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.


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.
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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.)
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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.


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


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.


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.
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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.