Saturday, September 30, 2006

An epistemic rule of thumb

When unorthodox methods lead to unorthodox conclusions, you should doubt the methods, rather than embracing the conclusion.

Bears repeating right now

"Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders...All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger."
-- Herman Goering, 1946

via Dale Jamieson's sig line

Friday, September 29, 2006

Conflicts of Interest from State and Corporate Funding.

At a luncheon today we were discussing the conflict of interest extensive corporate sponsorship of universities creates, and how this can distort research. Steve Horwitz came back with a nice point: why do we assume that corporate funding leads to a conflict of interest, but state funding does not? Isn’t research at publicly funded institutions equally suspect?

I think Steve is right, at least partially. I didn’t get a chance to respond at the luncheon, so I’m doing it here. There are certainly plenty of cases in the sciences where government funding has seriously distorted research priorities and results, and indeed, whole fields of investigation. A good example of this is the development of agricultural research over the last hundred years. The mainstream understanding of farm ecosystems and economics has been developed by a network of land grant universities and agricultural extension services who are concerned almost exclusively with large scale, monocultural farms.

Liberals and progressives tend to think of this as a corporate bias, since the beneficiaries have been large agribusinesses. But really, this historical trend better fits the libertarian critique, where states are seen to intervene to promote a narrow interest group at the expense of free markets.

Really, to see whether someone has avoided conflict of interest is to look at the way the money is distributed, and not just whether the funding is private or public. Money is distributed well when the choices about who to fund are made by independent agencies, rather than politicians or executives with specific agendas.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Teaching and Parenting

I frequently bring Caroline and Joey to campus on evenings and weekends. It is a pretty place, and if Molly is using the computer, the only way Caroline can get computer time herself. The other day, I was in the office holding Joey and coaching Caroline through one of the little flash games on a website she likes, when a colleague poked her head in.

"It didn't sound like you were meeting with students," she said.

Me: Well, I am, just a different sort of student.
Her: I suppose. Students of life, perhaps.

I wanted to say, "No, a student of me." But that would have implied that they were simply studying me. I really just wanted to say that the kids are my students the same way my students are my students.

I've actually had conversations like this a couple times. It seems obvious to me that parenting and teaching are closely interrelated, nearly identical in fact, but others don't see this. One person said to me "this has more to do with your parenting style than anything." I don't see how that is possible. For starters, all children's entertainment has at least a token educational component. Even the little Micky Mouse Flash games at the Disney site teach numbers. Coaching Caroline with those games is not too different than what I will do this afternoon, coach college students using the proof engine for the texbook Language, Proof, and Logic.(*)

The link between teaching and parenting is deeper than that, though. Here is a conversation I had this morning.

Me: I don't want to get up. I'm going back to bed. [Flops in bed]

Caroline (excitedly): Me, too! Let's go to sleep! [Crawls under the covers next to me]

Me: [Tries to actually sleep]

Caroline: Daaaddy. I don't like the new Carl book we got.

Me: Why not?

Caroline: I don't like it when he goes into the fire to rescue those puppies. He could get burned.

Me: But Carl was brave. It's good to be brave, especially when you can save puppies.
Caroline: I don't like getting shots.

Me: Being brave is about more than not crying when you get shots.

Caroline: Everyone cries when they get shots.

Me: Adults don't cry when they get shots.

Caroline: Do adults cry?

Me: Sometimes. Weddings and funerals mostly.

Caroline: Why do adults cry at weddings?

Me: Sometimes you cry because you are so happy.

Caroline: Like Dan Zanes and Miss Barbara?

Me: Yes, like Dan Zanes in the Wonder Wheel song. He laughs until he cries.


* The first google hit for Language Proof and Logic is their old website. All philosophy blogs should link to the new website to fix this problem.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Dear Senator Clinton,

The Honorable Hillary Rodham Clinton
United States Senate
476 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Fax: (202) 228-0282
Voice: (202) 224-4451

September 22, 2006

Dear Senator Clinton,

I urge you to oppose Senator McCain’s disgraceful compromise on the treatment of detainees under the War Crimes Act. The proposed reinterpretation of Common Article 3 would authorize the heinous treatment the current administration is heaping on prisoners of the war on terror, treatment that we would never tolerate if it were inflicted on our own soldiers. Further, it denies prisoners the right to habeas corpus, effectively putting them outside the reach of any court of law, and abandoning any notion of a human right. The proposed compromise would cement our status as a pariah among civilized nations.


Rob Loftis

Thursday, September 21, 2006

quick notes on press releases as scientific communication

Real Climate has posts here and here on the function of press releases on the dissemination of scientific information.

A couple things to note. First many journals, including Science and Nature send out press releases for major articles they publish. (This was something I missed on my scientific communications chart, which only talked about university press releases.) As Real Climate notes, these press releases are written without consulting the scientists, so that scientists contacted by journalists for a quote often have to ask the journalist what the press release says they said. Science and Nature also both have embargos on the publication of a paper before it appears in their pages, increasing the importance of the press release they put out.

For their first field project my scientific reasoning class had to analyze a report of a scientific event from the popular media. Interestingly, four of them chose this article on decreased polar ice coverage. (Here is my answer sheet. As usual, people confuse the real world with the model and the model with the prediction generated by the model.) Tomorrow they are supposed to bring in the primary source for that article as a part of their second field project. This is the source for the polar ice article, but I doubt many students will have found it. It has not been published yet, and when it is published, it will be in a journal that my university does not subscribe to, and I imagine few do. I only found it because there was a small link to it from the New Scientist article on this research. The primary source is hosted on NASA's servers, and linked to from some of their pr pages, but I don't think any students will find their way there.

I think I'm going to add one more step to their second field project. I want them to find the press release that the newspaper articles were drawing on, and compare the primary source, the press release, and the newspaper article. This should be fun.

Research Tools for the Science Minded

Via Philosop, Benoit Hardy-Vallee has a page full of useful links and search fields for people doing research in philosophy of science or other general science fields. There isn't anything shockingly new here. It is just nice to have search fields for Google Books, pubmed, etc. all in one place.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"It is normal to fall"

This book provides first rate advice for babies who are just learning to walk. The lessons also work well in other situations. My favorite bullet list:

* Don't look at your feet.
* Look at where you want to go.
* Imagine you are already there.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Calvin sat on the left side of the classroom, about two thirds of the way back, same chair, for both my intro class last semester and my reasoning class this semester. As a teacher, you see such a narrow slice of a student's life. All last semester he sat next to a woman named Chloë, chatting pleasantly. I have no idea if they were good friends, or merely acquaintances who could share conversation before the work of the day began. I do know that he seemed to genuinely like philosophy, and for that reason I genuinely liked him. I was hit unexpectedly hard by the news that he was found dead in his dorm room from an apparent suicide. My condolences to his friends and family.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Oribe lantern update

Oribe lantern
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

The students who stole the top stone from the Oribe lantern returned it last night, leaving it under a tree by the monument. It remains unclear whether they realized what they were doing was "religious desecration" and not "wacky college pranks."

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Yes, I just wasted an hour surfing the internet, but I made a discovery! This site has all the James Thurber cartoons from the New Yorker, free for the browsing!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

human beings who echolocate

ABC has a story up about two blind people who genuinely echolocate, a 14 year old kid named Ben Underwood, and a 40 year old man named Daniel Kish who runs a group that teaches other blind people to echolocate. This immediately makes all the philosophers ask: So what's it like? The article only gives a few tantalizing comments. About Underwood:
Ben says every object in his life talks to him in ways that no one else can hear or understand.
About Kish
"I have mental images that are very rich, very complex. They simply do not possess the visual element,"
This story via Brains, a phil mind blog, new on the blogroll. Also, I finally added Open Reading Frame to the blogroll, which I should have done a while ago.

A note about searches that get people to this site

Several times now, sitemeter has told me that someone came to this blog after googling "Dan Zanes Gay." For the record: No, I don't know if he is gay, but don't you think the man deserves a little privacy? I mean, really.

You ungrateful little brats.

Normally I find myself siding with students in conflicts between students and the university, so much so that I sometimes wonder if I can be counted as a mature adult, but today I have no sympathy for some students at my university. In fact, I'm going to use a classic adult authority figure phrase: I'm very disappointed in you. This message just came from Mark McWilliams of religious studies. [Readers outside of SLU can probably skip it]
Oribe Lantern Vandalism

Dear Campus Community:

Yesterday, after a year of work securing funding, working with the building and grounds committee on site permission, with subcontractors on electrical wiring and foundation work, and with the hard work of physical plant personnel we finally installed a beautiful 500lb Japanese Oribe stone lantern next to the Gunnison chapel for the enjoyment of the campus community. This lantern, with a Buddhist image of the bodhisattva of compassion, Jizo, was to represent the Buddhist tradition and, by extension, the religious diversity of the campus community—some of whom, like myself, are Buddhists. It was also an attempt to beautify the campus grounds and add a Japanese touch to the garden area beside the chapel.

It is with great sorrow that I tell you that within 12 hours after the pouring of the concrete—around four a.m. in the morning, someone in our community decided that he/she wanted the top stone ornament of the lantern. They pulled the top stone off breaking the glue seal and cracking the concrete base of the lantern. This has, in effect, severely damaged what others and I have worked so hard to make possible and is a senseless act of desecration.

I simply cannot understand why someone would do this to a religious monument. I would like them to know that their vandalism is an act that has deeply offended not only myself and those who worked on this project, but is also an attack on the university community, whose buildings and objects of art are meant to be cherished and enjoyed by all of us. I would also like the perpetrators to know that when something like this happens it hurts not only me, and the community, but themselves—for they depend on the university and the people who work here to make their campus congenial for their studies and their daily lives. It will be a long time before I ever think of doing such a project again, knowing, as I do now, that the very day I was thrilled at seeing something beautiful come into being on our campus, there was someone here at SLU who was happy to ruin it for me and others.

I would ask the person(s) involved in this act of vandalism to realize the error of their ways. Please place the stone top piece back by the lantern. It was not meant to be your personal room decoration, but something for all of us to enjoy.


Mark MacWilliams
Religious Studies Department

Friday, September 08, 2006

Child in bucket

(no subject)
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Know your rights!

In this case, the fourth, fifth and sixth amendment, and how they protect you in an encounter with the police. This video from the ACLU, How Not To Get Arrested, is very helpful. [Link updated 4/28/08] I plan to show it to my children when they are old enough.

Some lines to practice:
“No, I don’t know why you pulled me over”
“I don’t consent to any searches, sir”
“Officer, are we free to go now?”

I don't know why no one told me these things when I was young.

Update: Link via Majikthise, also i crossposted this comment there:

The video uses three examples, two involving white college age kids and one involving a black college age kids. The advice for the white kids is specific, and when it is followed, the officers leave. In the first case they are in a car, and the second case in their house. Each time they refuse to consent to a search, and the officers leave.

The black kid is a pedestrian, and the advice given him is vaguer and the outcomes less optimistic. “Depending on your state laws, the police may be justified in demanding identification.” “It never hurts to refuse consent to search, but the police will probably pat you down anyway. The most concrete advice is all about not making things worse: Don’t talk back. Don’t run.

I know that this difference is largely a product of your rights as a pedestrian instead of a driver or someone in their home, but the choice of race is striking.

Also, in each example, the citizen is primarily confronted by a person of the same race and gender as they are. The young white woman is confronted by a white female officer. Don’t know what to make of that.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

scientific communication 2.0

scientific communication 2.0, with informed citizens
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

This is the new version of the chart, thanks to all who offered advice. Again, click through to see a larger version of the chart.

The main thing I did was to add circular arrows to indicate how much groups simply talk to themselves--this also allowed me to get rid of the rather confusing second box for scientists. The chart now emphasizes the insularity of many groups, most prominently ordinary citizens and the mainstream media. Scientists are also quite insular, but this is somewhat disguised by the wide variety of ways they have of talking to themselves. The little insular blogger community is also represented.

I have decided that the difference between the black and the red is that the red is basically normative, while the black is descriptive.

I decided not to add boxes for government and industry, because a lot of the functioning of those institutions is covered by the box "scientists" and because I am mostly concerned with the flow of information to the average citizen. I didn't add a separate box for philosophers of science, because our community is too small to make a difference. I didn't give Gina Kolata her own box because I don't see why everyone thinks she's all that.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Official Seal of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

At least for now.

Michael Bérubé in our tiny hamlet

A full color flyer arrived in my mailbox announcing that someone was coming to St. Lawrence University to talk about David Horowitz and academic freedom. My first thought was, “huh, someone else is facing off against Horowitz besides Michael Bérubé.” But no, the celebrity blogger himself will be coming to Canton, NY, Saturday, November 4, as a part of the annual Teaching Effectiveness Conference. Yippee! New goal: Get Bérubé to notice this blog before he comes to SLU.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Scientific Communication

Update: Welcome Inside Higher Ed readers. See this updated chart for a better image.

I created these charts as a part of my scientific reasoning class. If this is interesting to you, let me know what you think. Click through for bigger versions.

The first simply depicts how scientists communicate among themselves

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

This next chart adds the public to the picture


This final chart adds what I hope to be the perspective my students will learn to take.


Bug Porn

Go here and click on the "multimedia" link to see some totally explicit sex & cannibalism. Via Unfogged. So far Pharyngula has not picked it up. Perhaps it is too obvious for him.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Return of the Global Religious War

Majikthise has two posts up about some right wing bloggers' responses to two Fox journalists who were captured in Gaza and feigned conversion to Islam to escape. Some on the right take this to be tantamount to betrayal. The right's motivations here are hard to figure out. Some seem to act as if the conversion was in itself a real betrayal, as if they should have died like ancient Hebrew and Christian martyrs who attained eternal life by refusing to denounce their God. Lindsay compares it to the way some communities turn on women who have been raped: “Their very survival is considered proof of their debasement. It is assumed that a truly virtuous woman would have fought to the death to preserve her honor, and by extension, the honor of the community.” Something like that is clearly going on. I also get the impression that bloggers are upset that the journalists denied Christ, as if this were in itself a wrong, but they can’t actually say this, because they know that not everyone on our side is Christian to begin with. This is David Warren
I assume they are not Christians (few journalists are), but had they ever been instructed in that faith, they might have grasped that conversion to Islam means denial of Christ, and that is something many millions of Christians (few of them intellectuals) have refused to do, even at the cost of excruciating deaths. Christianity still lives, because of such martyrs. Not suicide bombers: but truly defenceless martyrs.
I've been trying to keep track of ways the current war is a religious war, because I have a strong intuitive sense that this is an underappreciated cause of war (oil and empire being well-appreciated causes). So far all of the evidence I have found is pretty tenuous. In this day in our society, one simply doesn't come out and say "kill the heathen." Often you have to read people uncharitably to see them as religious warriors. I'm going to have to keep thinking about this.