Monday, September 18, 2006

A Few Answers

Some really good questions this week. A few answered today, more later in the week:

Claude asks whether the Consular Information Sheets put out by the State Department contain an ideological bias. Is there any reason to suspect public documents from the US government may be used for propaganda purposes?

Short answer: Yes. On the softer side of the argument, it is not possible, of course, to write entirely without a point of view and given that these statements which call for analysis and judgment are written and/or approved by conservative appointees, they will shows marks of their authors/editors. The more pointed side of the argument is that all regimes realize the power of publication and use public announcements as rhetorical bullhorns to influence and not merely report, and this administration has taken that to previously unheard of levels. They have had former lobbyists restructure reports and statements written by scientists at NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the first hires they made when taking power was a woman who made commercials whose job it was to design and coordinate presidential appearances to make "selling the message" more effective. While the State Department will clearly want to play up risks to make sure that they are not played down in the mind of people traveling abroad, there ought to be a healthy skepticism in the mind of those who are reading these documents.

Cousin Sarah asks "How is it that we (Americans) have ignored the plight of inner city, poor children whose parents are either addicts or in jail, to the point that they need to leave the US and live in the bush of AFRICA, to find tranquility and heal themselves!@#$%^???"

It is unnecessary to lecture a former teacher in city schools on the plight of city schools, but it strikes me that there are reasons and rationalizations for what we have done. The reason is a combination of caring and uncaring. It is slightly oversimplifying to say that we realize that there is only so much pie to go around and we want the best for our kids and our kind, and so we make sure they we get as much of the pie as possible. The oversimplification is in the fact that we don't individually actually do it in a direct active sense, we just look the other way whenever it is pointed out that the sociological structure does it for us. The system has developed in such a way that it does the dirty work and those of us with privilege can pretend to have clean hands. Anytime the inequities are pointed out we can (1) throw up those supposedly clean hands and say, it's the system, it's too large to be fixed or (2) take the Ronald Reagan route and put the sociological issues in a cage, looking only at the individuals and proclaiming those individuals as a group to be morally undeserving of help or concern. Our kind behaves themselves and therefore deserves the treat, whereas they behave badly and therefore deserve a time out in public services (especially if it means paying taxes).

Hanno asks, " What kind of questions do you get?"

I get four general kinds: (1) science questions -- not sure if it is because they know I'll talk science for long periods of classtime if given any reason or whether students who would rather shove an ice pick in their eye really want to know about science, (2) current event questions -- they don't keep up on the news, know they should, and not having the background context to many stories find it unhelpful when they first try. I try to give full answers where I try to be clear what is fact, what is analysis, and why smart folks who disagree with me, do so, (3) settle an argument my roommate and I were having an argument last night,... and (4) smart ass questions -- if they want to try to out smart ass the master, bring it on.

Speaking of (4)... Nick asks, "Are the epistemic considerations underlying a realist conception of mathematics the same as a non-instrumentalist account of scientific truth or does the a priori nature of mathematical propositions force us to redefine what we mean by necessary truth?"

Come see me, we'll talk.

JK asks, " Why do humans use a base 10 number system?"

Ten fingers. Many of the ancients -- Babylonians, chief among them, used a base 12 system because it could be evenly divided into 1,2,3, and 4. This is why we have twelve months. Add in 5 and it takes you to base 60 which is why there are 60 seconds in a minute, and minutes in an hour and 6x60= 360 = degrees in a circle.

Erik asks, "Why did Americans go along with Coke and other soda companies switching from real sugar to corn syrup? Seriously, how stupid can the American public be?"

To the first question, the switch from sugar to corn based sweeteners in soda is like when Brian Johnson was brought in to sing for AC/DC after Bon Scott's death -- devotees think it is hugely significant, but casual acquaintances would never know the difference. As for the second question, H.L. Mencken once remarked, "No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people."