Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Quit Trying To Kill Everything I Love

As is obvious to anyone who has ever read this blog, I tend not to approve of most of the actions taken by conservative/libertarian people. Well, I agree with the conclusions of libertarians about 40% of the time (I never agree with their premises). But the thing I hate most is the way conservatives are so steadfastly trying to murder irony.

Ironic humor is possible my favorite thing in the world. Although I'm a little too young to be included in Gen X, I most definitely inherited their pension for ironic detachment from the world. It's become so ingrained in the way I communicate, I have to actively watch what I say around new people because they don't know pretty much everything I say is sarcastic.

It seems conservatives have always been fans of destroying the very concept of irony by rendering it so meaningless with their actions, but it also seems that this process has intensified greatly over the past decade or so. Whether it's arguing forcing the poor to starve is a Christian act or arguing that murdering innocent people will make our nation safer, conservatives have been abusing irony like it owes them money.

But I think they've finally succeeded, as the producers behind the Atlas Shrugged movie have started a kickstarter page to fund the next installment of the movie. Yes, a movie about how asking for money or voluntarily giving money to anyone makes you a parasite that will destroy the world will be funded by asking for donations.

This isn't even to broach the subject of the the first installment not even coming close to breaking even on its production costs. And for an ideology that says the market is the perfect arbiter of value, it would seem the market has loudly proclaimed this is a bad project which should be abandoned.

But that's only if these people actual believe the excrement of Ayn Rand. Which means I think I've finally figured out how anyone could believe anything so completely batshit crazy -- they don't. It's all part of their long-term plan to obliterate the concept of irony.

"There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."
~John Rogers

Friday, September 20, 2013

We Won't Pay You For Your Work (But You Can Pay Us!)

I received a letter yesterday from the University of Minnesota Foundation, in which they were attempting to solicit an alumni donation from me. Ignoring the fact that because my pay as a grad assistant during my time there was so low I'm still paying off my debts (thus leaving me no money to donate), I found it especially surprising that the College of Liberal Arts would reach out to me through this third party.

Because when I was part of a movement to unionize grad students, the university repeatedly explained to  us that giving any slight amount of money to, or even ever listening to, such a third party would destroy the very fabric of the university. Instead of doing silly things like unionizing (what's that ever done for anyone?), we should rely on the one-on-one relationships we have with faculty. It's pretty unimpeachable logic -- when in recorded history has someone's boss ever not listened patiently to all of their problems? Especially when said problems are that boss illegally over-working that employee? Never. Never is the answer.

Anyway, I felt the need to respond to their funding appeal, using the language I learned from the university administration. Below is the text of my response:

To whom it may concern in the College of Liberal Arts:
 I received your letter asking me to make a donation, sent on behalf of the University of Minnesota Foundation, with some sincere puzzlement. You see, I was heavily involved in the campaign to unionize graduate assistants when I was enrolled at the U of M. You might remember us; we were the people with the funny acronym who kept angrily insisting on things like cost of living increases, protections from the capricious whims of administration and faculty, and truly outrageous demands like basic dignity.

 To try and achieve these ends, we formed a collective that eventually partnered with the United Auto Workers. We mistakenly believed that by coming together (and with the assistance of this much larger organization that has experiencing in achieving exactly what we were trying to achieve), that we could then negotiate with the university on equal footing.

 Thankfully, the university administration was willing to patiently explain to us why our logic was so very wrong. We didn’t need a union, we were told, because the university is looking out for us. Maybe not by giving us adequate pay above the poverty level, but somehow. Besides, we most certainly did not need a third party like the UAW getting involved, the administration helpfully explained. Instead, we were told, we should settle these matters in the one-on-one relationships we already have with faculty.

 And, again thankfully, we saw the error of our ways and voted down the union. Mostly because we accepted the unimpeachable logic that speaking as a collective was useless, especially when it involved a third party in any way, and that instead it would be far more effective for us to use those vaulted one-on-one relationships.

 So you can understand my confusion when you, the College of Liberal Arts, reached out to me for a donation through the University of Minnesota Foundation. Why are you trying to bring an outside third party to interfere in the relationships I have with faculty in the College of Liberal Arts? It’s not that I don’t want to give you money, it’s just that I fear the Foundation will come between me the faculty I spent so long cultivating close relationships with.

 I understand that in reading this letter, you may be inclined to think I never actually intended to donate to the University, and that all of this language about the Foundation coming between me and the faculty is just a thinly-veiled excuse to not give you any money. That, of course, could not be further than the truth. Just as the administration was certainly not lying to us or trying to prevent us from unionizing, I am genuinely concerned about a third party organization I have no history with and can’t be certain about the motivations of (is my money really going to go to support the innovative work of the College of Liberal Arts, or is it going to go to some foundation office, full of people who aren’t even in the liberal arts?).

 So I have to regretfully inform you I simply cannot donate any money to this strange third-party organization, because I whole-heartedly believe the administration of the University of Minnesota has my best interests in mind, and they spent a significant amount of money and personnel hours to convince me that doing so would ruin the university. And how could I dare participate in something that would ruin my beloved university?

 I am saddened the university does not follow its own advice. I would happily donate on a one-on-one basis if any of the faculty were to reach out to me and explain why they, as individuals, need my alumni donation. But until then, I’m going to have to vote no on giving my money to a third party, just as President Kaler taught me.

Jesse Wozniak, Ph.D. 2012

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Everything is Social (Scary, Scary Drugs Edition)

Happened to come across two unrelated articles making the same point this morning: drug use, and specifically addiction, is much less about the physiological science of neural pathways and connectors that we've been told. Instead, as warms this sociologist's heart, it's far more about the social conditions in which that drug use takes place.

First there's this follow-up to the classic "rats will drug themselves to death given the option" study. The short version is that there was a classic old study in which rats in a cage had a lever they could push to get a dose of heroin. Once the rats started, they never stopped; they would keep pushing that lever until the OD'd or died from doing nothing but taking the drug, slowly wasting away as they ignored food and other stimuli.

This study has long been a cornerstone of conservative, bootstraps-based anti-drug zealotry. For instance, here's the conclusion of Professor Avram Goldstein, the man who conducted the study: "A rat addicted to heroin is not rebelling against society, is not a victim of socioeconomic circumstances, is not a product of a dysfunctional family, and is not a criminal. The rat's behavior is simply controlled by the action of heroin (actually morphine, to which heroin is converted in the body) on its brain."

You can just hear Rush Limbaugh cackling in delight while reading that -- "see, you god damned hippies! It's all about people making bad choices because they're stupid, not anything to do with the fact that they're living in crushing poverty while people who call them stupid deny them basic rights."

But in the follow-up linked above, they found a very simple way to avoid the rats getting addicted to the point of death: they built a bigger cage. That's it. It turns out that when the rats actually have other options besides sitting in a tiny cage all day getting high, they very much chose those other options. In a cage with other rats, large enough to have room to exercise, move about freely, raise a litter, etc. the rats didn't become addicts. In fact, they had been forced into addiction prior to being put in the large cage, and then ceased using the drug even though they were already addicted.

So it turns out giving the support to make choices in life other than drug use has a profound effect on drug use. Who could have guessed? (Answer: any sociologist. Any sociologist alive could have guessed that).

But that's rats, you say. That proves nothing (side note: it's funny how when rats prove what you want them to, it's a definitive study, but when they disprove what you want, then they're just rats). Well, enter Dr. Carl Hart. In an amazing pioneering study, he's providing free drugs (crack or methamphetamine) to people who are already addicted. These folks come to stay in a hospital for several weeks, and every morning Dr. Hart's assistants give them an unspecified amount of their drug of choice.

Then, throughout each day, they're given the option of another free dose or some sort of economic reward instead (usually some nominal amount of cash) which they would not be able to receive until the end of the study (thus proving the ability to favor delayed rewards over immediate gratification). And it turns out, the vast majority of these drug users would chose the economic incentive, demonstrating the fact that even scary, scary addicts can make logical choices (here you might point out how amazing it is that in the year 2013 we still need to prove that point, but such is the world).

You see, it turns out that just like rats, when humans have an option besides drug dependency, they'll generally chose it.

This is a classic example of confusing cause and effect, and not surprisingly, that confusion being strongly influenced by a desire to push an ideology that has little to no connection to reality. For there is a fairly strong connection between economic destitution and drug abuse (of course it's important to remember it's not ironclad, and plenty of economically comfortable people abuse all sorts of drugs). For drug warriors and conservatives, this meant stupid poor people can't understand drugs are bad for them, and thus they should be punished because they're too stupid to take care of themselves.

But what this evidence (and a lot more like it) demonstrates is that the cause and effect is backwards -- people don't do drugs and become destitute, they start using because they're destitute. And when you have nothing, it's hopefully not too hard to see why getting high and forgetting that fact for a little while would look appealing. Even in the absence of physical dependence, there's not really much of a reason to not use drugs, so why not?

So not to get too radical here, but it turns out that just maybe helping people is more effective in combating drug use than is punishing people. Though, of course, that assumes drug warriors are actually concerned about drug use and not about finding yet another excuse for shitting on the poor, but that's another post for another day...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Here, Go Read This Article

Although late to the party, seeing as how I already wrote eloquently on the subject recently, Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a nice piece about the concussion struggles of Justin Morneau.

You should really go read it, but the short version is that Cook makes the good point that possibly the saddest part of Morneau's whole ordeal is that both he himself and us as baseball fans were robbed of what statistically speaking, would likely have been his best years.

If I were Bob Costas, I'd say something here about the humbling nature of the game, but that just makes you sound really pretentious...

Monday, September 09, 2013

Pulling Rank (But, You Know, Not Like a Jerk)

As an anti-athouritarian and all-around dis-liker of most all forms of institutionalized power, I'm not a big fan of credentialism. By this point, it's been pretty well empirically verified that credentialing processes rarely measure the apolitical, earned merit they're supposedly recognizing, instead often simply being ways for the privileged to simultaneously claim they've earned their privilege and lock out others from their privileged positions. In short, credentials are usually bullshit and they're often used to make the world a shittier place.

On the other hand, in an abstract, ideal world, credentials would be a great idea that would help us organize and improve our world. Need a new building? Find a credentialed architect. Need to improve healthcare? Find a credentialed expert on healthcare. Need to find a third example to round out your rhetorical device? Find a credentialed...person who does that. Even in our actual, imperfect world credentialing serves some purpose; after all, if I need surgery, I really do insist on someone who has passed medical school and is licensed to practice medicine. If I need my car fixed, I take it to the person who is a certified mechanic (well, actually I mostly still take it to my dad, but he retains his credentials from being raised on a farm, making him a certified expert in most small machines and large animals).

So in general: credentials are stupid, they don't necessarily signify any particular knowledge or access to knowledge, they're often used simply to exclude, and I hate them and wish they would go away. On the other hand, sometimes they're necessary so you don't have a mechanic operating on your heart and a cardiologist operating on your car.

Now that's all well and good at the grand level, but where I really struggle with credentials is at a smaller level. Specifically, the level of me.

One of the big things I try to teach all of my students is that very little about our criminal justice system is a settled fact. Instead, there are a lot of different theories about people, how we should use resources, what crimes are most important, etc. But I also try to emphasize the difference between a scientifically-informed opinion and everyone's own personal opinion. As the old saying goes, everyone has a right to their opinion, but that does not make all opinions equal.

As a Ph.D. criminologist, I technically have a scientifically -informed opinion about, say, policing (this is what I study in particular, so I feel most comfortable claiming some expertise there). Now, of course, mine is just one opinion among many and is by no means the most valid opinion on the subject. But it is a hell of a lot more valid than the opinion of people who have never studied policing at all.

And this matters a great deal. Not just for my own feelings (though, hey, those are important), but because most of our policing policy is set by people who have no scientific understanding of policing, while people who do are routinely ignored. This leads to...well, pay any slight amount of attention to the police and you'll see the problems this leads to.

Yet I think most people would see the obvious problem with not weighing people's opinions based on their credentials on major public policy issues, so this shit becomes a real struggle for me at the personal level. Because I often get into arguments about policing and criminal justice at bars, parties, family gatherings, etc. (I get into a lot of arguments). And while I'm not trying to posit myself as smarter than anyone involved, I am almost always the only criminologist in the discussion. And as much as I hate credentialism, that stands for something. I spent the better part of a decade earning a degree that specifically grants me expertise in this field. You read a facebook post. These are not equal sources of knowledge. The point isn't that I individually know more about this issue than you do (though make no mistake about it, I empirically do know more than you about this subject), but that if an opinion based off a years of rigorous scientific study is given no more weight than an opinion shaped by random facts and personal prejudice, then what point is there to the study of anything?

I guess the cynical/probably true answer to that is there is no point to studying anything, because we live in a political and economic climate that has long since demonstrated a complete disregard for things like "truth" and "reality." But the naive optimist in my would like to think it counts for something. At least enough so that the guy who spent years studying this one particular thing would be granted slightly more respect in that area than the cousin who read a facebook post that doesn't even make sense by its own logic.