Caught in the Crosshairs: the Children at Our Border

I write this on a Sunday, when people who spent the week shouting at busloads of refugee children sit in their churches, praising Jesus for his great mercies. The irony runs deeper: Those children gather because of a drug war we wage on their soil, which is supported by some of the same evangelicals loudly declaring we have no room for them.

An estimated 60,000 Central American children will cross our southern border by the end of this year. There could be 120,000 next year, if something doesn’t change. So people are trying to change something, namely by stopping the buses. The buses bear hungry, needful children, some with diseases we’ve long ago stopped worrying about. “Return to Sender” is one of the more popular signs among protestors gathered to keep them out.

Why do they come? A key reason is the American-sponsored drug war, which has cost 80,000 lives in Mexico over the past eight years, and displaced an estimated 200,000. That violence has spread southward, into Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And it’s not just drug-runners killing one another. They kill anyone who becomes an obstacle. Children—sometimes as young as five-years-old—are drafted to serve drug gangs. Resistance invites severe retribution. [Read more...]

Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Mathematicians sometimes employ the imagery of a three-dimensional landscape to represent the challenge of solving complex problems. Imagine such a landscape, replete with peaks and valleys, stretching to infinity. Now imagine we want to find the highest point on that landscape, but we can only see the points that we’ve visited.

We’re standing on the highest point we’ve found, but are we as high as we could be? Are we really on a molehill, thinking it’s a mountain only because we’ve not yet discovered what real heights look like? How can we explore this terrain without spending an eternity randomly trying new locations?

Mathematicians have conjured a variety of mechanisms for grappling with this problem. They deploy algorithms, for example, that search for higher ground. They grapple with not only “solving” the problem represented by the theoretical landscape, but of inventing methods that can solve a variety of such problems more efficiently than a random walk. [Read more...]

Mangled Science, Mangled Truth, Part 1

It’s one of those intellectual nuggets you tuck away for dinner parties: A recent psychological study finds that people are more likely to express politically conservative values after seeing a U.S. flag. And this one: People are more inclined to support inequality when exposed to money.

Throw these scientific factoids at your conservative neighbor during the next block barbeque. You’re reactionary because you’re bought and paid for, Harry. And these American flag napkins just reinforce your worldview.

The problem with both studies, however, is that other researchers have been unable to replicate them. Worse, this problem may extend to a great many findings from psychological studies.

If you doubt that this matters, consider that as I write this, major publications are gleefully reporting a new study by a Cornell psychology PhD who has found that casual sex can be very good for the emotional well-being of young people. Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong, but I’m wagering nobody will bother to find out, which means you can choose to believe her findings if it suits you. [Read more...]

Experimenting on the Lambs

News from Alabama is that researchers obscured risks of blindness, brain damage, and death in order to convince parents of 1,300 premature infants to participate in a medical study. In my last essay I argued the seemingly esoteric point that disciplines like philosophy are essential to good science. Here is a practical example: science run amok, facilitated by well-meaning people who have been steeped in an inhumane and unscientific mode of thinking that masquerades as “how science is done.”

Drastically premature babies need oxygen, and this is inherently dangerous. Too little oxygen can cause brain damage or death. Too much can damage the eyes, sometimes to the point of blindness. Medical practitioners exercise judgment about how much oxygen to give any particular infant. But some scientists have asked—quite reasonably—whether they might sometimes be giving too much oxygen, inducing unnecessary eye damage. Researchers attempted to study this in the 1950s, but there were problems, not the least of which—in their view—were nurses surreptitiously increasing oxygen levels whenever they thought babies slated to receive lower amounts were suffering as a consequence.

A research team centered at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, however, came up with a clever way to elide this complication. They manipulated oxygen meters in the pediatric intensive care units where they were running their experiments, so that nurses were misled about the actual oxygen babies were receiving. Now, you see, we can get a clean test. Clean tests are essential when you do science.

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Scientific Passions

The nerd world felt a slight disturbance in the force a few weeks back, when the hottest new science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, argued that philosophy yields little value compared to science. The widely quoted statement that drew ire from philosophical types was Tyson’s observation, in response to someone’s admission to having been a philosophy major: “That can really mess you up.”

Anyone who has ever endured a philosophy class recognizes the truth in this claim, but it became a convenient placeholder for Tyson’s more objectionable comments, which amounted to an assertion that philosophy is navel-gazing sophistry which does not contribute to “our understanding of the natural world.”

“Practical men,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” This is doubly true of practical scientists, like the amiable Dr. Tyson, who are enslaved not to economists but to philosophers, even as they pronounce themselves independent of philosophical drudgery.

The amateur philosopher imprisoning Tyson and many of his colleagues is a centuries-dead Frenchman named Laplace, astronomer and mathematician by trade, who in his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (he was not privy to Tyson’s cautions against philosophizing) expounded a notion that grips most science popularizers today, and a good many social planners as well. It is the notion that if we could capture all the data in the universe, we could understand the past and the present, and predict the future with certainty.

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