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113 posts from June 2007

June 30, 2007

How Museums Teach Evolution...

...and the psychological brickwalls they run into. With all of the talk about the Creationist Museum, I thought it would be worth discussing a museum that is trying to teach evolution. In the June 2007 issue of Evolution*, Diamond and Evans describe some of the responses to a revamped evolution exhibit, "Explore Evolution", at the Nebraska State Museum.

The authors conducted a survey of visitors to the Nebraska State Museum, asking them seven questions about the exhibit, with the goal of determining what cognitive biases existed among museumgoers (note: I've snipped the references):

Considerable research on everyday explanations for natural phenomena reveals a set of cognitive biases that would appear to make evolutionary explanations particularly counterintuitive. Though these biases emerge in childhood, they are manifested in all age groups. Evolutionary ideas challenge the everyday intuition that the world is stable and unchanging (essentialism), and that animate behavior is purposeful (teleology) and intentional. Moreover, human evolution, in particular, challenges the intuition that humans are privileged and destined to escape the fate of other species on this planet.

In our research, visitors who exhibited one or more of these cognitive biases when explaining an evolutionary problem were categorized as using novice naturalistic reasoning. Visitors who had a basic grasp of Darwinian evolutionary explanations, though they were not experts, were categorized as using informed naturalistic reasoning. Visitors that invoked supernatural explanations used creationist reasoning.

Personally, I prefer the term bleeping moron, instead of creationist reasoning, but, granted, it's not very professional (although accurate). Onto the questions. One was about fruit flies**:

Scientists think that about eight million years ago a couple of fruit flies managed to land on an Hawaiian island. Before that time, there were no fruit flies in Hawaii (show map). Now scientists have found that there are 800 different kinds of fruit flies in Hawaii. How do you explain this?

The answers (italics mine):

An example of informed naturalistic reasoning by a museum visitor:

Well, the process of evolution. So, at certain points there were, uh, mutations that just naturally occurred. Um, . . . reproduction. And then, those mutations, if they were adapted to that environment, they were further reproduced, and if they were not adapted, the mutations just ceased - those fruit flies died off. So that would explain the variety.

This visitor invoked several evolutionary concepts, though the visitor was clearly not an expert.

An example of novice naturalistic reasoning by a museum visitor:

Obviously people have brought the fruit flies in. And Dole probably, Dole pineapple people probably brought them in.

In this example, intuitive modes of reasoning are invoked, which indicate that the visitor is not conceptualizing this problem as one of evolutionary change.

A bleeping moronAn example of creationist reasoning by a museum visitor:

Um, first of all I have a problem with your eight million years. I believe in creation in the biblical account, so that pretty well defines how I believe things. God created them and due to the great flood, that is how the diversity came and that would be my explanation ... Ok, I believe um, God created a pair, a male and female of everything with the ability to diversify. So I guess what I meant at the time of the flood, I believe that's when the continents broke apart and so even though only a few of each things were saved in the flood, they had the genetic background to be able to diversify into all of the, like for instance, dogs, and all the different kinds that we have. And so um, does that help? Just a creationistic view.

This visitor invoked supernatural rather than natural explanations, in particular, God's direct role in the origin of species.

The responses to this next question about Galapagos finches were quite astonishing:

During one year, scientists measured the beaks of one kind of finch on a remote island. They found that most of these finch beaks were small. In the following year, a drought wiped out almost all the plants that produce small seeds. Only the plants that make large tough seeds remained. A few years later, the scientists returned to the island and measured finch beaks again. This time they found that more of the finches had bigger beaks. How would you explain why more of the finches had bigger beaks?

Many of the respsondents gave a Lamarckian response: individual finches grew different sized beaks in response to the environment.*** However, this bleeping moroniccreationist response made my jaw hit the floor (italics mine):

But like I said, I don't believe in evolution. So I don't believe that they evolved because it takes too long. There are too many failures before they evolve into something that finally works, so I just reject that view. Um, my guess would be that there probably were larger beaked finches but there weren't as many of them and the small beaked ones would have died out because they couldn't get the food.

Erm, you...just...described...natural selection....brain...freezes....up....

But wait!  There's more disturbing news (italics mine):

Not surprisingly, in comparison with national samples, U.S. natural history museum visitors are much less likely to endorse creationism. However, even for a group that is more highly educated and probably more interested in natural history than the general public, only about a third demonstrate a basic grasp of Darwinian evolutionary principles. Not one visitor offered informed naturalistic responses to all seven questions. Interestingly, museum visitor research in other English-speaking countries demonstrates a similar lack of understanding. Using different measures, Silver and Kisiel (2006) found that only about 30% of visitors to selected natural history museums in Australia, Canada, and the United States exhibited a basic understanding of natural selection; this despite the fact that creationist ideas were less likely to be endorsed in the other countries than in the United States.

These findings offer support for the thesis that many people find evolutionary ideas counterintuitive. Given their educational levels, museum visitors are likely to have been introduced to Darwinian evolution at school, but these principles do not appear to be retained. Visitors seem to revert to their more compelling intuitive explanations of evolutionary change.

Well, the good news is that Americans are as likely to be bleeping morons as other English-speakers.

*It is outrageous that these general interest articles are behind a private publisher's paywall and not available to the public. As a member of the Society for the Study of Evolution, this appears to be in opposition to the mission to "promote the study of organic evolution."

**I could be wrong, but aren't the Hawaiian drosophilids fruit flies, but just flies? I seem to remember more than one drosophilist getting really cranky when I referred to drosophilids as fruit flies.  Update. (I was right).

***In fairness, people often become confused by phenotypic plasticity--identical genotypes don't appear identical because of environmental perturbation (e.g., starvation). However, the absence of thinking about the change in beak size as a population level response is disturbing.

Crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist

June 29, 2007

Things have changed

Found in a "Friend's" journal .

From the wall card by one of Louise Nevelson's sculptures at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, quoting a critic commenting on one of her shows in 1947:

"We learn the artist is a woman in time to check our enthusiasm. Had it been otherwise we might have hailed these sculptural expressions as by a great figure among the moderns."

Things are a little different today, but we still have some of it.  Speaker of the House?  We got our first woman in the job less than a year ago.  Israel had Golda Meir, Britain had Thatcher; those were the chief executive.

We have people who argue that Clinton ought not be running, because she's a woman.  That to get anywhere she'll have to prove herself more manly than her competition.

Concerned Women of America are complaining that Code Pink isn't being feminine (having an opinion, and sharing it with others is masculine, and evil; at least for women).

So things are a little different.  But we still have a culture which wants to say: had it been a man, we could count those people among the best of the moderns.


I don't really know what to say.  Hello.  Linsday's offered me the run of the place, because I offered her some photos to post.  She didn't want mistreat them, and so here I am.

I'm a lot of things.  A photographer, soldier, interrogator (Army National Guard), cook, aikidoka, former journalist, dancer, actor, reader, blogger, gardener, rock climber, horseback rider, and a whole lot more.

I'm educated, an auto-didact, and sometime pedant. I like languages.  I am fluent in two, conversant in two more, and can make polite noises in more.   My mind hangs onto trivia.  When I took library science in HS, and then when I studied journalism, my instructors said, "It's not what you know, but what you know how to find."

My blog  Better than salt money reflects that. It's a mishmash of my life, food porn, photos, philosophical musings and rants.

So I don't know what I ought to post here. Pictures?  Sure.  Those are easy.

Commentary... maybe.  It's hard; because there's a bigger audience here, but I have my own place too.

I have hobby-horses.  I may ride them here.  Torture/interrogation is one of them.  I have some experience on the subject,  and strong feelings about it.  Long story short, I'm against the one, because it's bad for the other.

Cookery... I don't know.  Who likes food porn?

Because it affected her, and I hope in a way that was good grieving, I'm going to give you one of the photos I offered her.  It's topical, as she reminded me, to her father.  I took it in Ukraine, two years ago.Poppy_heads_img0215

Hypocrisy and Politics

Lindsay has allowed my didactic ass back over here from my blog. I only wish it were under different circumstances. All the very best to Lindsay and her family.

Unfortunately, I don't have much time to post today. Apologies. But here's an earlier, long-ish post. Let me know what you think:

One thing I try to avoid... - though I do it too, obviously, hypocritically - is dwell on political and moral hypocrisy... I'm not interested here in dealing with O'Reilly, Limbaugh, or Coulter. Blogdom in particular seems like a gigantesque ad hominem buzzing hivemind at times. So and so in the political world says something or another with self-righteousness (William Bennett, Claude Allen, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, etc., etc.), and then they do something that contradicts what they've been saying! This is easy. It's always easy, no matter the political persuasion. It preys on simple political emotions, turning politics into sports. Pop the popcorn, pop open a beer, cheer the smackdown pops, check out Janet Jackson a-popping at halftime - look closely at the breast, but disdain its presence there for all to see. Sometimes it feels good to call someone else an idiot because they say one thing in one context and something else in another or even change their mind. Makes you feel strong, manly, right, just, consistent, and above the fray of poor logic and the guano-stained batcave of political rhetoric.

There is, nonetheless, a hypocrisy that matters. This is the moral and political - or simply existential - version that betrays trust when one has placed one's fragility and risk of harm into the hands of a representative other. Uncertainty generates the necessity of trust as well as its dark Janus brother, paranoia.

Courage and trust have this in common: they are not attitudes with regard to images and representations. Courage is a force that can arise and hold steadfast as one's projections, expectations, and hopes dissipate. Courage rises up and takes hold and builds upon itself. Trust is a force that can arise and hold on to someone whose motivations are as unknown as those of death. It takes courage to trust someone you do not know. There is an exhilaration in trusting that builds on itself. One really cannot separate in this exhilaration the force of trust and the force of courage... Trust is courageous, giddy, and lustful. - Alphonso Lingis, Trust, 2004.

Hypocrisy - in the form that should be assailed - is betrayal not only of trust, but of courage. It charms one into confidence and then breaks or remolds the tacit contract rendering what could have been future courage into fear and mistrust. We don't forget harms easily. When time after time we witness or experience the betrayal, we either cry "hypocrisy!" and blog madly about it or collapse into snivelling balls of paranoia and move to the hills of Idaho or Berkeley muttering about guv'mint or revolution. It's not so easy to walk away and wave it off when it's not only an individual who has betrayed our trust, but an institution under and through which we live.

We've come to accept hypocrisy as an integral part of politics and its institutions. Part of this is the very real harm caused by some in positions of power, such as Bush and Cheney right now, in my estimation. Those who continue to trust them are fools.

Part of this reluctant acceptance (or paranoia) of political hypocrisy also reflects the realities of politics and the fallibility of all individuals. Political decisions affect others, often indirectly and often consequentially. But even the curious perpetual and contrastive ideal-type of the well-meaning politician errs, must change tactics, must deal with the devil at times, must learn where learning may require one to reevaluate and reject one's earlier views even when intransigent others have placed their trust in the politician acting upon those earlier views.

We also witness a deeply entrenched cynicism about politics in general. This is a problem for any hopeful democracy, and it's nothing new (read your Greeks). Yet, if we're cynics about democratic politics, only cynics enter politics and "democracy" takes on the fluffy meaninglessness of abstractions like "freedom" and "security." If anything, democracy is future-oriented and hopeful. It's hopeful of better futures, but it's also hopeful of the trust that can be placed in the hands of citizens and representatives. Cynicism here is the death of hope. When politics goes purely cynical, democracy is dying if not already consigned to the morgue.

But... remembering Emerson's famous line from "Self-Reliance" that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines," we ought to follow it to the conclusion, "to be great is to be misunderstood... Fear never but you shall be consistent in whatever variety of actions, so they be honest and natural in their hour." Or take Whitman's famous paean to democratic pluralism, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; (I am large—I contain multitudes.)." Inquiry, even at its most exquisitely brilliant is always fallible. If it were not, we would be gods or demons or static bores, all of whom inhabitat the same dour pantheon of a heaven where nothing ever happens. Emerson's lines return us to a different form of trust - that we're truly engaged in genuine inquiry about what is right and wrong, good or bad, worthy or unworthy. What do we do?, we ask. The question has to be asked with pedestrian practical constraints and policy tools and metrics in mind, but also with an insouciant greatness that disdains the demand for perfection. In politics especially there is no such thing as perfection, although the demand for it is ubiquitous.

Bill O'Reilly, Peggy Noonan, Ann Coulter, and the many others with minds geared towards monistic repetitions of self-inflating intellectual mire are insignificant microbial waste in this splendid Emersonian world. They, unfortunately, have a market of angry, distrustful people. They are soothsayers, not inquirers. The further misfortune is that that market is a creation of cynicism itself.

This leads me back to the earlier, more banal point. Do we receive much from the time and energy placed in the project of exposing others' hypocrisy? A liar, yes, is a liar. A poor thinker is a poor thinker. But a hypocrite may often only be a hypocrite at face-value. We speak in different languages to different audiences - children, parents, students, co-workers, spouses, the gas station attendant, the doctor,.... These different languages are different because of context. Place different contexts side by side, out of context, and you can easily find what the blogosphere dwells on as hypocrisy. It doesn't require much intellectual energy; simply a few well-placed googles and links. The O'Reillys, et al. are small minds. It's not worth the energy expended to expose their hypocrisy. Why suffer fools at all? Their hypocrisy comes not from the "honest and natural in their hour," but from the ever-flowing dank sewage systems that run through the worse-for-wear city on a hill.

What use, then, does it do to expend time and energy exposing the hypocrisies of others? Clearly, if there's genuine harm involved, it ought to be exposed and decried. The administration ought to be hung not just for its hypocrisy and betrayal of trust, but for its utter treachery. Hypocrisy-exposing when the target should be treachery is also a betrayal in that it misses the target and frames discussion in terms favorable to the traitor - now the traitor is merely a hypocrite. As a political matter, hypocrisy-exposing when the target is small-minded riff-raff who have no respect for the courage and trust involved in experimental inquiry is futile, as well as the game political opponents would much rather play.

Emerson and Whitman, in their own "courageous, giddy, and lustful" ways, implored us to understand that a pluralistic universe of contradictions is a universe of contradictions. In this kind of world, we have to risk our trust and loyalties. We simply have to. The alternative is paranoia, self-loathing, the collapse of whatever is good and decent in community, and a society that devolves through tit for tat. But we then also have to distinguish between battles worth fighting and those not worth fighting. Insignificant microbes wallowing in the mud aren't worth the energy and words - they shape the anger of the true-believers, and no amount of rational criticism, exposing contradictions and hypocrisies, and better arguments is going to change that. Dewey wrote that "ideas are effective not as bare ideas but as they have imaginative content and emotional appeal," so that the problem is then "that of effecting the union of ideas and knowledge with the non-rational factors in the human make-up." We'll always find contradictions in political ideas because the world, history, human experience are never static while we're politicking. Reimagining politics in all its honesty and deceit, coherence and incoherence, change and ingrained habits, illusions, confusions, and contusions, is the route towards understanding what's good about it and towards being societies that truly want to be better than they have been.

Getcher Hot Links! Parents Involved Edition

Some further reading about today's Supreme Court decision striking down school desegregation programs in Seattle and Louisville:

  • Echidne finds some applause for the decision and offers a critique.
  • Lots of interesting stuff at the LDF's blog.
  • Adam B reminds us that the decision overturned an opinion by libertarian hero Alex Kozinski.
  • Jack Balkin offers an optimistic reading of the Kennedy concurrence.
  • Professor B. ponders the diversity issue.
  • Christy puts the case in broader perspective.
  • And, for the final word, Mark Graber on the "conscientious objectors" from the civil rights moverment opposing desegregation under the mantle of Brown v. Board"Today’s opinions in the Seattle school case feature the too usual lectures from conservative justices on the meaning of the “good” civil rights movement, the one which asserted that “the constitution is color-blind.” Of course, neither Chief Justice Roberts nor any other member of the majority were actually members of that “good” civil rights movement. To paraphrase Dick Cheney, they had other priorities at a time when police dogs were being set upon African-American children who dared insist on the right to drink at the same water-fountains as white children. Indeed, Roberts, Alito, and Scalia were proud to be in the vanguard of the movement that pried from the Democratic Party those who set the dogs upon the children (and those who applauded that behavior). They could do so in good conscience because somewhere in the late 1960s, the “good” civil rights movement was replaced by the “bad” civil rights movement, a movement which insists that persons of color be actual as well as pro forma, legal equals. Curiously, this transition took place even though the vast majority of participants in the “good” civil rights movement remained in the “bad” civil rights movement, included almost the entire leadership. By comparison, on this history, George Wallace became the person who best understood that the central principle of BROWN v. BOARD OF EDUCATION was that no “innocent” white person could ever be harmed in the effort to secure racial equality and any person of color who claimed covert race discrimination would have to produce a smoking gun the equivalent of the smoking guns which convinced the Burger Court that the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1900ish was committed to race supremacy. Recognizing that George Wallace and Strom Thurmond are the true heirs to Martin Luther King, Justice Roberts and his allies feel the need to direct lectures on BROWN to the “bad” civil rights movement in the hope that we may be converted." 

[X-Posted at L, G & M]

June 28, 2007


Back in 2000, when I was a second-year med student, I heard that Michael Moore was making a movie about the health care industry. I tried to get a summer internship on the project, and they weren't completely uninterested, but they weren't willing to pay and I couldn't swing a few months in NYC on my own dime.

Maybe if they had hired me, it wouldn't have taken seven years for Sicko to make it to the big screen. (I guess Moore had bigger fish to fry since then, but I choose to believe it's because they needed me.)

All bitterness aside, the movie opens tomorrow (Friday), and you should go see it. For years we've been told that the American health care system is the best in the world and everyone else wishes they were us, and Sicko addresses that fiction head-on, starting with domestic horror stories and then moving to Canada, England, France, and Cuba to find people who couldn't be happier with their care. It is linear, clear, and coherent in a way that most of Moore's other movies have not been--not because they were lacking, but because they were more about finding a point than making one.

I could pick nits, and in fact I did when I wrote my original (unpublished) review. But that's only because I spend the majority of my waking hours thinking about and working in the health care business, and none of them take anything away from the movie. My only substantial criticism is that I don't think the trip to Cuba with the 9/11 rescue workers really worked very well. It may help dispel images people probably have about health care in Cuba, but it's hard to believe that patients brought in by a famous filmmaker are going to get the same treatment as Jose Blow off the street. It gives something for Moore's critics to roll their eyes at, dismissing the valid (and, frankly, undeniable) points made by the rest of the movie. Of course, those critics would just find something else to scoff at, but the Cuba trip just seemed like a gimmick in a movie that didn't need one.

I don't think we're going to have a choice about reorganizing our health care system in the next ten years or so. What we're doing is just not sustainable, and if we're lucky public pressure will force changes before the system collapses under its own weight. In the next year and change we'll be putting the people in office who will probably be guiding that reorganization, so we really need to start talking about it now. If Sicko helps jump-start the conversation, maybe the seven-year delay will turn out to be a good thing.


~~pipes~~, originally uploaded by /\/\ /\ T.

Today's guest-posted FlickrFind.

One man's hands

One man's hands, can't tear a prison down,
Two men's hands, can't tear a prison down,
But when two and two and fifty make a million,
We will see, that day come 'round,
We will see that day come 'round. (Pete Seeger)

When Lindsay's dad, Dr. Barry Beyerstein, died suddenly this week at the age of 60 he was exactly the same age as my own father at his sudden death. I still remember my bewilderment and disorientation, although it was 50 years ago. I was 15. There's nothing to say except I hope that great pain killer of grief, "tincture of time," works speedily.

I didn't know Lindsay's dad personally although I knew he was a shining figure in Lindsay's life, that he was important in the struggle to bring some rationality to drug policy and that he was widely admired. Even my casual knowledge was more than enough to understand why he was so admired. It's not surprising his loss is felt keenly in many places. This post is about one of his causes.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London, the U.S. currently has the largest documented prison population in the world, both in absolute and proportional terms. We've got roughly 2.03 million people behind bars, or 701 per 100,000 population. China has the second-largest number of prisoners (1.51 million, for a rate of 117 per 100,000), and Russia has the second-highest rate (606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000). Russia had the highest rate for years, but has released hundreds of thousands of prisoners since 1998; meanwhile the U.S. prison population has grown by even more. Rounding out the top ten, with rates from 554 to 437, are Belarus, Bermuda (UK), Kazakhstan, the Virgin Islands (U.S.), the Cayman Islands (UK), Turkmenistan, Belize, and Suriname, which you'll have to agree puts America in interesting company. South Africa, a longtime star performer on the list, has dropped to 15th place (402) since the dismantling of apartheid. (Cecil Adams, The Straight Dope)

The great lock-up is fairly recent, starting, as far as I can tell, in the Reagan years. One of the reasons is an irrational and class-based drug policy:

A major reason for the dramatic increase in the U.S. prison population and associated increases in the number of Blacks, Hispanics and women, has been substantial increases in the numbers of persons sentenced to prison for drug crimes.  Back in 1980 the number of prisoners convicted for a drug offense was only 19,000 or about 6 percent of the state prison population which numbered less than 300,000.  By 1998 the numbers had increased by 237,000, or 21 percent of the state prison population.   Furthermore, the average sentence for drug offenses had increased from 13 months in 1985 to 30 months by 1994.  Many of these offenders are simple drug users who have no record of violence and who pose little danger to public safety. (Policy paper, National Policy Committee, American Society of Criminology)

Lindsay has a special interest in the workings of legal drug pushers, Big Pharma, so I thought this clip was appropriate, given the context:

One man's hands. Barry Beyerstein helped that day come 'round. Meanwhile, the fight goes on.

June 27, 2007

Kline: A Postscript

An investigation of the Planned Parenthood being targeted by deposed Kansas panty-sniffer-in-chief Phil Kline shows that -- he had nothing. Shocking! Meanwhile, this article about pro-choice politics in Kansas is really interesting (Obama/Sebelius '08!) [HT: Feministing] I also like this debunking of attempts to argue that the Dems won in '06 by moving right:
For openers, seven of eight new Democratic senators and one Independent are pro-choice (Casey is the exception). Four more pro-choice governors were elected. The draconian abortion ban in South Dakota was soundly defeated. Voters also turned down ballot initiatives mandating parental notification for abortions in California and Oregon. A stem-cell initiative passed in Missouri, and candidates who ran on support for stem-cell research were overwhelmingly successful. And minimum-wage hikes passed on six of six state ballots. Pundits were also wrong about the Blue Dog Caucus in the House becoming pre-eminent: Actually, the Progressive Caucus gained many new members, and is the largest caucus in Congress.
There's also a a fair amount of bad news, of course, but the midterms were very encouraging. [Cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns, and Money]

Sunset in Costa Rica

Sunset - Costa Rica
Originally uploaded by BlueOakPhotos

Today's guest-posted FlickrFind.