Entries for April 2005

April 29, 2005

The rise of Catholic objections to Copernican ideas

(For those following the Copernican postings in sequence, I made a mistake. Today's posting should have appeared BEFORE the one that dealt with The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus. Sorry about that!)

The last myth that I will address concerning the Copernican revolution is that it met immediate, widespread, and religious opposition from the Catholic Church. This took the form of releasing the full force of the Inquisition against his ideas, which resulted in Copernican Giordano Bruno being burned for advocating those ideas and Galileo being forced to recant his support for Copernicus' sun-centered universe. This is the view, for example, expressed by Bertholt Brecht in his famous play Life of Galileo.

Religious opposition did eventually arise but not immediately and the initiative came from the newly formed Protestant churches, not the Catholic Church.

One reason that there was no immediate religious opposition to Copernicus' book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium was because his book was very mathematical and hence incomprehensible to anyone other than other mathematical astronomers. And we saw that this small group had good reason to be skeptical, on scientific rather than religious grounds, of the idea that the Earth was in motion.

Another possible reason for the lack of religious opposition was that putting the Earth in orbit around the Sun was not perceived at that time as a demotion for human beings, as is now portrayed.

A third possible reason was that the Catholic Church did not find this new idea as heretical as is now supposed. It is worthwhile to quote Thomas Kuhn's book The Copernican Revolution more fully on this point:

For sixty years after Copernicus' death [in 1543] ...individual Catholic clergymen expressed their incredulity or abhorrence of the new conception of the earth, but the Church itself was silent. The De Revolutionibus was read and at least partially taught at leading Catholic universities. Reinhold's Prutenic Tables, based on Copernicus' mathematical system, were used in the reformation of the calendar promulgated for the Catholic world in 1582 by Gregory XIII. Copernicus himself had been a cleric and a reputable one, whose judgment was widely sought on astronomical and other matters. His book was dedicated to the Pope, and among the friends who urged him to publish it were a Catholic bishop and a cardinal. During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries the Church had not imposed cosmological conformity on its members. The De Revolutionibus was itself a product of the latitude allowed to Churchmen in matters of science and philosophy, and before the De Revolutionibus the Church had spawned even more revolutionary cosmological concepts without theological convulsions. In the fifteenth century the eminent cardinal and papal legate Nicholas of Cusa had propounded a radical Neoplatonic cosmology and had not even bothered about the conflict between his views and scripture. Though he portrayed the earth as a moving star, like the sun and other stars, and though his works were widely read and had great influence, he was not condemned or even criticized by his church. (p. 196)

And yet it is true that, beginning in 1616, the Church banned teaching of the idea of a sun-centered universe and De Revolutionibus was placed on The Catholic Index of forbidden book in 1616 (and stayed there until 1835). This period also began the dismissal and banishment of prominent Catholic Copernicans, culminating in the forced recantation of Copernicus's ideas in 1633 by Galileo (then nearly 70 years old) under threat of torture by the Inquisition, and his subsequent house arrest. The Church ban on Copernican ideas remained until 1822 and has been a source of embarrassment for the Church ever since.

(In 1600 the Church burned the philosopher Giordano Bruno (who was a Copernican) at the stake for heresy, but it was not explicitly for that particular belief. He had committed other heresies involving the doctrine of the Trinity for which other people had also been executed earlier. Bruno had been an advocate and popularizer of Copernican ideas, though, which might have led to the popular perception that he was the first martyr for the new science.)

But by 1633 it was too late for the Church to stop Copernican ideas because by then new supporting evidence for it was arriving thick and fast. They were trying to stop the tide when it was in full flood, and the attempt was a hopeless failure.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), although a believer in an Earth-centered universe, had by then produced accurate naked eye observations of stars which had removed many false old data that had confused the picture and provided a whole set of new data that planetary models needed to fit.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was a life-long Copernican who devoted himself to address the problems of the sun-centered model and his eventual adoption of elliptical orbits led to the elimination of the awkward epicycles in Copernicus' model. His three laws of planetary motion were a triumph of simplicity in explaining planetary motion and his Rudolphine Tables, published in 1627, was so superior to all other astronomical tables that they became widely used and their underlying Copernican basis was becoming widely known and appreciated. "Kepler solved the problem of the planets." (p. 219)

And the final nail in the earth-centered cosmology was Galileo's use of the telescope for astronomy, beginning in 1610. These telescopes were soon freely available and suddenly everyone could observe the stars and planets and see for themselves what had hitherto been just the province of astronomers. Among other things, Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter was a devastating blow to the Ptolemaic model since it showed that not everything was orbiting around the Earth, as was the key assumption of the geocentric models.

Finally, Isaac Newton's (1643-1727) dynamical theories of motion and gravitation that explained Kepler's laws were the sign that the Copernican revolution, begun about 150 years earlier, was complete.

But although the Church lost this battle a long time ago, it took over three centuries for it to formally acknowledge this. It was only in 1992 that Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. The Pope even went so far as to claim that Galileo may have been divinely inspired, saying: "Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions." This may have been a rather futile effort to recover some dignity from an embarrassing debacle for religion.

But what happened between 1543 and 1610 to cause the Catholic Church to switch from neutrality to opposition, and adopt such a hard-line, long-lasting, and ultimately futile anti-Copernican stand? We'll see that in a future post. (Update: Due to the mis-sequencing, this 'future' posting already appeared three days ago as The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus.)

April 28, 2005

Having fun with telephone representatives

Once in a while, I look in on the site Jesus' General which is a parody website that is hard to describe but is often hilarious. It was the most recent winner of the Koufax Award for Most Humorous Blog.

Recently, the General posted an item about a telephone conversation that someone named Eugene Mirman had with a representative who was trying to get him to switch to her Christian long-distance phone company. As part of her sales pitch to Mirman, the phone rep first made sure that Mirman was opposed to same-sex marriages and then proceeded to allege that rival phone companies AT&T, MCI, and Verizon were all involved in promoting hard-core pornography, child pornography, and homosexuality, thus making them unworthy of God-fearing people.

The recording has Mirman becoming increasingly scandalized by the revelations he hears about these companies. The telemarketer seems oblivious to the fact that he is putting her on. His over-the-top outrage at the sins of AT&T, MCI, and Verizon, which seemed to me to be such an obvious leg-pull, seemed to appear genuine to the phone rep, which makes me wonder if they routinely get calls from people who actually think and talk like that.

Such pranks as the one Mirman pulled usually give me mixed feelings. On the one hand, the people who answer the phones are usually low-paid employees, reading from a script provided by their employers and may not be true believers themselves. They are often just doing what they are told, and I feel a bit sorry for them. I try to be polite to them (even to telemarketers), even while I am annoyed at the companies they represent. (It is interesting that this particular company's website does not have any overt religious or anti-gay message so that aspect of its business must be done through other channels that pre-screen to contact those people already sympathetic to their views.)

On the other hand, using pretty wild religious messages (at one point she agrees with Merman that "God hates AT&T, MCI, and Verizon") and vicious anti-gay rhetoric as a sales tool struck me as particularly despicable and so I had no qualms laughing out loud as I listened to Merman's ranting. It was also amusing to hear the efforts by the phone rep to keep him angry but not enough to prevent him from seeing the main point, which was to switch his phone service provider to her company.

Listen to the mp3 audio clips yourself, especially the link to "Anti Gay Phone Company II." It's a riot.

April 27, 2005

The reading level of this blog

I came across an interesting website recently. You type in the URL of any site and it comes back immediately with various measures of the site's readability, including the years of education necessary to understand it, its clarity, and so forth. It also provides comparisons on these indices with various standard media such as newspapers and magazines.

So naturally the first thing that I did was put in this blog's URL to see how I shaped up. Here is what I got:

Readability Results for
Average words per sentence 16.15
Words with 1 Syllable 3,230
Words with 2 Syllables 1,010
Words with 3 Syllables 561
Words with 4 or more Syllables 415
Percentage of word with three or more syllables 18.71%
Average Syllables per Word 1.65

That much was pretty straightforward. The other three numbers were more mysterious:
Gunning Fog Index 13.94
Flesch Reading Ease 51.07
Flesch-Kincaid Grade 10.15

The site helpfully explains that the Fog Index "is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. The lower the number, the more understandable the content will be to your visitors. Results over seventeen are reported as seventeen, where seventeen is considered post-graduate level." Looking at the algorithm, it seems to depend entirely on the number of words per sentence and the percentage of words that have three or more syllables.

So it takes about 14 years of education (or up to college sophomore level) for someone to understand the content of my website. So clearly I am not going to get huge market share with my blog.

For comparison, some Fog Index Scores are given for other publications:

6 TV guides, The Bible, Mark Twain
8 Reader's Digest
8 – 10 Most popular novels
10 Time, Newsweek
11 Wall Street Journal
14 The Times, The Guardian
15 – 20 Academic papers
Over 20 Only government sites can get away with this, because you can't ignore them.
Over 30 The government is covering something up

Since my Fog Index score is close to 15, it seems like it is hard for me to shake the habits of writing in the style of academic papers even in the more casual setting of a blog.

The Flesch Reading Ease number "rates the text on a 100-point scale. The higher the score, the easier it is to understand the document. Authors are encouraged to aim for a score of approximately 60 to 70." So I flunk this score pretty badly, it looks like. This algorithm, seems to depend entirely on the number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word.

The Flesch-Kincaid grade level, like the Gunning-Fog index, "is a rough measure of how many years of schooling it would take someone to understand the content. Negative results are reported as zero, and numbers over twelve are reported as twelve." This seems like the same measure as the Fog Index, but uses average number of syllables per word instead on percentage of words with three syllables or more.

What is one to make of things like this? I find them fun even if I don't take them too seriously. For one thing, you have to be skeptical of these instant computer-generated analyses of such complex things as writing. While these programs are great at doing numbers, one has to be wary of claims that they can accurately measure things like clarity and reading grade level. They all assume that the number of polysyllabic words and the length of sentences are the only factors, and that the nature of the content is immaterial.

This explains the results for the Bible, which had initially puzzled me. It is ranked together with TV Guide, although surely it is a more difficult book to understand. But it does use short words and sentences. This kind of algorithm also also might explain why the Wall Street Journal, which one might think is less readable than the New York Times, scores at three grades below it.

Suppose I want to become more easily readable. Should I use more words of one syllable? Or shorter sentences? Or both? Or is it the topics that cause the problem? When you write about academic topics, polysyllabic words (two already in this sentence!) creep in without any effort. Can I write about the Copernican Revolution (two more!) and avoid words like heliocentric (another one!)

To become more readable must I switch my focus from history and philosophy of science to Britney Spears? There are some prices that are too high to pay even for increased ease of readability…

April 26, 2005

The role of Protestant opposition to Copernicus

For many years after the publication of Copernicus' book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium in 1543, his ideas remained within the mathematical astronomy community. The more popular books on astronomy and cosmology either were unaware of his work or chose to ignore them. But there were a few non-astronomers such as poets who were aware of his work and they ridiculed it for advocating a moving Earth, not because of any ideas of heresy. It was though the poets and other popularizing writers of that time that Copernicus' ideas became more widely known.

It is interesting that the earliest objections to Copernican ideas on religious grounds came from Protestant groups, who are usually missing in the popular folk history which features the dispute as being between Copernicus and the Catholic Church. Thomas Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution suggests that this was because the people of the Reformation (led by Martin Luther in his break with the Catholic Church) were emphasizing Biblical authority, viewing "the Bible as the single fundamental source of Christian knowledge" as opposed to the Catholic Church which focused more on doctrinal issues that allowed it more flexibility in dealing with science. And there were clear contradictions between the Bible and Copernicus.

Martin Luther spoke out against Copernican ideas in 1539 saying that the idea of a moving Earth going around a stationary Sun clearly went against the book of Joshua [10:13] that said that Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still. Luther's main lieutenant Melanchthon followed up by finding other Biblical versus that suggested that the Earth was stationary. This was followed up by other Protestant leaders such as Calvin (Kuhn 191-193).

Pretty soon the Bible became the main weapon used against Copernican ideas and clergymen in the seventeenth century started going through the Bible line by line, looking for arguments.

The conflicts between the Bible and Copernicanism did not stop just with verses that dealt with the Earth's motion. Recall that acceptance of Copernicanism implied acceptance of a whole range of associated physics ideas and these raised profound theological issues. As Kuhn points out (p. 193):

When it was taken seriously, Copernicus' proposal raised many gigantic problems for the believing Christian. If, for example, the earth were merely one of six planets, how were the stories of the Fall and of the Salvation, with their immense bearing on Christian life, to be preserved? If there were other bodies essentially like the earth, God's goodness would surely necessitate that they, too, be inhabited. But if there were men on other planets, how could they be descendents of Adam and Eve, and how could they have inherited the original sin, which explains man's otherwise incomprehensible travail on an earth made for him by a good and omnipotent deity? Again, how could men on other planets know of the Savior who opened to them the possibility of eternal life? Or, if the earth is a planet and therefore a celestial body located away from the center of the universe, what becomes of man's intermediate but focal position between the devils and the angels? If the earth, as a planet, participates in the nature of celestial bodies, it cannot be a sink of iniquity from which man will long to escape to the divine purity of the heavens. Nor can the heavens be a suitable abode for God if they participate in the evils and imperfections so clearly visible on a planetary earth. Worst of all, if the universe is infinite, as many of the later Copernicans thought, where can God's Throne be located? In an infinite universe, how is man to find God or God man?

It was clear that Copernicus's ideas were seriously discomfiting for Christians, especially the Biblical literalists that were dominant in the new Protestant movement, which provided the first institutionalized opposition. People started calling the Copernicans 'infidels' and 'atheists' and urging their repression. But the Protestant churches did not have the powers of enforcement that the Catholics had.

Kuhn argues that it was probably due to the pressure from the burgeoning Protestant church that caused the Catholic Church in 1616 to abruptly switch its policy from tolerance of Copernican ideas to repression. "Copernican doctrines were, in fact, condemned during the Counter Reformation, just when the Church was most convulsed by internal reforms designed to meet Protestant criticism. Anti-Copernicanism seems, at least in part, one of these reforms, Another cause of the Church's increased sensitivity to Copernicanism after 1610 may well have been a delayed awakening to the fuller theological implications of the earth's motions. In the sixteenth century those implications had rarely been made explicit." (p. 198)

In an earlier posting we showed that the idea of a moving Earth being considered a demotion for human beings is something that arose only in the late 17th century. It may be that this idea was developed from around 1650 onwards when religious bodies were fighting what was essentially a propaganda war against heliocentric ideas, the scientific battle being essentially already lost. It may have served as part of the effort to rally non-scientific (but religious) people to turn against Copernican ideas by appealing to their pride.

What is ironic is that after being the possible impetus for the Catholic Church turning against Copernicanism, the Protestant churches fairly quickly abandoned their opposition to these ideas when it became clear that the evidence in favor of a Sun-centered system was overwhelming. But the Catholic Church, being a much larger and more tradition-bound and bureaucratic operation, was left clinging to its anti-Copernican views for a long time afterwards. The Church ban on Copernican ideas remained until 1822 and his book remained on the list of forbidden books until 1835. In fact it was only as recently as 1992 that Pope John Paul II lifted its edict of Inquisition against Galileo. Thus the Catholic Church is now the religious institution identified with perhaps the most notorious anti-science episode in history.

This ends the series of postings on the myths surrounding the Copernican revolution. Another interesting feature about the whole Copernican story is the parallel with Darwinian evolution and the opposition to it, right up to the present so-called intelligent design movement. These questions will be examined in a later posting.

April 25, 2005

The myth concerning circular orbits

In this posting we will examine the myth that the Copernican revolution was hampered by its insistence that the orbits be circles.

To understand the reasons behind this we need to look at the work of an influential, but often unrecognized, player in the Copernican revolution, the astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). He is considered the greatest naked-eye astronomer. He lived just before the invention of telescopes and the accuracy, scope, and reliability of his observations had enormous impact on the field.

It is interesting that Brahe, like most astronomers at that time, rejected Copernicus' ideas of a moving Earth. He could not accept the arguments for the Earth's motion, seeing that as creating more problems than solving them. In fact, he developed his own system (called the Tychonic system) that was mathematically equivalent to the Copernican system, but had the Earth as a stationary center. (p. 202. Most of the material in this post is from Thomas Kuhn's book The Copernican Revolution and page numbers are from that book.)

But despite his opposition to a heliocentric system, his data provided two major benefits for the Copernican model. They got rid of some erroneous old data that plagued all the earlier models because they were so hard to fit within any mathematical framework. That helped to remove some of the anomalies that the Copernican system could not explain. And they generated new precise data that provided the kinds of puzzles that enabled Copernican convert Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to come up with the idea that the motions of the planets were not based on circular motion (as Copernicus and Ptolemy and Brahe had all assumed) but elliptical.

In the folk history that surrounds the Copernican revolution, the introduction of elliptical orbits is rightly recognized as a crucial development that helped in its eventual acceptance, but the pre-Keplerian astronomers are wrongly criticized for insisting on circular motion. It is implied that they did this because of aesthetic considerations and because of slavish adherence to the authority of the Greek philosophers and so forth. We quoted in a previous post the introductory physics textbook Physics by Fishbane, Gasiorowicz, and Thornton which gently chided Copernicus for his seemingly rigid and dogmatic adherence to some aspects of orthodoxy. "Unfortunately, Copernicus continued to insist on describing all motions with circles and, because the true motions of the planets about the Sun are not circles, epicycles continued to be needed in the Copernican description to accommodate the observations of planetary motion." (p. 320, emphasis added.)

This is an unfair characterization.

The reasons for assuming circular motions were quite reasonable, when seen through the eyes of the people at that time. Since there was no notion of force or gravity then, you needed to have an explanation of motion. As the motions of the stars and planets were regularly repeating, it was not unreasonable to assume they had the simplest repeating motion, which was that of an object going around in a circle. In the case of circular motion the dynamical questions could also be finessed away by saying that the object could be considered as "doing the same thing" or "moving in the same way" all the time or with no variation in its motion. This made it easier to think of this kind of motion as 'natural' in some way, that once it had been set in motion it would continue, and did not require any further explanation. (p. 245)

If you had more complicated motions like ellipses and the like, that would have meant that the speeds and positions of the planets were constantly changing and this required a dynamical theory of motion that simply did not exist at that time. Recall that just introducing the idea of a moving Earth created all kinds of new unsolved problems for the existing physical theories of that time. Adding non-circular motions would have compounded those problems even further and provided even greater grounds for rejection of Copernican ideas.

So it was eminently sensible of Copernicus to stick with circular motions (assuming that he had even considered alternatives) and we should refrain from imposing harsh retrospective judgments on the people involved simply because we have the benefit of hindsight. Copernicus had to work with what he had.

Kepler's innovative idea of elliptical orbits enabled the Copernican model to dispense with the cumbersome and complicated epicycles. But in order to justify this non-circular motion and make it more worthy of acceptance, Kepler had to introduce his own theories of motion, which included an inverse-square law and an anima motrix (p. 214). These innovations led to Kepler's laws of planetary motion, which led in turn later to Newton's successful theories of motion and gravitation.

If all these matters had been left only to astronomers, Copernicus' ideas would probably have achieved a quiet victory. But that was not to be. As the significance of his ideas reached beyond the community of mathematical astronomers, a religious reaction ensued, and it is this that we will examine in a future posting. The nature of this religious reaction has some surprising features that run counter to the folk history surrounding the Copernican revolution, and has interesting parallels with the current efforts to oppose evolution.

Those things will be explored in future postings.

April 22, 2005

Copernicus' ideas gain support from a few astronomers

As astronomical observations became more comprehensive, and as sea-faring became more widespread, the need for better star-charts in order to have more accurate time-keeping and navigation became imperative. In order to meet this demand for increased accuracy, the method of epicycles outlined by Ptolemy became more and more complicated, and was extended in different ways by different mathematical astronomers until it became hard to say what the Ptolemaic system was. Instead there were a whole set of different calculations all based on the Ptolemaic system, all getting increasingly complicated. And none of them quite agreed with the full range of good naked-eye observations. (p. 139. Most of the material in this post is from Thomas Kuhn's book The Copernican Revolution and page numbers are from that book.)

Part of the problem was that some of the earlier observations were simply erroneous, a problem that plagued Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy alike, and these went away later as better observations came along (p. 139). But other problems were more substantive.

This state of affairs was unsatisfactory to say the least. But while many astronomers felt that the Ptolemaic system, although complicated, could ultimately be made to work with further tinkering, Copernicus felt that this was a sign that the two-sphere model itself was at fault and needed to be replaced, and thus proposed his new model.

But because his system, like that of Ptolemy, used circles for the orbits, it also needed epicycles to give more detailed predictions. And as the observational data got better, it too started getting very complicated.

As Kuhn says:

His full system was little if any less cumbersome than Ptolemy's had been. Both employed over thirty circles; there was little to choose between them in economy. Nor could the two systems be distinguished by their accuracy. When Copernicus had finished adding circles, his cumbersome sun-centered system gave results as accurate as Ptolemy's, but did not give more accurate results. Copernicus had failed to solve the problem of the planets. (p. 169)

The Copernican model had some aesthetic and qualitative advantages over the Ptolemaic system. It provided a more natural qualitative explanation for the retrograde (zig-zag) motion of planets like Mars as observed from the Earth and answered some important questions concerning the ordering of the planets. Kuhn continues:

Judged on purely practical grounds, Copernicus's new planetary system was a failure; it was neither more accurate nor significantly simpler than its Ptolemaic predecessors. But historically the new system was a great success; the De Revolutionibus did convince a few of Copernicus' successors that sun-centered astronomy held the key to the problem of the planets, and these men finally provided the simple and accurate solution that Copernicus had sought. (p. 171)

This is an important point to appreciate about scientific revolutions. They very rarely give demonstrably better results than their predecessors right at the start. What usually happens is that they have an appeal (often aesthetic) that attracts others to work within the new model and solve the puzzles and problems generated by it. And if the new model proves fruitful over time in solving more puzzles, then it gains adherents.

It is important to understand that Copernicus' work initially was restricted to the community of astronomers. Copernicus was widely respected as one of Europe's leading astronomers and reports about his work, including his heliocentric hypothesis had been circulating since 1515, so when his De Revolutionibus was published in 1543, it was hardly a surprise to other astronomers. But even those who were skeptical of the idea of a moving Earth accepted that it was the most comprehensive account of celestial motions since Ptolemy.

But while astronomers hailed his work and used his tables and methods, most were skeptical of the central idea of a moving Earth. They dismissed it as some kind of artificial trick that turned out to be useful in providing calculations for the motion of planets (similar to the way that Planck's quantum hypothesis was initially conceived). This idea that the motion described by a model was a convenient fiction was not unprecedented. Ptolemy himself had said that not all of his own epicycles had to be considered physically real. Some were to be thought of as mathematical fictions that gave numerically sound results (p. 186).

But the very fact that the Copernican model was useful attracted new people to study it and thus its ideas spread within the astronomical community, and its central thesis did gain a few converts, although they were a small minority. One of the key converts was Johannes Kepler, who (as we shall see later) was to play a key role in removing the epicycles from Copernicus' model and sealing its superiority.

April 21, 2005

Copernicus and the laws of physics

In a previous post, we saw that the popular notion that the Copernican model of the universe was opposed because it implied a demotion for human beings is not supported by close examination of the views of the people actually living in those times. It is, instead, a revisionist version of events that gained ascendancy around 1700 or so.

In today's post we will examine the myth that the immediate opposition to Copernicus was raised by religious people. The fact that the Copernican model was not perceived contemporaneously as a demotion already weakens the case for that story but there's more.

To understand this better, we need to understand the broader framework of physics in which astronomy was embedded. This framework was due to Aristotle. He did not invent it completely but incorporated many of the ideas that were around at that time into a comprehensive system that encompassed physics and astronomy. (Most of the material in this post is from Thomas Kuhn's book The Copernican Revolution and page numbers are from that book.)

In Aristotle's cosmology, the universe was composed of a series of rotating concentric spheres, with the stars embedded in the outermost sphere and the planets embedded in inner spheres. The Earth was a small sphere located at the center of this universe. The universe was finite and the heavens existed beyond the outermost sphere. In this cosmology, the directions 'up' and 'down' were well-defined. 'Down' was towards the center of the universe and 'up' was away from it, towards the sphere containing the stars.

The elements were earth, air, water, and fire and each element had its natural affinity for a location in this universe. As could be seen from the fact that rocks fell to the ground, earth (being heavy) was drawn to the center. On the other hand, the fact that flames leaped upwards showed that fire (being light) was drawn towards the heavens. Aristotle was pretty clear that he was saying that the Earth was at the center of the universe, not because it was important, but simply because it was massive. To quote Aristotle "It so happens that the earth and the Universe have the same center, for the heavenly bodies do move towards the center of the earth, yet only incidentally, because it has as its center at the center of the universe." (p. 84)

This model explained lots of things such as why objects fell to the ground when released from any point on the Earth's surface (it was being attracted to the center of the universe) and why the Earth was spherical in shape. But it also explained why the Earth was motionless at the center. For it to move, then there had to be some constraint that took it away from the center, just as it required someone to lift an object in order to raise it above the ground. (The concept of 'force' had not yet been introduced.)

This model of the universe was successful in explaining the motions of the stars, but that was only a small part of the reasons for its acceptance. There were alternate models of the universe that postulated a moving and rotating Earth but, as Kuhn points out, there were excellent reasons for accepting Aristotelian physics and its resulting cosmology over its competitors. It simply made a lot more sense.

For example, Copernicus' heliocentric model required the Earth to be in motion. But what constraint caused it to move away from the center? Nobody could explain that. Furthermore, if the Earth was not stationary at the center, but was midway in the sequence of planetary orbits around the Sun, then how could you define 'up' and 'down'? Why would objects fall 'down' if the Earth were not at the center of the universe (remember that the concept of gravitational mass had not been invented then)? Nobody could explain that either. How could objects that were thrown vertically upwards fall back to the same point if the Earth were not at rest? Another unexplained puzzle.

And since the Earth was still believed to be the most massive object in the universe, then if it was not drawn to a fixed point at the center of the universe, did that mean that there was no center at all? If there was no center to that universe, could that mean that the universe was infinite?

So accepting Copernicus's ideas was to not simply replace one model for the stars and planets with another. It also meant that a whole class of physics problems that had been considered solved were suddenly unsolved.

The reason that Copernicus' ideas ran into opposition, at least in its immediate aftermath was not because of the supposed demotion of humans, but because having a heliocentric system resulted in the creation of a lot of problems for the physical theories that were coexisting with the astronomical models. So much of the initial resistance was from within the physics and astronomy communities, not the religious ones.

In fact, Copernicus did not seem to fear religious opposition to his ideas. In his landmark book De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium he even had a prefatory letter addressed to Pope Paul III where he apologized for the seeming outlandishness of his suggestion that the Earth moved but explained that he was forced to arrive at that hypothesis because of the inadequacy of the Ptolemaic system in predicting the positions of stars or its adequacy for constructing calendars.

Copernicus' ideas stayed within the science and astronomy community for a long time, even though he was not hiding them. But only they were interested in the improvements to the calculations that he promised. And it was from among them that initial opposition existed, not from the religious sector.

Now, thanks to years of education, we reject the idea of a geocentric universe, but Kuhn points out that even now children and primitive peoples still have Aristotelian ideas. And recent research in physics education reveals that Aristotelian physics concepts are still retained by many people despite years of formal education to the contrary. This is because the ideas make so much intuitive sense. So it was perfectly reasonable and rational for this cosmology to be preferred over its competitors and for Copernicus' ideas to meet opposition.

This point will be elaborated in later postings.

April 20, 2005

Was the Copernican model a demotion for human beings?

In this post, we will look at one particular myth surrounding the Copernican story, the one that says that Copernican ideas were opposed because they implied a demotion for human beings.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) published De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium, his epic work describing a heliocentric system, in 1543 the year of his death. Until then, Ptolemy's geocentric model described in his Almagest had been the one used for studying planetary motions. In this model, the Earth was at the center of the universe and every celestial body orbited about the center. The Almagest was the "first systematic mathematical treatise to give a complete, detailed, and quantitative account of all the celestial motions." (Thomas Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, p. 72) This work was so good and its methods so powerful, that it provided the framework for astronomical calculations for nearly 1500 years. It was the framework that guided Copernicus' own work.

One of the key elements of the folklore surrounding the Copernican revolution is that the idea of a heliocentric system was opposed because it dethroned the Earth from its privileged central position as the center of the universe. It is believed that religious authorities (mainly the Roman Catholic Church) wanted to retain the geocentric model because human beings were God's special creation and since they lived on the Earth it seemed only right that the Earth should be at the center of the universe. So Copernican ideas were opposed because they seemed to imply a demotion for humans and were thus a blow to human pride.

This view of history can be found in the statements of eminent people such as geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky who in 1973 (on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth) wrote that with Copernicus, the Earth "was dethroned from its presumed centrality and preeminence." Carl Sagan described Copernicanism as the first of a series of "Great Demotions…delivered to human pride." Britain's Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees said "It is over 400 years since Copernicus dethroned the Earth from the privileged position that Ptolemy's cosmology accorded it." Sigmund Freud said that Copernicus caused an outrage against humankind's "naïve self-love." Biological anthropologist Terrence Deacon said that: "Since Copernicus first suggested that Terra Firma might not be located at the center of the cosmos, most of the remaining vestiges of human specialness have come into doubt."

Dennis R. Danielson in his article The Great Copernican Cliché (American Journal of Physics, vol. 69, October 2001, p. 1029-1035) tries to sweep away this particular aspect of the Copernican folklore. (The above quotes are from that article.)

The first point that Danielson makes is that the Earth was not believed (even by Aristotle) to be the center of the universe, it was thought to be at the center of the universe, and the distinction is important. It was believed that there was a center of the universe (defined as the center of the large outer sphere in which the stars were embedded) and that matter was drawn to that center. This was why the Earth, being the most massive body (the other elements being water, air, and fire) ended up motionless at the center. There was nothing anthropomorphic in this idea. It was quite physical and naturalistic.

Danielson further points out that the center of the universe was not considered, at that time, a desirable place to be. "In most medieval interpretations of Aristotle's and Ptolemy's cosmology, earth's position at the center of the universe was taken as evidence not of its importance but (to use a term still in circulation) its grossness."

In fact, it was believed by ancient and medieval Arabic, Jewish, and Christian thought that the center was the worst part of the universe, the basement, the sump, where all the muck was collected, so being at the center was not worn as a badge of pride. Danielson points out that in Dante Alighieri's (1265-1321) Divine Comedy, hell itself is in the inner core of the Earth, which is close to the very center of the universe, consistent with it being considered a foul place. Dante also speaks of hell in ways consistent with Aristotelian dynamics, not as full of flames (because fire is up in the sky, displaced by the heavier earth) but as frozen and immobile.

Danielson quotes medieval writers describing the location of the Earth as "the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world" and that we humans are "lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, and most remote from the heavenly arch." Cardinal Bellarmine in 1615 says "the earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world", again emphasizing the low status of the center, since the center is very far from heaven.

By contrast, heaven was 'up' and the further up you went in the sky, away from the center, the better it was. So what Copernicus was suggesting, by putting the Sun at the center and the Earth in orbit around it was really a promotion for the Earth and its inhabitants, taking them closer to the heavens.

So when did this history get inverted so that now we believe the opposite? Danielson is unable to pinpoint when exactly the present erroneous view that it was a demotion gained supremacy but he says that from 1650 onwards you can find some writers making that claim and that by the time you get to writer, scientist, and philosopher Goethe (1749-1832) the new belief had taken hold completely. Goethe himself wrote:

Perhaps no discovery or opinion ever produced a greater effect on the human spirit than did the teaching of Copernicus. No sooner was the earth recognized as being round and self-contained, than it was obliged to relinquish the colossal privilege of being the center of the world.

We see that Goethe manages to propagate two historical distortions in that one small paragraph, first repeating the notion of the Earth being found to be round only around the time of Copernicus (and which we refuted earlier in the posting about Columbus), and then that the Copernican revolution was a demotion for humans.

So why and how did this revisionist view of history gain supremacy? It is hard to tell but Danielson suggests some reasons. One is that after the heliocentric model had been well established, the location of the Sun did come to be perceived as a special and privileged place, since all the planets revolved around it, and the Earth was simply one of many planets. So people read back into history the newly believed excellence of the center and imposed that belief retrospectively on the pre-Copernicans.

Another possibility is that the story of humankind's demotion became a form of perverse pride for human beings. As Danielson says:

[T]he trick of this supposed dethronement is that, while purportedly rendering "Man" less cosmically and metaphysically important, it actually enthrones us modern "scientific humans" in all our enlightened superiority. It declares in effect, "We're truly very special because we've shown that we're not so special." (emphasis in original)

But if, in reality, at the time of Copernicus and for some time after, the heliocentric model was seen as a promotion for humans and not a demotion, why was the model opposed? When exactly did the opposition arise? And by whom? In future posts we will look at these and other elements of the Copernican folklore and see what turns up.

April 19, 2005

Looking closely at scientific history

Since I started looking more closely into the history of science, there are two things that I have learned that I have recast into principles.

The first is that the more closely we examine important historical events in science, the less resemblance they bear to the popular condensed capsule versions that are learned in school or college or portrayed in the popular media. The earlier posting about Columbus and the flat Earth is a case in point.

The second principle is that while science textbooks are usually good for teaching the current principles of science, they tend to be bad for teaching anything about the history of science or the nature of science. In those cases, what they usually describe is better described as folklore rather than history.

Take for example one of the most famous of all scientific revolutions, the one associated with Copernicus. The popular version of this story goes as follows:

The ancient Greeks, while pretty good at mapping the stars and motion of planets, tended to create models of the universe that were strongly influenced by religious, philosophical, and aesthetic considerations, rather than on observation and experiment. Hence they came up with the idea that the Earth was the stationary center of the universe (which pleased those religious people who wanted to give pride of place to the home of God's greatest creation – human beings) and that the stars and planets were embedded on the surface of a sphere that rotated around the Earth in circles, which pleased those philosophers with highly refined sensibilities who felt that since the circle and sphere were the most perfect geometric shapes, they had to play a central role in the cosmos.

The story continues that the prestige of these ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was so great, and commitment to religious doctrine so strong, that many people gave blind adherence to these ideas and stubbornly tried to retain them in the face of contrary evidence. For example, the planet Mars usually moves in the eastward direction in the sky but sometimes shows retrograde motion (i.e., zig-zags, briefly heading westward before going eastward again). To explain this and other peculiar behavior epicycles were incorporated were incorporated into the Earth-centered circular orbits.

To visualize how an epicycle works, imagine a child on a merry-go-round who, while being carried around in a big circle (called the deferent) by the merry-go-round, is herself running around one of the horses in a smaller circle (the epicycle). When viewed from the stationary center of the merry-go-round, her resulting motion is quite complicated, and sometimes she will appear to be moving in the direction opposite to the merry-go-round itself. This model was used to explain retrograde motion of Mars when viewed from the Earth.

But while this helped, it did not explain all the features of planetary motion and this required adding even more complicated epicyclic motion, culminating in the comprehensive mathematical system developed by Ptolemy (100-178 CE), and written up in his Almagest, which became the standard model.

When Nicolaus Copernicus came along with his model of a Sun-centered system, his ideas were fiercely opposed by the Roman Catholic Church because they displaced the Earth from the center of the system and this was seen as a demotion for human beings and counter to the teachings of Aristotle. This resulted in the inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition persecuting, torturing, and killing for heresy those people who advocated Copernican ideas, although popular history is hazy on what exactly was done to which scientist. Galileo Galilei is thought to have been most affected by the Inquisition. It was Isaac Newton's monumental work on motion and gravity that finally sealed the acceptance of Copernican ideas.

The above version of the Copernican story, that blind adherence to the doctrines of great philosophers like Aristotle, supported by religious dogmas, hampered the development of science, is what is popularly believed and passed on in science textbooks, which usually provide a breezy and quick synopsis of the above scientific history, with minor variations.

For example, take the introductory physics textbook Physics by Fishbane, Gasiorowicz, and Thornton. It is a very good textbook as far as the physics goes (I used it when I taught the introductory physics courses) but says things like "Blind reverence for authority impedes scientific progress, and for a long period the work of ancient Greeks was regarded with crippling irreverence." (p. 1) and "[Ptolemy's] theory was limited by a culturally imposed belief that perfect, circular motion describes celestial motion." (p. 321) Even Copernicus is gently chided for his rigid adherence to some aspects of orthodoxy. "Unfortunately, Copernicus continued to insist on describing all motions with circles and, because the true motions of the planets about the Sun are not circles, epicycles continued to be needed in the Copernican description to accommodate the observations of planetary motion." (p. 320)

The Greek philosophers are often spoken of (at least in physics circles) as being great philosophers but rotten scientists. One gets the strong feeling, in reading such accounts, that because of the dogma imposed on people by the ancient Greeks and the Church, scientific progress was held back for a thousand years or so.

So that, I assert, is what people generally believe about this aspect of scientific history. Is this a straw man? Perhaps, but it is close to what I believed until I started looking more closely at scientific history. In later postings we will see how much of this popular story stands up to closer scrutiny.

April 18, 2005

The myth about Columbus and the shape of the Earth

In his April 3, 2005 New York Times column called It's a Flat World, After All, Thomas Friedman begins:

In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail for India, going west. He had the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He never did find India, but he called the people he met "Indians" and came home and reported to his king and queen: "The world is round."

This is just a throwaway anecdote, to set the frame for another of Friedman's typical banal outpourings of conventional wisdom. (Sorry to offend the many Friedman fans that are out there but I have never understood his appeal. Not only does he not seem to have any original insights but he also comes across as patronizing and condescending, especially towards the people of other countries.)

But this posting is not meant to poke fun at Friedman, as enjoyable as that might be. That is done much better by Matt Taibbi of the NY Press as he reviews Friedman's latest book which bears the name The World is Flat. It is instead intended to address one of my pet peeves, the widespread belief that at the time of Columbus' famous journey, he and almost everyone else believed that the Earth was flat.

This is just not true. So can we all get together and stamp out this myth once and for all?

Thomas Kuhn in his book The Copernican Revolution discusses the early cosmologies and shows quite clearly that the idea of the flat Earth went out very early in recorded history. As early as the seventh century BCE Anaximander of Miletus (624-546 BCE) thought that the Earth was in the shape of a wheel. By the fourth century BCE, most Greek philosophers and astronomers believed in a two-sphere universe, in which the Earth was a tiny sphere, surrounded by a much larger concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded.

The beliefs in the sphericity of the Earth, even back in those early days, were based on careful observations and solid reasoning. The fact that ships moving away had their hulls disappear before the mast, the fact that if you were on high ground, you could see more of the ship than when you were at sea level, the circular edge of the shadow of the Earth on the Moon during lunar eclipses, were all convincing arguments against a flat Earth and educated people of that time accepted them.

In fact, there are references to the measurement of the Earth's circumference that appear in Aristotle's (384-322 BCE) writings but the first complete record of this measurement comes from the Eratosthenes (276-194 BCE), the librarian of Alexandria in what is now Egypt, who arrived at a figure that was only off by about 5% from present day measurements, which is remarkable. He obtained this value from observing that the length of the shadow cast by a vertical stick depended on its latitude.

Aristarchus (310-230 BCE) and others in the third century B.C.E had sophisticated measurements of the sizes of the Moon, the Sun, the various distances between them, etc. and all these things were widely known among educated people.

The idea of using the round Earth to sail westward to India was also suggested by geographer Strabo, who was born around 63 BCE.

All this was about 1,500 years before Columbus.

The idea that Columbus and the Spanish nobility may not have been aware of this knowledge is also a myth. Columbus knew the Earth was round as did the other educated people of Spain. The reason that Columbus found it hard to gain support for his expedition was not because people thought he would fall off the edge of the flat Earth, but because Columbus had come up with a dubious calculation for the radius of the Earth that was quite a bit smaller than the accepted value, and it was suspected that he had fudged the calculation in order to make his trip appear more feasible and worth supporting. If the better values for the radius were adopted, then his ships would not have been able to carry enough provisions to reach India.

So Columbus' arrival in America did not save him from falling off the edge of the Earth, it just saved him and his crew from starvation and death. If America had not been there, his ships would never have been able to make the long trip over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

So while it is true that in 1492 there were probably some people who thought that the Earth was flat (as there are probably still people now too), this was not the view of educated people, and definitely not true of Columbus and the people of the Spanish Royal Court.

So why is this myth so resilient? Is it because it makes a dramatic story? Is it still taught in history courses in American schools? Whatever the reason, it is time to put it to rest.

April 15, 2005

Should college presidents take a stand on evolution?

In response to a previous post, Becky posted an interesting comment that I responded to briefly but which requires a more extended reply. (One of the unexpected pleasures of starting this blog is that it has put me in touch again with former students like Becky who was in my course about eight years ago and is now doing a PhD in Astronomy. Her own very lively blog is well worth a visit.)

Becky pointed me to an interesting article that was posted on the blog of the editors of Scientific American, entitled Cowardice, Creationism and Science Education: An Open Letter to the Universities.

At a dinner with the presidents of about a dozen private and state universities, John Rennie (one of the editors of Scientific American) and Steve Jaschik (editor of Inside Higher Education) asked the assembled presidents the following:

Suppose we have a petition here that says, “As university presidents, we affirm that evolution by means of natural selection is a demonstrated fact of science. We also assert that any failure to teach evolution, or to teach ‘intellectual design’ as an alternative theory, harms students’ educational standing.� Who here would not sign, and why?

Rennie continues: "Disappointingly, not one of the presidents in attendance was willing to go on the record as supporting such a petition. When they could finally be drawn out on why, their answers were equally unsatisfying."

He concludes: "Let’s not tiptoe around the truth. University presidents are afraid to speak out in favor of evolution because they know that they will antagonize anti-evolution Christians."

I think he is being too harsh. It may well be that the presidents were trying to duck the issue, knowing full well that they have to deal with a whole slew of constituencies ranging from current students and faculty, alumni, donors, legislators, etc. and any stand that they take on such an issue would be bound to cause them some grief.

But I think that there also exists a principled reason for them not taking a stand on issues such as evolution, and I was surprised that none of the college presidents present had made it.

I do not think it is the role of college presidents to take stands on this kind of specific issue. College presidents should not have to take positions on the pressing issues of the day, however clear cut they might seem to us. If they take a stand on the issue of evolution, then they would be expected to take stands on a whole range of other political and social issues and the process would never end. They would be just churning out press releases all day.

Where they should take stands is in support of the basic mission of the university, which is to provide a place for scholars and students to seek, create and disseminate knowledge, in an atmosphere of collegiality, and free from coercion or political pressure. Their goal should be to protect the right of their students and faculty to pursue knowledge in as unfettered an atmosphere as is possible, so that the university's mission can be realized.

Thus they can, and should, be expected to take a stand on those issues that directly affect the health of universities. So for example, taking a stand on Ohio's Senate Bill 24 is fine. Taking a stand on affirmative action in admissions is also fine. Taking a stand on issues of discrimination and harassment in universities is fine. All these issues go to the core of what universities stand for. There may be tactical reasons for not always staking out a public position on some of these, but it would be quite appropriate to do so.

But I cannot see anything special about the evolution/creationist split that requires a college president to articulate a position. While I find it bizarre that 45% of Americans can still, in this day and age (according to a Gallup poll in November 2004), believe that "God created man in present form within the last 10,000 years," I don't see why that should trigger a specific comment from college presidents, any more than the equally disturbing fact that 44% believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis. (Here's a question for a sociological study: Are the two groups of people actually one and the same?)

Taking a stand on specific issues that affect particular scientific or other academic struggles should be left to individual faculty members and students or their representative bodies. What college presidents should do is protect those faculty and students who do take stands on evolution or other similar issues (whichever side they support) from retribution from politicians and interest groups who try to limit the exercise of free inquiry or try to prevent the members of academic from making scholarly judgments.

So I think we should give college presidents a break on this one.

April 14, 2005

Improving the quality of our snap judgments

In a previous post, I mentioned that my Race IAT results indicated that I had no automatic preference for black or white people. This surprised me, frankly. Although I am intellectually committed to thinking of people as equal, I am still subjected to the same kinds of images and stereotypes as everyone else in society so I expected to have at least a small automatic preference for white people. But the section on Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink on 'priming' experiments might give an explanation for the null result.

The priming experiments were done by psychologist John Bargh. What he did was give two randomly selected groups of undergraduate students a small test involving words. The results of the word test itself were not relevant. What was relevant was that the first set of students encountered words like "aggressively", "bold, "rude", "bother", etc. in their test while the second set encountered words like "respect", "considerate", "patiently", "polite", etc.

After they had done the word test, the students were asked to go down the hall to the person running the experiment to get their next assignment. This was the real experiment because it had been arranged to have a confederate blocking the doorway, carrying on an inane and seemingly endless conversation with the experimenter. The experiment was designed to see if the set of students who had been unknowingly 'primed' with aggressive words would take longer to interrupt this conversation than those who had been primed with polite words. Bargh expected to see a difference, but expected that difference to be measured in milliseconds. He said "I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren't going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most."

What he found was that the people primed to be rude eventually interrupted after an average of five minutes, but 82% of the people primed to be polite did not interrupt at all, even after ten minutes which was the cut-off time that had been pre-set for the experiment, thinking that no one would ever wait that long.

What these and other priming experiments suggest is that the kinds of experiences we have carry their effects subconsciously over to the next events, at least for some time.

This may explain my negative result because for some time now I have been studying the achievement gap between black and white students in the US. The more I looked at it, the more I became convinced that the concept of race is biologically indefensible, that it cannot be the cause of the gap, and that the reasons for the gap have to be looked for elsewhere.

Since my book on the subject (***Warning! Shameless plug coming up!***) called The Achievement Gap in US Education: Canaries in the Mine is coming out in May, I have been thinking a lot recently about these ideas and so I was probably 'primed' to think that there is no fundamental difference between the races, and hence my null result on the Race IAT test.

This ties in with other research that I quote in my book that deals with the role that teacher expectations of students play in student achievement. Teacher expectations are an important factor but a lot of the efforts to improve teacher expectations of low-achieving students have been along the lines "All children can learn!" sloganeering. But having teachers just saying this or plastering it on school walls may not help much, if they are not convinced of its truth. If people are conscious that they are being primed, then the priming effect disappears.

What is needed is for teachers to improve their overall expectations of students is for them to have opportunities to actually see for themselves traditionally underachieving students excelling. If they can have such experiences, then the inevitable snap judgments they make about students, and which can have an effect on student performance, may be more equitable than they are now.

I have long been in favor of diversity in our educational environments but my reasons were more social, because I felt that we all benefit from learning with, and from, those whose backgrounds and experiences differ from our own. But it seems that there is an added bonus as well. When we have a broader base of experience on which to base our judgments, our snap judgments tend to be better.


The interesting radio program This American Life (which airs locally on WKSU 89.7 on Saturdays at 5:00pm and WCPN 90.3 on Sundays at 11:00am) also recently had an episode that featured the work of John Gottman, who has carefully analyzed the behavior of married couples and is able to 'thin slice' very accurately and predict, based on things that the rest of us completely miss, which couples will stay together and which ones will separate. Gottman's studies were reported on in detail in Gladwell's book.

To listen to this particular audio clip from the program, go to This American Life, click on "Complete Archive" and then click on the audio symbol for "The Sanctity of Marriage" that appears in the list of 2005 shows, and is dated 4/1.

April 13, 2005

Snap judgments and prejudices

In an earlier post, I described Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink about the way we instinctively make judgments about people. The way we make snap judgments is by 'thin-slicing' events. We take in a small slice of the phenomena we observe and associate the information in those slices with other measures. People who make good snap judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with valid predictors of behavior. People who make poor or prejudicial judgments are those people who associate the thin-slice information with poor predictors.

Think about what you observe about a person immediately as that person walks into your view. Gender, ethnicity, height, weight, color, gait, dress, hair, demeanor, eyes, looks, physique, gestures, voice, the list just goes on. We sweep up all these impressions in a flash. And based on them, whether we want to or not, we make a judgment about the person. Different people will weigh different elements in the mix differently.

If someone comes into my office wearing a suit, my initial impression of the person is different than if she had come in wearing jeans. (If you were mildly surprised by my using the pronoun 'she' towards the end of the last sentence, it is because, like me, you implicitly associate suits with male attire, so that the first part of the sentence made you conjure up a mental image of a man.)

A personal example of snap judgments occurs when I read Physics Today which I get every month. The obituary notices in have the magazine have a standard form. There is a head-shot of the person, with the name as the header, and one or two column inches describing the person.

Almost all of the obituaries are of old white men, not surprising for physicists of the generation that is now passing away. I found myself looking at the photo and immediately identifying whether the person was of English nationality or not. And I was right a surprising number of times. And I was not reasoning it through in any conscious way. As soon as I saw the picture came into view, I'd find myself thinking "English" or "not English". I don't know the basis of my judgments. But as I said, I was right surprisingly often.

Gladwell describes a very successful car salesman who over the years has realized that gender, ethnicity, clothes, etc. are not good predictors of whether the person is likely to buy a car or not. Someone who his fellow salespeople might ignore or dismiss because he looks like a rustic farmer, this salesman takes seriously. And because this salesman has been able to shape his intuition to ignore superficial or irrelevant things, his senses are better attuned to pick up on those cues that really matter.

Some of the strongest associations we make are those based on ethnicity, gender, and age. We immediately associate those qualities with generalizations associated with those groupings.

People are not always comfortable talking about their attitudes on race, gender, and other controversial topics. This is why surveys on such topics are unreliable, because people can 'psyche out' the tests, answering in the way they think they are expected to, the 'correct' way, rather than what they actually feel. This is why opinion polls on such matters, or in elections where the candidates are of different races or ethnicities, are hard to rely on.

There is a website, developed by researchers at Harvard University, that recognizes this problem. They have designed a survey instrument that tries to overcome this feature by essentially (as far as I can tell) measuring the time taken to answer their questions. In other words, they are measuring the time taken for you to psyche out the test. Since we have much less control over this, the researchers believe that this survey gives a better result. They claim that you cannot change your score by simply taking the test over and over again and becoming familiar with it.

If you want to check it out for yourself, go to the test site, click on "Demonstration", then on "Go to Demonstration Tests", then on "I wish to proceed". This takes you to a list of Implicit Association Tests (or IAT) and you can choose which kinds of associations you wish to check that you make.

I took the Race IAT because that was what was discussed in Gladwell's book, and it took me less than five minutes to complete. This test looks at the role that race plays in making associations. In particular it looks at whether we instinctively associate black/white people with good/bad qualities.

It turns out that more than 80% of people who have taken this test have pro-white associations, meaning that they tend to associate good qualities with white people and bad qualities with black people. This does not mean that such people are racists. They may well be very opposed to any kind of racist thinking or policies. What these tests are measuring are unconscious associations that we pick up (from the media, the people we know, our community, etc.) without being aware of them, that we have little control over.

Gladwell himself says that the test "always leaves me feeling a bit creepy." He found himself being rated as having a moderate automatic preference for whites although he labels himself half black because his mother is Jamaican.

I can see why this kind of test is unnerving. It may shake our image of ourselves and reveal to us the presence of prejudices that we wish we did not have. But if we are unconsciously making associations of whatever kind, isn't it better to know this so that we can take steps to correct for them if necessary? The successful car salesman became so because he realized that people in his profession made a lot of the unconscious associations that were not valid and had to be rejected. And he used that knowledge in ways that benefited him and his customers.

Although you cannot change your Race IAT scores by simply redoing the test, there are other things that can change your score. When I took the Race IAT, the results indicated that I have no automatic preference for blacks or whites. In a later posting, I will talk about the effects that 'priming' might have on the test results, and how that might have affected my results.

April 12, 2005

Snap judgments

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink. It deals with how we all make snap judgments about people and things, sometimes within a couple of seconds or less. Gladwell reports on a whole slew of studies that suggest that we have the ability to 'thin-slice' events, to make major conclusions from just a narrow window of observations.

I first read about this as applied to teaching in an essay by Gladwell that appeared in the New Yorker (May 29, 2000) where he described research by psychologists Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal who found that by showing observers silent videoclips of teachers in action, the observers (who had never met the teachers before) were able to make judgments of teacher effectiveness that correlated strongly with the evaluations of students who had taken an entire course with that teacher. (Source: Half a Minute: Predicting Teacher Evaluations From Thin Slices of Nonverbal Behavior and Physical Attractiveness, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993, vol. 64, No. 3, 431-441.)

This result is enough to give any teacher the heebie-jeebies. The thought that students have formed stable and robust judgments about you before you have even opened your mouth on the very first day of the very first class is unnerving. It seems so unfair that you are being judged before you can even begin to prove yourself. But, for good or bad, this seems to be supported by other studies, such as those done by Robert Boice in his book Advice for New Faculty Members.

The implication for this is that the cliché "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is all too true. And what Gladwell's New Yorker article and book seem to suggest is that this kind of thin-slicing is something that all of us do all the time. But not all of us do it well. Some people use thin-slicing to arrive at conclusions that are valid, others to arrive at completely erroneous judgments.

Those who do it well tend to be people who have considerable experience in that particular area. They have distilled that experience into some key variables that they then use to size up the situation at a glance, often without even consciously being aware of how they do it.

Seen in this way, the seemingly uncanny ability of people to identify at a glance who the good and bad teachers are might not seem that surprising. Most people have had lots of experience with many teachers in their lives, and along the way have unconsciously picked up subtle non-verbal cues that they use to correlate with good and bad teaching. They use these markers as predictors and seem to be quite good at it.

I was self-consciously reflecting on this last week when I ran two mock-seminars for visiting high-school seniors as part of "Experience Case " days. The idea was to have a seminar class for these students so that they could see what a seminar would be like if they chose to matriculate here. I found that just by glancing around the room at the assembled students at the beginning, I could tell who was likely to be an active participant in the seminar and who would not.

It was easy for me to make these predictions and I was pretty confident that I would be proven right, and I usually was. But how did I do it? Hard to tell. But I have taught for many years and encountered thousands of students and this wealth of experience undoubtedly played a role in my ability to make snap judgments. If pressed to explain my judgments I might say that it was the way the students sat, their body language, the way they made eye contact, the expression on their faces, and other things like that.

But while I am confident about my ability to predict the students' subsequent behavior in the seminar, I am not nearly as confident in the validity of the reasons I give. And this is consistent with what Gladwell reports in his book. Many of the experts who made good judgments did not know how they arrived at their conclusions or, when they did give reasons, the reasons could not stand up to close scrutiny.

He gives the example of veteran tennis pro and coach Vic Braden. Braden found that when watching tennis players about to make their second serve, he could predict with uncanny accuracy (close to 100%) when they would double fault. This is amazing because he was watching top players (who very rarely double fault) perform on television, and many of the players were people he had never seen play before. But what drove Braden crazy was that he could not say how he made his predictions. He just knew in a flash of insight that they would, and no amount of watching slow-motion replays enabled him to pinpoint the reasons.

But Gladwell points out that we use thin-slicing techniques even is situations where we do not have much experience or expertise and these judgments can lead us astray. In later postings, I will describe the kinds of situations where snap judgments are likely to lead us to shaky conclusions and where we should be alert.


Last Saturday, I went with a group of students from my SAGES class to see the Eldred production of Bertholt Brecht's play Life of Galileo The themes of the play are remarkably relevant for the present day, dealing with science-religion conflicts, politics in universities, and funding pressures. My SAGES course deals with the nature of scientific revolutions and the Copernican revolution is one of the key ones. But in addition to the scientific and political issues, the play also deals with the human side of Galileo.

There is one very minor character in the play called Clavius (described as the world's foremost mathematician) who is being played by a different Case faculty member each night. Last Saturday it was Arts and Sciences Dean Mark Turner. Next Saturday the 16th, I will be doing the cameo spot. I have to deliver just one line so don't blink, you might miss it!

The play is well worth seeing, See here for more details and show times.

April 11, 2005

The four stages of life: some closing reflections

While the stages of student and householder described in Hindu philosophy may not be that different from the way we conceive it, the stages of retirement and sannyasin definitely take some getting used to.

First of all, it looks like you are abandoning all that is near and dear to you. Our normal conception of the last stages of our lives is that we keep active, do some good works in our community, keep close to our families, children, and grandchildren, and hopefully die as respected members of the community, surrounded by those near and dear to us. What stage 3 and stage 4 of Hinduism philosophy of life says is that we should walk away from all that we have spent our lives building up.

The idea that we should use our retirement to 'find ourselves' is also strange because we usually see that as a young person's task, something that they need to do to get a sense of purpose and direction in life. That is because we see the major decisions in life as deciding on a career or finding the person with whom one wants to share one's life, through marriage or some other form of commitment. That is what is usually meant by 'finding oneself' – answering the question "So what do you want to do with your life?" Young people, starting from when they enter high school are asked this question so many times that they get sick of it. And this does not end until they settle down with a career, home, and community, whereupon it is assumed that they have 'found themselves.'

But in the philosophy outlined here, the important question is not what do I want to do with my life but what is the meaning of my life. Such a question is perhaps better addressed later in life, once one has experienced a fuller range of joys and sorrows, births and deaths, successes and failures, and have all that experience to draw upon in order to decide what is meaningful for you.

But in order to address such questions seriously, one must break free of distractions and go deeply into it. It is also an individual journey, because we each make the meaning ourselves. Seen this way, leaving all that you have created and going off to ponder such questions is not quite so bizarre.

But it will seem strange to everyone else in our contemporary society. Imagine the reaction if some person who is considered very 'successful' in the traditional sense announced at the age of 55 or so that he or she had fulfilled all responsibilities and was now going off to live simply in some remote location to try and figure out what it all means. Such a person would be thought to have become unhinged, although it may be the most rational decision such a person makes.

It is admittedly true that carrying out the third and fourth stages in life as described by Hindu philosophy is difficult in western society. But it may be possible to think of ways of reaching that same end without sticking strictly to that same form. For example, it may be possible to live during the retirement stage in a remote and rural area without necessarily living in the forest. Something along the lines of a monastery seems to be a possible model for such a life.

And it would be interesting to see how to manifest the detachment from life's worldly aspects that being a sannyasin implies without having to actually be a mendicant and risk (in the US) being thrown in prison, though a true sannyasin would probably be indifferent to being harassed this way. Perhaps living on some communal farm that produces just the basic elements of life would be a possible alternative.

But I suspect that the specific form that such stages of life take is not what is important. Ultimately, having a philosophy of life enables us to confront our own mortality without flinching. The real question is whether we feel the need to develop one and are willing to do what it takes to develop it ourselves. It does not come prepackaged in religion or in philosophy courses. There is no Personal Philosophies for Dummies in the self-help section of bookstores. (Actually, it would not surprise me if there is such a book, since there seem to be Dummy/Idiot books for everything under the sun.) It is something that people have to figure out for themselves.

I'll end this series of postings by quoting once again Huston Smith from his book The World's Religions:

The unwise life is one long struggle with death the intruder – an uneven contest in which age is obsessively delayed through artifice and the denial of time's erosions. When the fever of desire slackens, the unwise seek to refuel it with more potent aphrodisiacs. When they are forced to let go, it is grudgingly and with self-pity, for they cannot see the inevitable as natural, and good as well. They have no comprehension of Tagore's insight that truth comes as conqueror to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend.

"Truth comes as conqueror to those who have lost the art of receiving it as friend." I like that. Words to live by.

April 08, 2005

A puzzle for believers in an afterlife

Death has dominated the news recently, first with Terri Schiavo and then the Pope, whose funeral was today. It is perhaps inevitable that this has caused practically everyone to think, however briefly, about how they would like to die and what kinds of steps they would like to have taken if they should be incapacitated towards the end of their lives.

Robert Friedman, an editor of the St. Petersburg Times, has a funny take on it that I recommend reading.

But lost in the news was the fact that evangelical leader Reverend Jerry Falwell lost consciousness briefly recently and was hospitalized twice for pneumonia. After he recovered, he gave an interview to CNN where he compared his case to that of Terri Schiavo's situation and also made his own wishes known. He said "I've already given my living will. Don't you dare pull the plug on me. I want to wake up in 14 years and say, "What day is it? What time is it?""

Falwell's decision that he would want all the stops pulled out to keep him alive as long as possible puzzles me. Having grown up in the Christian tradition, and having been around many evangelical, born-again Christians throughout my own life, it seems to me that a basic belief among them is that this life on Earth is merely a stepping-stone to a much, much better eternal life after death, and that if one is born-again, then one is guaranteed to enter heaven to enjoy that good life. In fact, they go out of their way to describe this life as temporary, full of misery and sin, and generally pretty awful, and that death is a welcome release from it.

Country and western singer Jim Reeves summed it up when he sang (and I am quoting from memory):

Across the bridge, there's no more sorrow
Across the bridge, there's no more pain
The sun will shine across the river
And you'll never be unhappy again

So I am genuinely puzzled as to why, given that view, one would want to postpone death at all costs. If any readers of this blog can share their insights, I would appreciate it.

Let me be clear: I am not questioning Falwell's personal decision to be want to be kept alive at all costs. That is his right and one has to accept it. I can also understand why one should not kill oneself just because one thinks the afterlife is going to be wonderful. That is also not the question.

The question is why someone who fervently believes that the next life is everlasting and far better than this one, and that she or he is guaranteed to enjoy the afterlife because they are born again Christians (or an equivalent reason), would want to hold on to this life at all costs, when it seems fairly clear that the end of one's life is near and that it can only be prolonged at the price of barely existing, with prolonged sadness for one's loved ones.

Falwell seems to think that, against all the odds, he might one day recover and be fully functioning again. But why would someone who is in that situation prefer those tiny odds to the certainty of going to heaven, if getting there has been your goal all along?

I have mixed feelings about the Pope's legacy. I agreed with his stance on some things and disagreed with others. (Juan Cole has a nice compilation of quotes and stories about the Pope that captures the complexity of the Pope's message on a whole range of issues. And Justin Raimondo also weighs in on his legacy.) But I have to say that, to the extent that one can tell these things from a distance, he seemed to have been at peace with himself when he died. He seemed to know the end was near, he seemed to feel that he had lived his life fully, and he seemed to be accepting of death and ready for whatever awaited him after that.

Given his stature and resources, there is no doubt that he could have ordered extraordinary steps to be taken to try and keep him alive if he had so desired. But he seemed to choose not to and it was a graceful way to die.

And whatever else one thinks of him, one must admire him for that.

April 07, 2005

The four stages of life: Stage 4 - sannyasin

The final stage of life in Hindu philosophy (as described in the book The World's Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book) is that of the sannyasin. This is the stage eventually arrived at by the person who, according to the Bhagavad-Gita becomes "one who neither hates nor loves anything." (For descriptions of earlier stages, see stage 1, stage 2, and stage 3.)

Once having arrived at this stage of detachment from the world, the retiree returns from the self-imposed exile that was necessary in order to free oneself from worldly distractions so that one could achieve this deeper understanding. But returning to the world does not mean returning to the familiar bonds of the world. He or she "is back as a separate person" because "time and place have lost their hold."

"Far from wanting to "be somebody", the sannyasin's wish is the opposite: to remain a complete nonentity on the surface in order to be joined to all at the root…The outward life that fits this total freedom best is that of a homeless mendicant. Others seek to be economically independent in their old age: the sannyasin proposes to cut free of economics altogether. With no fixed place on earth, no obligations, no goals, no belongings, the expectations of the body are nothing. Social pretensions likewise have no soil from which to sprout and interfere. No pride remains in someone who, begging bowl in hand, finds himself at the back door of someone who was once his servant and would not have it otherwise."

If the idea of retirement as leaving all that one has created in order to find oneself is hard to take, the idea of ending one's life as effectively a beggar is even more difficult to accept. Part of the problem is that the word 'mendicant' properly means a holy person who begs just for food, and such people are more commonly found in predominantly Hindu or Buddhist cultures, where they are highly respected as having reached an exalted stage in life that everyone should aspire to. It is an honor to have such people come to your house asking for food and people respect them and are supposed to take care of them.

In the west though, the word mendicant is equated with beggar and such people tend to be despised as wastrels and losers. So it is hard to see this idea of becoming sannyasin catching on here. One cannot imagine people who are important figures in society here choosing to end their lives wandering the streets, living on charity. A sanyasin who arrived at someone's door asking for food is likely to find the police being called and be arrested for vagrancy.

But is that a problem with the philosophy or with the way the society creates its value structure?

April 06, 2005

Politics in the Universities

There has been a lot of play in the media recently about the so-called liberal tilt of university faculty. Let's see what the actual numbers are. As far as I can tell, the most comprehensive and authoritative data comes from HERI (Higher Education Research Institute) based in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, which has been studying trends in higher education for a long time.

HERI's 2001-2002 report on national norms for college teachers, finds that "34 percent of college and university faculty identify as "middle-of-the road" politically (down from 40 percent in 1989). Although the percentage of faculty identifying as "conservative" or "far right" (18 percent) has changed very little, the percentage identifying as either "liberal" or "far left" has grown from 42 percent to 48 percent", compared to a previous survey in 1989.

It turns out that women faculty are more liberal than men. The report finds that "54 percent of women, compared to only 44 percent of men, identify as politically "liberal" or "far left." In 2001, 21 percent of male professors and 14 percent of female professors defined their political views as either "conservative" or "far right.""

The report continues:

The latest survey involved 55,521 faculty and administrators at 416 colleges and universities nationwide. Of those, questionnaires from 32,840 full-time undergraduate teaching faculty at 358 institutions were used to compute the national norms. The numbers were adjusted statistically to represent the nation's total population of approximately 442,000 college and university faculty.

So those are the numbers. What are we to make of them? Is this imbalance in political leanings a sign of blatant political discrimination in the hiring of university faculty?

(At this point I have to reiterate my own belief that the terms 'liberal', 'conservative', 'Republican', 'Democrat' have ceased to have much meaning in terms of defining coherent political philosophies, but since this discussion and the data are framed in those terms, I have little choice but to use them for this post.)

That conclusion of hiring discrimination does not follow automatically. For one thing, the word 'liberal' in university circles does not have the same meaning it has outside. A 'liberal education' is what universities strive to provide for their students. It is used in contrast to 'vocational education'. To call someone a 'liberally educated person' is not to describe his or her political beliefs but to describe a person with breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding, as opposed to someone who has acquired a fairly specific set of knowledge and skills in order to perform a trade or profession. So the word 'liberal' has a fairly well-defined and valued meaning in universities, and one would expect people to want to identify with it.

Another point is that while it is true that universities have intense political struggles, they are based on parochial academic politics, and those divisions do not parallel national political splits. In academic departments the biggest battles over a new hire are likely to be based on field of study (in physics, it might be whether the department wants to grow the condensed matter field or the astrophysics field, or whether it should be a theoretician or an experimentalist) or rank (whether they want to hire a promising newcomer or an established star), and so forth. Similar battles occur in other departments.

These battles can be quite hard-fought, but leave little room for other considerations based on party affiliation and the like. Those are not considered important. The prestige of a physics department depends on the physics knowledge it produces, not on the ideological spectrum its faculty encompasses. No department is likely to hire an incompetent researcher to a rare and potentially lifetime appointment just on the basis of that person's party political affiliation.

But if national political considerations are not the cause of this difference in political leanings in universities, what could be the cause? I am not aware of any studies that have looked carefully at this causal question. But people have been willing to speculate.

Jennifer Lindholm, associate director of the Higher Education Research Institute's Cooperative Institutional Research Program and lead author of the faculty survey said: "The disproportionately greater shift we see toward liberal political views among women faculty may be attributable to their dissatisfaction with the Republican Party's current position on issues that often impact women's lives more directly such as abortion, welfare and equal rights."

Writing in the New York Times on April 5, columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman points out that registered Republicans are almost as rare in the hard sciences and in engineering (where clues as to ones political affiliation are hard to discern) as in the social sciences, suggesting that the reasons lie with more subtle causes..

Krugman postulates that "One answer is self-selection - the same sort of self-selection that leads Republicans to outnumber Democrats four to one in the military. The sort of person who prefers an academic career to the private sector is likely to be somewhat more liberal than average, even in engineering."

But the more serious charge that he levels is that the Republican party (and by association the conservative movement) are making themselves unappealing to academics by taking stands on issues that ignore evidence and that are anti-research. He pointed to a recent April Fools' Day issue spoof editorial by Scientific American entitled O.K., We Give Up in which the magazine "apologized for endorsing the theory of evolution just because it's "the unifying concept for all of biology and one of the greatest scientific ideas of all time," saying that "as editors, we had no business being persuaded by mountains of evidence." And it conceded that it had succumbed "to the easy mistake of thinking that scientists understand their fields better than, say, U.S. senators or best-selling novelists do.""

Krugman continues:

Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that "the jury is still out." Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a "gigantic hoax." And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton's anti-environmentalist fantasies.
Think of the message this sends: today's Republican Party - increasingly dominated by people who believe truth should be determined by revelation, not research - doesn't respect science, or scholarship in general. It shouldn't be surprising that scholars have returned the favor by losing respect for the Republican Party.

Krugman argues that such an anti-research message is unappealing to any academic (whatever their political stripe), and so it should be no surprise that academics are distancing themselves from it. When Dennis Baxley, a state legislator from Florida who has introduced in that state a bill similar to Ohio's Senate Bill 24, cites professors who teach that evolution is a fact as a prime example of "academic totalitarianism", he should not be surprised that serious academics start giving him a wide berth.

As I said in an earlier post, universities are ultimately reality-based communities, which depend on evidence as an essential part of their knowledge structure. Academics in any field respect that scholars in other fields also use evidence in reaching their conclusions. They may not know that field in any detail but they tend to respect the way scholars go about reaching their conclusions and know that they can back it up with evidence if called upon to do so. The fact that their conclusions are evidence-based does not make them infallible, of course, just that they are grounded in reality.

Academics also suspect that the people who are upset about biology professors teaching that evolution is a fact are closely aligned with those who think that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that Adam and Eve are historical figures. They suspect that the current attack on biology teaching is just the precursor to similar attacks on geology, physics, anthropology, archeology, and everything else that challenges a particular religious revelatory interpretation of the world.

Krugman argues that it should not be surprising that overtly linking such a world-view to a political movement should result in that movement losing ground in universities, even though it might be politically advantageous.

As I said, I don't know of any studies that have examined the causal reasons for this seeming ideological imbalance, but Krugman makes a point that is worth considering seriously.

April 05, 2005

The four stages of life: Stage 3 - retirement

So far, the first two life stages of student and householder described by Hindu philosophy would not seem that different from any western concept of those stages. It is the next two stages (retirement and sannyasin) that the paths start to diverge.

In the US at least, people approach retirement with mixed feelings. For those people who loathe their jobs, it may come as a welcome relief from a routine that they find hateful, a chance to enjoy life free from restrictions. Such people look forward to retirement.

On the other hand, there is also the pervasive sense that retirement means, to use a sporting metaphor, that you are no longer in the game and are now a spectator, not influencing the course of major events in any way. People who feel this way do not want to let go of the power and prestige their jobs give them and want it to continue forever or until they collapse at their desks.

Another constraint is the feeling that when you retire, you should be able to at least maintain the same standard of life as when one was working. These considerations make people want to postpone retirement until later so that they can make more money and live better in retirement.

But the idea of retirement in Hinduism (once again I am using as my source the book The World's Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book) is not at all like this kind of passive withdrawal from the rush of life to a life of leisure while one awaits the end of ones days. Rather, it is the beginning of an important stage.

Smith says that a marker that one is ready to enter this third stage is the birth of the first grandchild. But this is probably just a proxy measure to symbolize that one's children have themselves reached the stage of householder and are thus no longer dependent on you. In other words, you have now fulfilled your obligations to your family, and presumably also to your vocation and your civic responsibilities to your community.

But usually such a stage comes earlier than the customary retirement age in the US, which is about 65. For many people, their children are grown and independent by the time they are around 55 or so. Retirement at an early age is, in this philosophical framework, not a sign of early goofing off or simply giving up, but a sign of eagerness to enter this rewarding third stage of one's life.

As Smith says "If worldly achievement and the exercise of power is best, middle age, the stage of the householder, will be life's apex. But if vision and self-understanding carry rewards equal to or surpassing these others, old age has its own opportunities, and we can come to happiness at the times when the rivers of our lives flow gently."

It is worth quoting Smith extensively on this because he says it so well:

For twenty or thirty years society has exacted its dues; now relief is in order, lest life conclude before it has been understood. Thus far society has required the individual to specialize; there has been little time to read, to think, to ponder life's meaning without interruption. This is not resented; the game has carried its own satisfactions. But must the human spirit be indentured to society forever? The time has come to begin one's true adult education, to discover who one is and what life is about. What is the secret of the "I" with which one has been on such intimate terms all these years, yet which remains a stranger, full of inexplicable quirks, baffling surds, and irrational impulses? Why are we born to work and struggle, each with a portion of happiness and sorrow, only to die too soon? … To find meaning in the mystery of existence is life's final and fascinating challenge. (emphasis added)

The way one does this is what sets this philosophy apart from western conceptions of retirement for people at this stage. In the old days, one "would take their leave of family, the comforts and constraints of home, and plunge into the forest solitudes to launch their program of self-discovery. At last their responsibilities were to themselves alone. "Business, family, secular life, like the beauties and hopes of youth and the successes of maturity, have now been left behind; eternity alone remains. And so it is to that – not the tasks and worries of this life already gone, which came and passed like a dream – that the mind is turned"…It is time for working out a philosophy, and then working that philosophy into a way of life; a time for transcending the senses to find, and dwell with, the reality that underlies this natural world."

Going into the forest may not be quite feasible these days or in this country, but the idea of seeking solitude in order to figure things out can be manifested in other words. It is probably not even strict solitude that is called for but more the breaking free of the kinds of ties and distractions that the second stage of life carried with it.

The point is that this third stage of life is not a sign that life is leaving you behind. The third stage is what you have been preparing yourself for.

April 04, 2005

When good cheeseburgers go bad

We interrupt the regular series of postings on developing a philosophy on the stages of life to talk about far more important things, like what you should do when the people working at the drive-thru don’t get your order right. Why, you call 911, of course. At least, that is what this woman in Orange County supposedly did.

Here is the transcript of the call:


Dispatcher: Sheriff's department, how can I help you?

Woman: Yeah, I'm over here . . . I'm over here at Burger King right here in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Um, no, not San Clemente; I'm sorry, I live in San Clemente. I'm in Laguna Niguel, I think, that's where I'm at.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I'm at a drive-through right now.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I went . . . I ordered my food three times. They're mopping the floor inside, and I understand they're busy . . . they're not even busy, okay, I've been the only car here. I asked them four different times to make me a Western Barbeque Burger. Okay, they keep giving me a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, and cheese, onions, and I said, "I'm not leaving . . ."

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: I want a Western Burger because I just got my kids from Tae Kwon Do, they're hungry, I'm on my way home, and I live in San Clemente.

Dispatcher: Uh-huh.

Woman: Okay . . . she said, she gave me another hamburger; it's wrong. I said four times, I said, "I want it to go. Can you go out and park in front?" I said, "No, I want my hamburger right." So then the . . . the lady came to the manager. She . . . well whoever she is, she came up and she said, um, she said, um, "Do you want your money back?" And I said, "No, I want my hamburger. My kids are hungry and I have to jump on that toll freeway." I said, "I am not leaving this spot," and I said, "I will call the police," because I want my Western Burger done right! Now is that so hard?

Dispatcher: Okay, what exactly is it you want us to do for you?

Woman: I . . . send an officer down here. I . . . I want them to make me . . .

Dispatcher: Ma'am, we're not gonna go down there and enforce your Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

Woman: What am I supposed to do?

Dispatcher: This is . . . this is between you and the manager. We're not gonna go and enforce how to make a hamburger; that's not a criminal issue. There's . . . there's nothing criminal there.

Woman: So I just stand here . . . so I just sit here and [block]?

Dispatcher: You . . . you need to calmly and rationally speak to the manager and figure out what to do between you.

Woman: She did come up, and I said, "Can I please have my Western Burger?" She . . . she said, "I'm not dealing with it," and she walked away. Because they're mopping the floor, and it's also the fact that they don't want to . . . they don't want to go through there . . . and . . . and . . .

Dispatcher: Ma'am, then I suggest you get your money back and go somewhere else. This is . . . this is not a criminal issue. We can't go out there and make them make you a cheeseburger the way you want it.

Woman: Well . . . that is . . . that . . . you're supposed to be here to protect me.

Dispatcher: Well, what are we protecting you from, a wrong cheeseburger?

Woman: No . . .

Dispatcher: Is this like . . . is this a harmful cheeseburger or something? I don't understand what you want us to do.

Woman: Just come down here. I'm not . . . I'm not leaving.

Dispatcher: No ma'am, I'm not sending the deputies down there over a cheeseburger. You need to go in there and act like an adult and either get your money back or go home.

Woman: She is not acting like an adult herself! I'm sitting here in my car; I just want them to make my kids a . . . a Western Burger.

Dispatcher: Ma'am, this is what I suggest: I suggest you get your money back from the manager and you go on your way home.

Woman: Okay.

Dispatcher: Okay? Bye-bye.


I could say that the reason for posting this is because of the light it sheds on what happens when all human interactions are believed to be under the jurisdiction of the law, or some other high-sounding stuff, but the real reason is that I found it to be funny.

Such stories are almost too good to be true, confirming our worst stereotypes of self-absorbed, self-indulgent people giving harassed fast food workers a hard time over trivialities. So I checked to see if it might be an urban legend. The people at Snopes have looked into it and report that the Orange County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that such a call came in about two years ago. But since the Sheriff’s department did not send a squad car in response, they do not know if this was a genuine caller or some prankster having fun at their expense.

You can listen to the sound file at Snopes, where the transcript reproduced above came from. (I could not open the .wma sound file on my Mac, though.)

April 01, 2005

The four stages of life: Stage 2 - the householder

In a previous post, I spoke about Hinduism's description of the first stage of life, that of the student. Today, we'll look at the second stage, that of householder. Once again I am using as my source the book The World's Religions by Huston Smith, and all quotes are from this book.

The marker that indicates that you are entering this second stage is evoked by its name, which indicates that you are no longer dependent on your parents but are setting up your own home, getting married, raising a family, and starting a career. This stage corresponds to the time when your "physical powers are at their zenith." If you view the four stages of life as paralleling a day, then the student stage is the morning and the householder stage is noon, the peak, the apex of ones energies.

During this stage ones interests and energies turn outwards in three directions: family, vocation, and the community. A person's "attention will be divided between the three. This is the time for satisfying the first three human wants: pleasure, through marriage and family primarily; success, through vocation; and duty, through civic participation."

Hinduism says that it is perfectly appropriate to satisfy these needs at this stage of one's life. It does not advocate denial and asceticism. It basically says that it is natural to want pleasure and success, and as long as one also fulfils ones duties, seeking these things is not frowned upon. Hedonism of this kind is not frowned upon.

So far, the two stages described so far do not seem to be much different from what anyone might recommend. But what Hinduism says is that just as the sun will set and its rays will grow dimmer, it is natural that the desire to satisfy these wants also will ebb with time. It says that we will "notice a time when sex and the delights of the senses (pleasure) as well as achievement in the game of life (success) no longer yield novel and surprising turns; when even the responsible discharge of a human vocation (duty) begins to pall, having grown repetitious and stale."

Hinduism says that we should accept this decline in these kinds of appetites as indicators that one is ready to move on to the next stage and one should not try to cling onto this stage by extreme methods or by artificial means or by trying to rekindle the flames of desire that one once had.

I think that this sense of acceptance of the need to move on to a new phase of life is what westerners will find hard to accept. So much of contemporary life in the US is devoted to holding back the tide of time and prolong by any means this stage of one's life, to try to look young, to act young, to want to be attractive to young people. The cosmetic industry, the plastic surgeons, the pharmaceutical industries, the clothing and entertainment world – all derive immense revenues from the desire of so many people to stay forever young, not mentally or metaphorically, but in actuality.

This is what also causes people to work hard even into their sixties, seventies, and beyond, to achieve greater heights in their careers, to make more money, to be seen as an even greater success. We see the phenomenon of "people who cannot bring themselves to relinquish key positions when a younger generation with more energy and new ideas should be stepping into them."

But as they get older, it becomes harder and harder to maintain that pose while the rewards cannot help but become less and less meaningful

Smith points out that the reason some people are loath to leave this stage is because their values "are supremely those of body and sense" and they cannot see any value in life beyond middle age.

But if you have a sense of meaning and value beyond those of body and sense (and this is where developing a personal philosophy of life is invaluable) and "if vision and self-understanding carry rewards equal to or surpassing these others, old age has its own opportunities, and we can come to happiness at the time when the rivers of our lives flow gently."

In Sri Lanka, the retirement age is 55 (or at least used to be when my father retired and still is, I believe), which is astonishingly young by American standards. Partly the reason for this is economic. In countries with high unemployment and where employment opportunities are limited, having people retire at younger ages is one way of providing jobs for people entering the work force. But it does have its advantages in that a person at 55, freed from the demands of career, can devote their still considerable energies to the third stage of life, that of retirement.

But Hinduism's view of retirement is quite different from how we envisage it here. It is not where you just goof off or dream of buying a condo by the beach and living a life of luxury, or roaming the highways in an RV or going on ocean cruises to tropical islands.

Retirement in Hinduism is not a mere post-script to one's life. Rather it is a crucial step in the ultimate goal of reaching self-awareness. We'll see how that plays out in a later posting.