Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sexism and Comics

Continuing with the bent of trying to make sure I'm educated on the gender issues, I recently was introduced to this article on depictions of women in comic books.

Of the many things that have been posted lately, I think this is one of the best. Here's a few of the salient quotes:
These aren't those women. They're how dudes want to imagine those women would be -- what Wire creator David Simon called writing "men with t*ts." They read like men's voices coming out of women's faces. Or worse, they read like the straight girls who make out with each other at clubs, not because they enjoy making out with women but because they desperately want guys to pay attention to them.

This is not about these women wanting things; it's about men wanting to see them do things, and that takes something that really should be empowering -- the idea that women can own their sexuality -- and transforms it into yet another male fantasy.
But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out.
I'm not a comic fan, but these bits can be applied to nearly any genre out there.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

You're Killing Me

One of the worst things about being a science guy is that many of my friends, many of whom are well educated nerdy types, want to talk to me about science.

The problem is that they don't know much about it.

As I look more into our failing science education system, the more I realize it's not one problem. It's two. The first is that we haven't established a solid factual foundation. This is demonstrated in the numerous surveys demonstrating that we, as Americans, fail to correctly answer basic factual questions about science.

The second is that we don't understand the scientific process or engage in critical thinking about scientific topics*.

While many of my friends are nerdy enough to have a pretty good grasp on the basic facts, they're still dismal at the second. This morning, one of them posted as his facebook status:
For those of you who didn't notice, scientists have rediscovered yet another truth illuminated almost 100 years ago by the last epic genius to grace the face of this planet. Neutrinos, sub-atomic particles, move faster than the speed of light. This truth essentially invalidates Einstein's Theory of Relativity because Neutrinos are matter, which means that e=/= m(c^2). Tesla, man...where has all the true, selfless genius gone?

This is, of course, referring to the recent announcement that some scientists seemed to discover that neutrinos were exceeding the speed of light.

Let's take a review of what the actual scientists are saying here:
- Probably not. But maybe! Or in other words: science as usual.: Sean Carroll
- Faster-than-light travel discovered? Slow down, folks: Phil Plait @ Bad Astronomy
- We need it checked. We're very suspicious about this.: Brian Cox
- Don't Believe the Hype (Yet): Jennifer Ouellette
- This Extraordinary Claim Requires Extraordinary Evidence!: Ethan Siegel @ Starts with a Bang
- If true, then neutrinos from SN 1987a "should have arrived not a few hours early, but a few years, and there would not have been coincident arrivals at the different detectors on Earth.": Pete Coles @ In the Dark

Are you sensing a theme here? When faced with a spurious result that challenges a long standing, well established theory, scientists are extremely critical. They caution that the data be checked extremely carefully and, as the last link shows, they look to see what the implications would be and check to see if those are true too. That's not the response we're getting from the general public, which shows that we've failed to instill an understanding of how to analyze scientific results.

What we must do is weigh the new evidence against the evidence against it. As it turns out, the evidence for relativity (which requires that speed limit of light be firm) is pretty darn strong. It was first supported by the bending of light during a solar eclipse, but it explains the orbit of Mercury, the ability to detect muons created in cosmic rays, the orbits of pulsars slowing, gravitational lensing and redshift, space-time curvature observed by Cassini, and the results of Gravity Probe B.

That's a lot of experiments and confirmation to weigh against a single, as of yet, unconfirmed result.

So how about we keep that in mind.

* - Unless of course, it's to "critically analyze" them against fake "facts" in order to cast doubt on them like the Creationists want.
** - While this image refers to "neutrons", the initial name for neutrinos, discovered in 1930) was neutrons. When what we now refer to neutrons was discovered in 1932, there was confusion among the terms, and it was eventually proposed to rename the 1930 discovery to neutrinos in 1934. As such, the reference to "neutrons" here is likely actually referring to neutrinos, but I can't find enough information on this quote to confirm it. It seems to mostly pop up in quack science references about perpetual motion machines.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review - Demon Haunted World

I'm a pretty big Sagan fanboy, but until now, I've never read an entire Sagan work. I've listened to several interviews, seen all of Cosmos a few times, and enjoyed his clips in Symphony of Science. I have an audio book, of Pale Blue Dot, but lack a portable media device to make it convenient.

I'd heard of his book, Demon Haunted World (Science as a Candle in the Dark), before but had shied away from it. It was said to concentrate on pseudosciences that I generally find uninteresting (UFOs, psychic healing, etc...) due to their waning popularity and lack of influence on our government and educational system when compared to more insidious pseudosciences like Creationism.

Yesterday, as I neared the end of the book, I made a quick note on my G+ account saying as much. Universe Today's publisher, Fraser Cain dropped a pretty high piece of praise for it stating, "I'd say that book singlehandedly turned me into a skeptic."

Nicole Gugliucci (The Noisy Astronomer), echoed Fraser's enthusiasm, responding, "Ditto! It was already in process, but that book was pivotal."

The implication is that this isn't just another skeptic book; it's a game changer in a big way, and after reading it, I agree completely. I've been pretty ferociously skeptical since the end of high school, so near a decade now, but if I wasn't, I would likely be saying the same things as Fraser and Nicole. I've written a fair number of book summaries and reviews the past few years, but I would recommend this book above all others. I would suggest it be required reading, not just for scientists and skeptics, but for everyone, sometime in middle school, or by the beginnings of high school.

The first chapter begins by laying out the case: Many people believe things without good reason. In particular, Sagan recounts an experience with a chauffeur who accepted, without question, testimonies of extra terrestrials visiting Earth and seemed to have little interest in just how good the evidence actually was. Sagan asks his audience if that should matter and introduces a fantastic quote from Edmund Way Teale:
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.
Now if only people would realize just how important it is to get things right because, if Americans don't, other countries will continue to pass us in scientific achievement. In fact, Sagan notes that other countries are doing just that citing a 1994, Chinese proclamation which stated,
[P]ublic education in science has been withering in recent years. At the same time, activities of superstition and ignorance have been growing, and antiscience and pseudoscience cases have become frequent.... The level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance in economic development, scientific advance, and the progress of society. We must be attentive and implement such public education as part of the strategy to modernize our socialist country and to make our nation powerful and prosperous. Ignorance is never socialist, nor is poverty.
What a statement. Similar rhetoric is often used by US politicians, but with one notable difference in my mind: US politicians will never call out pseudoscience and anti-science. We'll talk of progress, but never stop to look at the elephant in the room that hinders just that.

Working to get the point across in a deeper way, the second chapter deals with why we need to perceive science as so important. Without overstatement, he entitles this chapter "Science and Hope". Immediately, he makes a deep and prophetic statement that seems to read as a perfect description of today, despite Sagan dying 15 years ago this December.
Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United State is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
He then goes through many of the ways science improves our lives, including a quote I've often heard referenced, but never realized originated in this book, "If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate."

Why does science work so well? Sagan rightly suggests its because of how powerful that "way of thinking" actually is. As I quoted in my last review, Feynman describes it as a "kind of utter honesty". Sagan adds that students doing their PhD dissertations must stand before a panel and are "subjected to withering crossfire of questions from the very professors who have the candidate's future in their grasp" in order to "practice a very useful habit of thought: they have to ask: Where in my dissertation is there a weakness that someone else might find?" Scientists don't only search for the things that confirm their biases; good science also looks to anticipate the challenges and investigate them, before someone else does. "Valid criticism," Sagan notes, "does you a favor."

He illustrates how this works with a comparison to metaphysical pseudoscience which, while coming up with luxurious, and largely internally consistent explanations for whatever it likes, never investigates those explanations with honest evidence by comparing them fiercely to reality. "The difference" between science and metaphysical psedudoscience "is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory."

The next several chapters are what I consider to be the meat of the book and look at how we like to fool ourselves and how science encourages us to reflect more realistically on issues.

Sagan begins by introducing how our perceptions can skew our ability to think critically. His examples in this relatively short chapter concentrate on pareidolia, specifically the man in the moon and the face on mars. In general this chapter describes the human propensity for seeing patterns where there are none.

The fourth chapter extends this to aliens, describing how closely linked the phenomenon of "alien abduction" is to other historically described invasions, specifically demons. In both cases the visitors come at night, can paralyze the victim, walk through walls, communicate without speaking, and are often preoccupied with sex. Yet there exists a more prosaic explanation that is overlooked: sleep paralysis.

Sagan also looks at other alien related phenomenon such as crop circles, which were intentionally created by humans who confessed to the hoax. Yet UFOlogists engage in goalpost moving ("But what about that one then!") as opposed to admitting the general rule. Much the same as the ID proponents and "irreducible complexity".

He looks at why governments would (and should) want to keep some things secret and how military technology will often create anomalous signals that can easily be mistaken for something more unusual.

Another topic examines how we can gain false memories by our brains either doing something funny, or being tricked, intentionally or otherwise. He spends a great deal of time discussing how techniques like "hypnosis therapy" are easy to misuse and susceptible to the therapist guiding the victim. Sagan refers to great extent how this has been misused in searching for evidence of childhood sex abuse where nearly anything (including headaches) could be an indication that someone had been abused and that therapists were to operate from the assumption that they were. From there, the therapists would press patients to remember things, but while under the influence of hypnosis, they would create accounts that never happened. The same is true, Sagan suggests, for "recovered" memories of UFOs and abductions.

All of this reminds me of another fantastic Feynman quote. When interrogated about UFOs, he responded,
[F]rom my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.
Sagan then begins introducing the methodology of science in a more direct manner. In a famous example, Sagan discusses the "dragon in his garage". When a rational question for evidence is posed, he makes a case of special pleading to avoid having to present any (the dragon is invisible, floats as to not leave footprints, and incorporeal, but it's there!). He uses this example to build his "Baloney Detection Kit" (a good summary of which can be found here). The first part is to understand the workings of science, and to also be familiar with the logical fallacies and misdirections pseudoscientists like to engage in.

This chapter has another quote that I'd like to address specifically:
[O]ne academic UFOlogist suggests that both the aliens and the abductees are rendered invisible during the abduction (although not to each other); that's why more of the neighbors haven't noticed. Such "explanations" can explain anything, and therefore in fact nothing.
I've made nearly identical statements before, but in regards to ID/Creationism which, no matter what comes along, can always posit that "God intended it that way." If you can explain anything, you've explained nothing.

There's another great aside Sagan relates about the physicist Enrico Fermi who joining the Manhattan Project was introduced to several important generals.
So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
I guess it's a general who's won many consecutive battles.
How many?
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
What fraction of American generals are great?
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one in two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three battles 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 - which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles - purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles...?
I like this because it is a perfect example of how we make such significance of short lived trends that are statistically likely given enough chances. Sagan returns to this later, but I think this quote summed it up better than his example of flipping coins.

Sagan goes on to discuss some of the work of James Randi who set up deliberate hoaxes to demonstrate how easily people would go along with them. The main one was of "Carlos", a supposed channeler of a 2,000 year old spirit who an Australian audience gobbled up, uncritically. His background was faked (and not even convincingly had anyone bothered to check that some of the places existed).

A chapter is devoted to the gibberish of those that decry science and attempt to tear it down as only another way of knowing. In the next chapter, he shows what folly this is giving a fantastic summary of the power of science:
We detect the light from distant quasars only because the laws of electro-magnetism are the same ten billion light-years away as here. The spectra of those quasars are recognizable only because the same chemical elements are present there as here, and because the same laws of quantum mechanics apply. The motion of galaxies around one another follows familiar Newtonian gravity. Gravitational lenses and binary pulsar spin-downs reveal general relativity in the depths of space. We could have lived in a Universe with different laws in every province, but we do not. This fact cannot but elicit feelings of reverence and awe.
Using this light of science, Sagan notes that "tenents at the heart of religion can be tested scientifically." He spends a few paragraphs on this, but treads lightly.

The next chapter is looking at the culpability of scientists for the dangers they help realize. While he agrees that the dangers are indeed great (hence the need for a critical and thorough framework of reason which is the topic for the entire book), and that scientists have often callously disregarded their consequences as "not their business", many others have worked feverishly to make sure their actions do not bring harm.

In another chapter, Sagan describes the marriage of skepticism and wonder: Science must keep an open mind, but be, at the same time, skeptical. This is the same as a response I'd made to a crackpot whose book I'd torn apart when he accused me of having a closed mind; I responded that it was open, but "guarded" while his was allowing any gibberish in.

The next chapter explores how science and the act of questioning is a human endeavor. He explores a tribe of hunters that, through interrogation of nature, has extraordinary skills. I think the concluding remark of the chapter summarizes nicely:
A proclivity for science is embedded deeply within us, in all times, places and cultures. It has been the means for our survival. It is our birthright. When we discourage children from science, we are disenfranchising them, taking from them the tools needed to manage the future.
How we disenfranchise them is the topic of the next chapter. Sagan suggests we turn children away from science by teaching it wrong (as a collection of facts) and by pressuring them not to as "dumb" questions. How do we fix this? Sagan responds:
improved status based on teaching success, and promotions of teachers based on the performance of their students in standardized double-blind tests; salaries for teachers that approach what they could get in industry; more scholarships, fellowships, and laboratory equipment; imaginative, inspiring curricula and textbooks in which the leading faculty members play a major role; laboratory courses required for everyone to graduate; and special attention paid to those traditionally steered away from science. We should also encourage the best academic scientists to spend more time on public education - textbooks, lectures, newspapers, and magazine articles, TV appearances. And a mandatory freshman or sophomore course in skeptical thinking and the methods of science might be worth trying.
Sagan's advice for scientists looking to reach out:
Don't talk to the general audience as you would to your scientific colleagues. There are terms that convey your meaning instantly and accurately to fellow experts. You may parse these phrases every day in your professional work. But they do no more than mystify an audience of nonspecialists. Use the simplest possible language. Above all, remember how it was before you yourself grasped whatever it is you're explaining. Remember the misunderstandings that you almost fell into, and note them explicitly. Keep firmly in mind that there was a time when you didn't understand any of this either. Recapitulate the first steps that led you from ignorance to knowledge. Never forget that native intelligence is widely distributed in our species. Indeed, it is the secret of our success.
This same chapter also reveals that the same issues we faced in education, in particular, ranking among the bottom of industrialized nations in math and science scores for students, were prevalent 15 years ago as they are today. This came to me as a shock. When discussed presently, our ranking is always described as "slipping" as in the present tense. Yet for at least half of my life, we've been failing. We keep pretending this is a new crisis that we'll quickly pull through. Seeing this demonstrates that we're in for the long haul and our methods thus far haven't worked.

Before publishing this book, Sagan published a summary of the failures of the educational system in Parade magazine. One teacher asked her 10th grade class to read it and respond. Some of the responses were published and they were horrifying to read. Filled with grammar and spelling mistakes of which a 5th grader should be ashamed, or acted like they had an unbelievable burden and that improvement was simply asking too much. The one that mentally made me do the largest double take was this one:
I think your facts were inconclusive and the evidence very flimsy. All in all, you raised a good point.

Obviously, these letters drove home the point Sagan was making. We're failing students. But Sagan responds that it is not simply the fault of parents or teachers:
The responsibilities are broadly shared - parents, the voting public, local school boards, the media, teachers, administrators, and local governments, plus, of course, the students themselves.
This statement stuck out to me because this is, again, a point I have been trying to make for some time, but the particular phrasing is also startling: "of course" students should bear responsibility. Yet when hearing about education reform today, I never hear students indolence addressed as a major concern. Yet Sagan treats it as a self obvious statement.

Sagan also brings up another important point: The misplacement of our national priorities:
Challenging programs for the "gifted" are sometimes decried as "elitism." Why aren't intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball, and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double standard at work here, nation wide.
The next chapter, entitled "The Path to Freedom" was perhaps the best of the book. It is a sobering analysis on just how important education is at improving our station in life. It begins by recounting the story of Frederick Bailey, a slave in the 1820's who eventually taught himself to read and realized that keeping slaves ignorant was the key to their misfortune. Eventually he ran away and renamed himself Frederick Douglas. He became one of the most well spoken people against slavery and his freedom, his power, all rested on the foundation of knowledge.

Next up, there is a chapter on making too much of a statistical fluctation, flipping 10 heads in a row when you've flipped a thousand times. It should happen, but forgetting the larger context, people seem to get a high off of being on a "lucky streak". This applies in casinos, sports, and many other places. I'm not entirely sure why this chapter landed here and not earlier (perhaps when discussing the Fermi bit earlier).

The chapter called "Maxwell and the Nerds" was easily my favorite. While it didn't have, perhaps, the largest impact on the thesis as a whole, the point to me was so important as a teacher, that I couldn't help but feeling an overwhelming sense of agreement with it. The idea behind it is that James Maxwell, the creator of Maxwell's laws which are a mainstay of modern physics was rather denigrated as a child for being odd and poking into things in bizarre ways. When developing his laws that described electro-magnetism, he didn't necessarily know what they would be useful for, nor did anyone else. Yet today, these laws are the foundation of nearly all communication since they explain light of all wavelengths, as well as all of electronics since they describe moving charges and fields.

The point being that simply looking at science as esoteric and unhelpful, we must realize that we never know how it might be useful later. Maxwell didn't invent the television or our power grid, but without him, the knowledge for those that did wouldn't have existed! This is the perfect answer for students when they ask the inevitable "How is this useful?" question: We don't know, but having more knowledge never hurts, especially considering the previous chapter on Frederick Douglas. Sadly, most students will likely simply continue to use the question as a dodge of responsibility than internalize what it actually means.

The last two chapters Sagan makes a footnote stating that they're somewhat political in nature. Which is perfect. As stated previously, science isn't a collection of facts: It's a method and that method can be applied to political discussions as well.

Sagan returns to the witch trials going into them in some more detail, showing how the entire idea of a trial was designed to deflect critical analysis. I actually had to stop reading for a bit at this point because it offended me so greatly.

In the last chapter, Sagan discusses the founding fathers, noting that several had scientific training, Jefferson in particular. As a nation, we were founded with the freedoms to question and challenge. Yet we refuse our national heritage, blindly following political ideologues. Should it continue, the prophetic conditions Sagan laid out in the opening may well come to pass. Indeed, they already seem to be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cutting Money Improves SAT Scores?

According to this conservative website, "reductions in state aid to local school districts has apparently had no discernible effect on the students in New Jersey’s classrooms".

What a fantastic piece of poor conservative logic.

To justify this, the author of the article throws in a red herring about how test scores have dropped elsewhere due to a cause completely unrelated to funding.

The next fallacy is the post hoc, ergo propter hoc when the author notes that NJ SAT scores have risen despite financial cuts. This comes immediately after the previous fallacy noting that finances aren't the only factor that effects test scores; the amount of minority students (which are the victims of large gaps in their preparedness) taking the tests do as well. As such, the author needs to demonstrate that the rise in scores wasn't in any way related to such other factors. But it isn't even mentioned.

Instead, he talks about how students taking the 2011 SATs would have been just entering high school when Governor Christie came into office. This is true, but a complete non sequitur. His coming into office has nothing to do with when cuts were instituted (in 2010). As such, those taking the 2011 SAT would have had several years of preparation under nominal funding making it even less likely that they would be largely effected by this change. At most, one year of their education could be effected.

So there we have it. Three fatal logical fallacies within three paragraphs. I don't mean to imply that this idiocy is par for the course for those in power in NJ (they only reflect the muddled thinking of the author, supposedly the site's managing editor), but in trying to sort out when the cuts were imposed, I found that the NJ Governor is a twit when it comes to education. His largest cuts specifically targeted poor schools with minorities who are already likely to underperform. Due to a 2008 act, that budget was, thankfully, ruled unconstitutional. Way to try to make the education gap for minorities even worse though, Christie.

Friday, September 16, 2011

THIS is Why Junk Science is Bad

Since the beginning of this year, I've added a ~10 minute section to the beginning of the Anime Mythbusters talk I've been giving, explaining the motivation behind why I bother debunking cartoons: Aside from being fun, it's practice for good critical thinking when something comes along that actually matters, like your health. The main example I've included has been the anti-vax movement.

It's a stark contrast to the light and fun talk that follows, but many people have said it's a real eye-opener, so I keep including it. At several of the talks, I've also tossed in current examples of bad science in the media such as the ET bacteria reported this spring, the arsenic bacteria this summer, but there's a new example I'll switch in that I think fills the gap between the heaviness of the anti-vax movement, which is literally killing people, and the anime fluff.

Apparently some TV quack called Dr. Oz has been going around claiming that apple juice has toxic levels of arsenic which has caused schools to pull it from their lunch menus.

What Oz failed to take into account is that there's a difference between the free floating, inorganic arsenic and the organic kind that's bound into the actual molecules of the food. The former is deadly. The latter isn't.

The killer is that Oz knew this. He, or at least his producer, was sent a letter informing him of the difference a full week before his show aired.

But that didn't stop him from causing panics over nothing. And of course, most consumers don't know enough science to be able to debunk this on their own.

The good news is that the media seems to be responding fairly intelligently. They've been commenting on the FDA response and those of other doctors pointing out Oz's failure. But they're still giving Oz the time of day. He's dodging the substance of the points others are making, tossing up smokescreens of "we don't know enough so I'm concerned", moving goalposts, making inappropriate comparisons (more arsenic is in apple juice than drinking water?! *gasp* Of course that can't have anything to do with the fact we drink an order of magnitude more water than juice!) and displaying the best hallmarks of pseudoscience.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Book Review - The Gender Knot

Gender studies aren't an issue that's generally towards the top of my list of interests, but the recent Elevatorgate made me stand up and take notice. In fact, the response outright pissed me off.

But I suppose I'm weird in a sense. When I get pissed off on a topic I don't know much about, I don't immediately start ranting, I try to get educated and make sure I'm justified in my anger. Odd concept. I know.

This is a subject that I wouldn't know exactly where to start on by myself. Fortunately, my sister happens to be a Women and Genders Study major and has a shelf full of her textbooks from previous semesters. I looked at a few of them, and eventually decided on (with her recommendation) The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy.

Quick warning: Because this is such a novel topic to me (and likely many of my readers), this is going to be a LONG summary/review since there's little I can take for granted here.

The book immediately starts off highlighting, briefly, the gender disparity faced by men and women in the workplace through an activity that's apparently used in gender workshops. In it, both genders are asked to make a list of both the positive and negative things they face in their job as a result of their gender. When this occurs, men easily make long lists of positives, women are forced to make lengthy lists of negatives. Immediately, this should signal a problem.

But what, exactly, is the problem and what's the cause of it? That's the true focus of the book and as the subtitle indicates, the author proposes it's due to the fact that we're a patriarchal society.

This argument is all contained in the very beginning of the book, but unfortunately, from there, the writing turns into a complete mess. The book is divided into three sections. The first is meant to define a patriarchy and explore its characteristics; the second, to explore why we're so mired in it; and the third, to explain how we can change things for the better.

While taken in a broad context, each section achieves that goal reasonably well, the trouble comes by the individual chapters and sub sections which have next to no cohesive form. The narrative jumps from topic to topic without much, if any connection. This may be why the writing often feels exceptionally redundant. I lost track of how many times the author noted the use of words associated with females, such as "bitch", "cunt", and "pussy" as pejoratives, while male traits, such as "growing balls" or "manning up" were always considered positively. Thanks. I got it. You didn't need to mention it every few pages. Nor mention a few times in every chapter that we don't perceive a system that we're part of because it's simply "normal" to us. Got that too.

There's also some just outright stupid comments in the book. At one point Johnson claims that he knows movements pushing for gender equality must be right because they provoke such a strong backlash and criticism. This is about as intelligent as Creationists claiming that they know they must be right because evolutionists fight them so hard. Creationists (and apparently Johnson) forget that being absolutely dead wrong is another good reason for a fierce response. This is not to say I disagree with what most of what Johnson says, but such a rudimentary logical flaw doesn't inspire confidence.

Because of the lack of cohesion, I'm not going to bother to say much on the sub sections individually, but rather, what things I learned from the larger sections as a whole or even tossed together. After all, I can't much remember what came where; the writing is just too jumbled and redundant.

The first major section was, as I stated, about what a patriarchy is and what its characteristics are.

Johnson defines a patriarchy as having three main traits. That is, it must be male dominated, male identified, and male centered.

Male dominated means that positions of power are dominated by males. This is not to say exclusively held by them, but that women entering these roles are exceptions. It doesn't take much to realize that this defines out culture pretty well.

Male identified means that positive traits are associated with males. This is highlighted by the example I gave above. Another important way it is realized is the way that women entering the male dominated fields are expected to act like "one of the guys" and adapt male traits.

At this point, I think the author toes the line of some pretty significant double think. Later on, he argues that what we consider to be "male" or "female" traits are anything but. We generally consider males to be the more aggressive, or dominant sex whereas females are supposedly passive. Yet both genders play both roles; a male will be submissive in front of a superior; a woman will be dominant when it comes to her children. Thus, the notion of gender characteristics has some serious flaws and in most cases doesn't make sense. As such, we peel away that layer and one would think that you can't identify traits that are inherent in both genders as particular to one.

But as Doctor Horrible once noted, "And sometimes there's a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Like with pie."

I think that's true here, which is what prevents the argument from truly falling apart: It doesn't matter if these gender roles are generally ambiguous - So long as people perceive such roles as existing, and identify the "good" ones as "male", then we're a male identified society.

Male centeredness is precisely what it sounds like: Our society pays special attention to males and what they do. This is highlighted, somewhat humorously, with a review of Oscar winning movies between 1965 and 2003, in which the vast majority featured male protagonists (only 4 featured females as the main character, and two of those were deemed trivial because they were musicals). Not mentioned in the book, but something I would add, is the Bechdel Test which analyzes whether movies have two female characters that talk to each other about something other than boys. It's staggering just how many fail.

This covers the first 11 pages of the book, and after this, it's where it starts to break down. Much of the next 110+ pages of this section is meant to help establish that we do indeed live in a patriarchal system. That system is both formed by individuals, and influences individual actions. This part I think is good: It shows how we often don't perceive our society as a patriarchy because we're so locked into it. We don't see the actions that lower the status of women as harmful because that's just the way things are. Additionally, by refusing to recognize these facts, we, unwittingly, perpetuate the problem; by not objecting to sexist jokes, we mark them as socially admissible. Additionally, the attempts we do make to stem this flow of sexism are often little more than topological. We attempt to look at individual actions (there's a good section in here on how this applies to violence on women) as the problem, and ignore the larger implications of how the patriarchal system allows for such things in the first place.

So why do I say this is where things break down? Because many of these topics are better suited (and somewhat repeated) in the next section on how we're stuck in this system. There's a division drawn between these two sections, but much of the material is interchangeable, scattered here and there.

Another topic that comes up in this section is why we exist in a patriarchy at all. The answer is not clear at all. A strong answer to this question would include how it originated and perpetuated, but the author even admits to skipping over origins. There is some good discussion on how the patriarchy evolved after the industrial revolution (I'll say more on this in a moment), but for the most part, the actual topic the author actually seems to cover is a more thorough look at some of the characteristics of a patriarchy.

One of the main ones the author touches on is control. The author asserts that men are simply control freaks (again, toeing the line of throwing gender roles around). This touches on the topic of why the patriarchy exists because it is woven into a narrative of how a patriarchy could have developed as we developed agriculture and herding: Johnson supposes that as we disconnected from nature, setting ourselves up as able to control it, we lost sight of the interconnectedness of it. He presumes that men became drunk off the power of this and then began to see themselves as having "power over" everything, including women and their productive capabilities. I don't find this scenario entirely unplausible, but there's no evidence to support it as being true either.

What bothered me, however, about this claim was where the author went from there. I'll quote Emperor Palpatine here who claimed, "All who gain power are afraid to lose it." Johnson makes the same claim, stating that the fear of losing their power over women and everything else, is the prime force for the perpetuation of the patriarchy. Yet he frequently claims that we're so lost in the patriarchal system that men don't recognize they have such power and privilege. How can one be afraid to lose something they don't even know they have? Johnson makes no attempt to even consider this question and offers absolutely no evidence to support his "fear" hypothesis. Such pivotal things often go unsupported and uncited.

A related example of this is the claim that homosexuality is vilified because it threatens to upset the patriarchal order and men fear this since they have so much to lose. Yet if this were true, then women should support homosexuality, since they, conversely, have so much to gain. Yet this is obviously not true and Johnson doesn't bother to explore this or make any effort of support. Such "hit and run" statements without sticking around to look at the conclusions reminds me of something Richard Feynmann said at a commencement speech in 1974, where he speaks of
a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
The lack of such "utter honesty" greatly discouraged my appreciation of this book.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think, in this section, about another place in where I repeatedly heard the term "power over" used. It was in Gregory Boyd's book, Myth of a Christian Nation in which he noted that the right wing that sought to declare the US as a "Christian Nation" sought to spread their religion by forcing it onto others, and exerting "power over" them. The connection between religion and patriarchy isn't lost here (an issue I'll return to later).

Where the fear does come into play that Johnson explores in exhausting depth, is how men are afraid of losing the status they do realize, namely, their manliness. This goes back to the male identification discussed earlier, in which men are constantly having to show off their manliness to affirm their masculinity. This drives them to delve deeply into "manly" topics of sports, sex, and the like, which helps to reaffirm the gender roles and deepen the ruts in the patriarchal road.

I promised to say more about the bit on the industrial revolution transforming the patriarchy. When I initially discussed Elevatorgate with my sister, she wasn't at all surprised at the reaction of the general population and fired back with a claim that made me think she was downright crazy. She stated that sexism hasn't gotten better. It's actually worse than ever. Thinking of the women's rights movement which at least won women the right at least be legally permitted to hold any job awarding financial independence (even if not yet realized in practice), I couldn't see how this made any sense. But what the portion on the effect of the industrial revolution made me realize was that I was thinking too narrowly.

The idea is this: Prior to the industrial revolution, the labor performed by men and women wasn't readily distinguishable (in general cases. This obviously breaks down for the wealthy). Both sexes worked around the house. Both would help in the fields. Both would help with raising children, even if the specifics of each were different. Largely, the work was split, and fair credit was given to women, even if the man was still the "head" of the house. Men at least realized the interconnectedness. (At this point, I'm again connecting to things in the second section on why the system is perpetuated, but this topic bridges both sections well).

What happened in the industrial revolution is that work stopped being something that was done at home and in one's own fields. It was done elsewhere, in a factory. Thus one member had to leave the home to go there. Being that a patriarchy already existed, men were selected. But what drove this to cause the deep issue was that in this new society, worth wasn't measured by amount of work, it was measured in a new manner: By money. And men had it all. For the first time in history, the contributions of women, which still existed, were hidden from view, because they had no monetary value by which to measure it. As such, the respect women did have, vanished entirely and they became viewed as nothing more than a bunch of moochers.

In that respect, the gains women have made in the past ~50 years, has only served to help make up some of this ground. But because women on average, still can't compete with men financially (see: here for a recent example of this), the work they contribute isn't recognized, where as, prior to the industrial revolution, Johnson claims it was to a greater extent.

I haven't looked much into sexism prior to the industrial revolution to make an independent analysis of this and gut feeling tells me Johnson is overstating the view of women historically, but the point is an interesting one.

One of the best chapters in the first part, is on feminists and feminism. It began by looking at several stereotypes of feminism (that they're anti-family, no fun, male bashers, whiny pseudo-victims and all lesbians), and dismissed each one in turn. Not especially exciting, but I suppose that feminism has gotten such a bad rap, that it might be necessary to dispel such myths for some.

The interesting part was Johnson's discussion on some of the branches of feminism: liberal, radical, and Marxist. The first espoused that sexism was a product of miseducation and that all that needed to be done to fix it was get people a proper education. Radical feminism, as Johnson defines it, is the idea that you can't fix the problem by simply changing the people in the system, but rather, the system itself needed to be changed. In effect, that the entire male standard, our tiered system of government (based on power and control) and everything else that was male identified needed to be removed since such systems were inherently male biased and would only perpetuate the system which, in turn, influences the people in it. Marxist feminism laid the issues of sexism at the feet of unequal wealth, and claimed that if this could be fixed, equality would be reached.

It's interesting to reflect where I would stand in such a position. I'm very big on education being a driving force for change. In that sense, I identify with the liberal feminism. Yet I have to agree with the radical position that things won't change as long as the roots of the system are in place. However, this is again, where I start having a major issue with how gender labels become tossed around.

I understand our government is centered on powerful individuals, presidents, congressmen/women, supreme court justices, and the like, I don't buy that this is necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with power when used appropriately. If such positions were held by the most qualified, educated people, as opposed to career politicians and cronies, I can't find any fault with this. However, because such a system is associated with "male" traits, it comes under what I would consider, criticism for all the wrong reasons. It's attacked for being "male" as opposed to being corrupted by ideological idiots.

Another interesting aspect of this section, was the (briefly touched upon) interactions between the various camps. It resounded strongly of the "accommodationists vs. Gnus" fight in the skeptic movement. Jen McCreight and Rebecca Watson (I never realized until just now that typing "Rebecca" feels like typing "Chewbacca". Oh, the weird things I think of. Perhaps I need to sleep more) have both argued that skeptics should be natural allies with feminists since both suffer at the hands of religious oppression. Such parallels only underscore that connection.

So why does this system of inequality keep going? As I touched on earlier, it's because it's so "normal" to us, that it's effectively invisible. I've already provided examples of how it is written into our language. Another point Johnson makes is that women too go along with the system because it's simply easiest to do so. Fighting it requires great effort and often, personal sacrifice.

In many ways, we also disguise the problem by making it someone else's problem. It's not the problem of the oppressor, it's a "woman's issue" and even acknowledging that it exists is a kindness. But it's not something that males need to fix with themselves. A key example of this is how in sexual assault, the victim is often blamed. The "solution" is to warn women on walking alone at night, or providing mixed messages. Yet we ignore the deeper problem of the objectification of women that causes the issue in the first place. Another example Johnson provides of this is the rate of "teen pregnancies". The problem focuses on the females and their contributions. But rarely is there a mention of the males that contributed the other half. It's the women that have the problem. They're the ones that need to change.

And in many cases, that change means women are expected to conform even further to the patriarchal paradigm. Women that get ahead in business must conform to "male" traits of being competitive, cut throat, and often wears "men's" clothing. Again, this only serves to reinforce the status quo of the system, even if the inequality is somewhat lessened, and the wheels of the machine greased.

There's also a good section on false parallels that are used to deflect light being cast on the devaluation of females. The example given is especially good: When it's noted that females are made to be naturally evil (think Eve, Pandora, etc...), people often respond by pointing out the Devil is male. But what Johnson notes is different in these two scenarios is that for Eve, her evil, original sin, was borne from her gender which made her temptable, whereas for the Devil, it wasn't a flaw of his gender. As Johnson puts it,
It's hard to imagine how patriarchal Christianity would ever develop an evil female figure powerful and substantial enough to challenge God, for this would require that women be taken seriously. In other words, under patriarchy, women aren't good enough to be the devil.

There's another argument in the section that I find interesting that deals with sexual objectification, namely the difference between female strippers and male strippers. Many people would use the existence of both as a sign that viewing the opposite sex as sexual creatures is practiced by both sexes and thus, even if morally gray, not something that has a net harmful effect since it can go both ways.

Johnson tries to explain the difference between male strippers and female strippers by claiming that because we live in a patriarchy, male strippers are affirmed by taking their clothes off and admired by their social inferiors (women), whereas if a woman strips and is viewed by males, then she's looked down on by the social superiors (men) thanks to the patriarchy. In other words, parallel actions are magically transformed by their presence in a larger system. That difference reinforces the social differences and thus, pornography is harmful.

What strikes me as bizarre about this is that if we could somehow remove all gender inequality, somehow this would change, and pornography would be perfectly acceptable in this view as long as it went both ways.

I'm glad to see this argument because when pornography and sexism are often discussed, many people imagine that the implication is that pornography turns men into horrible raping monsters after one view. It's very similar to the notion that violent video games make kids shoot up schools. There's studies supporting these views, but there's also contradictory studies. Thus, it seems to me to be a wash. Thus, I'm pleased to see a real argument on why pornography is often frowned upon by those that are working towards gender equality. Still, I question just how large this effect is on reinforcing the patriarchal system. Such a topic is skipped over which brings Feynmann's admonition back to mind.

The next way Johnson explores that the patriarchy is hidden from view is that men often feel like victims too: We perform more dangerous jobs, have shorter lifespans, are disproportionally involved in violence (especially when called to war), and portrayed as bumbling fools in media. So are men not victims? The answer is yes. But being a victim and in a position of privilege and power aren't mutually exclusive.

This highlights another important theme of this work that I touched on earlier: Despite the fact that we often view gender inequalities as a "woman's issue" it effects both genders and is just as much a concern for men. We'll have to give up many of our privileges, but there's many other things men stand to gain that could replace it.

The last reason Johnson discusses that I think is an important point on why the existence and harm of our patriarchy is overlooked is the fear of feeling guilty; it's easier to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem than risk feeling guilty over the issue. This is illustrated by the example given in the very opening of the book that Johnson returns to: When drawing up lists of advantages and disadvantages of their genders, men, by and large, do a pretty comprehensive job of listing all of the disadvantages of women. They know the problem exists, but don't do anything about it.

Which begs the question (that is addressed in the final two chapters of the book), "What do we do about it?"

The first of these chapters gives one recommendation: Men need to be the driving force since we're the ones with the power to enact much of the change. But for all the reasons listed earlier, we're too busy ignoring the problem to do so. Since many of those reasons are simple awareness issues (which could be fixed with some education), Johnson concentrates on the deeper one of guilt. He states that men need to accept that patriarchy exists, but realize that, although they are wrapped in the system, they are not, individually, the cause of it and thus, should get past the guilt. Nor can we pass the blame.

In the last chapter, Johnson also discusses how we have to get over our own egos. He doesn't put it in these terms but that's what it boils down to: We can't give up because we will only get involved if we can play a pivotal role, or we want to see the fruition of ending men's privilege within our lifetimes. Rather, we need to change the "paths of least resistance" so that future generations will have options that aren't so entrenched in a patriarchal paradigm.

Johnson notes that there are numerous little ways to do this, and I'm not going to go through all of them, but there are some that I want to highlight in specific:

"Dare to make people feel uncomfortable, beginning with yourself" - One of the most important things I ever learned as a student that informed my thinking as a teacher is that education should be uncomfortable. If it isn't, we're not moving out of our comfort zones in which we already know everything. Exploring always takes a bit of daring and shouldn't be something that's always comfortable.

"Because patriarchy is rooted in principles of domination and control, pay attention to racism and other forms of oppression that draw from those same roots" - As I noted earlier, the feminist movement should be a natural ally of skeptics who have also suffered.

That's the end of the book there. As a summary, this book had a good skeleton to it:

- Gender inequality exists
- It comes from a patriarchal system which emphasizes the "male" values of control and dominance
- It hurts both men and women
- We can't change it if we ignore it, which we do
- Change is going to be hard

Most of these points are well demonstrated. The weakest link is that patriarchy causes the gender in equality, although it's somewhat self evident.

But while this book has a good skeleton to it, many of the individual points that flesh it out seem haphazardly tossed out. Material that relates better to one topic is often found entirely elsewhere or is repeated at length. That's the biggest flaw of this book in my opinion: It's poor presentation for good material.

It has (hopefully) provided a good basis for more reading on the subject that I'll undoubtedly be doing. If anyone has recommendations for more books on the topic, let me know so I can investigate those.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Book Review - Greatest Show on Earth

I finally finished Dawkins' Greatest Show on Earth. I bought the book shortly after it came out, and worked through most of it quickly before losing interest. I picked it up again this past winter and again, quit before finishing. Once again, I tried this summer and made it nearly as far as I did the first time, but having read it so many times, it stuck enough for me to quit for awhile, and come back without feeling the need to start over.

I still haven't figured out exactly what it is about this book that's prompted me to quit midway through three separate times. The book starts off introducing a little bit about how science works and what it means to be a "theory" in science. This is old hat for anyone that's been involved in the evolution "debate" so there's little new information here, but the thing that interested me the most was Dawkins' call for a new word to replace the frequently abused "theory". Likening a scientific theory to math, he calls for the term "theorum", a twist of mathematical theorems which are accepted as true even though they're often impossible to prove since there's an infinite number of cases in which they could apply.

The next several chapters work to build up an understanding of how evolution works, from scales that are uncontroversial, even to Creationists (who accept "microevolution"), gradually to larger and larger scales, through dogs, cows, and computer generated biomorphs, showing how each transition has been supported by observation.

From there, he discusses the "Primrose path to macroevolution", taking this even further. While the chapter doesn't truly demonstrate anything that could readily be called "macroevolution", its goal is to set the framework for diverging populations that will then be able to grow apart even further, if only there would be enough time, which is the topic of the next chapter. That chapter explores dating methods, like dendrochronology and radioisotope dating.

Of course, some changes don't take deep time to achieve and the fifth chapter explores rather astounding changes that take place within our own lives. I think the most interesting was a series of experiments with guppies, placed in isolated pools with different rocks on their beds, some with predators, some without. The variation from this was a fantastic demonstration.

Moving still, towards larger scales, the next chapter covers a bit of the fossil record, explaining the supposed "gaps" and just how little that really means. This is followed by a chapter which focuses even more on the recent fossil record that chronicles the development of humans and just how detailed the record is for supposedly being non-existent as Creationists claim.

The 8th chapter was the one that slowed me down the most every time. This one covered much more on the microbiological side, involving DNA and how it created forms through embyrology. It's not that the topic wasn't interesting, but rather, much of the material became very informationally dense at this point, and the chapter seemed to drag.

But once past this chapter, I think is where the book really began to shine. The last chapters really get to the meatiest portion of the book, providing the most clear cut evidence presented in the most direct fashions. Chapter nine discusses how the motion of continents isolated populations of one species, allowing them to diverge. Chapter ten covers family trees and the numerous ways they can be derived (from homology or genetics) and yet they always come out to agree. It also explores how non-coding genes can be used as biological clocks that also agree with other dating methods. Chapter eleven is about vestigial structures and provides some new examples beyond the usual ones which was refreshing. It also explores things that aren't vestigial, but that got caught up in evolution in other ways, like the vagus nerve.

The reason these chapters stood out to me is, in each one, they can be starkly contrasted with ID/Creationism. They all make sense in the light of evolution, but make the designer inept or deceptive (similar to the argument put forth in Miller's Finding Darwin's God, but not so plainly stated here). With ID/Creationism, each of these cases requires special pleading.

While the first several chapters made a good case for the idea of evolution, complete with steps along the way to bolster it, these last few chapters are the ones that really slam the nails in the coffin.

There's two more chapters. Chapter twelve explores the apparent stillness of evolution where arms races meet stalemates or have to keep changing just to stay in the same place, but nothing here is really a strong argument for evolution. The final chapter is a line by line discussion of the final paragraph of Origin of Species, putting each piece into the context of how Darwin's idea has been realized. It's a cute summary, but ultimately added very little to the book. If I were to reread this book, I'd skip it.

Included is also a appendix which includes studies of just how frequently evolution is rejected in various countries and seeks to put in context the scope of anti-evolutionism. I skimmed this, but didn't bother with it too in depth since the problem is already obvious.

My overall impression of this book is that it's good, but not exactly the slam dunk I think it was intended to be. Too much gets lost in the noise and isn't summarized clearly enough to really bring the full weight of the book out. This book could have been much better if each chapter contained some end notes that summarized the main points to clarify what the intent of the chapter was. Without them, it's easy to get lost, which is why I think I gave up so many times. The book lacks a direction that's immediately obvious. In retrospect I can see it, but that only works if you've completed the book, which isn't likely to happen unless you're as stupidly tenacious as me.

So who is this book worth recommending to? Obviously not Creationists. They've likely heard most of this anyway, and have the constant strategy of seizing on the details and finding bits they don't understand to hold up as "counter evidence" or simply moving the goalposts. In reading many segments of this book, a passage from the first book I reviewed on this blog, Science of Diskworld III, came to mind:
Yes, the proponents of intelligent design understand the eye . . . but as only one example, not as the basis of a general principle. ‘Oh yes, we know all about the eye,’ they say (we paraphrase). ‘We’re not going to ask you what use half an eye is. That’s simple-minded nonsense.’ So instead, they ask what use half a bacterial flagellum is, and thereby repeat the identical error in a different context.
I could just envision Creationists saying, "That's all well and good, but what about [Gish gallop]?" Trying to educate a Creationist is a waste of time.

But what about the middle ground? Those that aren't decided but wanting to learn more about the evolution and ID/Creationism? The first time I've been asked to recommend a book on evolution to such a person happened a few weeks ago with a girl at work. She rejects evolution for all the usual logical fallacies ("Isn't it all too complex?"), but didn't immediately accept ID/Creationism as something that had much science going for it either.

My choices of books to give her included this book, Shubin's Your Inner Fish, and Miller's Finding Darwin's God. (I would also have considered Coyne's Why Evolution is True, but I haven't read it and don't own a copy.) Ultimately, out of these three books, I recommended Miller's. Inner Fish is fantastic, but doesn't give enough direct back and forth between evolution and ID/Creationism that just shows why the latter is wrong. This one has that at the end, but it's simply too hard to get through for the reasons I explained before. Thus, it's not the greatest of books for the uncertain middle ground either.

The last potential audience is those that already support evolution and are looking for a more thorough grounding and a few new pieces of evidence that I haven't seen in other sources. This is about the only audience I think this book can really do much for.

Overall, this book is ok, but not nearly as good as Selfish Gene, which is my favorite Dawkins book of the ones I've read thus far, albeit for different reasons (giving a marvelous naturalistic origin to morals and altruism). I'm happy to have this on my bookshelf, but it won't be likely to get another read any time soon.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Education's Death Spiral

There's a new infographic out looking at the amount of trust the public puts in our public education system. It's a dismal picture. It starts in 1977 with a high of 54% of responses saying they had a "A great deal" or "Quite a lot" of confidence in public schools. It's been slipping pretty steadily since then and for 2011, sits at an all time low of 34%. This is, of course, in direct contrast to the constant raising of standards and expectations for teachers.

Yet overwhelmingly, when given the choice between larger classes with "more effective" teachers or smaller classes with "less effective" teachers, people choose the former. This conforms to everything else I keep seeing that people seem to place everything on teachers.

Oddly, the portion asking people what they "perceive to be the biggest problem that public schools in your community face", "qualified teachers" isn't one of the answers. I don't know if they left that off because it wasn't a possible answer, or suddenly everyone responding forgot about teachers (I suspect the former) but it's an unusual oversight. Instead, "lack of funding" took the #1 spot. More funding is definitely important, but throwing money at problems rarely fixes anything.

Another portion looks at whether people got positive or negative impressions of teachers from the news. No surprise here, teachers are vilified with 68% saying they hear more bad stories about teachers.

But here's the one that really killed me:
How do schools stack up against other community and national institutions? We suck. As noted, only 34% of people rate schools as worthy of confidence. I'm glad to see that the Supreme Court is higher, but only just. A whopping 37%. Police fair a bit better at 56%. But the remaining four institutions worry me that they're rated so highly compared to schools: The Military, Small Business, Organized Religion, and the Medical System.

The military has gotten itself stuck in an endless war. Small businesses are great, of course, but often fail. The medical system is consistently rated as one of the poorest among 1st world nations. Organized religion is merely blind faith. None of those deserve to beat out schools. To me, this speaks of misplaced priorities. We'll slap "Support Our Troop" ribbons on everything, but there's no such ribbons for schools. We'll endlessly debate our health care systems in congress, but when it comes to education reform, we can't even be bothered to review NCLB.

To be fair, our primary education system is, like our medical system, rated extremely low, so it shouldn't be surprising. Yet surprising or not, it's a problem. When families teach their children to walk into schools believing that they're going into an institution that is horribly flawed, isn't really out to help them acquire skills they (should) want and need, then students aren't going to participate in their own learning. This in turn, weakens the perception further, making students again, less likely to want to try, and the spiral continues.

So how do we pull out of this death spiral?

The first key is to start making education rigorous again. I can't blame the perception of schools failing to educate kids when grade inflation induced by poor policies is out of control. Until schools have enough integrity to tell students where they actually stand, then it's no surprise that people won't trust them.