Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Towards Greater Equality

Yesterday evening I experienced something that has caused me to think a little and I'd like to share my thoughts and then have you respond with any and all ideas that come to you while you read this post.

Deb works at one of the local grade schools. She has made friends with a number of the children and sometimes will come home with the announcement that we should go to a play, or a music program, or a science fair to show support for these kids.

Last night we went to the science fair. Children from all over the district gathered with their cardboard displays to show off their talents as budding young scientists. It was fun to see a number of the same old projects being done back in my day and to see a number of genuinely creative experiments.

It was really easy to spot the displays that probably had a lot of parent involvement and represented a higher socioeconomic status. They were crisp. The written portions exhibited good grammar and clarity of thought. Most of the experiment titles were very clever.

Then there were the displays done by children who likely had little, if any, parental assistance. They were poorly organized, sparing in details, and often indicated that English was the students' second language.

When it came to the awards ceremony, I watched as at least two prizes went to children whose fathers are university professors; I know because I know their fathers. I'm not saying that their fathers did the work for them, so I'm not crying foul play. I'm talking about a much bigger problem.

I left the science fair grateful that Deb and I both have college degrees. We'll likely give our children better educational guidance than we would otherwise have been able to.

But parents without much education, or parents who don't speak English, or parents who don't take an active role or interest in their kids' schooling will many times watch as kids from better educated, more affluent families take home the prizes from the science fairs.

Here are the questions I'd like us to discuss:

How do we level this playing field?

How do we diminish or eliminate this disparity?

What can we do to help others help themselves and their own families?

What did your parents do well to help you on your way to educational and eventual career success?

I'll start our discussion by posting the first comment. Please, I'd like your feedback.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

On Mead and Samoa

Back in the day when the Nurture vs. Nature war was going full tilt, Franz Boas, the most eminent anthropologist of his time, sent 23-year-old Margaret Mead to do some field work in Samoa. A short time later she returned to the States and in 1928 published her startling book Coming of Age in Samoa.

Coming of Age in Samoa was a smashing success for at least a few reasons: 1). its preface, written by Boas, very strongly endorsed Mead's conclusions, 2). it was uncritically accepted by scholars and laymen alike, and 3). Mead's conclusions were that free love was the rule in Samoa and Samoan girls didn't suffer, like their American counterparts, from the storm and stress associated with adolescence. Mead went on to generalize that all youth wherever would benefit from following the Samoans' lead.

It wasn't until 1983 before anyone seriously challenged Mead's conclusions, and when he did, Derek Freeman started an uproar in anthropological circles. For a while, Freeman was considered the anthropological Antichrist, attacking as he was the conclusions of Mead--the 'Mother-Goddess' of anthropology, but now his work concerning Mead is much more widely accepted.

I've recently read most of Freeman's Margaret Mead and Samoa (1983) and all of his Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead (1999). Both are fascinating and I'd recommend them to anyone interested Samoa, anthropology, or good old-fashioned scientific controversy.

I've learned a few lessons from Mead's work in Samoa that should prove helpful to any aspiring scientist. Mead could have avoided posthumous embarrassment at the hands of Freeman had she or her advisor, Franz Boas, done three things before publishing Coming of Age in Samoa:

1. Checked her conclusions against her own field notes,

2. Checked her conclusions against the extant ethnological data,

3. Checked her conclusions by returning to Samoa for additional study.

Freeman makes it clear, however, that not only did Mead not do any of the above mentioned things, she insisted in the preface to the 1973 edition of Coming of Age in Samoa that revision was an impossibility:

"Some young critics have even asked me when I am going to revise this book and look unbelieving and angry when I say that to revise it would be impossible. It must remain, as all anthropological works must remain, exactly as it was written, true to what I saw in Samoa and what I was able to convey of what I saw; true to the state of our knowledge of human behavior as it was in the mid-1920's; true to our hopes and fears for the future of the world." (Emphasis mine)

So, instead of revisiting and revising her terribly flawed work, Margaret Mead doggedly upheld its conclusions for the rest of her life. Perhaps Mead thought she'd lose her credibility if she ever reversed her stance.

Contrast that attitude with Hugh Nibley's: " being reappraised....I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven's sake, I hope we are moving forward here! After all, the implication [is] that one mistake and it is all over with. How flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four-fifths of everything I put down has changed. Of course! That is the whole idea; This [research] is an ongoing process...." (Source)

We have to reappraise and revise all the time, of necessity, or else we are liable to be made to look like fools. There's no shame in admitting a mistake; it's bar none the best way to correct our course and start moving in the right, or a better, direction.

Dr. Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist who has done extensive field work in Samoa, has a differing view than both Mead and Freeman:

"Noncompetitive, lenient, and somewhat promiscuous [Mead's conclusions]. Authoritarian, competitive, and touchy [Freeman's conclusions]. Margaret Mead's and Derek Freeman's descriptions of Samoans seem worlds apart. The longer we [Dr. Cox and his family] lived in Falealupo, the more I wondered if what one sees in Samoa is merely a reflection of one's own preconceptions." (Nafanua: Saving the Samoan Rainforest, pg. 68)

Enter another piece of advice for budding young scientists: be careful of preconceptions; science is supposed to be unbiased and objective. But since it's nearly impossible to completely remove one's biases and subjective views, one must lay all of them on the table before stating one's conclusions.

I agree with both Freeman and Cox: the Samoans are not to be characterized as the libertines Mead made them out to be.

Enough pontificating! You get the point.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It is Better to Give...

I've always loved this story, now portrayed in video. I hope you enjoy it too.

Friday, February 6, 2009

That's Astronomical!

As a boy I used to have a recurring nightmare where my mind was forced to comprehend the size of infinitely large objects. I hated those dreams! The human mind is not programmed to comprehend infinity.

The United States' government is currently attempting to pass a $900 billion dollar stimulus package. In some minds it will be a nightmare if it doesn't pass, in other minds a nightmare if it does. Let's try to comprehend together what $900 billion represents in different units of measurement.


If each dollar of the stimulus package were a second of time, then $900 billion would equal

15 billion minutes,
250 million hours,
10.4 million days, or
28,538.8 years.

If I lived that long I wouldn't die until the year 30,519--move over Methuselah, you spring chicken!


$900 billion is equal to 90 trillion pennies.

The combined weight of 90 trillion pennies is 225 billion kilograms (kg)!

That's the equivalent of

2.25 billion people my weight (100 kg), or

41,246,562.8 average male African elephants!


90 trillion pennies set end-to-end would extend for 1.7145 billion kilometers,

Or enough distance to circumnavigate the earth at its equator 42,780.15 times;

That's equal to 11.46 Astronomical Units (AU), or 11.46 times the earth's distance from the Sun.

That's further away from the Sun than the planet Saturn.

90 trillion pennies stacked on top of each other would be

139.5 million kilometers or .93 AU, almost the distance between Earth and the Sun.


We could consider more but I have other things to be doing. Any way we figure it, though, $900 billion is a lot.