Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Of Arguments and Fools...

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Over the last few days I have been embroiled in several debates on Facebook ranging in topics from religion and politics, to science and climate change. Some of the things that I've debated about quite literally make no sense. I could just elect to not engage these people, but I have a compulsion to stamp out incorrect information and it usually leads me to engage in these debates.

As I've gotten older I have gotten somewhat wiser. Eventually there comes a point when you realize that the person with whom you are debating with is either unwilling or unable to change their views. This was the case in all of the debates that I was involved in; one was with a racist bigot who's personal views were too far ingrained to look at the situation objectively, another was with a conspiracy theorist (a whole special kind of case there), and the third was with a narcissist who could not be wrong.

Sadly, in all of these cases the debates turned into arguments, at which point I bowed out. Only a fool continues to argue with the foolish. There is a huge difference between a debate and an argument. A debate is two or more differing positions on a subject that are presented with facts, logical constructs, or reason-based arguments as their support. One person comments, the other person listens to that comment, rebuts the point (usually), and then makes a counter argument. An argument is simply saying "not uh" and "you're wrong" over and over again. When that starts to happen, save your breath.

Most of the time intelligent people can have a debate and realize that just because a person has opposing views on a particular subject as you does not make them a bad person. It just means that they have a different viewpoint than you on that subject. That's totally okay. There are several people on my friends list on FB that have very different opinions about me on certain topics, but those people are also some of the people that I respect the most; JD and Josh H. in particular. Why is that? Because during the debates that we've been in they've been able to present their arguments logically and/or factually, and most importantly, respectfully.

I enjoy seeking out debates with people who have different opinions than I do. Every time I do, I'm secretly hoping that they have debate skills like the fine gentlemen that I've mentioned above. I want them to present a solid argument. Show me facts. Give me a logical construct to frame your position, or explain with reason why your position is superior. I crave this in a debate. I enjoy this because when I'm presented with information and logical arguments it forces me to re-evaluate my own beliefs. Do I believe what I believe because it makes sense and it's the right thing to believe? Or do I believe what I believe because someone told me once that I should think this and I've never bothered to question that? Both of the men I've mentioned above have been successful in changing my opinion about different topics at one point or another because they were able to present information or logical constructs that I had not considered before.

There are several maddeningly frustrating elements at work when you debate with someone who does not understand these principles for whatever reason. One frustrating element is that some people will fabricate information to prove a point. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, as much as I respect him, has been guilty of fabricating or incorrectly attributing quotes when he makes anecdotal references. This is ethically questionable. But, in the scope of what information he's presenting, a quote being incorrectly attributed is more forgivable than botching the factual data at the crux of his argument. A more specific example of this comes from one of the debates I was involved in regarding Climate Change. One of the debaters said: "the co-founder of the Weather Channel is a doctor of meteorology and he says that it [man-caused global climate change] is a fraud. I believe him." This was his response to my presentation of scientific data that demonstrates that the CO2 levels in the air sharply increase coincidentally at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. He was presented with facts, so he responded by quoting an "expert". But, there's a problem. The man that he is speaking of is John Coleman. He has been quite a vocal critic of climate change since 1987, that part is true. But he is not a doctor. Not only that, he has not any academic degrees from any institution in any academic discipline. His opposition to global climate change is not based on factual evidence, but instead based on his own opinion.

But this is just one of many tools of the trade. Another very common example is the Ad Hominem attack. The ad hominem attack is an attempt to discredit a person's argument by attacking their personal character. At various points in different arguments I have been called: a Republican, a Democrat, a Conservative, a Liberal, A "Tea-Party psycho", They bring politics into the debate to build upon the ad hominem attack; because you are a [fill in party here], then clearly the logic of your argument must be unsound. This is an asinine argument.

Confirmation bias is another common problem that crops up in online debates. Confirmation bias is the refusal to accept or consider new information that might force you to admit that your position is wrong. For example, someone might argue; there's no such thing as man-created global climate change, see this snow storm proves it! and then you might point out that the snow storm was caused by a tropical storm interrupting the jet stream (a condition of global warming), the pacific ocean is warming rapidly (sharks in the tropics have been found as far south as Australia and fish native to Hawaii have been found as far north as Alaska), and that the CO2 levels in the air sharply and drastically increase beginning with the start of the industrial revolution. Confirmation bias sets in when this information is wholly dismissed with wild assertions like that data is a conspiracy to keep scientists employed/keep government or big business funded or Climate scientists don't know what they're talking about, I did my own research. Or, my favorite it's only a theory. Clearly, people who use that one in particular have no experience in scientific research whatsoever.

Circular Arguments are also equally frustrating. Circular arguments make a chain of events that ultimately leads back to the original point. Global warming isn't real, the weatherman said so! But, science. Those scientists are wrong, the data is inaccurate. It's a conspiracy! But, logic. But logic is wrong because I don't want to believe it. But, reason. No, reason isn't right, the weatherman said so! ...repeat ad inifinitum.

I encourage everyone to head over here: http://www.yourlogicalfallacyis.com and read the different types of logical fallacies and why they are bad. You may still fall victim to some of them from time to time, we all do, it's human nature, but once you are more aware of them you can work to avoid using them in your own debates. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Reflections on Life

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Life is confusing. Life is hard sometimes. Life isn't any one thing, but rather is a series of interconnected choices, chances, and events that are woven together to build our experience. You can plan things out all that you want. You can go into situations with the purest of intentions. You may even think to yourself that you have it all figured out, and you understand how life works. But, every so often, life serves up some curveballs, poignant reminders that you have absolutely no idea what you are doing after all. And every so often, those curveballs are game-changers in the sense that the experiences that bring about, good, bad, or both, will irrevocably change you from the person that you were into someone else and that person that you were ceases to be.

Sometimes something happens that makes you reevaluate life and you realize that it's not worth it be serious and you might become more child-like. I've seen this happen with older people and some people who are terminally ill. Other times, something happens that makes you jaded, or it kills off part of your soul so that the world seems less colorful, less beautiful, darker. And still other times things happen that make you less child-like and force you to grow up and face some harsh realities. Sometimes it's more than one of these things.

Much of your life is dictacted by your own choices; do I go right or left, do I take a new job or stay where I am, do I finish school or take a second job, do I wear the blue tie or the black one? Very often though other people's choices intersect with your life in irreversable ways. Maybe someone decided not to have their brakes changed and as a result they crashed into your car and left you disabled. Or maybe someone from your life that you were connected to just up and leaves with little notice and without explanation. Sometimes people decide to quit their job and it creates a new position that you can move into. There are lots of ways that other people's choices interact with our lives. Often times we describe these things as chance, but it's not really chance. Chance would be calculating your odds of being in the right place at the right time for an event to occur, not the actual choices themselves, although the choices do play a role in those calculations.

Decisions that we make on our own are the easiest to deal with, sometimes, because we made those choices; we have control over them. I say sometimes because sometimes the choices that we make aren't the ones that we really want to make and the end result that we get from those choices is actually the furthest thing from what we want in life. Other times, someone else makes those choices for us; someone leaves, a parent decides to move, your work closes its doors, etc. Those choices are especially hard to deal with because its not really your choice. You have no control over those situations. The situations are what they are because other people exercised their power to make decisions and choices.

The real trick to life is figuring out the difference between the choices that you make you and the choices that someone else makes. Understanding this difference will allow you to understand what choices you actually have control over. You can't decide to tell your employer to stay open, you can't decide to tell your parent not to move, and you certainly can't decide to make people that you care about stay in your life. The only decisions that you have control over are how you handle those game-changing occurences. Do you let them break you, grind on you, wear you out until there's nothing left, or do you rise up to meet them and accept that you have no control over them? Once you figure out which things you actually do have control over, you'll be in a much better position to actually change your life for the better because you can decide to change the things that you don't like.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Psychology of Abuse

[Johnathan Clayborn]

As I was cleaning out my emails I came across a conversation that was relevant to the post I made a while back about abuse. Someone once asked me to explain how jealousy, obsession, and control work in the mind of abusers and what makes them so intense in those areas. Since this was relevant to the earlier conversation, and good information to know, I thought that I would edit the conversation and share it.  

First, an understanding of these behaviors helps. All three of those emotions are symbiotic. Abusers are jealous of everyone because they are insecure about themselves and they have a low self-esteem. They might try to deflect this or hide this by exaggerating their exploits or acting with "machismo" in public, but in truth, they are not confident about themselves and/or have many things about themselves that they don't like. They feel inferior internally so they view everyone as a potential threat.  

And that insecurity leads in part to the control. People in that type of situation try to seek out people that they can control easily enough, either through emotion or circumstance, or both. Being able to exert control like that over another person makes them feel powerful and boosts their self-esteem. This is why they like to be in control and often try to act as the leader, or “Alpha Male” (even if the abuser is female, they will try to take on this mantle); to mask their insecurity. 

But that leads to the obsession. Once people have a person that they can successfully control and make compliant to their will, then that makes them feel better about themselves (because they are subjecting another person and thus are proving to themselves that they aren't weak). They like this feeling, so they become obsessed with the person that they control because that person becomes the gateway to this feeling, but in all cases it's almost always temporary.  

There's a psychological principle called the Hedonic Treadmill. Basically, what it means is that everyone will have an "average" level of happiness in their life. They might lose a bit of their possessions or money, and that might make them sad and they might become depressed for a while, but that will balance out as they learn to adapt to their situation. Or they might suddenly get a lot of money and have more money than they know what to do with. This would allow them to be temporarily happy, but eventually they would tire of their "toys" as they search for meaning (Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs – self-actualization) and their happiness would average back out again. 

This relates because there's something about themselves that they don't like. Rather than facing these flaws and accepting them as they are or trying to improve them, they’re trying to simply band-aid them by making themselves feel better in the short term; in this case through abuse and control. They might feel better now, but eventually the Hedonic Treadmill will set in and that happiness will fade. Then they'll require more to make themselves happy. This is why serial killers always escalate their kills over time, and why substance abuse addicts always require more and more drugs to feel the high. 

All behavior is made extinct through positive or negative reinforcement (this is not punishment and reward, per se...a punishment can be a "positive reinforcement"). Basically a negative reinforcement is anything, good or bad, that causes the behavior to decrease. 

Many abusers have very high social-emotional intelligence and will often lash out viciously with hateful words. They use this social intelligence to try to manipulate the people they are abusing. They try to goad them into a specific emotional response that they're looking for. Maybe it's pity, or praise, or compliance, or whatever. The point is those lashings out are a tool in their toolbox designed to achieve something specific.

If the person being abused respond correctly the abuser may continue the behavior because it worked. If they responded incorrectly the abuser might try a different tactic; a different emotional or logical argument, or a physical attack. In all cases they're trying to establish their superiority or make their ego and self-esteem feel better. 

If they feel better about themselves they may tire of controlling and just leave (but this is rare because they usually don't ever actually work on fixing what's wrong with them because they're too busy controlling the person they are abusing). Or, if the person they are abusing just stops providing any emotional responses at all of any kind and completely ignore them, their need to feel the control will be minimized and they will move on to someone else that they can control. But, in the process of doing that the victim is likely to make them mad and they're likely to resort to physical violence to appease their low self-esteem and prove to themselves that it's the victim’s fault that they feel bad about themselves. 

Abusers often turn everything around and make it the victim’s fault. This is another way of protecting themselves from their own perceived flaws. It's not their fault that they feel bad about themselves; it's the victim’s fault. It's always the victim’s fault. This is why they lash out. It protects their fragile psyche from further damage. 

Small children actually try the same approach as abusers when they are trying to get something that they want. They ask mom. Mom says no, they ask dad. Dad says no, they cry, they use the puppy dog face, they say please and butter you up, they try to bribe you....all are behaviors designed to elicit their desired response from you. This is exactly the same thing. With adults they'll lash out and blame you, they'll try to physically control you or hit you, and if that fails, they'll try to appeal to your sense of compassion by making you feel sorry for them. 

Some people who abuse are capable of improvement and growth, but in order for that to happen they need a catalyst, not a reactionary agent. Someone that they can control and exploit will never force their behavior to change. Someone who stands up to him and pushes him and makes him look hard at themselves will facilitate that change, as with everyone. We all grow by being around people that push us to be better every day.  

It's a shame that many abusers do not have the propensity to bring about change in their behavior. That's honestly one of the biggest reasons why so many counselors and therapists burn out in their jobs so quickly; they all go into it with a huge heart and a desire to help everyone and to make everyone better. The reality of it is that there are some people that they will not be able to help. Some people cannot accept that very well and they make themselves crazy trying to do it and burn out, which is a travesty because it robs all of the other people that they could have helped from their skills and experiences. Psychology professionals haven't learned to triage clients in the same way that medical professionals have. 

Trying to point out the abusive behavior to an abuser typically does not go over well. They generally hate it. They would hate it especially so because you're trying to point out the one thing that they're trying to hide from themselves. ...it's akin to asking a bank robber who's taken hostages to calm down.  

Experience always does seem to be better at teaching than does learning from someone else's perspective. Most people learn about some things within themselves, things they recognize, things they want to work on. Those are signs of a healthy psyche and a strong ego; good self-esteem. They're not threatened by perceived weakness because they know that they have the capacity to improve it. 

Our families make a huge impact on our adult development while we are young children. They set deep rooted beliefs and behaviors, perceptions, etc. that can be hard to overcome. Sadly, many abusers are, or were, victims themselves. It certainly doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it should be a lesson to everyone that your actions have lasting ramifications.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Critical Thinking in our Education System.

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I had originally wanted to write about this some weeks ago, but I got side tracked with other posts and homework. Now I'm circling back to it because I still think it's an important discussion. I follow some people that I find rather interesting on my Facebook page; Neil Degrasse Tyson, Dr. Michio Kaku, and others. Dr. Kaku posted a link with a comment advocating that we should stop trying to teach critical thinking in our education system. At first I was taken aback. I respect Dr. Kaku a great deal, and I've long held the belief that we need to teach more critical thinking in the classroom. How could he say such a thing?
Then I read the article and I understood and I agree with him.
The main point that the article was making is that in too many classrooms across the country the concept of "critical thinking" is often mislabled and passed along under as a guise for political or policy reform. Teachers bemoan certain policies or political views that they dislike and present their side of the argument to the children under the guise of "Critical Thinking". Some Science teachers will publicly lament that they are not allowed to teach their religious beliefs about creation to the students but are instead forced to teach concepts such as the Big Bang and Evolution. This is not critical thinking.

Far too often many of us are victims of our own minds, trapped inside of our firmly held beliefs and ideologies that we succumb to psychological traps like confirmation bias. We're all guilty of it from time to time, but some of us are worse than others. I pride myself on being a truly critical thinker. I enjoy debating with people who have a different opinion than I do, not because I want be right and win the debate, but because that I'm hoping beyond hope that they can articulate why they believe what they believe with logic and reason and possibly support their position with facts. This forces me to re-evaluate what I believe; do I believe what I believe because it's the right thing to believe, or do I believe if because someone once told me that I should and I've never questioned it? Many of my friends have acknowledged this trait about me and some of them have managed to convince me to change my mind on certain topics. I have many friends whom I respect a great deal and yet we have vastly different opinions on certain topics. That's perfectly okay.

But sadly that's not commonplace. And it's not what happens in many classrooms either. If I am not capable of actually critically analyzing a situation, how can I teach others to be that way as well? If I physically don't understand the concept of critical thinking or I refuse to participate in it, how can I realistically expect others to do it?

The one thing that is clear from this article is that the concept of critical thinking in a classroom setting needs to come from a complete revamp and overhaul of the curriculum and instructional methodology that is being used in schools today. I promote critical thinking in my son all of the time. He will often ask me: "Dad, how does X work?" Instead of just telling him what I want him to know or to think, I ask him what does he know about X, and based on what he knows about X, what does he think? How does he think X works? And, where can he learn more about X? This is a process that I will always continue. I will never presume to push my religious or political beliefs onto my children. If they have a different view than I do, great. If not, that's great too. Either way they should arrive at their own conclusions in their own way.

When it comes to conversations of "critical thinking" that take place in most places today I'm reminded of Inigo Montaya again..."you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means". And since any explanation I might give would invariably miss some of the finer points of this conversation, I encourage you to read the article in the link below.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Minimum Wage vs Liveable Wage

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Today there were protests in 150 cities across the country from fast food workers who are demanding that the $7.25/hour minimum wage be raised, more than doubled, to $15/hour. The basis of their argument is that it is not possible in today's economy to support a family on minimum wage. While I may be empathetic to their argument, I am not sympathetic to their cause. Raising the minimum wage would be a terrible idea, for a number of reasons that I will try to illustrate.

In the United States the legalization and establishment of a minimum wage occurred in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was originally $0.25/hour when the law was first enacted. Adjusting for inflation, that would have been approximately $4.08/hour by today's standards. In 1939 the Federal Minimum Wage was increased to $0.30/hour, or $4.97/hour after inflation. By 1950 Minimum Wage had risen to $0.75/hour, which is $7.16 after inflation adjustments. The rate has been fairly consistent since then. The primary reason that the Federal Minimum Wage Act was passed was to prevent people who were desperate for work coming off the heels of the Great Depression from being unfairly exploited by business owners looking to save some cash. (You can see historical minimum wage rates here). 16 US States currently have minimum wage laws higher than the Federal standard.

Let's take a moment to talk about how economics work. In the most basic sense there is a production of goods or services, then those goods or services are exchanged to consumers who trade them for monetary units. This has been the basic rule of economics for centuries. Keeping this in mind, people can only spend what they earn, and much of their income goes to things like food, shelter, transportation, personal insurance, and healthcare. According to the US Wage and Labor Department, the median household income in the US is $51,000. In fact, according to an analysis by CNN Money the average spending for households in this median bracket is 69% of their budget on those items. That leaves only 30% of their budge for discretionary spending on items such as entertainment, clothing, and miscellaneous items.

Before I continue further, let's talk a moment about how the wealth is distributed within the US. By now everyone has heard of the "Occupy Movement" and the unfair distribution of wealth among the "1%". The chart below illustrates that concept, but it also illustrates something more important to this discussion. The Median Income, as I mentioned, is $51,000. This means that half of all US Households make less than that annually. As you can see from the chart, the distribution of wealth does not follow a bell curve. In fact, the vast majority of the population is clustered near the bottom end of the spectrum; less than $33,000 annually.

Let's revisit that financial analysis again, but this time with a household in that $33,000 income bracket. Looking at Food, Housing, Transportation, Personal Insurance, and Health expenses this income bracket expends 80% of their budget on these items. That only leaves 20% of their budge for discretionary spending.

Now that we have that background out of the way, let's talk about this $15 minimum wage push. One of the biggest mistakes of this logic is what it will do the economy itself. The logic seems to benefit the individual at the expense of the economy as a whole. While more than doubling the worker's income would certainly do more to increase their discretionary spending, it actually will hurt businesses. In order for restaurants to be successful they have to maintain certain budgetary ratios. For Fast food the employee wages should typically not exceed 25% of the overall budget, for sit-down restaurants it should not exceed 35%. Assuming that they keep the same amount of staff, this means that an increase in wages by 200% would push their employee costs up to around 50% of their overall budget, which would sink even fine dining establishments. Some businesses are already legally challenging this decision in Seattle by filing a lawsuit claiming that impedes their ability to compete in a free market economy. In the meantime some businesses are trying to offset this increase in cost by taking measures such as doing away with company sponsored benefits such as sick time, pensions, retirement, and medical insurance. Some companies have even taken to charging their employees for previously-free conveniences such as parking on the property. In the end though the business owners are left with only two main options; reduce the number of staff or increase the prices of their goods.

If companies reduce the number of staff then there will be fewer people working and spending money, which means that businesses as a whole make less money and are forced to take cost-saving measures such as layoffs of price hikes. Some McDonalds stores have already floated the idea of eliminating cashiers and replacing them with kiosks in the lobby. This would spill over into retail establishments who would soon be forced to follow suit with either price hikes or layoffs, or both. The Self-Checkout lanes would almost completely replace cashiers.

If companies try to offset the cost by increasing the cost of items, effectively passing that cost on to the consumers directly, then that means that people will not be able to spend as much money, they will spend less, buy less and companies will lose their profit margins. This will result in either staff layoffs or price hikes to compensate, which further exasperates the issue. In either case, the end result is the same; a Kobyashi Maru that serves no purpose other than to destroy the base level of the economy.

Let's examine another less obvious side effect; what this does to non-minimum wage jobs. Increasing minimum wage to $15/hour would make their annual salary $31,200. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics people with an Associates Degree earn an average of $40,820 annually. Bachelor's Degree holders earn an average of $53,000 annually. To put this into a different perspective, a teacher needs to have a 4 year degree plus certifications in order teach in any state in the US. In Arizona the average starting salary is $31,689. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hour doesn't automatically increase the wages of everyone else. So this devalues the educated middle class. We would essentially be saying that a job that requires no skill and just a few hours of training that literally anyone could do is worth the same value as someone who requires a minimum of 4 years of training to do their job. This logic is folly.

Going back to the main part of the argument; that people cannot support a family on minimum wage salary; it is not intended for that. Minimum wage jobs are intended for students and unskilled or barely skilled workers to fill the entry-level positions in the job market. This push for a higher minimum wage, more than anything, smacks of the lack of ambition and determination that seems to permeate our society of late. If you don't like how much money you make, improve your situation; go to school, get a different skill set, move up in your company. Don't be content with doing nothing with your life and then complain that you can't support yourself. Anyone can improve their situation with enough drive and desire to do so.

Further Reading:







Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Love or Fear: A Look at Abuse

[Johnathan Clayborn]

This is an issue that has come up several times for me in the last month. Some of my friends have been in this situation in the past, including some people that I care about very much. Some of the my other friends have brought it up in discussion both seriously and casually.

A guy I once worked with posted to Facebook:  "Some women boggle me. Listen, if your tired of being battered, used and abused... Stop dating thug types with no morals. And you wonder why nobody cares when you come crying that you been wronged. -just sayin [sic]'"

Both as a psych major and as someone who worked in the behavioral health field I've studied abuse. Its ugly. Its deplorable. Its very rarely simple. These women who date thug types often do so because the thug reminds them of their fathers. Most of those women either have dysfunctional relationships with their fathers or their fathers are not in their lives anymore. They seek these men out as surrogates for the father they want to have a relationship with. Fathers are especially important in the lives of young girls because they look to their father's behaviors to imprint upon them how they should expect men to behave in the future. If their father was an abusive drunkard, they will expect that this is normal behavior. Even learning later in life that this is not normal, it will be difficult to override that impression.

Even in cases where that's not true and the women aren't unintentionally seeking out surrogates for their dysfunctional father relationships, abusers have extremely high social intelligence. They are excellent at manipulating both people and the situation. They often begin slowly making you rely on them piece by piece until they take over completely. The money is almost always controlled by them. The bills and cars are only in their name, and they make it a point to be well-liked by the community. After they gain control, the physical abuse begins. People stay because they're trapped; they have no car, no money, they feel like they have no way out. And often the abuser threatens to kill them if they talk to anyone. Sometimes the abuser threatens to hurt or kill other family members if they try to leave.

Being in an abusive relationship is literally living in a personal hell that you have to hide from the world. It is generally accepted that there are 6 main types of abuse. The most common that everyone associates with is physical abuse. What most people don't realize is that this type of abuse also includes indirect physical abuse, which doesn't include hitting or physical contact. It includes things like standing over you, getting "in your face," blocking a doorway, grabbing you if you try to leave, kicking, punching, biting, slapping, choking, threatening to harm you, using weapons, throwing things, breaking things, punching walls or doors, driving recklessly, burning, cutting, pulling hair, stabbing, strangling, tying or confining you, preventing you from seeking medical care, and often escalates to murder. This type of abuse often starts slowly and gets progressively worse.

Emotional abuse is also another broad category that most people have some basic knowledge of. However, most people don't realize the extent of this abuse. Emotional abuse includes insults, put downs, intimidation, embarrassing you in public, talking down to you, not listening to or respecting your feelings, making threats, telling you you’re not “GLBTQ,” “man,” or “strong” enough, being jealous, possessive, controlling; excessive or threatening texts, wanting access to your messages, email, FaceBook/MySpace, spying, checking up on you, accusations of cheating, making you feel like you need to justify yourself, giving you no privacy, shaming you for your sexual orientation. Now, to be clear, many of the behaviors listed here are also normal human emotional responses; jealousy, for example. The distinction between a normal response and abuse is the context and frequency. If you went to a party with your partner and then ignored them all night and danced or flirted with other people, it would be a normal response to be somewhat jealous. However if your partner gets overly jealous whenever anyone so much as looks at you or says hi to you, then you have a problem.

A third broad category of abuse is Verbal Abuse. This includes behaviors like yelling, shouting, swearing, continuously arguing, interrupting, talking over you, put downs, using loud and threatening language and tone to cause fear, name calling, intimidating you, mocking you, abusive language. Again, yelling and shouting can be normal behaviors within a reasonable context (not necessarily a healthy behavior, or one conducive to building a healthy relationship, but within the realm of normal). You may also note that Verbal Abuse and Emotional Abuse overlap somewhat.

A fourth category is Economic Abuse. This is one that most people won't identify with by name, but it is one of the most important reasons that people who are abused stay in a relationship. This type of abuse includes withholding money, opening up a joint account but denying you access, forcing you to leave your job, forcing you to get fired, shaming you for how you spend your money, not allowing you to work or get an education, putting all the bills/credit cards in your name (or their name), or preventing you from using a car. This could be further expanded and summarized to say that it includes any denial or restriction of common property or assets.

A fifth category, and one that overlaps some of the others is Mental Abuse. This include behaviors such as playing mind games with you, twisting everything around so nothing is their fault and all of their behavior was caused by something you did or didn’t do, accusing you of doing things that they are doing, lying, manipulating you for control or sex, threatening to “out” you to parents, friends, classmates, distorting reality so you think you are losing your mind. They may also resort to hiding things that you've left somewhere so that you can't find it and then spend hours looking for it only to return it to the original location when you're about to give up making you doubt your sanity.

The last major category is Sexual Abuse. This includes behaviors such as rape, unwanted sexual touching, vulgar comments, pressure for sex, forcing you to have unprotected sex, forcing you to get pregnant or to have an abortion, sexting, forcing you to have sex with other people or to watch your partner have sex with someone else, forcing you to use or participate in pornography, and much worse.

If you want to know more about how to help people who are in an abusive relationship the CDC offers a free web training on it.

If you think that people living with abuse are exaggerating, they aren't. One brave woman took a photo of herself every day for a year while she was living with abuse. I will warn you, the video is not easy to watch if you have any compassion for others and if you've ever been abused, it may trigger some bad memories. With that disclaimer out of the way, you can watch it here. The sign at the end of the video says "Help me. I don't know if I'll make it until tomorrow". ...let that sink in for a minute.

You can either love someone, or you can fear them, but it can never be both. You might be tricked into thinking that you love them because they provide for you, but that's not love, that's them continuing to exert control by making you dependent on them. You might tell yourself that you love them because they give you things without asking. Again, that's not love, that's them controlling what you have and whom you communicate with. Eventually your mind becomes so blurred that you really think that you do actually love them, but it's not love, it's Stockholm Syndrome. If you live in fear of being beat or hit you cannot be in love with that person.

If you are in this situation, there is always a way out, there is always help. If you know someone in this situation, take them seriously and don't just discredit their discussion as simple complaining. Often they are in a life-threatening situation and they just don't realize it.


Friday, August 29, 2014

The Portrayal of Self

[Johnathan Clayborn]

There has been a lot of fallout and discussion over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO a short time ago. To say that there are some strong, political and philosophical disagreements over the issue would be a gross understatement. People are quick to argue about their take on the militarization of police, abuse of power, the requirements for lethal force, and the overall social injustice of underprivileged minorities being discriminated against. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that these conversations shouldn't take place, because they should. They're very important conversations to be having as a nation and as individuals. But there was one bit of fallout from this that's not discussed very much, and when it is, it's often a one-sided discussion. So, rather than contribute my two cents to the plethora of opinions about the above topics I wanted to talk about the portrayal of self.

There are many people who are complaining because the media is showing picture a picture of Michael Brown that makes it hard to view him as a defenseless victim. His detractors are using this photo as justification that he deserved to be shot and was dangerous. His supporters are saying that the photo was taken out of context and was hand-picked by the media to deliberately portray him in a bad light. Take a look:

In an apparent show of support for Mr. Brown and as a backlash to the media many people, mostly young African Americans, are posting two photos of themselves, one respectable and the other questionable with the hashtag: IfTheyGunnedMeDown. You can see examples of some of the photos here and here and here and here.

There are two things that I want to point out. First, is that the media is not the paragon of impartial truth that they are sometimes considered to be. I've worked with enough reporters and been burned by them and seen them in action enough to have first hand knowledge of this. The news will always report the story with a slant. And if it's not the slant of whatever major political corporation pays the bills, then it's whatever slant will generate the most viewership. So, you should expect that the media will always use the worst photo of you that they can find.

The second thing that I want to point out is that you have total control over this. Many of the articles talk about these photos and throwing around the terms "alleged gang signs". No. These are gang signs. What other signs are they if they aren't gang signs? They aren't peace signs. They sure as hell aren't American Sign Language. They are gang signs. If you are a respectable person, would you want to associate yourself with a gang by flashing signs in photos? Gangs do nothing but perpetuate violence. Many gangs have a "blood in, blood out" policy that requires violence. You certainly don't see gangs helping old ladies across the street, covering up graffiti or feeding the homeless. Why would any person want to associate themselves with such organizations. If you post crap like that on your page, society will judge you as thuggish. If you are posting such photos as a joke, you need to revise your sense of humor. It would be akin to me posting a photo, as a horribly unfunny joke, of myself in a KKK hood and then being upset when the media circulates that picture calling me a racist. And I never understood the point of flipping off the camera either. I typically don't go around giving people the bird in my day-to-day life, so why would I pose a picture of that on my page? If I saw people walking down the street throwing signs or flipping people off, I would pay them closer attention and view them warily.

Society will judge you by whatever means that they can, and whatever means they have available to them. If you don't want to be viewed as a thug or a brute, or a no-good-doer, then stop posting pictures of gang signs, drugs, profanity, etc. If you want society to view you as a respectable person, then keep that stuff off of your page. It's really that simple. You have the power to control how you are viewed by society. You have the power to say to the world "this is who I am, and this is how I want you to see me". Make a smart choice.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Choosing your lessons

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Yesterday the intranet page at my work had an interesting poll. The question was:

If you can only be w/ one type of person for the rest of your life...Would it be..
1) Someone you settle for and are miserable with, but who is financially stable.
2) someone that you want to be with, but you both struggle financially barely making it paycheck to paycheck.

Not surprisingly, 3/4ths of the people who responded selected option 2, myself included. There were a lot of people who rationalized their choice with comments like "money doesn't buy happiness". One commenter suggested that "if you select option 2...You will argue w/ your significant other mainly over money. Its inevitable no matter how much you love your mate.". Others were quick to point out that If you agree on how/what to use your limited resources on then you will not argue about it. The arguments come because you have different goals/priorities, not because of lack of money. In some cases this is easier said than done, but the logic is highly accurate.

I responded to the thread with the same example I gave when I was in my undergrad degree and I discussed in my post back in December, 2011. The basic premise of argument is that without sufficient income you are sometimes presented with a Kobyashi Maru scenario where there is no right answer. No matter what choice you make you will emotionally distraught and psychologically distressed. These types of choices are made every day by the "working poor" of America, people who make more than minimum wage, but less than enough to have a comfortable living. Is money the end-all, be-all thing to have? Certainly not. Money is not everything. However, when you are struggling to make ends meet, not having enough money to pay for things will certainly lead to unhappiness. Anyone who's ever been in that situation can attest, it's no picnic.

Another commenter responded to my post by saying that he agreed with me and that it's our resilience that gets us through those hard times. He suggested that people who picked option 1 because they thought that it might bring financial peace of mind are forgetting what the other commenter posted about differing goals and priorities; just because you have money doesn't mean that you won't fight and argue about it. In some cases you may fight and argue more because there's more money to fight over.

I vociferously concur with that commenter's sentiment. What most people fail to realize is that life is about struggle. You will always struggle in your life. You will always have a problem, a dilemma, a challenge...something that needs to be overcome. Honestly, that's part of what makes life interesting.  The question is never about whether or not you want strife in your life, it's going to be there regardless. The question is really about what the nature of that strife should be. There you have some choice in the matter, that's why I picked option 2. It's better to struggle with someone that you actually like. Our whole lives are nothing more than a series of sequential challenges, it's how we handle those challenges and what lessons we take away from them that define us. I'm not at all ashamed to admit that at one point in my life, in my early 20's, I was basically homeless living in an RV in a KMart parking lot where I worked. I decided that I didn't like that condition, and I changed it. It was a series of stupid choices, the kind that young people often make, that lead me to that spot in the first place. Since I made choices that lead me to be there, I could make choices that would take me away from there. Now, 12 years later, you would not have guessed that I was basically homeless, and I'm approximately 18 months away from completing my PhD. I firmly believe that every situation and experience in our life can teach us valuable lessons. Since it's our struggles and strife that defines us, that teach us, the real question we should be asking is "what lessons would I like to learn today?"

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How much do we see?

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Yesterday I was having one of my classical philosophical mind trips where I sit in awe at the nature of the universe. I was thinking about vision. We use our eyes to inform ourselves about so many things. For most of us, our vision is a very large part of how we perceive the world. We can see what time of day it is, what the weather is like, if there's danger approaching. We can observe our fellow humans and animals and see their behavior. For most of us, our eyes are critical to understanding our world. And yet, for all of the importance that we place on our vision and our eyesight, our eyes don't really see anything at all.

There are many different estimates of how far the human eye can see. A lot of it has to do with ambient light, elevation, etc. But, assuming that you are standing in an open field during the day and you are looking around you can see fairly large objects at distances up to 20 miles. Assuming that your line of sight is a radius and you could turn and look equally in every direction, then your total field of view would be calculated by π(20)^2. 3.14159265359 * 20 * 20 = 1256.637061436 Square Miles. That's how much you can see at any given time. The entire surface of the Earth is 139,430,000 square miles. This means that as much of the earth as you are seeing is still only 0.000901267% of the planet we call home. Even if we made a more liberal assumption that you could see 100 miles in every direction, you would still only see 0.022531684% of our home. If you round that to the nearest 10th, then that means that everything that you're looking at right now, everything you can see, is 0% of the Earth. You see nothing. All of the wonders and beauties of our planet account for an infinitesimally small fraction of our home, so small that it's less than 1/10th of 1/4 of 1% of the earth.

Not even close to 0% of the Earth. Photo Credit Ben Foley

Thinking about things from a different perspective let's talk about space for a moment. Just looking at stars in the sky, at best we can see about 8,479 stars unaided with a telescope on any given night, assuming average lighting conditions. There, according to the average estimates, 200 Billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy. That means that what you can see accounts for only 0.0000042395% of our home galaxy. A more realistic calculation is that we can see only 2,500 stars unaided with a telescope from any given point on the Earth at once. That's only 0.00000125% of our galaxy.

Milky Way Galaxy
Not even close to 0% of the Milky Way. Photo Credit National Geographic. 

Switching to a larger scale and talking about entire galaxies, the number is even smaller. Without the aid of a telescope you can see the Milky Way (our home galaxy), plus Andromeda, and the Large Magellanic Cloud, as well as the Small Magellanic Cloud. That makes a whopping total of 4 galaxies. There are, according to the most recent estimates, 500 Billion galaxies in the universe. That's 0.0000000008% of the universe. Even with the aid of the Hubble Telescope we can see only 10,000 galaxies at once. That's 0.000002% of the universe. All of the beauty and wonder of the galaxy, all of the planets, all of the stars, and the nebulae, and supernovas, and comets. Everything that we know, everything that we see accounts for nothing in comparison of the entire universe. We know 8 to the -10th power of the universe.

0% of the Universe as seen from the Hubble Telescope. Photo credit - NASA.

And what about what we do see? What we do see is in the form of visible light, which is a form of radiation that is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It might surprise you to learn that, calculated on a linear scale, the amount of light, color, everything that you can see with your eyes accounts for only 0.0035% of the entire EM spectrum. We are completely blind to radio waves, microwaves, infrared waves, ultraviolet waves, x-rays, and Gamma Rays, all of which are part of the EM spectrum. Every flower, every bird, every piece of art, literally everything we see is only a tiny fraction of the actual amount of things that are theoretically able to be seen.

Our eyes are also completely unable to see any of the other invisible forces at work constantly around us; wind, barometric pressure, gravity, temperature, and so on. And while we can observe specific behaviors, we have no idea why those behaviors are occurring. We can't see other people's thoughts.

For all of the beauty and splendor and awe-inspiring things that we can see, when compared to the scope of reality, we see absolutely nothing. And yet, many of us still continue to rely so heavily on our eyes to make decisions for us instead of letting some of our other senses and feelings take over.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Perception, Reality, and Words

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I have been thinking a lot about relationships, perception, truth, reality, and fate the last couple of weeks. So much so that I'm compelled to write a rambling article about it because I have no one else who will really understand my meaning anyway. It turns out the sometimes the people who you think understand you the best don't really understand at all. There's so much that's running through my head that I don't even know where to begin.

First, I wanted to start with the concept that God/fate brings people into our lives for a reason. I don't think that this is true anymore. I used to wholeheartedly believe it. I used to think that we were meant to cross paths with people for some kind of grand-reason that was beyond our knowledge or understanding. Now? I can't possibly fathom how that could be so. Sometimes things just don't make sense. 

Perception is another thing that I've been thinking about recently also. It's been brought to my attention that some people have the idea that just because people appear calm, reserved, or self-contained on the outside, surely it must mean that they are simply devoid of emotions on the inside as well. Some people I know are emotional time-bombs. They're highly emotional people and they show everyone exactly how they feel by laughing, or crying, or screaming, or yelling, or whatever the case is. There is aboslutely nothing wrong with that. But, a lot of those people also think that because other people don't express their emotions the same way that it somehow means that their emotions aren't as intense. They don't realize that the collected exterior shell is simply a mask that they wear for the world and that under that shell is a turbulent storm of emotions that boils with the intensity of 1,000 burning suns. Just because people don't actively express outward bursts of emotion doesnt mean that they don't feel more strongly about something than you can imagine. I would argue, in fact, that in most cases the reserved people probably feel more strongly than the outbursters. My basis for that statement is because the act of having an outburst of emotion triggers an emotional release that allows the floodgates to open as some of that pressure to bleed off. Collected people don't have that same release, or if they do, it's too much to handle or too late. That's part of the reason that people say "it's the quiet ones that you have to watch". The highest rates of suicide are among those who are calm and collected on the outside. (And no, that's not a cry for help or an implication that I'm contemplating suicide, that's merely an example to demonstrate that people who don't express emotions outwardly very much feel with great intensity).

With regards to truth and reality, they weave an intertangled web. It's very easy to sit down and talk about general facts and information. People can deal in facts, they provide data and arguments in their case to make their point. The evidence can be considered and weighed and judged. When dealing with personal matters and feelings, this is almost impossible. You say that feel this way? Really? Well, where's your proof? It's easy for people to make up their mind about a situation and then fall into cognitive biases like confirmation bias and discount or discredit anything that's presented. "Oh, well, yes, you said that, and I can see that, but you didn't do it sooner so whatever you're saying must be a lie to cover up some nefarious plot". Or, "you've said that already, you keep saying the same thing. While it's possible that you keep saying the same thing because it's true, it's much easier to believe that it's just a line that you're feeding me so that I can keep clinging to my biased opinion of how things are". Certainly, those developments of bias aren't without cause or provocation. Something happened to cause people to develop that way of thinking in the first place. But once they've latched on to that ideal, it's nearly impossible to convince them of the actual truth no matter how hard you may try. This is doubly true when you are talking to the kind of person who deals with emotions through outburts and you are a reserved type. Because you don't make the same outbursts, your words must not be true either. The whole thing must just be some sort of scheme. Often as a result of that people begin to convince themselves that relationships between people meant different things to the other person. Two people can both go into a relationship feeling and thinking the same thing. But, within a short time it could easily be a situation where one person still feels the same way about the relationship and the other person feels like they were being used, or played, or whatever the case is. It makes it easier to replace the other person if we just convince ourselves that they were being disingenuous the whole time and never meant anything they said.

Words alone are a wholly inadequate expression of feeling. Words convey thought, but not feeling. I love you is a wholly meaningless expression. I'm sorry is a meaningless expression. You can say these things to people all day long, but it is not possible for them to feel what is in your heart. Since they can't feel what you feel, the words that you are trying to use to convey those feelings creates an impossible scenario. It's like trying to count out ten trillion dollars in pennies. You imagine that as "a lot", but you cannot possibly, realistically visualize exactly how much. As a result you wholly understimate the magnitude of the expression. You might be trying to convey ten trillion dollars in pennies with your words, but the person hearing it might only hear ten thousand dollars in pennies, because that's all they can imagine. If this is coupled with someone who has fallen prey to confirmation bias and has begun convincing themselves that everything that you say is a well-rehearsed line as opposed to a fact, or that it was all a game or lie to begin with, it represents an extremely morose exercise in futility. Some people might say "I'm scared", or "I'm terrified", but again, it's totally meaningless. Without being able to feel what you feel there's no possible way that anyone will ever understand the true gravity of that emotion or the paralysis it might induce. This is a departure from my way of thinking as well. A few weeks ago I was a self-proclaimed logophile (lover of words). I used to think that words had a grand purpose and meaning, that they were the glue that held society and civilization together, that with the proper selection of words, you can make anyone understand anything. This is no longer true for me. Words have lost a lot of their meaning and value to me. They will never again hold that same special place in my mind as they did before.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The measure of a man

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Recently I've found myself asking what makes a person a "good person". Sure, the obvious answers are they have a sense of ethics and morals. But, ethical and moral codes are subjective and dependent entirely on the cultures and religions that define them. What is considered perfectly ethical one in culture is not ethical in another culture. But, beyond that, what makes a person a good person? Are there universal traits that make a person "good"?

Respect for other people is probably one trait that I would mark highly on the list of a good person. Do they treat people equally and fairly in all situations? Do they think themselves equal to everyone or do they see themselves as superior to others? Do they treat service staff like human beings instead of servants? Do they treat everyone with the respect and dignity that they deserve, or they think that they own other people directly or indirectly?

Falling right along those lines similarly is compassion. Do they have compassion for others? Are they likely to give up their last $5 so that  someone starving and homeless on the street  can get some food, or are they likely to walk past saying that they deserve it? Do they protect those who are weaker than they are, or do they prey on them?

What about integrity? Is this a mandate of a good person? Many would argue, Yes. I would be inclined to agree with them. In it's most basic form integrity means doing what you say that you are going to do and doing the right thing even when no one is looking. It means being able to live with yourself after all is said and done.

What about selflessness? I would argue yes again here as well. are they willing to go out of their way to help others? Are they willing to help others at all? Would they park at the top of a freeway off-ramp and walk 1/2 mile back down the hill to help some poor sap push their 1974 Cadillac up the hill in August in Phoenix asking for nothing in return, or would they continue to drive by? Would they spend $100 of their own money to buy wooden cross necklaces for the homeless just to give them a glimmer of hope, or do they think that homeless people should have to work for everything that they need too?

What about community improvement/civic duty? Are they requirements for a good person? Do they volunteer in things that make not just their own lives better, but increase the betterment of the whole neighborhood? Is that a requirement for a good person, or does that play a factor at all?

If these general codes are the essence of a good person, how much margin of error is a person, a human being, allowed before they go from being a good person to a bad person? Is it one strike and you're suddenly a bad person? By this criteria I hit every single mark of a good person on this list. So that makes me a good person, right? But what I've lied? What if I've made mistakes? what if I had allowed myself to develop a bad behavior due to an intense emotional stimulus? Am I still a good person then, or does that mistake overwrite all of the good that's within me?

When we judge other people we should take care not judge people by their behaviors alone, but by the entirety of their character and their intent and motivations for those behaviors. Someone very dear to me told me that they didn't believe that people can change. I think that for the most part this is true, but with a critically important caveat; a person's nature cannot change, but a person's behavior can. If a person is self-absorbed and is only interested in getting what they can for themselves, then they will not likely change that nature save for an act of divine intervention. However, if a person has developed a bad habit, a bad behavior, or something about them that is otherwise negative we should take care to ask ourselves if the cause for this behavior can be removed or changed, or if we are going to discard all of the positive traits that a person has because of a temporary situation. Addicts of all sorts successfully go through rehabilitation programs all of the time. They are usually good people who are in a bad spot. But, someone saw enough good in them to help them through their situation and give them a different set of behaviors, a way to change their pattern and their stimulus that drives that behavior. Shouldn't we afford that same chance to everyone? Shouldn't everyone be given a second chance to demonstrate that they have the propensity to change, and that they can go from being good people to wonderfully amazing people? At what point are people resigned to their sins and deemed hopeless?

Much adverse human behavior is predicated by one solitary emotion: fear. What each of us fears is different, but fear compels us to act in strange ways that are outside of our normal character and pattern of behavior. A very good friend of mine once told me that fear is nothing but "False Emotions Appearing Real". I really wish I had remembered that advice sooner, but I can tell you from experience that fear can cast a pretty intensive and realistic hallucination on your mind if you let it and in the process you can ruin the best things that have ever happened to you and the things that matter most in life. If you find yourself stuck in a situation of inaction as I was, or overly nervous about doing something, like forgiving, trusting, or making a change in your life, ask yourself what is it that you are truly afraid of. Dig deep, find the cause, and wipe it out. Fear has never done anything good for anyone and only serves to allow many of the best things to become tarnished, broken, or lost completely. Don't let the wonderful people in your life slip away because of fear. That is a regret that you will have forever because, sadly, there was no real reason for it in the first place.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Emotional Stability and Motivation

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Recently something has happened that has rocked my emotional foundation to its very core. I have always been aware of how much emotional needs tie into other aspects of life, but this time I am acutely so. What I've also discovered is that the pyramid shape of the hierarchy, if it is truly a pyramid, can experience earthquakes (..or need-quakes?) .

The traditional hierarchy is presented in 5 levels, the base of the pyramid, and the most important level, is physiological needs; food, water, warmth, rest, etc. Then after you have is Safety and Security, then Belongingness and Love needs, then Esteem Needs, and finally self-actualization at the top.

In theory, if something in the middle of the pyramid breaks, it should affect the levels above it. However, this isn't necessarily true. For example, hypothetically speaking, suppose the person that you are madly in love with suddenly decides that they don't want to be in a relationship with you. This is revealed in the middle layer; love and belonging. Certainly, you don't feel loved or like you belong. Certainly being rejected in such a fashion can damage your ego and self-esteem, which in turn topples the self-actualization component. Why try making something beautiful like art or working on self-improvement, when you don't feel worthy of being improved to begin with?

What surprised me was that this upset to the middle layer also reverberates back down to the lower levels as well. When there's a major disruption to something like that people usually do not eat or sleep, or if they do it is in small amounts. This belies the nature of the first layer and flies in its face as a contradiction. It can also affect the safety and security layer as well. Some people are actually motivated to hurt themselves physically, but even those who are not have a general feeling of apathy and won't try as hard to keep themselves safe as before. They either don't care about their bodies or their health as they should, or they don't avoid risky behavior like they should and sometimes actually seek it out. All these actions contradict the pyramid shaped hierarchy structure.

A disruption to emotional stability, especially a drastic and unexpected one can have serious consequences to motivation and thoughts of self-worth. It definitely affects a person's self-esteem profoundly. The effects of these impacts to the hierachy are often long-lasting and can be quite serious. In some cases these effects can be life-long.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Problem with Science

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Before reading further, take a moment and watch this video. It's not very long, a little over 3 minutes: Bill Nye on CNN

This video struck a sour note with me. It seems as though this video exemplifies a lot of what is wrong with our society today. A debate about a politically charged controversial subject? No, not that part. The part at the very end. The part where the reporter says that the "science group" bullies people who don't agree with them.

Here's what I think is the biggest problem; people have opinions and ideas. Don't misunderstand me, ideas in and of themselves aren't what's wrong, no. But when we stubbornly and resolutely cling to an idea because we thought it up at some point, that's where it becomes a problem. As human beings we are subject to logical fallacies such as confirmation bias; I believe that what I think is right so much that I will refute whatever evidence is presented that might suggest otherwise, no matter how numerous or credible. In extreme cases of this, you start to develop wild conspiracy theories to defend my thought. In fact, human beings are so good at using logical fallacies that we have 2 dozen of them in our arsenal (for a breakdown of them check out this fun site: Your Logical Fallacy).

The main crux of the problem is that people believe that science is merely someone's opinion and can be argued against. Science isn't just my opinion, though. It's much more than that. Science is developed through the use of the Scientific Method, which all true scientists use. Sure, there are some crackpot "scientists" out there, but those people are to science what the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christianity; crazy extremists who do not represent the vast majority.

The scientific method can be a little complicated for people who are unfamiliar with it, but Neil DeGrasse Tyson sums it up nicely:
     "generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules: 
      test ideas by experiment and observation; 
      build on those ideas that pass the test; 
      reject the ones that fail;
      follow the evidence wherever it leads; 
      and question everything."

By using the scientific method we can ensure that the data is accurate. I can conduct an experiment. I can write down exactly how I did the experiment; what tools I used, when I did the experiment, what was being experimented on, and under what conditions. I can take very thorough notes and record my results. Then, another scientist can do a repeatability test and replicate my experiment. If they also achieve the same results, then the test is accurate and the results are true; we can put value in those results. For example, if I look into a powerful enough microscope I can see that water is comprised of 2 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of oxygen. This is true all of water, everywhere. It is scientific fact.

Where we, as a society, run into trouble is when we encounter someone who believes differently. Maybe this person thinks that water is HO2. Or maybe they think something crazy like H2S. No matter how much you try to explain that water is, in fact, H2O, they don't believe you. They employ their arsenal of logical fallacies and they stoutly and resolutely reject the truth with a determination that is sadly admirable. You can't help but admire their conviction, however misguided it may be.

But here's the other part of the problem; scientists themselves. As a PhD student I consider myself one of them, so this next part applies to me very much. Every scientist that I've ever met or read about or conversed with in any way has two major character flaws. 1) We are intensely curious people. We want to know everything. We learn as much as we can about as many things as we can. We read, a lot. We read non-fiction. While the rest of the world is watching American Idol or reading Game of Thrones, we are reading books on thermonuclear dynamics and astrophysics and contemplating the nature of the universe. This is kind of what compels us to do research and become scientists; an insatiable drive to know and to learn, to understand. But, this leads us directly to our other flaw: 2) We have a need to share, to teach, and to enlighten. We completely fall prey to the social bias, projection bias, where we assume that everyone must also share our love of learning and knowledge. To scientists, the idea that anyone would not want know the truth seems incredulous. Therefore, whenever we encounter someone who has a belief that doesn't fit with what we know to be accurate, scientifically speaking, then we are compelled to enlighten that person. This isn't done out of malice or hate. It's certainly not an attack on the person or their intelligence. After all, if we as scientists didn't think that you were intellectually capable of comprehending the information, it would be a futile endeavor to try to explain it to you in the first place. But, most scientists have the same problem as I do; the deep-seated compulsion to stamp out incorrect information. The problem is that not everyone wants that incorrect information stamped out, and that concept is so completely foreign to scientists that they can only react by trying harder to make you understand. It's a vicious cycle. It's not that scientists are trying to bully anyone. If you asked any scientist, I would wager large sums of money that they would say that they are simply trying to impart the gift of knowledge.

Some scientists are getting a little better about this and realizing that sometimes it's just better to leave well enough alone. But, sometimes these people who have such strongly held convictions that their belief is right and science is wrong are also very outspoken. The result of this is that other people begin to believe them and what started out as one person having a crazy notion snowballs into a movement, one that stands in the way of progress and scientific advancement. Scientists try to react to these movements by pointing out that it doesn't make sense or by demonstrating that they actually don't know that much about science. That's how we end up with satirical sites like this one that explains the dangers of water: http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html.

For me, my hope for the world is that everyone would be a little more open to the evidence and would actually critique their opinions and their beliefs and be okay with the idea that their belief might be wrong. Scientists do this frequently. They often publish retractions or corrections, such as when Dr. Stephen Hawking, published that he might have been wrong about black holes recently.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

An Open Letter to "Stand for Children"

[Johnathan Clayborn]

To whom it may concern,
While I was recently supporting an online petition on Change.Org I was presented with another petition that the website thought I might like; your petition to support Common Core in Arizona. I am writing to inform you that, regrettably, I cannot and will not support your petition in this case. While I do agree with the mission statement of your organization and your stated goals, I believe that this particular course of action is a mistake. Common Core does have a more modernized set of standards than what is currently being used in Arizona, yes. However, it also treats all education as a one-size-fits-all, assembly line approach that has not been working very well for the last 100 years. Taking an approach that isn't working and changing the color of the product that the factory produces still does not begin to repair the problem.
The education system in America is beset with challenges; administration who mis-allocate funds, publishers who overcharge for textbooks, a diminished literacy rate among schoolchildren, behavior problems, violence, drugs, a high teacher turnover rate, and not enough resources for the teachers to effectively do their jobs. The NCLB Act has already been highly detrimental to our education system. Instead of allowing teachers the freedom to teach lessons in a way that children understand and in a manner that will develop children's cognitive thinking processes, we binding teachers to a very narrow curriculum with a high degree of specificity. And, to ensure that the teachers are teaching exactly what is prescribed by administration more and more states are tying teacher's annual pay raises directly to how well their classes perform on standardized tests. The adoption of the Common Core curriculum will not improve this problem. In fact, I would argue that it makes it worse as it locks teachers into a prescribed curriculum even more. Students today are being taught to the tests. They are learning the answers to the specific test questions through pure rote memorization at the expense of cognition and higher level thinking. We don't need robots running the country when we are old and grey, we need thinkers, intellectuals, inventors, renaissance men...none of these would be created by spoon feeding a prescribed curriculum to the students.
The vehicle that is public education in America is broken. The "education reform" plan that is common core will not repair this breakdown. At best it would replace one tire on the car when all four are flat, and even then there's no guarantee that the new tire will be inflated. Many proponents of education reform wish to simply throw more money at the problem, but that's not the answer. The US Public Education is already the most expensive education in the world, and compared to other G8 countries it's a shining example of confident mediocrity. We are losing new teachers faster than ever before in history, with 50% of new teachers quitting within the first 5 years. That fact, right there, should be a deafening alarm bell that we are doing something drastically wrong. I challenge you to name another professional vocation where people are required to have at least a Bachelor's degree as a minimum requirement to be employed with a turnover rate as high as this. We are losing competent qualified teachers at a much faster rate than we can replace them. They are retiring, taking their years of wisdom with them or they are young and intelligent, but have decided that this job. as much as they love it, is simply not worth the hassle that is imposed upon them by bureaucracy.
There are many, many ways to change the education system. The most effective way would be a complete overhaul of everything we do from the top down, including the notion that summative assessments are a requirement for determining if our children are learning anything, that antiquated notion has to go. We need to develop student's critical thinking abilities. We need find a way to retain the new teachers that are coming into this noble profession by providing them with support, resources, and development opportunities rather than throwing them to the wolves. We need to put legislative pressure and public pressure on the administrators and school boards to stop purchasing overpriced textbooks from greedy, profit-mongering publishers when other, legitimate sources of information are available. We need to push to our administrators to move into the 21st century and adopt more technology into our classrooms. We, for the first time in history, have the ability to develop truly experiential learning to our children and we elect not to. We need to put pressure on the government to stop letting politicians and bureaucrats make bad decisions about what is "good for our children", which is code for "how can we track the money?" and turn more of that power over to researchers and scientists who can make decisions about how a child learns best based on empirical evidence about learning and cognition from the best minds in the world. There are many, many things that we can do to improve the education system in America, but the adoption of another program that mandates standardized testing and forces teachers into a regimented methodology of instruction is not one of them. No, I will not support your petition. I will vociferously oppose the adoption of Common Core at every chance that I get. I beseech you, before lending your support to a program such as this, to ask yourself whom does it serve, the schoolchildren in the classrooms, or the politicians and the bureaucrats?
-- Johnathan Clayborn
 PhD Student, Educational Psychology

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Misinformation Bandwagon

[Johnathan Clayborn]

Admittedly, I don't want the news too much anymore. After being deliberately misrespented by a reporter too lazy to check her facts, or too interested in writing for the ratings, I've become disenfranchised with the "news", especially since they often report only half the story or make a deliberately skewed point. I often read foreign newspapers to see what they report and compare that to what the US news is reporting and realize that the truth is somewhere in the middle. I've been following the news about Flight 370 pretty closely because I find the story fascinating. But, there was another news story that recently wrapped up; Cliven Bundy, the cattle-rancher who had a standoff with the Beareau of Land Management in Nevada.

This story has blown up and made national headlines. It's certainly got a lot of people riled up. I don't purport to know the truth of the situation, but I do know that the news is not the only group of people who deliberately skew or mis-represent data; everyone else does it too. Most of us are quick to jump on the bandwagon and get fired up about something because our friends said that it was bad. Most of us never stop to look at the information objectively or consider the source or the truth before developing an opinion.

Now, I'm not going to get into a debate about who was right or wrong in this case, but let's examine some of the things that happened.

1. The BLM reported that Cliven Bundy's cattle were a hazard to the Desert Tortoise in the area. This is bogus. Back in August of 2013 the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center was killing the tortoises by the hunderds. It was so bad that there was even a Change.org petition to get the killing of the tortoises to stop. That was clearly an excuse.

2. I don't about the allegetions of who paid what to whom or not and I had trouble verifying that with actual documents, so I reserve the right to comment on that one.

3. There are allegations of BLM Officer misconduct, particularly where one of the officers threw a woman to the ground. Let's be real about that for a minute. Yes, the officer threw the woman to the ground. But, the woman was also stepping in front of a moving truck, putting herself at risk, which is a pretty damned stupid thing to do. On the one hand, you could argue that he was abusing her because he didn't let her get run over. Or, on the other hand you could argue that throwing her to the ground was an effort to keep her safe. Or you could just say "Meh, I don't care either way".  The fact that this woman is a cancer-survivor really has no bearing on the situation and is used as a pity-card to get sympathy.

4. There are allegations that the BLM was stealing Bundy's cattle. To be clear, the BLM removed the cattle that were grazing on the county's land, not off of Bundy's personal property as many assert. Bundy's grandfather bought the rights to graze and develop the land, allegedly, but that did not transfer ownership of the land to him. They don't own that land, they simply have rights to graze there. The BLM alleges that they own the land and the previous agreement is null and void. I don't know which is right, that's a matter for the judge, but from the opposite point of view, the BLM wasn't stealing the cattle, they were confiscating the cattle for trespassing on county land.

5. The most ridiculous thing that I've seen going around is that the real reason for the standoff was so Sen. Harry Reid can seize the land and sell it to the Chinese to build a solar-panel farm to sell us energy. Now, the source of this allegation is decidedly less-than-reputable, but given the obvious misdirection about the tortoises, I thought it worth investigating. I did find a page, listed below, about plans to develop a solar-power farm, however, I did not find any information linking that to Chinese developers or interests. Also, if you look at the attached maps of the planned area where the solar farm is to be developed, and compare that area to Bunkerville, where the Bundy Ranch is located, you will see that these areas are roughly 50 miles apart, so it doesn't make sense for them to seize his land for development of a solar panel farm that is 50 miles away.

The important thing to remember before getting all riled about events is to take a deep breath and examine the facts critically before forming an opinion. Just jumping on whatever people tell you at face value and propagating that information forward makes you no better than crappy reporters.