I’m mostly finished reading Daniel Goleman’s 1985 book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths: the Psychology of Self Deception (I found a copy of the book online here). He’s preaching to my choir, based on a paper I wrote in 1996 (“Decision Making, the Failure of Principles, and the Seduction of Attention), where I pointed out the critical and often unconscious role of attention in embellishing and distorting our moral decision-making. My targets were the many people who believe that morality is mostly founded on the conscious application of rules. I concluded that humans define and frame moral situations as a result of the way they attend (or don’t attend) to the situations. I warned that it is important that we become aware that we have great (often subconscious) power to define the situation as moral (or not). My thesis was as follows:
Attention is constantly steering us in directions which dramatically affect the application of principles [including moral principles]. For starters, if we completely fail to attend to a subject, we will likely be ill-informed about that subject, and likely less competent to make decisions regarding such matters. At the other extreme, excessive attention can bloom into an obsession, causing one to see the entire world through glasses colored by that obsession. Attention also works in subtler ways, however, rigging the machinations of legal and moral reasoning. Attention rigs decision-making in two ways:
1) by the manner in which we attend to our perceptions of the world, and
2) in the way by which we perceive and attend to the principles themselves.
I concluded that high-level decision making is based far more on attentional strategies than on traditional problem solving skills.
Thomas Frank at Harper’s has decided to spend an entire article kicking what has become of higher education in America. Here’s an excerpt from the article, which is available only to subscribers online:
[T]he purpose of college isn’t education per se. According to a report issued last year by the National Survey of Student Engagement, American undergrads spend less time at their studies nowadays than ever. They are taught by grad students or grotesquely underpaid adjuncts. Many major in ersatz vocational subjects, and at the most reputable schools they get great grades no matter how they perform.
But we aren’t concerned about any of that. Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential. Doubters might scoff that a college diploma is by the year turning into an emptier signifier. Nonetheless, that hollow Credential is what draws many of the young to campus, where they will contend for one of the coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky. Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred thousand- dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.
[More . . . ]
College can be thoroughly educational experience. Many people who graduate college are much smarter compared to when they entered college, but this is not true for all of those graduate.
An indictment of higher education came this year with a book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia. As reported by the Washington Post, the authors of this book offer these stunning conclusions:
●Gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills are either “exceedingly small or nonexistent for a larger proportion of students.”
●Thirty-six percent of students experience no significant improvement in learning (as measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment) over four years of higher education.
I was reading The Cosmic Story of Carbon-14 and had a thought involving the Abundance of the Elements and isotopes. We now know how the elements formed, and have measured their relative abundances for a while and across the universe. The theory of how they form matches every measurement. Basically, Hydrogen and traces of Helium have been around for over a dozen billion years. Heavier elements form when the mass attraction of enough hydrogen squishes a star’s core to fuse together helium and some lithium, a star is born.
All the rest form from the extreme compression and sudden release of supernovas. All that hydrogen and helium (basically protons and neutrons as there are no attached electrons at those pressures) are squeezed to dissolve into a quark soup then expanded and quick-frozen before they can push themselves apart. What is expected from this is an asymptotic curve of element abundances with hydrogen at the high end, and slight peaks forming at iron, xenon, and lead (particularly stable elements).
This is what is measured in our solar system:
Don’t let the zig-zag pattern confuse you. Odd numbered elements are harder to hold together than even ones; each pair of protons needs a pair of neutrons to let them stick together. But odd numbered ones have that odd pair of singles; they are just less likely to form.
But how does Carbon-14 fit in? What really freezes out from the splash of quark soup is not so much elements as isotopes. Every possible isotope forms in its proportional place along the curve. Then the unstable ones follow a decay chain until either they reach a stable element, or we measure them somewhere along the way. Uranium, for example, has 3 isotopes that last long enough to have hung around the 5 billion years or so for us to measure them. Technetium, on the other hand, is only found today as a decay byproduct from other elements.
So back to carbon. The three most common isotopes of carbon weigh 12, 13, and 14 atomic units (aka fermion masses: neutrons or protons). C-12 is most of it, C-13 is 1.1%, and C-14 is about 1/1,000,000,000,000 part of it. Carbon 13 is an odd-numbered isotope, and therefore intrinsically rare. Carbon-14 has a half life of 5,730 years. So if it were created in the expected normal proportion to carbon-12 billions of years ago, we would expect to not see any left. Where it all comes from is recent nuclear collisions between protons (cosmic rays) and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. (More details here).
We see the amount of carbon-14 that we’d expect for a regular continuous influx of cosmic rays that we do measure. But if all the elements had been made 10,000 years ago, we’d expect about C-14 to be about 1/4 of the total carbon, not the mere 1/1012 of it that we know is produced by cosmic ray collisions.
It turns out that comparing the abundance of isotopes of any element indicates the age of the planet to be between 4,000,000,000 and 5,000,000,000 years.
But what (I can predict this argument) if God created the elements with the isotope distributions intentionally skewed to just look like everything is that old? The old God-is-a-liar and created the young world old to eventually test faith of careful observers argument. I counter this with:
Given God and the Devil, which one has the power to put consistent evidence in every crevice of this and other planets and throughout the universe for every method of observation in every discipline for all interested observers of any faith,
and which one might inspire a few men men to write and edit a book and spread its message eagerly that can be interpreted to contradict that massive universe of evidence?
English teacher David McCullough, Jr. sharply challenged the new graduates of Wellesley Massachusetts High School by telling them that they were not special, because they were substantially like numerous other “special” students out there. He repeatedly warned the audience members that to become special, they would need to earn it.
Many of McCullough’s ideas walk the line between offensive and inspiring–they will offend some people because his message is a stinging indictment of the status quo. He delivered a message that we can’t become special by continuing to watch our TVs, or even by clicking on our keyboards. There is no substitute for self-critical thought, hard work in the real world, and a pure heart.
I admire McCullough for having the guts to say the things he said up at the podium. Watching him reminds me that excellent teachers are real heroes in a world filled with fake heroes. It makes me a bit sad that I didn’t have the opportunity to be one of McCullough’s students back in high school. Listening to his message mostly makes me proud that there is someone out there who can teach so much in twelve minutes.
Yesterday afternoon, a friend mentioned that in his experience people are usually embarrassed to be exposed as illiterate, but they don’t seem to care whether they are exposed as mathematically incompetent. That observation resonated with me. In fact, not only aren’t people embarrassed about being mathematically incompetent, but many people seem proud of being mathematically illiterate. They use their mathematical incompetence to socially bond with other people who are mathematically incompetent. More than a few times, someone in the room has mentioned that they’re not very good with numbers and several other people in the room immediately come to their rescue indicating that it’s okay to be mathematically incompetent because they too struggled with mathematics.
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that American students are so deficient at mathematics compared to the students in many other countries while, at the same time, Americans have such bizarre public policy priorities (e.g., a zero tolerance policy toward terrorism at the same time that thousands of Americans are dying needlessly of treatable medical conditions and while millions of American children are subjected to terribly underfunded schools that will ruin their lives).
After yesterday’s conversation, I pulled out an 1988 book by John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. here’s what Paulos has to say right in his introduction:
Innumeracy, an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance, plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens. The same people who cringe when words such as “imply” and “infer” are confused react without a trace of embarrassment to even the most egregious of numerical solecisms. I remember once listening to someone at a party drone on about the difference between “continually” and “continuously.” Later that evening we were watching the news, and the TV weather forecaster announced that there was a 50% chance of rain for Saturday and a 50% chance for Sunday, and concluded that there was therefore a 100% chance of rain that weekend. The remark went right by the self-styled grammarian, and even after I explained the mistake to him, he wasn’t nearly as indignant as he would’ve been had the weathercaster left a dangling participle. In fact, unlike other failings which are hidden, mathematical illiteracy is often flaunted: “I can’t even balance my checkbook.” “I’m a people person, not a numbers person.” Or “I always hated math.”
Paulos suggests that part of the reason for this ignorance of mathematics is that the consequences are often not as obvious as those of other weaknesses. On the other hand, the problems caused by innumeracy are serious, often times matters of life and death. Paulos lists the following examples:
Stock scams, choice of a spouse, newspaper psychics, diet and medical claims, the risk of terrorism, astrology, sports records, elections, sex discrimination, UFOs, insurance and law, psychoanalysis, parapsychology, lotteries, and drug testing…
Why do people struggle so much with mathematics? Paulos points to natural psychological responses to uncertainty, to coincidence, and how problems are framed, as well as anxiety, romantic misconceptions about nature and the importance of mathematics. One of the biggest consequences of innumeracy are “unfounded and crippling anxieties” and “impossible and economically paralyzing demands for risk-free guarantees.” Paulos mentions that politicians are rarely helpful, because they are often “loathe to clarify the likely hazards and trade-offs associated with almost any policy.”
It’s been a while since I read Innumeracy, but I highly recommend it. It is a timeless book filled with examples to remind us of the importance of a precise understanding of mathematics. Paulos indicates, “The book will have been well worth the effort if it can begin to clarify just how much innumeracy pervades both our private and/or public lives.”
By the way, if you know someone who is struggling with mathematics, Paulos book is a good place to start. He is an excellent teacher of math as well as a clear writer. If you know someone who wants to understand basic math, refer them to the many free video lessons at Khan Academy.
Once we master math, I would suggest that we turn to biology. It is my firm belief that all of us would be much better off with an understand of human beings based on the understanding that humans are human animals.
15 Miss USA contestants demonstrate that they don’t know enough to know that they don’t know enough. In other words, these beautiful contestants are beautifully demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger cognitive effect:
The proper answer from each of these contestants should have been “I can’t answer that question, because I don’t understand the scientific theory of evolution. Maybe I should go read a few good books, on evolution. Then I’ll let you know whether I am competent to answer that question.” To answer like this, though, is not the American way. When you are prepared with make-up and the cameras come on, you tend to wing it in such a way to please the majority of your audience. This is what beauty contestants and politicians have in common.
I don’t have a lot to say about this kerfluffle over the remarks of someone who, as it turns out, is not actually working for Obama regarding Ann Romney never having worked a day in her life. This kind of hyperbole ought to be treated as it deserves—ignored.
But we live in an age when the least thing can become a huge political Thing, so ignoring idiocy is not an option.
I remember back in the 1990s a brief flap over Robert Reich. I’m not certain but I believe it was Rush Limbaugh who started it by lampooning the Clinton Administration’s Secretary of Labor for “never having had a real job in his life.” Meaning that he had gone from graduation into politics with no intervening time served as, at a guess, a fast-food cook or carwasher or checker at a WalMart. Whatever might qualify as “real” or as a “job” in this formulation. In any event, it was an absurd criticism that overlooked what had been a long career in law and as a teacher before Clinton appointed him. It’s intent was to discredit him, of course, which was the intent of the comments aimed at Mrs. Romney by asserting that she has no idea what a working mother has to go through.
A different formulation of the charge might carry more weight, but would garner less attention. It is true being a mother has little to do with what we regard as “gainful employment” in this country: employees have laws which would prevent the kinds of hours worked (all of them, on call, every day including weekends and holidays) for the level of wages paid (none to speak of) mothers endure.
Hilary Rosen raised a storm over remarks aimed at making Mrs. Romney appear out of touch with working mothers. A more pointed criticism might be that Mrs. Romney does not have any experience like that of many women who must enter employment in order to support themselves and their families, that a woman who can afford nannies (whether she actually made use of any is beside the point—the fact is she had that option, which most women do not) can’t know what working mothers must go through.
But that’s a nuanced critique and we aren’t used to that, apparently. Soundbite, twitter tweets, that’s what people are used to, encapsulate your charge in a 144 characters or less, if we have to think about it more than thirty seconds, boredom takes over and the audience is lost.
Unfortunately, the chief victims then are truth and reality.
So the president gets dragged into it for damage control and the issue becomes a campaign issue.
Which might not be such a bad thing. We could stand to have a renewed conversation about all this, what with so many related issues being on the table, given the last year of legislation aimed at “modifying” women’s services and rights. Whether they intended it this way or not, the GOP has become saddled with the appearance of waging culture wars against women, the most recent act being Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s repeal of that state’s equal pay law. Romney is the presumptive nominee for head of that party and one of the things he’s going to have to do if figure out where he stands on these matters and then try to convince the country that he and his party are not anti-woman.
Yes, that’s hyperbolic, but not by much. This is where the culture wars have brought us—one part of society trying to tell the other part what it ought to be doing and apparently prepared to enact legislation to force the issue. Ms. Rosen’s remarks, ill-aimed as they were, point up a major policy problem facing the GOP and the country as a whole, which is the matter of inequality.
That’s become a catch-all phrase these days, but that doesn’t mean it lacks importance. The fact is that money and position pertain directly to questions of relevance in matters of representation. Ann Romney becomes in this a symbol, which is an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of our politics, and it is legitimate to ask if she can speak to women’s concerns among those well below her level of available resource and degree of life experience.
The problem with all politics, left, right, or center, is that in general it’s all too general. Which is why Ms. Rosen’s remarks, no matter how well-intentioned or even statistically based on economic disparities, fail to hit the mark. She can’t know Ann Romney’s life experience and how it has equipped her to empathize with other women. Just as Ann Romney, viewing life through the lens of party politics, may be unable to empathize with women the GOP has been trying very hard to pretend are irrelevant.
Like with Robert Reich’s critics, it all comes down to what you mean by “real” and “work.” And that’s both personal and relative. Isn’t it?