The allure of rapture violence

I must say that since I recently started reading about the rapture (see here and here for previous posts on it), it has fascinated me. (Some readers of this blog who had never heard of the rapture before I started posting on it have told me they were startled to find people they know accepting the idea of it very matter-of-factly, as if it were nothing special.) Not that I take the basic idea of huge numbers of people being transported suddenly up into heaven seriously, of course. That strikes me as a wild flight of fancy that belongs in the same genre as Star Wars or Harry Potter films, i.e., enjoyable largely because it is so outrageously improbable.
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Politics and religion

One of the interesting things that I noticed on my recent trip to Sri Lanka is how three current political developments in the US (which I view as negative) were anticipated in Sri Lanka politics over the last half century. These are: (1) pandering to religious sentiment in making public policy; (2) attacking and undermining trust in the judicial system; and (3) using raw political power to override minority interests. I will look at these three parallel developments in sequence, starting with the religion question.
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Having fun with telephone representatives

Once in a while, I look in on the site Jesus’ General which is a parody website that is hard to describe but is often hilarious. It was the most recent winner of the Koufax Award for Most Humorous Blog.

Recently, the General posted an item about a telephone conversation that someone named Eugene Mirman had with a representative who was trying to get him to switch to her Christian long-distance phone company. As part of her sales pitch to Mirman, the phone rep first made sure that Mirman was opposed to same-sex marriages and then proceeded to allege that rival phone companies AT&T, MCI, and Verizon were all involved in promoting hard-core pornography, child pornography, and homosexuality, thus making them unworthy of God-fearing people.
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Snap judgments and prejudices

In an earlier post, I described Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink about the way we instinctively make judgments about people. The way we make snap judgments is by ‘thin-slicing’ events. We take in a small slice of the phenomena we observe and associate the information in those slices with other measures. People who make good snap judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with valid predictors of behavior. People who make poor or prejudicial judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with poor predictors.

Think about what you observe about a person immediately as that person walks into your view. Gender, ethnicity, height, weight, color, gait, dress, hair, demeanor, eyes, looks, physique, gestures, voice, the list just goes on. We sweep up all these impressions in a flash. And based on them, whether we want to or not, we make a judgment about the person. Different people will weigh different elements in the mix differently.

If someone comes into my office wearing a suit, my initial impression of the person is different than if she had come in wearing jeans. (If you were mildly surprised by my using the pronoun ‘she’ towards the end of the last sentence, it is because, like me, you implicitly associate suits with male attire, so that the first part of the sentence made you conjure up a mental image of a man.)

A personal example of snap judgments occurs when I read Physics Today which I get every month. The obituary notices in have the magazine have a standard form. There is a head-shot of the person, with the name as the header, and one or two column inches describing the person.

Almost all of the obituaries are of old white men, not surprising for physicists of the generation that is now passing away. I found myself looking at the photo and immediately identifying whether the person was of English nationality or not. And I was right a surprising number of times. And I was not reasoning it through in any conscious way. As soon as I saw the picture came into view, I’d find myself thinking “English” or “not English”. I don’t know the basis of my judgments. But as I said, I was right surprisingly often.

Gladwell describes a very successful car salesman who over the years has realized that gender, ethnicity, clothes, etc. are not good predictors of whether the person is likely to buy a car or not. Someone who his fellow salespeople might ignore or dismiss because he looks like a rustic farmer, this salesman takes seriously. And because this salesman has been able to shape his intuition to ignore superficial or irrelevant things, his senses are better attuned to pick up on those cues that really matter.

Some of the strongest associations we make are those based on ethnicity, gender, and age. We immediately associate those qualities with generalizations associated with those groupings.

People are not always comfortable talking about their attitudes on race, gender, and other controversial topics. This is why surveys on such topics are unreliable, because people can ‘psyche out’ the tests, answering in the way they think they are expected to, the ‘correct’ way, rather than what they actually feel. This is why opinion polls on such matters, or in elections where the candidates are of different races or ethnicities, are hard to rely on.

There is a website, developed by researchers at Harvard University, that recognizes this problem. They have designed a survey instrument that tries to overcome this feature by essentially (as far as I can tell) measuring the time taken to answer their questions. In other words, they are measuring the time taken for you to psyche out the test. Since we have much less control over this, the researchers believe that this survey gives a better result. They claim that you cannot change your score by simply taking the test over and over again and becoming familiar with it.

If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on “Demonstration”, then on “Go to Demonstration Tests”, then on “I wish to proceed”. This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IAT) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell’s book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test “always leaves me feeling a bit creepy.” He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

I can see why this kind of test is unnerving. It may shake our image of ourselves and reveal to us the presence of prejudices that we wish we did not have. But if we are unconsciously making associations of whatever kind, isn’t it better to know this so that we can take steps to correct for them if necessary? The successful car salesman became so because he realized that people in his profession made a lot of the unconscious associations that were not valid and had to be rejected. And he used that knowledge in ways that benefited him and his customers.

Although you cannot change your Race IAT scores by simply redoing the test, there are other things that can change your score. When I took the Race IAT, the results indicated that I have no automatic preference for blacks or whites. In a later posting, I will talk about the effects that ‘priming’ might have on the test results, and how that might have affected my results.

Developing a personal philosophy of life

I wrote in an earlier posting about how college is an ideal place to start thinking about developing a personal philosophy of life, because it brings together all the resources that can help you get started on such a fulfilling journey. I also noted the disturbing trend that the number of college students seeing that as a major goal of college was decreasing over time.

But what exactly do I mean by ‘a personal philosophy of life’? And how does one set about developing one? Does it mean reading books on philosophy and taking courses in them? Not necessarily, though such things can help since it helps you develop the vocabulary to better understand those kinds of questions. I have never had a course on philosophy in my life, but I think that I do have some sort of philosophy. What studying formal philosophy does do is give you the vocabulary to label what you believe and to make better contact with the philosophies of other people.

The first thing to realize is that all of us have some philosophy of life already, although we might not be able to articulate it. What is more accurate to say is that it is likely that we have many philosophies, each dealing with separate areas of life. We might have one for our religious beliefs, one for our political beliefs, one for our scientific beliefs, one for personal relationships, one for life, one for death, and so on. These philosophies may be fairly separate and we simply pluck them off the shelves of our mind to deal with specific situations.

Developing a personal philosophy of life does not mean abandoning all of these separate philosophies and starting from scratch but instead starting the process of bringing these various elements into a common framework. In other words, trying to mold them into a coherent whole, so that the beliefs and values we apply in one area of life are compatible with those in another.

This is far from easy to do. Having separate philosophies for different areas of our lives can make life easy for us in very practical ways and prevent us from facing awkward questions and contradictions. One of the biggest problems that some people face (and which I have discussed before – see here and earlier articles) may be the different philosophies that are brought to bear on science and religion. Another might be those we apply to our friends and those we apply to strangers. People who are extraordinarily kind to people they know might be quite callous about the plight of strangers. For example, people who say they object to murder might be quite agreeable with dropping bombs on people of other nations. Or people who say they value life and yet may be agreeable to the death penalty, Or people who are vegetarians on moral grounds yet are comfortable wearing leather shoes. And so on.

We all have such contradictions. What I am saying is that recognizing their existence and trying to resolve them is the basis of understanding oneself. The act of trying to bring all our separate philosophies into one personal, individualized, coherent framework that makes sense for each one us may not be possible. There may always be some things that cannot be made to fit and we may have to live with the contradictions.

The point I want to make is not that we must have one unifying philosophy, but acquiring the desire to have one and starting us on the road towards developing one of the most valuable things that a university education can give us.

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was the arrival of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).
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The home of the brave? Or the fearful?

I have done the people of Ohio an injustice. In a previous posting, I said that sometimes it seems to me that there is no half-baked idea that originates anywhere in the known universe that does not quickly find influential adherents anxious to institutionalize it in Ohio.

This was a slur on the people of Ohio implying as it does that we are merely followers. It appears that influential Ohio politicians are quite capable of coming up with original half-baked ideas all on their own. Evidence of this comes from the introduction of Ohio Senate Bill 9 that seeks to expand the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act (which is already a very disturbing law) and apply these extensions to the people of Ohio.

Jeffrey M. Gamso, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio stated the case against the Ohio bill in his testimony before the Ohio’s Senate Judiciary Committee:

“The ACLU of Ohio opposes many of the provisions of S.B. 9. The proposed legislation makes criminal what is already a crime (and may criminalize obedience to the law); requires that people incriminate themselves and in some cases makes criminal their failure to do so; provides sweeping powers to law enforcement to demand identification from wholly innocent persons. It does all that while doing remarkably little to make us either safer or more secure. Like the USA PATRIOT Act, S.B. 9 effects a needless expansion of wide-ranging police powers which threatens the very rights and freedoms that we are struggling to protect.

There are five broad categories of problematic bad legislation tied together in S.B. 9: (1) Legislation which simply duplicates already existing federal law; (2) legislation which provides government with broad powers to investigate and prosecute even wholly innocent activity; (3) legislation which prohibits possession of that which may be misused rather than the misuse itself; (4) legislation which attempts to restrain the people of Ohio from expressing their disapproval of the actions of the government, and (5) legislation which forces people to incriminate themselves. In addition, S.B. 9 may require, in some circumstances, government employees actually to violate existing law – and does so without shielding them from the consequences of such a violation.�

As a proud card-carrying member of many years of the American Civil Liberties Union, I have major concerns with the rapid encroachment of civil liberties in this country under the guise of fighting terrorism.

What amazes me is that so many people are so scared of the possibility of potential terrorist acts that they are willing to let politicians dismantle even the provisions of the Bill of Rights. It is a disturbing feature of modern American political life that people can be so easily terrified that they so surrender without a fight what they should hold most dear. It seems like people are unable to make judgments about how safe is safe enough.

One way to make such a comparison is to compare the probabilities of two scenarios. On the one hand, there is the probability that we are harmed by some terrorist activity that this law would have prevented if had been enacted. The other is the probability that this law once enacted, instead of being used to protect us, is used against innocent people. Which do you think is more likely?

For me this is a no-brainer. The chances of being the victim of a terrorist attack are very small. Yet, if history is any judge, the chances that laws introduced under the guise of protecting us from ‘outsiders’ will eventually be used against us instead is relatively much higher.

So we should oppose this legislation and also seek to sustain the sunset provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act when they fall due at the end of this year.

To find out what you can do, go here.

High self-esteem does not lead to high student achievement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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