Posts in Category: Culture

Ignorance as the Greatest Virtue?

Posted Sep 5th, 2006 at 10:57 am in Culture, Science | 8 Comments

There’s an article up on Fox News by John Gibson that’s just striking for it’s tone. It’s not the kind of ignorance that one just stumbles across in life. No, it’s the kind of ignorance that one must work really hard to cultivate, waking up each morning to seek out opportunities to display this level of stupidity. His grasp of ignorance is almost masterful.

Now scientists say Pluto isn’t a planet. It isn’t big enough. It’s something, but not a planet exactly.

My attitude is: Who says?

It’s been a planet my entire life. I learned that in the third grade. Might be the only thing I remember from the third grade.

It’s the cold one, the farthest from the sun and, yes, it’s the small one.

But no, you can’t unmake Pluto as a planet.

Long ago I learned it was a planet and I see no reason to unlearn it. Why should I? [emphasis mine]

Somebody somewhere, some mysterious person who answers to no one and seems to have dictatorial power sets new standards for planets and all of a sudden one of the original nine is dropped?

Now as a disclaimer, I don’t particularly care how the solar system is classified. I would like scientists to be consistent, and use all the information at hand (which naturally changes as the years go by). I trust that they do nothing less, though no doubt it’s a contentious process. (See here on why that’s a good thing). In short, I won’t get my undies in a twist if we’ve got 8, 12, or 30 planets.

But John Gibson’s point of not having to unlearn something just because he’s learned it is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. Where would that line of thinking take us? We would have ignored bacteria as the cause of ulcers. Reducing stress and staying away from spicy foods would still be the way doctors handled it. After all, that’s what many of them learned in school. Why should they unlearn it just because some stupid scientists come up with a different idea?

How about marriage. Anybody “learn” how to do something that just didn’t seem to work? Why should you have to unlearn it just because a different approach works better?

Religion. I learned some cool stuff as a kid. I think I’ll put the good book away and forgo church. I already know what I need to. Why should I revisit it again?

His attack on scientists (answering to no one with dictatorial power) is also breathtaking for it’s gross mischaracterization and slander. Whatever the politics and contention of planetary classification, I’m quite sure there’s no planetary physicist in an underground bunker stroking a white cat and smoking a pipe, deciding one day to use his unbounded power to blight Pluto.

Is there any area in life where we shouldn’t learn with a touch of humility, with the acknowledgment that we might be wrong and that new information might change the way we understand something?

Oops. I just thought of one… Apparently being a journalist for Fox News.

(Hat tip to John Hawks on the quote)

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A Rant Against Bear Hunting and Country Music

Posted Aug 18th, 2006 at 9:59 am in Culture, Nature | 9 Comments

I’ve got a bit of confession to make. I hate country music and country musicians — with a passion. Is that fair? Probably not. Am I biased? I’d have to say so. Am I committing the cardinal sin of stereotyping a large group of people based on the actions of a few? Guilty as charged.

It’s hard not to with stories like this one. Did you hear about Troy Gentry? The guy’s being prosecuted for killing a black bear with a bow and arrow. Now I’m not opposed to hunting (though I’m a lot happier when the prey has hooves and a white-tail – technical schematic here.) So what could be so horrible to deserve prosecution for the manly action of hunting a fearsome predator with a bow and arrow?

Perhaps shooting a tame bear in a cage, then tagging it and doctoring video to make it look like you shot it in the wild… Which is what he and the ranch owner reported to the state of Minnesota.

His defense sounds like it’s going to be a real winner.

“Troy absolutely denies that he knowingly and willfully did anything illegal, and is confident that he will be exonerated,” said his Minneapolis-based attorney, Ron Meshbesher, who said Gentry has never been interviewed by authorities. “They don’t know his side of the story. He was told it was proper and legal to kill the bear.”

Don’t you love it? Words like knowingly and willfully, proper and legal. No one’s denying that poor Troy protected his family by killing the ranch pet in the cage. They just say he didn’t know it was wrong. Apparently, it’s not even the killing that was illegal. It was doctoring the tags and reporting it to the state — and that’s what prosecutors will have to show Gentry knowingly did to win a conviction.

You know, for some reason I’m not as angry at lying to the state. It’s clearly wrong, but I mean, it’s just Minnesota. It’s the killing that infuriates me. Hunters, a question: Why do people hunt with bow and arrow instead of a gun? I think I know the answer, but someone can correct me if I’m wrong. It’s a challenge, it’s a lot harder, and I can imagine that the excitement and satisfaction of taking prey with these tools is a lot greater. And I respect that.

But drawing your bow and arrow on a caged animal? I don’t give a rat’s behind if it’s legal or not. It’s shameful.

Now I have to admit that I didn’t even know who Troy Gentry was before this story. He’s half of the popular (with who?) duo Montgomery Gentry. But upon a little investigation, he quickly fit right into my stereotype of all that’s wrong with country music. For example, in an article on an upcoming album that would make Stephen Colbert very proud, the writer expresses:

This album reflects a deeper exploration of the issues Eddie Montgomery & Troy Gentry have always deemed important: family, religion & the US Armed Forces.

What else is there really?

It’s the smarminess of country music that I can’t stand. It’s the “family values” that look an awful lot like softcore pornography. (Possibly not safe for work, but incredibly educational if you’ve not flipped through CMT recently). Country music has become one more way that culture gets entwined with religion.

Now I’m not advocating that we abandon popular forms of music, including country music if that’s what you like (though your ear for music has obviously been bludgeoned beyond repair). I personally love a vast array of rock music, though I clearly recognize that some of it doesn’t share my moral values.

It’s just that I prefer my decadence to be clearly labeled as such.

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The United States — Smarter than Turkey.
Dumber than Slovenia, Estonia, and Latvia.

Posted Aug 11th, 2006 at 12:30 pm in Culture, Evolution | 3 Comments

A study reported by National Geographic News places the U.S. near the very end of a shameful list.

evolution acceptance survey

Yes, only Turkey rejects evolution more than the United States.

The reasons are what you’d expect — religion — but even I was surprised by the low percentage. Only 14% of U.S. adults thought that evolution was “definitely true.” Oh, I could rant and rave about the way evolution is a theory with every bit as much footing as our other theories in science. I could point out that science seeks truth with a lower case t, not ultimate meaning. I could point out the utility of science, and that the 86% of U.S. evolution rejectors already turn to evolution when they seek medical care, and that in our lifetimes, our knowledge of evolution and its application to medicine will increasingly deepen. Indeed, the article makes this point for me.

Third, the study found that adults with some understanding of genetics are more likely to have a positive attitude toward evolution.

I could do all these things, but as they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

National Geographic also offers a great solution to this problem. An excellent article by David Quammen titled Was Darwin Wrong? which appeared in the print edition of the November 2004 magazine. (Alas, the online version lacks the pretty pictures.)

I also offer my own solution. It’s meager, and perhaps a little incomplete. (I could add more to it while condensing it some to make it tighter). But I like to think it’s not bad. My old article on the basics of evolution. Though I’m but a humble grad student, the U.S. would do well to read it. At least 86 percent of them would.

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The Simpsons Do Evolution

Posted May 15th, 2006 at 10:20 am in Culture, Evolution | Comments Off

Had I been reading the various blogs I usually skim over, I would have known in advance that the Simpsons last night was on evolution. As it turned out, my wife and I walked in the door from a long weekend (she graduated!) and turned on the TV and just happened to notice what the Simpsons was about. I was immediately interested.

The show was funny. It wasn’t epic, but good nonetheless. A brief synopsis: Flanders creates a stink over teaching evolution in schools. Principle Skinner is going to ignore it as first, but is then reminded that his car lease with an amazing interest rate comes from Christian Brother’s Auto Service. As the lease is about to be set on fire, he caves in to teaching creationism. Lisa forms a secret after school club to read the Origin of Species and is arrested when the cops kick down the doors. The ensuing trial is a parody of the Scopes Trial. I could describe the whole thing in greater detail, but Jason Rosenhouse has already provided a thorough recap.

For me, the funniest part was Principal Skinner’s announcing to the class they would learn about creationism. Ralphie asks if it’s true that the ocean’s are God’s tears. Skinner nervously looks over at the people holding his auto lease, they nod their heads in approval, and Skinner looks back at the class and says, “yes, the ocean’s are God’s tears”.

When the video starts playing, it’s the classic dichotomy. The video’s titled Are you calling God a liar? and promises to take a unbiased look at the scientific record. It then immediately depicts Charles Darwin and The Origin as being in league with the devil. It captures the truthfulness of creationists who claim to present fair and unbiased discussions on the subject.

All in all, it was good satire.

Sweet Sweet Justice

Posted Feb 25th, 2006 at 6:52 pm in Culture | 2 Comments

I think a lot of us have a strong sense of justice. And that’s just one of the reasons we enjoy the Olympics so much. Summer or winter, we love watching men and women who’ve worked so hard and dedicated their lives to pursuing the sport they’re passionate about. It’s only fair when we they win. Sure, we root for our country over others, but sometimes stories of other country’s athletes, and the difficulties they’ve faced, even make us cheer against our own countrymen. The person who works the hardest deserves it, and that’s justice, we feel.

Bode Miller
Bode Miller

Well, on the opposite side of the coin, justice has also been served in the performance of Bode Miller.

To use the vernacular of my day, he has completely sucked in these winter games. And he deserves to!

Take a look at this story in Newsweek. I got this close to using that picture in this post. It really says it all. Throwing the bird, beer in one hand, next to a Playboy bunny. Way to represent the USA, chump.

The best part of the article is Bode’s quote:

For me the ideal Olympics would be to go in with all that pressure, all that attention and have performances that are literally tear-jerking, that make people put their heads down because they’re embarrassed at how emotional they’re getting, that make people want to try sports, talk to their kids, call their f—ing ex-wives—and come away with no medals. I think that would be epic. That would be the perfect thing.

Yes Bode. You’ve made me emotional allright. I’d like to choke you to death…

I and countless others aren’t mad at him for not medaling. In fact, if there’s anything I agree with Bode about, it’s that medaling and winning aren’t the definition of success.

But to take the talent you have and throw it all away because you’re lazy is worse than sad. It’s a travesty. It’s slapping every person who’s ever worked hard for something in the face.

You’re a disgrace. And though I’m sure I’m not the first American to say it, you’re the last person I want representing my country in front of the world.

You got what you deserved. You didn’t just fail to medal, you failed to inspire anyone. Four years from now, no one will even remember your name.

You got justice.

Super Bowl Sunday — Who Cares?

Posted Feb 5th, 2006 at 8:51 am in Birding, Culture | 5 Comments

The super bowl’s today. Who’s playing? Why should I care?

I’m going birding this afternoon. We have a report of Long-eared Owls on a ranch up north.

Update: The trip was a success. We had approximately a dozen Long-eared Owls, and got excellent looks at them. Getting pictures proved to be much harder. (I don’t really have a proper camera and lens for bird photography anyway.)

Can you see him?

Long-eared Owl

Happy Marmota monax Day!

Posted Feb 2nd, 2006 at 2:19 pm in Culture | 1 Comment

They say he’s predicting six more weeks of winter.

Marmota monax

It’s 70 degrees outside right now, and I’m not buying it for one minute…

“They Tried To Teach My Baby Science”

Posted Jan 20th, 2006 at 7:33 am in Culture | Comments Off

Here’s a good laugh that appeared in The Onion last October. Just a little something to brighten up your Friday morning. The cover is just perfect satire on the way some in our culture are acting towards science. I still keep laughing at the picture, even months after seeing it for the first time.

Also, be sure to note the tiny print at the bottom of the cover by Donald Trump. Funny indeed.

One Man to Save Them All

Posted Jan 15th, 2006 at 4:20 pm in Culture, Life in General | 2 Comments

No, I’m not speaking of my Christian faith…

The fifth season of 24 starts this evening, with a two hour premiere tonight and a two hour show tomorrow. Jack Bauer will once again strive valiantly to save the world (or at least America) from evil doers of every stripe.

I consider most TV to be a complete waste of time. 24 is no different, except it’s an incredibly fun complete waste of time. It and ABC’s Lost are two shows that are actually good.

The premise behind 24 is that each episode is an hour long, and the whole season is an entire day. It’s essentially a male soap opera. Think Mission Impossible only with a lead character that doesn’t talk much and kills more people.

The Walt Disneyfication of Nature

Posted Jan 9th, 2006 at 11:22 am in Culture, Movies, Nature | Comments Off

For a long time, I’ve rather disliked the subtle messages that we communicate to our kids through kid movies. Nature and it’s relationship to humans are shown to be a block party. All the creatures hang out, the rules of ecology are simply non-existant, and nature is portrayed in a surreal way. Over Christmas I watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it certainly fit this decription.

Now I realize that I’m in grave danger of being labeled a fun-hater (by the only jury that counts no less — my wife). I think these kid movies condition us though (starting when we’re kids but continuing in adulthood for most people) to not see the connection between habitat conservation and conservation of nature. Most people just don’t realize that a front lawn is NOT a prairie with a crew cut. And leaving a few trees in the backyard or city park doesn’t constitute a forest.

While at the movies the other day, I saw a couple of trailers that really seemed to be put forth a more realistic message.

The first movie was Hoot. The premise is that children work to save a population of owls from impending suburbian development. On the one hand, the movie looks a little hokey and there are some birding inaccuracies with their trailer. They show a Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia) land on a police car at night (the owls are diurnal) and then give the call of a Great Horned Owl. It’s a shame too because Burrowing Owl’s calls are so much cooler. (They also give a shriek which is particularly neat, but I couldn’t find a vocalization of it on the net.) However, I got particularly excited when the trailer briefly showed the kids looking through the Sibley Guide to Birds (also known as the bible for birders) at the illustrations of Burrowing Owls. While the movie is certain to be ridiculed by those who think conservation gets in the way of progress, it does seem to portray the message that subdivisions aren’t compatible with natural ecosystems. That’s a message most people don’t understand in my estimation.

The second movie was Over the Hedge, and it looked to be good. It’s animated and done by Dreamworks, the same people that did Shrek and Madagascar. (I haven’t seen the latter, so I have no idea what their portrayal of the most spectacular island on earth, one who’s ecology is in tatters, is like. I did hear it was a funny though.) Over the Hedge has good voices too. From the trailer, the movie was a somewhat funny look at how wasteful our society can be, and how a group of animals with nowhere else to turn head for the suburbs to raid the trashcans.

All in all, these back to back trailers advertised movies with a subtle message — we share the earth with all living things — that I think is a positive, if small, step in the right direction.