Tuesday, April 21, 2015

South Dakota is now better than Mars?

My home state, the state of South Dakota, will be kicking off a new, well-intentioned media campaign to dispel the popular image that South Dakota is a desolate no-man’s land devoid of cultural and/or recreational activities. The television/internet spots open with the narration:

"Mars…the air: not breathable. The surface: cold and barren. But thousands are lining up for a chance to go and never come back."

Not too bad…yet. After the obligatory postcard pictures of the state, the narration continues with a tagline that is supposed to take advantage of the trending topic of the exploration and colonization of Mars:

"South Dakota. Progressive. Productive. And abundant in oxygen. Why die on Mars when you can live in South Dakota?"

The advertisement closes with the words:

"South Dakota. Plenty of jobs. Plenty of air."

Well, you know what they say about where using good intentions as paving stones leads…

As a South Dakota native and a passionate, principled advocate for reason, science, and humanity's ongoing efforts to understand and explore the cosmos of which we are but a small part, I am galled, disappointed, but sadly, not terribly surprised by the stupefying chain of metacognitive failures that led to anyone thinking that this was a good idea for a media campaign. Just several weeks ago I was incredibly jazzed when I learned that Neil deGrasse Tyson was slated to speak in Rapid City this coming October. Now I just hope he does not cancel after this eloquent demonstration of just how small-minded, benighted, and provincial the majority of this state is.

I live in South Dakota, and I would rather be on my way to Mars with that first batch of colonists than stuck here–at least intelligent conversation would not be so hard to come by. Let's see...which is greater, the average IQ of the first bunch of Mars colonists or that of the combined averages of the typical crowd at a Rush hockey game and that of the state officials in Pierre who thought this campaign was hip, clever, or witty?

I was recently watching one of the programs from the annual World Science Festival in New York City on the subject of exoplanets. At about 24:45 into the public talk, one of the scientists on the panel asked the audience if they would go to a potentially Earth-like planet around the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, a paltry 4.2 light years away, even if it were a 40 year, one-way trip. There were quite a few hands raised. This is exactly the kind of forward-thinking, intelligent, adventurous, and courageous people any state or nation should try to attract, the problem is, intelligence is also highly correlated with being able to spot the sort of irony that obliterates irony meters.

I knew a kid growing up whose surname was a five-letter euphemism for an erect phallus and his parents were so clueless that they named this poor kid Harold! When my (now ex-) wife and I were looking for names for our kids, we deliberately went through every possible mean, petty, cruel, and vicious permutation and combination we could think of…before playground bullies had a chance to. We had enough presence of mind to consider how our choice might conceivably backfire, and though we could never be certain we would be successful, at least we tried!

South Dakota officials have been rightly concerned about the exodus of graduates from the state's colleges and universities for greener pastures elsewhere, many before the ink on their diplomas has even had a chance to dry. As a graduate of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology (SDSM&T), I fail to see how such an ad campaign would attract bright, optimistic physics and engineering students, the sort that dream of the stars, to pursue their college education, let alone stay to teach or conduct research, in fields that will eventually take humanity to Mars and beyond, in South Dakota. Ever hear of the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium? Well, if this media campaign is successful, such endeavors, at least in South Dakota, may themselves run out of life-support…soon.

Lest I am accused of not offering constructive criticism, I would like to offer the following, minor tweaks to the ad campaign’s verbiage:

"Mars…the air: not breathable. The surface: cold and barren. But thousands are lining up for a chance to go and never come back."

"South Dakota. Progressive. Productive. And abundant in oxygen. If you want a life of Adventure, Challenge, and Opportunity, why go to Mars when you can live in South Dakota?"

"South Dakota. Plenty of jobs. Plenty to Explore. Plenty of air."

In all modesty, it does not take a rocket scientist, which I’m not, to improve on drivel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Merely “Leisure” Activities?

I am often surprised by the stuff I know that others seem totally ignorant of. It is not as though I deliberately set out to stuff my head with trivia to impress people around me, or, as I have more than once been accused of, make them feel stupid. Even when not suspected of being deliberately uncharitable in my opinions of my fellows, others feel obliged to remind me that not everyone is “interested” in the same things I am, and usually revolve around doing something useful with a computer.
We all have the right to allocate such resources as we can afford–in terms of time, money, and energy–to the leisure activities of our own choosing or inclination–provided they are legal, of course. In developed countries, at least for those not mired in poverty (generational or otherwise) or burdened by a cognitive disability, there are a wide range of leisure pursuits available to them. Those that whine about being “bored” or that there is nothing that “interests” them immediately to hand, it bears pointing out that it is those with boring, unimaginative minds that are often the most easily bored; in short they are not trying hard enough.
A few weeks ago I was talking to a co-worker that recently purchased a Windows 8 computer and they complained about the absence of the familiar “Start” menu. I empathized, telling him that when I was shopping for a new laptop shortly after Win 8 debuted it took me all of 10 minutes on Google to find a workaround so I could get back to a Win 7-type desktop, which I too preferred. He responded (I’m paraphrasing), “Well, you just 'get' stuff like that.” I tried to point out that it is the exact same skill set one used to look up information on a particular topic using the index in a book or using an old-fashioned library card catalog, but his reaction gave me the distinct impression that wrapping his head around what I had said would have required more thought than he cared to, or could be bothered to, invest. Much of this tension arises from the idea, wide-spread in our modern culture, that having to figure something out, to think, or to use the ability to reason in order to reach a goal is somehow optional in the same way that knowing how to crochet is optional.
In our 21st-century society, some have gotten it into their heads that expecting supposedly competent adults, at least occasionally, to step outside their pathetic little comfort zones and exert themselves mentally, cognitively, or intellectually so they can get to wherever it is they want to go, or accomplish, in life is somehow a form of bullying. Such a position could not be more wrong, or more dangerous. As an adult with a clinical diagnosisi of ADD, staying organized, focused, and on-task is something that in no way, shape, or form comes naturally to me. Given my diagnosis, according to experts that assist those with disabilities in finding and keeping a job, I should avoid desk-bound jobs that require good time-management, record-keeping, and organizational skills. The problem is, that is exactly the job I have. Every day I have to discipline myself to do things that do not come naturally to me or that were once outside my personal comfort zone, like keeping good case notes on my clients and staying on top of my schedule. At this point, a reader might be forgiven for thinking I am a really arrogant bastard; however, they may be surprised to learn that I hate to say “no” when someone asks for my help with something, even when it means dropping what I'm doing. It has been a struggle learning to “no” when working on something that cannot easily set aside and pick up again later.
Homo sapiens (modern humans), and the plants and animals we raise for food, have become the dominant terrestrial form of life (excluding insect-sized critters and smaller) on the planet. The reason for this is (or ought to be) obvious; our ability to reshape the environment around us. In modern, developed societies, the environment is dominated not by the climate, or the local geography, but the culture(s) in which we live. Our brains, and their associated wiring, largely determine what our natural inclinations are and this powerfully influences what hobbies, interests, and leisure activities we choose from among what is available in the culture(s) in which we are embedded. Among the consequences of this interplay of genes and culture are the friends we choose, what we choose to talk about, the music we listen to, the books we read (or don't read), the movies and television shows we watch, the foods we come to enjoy, and a great many other things.
This bi-directional interaction of our genes and the environments we tend to gravitate towards (due to our genetic predispositions), when played out over the human lifetime can, and does, have profound effects on intellectual development. In the lead up to the October 2012 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the 5 October issue of the journal Science was devoted to highlighting 'Mysteries of the Brain.' In that issue, a news article titled ‘Why Are You and Your Brain Unique?' looked at, among other things, what we do and do not know about intelligence. The scientific consensus is that in young children, roughly 20% of the variation in intelligence is due to heredity (this is where twin studies are particularly useful1 ).1 (p.693) Surprisingly, research studies involving older adults have found that the heritability of intelligence in that particular cohort can approach 80%.1 (p.695),2 (p.35) One possible account of how the heritability of intelligence can go from 20% in young children to 80% in older adults is that what is heritable may not be raw computing power, but rather proclivities towards certain behaviors and tendencies to seek out certain environments.2 (p.35),3 (p.86–6) In the Science piece cited above, behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin summed it up by asking, “Do you read books and talk to people who make you think more, or do you lobotomize yourself with television?”2 (p.35)
While a ten-year old's preference for spending a rainy day exploring their local public library as opposed to sequestering themselves in their room playing mindless video games may seem pretty trivial, over time such behavioral tendencies can exert a powerful influence on an individual's intellectual prowess. Plomin willingly concedes that testing that explanation experimentally may be difficult, but neither is it impossible.2 (p.35) The takeaway here is that as children, the playing fieldin terms of any “edge” one might have courtesy of their genesis much more level than many have supposed. Flipping those percentages around, 80% of the variation in intelligence seen in children is not attributable to genetic hard-wiring but to environmental factorsand that includes what leisure activities they choose to seek out, so in a sense, it is very much a question of use it or loose it. Personally, I have serious misgivings about the prospect of genetically engineering super-smart humans, and fortunately, for now, we do not know how to. I do not want to live on The Planet of the Morons either, so what can be done?
The influences of organisms' inherited traits when played out against the local environment is the essence of natural selection and this is just as true of our species as it is of all the other species on the planet. Perhaps the best example of a trait that is mostly genetic is height, the recipe for which, like intelligence, is made up of many different genes. Any human population, in a particular place and at a particular time, say white, adult males born in the United States between 1960 and 1969, will have an average height. A portion of the deviation from that average height (in either direction) of any one individual in that population will be due to the specific combination of genes they have inherited, and the remainder will be due to environmental factors, of which there are also many, and include things like an individual's medical history. The greatest impediment to reaching the maximum height allowed by an individual's genes is malnutrition prior to reaching sexual maturity. World-wide, the heritability of height is consistently observed to be between 65% to 80%. 4 The lesson is that if a population has its basic nutritional needs met, the average height of that population is not very environmentally malleable.
In contrast with height, the fact that only 20% of the variation in intelligence seen in children is heritable should mean that intelligence is far more susceptible to a society's efforts to maximize it by creating environments in which the intellectual development of children can flourish. The fact that by late adulthood the heritability of intelligence approaches 80% clearly shows the epic scope of our failure as a culture to avail ourselves of the robust malleability of intelligence seen in children.ii Instead, we have created a society and culture where people feel entitled to not have to think very hard, or well, about anything and become indignant when suffering the trauma of the cognitive equivalent of a hangnail or the need to apply a little mental elbow grease to accomplish a goal. We have convinced ourselves that it is an affront to “human dignity” to require of ourselves, and others, to think clearly, master a particular skill that does not have an obvious, immediate use, or present a cogent, evidence-based argument, or defend against such an argument made by another party.
It just so happens that a substantial portion of the leisure activities I find most rewarding and enjoyable are those that engage my seemingly endless curiosity, challenge me intellectually, and expand my understanding– and appreciation–of the universe we collectively inhabit and of our place within it. Having observed my fellow human beings over the course of my adult life, I can honestly say that a majority of them seem to avoid anything even remotely resembling the sort of things I enjoy like one might avoid an Ebola-ravaged African village–and I gladly concede that others' avoidance of such things is a right they are entitled to exercise. Though my teenaged self could not have predicted it, looking back over the intervening decades it is obvious that my interests, and hence the leisure activities I chose, have had the side effect of making me much better informed, better prepared, and more competent at navigating the increasingly complex and rapidly changing world of the 21st-century.
Reaching any goal worth achieving or realizing any meaningful growth as human beings is impossible without stepping outside our comfort zone; if where each of us wants to be always lay within our comfort zones then we would already be where we want to be. Pretending that anyone is entitled to not having to step outside their comfort zones, to never feel frustrated, to never have to struggle to learn something new or unfamiliar, or never face disquieting facts on the way to attaining their goals would be, quite simply, a lieor if one prefers, an act of bearing false witness.
The broader implications of bearing false witness in matters of the intellect, to ourselves and others, will be the subject of my next post.

1. Deary, I. J., Spinath, F. M. & Bates, T. C. ‘Genetics of Intelligence’. Eur. J. Hum. Genet.. 14, p.690–700; (2006).
2. Miller, G. ‘Why Are You and Your Brain Unique?’. Science. 338, p.35–36; (5 Oct. 2012). doi:10.1126/science.338.6103.35
3. Neisser, U. & Boodoo, G. ‘Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns’. Am. Psychol.. 51, p.77; (Feb. 1996).
4. Lai, C.-Q. ‘How Much of Human Height Is Genetic and How Much Is due to Nutrition?’. Sci. Am.. (11 Dec. 2006). at <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-much-of-human-height/> accessed on: 19 Nov. 2014

i At least once a week I hear someone say something like “I am so ADD.” My response is to point out that unless they have been diagnosed my a licensed psychologist in a clinical setting, it doesn't count, and to describe themselves as having ADD or ADHD is to misrepresent themselves to others...period.
ii Imagine the outcry if, after children in a particular population were weaned (at the age of 3 to 5 years), the heritability of their height was observed to be only 20%, but after reaching sexual maturity, the heritability of height came in at 80%. Their individual genetic makeup remains the same, so we would be scrambling to identify, and remedy, whatever environmental factors were stunting the growth of so many children. Given that it is our cognitive faculties, far more so than our stature, that are essential to thriving in a modern, technological society, why is there not a similar outcry over the wasted potential of so many young minds?