The Moral of the Story

I was ‘talking’ with a fellow blogger who is a nurse, and as I am a meteorologist we were trying to figure out who had it worse.  Was it more annoying to deal with the “climate change deniers” or the “anti-vaxxers”.   I agreed his was more annoying, because while human induced climate changed is well-evidenced it is always going to receive a lot of political blowback in a fossil fuel dependent world and it is both a complex and new problem facing us.  Vaccinations on the other hand have worked so well and have eradicated disease so completely that people don’t remember why they even get them and instead have invented dangers to receiving them because they can no longer see the purpose.    It’s as routine as opening your mouth and saying “Ahhh”.  People don’t really question that, but it doesn’t inject anything into you and is sort of hard to get upset about, but I think when some medical advancement has been around so long and so successful we forget the reason and just see it as possibly something that isn’t necessary.

This led me to wonder if the same thing wasn’t true for how we understand morals.  One of the common things you hear from atheists is that many theists are under the impression that we do not have a moral and ethical code.  That such thing is not possible if we don’t have God and some supernatural system of punishment and reward.  I remember my mom, who is Christian, telling me at some point that our sense of right and wrong must come from God or else where would we get it from?  The general answer is easy of course, we are taught them by our parents and others.  We have authority figures that tell us what is right and what is wrong (even though you can convince a child that things that are wrong are actually write, like prejudice and intolerance).  The point is if as children we seem to get our morality from the authority figures in our life, perhaps it’s not surprising that many people, especially those who have no qualms about relying on the “rightness” of authority, that morality comes from what many consider the ultimate authority, God.  But it seems obvious to me that morality can easily be derived through scientific investigation.  Morality though has been around well before the scientific method, but humans have been around for a long enough time that we’ve been living a social experiment of morality and have simply been learning.  At one time the things we take as obvious might not have been overtly obvious, even though I think some of the big ones we could figure out rather quickly as they would not be a beneficial for survival.  Just like we stopped questioning why vaccines are important, perhaps we stopped questioning why certain immoral acts are wrong, such that people assume that it all must have come from some other plane of existence.

Some morals are certainly cross-cultural, like physical and sexual harm to other people’s children.  This one would be a pretty obvious natural (perhaps genetic) trait because our survival does depend on the survival of the next generation.  Anything that threatens that would be considered immoral.  Unfortunately in many places physically or psychologically hurting your own child is not seen as wrong.  It wasn’t so long ago here that, unless something got really severe, you were hardly considered in the wrong for disciplining your child with a belt or the back of your hand.  Some people still adopt that attitude unfortunately in North America, and it can be worse in other countries.  Regardless though we generally do go to ridiculous (and perhaps psychologically detrimental) lengths to protect children.  In general though killing is not quite viewed the same way.  Many think it’s okay to kill criminals (apparently it sometimes doesn’t even matter the crime…resisting arrest is enough), and killing in war is not only tolerated, but often cheered about.   For some time killing your wife in a crime of passion was often considered justifiable.  And many civilizations have committed genocide in our past and that has gone unpunished.   So even of the most basic commandments “thou shall not kill” isn’t clear cut, so this obvious sense of right and wrong we are supposed to get from God looks pretty muddy.  And if we are worried about some sort of eternal punishment system it’s amazing the ways we can justify killing when we need to dodge that one.

But let’s look at it from the perspective of “unlawful killing” which is why modern translations say “murder” instead of kill in the 10 commandments.  Thus we already have human law deciding what killing is lawful and unlawful.  This is not an overly divine commandment already.  We know that before civilization we roamed in smallish hunter gatherer bands.  Maybe a few hundred people at most.  This was a time before Christianity, before the 10 commandments, so let’s assume this group doesn’t know right from wrong.  Like a small town, in these small groups, you knew everyone.  Surviving in the wild is not easy and everybody had a role to play, and everybody shared and worked together.  Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes today show them to be rather egalitarian in compared with much of civilized society so let’s look at this as a group that gets along.  So we have a group of a few 100 people, and because they have no God to tell them between right and wrong they think murder might be just something that’s okay to do.  What would be the results of a few people that decided to commit a murder every once in awhile:

  1. Population decline and lack of genetic diversity – We could at the very least learn that there is a murder rate that is not healthy for the survival of the group. Through cooperation, life was made easier, but the group gets smaller, things get harder. Population can only increase so fast. So at the very least, if murder is okay, we can’t do it too often.
  2. Loss of those with specialized or exceptional skill. While daily tasks required teamwork there would have been certain people with more extraordinary skill. A tribe may also only have one person who does a particular job. Murder could reduce the chance for survival if such people are killed.
  3. Growing fear and distrust. If people are being murdered, people are less likely to cooperative. Some people will simply be scared they will be next and be more cautious and protective. Some people will be angry at the loss of their child, brother, sister, etc. This will cause others to fight back. There may be false accusations, which builds more anger and distrust.
  4. They are diminishing their own chance for survival. Once a murderer is discovered, those that committed the murders may find themselves a victim.

Now there are probably even more things that could be listed as to why murdering would not be a good idea, the least of which that we are by definition a social species for whom survival depends on our being in a group, and being able to work well in that group.  It simply isn’t in our nature to murder our own, and there is a lot of good reasons why murder would not be a good idea.  However when it comes to other groups, all bets are off.  We may be xenophobic due to bad experiences with other groups before, or simply be xenophobic because someone who we don’t know simply isn’t somebody we can implicitly trust, and thus we can justify killing others that are not part of our society.  This is why war is not against the law, but murder is.  We can do similar thought experiments with many other basic things that cause harm, like stealing, or any action that causes harm both physically and emotionally.   But even if it was not in our nature, this social experiment has been going on for some time and it seems quite reasonable to assume that even if there was not a morality inherent in us through birth, if at the very least we have a driving force to survive then many of the morals we have today would result through experience and observation and concluding how to survive better.

As a population we continue to adjust.  Different groups share moral truths just as they would share any other type of knowledge.  And so perhaps much of what we consider right and wrong is handed to us without that rediscovering process, but you can still see the impact of people doing the right thing and wrong thing today.  Because even though I think that on average humans are more moral in civilized society today than in the earlier days of civilization, we still have a ways to go.  People who are doing good and bad things are not of one particular faith or philosophy.  If you have compassion and care about how you make others feel, you will discover yourself how to behave in a way that’s more positive everyday as you grow and learn also.  It is the scientist in us that helps us become more moral.  If anything, the Bible demonstrates this more completely as the old testament has very much an eye-for-an-eye mentality, but the new testament is very much about forgiveness, redemption, and compassion.  Even God seemed to find a more moral way of dealing with enemies. Thus I don’t think it’s surprising that morality should progress in the same way that science does.

 

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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.

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!

The Nature of Correlations – Part I

 

The fact that the universe is complex shouldn’t surprise anyone yet one of the things I find surprising how vehemently people try to argue that it’s not. I have already written a blog post about correlation vs. causation, but I’d like to talk about something a little broader than that. Correlations try to demonstrate the relationship between one variable and another. It would be a sensible decision to try and correlate the amount of gun ownership with gun deaths. I don’t think anybody would argue that it might be a relationship. And even if we do find a correlation what does it mean? What is a good correlation, or a bad correlation?

So what can we expect out of a correlation? First we might ask, “Can any two things to ever be perfectly correlated, even if we have a mathematical relationship?” The answer is no. Quite simply for data to be perfectly correlated it would require perfect measurements. Since every measurement always has some error there will always be a less than perfect correlation. The more difficult the measurement the less likely we are to get a good correlation at all. In social sciences measurements may depend on a survey, qualitative and/or subjective observations, and complex sampling techniques. This will all impact the correlation we calculate. Correlations range from 0 (no correlation) to 1 (perfect correlation) and it depends on the quality of the data and the nature of the problem to really determine what correlation is high enough for us to be positive of a relationship, but generally anything about 0.5 is significant. Correlations can also be negative as well. A negative correlation actually implies that as one variable increases, the other decreases, and those are important relationships as well.

From http://www.venganza.org

Now, what happens when we try to correlate things that have no relationship to each other? It turns out we can get all sorts of results. The often cited graphic to the right is often used to show the difference between correlation and causation.  Two variables may appear to be correlated but have no relationship at all even if the results are repeatable.  Correlations turn out to be even a little trickier than that. Some types of data show natural variability that is higher and lower than the average. A couple of examples would be the amount of blood sugar or atmospheric pressure. Now let’s say we correlated those two things. Let’s say I have two years of daily air pressure values. And let’s say I have sampled the amount of blood sugar in my blood every for 30 straight days. The smart thing to do is select the atmospheric pressure values that correspond to the days that I took the sample and correlate them. But what might I find. Well it could be that in those 30 days, a slow moving high pressure system moved in as we approached the end of the period meaning that in general pressure increased. And then perhaps my diet was not so good, or I ate infrequently, irregularly, or had a few big meals one day and then light snacking the next, blood sugar will fluctuate. I might find that there is a negative correlation between pressure and blood sugar. But what would happen if I did the experiment for another 30 day period. Depending on the specific conditions I might find a positive correlation. But what I’d find, that over time, after doing many of these repeated tests is that I would have no correlation. The average of all the correlation calculations I perform will be essentially zero. This speaks to the importance of having a larger sample size and whether or not results are repeatable for the same experiment. Had I taken two years worth of pressure data and 2 years worth of blood sugar data, I would have found zero correlation. Furthermore even if I did find some correlation, my results would not be repeatable over many studies. The media often exaggerates findings from experiments that try to say link certain foods or cell phones to cancer. Variables that naturally fluctuate may randomly show a correlation, but further experiments reveal no correlation. But the media usually just picks up on the one study that found a correlation.

To further illustrate this point, take a look at the following two images.  The one on the left is a large sample of raw data trying to correlate to variables.  If these two variables were correlated we would see the data points approximate a line.  Maybe a straight one, maybe a curved one, but definitely some sort of trend would be apparent.  You are right if you think that whatever these two variables are they have no relationship two each other.  Next to it is the same data set except that some of the data points are missing.  Now it looks like there might be a correlation between these two variables.  Sure I have selectively chosen in this case which ones to eliminate, but it is possible that a random selection of some of the data points could be these same data points on the left.  Thus it is possible that we might think we’ve found a correlation when we didn’t.  Once again the more data we take and the more we try to repeat the experiment we would show no correlation.

LDrXq LDrXq2

In the next part we will investigate how we hypothesize about correlations, and how complex most relationships are.

More ramblings about climate change

I was asked to submit an essay to include in an introductory climatology text by a colleague but what I originally wrote didn’t get accepted because it was decided they wanted to place it in another chapter with a slightly different take so I had to make some revisions and changes.  I liked the original though and thought I would post it here.

In 2010 the burning of fossil fuels and the production of cement released 33.4 billion metric tons of carbon into the air.  It’s a big number.  An intimidating one perhaps, but what does it really mean?  Can any human identify with such a number?  A weight we can’t possibly experience for a gas that we can’t see.

Global averages temperatures which are not experienced by anyone. (from http://www.globalsherpa.org)

As individuals we experience only a fraction of the surface area of the Earth at any one time.  Our ability to experience change on a global scale is extremely limited.   The detection of changes in temperature on such long time scales is masked by diurnal and seasonal fluctuations.  We don’t experience average temperatures, yet the important environmental issue of our times asks us to take action based on things we do not perceive in our everyday life.

As individuals we are heavily biased towards survival from the pressures we face every day.  Civilization has given us the comfort of living apart from environmental pressures that other species experience more acutely.  It could be that civilization only gives us the advantage of delaying these pressures and gives us the illusion of comfort.  As an evolved species of animals who depends on other life for our very survival, our ability to fight off the enormous pressures that nature can exert may be dwindling.

In a typical thunderstorm there are approximately 1 x 1018 droplets.  Of course no one droplet means very much, but the collective of droplets in

From http://www.albany.edu

the cloud itself can produce lightning, damaging winds and hail, and flash flooding.  With approximately 7 billion people on the planet it is easy to view ourselves as a single drop.  With the issue of climate change it may be time to focus on what we are in fact part of:  As a species with a massive and growing global population with a great deal of power to change the world for better or for worse.  The question then becomes, “What can we, as individuals, do?”

On September 27th meteorologist and journalist Eric Holthaus, in response to the 5th Assessment Report on Climate by the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), vowed never to fly in an airplane again.  He felt very strongly about his carbon footprint.  A criticism often made against climate scientists who travel to conferences and meetings to discuss the issue.  His gesture is extremely noble and perhaps sets a good example for the rest of us.  He participates in many meetings now via Skype to avoid flying.  There are probably many of us, companies and organizations alike, who may not be taking great advantage of the technology that is available to us.  However, his case may also be an example of our disconnect between experiences as individuals without seeing the whole picture.  A response by William MacAskill, an ethicist at Oxford, pointed out that while Holthaus’ individual footprint might be high, his active participation through face-to-face interactions with policymakers internationally may reduce carbon emissions so drastically that it more than offsets his carbon footprint.  We all have different roles as individuals as part of the whole and although Holthaus’ sacrifice is well intentioned, perhaps he has not chosen the best way to reduce his carbon footprint given his abilities and role in this world.

Life constantly asks us to find that delicate balance between our individual needs and those of the collective.  It asks us to evaluate how our individual freedoms impinge on the freedoms of others.   The consequences of our actions as individuals have never had more far reaching impacts.  Climate change impacts the largest community we are part of: the global community.  The truth is, we all share the same space even if we can’t experience it.  It’s important to remember that in the individual fight for survival we always do it best when we work together.

Respect my authoritah!

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to

From http://dublinopinion.com

listen to the physicians point of view.  She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations.  This is a very valid question.  If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.

However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc.  I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society.  One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so.  I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents.  Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias.  This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question.  Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of.  As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism.  In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another?  I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think.  Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:

  1.        False authority figures. Who are the people we value in our society?
    Michele Bachmann – Not an authority figure (From http://www.warrenjasonstreet.com)

    Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues.  This is simply not the case.

  2.        The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority.  If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it.  That is false of course.  Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
  3.        Devaluing intellectualism.  In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large.  Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?

The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress.  We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.