Morality and Politics

I realized several years ago that one of the primary points of frustration for me occurs when dealing with people who are irrational.  I also learned that it’s futile to attempt to address an irrational idea using rationality.  If people don’t understand the power and value of logic and reason, it’s not a problem that I can solve.  At least in the United States, the political and social climate has clearly empowered the irrational members of the country.  Those are the people who openly choose not to elect a “smart” President and that feel that it’s OK to impeach a President for lying about his private life while letting an alleged war criminal run the nation, no questions asked.  It often seems that the inmates are running the asylum.

So where do these ideas come from?  The topic of morality is one that is often thrown about in the media.  It doesn’t matter if people are criticizing Britney Spears’ latest escapades or if it’s an issue of imprisoning and torturing hundreds of innocent people.  There are many who suggest that morality comes from religion, but all research points the in the opposite direction.  In fact, most thinking adults would be aghast if they only read books like the Bible (especially the Old Testament) or the Koran. 

The New York Times posted an article earlier this year that attempts to explain the basis of morality.  Steven Pinker writes in The Moral Instinct about the basis of these ideas.  For example, how can people respect the ignorance an suffering peddled by Mother Theresa while overlooking actual humanitarians?  The article is very long, but I found it to be thought-provoking.  Pinker often cites studies and thought experiments which are both entertaining and information.  Here’s an excerpt:

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

Of course, there’s a strong current in modern thought that seems to imply that we should “think” with our guts rather than with our brains.  If something feels bad, we should avoid it.  And, if we can somehow rationalize it (e.g., to attack a country with no evidence or reason), then it’s OK.  Towards the conclusion of the article is another example:

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.

If only we would invest more time and effort in actually learning about human nature rather than trying to defend absurd, illogical, and irrational conclusions, the world would be a far better place.  I’m not holding my breath for a positive change, but it would be a pleasant change from our current culture of ignorance.

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[Even More] Bored of Education: Teaching of Creationism in Schools

While it’s tempting to dismiss creationists (also known as those that subscribe to the belief of “Intelligent Design”), the sad truth is that they’re hardly the lunatic fringe.  Rather, beliefs in mystical, supernatural forces that tinker with the world (perhaps to trick us into believing falsehoods like evolution) are commonplace.  Popular Science reports on recent findings in One in Eight U.S. Biology Teachers Teaches Creationism.  Keeping in mind that this practice is illegal (and for good reason), here are the results as stated in the article:

The results of the first national survey of teachers about evolution in their classrooms are in. Darwin would quiver in his boots to learn that in this day and age, one in eight American biology teachers teach creationism and intelligent design as a sound alternative to his theory. In fact, 13 percent of the country’s teachers think they can run an excellent biology class without even mentioning Darwin or evolution. A few findings of note:

  • The surveyed teachers spent an average of 13.7 classroom hours per year on general evolutionary processes in their biology classes.
  • The majority spent no more than five hours a year on human evolution, and 17 percent did not cover it all.
  • Only two percent of teachers did not teach about evolution, human or otherwise, at all.
  • Thirteen percent of teachers thought an excellent biology course could exist without mentioning Darwin or evolutionary theory.
  • Twenty-five percent of teachers said that they devoted at least one or two classroom hours to creationism or intelligent design. About half of this subset—one in eight biology teachers—taught it not in critique but as a “valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species” and one that “many reputable scientists” endorse.
  • Sixteen percent of all teachers surveyed believe personally in the “young earth” story of origins: that human beings were created by God in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years. About 48 percent of the general public believes this.

The survey, which was conducted by a team of Penn State political scientists last spring, assessed 939 randomly sampled U.S. biology teachers. It appears in PLoS Biology.

Texas: Bored of Education?

Whenever you’re in the mood for a good laugh, you need look no further than the United States educational system.  A nation that can spend trillions on a manufactured war puts so little into (and gets so little back from) it’s educational system.  As a case in point, a post from Bad Astronomy helps outline the sad state of affairs.  From That’s it. Texas really is doomed:

Well, it’s truly official: Texas is doomed.

Why? I’ve talked before about the guy that’s the head of the State Board of Education. His name is Don McLeroy, and he’s perhaps the least qualified guy on the planet to head a BoE. He’s a creationist. He thinks science is evil. The list of his disqualifications to be in charge of a BoE would be so big… well, it would be Texas-sized big.

I predicted nothing but doom and shame for the BoE this year, and it brings me no joy at all to say I was right. McLeroy’s latest antic — though I would call it the first shot fired in a war, a war on reality — was over, of all things, the English standards. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, teachers and experts had worked for two and a half to three years on new standards for English. So what did McLeroy do? He ignored all that work entirely, and let “social conservatives” on the board draft a new set overnight.

Overnight? Think that’s better than Standards teachers and experts spent nearly three years on?

We know where McLeroy stands there. Texas is actually and seriously looking down a cliff of educational repression that will doom the children there for the next decade. I really can’t be more serious about this. If I were a parent of a young child in Texas right now, I’d move out rather than let her be educated there.

The result?  The Board approved the measure, 9 to 6.

Well many might laugh at this (and we really should, at least a little), the truth is that we’re breeding even more ignorance in this nation.  On a side note, many of the comments for the post offer some interesting views on the issue.

U.S. High Schools Schools Still Teaching Creationism

There’s probably no better indicator of the United States’ slide into irrationality and a world clouded by religion than the controversy over the teaching of creationism (aka, “Intelligent Design”) in American schools.  While the legal rulings are clear (that Creationism and ID are religious views that should not be taught in public schools), the ignorance of teachers seems to dominate what’s really being taught.  LiveScience.com reports in Creationism Creeps into U.S. Classrooms

One in eight U.S. high school biology teachers presents creationism or intelligent design in a positive light in the classroom, a new survey shows, despite a federal court’s recent ban against it.

And a quarter of the nation’s high school biology teachers say they devoted at least one or two classroom hours to the topics, with about half presenting it favorably and half presenting it as an invalid alternative.

Those results are part of a nationally representative, random sample of 939 teachers who filled out surveys between March 5, 2007, and May 1, 2007 on questions concerning the teaching of evolution. The figures have a 3 percent margin of error.

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, also revealed that between 12 percent and 16 percent of the nation’s biology teachers are creationists, and about one in six of them have a “young Earth” orientation, which means they believe that human beings were created by God in their present form within the past 10,000 years.

Scientists, on the other hand, agree that humans evolved from a common primate ancestor in a process that stretches back tens of millions of years. The theory of evolution on which this is based is one of the most well-supported theories in science.

The remainder of the statistics and information paint a scary picture.  For example, 38% of adults believe that superstitious theories should be taught in schools.  It’s sad that, despite the clear outcome of the Dover Trial, so many Americans remain in the Dark Ages.  It all makes a return to rationality and reason to seem more distant than ever before.

The Sickness of "Faith Healing"

For those that tend to think that religion is just harmless fun for the deluded, it’s important to remember that the belief in the supernatural can have everyday consequences.  Such was the case for a less-than-two-year-old girl that was suffering from an otherwise easily treatable infection.  MSNBC reports in Faith-healing parents charged in baby’s death:

OREGON CITY, Ore. – A couple whose church preaches against medical care are facing criminal charges after their young daughter died of an infection that authorities said went untreated.

Carl and Raylene Worthington were indicted Friday on charges of manslaughter and criminal mistreatment in the death of their 15-month-old daughter Ava. They belong to the Followers of Christ Church, whose members have a history of treating gravely ill children only with prayer.

Ava died March 2 of bronchial pneumonia and a blood infection. The state medical examiner’s office has said she could have been treated with antibiotics.

The Worthingtons could face more than six years if convicted on the manslaughter charges and up to a year on the mistreatment charges, said Greg Horner, chief deputy district attorney. They were released on $250,000 bail, he said.

Encouragingly, the article states that this is the first time that laws designed to prevent this form of child abuse have actually been enforced.  That’s good news for these poor children whose only “crime” was being born to extremely superstitious and irrational parents.  I think it’s fair to expect the Bush Administration or some of his cronies to start treating faith-based healing as a real solution.  In any case, it’s probably not much worse than the current state of the U.S. healthcare system.

Education: Finnish First

Personally, I find that one of the biggest challenges facing the United States is our complacency.  In recent years, we have undeniably fallen behind the rest of the world in education.  Our debt levels are staggering, our economy is sinking, and we have a President that wages war for now reason.  Still, any criticism seems to be greeted with hostility.  We tend to think that if people don’t support our violent or arrogant ways, they’re against us.  We should, instead, try to learn from the rest of the world.  Most of the planet has learned how to make healthcare fair, yet we continue to make futile attempts to “tweak” a system that is fundamentally flawed and serves only private interests and profiteering.  Education, in my opinion, is a potential solution.

The Wall Street Journal recently posted an interesting article titled What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?  From the introduction:

High-school students here rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night. They have no school uniforms, no honor societies, no valedictorians, no tardy bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardized testing, few parents agonize over college and kids don’t start school until age 7.

Yet by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world’s C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they’re way ahead in math, science and reading — on track to keeping Finns among the world’s most productive workers.

And an interesting anecdote / “case study”:

Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen saw the differences firsthand. She spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.

Lloyd Kirby, superintendent of Colon Community Schools in southern Michigan, says foreign students are told to ask for extra work if they find classes too easy. He says he is trying to make his schools more rigorous by asking parents to demand more from their children.

You can also access a chart that shows the results from the survey.  The U.S. is pretty far down on the list (behind Croatia, Iceland, and many other nations).

Hopefully we can learn something by some of these teaching techniques.  Certainly, no system is perfect, but Americans can benefit tremendously by learning about what does work in other areas of the world.

Scientists vs. Bush

LiveScience recently posted an article that does a good job of summing up the Bush Administration’s stand against science.  From the article, Scientists Say Bush Stifles Science and Lets Global Leadership Slip:

In his final State of the Union address, President George W. Bush devoted several lines to science and technology topics. He called for research and funding to reduce oil dependency and reverse the growth of greenhouse gases.

“To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow,” Bush said. [Full Text]

But several scientists around the country aren’t buying what they see as rhetoric not backed by funding. And they are frustrated by what they view as the White House’s morality-based politics that they say ignores scientific evidence, distorts facts and leads to outright censorship of reports and scientists. The White House responded to the criticisms point-by-point.

(A Democratic congressional report in December stated: “The Bush administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”)

While this is hardly a surprise to anyone who has been following Bush’s track record, it seems that people would be shocked and outraged that our government is censoring science.  Are we back in the Dark Ages?  What role should people who barely understand what cells are play in the process of legitimate scientific research? 

Worst of all, this seems to have had quite an effect on the American people.  When you see a panel of “experts” discussing a topic such as stem cell research, religious leaders are included.  What special knowledge could these people possibly have that could be of use to the rest of us?  Many Americans will make their decisions based on a gut feeling (often involving their interpretation of Jesus’ will).  With a better education system and improved distribution of wealth, we’d all be smart enough to ignore the White House’s censorship.  Instead, a large portion of the country seems to consider George Bush and his cronies to be authorities on science.

Measuring the World

UniverscaleThis isn’t strictly related to politics or the topic of this blog, but I recently ran across a very useful web site from Nikon.  The site is Universcale and it provides a Flash-based interactive demonstration that allows users to navigate through various levels of magnitude to compare the sizes of things.  The site’s introduction explains it well:

We are able to view all entities, from the microworld to the universe, from a single perspective. By setting them up against a scale, we are able to compare and understand things which cannot be physically compared.

Today, using the electron microscope and astronomical telescope, we can see the objects which we have not been aware of its existence before. Are you able to fathom, or even roughly grasp, these sizes?

See our Universcale and experience the sizes of various objects.

I would love to see something like this for comparing dollar amounts of, say, United States expenditures.  In past posts, I have linked to static images that do a pretty good job of helping us visualize spending (see The 2008 Budget Poster).  But wouldn’t it be great to be able to zoom in on the cost of attacking Iraq and to be able to compare that with our spending on education, law enforcement, and healthcare?  If anyone’s aware of any such site, please post it in the comments.

The Impact of "Stuff"

Many Americans tend to think that all of the resources we consume magically appear from Earth’s resources.  And the wastes that we create seem to magically disappear.  In reality, of course, much of what we take for granted comes from non-renewable resources.  The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard is an entertaining and very informative view of the real costs of all of the material goods we use every day.  The video does a great job of examining the entire “life cycle” of products and what it takes to get them to rich consumers.  The video can do a much better job of explaining the details than I could hope to, so I’ll stop here. 🙂

Science vs. Popularity on YouTube

People have always been easily impressed by completely made-up information or suggestions that lack any valid source of information.  Simple examples include religion and claims that are made in typical everyday marketing.  And, I’m not even getting into the effects of direct-to-consumer drug advertising, fad diets, and media outlets like Fox News.  It seems that everyone’s OK with spending a million dollars per minute on the war in Iraq, but if someone like Anna Nicole Smith dies, our entire nation is paying attention.

In many ways, the Internet can make it much easier for crackpot theories, hatred, prejudice, and the like to become commonplace.  In the past, most media outlets would provide a filtering/editing function.  Now, anyone with access to a computer can create and post on a blog.  That’s good in many ways, but it makes it difficult for people who have never tried to use critical thinking skills to determine credibility.

ArsTechnica reports in YouTube users prefer lousy science over the real deal:

The big message in the data, however, appears to be that viewers don’t find the information being put out by public health authorities compelling at all. Even among the positive videos (which were poorly viewed and rated), public service announcements grabbed the smallest audience and the worst ratings; even among videos with a small audience, they stood out as being ignored.

Even without this data, it was obvious that the effort involved in producing a video is not a significant barrier to entry. Anyone with strange ideas and the urge to have them heard can easily reach the public via YouTube. What is clear from the data is that those with a vested interest in making sure accurate information is available, such as the public health community, need to make sure that their message is packaged in a compelling manner, so that it drowns the bad information out. Simply dumping the movies we ignored during high school health class on the Internet isn’t going to cut it in the YouTube era.

This article is based on a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Freedom of speech and expression are extremely important today (especially under the reign of the Bush Administration).  However, consumers of information must be able to critically evaluate data and separate facts from overly-dramatized speculation.

Triggering Traffic Lights

It’s quite common to see traffic lights that are triggered based on a magnetic field.  For most automobiles, this works as planned – there’s enough metal for the sensors to detect a waiting automobile.  But what if you’re on a bicycle or motorcycle?  I run into this problem all the time.  People would be quick to agree that cyclists should obey all traffic rules.  But what about also getting equal treatment at traffic lights?  I often find myself have to run through red lights because the lights won’t change unless there’s a car directly behind me. 

In a video entitled Trigger Green Traffic Lights, you’ll learn how to use a couple of magnets to help trigger traffic lights.  Keep in mind that there are still timing algorithms, so it’s not like you’ll never have to stop.  Still, at least you’ll get your fair share of signal time at intersections.  I plan to try it soon.

Esquire: Greetings from Idiot America

It’s great to see mainstream publishers starting to attack some of the ridiculous ideas that are so common in the United States.  In Greetings from Idiot America (single page) Charles P. Pierce writes about the how creationism, intelligent design, and other crack-pot ideas have become mainstream in the United States. Rather than ridiculing this stupidity, people are building exhibits of dinosaurs wearing saddles in the Creation Museum.  People claim that dinosaurs fit on Noah’s Ark since they were young and small (why didn’t I think of that?).  These people believe in the literal truth of the Bible, regardless of how indefensible are their beliefs.  An excerpt:

The Congress of the United States intervenes to extend into a televised spectacle the prolonged death of a woman in Florida. The majority leader of the Senate, a physician, pronounces a diagnosis based on heavily edited videotape. The majority leader of the House of Representatives argues against cutting-edge research into the use of human stem cells by saying that “an embryo is a person…. We were all at one time embryos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth.” Nobody laughs at him or points out that the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or whoever invented the baby-back rib.

The following describes the overall ideas of Idiot America:

After all, faith is about the heart and soul and about transcendence. Anything calling itself faith-based is admitting that it is secular and profane. In the way that it relies on the Gut to determine its science, its politics, and even the way it sends its people to war, Idiot America is not a country of faith; it’s a faith-based country, fashioning itself in the world, which is not the place where faith is best fashioned.

The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:
1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
2) Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Basically, it’s a rejection of science and intellectual thought in exchange for religion, superstition, and greed.  I’ve heard religious experts ask that, if evolution is true, why we don’t all just give birth to monkeys?  Where do they get these ideas?  And how do they get news coverage?  You’d be hard-pressed to fabricate this level of stupidity.  I would love to just laugh this off as dumb people doing dumb things.  But these people tend to be powerful political figures.  They run the country, it’s laws, and its rapidly-deteriorating public education system.  This stuff actually matters (to me, probably not to them).

OK, one last quote (I promise):

It is a long way from that to the moment on February 18, 2004, when sixty-two scientists, including a clutch of Nobel laureates, released a report accusing the incumbent administration of manipulating science for political ends. It is a long way from Jefferson’s observatory and Franklin’s kite to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation’s science classes. “Both sides ought to be properly taught,” said the president, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America — where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

Perhaps its time for the Mind to take control over the Gut.  People should start respecting intelligence rather than rewarding idiocy.  Otherwise, we might need to rename this nation based on the title of a Green Day album.