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The Woes of Grading

December 28, 2016 Leave a comment

Absent last week, and with good reason. This isn’t going to be an Atheist post. I need to vent and this the space for it.

I’ll say this up front: business majors are the worst. The fucking worst.

I teach philosophy and I teach a conspiracy theory course. I have my share of students that think the subject I am discussing is bullshit. It’s a fair assessment because no one teaches philosophy until college. Maybe you get some philosophy through theology if you are the type of school that teaches religion. As hard is it for to admit my first philosophy class was my Junior year high school religion course where we discussed ethics. Sure, Catholic ethics, but it was a class that encouraged at least a surface debate on whether or not something should be done without regard to whether it was legal. I remember some logic being taught in my second year of high school but after that, there is nothing. Some smatterings here and there, maybe a mention of Descartes or some political thinkers in history class, but never a formal–here’s the history of thought course. There is a philosophy course in my high school taught now, but it’s an elective and it’s mostly continental philosophy through Hegel. If that’s your thing: great but I doubt it’s the type of subject that ropes in high school seniors.

Philosophy as a subject seems to be the largest target of the anti-intellectualists now that they have some legitimization. I hypothesize that it is because there’s no numbers attached to it, it’s hard to explain the usefulness of the subject. In short, it’s not tangibly productive. I find even colleagues of mine getting reactionary against people like Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson for his criticisms of the subject (although his point I find to be valid), because so much of what I do/read is regarded as just writing down opinions. Any idiot can write an opinion the thinking goes, but how does it help, or what does it do? The earliest of the Greek philosophers, Thales of Miletus, had to deal with this very problem. His solution: use his rationality to determine the pattern in olive crops and buy presses at a low price during a bad year and rent them out a high price the next.

Which segues us back to the business majors. This semester I took on “Business Ethics” a 200 level course aimed specifically at business majors. It’s not within the domain of the philosophy department, however we’re the only ones that can teach it. Right there, it becomes a class that nearly all of my students were forced to take. They could take a different section but they weren’t getting their business degree without it. This is a little different than my section of Intro to Philosophy where everyone has to take either that or an equivalent course. They opted for Intro to Phil, but they had other options.

The business majors however don’t have, what I would consider one of the typical strengths of the various majors. In Intro I can grab any major into one of the various lectures that I teach. Science? I’ve got atoms, naturalism, and some basic logic. Political science? we’ve got four weeks on political philosophy with a concentration on real world applications. English? Well, it’s reading and writing just non-fiction. Math? Hell we have Descartes and Pythagoras, those are our people as well as Leibniz and in some ways Newton.

With the business major it’s different because they did not seem to care at all about the history of business or it’s relationship with the larger world. Which don’t get me wrong, is fine, that’s a position. It’s the Bowie-Friedman position that business exists to make profit. I don’t agree and it serves well to underscore my normal teaching style of being adversarial to the majority in the course. I had them do an assignment about DuPont and their poisoning of an entire town with PFOA (a chemical by product of Teflon production). They would spend their entire paper defending the Friedman position that since nothing DuPont did was illegal they were actually right. Then end with a paragraph about how they personally felt it was wrong. ARRGGGHHH.

Students that did this were told they needed to rewrite it in order to get rid of the contradiction. What I now realize was the problem is that they either wanted to pretend to care or they really didn’t understand that they should. The latter is, again, a position that they can take. It’s fine they just had to be willing to do the work in defending their position against counter examples like Texaco in South America, most clothing manufacturers, discrimination whether sexual, gender, or racial (which I had an awesome fictional example for). They would just shrug and say ‘yeah those were bad but it’s not the norm and the norm is you can do whatever you want.’

When I was in undergrad I was primarily an Utilitarian ethicist. This was for two reasons: the first is that it made sense to me personally. The second was because it was just easier. It’s much simpler to just count the utils and if the number is higher than what we started with it was an ethical decision. You just have to eat the counter example: you pull the lever to divert the train AND you push the fat guy. It’s the same decision. I think that is what happened in my business ethics course, without the willingness to accept the bad things. Sure Friedman is easy, but also the numbers show that he’s wrong. A company willing to poison a town because it’s cheaper than finding a way to safely dispose of waste is going to lose money in the long run. Texaco now Chevron, is going to have to pay Guatemala for what they did in the objectively terrible way they polluted. If a company wants to discriminate in hiring or in who they serve they are going to have trouble doing so–especially today. I don’t get into his economics, so I can’t speak to that.

What really bothered me though was their inability to be students. I’ve lectured in dead rooms before and it’s frustrating but it’s part of the job. The biggest issue though was that they seemed to think that they deserved a good grade for the sake of having done the most adequate measure of work. If the Ted Cruz supporter can turn in a well written paper on atheism they can do a little more depth in their papers than just repeating the three quotes from Friedman that appeared in a magazine that they didn’t read. I don’t know what kind of format they are supposed to use but I would imagine that citations and bibliographies are necessary in their majors. Most of them did not cite, most of them did not tack on a bibliography, and most of them barely got their sentence on page 5. One of them, and this actually shocked me, used “google.com” as one of their sources. Not their search results, just google.com.

 

 

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Categories: Uncategorized

Plausibility

December 13, 2016 Leave a comment

My family still decorates for Christmas. I even help, even though decorating isn’t my thing. Any kind of decorating, all of the apartments and houses that I have lived in have always been pretty bare walled with the exception of possibly a lone movie poster. Despite my various interests, decorating has usually been piles of books, papers, and notebooks. For me I just don’t see the point, especially for the holidays where the stuff goes up for a few weeks and then it has to come down or else you look lazy.

We decorated for Christmas, even though I’m an atheist. There’s a tree, a bunch of Santa Clauses and related stuff, even several nativity scenes. Yes, I do mean several. We found a bunch of them. Now, what am I, an Atheist, doing putting up obvious symbols of religion in my house? Well before I answer that, I’ll say this: it didn’t feel that weird. It’s just something you do when you have a place large enough to decorate and it’s this time of year. Most of the Christmas decorations aren’t religious so in those cases it’s just odd that I’m doing it. However the religious ones, that’s what ought to be strange.

Yet it’s not. It probably has more to do with a social conformity than anything else. In fact, as I just wrote that sentence I realized that must be the reason. No, I don’t believe the story was a thing that happened in any respect. None of it. I’ve gone into length before about the Herod story and how any bit of questioning collapses the entire story (for example: why would the census require people to go to the homeland of their ancestors when it would make the census inaccurate for census purposes?). None of us believe the story of the Jack O’ Lantern but we still carve out pumpkins and put candles in them (because turnips would be an utter pain).

My older more inquisitive daughter has been asking a lot of questions about the story lately. This puts me in an odd position because my reply has been: that’s the story. With an emphasis on “story.” Questions she’s been asking have centered around the order of arrival, “who got there first the shepherds or the wise men?”

The original story isn’t that clear, in fact the Magi and the Shepherds aren’t mentioned in the same story. It’s also not clear where the birth took place, every Nativity scene is presented as a manger or some kind of farmhouse but that’s only in Luke. There are many sites devoted to pointing out that the inerrant word of God contradicts itself in many many places so I’m not going to completely rehash all of the problems here. Only that, despite the setting being the same place, the paragraphs dealing with the story don’t match up. So who got there first was the question.

It’s clearly the shepherds. It would just have to be. In fact, given the amount of time it would have taken for the group of astrologers to show up, it’s unlikely they even made it in time. The problem with this aspect of the story is that the writer, “Matthew,” doesn’t understand what a star is. At this time, according to the best of natural philosophers, stars were thought to be pinpoints of light dozens of miles in the air. If this were the true nature of the world then it might be plausible but as stars are not things which can hover over a spot it’s more unlikely that anyone could have followed a star to a specific place.

Now the apologetic here is that, of course you can humans have navigated by the stars for a long time. That is true, however we use them to tell direction not location. The North Star for instance helps me find North, and if I know “heading North brings me in the right direction” I can get home. Yet, these astrologers traveling from Persia (most likely) are making an extremely long journey with no knowledge of what they are looking for. From Persia, which means they are traveling by Camel and foot for this journey after seeing a light in the sky. There’s no way they can get their first. Unless they were the only ones that showed up, which according to “Matthew” is the case.

“Luke” has none of this. His story just has shepherds who see a angels and such then go into town. If we take both of these stories we have to make the assumption that the Shepherds get there first and are probably the only ones. We have to do this because the chronology of the stories is in such contradiction. Matthew has them leaving for Egypt while Luke has them staying for a week and then moving to Jerusalem for a bit. Both of these exit strategies are done in order to fulfill prophecies. The end of the stories have Jesus returning home to Nazareth in order that he may be called a “Nazarene,” which is not something any of the Old Testament prophets said. It’s interesting to note that one of the people is a woman named “Anna,” a Jewish prophetess in a culture that would not have allowed a woman to hold any kind of religious authority. It doesn’t matter she appears here and nowhere else.

So, what was all this about? Well trying to make sense of a story that I used to believe only because I grew up with it. It’s similar to St. Patrick and getting rid of the snakes in Ireland where there are very unlikely to be snakes at all due to climate. Or Humpty Dumpty and how we all picture him as an egg despite the rhyme never mentioning that one, assumedly, integral fact. I encourage these kinds of questions, but the religion teachers when I was growing up did not. They just had us read the story, repeat the story, and reenact the story. I did it so much as a kid that both accounts blended together as one. Which I think was the point. Concentrating on merely one of the stories would have made the other seem like a fiction, and it wouldn’t matter which one was taught first because it’s the details that give everything away.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Tunnels

December 7, 2016 Leave a comment

I know I promised to shed off the heavy political commentary last week. I’m following through on that with this week’s post but it does mention Hillary Clinton but it’s not a political post.

Again, I point out that I teach a conspiracy theory and skepticism course. Over the weekend, I’m sure that you may have noticed a gunman was arrested (not shot, he was apparently the right religion) in a DC area pizza place. Normally this would probably have made the news and then have quickly been forgotten. However the accused gunman, had an interesting motive: he was searching for secret tunnels wherein Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were allegedly keeping a stock of child sex slaves that they would abuse, rent out, and then ritually murder. This was seriously the motivation.

Now this kind of accusation is as baseless as it is familiar to me. I remember this from the “news” in the 80s and 90s in what we now refer to as “the Satanic Panic.” The allegations were made against daycares most famously and resulted in long trials (the LA McMartin trial was the longest and most expensive in California’s and the US’s history) that resulted in some convictions based on discredited science, spurious evidence, and “experts” whose information was informed from what their particular brand of paranoid Christianity told them.

The reports of this latest addition to the controversy neglect linking this completely made up and fictional accusation to Satanism, but all of the ingredients are there. Child sex abuse, an expansive ring, powerful politicians, symbolism, and most of all tunnels. It’s always tunnels.

The skeptic in me immediately rolls his eyes at this. It’s such an old accusation. Christians were accused of doing this during the Roman Empire. When they took over they accused the Jews of needing Christian baby blood for their unleavened bread (for what? Who the hell knows maybe blood is a good bread softener or something). The witch panic of Europe brought this out again, and then in the 80s it was the Satanists. The worldwide totally secret underground Satanic child murderer rapists that no one could ever establish existed. The only testimony came from people under hypnosis and from evangelical Christians who were “saved” from the life of Satanic ritual abuse. The main book on the subject “Michelle Remembers” formed the template by which all other ritual murder accusations would follow and that book is discounted as a work of fiction.

The symbolism in this case is not just lazy, it’s lazy for a conspiracy theory. It’s one thing to claim that the Free Masons control the government because the Eye of Providence is on the one dollar bill and not know that the Eye is an Illuminati symbol. It’s wholly another to just claim that spiral shapes which are obvious images of pizza are a call out to other pedophiles. I’ve looked through pages and pages of these “clues” and find them to be only interesting for the fact that I’m going to be covering them next semester. According to a document purported to have been found in the FBI database by WikiLeaks, there are symbols that pedophiles use to identify one another. Here’s the problem with this document, the first is that it only appears on WikiLeaks and sources referencing it. Secondly, the bottom half of the document shows jewelry with the same triangular spiral on it, but it looks like it is lifted directly from an Etsy page. Thirdly, this symbol does not even appear on Comet Pizza’s shop. It’s from a nearby pizza place. Never let the facts get in the way of a story though, as people began to think that this was proof the conspiracy was real.

Then there’s the tunnels. Again, it’s always secret tunnels where the abuse takes place. The tunnels make sense in one way because the abuse has to take place somewhere and it’s not like they can do it on the restaurant floor. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous because a tunnel is hard to hide. Sure, if you are standing on the street you can’t see the tunnel, but it has to exist somewhere. A tunnel is, by definition, through something. It’s the material that it’s in that can’t be moved. The McMartin trial was a pretty clear case of this, people swore that the tunnels existed underneath the daycare center. No investigation of the facility ever found them, sonar surveys couldn’t locate them, and even partial excavation of the ground couldn’t find them. Just as our gunman on Sunday could neither locate the secret rooms he could not locate the secret tunnels. Is this just a fear of the underground? Or is it merely that evil stuff has to take place underground because of superstition reasons? Honestly, I don’t know.

However this entire affair points not only to people’s apparent need to believe the worst in those they hate but also that it feeds into the story that a certain branch of Christianity needs to be true: that of secret Satanism which seeks to oppress and murder Christians. I don’t go through my day secretly hoping to fight against a worldwide and perfectly concealed conspiracy. Especially not one that I think targets my children. However this is rational thinking which has no place here. Instead of reacting emotionally to a story we ought to be subjecting those initial impulses to the strictest of objective scrutiny. While I doubt that I would ever find a believer who would admit to “wanting” this story to be true, I would no doubt find them agreeing that it “must be true” because it fits into this worldview that they want to be a part of. Reasoned arguments aren’t going to convince them otherwise, if it did, these beliefs wouldn’t exist in the first place.

 

Symbolism

December 1, 2016 Leave a comment

It gets really hard to not write a political blog these days. I’m hoping that will change in the coming months, perhaps I ought to up my posting to twice a week and make one day specifically about politics. Although I do have a topical defense to work on so that’s probably not the best use of my time. This post will be a nice transition back to religion because I can take two stories and combine them into one post with the same conclusion.

With the passing of Thanksgiving we are now into the holiday season. The holiday season means that the same groups of people will be crying and screaming like petulant two year olds about how some underpaid sales clerk working a twelve hour shift listening to customer complaints about how item X is no longer in stock when they need it didn’t say “Merry Christmas.” Or, even more annually, that a bunch of youtube assholes will complain that their favorite coffee chain didn’t put a picture of Jesus on the cup that they will soon throw in the garbage.

Then we have the president elect who recently tweeted like the petulant two year old is demeanor seems to reflect about how an individual who burns the flag should pay a fine and lose their citizenship. This is quite ironic coming from a person who, and his supporters who also share the sentiment, constantly cry about censorship when they find out someone doesn’t want them to speak about their beliefs.

So what’s going on here? Well it seems like the same group of individuals (in which the Venn diagram of support is probably as close to looking like on green circle with some lines of yellow and blue on the borders) need two things: to be completely reminded at all times of a symbol which is, at best, tangentially related to their religion (after all Jeremiah 10:3-4) forbids the cutting of trees and the decking of silver and gold) while also needing the force of law to force people to maintain another symbol so they can be reminded of the freedoms they have in this country. These people need to read some CS Lewis.

Specifically they need to read about Wormwood and the Screwtape letters so that they understand what they are doing when they focus on symbols to the point of obliterating the meaning behind the symbols. It’s probably too much to ask that they read Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation which makes the same point only in the manner of French philosophy so that it’s hidden behind the obtusifications of Continental philosophy. At one point in the letters Wormwood discusses the plan to have the believer concentrate on the symbol of the cross.  This is a theme early on in the book (letter 4) when they discuss whether or not to discourage Patient from prayer. On the one hand preventing any connection from Patient to his god would be helpful, but on the other hand that might make the attempts that much more meaningful. The other strategy is to encourage it, and indeed force it, so that by the end Patient is just repeating, by rote, a series of meaningless sounds that have been utterly evacuated of all meaning.

The same is later applied to the symbol of the cross and it’s the same theme repeated in Simulacra. No one throwing these fits is worried about actual meaning, they are worried about symbols. Sure, they can scream about the “flag code” all they want but until I see them protesting the use of the American flag on bikinis, tee shirts, or anything else that it forbids I’ll be content with calling them hypocrites and/or ignorant. The same with people who don’t see a picture of a tree that supposed to represent the peace and love (original pagan meaning aside) of the times getting so angry about it. The problem here is that both groups are just concerned with imagery and not meaning. A symbol isn’t a symbol without that backing, it’s just a picture. A picture of an evergreen tree is meaningless to everyone but an arborist. The flag doesn’t mean freedom it’s a symbol of it. “Happy holidays” is a greeting usually thrown out there by the weary sales person who is just trying to get through their shift and can still maintain eye contact with customers who are a hair’s breadth away from losing their minds.

Aren’t these people supposed to be celebrating their holiday? Isn’t it supposed to be a time of happiness? Instead they are foaming at the mouth because a paper cup doesn’t have the right arrangement of ink on it, perceiving it, not as it is: a marketing decision but as some kind of attack on their beliefs. No one is attacking those beliefs by not putting a picture on a cup. It’s not possible. If they had a picture of a Christmas tree being set on fire, or a snowman being strangled by a wreath, then they might have a case to be made. Truthfully, I would totally buy those cups though.

The flag is not “freedom.” It represents a country that holds certain freedoms as being unalienable and one of those is the ability to express displeasure and even anger at it. Burning, or otherwise, desecrating–whether you support it or not–is an expression of those freedoms. It’s literally the kind of thing that was fought for and banning it, no matter how popular that might be is against the very nature of that freedom. I feel like I’ve had this conversation so many times this year: unpopular speech even if that speech is held by one person and the entire world disagrees is still protected speech. By trying to pass a law that forbids it, you are protecting not an idea but an image. That’s all. In their words, just suck it up if you see it and move along. Stop whining about offensive images and how they hurt your feelings.