Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Politically-Motivated Firings at the Justice Department

I've been trying to get around to posting on this, but Drum has a round-up. Cripes, it's getting to be like the Reagan administration--you can't keep the scandals straight without a score card. You'd think that the firing of U.S. Attorneys for political reasons would be met with widespread outrage...but no matter how corrupt this administration turns out to be, people just seem to accept it and move on. Perhaps it's scandal fatigue.

Monday, February 26, 2007

How Likely Is It That These are Jesus's Bones?

Well, there's this from

So, apparently James Cameron made this documentary for the Discovery Channel, and in it he claims to have found an ossuary containing the bones of Jesus. Dunno what his evidence is, but the only piece revealed in this piece is that one of the tombs may or may not have "Jesus" written on it, and another one may or may not say "Judah, son of Jesus." On the other hand, they may say "Hanun" instead of "Jesus." My guess is that there's more to it than this, otherwise who the heck would take this seriously? But that's all CNN says. And I'm in no mood to Google.

Two amusing quotes:

"The historical, religious and archaeological evidence show that the place where Christ was buried is the Church of the Resurrection," said Attallah Hana, a Greek Orthodox clergyman in Jerusalem. The documentary, he said, "contradicts the religious principles and the historic and spiritual principles that we hold tightly to."

Gee, ya' think? I mean, "hold tightly to" is rather an understatement, isn't it? How about "cling blindly to, to the exclusion of all contrary evidence"? Face it, there is basically no conceivable evidence that would change the minds of most Christians.


"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 -- 10 being completely possible -- it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."

The thing:

The theists in this story are right about something: the proffered evidence described by CNN is pathetically weak. But here's one thing we can be extremely certain about: the likelihood that these are Jesus's bones (low though it might be), is far greater than the likelihood that he was God and ascended to heaven. And the pathetically weak evidence cited by CNN is better evidence for the these are Jesus's bones hypothesis than all the other available evidence is for the Jesus was God and ascended to heaven hypothesis. This is largely because extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and this is the most extraordinary of claims.

Thing is, of course, people are bad about amplifying the strength of evidence they like, and ignoring the strength of evidence they don't like. And nothing exacerbates these tendencies more than religion (not even politics!).

Anybody who thinks that the available evidence gives the Jesus was God and ascended to heaven hypothesis a probability greater than 0 + epsilon is mistaken. It ain't zero, but that's about the best thing you can say for it. And anybody who would accept that extremely unlikely hypothesis yet scoff at the these are Jesus's bones hypothesis has got his probabilities woefully out of whack.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Quotation I'm Currently Thinking About, 2/24/07

"Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than about peace, more about killing than we know about living."

The great American and great Missourian Omar Bradley

Thursday, February 22, 2007

How to Make the World Like Us Again? Why, Spin and Advertising, of Course

Oh fer chrissake...

And that "we're better than the Soviet Union" line was getting old during the Cold War. It's just pathetic now. Not to mention the whole damning with faint praise thing...

Here's an alternative plan: we start acting like an at least semi-rational, semi-responsible country again. I know that won't happen before 2008...but I'm just sayin'.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Best Recent Sci-Fi: Request for Input

So, I devoured sci-fi when I was a kid, but have read very little of it since, mostly because, well, the writing usually sucks. But reading Birminghham's Designated Targets whetted my appetite, and I'm on the hunt for some good relatively recent sci-fi...or even fantasy or horror. Read Greg Bear's Forge of God yesterday...didn't like it at first, but thought it was pretty o.k. in the end.

Anyway, suggestions appreciated.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

What Have Conservatives Gotten Right in the Last Fifty Years?

O.k., believe it or not, I sometimes defend conservatism against attacks by some of my friends and colleagues. But Colleague Across the Hall likes to assert the following in my direction: conservatives have been wrong about everything for the last fifty years.

Now, this does give me pause. If I think about the things that we have clear answers to and on which liberals and conservatives took clear positions...well...the scorecard looks like a blow-out.

Liberals were right about, e.g.:

Civil rights for blacks and other minorities
Equality of the sexes
Liberalizing sexual attitudes/mores (where here I'll include protecting the civil rights of unmarried people and homosexuals)

Conservatives might try to claim rectitude re: the seriousness of the Soviet threat, but mostly only considerably-left-of-liberal lefties really denied that, so it doesn't seem to count against mere liberals--though that might be a cheat.

I'd like to mention gun rights and the importance of self-reliance, but the former may be too controversial to meet the relevant criteria, while the latter...well, I guess it's just not clear yet what's going on there.

So, is Colleague Across the Hall right, or what?
Why Would People Question The Claims of the President of the United States About Iranian Weapons in Iraq?

I just don' t know.

I mean, I've turned this puzzle over and over in my head. "Why," I ask myself, "would anyone question the President about a matter such as this?" I just can't think of any reason. I'm as baffled by the skepticism as the President is. It seems to be utterly inexplicable.

Etc., etc.
Happy Love Day Everyone
Something Like Love Day, But Not Quite So Lame
Annual VD Rant, One Day Late, One Day Late
This One's for Aa

I was thinking about letting the date slide without comment this year until Aa instigated all this...

So the other day we have what passes for a big ice storm hereabouts and I end up over t' the Wal-Mart (or Wal-Mark's as they say back home) to buy some rock salt. (Yes, yes, I know I'm a Bad Liberal for buying stuff there...but I try not to do it very often.) And there's, like, this frenzy in the middle of the store in the middle of the day and I'm all like WTF??? and proceed to wend my way through this crush of people when I notice that they're all waving around either those cellophane cones full of flowers or one of those big red hearts full of candy, and so I thinks to myself I thinks--using my Philosophy Powers--it must be VD.

Now, I happened to be talking to Johnny Quest on the phone at the time, so I allow as how it must be VD...and she says: "You know what that means!"

And the thing is, I did: half price candy coming up!

See, now that's the kind of girlfriend I have: hot, interesting, ridiculously smart, knows a lot of philosophy, thinks VD is the lamest holiday ever, and appreciates the finer things in life...

So it would be churlish of me, would it not, to rub the noses of others in it by making fun of folks whose GFs make them do the whole frilly hearts thing?

Yes. Yes it would.

Which does not mean that I will not do so.

See, my theory is as follows: people have every right to enjoy a lame-ass quasi-holiday...but the rest of us have every right to make fun of them for it.

As far as I'm concerned, no putative holiday counts if it doesn't involve at least one of the following:

1. Excessive amounts of food, including especially gravy

2. Presents

3. Fireworks

4. Scantily-clad females

5. Ghost stories

6. Excessive amounts of alcohol.

I feel kind of bad about 4, since it seems sexist...but it isn't because I have no in principle objection to scantily-clad males, it's just that, well, nobody wants to see that. It's just the way it is. I don't make up the rules, people.

Incidentally: extra points for mixing themes (e.g. alcohol and ghost stories, alcohol and scantily-clad females, scantily-clad females and fireworks, scantily-clad females and presents, scantily-clad females and gravy...there are whole new realms of holiday technology that are still unexplored...)

Incidentally, at what point did Halloween transmogrify into an excuse for females to dress slutty? And by 'slutty' I mean: excellent. I'm not complaining, of course, I'm just wondering. (And, incidentally, 'slut' and 'slutty' were not terms allowed into my usual lexicon until I realized that most of the females I know use the terms in a tongue-in-cheekish sort of way such that they're funny and not insulting.)

So see how superior Halloween is, holiday-wise, to Valentine's Day? It's, like, no comparison.

Now I know that our female readers (both of them) are currently thinking: A redneck and a nerd? A smart-ass and cheap? Shops at Wal-Mart and ignores V-day? Possible sexist and buys cheap-ass rock salt instead of hight-tech Prestone ice-melting pellets? Where can I get a boyfriend like that Winston Smith?

To them I say: hey, I told you I don't shop at Wal-Mart that much jeez try to keep up.

So, to review:

(I) VD sucks.

(II) I don't have to celebrate it.

(III) Ha ha ha.

Although VD seems to have thus far survived my scathing criticisms and the vast influence of my blog, I still look forward to a time when we can declare VVDD--Victory over Valentine's Day Day.

Until then: viva la resistance!

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Going Relativist to Save Creationism

From the NYT.

What the heck. There's really no more reason for a theist to eschew relativism than for anybody else to. Of course, there's extremely good reason for everyone to eschew it...but nevermind.

Quoth the Times:

For him, Dr. Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

Ah, yes, just different paradigms--a true one and a false one.

Thing is, for Dr. Ross to go Kuhnian here (the obvious implication of deploying the term 'paradigm') he'd have to argue that creationism and paleontology are incommensurable. But they aren't. So far as anyone can tell, they're directly comparable, and the latter wins out. They're not different "paradigms," just different theories.

Oh, man. Creationism + Kuhnian antirealism. Two of the most annoying positions known to man, in each other's arms at last. I can't believe this didn't happen sooner.

[HT: Canis Major]
Smoking Gun re: Iran?

Not good. Not good at all.
Curse You, John Birmingham

*%&$&%!@#$ it! It's the middle of the semester, and I made the mistake of picking up Designated Targets, the second book in John Birmingham's "Axis of Time" trilogy. So now I have not only spent almost an entire day finishing the thing, but I can't resist buying the newly-published third book while it's still in hardback.

Curse you John Birmingham. I can't afford to read fiction during the semester. What, are you trying to ruin my so-called career?

This trilogy has an American carrier task force (built around the USS Hillary Clinton) teleported from like 227 back smack dab into the middle of Spruance's task force. Oh, man, who can resist this kind of stuff? Not somebody who's seen the movie Midway like fifty times, that's for sure, though I'm not naming any names here.

Anyway, according to me these books kick significant ass.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Joel Achenbach: Learning How to Think
Critical Thinking in (at Least Part of) America

At the WaPo.

I could go on and on.

As you know, I have an inclination to believe that, for most reasoning tasks, being honest is more important than being smart. Jumping to a favored conclusion and sticking to it come hell or high water is a common--perhaps even the most common--modus operandi. As for Mr. Bush...well, what remains to be said on that front?

As for the country as a whole...

Well, I'm particularly concerned about this right now.

Let me give you a brief and honest history of the teaching of "critical thinking" at my university--a way-far-above-average but non-"elite" state institution in Virgina.

1. The school decided to reform its general education curriculum, and recognized that it would be good for students to get some explicit instruction in reasoning (i.e. "critical thinking"). (Please to excuse the "scare quotes", but I can't resist in this case.)

2. Now, in general and by far the people at a university who are best equipped to teach CT are philosophers. This fact is born out by standardized test results of many different kinds.

2'. Note: this is not to say that philosophers are the smartest people at the university, i.e. not to say that we are the best reasoners. Mathematicians and physicists are probably significantly better reasoners than philosophers. But the reasonings in which they excell are fairly specialized. Furthermore, they have better things to do than teach introductory reasoning classes. Philosophers, on the other hand, have been doing this for a long time, and their reasoning skills are more generalizable. Note also that other rigorous disciplines like bio, econ, art history, chemistry, literature, polysci and so on at any campus all typically contain more than a handful of people who are smarter than the average person in the average philosophy department. The point: this isn't some kind of chest-thumping about our intellectual firepower; it is, rather, a claim about who's best at teaching this stuff.

3. Our university included CT courses in the new curriculum. They would have had to hire at least 15-20 more philosophers to teach them. They were unwilling to do this.

4. They went to other departments and asked "hey, can you guys teach CT?" Many of these departments said "yes." Some because they falsely believe that they can teach CT (e.g. "communications" (Simpsonesque motto: Ees phoney major! Luchenko learn nothing!)), others because they wanted to get expand their turf by getting new positions (e.g. "media arts and design" and business). (Yes, we actually have a whole department called "media arts and design.") (Yes, I know it is absurd for either of these programs to claim any expertise whatsoever in teaching reasoning.)

5. We all had to get together to hash out details about what the courses would be like. It rapidly became clear that these folks from other departments had absolutely no idea whatsoever what they were doing. Hence the curriculum was put together, basically, but me and five professors from other departments who wouldn't even be able to pass one of my CT courses.

6. After this sham process was over, the "department of assessment" stuck its oar in. They immediately chose an "assessment test" in which 45 of the 80 questions contained some kind of logical error. (Incidentally, it was the Watson-Glaser test. Cripes that thing is a joke.)

6'. It took over a year for us to get them to admit that this was a problem. But none of the folks in the "assessment office" can reason their way out of a wet paper bag. Hence they chose another test full of mistakes. We had to write and publish 2 papers in peer-reviewed journals before they would take our opinion seriously. They never did understand the reasoning in question. We picked out the nationally-recognized exam containing the fewest errors, but they didn't want to use it because females got one of the questions on that exam right, like, 1 in a thousand times less often than males. The question made an irrelevant reference to stock cars.

7. After a non-horrible assessment test was finally chosen, it turned out that, according to pre- and post-test data, only courses taught by philosophers consistently showed significant improvement in students' reasoning abilities. (Note: this was actually true on every assessment test they ever tried, even the crappy ones.)

8. So, what do you think the solution to this problem would be? Hire more philosophers? Allow us to teach people in other departments what they need to know and try again? Admit that the classes weren't working?

Of course not. First they fiddled with the test again, but could never get the other departments' courses to show any improvement. Then they announced that each department would get to make up their own exam, the idea being that they will be allowed to keep making up new tests until they can finally show improvement.

8'. One rationale for this is that the "communications" department already uses an exam they made up to pre- and post-test their "Introduction to Communications" course. This test is--every time it is mentioned by anyone in "communications" or "assessment"--described as "award-winning," because it apparently did win some kind of award.

8'' "Introduction to Communications" is widely acknowledged by students here (as elsewhere) as being one of the easiest classes on campus. Students do have to give a speech in the class, and this causes some some anxiety. But the content of the course is recognized by all students to be a joke. Most students rarely attend the class (unless there is an attendance policy). How can they pass? Well, because the course is such a joke, and because the final is this "award-winning" test, which is composed almost entirely of multiple-choice questions about "communications" terminology. Memorize a list of abut fifty moronic and useless terms, and you can do well in the class. Word on campus is that many people just get the list, memorize it, and show up for the final.

8''' Take a look some time at how people do on tests that genuinely do test your reasoning skills--e.g. the LSAT. At the top? Math, physics, philosophy, econ. At the bottom? Business, communications, social work.

9. So let's review:

The history of CT at my institution: first, recognize that it would be good if students learned to reason better. Second, decide not to hire enough people qualified to achieve this goal. Third, allow unqualified people to teach the course. Fourth, use assessment tests, but ignore the evidence when it shows that they can't do the job. Fifth, keep making new tests until you can gerrymander one that gives the illusion of success.

10. Somewhere Peirce says that the only thing you really, really, really need to learn in college is how to reason. It'd be good to learn as many facts as possible, of course, but without training in reasoning your time at college is basically a waste. But in my experience, reasoning is more-or-less the last thing colleges are teaching their students. Most professors are not terribly good reasoners. Even those who are good reasoners don't know anything about the theory of reasoning, and have never even given any thought to it, so they don't know how to teach it. Furthermore, it's hard to teach. And it requires written work and lots of feedback in an age of computer-graded multiple-choice exams. And teaching it is like pulling teeth--many, many of the students just can't stand it. They've gotten into a good school by memorizing lists in textbooks and copying things down off of power point slides. Difficult courses interfere with their drinking schedules, and they can't understand why you would ask them to do this weird, new thing when they've gotten so far without doing it. And in the opinion of at least a large minority of them, they're already super, like, great reasoners anyway, so, like, it's, ya' know, an affront to suggest that they have anything to learn on that score.

The long and the short of it is this:
Our experience here trying to actually, explicitly focus on teaching students to reason has been not merely a failure but a joke. It could be done, but it isn't being and it won't be. A few lucky students get into the philosophy department's CT classes, and in the best of those classes they actually learn something...though not, sadly, in all of them. Most students try to avoid the philosophy versions of CT because the classes are said to be difficult and dry. (In the age of grade inflation and edutainment, the worst thing a class can be is difficult and dry.) Since the students are so unmotivated, the best teachers burn out quickly and ask to be reassigned back to PHIL 101.

All that would be bad enough on its own. Ideally, the university would either do what it takes to do this all successfully, or at least admit defeat. Instead, it simply puts up enough smoke an mirrors to make it seem like they're teaching CT, when, in fact, they basically aren't.

Of all the bullshit I've ever seen in academia, this CT bullshit has come the closest to making me get out and get a real job.
Congrats to Duke on a Good Game

Although they wore down at the end, Duke played a helluva game last night. It was great to see Carolina pull the win out, but you gotta appreciate Duke's good play.

Duke Basketcase Report is not quite so gracious about UNC's win. The catty venom oozing out of their analysis is pretty ugly. I'm going to refrain from commenting on it any more extensively.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Get'cher Other War On II

So, when (as is so often the case) I don't understand what's going on (case in point: foreign policy; case more in point: Iran), I look experts who I've come to trust over the years. Not any old expert of course. I mean, what sane person still listens to Kissinger? But when Z-Big talks, I listen. And here's K-Drum on Z-Big on I-ran.

So, the worry here is that there are strong forces (the administration, the generally bellicose nature of the American public, etc.) pushing us toward war with Iran. I guess I have been even more worried about almost the opposite problem. Roughly: since only an insane person would want to start another war in that region before we've even finished botching up our two already-underway wars, I've been worrying that Iran can pretty much do whatever it wants to us without fear of reprisal. I had been thinking that they could pretty much get away with anything short of actually lobbing artillery rounds at us. Given how thin we're stretched and, even more importantly, how much international ill-will we've generated, I've been thinking that fighting Iran was completely out of the question, and that all the administration's chest-beating (me-too'ed by its wingnut echo-chamber) was merely intended to try to trick Iran into believing that we were just crazy enough to overlook the obvious fact that there's nothing we can do to them.

But as soon as I say that out loud, I realize that I've probably been worrying about the wrong thing, huh?


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Be Patient. The Data's Still Cookin'

What is there to be but incredulous?