Archive for April, 2008

What’s up – End of April 2008

Identify yourself if you want to participate in society

It looks like the courts have decided it is OK to require voters to identify themselves (WSJ, Fund). The left is not happy (see Big Lizards) but the fact is that the state depends upon being able to verify the identity of those who participate in its activities. This issue not only involves voting but many other interactions with the state. Passports have been in the news recently but welfare, taxation, healthcare, and other programs also depend upon an accountability in identification to prevent fraud and misuse. Right now, it depends upon an individual to carry some certification such as a driver’s license. In the future it may well be that a fingerprint or other biometric will be used as a key to a government list (database) that verifies your identity for a particular purpose. Either way, there is a lot of angst about the leaking of personal information or its misuse either from a personal data store or from a government database.

Doom and gloom frenzy takes a reality check

All the talk about economic gloom and doom and recession got a bit of a wake up call as the first quarter reports indicate an economy that is still growing. We see so much about the rate at which the rate of growth has slowed it is very easy to loose sight of the fact that it hasn’t yet started to go backwards.

Fuel cost inflation and a third world food crisis

The side effects of efforts to move away from oil are being seen on two fronts. One is the substitute front that advocates biofuels and that other is the NIMBY energy sourcing luxury. Biofuels are being seen as competing for basic foodstuffs and leading to food shortages and hoarding. Prohibitions about drilling for oil in ANWAR, oil shales, or off coast have limited the supply of oil and that has tended to make it more costly. Add to that the opposition to cost effective energy sources such as nuclear or hydroelectric and it is easy to see how pressure on the energy supply is increasing.

The effect of improper behavior for change

Some are starting to look at the effect of the anti-war rioting and its destructive effects. NRO notes one that indicates how the Viet Nam effort may have been dragged out by the egotism of the protestsers ad how, with a bit more political finess, the war might have been brought to an end sooner. There have also been some analysis about the opposition to the Iraq war and how it has dragged out the conflict and reduced the effectiveness of the effort.

Is college worth it?

Marty Nemko wonders if the bachelor’s degree is the right goal for the so-so high school graduate.

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Characterizing the opposition

Whether it is making the opposition criminal or just plain disgusting, a flavor in modern politics is beginning to suffer inspection. Both political decision making and the nature of science provide recent examples.

Glenn Reynolds noted a Jerry Pournelle observation about the effort to promote the prosecution of former office holders. That was followed by a Mark Lardas analogy to the Roman Civil War. The point was made by Pournelle:

The absolute minimum requirement for democratic government is that the loser be willing to lose the election: that losing an election is not the loss of everything that matters. As soon as that assurance is gone, playing by the rules makes no sense at all.

The Attack Machine highlights the science example in Science and the Left.

But beneath these grave accusations, it turns out, are some remarkably flimsy grievances, most of which seem to amount to political disputes about policy questions in which science plays a role.

This last is related to several blog postings noting that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has published a study about the administration corrupting federal agency science. Those postings fail to note that the UCS is an advocacy group with a long history of rather poor science. As with the NASA scientist who continually claims he is censored by the current administration yet has more interviews on record, much of the proper context and support for the allegation is conveniently missing.

The point is ‘can we all get along?’ We cannot if disagreements are such as to be made a criminal matter or a matter of ethics. A governance of the people must have a means that will achieve decisions backed by responsible people who can accept that decision. Disagreements have to be considered as a need for education and persuasion, not as a matter of prosecution or ethics.

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Expelled stimulates the big lizards

Dafydd offers an essay on Ben Stein’s latest that is a must read. See Expelled: No Intelligence Offered – part 1 (Win Ben Stein’s Monkey Trial!) and part 2 (Ben in the Dock).

What you will get is a basic lesson in the fundamentals of propaganda, how to tell if something is science or not, and a look at the nature of the perception of the diety.

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What is it now? BPA will kill you?

Dr. Ross takes off after the latest hysteria – the fear of the plastic used to make rugged hard sided bottles. He notes a correlation in the source of the FUD mongering:

This new scare is part and parcel of the “back to nature” school of public health. There is no substance to the dogma promulgated by technophobes that “natural is good, synthetic is bad.” All of the great epidemic infections we have conquered are of “natural” origin — and we beat them with technology. The same folks who warn us against BPA — and phthalates in toys and all the other phony threats — tend to oppose gene-splicing technology, which holds the promise of relieving food scarcity now threatening world health and stability. But they’d rather rant about non-existent health threats
they invent than deal with real-life problems. They have been warning us about the dangers of cosmetics, French fries and vaccines — while ignoring real problems, such as smoking and underutilization of interventions such as colonoscopy and adult immunizations.

I must paraphrase Edmund Burke: the only requirement for the ignorant to triumph is for the informed to remain silent. That’s what is happening now, as voices of alarm become ever more shrill

Maybe we should start a pool on the Next Great Fear

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What are you measuring?

Real Climate’s post on Ed Lorenz brings to mind the idea that all of this climate modeling may have a measurement focus problem.

Another way of saying it is that for the climate problem, the weather (or the individual trajectory) is the noise. If you are trying to find the common signal that is a signature of a particular forcing then averaging over a number of simulations with different weather works rather well. (There is a long standing quote in science – “one person’s noise is another person’s signal” which is certainly apropos here. Climate modellers don’t average over ensemble members because they think that weather isn’t important, they do it because it gives robust estimates of the signal they are usually looking for.)

This is a common management problem. Climate is not well defined and that makes it difficult to measure. When something is difficult to measure, it is difficult to track or model or predict. This may be why there is such contention.

One often used measure of climate is global average temperatures. Even this is problematic. How is such an average derived and what is the quality of its sources? Meteorologists have put a lot of effort into instrumentation and methodology for measuring atmospheric temperature yet even that basic measure is subject to all sorts of conditions, caveats, and adjustments.

Other measures used for climate change include atmospheric composition (e.g. carbon dioxide), glacial ice, ocean surface height, sunspots, ocean temperature patterns, average ocean temperatures, and cloud coverage.

The lack of precision in even knowing what to measure much less the measurement itself is an indicator that conclusions based on that measure need to be carefully qualified. Much of the global climate change debate has really been about this point and not about the topic of climate change itself.

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Worrisome priorities

Jack Kelly notes disturbing priorities in Killing us with their songs (Washington Tiomes April 17, 2008). The stimulus is an antipathy to the Pledge of Allegiance but the examples are the Columbia Free Trade act and FISA.

When Democrats in the 43rd State Legislative District in suburban Seattle met April 5 to select delegates to the state convention, they refused to begin their deliberations by saying the Pledge of Allegiance …

Democrats in recent years have done much to undermine both our economy and our national security. But this is the first time they’ve been able to accomplish both in a single measure.

Mrs. Pelosi continues to keep the terrorist-surveillance bill from coming to a vote because trial lawyers want to be able to sue telephone companies that cooperated with our intelligence agencies after Sept. 11, 2001.

I’m not questioning their patriotism. (They’re doing a fine job of that all by themselves.) But Democrats do exhibit a disturbing tendency to subordinate the national interest to narrow partisan interests

The pledge is to the country and that is a different entity from the political parties that run it. In any organization there is a process to make decisions. Loyalty requires accepting those properly made decisions as if they were one’s own – no matter the disagreement on a personal level. In this case, it appears that a personal disagreement is elevated. Whether it is a presidential election in 2000 or a matter in which there was previous agreement (Iraq, FISA, Columbia) makes no difference. The allegiance is to one’s personal ideology and not to the national entity that provides an environment for their expression. That is a worrisome priority. Look no farther than Cuba or Venezuela to see why.

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Expelled: reason and common sense

You may have seen the advertisements on TV. The question to be asked is what has been expelled. Ben Stein’s new anti-science propaganda film, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed opens this Friday in 1,100 theaters, the largest theatrical release ever for a documentary, according to its producers.

It is another propaganda piece in the Michael Moore vein (see, for instance The lies of Michael Moore . – By Christopher Hitchens – Slate Magazine) that suffers by lacking an honest view of reality. It should be more of an exercise in the study of denial behaviors and such things as Dr. Sanity’s Heirarchy of Disagreement than as any enlightenment about creationism or the science of evolution.

Ben Stein’s new anti-science movie Expelled is all worldview and no evidence (Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine, April 16, 2008) describes the issues.

Stein and the film’s producers maintain that belief in evolutionary biology makes societies more likely to succumb to totalitarianism.

“What’s happening here is politics,” lamented the film’s star, Ben Stein, at Heritage. “Politics in the halls of science and that needs to be stopped.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Expelled Exposed is a website created to counterbalance the propaganda.

We’ll show you why this movie is not a documentary at all, but anti-science propaganda aimed at creating the appearance of controversy where there is none.

The idea of Expelled is that of censorship that leads to bad things. It tries to don the mantra of free speech. The problem is that the freedom of speech comes with its responsibilities. When those responsibilities are abused, the freedoms become hindered and inhibited. You do not have the freedom to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater or otherwise stimulate panic in such a way. You do not have the freedom to turn a science class into political theater. Even your freedom to misrepresent and distort reality in movies like Expelled have its consequences.

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What’s with math education?

Lockhart Laments (PDF) about the sorry social view of the field of mathematics. He sees it as an art form and, hence, an integral human endeavor towards making sense of how our minds think in patterns creating emotional satisfaction. In this vein, he wails about the motivations foisted on students – to learn ‘practical’ math – to create “cutesyness” to entice memorization of rules and algorithms and what schools (and society) do to the children.

In any case, do you really think kids even want something that is relevant to their daily lives? You think something practical like compound interest is going to get them excited? People enjoy fantasy, and that is just what mathematics can provide— a relief from daily life, an anodyne to the practical workaday world.

The main problem with school mathematics is that there are no problems. Oh, I know what passes for problems in math classes, these insipid “exercises.” “Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework.” What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.

But a problem, a genuine honest-to-goodness natural human question— that’s another thing. How long is the diagonal of a cube? Do prime numbers keep going on forever? Is infinity a number? How many ways can I symmetrically tile a surface? The history of mathematics is the history of mankind’s engagement with questions like these, not the mindless regurgitation of formulas and algorithms (together with contrived exercises designed to make use of them).

So put away your lesson plans and your overhead projectors, your full-color textbook abominations, your CD-ROMs and the whole rest of the traveling circus freak show of contemporary education, and simply do mathematics with your students! Art teachers don’t waste their time with textbooks and rote training in specific techniques. They do what is natural to their subject— they get the kids painting. They go around from easel to easel, making suggestions and offering guidance:

The key points are that the teachers need to be mathematicians to the point of sympathy with its own qualities as an intrinsic human endeavor. The mathematics teacher needs to be a mentor willing to risk an intellectual relationship with the student. Teaching is the process of selecting the right problem for the right student at the right time so as to lead the learning towards an efficient progress of growth and development.

Too often, math teaching in high school is an easy job. Use the text. Do the chapter on the wall. Assign busy work to keep parents happy that their children are doing homework. Rote, mechanical, step through the defined process. Let the chips (and students) fail where they may.

The Lament perhaps goes overboard bashing current pedagogy but the ideas and the complaints and the criticism provide good insight into how to move from wherever it currently is to something better.

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Are you in touch with reality?

Dr. Santy explains the phenomena, why it is a concern, theaters of its exhibition, and what is necessary to get past it.

The essence of psychologica denial is a refusal to look at, or acknowledge, reality.

Fortunately, reality exists outside of one’s head and is objective and verifiable. It is not altered by whim, desire, lies or myth. This is not to say that people might not believe ideas that do not conform to reality–in fact, they do so all the time. Just like Anna’s description of the child’s ego, the ego of an otherwise normal adult may also resort to childish, immature and primitive mechanisms when it feels threatened.

You would think it would be a simple matter to be “in touch” with reality. But it isn’t. It requires a great deal of cognitive effort–i.e., thinking–and often that effort must assert itself over powerful emotions that draw the person away from the real world to a place more comfortable and unchallenging to their inner reality.

So, how does a rational person determine what is true and what is delusion? How do you decide if something is a myth or is real?

metacognition? (see Metacognition and finding the light)

It reminds me of all the paranoid patients I have observed over the years, who effortlessly are able to dismiss or explain away those facts that don’t fit in with their carefully constructed conspiracy theories. If you get too assertive in pointing out those uncomfortable facts, you find yourself in no time fully integrated into the theory. For the paranoid, the case is closed and the argument is finished.

No matter the subject, you will find this all over the I’net. Nearly every discussion forum has threads that illustrate just how denial can lead to trash talk and unpleasant behavior.

When it suits their purposes (i.e., when they are losing the argument), they will resort to the claim that reality and truth are merely subjective constructs anyway, and that any evidence you present is only someone’s “opinion” and that their opinions are as good as anyone else’s.

Such a position should logically disqualify their position to begin with, but of course, it doesn’t

Generally they use this as their argument of last resort–when they cannot bring any facts or logic to support their position. After a brief escape into the relativism noted above, they will then usually proceed directly to the usual ad hominem attacks. Q.E.D.

The heat is so intense that people forget to step back and think about their thinking – and get burned. But thinking about your thinking is a form of psychotherapy. It may lead to revealing conflicting desires and needs. It may lead to a realization of a need for change. It may mean revealing a need to do something. Oh, my!

One of the most serious psychological challenges that any human being must face is to face reality, particularly when the consequences of confronting truth are personally unpleasant and very painful. That is exactly what psychological denial seeks to avoid doing.

What set her off was the appearance of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on Capitol Hill and the political posturing. That hearing provided only the stimulus for several examples of correlation between denial behaviors and political persuasion. That may mean that you need to watch out for your own denial if you think she is attacking your political cohorts. One way to do that would be to read her post carefully and consider the behaviors and the observations without the political examples. Look at the selections quoted here as an example. Think. Meta-cognate. Consider your feelings and where you are coming from and why you are where you are in your view of things.

Good stuff. Read it all. carefully.

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Metacognition and finding the light

Metacognition occurs when you think about your thinking. It means that instead of just analyzing evidence at face value, you start to ask questions about why you favor certain facts over others. You think about whether or not you have emotions, cognitive biases, peer pressures, or other things that are affecting your thought processes. You ask yourself if you would think something different if the roles were reversed, if you had a better day, if you had not had such a bad experience last time. From Creationism to Evolution: How the World’s Most Powerful Idea Has Shaped My Thinking About Business

Metacognition is a key process in science. If it isn’t there, it isn’t science. From the issues of observer bias to those of accuracy and precision, a scientists must qualify findings by how they know what they know and observe what they measure. That means that there is always a consideration for the quality of knowledge and a realization that that knowledge is limited to a certain context and only valid under certain assumptions.

A famous case in point is the theory of gravity. That has expanded from the very local, pre-Newton, Aristotle understanding of common objects to the Newtonian context that has a solar system wide context to that of the Einstein view which encompasses a context of the Universe. Each of these three theories is ‘correct’ given an appropriate context but falls short when taken out of that context. Einstein was famous for his thought experiments that uncovered discrepancies in existing knowledge – created cognitive dissonance. These though experiments are an example of metacognition at work. They are the mulling over of what we know and how we know it and what those two factors really mean to how we understand reality.

Rob May took a look at how he understood Biblical Creation and thought about his thinking.

Then, in 1997, I was solidly in the creationist camp. It’s not important to talk about what changed my mind, but the process and the results are important, so this is a story about how I came to accept the theory of evolution and how it changed my thinking on many other issues.

Many take such a revelation, such an insight, as tossing out the old for the new. This also needs a bit of metacognition. It is possible that both old and new can coexist and that thinking about what you know can allow each to coexist by placing each in an appropriate context. That is one factor that complicates the creation versus evolution argument: many cannot see these as coexisting and take the acceptance of one as a denial of the other. That misdirects the conflict and makes it a confrontation.

The message is that there is a process here. Without metacognition, a process of thinking about our own thinking, our response is often to reject what will flavor our understanding. If we want to learn and grow, a first step is to look at what we know and how we know it, to separate opinion from belief, and to discover how we feel about the issue. From there, the challenge is how to bring all of these together into a new understanding. It may well be that we end up ‘born again’ having to totally dismiss our previous position for a new one but it is often the case that we will find that our previous position gains nuance and richness as we place it in its proper place and context. We will never know unless we struggle with what we know and how we know it and work to fit it all together.

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