're not the problem--they're just a symptom. The real problem is that the MA has become the new BA, and the BA has become the new high school diploma, but people still give credence to the idea that the universe was built on purpose in a week by a bearded humanoid who loves them.

You show me nation full of university graduates and I'll show you a nation with a higher ceiling.