Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Remember the Bureaucrats!

Bureaucrats are a much maligned group of people. The very epithet "bureaucrats" implies a cabal of dimwitted yes-men and yes-women who shuffle around the offices of the land to frustrate the dreams and aspirations of honest Americans and other people who "work for a living."

An acquaintance of mine, for example, recently referred to the entrenched interest represented by "bureaucrats" in the healthcare industry that might frustrate any meaningful healthcare reform. By his characterization, "bureaucrats" are common killjoys who out of petty selfishness play a key role in denying necessary and salubrious reforms.

I demur from this common characterization. Many, probably most, of the "bureaucrats" are honest, hardworking people who are trying to make a living. They might, if they're fortunate, make about, say, $15 an hour and have reasonably good benefits. If so, they are relatively well off; by "relatively" I mean in relation to the large number of people who earn even lower wages and who are closer to the poverty line. $15 an hour is fine if one is single and has no debts, but it can be quite pressing if that person is a parent and has to support children. There are a small number of people called "bureaucrats" who earn much more: these include accountants, underwriters, etc. Still, while they're more comfortable than the $15/hr folks, they are not (usually) milking it rich. There are a large number of office temps and part-timers who make $9 an hour, or even less, often without benefits. Again, if they are single and in relatively good health and have no children, they might be able to get by, but aren't necessarily able to get ahead, at least not in their present situation. If they have children or chronic health problems, the situation for them can be much more dire.

Now, bureaucracy has a lot of problems, and nobody comes off clean. The "petty bureaucrat" who works for an HMO is playing some sort of role in the perpetuation of an industry that many people find inefficient and constricting. But advocates for healthcare reform, like my acquaintance who I mention above, might at least recognize that eliminating HMO's will put some people out of work, and those people are not necessarily the mythical "fat cats" who are getting rich off of others' problems.

Finally, I'm not saying other people don't work as hard as or harder than most office workers. Office work has its advantages--it's generally safer, air conditioned or central heated, and in practice (despite the rhetorical excesses of the ant-"bureaucrats") generally given more respect on a day to day basis than a lot of manual labor--but it is not the promised land of jobs and center of privilege that others make it out to be.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The argument for teaching evolution in schools

The most important argument for teaching evolution in high school and middle school biology classes is one of necessity. If the purpose of biology classes is to foster scientific literacy and prepare people who want to enter the sciences--and I believe that is the purpose, a purpose which is uncontroversial in and of itself--then it is important to teach the accepted paradigm of the field.

The accepted paradigm and explanatory model in biology is the theory of evolution by natural selection. We do our students a disservice by not acquainting them with that model.

Now, I have a lot of problems with evolution, both philosophical and political.

Philosophical: it doesn't prove anything, at least not in the sense of having predictive value. In other words, I cannot agree with those who assert that "evolution is an established fact." A fact can be, in theory falsified. But I'm sympathetic to the view that evolution by natural selection is tautological--true by its logical form alone and therefore not falsifiable. If it is indeed a tautology, I'm sympathetic to the view that it is a useful tautology. (I'm plagiarizing this point from something I read as an undergraduate, but I forget the author and title.)

Political: advocacy for evolution by natural selection is often used as a club to beat non-atheists and to wage straw man arguments to "disprove" the existence of God. People who are uneasy about the supposed implications of evolution are caricatured (by those such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins) as unenlightened bigots who stand in the way of "progress." While I don't believe that the theory of evolution by natural selection need be inconsistent with most forms of religious belief, in this day and age it should be acceptable to have those different beliefs.

Advocates for teaching evolution in schools often cite the opposition of religious conservatives. Many of these conservatives--or at least the politicians who claim to speak for them--voice the opinion that teaching of evolution in schools is an imposition of one set of religious belief ("secular humanism") by the state. These conservatives, evolution advocates a la Hitchens tend to say, are deluded and are trying to use the state to impose their views. Evolution, for these advocates, is science and truth, and those who stand in the way of truth must be defeated.

The stakes are both greater and lesser than either side would have one believe. They are greater because it's a question of providing our students with basic scientific literacy, and all this bickering comes at the expense of their knowledge. It is lesser because both sides are wont to insist the issue is an apocalyptic struggle between "religion," "truth," and "science." Advocates for the teaching of evolution by natural selection would do well to focus on social utility arguments--i.e., it's necessary for scientific literacy--and should abstain from the philosophical and political/religious arguments that merely cloud the issue. For the fact is, one can sincerely believe that the earth and all its species were created were created by a supreme being 6,000 years ago and yet still suspend their disbelief long enough to learn the underlying assumptions behind biological science. These assumptions, regardless of their truth or falsity, are used to understand nature in a specific way. By most measures, if advocates for teaching evolution simply limited themselves to the question of scientific literacy and forewent the occasional jibe at "fanatics," their arguments would carry more weight.

I do not here and now address the side issue of "creation science" and "intelligent design," except to say that I would have no objection to them being presented in a "philosophy of science" class, along with a discussion of the philosophical underpinnings of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The universe is a complicated place; no one really understands it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why people will probably continue to take multivitamins

A recent study reported here claims that multivitamins do not have many of the healthful effects their manufacturers claim. This news will probably not lead to a significant decrease in consumption of multivitamins for the following reasons. First, by and large, at least according to the yahoo report I linked to, multivitamins haven't many adverse effects. In other words, taking them will not (as far as the study knows) harm people.

Second, and related to the first reason, the cost of taking multivitamins is significantly low in relationship to the possible benefit of taking them. The multivitamins I buy cost less than $20 for more than a year's supply. The additional, non-monetary cost--such as having to sacrifice the five seconds each morning it takes for me to swallow the multivitamin--is negligible.

In other words, consumers will probably say "it's relatively cheap, it's (probably) not bad for me, and it might just be good for me."