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.

 

Disgusting!

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.

The climate science “controversy”

It’s a lot easier to pretend there’s actual controversy within the scientific community over climate science when you have scientists basically being paid by Big Oil, the Koch’s, etc., to give them the “science” they want.  From the NYT:

For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.

One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.

But newly released documents show the extent to which Dr. Soon’s work has been tied to funding he received from corporate interests.

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress…

Historians and sociologists of science say that since the tobacco wars of the 1960s, corporations trying to block legislation that hurts their interests have employed a strategy of creating the appearance of scientific doubt, usually with the help of ostensibly independent researchers who accept industry funding.

Fossil-fuel interests have followed this approach for years, but the mechanics of their activities remained largely hidden.

“The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University and the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” a book about such campaigns. “Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.”

But I’m sure it’s all just a liberal hoax because… Ummm, because liberals just hate business?  We just want to slow the global economy for no real reason?  We like to scare people?  Ummm, something I’m sure.  At least there’s these dedicated public servants funded by the oil industry to tell us otherwise.

Quick hits (part II)

Hmmm, this version is not so mega.  I apologize for the lack of numerical balance in this weekend’s quick hits.

1) There’s a new strongest material in the world (besting spider silk)– the microscopic teeth of bottom-dwelling sea snails.  Cool!

2) Oklahoma legislators– we don’t need no stinkin’ AP History!  And Steve Benen places it into a broader context of GOP assaults on public education.

3) Yes, unions go too far at times, but their decline has surely been a big part of our growth in inequality.  Nice column from Kristof.

“All the focus on labor’s flaws can distract us from the bigger picture,” Rosenfeld writes. “For generations now the labor movement has stood as the most prominent and effective voice for economic justice.”

I’m as appalled as anyone by silly work rules and $400,000 stagehands, or teachers’ unions shielding the incompetent. But unions also lobby for programs like universal prekindergarten that help create broad-based prosperity. They are pushing for a higher national minimum wage, even though that would directly benefit mostly nonunionized workers.

I’ve also changed my mind because, in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite. One of the things you learn as a journalist is that when there’s no accountability, we humans are capable of tremendous avarice and venality. That’s true of union bosses — and of corporate tycoons. Unions, even flawed ones, can provide checks and balances for flawed corporations.

Many Americans think unions drag down the economy over all, but scholars disagree. American auto unions are often mentioned, but Germany’s car workers have a strong union, and so do Toyota’s in Japan and Kia’s in South Korea.

4) Government by consent of the governed?  Maybe not so much in Greensboro, NC.

5) A really interesting take on how decriminalization of drugs can be a bad thing.  Really eye-opening.  Of course, if we could end this totally evil modern debtor’s prison thing we’ve got going, decriminalization wouldn’t’ be a bad thing.

6) Ideology and the closing of centers in the UNC system.  Yes, of course it’s political no matter how much the Board of Governors protests otherwise.  A response from Gene Nichol, one of the key figures in all this.

7) Love this collection of humorous flyers.

8) Given that Marilyn Vos Savant supposedly has the world’s highest IQ, it’s really kind of sad that she’s best known for solving logic problems in the Sunday Parade supplement (I know her as the person who married my dad’s first cousin’s ex-husband).  That said, the sexist vitriol she received on the Monty Hall problem is really kind of amazing.  Oh, and no matter what, I just cannot entirely wrap my head around this problem.

9) I remember reading something about this wrongful police shooting in Fairfax, VA (where I was born and raised) a while back, but the lack of news coverage is really pretty amazing.  On the bright side, it’s not just non-white guys who are victims of overzealous police who are then not held accountable.

10) Love Adam Gopnik on Republican candidate evasions on whether they believe in evolution.  It’s pretty short, you should read it all.  But since you won’t:

What the question means, and why it matters, is plain: Do you have the courage to embrace an inarguable and obvious truth when it might cost you something to do so? A politician who fails this test is not high-minded or neutral; he or she is just craven, and shouldn’t be trusted with power. This catechism’s purpose—perhaps unfair in its form, but essential in its signal—is to ask, Do you stand with reason and evidence sufficiently to anger people among your allies who don’t?

11) This Jamelle Bouie piece about the Republican attempts to appeal Obamacare and what it means has sat in my queue for its own post for too long. So here’s my favorite part:

The consequences of the proposal are straightforward: By ending Obamacare in its entirety and placing limits on Medicaid, it would eliminate insurance for millions of Americans and make it harder for middle- and working-class people to purchase coverage. And while it’s described as a plan to save money, the truth is that it accomplishes this by reducing care for the poor and raising costs on everyone else.

In other words, this isn’t a plan to achieve universal coverage. That’s simply not a Republican goal, and it’s part of the reason it has proven politically difficult to craft an alternative. We don’t think everyone should have health insurance just isn’t an appealing message.

Quick hits

1) Never thought about it this way, but makes so much sense.  All the vitamins we add to our processed food allow us to hide what low quality so much of the food is.

2) How your gut bacteria affects your immune system.  I’d like to thing mine is why I stay so healthy (and I attribute a healthy gut microbiome to lots of fruits and vegetables).

3) How the FDA is failing to keep us safe by hiding/ignoring evidence from bad drug trials.

4) Roy Moore is a self-aggrandizing, Constitution-ignoring jerk of a judge.  That said, Emily Bazelon explains how is gay marriage decision is not as crazy as it’s been made out to be.

5) The near-death of Monticello (I really need to take my kids there) and why we shouldn’t be leaving national treasures to the private marketplace.

6) This Atlantic cover story on ISIS is really thought-provoking.  Highly recommended reading.  On the shorter side, just maybe ISIS might collapse of it’s own failure to expand.

7) How often do people in various countries shower.  Too much, probably:

Cleanliness, it turns out, has been one dirty trick. One reason early-20th-century Americans ramped up their weekly baths to daily showers is that marketing companies capitalized on the insecurities of a new class of office drones working in close quarters. As Gizmodo wrote last week, to sell products like “toilet soap” and Listerine to Americans, “the advertising industry had to create pseudoscientific maladies like ‘bad breath’ and ‘body odor.'”

True.  That said, body odor is most definitely real and I prefer not to be around it.

8) Crows are even smarter than we thought (and reminds me of one of my all time favorite quotes on the matter).

9) I didn’t even watch the Super Bowl half-time show, but I think this Diary of the Left Shark is simply brilliant.  I laughed out loud several times while reading it.

10) When given the chance to weigh in, juries are much less punitive than many sentencing recommendations.  Maybe legislators need to re-think things.

11) What a wonderful tribute from one great journalist, TNC, to another, the passed away all too soon this week, David Carr.

12) At least Oliver Sacks has made it into his 80’s before contracting terminal cancer.  I think I was a teenager when I first read a Sacks book and I’ve read a ton.  I so love his infectious enthusiasm for understanding and sharing his understanding of the human brain.

13) On a happier note, this collection of best Robot Chicken clips is brilliant.  If you’ve never seen the one with Darth Vader calling the Emperor about the destruction of the Death Star, stop what you are doing and watch now.

14) Good for Walmart for raising it’s wages, but don’t pretend it’s anything other than good business in the current market:

The second reason for the raise is less specific to Walmart. The American economy’s recovery in the past few years has led to an increase in the number of jobs and a decrease in the unemployment rate—both of which mean that companies will have to start paying their employees more in order to get them to stick around.

From this perspective, Walmart’s decision is a selfish one: The company realized that it could hire workers at $7 an hour, but couldn’t hold on to them unless wages were bumped up. Aetna, Ikea, and The Gap have all come to similar conclusions. “I would expect to see many other small and large firms do the same,” Bloom says.

15) Eric Posner on just how wrong the decision to overturn Obama’s immigration action is.  It would be really, really surprising if this is not overturned at the appellate level.  Ruth Marcus takes it to the judge who ruled on the case.

16) My latest time-suck?  The oh-so-perfectly named, Trivia Crack.

17) One of my great embarrasssments of my acadmemic life is the paper I wrote on Andrew Johnson for my AP US History course.  I relied entirely too much on a source by an apologist for Johnson.  I think I got an A.  One of the reasons I really don’t like giving college credit for High School classes.  A short Slate video on why Johnson was a horrible president.

18) After the latest climbing tragedy Everest’s most dangerous route is now off limits.  Of all the things that I have read about, the Kumbu Ice Falls has totally stuck with me.  And my wife, too.  Thanks to Into Thin Air.  

19) Herbal supplements are barely regulated at all because Congress made that a policy choice.  Is it any wonder that they are full of false claims and false ingredients.

20) I’m so getting this for my next Iphone.

21) Nate Cohn on why Hillary really is a prohibitive favorite of historical proportions.

22) For a huge Seinfeld fan like me, this “What if Elaine Benes had Instagram” collection was super-entertaining.

The climate change conspiracy

A friend just posted this on FB.  Spot on.

Plot Idea: 97% of the world’s scientists contrive an environmental crisis, but are exposed by a plucky band of billionaires and oil companies.

I want my GM mosquitoes

As you know, mosquitoes spread some pretty horrible diseases.  There’s now a fascinating effort underway to use genetically-modified mosquitoes (the males have a special gene inserted so that all their offspring are sterile) to limit the spread of two nasty diseases, dengue and chikungunya.

The approach has proven successful in a number of countries:

More than 70 million Oxitec mosquitoes have been released in field trials in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, Brazil and, most recently, Panama, all of which have struggled with dengue. Regulatory agencies in those countries approved the release of mosquitoes, and last year Oxitec received approval from Brazil to commercially release its mosquitoes…

“Based on the trials conducted, we’re confident that our mosquito is safe for humans, and would do no harm to the environment, as were the regulators who approved its use,” said Chris Creese, Oxitec’s communications director.

In other words, the DNA dies with the mosquito, said Derric Nimmo, Oxitec’s project development manager. “It is very species specific,” Mr. Nimmo added.

But in Key West, the locals just aren’t having it.  The biggest reason?  The makers of the mosquitoes are a company, that, you know, makes profits.  Now, I’m as skeptical as anybody when arguments are made and profits are at stake, but this would be a stupid, stupid company to make a GM product that there’s beyond the tiniest chance it could prove environmentally harmful.  That company’s product is not going to be approved by regulators and therefore not make any money.  The scientists and government regulators seem pretty clear that the nature of this modification proposes no threat to humans and no logical/forseeable threat to the environment.  This is not some sort of Wild West usage, but something done in close cooperation with government bodies whose responsibility is to protect the public.

From what I can tell, the biggest objection is largely a knee-jerk anti genetically-modified anything.  Now, of course GM products can be harmful, but they have to be evaluated on a case by case basis applying science and logic.  And it sure seems that the benefit from dramatically reducing two nasty and rapidly spreading diseases outweighs the cost of something going totally out of control in a way that would seem to defy the logic of the actual genetic modification.

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