Video of the day

So, what’s the deal with things being reversed right-to-left in mirrors, anyway?  This video does a really cool job explaining it.  More on Physics Girl here.

GOP against Higher Education

I’ve read a lot of good commentary on Scott Walker and other Republicans’ attacks on higher education.  This in Pacific Standard is definitely my favorite.  I like that he also hits NC’s own Pat McCrory:

Wisconsin is, of course, not the only state where executives are deriding bachelor’s degrees and the liberal arts. Shortly after taking office in 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory leveled harsh words at the “educational elite,” mocking women’s and gender studies (“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it”) and, what is more curious, the teaching of Swahili: “What are we teaching these courses for if they are not going to help get a job?”

One must suppose McCrory has little interest in the techno-minerals that the West excavates with such glee from Swahili-speaking countries. The governor’s cell phone or laptop probably contains coltan from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The job-creators at the multinationals that mine those minerals probably employed someone who spoke the local dialect. Is it elitist to mention all of this? I think not.

If McCrory and Walker wish to eliminate any college course that does not lead directly to employment, that’s one thing; but perhaps they should consider who they’re serving by cutting funding to—and openly scoffing at—the study of language, international relations, and identity questions that, like it or not, will become the purview of the next president—even a President Walker.

There is democracy, and there is democratic fantasy. The seemingly populist notion that a governor with little geopolitical education is somehow morequalified to direct America on the world stage is little more than inverse snobbery and a mess of false equivalencies…

That cognitive reversal is part of the larger bait-and-switch in conservative critiques of higher education. The script: College is overrated; let us therefore cut funds; colleges thereby become worse, proving that they were terrible to begin with. The slash-and-burn won’t mean the death of the American university so much as its reversion to a domain for the rich.



I’ve linked to her a number of times, but I don’t think I’ve ever taken a moment to mention that New Yorker science writer, Maria Konnikova is awesome.  In addition to her lengthy and thoughtful blog posts, I also love the segments she does on the Mike Pesca’s the Gist podcast where they examine whether popular/common science beliefs are, in fact, true.

Anyway, I really liked this piece on the nature of human disgust and how the biggest obstacle to new sewage to clean water processing is not technological, but psychological.  I.e., people find the idea of drinking the water disgusting:

In the first series of studies, the group asked adults in five cities about their backgrounds, their political and personal views, and, most important, their view on the concept of “recycled water.” On average, everyone was uncomfortable with the idea—even when they were told that treated, recycled water is actually safer to drink than unfiltered tap water. That discomfort, Rozin found, was all about disgust. Twenty-six per cent of participants were so disgusted by the idea of toilet-to-tap that they even agreed with the statement, “It is impossible for recycled water to be treated to a high enough quality that I would want to use it.” They didn’t care what the safety data said. Their guts told them that the water would never be drinkable. It’s a phenomenon known as contagion, or, as Rozin describes it, “once in contact, always in contact.” By touching something we find disgusting, a previously neutral or even well-liked item can acquire—permanently—its properties of grossness.

Feelings of disgust are often immune to rationality. And with good reason: evolutionarily, disgust is an incredibly adaptive, life-saving reaction. We find certain things instinctively gross because they really can harm us…

It’s easy, though, to be disgusted by things that aren’t actually dangerous. In a prior study, Rozin found that people were unwilling to drink a favorite beverage into which a “fully sterilized” cockroach had been dipped. Intellectually, they knew that the drink was safe, but they couldn’t get over the hump of disgust. In another experiment, students wouldn’t eat chocolate that had been molded to look like poop: they knew that it was safe—tasty, even—but its appearance was too much to handle. Their response makes no logical sense. When it comes to recycled water, for instance, Rozin points out that, on some level, all water comes from sewage: “Rain is water that used to be in someone’s toilet, and nobody seems to mind.” The problem, he says, has to do with making the hidden visible. “If it’s obvious—take shit water, put it through a filter—then people are upset.”

There’s plenty of irrational disgust in the Greene household.  I’m quite sure this goes hand-in-hand with picky eating, among other things.  I was also interested to read the following:

Disgust has deep psychological roots, emerging early in a child’s development. Infants and young toddlers don’t feel grossed out by anything—diapers, Rozin observes, are there in part to stop a baby “from eating her shit.” In the young mind, curiosity and exploration often overpower any competing instincts. But, at around four years old, there seems to be a profound shift. Suddenly, children won’t touch things that they find appalling.

Yes!  Sarah (who turned 4 in November) has been picky for a long time, but only recently has she started finding objects disgusting.  Science!

Interestingly (very much to me, of course), Konnikova makes the connection to GMO food:

G.M.O.s, or genetically modified foods, are a third area where visceral disgust trumps all evidence and reason. In 2005, Rozin published a survey showing that, when it comes to “naturalness,” content is far less important than process; a natural substance can easily be rendered “unnatural” by passing through an unnatural-seeming transformation, even one as innocuous as boiling or pasteurization. In a forthcoming paper with Sydney Scott and Yoel Inbar, Rozin argues that the tendency to conflate naturalness with goodness is one basic reason G.M.O.s are facing such an uphill battle. Some people don’t like the corporations responsible for the spread of G.M.O.s. But for many others, according to his data, it’s simply a question of disgust: G.M.O.s go through an “unnatural” process—a transformation that changes them from one thing to another—and that very process makes them unpalatable, regardless of actual danger or evidence. More than seventy per cent of those who expressed opposition to genetically modified food—close to half of all of those surveyed—said that their view would not change regardless of the evidence put before them. G.M.O.s are unnatural and, therefore, disgusting. [emphasis mine, of course]

As always, I’ll grant that there’s a thoughtful discussion to be had about the environmental impact of GMO’s and the uncertainties in their use.  Nonetheless, it is quite clear that this rational/thoughtful discussion is almost impossible because to far too many people, GMO’s are just disgusting.

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