From the Greek meaning 'heavy with wine'
A blog devoted to science and reason
Written after a glass or two of Pinot Noir.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

What word am I thinking of?  Evidence.  The good ol' scientific kind of evidence.  In science, evidence is gathered through observations of phenomena in a test of an hypothesis that is then either supported or rejected.

Image 1
Hypothesis!  That's another word often misused.  Many students learn in school that a hypothesis is an educated guess. Now that's good enough for a 2nd grader, but I found in my work in elementary schools that even fourth graders could understand that a hypothesis is a proposed explanation that must be testable.

What people often offer as evidence is opinion.  It seems that if someone says something often enough and loudly enough, it must be true.  But having a strong opinion is not evidence for your position.

Image 2
Let's look at a recent exchange of views in which I've been involved (see image 1). Aaron starts with a hypothesis that the strongest form of birth control is a two parent family.  Where's his evidence to support this?  

Aaron simply restates his hypothesis as a fact and adds non sequiturs on the state of society, parental discipline, and his religious views.

Here's where I come in.  I made a smart ass comment about Bristol Palin becoming a teenage mother while living in a two parent household.  Now for all the coverage the Palin family received, I do not remember anyone ever saying Sarah and Todd Palin were bad parents, so I thought I made a relevant comment.  

But I did something that I know better than to do.  I offered an anecdote as evidence, and as the saying goes, "the plural of anecdote is not data."

Enter Tyler.  (See image 2) Let's see what he adds.  "Collectivists are morons."  I think that is aimed at me, because I think he presumed that I, by citing B. Palin, am talking about all conservatives.  If it was aimed at me, this is an ad hominem attack. If not, then I don't know why he writes it.

Then he offers his own hypothesis - "Fathers… teach a child their morality."  As support for this perspective, he adds his opinions of parental discipline and government.  In the next paragraph, he attacks the public school system for "promoting premarital sex,,, child porn, and other perversions."  He calls hard working teachers "pederasts" and a greater threat to this country than "disease, famine, and poverty."

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He contends that more teachers are convicted of child sexual abuse than Catholic priests; he asserts this is a fact.  Now it took me about three and a half minutes to find the scientifically gathered data, but Tyler has his opinion.

Maybe I'm being unfair though. (See Image 3) He does offer a link.  [If you follow it, make sure to also visit the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and judge for yourself which site is trustworthy.]  What do you find there - more baseless accusations just like Tyler's.   His idea to end teen pregnancy is for "parents, not gay activist perverts, [to] develop curriculum. Parental Choice of Schools and Districts, combined with a Student Voucher System would allow Parents to decide who is teaching their children while protecting them from activist perverts who only seek to destroy their morality and the Family."

Another so-called fact: "With a Heuristic Approach to parenting, children are clinically proven to make better decisions with better outcomes than parents who try to control or force their children to make the decisions they view as correct. Public Schools promote the exact opposite."  Evidence, please.

Time for Aaron to chime in.  (See image 4) I'm childish.  I would accept smart ass , but childish?  Aside from that though, why the name calling?  What does calling someone childish add to a discussion?

What does one call "attacking an opponent’s motives or character rather than the policy or position they maintain"?  Ad hominem.

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Check out how Tyler responds.  "Just venturing a guess, but are you a Gay Educator of some sort? Perhaps an educator who blindly follows the sick perverse standards policies which are forced upon our children? I don't mean to be intimidating, just intelligent.. obviously more intelligent than an educator who doesn't respond to Ad Hominem attacks, but has no problem making them. I swear that I didn't know you were a gay educator, I still don't for sure, but its the only way you could possibly have considered my post to be an attack."

"Ad Hominem is only possible against public figures we all know."  Not correct, Tyler.  See above.

Now Tyler issues a challenge.  "Dispute my claim that it is Kevin Jennings and other gay activist educators who are the root cause of teen pregnancy."  Wait.  He presents a hypothesis, offers no evidence in support of that evidence, and I'm supposed to dispute it? That's not the way this works.  One makes a claim and supports it; one doesn't make some claim, offer it as fact, and then let others do the work.

What comes next is unbelievable. Tyler accuses a federal official of being a member of a pedophile organization who distributes "perverse material to kindergarten students." (See image 5) Why hasn't Tyler called the FBI?  

The former official is Kevin Jennings who is 
an American educator, author, and administrator. He was the Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education from 2009-11. As of July 2011 Jennings will be the president and CEO of nonprofit organization Be The Change.
Jennings holds degrees from Harvard University, Columbia University's Teachers College, and the Stern School of Business at New York University. He became a teacher and was named one of fifty "Terrific Teachers Making a Difference" by the Edward Calesa Foundation, he also came out as gay to his students. In 1990 he founded the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers Education Network (later changed to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), which became a leading group seeking to end discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 1992 he was named co-chair of the Education Committee of the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth in Massachusetts. Jennings has authored six books on gay rights and education, including one which won the Lambda Literary Award. [Wikipedia]
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Again he challenges me to address the issue of child porn. Again he makes a claim with no evidence as support.  He does add the additional assertion that the White House is directly involved in the distribution of child porn.  

Finally five days after the initial post, I had done some research into the original question "So what's the best way to end teen pregnancies?"  My response - Making Babies.

Tyler's response to my response - An accusation that I've ignored his thesis and that I "refuse to even acknowledge that porn makes kids horney. [sic]"  (See image 6)  Gosh, I thought I was answering Aaron's question, but since Tyler doesn't want to do the research, let's see what I can find by Googling ''effect pornography teen pregnancy."  It takes Google 0.21 seconds and the first hit is "Web pornography's effect on children."  This is a story appearing in the American Psychological Association's Monitor on Psychology about research, not the actual research, but it's a start.

"We need a lot more research to keep tabs on this phenomenon and to separate hype from reality," says sociologist David Finkelhor, PhD, director of the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) Crimes Against Children Research Center and a lead researcher in the area. To give the issue some perspective, his team has examined a variety of social trend indicators during the time that concerns about Internet use among the young have risen--between 1996 and 2005--and found that teens are actually displaying healthier behaviors in domains that might be negatively influenced by greater access to Internet porn. 
"There have been drops in crime, drops in teen pregnancy, increases in the number of kids who say they're virgins, declines in various kinds of victimization and less running away," Finkelhor says. "You have to hold that image on one hand as you're confronting all of the things that are happening online." 
That said, a few studies are beginning to show relationships between Web porn use among young people and sexual attitudes. For example, those who frequent porn sites more often are more likely to view sex as a purely physical function and to view women as sex objects. They're also more likely to hold such views if they perceive the material as more realistic, research finds.
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Then Tyler insists "Your stubborn refusal to admit, or even acknowledge, that your government is deliberately CAUSING an increase in teen pregnancy."  My government?!?  The one headed by President Obama; the one with 242 Republicans and 193 Democrats in the House of Representatives; the one with 56 Democrats, 42 Republicans and 2 independents in the Senate; the one with Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court?  What's your government?  I Googled your last name, and it's originally Swiss or German. Are you Viennese?  But this paragraph is completely irrelevant, and I succumbed to making another smart ass comment, so let's move on.

Tyler criticizes my source of data on the effect of family structure.  It's obvious he didn't read it, because he thinks teens gave their opinions about family structure. Finally, Tyler gives a statistic: "It is an Emperial [sic] FACT that fatherless teens are at least 2.5 times as likely to have sex and therefore get pregnant," and he provides a source.  The source is an opinion piece in the Gloucester, MA newspaper.  I'll give Tyler some credit, it does cite research.  The research included 762 girls, 520 of them living in Christchurch, New Zealand.  All these girls were interviewed  which according to Tyler must mean the teenagers were giving their opinions, and I guess that means Tyler must discount this research.  The study I cited concluded that "findings suggest that when taken together, race/ethnicity, income, and family structure provide only limited understanding of adolescent risk behaviors."

But Tyler has more.  He blasts me for "a bigoted attack on religion."  I reference a study that finds that conservative religious beliefs predict teen birth rates.  Again, from his comments, I have to presume Tyler never read the study.  The authors never claim that religious conservatives oppose contraception, but that they in effect discourage their use.  Big difference.

At the very end, Tyler attempts to include his personal life as evidence.  I'm genuinely happy he has two beautiful daughters.  Children are the future.  However, anecdotes are not data.

Evidence and Hypothesis.  Make a claim; back it up with data.

By the way, Tyler - my name is Vann.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Any Suggestions?

I need ideas.  I have a post on climate change in the works, but that's still about a week away from being done.  So on what should I expound?

Leave your ideas in the comments section.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Making Babies

I got involved in a discussion on Facebook on teen pregnancy.  It started like this - "So what's the best way to end teen pregnancies?"  Usually I'm not one to enter a conversation without having data at hand to support my position, but I entered this one with a smartass comment about Bristol Palin and her father Todd.  I suspended my participation for a couple of reasons, but now that I've done my homework, I'm ready to respond.

In 2008, the teen pregnancy rate was 67.8 per 1,000 women aged 15 through 19. (1)  In 1990, it reach a peak of 117 pregnant teens per 1,000.  So something right is happening when the rate declines by 42%.

(2) Fast Facts: Teen Pregnancy in the United States, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/FastFacts_TeenPregnancyinUS.pdf

Could the reason be the seemingly increased religious fervor being seen in segments of US society?  Surprisingly, the answer is no.  A 2009 study shows "conservative religious beliefs predict teen birth rates highly and significantly." (3) One of the authors suggests "that religious communities in the US are more successful in discouraging the use of contraception among their teenagers than they are in discouraging sexual intercourse itself." (4) This conclusion is based almost 36,000 religiosity responses collected by the Pew Foundation and teen pregnancy rates reported by the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics.

How about family structure?  Does coming from a home without a father present increase a teen's odds of becoming pregnant? No.  Family structure and for that matter, race and ethnicity are not as important factors as poverty. (5)  This conclusion is based on detailed data collected from 12,000 students in middle and high school all across the country.

I've known some women who became mothers long before they planned to.  They are all strong women who love their children and provide a good home life for their children.  But the problems of teen pregnancy are the increased probability that the family will be poor, and the babies will be premature and more likely to be victims of abuse and neglect.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that teens do not have the highest rate of unplanned pregnancy.  The highest rate (106 unplanned pregnancies per 1,000) is for college age women.  When considering marital status, the rate is 138 for cohabitating couples.  Looking at income level, for women with incomes less than the federal poverty threshold, the rate is 112.  Women with a college degree or who are over 35 have the lowest rates of unplanned pregnancy. (6)

So what is the answer to this serious problem?  I have no idea.

Except that education and consistent contraceptive use are effective at preventing pregnancy.  Making jokes about contraception is counterproductive as is promoting the idea that "[contraception is] a license to do things."  Virtually all US women (more than 99%) use some form of contraception. (7)

If we could only get the entire world to use a convenient and effective form of birth control; we might have a shot at reducing poverty and hunger

(1) U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions, 2008: National Trends by Age, Race and Ethnicity, Kost, K., & Henshaw, S. (2012). Retrieved February 2012, from http://www. guttmacher.org/pubs/ustptrends08.pdf.

(2) Fast Facts: Teen Pregnancy in the United States, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/FastFacts_TeenPregnancyinUS.pdf

(3) Religiosity and teen birth rate in the United States, Joseph M. Strayhorn, Jillian C. Strayhorn, Department of Psychiatry, Drexel University College of Medicine and University of Pittsburgh, http://www.reproductive-health-journal.com/imedia/1545549611271544_article.pdf?random=414460

(4) Religion’s Link to Teen Pregnancy, Lisa Belkin, New York Times, September 17, 2009.  http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/religions-link-to-teen-pregnancy/

(5)The Effects of Race/Ethnicity, Income, and Family Structure on Adolescent Risk Behaviors
Robert W. Blum, MD, et al., http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/pdf/10.2105/AJPH.90.12.1879 

(6) The DCR Report, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/DCR/default.aspx

(7) In Brief: Facts on Contraceptive Use in the United States, June 2010.  http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_contr_use.html

Monday, February 13, 2012

Love Is A Drug

This article isn't really about the biological/physiological response we call love.  It's about Valentine's day.  No, it's not about Valentine's day either.  It's about what we romantics usually give to our significant others on Valentine's day.

What makes chocolate so special?  Maybe it's the theobromine it contains.  Theobromine is a chemical classified as a alkaloid.

Since ancient times, alkaloids have been a favorite of humans.  People have used them for both their therapeutic properties, as well as for purely recreational purposes.

What other alkaloids do humans like?  Below is a list of some of humanity's favorites. [DISCLAIMER: I am not endorsing the use and/or abuse of any of the chemicals listed.  Some are just dangerous; others are quite useful and help me get through the morning.]

  • Caffeine - My Wonder Drug.  What would I do in the morning with my three or four cups of coffee?
  • Cocaine
  • Nicotine
  • Morphine/Heroin -  A little trivia for you.  The word Heroin was trademarked in the early 20th century by the Bayer pharmaceutical company.
  • Codeine
  • Serotonin - a neurotransmitter in your brain
  • Psilocybin
  • Ergotamine - possibly responsible for the witch accusations in Salem, MA, but many historians discount this.
  • Histamine - if you suffer from allergies, you can blame this alkaloid.
  • Capsaicin - spicy food lovers know this chemical

So give your beloved a box of chocolates, and enjoy the mild effects of this vasodilator.

By the way, make sure to the click the link embedded in the song lyrics above -  Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Get Small; Get Large

As a physicist, I have developed a sense of scale.  It's takes practice to develop it, but after all, physicists think every day about about the very small (like a atom's nucleus) to the very large (like galactic clusters).

Even then, when I see a clear visual demonstration of the scale of the universe, I am never anything less but awed.

Animation Credit to HTwins.net