Archive for: April, 2011

Some situations just call for a T-shirt.

Apropos of looming changes at ScienceBlogs.

5 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: How Well Does Mold Form in Different Conditions? (A science fair project)

The science fair happened, and the younger Free-Ride offspring's project board is now home. (The teachers are still judging and grading the sixth grade projects, which means that the elder Free-Ride offspring's project board is still at school.)

Here, in pictures, are the highlights of the younger Free-Ride offspring's project:

A straightforward descriptive title. (The kid may have a future writing scientific journal articles.)

Gotta have hypotheses to test.

The equipment was not terribly fancy. Then again, except for the bread, it was stuff we already had on hand, which is a plus.

Maybe it's just me, but I always like it when science fair results depart from initial expectations. It makes it feel more like real science, I guess.

The science fair instructions from the school were emphatic that kids should not bring in potentially biohazardous specimens with their projects (and mold was among the things specifically mentioned in the "NO!" list), so the younger Free-Ride offspring took pictures. It may have been smelly, but the range of colors of mold that grew is actually kind of impressive.

My favorite part of the younger Free-Ride offspring's project is the data visualization. For each of the specimens that grew mold in each set of experimental conditions, the kid measured the mold spots (in square centimeters) and added up the total molded area on each data-collection day. Data was collected until each bread sample was totally molded over.

To generate these graphs, the younger Free-Ride offspring calculated the mean mold area for each given type of bread in a particular set of conditions on a particular day. Since each of the bread samples was 4 x 5 centimeters, the younger Free-Ride offspring drew a 4 x 5 rectangle to represent the bread sample and then plotted the average mold growth by filling in the appropriate number of squares. You can see as you go across the plots from left to right that ady by more and more squares get filled in until all 20 are filled, representing complete mold coverage.

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A parent's least favorite part of the science fair.

At least at Casa Free-Ride: the day before the project board is due.

That day (or, to be more precise, this day) is the day that reminds everyone of just how laborious a process it is to:

  • create visually attractive (or logical and legible) representations of the data
  • locate and organize all the raw data if you have kept your project notebook in the same fashion in which you keep your notebooks for sketching and stories (which is to say, not necessarily on sequential pages -- but at least dated)
  • type up descriptions of your experiment if you are not a frequent typist (neither of the Free-Ride offspring is)
  • draw actual conclusions from your data
  • work out how to fit everything you want to show and say on the three-panel project board without making that project board look too busy or too sparse, and without inducing eye-strain

Also, we're hoping to hit the trifecta of functioning erasers, functioning printer, and functioning can of spray adhesive to get all the pieces properly assembled. (Thank goodness that data collection wrapped up yesterday.)

Hold a good thought for us.

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Things that are not entirely interchangeable.

In heavy throughput grading mode, you sometimes notice interesting confusions or conflations. Among those I've noticed the past week:

  • "The chemical" for "the bacterium". (Sure, a bacterium is composed of chemicals, but it's got something extra, that spark of life, right? Or am I being a silly vitalist here?)
  • "IUPAC" for "IACUC". I reckon you probably do want to use the correct nomenclature when describing the compounds you use in any research (including research with animals), but IUPAC has no special powers to approve or oversee your research protocols.

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Friday Sprog Blogging: you slay me.

Apr 15 2011 Published by under Kids and science, Minds and/or brains

As a fund-raiser for the youth soccer league to which we belong, the younger Free-Ride offspring's soccer team has been selling chocolate bars. Among other things, this means that each morning the younger Free-Ride offspring has packed up a selection of chocolate bars to bring into school, and each afternoon has returned with a stack of dollar bills. (Honestly, it makes me feel a little like Nancy Botwin. But I'll work through it.)

Anyway, in connection with this candy-peddling, the younger Free-Ride offspring mentioned a customer who bought an extra bar for an older sibling "so he wouldn't get killed." I suggested that this was exaggerating the danger of a sibling's displeasure, or that the younger Free-Ride was not using the standard definition of the verb "to kill".

The younger Free-Ride offspring's full reply to this is transcribed below.

Well, my sibling kills me all the time -- [the elder Free-Ride offspring] actually does.

See, [the elder Free-Ride offspring] eats all my body except my soul, which is saved.

Then [the elder Free-Ride offspring] gets this ghost-like material that can be shaped like any human, and shapes it like me.

And then [the elder Free-Ride offspring] got this, like, plaster that can move, so I don't feel like a ghost. And then [the elder Free-Ride offspring] got this paint called "[The Younger Free-Ride Offspring] In a Can" and just sprayed over the plaster, sprayed all over me.

And [the elder Free-Ride offspring] saved the soul so you wouldn't get suspicious and [the elder Free-Ride offspring] wouldn't get busted. Because the soul is what makes this plastered painted ghost sound and behave like [the younger Free-Ride offspring].

This all raises some interesting questions, of course, among them:

1. What kind of thing is this "soul"? The younger Free-Ride offspring, upon further question, identified it as being material stuff, and also as essential to reproducing consciousness and personality, yet it seems, in this telling, not to be exactly equivalent to the brain. (Is it possible that the "soul" in question is some manner of artificial intelligence, an uploaded consciousness? Is my elder offspring making Cylons?!)

2. More disturbingly, how is it that the elder Free-Ride offspring, who has been raised vegetarian, has now apparently turned to cannibalism?

3. Where can I get me some flexible plaster? What kinds of materials have such properties?

4. Finally, if I were selling "The Younger Free-Ride Offspring In a Can," you'd totally line up to buy it, right?

3 responses so far

Equal Pay Day 2011: there is power in a union.

You may have noticed from recent posts on the Scientopia frontpage that today is Equal Pay Day, the day that marks the number of excess days (past December 31, 2010) that an average woman needs to work to catch up to the average man's yearly earnings.

The evidence suggests that women in the U.S. are paid less than men for the same work. For example, this recent story from Inside Higher Education:

The gender gap in faculty pay cannot be explained completely by the long careers of male faculty members, the relative productivity of faculty members, or where male and female faculty members tend to work -- even if those and other factors are part of the picture, according to research being released this week at the annual meeting of the American Education Research Association.

When all such factors are accounted for, women earn on average 6.9 percent less than do men in similar situations in higher education, says the paper, by Laura Meyers, a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington. The finding could be significant because many colleges have explained gender gaps by pointing out that the senior ranks of the professoriate are still dominated by people who were rising through the ranks in periods of overt sexism and so are lopsidedly male, or that men are more likely than women to teach in certain fields that pay especially well.

(Bold emphasis added.)

I submit to you that paying someone less (or more) for the same job when the only difference is the gender of the person doing the job is unfair. (Those who take issue with this claim are invited to offer a positive argument for paying women less than men for the same work.)

Of course, it strikes me that the public enthusiasm in the U.S. for paying someone a fair wage in the first place is on the decline. It's true that we have the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, but we also have a case before the Supreme Court in which Walmart seems to be arguing that, owing to its size, its women employees ought not to be certified as a class in a class action gender discrimination lawsuit against the retailer. (Maybe the slogan here is "too big for you to make us be fair"?) Indeed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was prompted by a Supreme Court decision that held that:

employers cannot be sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act over race or gender pay discrimination if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days ago or more.

In her dissent, read from the bench, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set out the precarious position in which this left women who were subject to pay discrimination.

Joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, and Breyer, she argued against applying the 180-day limit to pay discrimination, because discrimination often occurs in small increments over large periods of time. Furthermore, the pay information of fellow workers is typically confidential and unavailable for comparison. Ginsburg argued that pay discrimination is inherently different from adverse actions, such as termination. Adverse actions are obvious, but small pay discrepancy is often difficult to recognize until more than 180 days of the pay change.

Meanwhile, across the U.S. governors and state legislatures seem to be doing what they can to dismantle labor unions, especially public employee labor unions. I would argue that if you care about fair pair for women, you ought to be concerned about efforts to weaken or eliminate unions.

Let's look at some numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2010 11.9% of the total workforce consisted of union members, with 13.1% of the workforce represented by unions (i.e., they were either union members or working in jobs covered by a union or an employee association contract). Looking at a gender breakdown for 2010 (when the numbers show men making up 51.2% of the workforce and women 48.8%), 12.6% of employed men were union members (with 13.8% of employed men represented by unions) and 11.1% of employed women were union members (with 12.4% of employed women represented by unions).

How much of a difference does this make to salaries? The median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers for 2010 stack up like this: The mean for the whole workforce was $747 overall, but it was $917 for union members, $911 for workers represented by unions, and $717 for non-union workers. The average man in the workforce was earning $824 a week -- $967 if he was a union member, $964 if he was represented by a union, and $789 if he was a non-union worker. Meanwhile, the average woman in the workforce was earning $669 a week -- $856 if she was a union member, $847 if she was represented by a union, and $639 if she was a non-union worker.

First, you'll notice that, in the aggregate, salaries are higher for union members (by 23%) and employees represented by a union (22%), and lower for non-union workers (by 4.0%). But let's take a look at what kind of difference unions make to pay by gender.

In the aggregate, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 10% below the mean. For non-union workers, the men's mean weekly earnings were 10% above the mean, the women's 11% below the mean. However, among employees represented by unions, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.8% above the mean, women's 7.0% below it, and for union members, men's mean weekly salaries were 5.5% above the mean, women's 6.7% below it.

That's still not pay equality. But workers who are union members or represented by unions have less of a pay gap between men and women.

From the point of view of working our way towards equal pay, unions seem to be doing something to close that gap. This is something to keep in mind when considering the future of unions in the U.S. workforce.

Other Equal Pay Day posts around Scientopia:

WTF?! "Equal" Pay Day
Equal Pay Day
$16,819 for a Penis
Penis Parity Day
Good Hair Day, Fair Pay Day
Equal Pay Day Epic FAIL

6 responses so far

The #scimom project: We are here!

This post is a contribution to the #scimom blog project, which its originator David Wescott describes as follows:

Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. They're the boss. The problem is a lot of online moms feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

Science bloggers push the boundaries of ideas. They give us facts, and theories, and great stories about discovery. They celebrate the pursuit of knowledge and help us understand all kinds of important things. The problem is a lot of science bloggers also feel labeled, disrespected, and misunderstood.

I think if moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place. And I think if science bloggers understand the perspectives of the REAL influential people in our society, they can help make sure their work has an even bigger impact than it already does.

Of course I know there are plenty of people who are scientists AND moms. But even those mom/science bloggers tend to stick to one community or the other. In my observations over a few years now, these two online communities remain fairly isolated from each other. So I've been working on an idea to get the two communities talking. Here it is, plain and simple.

1) if you're a mom blogger, write a post this month that has something to do about science or science blogging. It could be anything -your love (or hatred) of science or a particular scientist, a hope you have for your child, an appropriate role model, whatever you like. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

2) if you're a science blogger, write a post this month that has something to do with parenting or parent blogging. Maybe it's something your parent did to get you interested in science. Maybe it's on the science of parenting. Maybe it's your love (or skepticism) of something in the mom-o-sphere. Just make it personal and relevant to your life.

3) if you're a mom AND a scientist, then just write a post this month about how awesome it is to be a mom and a scientist or something like that. Maybe suggest a role model, or a story about why both roles are important to you. Just make it personal and relevant to your life. As far as I'm concerned you make an awesome role model and people should know about you.

4) ask another blogger in your online community to participate. You can call them out in your post like it's a blog meme or you can ask them any way you like.

5) tag your post #scimom and I will keep track of the posts and link to them at Science for Citizens and here as well. If you want to tweet a link to your post, just add the hashtag #sci-mom and we'll keep a tally so people can find relevant posts to read.

6) read a post from a blogger in the OTHER community (i.e. if you're a mom blogger read a participating science blogger's post and vice versa) and leave a comment.

I can remember the moment that I realized there was a presumptive rift between science bloggers and mommy bloggers. It was at ScienceOnline 2010, during an Ignite talk in which some dude was carrying on about how powerful (yet how sadly ill-informed about science) mommy bloggers were as a group.

I believe it was Dr. Isis, who was also in attendance for this jaw-dropping proclamation, who let fly the first profanity (sotto voce, of course -- do not doubt that Dr. Isis has manners). But I had a profanity of my own at the ready, for verily, eye contact with the domestic and laboratory goddess confirmed that I had heard what I thought I had heard -- the dude at the podium had essentially just asserted that we didn't exist.

Because, see, we had thought that we were science bloggers, what with blogging about cool scientific findings and strategies for teaching science, learning science, navigating a scientific career, and living as a scientist in a society populated by lots of non-scientists, and that we were mommy bloggers, what with blogging about the joys and challenges of juggling the young humans we were raising with our careers. But apparently, we either didn't count as mommy bloggers (because of all that science content) or as science bloggers (because of the encroachment of all that kid stuff). No true science blogger or mommy blogger would do it like we were doing it.

Actually, the problem as I see it was that the guy on the podium, trying to make the world a better place by encouraging the science bloggers to reach out and educate the mommy bloggers, was operating from an overly narrow picture of each of these groups. Sadly, experience suggests that he is not the only one.

I have had my status as a "real" science blogger questioned because I don't just blog about scientific research (particularly as reported in the peer reviewed scientific literature). In particular, my "Friday Sprog Blogging" posts have been singled out as "fluff" that doesn't belong on a proper science blog. It is true that these anecdotes and transcripts of conversations of my offspring do not undergo rigorous peer review before I post them, but I suspect that the real worry is that having conversations with kids about science is viewed as less important than making new scientific knowledge, or than reporting on such new knowledge in a blog post. Talking to children, after all, is still mostly seen as women's work. How important could it be?

This is a good question to ask oneself when bemoaning the public's lack of interest in or engagement with science. Those members of the public used to be somebody's kids.

At the same time, I will confess that there have been moments when I have not felt entirely welcome in the mommy precincts of blogtopia. Perhaps part of this comes from having a blog with a mostly professional focus on days that are not Friday. But part of it may be connected to the "mommy wars" that the mainstream media gin up on a regular basis. There is a presumption that factions of mommies are engaged in heated battle over The Right Way To Do It. This imagines that each choice a mommy makes is simultaneously a criticism of those who chose otherwise -- whether those choices have to do with taking on primary responsibility for child rearing and housework in the home or going out to a job, choosing public school or private school or homeschooling or unschooling, feeling torn about daycare or deliriously happy when we drop off our little darlings.

I would like to inform the mainstream media and my fellow mothers that my choices are my choices, not judgments of anyone else's choices. Heck, I'm as likely to judge my own choices harshly as anyone else's. But what can you do when you're operating with less than perfect information (as we all are, all the time)? The best that you can.

This is not to say that there aren't moments when I share a strong point of view. In particular, a post I wrote about the ethics of not vaccinating one's kids provoked a vigorous response -- from science bloggers and mommy bloggers alike. (The science bloggers seemed to agree that I was being too nice, while at least some mommy bloggers seemed to think I was either in the bag for big pharma or thoroughly brainwashed by the medical establishment.)

But here's the thing: I've found that my own parenting has required thinking hard, finding reliable sources of information, being willing to step away from sources of information that haven't stood up to scrutiny, figuring out how to balance long-term and short-term considerations, ... really, what we're talking about here is critical thinking. I reckon that women are no worse at critical thinking than your average member of the general public, and I reckon that women with kids have serious incentive to be better than average at critical thinking, since someone else's welfare may depend on it. (I'm not the only one who thinks critical thinking ought to be part of parenting.)

Mommy bloggers have to wade through the gender smog of our culture that tells them that women in general and mommies in particular are presumed to be silly, frivolous creatures, lacking in intelligence and objectivity (not to mention a sense of humor), a special interest that normal human beings can marginalize as necessary to get stuff done.

Women blogging about science often face similar presumptions.

None of this is to say that there are no mommy bloggers, or woman science bloggers, who aren't always on top of their critical thinking game, or who are mistaken about the facts, or who are mean, or what have you. But I submit to you that these failings are not gender based -- that there are plenty of male bloggers who fail at critical thinking, fact-checking, and human kindness.

Having kids and caring about science are not mutually incompatiblestates of being. And either (or both) of these states can be combined with being a woman, and with blogging.

We are far too diverse for any stereotype of science bloggers or of mommy bloggers to describe us all with any fidelity.

And, despite suggestions that mommy bloggers and science bloggers are two distinct groups, many of us are both. We are here. If science bloggers want to reach mommy bloggers, the first step may be to see us as we really are, rather than trying to communicate with who you imagine mommy bloggers to be.

* * * * *
As with all meme-like things, if you want to be tagged, you are. In the meantime, let me point out a few other mommy/science bloggers whose blogs I enjoy reading:


PhD Mom

Kate Clancy


13 responses so far

Federal funding and Planned Parenthood.

Apr 08 2011 Published by under Current events, Politics, Social issues

Federal funding for Planned Parenthood is apparently a serious bone of contention in the budget slug-fest that threatens a government shutdown at midnight tonight. So it's worth having a look at just what that federal funding does (and does not) do.

From Jodi Jacobson at RH Reality Check:

All (let me repeat this: ALL) of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding goes toward basic health care. Public funds account for roughly a third of Planned Parenthood’s $1 billion annual budget. These funds come from local, state and federal sources, but 90 percent come from Medicaid and other federal sources. Federal funds pay only for cancer screenings, birth control, family planning visits, annual exams, testing for HIV and other STIs, and other basic care.

Moreover, Planned Parenthood centers provide access to those who otherwise have NO other options. Seventy-three percent of Planned Parenthood health centers are in rural or medically underserved areas.
Planned Parenthood provides primary and preventive health care to many who otherwise would have nowhere to turn. According to the Guttmacher Institute, six in ten patients who receive care at a family planning health center like Planned Parenthood consider it their main source of health care. And for every dollar spent on this preventive care, we save four dollars in health costs averted by not preventing adverse outcomes. ...

What will happen if Planned Parenthood is defunded? It is very simple. More women will die of otherwise preventable or treatable breast and cervical cancers and potentially of complications of infections such as HIV; more women will have unintended pregnancies leading to more women seeking abortions; fewer women raped or experiencing gender-based violence in their homes at the hands of intimate partners will get health care or referrals to shelters (of which of course there will be few anyway because funds for those also are being cut). More women who rely on Planned Parenthood to identify conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes will not get necessary referrals for treatment. More families will suffer.

You may recall that since 1976 the Hyde Amendment has barred the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.

Just so we're clear about what's at issue.

4 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: science fair research in progress.

We're less than two weeks out from our elementary school science fair, which means that both Free-Ride offspring are in serious data collection mode. As they look ahead to having enough data to present and "analyze" (you lose points if there's not some kind of computing of a mean, preferably accompanied by bar graphs -- heaven help the child exploring a question which yields qualitative results), I figured we should check in with some notes from the experimental trenches.

The younger Free-Ride offspring has been studying mold-growth on a selection of breads under various conditions (including exposure to light, air flow, moisture, and temperature).

Mold has grown (and on some but not all of the samples -- so there will be differences to explain). Quantifying the amount of mold that has grown on a sample (either by counting wee spots or by using a ruler to measure moldy regions) and recording those data in the lab notebook takes rather longer than the younger Free-Ride offspring had anticipated. Also, while the younger Free-Ride offspring digs wearing the powdered latex gloves to handle the bread samples, the fact that the moldy bread has a distinctive (and unpleasant) odor was a complete surprise.

Dr. Free-Ride's better half is concerned that this is evidence that we have sheltered our kids from the normal operations of the natural world.

The elder Free-Ride offspring's study of whether a rabbit (this rabbit) relies more on sight or smell to locate treats hit a little bit of a snag. The original experiment involved putting treats (or non-treats) in hard plastic vessels --some of them clear, others not, some with slots in them (making it possible to smell what's inside the container), others completely sealed up -- and to observe and record Snowflake's reaction.

From those early trials, we learned that Snowflake was pretty quick in her assessment that she couldn't get inside those containers herself. Secure in that knowledge, she would give up and start munching the timothy hay in her run. Moreover, she discovered that within about 15 minutes of her giving up, the elder Free-Ride offspring would also give up and remove those annoyingly impossible containers from the run -- often giving the rabbit one of the treats when the containers were extracted.

Clearly, the rabbit was too smart for the original experimental design.

However, within the last week the elder Free-Ride offspring has been constructing mini bales of timothy hay, some with treats in them and some not, and has observed Snowflake's differential reaction to them. Ultimately, the data analysis here may require coming up with a scale of smelliness (i.e., of how easy or hard particular treats are to smell). We'll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, I'm making sure both Free-Ride offspring consult literature relevant to the systems they are studying. And I'm getting a new can of spray adhesive so that the display-board assembly proceed without incident.

One response so far

How can you have a university without a philosophy department?

It's no secret to readers of this blog (or residents of these United States who have been paying attention to the world that exists more than six inches from their faces) that the last few years have been rough for state budgets, and that the budget woes are especially noticeable for state university systems.

A recent case in point: owing to budget shortfalls in Nevada, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is poised to eliminate its Philosophy Department entirely. The current chair of that department, Todd Edwin Jones, has an eloquent piece in the Boston Review that explains some of the reasons that this budgetary strategy is likely to impoverish the UNLV educational experience. He writes:

Philosophy has prompted confusion and anger ever since Socrates, one of the first practitioners of the discipline, was sentenced to death in 399 B.C.E. for “corrupting the youth.” Puzzlement over why people study philosophy has only grown since Socrates’ era. It is not surprising that in hard economic times, when young people are figuring out how best to prepare themselves for the world, many state college administrators and the taxpayers they serve believe that offering classes in philosophy is a luxury they can’t afford.

Yet people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t really understand what philosophy departments do. I teach one of the core areas of philosophy, epistemology: what knowledge is and how we obtain it. People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.

This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.

Philosophy is sometimes described as revolving around "the big questions" -- what can we know, how sure can we be, what do we value, how can we get along in a world where others have very different values than our own. etc. They aren't big because they are insurmountable (although some of them are wicked-hard). Rather, they are big because they keep coming up in all sorts of contexts, and because getting them right (or more right than not) is important.

Philosophy classes make students grapple with these questions. In the process, they help students develop strategies for dealing with other questions in other context. In the process, philosophy students learn to think carefully, to argue clearly, to evaluate evidence, and to think through sensible objections to their own views. Philosophy students have to become proficient with language, both oral and written. They have to think analytically -- and often, abstractly. Philosophy is a discipline that pushes book nerds to be more math-y (what with the formal logic most philosophy degrees require) and math geeks to be more verbal (with all those essays and class discussions).

Philosophy classes leave students with skills more broadly applicable than dissecting individual axons out of a fruit fly embryo.

Not, of course, that I want to argue that the value of a college education or its component parts lies solely in the delivery of practical jobs skills. (Indeed, I've argued against this view.) But if we want to rank the value of academic departments in terms of the valuable and/or widely transferable job skills they impart to their students, I reckon philosophy will hold its own against the more "practical" disciplines one might name.

These are skills we try just as hard to impart in "service" courses (i.e., those taken largely by students in other majors to fulfill general education or distribution requirements) as in courses aimed at our majors. Moreover, they are skills that our peers in other departments and college recognize that we have some skill in imparting, given that they call upon our expertise to do things like develop ethics curricula for their majors. (It is true that these ethics curricula are often spurred into existence by an outside accreditation agency for a discipline, or by funding agency strings attached to a training grant. This strikes me as more evidence that organizations beyond the ivory tower -- including science and engineering organizations -- identify a central strand of philosophy as important in the training of people entering these non-philosophy disciplines.)

Arguably, philosophy could also provide people with skills that are important to participating effectively -- heck, to participating rationally in the governance of our nation, our states, our communities. As Jones writes:

It’s long been recognized that some tasks are best coordinated by governments, and that to succeed in these efforts, governments have to raise revenue from citizens. Since colonial times, Americans have recognized that education is one of the things that taxpayers need to support (and those were some lean times!). Sadly, over the last several decades, Americans seem to have grown accustomed to thinking that they can have roads, schools, fire departments, and Medicare without fully paying for them. Now that such thinking has proven a fantasy, taxpayers should have responded with a sensible, “We should have been paying for these things, and perhaps we should start.” Instead they have clamored to cut spending—usually on things that don’t directly concern them or whose immediate benefits aren’t apparent. Such thinking leads new Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to propose a budget with enormous cuts to education (including elementary school). And it leads college administrators to insist that these cuts require eliminating the Philosophy Department.

(Bold emphasis added.)

An attentive philosophy student has a toolbox with which to analyze this magical taxpayer thinking, whether in terms of ethics or political theory, in terms of our ability to think down the links of a causal chain or our difficulties with empathy.

Surely, more facility with critical thinking, not less, is what it will take to bring us through a difficult economic climate.

Of course, when there's not enough money in the budget (and when the populace and/or their elected representative have ruled out tax increases as a way to get enough money), stuff gets cut. Maybe some of that stuff really is of little value, but a lot of the things left to cut are going to hurt someone when they're gone.

Eliminating a philosophy department may not cause the same degree of immediate harm as would, say, cutting off medical aid to the indigent or eliminating free school lunches for poor elementary school kids. But it will cause harm. Maybe that harm will take longer to smack the people of Nevada in the face, but this doesn't mean that the impact won't be devastating.

25 responses so far

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