Tuesday, February 27, 2007

List update 070227

Recent list work: #9, #12a (most recent time: 16:42), #22, #87.

I've realized a few of my items are debatable. For instance, I did drive an hour to spend time with a friend. Does that qualify as traveling to visit someone? I'm currently going with no. The reestablishing good credit history is always potential, but I've not gotten a credit report recently, so it's not yet clear that's been completed. And I'm definitely working on finishing up with classes, but that will take a while.

However, of items which are unequivocal, I've currently finished 6. This means I'm completely on pace, as I need to average 1 every 10 days. And I've even done it without relying on the sunrise and sunset ones yet. Yay me!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Musings and list update

Recent list efforts: #9, #12a (most recent time-- 16:56), #87, #94.

So, today after my workout there was a bit of a commotion in the locker room. A guy I will say was obviously substantially disabled apparently wanted to go swimming, and was banging against the locked door to it. His aide (aide? attendant? I don't know the correct term) was repeating firmly and calmly "The door is locked. I don't have a key. We can't get in. Let's go sit down by your locker. The door is locked." The guy who caused the commotion continued to bang against the door, moan, and occasionally say the word "key". When he did, he just repeated it continuously.

I checked on my way out, and it turns out that this was not a time in which the pool was listed as being open to the public. Therefore, I can come up with two scenarios: 1) He wasn't aware that this was not a time when the pool was normally open. 2) The pool is normally open to him at this time, but for some reason was locked today.

I'm not sure what to think of my thoughts on this--if that isn't too dadaist of me to say. Pragmatically, I think it makes good sense to have a time for the pool to be reserved for those with severe disabilities. From my selfish perspective, behavior like this guy's is some stressful to be around. I wasn't angry at him about it, as it seemed clear to me that he's not of a mental capacity to know any better, but it's along the lines of a screaming infant on an airplane--loud and stressful. I can try to justify it by saying that it might be less stressful for the severely disabled to exercise together as well, as they'd be less likely to be ridiculed for being themselves in such a setting, but I can't be sure that it's all that altruistic of me. On the other hand, I wonder about what this says about my levels of compassion, and whether I'm advocating for sweeping people like him under the rug.

I think this is also all somewhat complicated by the fact that my gym is a university gym. From the language skills on display, I would be very surprised if this guy was a student here. Is it reasonable that I take that into consideration? I can only guess that he might be the child of a university employee, and this is why he uses this gym, but I view the dependents of the faculty/staff/students to have a lesser claim on the facilities than the faculty/staff/students themselves.

Can we get an apology here?

Today's NY TImes contains an update on Matthew LaClair. For those who don't know who he is, he's (at the time of this writing) a high school student who earlier this year caused a surprising amount of controversy by, well, conclusively demonstrating that his world history teacher was behaving entirely inappropriately for a public high school teacher. Matthew's tape recordings involve such things as the teacher -- remember, he's a history teacher -- telling students during class that if they don't believe that Jesus died for their sins that they deserve to go to Hell, that there were dinosaurs on Noah's ark, evolution has no scientific basis, etc. There's been a strong backlash against him in his community; several have said that he was provoking these points, that he's just seeking attention, that it was wrong to tape these lectures without approval, even that these statements were no big deal.

So far, the school's response which has been publicly known has been...to ban taping classes without instructor approval. We must take their word for it that there was some sort of discussion with the teacher to prevent him from doing this again, as it falls under the umbrella of "personnel matter".

Well, today's update is that his family has filed a torts claim notice, which is the first step to filing a lawsuit in New Jersey. The family says they're seeking a public apology and a correction of some of the statements made in class.

This strikes me as a strange thing to sue over. I do feel the school's actions are inappropriate. And though without knowing the situation in detail, I have a hard time coming up with any context in which these statements could be reasonably made in a public school history class. If this behavior was still going on, and he was suing to stop it, I'd find that laudable. But suing for an apology still strikes me as a bit wrong. Our courts are overbooked as it is dealing with matters of people breaking the law. Dealing with people's feelings being hurt in ways that aren't slander or libel strikes me as too much to add.

A snapshot of American values

Brendan links to an interesting article today about what people think of hypothetical presidential candidates.

I'm sure that people are going to interpret this as a sign of what prejudices exist in this country. I don't think that's quite accurate. A better idea would be to interpret this as what prejudices people think are socially acceptable. For example, I'm not convinced that across the country as a whole, it's considered 10 times worse to be an atheist than it is to be black (5% say they wouldn't vote for a black candidate--53% say they wouldn't vote for an atheist one.) Like all self-report data, it's important to remember that what people say on a survey is not necessarily what they truly think/feel/do.

This list also, of course, confirms that I shouldn't run for office anytime soon. So at least that's resolved. ;) But it's probably better for me to run in 20 years than it would be if I waited 50 and was therefore old...

Monday, February 12, 2007

The study of the paranormal

Furthering today's theme of posting about science (sort of), another piece from the NYTimes this weekend concerned the fate of a Princeton lab which has, for decades, attempted to study psychic abilities. Basically, the worker in this lab tried to see if human thoughts could alter what would otherwise be random events--random number generation, physical movements, etc.

In what will probably surprise anyone who met me in college or later, I at one time assumed I'd take a course in parapsychology. I've always believed that most people claiming psychic powers were frauds, but I figured there might be some legitimate basis to telepathy in particular. Just because I thought most of those claiming the abilities were frauds didn't mean I was convinced the abilities didn't exist.

In reality, I think most of the research from this lab is suspect. As Michael Shermer points out in Why People Believe Weird Things, you should generally be skeptical of things which purport to show only very tiny effect sizes. And the effect sizes claimed by this lab are indeed tiny. "Analyzing data from such trials, the PEAR team concluded that people could alter the behavior of these machines very slightly, changing about 2 or 3 flips out of 10,000." When effect sizes are that small, they're extremely unlikely to be meaningful.

But, at the same time, I'm annoyed by things like "Prominent research journals declined to accept papers from PEAR. One editor famously told Dr. Jahn that he would consider a paper “if you can telepathically communicate it to me.”" How annoyed I am depends on how you interpret it. If it's a statement that the papers were rejected outright because of who it was submitting them, without looking at the evidence, that's a bad thing. If it's that the papers were declined because the editors didn't think the authors had proved their claims, that's something else.

However, it should be pointed out, it's not fair to sit back and blithely condemn journals for not considering all submissions. Journals are deluged with huge numbers of manuscripts. It takes time, energy, and expense to review them thoroughly. It is therefore reasonable for many journals to conduct a form of academic triage--only thoroughly review those papers which are unlikely to have serious logical or methodological flaws and which claim interesting results in the abstract. Still, there are so many journals out there that it seems unlikely that the lab simply couldn't find a journal willing to give a thorough review to their submissions, and that's why they had to found there own. Color me skeptical when a group publishes only in a journal run by the members of the group.

Litmus ideology and science

I came across an interesting article in the NYTimes today. In summary, it's about a man who got a PhD in geoscience, writing a dissertation about the spread of mosasaurs, which went extinct 65 million years ago. The man also happens to be a young Earth creationist, believing that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and was created according to accounting in Genesis.

I have a few reactions to this article, which are probably not well organized at the moment, but which I feel like writing about right now anyway.

One, I find it absurd that people feel he shouldn't have gotten the degree simply because he doesn't completely believe it. (For example: "His creationism aroused “some concern by faculty members there, and disagreements,” he recalled, and there were those who argued that his religious beliefs should bar him from earning an advanced degree in paleontology.") If his work is a valid contribution to the field, then whether he disagrees with his own work due to religious reasons is irrelevant. Universities should not be in the job of making students pass an ideological litmus test. Educating about the science of evolution is not brainwashing. As long as the students understand the arguments and predictions therein, that's all that the university can really demand that they know of a given theory. Greater demands can be placed on the details of how their dissertation intersects with a theory, but disputing a theory is not sufficient cause to refuse a degree.

At the same time, I do draw a distinction between that and another related topic brought up in another paragraph:

Michael L. Dini, a professor of biology education at Texas Tech University, goes even further. In 2003, he was threatened with a federal investigation when students complained that he would not write letters of recommendation for graduate study for anyone who would not offer “a scientific answer” to questions about how the human species originated.

What sort of federal investigation would be at all reasonable? Letters of recommendation are personal, subjective evaluations of students. Any professor can hold any standard (s)he wants to write such a letter. If one of my professors felt that I'd be unqualified for graduate work because I'm a white male and there are too many of those in grad school already, that's his/her right. I may disagree, but I have no federal right to a letter of recommendation.

On the other hand, I do find at least one of the statements attributed to this man to be dishonest. ("And though his dissertation repeatedly described events as occurring tens of millions of years ago, Dr. Ross added, “I did not imply or deny any endorsement of the dates.”") Bull. It's in your dissertation thesis. If you don't refute it there, or at the very least clearly distance yourself from it by saying things like "Smith et al argue that these fossils are from..." or "One interpretation is that...", you are indeed implying endorsement of the statement.

I know that, long-term, I will have students in my evolution courses who disagree with evolution. For the most part, I must admit that I believe this is caused by some combination of misinformation about the reality of the biological arguments about evolution and a certain degree of doublethink on the part of the students. But it's not my place to dictate what they believe. My job is to teach the information and evaluate their understanding of it and ability to apply it. If they can do that but choose not to believe it--because they have alternate beliefs, or put less faith in scientific methodology than they do in appeals to other authorities, that in no way makes them less deserving of the mark they've earned.

Friday, February 2, 2007

The state of equality

The latest news from the culture wars isn't a good one for either equality or freedom, really. Today, the Michigan State Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that public universities and governmental agencies may not provide domestic partnership benefits to their employees, in response to the 2004 MI state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman and outlaws recognition of any "similar union for any purpose".

Now, I must admit that I'm unhappy with that amendment. I think it's wrong and contrary to common sense and the real spirit of equality. I do, however, at least respect those who felt strongly enough about it to amend the state constitution, rather than trying to pass a law stating that certain laws aren't subject to the constitution. Process does matter to me.

However, this is taking things to an extreme version. Note that the ruling is that public organizations aren't allowed to offer such benefits, not that they aren't required to do so. Further, as is quoted from the article:
Ingham County Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk previously had ruled that criteria established by employers to qualify for same-sex benefits don't recognize a "union" because Michigan doesn't allow civil unions.

"Employer-defined criteria for the receipt of health care benefits cannot create a union where one does not exist," Draganchuk said.

In any event, this is going to cause some problems down the road for the large public universities in Michigan. Academia in general is a relatively liberal environment, and many institutions advertise their domestic partnership benefits accordingly. I know that, for example, my health insurance would be extendable to a domestic partner I registered with the university. Or, at least, it would have been prior to this ruling (and, of course, if I had a domestic partner, which I don't).

For the moment, let's leave aside the issue of how preventing homosexual unions in any way protects straight marriage. This is just a bad idea. Institutions of higher education are being prohibited from offering benefits they have already been offering to entice the students and faculty members they're seeking. For a state trying to transition from a manufacturing economy and in which the universities best known across the country are public ones, this is an idiotic move. There will be savings in the short term, as less money will be spent on offering health care. But the costs, should this ruling stand, will add up massively over the long-haul as the universities slip in their prestige.