A specular conundrum

Every year in my intro biology course, I try to do one discussion of bioethics. One lecture is not much, but this is a course where we try to introduce students to the history and philosophy of science, and I think it’s an important issue, so I try to squeeze in a little bit. So we spend one day talking about eugenics and the Tuskegee syphilis study, and I have them read Gould’s Carrie Buck’s Daughter, and I try to provoke them into arguing with me, or at least questioning a few default assumptions.

This semester, though, I’m going to have them read something with some subtler concerns. I’m going to ask them to read about the invention of the modern speculum. It was surprisingly problematic.

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The 0.01 percenters

There’s something deeply wrong in the world. The New York Times is reporting that the rich are stratifying into the merely obscenely rich, and the absurdly pornographically rich.

Philip Rushton has been selling private jets to the global rich for more than three decades. In just about every economic cycle, sales of small jets and big jets tended to move together — rising and falling with financial markets and fortunes of the wealthy.

Now, however, the jet market is splitting in two. Sales of the largest, most expensive private jets — including private jumbo jets — are soaring, with higher prices and long waiting lists. Smaller, cheaper jets, however, are piling up on the nation’s private-jet tarmacs with big discounts and few buyers.

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Two white dudes spend an hour talking about how racist and sexist it is to criticize other white dudes

It was a painful 50 minutes, but I listened to the entirety of Peter Boghossian and Stefan Molyneux patting each other on the back, in this video, Feminists vs. Atheists: The Death of Rational Discourse. I think you can tell from the title that there is not much hope for rational discussion here, and from the two speakers, you know it’s going to be awful. What I did was listen while I was engaged in some other work, and just extract a few paraphrases of the conversation now and then, when they said something particularly tiresome.

And really, that’s what it’s all about: reciting cliches at each other without thought, repeating bogus accusations we’ve all heard a thousand times before. These are not people who think very deeply about much of anything.

So what I’ve done below is scribble down the general tenor of the discussion. This is not a transcript. I’ve included some time points so if you really want to, you can go back and check on all the context.

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If they don’t know journalism, and they don’t understand ethics, what is it about?

Tauriq does a marvelous job raking #gamergate over the coals on the issue of ethics — which they know nothing about. We already know it’s not about journalism, or they’d be targeting journalists and ‘zine publishers that have a cozy relationship with game publishers, and we can also see that the foaming-at-the-mouth GG advocates haven’t got even a passing acquaintance with the content of a first year philosophy of ethics course, so what can we conclude?

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Only in America

It’s almost Halloween, and people are decorating their houses and yards. One person in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, put a display up that elicited this mild reaction.

Fort Campbell Public Affairs officer Brendalyn Carpenter said that it was "her understanding that the display was not intended to be offensive, but authorities deemed it could be interpreted as such. She said the occupant did extend an apology about the decorations."

Oh, not intended to be offensive, but could be interpreted, possibly uncharitably and unfairly, as such. Where have I heard that kind of notpology before? It seems to be a fairly common sentence construction in English.

Of course, then you see a photo of the display and wonder how anyone could possibly see it as inoffensive.

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A good lesson in intersectionality

Apparently, the Morehouse football team needs to be sidelined and given some lessons on homophobia. It’s pretty screwed up when a group of black men cheer on a white racist beating up a black guy because he is gay.

I don’t know if Morehouse College offers LGBT sensitivity training, but it should have someone come speak to the football team. Even if you don’t approve of homosexuality, to come to a city as a football team, representing your college and your hometown, and to spit hate and vitriol in a room that includes other people, including LGBT people — it is not OK. What kind of school sends out ambassadors of hate? Can it be the same one that sent out Dr. King? Hewing to the stereotype of black homophobia makes Morehouse and the black community weaker, and there are real victims. Lionel may be fictional, but his treatment was not. It’s a shame that “Dear White People”’s message of acceptance didn’t reach everyone in the room.

A scientific visualization of the importance of race

The image below is a phylogram, illustrating the degree of variation in a sequence of mitochondrial DNA. The concept is fairly simple: if two DNA samples are from individuals that are evolutionarily distant from one another, they’ll have accumulated more differences in their mitochondrial DNA, and will be drawn farther apart from one another. If the two individuals are closely related, their DNA will be more similar, and they’ll be drawn closer together. That’s the key thing you need to know to understand what’s going on.

There are other, more complicated analyses going on in the figure, too: the branching pattern is determined by analyzing subsets of shared sequences, and it takes a fair bit of computing power to put the full picture together. You’ll just have to trust me on that one, but all you need to know is that the branches are objectively calculated, and that the distances between the tips of the branches and their last branching point tell you something about the degree of genetic disparity in the group.

Unrooted phylogram of mitochondrial DNA sequences. Gagneux P1, Wills C, Gerloff U, Tautz D, Morin PA, Boesch C, Fruth B, Hohmann G, Ryder OA, Woodruff DS. (1999) Mitochondrial sequences show diverse evolutionary histories of African hominoids. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 96(9):5077-82.

Unrooted phylogram of mitochondrial DNA sequences.

Gagneux P1, Wills C, Gerloff U, Tautz D, Morin PA, Boesch C, Fruth B, Hohmann G, Ryder OA, Woodruff DS. (1999) Mitochondrial sequences show diverse evolutionary histories of African hominoids. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 96(9):5077-82.

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