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The Crooked Heart


Friday, April 25, 2003

Audience Challenge:

Daniel Drezner has complained that "If the caricature of academia in the Blogosphere is a collection of tenured radicals, the caricature of academia in popular culture is a collection of lecherous white males who inevitably bed one or more of their students...if a fictional character is a white male professor, nine times out of ten he’s sleeping with the co-ed."

So my question is, how many pop culture profs really do sleep with their students? To answer this question, I need you--my pop-culture-loving readers--to send me examples of pop-culture professors. For the purposes of this survey, pop culture is going to be defined as any work produced within the past fifty years, and professor means an individual holding a teaching position at a college or university. I'll post a full list of the responses I get in a few days.


So far, I've had two other persistent tropes suggested--the brilliant but absentminded professor (think of Albert Einstein in I.Q.) and the disaster-averting hero such as Indiana Jones or Alan Grant in Jurassic Park. More suggestions?

Thursday, April 24, 2003


Following the success of my sex-ed post (I got fanmail!) I figured I would move on to the ever-contentious topic of evolution. As a former biology major, I'm hardly an expert on the subject, but I hope that what I say might be of some use to those who are curious. Furthermore, Will has given me an excellent opening by linking to this piece calling evolution a "mere educated guess at how humans and animals came to exist upon this planet." Now, fisking this piece is really rather akin to clubbing baby seals, but I'm going to do it anyway, because I'm mean and nasty like that.

The theory of evolution has more than just "reasonable doubt" associated with it. It is only a mere educated guess at how humans and animals came to exist upon this planet. Nothing more.

The theory that the New Testament was written in the first centuries AD to record the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is only a mere educated guess at how this text came to exist upon this planet. Nothing more. After all, we weren't there to see it for ourselves. We have to rely on evidence, and the evidence could all have been concocted by a gaggle of medieval pranksters. Is this a reasonable doubt? But can you prove it isn't true?

It is neither fact nor very reliable, and it continues to be a capricious theory. Every time another fossil is discovered, it seems, a huge part of the theory radically changes.

A huge part? Like the huge part that explains why fossils don't look like animals that are around today? While is is true that the proper placement of fossils on the evolutionary tree is a hotly contested subject, it remains fairly obvious that such a tree should exist.

I personally got a kick when I heard about "punctuated equilibrium." This is a counterintuitive sub-theory that was dreamed up when the fossil record couldn't be explained.

Ever seen a gyroscope? If so, do you still want to claim that the workings of nature are intuitively understandable?

(Obviously, evolution is true, so the fact that evolution never took place is not an option to consider). Punctuated equilibrium essentially postulates that evolution is slow for a while, and then it speeds up for a very short time: the environment FORCES a crocodile to turn into a bird in a few thousand years. If you believe in magic, evolution is for you.

When you think of it, punctuated equilibrium is actually a fairly intuitive theory. The basic idea is that when the environment is stable, species are also reasonably stable. They've found their niche, they fill it effectively, and most changes to the formula are maladaptive. However, when the environment changes, species are no longer well adapted to current conditions. Most of the population will die off, but what is left will change rapidly, not because the environment forces it to change, but because mutations are much more likely to be adaptive. For instance, polars bears with a mutation leading to thin coats would be very maladapted for life in the Arctic, and one would not expect to see these animals reach maturity. However, if a catastophe (like a meteor) were to warm the globe enough to make the arctic regions temparate, one would expect to see such a mutation become highly favored, and for the appearance of polar bears to change drastically within a few generations.

Sadly, evolution is "gospel" in scientific circles.

Actually, this is a fairly apt description. As my high school biology teacher explained to me, science is based on the premise that material events have material causes. If a scientists observes a material event that seems to have no cause, he should conclude not that it had a supernatural origin, but that we have not yet observed the material causes responsible. This is what it means to be a scientist, and this is why we no longer believe in spontaneous generation, action-at-a-distance, or the miasma theory of diseases. So just as it's rather difficult to call yourself a Christian if you don't believe the Gospels are true, it's rather difficult to call yourself a scientist if you're not willing to accept evolution.

If you don't believe in it, you're condescendingly viewed as a non-thinking moron who obviously knows nothing about science.

Right. Because if you did know something about science, you'd understand that creationism is not a scientific explanation.

It is scientific dogma, and it's not a surprise that many are dogmatic when it comes to evolution. It's a scientific religion with many, many adherents. Question it, and you're generally laughed at, patronized, and ostracized.

Oh. I'm sorry. Am I patronizing you?

Those two paragraphs were an intro to a story I saw today. A "smarter-than-everyone-else" type professor at Texas Tech University was using it as a litmus test in order to write students recommendations in order to get into medical school, and the Bush administration began to probe the McCarthy-style Darwinist. Well, the Bush administration has chickened out and dropped the probe.

So supporting evolution makes you smarter than everyone else? Wow. Finally something we can agree on.

Here's what the professor, Michael Dini, still says:

"If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: 'How do you account for the scientific origin of the human species?'" Dini states on his updated Web site. "If you will not give a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation."

I don't get it. Why is this even a question? It's completely irrelevant to becoming a physician. Maybe he should ask, "Do you believe in the latent heat of fusion?" Why evolution?

Why not evolution? Why shouldn't Dini be able to ask whatever questions he wants before he writes his recommendation? When you ask for a recommendation from a professor, you're asking for a favor that he should be able to grant or refuse as he sees fit.

I'll tell you though, here's the answer: it's a religious belief, and some evolutionists like Dini want an inroad to try to shove God out of intellectual and professional circles (and then trickle down through society). Trying to keep out doctors who don't believe in pseudo-science would help that process.

Trying to keep out doctors who don't believe in pseudo-science probably isn't going to do much to remove religion from America, but it would do a whole lot to improve the quality of the medical profession. Should we perhaps return to the era when medical care was the province of quacks and faith healers?

Now, I could maybe see asking, "Are you a humanist? That is, do you care about the well-being of humans and humanity?" Even that's borderline, but that'd be a more fair question because of what doctors do.

Actually, doctors do more than care about the well being of humans and humanity. They apply science to help humans and humanity overcome their medical problems. Would you rather have a misanthropic surgeon or a caring, loving, generous poet performing your appendectomy?

Mikey, keep your religious beliefs to yourself, okay? Teach the theory in class, but don't use it as a litmus test. Lots of doctors look to God for the strength to allow them to deal with so much illness, disease, and death. I want qualified physicians. If they'll give me the care I need, I don't care what they believe in. You shouldn't either.

Professor Dini, however, is not assessing whether or not a physician is capable, but whether or not a student is likely to become a capable physician. These are two different tasks. A physician looking to God for strength and support is one thing, a physician looking to Leviticus for the cure for skin diseases is something I certainly don't wish to see.

But how strong, actually, is the evidence in support of the theory of evolution? That depends upon what you mean by theory of evolution.

My introductory biology textbook defined evolution as change in the frequency of an allele in the gene pool over time. That such changes occur in response to natural selection has been overwhelmingly established. Most creationists I know are willing to concede this definition of evolution.

Things start to get sticky around speciation, which is the proccess whereby one species evolves into another species. This process has been well-documented in plants, somewhat less so for animals, but nonetheless there are several pretty persuasive instances of speciation being observed in the laboratory. (See this website for more info.)

Though some creationists are willing to concede that limited speciation may occurr, the majority balk at the theory of evolution, properly called--that all life on earth is decended from a common ancestor. While this, obviously, cannot be observed in a laboratory, the evidence is pretty compelling. From traditional studies of physiology and embroyology, to the establishment of molecular family trees, and the degree of similarity, for instance, between the genomes of humans and chimpanzees, the evidence that mutation and speciation, as observed in the laboratory, are enough to account for the great diversity of life we see today. (See here for more.)

Finally there is the question of the initial origins of life. Here the evidence begins to get shaky. Scientists have explained how organic molecules form spontaneously when a mixture of inorganic molecules is electrocuted. Scientists have also shown that under the proper conditions, an organic soup can give rise to incredibly interesting structures known as microspheres. These membrane-enclosed sacs of organic chemicals take in materials selectively, and spontaneously divide when they grow. However, they're still a far cry from even the simplest anaerobic bacteria, and the processes in between these two states remain a mystery. (See this site.)

This has led a number of people to embrace the theory of intelligent design--that the first origins of life must have had a designer behind them. The problem with this theory is not that it's obviously false, but that finding an Intelligent Designer who operates outside of the rules of nature cannot be done by science. Hence, it is the duy of scientists to search for a material cause of life--a project that, while off to a good start, is far from complete.

UPDATE: Stephen has graciously replied to my comments here. I plan to post a few more general thoughts on the debate a bit later.
Save Steadywind!

Matt isn't sure if he wants to continue blogging. If you liked Matt on guns in planes, Maine politics, or consumerism, let him know. If you happened to miss his brilliance, go read them now and then let him know. I'd certainly hate to lose the only Green party member on my blogroll.
Cheap Wine

New York has discovered the other cultural advantage of California--Trader Joe's. Will, however, is dubious (of the price? of the drinkability? of the sanity of Californians?). I'm happy to report, having sampled Mr. Shaw's chardonnay and merlot on several occasions while back in California for Christmas beak, that this is no wine-in-a-box. While it's certainly not outstanding, it is a pleasant bevarage. The merlot is fruity in a somewhat generic way, but the chardonnay is crisp and surprisingly well-balanced. I have, at any rate, paid two or three times as much for wines that are certainly no better. For those who believe that life is too short to drink cheap wine, this isn't going to change their opinion, but for those of on a limited budget who would rather drink pleasant wine frequently than great wine rarely, it really doesn't get much better than Charles Shaw.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

The long-awaited abstinence-only sex-ed post

There is a general consensus in U.S. society that teenagers having children is a bad thing, and there is also a general consensus that it is preferable for teens not to get pregnant in the first place, rather than have abortions. This, unfortunately, is where the consensus ends. There are two main schools of thought regarding how best to prevent teen pregnancy. The first school believes that teens will be teens, and hence are going to have sex no matter what parents, pastors or teachers say. The focus, they believe, should thus be on teaching kids to have sex safely. The second camp holds that since there is no such thing as completely safe sex, the focus should thus be on discouraging kids from having sex at all. So what’s wrong with some of the arguments in favor of abstinence-only education?

1. Sex before marriage is sinful. Granted, given the whole deal with separation of church and state, this argument isn’t usually made openly. Nevertheless, given the strong support for abstinence education among conservative Christians, it would be wrong to assume that it isn’t implicitly present in the minds of many abstinence supporters. The problem with this view is twofold. First off, there is general agreement among Christians that avoiding the temptation to fall into sin is difficult, and in fact, as a conservative Christian teenager, I remember hearing several inspirational talks claiming it was impossible to remain chaste until marriage without God’s assistance. Hence, by expecting teenagers to adhere to a divinely oriented standard, but not telling them, in a secular abstinence-only education program, about the divine assistance that will be required for them to succeed, Christian abstinence advocates are essentially setting them up to fail. Second, no matter how much sin one avoids in one’s life, if one does not accept the saving power of Christianity, one will not make it into heaven. While Christians may disagree as to whether faith is a sufficient condition for salvation, I think they all consider it a necessary condition. Consequently, if one’s interest is saving souls, promoting chastity among the atheistic or agnostic is not a particularly effective way to do so.

2. Sex before marriage is unsafe. Yes, but so is driving cars. In 1999, 14,000 Americans died in 1999 in car accidents , and about 17,000 died from AIDS. I don’t see a strong movement for telling kids to abstain from driving. This is a facetious comparison on many levels, but the point is that just because an action carries risks doesn’t necessarily mean that one should abstain from it. Rather, one needs to balance the benefits and risks, and decide whether on the whole the action is worthwhile or not. As to exactly how unsafe sex outside of a monogamous relationship is—good luck wading through all the contradictory statistics, but it seems to boil down to the unsurprising answer that it depends a great deal upon how careful you are.

3. Because teenagers can’t be trusted to use protection regularly, we need to scare them into not having sex at all. Does anyone else see how contradictory this argument is? If we can’t even scare teens into using condoms, what makes people think it will be easier to scare them into not having sex at all? It’s the lack of reasoned judgment on the part of many teens that’s the problem we’re trying to solve. Telling teens that condoms fail a third of the time seems as likely to make them not use condoms at all as to stop them from having sex. And if the problem is limited to teens, then why not advocate abstinence until age 18? Or 21? Moreover, I think there’s something just plain wrong with lying to teens as a way to make them behave. If schools have a duty to teach teenagers anything, it's to teach them to make the sort of judgments between reasoned arguments and unreasonable scaremongering, or solid analysis and statistical manipulation that we're going to desparately need them to start making once they reach voting age. Are abstinent teens now really worth a credulous voting population, untutored in the difference between facts and propoganda, five years down the road?

4. Sex before marriage is bad for emotional reasons, or teenagers aren’t ready to have sex, or we need to encourage the development of a less sexually permissive culture. There is a constellation of similar reasons here, all essentially pointing to the emotional or cultural benefits that come from waiting to have sex, preferably until marriage. It’s not that I don’t think these benefits exist, or that everyone is ready to have sex at age fourteen. I just don’t understand why encouraging restraint on the part of teenagers requires not telling them about methods that exist for drastically reducing the potential physical consequences of their actions.

Fetal Rights

Will writes on the subject:

Some women's-rights-advocates are afraid of the slippery slope issue-- recognizing that killing a fetus is a bad thing could lend weight to the tenuously balanced scale of abortion rights. Rightly so.

While I don't know much about the subject, and am hence hesitant to write much, I think it is fundamentally wrongheaded and unjust for a society to fail to recognize that a woman who is assulted while pregnant, and so loses her child (or even potential child, if that's how you think about these things) has had a much more serious wrong done to her than a woman who suffers only the bruises. The issue here, I think, for those who are devoted to saving abortion rights is not to not recognize that killing a fetus is a bad thing--it is--but rather to define this as a wrong done to the mother (and to the father, and other relatives) rather than a wrong done to the fetus. Maube someone who knows more about the legal issues here can tell me if I'm completely off base.


Well, u-- um, can we come up and have a look?

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Monday, April 21, 2003

Marriage, redacted:

Here is a summary of the debate as it now stands

First post--Amanda
Second post--Sara
Third post--Will
Fourth post--Amanda
Fifth post--Amy
Sixth post--Will
Seventh post--Amanda
Eighth post--Will
Ninth post--Sara
Tenth post--Will
Eleventh post--Peter
Twelfth post--Amanda
Thirteenth post--Sara

I'll keep my comments brief. Though I've argued against Sara, in point of fact I'd rather have a marriage based on something more than mere "personal intimacy" or transitory romantic love. I just don't want to see the government engaged in a wholesale imposition of my view of marriage on the country as a whole. Partly this is because I think government legislation is by and large too crude of a tool for a task as delicate as building good marriages, partly beause I'm not confident that I have truly found the only right formula for good marriages, but mostly because I think that the only way that my sort of death-do-us-part marriage can succeed is if both partners are committed to it, and no amount of legislation can make someone want to stay married to someone. Thus, I think that the best poliy to follow on marriage is for the government to ensure that it remains a meaningful legal institution, but for friends, family, religious institutions and the like to help couples, if the should desire it, figure out what marriage should mean beyond a legal contract.
Bad Art

Jeremy Reff draws extensively on Nabokov for his analysis of Saddam's taste in art. Go read the full post.

Link via Oxblog.

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