Should people be forced to evacuate the hurricane devastated areas?

There is one particular issue that I have mixed feelings about and that is the way that people who still live in New Orleans after the hurricane has passed and the process of recovery is beginning are being compelled to give up their weapons and leave their homes.

The force first comes indirectly in the form of preventing food and water from reaching them to threats to put them in handcuffs and removing them, although it is not clear if that threat has actually been carried out.

According to the New York Times officers will search all the houses in both dry and flooded neighborhoods, and no one will be allowed to stay.

Many of the residents still in the city said they did not understand why the city remained intent on forcing them out.

“I know the risks,” said Renee de Pontchieux, as she sat on a stool outside Kajun’s Pub in the working-class Bywater neighborhood east of downtown. “We used to think we lived in America – now we’re not so sure. Why should we allow this government to chase us out and allow people from outside to rebuild our homes? We want to rebuild our homes.”

They are also taking away people’s weapons, even if the owners have legal rights to them.

Waters were receding across this flood-beaten city today as police officers
began confiscating weapons, including legally registered firearms, from civilians in preparation for a mass forced evacuation of the residents still living here.

No civilians in New Orleans will be allowed to carry pistols, shotguns or other firearms, said P. Edwin Compass III, the superintendent of police. “Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons,” he said.

But these evacuation and disarming programs don’t seem to apply to certain classes of people.

But that order apparently does not apply to hundreds of security guards hired by businesses and some wealthy individuals to protect property. The guards, employees of private security companies like Blackwater, openly carry M-16′s and other assault rifles. Mr. Compass said that he was aware of the private guards, but that the police had no plans to make them give up their weapons.

On the one hand, I can understand that with armed criminal gangs reportedly wandering around (although I haven’t seen much evidence, such as reports of arrests of gang members, that this is a major problem), the police and other security forces patrolling the streets might be nervous about them stealing the residents’ weapons, not to mention the risk that with people’s nerves on edge, residents might shoot at the police thinking that they were criminals or because they feel they have the right to protect their homes from any intruder, police or otherwise.

But this does raise the question of what happened to the second amendment giving people the right to bear arms, and why gun rights groups like the National Rifle Association have not loudly protested this seeming violation of it. Perhaps there is some ruling by the Supreme Court that says that under a state of emergency the authorities have the right to disarm people. But if legal residents are disarmed while they are in an area where the civil government has broken down, this does make them more vulnerable to criminals.

The other troubling question is whether people like Ms. de Pontchieux should be allowed to take the risk of staying on in their homes if they are in a position to make that decision. After all, we allow people to do all kinds of things that risk their safety. They can go mountain climbing, sail solo in deep ocean waters, hang gliding, smoke, etc. and when they get into trouble, we do not begrudge the rescue efforts. So why shouldn’t the people of New Orleans who want to remain be allowed to stay in their homes?

I can understand the humanitarian impulse behind wanting them to leave. With no electricity, running water, or proper sanitation, the risks to them of contracting illnesses from all the filth and debris and pollution may be high. But shouldn’t that be their choice, as long as their continued presence does not cause a health hazard or prevent cleanup efforts?

The authorities also say that they cannot cope with having to provide the people who stay with food and security for their safety, but it is not clear to me that the people staying in their homes and businesses asked for these things. If they haven’t, then why is it necessary to ask them to leave?

Perhaps the one thing that troubles me most was the original decision by the Mayor of New Orleans to deny remaining residents food and water as a means of coercing them to leave. It cannot be that hard, especially in the US with all its resources, to provide food and water to the estimated 10,000 people still remaining. At most it is a minor expense and inconvenience to the authorities. To me, the right to food and water is so basic that it should never be used as a weapon and we should never deny it to anyone. So I was heartened when Army Lt. General Honore, newly appointed head of the military’s Joint Task Force Katrina, immediately ordered the soldiers to not point their weapons at people and countermanded the Mayor’s order and gave water and food to the people who remained because he wanted to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved.

Once again, we are confronted with the thorny question of the right of individuals to be left alone coming into conflict with the needs of the state. There may be no easy answers to such questions but I am concerned that there does not seem to be a serious discussion of them.

POST SCRIPT 1

This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1, part 2 , part 3-I, part 3-II and part 4.

POST SCRIPT 2: Private and public relief efforts

Cartoonist and essayist Ted Rall in his article Charities are for suckers puts into words something that has been bothering me, and that is the question of whether private charities are letting the government off the hook for disaster relief.

Why poor people find it hard to abandon their homes

One of the commentators who harshly criticized the reluctance of so many poor people to leave prior to and after the hurricane hit New Orleans expressed amazement at their attitude. After all, he, said, such people had few possessions of value. Their clothes and furniture were of Goodwill store quality and their cars were usually junk. Unlike rich people who owned things of real value, poor people’s stuff was valueless and thus could be easily abandoned to the floodwaters or looters. He concluded that their reluctance to leave was irrational and their stubborn decision to stay in the face of warnings meant that they had forfeited any right to sympathy and assistance.

But as I said in a previous posting, such an attitude, apart from betraying a dismaying lack of empathy, also reveals a deep lack of understanding. It is precisely because they are so poor that whatever possessions they own are so valuable to them. Poor people who buy and drive beaten up old cars do so because it was what they can just barely afford. For many, having even a very old car means the difference between working and being unemployed, eating and going hungry, since a car may be the only way they can get to their jobs. Losing that car is a major disaster for them, whereas for better-off people, losing a car to flooding or looting does not have the same impact. It can be a financial hit but it is rarely life-changing.

Another reason that some people (both poor and not-so-poor) refused to leave their homes was because they could not take their pets with them and this too mystified some observers. Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist responded this way to someone who wondered why he/she found it so disturbing to see animals in distress or dead during the storm. He said: “Beats me. But then again, I cannot fathom why all these folks who stayed behind to take care of their pets would risk their lives for an animal that they could easily replace at any pet store.”

I can only conclude that Fisher has never really had and loved a pet. If you ask most pet owners, making the decision not to abandon a pet would be considered not only perfectly rational but they would be surprised to think that there was any other option. Abandoning their pet would be considered inhumane.

I saw a video clip in which a man was telling reporters that a young man and his dog had rescued him from his roof. All three were by the roadside because the young man was refusing to leave New Orleans because his dog, which had been the twenty-four year old man’s friend and companion for fourteen years, would not be able to go with him. During the entire interview, the young man was petting and holding on to the dog and crying while the dog, recognizing that his owner was distressed, affectionately licked his face and tried to console him, as dogs are wont to do.

It was only after the interviewer promised to take the dog in his own vehicle to Baton Rouge and reunite him there later with the young man that he relinquished his grasp of the dog. And the story did have a happy ending when they showed the pair happily together again the following day. It was an extremely moving clip.

Is such a fierce attachment to an animal irrational? Perhaps. But if so, I would argue that it is precisely such irrational attachments that make life worth living. Pets bring us great joy and affection.

I must admit that before I acquired a dog of my own, I too did not fully understand the strong feelings that people have towards their pets, so I do not want to judge harshly the person who made the above statement about the disposability of pets. I just want to suggest that we cannot always assume that we know and understand what is important to other people and prescribe how they should act in extreme situations.

We are not machines. Our whole emotional fabric is wrapped around our personal life experiences and when people’s life situations are much different from ours, it is likely that they will have different views on what is important in their lives and what to do in extreme situations. Especially in their times of great need, we have to respect their wishes as much as is humanly possible. And our emergency rescue procedures should take this into account when we make evacuation plans.

POST SCRIPT 1

This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1, part 2 , part 3-I, and part 3-II.

POST SCRIPT 2

Sometimes one picture really does just say it all….

bushphoto.jpg

(Thanks to the Progressive Review website.)

Trapped in New Orleans by LARRY BRADSHAW and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY

In an earlier post, I gave a summary of a radio program that featured eyewitness reports by two San Francisco paramedics who had been attending a conference and ended up trapped in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. What follows is their extended report in their own words that expands on their radio interview. It is long but I did not want to edit it in any way (except for hyphenating an obscenity) because it is so compelling. (Note: I first received this via an email from a colleague at Case but later also found it on the Counterpunch website here.)

Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreens store at the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the city’s historic French Quarter remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing, and the milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat.

The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers and prescriptions, and fled the city. Outside Walgreens’ windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry. The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized, and the windows at Walgreens gave way to the looters.

There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices and bottled water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead, they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.

We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home on Saturday. We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreens in the French Quarter.

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with “hero” images of the National Guard, the troops and police struggling to help the “victims” of the hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.

The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, “stealing” boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

Most of these workers had lost their homes and had not heard from members of their families. Yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20 percent of New Orleans that was not under water.

* * *

ON DAY Two, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like ourselves and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter from Katrina.

Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources, including the National Guard and scores of buses, were pouring into the city. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible, because none of us had seen them.

We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the city. Those who didn’t have the requisite $45 each were subsidized by those who did have extra money.

We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and newborn babies. We waited late into the night for the “imminent” arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived at the city limits, they were commandeered by the military.

By Day Four, our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was dangerously bad. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked their doors, telling us that “officials” had told us to report to the convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the city, we finally encountered the National Guard.

The guard members told us we wouldn’t be allowed into the Superdome, as the city’s primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. They further told us that the city’s only other shelter–the convention center–was also descending into chaos and squalor, and that the police weren’t allowing anyone else in.

Quite naturally, we asked, “If we can’t go to the only two shelters in the city, what was our alternative?” The guards told us that this was our problem–and no, they didn’t have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile “law enforcement.”

* * *

WE WALKED to the police command center at Harrah’s on Canal Street and were told the same thing–that we were on our own, and no, they didn’t have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred.

We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The police told us that we couldn’t stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp.

In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge to the south side of the Mississippi, where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.

The crowd cheered and began to move. We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation, so was he sure that there were buses waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, “I swear to you that the buses are there.”

We organized ourselves, and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group, and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news.

Families immediately grabbed their few belongings, and quickly, our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, as did people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and other people in wheelchairs. We marched the two to three miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, armed sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.

As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and the commander’s assurances. The sheriffs informed us that there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.

* * *

OUR SMALL group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and, in the end, decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway–on the center divide, between the O’Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned that we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway, and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet-to-be-seen buses.

All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away–some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.

Meanwhile, the only two city shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery that New Orleans had become.

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let’s hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.

Now–secure with these two necessities, food and water–cooperation, community and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

If the relief organizations had saturated the city with food and water in the first two or three days, the desperation, frustration and ugliness would not have set in.

Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people.

From a woman with a battery-powered radio, we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the city. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway. The officials responded that they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. “Taking care of us” had an ominous tone to it.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking city) was accurate. Just as dusk set in, a sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces and screamed, “Get off the f——- freeway.” A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of “victims,” they saw “mob” or “riot.” We felt safety in numbers. Our “we must stay together” attitude was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements, but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

The next day, our group of eight walked most of the day, made contact with the New Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search-and-rescue team.

We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.

* * *

WE ARRIVED at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We eight were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op.

After being evacuated on a Coast Guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas. There, the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses didn’t have air conditioners. In the dark, hundreds of us were forced to share two filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.

Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport–because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly and disabled, as we sat for hours waiting to be “medically screened” to make sure we weren’t carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heartfelt reception given to us by ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome.

Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.

Tom Tomorrow gets to have the last word with his inimitable weekly This Modern World cartoon.

POST SCRIPT 1

This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1 and part 2 .

POST SCRIPT 2
For those of you in the Cleveland area, I want to recommend to you this week’s physics colloquium. The speaker Douglas Hofstadter, a one-time physicist now working in a whole range of other areas wrote one of (for me at least) the most fascinating and provocative books called Godel, Escher, and Bach, which playfully wove together ideas from a whole range of topics to investigate the nature of knowledge and how the brain works. You can see from the abstract of his talk below that he is somewhat of a whimsical character. Note that the whole abstract is one long sentence….!

The colloquium is on Thursday, September 15 at 4:15 pm in Rockefeller 301 on the Case campus. It is free and open to the public.

DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER
Indiana University

Professor of Cognitive Science and Computer Science
Adjunct Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Philosophy,
Comparative Literature, and Psychology

Title:
“A Pocket-Sized Telling of the Genesis of the Greatest Ideas of the Greatest Thinker of All Time”
OR
“How Analogy Showed Einstein the Light, and How Light Showed Einstein the Universe”

Abstract of talk:

Call it hubris or call it hubris squared, but somebody had to tackle it in this, the centenary of Albert Einstein’s “Annus Mirabilis” — “Miraculous Year” in Latin — and so I, once a physicist of sorts, and now a cognitive scientist fascinated by how people think, and in particular by the universality of analogy-making in human thinking, ranging from the most modest to the most exalted acts of cognition, inevitably found myself turning my metaphorical gaze to the above-mentioned thinker par excellence and reading his own papers as well as books and papers about him, in which, somewhat to my surprise and certainly to my deep gratification, the density of beautiful yet simple analogies was not only high but indeed overwhelming, which fact lent unexpectedly strong support to my long-standing thesis that intuitive, artistic analogy-making is the mental mainspring in the development of concepts in physics, and given that this thesis was so happily confirmed in the salient case of the Newton of the twentieth century, I have now framed a celebratory talk in which my goal is to summarize my findings with as much clarity as I know how to muster, presenting in particular the gist of the genesis of, and highlighting the key role of analogy in, Einstein’s discovery of (in chronological order) the quantum of light, the theory of special relativity, the equivalence of energy and mass, the quantum of sound, the principle of equivalence, and of course, last but not least, the theory of general relativity, the entire event lasting no more than an hour, or at least so I most fondly hope…

Why natural disasters don’t affect all equally

There has been one aspect of the hurricane Katrina events and its aftermath that has been bothering me and that is the harsh way that people are being criticized for not leaving the city either in advance of the storm or even after.

In a much earlier post concerning the Terri Schiavo case, I said that I find it almost impossible to judge other people’s actions based on hypothesizing what one would do in if one were in that other person’s situation, if the hypothetical situation is very different from what one has personally experienced. In the Schiavo case, I felt that since I had never had to make a decision about removing life support from someone close to me, I couldn’t really make a judgment about whether Schiavo’s parents or her husband was in the right.

The same situation applies to forced evacuations of people from the devastated areas. I am lucky to have never been in such a situation. My own feeling is that I would very likely have evacuated. But unlike some officials and other commentators, I am not going to criticize those who made the decision to stay.

As has become clear, being told to leave and having the ability to leave quickly are two very different things. Although I have never been rich and don’t expect (or even have the desire) to be so, I am extremely fortunate in that I have never been really poor either, in the sense of ever having had to worry about my next meal or whether I had clothes and shoes to wear, or whether I would have a house and a bed to sleep in at night. In the event of a disaster, it would be easy for me, for example, to put my family in a car and drive away to a safe place and to use my savings and credit card to get food and housing, until insurance kicks in to help us replace our belongings and rebuild our lives. At most, evacuating temporarily would be an inconvenience.

But for poor people, who live from paycheck to paycheck, and have no savings or credit cards, leaving their homes is much more difficult. Where will they go? Where will they stay? How will they pay? A lot of them have no cars at their disposal and even if they do may not have enough ready money at their disposal to fill up the tank to make a long trip away from danger. They have to depend very much on the kindness and charity of strangers and this is something that they may not expect to receive, since poor people are often looked upon with suspicion by those who are better off.

The way poor people view their relationship with the world is different from that of middle class or rich people. While the stereotype is that poor people are the ones who are accustomed to getting things “free” from the state, the reality is that it is the better off amongst us who expect the state to provide us with high quality services (highways, police, health care, fire protection, and other government services) either for free or at subsidized rates, and who expect the government to promptly take care of us in emergencies. Poor people don’t automatically view government officials (especially the police, military) as their allies whose duty is to protect them, the way that middle class and rich people do. The events in New Orleans, and particularly what happened on the bridge to Gretna is only going to confirm their suspicions that they will be treated as less deserving of even the basic decencies.

As an extreme example, a rescue worker in a helicopter who was trying to lift someone off the roof of her building spoke of his amazement when the woman was reluctant to get on board because she was worried that she would have to pay for the ride and she had no money. Such a thought would never cross the mind of the better off, who instead would be very angry if they were not rescued promptly by government authorities.

Although most people have poor relatives and have seen homeless and other very destitute people, that does not really qualify us to understand and really feel what it is like to be poor. I remember the impact that George Orwell’s semi-autobiographical book Down and Out in Paris and London had on me. In it he described his own experiences of being poor and sometimes homeless in those cities. More recently, Barbara Ehrenreich in her poor Nickel and Dimed: Being Poor in America described what it was like to be, at least temporarily, a member of the working poor.

In both books what comes across is, contrary to expectations, how complicated life is when you are poor. We tend to think that it is rich people with their property and mortgages and investments and possessions whose lives are complicated. But those two books say that making a go of it when you are poor means always living on the edge.

Poor people live a precarious day-to-day existence and to survive they usually depend on an informal network of people and services around them to survive. Getting to work at often more than one job, taking care of children, cooking and cleaning house, and the other things that go into maintaining daily life often involve tricky juggling because they do not have the extra money or time that can simplify things. Such people often have to borrow money and food and other items from friends, relatives, and neighbors to tide things over in emergencies, and the ‘emergencies’ themselves occur so often as to be almost routine. A lot of the services that better off people pay for are arranged through a system of bartering so that people are tied into more people than their immediate families. (See Dave’s comment to the previous posting. He has worked as a doctor in the poorer sections of New Orleans and knows the conditions of the people there.)

All this makes people tightly bound to their immediate environments and can make it hard to leave. To suddenly move somewhere else is much more difficult for them to do than for people like me because their supporting network is an important part of their lives and having it suddenly ripped apart is difficult to accept. While I like my own neighbors and my community, I am not really dependent on them for my daily living. I could move tomorrow to another part of the city or another county or state without too much difficulty.

I will explore this more in a future posting, to drive home that point that perhaps we should not be so quick to condemn those who did not, and still do not, want to leave their homes.

POST SCRIPT 1

This week The Daily Show is doing a four part series on evolution. You can see part 1
here.

POST SCRIPT 2

The Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and SAGES present THE ANISFIELD-WOLF LECTURE

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. will give a talk on Pursuing a Dream: W.E.B. Du Bois and His Encyclopedia,

Thursday, September 15, 2005

11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Severance Hall 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

The event is free and open to the public. To register, go here.

A radio program that should not be missed

I have not been writing about the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and all along the Gulf coast because I felt that there was little that I could add to everything that was being said. Like most people, I have been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and the fact that we are seeing the evacuation of a major city that may not be inhabitable for months due to the difficulty of drying out a below-sea-level area.

But over the weekend, I listed to this week’s edition of the NPR radio program This American Life and the show was so powerful that I felt compelled to alert readers of this blog that it is one show that must be listened to. Fortunately, you can listen to it online. The program is one hour long but you will be so engrossed that you will not feel the time passing. If any radio program is deserving of an award, this one is.

The program usually consists of the host Ira Glass putting together stories about and from people around some theme. Last weekend’s program called After the Flood was about the hurricane events in New Orleans. It was in five segments, an introduction followed by four ‘acts’ as the show likes to label them. If you have limited time, listen to at least the first, second, and third ‘acts’.

The introductory segment had a knowledgeable person who quoted the laws governing emergencies to expose as hollow the current attempt by the White House to shift blame away from them and onto city and state authorities, and say that that their delay in providing relief was because they could not act until the local authorities gave them the green light. This expert said that the laws are unambiguous that the federal authorities had all the powers needed to act from the very beginning, without waiting for state and local authorities to authorize or request specific actions.

The first act was an eyewitness report by a hospital worker who ended up at the infamous Convention Center. She described the reasons why she and others could not leave town and the appalling filth and stench that she encountered when she arrived at the center. She also said that the ‘looters’ and ‘thugs’ were the only ones taking care of the people there. The ‘thugs’ took control in designated areas, kept order, and protected the people because everyone had heard rumors of rapes and assaults, although she did not witness anything of that sort. The ‘looters’ would go out and get water and food and juice boxes (for the children) and pass them around. This woman said that while the officials did nothing for them except keep them trapped inside and feed them false information and threaten them, the ‘thugs’ and ‘looters’ were the ones who actually did things to help the people there and make them feel secure.

The second act was a report by two emergency medical services people (I think paramedics) from San Francisco who had been attending a convention in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. These two women described what happened at their hotel and later their experiences stuck on a highway bridge as they tried to walk away from the city. This story clarified something that had been puzzling me for sometime. During the storm I had wondered how it was that news crews seemed to be able to enter and leave the city freely while there were these pictures of people seemingly stuck for days by the side of a dry highway. Why didn’t they simply walk away, if they were physically able?

The two EMS women explained why, confirming other reports that have begun to emerge. (See a New York Times report here.) It turns out that on the other side of the bridge was a small suburban community called Gretna and their sheriff and police were guarding the entrance to their town and shooting at the people on the bridge to prevent them from entering their town. So the people were stuck there on the bridge. The two EMS women (who were white) said their small group of eight had been joined by about 70 other people (mostly black) and they created a small community on the bridge which shared water and food, kept the place clean, created small ‘toilets’, and looked after the children and the elderly and infirm. She said that at one point a ‘looter’ came by in a truck and unloaded all the five gallon containers of water he had been able to get from somewhere, and took away as many children and their families as he could load into his vehicle. She said that the able bodied people in the group also ran to quickly collect some emergency rations that had accidentally fallen off a FEMA truck which was racing by, ignoring them. With this food and water, she said that the little community felt a little better. They also felt safe because night was approaching and the bridge was one of the few places where street lights were still working.

But as night fell, a Gretna policeman came and screamed menacingly at them to leave the bridge, and they had to go back towards New Orleans into the dangerous darkness. As she left, she saw a helicopter fly low over their makeshift ‘village’ and deliberately blow away all the little structures the group had put up to keep things orderly and sanitary.

The third act was about a young boy in a neighboring parish who spoke about what it felt like to have no food or water for days and to begin to think that the country as a whole had abandoned them. The final act was by a woman who had managed to escape before the storm to Florida, whose home had been flooded, and who was wondering what to do now, followed by a description about the trailer parks that were set up by FEMA as temporary housing after earlier hurricanes.

All the stories were very moving but as I listened I also became increasingly angry. On the one hand one had these amazing stories of people who had lost everything, who felt completely helpless and abandoned, coming together and overcoming race and class to try and help each other get through a desperate situation. On the other hand, you had the ugly sight of race and class prejudice seemingly being a factor in keeping people trapped in appalling conditions, preventing assistance from reaching them, and then blaming them for their situation afterwards.

I have given up hope that there will be any accountability of the national political leadership for the ghastly debacle that is now Iraq. Supporters of the war are fond of pointing out how bad Saddam Hussein was because of the cruelties that he inflicted on ‘his own people,’ as if that fact was ever contested by anybody, and as if that excuses the mess that this administration has made over there.

But apart from the damage created by the hurricane itself, what happened to the people of New Orleans and the neighboring areas was also done by us to ‘our own people.’ The outrageous treatment of them goes beyond mere incompetence and enters the realm of criminal negligence. There is enough culpability at all levels of government, city, state, and national. If major heads don’t roll for this atrocity that, unlike Iraq, cannot be sheltered under the cloaks of patriotism and nationalistic fervor, then we can say that accountability is truly dead.

Should children be labeled according to religion?

If you ask children what their religion is, they will unhesitatingly answer. They will say that they are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, etc. and from their answer you can confidently predict that this is the religion of at least one parent, and usually both.

This kind of labeling is not very meaningful. If religious beliefs are to be in any way meaningful, they have to be on the basis of a freely made choice. Compelling sometime to adopt a religion makes a mockery of that religion. But although children are not formally compelled to follow a particular religion, they are usually only taught the tenets of their parents’ religion and are unaware that other religious options are open to them or that they have the option to reject the religion of their parents until they are much older. By then, they have become used to being believers in the family religious tradition, and very few people seek out information about other religions unless they experience deep dissatisfaction with their parents’ one.
But the ideas contained in religions are deep, subtle, and complex, and it is unreasonable to think that young children are in any position to make a choice about what religious structure they find compelling.

So why do we label children according to religion? Richard Dawkins takes a strong stand against this and argues that classifying children as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. is a form of “mental child abuse” because such labels imply a choice of beliefs that only adults are in a position to make. In his essay Is Science a Religion? based on a speech given on the occasion of his accepting the 1996 Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Association, he says:

I do feel very strongly about the way children are brought up. I’m not entirely familiar with the way things are in the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced religious instruction for all children. That’s unconstitutional in the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents deem suitable.

Which brings me to my point about mental child abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London’s leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu, and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.

What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question – without even noticing how bizarre it is – that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?

Of course, one obvious counter to Dawkins’ argument is that parents do influence their children in their political, economic, and social thinking, so why should religion be any different? But it is true that we do not assign political or economic labels to children the way we do with religious labels.

One reason that parents bring up their children in their own religious tradition is because they want to teach them moral behavior and most people cannot separate morality from religion. I do find it a little strange when some people say that without religion there can be no morality and that it is only belief in god that prevents people from (say) killing other people. To me it seems obvious that you can have universal moral values that are independent of religion.

Another reason that parents bring up their children in a religious tradition is that because they think that their own religion is the ‘true’ one and see no reason to not teach their children the truth, just like they would teach them that the Earth orbits the Sun.

The so-called Intelligent Design Creationists (IDCs) want students, in the name of ‘fairness,’ to be taught the “controversy” of evolution and intelligent design in science classes so that students can choose which is better. If they are so enamored with the notion of giving students choices and teaching controversy, perhaps they should set an example by encouraging churches and religion classes to also “teach the controversy” by teaching children evolution as well, and also the basic tenets of all religions (and atheism) and letting children choose which belief structure they prefer to follow.

But don’t hold your breath that they will do this. The long-range plan of IDC advocates, as outlined in their Wedge Strategy, is to make Christianity pervasive in all areas of life, not make critical thinkers out of students.

Camp Casey event in Cleveland Heights

Everyone is welcome to come to an event including members of the Camp Casey Team from Crawford, TX: Friday, Sept. 9, 7-8:30, Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (North of Fairmount and Lee), Cleveland Heights.

There is a parallel program on the West Side Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland. (For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440×423)
Both events are free and open to the public.

PROGRAM:

Welcome: Rosemary Palmer, mother of Ohio Marine killed in Iraq
Moderator: Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University

1. Gold Star Families:
A. Bill Mitchell of Atascadero, CA, whose son Sgt. Michael Mitchell was killed in action in Sadr City, Iraq on April 4, 2004, along with Cindy Sheehan’s son Spc. Casey Sheehan. Bill is a founder of Gold Star Families for Peace.

B. Beatriz Saldivar of Fort Worth, TX, whose nephew Daniel Torres was killed in action on February 4th, 2005 in Baygii, 155 miles north of Baghdad, on his 2nd tour of Iraq when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) exploded and hit his unarmored Humvee. She is available for interviews in English and Spanish.

2. Mylion Waite, Associate Paster, Antioch Baptist Church

3. Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve University, “The Case for Bringing the Troops Home Now”

4. Military Families Speak Out (family members of current US troops in Iraq) participants: Kallisa Stanley of Killeen, TX, whose husband is in the Army and currently stationed at Ft. Hood. He served one year-long tour of duty in Iraq and is scheduled to be redeployed to Iraq next year.

5. Iraq Veterans for Peace participant: Chris Snively

There will then be a Question and Answer interactive discussion with the audience.

Why scientists are good at arguing and bad at debating – 2

In an earlier posting on this topic, I argued that one reason that scientists fare poorly in public political-type debates or on TV talk shows is that the style of argumentation they encounter in those venues is very different from the style they become expert in in their academic discourses. If you are not prepared for this different style, and take steps to counter it, then you can get blind-sided and come off looking poorly. This is why while the scientific case against so-called ‘intelligent design’ (ID) is so strong as to justify the phrase ‘slam dunk’, the popular perception does not match it, because scientists who debate ID proponents often do not realize that they are no longer debating according to the rules of scientific argumentation.

This is one reason why, in the past, scientists used to not come off well in their debates with IDCs (Intelligent Design Creationists). It is no accident that one of the most visible IDC proponents is Phillip Johnson who is not a scientist at all, but a lawyer. The situation has improved recently as scientists are catching on to the strategies used by creationists and have developed better debating practices.

One of the strategies that creationists use is to base arguments on scientific theories that are so esoteric or new that the particular scientists they are debating may not be aware of these theories. In the debates about evolution, the scientists who were initially most involved were biologists, which was natural since it was their field that was under attack. But while they could deal with the biological issues involved, they often found themselves unexpectedly confronting arguments from physics and chemistry and even mathematics.

Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University is a devout practicing Catholic who has been one of the key people confronting the IDCs. In an NPR interview, he said that in the early days he was invited by a student group to take part in a debate with an ID proponent. Thinking that this would be a public service on his part and a good thing to do, he went for advice to his friend and colleague the late Stephen Jay Gould who had been writing extensively on this topic. To his surprise, Gould told him not to debate and that if he went ahead and agreed, he (Gould) would not help him in any way. Gould told him that scientists always did badly in such debates despite having the stronger case and the end result was merely to give the ID movement greater credibility. He did not want to be a party to this exercise.

Miller said he was surprised by this response but also intrigued. So he went to see another debate between a biologist and an ID advocate and immediately saw what Gould was talking about. While the biologist was knowledgeable in countering the biological arguments against evolution, most of the time he was subjected to arguments from physics, chemistry, geology, etc. for which he was unprepared. One of these arguments was the one from the second law of thermodynamics dealing with inexorably increasing entropy (the fraudulent use of which I discussed in an earlier posting). Miller said that he realized that himself did not know what entropy was and what this law was about.

As a result of watching this debate, Miller realized that he had to prepare quite differently for his own debate than what he had originally planned. He had to find out what all these non-biological arguments were, investigate all these areas outside of his specialty, and talk to colleagues in other departments about these concepts and how they should be properly used. In other words, he had to spend a considerable amount of time preparing not only the biological arguments which scientists had previously naively thought were the only ones that mattered, but also arguments in other scientific areas, and also the non-scientific ways of argument that he would likely encounter.

As a result of his careful preparation, he was able to completely rout his opponent in the debate and this has led to him being one of the people most sought-after on the anti-IDC debate circuit.

But his experience also illustrates why scientists are so reluctant to engage in this kind of public debates. If they don’t prepare carefully like Miller, they are taken by surprise by the kinds of debating tricks that a career in science does not prepare you for. To do it well requires that scientists do a lot of preparation outside their own area of research and this is time that is taken away from that research. This kind of activity does not help them in their own investigations and is not recognized as the kind of scholarly work that forms the reward structure of universities, so scientists have to do it on their own time and on their own dime, so to speak. There is no organized anti-IDC program. Opposition to IDC ideas comes from a loose collection of scientists, acting largely independently of each other, who feel a sense of obligation to counter what they see as a harmful anti-science movement.

Contrast this with the way the pro-IDC operation works. They have well-funded institutions like the Center for Science and Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (which is the prime force and funder behind the IDC movement) which hires people either full time or as consultants and provides them with abundant resources to pursue this goal single-mindedly. These people get time and money, forums for their writings, and support for their travel to give talks all over the country and to appear before school boards, legislative bodies and the like. They do not have to set up laboratories, teach courses, publish in peer-reviewed journals, supervise theses, and meet all the other demands on the time and energy of scientists in universities or research institutes. So it should not be surprising that they have been able to hone an effective message despite the weakness of their case on its scientific merits.

But as I said before, in the long run ID will lose in its struggle with evolution for the same reason that many similar anti-science movements have lost in the past despite initial successes. And that reason is that in the final analysis, science and society have no use for useless ideas.

More on this topic in future postings.

POST SCRIPT: CAMP CASEY/BRING THEM HOME NOW MEETINGS

From Crawford, TX, working with and inspired by Cindy Sheehan, members of the Camp Casey (Bring The Troops Home Now) tour will present their experiences and views, and answer questions. Members include parents of soldiers killed in Iraq, families with sons or daughters in Iraq, and Iraq veterans.
There are two simultaneous and similar events, one east and one west side, both on Friday, September 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.

East side:
Church of the Saviour, 2537 Lee Road (north of Lee and Fairmount), Cleveland Heights
For further information: 216-536-3119
West side:
Saint Joseph Center, 3430 Rocky River Drive (Rte 237, McKinley exit off I-90) West Park area, Cleveland
For further information: 216-688-3462 or 216-252-0440×423
The events are free and open to the public. Military families and those still undecided are welcome.

(Note: I will be the moderator of the East side event and will also speak briefly during the program.)

How far does religious freedom extend?

In a previous posting that dealt with the problems that arise when you allow religious oaths in selecting jurors, I suggested that many of the religion-related frictions that occur in society would go away if the public sphere was made secular, and religion and religious practices stayed in the private sphere.

But while that might take care of some of the irritations that currently consume a lot of time and energy (swearing oaths, prayer in schools, the ten commandments in courts and city halls, locations of nativity scenes at Christmas, etc.) it would not take care of other issues, even in the unlikely event that the country committed itself to such a strict secular-religious demarcation.

In a comment to that previous posting, Erin pointed out that the separation might be hard to maintain when certain religious practices were taken into account since those practices might overlap with the public sphere. For example, she points out that certain religious groups such as Christian Scientists do not believe in taking medicine and would not take their children to a doctor even in the case of life threatening illnesses. And she also raises the issue about other religious groups that practice female genital mutilation. Should a secular state defer to religious sensibilities and stay out of such matters?

In a response to Erin, Paul pointed out that the religious freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights do not extend to actual practices, and that the courts have ruled that the state has an over-riding interest in the welfare of children that enables it to overturn the wishes of the parents if it feels that the life and health and well-being of children are threatened. So parental religious beliefs cannot be extended to cover actions that affect their children if those actions can harm their lives and well-being.

Not being a constitutional lawyer, I am not sure if that is the last word on the legal status currently prevailing in the US. But in some ways that is irrelevant because I am more interested in exploring what might be a reasonable way of reconciling the secular and religious interests in a society, and will leave aside specific questions of constitutionality and legality for others who are more knowledgeable in those areas to determine.

My own view is that people should have the freedom to believe anything they want, to practice their religion, to seek converts, and to gather with like-minded people to worship, provided all these things involve consenting adults who are making voluntary choices to participate. But religious freedom surely cannot be extended to those who would wish to impose their own belief on others or if the practices impinge on the rights of others.

I would also argue that secular laws should not have religious beliefs as their only basis. They must also have a secular justification. For example, you should not be able to pass a law that criminalizes homosexuality or prevents gay marriages just because some religious people find some objection to it in the Bible. Laws that regulate human behavior have to have a clearly articulated secular purpose.

Of course, drawing the lines between what religious practices are allowed and what not is always a tricky issue that requires an extended discussion (and usually litigation), but here I just want to deal with the rights of children. I agree with Paul that the state has a right, and even an obligation, to protect the rights of those in no position to defend their rights and children clearly fall into that category.

So I also agree with Erin and am firmly opposed to the genital mutilation of female children because you are causing irreversible changes on a child’s body without the child being in a position to give informed consent. Once the child becomes an adult, they should be able to make such a decision for themselves.

That same argument should apply to male circumcision as well. This again is something that I believe should be decided by someone after they become an adult, but of course this practice is common and does not cause any outrage. One reason for the two different responses seems to be that male circumcision has been sanctioned by western religious traditions while female genital mutilation has not. And from what I have read female genital mutilation seems to be a very dangerous, painful, and sometimes life-threatening procedure.

But if we are to be consistent on this issue, we should say that parents should not have the right to violate the physical integrity of children and impose irreversible physical changes on their bodies purely on the basis of religion, and that policy should apply equally to male and female children.

Misuse of scientific arguments

When I was in my first or second year of college, a friend of mine who belonged to a fundamentalist Christian church in Sri Lanka said that he had heard of a convincing scientific proof against the theory of evolution. He said the proof centered on the concept of entropy. I had already heard of the term entropy at that time, but I definitely did not understand the concept, since I had not as yet studied thermodynamics in any detail.

Anyway, my friend told me that there was this law of physics that said that the total entropy of a system had to always increase. He also said that the entropy of a system was inversely related to the amount of the order and complexity in the system, so that the greater the order, the lower the entropy. Since I did not have any reason (or desire) to challenge my friend, I accepted those premises.

Then came the killer conclusion. Since it was manifestly clear that the theory of evolution implied increasing order (under the theory, biological systems were becoming more diversified, complex, and organized from their highly disordered primeval soup beginnings) this implied that the entropy of the Earth must be decreasing. This violated the law of increasing entropy. Hence evolution must be false.

It was a pretty good argument, I thought at that time. But in a year or two, as I learned more about entropy, that argument fell apart. The catch is that the law of increasing entropy (also known as the second law of thermodynamics) applies to closed, isolated systems only, i.e., systems that have no interaction with any other system. The only really isolated system we have is the entire universe and the law is believed to apply strictly to it.

For any other system, we have to make sure that it is isolated (at least to a good approximation) before we apply the law to it, and this is where my friend’s argument breaks down. The Earth is definitely not a closed system. It continuously absorbs and radiates energy. It especially gains energy from the Sun and radiates energy into empty space and it is this exchange of energy that is the engine of biological growth.

So nothing can be inferred from the entropy of the Earth alone. You have to consider the entire system of the Sun, the Earth, and the rest of the universe, and you find that this leads to a net increase of the entire closed system. So the second law of thermodynamics is not violated.

You can have decreased entropy in a part of a system provided the entropy increases by more than that amount in another part. As an analogy, consider a sock drawer in which you have black and brown socks randomly mixed together. This is a state of low order and hence high entropy. If I now sort the socks so that all the black socks are on one side of the drawer and all the brown on the other side, then the sock drawer has gone from a lower to a higher state of order, and hence from higher to a lower state of entropy. Is this a violation of the second law? No, because it ignores the fact that I was part of the system. I had to use up energy to sort the socks, and in that process my entropy increased more than the decrease in entropy of the sock drawer, so that there was a net increase in entropy of the combined system (sock drawer + me). Strictly speaking, I was also in contact with the rest of the room since I was absorbing and radiating energy, breathing, etc., so if you wanted to get to an even better approximation to a closed system to be even more accurate, you had to take the entropy of the room into account as well.

This is why physicists believe that after the Sun eventually burns up all its nuclear fuel and ceases to exist, the Earth will inevitably fall into disorder, assuming that we haven’t destroyed the planet ourselves by then. (As an aside, Robert T Pennock in his book Tower of Babel says that some creationists believe that God created the second law, with its increasing disorder, as part of his punishment for Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.)

Once I understood better what entropy was all about, that was the end of the entropy argument against evolution, at least as far as I was concerned. Non-physicist scientists generally caught on to the fact that people were using the entropy argument fraudulently against evolution and were able to debunk it whenever it came up, so that nowadays one rarely hears that argument. One still occasionally comes across the entropy argument used in this fallacious manner, however, and it may still have power over the scientifically naive.

But even if the entropy argument itself has largely disappeared, other ‘scientific proofs’ against evolution and for the existence of god have arisen in the wake of so-called intelligent design (ID) and I will look at those arguments in future postings.

The problem with grades and other summary evaluations

In previous postings (see here and here), I discussed why college rankings vary so much depending on who does the survey. One of the reasons is that different criteria are used to arrive at the rankings, making it difficult to arrive at apples-to-apples comparisons. In this posting, I will discuss why I think that rankings may actually be harmful, even if the measures used to arrive at them are good.

The main problem with rankings is that it requires a single summary score obtained by combining scores from a variety of individual measures, and it seems as if people focus exclusively on that final score and not pay too much attention to the scores on individual measures that went into the summary.

This is a general problem. For example, in course evaluations by students of their teachers, there are usually many questions that ask students to evaluate their teachers on important and specific issues, for example, whether the teacher encourages discussions, is respectful to students, etc.

But there is usually also a question that asks students to give an overall evaluation of the teacher and when such questions exist, those people who usually read the results of the surveys (students, teachers, and department chairs) tend to focus almost exclusively on this summary score and not pay much attention to the other questions. But it is the other questions that provide useful feedback on what kinds of actions need to be taken to improve. For example, a poor score on “encouraging students to discuss” tells a teacher where to look to make improvements. But an overall evaluation of “good” or “poor” for teaching does not tell the teacher anything useful on which to base specific actions.

Teachers face the same problems with course grades. To arrive at a grade for a student, a teacher will make judgments about writing, participation, content knowledge, etc. using a variety of measures. Each of those measures gives useful feedback to the students on their strengths and weaknesses. But as soon as you combine them into a single course grade using a weighted average, then people tend to look only at the grade, even though that really does not tell you anything useful about what a student’s capabilities are. But teachers are required to give grades so we cannot avoid this.

I often hear faculty complain that they give extensive and detailed feedback on students’ written work, only to see students take a quick look at the grade for the paper and then put it away in the their folders. Faculty wonder if students ever read the comments. I too give students a lot of feedback on their writing and have been considering the following idea to try to deal with this issue. Instead of writing the final grade for the paper on the paper itself, I am toying with the idea of omitting that last step and ask the students to estimate the grade that I gave the paper based on their reading of my comments. I am hoping that this will make them examine their own writing more carefully in the light of the feedback they get from others. Then when they have shared with me what grade they think they got and why, I’ll tell them their grade. I am willing to even change it if they make a good case for a change.

I am a little worried that this process seems a little artificial somehow, but perhaps because that is because it is not common practice yet and anything new always feels a little strange. I am going to try it this semester.

Back to college ratings, those can be harmful for another reason and that is that the goals of a school might not mesh with the way that scores are weighted. For example, the US News & World Report rankings take into account incoming students scores on things like the SAT and ACT. But a school that feels that such scores do not measure anything meaningful in terms of student qualities (and a good case can be made for this view) might wish to look at other things it values, like creativity, ingenuity, citizenship, writing, problem solving, etc. Such a school is doomed to sink in the USN&WR rankings, even though it might be able to provide a great college experience for its students.

I am a great believer that getting useful feedback, in whatever area of activity, is an excellent springboard for improving one’s performance and capabilities. In order to do so, one needs criteria, and targeted and valid measures of achievement. But all that useful information can be completely undermined when one takes that last step and combines these various measures in order to get a single score for ranking or overall summary purposes.