It's not all strawberry versus chocolate ice cream!

Now, I am a mint-chip ice cream (-loving) person myself, and dismiss vanilla* for being merely useful as an ingredient base for other treats. And of course, I’m entitled to my opinion. In turn, you all are free to express your own opinions about flavours of ice cream, including your total disinterest in eating ice cream.
(* It may be that I lack some kind of flavour receptor[s] to fully perceive vanilla/vanillin, because no matter what sort of sweet or quality of material, vanilla has never seemed to be particularly interesting or tasty to me.)
But there are opinions and there are other opinions, and Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, teaches his students that they are not entitled to have their opinions.
In a recent article, “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion” he immediately acknowledges this sounds a bit harsh, but explains that the point of a philosophy class  is learning how to create sound arguments, instead of leaning on beliefs, emotions, and misconceptions of what we think we know. Although opinions may be owned or expressed, not all opinions are equally valid.
Stokes skillfully distinguishes between the different things that fall under the vast umbrella of opinion:

But “opinion” ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.

It’s the conflating of being able to express one’s tastes, preferences, and beliefs — and then expecting those statements to be taken as seriously as fact-based, logically-sound argument — that is the major problem.
It is a major problem in everyday discourse, and in heated debates within and between countries, and it is an especially prevalent problem in various media. There’s the tired trope* of “getting balance” by interviewing “both sides” even though there are often more than just two sides (life is messy that way), and the problem that the opinions of both “sides” do not necessarily carry the same factual value (life is reality-based that way).
(* More on the problems with the news media and “balance” in my earlier post, “Both Sides Now”.)
Not all the information one finds or hears is equally valid. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”
Stokes further explains:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Wait a minute — can’t anyone have an opinion about anything? Of course!
Can’t anyone express their opinion about anything? Of course!*
(* Although it really helps if people take the time to ensure their protest signs are properly spelled and punctuated. Otherwise much hilarity ensues and one ends up with derisive and/or dismissive infamy rather than being taken seriously.)
But what unfounded opinion cannot do is carry equal weight when discussions require expertise.
Back to our ice cream opinions:  I know that vanilla bean pods come from a variety of orchid, because that’s a tidbit of horticultural knowledge and I am a horticulturalist. Being a foodie, I have long known that vanillin was synthesized as a less-expensive alternative for use in commercial products, and that it is the primary ingredient in the artificially-flavoured vanilla extract sold at the market.
BUT, I cannot be an expert witness or speaker on vanilla.
Likely, neither can the majority of you.
Not on the cultivars, growing, agri-ecology, processing from raw material to diverse flavouring forms, business economics, grower’s social justice issues, distribution and packaging, artificial synthesis of vanillin, culinary chemistry, historical usage, future trends of natural versus artificial flavouring … none of that stuff. Nor anything else that didn’t come to mind, albeit I was able to come up with a longish list just because I have that horticultural background and was able to extrapolate what accessory topics could be included.
You are entitled to have and to express your opinion, but that does not mean it must to be taken as serious fact; pointing that out is not being disrespectful to you as a person — it means that your opinion is insufficient to the case.
‘Personal Opinion’ is not some cloak of factual immunity that one can wear to suddenly become a creditable expert.
(Oh, and speaking of public persons with opinions but who are not experts, guess who came along to comment upon Stokes’ article …)

Yes, they really are irrational

Or at least, more so.
If you have ever sat on the sidelines thinking to yourself that the humans don’t make sense (to the point that others compared you to the character Spock from Star Trek), there is some research evidence vindicating that perspective.
Professor Ray Dolan’s research group at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, have an article in the recent issue of Journal of Neuroscience (link to press release). Using a study to examine the decision-making in autistic and neurotypical subjects, they found that the former were less likely to be swayed by “framing effects” in the opportunity descriptions.

“People with autism tended to be more consistent in their pattern of choices, their greater attention to detail perhaps helping them avoid being swayed by their emotions,” says Dr Neil Harrison.

Although this attention to detail and a reduced influence of emotion during decision making is beneficial in some situations, it may be a handicap in daily life, explains Dr Benedetto De Martino.

“During social interactions a lot of information must be processed simultaneously, making this a very complicated computational task for the brain,” he says. “To solve these complex problems we rely on simplifying heuristics – gut instincts – rather than extensive logical reasoning. However, the price that we seem to pay for this ability is that sometimes irrelevant contextual information leads us to make inconsistent or illogical choices.

“Less reliance on gut instincts by people with autism may underlie their difficulties in social situations, but also enable them to avoid potentially irrelevant emotional information and make more consistent choices.”

As ever, it helps to remember that the benefits or problems associated with skewed skill sets will always be affected by how necessary or valued are those skill sets.  The important part is to enable people by arranging their (home, job & school) workloads that will utilise their skills, rather than accentuate their deficits.  After all, we all have skills and deficits — some of us have more pronounced skills and/or deficits.

Hate Speech: Not Just For Strangers Any More

(Apologies for unsettling anyone’s recent meal.)
My news aggregator came up with this doozy of a quote the other day. It was an editorial reply to an article about Kathleen Seidel, and I’m not going to quote the entire letter. (Follow the link to read it yourself — if you want to reply to the author, do so on that newspaper’s reply page.)

I am one of those parents who has watched my autistic son go from being a vegetable to becoming human, thanks to chelation.

Okay folks, let’s get this straight.
These are vegetables:

These are children:

It is quite insulting at the personal level, and damaging at the social level to describe people with autism or another other condition as being “vegetables”. Doubtless the author believes that their child has improved due to the effects of an unproven “treatment” for an unsubstantiated diagnoses (e.g. autism as mercury poisoning from vaccines). But even if the diagnosis and the treatment actually had any factual basis, that would still not make such comments appropriate.

How would YOU feel if your parents described you as a “vegetable”?

Or as “having rotting brains”?

Or as a “train wreck”?

Or that your condition “relentlessly sucks life’s marrow out of the family members”?

Or as “an empty shell”?

Or as “soulless”?

Or that “Autism is worse than cancer in many ways, because the person with autism has a normal lifespan”?

Or as having “mad child disease”

Or that you “would have been better off aborted” because regardless of your aptitudes or potential skills, your existance is automatically assumed to be a “burden on society”.

I’m not making these terms up; you can google them. People with disabilities face enough stereotyping, discrimination, abuse, bullying, and are murdered more often than those without. (I’m not using hyperbole; click here or here.) Describing disabilities in such sensationalistic terms and derogatory ways does nothing to help people become better educated, better integrated into society and employed, or become better accepted in their schools, workplaces, social organisations and families.
More than that, one really has to wonder, What kind of parent describes their child in such insulting ways? And does so to the entire world? Such treatment to children over their lives does not bode well for their psychosocial development, that’s for sure.
When you hear people describing their family members, their students, peers, coworkers, or anyone else they know in such terms, take a moment to ask them,

  • Why they use such descriptions?
  • Do they really believe it, or are they just repeating something they’ve heard?
  • Would they want to be described that way?
  • How else can they describe their frustration or disappointmnet with events in life without insulting people like this?

But most of all, we need to be mindful when we speak up about such hate talk, and not use similarly disparaging terms. We don’t want to become that which we despise.
(A request to people commenting: please use appropriate language — follow the guidelines described in this post.)

New season, eternal science illiteracy

Well, it’s spring for sure because the frogs and toads have been singing, the daffodils and dandelions and forsythia are blooming, and it’s impossible to keep my nails clean. Earlier today I was able to get this shot of the chief noisemaker from the backyard pondette; it’s the American Toad (cleverly named Bufo americanus, which means American Toad).

Seeing him trilling reminded me of an incident just a few years ago when I was at a gardening function. A group of us were touring some gardens, one of which had a little pond. All of a sudden, one of the Teetery Old Garden Club Ladies* let out an agitated squeal and began dithering around in circles, begging others for assistance.

She was pointing to Continue reading New season, eternal science illiteracy

So-Not-Helpful Fixers and their Malcommendations

Bless them, there are a lot of people out there who want to help. Or rather, there are a lot of people out there who are helpful, and some who want to Give Help.
The latter sort want to give “those people” or “the ones with your kind of special needs” the benefit of their expertise. They’re “fixers” of the less-useful ilk, the sort who get their ego-fluffing from helping people, regardless of whether or not the person needs help, or wants help, or benefits from the sort of help they have to offer. The main point is that they are nobly out there graciously bestowing The Needy with the largess of their wisdom, even when their body of knowledge is riddled with “malcommendations”. Continue reading So-Not-Helpful Fixers and their Malcommendations

Not so lucky

The other day at the college I was waiting for an elevator (lift). It’s rather slow, but a sleet storm was heading in and I was especially achy. Just a few feet away was a bulletin board for a program the college runs, including a series of non-credit weekend classes for people with Down’s and other developmental or cognitive disabilities. One of the things thumbtacked to the board was a yellowing newspaper clipping. The photograph showed a young man busy in his kitchen, with his father standing nearby, watching him. The article began by mentioning how lucky the young man is because he has resources to help him learn to live independently, to get his own apartment, to get a job to support himself, and other important things.
He is lucky.
“Lucky” is one of those stock newspaper words that seems to be required in stories about disabled people. It’s right up there with “amazing”, “inspiring”, “challenged”, “journey” and a dozen other terms that I’m blanking on just from sheer nausea factor. (I’m sure you can think of several others.) I finished reading the story by the time the elevator moseyed up to the top floor. By the time I descended three levels, I had gathered up a fair bit of annoyance. Continue reading Not so lucky

The 3-pound Exemption (disembodied woo)

You gotta feel sorry for Topeka, Kansas. The state’s capital city is not only home to the infamous Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church, and has recently been the battleground for Intelligent Design vs Evolution counter-counter-legislation by the school board (currently with the majority ruling pro-science), but now the capitol is host to the paranoid propaganda by the CCHR. CCHR is the Citizens Commision on Human Rights, which despite the generic name is really just a front for Scientology. Their exhibit is titled, “Psychiatry: An Industry of Death” (well, no hidden biases there). Correspondent for the Kansas City Star newspaper, David Klepper, writes that the “the Capitol sees its share of traveling displays and wandering weirdness”. He notes that any group that can pay the fee is allowed to put up a display as long as it is not obscene, and describes the content thusly: Continue reading The 3-pound Exemption (disembodied woo)

Liberation by Disability: the paradox of Competency and Inclusion

“Because there is no way for good people to admit just how bloody uncomfortable they are with us, they distance themselves from their fears by devising new ways to erase us from the human landscape, all the while deluding themselves that it is for our benefit.”
~Cheryl Marie Wade

Disability is usually defined by what a person cannot do. But outside of the normative social realm, disability is really about how a person does things differently.
Within the cultural status quo, the onus of being “acceptable” for consideration to being included by others, is placed upon the person in question, rather than by those who are creating the standards and are choosing to accept or not. Frequently, inclusion must be “earned” by first Continue reading Liberation by Disability: the paradox of Competency and Inclusion

"Innumerancy Taxes"

I once saw a bumper sticker that claimed lotteries were “a tax on the innumerate”, meaning that most of the people who gamble on such do so because they don’t really understand the mathematics of basic probability (chance). It does seem to be alarmingly true that a great number of people don’t have a good understanding of odds. Sure, some people simply gamble for the gaming aspect, but casinos aren’t getting rich off folks like my grandma who got together with friends at each other’s homes once a month to chat and play penny-ante poker — they’re in business to make money off those who keep thinking that they’ve figured out some kind of “system” or that they’ve some kind of special “luck” or who are addicted to gambling.
There are some really odd ways the human brain works against reality, especially when it comes to understanding probabilities. The brain likes to find patterns, even when they aren’t there. Continue reading "Innumerancy Taxes"

Skepticism about cynics

When commenting on a previous post of mine, andreashettle asked,

I’m curious: how DO you help students understand the difference between blanket cynicism and healthy, balanced, thoughtful, analytical skepticism?
I don’t ordinarily teach. I’m in a different field. But I’ve done a little tutoring and teaching in the past. And sometimes I run into a student Continue reading Skepticism about cynics