science

“Ms. Information”

If you do not understand or appreciate the scientific method, I suggest starting with Cosmos, an accessible overview of some cool ideas about our universe based on science (and some great graphics and visualizations).  I think I get it, having a background in computer science, which also lets me play in math, modeling, statistics, and engineering, each to some degree.

But my main interest these days is education, and most recently I have appreciated (and tried to leverage positively) the power of emotion in learning, and even in memory.  It makes sense — most of the deep ideas or clearest old memories I have were associated with an experience that triggered an emotion.  With new ideas, it is often the feeling of shock/awe when an assumption is shown false that corresponds (and thus new learning occurs).  I am sure my brother clearly remembers well the night he knocked all of my dad’s teeth out — they were false, no harm save my brother’s emotional state at that time.

This observation also warns us to be careful of emotions, as they can impact judgement.  And here’s the recent example, Ms. Jenny McCarthy and her mission regarding vaccines and autism.  For all her good intentions (and the road to hell is paved with a few I have heard), the results have been disastrous.  Most disturbingly, this situation propagates because of the damage done to the beliefs of so many who go with their gut and trust a spokesperson with no clinical background over an enormous amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, including the retraction of the original linking study.  Sadly, many people will suffer (e.g., measles outbreaks) even if they did vaccinate.

Richard Feynman, one of my heroes, proposed the citizen scientist, that people should have enough background to use critical thinking to evaluate evidence, and to sift through the firehose of information now available and separate wheat from chaff.

But there exists another negative consequence to “Ms. Information”‘s actions over the years — the amount of effort from qualified scientists and advocates to convince people to let go of their previous belief. That energy might be better used to understand real issues and push our knowledge frontier forward.

Yes, this is all similar to climate change denying, but that will not emerge for some time, so we’re cool — right?

I hope Ms. McCarthy retains this new learning.  Perhaps she might consider getting out of the way, or pointing to actual experts.

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Confusing, conflating, …

I have introduced the term “conflate” to my family recently with my understanding that it means combining two separate ideas and mistaking the result with one of the originals (perhaps both).  A quick look up finds that the usage of conflate is either “combine and make a new thing,” or “confuse.”  Sounds like I was (recursively) conflating the definition of conflate with confuse.

But I feel confident about the idea of mistaking one thing for another similar, perhaps related thing, with adverse consequences.  Here is the most recent one that caught my attention, and it involves the Boy Scouts of America.  It appears that a very capable scoutmaster has been relieved from his duties.  Not by the church where these activities are conducted, they know him personally and stand by his performance.  No, it is the BSA itself because they have a policy/compromise of permitting scouts who are gay, but of not supporting scoutmasters/adults who are gay.  Seems a classic “conflating” of gay and inappropriate behavior towards children, often captured by the term “pedophile.”  Gay and pedophile, or the behavior attributed to the term “pedophile,” are often conflated.

I am looking for the right analogy … it is like saying “red is a separate idea from car.”  Red is a color, car is a mode of transportation. This separateness holds even though there exist red cars.  Red and car are both examples of separate ways of thinking about the world.

And that is the case with gay and “pedophile,” each is an example of separate ways of thinking about the world.

I thought the confusion comes from the observation that, just like there are red cars, there are pedophiles who are also gay.  However, it is not that simple. Gay is a sexual orientation.  In the DSM V, pedophila is defined as a sexual orientation as well.  Seriously — so are gay and pedophile two examples of the same idea?  Maybe, or at least according to my reading of the most recent DSM.  

At the same time, the DSM V distinguishes pedophilia from pedophilic disorder, which is “a compulsion and is used in reference to individuals who act on their sexuality.”  Oh, there it is — people are confusing gay (a sexual orientation) with pedophila (a different sexual orientation), and then extending the “confusion chain” to include pediphilic disorder, an action with the same word from the one before in the title, but can be applied to the action if performed by people of any sexual orientation. This is very problematic, it seems that even though the DSM V is cited by Wikipedia, pedophilic disorder is simply a term equivalent to pedophilia.

Wow, a little research, and some learning for me.  I have not confirmed this conclusion with any expert, but it does make the case that the BSA is conflating being something with acting someway.  My kids have many people in their lives, and I know a few identify as gay; their actions are kind and supportive to kids.  I do not care about their sexual orientation save  the extreme of pedophilia even though it is also not a choice, but sounds more like an affliction in need of support and treatment (as well as a sexual orientation).

What the BSA should eliminate from their ranks are people with pedophillic disorder, as well as pedophiles to be safe.  Yes, this is a tough distinction to make, but really important for the kids and for the adults involved.

In the meantime, good role models are losing opportunities, and kids are losing chances to interact with these good people; in fact, by definition it decreases the diversity of the experiences for the kids.

The argument for a free society …

There are many people on the planet trying hard to improve things; the question is often, for whom?

Recently, a very wealthy, and thus, very loud voice arose “to fight to restore a free society.”  I really worked hard to relax, open my mind and read through the prose.  I was actually impressed at the writing; concise, pointed, very motivating.  In a nutshell, my takeaway was that “the fundamental concepts of dignity, respect, equality before the law and personal freedom” — the principles of a free society — enable people to succeed, to improve their lot in life.  The author cites well respected people (e.g., Thomas Jefferson), and that his company provides employment for so many Americans (directly and indirectly).  As far as I can tell, this is all true.

Well, taken on its own, and IMHO, this is well-intentioned argument for more laissez-faire approaches, minimizing government intervention (interruption?) to encourage people to make their own lives as good as they can be.  But I went to college and studied such things as the Tragedy of the Commons to see that there is a need for some centralized/common authority to maintain shared resources (think an operating system in a computer, managing resources shared among programs and users).  And yes, laissez-faire implies some property protection, but I suspect this would still be too much.

Furthermore, we often do not see the impacts of our good intentions.  The author’s company involves energy, and very important and very profitable industry.  However, there are consequences to the environment that are often minimized, even in the face of overwhelming information.  Sure, the author cites the many awards that his company has earned, and I do sincerely hope these awards continue and that his company improves.  But not all companies do, and many ignore or actively argue against the existing science of climate change at the peril of the entire population.  I do not have the time or resources to find all the evidence, perhaps the author can take some of the money used for lobbying and political action for appropriate due diligence.

So, I also hope for all people to succeed, and get a fair chance.  I am just not persuaded by this particular argument that government is always the cause, and free enterprise is the answer (e.g., don’t get me started on the big bailouts!).  Actually, I just saw an interesting piece about a minimum income supported by both left and right — go figure!