Friday, September 12, 2014

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Coming to terms with having to laugh.

Different people find different things funny. There are a few things that get me going.
For starters, I like puns. They make me happy.
There are three guys on a boat. They have a pack of cigarettes, but no means of lighting them. The problem was easily solved. They threw one cigarette into the water. At that point the whole boat became a cigarette lighter. 

I really love the unintended puns that come from grammatical, spelling, and editing errors. Everyone makes such mistakes, including me. So I don't see it so much as making fun of the author as the event of the author's mistake. My favorite are the ones from church bulletins (like these) and signs, but even little kids' homework will due (see, get it?):

My daily sense of humor is dark and hyperbolic: gallows humor. Probably the only thing I liked from Mike Myers Cat in the Hat movie was where he said,
"There is a third option! ... It involves... murder!" 
I use that phrase anytime a person, especially a student, is presenting me with a dichotomy. I almost never cite my source. I also offer murder as an option when someone is complaining about someone else. I look them in the eye and say with a deadly serious face, "I could kill him for you." I offer robbery or sale and distribution of narcotics as a way to alleviate financial difficulties, especially for churches in which I'm involved. When I am teaching logical fallacies to my students, I look forward to teaching the slippery slope fallacy and give this story as an example:
So, you think you want to have a beer, huh? Well if you have a beer before too long you're going to want to have a cigarette with that beer. You're going to be drinking and smoking. Before long, you'll smoke a little pot. That will be awesome. So you'll try a few hallucinogens; you'll drop some acid do a little "special K." And you know which hallucinogens are best! The ones that are mixed with stimulants! So you'll take a couple tabs of ecstasy and that'll be amazing, So you'll decide to go ahead and step up the stimulants, a little meth, a bit of cocaine. And you know what goes great with cocaine, right? Heroine. So you'll be addicted to heroine and cocaine and you'll drop out of school. You'll end up stealing from, and likely murdering, your family. Then you'll have no one else to rob. So you'll to whore yourself out on the street for $5 a pop to feed your growing addiction. Do you really want to have that beer? 
I always get laughter and sometimes applause from my students after this little monologue. Joking about death, addiction, prostitution and illegal substance abuse is hilarious. This isn't because I think death and violence are funny in and of themselves. They are not. Instead joking about them is a way to lighten the load, so to speak.

Humorist Alan Mott recently wrote a blog about an event that occurred on his twitter site. He told a joke that compared him finding out that Kari Byron would no longer be working on the television show Mythbusters with the 9/11 terror attacks.
Where were you on September 11, when Allan found out that his favourite TV redhead who isn't Christina Hendricks was no longer mythbusting?
The joke is only moderately funny to me. But hey, Mr. Mott can make a living out of being funny. I can't. So who am I to criticize? Besides, the joke isn't really what I was going to discuss anyway. It is something that he said in his blog that really caught me:
At my mom’s memorial service I didn’t prepare a speech, but instead went up in front of everyone and told my favourite anecdote about the time she asked my dad what religion he was–over 30 years into their marriage. I told it because I thought it was funny and in that moment it felt better to laugh than it did to cry. To some people it might have been inappropriate. I could see them being offended by my refusal to discuss her passing with solemn, respectful dignity, but I knew that wasn’t the path I could take to endure the worst moment of my life. By making “light” of something, we are also making it less “heavy”–what might seem like a lack of reverence to some is actually a survival tactic for others. That joke isn’t intended to trivialize the tragedy, but instead to keep the teller from being crushed under the agonizing weight of it. - See more at:
I think it's like that for me too as well as for my students who laugh at the "slippery slope" joke. Drugs and I would argue government hypervigilance have devastated the rural Southwest. Drugs are where the money is. They are where the power is. They are where the danger is. People who can take a risk in the drug trade can get rich or die trying. My students are, in many ways, shell shocked. I would bet half of them suffer from some kind of PTSD because of violence related in some way to drugs. It is hard for them. It is hard for me. So, sometimes, you just have to laugh.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I love science [no expletive needed].

Coming to terms with "Science."

I really do love science. This might surprise some people. Students and faculty members alike have heard my stock answer when confronted with any number of empirical arguments: "I'm not a scientist." And I am not. I am a professor. Some people might even call me a "researcher" although I much prefer the term "scholar." When I hear the former term I imagine a person in a white coat running frantically through a lab adjusting instruments and possibly laughing maniacally. When I hear the latter I imagine a person indulging in a snifter of cognac and a cigar in a cushioned chair surrounded by books, possibly chuckling pedantically. I don't smoke and only ever tasted cognac once many years ago (it was good, I think), but I identify more with the "scholar" archetype. Even if a person were to appellate me as a "researcher," no reasonably educated person would say my work is "scientific." It is decidedly philosophical, humanistic, and subjective and I like it that way.
Eduard Grutzner (1846-1925)
A Monk in the Library
Oil On Canvas

My love of science is an on again, off again. As a kid, I loved science because I saw vast potential for super powers and interstellar adventures. I didn't love science when I was in college because I believe Zoology, the first of two lab classes I was required to take, was taught incorrectly at the University of Nebraska at Kearney in the late 1990's. When I say that it was taught "incorrectly," I am not saying that the professor lied to us. I think he shared with us the latest concepts in Zoology, probably even at a freshman-level understanding. Still, I'd say he taught us "incorrectly" because I think he used poor pedagogy and because while he told us all about grasshopper's tympanic membranes, how we know that or why we care never entered into the discussion. He taught facts, not process. I was tested on taxonomy and little else.

That is exactly what an Ohio legislator wants to be required. He wants the students to be taught "facts" without explaining the process by which they arrived at them. He wants this so that he can limit "prohibit political or religious interpretation of scientific facts in favor of another." This sounds like an admirable goal. It would be an admirable goal if a common misconception about science were to be believed. That misconception is that scientific rhetoric somehow sits in a vacuum outside the political and religious discussions of its time and place. The misconception exists that science can somehow be "objective" and "unbiased." It is sort of an idolatry of science that makes it the all seeing, all knowing, god which is no respecter of persons, places or ideas.
I have no idea where this piece originally came from or
who created it. I wish I did

There were a couple things that brought me back to a love of science. One was reading Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That book taught me a great deal about science, real science. See, science is not really about "facts" at all. What scientific "facts" even exist are always held tenuously. Science offers answers to questions, but the answers are always tenuous, qualified, and recognize that they are the answer for now, but are open to being proved wrong later. It was Kuhn's book which popularized the term "paradigm" and "paradigm shift." Science works within paradigms. As long as those paradigms work, they keep using them. When they stop working, a new scientific revolution takes place. Things go crazy. A new paradigm is found. Through Kuhn I discovered a science that was fumbling towards truth. That was something that resonated with the philosophical work that I'd already begun as an undergraduate.

The second thing that brought back my love for science was a mistake in advising or more likely in my understanding at the end of undergraduate school. I thought I had graduated. Then I got a letter saying I needed more science. So, I went back and took one summer class. I would have taken any class that met the science requirement, but the only one left was Physics. I remember groaning. Physics, I knew. was hard and boring. Probably, I assumed, even more hard and boring than Zoology had been.

It was awesome. Sure, I had to learn formulas and calculations, but the professor always explained them in context. In a lot of ways, it was as much a history class as a physics class, although the history was non-linear, which would be an odd way to teach history. The professor was an "old" man. I don't know how old, but he was gray and balding and to me that meant old. He was clearly excited about the stuff. My favorite thing was when I'd ask him a question and he didn't know the answer off hand. He didn't reply with the standard "Let me find out and get back to you." Instead he'd say, "I don't know, let's find out." I remember stringing together a full hallway of parallel lights so that we could measure just how many we could put on the battery before we saw a measurable decrease, and then figuring out from there how many we'd need to overwhelm the battery altogether. Why did we do this? Because I asked how many. He didn't know. We made a big mess. Then we knew. I don't remember the answer a bit, but I sure remember the process.
See, that's what is interesting about science. That's what's fun about science. That's what's interesting about science. Science is process. Scientific facts are silly. In fact, in my life (and I'm not old) I've seen scientific facts change. Pluto was a planet, now it's not one. Pandas were "actually not bears, but a kind of raccoon" and now they're bears. Eggs were really bad for you because they raised cholesterol levels. Now they're good for you because the cholesterol they raise is good. We were told to stay away from Ritz crackers because they contained coconut oil, which was HORRIBLE. Now, it's good. Whatever. The facts change as the process develops but it is the process that matters. 
That's why the Ohio law is so very bad. Facts don't matter. Facts are just landmarks on the way to truth. They are not the truth itself. Science is not the truth either. Science is one of the ways that we are all fumbling towards truth. It's not the only way (that might be a blog for another time), but it is one way. Lastly, I want to point out the dumbest thing about the Ohio Republican's reasoning. He wants the facts without the process because he doesn't want political ideology to enter. Specifically, he'd like to avoid evolution and global warming discussions. Here's the thing, however. What he's arguing is the exact opposite of what makes those scientific "facts," which makes every scientific fact, debatable. That is that while the vast majority of scientists would agree that climate change is being caused by the use of fossil fuels and that all life evolved via natural selection from a single celled organism, they all know that a new discovery could change this over night. Science is meant to be wrong. If it weren't wrong, we'd never discover anything new. So, if you believe that you have a revealed truth that is higher than what scientists believe, you might  very well be right. If that is the case, however, teaching facts without process moves people further from your point of view (if it is truth).