Why wouldn’t we all be liberal?

An article I came across the other day is one related to a common trope out there about universities being bastions for liberal indoctrination of students because of how liberal all the professors are.  In this article Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters (A contributor to the O’Reilly Factor) went to the campus of Cornell to try and talk to students about how much they were indoctrinated after they found out that 96% of the faculty at Cornell have donated to the Democratic Party for this upcoming election.  Mr. Watters was then asked to leave campus by the public relations person on campus and of course this led to the obvious conclusion by Bill and Jesse that Cornell wants to hide their nefarious activities of brainwashing students into their liberal agenda.

One thing that has always bothered me is that by being educated about something this implies that I’m being indoctrinated or brainwashed into a certain set of beliefs, rather than using my own mind to reach conclusions based on those things that I’ve learned.  While it is true that if I am only taught a certain set of facts or incorrect facts then I may reach the wrong conclusion, but what I want to focus on is the real reason why a well-educated person is likely to support liberal principles.

So there is much of this story that is ridiculous so we are going to have to ignore a few things to try and take it seriously:

  • Ignore the fact that both Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly graduated from liberal arts colleges for their undergrad and that Bill O’Reilly graduated from Harvard. Places with a lot of liberal faculty.  And I know in the past there were more Republican faculty, but in the past the Republicans are not quite like the ones we have today.  But somehow Jesse and Bill escaped these liberal indoctrination factories themselves. Lord knows how.
  • Ignore the fact that many of those Democratic supporters likely teach subjects like math or chemistry which can hardly be considered political subjects.
  • Ignore the fact that most academic degrees really don’t have a political bend to them at all. If you are concerned about diversity of viewpoints then at best you want to have that in subjects like economics, or political science.  And this could very well be the case at Cornell.
  • Ignore the fact that most indoctrination is done when the child is young and is done by parents and four years of college is unlikely to change their mind if they have been indoctrinated well into a particular philosophy
  • Let’s ignore the fact that FOX news has no problems indoctrinating their viewership with only one particular viewpoint and merely calls that viewpoint fair and balanced, when it is in fact not.

So let’s first try to understand what liberal means.  The philosophy of liberalism as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically :  such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class)

With this philosophy, individual autonomy is valued and this is not unlike an important tenet that Republicans often talk about which is personal responsibility (which I recently wrote about).  Liberalism also holds that government is a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequity.  I would argue that many Republicans are not against equality, they simply believe that we already have it, and that the only reason certain minorities, classes, genders, etc, aren’t doing well is through their own lack of personal responsibility.  And is equality counter to capitalistic principles?  Not necessarily.  Provided equality refers to equal opportunity, then everyone has an equal opportunity to compete in the market place.  So we can perhaps argue about the specifics about where inequality lies or whether we have it or we don’t, but it would seem that equality its is a goal of most people regardless of party affiliation.

Although many evangelicals would disagree, believing in the essential goodness of the human race is something that at least many more moderate Republicans could get on board with.  Believing in the goodness of the human race is a matter of expectations.  I expect people to be generally good and by holding that expectation people generally are good, or at the very least my own well-being is enhanced by focusing on the good and life (and if more people had improved feelings of well-being it would certainly be a better place).  Ask anybody who wants to give you advice on how to reach your goals and they will say things like “Believe in yourself, believe you can do it, aim high” etc.  So we clearly agree that expectations make a big difference in our achievements.  Thus we should both see no harm in believing in goodness if we want the world to be a better place.  So with the exception of the government role in bringing about equality, what specifically about being liberal are Republicans actually objecting to?  Are any of these qualities specifically bad principles to live by?

Now Bill O’Reilly got his Ph.D. so he must at least know that the professors, like him, had to do a dissertation; a dissertation in which they had to have some sort of hypothesis, and present evidence to support that hypothesis.  But one also has to review prior research that does not support one’s assertion, present it, and critique why you feel such evidence might not be relevant to your specific study.   So why is it bad for professors to hold a philosophy that stresses the importance of researching answers to the questions you have, thinking critically about evidence that is contrary to one’s own beliefs or assertions, and exposing one’s self to ideas that are different from your own?

So how could such people not support the Democratic Party when most of the Republican platform is simply counter to reality through a detailed analysis of evidence.

  • Anthropogenic climate change is real
  • Banning abortions doesn’t reduce abortions
  • Tuitions costs are very high and many of our young people start out with massive debt
  • Money is corrupting the political process
  • There is racial and gender inequality still
  • Less people die by terrorism than by guns yet people fear the former more than the latter
  • The war on drugs is a failure
  • We have a higher percentage of our people incarcerated than any other nation
  • We have huge educational inequality
  • We live in a pluralistic society and one religion cannot dominate, and the first amendment prohibits it from entering government
  • We have growing income inequality and a shrinking middle class
  • Revenue from big business represents a much smaller portion of the total federal revenue than it did during our most prosperous times as a nation
  • We spend more on our military budget than the next 8 nations combined.

So I’m not sure what Jesse Watters and Bill O’Reilly expect out of highly educated people who are trained to do careful analysis of both sides of an issue.  I am much more surprised when I meet a professor who isn’t a Democrat today.  And if faculty used to be a much better mix of Republicans and Democrats in the past, then maybe it’s also worth asking the question, if the shift towards the democratic party by faculty isn’t the product of indoctrination, but rather a reaction to a party that has simply become grounded in beliefs and rhetoric over scientific and historical evidence.  If a large portion of very educated people seem to think a different way than I do, then to deride and quickly dismiss such a group would only be to my folly.  Maybe I should instead listen and at least carefully consider what they have to say and why they think as they do.

Tolerance

One of the common words that we hippie-type people like to use is the word tolerance.  We need to be more tolerant.  I said it myself in my last post, but based on a discussion on that post I decided that it was worth investigating this concept of tolerance.  While I think many people derived a theme of being more tolerant towards Muslims, what I really meant to look at is what are better and worse ways of dealing with a difficult situation.  I’ve come to realize that often when I use the word tolerance, the meaning I hold to it is different than others.  And so maybe what I am suggesting is not tolerance at all, but something else.

Ahirhsa refers to non-violence

What I think we can agree on, is that tolerance is definitely not something we should always be doing.  We live in a very PC culture where we are being told constantly to be tolerant, but tolerance can lead to passiveness, and there are some things we should not tolerate or be passive about.  One could say that being intolerant has led to many important social changes.  When laws are unjust being tolerant of them isn’t getting you very far.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr are good examples of historical figures who were not very tolerant and accomplished great things for their people in the march towards equality and self-determination.  But then I also thought about the importance of context.  If laws are unjust, if there is oppression, then it is these practices that are intolerant.  And shouldn’t we be intolerant to practices that are intolerant.  For instance, if black people are not allowed to sit in certain restaurants this would be an example of a system which is not tolerant towards different races.  White people would not tolerate a black person sitting next to them while eating.  Did black people owe it to white people to be tolerant of their practices so as to not make them feel uncomfortable?  Of course not.  On the other side we could point to Kim Davis.  She doesn’t agree with a law that allows gay people marry.  The law is just because it gives equal rights to people of different sexual orientation, and doesn’t infringe on anybody’s ability to practice their own religion.  Thus we would ask Kim Davis to be tolerant.  Of course, whether it is people not wanting blacks in their restaurant, or gay people to marry, what we are really saying to those people is “you’re wrong, get used to it”.  We’re saying, your “intolerance, will no longer be tolerated”.  And I believe this is fair and this is right, but there is a little bit of a subtext there that says “You really should change your mind and agree with us, because other ways life is going to be pretty annoying for you”.  And again, I’m not saying this isn’t fair, but to the other person they would easily say that we are the intolerant ones of their views and why do they have to show tolerance and we don’t?  The word “tolerance”, at least to me, is sort of a confusing word when you think about it.

So going back to the issue of “banning the burka”, if I say tolerance is prudent, what does that mean?  First I think it’s important to note that tolerance of an action and condoning that action are different.  But if you are really against something, being tolerant and thus passive can be seen as equal as condoning it.  I think there is some truth to that, but it’s important to remember that not all people would fight a battle in the same way. Some methods of fighting are more effective and/or cause less overall harm. Kim Davis’ beliefs may make her decide that she should not tolerate what she’s sees as an unjust law and she is welcome to fight it.  However there are better and worse ways to do such a thing, and the choice she has made is ultimately ineffective, and denies legal rights to fellow citizens.  The burka or niqab is a troubling practice.  Women have become so oppressed in some countries that many of them are even complicit with that oppression and would feel real spiritual pain by not following what they believe to be true regarding their value compared to men.  Should we tolerate such gender equality?  The answer once again is, of course not.  However should we be tolerant towards women wearing the burka?  Then I would say yes, but I would say that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything about it.  So maybe when we ask for tolerance, what we really mean is patience and careful thought.  Let’s not have knee-jerk reactions that are governed by our fears, but let’s take actions that are based on our love and compassion.  The fight for gender equality is really one about love and compassion.  Telling women that they have equal freedom and value as men in society is just that.  Freedom of religion is also one of love and compassion because it says to people that you are allowed to keep your beliefs and that the law will not dictate what you must believe.   No one else wants their beliefs infringed on so why should we pass laws that infringe on others? Of course that doesn’t mean that you can come into a country and expect that a belief structure that by design causes harm to another group will be easily tolerated, especially when that country has fought long and hard to try and erode the traditions you still hold on to.   At the same time, you may also expect that new laws shouldn’t be passed that specifically target you for doing what you were raised culturally to accept as normal.   I think it’s also important that when we oppose certain cultural practices that we consider immoral, that we don’t reject an entire a culture.  Cultural practices are not homogeneous and thus are not all bad or all good.  At the very least some practices may cause no harm at all and thus we should be tolerant of those.

What we are really after, therefore, is a way in which we can present a group of people who have morally unsound practices with a better way of living.  In the case of the severe oppression of women in some Islamic countries, a proactive way of doing this is to empower women.  Self-determination goes a much longer way in affecting change than oppressive laws.  And while it would be nice to have men on the same side, many will resist due to the fact that they will be losing a position of privilege in their society, but ultimately just as the fight for equality here in the U.S. has required the support of men, so will it need to be the case in Islam.  One possible way in which we can appeal to the rational in both men and women would be to offer education into the development of children.  This article was shared with me by Victoria over at VictoriaNeuronotes and discusses the important of babies being able to see facial expression in their mother.  From the article:

Teacher Maryam Khan, says: “Working with young children, so much is read just from facial expressions, you don’t have to speak to a child.

“If they can’t see your face, they don’t know what you’re thinking – a glare, a smile.”

Psychologists agree. “It’s particularly true for children under five because their communication is non-verbal, they’re much better at reading it than adults,” says Dr. Lewis. “If they’re denied these signals they become quite confused.”

If, when in public, the mother’s face is always covered, this has an adverse impact on a baby’s mood and reactions to situations.  The YouTube video below demonstrates this impact clearly.  And there may be other things that we can discuss with them such as the importance of sunlight to pregnant mothers and babies for Vitamin D.  Given that a love of children is cross-cultural and people generally want the best for children, this seems like a proactive way to change minds by connecting with men and women emotionally through the love they have their children, while presenting also a rational argument for the value of not covering your face.  What’s best is that is also reveals the best about us.  We aren’t trying to persecute anyone, we are showing another culture, our value of education, our shared love of children and wanting the best for them, and that what we want is a conversation and an exchange of ideas, not forcing a behavior through a punitive law.  It also shows another culture that we have humility.  That we too had practices that were not always beneficial and through the act of investigation and learning we have grown to become more loving and compassionate.

As I ponder more about the word tolerance, the more it seems like a word that isn’t overly descriptive.  Because within the idea of tolerance is an implication that one isn’t happy or supportive of a particular behavior and that in some cases, when a particular behavior is harmful we would rather do something about that behavior.  What it does not imply is a hasty reaction.  We can be patient and thoughtful, and act in away that is inclusive and not exclusive.  We can act in a way that is proactive and not adversarial.  In the end, I believe, such tactics are more successful.

School didn’t teach me to do my taxes: Sad emoticons

An old high school friend of mine posted this video the other day.  It’s a good laugh, but overall I disagree with it.  It’s like many memes you have seen posted on Facebook about the ineffectiveness of school at teaching everyday life skills that people need.  My friend asks for people’s thoughts and as educator I wanted to echo mine, which is basically that just because school doesn’t teach you how to do your taxes, or how to garden, or even knowledge that is directly applicable to your current life or future life, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable.  Rather than go into a lengthy discussion about how school subjects are applicable I will simply say this.  First, are schools meant to teach you everyday practical skills?  Should there not be a place that teaches you thinks you would likely not learn about anywhere else?  Second, in addition to learning, you are also learning how to learn.  A whole lot of different stuff too.  And in life you have to learn a whole lot of different stuff all the time.  And thirdly, another thought I like was given by a speaker talking to the students in our program when he asked a student “Is there anything that you ever learned that you didn’t use right away, but later on you found came in quite handy?”.  Invariably the student said yes, and I think anybody can answer yes to that question.  It’s quite possible that no knowledge is actually useless.

I think though that it is a valid question to ask.  What about all this other stuff that one has to know that has nothing to do with the things you learn at school  How do we acquire these skills?  I was pondering the question today because those memes that say school doesn’t teach you anything useful sort of annoy me and could never really figure out why, but perhaps have hit on a couple of things.  First, we should perhaps get out of this mindset that school is the only place where you can learn stuff?  Most people who I know learned to be handy, learned to garden, learned sewing, etc, didn’t get it from school but got it from home.  More than that if you aren’t finding school fun, then why aren’t you spending your time out of school exploring the things that interest you.  You have the time.  And while play is important, exploring something that you want to explore might actually feel like play.  And if your parents don’t know how to do a lot of stuff, is it the schools job to fill in all the gaps in knowledge your parents don’t have?  That seems like an unfair burden to place on a school system that is already playing parent in a lot of other ways for working families.  But I am sure if someone is resourceful they could find someone who gardens, or someone who can show somebody how to do their taxes.  Before I left home I volunteered to do the family laundry for a few months because I knew once I was living on my own I’d have to do it so I should probably learn.  Again, school isn’t the only time and place for learning.

The other thing I thought about was that even though I love the “jack-of-all-trades” kind of person, the reality is that civilization trends away from such people.  The birth of civilization from farming gave people who didn’t have to grow the food free time to pursue other activities and people specialized.  Even in hunter-gatherer tribes there had to be some people who were faster, had better eyesight, were wiser, etc.  People had specialties and civilization has allow that to simply grow over the years.  We hate ironing, and a friend of ours loves to iron, and said he’d iron for us if we cooked him several days of Indian food, and we love to cook and our good at it.  So specializing doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it just means that you have to be fairly competent at something.  And that way through what you’re good at, you can then pay someone to do your taxes or just buy vegetables at your farmers market.

In my experience those that are good at school, can pick up other things they need to learn relatively quickly.  The key is to just to learn to love learning and never stop. 🙂

The Cost of Education

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has been talking a lot about the minimum wage and the cost of education in this country.  It’s been a subject of course of many democrats.  One of the memes that I think ties both together well is the one that shows how many hours in a day you would have to work to pay off yearly tuition at Yale at minimum wage in 19—compared to today.

But I don’t want to talk so much about minimum wage, but rather the cost of education.  Bernie Sanders would like to make it free at public institutions.  There are many memes mocking this idea, mostly in regards to this being a wild campaign promise that has no chance of coming true.  Or questioning where all the money is going to come from.  Bernie has a plan for that but I’d like to take the politics out for a second and question why anybody would be opposed to the idea of free tuition at public universities.

Can anybody argue that an educated public is not better than an uneducated one?  Regardless of the type of government a public that is educated simply has less chance of becoming oppressed at least long-term than one that is uneducated.  In fact we should be worried about a society in which education is become less and less valued, and less accessible to a good portion of the population.  The constantly rising price of tuition and the decreasing middle class certainly implies a general decrease in access of education for many families.  Sure student loans are an option, but that’s a heavy cost one has to pay going $40,000 or $50,000 in debt puts you behind the 8 ball for sure through most of your young life.   My generation (which would be about the age of many the students now) or the previous one never had to start out life that way, so why should it be that way for this generation?

A more educated one is also more civil and less divided.  We argue in this country over issues that are non-issues to most other industrial nations.  Issues that become politicized which have no need to belong to one party or the other because they are simply something we need to all agree on and do something about.  As the public becomes less and less literate on important issues such as climate change, GMO’s, vaccines, environmental conservation divides in viewpoints exist when they should not.  Even when viewpoints do differ and educated public will force the debate to be relevant, and compromise is more easily found.  A democracy is only successful when everybody participates.  But how can people effectively participate when they don’t understand the issues?  For many who participate their vote is based less on an understanding the issues over more surface based and emotional reasons.

Look at any country in which all people have equal access to education and you will find a country with less crime, a large middle class, and a productive economy.  So why would anybody oppose free university education without seriously looking at how it could be done.  It’s not like we don’t have the money but yes it would cause us to put less priority one thing to put the priority on education.  It’s simply unclear to me why equal access to education wouldn’t be a primary concern for any nation.  Education makes business better, but that does not mean education should be a business.  As soon as we turn education into a product we’ve ruined it.  This is because like any product, when the quality is high, the cost is also high and few can afford it.  People with less money who want that same product end up getting a cheaper version of the product that simply isn’t as good.   Most universities do want to keep their quality high, but it leaves them with a choice of raising tuition costs to do so, or lowering standards of enrollment to get more students.  After they’ve let more students in who they know will struggle in university they end up inflating grades or lowering expectations so they can appear ethical and that they haven’t just let a bunch of students in only to make money.  Anybody who is in academia sees this business model as a terrible way to run education and yet it seems to be the trend.  There is no doubt in my mind it will come back to bite us.

So let us not oppose the idea of free college education, let us work together to find a way that it can happen. Other nations are able to provide this to their citizens.  Why can we not do the same? It really is to everybody’s benefit.

What Makes A Good Human?: Curiosity

If you’ve been reading so far, you might not be convinced with vigilance or play as being important and that love does not conquer all.  As I said, my goal here is not to make any one quality more important than the other, and I hope with this topic I will convince you that life isn’t all about love.

As natural as our capacity to love, is our inherent curiosity about the world.  If you’ve had children, and hopefully paid attention to them, one of the first things you will notice about them is how curious they are.  From simply being curious about who you are when they start seeing 6 inches beyond their face, to be curious about what this thing called a hand is, to starting to interact and test objects out as they begin to grasp them.  They want to explore, they experiment with sounds, they like to watch things fall, taste different things, and they learn by watching you and then imitating.  Curiosity is learning.  The reason why I call this curiosity over learning is that when you say learning people tend to think of book learning or school learning, but learning is far more than that.  And sadly in my experience our education system today tends to squash a child’s natural curiosity in favor of more directed learning for the purposes of getting funding for the school and for you to supposedly get a good paying job.  I remember one time I gave a talk on tornado safety to a group of 2nd graders, I did not even get to start my presentation before a bunch of little hands went up to ask questions.  A lot of them were nonsensical but I loved it all, because it was clear that they were curious and questions seemed to just burst out of them.  In retrospect I was simply not prepared for that level of curiosity.  At the university level I can go through an entire lecture without 1 in a 100 students raising their hand to ask a question about how things work.  Curiosity is an important natural trait that  forces us to ask questions to ourselves and others.  As a society we need to make sure we foster this trait and not suppress it.

As a professor I have been in school for almost my entire life either as a student or a teacher; 37/41 years to be exact.  Obviously I love it, because I love to learn, but I’m not so institutionalized to believe that this is where I’ve done the entirety of my learning.  Now I know there are all sorts of great texts and books written about learning and how we learn, but I don’t want to expound too much on things you can read elsewhere, but I’d rather focus on why learning is important and the different ways we can feed our curiosity.

One important type of learning is purely experiential.  This is the type of learning that leads to wisdom.  Regardless of how much knowledge you accumulate in your head until you actually apply it, you can only understand it really in a theoretical way.  By actively experiencing something through our senses  And of course we can continue this sort of learning throughout our lives through doing.  Whether through learning different hands on skills, trying new foods and cooking new recipes, learning to play an instrument and listening to new music, and traveling.

Now I’d like to spend a little bit more time on traveling.  Certainly traveling to things like museums or traveling to any sort of wonder of nature can be a learning experience.  It can be very fulfilling in the additional for the additional sensory input you gain,  but in some ways is very similar to book learning.  I speak very personally here, but I believe traveling to places different from your everyday world is a very important learning experience. Traveling to a different country is the best way to understand what different societies, cultures and people are like.  There is learning about people of different faiths, different values, and different perspectives.  Curiosity drives us to explore the world, and the world has more to teach you than you think.

In my blog post about love in this series, I talked about how empathy needs to be fed.  Empathy can be broken up into two categories (as illustrated by this great video) into affective empathy and cognitive empathy.  Affective empathy is the compassion we feel when we observe the suffering from another.  Cognitive empathy however is the empathy we gain through learning about others, putting ourselves in their situation, and trying to see something from their perspective.  Something the world could surely use more of.  It is this type of empathy that we can develop through being curious about others regardless of whether they are close to home or far away.  The important thing is to try and know a diverse group of people.   If we can understand someone else’s troubles, pains, and/or suffering, even without going through it ourselves, we are more likely to want to help raise those people up than to allow a situation to continue that harms them.  Many times we are responsible for that harm without even realizing it.  I find it interesting how many politicians change their stance on homosexuality upon finding out that their son or daughter has come out as gay.  The more we intimately know someone the less likely we are to do any action that causes them harm.  How our actions cause harm is the basis of morality.  Thus, actively learning about others makes for a more moral society.

Curiosity also allows us to build our intellect.  For most of us we have done this formally for many years.  Intellectual pursuits, with the exception of those with a clear goal of what they want to achieve in life, often don’t seem to have much value in our day to day lives.  The oft heard complaint, “when am I ever going to use this” speaks to this disconnect between what we learn and what use every day.  Given the wide variety of interests amongst individuals it is unlikely that any one person will feel that everything they are learning has value.  The learning of knowledge, however, is always teaching you one important lesson.  And that’s how to learn.  The more you learn, the more easily you will be able to learn new things.  Humanity has been around for a long time.  It would be nearly impossible to determine a set of knowledge that was important for everybody.  It may also be true that the purpose of school is also to introduce you to things that you don’t know anything about, but might be important to you, that might inspire you and turn into a passion.  The large accumulation of knowledge through human history also means that most of the first things you will learn our foundational and must be built upon to realize their application and use.  Thus diligence plays an important role in learning.

In terms of what knowledge you should learn, in general a breadth of knowledge is best.  Regardless of what your passion might be, it is clear for a democracy to truly be successful it requires people to be knowledgeable about a wide range of issues. But even beyond its value in politics, life is never really about one thing.  One of the ways that you connect with people you meet is by having the knowledge to understand the basics of their interests which would allow you to ask better questions.  When we let our curious nature, then people notice the genuine interest you have for the knowledge base that they have which makes people feel closer and may cause them to become curious about you.  Many academic fields are focusing on interdisciplinary research, because as knowledge has advanced we see how many other areas of study the problems we face include.  For instance take a look at something like climate change.  The scientific basis itself requires knowledge of physics, meteorology, geology, oceanography, geography, biology, and statistics.  Then if we want to act on the issue of climate change we need to understand things like economics, communications, commerce, law, education, emergency management, etc.  Of course one can’t know everything about everything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. 🙂

Is there a dark side to curiosity? I honestly don’t see much of a downside to always being curious.  The only thing that comes to mind is the expanded ego that might come from knowing a lot of things in comparison with others.  The battle against such conceit is dealt with in the next post in this series.

The most important thing to remember is that time spent learning is never wasted and you should never stop.  There are a variety ways we can learn, there is a multitude of people and knowledge to learn from, and it is the best way to continue to grow in an ever changing world.  Being curious is a perfectly natural drive from the day we are born and it requires only an effort of maintenance than an effort in development.  Adults I meet who have that same thirst for knowledge as those 7 year olds in the 2nd grade are always some of the most thoughtful, and enjoyable people to be around.  The best part of traveling on that road of knowledge is that single roads branch in many directions and you never know where you might end up.

It’s All Projection

There are sometimes things that you know, but you don’t spend a lot of time talking about them, and a recent Facebook post gave me a kick in the butt to remind me that sometimes the things that seem passive and harmless may not be the case.  The type of projection I am talking about here is not the psychological one (which I also find fascinating), but still important.  The Facebook post that inspired this blog post was one in which we are shown the true size of Africa.  I knew about this many before as it is the starting part of the only Michael Crichton book I ever read, Congo.  Then someone posted this clip from the show The West Wing and I thought this would be a great discussion starter.  The clip argues that the Mercator projection of the world, which is what we are used to seeing should be replaced in every school room with Peter’s projection world map.  And I think they are absolutely right.  Because the Mercator projection not only messes with our sense of size  of land masses, but also the Earth’s orientation. It impacts what we consider top and bottom, up and down, big and small.  The result being that the way we think the world looks can have and impact on how we treat countries near the center of the map which are vaster than we think, and that have populations greater than we think.

The Mercator projection

For those of you non-clip watching the fact is that the Mercator projection greatly exaggerations land masses near the polar region, and put’s Germany (where Mercator was from) at the map center.  As the clip explains one of the most obvious comparisons is the size of Greenland compared to Africa.  On the Mercator projection they look almost the same, but Africa is actually 14 times bigger in land area.

Peter’s projection

Now what we have above is Peter’s Projection.  It is going to look really strange to you.  Now keep in mind there is still some distortion here and there always will be when you try to map a sphere onto a rectangle, but this one is more accurate.  How you ask?  Well essentially what the Mercator projection does is that it attempts to preserve straight lines for purposes of explorers by sea.  In order to do this the area to which land is projected on must increase as you move towards the polar regions since the map essentially assumes the Earth is a cylinder and of course it is a sphere.  The result is something that is not a true representation of size, but is accurate for purposes of navigation.

Greenland vs. Africa

In reality of course, lines of longitude converge at the pole, the size of 1 degree longitude by a 1 degree latitude grid gets smaller as we approach the polar region.  Peter’s projection takes this into account.  On a spherical Earth grids are not rectangles or squares, but trapezoids (technically curved rectangles and trapezoids since the Earth’s surface is curved), with those trapezoids getting smaller and smaller, and both the Mercator and Peter’s distorts those trapezoids into rectangles.  However, what makes Peter’s projection a more accurate view of the world is that Peter’s projection preserves the geometric area of those progressively smaller trapezoids.  If you’re reading this and looking at Peter’s projection you are thinking to yourself that it’s absolutely wrong, and that this can’t be accurate.  This is because the Mercator projection with north being up is so ingrained in us that it’s hard for us to think of it in a different way.  But it should be noted that Peter’s projection is still a distortion as well.  Particular as it makes the shape of the land area more elongated at the equators and the polar regions.  So even though the relative size is more accurate, it isn’t necessarily the best for learning the true shape of things.  Something that the Mercator projection does allow.

Now, do I believe that global inequality derives solely from our distorted view of the world geographically?  Of course not, but it could be a factor.  But more importantly it is something we can absolutely, and easily get right.  And isn’t it better to see the world for what it is than what is most convenient?  Maybe class rooms of the future will just use holographic globes to teach geography.  In the end a 3-D globe is the only true map of the world.

To blow your mind even more I will leave you with a map of the world that we might be looking at had civilization begin in the southern hemisphere.  The universe is three dimensional and there is no up and down.  It’s all a matter of convention.

A map of Earth could just as arbitrarily be presented in this way. How does it make YOU feel? 🙂

The Right Way To Answer

Instead of just getting upset and complaining I have decided to be proactive. I recently posted about the Indiana business owners who openly admitted to not wanting to serve gay people and received $500,000 dollars in donations. While such support for hateful attitudes upsets me, I have decided the best way to answer this was to try and match that by raising money in an equal amount and support a local organization in Indiana who is trying to make things better for the LGBQT community. So I started a charity fundraiser page. While a goal of $500,000 may be ambitious, and perhaps other people had the same idea, even if I raise only the money I have donated to start things off, then at least I am doing something positive I figure.

So I’m asking that you please give what you can and share this message on social media, blog sites, personal webpages, and/or e-mail.  If finances won’t allow for a donation at this time, I hope you can still pass this post along and ask your friends to donate if they can. Thank you all for loving!  Below is the link for donating:

https://www.justgive.org/matchinghatewithlove

Climate Change for the Masses (Part II)

Well it would seem that a group blog idea with a weather and climate theme has fallen apart, and so I’ll have to do my blogging about it here instead.  Several months ago I began what I hoped would be a 3 part series, themed around the John Oliver’s  “Last Week Tonight” Episode on the climate change debate.  In my first blog post I wanted to try and investigate what type of people don’t accept the evidence on climate change, based on my own experience in getting into various discussions on the topic with people outside my discipline.  In this blog article I’d like to take a look at the actual media portrayal of the problem which was more the central theme of John Oliver’s segment.

If you haven’t watched the clip, John Oliver critiques the media for having one person who accepts the scientific evidence, with one person who denies it, saying that this gives an unfair representation of the scientific consensus on the issue.  Over 97% of the scientific literature from over 10,000 scientists across earth and biological sciences have concluded that human induced climate change is a fact, making it appear as though it is a split issue is quite simply dishonest.  And this absolutely true, but it is in fact even worse than that.

The 50-50 split looks even more in favor of the deniers when the media is always using the same person to represent the scientific side.  If you watch many interviews on the subject you might actually get the picture that it seems to be only one guy who thinks human-induced climate change is real while many other people don’t think it’s happening.  If you always saw the same guy “for” an issue and many other people on TV saying they are “against” it would be somewhat natural to think that the “against” side had a better argument.  Of course you’d be wrong in thinking that.  This is called the “Appeal to Popularity Fallacy” (or ad populum for you Latin Lovers).  An extremely common one used nowadays.  Of course as it turns out, it is the logic of the arguments and the strength of the evidence that makes for who has taken the correct issue on the stance.  Of course there are many biases and fallacies that we naturally gravitate towards because it is in our evolution.  Being the outcast in a group didn’t get you very far early in our evolution and the same is in a large part true today.  Although generally today, no matter how different you might be, with a large population you are likely to find a group to connect with.  But in terms of genetic history being an outcast in a group of social animals who may be relatively isolated from other populations doesn’t really give you anywhere to go, and since survival on your own is more difficult “following the herd” is part of who we are.  Of course, in this instance, there is no real punishment for accepting scientific evidence but sometimes I think our wiring doesn’t really care.

The 50-50 perception unbalances even further when you consider who Bill Nye.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As a scientist, I know he’s

From http://brandonhillphotos.com

a scientist, and that he has the ability to not only understand the issue, speak intelligently about it, and accept the hard work done by so many scientists to reach the conclusions they have about climate change.  But to the public there are a lot of negatives about Bill Nye that would make his credibility more suspect, especially to people who are on the fence or deniers themselves.   First of all Bill Nye is not a climate scientist.  He is not an expert in the field of climate science and as such this will weaken his credibility as an advocate.  In fact Bill Nye is most famous for his use of science concepts for educating children.  Climate change is a very adult issue that will require adults in government and voting adults to accept the scientific evidence and put forth appropriate policies to address the issue.  Bill Nye is also a celebrity and many people have negative attitudes towards celebrities who get involved in issues that are political.  In Canada, David Suzuki is a very famous scientist and naturalist, but is not very knowledgeable about the issue and so while he has tried to be advocate for climate change, he has not done very well when addressing even the most common fallacious criticisms put forth by deniers in a debate format.  He was hoping his popularity would help change the minds of people, but in fact it has likely hurt those who might be willing to listen to a well reasoned debate on the subject.  So I think Bill Nye may have similar impacts.

Now don’t get me wrong, because I am not convinced that the media is intentionally using Bill Nye for the purposes of misleading others.  For them, he is a celebrity and known and will add a few viewers whether people have grown to hate him or love him.  He is also an excellent public speaker, and he is also eager to break away from his previous persona as a scientist for children (honestly go back to getting children excited about science, I think it’s too late for congress now!).   So what is the solution to making the debate fairer?  John Oliver’s suggestion is not a bad one, but of course they are unlikely to get 100 people on the stage for a debate.   We nerdy introverted scientists simply need to become better communicators.  We need to get involved in educational outreach and scientific discourse at regional, state, and national levels.  Since there are literally 1000’s and 1000’s of people researching this field and concluding that man is impacting the climate just as we hone our research and analytical skills we must also hone our communication skills so that we aren’t just contributing through the publication of an article in a scientific journal.  And media, you could do a better job of finding actual experts to have on your programs.  You could do a better job also by being honest and saying we know this is not even close to a split issue in the scientific community and have more debates about what the best way about addressing the issue is, rather than trying to debate whether it is an issue at all.

If you are interested in learning more about climate science, learn about what the common myths are about climate change and why they are not well reasoned arguments, and be able to investigate climate change science at various levels of complexities I strongly recommend this site called Skeptical Science.

Profit over Education – Academic Fraud at UNC-Chapel Hill Gives Another Black Eye to Public Education

As a college professor in the United States it is difficult to know where to begin as I process the massive scandal that I have read about today regarding UNC-Chapel Hill in which 3,100 students, nearly half athletes, were shown to have taken fraudulent classes in the university’s athletic program.  I am not usually one to make extremely bold statements, but education is something I feel strongly

about, and this scandal could not make a clearer statement that this country has lost its way.  The love of money has replaced love for each other.  We have let ourselves become distracted by games so that we don’t pay attention to what’s most important.  We have become a culture of fear instead of striving to be a culture of understanding.

Before I begin I want to make it clear that I am sure that the majority of professors and students at UNC-Chapel Hill have the highest standards of work ethic and integrity and as I speak now I speak also in your name.  Those who were part of this conspiracy have brought the most shame to you and I am truly sorry for what you have to go through. Bringing legitimacy to your university is a battle you did not ask to fight, but you will have to.  This fight can be made easier or harder depending on who joins that fight.  In this essay I write I call upon those who can do the most to help you.

This year Penn State University had their ban lifted by the NCAA on post-season play 2 years early and still much controversy remains about whether this was the right thing to do given that Jerry Sandusky has been confirmed to have molested 26 boys and school officials looked the other way to avoid a scandal for their football team. As if this wasn’t enough of a blight on higher education and how sports plays too high a role in what is supposed to be an institute of higher learning, perhaps it could simply be argued away as the result of one highly disturbed individual, while several higher officials chose to brush off what seemed to them only rumors without clear evidence.  Personally the Penn State incident should have been enough for us to take a harder look at our priorities, but as the NCAA softened their initial judgment by lifting the ban it seems that it’s business as usual once again.

What has happened at UNC-Chapel Hill has been happening for nearly 20 years. It, as a result, must involve a far greater number of people ranging from personnel in the athletic program, recruiters, registrars, administrators, and faculty  This was a large conspiracy that was covered up for many years and even when the investigation was first opened 5 years ago, it took a long time for the full truth to come to light.  Even now this article is buried on the CNN website under many other less dire stories.  At a time when public education struggles to maintain adequate funding, when there is a great disparity in public education across the country, and public institutions of higher learning continue to raise tuition as their state funding decreases, the scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill will only act to lessen the trust in public education.  What we must work hard to do right now is to show that it is not public education that is the problem, that this is the symptom of a for-profit culture.  That when the money made off of TV deals, advertising, and merchandise of college sports takes precedent, that those without integrity can take a larger stake in our society and run it into the ground.  Let’s start our call to action with the NCAA.

The NCAA proudly lists on their website their core values which include:

  • The collegiate model of athletics in which students participate as an avocation, balancing their academic, social and athletics experiences.
  • The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.
  • The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics.

For those you not aware of the word “avocation”, it means “hobby or minor occupation”. Note also the words “integrity” and the emphasis of “balance” and “excellence” in not only their athletics but also academics.  These core values are great.  As a society we should value athletic achievement, exercise, and health.  There is a connection between mind and body and it can come together in sport and competition.  It is also important to remember, however, that only about 1% of NCAA athletes will be able to turn professional that means there are many more students for whom their education will be their primary means of having a stable and successful future.  Thus if the NCAA believes in these core values it must also be an advocate for integrity in the classroom and at least be partially responsible for the health of the players who suffer injuries while playing NCAA sports which they profit from (NCAA is a non-profit by the way).  The NCAA has been recently accused of making large profit off the players who are often fed insufficiently and do not take care of the players who suffer injuries and who many times suffer lifelong problems related to those injuries both physically and financially.  The NCAA has a chance here to do the right thing and make its core values be more than just words.

While the NCAA should punish UNC-Chapel Hill for not displaying academic integrity in accordance with their core values, what is the responsibility of UNC-Chapel Hill? The university is ultimately the one that perpetrated this conspiracy and they need to make sure everyone involved faces punishment; no scapegoats, no more lies, no more cover-ups.  I understand why, from a legal standpoint, they cannot lift the degrees of those students.   They are the ones who advised students to take those classes when they saw they were struggling academically.  Rather than providing them with legitimate academic support to help them improve they gave up on trying to expand their minds and said “Your only value to us is in the money you make us in the athletic program, we are not concerned about your future”.  They were supposed to show a student how the same work ethic they apply to their sport, can be applied to learning.  They were supposed to show those athletes the same way they stretch and bend their body they can do also with their mind.  Given the low chances of those athletes becoming professionals they were supposed to give them alternate avenues of success.  And even if they did get drafted into a professional league, injury can happen at any time, and they were supposed to give athletes something else to fall back on.  Instead they have left these students bereft of legitimate degrees, and employers will have a hard time trusting the value of any degree achieved by a UNC-Chapel Hill alum who was involved with their athletics program.

I would also like to point out that the fraudulent program in which these students were enrolled in was an African-Studies program. While I am sure many other scholars can talk about this with more vigor than I can, I find the choice in the academic field of this fraudulent program more than a little insulting given the race issues we still face in the United States.  I know and have known many scholars in this area and this is an extremely important field for young African-Americans to learn about their history in this country and to understand issues of race both in the past and today.   I am not sure whose idea it was to use African-American studies to house the fraudulent courses but those people have done a great disservice to African-Americans by doing so and have treated a very important area of scholarship cheaply.

Of course we cannot be naïve enough to believe that this is the only school where this is happening. This scandal will open investigations into all athletic programs, especially in NCAA division I programs, that have had rumblings of grade inflation for athletes in the past.  It will make employers everywhere wonder if perhaps the academic success of a student athlete is deserved.  At my university, it is only a NCAA Division II school. Athletics is a money drain on our university and does not make us profit.  Yet many student athletes report that coaches will not let them miss a practice even if a legitimate academic opportunity that will benefit their future, such as going to an academic conference,  comes along.  I have seen resources that could be used for academic programs go towards athletics.   We all must join the fight to maintain legitimacy of public higher education institutions and remember that the NCAA core values emphasize balance and that the sport is, for almost all athletes, a hobby and nothing more in the context of their entire lives.

What responsibility do the students themselves share in this scandal? While they were advised to take these fake courses, they knew they were fraudulent.  One student who has come forward even made the Dean’s list having a semester full of fraudulent courses and admitted to not attending one class and receiving all A’s.  These are young adults who were not completely unaware that what they were doing was wrong.  It is difficult, however, for me to judge a young mind bolstered by the fame that we as a society gives them,  and bolstered by the pride of their friends and family at making a renowned college sports team with a full scholarship.  This is coupled with the fear of losing the scholarship that saves their family or themselves financial burden should they falter midway through their degree and cannot continue in the athletic program.  I am not going to judge you for decision you made as a young adult, but I would ask you to consider the steps you take now with care.  Because now that the scandal has been brought to light, the next steps you take are yours, and yours alone.  You know what you did was wrong, and you do a disservice to every student athlete who has worked hard to balance their athletics and academics to legitimately achieve their degree.  You do a disservice to the meaning of the baccalaureate degree which is supposed to be based on a minimum of 120 credit hours of academic rigor.  More importantly you do a disservice to yourself by knowing that you walk around with something that many are in great financial debt for and that many have worked hard for, but for which you did not earn.  Though you were misled, you were old enough to know that the easy path was not the right path.  Retake those credits and demand that UNC-Chapel Hill allow you to do so for free and provide for you the support they should have during your time there.

From http://www.fiscaltimes.com

The final call to action is for the rest of us.  We must take a look at ourselves and ask ourselves some tough questions, because in the end it us who generate this profit from collegiate sports by watching and attending the games.  It us who read the articles and watch television programs of analysis.  It is us who buy the merchandise and wear the colors of our favorite collegiate teams.  So what can we do?  To start we, as parents, can make sure that the academic integrity is high at the institutions our children attend.  We can be realistic about what our child’s athletic ability really means and remember that even if they are one of the lucky ones to go professional that smart player is always better than just a player and that when the body breaks the mind still needs to be in good shape so that life goes on.  We need to ask questions, we need to talk to our children and make sure they are learning and let them always know that doing what is right is more important than a moment in the spotlight. We as the public need to make sure that we continue to fight for educational equality across this nation, to make sure that we maintain high standards in curriculum, academic rigor, and pedagogy, and vote for politicians who recognize the importance of education in making this nation great.  We must ask ourselves if it’s right that the highest paid public employee in 40 out of 51 states is a college football or basketball coach? Finally we must remember that a good life is built on a solid foundation made from love, integrity, compassion, humility, self-reflection, and learning.  Sports are fun to watch, but it’s still just a game, and the future of our children and our nation cannot rest on a game.

He Blinded Me With Science

As a meteorologist and scientist I am very familiar with many pseudoscience arguments and websites like creation science, new age science, anti-climate change arguments, and all the conspiracy theories that go along with it.  My colleague recently turned me on to a little gem of a website.  Somebody has ‘solved’ tornadoes.  I hope you click on the site.  Not only will the guy who owns this WordPress website be excited that he has so many hits, but you will immediately be able to tell that this person isn’t playing with a full deck.  At first I laughed a lot as I read it, but the more I read it, the more I actually started to be impressed.  Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m impressed with the actual ideas here, they are completely wrong, but I was impressed with how much time and thought this person has gone into thinking about the problem.  I don’t want to post any individual blog posts linked here, because I really don’t care to have this person start harassing me, but if you go through a number of them you’ll see that he has talked to some real experts in the field (although it’s unclear about whether he has e-mailed them or actually talked to them personally), he has posts where he has retracted some of his statements and then explained why he retracted them.  He has designed experiments to test his hypothesis as well.  In fact I’m a bit jealous that this guy actually has more blog followers than me.  Did I say jealous?  I meant frightened.  Anyway, what I thought what was really interesting is that here is a very unique belief system which has blossomed into something rather complex.  One that to my knowledge nobody else really believes (at least not yet, or at least I hope not yet) and yet bears much similarity to existing belief systems.  So I thought it might be interesting to deconstruct it a little and see what we get.

At the heart of every belief system is at least one premise that is accepted as true, without being supported by any empirical observations.  Once this is accepted as

From http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu

true, much can be built from it.  For instance many religious belief systems accept as fact that there is a God and goes on from there.  Many times of course there are several faulty premises.  It could be that they stem from an original, but it’s hard to say.  Let’s take a look at the one’s that seem to this gentleman’s starting point

Premise 1:  The jet stream is a conscious entity that is thirsty for water and thus tornadoes are a result of the jet stream needing to suck up water.  I guess that makes a tornado a giant straw.

Premise 2:  Moisture is the most important factor in determining density differences in buoyant air. (Actually it’s temperature).

Premise 3:  Meteorology is a cult, and meteorologist simply believe in old and outdated arguments that have never been proved experimentally.

From this all sorts of things are possible.   If you were to accept the first two things as truth you would come up with a very different scenario for how and why thunderstorms and tornadoes form.  The 3rd premise is what then allows him to never have to rethink the first two.  People who could argue intelligently with him and are more knowledgeable are meteorologists and since they are part of a belief based cult they can’t possibly be correct or unbiased.

Another important part of a belief system is the inequality in standards the proponents of the belief system must live up to in comparison to non-believers.  For

From http://static01.nyt.com

instance, those against gay marriage will expect everyone to respect their right to be legally bound in holy matrimony, but do not have to respect the rights of homosexuals.  As is often the case pseudoscience literature like this, the expectation of other is to provide rigorous proof, yet no such proof is given by this gentleman as he espouses his hypothesis about how and why tornadoes form.   At its root I feel this comes from a lack of humility.  To be so sure you are right about something that you are beyond the need for evidence, and that you are beyond the ability of anybody (regarding their experience and expertise) to change your mind is to be so prideful that even Donald Trump would be impressed.  It is also a sad state to be in.  As I’ve argued before since reinforcing beliefs releases dopamine in the brain, over time as the neural pathways become so entrenched into a belief, this person literally will become ill to consider anything else.  The stronger the argument you make, the less likely you will get anywhere.

So what’s the harm in all of this?  Perhaps very little since there is a certain amount of crazy that even the most clueless about the subject won’t buy into.  Nevertheless there is at least enough science jargon on his website that people who are not educated about the issue may think there is controversy and conspiracy.  Just like many who are not educated about climate change think the same way.  There was at least one commenter who reblogged one of his articles saying it was an interesting “new theory”.  I wanted to also introduce this website and blog post as a lead in to a discussion of the age of information (or misinformation) that we live in.  This person has self-published a book for sale on amazon and has done a lot of writing on this subject.  If he had a little bit of money and/or web savvy he could make his site one of the top hits on google when people search for information about tornadoes.  Critical thinking skills are even more important today than they were before the internet to be able to navigate the flood of information that we are faced with on any one subject area.  Anyway, keep well everyone and stay away from thirsty jet streams!