The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ahhh, Libel Claims...

So, a high school student by the name of Rhys Morgan has written some blog posts about a Doctor named Stanislaw Burzynski who offers cancer treatments that appear to be poorly researched, and therefore of dubious value.  Mr. Morgan has since been contacted by a man named Marc Stevens who represents the doctor (though Burzynski's own website indicates that Stephens is a PR guy and does not work for the doctor as an attorney), and his description of the matter can be found here.

The issue in short: Morgan wrote a blog entry in which he was extremely critical of Dr. Burzynski's methods, citing articles written by cancer researchers (such as this one) and court documents (such as this one) which argue that Burzynski's methods are not simply unproven, but disproven, and therefore questioning the ethics of a practitioner who continues to use them. A man by the name of Marc Stephens contacted Morgan demanding that the blog entry be pulled down and threatening legal action against the libel that this blog entry allegedly represented. 

Now, I am not an expert in the law, obviously, but it seems like a bit of a stretch to think that a high school kid writing a blog entry that cites published research to criticize the work of a controversial doctor meets the legal criteria for Libel, especially as the kid, while certainly making his feelings known, didn't really make any material claims that were not present in the journal article or legal decision. 

And it turns out that Morgan isn't the only one getting this.  Andy Lewis of the Quackometer blog has also received threats of legal action from Mr. Stephens.  And Stephens has, in his emails, demanded not only that these two bloggers remove their content regarding Burzynski, but that they also "pass the word" on to the other "skeptics" who would dare question the alleged brilliance of Dr. Burzynski.  So, it sounds like this is more of an attempt to scare people into not stating their opinions of Burzynski and his treatments than anything else.  Unfortunately, to many people the law is this strange, arcane thing, and they see a mass o' legal sounding jargon such as Stephens sends out and feel like he can do bad things to them if they don't comply.

Also, while I really don't know if Stephens is licensed to practice law, this seems like a bit of an odd qualification for a PR guy, so I suspect he does not*.

So, Marc Stephens, if you happen to be reading this** be advised that I have both attorneys and a judge in my family and my circle of friends.  Should you decide to send me threatening emails, I will seek their counsel, and if I am advised to do so by them, will hire an attorney and respond with legal action against you and your employer.  I grew up around lawyers, I am well aware of what they can and they cannot do, and mere mention of a lawsuit isn't going to intimidate me and send me cowering to the corner.

Oh, and stop picking on high school kids.  Don't you have an actual job to do?  You know, like PR work?

*On the off-chance that he sees this, the way I constructed that sentence doesn't constitute libel.  You see, I made it clear what part was my opinion and what part was based on actual information.  But it will probably piss him off anyway.

**Normally I wouldn't have the ego to assume that any particular person is reading anything I write.  However, as this guy seems to be going to blogs with the intention of sending emails to their writers, it is possible that I will hear from this guy.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Mormons and the Term "Cult"

So, we're gearing up for the 2012 election season by watching the Republican front-runner change every couple of weeks.  Because Mitt Romney is in the running, this means that, every now and again, we get to hear some new claim or fact about his religion.  He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.  While much is said about the Mormon church in general and Mitt Romney's involvement (or, more often, his supposed and/or feared type of involvement) in particular, one common claim that is made, over and over again, is that the Mormon church is a cult.

A cult. 

Interesting word, "cult." 

Interesting, largely meaningless as used in general conversation word.  A term of abuse with no real meaning other than "they believe stuff that I don't" or "I don't know what they believe, but they give me the willies."

The problem is that there is no real generally agreed-upon definition for the word outside of research circles.  Within the research community, the word "cult" lacks pejorative meaning and refers instead to any particular form of supernatural belief and/or the rituals engaged in by people who follow a belief system.  Using this definition, all forms of Christianity are cults, as are all forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and many forms of nationalism, where one venerates a symbol of the nation rather than a supernatural being, but does so with the types of rituals and beliefs with which one venerates supernatural beings.  Broadly speaking, the term "cult" and the term "religion" are almost interchangeable within the social sciences*.  So, in this sense, Mormonism is a cult, but your local Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches also represent cults.

In broader colloquial English, the term "cult" generally means a shady, destructive group that hides its members away from the rest of society, holds strange beliefs, and has predatory recruitment patterns. 

Does this describe Mormonism?  Well, if we get away from the absolutely arbitrary ideas that most religious people have regarding what is destructive to one's soul (and, really, considering that no two denominations of even the same religion will agree on this, it seems an absurd thing to focus on) and look solely at verifiable harm and destruction that a group can do, it's hard to think that Mormonism is a cult.  Certainly, there is no shortage of stories of members who are secretly homosexual or who have some doubt about the teachings of the church being done harm by the indoctrination, but that's true of the vast majority of religious traditions and is not in any way unique to Mormonism.  So, if Mormonism is destructive in any meaningful way, it is no more so than any other religion, so if you are reluctant to call the local Southern Baptist denomination a cult on these grounds, you probably shouldn't call Mormonism a cult, either.  In fact, given the general focus on self-improvement and social responsibility within the church, the Mormon Church may be healthier on average than many other denominations.

As for hiding members away from society, Mormonism is pretty damn innocent there.  Unlike groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and many Protestant denominations, Mormons are generally encouraged to be members of the broader community through social functions, charity work, and political activity.  While I take serious issue with some of the ways in which this occurs (such as a general - though by no means universal - support of Proposition 8 ihere in California), it nonetheless demonstrates that members are not being held away from society at large.  While the Church has been known to discourage the reading of certain books and viewing of certain films, television shows, etc., it doesn't seek to prohibit this in the same way that many Protestant churches and the Catholic church have historically (and currently) sought.  What's more, the Mormon Church encourages education and general social engagement, which is more than can be said for many "main line" denominations**.  So, again, while I often have problems with the Church's official and unofficial stances on issues related to this point, there is not the prohibition of interaction with the outside world that I have seen in many a "main line" Protestant church.  So, once again, not really cult-like.

How about holding strange beliefs?  Well, I've described some of the Mormon Church's teachings before, and they are pretty weird.  You know what else is pretty weird?  The idea that the world was created in six days by a strange all-powerful being that seemingly was just always there, a belief held by many a "main line" church in the U.S.  The idea that a man in Italy who wears a funny hat communicates with this creator and is infallible in his decisions is also pretty damn weird, but that's Catholicism for ya'.  While we're at it, the entire idea of the Holy Trinity really only makes sense if you think of it as mythology and not reality.  The idea that a religious group that has been abused throughout the course of western civilization is the special chosen people of an all-powerful deity is pretty odd, come to think about it.  And don't even get me started on talking snakes.  And yet, these really bizarre beliefs are considered mainstream and respectable by people who think that Romney is a member of a cult.

Some people will respond that the Mormon Church hides many of their beliefs from the public, holding secret closed ceremonies in the Temples.  This is true, and I can easily understand where this would unnerve many people.  Hell, I find it a bit creepy, myself.  However, I also know enough about human religion to know that this is pretty damn common amongst religions.  I don't like it, but it's an aberration within Christianity, not within religion in general.  So, unless you want to dismiss the majority of religious systems the world over as "cults", you'd be hard pressed to explain why this makes Mormonism a cult.

How about predatory recruitment?  Well, first off, it's really hard to think of anything less threatening than the tie-wearing bicycle-riding missionaries.  Have they been known to take advantage of people's moments of weakness to get them to join the church?  Yep.  Does this separate them from the "main line" denominations?  Nope.  In fact, the use of missionaries, who are very clear about their purpose, means that the Mormon church is arguably less predatory than many, perhaps most, other expansionist religious movements.  My own personal experience is that, as a child, many different churches made an effort to persuade myself and my school-mates to join their ranks, whether our parents approved or not.  This included the usual Protestant sects (Baptist, Methodist, Calvinist, etc.) and even a couple of Catholic churches.  However, the local Mormon Church never invited the children to any religious functions - it would often invite the adults and suggest that they bring their children with them, but it was always an invitation at the adults first.  While I haven't done any serious research into the matter, my own experience and that of others with whom I have spoken has been that this is the common way that the church works.  So, whereas on everything else, the Mormon Church is no more cult-like than most churches, on this point it actually is much less cult-like than most other churches.

Now, I do take issue with the Mormon Church on many points - note, though, that I don't take issue with specific Mormons except where they require me to do so.  Like any church, the Mormons are not a monolithic whole, but rather there is a range of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes on many issues, and it is wise to keep this in mind, because you will find yourself dealing with individuals (many of them both bright and articulate) and not mindless automatons.  Moreover, what issues I have with the Mormon Church, I also have with many, probably most, other religious groups.  But as to the question of whether or not the Mormons constitute a cult, well, that idea is absurd and reveals a large degree of bigotry on the part of the populace of the United States. 

*The terms do have different meanings, but are intertwined enough that for our purposes here, they can be thought of as essentially the same thing. 

**Many people will say that the Mormon church encourages this for it's own reasons.  This is probably true.  It is also true of pretty much every large national and international church organization, so, again, if you're not going to consider the local Baptists a cult on these grounds, it's pretty damn hypocritical to consider the Mormons a cult. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Gender, Sex, and Where They Don't Meet

My partner, Kaylia, has many friends who are part of the transgender community.  These are people who don’t fit the traditional gender roles in that they are living as members of the opposite sex, are undergoing medical procedures to change sex, don’t find themselves fitting into either male or female sex roles, or are biologically not clearly male or female to begin with.  The tendency in society in general (and here in Fresno in particular) is to treat these people with confusion, fear, and/or skepticism as to their gender or lack thereof.  Natalie of the Skepchick blog argues, with a good deal of success, that this is due to a discomfort that people have with having their notions of gender challenged.  While I agree, I think that it also comes from a basic miscomprehension of what, exactly, gender is to begin with.  Gender and sex are not the same thing, and this seems to be at the root of much of the problem.

I was first introduced to the concept of gender as something other than a synonym for biological sex during my freshman year of college.  This was a difficult concept to wrap my head around, having grown up in a time and culture in which we are in many ways obsessed with observing, reinforcing, challenging, and critiquing a binary male/female idea of gender.  The notion that there might be more than two genders simply did not compute because we only formally recognize two genders that roughly correspond to one’s genitals*.  While even my own culture’s notions of gender don’t quite line up with biological sex, the insistence otherwise tends to blind one to this and make it difficult to conceive of the idea that there may be more than two genders.

And yet there are, in fact, multiple genders observed across time and across cultures.

First, a little clarity and definition…

Gender is not the same thing as sex.  Sex is biological, based on whether or not a person possesses a Y chromosome.  This, obviously, determines your genitalia, but also impacts things such as your overall physical build and, to an extent, the way in which hormones influence aspects of your behavior and socialization.  Gender is the social role that is ascribed to you based primarily on your sex.  However, gender takes things into account that are based on socialization and not just biology – the tendency to socialize boys into an interest in sports and girls into an interest in shopping, for example – but because gender and sex are interrelated, we tend to conflate them.  And so we have a number of, frankly bizarre, research papers on the evolutionary roots of why women like shopping and wearing pretty clothes or why men like football and watching wrestling, papers that rarely really deal with the fact that they are conflating gender roles with biological sex.  There may well be biological influences on these interests, but they are largely cultural rather than biological.  Gender takes the biology into account, but covers it in a heavy dollop of social norms, cultural context, and the flotsam and jetsam of history.

We tend to think of gender as being divided into two for a very simple reason: humans are generally divided biologically into male and female.  The different physical capabilities - due largely to the necessities of child-baring and rearing and to a lesser extent to general physical builds – results in different social roles being ascribed to men and women within any given society.  And so, on the surface, it seems that we should expect there to be two genders in every society corresponding to biological sex.  That is, we should expect a set of socially/culturally-constructed roles and expectations that correspond with biological sex to break into two – male and female – if this is what biology actually demands. 

But scratch the surface and think about it for a few minutes and it becomes clear that this isn’t, in fact, what biology actually demands.  First off, it should be said that biological sex is not really the simple binary that we tend to conceive of it as being.  Humans generally divide into male and female, but don’t absolutely.  There are a number of physical traits (from hermaphroditism to a range of genetic conditions and even a few anomalies) that can and do result in individuals who do not clearly fall into either the male or female gender.  Then, of course, there’s the issue of sexual orientation – itself a rather complex and often murky subject that is typically so mired in social context that it is difficult (though not necessarily impossible) to clearly tease out the underlying biology – which can lead to a person not comfortably fitting into the procreation duties imparted to the gender role that corresponds with their biological sex.  And, of course, there is the fact that there appear to have always been individuals who find that they fit better into a gender role other than the one that corresponds with their biological sex – while it is tempting to think of transgendered people as being a product of modern society and medical technology, the fact is that the ethnographic literature is filled with information about this phenomenon across time and culture, implying that it is something inherent to humanity and not a product of current western culture.

So, what we are left with is the realization that two genders doesn’t actually quite work.  Even with loose gender roles, it doesn’t cover all of the bases.  Now, of course, the majority of people within any society appear to fit the male or female role…but there are enough that don’t that it is unlikely that you will find a culture that actually strictly observes the notion of two genders.

Third, fourth, fifth, etc. genders are well-documented.  Off of the top of my head, there are the Hijras of the Indian Sub-Continent, Sworn Virgins of the Balkans, ‘Aqi of the Chumash, Winkte of the Lakota**, ZapotecMuxe of Mexico, and the list could go on for pages (and actually does so here).  In these cases, the majority of people fit within the male/female genders, but a sufficient number of people do not that additional gender roles evolved.  In addition, things such as a shortage of men or women may produce additional gender roles that allow the surplus of whichever sex is overabundant to take on the roles of the other.  Many of these gender roles have ritual/religious functions, as is the case with the Hijra, as well as the vestal virgins of antiquity, but membership in the gender is not limited to participation in the ritual functions and is all-encompassing of the individual’s role in society, and as such should not be confused with a solely ritual position. 

To many, perhaps most, of my readers, these groups will sound strange or exotic – genders beyond male and female will likely seem to be derivatives of the religious beliefs and practices of other cultures, and something that has nothing to do with good ol’ rational Western culture (many people would also add either "post-Enlightenment" or "Christian" in there). 

These people would be wrong.

Though they are not often discussed in textbooks, if one begins looking at the primary historic sources, evidence of people who don’t fit into either the male or female roles are pretty clear within western history.  The most lurid (and therefore most often discussed) examples are male prostitutes (both ritual/temple based and otherwise) who took on roles similar to, but separate from, women.  However, there are many other examples of individuals and even small communities rejecting gender roles altogether, or else of people living as members of other genders (sometimes for limited purpose – such as women acting as men to join armies or take on positions of power – but often because the individual simply seemed to be comfortable as a member of the opposite gender, or even outside of gender norms altogether).  This has been common throughout western history, even if little acknowledged.

Then, of course, there are the examples of additional genders existing, but only being semi-acknowledged.  For example, if one reads many of the primary sources from the 16th century, people will be very clear that women are to have specific, prescribed roles within society…except for Queen Elizabeth.  She may be a woman, but she’s a queen, so the rules don’t apply to her, you see.  In other words, the Queen does not fit the gender of “woman”, she is instead a “queen” and therefore has her own set of rules and expectations, some of which are derived from her sex (such as bearing an heir - which Elizabeth did not manage to do), and some of which are derived fromt he social or political demands of the day. 

Likewise, Catholic priests and nuns, while linguistically described using the standard binary gender pronouns and associated language, don’t really fit their gender roles either.  The terms used for them – Father for priests and Sister for nuns – are the terms for family and not prospective mates, linguistically put them off-limits sexually, rendering them functionally neuter***.  Further, they are expected to be detached from the family and work roles reserved for both men and women within society at large.  While they are not generally acknowledged as such, this arguably makes them a third and fourth gender within western society. 

Given this context, the rise of a transgender community and movement is not some strange anomaly or a product solely of modern western culture.  Rather, it is the contemporary western manifestation of a tendency common in human populations for as long as we have records of human populations.  Certainly, modern medical technology allows for new manifestations, such as having one’s appearance and even sex (or aspects of sex) physically changed, but the underlying reasons appear to have existed throughout history. 

P.S.  Some time back, I read a magazine article, I believe it was in Time, though I cannot recall with certainty, in which the journalist stated that despite claims to the contrary, anthropologists have never found a culture with a “third gender”.  To this day, I am uncertain as to whether this journalist was conflating gender and biological sex, was ignorant of what anthropologists have actually found (which leads one to wonder why they would write such a blatantly un-researched statement), or was ignoring anthropological data for some personal or political reason.

*Minds out of the gutter, people.

**It is common for people to refer to third-gender or transgender people of the Native American groups as “berdaches”, but this is likely a term that was largely applied by European explorers and colonists and a term of abuse, rather than the term actually used within that culture.  Plus, it attempts to apply a broad term to a phenomenon that is expressed and handled different from culture-to-culture, and as such is probably not a particularly useful term.

***Which didn’t stop many from acting on their sexual impulses, certainly.  But the fact that they did so was considered a violation of their role, while it would not be a violation if they were normal men and women.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Peruvian Alien Mummy!

In a great example of how a bit of knowledge on a subject can change how you react to a news story, we have this one from Peru about an alleged alien mummy found in a Peruvian archaeological site.

The following quote is attributed to Renato Davila Riquelme, who the story states works for the Privado Ritos Andinos museum in Cusco:

"It has a non-human appearance because the head is triangular and big, almost the same size as the body. At first we believed it to be a child's body until Spanish and Russian doctors came and confirmed that, yes, it's an extraterrestrial being."

Here, have some photos (from io9):

Okay, so two things right off: 1) I am not an osteologist, human skeletal anatomy is not my specialty.  Like most archaeologists, though, I do have some training in osteology and have handled a wide rnage of human skeletons both with and without pathologies, so I have a good baseline idea of what I am talking about, though it should be kept in mind that I am not an expert.  2) All I have to go on is these photographs, and not the original bone.

So, that being said, when I first saw these photos, the first thought that went through my head was not "GAH!  What the HELL is THAT!  ALIEN!"  It was, in fact "oh look, human bones exhibiting signs of pathology and possibly some intentional cranial deformation."  In other words, something unusual, but definitely well within the range of known and well-understood human variation.

The assurance of how it was determined that these are alien bones is pretty damn comical.  Leave aside the fact that it's a group of Spanish and Russian physicians who are never named who say that it's an alien (really, this is the sort of thing that would end up in a journal, with the names of the researchers highlighted in order to ensure their impending flood of grant money), it's that they "confirmed" that it's an extra-terrestrial.  As the website io9 puts it:

"BOOM. There ya go. Four out of five faceless scientists agree that what you're looking at are mummified alien remains. Case closed."

Now, let's assume, for a moment, that it was definitiely shown to not be exaclty what it looks like (a human skeleton exhibiting bone pathology), how would you go about confirming that it was an alien? 

I have done faunal analysis, and when I have a bone that I can confirm does not belong to any of the animals with which I am familiar, I don't confirm that it is, therefore, from another planet.  I conclude that it belongs to an animal for which I don't have a sample for comparison.  So, let's say that these bones were shown clearly to not be human.  That would imply that they were from another animal, true, but why assume that this animal is from another planet?  Why not an undiscovered primate from Earth?  If you don't have an extra-terrestrial body to which to compare it (and this article says nothing about the bones being taken to Nevada for comparison with the Roswell...oh, I've said too much!), then you have no reason to think that it's an alien.

I suppose that if the bone contained some element or compound not found on Earth, you could conclude that it came from elsewhere, but then why would a group of doctors and not a group of chemists and physicists be making that announcement (again, with their names in bold to help catch the flood of grant money coming their way)?

Anyway, I suspect this is a hoax.  If it's not a flat-out hoax, then it's a case of someone being very, very stupid.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Regulated Madness

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows (and contrary to what I suspected before I placed traffic trackers, there's actually quite a few of you), I spend alot of time looking into regulations and case law to try to figure out how to apply historic preservation laws to specific projects.  Right now I am particularly confounded, though.

See, I have a project in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  This project involves historic-era archaeological sites that are related to the early use of the oil fields.  Now, back in the late 90s, the Department of Energy sold Naval Petroleum Reserve 1 (which is about two miles north of my project area) to a private company, and in the process had to go through the environmental revue process.  During this process, rumor holds that they developed a good set of criteria for determining whether or not a historic-era oil field site was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and therefore would gain some (admittedly minor) level of protection, and that the State Office of Historic Preservation agreed to these criteria in a programmatic agreement. 

Now, the project that I have is not on the old Naval Petroleum Reserve grounds, and therefore these criteria would not be directly applicable to my project, but they can provide guidance on how to apply the regulations in similar environments within the vicinity of the Petroleum Reserve grounds.  It is, essentially, a matter of hunting down precedent.

Which makes my current task as necessary as it is frustrating.

You see, the studies and documents that I need to find were produced in the late 90s, as federal agencies were beginning to gain a strong online presence, but before the early 2000s shuffling of various federal responsibilities under Bush.  In other words, it came into being during that magical internet time when all web sites had blue balls to illustrate bullet points (mind out of the gutter!), Geocities and Angelfire were where it was at, and federal agencies were sure that they needed to do something with this internet thingy, even though they weren't sure what, exactly.  So, I can find the Record of Decision in the Federal Register that describes the project and the documents, I can find the public comments to the documents, and I can find agency comments for the documents from the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy...but I can not find the document itself.  I can't even find PDF copies of one of the several documents to which the document I need would have been an appendix or attachment! 

Now, this wouldn't be bad if I could get a hard copy of the document.  But here's the problem - if I make a formal request to OHP or DOE, my project will be due before I actually hear about the possibility of receiving the document.  I could conceivably call one of my contacts at an agency that works with the documents, but I have already found that most of them are out of the office for extended periods of time on their own projects.  And the people I know at private companies who could get me a copy are currently so buried under their own work that they rarely respond to emails or phone calls anyway.

So, I continue trying to find it by some other sneaky way.  Oh joy!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Don't Need That After High School?

About once a week I come across it.  Someone may be referring to a historical fact, or to a mathematical concept, or to famous scientific experiment, or to a...well, you get the point.  Someone will be referring to something that they had been required to learn in school, laugh derisively, and say "well, I don't need that now that I am out of high school!" with the sub-text pretty much always being that learning the information, process, or concept in question was a waste of time and not applicable to "the real world."


The "I don't need that now that I'm out of high school" line is nothing more than a proud proclamation of intentional ignorance.  If you want to know why out country is in a shambles, stop looking for conservative or liberal boogeymen, stop looking at religious or sexual minorities.  Start looking at the fact that we are a nation full of people proud of the fact that we don't retain basic information once we have a diploma in hand.

Once I have heard someone say that they don't need some skill or information or ability post-school, I have a very hard time taking anything else they say about any subject seriously.

Leaving aside the very real fact that, now that we don't live in a society where young men automatically go to work at dad's factory and young women are usually married and pregnant at 19, learning all of these "useless" facts and skills opens up the possibility that a young person can actually find a career path; leaving aside the fact that there is a pleasure in learning this information for those who go with it rather than resist it because to do so is somehow perversely considered cool; leaving aside the fact that simply having been exposed to this sort of information can provide one with an appreciation for the work lives of others who are not in one's own occupation, and therefore make it easier ot live with other people; leaving all of those very valid reasons why it is a good thing to have learned and been exposed to a wide range of academic disciplines, the claim that what one learned in high school (or junior high, or college) was a waste of time best left to nerds and egg-heads and not applicable to the so-called "real world" remains complete and utter bullshit. 

Let's take a common high school math class: algebra. 

Algebra, on it's surface, seems to have very limited application to the non-academic world.  If you are a construction contractor or involved in some types of business, you may have some use for very basic algebra in order to solve day-to-day problems.  But, all of those quadratic equations and discussions of arithmetic properties, what good is that?  Well, it is true that you can get by, day-to-day in most jobs without having to make use of those skills and knowledge sets.  In that sense, you don't need it.  But that doesn't mean that it isn't useful.  Go here to see some places where quadratic equations come up in your everyday life, even if you don't do the math, knowing that it's there can help you make sense out of what's going on.  Even if you don't need ot solve for them, you can find uses that will allow you to improve your life, and likely improve your workplace, by retaining this knowledge.  You may not need it, in the same way that you don't need a cell phone - it's still useful to have one, and the more you use it, the more likely you will be to find further uses.

How about another math class: statistics.

This one tends to be even more poorly understood, and in my experience even more likely to be scoffed at by the proud ignorance brigade.  You can probably go on with life quite well without being able to perform a chi-square test, or calculate standard deviation on the fly.  However, if you have learned to do these things at some point, and retained a decent part of the conceptual knowledge, you are far, far, far less likely to be conned or scammed than everyone else around you.  Simply remembering that there are ways to determine whether or not a correlation is due to random chance or due to causal factors allows you to ask some important questions when a politician pushes a policy, or when a scam treatment is presented to you, or when someone wants you to buy something to increase your fuel mileage, or when a self-help guru is trying to peddle idiocy packaged as wisdom (I'm going to go out an a limb here and guess that The Secret didn't sell well amongst mathematicians).  In other words, having just a basic-level knowledge of statistics, the sort that someone could acquire from high school and retain through adult life, will make you a smarter consumer, voter, and citizen.  Again, can you get by in life without this?  Yes, you can live day-to-day without basic mathematical knowledge, but much of the poor policy passed by politicians and the idiocy marketed to consumers relies on the fact that most people will relegate statistics to the dust pile of their personal histories and not use it to defend themselves as adults.

Let's look at something that is not as clearly related to day-to-day life and yet very important: history and civics classes.

I live in California, and like many states in the U.S., we have a referendum system that allows voters to put legislation onto the ballots and vote for it, bypassing the state legislature.  On the surface this sounds great - direct power from the people, for the people, right?  In practice, it means that many pieces of legislation get passed because they sound good to the public but make very little sense, are unenforceable or would require a wide range of inoffensive activities to become crimes, laws get passed that drain the public treasury for very little gain, or laws get passed that are struck down immediately (often in costly legal battles) because they clearly violate the federal or state constitution and therefore should never have been passed (and initiatives favored by both the political right and left do these things with what appears to be equal resolve and gusto, so don't go blaming the other side, your side is also at fault).  Likewise, everytime I see someone who is swayed by cries of "activist judges" I know that I am looking at someone who doesn't remember high school history/civics and who therefore is being taken advantage of by political opportunists.

Here's the thing - if voters were generally more aware of what the constitution actually says (and right now I know that both Occupy people and Tea Party people are nodding their heads while dellusionaly believing that their take on the constitution is the only valid one...and both are wrong), then laws violating it (and wasting resources as a result) wouldn't get passed.  If voters had a better idea of history, then they would know where to look in trying to figure out whether a proposed piece of legislation was likely to do what it said (after all, most of these measures have been, in some form or another, tried somewhere before).  In short, knowing some basic civics lessons and retaining at least a broad outline of history (allowing for a small bit of research when necessary) would make us better voters.

The same sorts of things can be drawn from high-school level biology, physics, chemistry, even classes such as literature, art, and music.  There is information and skills that can be gleaned from these classes which will help you to avoid getting ripped off, which will help you to avoid making stupid choices in the voting booth, which will help you to deal with many day-to-day matters.  But, here's the catch, you have to come to the realization that "I don't need that after high school" is the battle cry of the imbecile.  It's justification for laziness, not a show of wisdom or worldliness.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Postcards From the Dungeon

So, in keeping with my on-going goal of talking about archaeology with anyone willing to let me (AKA, talking about archaeology with different audiences), I was interviewed by the Role-Playing Game podcast Postcards From the Dungeon (it's a reference to Dungeons and Dragons, not BDSM!). 

It was alot of fun, more like a conversation than an interview.  I'll post a link when the podcast drops.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pollution and Prejudice

As frustrated as I get with the, frankly, anti-reality stance that many a person has when it comes to opposing the rights of certain groups, I am simultaneously fascinated with it.  The reason for my fascination is that there is this weird, abstract way in which all of these matters carry striking similarities with often-observed religious and ritual views on purity, and how these views are often tied in with primitive views on infection.

Confused?  Yeah, so was I when I first started noticing this. 

Look at how we react to marginalized groups within our society.  Let's take homosexuals, because they are currently one of the more marginalized groups in the U.S.  If one looks at the rhetoric from those opposed to gay rights, we see that notions of pollution, disease, and uncleanliness are common.  Consider:

-There is a pervasive notion that gays will recruit others to their ranks, despite the fact that all of the actual accrued scientific evidence shows that an individual has little-to-no control over their sexual orientation.  The descriptions of "gay recruitment" bear a strong resemblance to the spread of a disease, with those who are weak falling prey while an epidemic rages (seriously, go to Google and type in "Epidemic Homosexuality", it's surreal).  The notion of pollution is pretty strong, though nonsensical given the real nature of sexual orientation.

-There is an obsession with trying to keep physical and social control over where they go.  This applies not only to a wish to not allow them to have jobs such as teachers or from serving in positions such as Scout Master (an opposition that, within the rather weird world of those opposed to gay rights at least is consistent with the widely-held beliefs about "sexual deviants", even if it is inconsistent with reality), but also to pushing for legislation that allows an employer to fire someone based on sexual orientation (or opposing legislation that makes sexual orientation a protected status), which really makes very little sense except as a way of controlling where a person goes. 

-There is a "one-drop rule" of sexuality very much in effect (at least for men).  If a man has sex with another man, then he is likely to be considered gay or bisexual from that point on, even if he does not consider himself so.  However, if you flip it around, a gay man who has sex with a woman just once is not necessarily considered straight or bisexual for that.  This is similar to the "one drop" rules of race that were common up through the mid-20th century (one ancestor of a non-white race means that you are of that race), and is also consistent with fears of contamination - fears one drop of sewage might ruin a reservoir of water, or that brief exposure to a sick person might destroy one's health.

-The language used by those opposed to gay rights often speaks of visceral disgust, including gagging, wanting to vomit, etc., all of which is also tied in, again, to our bodies reactions to disease and contamination.

-Even the often-shouted cry of "hate the sin, love the sinner" is couched in a Christian sub-culture in which homosexuality is seen as something to be purged from the individual - whether through ineffectual (and often harmful) psychological treatments or through trying to keep them from being symptomatic, that is by not acting on their sexual impulses.  Again, this is in keeping with the treatment of diseased people - treat them, or try to control their symptoms so that they can otherwise get on with life. 

Now, in case you think that I am making a case specifically for gay rights issues, I want you to look into the rhetoric surrounding the opposition to the civil rights movement of the first half of the 20th century - while it was clearly the case that African-Americans couldn't stop being their ethnicity, there was a very definite fear of the white population being contaminated by everything from culture (both jazz and rock music provoked outrage when they became popular because of their ties to African-American popular music) to physical contact (there's a reason why "white's only" restrooms, drinking fountains, etc. seemed reasonable to people back then, and it was not unusual to hear about "negro diseases" that might be passed on to unwary whites) to sexual contamination (while it was most common to hear about fears of black men with white women, it was also not uncommon for worries about white men with black women to be brought up).  Similar issues have faced other ethnic and social minorities throughout U.S. history, as well as Europe.

I first started to think about this when I was an undergraduate taking a course on the ethnography of India.  The caste system of Indian was an important subject, obviously, and as such the role of untouchables within Indian society was heavily discussed.  Within the caste system, the untouchables are physically and socially controlled to the extent that they are only allowed certain jobs (those considered polluting, sometimes for obvious reasons - such as dealing with sewage - sometimes for more esoteric reasons - such as working as barbers), are constrained as far as who they can socialize with and under what conditions, and being physically touched by one requires purification, often through ritual bathing*.  In other words, the untouchables were treated quite literally as diseased, though carrying a "spiritual" disease rather than a physical one.  Even the language used to describe them came directly from dealing with disease, as did the notions of pollution and cleansing. 

And understand, this isn't a case of some white kid in California misunderstanding the intricacies of India's religions**.  The disease/religious purity interpretation is something that most of the participants in the system themselves were aware of and commented on.  Indeed, it was often used as a defense of what was, in truth, a system of religiously ordained bigotry. 

Over the years after I took the course, I began to think about my own culture's prejudices in a different way.  Not every type of prejudice is based on notions of illness or pollution - anti-Mexican bigotries are generally based on over-simplifications of immigration and population dynamics, for example (though some of these same notions do get pulled in at times).  But, very often, the issue of fear of pollution tended to fuel bigotries. 

In fact, in the last two decades psychologists have begun to analyse prejudices with an eye towards the tendency for people to express their bigotries by describing the targets in what amount to disease terms.  So, it's not just me that has noticed this.

This is both dispiriting, and paradoxically somewhat hopeful.  On the downside, the fact that this gets applied across cultures and across time indicates that it is something hard-wired into us, and therefore would be difficult to rid ourselves of.  On the other hand, there is clearly no actual connection between the groups of people who are targeted by bigotry and disease-causing agents.  So, if you can show this to people and get them to understand what they are doing, it might (and note that I say might...I'm not optimistic enough to say "will") help to dismantle some of those prejudices.

*It should be noted that, since the 1940s, India has been changing radically, and many of the rules regarding caste are not as strongly enforced or held as they once were.

**Unlike the douche bags from affluent areas who go to India "because it's so spiritual, man!"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On Buying a Digital Scale

I volunteered to do the faunal analysis for a research project in the southern San Joaquin Valley.  The principle investigator* is a friend of mine who teaches at a university in England**, and while he has grant money for many things, he doesn't have enough to cover all tasks necessary to complete the project.  As such, he relies in part on the work of fools...err, I mean volunteers such as myself who are willing to use our skills to assist his project without charging him anything.

Now, the faunal analysis is pretty much what it sounds like: I get the bone and shell that has come out of the site, and try to figure out what animals it came from, whether or not there are signs of it having been modified (whether by people cutting meat off of the bones, burning it during cooking, or trying to make tools out of it).  It essentially consists of slowly sorting through all of the fragments of bone, assigning everything to as specific a category as you can (often just placing it in broad "large, animal, medium animal" categories, but occasionally being able to figure out the genus or even species), and noting relevant features (cut marks on the bone, burning, etc.). 

The bone that I am looking at is badly fragmented, which means that, often, a simple count of bone fragments will tell you more about the factors damaging the bone than about the animals - interesting in its own right and valuable, but I still have to make sense of the faunal remains.  So, in addition to counting up the bone fragments, we also weigh them, which in circumstances such as this can often tell you more about what the site residents were prioritizing in their hunting and eating habits. 

So, with that in mind, I set out to buy a digital scale that could measure with 0.01 gram precision.

Now, in every city in which I have lived, this would have been an easy task.  I know of places in Modesto, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara in which I could find such things.  So, Fresno being the largest city in which I have lived, I figured that finding an appropriate scale here would be a piece of cake.  I was very wrong.

The first problem I ran into is that, despite it's size, Fresno has a relative dearth of stores catering to scientific labs.  That's not to say that they aren't here, but there are fewer than one would think.  The second problem is that, rather contrary to what one might expect, these places do not sell scales with the level of precision that I required.  In fact, there was a surprising number of scales that measured in pounds and ounces and not in the metric scale, as one would expect for lab equipment. 

So, on the advice of the the folks at one such store, I went to several office supply stores, which I was told would have digital metric scales.  They did, but their level of precision was 0.1 grams, and not the required 0.01 grams.  Moreover, most of them were in the $100 range - which, considering that I am doing this work as a volunteer and that for most of the last year I have been the only income in my household (making money tight) I wasn't really willing to pay.

It dawned on me that I should try a hardware store - certainly a place that sells every form of tool you could want would also sell a scale.  I mean, I might not find a metric one, but it was worth a try, right?  Well, wrong.  I discovered that the hardware stores in Fresno (including the national chains) do not, in fact, carry scales of any kind (aside from the odd bathroom scale, not the precision or accuracy that I need).  What's more, asking for help led to the sales staff eyeing me, assuming that I am a drug manufacturer and/or dealer - one salesman even went so far as to inform me that that's what he figured I or anyone would be buying the scale for.  Trying to explain that I am a scientist looking for a piece of lab equipment didn't seem to assuage his worries, as he seemed to think that this was a cover story.

I wonder what kind of watch list Home Depot has had me placed on.

Well, the hardware stores were a bust.  So, I decided to head out to the local cooking supplies store - it was a longshot, but they would have scales and they might have them in the units and level of precision that I needed.  Again, I found scales, but they would do, at best, 0.1 grams, and most didn't deal in metric at all***.  And, again, it was made clear that, despite my protestations about scientific work, it was suspected that I was a drug manufacturer/dealer. 

I wonder what kind of watch list Williams Sonoma has had me placed on.

Finally, one of the cooking store salesmen decided that he wasn't part of the war on drugs, and told me that I could find a high-precision scale at one of the local sporting good stores.  It would measure amounts in the range that I needed, and apparently is used by hunters who pack their own shotgun shells.  The problem, however, is that it doesn't measure in metric, or even pounds and ounces, but instead in the far more esoteric measurement unit known as grains.  A grain correlates to approximately 64.8 milligrams (or 0.648 grams) making the conversion problem even more obnoxious than simply measuring in ounces.

In the end, I bought one on line.  I found a jeweler's scale that measures to 0.01 grams, comes with a calibrating weight, and is in my price range.  It's unlikely to be a great scale, but it will have to do. 

Really, though, who would have thought that finding a scale in a city of half a million people would be such a pain in the ass?

*Translates to English as "Head Honcho" or "Big Cheese."  The archaeologist who is ultimately responsible for all work performed.

**The irony of him leaving for England to perform excavation near Bakersfield is not lost on me

***If at this point you wonder why I didn't buy one that measures in ounces and just convert the sum, the reasons are twofold: 1) they still wouldn't measure at the level of precision that I needed, and 2) I have something in the neighborhood of 2,000 bags of bone to weigh and process by January.  The slow-down required to convert all of them would simply not be worth it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Fall Rush

The last month has been chaotic.  I have not known from one week to the next where I would be, and I have been doing alot of very hard work.  I've been slogging through fields covered in deep silty dust, I've been digging holes in Granitic sands in Yosemite, and I've been trying to find the boundaries of a huge-ass archaeological site in a vineyard in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

It's the fall rush.

Every company that I have worked for has had this mad dash that begins around September and ends in late October.  There's usually field projects that, for various reasons, didn't get started when they should have - paperwork didn't get filed, permits weren't issued, clients delayed on giving the go-ahead, etc. etc.  And now, here we are, heavy rains will start within the next couple of months in the valleys and on the coast and snow will begin to make work in the mountains, and the client and/or agencies with which we are dealing realize that if the work isn't done now, and I mean now, then it won't get done until the spring.

And so it is that every fall, I find myself running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, heading off on one project after another with usually very little time between in order to recover from one project or to prepare for the next. 

In some ways it's exhilarating.  In the last few weeks, I have been in vineyards, mountains, forests, and near-desert environments.  I have surveyed, excavated, and recorded sites.  I have worked with historic-era sites, late Holocene prehistoric sites, and found artifacts that, based on their state of degradation, are likely thousands of years old. 

I have seen some fantastically cool things, but I have also had to put other things on hold (reports to be written, personal tasks to accomplish, doctors appoints rescheduled) to accommodate it.  It's stimulating, but I don't want it to stretch on until it becomes aggravating.