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 …)

What Would Molly Ivins Say?

Oh, boy howdy! This article by Laura Hibbard, “Texas Republican Party Calls For Abstinence Only Sex Ed, Corporal Punishment In Schools” nearly made me choke on my cuppa tea. She described just a few of the details the 2012 Republican Party of Texas wants for their state schools. (The article also includes a nicely scrollable copy of their entire Platform Report.)
You know me, I’m a science person, with keen interests in education and social justice.  And I was flabbergasted. It’s like a car crash — you can’t help but gawp in horrified fascination. Well, I had the day off work, so after a house-painting break, scanned through most of the document. It’s one thing to hear soundbites on the radio or in video, but quite another to actually be able to read an entire position. For one thing, it gives a person the chance to notice internal inconsistencies, and look things up.
In addition to the aforementioned items listed in the title of Hibbard’s article, the Texas GOP’s document lists a lot more in their “Educating Our Children” section. For example, they also want to eliminate preschool and kindergarten, and require daily pledges of allegiance to the US & Texas flags (because that somehow makes one patriotic).
Ooh, get this:

“Classroom Expenditures for Staff – We support having 80% of school district payroll expenses of professional staff of a school district be full-time classroom teachers.”

You realize that means giving the ability to hire a number of part-time classroom teachers (and paraprofessionals if they opt to include some) who can be paid WAY less, which will keep a district’s budget way down. “Fiscal responsibility” as a loophole for loading up on part-time staff. Who of course often don’t get benefits — unfortunately, a common practice in education and other industries. (Yes, I’m calling education an industry.)
And of course, this next incredible ::head-desk:: concept that (for me) underpins a great deal of their platform:

“Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

Because you know, mastering the subject material and learning how to think critically will undermine the GOP’s fixed beliefs and enable challenging authority. Any challenges to authority will be dealt with accordingly:

“Classroom Discipline –We recommend that local school boards and classroom teachers be given more authority to deal with disciplinary problems. Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas.”

Under the “Promoting Individual Freedom and Personal Safety” section, this concept continues as, Continue reading What Would Molly Ivins Say?

Reasoning for a good cause

“Same thing,” she said, waving off the comment and walking off toward the time-clock to punch out.
“But– no, it’s not …” I protested, and then stopped talking as I saw her leaving not only the the doorway where I stood, but our conversation as well.
If you could call it a conversation; I’ve had longer dialogs with fellow elevator riders.
It was hard to stop my rebuttal. I so wanted to explain, and having to force myself to stop in mid-sentence (hell, mid-mini-monologue) is hardly my style. But I diligently keep practicing social skills, including noticing when others have quit a topic.
Having already clocked out, I gave up, left the building, and even waited to get into my car before expressing my complaints aloud to no one — except a fruit fly uselessly orbiting the fragrant-but-empty lunch bag I had just tossed onto the floor.
And a fruit fly doesn’t give a gnat’s ass about the seemingly subtle difference between reason and cause. No, it is not mere semantics, and they are not exact synonyms.
“So how was your trip?” she had asked as we met in the hallway. We had not yet crossed paths that day, delaying the obligatory Monday morning chit-chat.
“Oh it was lovely, except for missing a connecting flight, so I was only there two days,” I began. And I was proud that I had even mindfully planned ahead to next ask her if she’d ever been to Boston, thus fulfilling my offering volley in the chit-chat process — when she gave me that totally unexpected, inexplicable response:
“Well you know, ‘Everything happens for a Reason’ !” She chirped, nodding sagely.
“You mean a cause,” I began.
“Same thing,” she said, waving off the comment and walking off toward the time-clock to punch out.
“But– no, it’s not …” I protested.* Continue reading Reasoning for a good cause

Naturally, I love chemicals!

This is a continuation on my previous post, “Attention, grocery shoppers!”
So the other night my daughter was complaining of her ingrown toenail that’s been bothering her for the past month.
“Why don’t you soak your foot in Epsom Salts?” I suggested.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“See that blue milk carton atop the fridge?” (That’s where we keep our first-aid/pharmacopeia.)  “It’s magnesium sulfate*.  Bath salts. It’ll help draw out the inflammation and such.”
“Salt?!” She winced
“Mineral salt, not sodium chloride table salt,” I added, while refraining from explaining about ionic bonds.  Her hubby the medic prepared her a foot soak and explained that magnesium sulfate is a natural mineral salt that’s mined and used for all sorts of things.
While she soothed her cold, sore feet in warm water, I had a mental chuckle over “natural chemical”.  To many people, the two words are antonyms — and very distant opposites at that.  As I’ve said before, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.  Minerals are chemicals.  So are sugar, water, caffeine, theobromine (mn chocolate), baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), all the ingredients in your can of soda, and so on.
Natural means that something is found in nature, with or without some processing.  Apple juice and olive oil are natural because they squeeze the bejeezus out of those fruits.  (Botanically, fruits are the parts of the plants with the seeds inside; olives and tomatoes are vegetables insofar as cookery and taxation are concerned.)  Vanilla extract is a natural flavor because vanilla beans are used.  Other natural flavors use plant and animal products.
Artificial, which is what many people really mean by the word “chemical”, means a substance produced synthetically.  In my organic chemistry lab, we made (minute) quantities of isopentyl acetate, which most of us are familiar with as artificial banana flavor used in candies or instant puddings. Imitation banana flavor is obviously pretty fake!  But imitation wintergreen is not so readily identifiable, nor is it dissimilar from naturally-distilled wintergreen essence, aside from the fact that the natural distillation will have additional “impurities” that add more depth to the flavor.
The divisions between natural and artificial are fairly straight-forward.  But the definitions of “organic” aren’t!  That’s because we have different meanings for the word organic in different contexts.
Once Upon A Time, O Best Beloved, there was just chemistry, that field of natural philosophy that the scientific method dragged out of the abyss of alchemy.  Organic materials were those which came from natural sources, and were deemed special and beyond the production of the laboratory; they were somehow still deemed to have a “vital force”.  However, in the early 19th century, urea (yes, the stuff of urine) was artificially synthesized, thus dispelling that last thread of medievalism.
Nowadays, organic chemistry occupies itself with materials composed of hydrocarbons, that is, molecules with both Carbon and Hydrogen atoms.  So instead of natural materials, there are a lot of well, unnatural materials involved, such as plastics, drugs, fertilizers, house paints … ordinary everyday stuff, most of which we wouldn’t want to live without.
In addition to the chemistry definition of organic, we have a couple of other usages.  When I’m teaching about composting, we use the term organic in its original sense of “from something living”.  If it used to be alive, you can compost it and create lovely humus (although fatty things will smell, so we leave meats & dairy items out).
Organic gardening and farming is yet another story.  Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides cannot be used, and transgenic plants are most always frowned upon as well.  (I have mixed feelings about transgenics; not about the processes, which are simply more specific means of breeding, but about other economic and agro-ecological issues.)
Unfortunately, the history of organic growing is fraught with heavy doses of woo, including planting by moon-signs, astrology, companion planting, and whatnot.  Fortunately, the professional realm has abandoned these, because professional growers have a lot of energy, money, time and effort invested (and of course, documentation work, because nothing officially exists without documentation).  They can’t afford to waste time on nonsense.  Unfortunately for the gardening end, lots of this woo still propagates through the vacuum of teh interwebs.
Last on my list of definitions is the oft-misapplied sense that anything “natural” or “organic” must therefore be safe.  This is bullshit.  There are lots of natural poisons!
Conversely, artificial does not automatically mean dangerous. For example we’ve been using synthetic acetylsalicylic acid (commonly known as aspirin) for decades, instead of the salicylic acid derived from willow bark that was painful to swallow and digest.  The name salicylic acid comes from the genus Salix, in reference to the willow. (Interestingly, wintergreen flavoring can be made from … aspirin!)
There are many organic materials that can be derived both naturally or artificially, and the molecules have no magical memory about where they came from previously.  A nitrate is a nitrate is a plant fertilizer, and a pan’s a pan for all that.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to nom on some banana Laffy Taffy.
* Technically magnesium sulfate heptahydrate, for chemists and those who actually care — you know who you are.

"Attention grocery shoppers!"

“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now!  You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker!  That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle!  And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Oh, boy.
It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley.  No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.
And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself.  (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).
One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music.  Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss.  Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time?  Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important.  Or maybe old research suggested such.  Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know.  As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder.  Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk?  Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14?  “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.
Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves.  Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them.  Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people!  Were they alone, or with another adult, or children?  Did they have a large or small cart?  Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender?  Were they were pink- or brown-skinned?  Hat? Fancy purse?  Team jacket?  Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?
My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell.  Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.
Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section.  It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive.  That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases.  One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.
“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”
“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.
“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”
Omigod.  Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.
“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,”  I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose.  Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf.  And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.”  (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)
Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition.    You already know what H2O is.  Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules.  Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula.  The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.
And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source.  That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.
But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.
I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.
“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”
“Nothing.  There’s no research evidence to support it at all.  A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.”  Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”.  Body sludge toxins, what nonsense!  (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)
“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”
Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts.  Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms?  I hope it’s not thorny …  “They’re over here, on the top shelf.  Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”

“Attention grocery shoppers!  Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise?  You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes!  Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”

Welcome to the Ivory Tower, Internet

My daughter shares this story:
Research is to English majors what coffee is to the general college student. Essays are ramen and reading material naps, if you’re curious. (Note that literal naps often overlap with these figurative ones.) So caught up in the glee of primary sources and minutia of MLA, we forget that not all of our academic brethren are blessed with this area of education.
Also, people are stupid.
So I’m sitting in my philosophy professor’s office, chatting breezily about feminist interpretations of Aristotle and (conventionally enough) existential crises in modern films. A flustered gentleman comes crashing through the doorway pleading for an audience. She invites him in, and he begins his protestations before I have a chance to vacate and thus offer privacy.
“Why did I get an F on this paper?” he whines, gesturing to the scarlet letter like it were the very knife Brutus plunged into Caesar’s back.
“Because it was a research paper,” she answers, “and you only had one source.”
“And?”
“And it was Wikipedia.”
“And?”
“And that’s not a credible source.”
“Nu-uh!” he cries, despondent in the face of life’s cold injustice. “I know it was! I posted the information myself.

Seated on the bridge of the Enterprise, Captain Picard does a pained face-palm
Seated on the bridge of the Enterprise, Captain Picard does a pained face-palm

Let me spell this out for you,

I’ve been absent from bloggery due to the work load as we near the end of the semester; this past weekend I graded five exams and a bunch of extra-credit assignments.  So far I have two students who have BLATANTLY just copied-pasted stuff from Web sites. This despite my having told them in the assignment handout,

All of the text should be in your own words, a synthesis of the information you have gathered, put into complete sentences.

The Student Code of Conduct explains the kind of misrepresentation that qualifies as plagiarism:  [URL link]

What, like they think I can’t tell this isn’t student writing, or won’t bother to type in a URL they listed in their bibliography?  One student just “re-gifted” an assignment obviously written for another class, which is just tacky as well — it’s one thing to recycle some information you’ve already researched and edit it to fit the requirements of a new report, but this stuff wasn’t even changed to fit what I’d asked for.
So I discussed the issue with the dept dean, and was given the suggestion of explaining the problem with the student, and offering them the opportunity to re-do the assignment correctly, or else take a 10% reduction on the Final Exam grade.  I like this option, because there are still significant consequences, but the student gets to decide what they’re doing.
One student left class before I could talk to him.  The other one I talked to, and his point of view was that:
(1) He didn’t see why using the same assignment for two classes was a problem. (“It needs to match the requirements of what I asked for.  Go back and re-read the assignment page.”)
(2) He didn’t see why copy-pasting information was a problem (“The course syllabus AND the assignment page both describe what plagiarizing is, and the assignment page specifically says it needs to be In Your Own Words.  When you quote something, it has to be offset, or in quote marks or otherwise marked.”)
I had to reiterate that I had talked with the Dean who had seen his paper, and agreed to this plan.
And golly gee if he didn’t go and do what I suspected he would!  He outright said that he’d submitted this same paper to his other prof, and that prof had no problems with the paper. (Somehow in his mind, this was supposed to be a strong argument; because you know, if you get by with cheating once, then it shouldn’t be a problem if you do it again.)  I explained that was between the other prof and him.  I knew this was plagiarism, and I wasn’t going to accept the paper.
GAH.

Things that mystify me

Not big, cosmic questions. Little stupid piddly-ass stuff. Like:

People who wedge open the flaps to trash cans by sticking their drink cups partway in. Why not simply push the flap just a bit further in and drop your rubbish into the can? Why leave it wedged open?  This makes the OCD-ish part of my brain hurt.

When someone asks, “Why is it always in the last place you look?”
“Because,” I finally replied to my clueless coworker, “once you find it, you quit looking!”
“Oh! I never thought of that.”
(I regret that I am not making this up.)

This was a rant from last week, by one of the secondary teachers: Continue reading Things that mystify me

The sum of good intentions

Feel free to insert the more familiar or acceptable word of your choice.  But regardless of your word choice, the equation stands:

Good Intentions plus Bullshit still equals Bullshit

It doesn’t matter if you are a parent earnestly trying to help your child improve lagging developmental skills — if the information you are disseminating to newbies or news agencies is based upon bogus treatments and world-wide conspiracy theories, then the information you are giving others is still bullshit. (Example: vaccines cause autism and/or dozens of unproven “cures” for all sorts of developmental/educational difficulties.)
It doesn’t matter if you are an elected official trying to get funding for projects that could potentially improve the local economy — if your cherry-picked “experts” assert that there are no ecological problems, but the overwhelming majority of experts from agencies around the world say there will be serious consequences, then your assertions are still bullshit.  (Example: Sarah Palin on global warming, oil pipelines, and polar bears.)
It doesn’t matter if you are a news reporter trying to ensure “balanced coverage” of a story by quoting from “both sides” — when one of those “sides” lacks credibility and just presents distraught protagonists ranting over perceived injustices because fact-based reality keeps intruding upon belief systems based upon magical thinking and millenia-old folk tales, then your editorial judgment is weak and the news is full of bullshit.  Respecting others’ feelings and beliefs does not mean that those should usurp sound legislative, educational or economic practices, or be allowed to trump everyone’s civil rights.  (Example, Creationism/Intelligent Design being taught in science classes.)
Nope; the earnestness and good intentions part cannot gloss over the huge piles of bullshit.  Crap is still crap, and the best thing we can do with crap is to put it with the rest of the dead stuff and compost it, until the bacteria and worms and arthropods have broken it down into something useful.