Monday, January 16, 2006

Podcastercon2006 - the Teaching Session

Sorry for three days of absence from this blog. I needed some time to recuperate after the Podacstercon which I attended last Saturday. It was a marvelous experience. For more information check out the Podcastercon blog, the wiki, a nice article in News and Observer, the blog reports via Technorati tags, Technorati search and Google blogsearch and pictures on Flickr.

Kudos to Brian Russell for organizing an unconference and taking the concept to the maximum. All sessions were designed by participants by editing the wiki ahead of time. Some of the open sessions were designed on the spot! With at least half of the participants constantly online via their laptops, and two big screens in each of the two big classrooms, it was possible to make changes on the go and still be confident that all participants would be cognizant of the changes.

At one point someone asked "What are we supposed to do now?" and the next person answered "This is our conference. We'll do whatever we want. So, let's do something" That's the spirit! I did not see anyone uncomfortable with the free-flowing format. Everything that needed to happen happened and everyone was always in the loop.

The attendants, of course, are all used to the concept of swarming and connectivity and the order emerging out of chaos, so this worked perfectly for this kind of crowd. Still, if the conference gets bigger in the future (there were about 300 participants this time around, more than a third coming from out of state) and spreads over two days, perhaps a little bit more structure may be neccessary, but not too much more....

In the morning I attended The 411 - How to Podcast session. A little bit too non-linear and occasionally over my head (and I am a blogger, familiar with a lot of online stuff!), but I still managed to learn a lot or at least become familiar with some of the aspects of the process of making a podcast. Perhaps I should have gone to the Podcasting For Everyone open session in the afternoon - I heard it was better geared towards beginners (No, I do not regret attending the Podcasting and Traditional Media: Competition and Cooperation session - I have learned a lot about the radio business there).

First I need to chase down the tech-support guy to fix my sound card so I can do this. Then, guided by Brian's excellent Indy article, the book I got after the conference - Podcasting Hacks - also Podcasting For Dummies I just ordered, and the online tutorial Podcasting 101, I can get myself started on podcasting.

On a number of occasions in the past I've been frustrated when I wanted to include a paragraph or so from a source that is not available online (e.g., a book) in my blog posts. Mostly, I ignored it, sometimes I transcribed/retyped it, but in the future I plan to just read it into a microphone and embed an audio file into the post. How about a weekly podcast from James Dobson's childrearing books followed by my written commentary?

I met some extremely interesting people at the conference, as well as several bloggers I knew from before. We had dinner at Rathskeller and a beer at Fuse. It was a very valuable experience.

But the main reason I went to the Podcastercon was to attend the Education Session. It was worth it! David Warlick led the discussion. You can see his own comments, the workpage that was updated in real time during the session, and an excellent review by Teach42. There is so much material in all those places, there is no way I can summarize all of the session here, so just go and investigate by yourself.

What I want to do is record my lectures and have them available for students. I am teaching in March/April next time and I will definitely do this. But what was most interesting to me was the way this technology adapts to the psychology and sociology of today's students. As David stated in the beginning, today's students are extremely connected to each other. When they come into the classroom and are asked to switch off all of the electronic equipment (cell-phones, iPods, computers, etc.), we are cutting off their 'tentacles'. Now if I were a squid and someone cut off my tentacles I'd be very uncomfortable to say the least.

What the new technology does (and what freaks some people out) is that each student's work becomes public (not neccessarily to the wide world, but at least to other people within the school if the website is password-protected). In the past - and present - the only reader of the student's work is the teacher. In the future, all the work will be read, heard or seen by their peers. How is that going to shake the social organization of the classroom? Is that going to break down the traditional division into cliques of jocks, nerds, etc.? Is a popular jock going to be deflated when exposed to be a half-illiterate dummy, and a shy Goth girl in the corner becomes popular due to immense writing, speaking, acting or video-editing talents? Is the motivation going to rise for students to perform always their very best? I have asked similar questions regarding blogging in the classroom before. Is it going to have an effect like this?

That is why, I think, Fred Stuzman's work on The Facebook is so important (although it is a work on progress - he has done no stats yet, and I seriously doubt there is going to be a significant difference between # of friends that liberal and conservative students have, or the subtle changes in proportions of liberals and conservatives over time - it is only freshmen and only one semester so far, and a more longitudinal study is needed as I have stated before). What do you think?

Cross-posted on Science And Politics


Schools in Blogs, Blogs in schools

This is going to be long, but bear with me. I start with one specific course, than broaden the picture, muse a bit, meander somewhat, then ask some questions for which I would love some answers in the comments.

ColinMcEnroe's blogging class is over. They are supposed to turn in their final papers in hardcopy, but now that they are all bloggers in their own right, nothing comes more naturally to them than to post their papers on their blogs.

And they have written some fascinating things, some of which challenge the assumptions of old bloggers and professional blog-watchers. I strongly urge you to go and read their papers and post comments. Link to them - make them feel welcome into the blogosphere!

Let's start with Elin of Nileblog. She posted her paper in seven blogposts, well worth studying, as there are some surprising conclusions there:

The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part I) - Rhetoric
The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part II) - Science and Politics
The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part III) - Flu Wiki
The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part IV): Coffee Rhetoric Rhetoric
The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part V): Daily Kos
Rhetoric of Blogging (Part VI): Once more, with feeling
The Rhetoric of Blogging (Part VII): Closing thoughts on Nileblog

And yes, Nileblog will continue to exist in the future! Blogrolled!

Eric really took off with his blogging. He already has THREE blogspot blogs! One of which, this one, contains entirely the material of his blogging final paper about Links.

Shante also posted her paper on her blog: An exploration of the personal, and I hope she will continue blogging - she is a great writer.

Holly is a wonderful writer, but still nervous and shy about spilling everything out for everyone to read. She did, however, post her excellent paper on Creativity and Communication.

Jeff decided not to post the paper online, but appears that he will also continue with blogging. On the other hand, Dave of My Travels decided blogging is not for him and that's cool.

Screamin' Memey caught the blogging bug. That's the one to watch. No paper, though.... I believe that Semper Gumby was blogging even before the course started. It is an endless source of cool links to cool stuff.

Brett feels, perhaps of the whole class, most comfortable in the blogging medium - no qualms about posting the most personal stuff! But, where is the paper? Perpetual Perpetuity is on the roll! Also no paper.

Pangiuseppe decided mostly to comment on other people's blogs, but broke the silence to post this excellent final paper: Human Communication is Evolving in the Blogosphere.

Now, this guy's paper on 'metablognition' is of great interest to me, but it is not posted! Why? Has he moved to another blogging platform? Did this one also continue somewhere else? Both blogged regularly and then abruptly stopped. Strange...

Leon is running his own personal blog in Hungarian. But he did post his paper - RICHARD PRYOR AND SPEAKING THE TRUTH: On The Purpose and Voice of Personal Blogs - on his class blog.

I love this one! A blogger, blogging like a real pro, against blogging, but will consider continuing blogging, maybe, but probably not. Anyway, here's the term paper.

John of Jean DuBlog posted the results of his blogging ethics survey. Bill's Blither is an amazing blog. No paper, but who cares, this one stays on my blogroll.

Erin now feels free to blog on her own, now that the class is over and her paper is posted: Everyone's a Critic: Critical Thinking (or Lack Thereof) In the Blogosphere.

Something else happened in that class that is very interesting. Before the last class meeting, Colin had to warn them: "There's no crying in blog class!" And they sure cried. Dig through their blogs - especially the comments to posts in late December - to see for yourself. It is amazing how emotionally involved they got in this class. They all became fast friends. One is wondering why?

They believe this is because of a unique collection of fascinating individuals and the way they all clicked with each other. But is it really so unique? Or is it the fact they wrote their own and read each others' blogs that allowed them to get to know each other better than they would have if they just met on campus once a week for a semester? Does one's persona emerge on one's blog in ways that carefully managed image in real life cannot?

Now here's a thought: what if every class, from high school through grad school (with exception of humongous college freshman required classes that collect hundreds of students at a time), had a class blog and required students to keep their own blogs, write their assignments there, and post comments on each others' blogs? What would be good and bad consequences of such a practice if it became a norm?

Kids are already so used to being online. From AIM, XBoxLive and e-mail, through Facebook, Friendster and MySpace, to Xanga, AOL Blogs and LiveJournal, kids are definitely swimming through cyber-waters like fish.

Imagine starting in high school. Each teacher manages a class blog. Each student also runs a blog (perhaps on a platform that hides them from visitors outside of school). In each class, the class blog links to all the students and all the students link to the class blog and to each other. They are required to post their assignments on their blogs and to post links to those on the course blog. They are required to comment on each other's blogs and on the course blog.

We can assume that many students, just like the grad students in Colin's class, will also use their blogs to post stuff unrelated to class. Aware that teachers have access, they will probably heavily self-censor, but still, their true voice is likely to come out.

High school students come to school wearing a mask, an image they want to project. Freshmen in college do the same. But on their blogs, masks fall off. It is so hard to fake it online. See how Colin's students, at the very beginning of the course when they were still complete newbies, immediately lambasted XiaXue for being fake, and loved Coffee Rhetoric and Dooce for being genuine. The real persona eventually emerges.

If so many young students are uncomfortable being themselves in real life, but comfortable being themselves online, will their reading of each others' blogs help them get to know each other better, like each other better, become friends? Or is this going to be yet another tool to stir up trouble, gossip, form cliques and shun the outsiders?

Will a shy kid with great writing skills become popular? Will a popular jock be laughed at due to bad grammar and spelling? Would this be dangerous or wonderful for students' self-esteem?

How much would teachers have to learn how to monitor what is going on and interfere on behalf of victims? Would signs of depression, suicidal tendencies or aggressive intentions be detected earlier? How does one weigh pros and cons and thus organize the way this is all done?

How about college? There, each student would be a part of a number of blogging communities - one for each class they take. Will they care if they do not fit in with the engineering crowd but shine in a feminism class? How many blogging communities can one physically and mentally belong to before giving up on the whole thing?

How would mandatory blogging affect the level of reading and writing among the kids? If they know they are being read by classmates and teachers, will they try harder to write correctly? Will they become experts in detecting plagiarism on each other's posts, thus reducing its incidence overall?

Will discussions in comments sections raise the level and quality of thinking? We all know, as adults, how many heated discussions online end up with accusations of particular logical fallacies, e.g., ad hominem, red herring, slippery slope, etc. Will kids learn to recognize logical fallacies earlier if they are forced to comment on each others' blog early on in their careers? Will that positively affect the level of critical thinking? Will that prepare them better for their other college classes? Will that make them better citizens and better informed voters?

How would this affect the way teachers teach?

So, do you think it is possible to repeat the group cohesion effect of Colin's class in many other classes at difeferent ages and levels, no matter what the course subject is? Is that good or bad? Do benefits outweigh the risks? What other factors I am blind to? Comments are open.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Teaching Evolution Successfully

The new article on PLoS, Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution by David Sloan Wilson, describes a successful experiment of teaching evolution to a broad segment of the student population at Bighampton College (the paper looks nicer in PDF format).

Here are just a couple of snippets:
The main problem with accepting evolution involves implications, not facts. Threatening ideas are like other threats—the first impulse is to run away or attack them. Make the same ideas alluring, and our first impulse is to embrace them and make them our own. Neither impulse is very respectable scientifically. After all, scientists are supposed to accept ideas when they are true, regardless of their consequences. Nevertheless, the key to making evolution a subject that anyone can understand and everyone should want to understand is to focus first on the implications.


It might seem that boldly discussing subjects such as human infanticide (which the students quickly connect to the contemporary issue of abortion), along with other topics such as sex differences and homosexuality later in the course, is the ultimate in political incorrectness. However, I have taught this material for many years in prior courses without a single complaint, and the assessment of “Evolution for Everyone” demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive response across the religious and political spectrum.


The important point is that evolutionary theory can potentially explain the evolution of behaviors associated with morality and immorality. This is vastly different than the usual portrayal of evolution as a theory that explains immorality but leaves morality unaccounted for. The average student is well aware that immoral behaviors usually benefit the actor, that human groups have a disturbing tendency to confine moral conduct to their own members, and so on. When evolutionary theory is presented as a framework for understanding these patterns in all their complexity, including the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, it is perceived as a tool for understanding that can be used for positive ends, rather than as a threat.
You reaaly should read the whole thing, as it is informative, thought-provoking and almost exhilarating. No matter what prior education, strength of religious belief or political ideology the students (from a wide variety of majors) had prior to the course, they all had a positive experience, learned a lot, and understood both evolution in particular and scientific method in general much better than they did before the course.

Also, check out the course website for more information. One of the undergraduate students in the program finished his course project by having it published in Quarterly Review of Biology (pdf)!

I will definitely print this out and study it in detail in order to try to replicate it in the future.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Dr.Love-of-Strange, or How I Learned To Love The Malaria...

There has been literally an explosion of new knowledge about malaria in the last ten years or so. It is an amazing disease. Looking at all the new findings coming out almost every week makes me salivate because of...teaching! Malaria is a fantastic case-study to keep mentioning over and over again throughout the course. Let me backtrack for a moment....

I teach general biology to adult non-science majors at a community college. It is a speed course, lasting only eight weeks. In eight meetings, one has to deliver an enormous amount of material to an audience that is terrified of science. Last time they had a science class was many years ago in high school. All they remember is that it was boring and hard.

At the time most of my students took biology in high school, the state syllabus was one of the most atrocious in the nation - much rote memorization of Latin words, be it human bones, parts of the flower, taxonomy of worms, or the steps in the Krebs cycle. Of course it was boring and hard - the old German style of teaching designed to instill discipline, not knowledge.

A few years ago, in response to Rep.Russell Capps' (R - Wake Co.) attempt to bring Creationism into NC classrooms, the state rewrote the science curriculum and it is now one of the best in the country - every unit in biology is taught within an evolutionary context. Teaching freshmen biology majors at State is a real pleasure now - those kids are excited and already knowledgable. But my adult students are not, and that makes them much more difficult to teach.

One of the problems of teaching introductory biology, at any level, is the way many units do not have an obvious relationship to "real life" of the students, especially the non-science majors. "Why should I learn this when it has no relevance to my life?' they ask.

The second problem is that biology is so big. The course is broken down into units, each unit introducing a different subdiscipline, e.g., genetics, evolution, behavior, anatomy, ecology, microbiology, etc. Taught like this, the units do not appear connected to each other. It feels like every week one starts on a completely different branch of science.

The solution to both problems is to find good case studies to use to introduce each topic. Hopefully, the case-study will be something "sexy", something that media writes about a lot, e.g., stem cell research, cloning, spotted owl habitat, global warming. I discovered that diseases are the best attention grabbers of all of such topic. By using cancer, AIDS, avian flu, SARS, etc. one can introduce any topic in biology and make it relevant to the student. Mad Cow Disease is a great way to get the students to pay attention before you lunge into the difficult lecture on protein synthesis (you start with prions, then work backwards).

The best examples are those diseases that can be used to span several topics. I found that Lyme disease and West Nile virus are really good for this - important discoveries on those were made by a whole range of researchers coming from very diffeerent angles, from genomics to ecology.

But by far the best is malaria. No matter what I talk about, I can smuggle malaria into it in one way or another. Genetics and genomics? Sure, this is the only disease in which all players' genomes have been sequenced (host - human, vector - mosquito, and parasite - Plasmodium). Population genetics? Sure. Blood physiology? Of course. Tertiary and quaternary structure of proteins? Just remember the sickle-cell anemia, which is also great for teaching about Mendelian inheritance. From protozoology and parasitology, through entomology and olfactory neurobiology, to immunology and evolution, one can always somehow bring malaria into the conversation. Hey, just this one story spans behavior, circadian clocks, evolutionary arms-races, melatonin, cellular endocrinology and insect olfaction (also see this, via this)!

And now there is more! Who would have thought that malaria had anything to do with taste and alcoholism?! I can already see how much fun teaching next spring will be.

Having malaria (or some such topic of your own choosing) coming up over and over again helps to unify various subdisciplines of biology in the minds of students. They see at least one example in which important knowledge has been accumulated by researchers in various fields. It is not just molecular biologists that can figure stuff out about diseases. Field ecologists can provide some key information - sometimes the most important piece of information from the point of view of prevention and treatment.

It also shows how deeply evolutionary thinking runs through all areas of biology. Practically all major advances in the study of malaria came through application of evolutionary theory to the disease. Just saying this is so may not be enough - demonstrating it, every week, on a topic they are inherently interested in, may help drive the point much harder.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

My first high-school teaching experience

Yesterday morning I went to Hillsborough and talked to two 10th grade classes about circadian clocks and sleep. That was quite an experience. I have just realized right there and then that this was the first time that I have ever set foot in an US high school.

I've had a PPT slideshow ready, but I suspected that a high school was not as technically well equipped as a University, so I changed my mind and did the whole thing just talking and drawing on the whiteboard (I was right about the AV - it did not work).

I was pleasantly surprised to see the kids genuinely interested and asking many good questions - both interrupting me throughout the lesson (THAT I liked a lot) and at the end. I was surprised at how many questions had something to do with alcohol. I was expecting questions related to sex.

Oh, and how did I get this gig in the first place? Well, of course, the science teacher reads both of my blogs... Thanks for the invitation and the experience.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Using blogs in teaching

I teach biology to adults (non-science majors) at a local community college. For communication with students we are supposed to use the most cumbersome school website system ever designed. But who says that we cannot use blogs in teaching, too? This morning, I gave my students an assignment to write a paper. I did not give them any information on formatting. Instead, I told them to emulate the style and format of essays posted on Transitions, as well as to use that blog as a starting point, by following the links, for gathering information they need for their papers. We'll see how that works out.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Teen Parenthood for the X-box generation

Earlier today Mrs.Coturnix and I took Coturnix Jr. and Coturnietta to the pediatrician (and the dentist - they are in the same building). While sitting in the waiting room we saw a strange scene. A father and a son (about 14-years old, I'd say) walked out of the office, the boy vigorously rocking a little baby, the father saying "It's great we have a car. Cars are good things".

I guess I made such a face that the receptionist started laughing: "It's a doll". A girl waiting in the same room offered an explanation that in middle school you get a doll for a couple of days and have to take care of it. The doll is computerized and cries "all the time" (her words spoken over a painful grimace).

The receptionist (quite young herself) mused that "in her day" the dolls were not so sophisticated so she and her friends just locked them up in the lockers. I asked for the name of the program and she said "Let me check", got up and in a few seconds came back with the answer: Baby Think It Over.

I looked at Mrs. Coturnix and said "I have to blog about this", so here is what I found:

Baby Think It Over is an educational program that is done in high schools (and recently in middle schools) to demonstrate to the adolescents what parenting really entails.

This paper describes research on the effectiveness of the method and provides background information on which the program is based.

Here you can see what the doll does and what the 'parent' is supposed to do.

This is a good essay by a student who's done it and here are a few more experiences.

See more.

Beats "abstinence-only" Xtian programs hands down, I'd say.

Update: If you did not bother clicking on the links, the program is designed not to teach kids to parent, but to show tham how HARD it is ....and it seems to be working! They want to party and sleep, not change diapers. Harsh reality kicks in.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Teaching Blogging

Somewhat related to the whole ConvergeSouth experience. I've been pitching a blogging course to my school for a while now (not NCSU, but a community college where I teach). It's been slow and disheartening so far. Nobody knows what blogging is. Also, there is a rule that one needs to have an appropriate degree for a class. In the case of a blogging class, this would mean, or so they said, either journalism school or computer science.

Last night we had a faculty retreat and the main campus bigwigs showed up on our little satellite campus. The new Dean was there. He was talking, as a part of his top 5 things he wants to do, about completely re-doing the computer science curriculum, as well as pushing for more online and hybrid online/classroom) classes. I had only about 5-10 minutes, during a break, to corner him and to sell him these two points:

- Blogging class is important because it is the wave of the future and having such a course would prepare our students for the 21st century, as well as put the school on the map as a cutting-edge educational insitution. It would also be a hybrid class: first meeting in person to help students set up their own blogs, and the rest of the class online. I mentioned Colin McEnroe's blogging class up in Connecticut, as well as the position of North Carolina as the incubator of all new blogging ideas in the world, including the innovations by Greensboro News & Record that the whole world is watching.

- J-school graduates bring in the biases that make them most likely to misunderstand what blogging is all about, thus trying to teach a journalism class on computers instead of a blogging class. A computer scientist, likewise, would try to stick in too much technical stuff, and is likely to miss completely on the sociological, political and journalistic aspects of blogging. Thus, the proper background for teaching such a class is to be an experienced blogger, and I am one (using the fact that I was invited to ConvergeSouth - and I was, on purpose, wearing my ConvergeSouth T-shirt).

I talked fast. Ten minutes is not very much time (and I had to start with introducing myself and then chatting about Yugoslavia first). It worked. I am going to write up a proposal and it is likely to pass and I may start teaching it next year, perhaps as early as spring.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Political Affiliation on Campus

The Facebook is an extremely popular social software on campuses around the country. According to Fred Stutzman, (hat tip: Paul Jones) 85% of incoming Freshmen at UNC - Chapel Hill had a facebook account on day one of class.

If you follow that link to Fred, you will see that he used the Search function of the Facebook to look at the breakdown of UNC students by political affiliation. Intrigued, I did the same thing for NCSU.

Here are the raw data:

Political Affiliation: Female / Male

Very Liberal: 244 / 264
Liberal : 1267 / 1122
Moderate: 1101 / 1491
Conservative: 1560 / 2312
Very Conservative: 119 / 320
Libertarian : 38 / 122
Apathetic : 94 / 309
Other : 152 / 509
Total 4575 / 6449

...and here is the graph:

The obvious difference is, as is expected, that the students at UNC report themselves to be more liberal than NCSU students. No surprises there. In both schools, guys are more conservative than girls - also no surprise. On both campuses, very few students choose the extreme options ("very liberal" or "very conservative").

What can we glean from these data? I say, not much. There is just too much information missing.

Sampling: What proportion of NCSU students have a profile on Facebook? Are the men or the women more likely to put up a profile? What is the sex-ratio of students at NCSU in the first place? Are people of a particular political ideology more or less likely to sign up on the facebook? Does that differ between the sexes (e.g., female libertarians are less likely to sign up than statistics would expect, but male libertarians are as likely as anyone else to sign up)?

It is not neccessary to choose any political affiliation when making a profile. What proportion of students have profiles with no political affiliation at all? Does that differ between males and females? Does that differ between people of different political ideologies?

Searching: What does the facebook search engine do? What proportion of hits tabulated above are alumni (graduated last year), grad students, faculty or staff? How many of the 'hits' are non-existent people? I have seen, when searching faculty, profiles of Albus Dumbledore, Rush Limbaugh, Andy Rooney and many other celebrities and fictional characters. Coach Herb Sendak is listed as a professor of philosophy!

Self-reporting: How accurate is the self-reporting? Are students choosing 'moderate', 'apathetic' or 'other' (or not to sign up at all) in order to not allienate their friends? Is the choice to avoid the tag "very" motivated by the same reasons? After all, the total number of friends is a currency of prestige on the facebook.

Meaning of labels: I think that people who reported being "very conservative" and "very liberal" can be believed on their word. The former are members of Young Republicans, GOP activists, and Christian fundamentalists. The latter are largely "Deaniacs", with some other Democratic activists, College Democrats, and Greens thrown in the mix, too.

What do the other labels mean? I did a little scan of the profiles listed as "other". Most people on facebook list membership of various virtual "clubs" or groups. I was expecting to find some Greens (the only major party that is not a choice on facebook) in this group. However, most of the "other" have listed membership in groups concerned with student life, popular culture, partying, drinking and sex - no politics. Shouldn't they picked "apathetic" instead? I have found some, among the "other" who are members of a variety of Republican, conservative, and Bush/Cheney clubs. Shouldn't these people self-report being "very conservative" instead?

How about Libertarians? It is a strong third party in North Carolina. Why were there four times more male than female self-reported libertarians? Is that the sex-ratio of the party membership in the state? Also, "libertarian" is a very inexact term. What does it really mean? I know some students who consider themselves libertarian, yet when poked with questions, reveal to be pure liberals. Do they know the meaning of labels?

What does "moderate" mean? If you considered yourself a moderate, you are likely not paying attention. I assume that the concept of moderation in everything, including politics, appeals to many. But, moderation in politics is a meaningless concept - it reveals lack of understanding, information and motivation. Most of the people who list themselves as moderate are, more honestly, apathetic. Some are perhaps liberals who think they are conservatives because of the way they were raised.

The biggest categories - liberals and conservatives - are probably even more or a grab-bag of apathetic, very liberal, very conservative, and libertarian students, many of whom are misguided about the proper meaning of the labels.

It is always a surprise for self-professed conservatives when they try to do various political quizzes online and find themselves to the Left of Marx. The meaning of terms has been obfuscated, often on purpose, by the two big political parties. Many core liberal values, especially those that most Americans hold the dearest, are erroneously believed to be conservative due to historical contingency that these values were held by the Republican Party some decades ago. Fiscal responsibility is a good example.

Many people vote GOP because they (correctly) equate modern GOP with conservatism and erroneosly think of themselves as conservatives. If given a qeustionnaire, they invariably turn out to be quite liberal. The Dems need to do something about this misperception, as it is a major source of drain of voters away from it.

A final note on the Facebook study: most college students do not care much about politics. They do not know enough. Their self-reported political affiliation is a pretty accurate break-down of what their parents think (not neccessarily correctly) is their political ideology.

On the other hand, college is supposed to be a place where one questions and leaves parents' beliefs. That is the place where one obtains information and facts, where one realizes that one has previously held erroenous ideas about history, economics, law, gender-relations, religion, science and politics. Thus, it is to be expected that college turns people into liberals, as the whole fabric of conservatism is based on erroneous and long-debunked notions about human nature, operation of complex systems (including economies) and everything else. It would be interesting to repeat the facebook search with divisions by year and see if recent alumni, grad students and seniors are more liberal than freshmen.

Update: Thoughts From Kansas did the analysis of the Facebook at KU.

Update 2: Fred Sutzman has more on the UNC use of Facebook, focusing on the freshman class. I initially got on the Facebook in order to see how many students are blogging (and Fred looks at that, too). A relatively small proportion of students put up a website on their profile. When they do, it is usually a Flickr (or some other photo) site. Some have websites made in class and not updated for two years. I found a few xanga, MSNSpaces, and a few LiveJournals, but not a single Blogger, not to mention more involved blogging platforms. Are the kids not blogging? Are they hiding their blogs/journals? I know of several students who have LiveJournals but do not provide links to them from their Facebook profiles - in other words their FB profile is their public face and their LJ is their private face, to be kept separate at all times and at all costs. When I go to bloggercons, I see grey hair everywhere. Are the kids going to take up blogging later, once they ar ea little older, smarter, better educated and have something to say beyond gossip?

Update 3: More thoughts: Someone with time and patience should look at political self-description of freshmen by major, and compare the numbers to that of the seniors in the same majors. Are conservatives drawn to business and liberals to sociology or does spending four years studying business turn one into a conservative and studying sociology makes one a liberal? Are geneticists and biochemists more conservative than ecologists and physiologists to begin with, or only after years of study? How do philosophers stack up against physicists? If college experience naturally turns one into a liberal, which majors are most successful (if any) at engendering that change? Do some majors turn kids into conservatives?

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Don't Know Much About History....

When I was in elementary school back in Belgrade (grades 1 through 8) I had the most horrible history teacher. She was an example that stereotype of "dumb blonde" is sometimes correct. She was hired, I assume, because she was the Barbie-doll trophy wife of the then mayor of Belgrade.

For four years I did not learn anything about history. I managed to get all 5s (equivalent of As) until the very end of eighth grade - almost evrybody in class did. And nobody learned anything.

In middle school (grades 9 through 12) I had, at first, a tough old history teacher. He called me up to the blackboard one day to ask me some questions. I did not really know much, I admit. He looked down at the big red class book and said something like this:

"I see you have all fives in every subject possible - language, math, geography, biology, physics, chemistry - what is so hard about history?"

I said:"Well, remembering all those millenia, centuries, years, dates, names of kings, emperors and military leaders".

He looked stunned: "B-b-b-but....what is left if you eliminate all those?"

Me: "Well, the interesting stuff - the story".

He mumbled something about the need to memorize facts anyway and gave me a (barely) passing grade. Still, from that moment on he liked me (and that was important one day a couple of years later when I got in trouble in school - he saved me). He had to follow the curriculum and he was too old and set in his way of thinking to ever be able to teach "the story", but I think he appreciated my sentiment.

The remaining three years of middle school (in Yugoslavia, the term "high school" is reserved for vocational education, e.g., two-year technical schools, reserved for those who did not manage to pass tough entry exams into the University - there is no such thing as college) I had a great history teacher. She obviously loved history. Although she had to teach the curriculum, which meant memorizing trivia, she managed to weave a story anyway. My problem was that, by that time, I was hopelessly unprepared - I had no background because I have not learned anything up till then. I got fevers several time trying to study history for her - it was hard work.

I so wish I had decent history education back then. I feel the gaps and holes in my history education every day, especially in long comment-threads on smart blogs. I spent a lot of time learning history of science (I took FOUR grad classes on this!). I am trying to make up by reading history books, but that is not the same.

I have recently finished "Marriage - a History" by Stephanie Coontz. Not just that it is a marvelously written story, as well as well documented piece of academic history, but I also learned so much from it about details of history that are completely un-related to marriage. Not to mention that the whole story is starting to make sense. I can now see how pieces join together to form a bigger jigsaw puzzle. I can see the relevance of history to today's world.

Why is history not taught that way from the very beginning? Also, are there any general history books out there that I may like and find useful in patching up the holes in my knowledge?

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Lefty and Righty excesses of pseudo-science

According to Michael Shermer there are:
- science
- borderlands science
- psuedoscience, and
- nonsense

Science is a methodology of figuring out, with as great confidence as possible, how the world works. Evolutionary theory is one of the biggest, strongest and best-supported bodies of all of science.

Borderland Science refers to first small steps in acquiring realistic knowledge about a not-well-understood aspect of the world. It aspires to become Science, but is often held back by various factors, e.g., difficulty in studying the phenomenon of interest, biases of the investigators, social biases against investigations of such phenomena, etc.

For instance, very little is known about hypnosis. It is a real phenomenon but very difficult to study. There is not much funding for it as there is a social bias against such research. Thus, it is still doing its first small pioneering steps and has not resulted in data that are good enough to place it in the realm of real Science.

Another example is Evolutionary Psychology - it is done by psychologists (thus real scientists) who understand biology very poorly, yet strive to make their research scientific. Their own biases make them go up wrong alleys and bark up wrong trees (I love adding up mixed matephors, sorry). Yet, they are asking real questions about real phenomena and it is expected that at some point evolutionary psychology (lowercase) will get its methodology straight and make enough advances to become real Science.

Pseudoscience is an attempt to sell out-of-ass beliefs as scientific by using hifallutin' terminology, perform meaningless calculations, draw elaborate charts etc. Examples are many (peruse past editions of the Skeptic's Circle for examples) and include astrology, biorhythms, pyramid force, Feng Shui, crystal balls, alternative medicine, Holocaust denial, Intelligent Design Creationism, and many, many others. The main goal, usually, is making a quick buck, although more sinister motivations are sometimes behind such ideas, i.e., these may serve as methods for making an unrespectable ideology (e.g., Nazism) respectable again, or there is political gain to be had.

Nonsense does not even pretend to be scientific, e.g., Old Earth Creationism.

The psuedoscientific ideas have cropped up, historically, both within the political Right and Left - and often completely detached from any ideology. The crucial difference between the two (today) is that the Lefty pseudoscience has no negative consequences for the broader society. Nobody is hurt if some Birkenstock Lefty performs chants and lights up incense during a spiritual night of camping out in the desert in Arizona.

Lefty pseudoscience was always marginal and marginalized by everyone on both the Left and the Right. No political party has ever pushed for astrology or biorhythms to be used in classrooms or in military planning.

However, attack on science, reason and rationality is the centerpiece of the Right-Wing strategy. The only way they can save their medieval notions about society, economics, religion, science, race, gender equality, etc. from being deposited forever in the trashbin of history is if they systematically brainwash every new generation into dogmatism, uncritical thinking and fearful obedience to their authority. They are in power now - White House, Congress, Supreme Court - and they are ramming anti-science and anti-reality ideas into school (and into media) as hard as they can.

Their strategy is to confuse everyone as to what is science, what is borderlands science, what is pseudoscience, what is nonsense, i.e., what are facts and what is opinion. They are pushing IDC in order to spread the seeds of that confusion. They sneer at the reality-based community. What they are trying to do is institute not just moral relativism, but also factual relativism - nobody knows what the truth is any more and nobody knows how to figure out what the truth is so the only recourse is to blindly believe one's leaders (while they steal your money and your labor).

Saying that pseudoscientific excesses of the Loony Left are equivalent to the pseudoscientific excesses of the Righteous Right is just an example of such factual (and moral) relativity. The former is silly, discredited, powerless and innocuous. The latter is serious, more and more mainstream and dangerous to the Enlightment and what it gave to the human civilization. The former is laughable. The latter is the key weapon of the Republican Party (at least the faction in power right now).

What about the notion that Academia is liberal, particularly in social sciences? True, and that is good. Let me try to explain why (though I have done it before).

Science changes and evolves and, by being self-correcting, gets closer and closer to the truth as time passes. For instance, current understanding of evolution is better than in 1960s, which in turn was better than the 1930s evolutionary theory, which was better than the theory as described in the Origin of Species, which was better than the ideas of Chambers or Lamarck.

Social sciences are "soft" so the self-correcting process takes longer and often incites more vigorous fights. Still, it does self-correct over time and the current state of psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics, etc. is much better than the 1960s social science, which was better than 1920s which was better than 1880s, which was better than 1670s....

What conservatives would like to see re-introduced into social science departments at the Universities is 1880s social science. This is equivalent to trying to re-introduce Lamarckism into biology departments.

The path towards greater accuracy within science is often not linear. There is often a pendulum motion between one extreme and the opposite extreme, one springing up as a reaction to the other, introducing its own excesses, then giving way to the opposite extreme.

"Nature" held sway for a while, then "nurture" took over as the dominant paradigm, nature again, nurture again....but today it is neither and both. We have arrived not at a grey compromise position somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, but at the more sophisticated understanding of the inheritance of behavioral traits.

Both "nature" and "nurture" are hierarchical positions. We have arrived at the current understanding when we ditched hierarchy in favor of a an interactionist system. This has happened in many areas of science, including evolutionary biology among others.

The same happened in political ideology. In 1930s, both conservative and liberal ideologies were hierarchical - the difference was who's on top (i.e., in control of economy). But today, conservative ideology still clings to hierarchy (it cannot change - it is BASED on hierarchy), while modern liberalism is an interactionist system.

Conservative childrearing philosophy (as explicated in e.g., James Dobson's manuals) leads to a hirerachical way of thinking about everything. It is very difficult for born-and-raised conservatives to comprehend non-hierarchical interactionist systems. That is why they do not understand what "free market" is all about, nor can they understand what modern liberalism is all about. They either assume it is the same as it was in the 1930s (thus calling us "commies"), or understand it has changed but do not understand how and instinctively recoil in fear when presented with something they are incapable of understanding (I have written many times and in great detail about various aspects of this so you can dig through the archives of the relevant category).

Back to liberal social science in academia. Excesses of conservatism in social sciences in the late 19th and early 20th century were replaced by excesses of liberal social sciences. Pendulum swung a few times, and each time there was self-correction and general improvement.

No, current state of social sciences is not perfect, but is immeasurably better than anything conservatives would like to put instead. Their social science has not evolved in almost a century - it is badly out of date. Most importantly, conservative social science is still hierarchical - implicitly or explicitly it is based on superiority of some groups (usually white rich Christian straight American males) over other groups.

Liberal social science has largely transcended hierarchical worldview and adopted interactionist thinking. With all its imperfections, it is the best we have at the moment, the closest to the true understanding of the reality. Conservatism has nothing to offer but return to an outmoded hierarchical way of thinking that can be used and abused in apologetics of various social inequities. Putting conservative social science back into the academia is just like hiring a Lamarckist in a biology department. A huge step backwards.

Hard sciences, social sciences, society and political ideology change and evolve over time. Invoking eugenics (which, btw, was apparently liked by conversatives, too, just ask Herr Adolf) or attacking 1960s or 1930s liberalism is exactly the same tactic that Creationists use when they attack the theory as described in the Origin instead of CURRENT evolutionary theory.

What happened in the past 30-40 years or so is that much of hard sciences, social sciences, society and liberal political ideology have moved from linear hierarchical thinking to non-linear interactionist thinking.

Liberals have embraced this change BECAUSE it eliminates some errors of historical liberalism (e.g,. of the 1930s or 1960s). Not all have changed, though. Lieberman is a dinosaur, and so are many others in the Democratic leadership. Some of the Feng-Shui liberals I criticized above are likewise stuck in the 1960s.

Embracing this change also helps liberalism form a unified, internally consistent ideology, in place of its usual issue-by-issue catalogue of stands.

However, conservatism CANNOT change and get modern and current because hierarchy is the ESSENCE of conservatism. Attempts to modernize weaken conservatism as it is forced to accept liberal views on individual issues (see Europe).

BushCo chose the opposite tactic - keep conservatism logically consistent and intact, thus, in the process, stopping the evolution of all political thought, of science and of society - keeping the status quo indefinitely. Systematic attack on science is a neccessary strategy, actually central strategy for that endeavor to succeed.

Conservatism is violently lashing out like a wounded beast feeling its own impending demise. It is still dangerous. If we are not careful it can kill us. If that happens, history stops, returns to 18th century norms, and persists in that state for a long time. We just have to win this fight, defeat this beast once for all, in order to save the Enlightement and allow the world to move on into the future.

Update (responses to critics):
Political theories may not be falsifiable, but political theories are based on either common-sense or scientific theories about the world that are falsifiable.

One's stance on any political issue, from economy, education, health care and environment to foreign policy or the role of the judiciary, stems from one's core political ideology. That ideology is based on one's general worldview - the way one understands the world. The way one understands the world is heavily influenced by one's upbringing (not neccessarily conscious learning - it is more of an early developmental influence of the family dynamics). The way one understands the world may be consistent with empirical information about the way the world really works, or it may be at odds with our increasing knowledge about the world.

We have learned a lot about the world during the past century or so. Important pieces to understand are: human nature, human behavior, development of the brain and behavior, effects of upbringing on the subsequent behavior, human social behavior and formation of social groups, behaviors of large complex systems (e.g., economies), nature of human relationships (e.g., competition or cooperation) both between individuals and between groups (including between large groups, e.g., nations), etc.

Unfortunately, the conservative ideology is turning out to be based on what more and more appears to be inacurate and incorrect understanding of the way the world works.

Remember that 1930s liberal model was governmental control of industry - the experiment that was tried in the USSR etc. That is a top-down hierarchy. Today, liberalism is more free-market than conservatives can ever be, i.e., it is non-hierarchial interactionist thinking about the economics. In conservative minds, "free market" is a way to climb up (or down) a hierarchy. You compete against and compare yourself to other players in the system. The people on top - the winners - are assumed to have gotten there through hard work and fair play (which is actually impossible - you have to take a little sliver off your employees earnings in order to make a profit) and are trusted as moral pillars of the community - they can do no bad. Thus a hierarchy forms in which owners of megabusiness control economy, thus subverting the operation of free market - the economy becomes top-down controlled again. Liberals would have none of it: the idea is strengthen middle-class which runs small and mid-size businesses, while restraining the power of large business (not eliminating it - some things just HAVE to be done by big business due to the costs), i.e., letting the free market operate.

One of the major points of my post is that psuedoscience and anti-science that has its roots in the Left is marginalized by all political parties, while psuedoscience and anti-science that has its roots in the Right is front and center - nobody in the GOP farts without getting Dobson's written permission first.

Thus, searching for nominally Leftist groups on the fringes in order to "prove" that Left is capable of pseudoscience does nothing to undermine the argument - au contraire, I have pointed it out in the very first comment.

I have also stated originally that many of the current leaders of the Democratic Party are dinosaurs, i.e., they belong to the 'old' liberalism. Clintons are not liberal, Ted Kennedy, Denis Kucinich and John Kerry are 'Old Guard'. A few young-uns are new liberals, e.g., Dean and Edwards (off the top of my head). If you want to see the new liberals, go peruse the blogrolls of Big Brass Alliance, Liberal Coalition or Progressive Blog Alliance.

There is something strange about 1960s. Something happenned then that triggered revolutions in so many areas of society. I am not talking hippies here and LSD.

In the sixties, we learned about the DNA and Williams published his Adaptation and Natural Selection, which finalized the process of ossification of Darwinian synthesis, spawned "selfish gene" and sociobiology, and planted the seeds for the reaction - the evo-devo.

The sixties were the time when much of the non-linear dymanics ("chaos") was worked out, leading to complexity theory which has influenced everything from biology to economics to lay understanding of nature.

The sixties saw the rise of a cheap and reliable Pill. As Stephanie Coontz documents in her "Marriage - A History", the sixties were a beginning of a revolution in marriage that we are still embroiled in, that most observers have not noticed yet, and that is triggering the fearfull backlash from the conservatives.

The sixties saw a huge change in the way we use language - the de-formalization of English documented by John McWorther in "Doing Our Own Thing". This, in turn, changed education and also paved the way for politicization of language, sloganeering and political marketing as first noticed by Charles Kelly in "The Great Limbaugh Con" and lately studied in depth by George Lakoff in Moral Politics.

Since mid-sixties, liberalism changed a lot. Conservativism could not change nor did it notice how liberalism changed. Liberals soaked in the new ways of thinking about the world because they naturally felt in line with progressive values - equality of opportunity. Conservatives were stuck and had to fight back against new liberalism by attacking the underlying science.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Bible as textbook

Since the ordination of Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church has split into its "liberal" faction and its "conservative" faction. I did not pay much attention to this, but recently I heard something disturbing.

There used to be an old Episcopal school here. After the split, the school also split - which apparently involved erecting new buildings, etc. I recently learned what is being taught in the "conservative" school. Wanna know?

In the English class, they read the Bible.

They teach History by using the Bible as the textbook.

The basketball coach (of the, of course, all-white team) refers to opponent's players using the "N" word.

Wonder what is taught in Biology? Genesis, of course. Last year, the biology teacher said that men have one less rib than women. One student asked "What do scientists believe about this?" The teacher said "Scientists believe that men have one less rib than women". The girl asked again "But what do real scientists believe about this?" to which the teacher, now almost visibly angry, responded "Scientists believe this". Another student then, with obvious sarcasm in his voice, said "Scientists believe that male monkeys have one less rib than female monkeys, too".

In order to protect the identities of the kids, I will stop with the examples here.

These kids are smarter than teachers, it seems. At least some of them are not buying the BS and will grow up with a deep understanding of the way fundamentalists think. I hope they all go into politics....

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Some Thoughts On Use Of Animals In Research And Teaching

The story about the class dissection of a dog stirred quite a lot of controversy, including heated exchanges in the comments of these two posts on Pharyngula.

I joined in late to that discussion, not because I missed it, but because I did not know what to say before I knew more about the case, and also because I have my own, very strong views on the general matter. I assumed that an animal rightist would show up, and I did not want to get banned from Pharyngula for the use of foul language in exchange with such a person.

I am glad I waited, as the two additional articles cleared up some stuff. This is a topic I wanted to write on my blog since I started it, yet could never make myself actually do it (though I copied/pasted some forum comments early on and asked a question about it here).

I got into biology because I love animals. I have a cat, a dog, some tetras, used to have horses... I was going to be a vet, but war interfered, I came to the State s, and I had to start all over again, thus I chose grad school and basic science over repeating the whole vet school.

My research is on whole animals, i.e., I have done hundreds of surgeries (and even more euthanasias). While I have acquired mastery of t he skills which makes it easier, I still never like killing an animal. And I work with what is essentially poultry - a highly unintelligent and not very pretty bird: the Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica).

We spend at least 6 months discussing eve ry experiment that we may want to do (and may have already got NIH funding for beforehand) before we decide if it is worth doing and if we are certain that we have perfected the experimental design in a way that will maximize the usefulness of the experim ent. The important guiding principle is that we want to minimize the number of animals we use, minimize the pain, and maximize the benefit we gain from doing the experiment.

Then, we spend a couple of months dealing with IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use Commitee) over the details of all the proposed experiments before they are approved, although they had initially approved the experiments as described in our grant proposal (NIH requires the IACUC approval to be sent with the proposal). Often we have to
modify the procedure, or even abandon an experiment, due to IACUC non-approval (IACUCs are semi-fascist organizations IMHO).

Our old tech was a vet, and I am an almost-vet, so they let us do stuff alone, though they sometimes pop-up to check in o n us: they want to know when and where we do procedures so they can come and see. For each new procedure (e.g., lesioning a different brain nucleus than the one we did last week), the IACUC vet is there to make sure that we do it "right".

Recently we had to switch from injectable anesthesia (ketamine/rompun mix) to inhalation anesthesia under completely sterile conditions (the latter being completely neccessary for avian surgery but IACUC does not follow reason or scientific evidence - just emotion). My wife, who is a nurse, laughs at me - and I have funny pictures to show: wearing a
mask, a hat, sterile gloves and the iddy-biddy (100g) bird with an inhalation mask on a sterile's a riot. That level of sterility and anesthesia is not used in humans!

Eleven years ago, when I just started, we did surgeries on a desk, the anesthetised bird secured to the desk with masking tape, cleaned our tools with alcohol swabs, and had never had any infections or other problems - the birds' immune system is just too strong for such stuff to occur. Actually, the "old" system was faster and we had more deaths in-surgery with inhalation surgery and the vet present as the bird remains anesthetised too long (while the vet is slowly checking every step and talking through it). I used to do 20 pinealectomies per day. Now I am happy if I can do six and all birds survive. But, as I sad, IACUC has nothing to do with reason, science, or investigators' experience. They often insist on practices that are actually worse for animals' well-being than what the investigators, who have spent decades studying the particular species, suggest.

As a result, less and less people use whole animals in research. The hassle is just too great. People are switching to in vitro s tudies, mostly molecular biology. But results of molecular studies are just hypotheses to be tested in whole
animals. We do expensive molecular stuff, the results are picked up by scientists in Asia, Europe and elsewhere and tested in whole animals, often leading to patents and money.

Even in my own work, I am writing proposals guided not by the importance of experiments that need to be done, but by how likely is it that the experiments will be approved by IACUC. Most of the latest stuff was pure behavio ral testing, non-invasive measurements, and selective breeding protocols - we are going back to the stuff that could have been
done in the 19th century because a bunch of bureaucrats do not let us do sophisticated stuff.

I have written a lot (especially in the fourth part of my WWDD series of posts) on the negative effects of the "bandwagon" mentality in science, and the utility of old techniques in asking new questions. I have made the most exciting discoveries using, as a technique, only COUNTING (OK, I had to count every day for three years, but still....). But, what we need is the freedom to use whatever technique and approach is suitable for a particular question we are asking. Everything else is slowing down science.

In the end, the activity of IACUCs has a chilling effect on animal research in the USA, producing, de facto, a result favorable to PETA and ALF: precipitous decline in whole-animal research in this country (I wish I could lay my hands on the actual numbers so I can document this, but IACUC, like other paranoid organizations, will not let me see the files). I have told them that they are the most efficient executive cell of the domestic terrorist organization. You bet they did not like that! Do you think I can get them haule d away to Guantanamo?

IACUCs have the same effect on using animals in teaching, particularly at med schools. Using computer simulations does not come close to the experience of the real hot animal. Not to mention that every simulation looks the same, whi le every individual animal looks different. No matter how many dogs you have opened up, each looks different
inside. Sure, each has a heart, a stomach, a liver etc, but the relative sizes and positions, consistency, color, etc. are all different. If you l ook in an atlas of human anatomy (or any mammalian anatomy), there are three major arteries coming of the aortic arch right after the aorta leaves the heart. If you have dissected, for instance, a couple of hundred
cats, you would have seen anywhere betwe en one and six arteries coming off the aorta. The diversity of the innards is not reflected in atlases and simulations and ill-prepares the future surgeons.

I am aware that the UK system is even stricter than in the US, as the anti-vivisection movement i s much stronger there than the PETA is in the USA. However, in the USA every University has its own IACUC and they differ from each other.

In my school, we have hundreds of people working on animals as we have a big vet school, as well as large departme nts in zoology, animal science, poultry science, plus you need rabbits for the department of immunology (and some biochemists use them, too). However, the number of people has dropped precipituously lately, mostly after the arrival of the new Chair of the IACUC who looks and behaves just like John Bolton. He is under scrutiny now, and may get ditched because so many people complained (and while the experiments and grants are stalled University loses the overhead funds), but starting that process took year s of effort. However, talking to some other people in other schools, it appears that their IACUCs are just as bad if not worse. A guy from UVA, for instance, was amazed that I was allowed to remove eyes from birds - something unimaginable in many other s chools. I am assuming that having a vet school on
campus actually helps in this matter. Thus, it's the matter of luck: what kind of idiot is running your IACUC.

The influence of animal rights groups, who purposefully and successfully blur the lines betw een themselves and genuine animal protection organizations is growing, especially in urban areas, where people are, of necessity alienated from nature. The emotions run high. The "Bambi" view of life is rampant. Kids of farmers and hunters have been expos ed to freshly killed animals and will find the dog dissection in the classroom interesting. Actually, seeing it done CORRECTLY by a vet, as opposed to what they've seen at home on the farm, may teach them something about respect towards animals and the ex istence of animal pain.

Not all, or even most, urbanites are rabid animal rightists. A small subset is. However, you are hard pressed to find any of them in rural communities. In other words, most animal rightists are urban, but not most urbanites are a nimal rightists. I have seen somewhere (in a book collection of studies on the problem) the stats for their membership, and it is hugely urban, mostly in their thirties, mostly single women with no kids: a population that does not replace itself through h aving and indoctrinating own kids, thus needs to recruit.

The inability of people, blinded by pathological emotion, to make a distinction between animal protection (important and wonderful activity) and animal rights (a philosophically untenable position leading to terrorist behavior), is one of my pet peeves (see the links at the end of this post for detailed explnations of the distinction between the two). I had to deal, in the past, with students who had taken an "ethics" course with Tom Regan - they were a pain to deal with: all anger, no reason. Fortunately, he has retired, though he seems to be churning out books every couple of months or so, and is constantly on the radio and in the papers. The very use of language of "rights" is legally improper, philosophically untenable, and intentionally misleading.

Two main ideologues of the movement, Tom Regan and Peter Singer have, with no outside help, destroyed each other's arguments a long time ago. The rest of them are just emotional sheep, bombing r esearch facilities, threatening the lives of researchers, and releasing the animals into the wild where they are promptly slaughtered by predators within hours - isn't that terrorism?

Debating an animal rightist is in many ways more difficult than debati ng a Creationist. It takes a mind trained in logic and a thorough immersion in the issue. I have seen it done by competent people and do not feel competent enough myself to do it.

Usually an animal rightist starts the argument with a Regan argument. Once you start deconstructing it he/she switches to a Singer argument, although the two are completely logically incompatible (though we have seen time and again the great capacity of a human mind to hold simultaneously two or more mutually exclusive beliefs). You start eviscerating Singer's argument, the person quickly switches back to Regan. By quickly switching back and forth a few times like this, the animal rightist places you in a trap in which you may err and say contradictory things to which the respo nse is "Gotcha!". This activity should be left to the professionals with experience.

Our treatment of animals is a proper subject matter of ethics, but using the language of "rights" and following it through is what turns the argument upside down and int o the looney-land. The word "rights" in the ethical and legal sense HAS to be applied only to humans. When people try to extend it to animals, all sort of nonsense results.

One of the commenters on Pharyngula wrote:
"Since the 1970s, literal ly hundreds of books and articles have been published on the subject by academics, most of them professional philosophers. The majority of those writers are sympathetic to animal liberation. [] Of course, those who write in the field are no doubt not a re presentative sample of all philosophers and academics, but it should at least give pause to those who ridicule the idea of animal liberation."

Well, since 1850s, literally hundreds of books and articles have been published on Creationism, mo st by academics, most of them professional philosophers. The majority of THOSE writers are sympathetic to Creationism.... On the other hand, people who actually know something about evolution do not bother to write about Creationism very often - it is a d istraction. There are thousands in the former group, millions in the latter. I bet the situation is the same in animal rights world. Those who support it tend to write about it. Those who don't, don't bother, though they overwhelmingly outnumber the forme r, leaving the illusion that the animal rights philosophy is more broadly supported than it really

"As for the idea that Singer and Regan have annihilated each other's arguments, you could say the same about John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant (in whose footsteps Singer and Regan follow; or perhaps I should say, on whose shoulders they stand)".

Mill and Kant are Dead White Philosophers and the fact that they annihilated each other's argument (if they did) paved the way for p hilosophy to move on. This would be a pitiful world if Mill and Kant were still the latest word in philosophy. Same goes for Regan and Singer. Both are the thing of the past - the subject of study by HISTORIANS of philosophy, just like Mill and Kant. J ust like Darwin, for that matter: a genius for sure, but biology did not get stuck on the "Origin" as a sacred text and has, instead, used the subsequent 150-something years wisely and built an impressive scientific edifice.

Comparison between animal rig htists and Creationists is not just for the fun effect, or because both endulge in similar debating tactics. The similarity is deeper: both groups are anti-evolutionary, though one comes from the Conservative core, and the other is a distant radial offshoot off the Liberal core. How?

First step in the AR (animal rights) argument is seemingly evolutionary: arguing for the geneological unity of Life, in orde r to put animals on the same level of the playing field.

The second step is already contradicting evolution by making humans "special", i.e., separate from other species by a particular trait: only humans are villains and thus worth killing.

The thi rd step is very anti-evolutionary as the AR-ists construct a Great Chain of Being. All species need to be linearized so AR can draw a line somewhere, animals above it having rights, organisms below the line not having rights.

The criteria for ordering species on the Chain, and for drawing the cut-off line are usually invoking intelligence, possibility of consciousness, or ability to perceive pain. However, the emotionality of the criteria is revealed by the actual Chains they propose and the position s of the cut-off lines: such Chains Of Being are even more anti-evolutionary than NZBear's TTLB Ecosystem.

Above the line are cute, fuzzy, furry, pretty animals. Below the line are ugly, venomous, dangerous critters with "ick" factor. Mammals and bir ds tend to be above the line, but rarely rattlesnakes, alligators, snapping turtles and bullfrogs (including Jeremiah). Some RA-ists would like to protect the tuna, but not the sharks, barracudas, lampreys and hagfish. The only invertebrates having righ ts are Monarch butterflies (though lobster is being mentioned recently).

Even worse, every AR-ist constructs his/her own Great Chain Of Being and decides where to draw the line, resulting in internecine struggles. Not a single one, however, follows th e "rights" logic to its final conclusion: Thou shalt not kill bacteria! If you want to make an AR-ist mad, you only need to utter a single word: "Cabbage". It hits the nerve and provokes fits of outrage precisely because there is no argument against it.

OK, this post is getting too long. I urge you to go look through the comments on the two Pharyngula posts I linked to at the very beginning (you can skip over my comments there as most of it is right here), as well as check out the links below, particularly Brian O'Connor's blog. I have missed a number of points here, but you can see them in some of my earlier posts, e.g., here and here.

I do not personally endorse everything on the following websites, webpages, and blogs, but they are useful sources of information for further discussion and contain further good links: Objectivist Center, Sover Net, Animal Law, Ampef, RDS, AALAS, Animal Crackers blog (Brian O'Connor), VARE, Animal Scam, Anti-PETA, Animal Rights, NAIA, Animal Welfare, Animal Law, Fur Comission, Animal Advocacy, Animal Concerns, WAF, Fat Pet, People Eating Tasty Animals..

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati tag: Teaching-Carnival

Saturday, January 14, 2006

At The Science Fair

Yesterday morning Mrs.Coturnix and I went to Coturnietta's school. Her class had a Science Fair! You can just imagine my excitement - a scientist's daughter's first venture into science!

For two weeks she pestered me to help her with her project, and I did a little bit here and there (using sharp objects when neccessary, for instance, or going to the store and buying supplies she ordered), but in general, I did my best to resist the urge to do more than minimum and let her do it all by herself. And she did. She built a seismograph out of a cardboard box, a paper cup, a marker, some pebbles (from her aquarium!), and a roll of paper. And it worked wonderfully!

She picked her assignment herself. She's been interested in earthquakes and volcanoes lately (a budding Earth scientist?). She dug through our library and found all those thousands of books on biology (and nursing and philosophy and politics....), but nothing about earthquakes. So I went to Quail Ridge Books (they have a great childrens' book section) and asked if they had something. I was shown about ten books on earthquakes and I picked two that I thought would be at her reading level and of interest to her. And she read them hungrily the first day I brought them home.

She also built a poster out of carboard and glued onto it several sheets of paper with handwritten facts about earthquakes and the way seismograph works. She asked me where she could find some illustrations for the poster. I pointed her to my stack of old science magazines in the corner, various old issues of Science, Nature, Discover, Scientific American, American Scientist and Discover (all of which subscriptions ran out, as I cannot afford them and at the same time I am punishing myself for not finishing my Dissertation yet - no fun science until the stats and graphs are done!). Within two minutes she had not just a very pretty photograph of the Earth (from a cover) but also a series of figures showing tectonic plates from a paper in Nature! She is in third grade!

So, on Wednesday I helped her carry all that stuff to her classroom and, from what I hear, several other classes came to visit their Science Fair. Yesterday it was time for parents to come and visit. It looked like a poster session at a scientific meeting with each child standing in front of the poster, explaining what it was all about and demonstrating something.

Coturnietta is the youngest, smallest and timidest kid in the class. She is very shy. She does not talk to strangers. So we were surprised, very pleasantly of course, to see her talk enthusiastically about her project to all those parents circling around the room. I heard her explain the plate tectonics (the pieces of broken egg-shell floating on the suface of the egg-white that is the Earth), and how earthquakes happen when the two plates hit each other. I saw her demonstrate her seismograph and how the squiggles on the paper can tell you where the earthquake is and how strong it is. I was sooooo impressed. My father's (and scientist's) heart was so full of joy and pride.

Other kids' projects were also very impressive for third grade. And they all were so confident and calm explaining to us how their stuff works. Myself, I am very happy they serve wine at poster sessions at conferences....

It was only after it was all over and we were leaving the school that I thought that this was something to blog about. About a minute later, Mrs.Coturnix said "You should write about this on your blog!". So, here it is.

It was interesting to notice some other things about the Science Fair, too. For instance, children of poor or less educated parents were doing their projects in pairs, while kids of more educated parents were going solo. Of course, some kids of scientists (and there are many in Chapel Hill) produced projects that were obviously made by parents. I do not think that a third-grader can do all that wiring and soldering and hammering nails needed for some of the more ambitious projects. Coturnietta's teacher was so proud of her for doing the whole project by herself.

Another thing is that Science Fair is a misnomer. It was really a Technology Fair. Kids were supposed to write their hypotheses on their poster boards, but nobody tested any hypotheses (except: "I hypothesize that my contraption will work the way it should"). Kids built models of stuff (e.g., volcanoes, tornadoes, airplanes), or built instruments to measure something (seismograph, Watt-meter), or explained how something man-made works (e.g., lightbulb, speakers), or described an applied technology (grafting fruit trees), or described some part of nature (human skeleton). I sure hope that as they grow up they get taught the difference between science and technology. For now, it is great to see how much fun they had and how proud they all were of their work.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati Tag: Teaching-Carnival

This is NOT about academic freedom - it is about going medieval

Look at these different views on the same incident (a student expelled from Le Moyne College in upstate NY for writing a paper endorsing corporal punishment):

Problem of Academic Freedom
Academic Freedom

Most are talking about this in terms of academic freedom. But, this is NOT at the core of the issue. This is an instance in which a thoroughly Nurturant Parent organization - the US educational system - recognizes and rejects a person whose goal is to introduce Strict Father moral system into schools. It is like rejecting foreign tissue, a bad transplant, or a cancer.

The educators, quite rightly, recognized that this guy's moral system is based in 17th century, is impossible to change in his mind by any educational effort on their part, and presents a danger to the children that he may get to teach in the future.

If you read/listen to the files linked above, you will see that corporal punishment was not something that he pulled out of the blue, as an idea to mull about, but is a component of his overal worldview, obvious from other stuff he wrote in that paper (and presumably in other papers). I bet the college administrators were uneasy with him from the start and were watching him for a while. I am guessing that the writing about corporal punishment was not the real reason he got expelled - it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back, the final excuse to kick out a person who is thoroughly and unchangingly ill-suited to the profession.

This is very similar to the Horowitz assault on Academia - he is trying to get Strict Father people to infiltrate a Nurturant Parent institution with a long-term goal of bringing up new generations of Strict Fathering people. The schools are one place where Regressives do not have an upper hand and it is also a key place where they need to be in order to reproduce/replicate themselves into the next generation.

Remember, the most important goal of the Strict Father system is preservation of the Strict Father system, and they will use all means, including illegal action (see Tom DeLay for example, or attack on Iraq, or the whole Schiavo debacle), ridiculous claims (see Intelligent Design Creationism, for example), fear (see Patriot Act), and disinformation (see Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and most of the rest of the MSM for examples), to attain that goal. No method is out of question. No sacrifice is too great, no violence unacceptable, in pursuit of this goal.

Thus, watch out - the assault on schools, from preschool to postdoc, is the next big thing for them - an essential goal if their medievalist worldview is to survive in the Age of Modernity.

Cross-posted on Science And Politics

Technorati Tag: Teaching-Carnival