From Abracadabra to Zombies
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Some stories are too cold to touch
February 19, 2008. Occasionally, I get requests to investigate subjects I know nothing about. Despite what some readers think, I do restrain myself at times and let others tackle subjects where my ignorance is profound. For example, I recently received an e-mail from someone who enclosed an article called "Magnetic Reconnection – Reinventing the Wheel" by Donald E. Scott, identified as "a retired professor of Electrical Engineering and long-time amateur astronomer." The article was posted on Thunderblogs. The article obviously resonated with the man who sent it to me. He prefaced the article with this comment:
This may make you think about investigating so called straight science, particularly Astrophysics and Cosmology (it also requires rethinking meteorology, geology, and many other sciences as well) for entries in your dictionary under Junk Science and Pseudoscience.
I thought it odd that anyone would expect me to investigate a half dozen sciences with the goal of showing that they aren't really sciences but pseudosciences, based on an article posted on a blog. How was I to understand what thousands of scientists had missed? But I read the article and was struck by the fact that the author begins with some sensible comments about modular thinking and design before drifting off into a story about Hannes Alfvén, a Swedish plasma physicist and Nobel Prize winner in physics for work on magnetohydrodynamics. Alfvén, according to the author, was unjustly ridiculed and ignored by astrophysicists. (Alfvén rejected the Big Bang theory.) The article then explores some technical astrophysical stuff involving energy released from magnetic fields. I am in no way qualified to evaluate this technical stuff. But my crap detector goes on when I read about the lone scientist who is right while being ignored and ridiculed by the entire scientific community.
I wrote back and asked "why me?" I also asked why I should trust a writer who claimed the entire scientific community was "reinventing the wheel," complained about how ignorant people can be, and then showed his own ignorance by producing a false history of the invention of the wheel. Scott writes:
(Despite its overwhelming utility, many major cultures failed to discover it – the wheel did not appear in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, or the Americas until comparatively recent times.) The reason (for the reinvention) in this case was that there was no known communication between the Chinese and Mesopotamian civilizations at that time. The Chinese had no way of knowing about the original invention.
The wheel was invented in the Americas before contact with Europeans. You can see numerous examples of wheels on toys and artifacts in museums like the Museo de Antropologie in Mexico City. Wheels won't do you much good if you have no draft animals, no abundant grains to pulverize into flour, or if you live in mountainous or hilly terrain. I suggest Mr. Scott read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel for a more accurate understanding of the history of the wheel.
I was told that I'd missed the point. In a follow-up e-mail, I was told:
the wheel is just a metaphor. The important point is that solid electrical science from Faraday and Maxwell onward is being ignored as an explanation for many so called anomalies that are being continually found by NASA and astronomers in the exploration of space. They keep trying to fit them into the Big Bang gravity only theory with little or no success. If you followed the links to many other people in the field particularly people like Halton Arp who has observationally demonstrated that red shift does not necessarily equate to distance, you might find some time to investigate further.
I then got really rude and informed him that Scott was not writing metaphorically and that he ought to take his case to NASA. I'm not a scientist and have no dog in this fight. Of course, I didn't put it so eloquently and my pen pal was ending the conversation:
It seems to me that skeptics are extremely rude people who have no time for those they consider inferior. I emailed you thinking you had an open mind but I see it is as closed as most who set themselves up as an authority with a large website to prove how clever they are. You are correct that I should take my concerns elsewhere.
I guess I should have just told him that I was really busy and couldn't be his advocate on this one. Instead, I ridiculed his source and wondered out loud why I should trust an article by someone who uses an erroneous story about the wheel to illustrate his point that the entire scientific community except for his hero misunderstands a fundamental aspect of nature.
In any case, I leave this subject to the experts.
Another topic that several readers have tried to prod me into investigating is audiophilia. Claims made by audiophiles, I am told, are outrageous and hyperbolic. People who make claims about being able to detect significant differences in sound quality between very expensive and cheap audio equipment are defrauding and cheating the ignorant public who buy these exaggerated claims and then spend tons of unnecessary money on audio equipment. Frankly, I don't know if this is true and I really don't care. I have mediocre hearing (to be generous) and I know very little about audio equipment. I can tell the difference between my expensive (to me, but not to an audiophile, who is likely to be spending thousands of dollars on equipment) Bose iPod player and a cheaper portable we own that cost about one-third of what the Bose did. I personally think the Bose is worth every penny.
Anyway, I found it curious that my hero James Randi spent what seemed to me like an inordinate amount of writing time ripping into the claims of audiophiles in his weekly Swift report. He got to the point where there was discussion of having an audiophile compete in the million dollar paranormal challenge. What? There's nothing paranormal or supernatural about audiophile claims. But, it's not my challenge and he can test anyone he wants for whatever reason. I assumed that he thought the audiophiles were defrauding people by making false claims that would entice them to spend large sums of money on unnecessary equipment. Even so, the issue doesn't resonate with me. On a list of one thousand items to investigate, audiophilia is near the bottom for me. The issue also led to some acrimony on the JREF Forum.
Which brings me to the point of this article: Randi seems to have met his rhetorical match in Michael Fremer, an audiophile. Fremer's response to Randi, whom he calls The Annoying Randi, is on par with the kind of commentary Randi throws at his more annoying correspondents. Read it; it's not obviously written by a madman. Even the title is clever: The Swift Boating of Audiophiles. Fremer is not always so eloquent, however. Another audiophile, Arthur Salvatore, who criticized Fremer, was so annoyed by Fremer's disproportionate response, that he's set up a webpage with their correspondence. Fremer sent an e-mail to Salvatore three years after the latter publicly disagreed with him about something. The subject line of Fremer's e-mail indicates the kind of fellow you are dealing with: Still a douche bag, after all these years!
Fremer even threatened to sue Salvatore:
I see that you are still a total paranoid imbecile. Because I disagree with you about something (ZYX) you need to attack me personally. Yawn. I really don't give a shit what you think of my audio opinions.
However, what's below is beyond one of your girlie- attacks. It is an attempt to damage my reputation with an outright lie. It is libel and is being reviewed by two attorneys: one in the U.S. and one in Canada.
The issue involves some sort of cartridge and a company that sold one called the Crown Jewel and another called the Shelter 501. The former costs more than three times as much as the latter and Salvatore took Fremer to task for not noting that they are basically the same item with different names.
The exchange between these two experts is not high-level and provides little in the way of interesting rhetoric.
Fremer is a dog you do not want to bite, however. Michael Vick would love to have him in his kennel. This dog will not quit. In his response to Randi, Fremer gives as good as he got. The issue, however, is just about as exciting as cartridges: audio cables. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I just cannot arouse any interest in audio cables or what somebody says about them or what people spend on them. This is partly because I know nothing about them and partly because even when I have bought audio equipment, which is not that often, I've never inquired about audio cables. Call me a fool, but if I've been duped when buying audio equipment, it hasn't been for very much money.
I much prefer it when people ask me about something I have some knowledge of, but lately I've been getting requests like the following:
I wonder if you have heard of the book "When The Drummers Were Women" by Layne Redmond.
Layne Redmond herself is a well regarded percussionist who has worked and written in conventional areas, but has also produced this book on female drummers.
To me this smacks of pseudohistory, womens' personal growth and empowerment courses, Goddess myth etc etc, but I have not been able to find any sceptical reviews or commentary. I would really like to know if her history and archaeology has been selectively selected.
I am a drummer myself, as well as an engineer, and am familiar with the way hand drumming in the West has become associated with "spirituality" and personal growth. Funnily enough, it tends to be more the dreadlocked hippy type of drummer who subscribes to these sorts of views. Serious drummers who take lessons and play music professionally don't seem to care so much.
I never really thought of the history of drumming as part of history or potential pseudohistory, but it's a legitimate subject and a legitimate question. The only problem is, I am not the one you should ask. I know nothing of drumming or its history and don't see what rides on my taking a position on this issue, so I don't plan to investigate it. I can say, though, that, in general, everybody's selective in their memories and use of evidence to support their beliefs.
Since I haven't been getting questions I can answer, I shall write about what I know: politics and who should be the next president of the United States. Just kidding. It looks like our choice will be between the old guard and the old guard, or the old guard and the changing of the guard. At least, we won't have a religious fanatic running the country, unless the VP for the winning party turns out to be one and the president dies in office.
I'd like to have a president who won't send young people to die in a country most of them couldn't even locate on a map. At least, that's the inference I draw from Susan Jacoby's article "The Dumbing of America," a preview of her latest book The Age of American Unreason. Her story about the two guys in suits on 9/11 talking in a bar after the attacks won't bother American Idol fans, I'm sure, but it sure bothered Jacoby. "This is just like Pearl Harbor," said suit #1. "What is Pearl Harbor?" asked suit #2. "That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam war," replied suit #1.
Part of the blame for our anti-intellectualism is our educational system. What do the candidates have to say about education? Time magazine, that intellectual bulwark, has devoted it latest issue to the subject of teachers and education. It reduced the candidates' beliefs to what can fit in about three square inches of print. According to Time:
McCain favors a free-market approach to education. He would encourage schools to compete for the best teachers and allow parents more freedom to choose which kind of school — public, private, parochial, charter or home — is best for their kids.
Huckabee emphasizes the importance of art and music to round out a child's education — his signature theme on this issue — but is careful to say he wouldn't mandate any programs. A supporter of school choice, he also highlights the right of parents to homeschool their children.
Obama believes the Federal Government should play a bigger role in public education by funding innovative ideas proposed by individual school districts. He puts an emphasis on recruiting and retaining teachers, whom he calls the "single most important factor" for a child's success in the classroom.
Clinton calls for an end to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which she voted for in 2001. As an alternative, she supports broader assessments of progress in schools than the formulas set out by NCLB. Clinton would also provide incentives for community groups to get involved in education.
My comments. To McCain: you are defending the status quo. We already have a free market in education. (note: Actually, we don't. See this article about a recent court ruling in California and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's reaction.) What we don't have is a government that will pay for any kind of schooling parents choose for their children. McCain favors vouchers. I see vouchers as an invitation to fanatics to open schools focusing on their wingnut ideologies, probably religious. Worst case scenario: we end up with hundreds or thousands of little Bible schools and train a generation of Bible robots at government expense. He thinks the most important issues in education are "choice and competition." These words indicate to me that he hasn't thought much about education. The most important issue in education, unfortunately, is safety. We live in a world where leaders solve international and domestic problems by using force and violence. Children imitate their elders. Many parents are afraid to send their children to school. Here, in America. You can't have successful students without parental commitment and involvement. Once you solve the safety and social nurturing issues, then you can worry about choice and competition.
To Huckabee: Parents already have a right to homeschool, at least in my state. Are you planning to impose your federal will on the states? This is fine by me. It's great that he thinks art and music should be part of every child's education. It's too bad he won't do anything to make it happen. I'd love to see my country support a national program for music similar to the one in Venezuela.
To Obama: Get specific. You're wrong about the single most important factor for a child's success in the classroom, though we might not mean the same thing by success. In fact, many teachers might argue that their students are so different that there is no single measure of success for them. Anyway, the teacher can do very little if the child is not emotionally and cognitively ready. While there are exceptions, the teacher who helps a child succeed needs the encouragement and support of the child's parents.
To Clinton: I don't hear too many educators praising NCLB, either. I also don't think your chances of getting elected increase each time you state you are against something you voted to fund as a Senator. Anyway, do you want to get rid of NCLB or just change the assessment methods? If the latter, be specific. I don't know if I want too many community groups getting involved in the local schools. There are so many whack jobs out there who think education should support their nutty ideas. Do we really want these wankers interfering in school programs? On the other hand, if we're talking about a few grannies talking to kids about sewing or storytelling or working the welding torch during the war, then I'm all for it.
Frankly, when it comes to education, I hope whoever gets elected leaves it to others to come up with the inspiring ideas.
Truthfully, how realistic is it to expect the President to get the Congress to do anything but wreck education? The Time issue mentioned above raises as key issues things like merit pay and more time per year spent in the classroom. These are not key issues. In fact, they are issues that divert attention from the key issues.
Time notes that 30% of new teachers in U.S. public schools quit the profession within the first three years of teaching, at a cost of about $7 billion per year. (We're talking, of course, of those who teach our children through high school; we're not talking about college teachers or trade school teachers.) The main reasons given for quitting boil down to this: teachers are overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. These are cultural phenomena. We do not respect teachers in this country. We do not respect learning for the sake of learning. We do not consider a love of art, music, dance, and theater as intrinsically valuable. We do not consider the scientific understanding of the world we live in as intrinsically valuable. We do not consider creative and inventive activity as intrinsically valuable. Everything we consider truly valuable has apparent utility, particularly utility for making life more comfortable or people more wealthy.
Teachers in the U.S., don't just walk into rooms around the country where 30 eager, healthy, loved children wait to be guided toward adulthood, prepared to appreciate what is worth appreciating, and filled with a desire to know more about themselves, their species, and the world around them. If the politicians could fill our classrooms with such children, then I say go ahead and bicker until the cows come home about merit pay or how many students should be in each class, or how long the school day or the school year should be. When the politicians can fill our classrooms with students who respect learning and whose parents are more concerned about their children's character than about getting them out of the house or into a fine college, then the politicians can argue merit pay until the moon turns blue. When the politicians can eliminate the drug-using parent, the hungry child, and the abused bodies of the innocent that should be cared for as if they were the most precious things on earth, then they can tell us what program they want to impose to insure accountability.
If you want to reward teachers with merit pay, give it to those who inspire young people to want to be lifelong learners despite having indifferent or incapable parents. Give rewards to those teachers who inspire their students to want to improve the human condition despite the constant badgering by peers and commercials to desire nothing more than the lifestyles and material stuff of professional athletes, rappers, rock stars, and other celebrities.
It would be better, though, to create a culture where teachers are respected and paid appropriately. Create a culture where children are loved by their parents who have the time and ability to work with their children and their children's teachers to instill a lifelong love of learning and creating. Create a culture where teachers don't feel like fools for working 60 to 80 hours a week for much less pay than they'd earn in business or government. Do that and we can worry about choice and competition and all the other smokescreens we are likely to be diverted by if we listen to politicians who never went to junior high in an inner city public school.
* AmeriCares *