The Unbearable Lightness of Third-Tier Pundits

In the educational system that existed in Sri Lanka when I was growing up, students had to decide in the eighth grade what direction their future education would take, Since I knew I wanted to do physics, I chose to go in that direction and the rest of my education consisted of heavy doses of physics and mathematics with absolutely nothing in history, geography, literature, and social studies.

Naturally, this created huge gaps in my own knowledge base that later in life I have had to fill in as best as I can on my own.

This is not entirely a bad thing. One benefit is that I have not developed a hatred for the omitted subjects that those who have had heavy doses of formal education sometimes get. I actually like history and read about historical events for fun. And as I get older, I find that I know a lot of recent history by default, as I have actually lived through events that my children must learn about from history texts.

But the benefit that I value most is that this awareness of my gaps in knowledge has made me cautious about cavalierly challenging those people who have devoted their lives to studying these subjects. It is not that I accept their knowledge and conclusions unquestioningly. It is that I realize that the burden of responsibility is on me to study the issue carefully and be reasonably sure of my facts before I challenge these authorities.

But no such concerns seem to exist in the mind of Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ in the media who think that they can voice any opinion on the flimsiest of knowledge and escape unchallenged. But they do not always get away with this. We saw in a previous posting how Jonah Goldberg went a little too far is asserting his superior knowledge and judgment about the middle east and got slapped silly by University of Michigan professor of history Juan Cole, someone who has devoted his life to studying that region.

But unfortunately Goldberg is far from alone in over-reaching in this way. Ann Coulter, another distinguished member of the Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ Hall of Fame, recently made some typically inane comment on an American talk show about how Canada is an ungrateful neighbor and should be very careful about annoying the US by not always siding with the US in its foreign policy, since the US could squash it like a bug, or words to that effect.

Coulter’s comments were noted in Canada where, needless to say, they did not go over well. She was interviewed by Bob McKeown of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s news show The Fifth Estate, in the course of which she condescendingly scolded Canada for not sending troops to Iraq.

And it was at this point that Coulter, like Goldberg, got stopped cold because she had come up against an interviewer who knew the facts of the case and was not going to let her escape unchallenged, the way she gets away in the US media. The transcript below of the exchange comes from Direland. The actual video clip is well worth seeing, especially the part where Coulter looks desperate and flails around trying to salvage her point. (Thanks to commenter Cathi for the tip.)

*******
Coulter: “Canada used to be one of our most loyal friends and vice-versa. I mean Canada sent troops to Vietnam – was Vietnam less containable and more of a threat than Saddam Hussein?”

McKeown interrupts: “Canada didn’t send troops to Vietnam.”

Coulter: “I don’t think that’s right.”

McKeown: “Canada did not send troops to Vietnam.”

Coulter (looking desperate): “Indochina?”

McKeown: “Uh no. Canada …second World War of course. Korea. Yes. Vietnam No.”

Coulter: “I think you’re wrong.”

McKeown: “No, took a pass on Vietnam.”

Coulter: “I think you’re wrong.”

McKeown: “No, Australia was there, not Canada.”

Coulter: “I think Canada sent troops.”

McKeown: “No.”

Coulter: “Well. I’ll get back to you on that.”

McKeown tags out in script:

“Coulter never got back to us — but for the record, like Iraq, Canada sent no troops to Vietnam.”

*********

Being wrong on the facts is sometimes excusable. We all make mistakes from time to time. What is interesting is that people like Coulter and Goldberg are brazen in their utterances, take extreme positions, are unapologetic about their ignorance (note that Coulter does not have the grace to later apologize to McKeown for wrongly challenging him repeatedly on the facts), and seem to have no internal sense that warns them that they are dealing with someone who might know more than them.

I saw the interview clip. McKeown is a Canadian. He is a man in late middle age. He would have been in the exact age range to be eligible to be sent to Vietnam, if Canada had sent troops. He would have been acutely aware if fellow Canadians his age, including his friends and relatives, were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Surely warning bells should have rung in Coulter’s mind that this man might know more than her about this particular topic?

But clearly she had no sense of caution and it is interesting to speculate as to why. I think it is because her kind of vacuous hit-and-run punditry has become commonplace in the US. People say absurd things on TV or in print, are not challenged by the interviewers in the conventional media, and then go on to make some new charge the next day. After doing this for years, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one is untouchable.

Should we be concerned about this phenomenon? After all, who cares what Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ like Coulter and Goldberg and Michelle Malkin think, since there is no evidence to suggest that they have anything useful to contribute on any important topic? How do they get such access to the airways anyway?

In a later posting I will discuss why we should care.

POST SCRIPT

Yesterday I saw a fine production by the MFA ensemble of Case Western Reserve University of Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing and directed by Jerrold Scott the Cleveland Play House. The way Stoppard uses words is enviable. The play runs until February 19. Details here.

If you have a Case ID, tickets are only $5 and parking is only $2, both real bargains.

Evolution III: Scientific knowledge is an interconnected web

In an earlier posting, the question was posed as to whether it was intellectually consistent to reject the findings of an entire modern scientific discipline (like biology) or of a major theoretical structure (like the theory of evolution) while accepting all the other theories of science.

The short answer is no. Why this is so can be seen by examining closely the most minimal of creationist theories, the one that goes under the label of ‘intelligent design’ or ID.

ID supporters take great pains to claim that theirs is a scientific theory that has nothing to do with religion or God, and hence belongs in the school science curriculum. (This particular question whether ID can be considered a part of science or of religion will be revisited in a later posting. This is becoming a longer series than I anticipated…)

ID advocates say that there are five specific biochemical systems and processes (bacterial flagella and cilia, blood clotting, protein transport within a cell, the immune system, and metabolic pathways) whose existence and/or workings cannot be explained by evolutionary theory and that hence one has to postulate that such phenomena are evidence of design and of the existence of a designer.

The substance of their arguments is: “You can claim all the other results for evolutionary theory. What would be the harm in allowing these five small systems to have an alternative explanation?�

Leaving aside the many other arguments that can be raised against this position (including those from biologists that these five systems are hardly intractable problems for evolutionary theory), I want to focus on just one feature of the argument. Is it possible to accept that just these five processes were created by a ‘designer,’ while retaining a belief in all the other theories of science?

No you cannot. If some undetectable agent had intervened to create the cilia (say), then in that single act at a microscopic level, you have violated fundamental laws of physics such as the law of conservation of energy, the law of conservation of momentum, and (possibly) the law of conservation of angular momentum. These laws are the bedrock of science and to abandon them is to abandon some of the most fundamental elements of modern science.

So rejecting a seemingly small element of evolutionary theory triggers a catastrophe in a seemingly far-removed area of science, a kind of chaotic ‘butterfly effect’ for scientific theories.

Scientific theories are so interconnected that some philosophers of science have taken this to the extreme (as philosophers are wont to do) and argued that we can only think of one big scientific theory that encompasses everything. It is this entire system (and not any single part of it) that should be compared with nature.

Pierre Duhem in his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906) articulated this position when he declared that: “The only experimental check on a physical theory which is not illogical consists in comparing the entire system of the physical theory with the whole group of experimental laws, and in judging whether the latter is represented by the former in a satisfactory manner.� (emphasis in original)

Of course, in practical terms, we don’t do that. Each scientific subfield proceeds along its own path. And we know that there have been revolutions in one area of science that have left other areas seemingly undisturbed. But this interconnectedness is a reality and explains why scientific theories are so resistant to change. Scientists realize that changing one portion requires, at the very least, making some accommodations in theories that are connected to it, and it is this process of adjustments that takes time and effort and prevents trivial events from triggering changes.

This is why it usually requires a major crisis in an existing theory for scientists to even consider replacing it with a new one. The five cases raised by ID advocates do not come close to creating that kind of crisis. They are like flies in the path of a lumbering evolutionary theory elephant, minor irritants that can be ignored or swatted away easily.

Extra note:

For those of you interested in this topic, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is having an all day symposium on “Teaching Evolution and the Diversity of Life� on Saturday February 12. I am one of the speakers, speaking on the topic “Science and Intelligent Design� in classroom C from 9:45-10:45. Unfortunately the symposium is not free except for the 4:30 pm talk by Dr. Brian Alters.

The Plain Dealer ran a news item about the symposium and related topics in the Metro section yesterday (Thursday, February 10, 2005).

Ossie Davis, stereotype threat, and academic underachievement

Veteran actor Ossie Davis died last Friday. In reading the tributes to him, I was struck by what he had said just a year earlier when he received the Kennedy Center awards.

“We knew that every time we got a job and every time we were on a stage, America was looking to make judgments about all black folks on the basis on how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself. So, any role you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for black identification. You couldn’t escape it.�

This comment underscores research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson on what makes black students underachieve academically. They identified one possible cause as something they named ‘stereotype threat.’ When members of an identifiable group are placed in a testing situation where failure would reinforce a negative stereotype of that group, this places a pressure on them that makes them under-perform. This was true for blacks in any academic situation, for women being tested in mathematics, and even for white men competing academically against Asians, as is illustrated by this cartoon.

doonesbury.jpg

In Davis’ case, we can see that he felt immense pressure to always succeed on stage and never do anything that would reflect negatively on him or his performance. Any action that would be a sign of individual failure if done by a white person would, if done by a black, be taken as a sign of black people’s incapacity or incompetence.

It is possible that because of this fear, Davis could not afford to take risks in performing and try edgy and unflattering roles, the kinds of things that might have made him an even greater actor. He may have suffered from ‘Sidney Poitier Syndrome’, which I have named after another great actor who seemed to always play characters that were kind, noble, clever, ‘perfect in every way’ as Mary Poppins said.

This was carried to an extreme in the nauseating film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?� in which Poitier played this brilliant, wonderful, flawless human being whose white fiance’s parents’ struggle to overcome their prejudices and accept him as their son-in-law.

I wonder how much Davis and Poitier regret that, even at the height of their powers, they were not able to expand their skills and improve their craft by playing unflattering, evil, sinister, or criminal characters, the way white actors like Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro do. Perhaps they take comfort in knowing that their sacrifices enabled later generations of black actors to do so.

Similarly, it was not that long ago that Doug Williams faced a similar stereotype threat when he was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl (XXII in 1988). There was a ridiculous notion floating around then that quarterback was a ‘brains’ position and that perhaps blacks could not handle it. I remember Williams saying that he felt pressure to succeed just to prove that blacks could do it.

Fortunately Williams, like Davis and Poitier, was a gracious man and handled the pressure exceedingly well (340 passing yards, four touchdown passes) and his Washington Redskins handily defeated their Denver opponents. He was even awarded Super Bowl MVP honors.

These days the presence of top-flight black quarterbacks at all levels of the game is taken for granted, and it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have questioned their abilities. But we do not know how many black quarterbacks before Williams, or actors before Davis and Poitier, did not handle the pressure as well as these pioneers and hence had lesser success or even outright failure and did not make it to the heights that they did.

But even though stereotype threats have been somewhat suppressed in football and acting, it is still alive and well when it comes to schooling and is likely to continue to suppress academic performance of the affected groups until we break free of that kind of thinking.

Sources:

1. Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual
Test Performance of African Americans,� Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 5 (1995): 797–811.

2. David J. Lewin, “Subtle Clues Elicit Stereotypes’ Impact on Black Students,� Journal of NIH Research, November 1995, 24–26.

Evolution II: Science is not a smorgasbord

In an earlier posting, I noted that the US population is roughly evenly split on whether or not to accept the basic tenet of evolution on the origin of humans. What is interesting is that the people who reject evolution feel quite free to do so. They seem to feel that there is no price to be paid.

This is because science is taught pretty much as a set of end results and disconnected facts: The universe is over ten billion years old. The Earth revolves around the Sun. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Our genetic information is encoded in our DNA.

It is as if scientific ‘facts’ are arranged on some kind of buffet table and anyone is free to pick and choose items depending on their personal preferences. Something sounds reasonable? Accept it. Something disagrees with your religious or other beliefs? Reject it.

But you cannot really do this with science because scientific facts are not disconnected entities. They are linked to each other by their underlying theories and individual results cannot be rejected without consequences. If you reject the age of the universe for whatever reason, then you are also rejecting all the other results associated with the theory of gravity and other physics theories that go into arriving at that age.

These theories are not used just for the purpose of addressing cosmological questions but also play an important role in everyday life (the way our cars and airplanes work, the way our building are made, etc.) So people who reject the age of the universe should be very apprehensive about getting into a plane or car or walking into a building because they have effectively said that they have no faith in the theories that were used to construct them.

As the philosopher of science Pierre Duhem said back in 1906 in The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory “To seek to separate each of the hypotheses of theoretical physics from the other assumptions on which this science rests is to pursue a chimera; for the realization and interpretation of no matter what experiment in physics imply adherence to a whole set of theoretical propositions.�

But what about those people who do not reject specific results but instead reject an entire theoretical structure? For example, those who say that they can accept all the major theories of science (and the old age of the universe) but reject evolutionary theory as a complete unit because it disagrees with their religious beliefs? In other words, they believe that all species came about as special acts of creation. Can that be done? Can a single theoretical scientific structure like evolution be rejected and replaced with another (perhaps Biblically-based) one? Or pushing further, can one reject the findings of an entire modern scientific discipline (like biology) while accepting others (like physics and chemistry)?

To be continued later…

p.s. For those of you interested in this topic, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is having an all day symposium on “Teaching Evolution and the Diversity of Life� on February 12. I am one of the speakers, speaking on the topic “Science and Intelligent Design� in classroom C from 9:45-10:45. Unfortunately the symposium is not free except for the 4:30 pm talk by Dr. Brian Alters.

How I keep up with the news

I hardly ever watch TV news and talk shows or spend much time with other elements of the mainstream media. I don’t read the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or other so-called national papers unless someone directs me to a specific article. I also don’t read the popular news magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News and World Report.

It seems to me to be a waste of time to try to follow all these so-called news outlets, since they all parrot the same establishment interests, with a narrow range of news and voices, all serving the interests of the elites.

However, I am a news and politics junkie and try to be fairly well informed, and I thought I’d share with you those sources of news and opinion that I find helpful in keeping up with events. I have permanent links to these sites on my blog home page.

For news sites, antiwar.com is a site that I have been reading since the time of the US involvement in the former Yugoslavia. It has had a consistent antiwar stance, while providing useful links to news and commentary you might not see elsewhere. The people behind the site are old-style libertarians and paleoconservatives who see US foreign policy being taken into dangerous interventionist and imperial directions by both Republican and Democratic parties.

The site provides links to a lot of news reports and is refreshingly open to opinions from all elements of the conventional political spectrum (defined by virtually meaningless distinctions such as Democratic/Republican and liberal/conservative), yet maintains a consistent antiwar perspective. It gives space to articles from the world’s press and to a range of analysts from Noam Chomsky to Lew Rockwell to Pat Buchanan to Alexander Cockburn to Charley Reese.

It was as hard on Clinton’s interventions in Yugoslavia as it is now on Bush’s policies in the Middle East. The editorial director Justin Raimondo’s columns (which appear Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, see top right of the antiwar.com home page for the link) are well worth reading

Another establishment voice is the BBC, but this site at least has a world-wide perspective, something that is sorely lacking in the major US media outlets.

Cursor is a very readable guide to current events with links to important news of the day.

I also read quite a few blogs. Some of them I read daily, some of them occasionally. Here are those that I particularly admire and recommend and the reasons why I consider them well worth bookmarking..

James Wolcott, columnist at Vanity Fair, can deliver a smackdown to sacred cows and pompous fools with a wit and venom that I can only envy, since I have neither the skill nor the temperament to match him. “I wish I could write like that� is the thought that keeps popping into my mind whenever I read him.

There are few around to match the knowledge and expertise on the Middle East that Juan Cole has. Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, is a scholar of the region who has published widely and extensively. He also knows the languages of the region and thus can keep up with the media there to provide truly Informed Comment, which is the title of his blog.

The nice thing about Cole’s site is that it combines scholarliness with lively and up-to-date commentary. And when the need arises, he can deliver a rebuke to the ignorant warmongers in the pundit class that leaves them reeling. Take for example his recent comeuppance of Jonah Goldberg of the National Review, a third-tier TV, web, and print pundit, who had the temerity to disparage Cole’s knowledge of Iraqi and Iranian politics.

Cole said:

“I think it is time to be frank about some things. Jonah Goldberg knows absolutely nothing about Iraq. I wonder if he has even ever read a single book on Iraq, much less written one. He knows no Arabic. He has never lived in an Arab country. He can’t read Iraqi newspapers or those of Iraq’s neighbors. He knows nothing whatsoever about Shiite Islam, the branch of the religion to which a majority of Iraqis adheres. Why should we pretend that Jonah Goldberg’s opinion on the significance and nature of the elections in Iraq last Sunday matters? It does not.â€?

Cole ends up issuing this challenge to Goldberg:

“So let me propose to him that we debate Middle East issues, anywhere, any time, he and I. Otherwise he should please shut up and go back to selling Linda Tripp tapes on Ebay.�

I wouldn’t bother packing my bags, Juan. Chickenhawk Jonah is probably cowering behind his mother Lucianne (who along with her son rose to dubious fame as the peddlers of the Linda Tripp tapes from the Monica Lewinsky era), peering around and wondering if it is safe to show his face in public again.

(Update: Apparently Jonah rose up briefly from the canvas only to get knocked down again by Cole.)

Incidentally, Justin Raimondo also dissected Jonah in 2002, showing that not only is Jonah is way out of his depth, he is a slow learner to boot. One feels almost sorry for him, getting publicly humiliated in this way, although he keeps asking for it.

Atrios (aka Duncan Black) is well known in the blog world as the creator of the site Eschaton. I like his site because he monitors the news media and other blogs and finds interesting items and perspectives that I would otherwise have missed.

Joshua Micah Marshall, who maintains the website Talking Points Memo, is a knowledgeable Washington-based journalist who has access to informed sources inside the beltway and writes well on important topics.

And if you are not aware of the daily syndicated comic strip The Boondocks, you are missing a treat. Those of you who think Doonesbury tests the limits of edgy political and social comic strip satire will be surprised by how much further Aaron McGruder’s strip takes that form. He speaks truths and provides a level of sharp political commentary that is missing in the news and editorial pages.

Establishment papers such as the Washington Post are so spineless that they occasionally refuse to run The Boondocks, such as the two-week series where Huey and Caesar decide that the reason that Condoleeza Rice is such a warmonger is because she has no love life and decide, in order to save the world from her disastrous actions, to run personal ads seeking a mate on her behalf. To maintain on a daily level such a high level of political incisiveness and still be funny takes real skill.

Huey for President!

Evolution I: The bad, the good, and the ugly

First the bad (and somewhat old) news. In a 2001 survey, the National Science Foundation found that only 53 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.�

It is hard to believe that there could be any good news behind this mind-boggling statistic that implies that up to 47 percent of Americans are unwilling to accept a fundamental tenet of evolution and believe that human beings appeared by a special act of creation about 10,000 years ago.

But there is a nugget of good news to be found, since this is the first time that even a simple majority of Americans had accepted that statement.

But even that small glimmer of hope is buried under more bad news. Even though a majority has come around to the accepted scientific view of the origin of humans, the US still lags far behind other countries. In a New York Times article on February 1, 2005, Dr. Joe Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University is quoted as saying that in other industrialized countries, 80 percent or more typically accept evolution, while most of the others say they are not sure and very few people reject the idea outright.

He goes on to say that in socially conservative, predominantly Catholic countries like Poland, perhaps 75 percent of people surveyed accept evolution, while in Japan it is close to a whopping 96 percent.

So what is different about the US? There are some obvious reasons that can be postulated. One is that the US is in the grip of Biblical literalists who indoctrinate young children with young-Earth ideas and frighten them with the flames of hell if they should deviate from that dogma.

Another is that evolution is either not being taught at all, or is being taught badly so as to be unconvincing, or its teaching is being deliberately undermined (such as using disclaimer stickers in biology textbooks that evolution is “only a theory”, teaching of ‘intelligent design’ as an alternative) by fraudulent claims that it is not a scientifically acceptable theory. The response to these kinds of explanations is to argue for more and better teaching of evolution in schools.

While I am all in favor of better teaching of anything, I am not convinced that inadequate teaching of evolution is the main problem. It may lie in the way the nature of science is taught, and correcting this might require us to pay more close attention to the image we convey of how science itself works and evolves. This may require us to focus, not on more teaching of evolution or any other specific topic, but more generally on the history and philosophy of science.

More about this in a later posting…

Phony-sounding concern

Why do politicians feel the need to go over the top when it comes to public expressions of sympathy? Why cannot they state what would be a normal and understandable expression of sorrow and leave it at that?

The Plain Dealer on 1/27/05 had a report on G. W. Bush’s first press conference of his second term, which occurred just after the helicopter crash in Iraq that killed 31 US servicemen and servicewomen. He said “And we weep and mourn when soldiers lose their life.�

Does anyone think that he actually weeps when soldiers die? Or that he has periods of mourning for them? More likely, such incidents are but passing events that occupy his mind briefly to be quickly replaced by others.

It is the families and loved ones of the people who die who actually weep and mourn their loss, It is not that the rest of us don’t care but our depth of response has necessarily to be on a different scale, The normal reaction of any person who is given news of a tragic event but is not directly affected by it is to feel sadness, to feel sorry for the families who lost a loved one, and perhaps ponder the fragility of life and the inevitability of death.

Those who supported the attack on Iraq might combine those feelings with a greater sense of resolve while those (like me) who opposed it might also feel some anger at yet another example of the deaths, injuries, and suffering caused to Iraqi and American people by this unprovoked and illegal war.

The recent tsunami killed about 250,000 people, most of them very poor, one third of them children, leaving ruptured and devastated families on a scale hard to fathom. About 30,000 of those deaths occurred in my country of origin Sri Lanka, but even then I did not “weep and mourn�, but experienced feelings of deep melancholy combined with shock at the scale of the deaths, surprise at its suddenness, and a sense of awe that nature could unleash such fury.

It is probable that “weep and mourn� was used as a rhetorical flourish, not meant to be taken literally, but it still strikes me as sounding phony in the forum of a press conference. It may sound natural coming from a clergyman in a sermon, alluding as it does to the Biblical story of Rachel grieving for her lost children. It may even sound appropriate for a politician giving a set speech in a formal setting where one expects some figures of speech. But in a question-and-answer format, which calls for a more conversational tone, it sounds artificial and forced, as if the speaker expects listeners to doubt the genuineness of his concern and so overcompensates.

George W. Bush is by no means the only politician who does this. I similarly cringed whenever Bill Clinton claimed “I feel your pain.� No, you don’t, I felt like telling him. No one can really feel somebody else’s pain. All we can feel is sadness, concern, and sympathy, all of which are worthy emotions, but trampled on by politicians in their eagerness to sound more-concerned-than-thou.

Science and proof III

Dan had a comment on the “science and proof II” posting that I think is of general interest that requires a fresh posting. He asks:

“Okay, do you have a quick explanation for why falsification is not the distinction between science and religion?

On a day to day level, it works for me. If someone says there exist leprechauns, but they are invisible, and leave no trace in our world, I know that the statement can not be proven wrong so it is not worth arguing against. But if someone says that species evolve from other species, it is conceivable that it could be proven wrong, so it is worth taking seriously. And if enough people try to disprove it and fail, that is good evidence that it might have explanatory power.”

Dan’s point is a good one. At a simple level, falsificationism sounds plausible. The theory that “All swans are white” can be seemingly falsified by the appearance of aa single black swan. Falsification’s appeal stems from the fact that we seem to be able to make a clean distinction between an observation and a theory.

But that distinction becomes blurred when you start looking at the kinds of things that scientists research, because then observations are no longer simple sensory perceptions. The statement “electrons exist” is not a simple observational one but requires us to use a vast array of theories from a range of disciplines in order to interpret the readings of the measuring insruments. So if the “observation” disagrees with the theory being examined, it is not clear where to place the blame. Is it on the theory being tested, or on one of the theories underlying the observations?

So in reality one is always comparing one set of theories with another set of theories and there is no rule that *forces* you to make a particular choice, although good taste and judgment and standard practices may lead the scientific community to a consensus decision.

The other problem with using falsification is that no theory has ever explained everything in its domain. There are always unsolved problems and contradictory results. Trying to reconcile these discrepancies serve as the basis for much research. If we applied the falsification rule strictly, then every theory we have would be falsified.

These are the kinds of things that caused falsificationism to stumble and fall.

Incidentally, even the swan example is not as simple as it looks. Defenders of the white swan theory can retain their belief by arguing that what constitutes a swan is not precisely defined and that the black creature was not really a swan, and other arguments like that. We may dismiss those arguments as silly and self-serving but they are not logically ruled out.

Warning! Shameless plug coming up!

All these issues are discussed in my book “Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs”, published by Phi Delta Kappan Foundation in 2000.

High self-esteem does not lead to high student achievement

After wasting space on Michelle Malkin last week, the Plain Dealer redeemed itself on Monday, January 31 with an intriguing op-ed piece by Roy F. Baumeister on the misguided attempts to cure various social ills by boosting the self-esteem of the people responsible for those ills. This was based on the theory that low self-esteem people resorted to violence, for example, in order to feel better about themselves. Thus it was believed that if we can raise their self-esteem, they will stop being violent.

A 1996 paper in Psychological Review by Baumeister and co-workers debunked that hypothesis by showing that violent individuals, groups, and even nations actually already think highly of themselves, and resort to violence when they do not receive the inflated respect they feel they are entitled to. Promoting high self-esteem that is unsupported by actual achievements or abilities turns out to be harmful.

Baumeister (who used to be a Professor of Psychology at Case until just a few years ago) now finds similar results in the research literature for student educational achievement. Inflated high self-esteem not only does not result in better academic achievement, it can sometimes even lower it.

These conclusions should be taken very seriously by educators, many of whom have put great stock in raising the self-esteem of under-achieving students as a strategy to boost their performance. The Education Trust reported in a 2001 study that children in high-poverty schools are given few assignments, that even those are of low-quality, and are then given As for work that would merit Cs and Ds elsewhere, all in a misguided effort to improve their self-esteem
In my own work with professional-development programs, an earnest and well-meaning teacher once told me of her frustration with attempts to improve students’ self-esteem in her exclusively black school district. After teaching a section of the mathematics course, she would give her students a practice test. She would then grade the tests and hand them back to the students, along with the answer key, and discuss the test. The “real� test, which was exactly the same as the practice test, was then given, with the students being aware beforehand that this was going to be done. The teacher told me that she adopted this strategy so that the students would score well on her tests and thus experience a boost in their self-esteem. Yet she was frustrated that her students still did badly on the test.

It is not hard to understand why the math teacher’s students were not putting in any effort to just memorize the answers to the practice test and reproduce them on the real test. It was because the “real� test was not a real test of anything meaningful. The task was so trivially simple as to be insulting.

This does not apply to just underachieving students at lower grade levels. Just yesterday a faculty member in the School of Engineering here at Case (which has ambitious, hard-working, and high achieving students) was expressing puzzlement because in order to get more class participation he would ask very easy questions but no one was volunteering to answer them.

But from the point of view of the students, this response is perfectly rational. If the question is obviously easy, then no kudos accrue to a student for answering it correctly. But if you do volunteer an answer and get it wrong, then you appear stupid in the eyes of your peers. So the safest course is to avoid answering.

The research on motivation suggests that students (and people in general) respond best not to praise and blame, but to neutral feedback that gives them a realistic sense of what they can do and what they need to do to improve. They also respond best to moderate levels of challenge. If the assignments are too hard, then they get frustrated. If they are too easy, then there is no sense of achievement in doing them. The challenge for any teacher is to gauge the right levels of challenge, provide appropriate support, and give informative and prescriptive feedback.

Baumeister’s work confirms that trying to raise self-esteem is not the way to go. While high self-esteem does provide some minor benefits (it feels good and supports initiative), he suggests that we might get better results by focusing more on self-control and self-discipline. It is a message that should be taken seriously.

Sources:

1. Roy F. Baumeister, Jennifer D. Campbell, Joachim I. Krueger, and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles?�, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, May 2003, vol. 4, No. 1, 1-44
2. Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden, “Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem�, Psychological Review, 1996, vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33
3. Kati Haycock, Craig Jerald, and Sandra Huang, “Closing the Gap: Done in a Decade,� Education Trust: Thinking K–16 5, no. 2 (Spring 2001)
4. Kati Haycock, “Closing the Achievement Gap,� Educational Leadership, March 2001, 6–11.

Synthetic rage II

The fact that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ did not receive any nominations in the major categories for Academy Awards (it did receive nominations for makeup, cinematography, and original score) has created a fresh gusher of synthetic rage.

The inevitable press conferences are being held with the usual suspects denouncing this omission as indicators of the evil-mindedness of people in the film industry (“There’s no question that bigotry and prejudice rank among the liberal elite of Hollywoodâ€? – Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition) and alleging that this was another example of how Christians are under siege in the US (“It is well known that the Hollywood community has been anti-Christian for many years.â€? -Tim Wildmon, American Family Association), which is a curious charge to make in what is arguably the most overtly Christian country in the world, where its leaders (particularly the current president) often make public professions of their faith.

People, people, people, let’s get a grip. We are talking about the Oscars, for goodness’ sake, that annual orgy of self-congratulation by the film world, where success is as much dependent on talent and quality as it is on politicking, schmoozing, money, advertising, reputation, and boot-licking and back-stabbing skills. Why would anyone other than those actually involved in the making of a film much care whether it won awards or not?

And where were all these protesters some years ago when the obviously best film of ALL time, one that featured religion, political intrigue, the Sermon on the Mount, crucifixions, stonings, Roman soldiers, and a Pontius Pilate with a speech impediment, was not nominated for an Oscar in even a single category? Yes, I am talking about Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The many admirers of this landmark film bore this travesty of justice with equanimity. We did not feign outrage. We did not hold press conferences to protest. We were stoic, knowing that history would give Life of Brian the recognition it deserved long after pretenders to greatness like Citizen Kane had faded into obscurity. We are still waiting patiently…