12/18/12

Duck and Cover

I grew up in a small Kansas town that seemed at the time far removed from just about everything except the Soviet Union. Most of the U.S.’s planes were put together in Wichita (still known as the “Air Capital of the World”), which meant it was a first-strike target by that other superpower. Wichita sits about 130 miles east out on highway 50, and according to predictions and all sorts of maps bloomed with damage estimates, we (give or take a few megatons) would be erased with it.  I somehow understood all of this relatively early.  We practiced ducking and covering in the middle-school hallway, ostensibly to prepare for tornadoes, but the weather contributed little to the ambient fear of the time.

Shortly after Sandy rewrote the East Coast, my son told me about his class’s hurricane drill.  They turned out the lights and were instructed to huddle away from the door and to be very quiet.  In the wake of the Newtown shooting — a town just 60 miles north of us — we received messages from the school principal and our kids’ teachers advising us to talk to our children about what happened (best to get out in front of it all) and offering suggestions about how to go about that.  The upper grades would dedicate time to questions and discussion.  At home we broached and comforted and consoled more or less as advised.

This will be the legacy of Newtown:  Mass shooting is a children’s fear now, one they practice for and live with — one that, unfortunately, can no longer surprise even them.

10/25/12

Epistemic implosure

I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I find myself more exasperated and dread-filled this election season than during any other.  It’s not that I worry the candidate I favor may lose despite my belief that he is far and away the better choice; I’ve spent enough time with those worries to make peace with them.  And it’s not the feeling of powerlessness that comes with living in a state totally irrelevant to the election’s outcome.  (Peace has come to that front, too.)  Though closer, it’s not even so much the epistemic closure, more hermetic each cycle, of the Republican ecosystem.  Rather, Republicans have given up on epistemology altogether.  Yes, that’s it.

Epistemic closure is all about restricting (or in many cases generating) facts to only those that support the beliefs and positions held by the inhabitants of that ecosystem.  But this restriction still presupposes and relies upon a recognizable evidence-belief relation, one in which truly holding a belief demands having evidence and reasons for it.

Think about it like this.  How do we revise our beliefs?  Myself, I’m partial to the Duhem-Quine thesis, which pretty much says that our beliefs, knowledge, and experience together form an explanatory web we use to make sense of anything, a web we constantly revise and update based upon experience and reflection.  But our experiences and reflections don’t by themselves determine how we should revise our web, and any bit of it is in principle revisable, depending upon how willing we are to adjust the rest of the web accordingly.  Watch a magician work, and you’ve got a choice: Conclude that your eyes are being tricked or that a physical object (tiger/elephant/Statue of Liberty) can be made to disappear upon the utterance of the right word.  You can believe the latter, but doing so means revising deep and wide in your web — giving up beliefs about object permanence, for example, to hold true the observation.  Radical, but possible.  For some, letting gays marry undermines central principles about the universe, both material and immaterial, so it’s better to believe children need a mother and father or will grow up to rob liquor stores. Epistemic closure, then, serves as just a type of defense against belief revision.

The Romney/Ryan ticket have gone beyond this defense into epistemic implosure.   It’s not that Romney/Ryan create their own facts (which they do on occasion).  Rather, they don’t revise in any recognizable fashion.  Romney decries Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 2014 on one day, then embraces the timetable wholeheartedly the next.  He works hard to help institute universal healthcare in Massachusetts, then attacks the very same model as unsustainable and enslaving.  He contends both that government doesn’t create jobs and that he will (somehow) create 12 million jobs as head of government.  (And the principle of non-contradiction is one of those center-of-the-web kind of things.)

It’s tempting to conclude (to best preserve one’s own web) that Romney is willing to say more or less anything, that he has no center to revise, and that’s just, you know, Politics These Days.  If you’re willing to believe that, you better be willing to give up on believing.

10/10/12

The rise of the “Nones”

So here’s something interesting:

In 2007 Pew Research Center surveys, 15.3% of U.S. adults answered a question about their current religion by saying they were atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” The number of religiously unaffiliated respondents has ticked up each year since, and now stands at 19.6%.

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown significantly over the past five years, the Protestant share of the population has shrunk. In 2007, 53% of adults in Pew Research Center surveys described themselves as Protestants. In surveys conducted in the first half of 2012, fewer than half of American adults say they are Protestant (48%). This marks the first time in Pew Research Center surveys that the Protestant share of the population has dipped significantly below 50%.

The decline mainly occurred in the number of those surveyed identifying as white Protestants, whether evangelical or “mainline” (their term). Catholics, for their part, held roughly steady.

Damn. I thought it’d be easy to get a table for brunch after the Rapture.

Full Pew Study available here. (You might want to cross yourself or to place a wafer on your tongue before clicking.)

09/28/12

Why Johnny Can’t Write

The Atlantic has a nice debate up on the history of the teaching of writing that ought to interest several of our posters and commenters. As part of the series, Judith Hochman writes:

I have learned that celebrating writing is not the same as teaching children how to write — how to craft good sentences, develop a well-formed paragraph, and improve their work. Too often, teachers merely tell students to “add detail” or “summarize.” Frustrated students don’t know what to do, and many teachers haven’t learned the proper teaching skills in their graduate or professional development classes to effectively help them.

Make no mistake — done right, good writing instruction can extend learning. Diagramming sentences or doing page after page in grammar texts does not automatically result in better writers, although more able students enjoy these types of activities. There is evidence that confirms that teaching grammar in isolation does not lead to better composing. But research does confirm that when students begin to write more complex sentences, their reading comprehension improves. When they develop outlines, their organization and knowledge of text structure improves. When they respond to verbal questions using the prompts Tyre describes in the article, their oral language becomes more precise and sophisticated.