25 June 2009

Mathematician's Lament

Hat Tip to Bruce Smith at Education.Change.org for linking to this pdf file:
A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he is in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made— all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language— to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely.

One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way. ...

Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.

Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.”

The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right."

Click on the "pdf file" link above the quote for the full 25 page document.

19 June 2009

End Faith, But Hold on to Violence?

Responding to Sam Harris' Book The End of Faith

Through all but the next to last chapter of this book I could generally concede his main points about the necessity for a broad cultural movement to counter the absurd claims in religious doctrine about how the world works. I found that he framed some of his arguments in unpleasantly divisive ways, but the essential points were good.

In regard to the framing of his arguments he made the same basic error as his anti-religion compatriots, Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, they focus exclusively on objecting to the doctrinal/ creedal dimension of religion (referring to Ninian Smart's seven dimensions of religion) and ignore and/or minimize the value of the mythic, social, ritual, experiential, ethical and material dimensions of religion. I consider this error as equivalent to how the anti-evolutionists conveniently ignore the nuances of evolutionary science and pick exclusively on the most stereotypical misrepresentations.

But that's par for the course, what really got my britches in a tangle was his treatment of violence. In chapter 6, entitled A Science of Good and Evil, Harris presents his argument for the moral necessity of violence in general and torture in particular. He contends that we have no practical alternatives by showing how war is a moral necessity and since that is the case then effectively torture is no different, morally, from collateral damage (the wartime killing, maiming, and terrorizing of innocents). If war is morally acceptable, then so is torture, if we are consistent in our beliefs. The premise of his argument about the moral equivalence of collateral damage and torture is necessarily based on the lack of an effective, that is morally acceptable, alternative means to achieve the same ends. So he takes pains to show that the pacifist alternative to war is not reasonable and appears to be ignorant of alternative interrogation techniques.

His refutation of the moral credentials of pacifism relies on an absurd caricature of pacifists who would ignore their personal safety in the presence of a mass murderer and then takes an isolated quote from Gandhi (suggesting that the Jews should have committed mass suicide in opposition to the Holocaust) to dismiss pacifism as patently absurd.

He also recounts how he intervened to prevent further violence against a Czech woman who was being forced into a car. He discounts his act as cowardly and morally worthless because he interprets his actions as failing to deliver a message to the perpetrators of the violence. As someone who formerly trained in martial arts for several years I found his creative engagement in the situation to be a very excellent example of using the most effective tools at hand to preserve the health and safety of another person. He discounts the moral value of his actions because he was not Super Hero enough to deliver a “lesson” to the thugs he thwarted. There are several problems with this view. First of all, he is delusional about the efficacy of one intervention, no one learns that kind of “lesson” from one isolated incident. Second of all, I have no way to imagine what he could have done to “teach” the “lesson” he expects. In my understanding of human beings and how they learn, when you do violence to them they will be focused on the violence you did to them, not whatever they happened to have done before you came into the situation with your violence. Here's an ex-cop who not only attests to the accuracy of this view of how humans behave, but teaches people to do deliberately what Harris did instinctively. Thus, in my estimation his account of this incident is a perfect example of how non-violence successfully thwarted violence and ultimately undermines his argument against pacifism. Here's a video that illustrates verbal judo from the movie Fort Apache: The Bronx:

To refute his premise in regards to torture, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been using effective and efficient non-violent means of interrogation since World War Two. According to a scholar who has studied the modern history of torture in the form of the psychological techniques made famous by the Abu Ghraib scandal, the FBI's methods are a viable alternative. My blog post entitled Psychological Dark Side provides access to some of the key videos that have informed my opinion on this matter.

As for his portrayal of pacifists, his claim that pacifists would refuse to act in self-defense against a lone murderer is absurd. Pacifism as I understand it is specifically an opposition to the use of state power to wage war. Pacifists are clear that there are crucial differences between the moral situations when one person kills another 1) for immediate self-defense, 2) for personal gain, and 3) for the purposes of a state that authorizes the killing. Just like everyone else they accept the moral necessity of the first, and abhor the second. Where they differ from many other people is consciously rejecting the third.

I reject Harris' arguments about the acceptability of violence and the necessity of torture. My opposition to both violence, in general, and torture in particular are based on my belief that morally acceptable alternatives are available and that they are also practical and effective. The real problem is that, as a society, we just haven't gotten out of the knee-jerk habit of reacting with violence. If we take Harris advice of grounding our religions in empirically valid spiritual practices that are aimed at accurately characterizing the facts of consciousness then we will make progress towards the true aim of religion which is to bind people together for mutual nurturance, not drive them apart. The trick is to get Religion to forsake it's claims to authority over matters better addressed by other institutions and focus what it is best suited to address. Unitarian-Universalism is leading the way as the only non-creedal religion (that I am aware of.)

18 June 2009

Shame on U.S. for failing to provide healthcare

There is no excuse for the richest nation in the world to be so negiligent of the needs of so many people that a non-profit, all volunteer emergency medical crew that normally serves third-world countries has to run missions here. I only thank god that I have not gotten sick and even if I do there are people who can help (if it's not catastrophic.) I give a tip of the Hat to Frameshop for bringing this video to my attention and if you want more analysis I recommend his article:

16 June 2009

Psychological Dark Side- Torture

I have acquainted myself with the situation of torture through a combination of hearing lectures online and reading Philip Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect.

Here are the videos that I have found to be the most enlightening (from shortest to longest):

~20 minutes with Senator Carl Levin responding to former Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism of President Obama's Policies and claims about "aggressive interrogation"

~20 minutes with Psychology Professor Philip Zimbardo on exactly how the situation, not the individuals, determined that abuse would occur at Abu Gharib. WARNING: graphic images of torture. But there is a redeeming message at the end!

~1 hour with history Professor Alfred McCoy from University of Wisconsin on the 50 year history of CIA secret psychological torture techniques. WARNING: highly academic presentation with graphic video segments and descriptions of torture.

The Long Version of Zimbardo's presentation. 1 hr. 10 min. WARNING: graphic images of torture.

Reed College (my alma mater) Political Science Professor Darius Rejali gives a thorough examination of torture (1 Hour, 45 min):

A New Yorker reporters perspective on the recent torture issues:

12 June 2009


Here's an important review of and ADD/ADHD study by respected science journalist Jonah Lehrer.
They found that ADHD is largely a developmental problem: the brains of kids with ADHD develop at a significantly slower pace than normal. For instance, the median age by which 50 percent of the cortical points attained peak thickness for the ADHD group was 10.5 years, while the median age for the control group was 7.5 years. This lag was most obvious in the lateral parts of the prefrontal cortex, which is a brain area essential for most of the executive functions that appear to compromised in children with ADHD. (On average, their frontal lobes were three and a half years behind schedule.) The good news, however, is that the ADHD brain almost always recovers from its slow start.