Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On the Intrinsic Value of Knowin' Shit

Give this article about Rick Santorum's anti-academic stance a read, and then come back here so we can laugh at him together.



Still, there's a serious problem underlying this story. Some people - too many people - have a problem with academic achievement and intellectual success. I suppose the reasons can vary (jealousy, inferiority complexes, fear that the devil himself done taught the course, etc.), but the end result is always the same. People who've put in the hard work to know more, to understand more, to have better minds, are given flak by those who didn't (at least, not to the same extent) for no better reason than that there's something supposedly uncool about knowing things.

As an educator, this is a professional problem for me. I need kids to value what I'm teaching them, so that they actually learn it. As a skeptic, this is an ideological problem for me. I need people generally to accept that some ideas are worth more than others, and that some may be outright wrong. As a person who aims (however successfully) for intellectualism, it's a personal problem for me. I don't need people mocking me and giving me shit for trying to improve my mind. That last one's not a huge deal for me, I'm big and tough, I can take it. But think of the children! If kids, not as tough as a grown-up legal adult like me, are getting mocked for it, then it's going to make them less likely to appreciate their own education and drift away from the skeptical ideal, and perhaps even start them on attacking others' intellectual success.

Diagram A
To be clear, I'm not talking about formal education alone, but the whole improvement of the mind. I do consider myself more knowledgeable than most people on things like civil society and socio-economic inequality because of my varsity studies. But I also know plenty about dinosaurs, just because I grew up in the '90s (see diagram A). In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of my knowledge of biology comes not from the approx. 2 years I had to do it in school, but from the hours and hours I willingly poured into books and magazines about dinosaurs (the smarter of which were cleverly designed to teach me about more general concepts in biology, disguised as dino-awesomeness.) Similarly, I learned more about history from the kind of books and documentaries that Asterix and Indiana Jones got me excited about than from my actual history lessons (except, of course, for the year or so that Mrs Frith taught us). And I've taught myself more about espionage, aviation and astronomy for gaming purposes than any "serious" purpose.

So knowledge can come from all sorts of sources, and provided they're good sources, you can learn a lot without entering academia. Willingness to learn is the main thing that's required, and that's exactly what Santorum's kind of anti-intellectualism destroys. And formal tertiary education makes a good target for him, because of two main wossnames that tertiary education institutions offer that you can't really get anywhere else:
1. Intensive, specialist training in a narrow field, up to a very advanced level.
B. A shiny, impressive symbol of the value of higher learning.

The second wossname's importance should be clear. The first is a bit more complicated. Thing is, it doesn't matter how much I read up on dinosaurs or airplanes, I'll still almost certainly not be at the same level as a paleontology PhD or aeronautical engineering professor. I might know my brontosaurus from my apatosaurus, and I might be able to do barrel rolls in a 747, but can I explain the evolutionary pressures that led to their long tails, or design a new tail to make it roll faster and also more silently? There's always something unknown, even at the peak of any field of study, but we need experts and specialists of the highest degree to answer the hardest questions and to teach everyone else.

There's a reason universities have a hierarchical pecking order: At the bottom, 1st years may be smart, but have yet to prove they can do anything with those smarts. They haven't put in the hard graft to learn as much as more senior students. At the top, professors are far from infallible, but have earned their place in the food chain, because they almost certainly know more than you about their field. And that didn't just come to them from nowhere, they invested years and years in dedicated study. The 10 or so years you'll likely spend earning a PhD is not at all equivalent to 10 years of happening to pick things up as and when they happen to catch your interest. If you undermine the credibility of all professors in one go, as Santorum has attempted to, you undermine the entire system of distinguishing between better and worse ideas.

Now what the hell was I talking about...

Oh yes.

The accusation of "intellectual snobbery" is not a thing I consider valid. If a person is wrong and you can prove it, then you call them "wrong" and prove it. But to say, "You know a lot of stuff that I don't, and/or appreciate the pursuit of understanding more than I" and mean it as an insult is just mind-bogglingly stupid. You normally only hear it from those on the defensive, those who have no real arguments to give. I've had it from religious zealots (mostly in relation to evolution, but one strange time it was about lunar probes). I've heard it from anti-vaxxers who claim their intuitions and feelings are worth more than tested knowledge (to be clear, real intuition is a product of learned knowledge). I've even heard it in the SA Skeptics group on Facebook, which is pretty shocking, considering skeptics are supposed to value big brains, not the opposite. That's like going to a massive concert and complaining about the noise.

Some might argue that being snooty about wrong ideas is a fair cause for the use of accusations like intellectual snobbery, but I think it's an inaccurate use of words, since "wrong" would still be a better, simpler and easier-to-prove accusation. How do you prove a vague and subjective thing like snootiness? Oh, and the thing about inaccurate uses of words? Yeah, that's also a thing that gets me accused of snobbery. Usialy buY pPeepls hoorite LyKL DzZz. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

What can be done to counter such anti-intellectualism? A few quick, practical thoughts:

1. Take pride in your brain. You don't have to rub it in people's faces, but modesty is a form of dishonesty, and they sort of rhyme too.

2. If you don't understand someone, tell them and ask for clarification. Even qualified, experienced teachers can find it hard to be sure when their audience is following them, and that's half of their core function. There's no shame in not knowing something, but there's plenty of shame in hiding from your own ignorance.

3. If someone doesn't understand you, explain it to them. Use different words, don't just say the same thing over and over. Before adding new concepts, break up the current ones so that everyone can agree what it is that makes them up. Take things one step at a time. There's no honour in mocking someone for not knowing something, but plenty of it in teaching them.

4. Accept that nobody knows everything, everybody makes mistakes, but that knowing more is a goal we should all strive for and help each other towards.

Did I miss anything?

Monday, 20 February 2012

Heartland: Clinging to the Hope of a Capitalist Dystopia, just for Cyberpunk Fans

It's hard to tell both the severe ultra-capitalists and the crazy anti-capitalists that they're both wrong and that we need to find a happy medium, when the capitalists keep fucking everyone around en masse. It makes the craziest, most extreme among the anti-capitalists seem dangerously close to sane.

The latest big fuck-up to worry about is a leak of documents from the Heartland Institute, an American organisation devoted to making things more capitalisty. That's my wording, but honestly not changed too much from their own mission statement. And these leaked documents suggest that they have been awfully unethical in trying to convince people that climate change isn't a real thing. Interestingly, Heartland is denying this, saying the documents are both stolen and fake, which suggests they either aren't stolen documents (they're merely fakes that someone else made, and so cannot have been stolen), or that they keep a supply of their own fake documents, and someone stole those, or that Heartland is full of shit. All very odd.

So what do these documents say? You can read the link above for a fuller account, or better still, read the original documents yourself, but in summary it's a policy document discussing their plans to stop people hearing anything about science (specifically climate change-related science), in school and in the media, and to replace it with their own denialist propaganda. And they've got piles of cash dedicated to nothing but spreading their own message and blocking any other. (And somehow, people call me crazy when I suggest that we live in a society that allows advertising, marketing and public relations far too much influence. It's a struggle to get any important, straight story out past all the random noise, let alone the direct counter-propaganda.)

Contrast this with the 2009 CRU email leak, which had climate change deniers crowing for a short while. The recent Heartland leak has been called a counterpoint to that event, but the two have very little in common. For a start, the Climatic Research Unit people didn't immediately deny everything (nor call the emails fake, let alone both at the same time). They agreed that the emails were genuine, but not a big deal, and carefully explained how they were no sort of evidence of conspiracy at all, that they merely showed some routine processes of honest science, and then pointed out that absolutely none of their data was uniquely "theirs" and that anyone doubting their figures could check with the originators of the data. A perfectly reasonable response by scientists engaged in science, and no serious scientist has thought anything more of it since then.

Heartland, on the other hand, has shown its PRvertising streak by immediately throwing out some meaningless confusion, pointing fingers elsewhere and trying to draw attention away from the actual content of the documents. Given that there can be no genuine scientific value in a large and blatant propaganda campaign, they would be foolish to even consider debating the merrits of their policies honestly and directly.

To be fair, this could be some sort of fakery, a smear campaign against Heartland, but given their actual public policies, you really wouldn't need to fabricate anything new to smear them pretty well. I took a look at their education policy, just out of curiosity, and their position can be summed up as, "pay public teachers less, make private schools for rich kids better." So, fuck 'em.

Also, someone give me a better collective term for all the various commercial opinion-manipulation services than 'PRvertising'.

Finally, this last bit should not be taken as any sort of serious evidence that they're Evil, but given my established interest in names and naming, am I alone in thinking that The Heartland Institute is a pretty decent Evil Corporation name, in the 1984 Doublespeak style? The 'institute' part makes it seem like they're official and clever and officially clever, while Heartland has got to appeal to patriotic sorts - with their hearts and their lands so bizarrely intertwined - without even gluing itself too closely to any particular state's patriots. Silly, putty-brained patriots; you're one more reason powerful PRvertising is a serious problem. There is, of course, a region Americans informally know as the heartland, and this can by some accounts physically, though not really culturally, include Chicago, where this Institute has been based since its foundation in the '80s. But I'd bet it's a name chosen more for emotional effect than descriptive value.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

General Catch-up and Colonel Mustard

It's been a stupidly busy few months here, and I'm hoping I can force myself back into blag-writing mode by typing up a few small thoughts, instead of trying to jump straight back into the deep end with a full-sized essay.

Looking at Little Kids for too long
I've reached an interesting if unimportant milestone as an educator: Although 2012 is my 4th year in the teachy-tutory business, it's only this year that I've been with the same kids for over 2 consecutive years. In other words, the grade 10s I started with in 2010 are all in grade 12 now, so I've dealt with them in 3 different grades. Obviously the grade 10s and 11s I had way back in 2009 are out of school now, but I only ever saw them in 2009, so I didn't get to watch their development first-hand. And watching that progress is interesting. You get to see some kids keeping up the same struggles year after year, while others somehow manage to overcome their various hurdles and make immense progress. I wish the boss kept better records, so we could quantify that progress, but the anecdotes alone can be particularly gratifying. For example, the little grade 10 girl, either playing at or actually being a cliche ditsy blond, and either way genuinely struggling with her work, is now one of our best grade 12s, getting marks consistently over 90%. Massive brain on her, and many others, and it does get me thinking a lot about their future prospects. And there things can get a bit depressing again. I know very well how crappy the real world is at helping people make the most of themselves. Some of them have even said they want to go into marketing!

But, good news to raise the mood again: I've kept in touch with some of the kids (well, former kids) from my first batch of grade 11s from 2009, and I'm pleased to see they've turned into some fine young men, putting their large brains to good work. (I hope there are some fine young women with large brains from that batch too, since several of them got consistently higher marks than their male peers, but I haven't heard from any yet.) I'd like to give particular praise to Siyabonga, who took the unusual step of re-doing the whole of grade 12 maths and science last year. You might argue that anyone could raise their results if they got a 2nd year to try it, but 1.) not  many people actually bother to do so, accepting the added financial burden and social stigma, and B.) the man improved his results by 26% and 20% respectively, which is not a negligible improvement at all.

Fucking Babies!
More of my friends are breeding. It's like they have some instinctive compulsion or something. I'll have to write a full essay later on, explaining all the reasons this is a bad idea, but in summary: Too Many People Already, and also End of Bachelor Freedom. Of course, nobody listens to me. At the same time, I am quite keen to do my bit for those excess kids who have been forced upon the world by the breeding-mad, as a person who actually exists is a very different ethical entity to one who may only potentially exist. Unfortunately, by waiting for full existence to be confirmed, I tend to miss out on some of the more fun things, like name-picking. It's also possible that some parents get confused by my sudden post-natal flip in attitude, which may alienate me a bit too.

Inappropriate Touches on Short People
I'm quite excited about The Hobbit movies. The Lord of the Rings movies were a breathe of fresh fantasy air when they came out (the first one over 10 years ago! How old am I!?), but I've always felt The Hobbit was the better, more interesting story. I'm generally opposed to Hollywood's re-hash madness, and haven't watched a recently released movie in ages as a result of my re-hash boycott. But The Hobbit is one that may actually be more than worthwhile. There's not much that can be judged from the initial trailer alone, but I reckon it'll be alright. The one thing that really bugs me, though, is that they've fucked with the dwarf beards. Reading The Hobbit back in grade 8 English is the whole reason I chose to play a dwarf army in Warhammer, and their beards, both in that game and in the Tolkien book, are a major point of focus. It's made completely clear that they're supposed to have massive great big fuck-off beards, much as Gimli was given in the Lord of the Rings. So long, they had to be tied in knots and tucked into belts, was Tolkien's description. But instead, it seems the new dwarf look is a bunch of frizzy little gnome-whiskers, and Thorin Oakenshield himself barely has a beard at all! It's madness, and I will not stand for it, much.

I assume it was done so that racist, dwarf-hatin' audiences could tell them apart more easily, but A.) Only fans are going to care which is Fili and which is Kili, and 2.) speaking as a sculptor and painter of Warhammer dwarves smaller than 5th distal phalanx, you can totally make dozens of dwarves with similar massive beards look very different from each other. It's mainly in the eyes and noses, though clothing differences help too.

Mysterious Difficulty Finding Employment
I've known for well over a year that I need to find a new job. Tutoring just never pays enough for a fully independent lifestyle. I've sent off a few CVs, but I think a lot of the problem has to do with how uncertain I feel about my chosen academic field, Development studies. It's not that I regret studying it, but that there seems to be a massive gap between what I was hoping to do with it, and what the world will allow me to do with it. The job ads seem to fall into two neat piles, the drudgery work (reception, fund raising), and the interesting stuff (planning and management, the shit I actually studied), and I'm stuck in an awkward spot between the two, over-qualified and under-excited about the drudge pile, and under-qualified for the interesting pile, almost all of which demands a master's degree and 5 years experience, minimum. And sure, I'm working on the master's (got 2 pages of my proposal written up this weekend!), but how the hell does anyone get a foot in the door in this business?