Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reinforce the Behavior You Want

Currier and Ives print , 1894
If I could boil down everything I have learned in behaviorism to one piece of useful advice, it would be this:
Reinforce the behavior you want.

In radical behaviorism, everything we do is a behavior.  This includes our physical actions that can be observed by others, as well as our thoughts and feelings - the "private events" that can only be felt by ourselves.  The term reinforcement refers to any stimuli that occurs after we engage in a behavior that increases or maintains that behavior.  Common reinforcers in our lives are generally things that cause us pleasure - sweets, nice smells, soft blankets, pretty music, hugs, kisses, smiles.   Reinforcement can also come from the removal of something we don't like - for instance putting up an umbrella on a rainy day is taking away the cold rain and thus reinforces the behavior of putting up an umbrella.  Punishment is the opposite: a stimulus that occurs after a behavior that weakens or stops the behavior from occurring in the future.  But for today I want to focus on reinforcement.

As you can imagine, at any given moment, we are engaging in an enormous number of behaviors.  We are looking with our eyes, listening with our ears, feeling with our skin, pushing our muscles about into different positions.  Each of these actions takes place in interaction with the environment.  We see colors, we feel textures, push against objects.  We also feel physiological changes in our bodies, such as emotions, pain or pleasure.  Part of our awareness of this is of the physiological effects such as goosebumps, tightening of stomach muscles or quickening pulse.  But it is also the relationship between events over time: we are sad because we aren't deriving joy from normally joyful activities.  Or we are excited because we are jumping up and down.

In radical behaviorism, "we" aren't actually the cause of any of these behaviors.  Rather, our bodies take place in a continuum between past and future events in which our genetic make-up is interacting with the world around us, continuously forming a "learning history".  There is no "self", an entity somehow removed from the physical body that is processing information - "thinking" - and then choosing how to act.  Thinking is a behavior like any other, and it is a result of environmental and physical interactions.

An example: someone asks you what you would like to eat for dinner.  You say, "Just a minute, let me think about it."  At this point, there is no "you" who is processing information and then relaying it back to the physical world.  Rather, the verbal question is a series of conditioned stimuli - "like to eat" and "dinner" refer to activities you have previously experienced and/or made associations with.  These associations evoke in you a series of conditioned responses.  You are now under social pressure to answer - you have learned the consequences for not answering (there also consequences for answering).  So you are prompted to engage in the behavior of emitting verbal behavior to the questioner that relate to the verbal stimuli in the question.  "What" and "you" places emphasis on your responding.  "Eat" and "dinner" are the cues as to what associations to make.  You then engage in the learned behavior of associating - literally and briefly experiencing relative pleasure sensations of the places that you have eaten, were thus relatively reinforcing, and to which a value can be assigned according to which is more or less powerful.

Whew.  All of this is quite complex.  And I was only scratching the surface.  The truth is that we are all engaged in an incredibly complex series of behaviors, moment to moment, as we go about our day.  Engaging in verbal behavior, whether with other people or with books, magazines or other verbal materials, is the most complex behavior  - literally, in the universe.  The causal chain between stimuli in the environment over our individual learning histories in the past and our current behavior in the environment of the present is tremendously complicated.

 The science of behavior has identified predictable patterns of behavior in which responses are allocated according to the schedule of reinforcement over time in which we are living our lives.  Behaviorists will often refer to all of this this as a "sea of reinforcement".  We live our lives in this sea, little boats us, traveling about based on the environment in which we sail.

As members of society - friends, family, co-workers, voters - our actions have effects on others.  Indeed, the science of behavior tells us that the behavior of individuals is determined in large part by the society in which they grow up and live their lives.  From birth, they set sail on the sea of reinforcement.  How many hugs they get, how much time they spend ignored.  How many kind words they receive, or how many harsh threats.   More importantly, what behavior they were engaging before the stimuli occurred is or is not being reinforced.  If the child asks an inquisitive question about a novel item and is rewarded with attention - an explanatory response - they will be more likely to ask inquisitive questions.  (Indeed, their private behavior of "inquisitive thinking" will be reinforced).  If, however, they receive no response, this behavior will not be reinforced.  In behaviorism, this is called "extinction": a previously reinforced behavior that occurs yet receives no reinforcement will be less likely to occur.

(I've written on this blog many times before about the classic Hart and Risley study which developed longitudinal data on this very phenomenon among different socio-economic groups.  The study was landmark in pointing to the effects of socio-economic disadvantage on children's language development.  Todd Hart was a founding contributor to The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.)

Reinforcement isn't only about the behaviors you want.  It works just as well on those you don't.  When people engage in bad behaviors - we would call them "maladaptive" - these have previously been reinforced in their learning history.  They have learned these behavioral repertoires because they have been functional for them in some way; they have been rewarded for them.  Kids learn quickly how effective screaming can be to get what they want.  When that doesn't, a swift push or punch also does the trick.  All manner of attention-seeking behaviors can be observed in everyone from small children to adults.  Look at how much reinforcement Donald Trump receives for his antics.

This becomes difficult to understand when the bad behavior seems self-destructive.  Why does the school-yard trouble maker continue to goof-off in class and alienate himself on the playground?  Wouldn't doing his work and being kind earn the kind of accolades and friendship any kid would want?  Why does he "choose" to behave this way?  Classical terms for these children (and adults) are mentalistic - they originate cause in the "mind" of the individual, as opposed to the environmental learning history.  They place moral judgment on him for "choosing" to engage in maladaptive behaviors instead of appropriate behaviors.  We call him "lazy", "mean" or "hyperactive".  In assuming that he could have done otherwise, we allow morality to enter the picture, asserting that he has failed in his obligation to follow moral rules.  We place responsibility for his actions within him, as if he could have possibly done any different.  Of course, there is morality - right and wrong.  But the error we make as a society is in blaming the individual instead of the "sea of reinforcement" in which the individual is operating.

The science of behavior has established that this framing and use of mentalistic terms are unnecessary.  A parsimonious account of all behavior can be made that is deterministic and lawful, and is certainly at least as explanatory as an mentalistic account (which isn't really an account at all but rather an appeal to circularity: one is lazy because one acts lazy, which is the cause of one's laziness).   Behaviors are a function of and contingent upon schedules of reinforcement and punishment.  There is nothing about a mentalistic account that explains anything that a radical behaviorist account of actions cannot.  Of course, we will never have access to an individual's entire learning history.  However, we can review patterns of previous behavior, take stock of the current environment, and if necessary do a functional analysis.  A functional analysis involves manipulating environmental variables to isolate relationships between the independent variable (the environmental condition) and the dependent variable (the behavior).  For instance, if a behavior is maintained by gaining access to a preferred item, removing the item will increase the behavior while returning the item will decrease it.

For the troubled kid at school, the behavior is most likely not new, and takes place in a context of a learning history in which certain events in the environment trigger a behavior and then it is reinforced.  It could be a variety of things, but commonly with these kids it is escape from demanding tasks, and a desire for attention.  The bad behavior occurs and the demands are temporarily removed.  The behavior is then reinforced when the child is reprimanded.  A vicious cycle develops where the majority of social attention the child receives comes in the form of reprimands - or sometimes laughter from other students - which reinforces the bad behavior.  Years of this go by.  Often times home life isn't so good.  There are likely few times in the child's day in which he is being reinforced for good behavior.  No one pays attention to him when he is quietly sitting in his seat.  Teachers are likely happy no not have to be dealing with him for the moment.

Interestingly, many teachers are not trained behaviorally and end up reinforcing bad behaviors and then wondering why they continue.  The child typically stops when they reprimand him, giving them a momentary reprieve, which reinforces their reprimanding behavior.  The best thing for a teacher to do is likely to ignore the misbehavior and focus on the positive behavior.  Of course, it is difficult to do this in a classroom filled with other children.  But if the behavior is being reinforced by attention, we don't want to give it any.

However, what these children need is for their appropriate behaviors to be reinforced.  What is it we want them to be doing?  Listening quietly.  Raising their hands.  Tolerating demands.  Expressing themselves via words.  Being kind to others.  Sharing.  Caring.  They need extra reinforcement when they engage in each of these.  Ideally, we would be able to be continuously monitoring them and doling out the reinforcement for each of these behaviors.  We want them to increase and happen all the time!  We want to reinforce the behaviors we want to increase, and place the maladaptive behaviors on extinction.

The nice thing about good behaviors is that they actually do bring their own naturally reinforcing consequences - having learned to ride a bike, many new pleasures are now available!  Artificial reinforcement can then be thinned as the individual comes into contact with natural reinforcement.  But they have to occur often enough and consistently enough.  One schoolyard punch can harm many days of polite caring and sharing behavior.  But sharing and caring brings friendships, fun activities and lots of social praise.  Tolerating demands placed allows one to learn easier, faster, and with more joy.

So how does one reinforce the behaviors one wishes to see in others?  By making them happy, essentially, after they have behaved appropriately.  Social praise is the easiest and most common conditioned reinforcer.  Compliment them.  Show them how much you care.  Give them a friendly slap on the back.  Give them, a smile.  Give them a hug.  A classic teacher phrase ought to be applied throughout life: catch them being good.

In Applied Behavior Analysis, we focus on the positives.  Inappropriate behavior needs to be corrected, and there are specific ways of doing that that are simple and effective.  But even more important are the alternative, replacement behaviors that we want them to engage in instead.  These sometimes need to be taught explicitly.  But generally, people already engage in them yet may not be getting sufficient reinforcement to engage in them at a high rate.  The nice thing about focusing on the positives is that they feel good for both parties.  In relationships, a little positivity can go a long way.  A nagging partner can do everyone a favor and pay attention to when the correct behavior is emitted.  If the individual isn't taking out the trash frequently enough, try heaping on the praise when they do it.  This will increase the rate of responding.  Ditto for paying attention when the partner is talking.  When they do it, make sure to lean over and give them a kiss, a hug or a squeeze.  You don't necessarily need to use verbal language to communicate praise.  You just need to make them feel good.  The behavior will be reinforced.

This isn't always easy.  We operate under our own schedules of reinforcement.  Our behavior of reinforcing the behavior we want is itself a function of schedules of reinforcement.  Maybe we don't have a learning history of praising others, or showing them affection.  Maybe instead our behavior of nagging or finding negatives has been reinforced.  In men, showing affection towards other men is actually frequently punished in children: homophobic culture reinforces behavior that seeks to punish small boys who engage in affection towards one another at a relatively young age.  Social praise can be delivered in other ways, yet physical affection and compliments are often met with statements along the lines of, "what, are you gay or something!"

It also takes a lot of patience to ignore someone's bad behaviors and emphasize the positive.  I'm certainly no saint myself.  We have a long tradition in our religions of placing a high value on behaviors such as compassion, humility, generosity and turning the other cheek.  We venerate those who are able to remain dignified, and rather than seek immediate retribution, instead find the good in others.  This is what Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Dalai Lama are all known for.  The current pope Francis is widely beloved for just this sort of attitude.

But what is "finding the good in others", but reinforcing the behavior we wish to see?

It isn't easy, but it makes the world a better place.  We all help each other.  We all create each other.  We are all in this together and responsible for one another's behavior.  Ultimately, there is no you or I, only us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tomato Sauce Fingers

Harold Pollock writes of his experiences with his brother-in-law with an intellectual disability.  He finds that lower-class restaurants seem more forgiving than those of the well-to-do:
I hate taking Vincent to pricey restaurants mostly filled with my own educational/income peers. People say all the kind things. Yet it’s not uncommon for customers at nearby tables to make us feel uncomfortable when a few chunks of Vincent’s chicken ends up on his shirt or to visibly fidget when he detracts from their elegant dining experience by allowing his fingers to migrate into the tomato sauce.
I was at an IEP meeting yesterday at a largely upper-SES middle school.  So far the child, who suffered greatly from anxiety, was having a terrific year.  The special education coordinator, new to the area, commented at how impressed she was by the tenor of the school: there was just a polite, friendly atmosphere among the students.  In fact, her friend, a substitute teacher, simply refused to take assignments anywhere else.

I was immediately reminded of the experiences I had teaching in various different schools, in various SES populations.  At the "nice" schools (read wealthier, whiter, parents more educated, etc.) one entered a campus of relaxed kids relatively calmly, playfully chatting before hustling up their well-organized bags when the bell rang.  At the "poor" schools (less income, less education, minority), the mood was tense, louder, argumentative, with negative comments and hostility in the air.  You can imagine how this carried over into the classroom.  Often the "best" teachers in the poor schools were those comfortable with an authoritarian, implicitly violent attitude that demanded (and got) obedience.  In the "nicer" schools, the teachers could be jovial, nurturing and compassionate and the students would generally respond in kind.

So these idyllic upper-SES communities are indeed delicate flowers in many ways.  The greatest irony of my life is for all my passion on issues of SES inequality, I send my two kids to upper-SES public schools surrounded by children who come from intact families, who were read to every night by parents who are doctors, lawyers, business-owners or otherwise highly educated.  Yet after having spent so much time in classrooms filled with children who come to school stressed-out, with not enough sleep, and not enough academic, emotional or cognitive preparation, and how this creates a learning environment in which a teacher is so overwhelmed in dealing with students with such need that s/he can only offer a lowest-common-denominator education, how could I in good conscience send my precious angels into such a mess?  I would be sacrificing my childrens' education at the altar of my political morality.

If everyone like me did the same, we wouldn't have this issue; the pain of inequality would be spread evenly.  But it is not.  I would vote for socio-economic integration in a heartbeat, because it would represent a collective will to change the system.  But there is a limit to one's personal political sacrifice, and this is especially true when the sacrifice is one's children.  Morally, I could do much to align my actions with my thoughts: go without most of my possessions, move to a poor neighborhood, volunteer my time for good causes, take in foster-youth, take in more shelter animals.  We could all follow Ghandi and live morally perfect lives.  I don't have the best answer for why I do not, other than to say I do what I can, and try to do more every day.

My children will grow up to be less comfortable with rough behavior.  Yet they will also grow up in many ways stronger for having been nurtured.  My hope is that they will thus be able to leverage their own strength to do better in the world.  In my own work, I deal with families who experience extreme hardship in caring for children with disabilities.  I do my best to relate my children my stories and experiences to impart the wisdom it has provided me - to be compassionate, accepting and supportive to the needs of others; to look past the discomfort, and to the beauty within us all.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Reed Dees Pook

I'm finally nearing the end of The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker.  I picked it up after reading Warner Hertzog praise it on a Reddit AMA.  An intense book about falcons.  I could picture his gravely, accented English languorously describing dark talons and feathers.

How delightful, I began reading.  

Yes, lots of talons and feathers here.  Each sentence is a real spurting climax of enthusiastic nature poetry.  Let's see, there are about 12 sentences per page.  There are 191 pages in this book.  That leaves the reader, sent up into Baker's blood red verbal sky, more than 2000 sentences to devour.  Or - oh no! - to be devoured by.  

The project began friendly enough.  But as the thing went on, I began to feel nauseated.  Plover.  So much plover...  Who knew there were so many ways to describe a passing cloud, or a country road, or the white bones sticking up out of a carcass?  No plot.  No knowledge (save for a few teasing sprinkles in the first few pages).  No character development.  No insight.  No reflection.  Just words.  

An endless, relentless torrent of damned words.  No shape, color, texture or anthropomorphic emotion was safe from Baker's incessant adjectival assault.  His metaphorical meandering bent a supposed natural world into a craggy mass of verbal gymnastics that resembled not so much the relationship of birds to limb and sky but Baker’s own solipsistic ambition.  The grand irony: a book so completely and utterly about nature that it becomes about nothing more than man.

I began to suspect the book was an act of terrorism: a bomb carefully designed to ensnare the poor human unlucky enough to be attracted to it's promise of beauty, yet it's real purpose to take the words of man and stuff them into his greedy, fallen throat.  Take that yee vile polluter.  Choke on this ugly human scum.  Read my book.  Read it!  

American Mind Control

Like everyone else this election, I'm obsessed with the answer to this question: what is driving Trump supporters?

Is it economic anxiety?  Is it loss of white, Christian identity?  Is it simple bigotry? Is it authoritarianism?

My own current theory is that it isn't based so much on any of these things, as so much as an ideological narrative that has been stewing and metastasizing for decades, propagating largely via conservative media outlets, but thriving in the oxygen-rich environs of isolated rural and suburban America - church to church, gun show to gun show, Cabellas to Cabellas, racetrack to racetrack.

Would it be possible, I ask, for an ideological narrative to develop that isn't actually based on facts in reality, but rather on facts that are assumed by its own mythology?

The clearest example of this is the world of conspiracy theories.  Despite no evidence - and often times direct evidence to the contrary - a certain type of person continues to buy in to the larger story.  The belief is thus sustained and maintained over time.

You also see this in religion, where certain areas of inquiry are immune to contradiction.  The more insular and extreme the religion, the greater the immunity.  The pure example of this is the religious cult, where almost all sense of normality is overridden by dogma.

In general, we view people who go down these rabbit holes as abnormal, and generally psychologically flawed in some way.  Yet how so?  I'm not very familiar with the literature here, but my guess is that there a lot of theories but nothing conclusive.  At any rate, these types of people have generally been considered a small, deluded, (yet strangely persistent), segment of the population.

Yet historically we can find examples of ideological movements that are not abnormal to the population, but rather the norm.  Nazi Germany comes to mind.  Anarchists at the turn of last century.  Fundamentalist Islam is a more contemporary example of an ideology that is quite popular in many regions of the world.

So how possible, then, might it be that contemporary conservatism has normalized a form of hysterical, at times conspiratorial thought?  I realize that this line of argument could easily become a cheap form of ad hominem dismissal of valid political arguments.  But what we have in Trumpism are not valid political arguments.  The bile that has been spilling from AM radio for at least 40 years - throughout the 1980's, 1990's, 2000's and 2010's is not valid argument but demogoguery and conspiratorial falsehood.  Fox news, and social media have only spread the narrative's reach.

Michael Savage:
"…You have to explain this to them in this time of mental rape that's going on. The children's minds are being raped by the homosexual mafia, that's my position. They're raping our children's minds."
Glenn Beck:
“President Obama, Tim Geithner, Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, all the other lawmakers are going after the blood of our businesses, big and small. Who's next? They have their fangs in the necks of everybody, and nothing's going to quench their thirst…There's only two ways for this movie to end: Either the economy becomes like the walking dead, or you drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers.”
Bill O'Reilly:
"I just wish Hurricane Katrina had only hit the United Nations building, nothing else, just had flooded them out, and I wouldn't have rescued them." --Bill O'Reilly on his radio show, Sept. 14, 2005
Sean Hannity:
"Halloween is a liberal holiday because we're teaching our children to beg for something for free. … We're teaching kids to knock on other people's doors and ask for a handout." —Fox News host Sean Hannity (October 31, 2007)
Ann Coulter:
"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"
Rush Limbaugh:
"A feminazi is a woman to whom the most important thing in life is seeing to it that as many abortions as possible are performed. Their unspoken reasoning is quite simple. Abortion is the single greatest avenue for militant women to exercise their quest for power and advance their belief that men aren’t necessary. Nothing matter but me, says the feminazi; the is an unviable tissue mass. Feminazis have adopted abortion as a kind of sacrament for their religion/politics of alienation and bitterness.”~Rush Limbaugh, The Way Things Ought To Be, p.192-93 , 1992
The problem with people in cults or who buy into conspiracies isn't the specific beliefs they hold.  They are often innocuous enough.  Rather, it is the mental state within which they are interacting with the larger world.  The sense of measured, reasonable,  epistemological skepticism is gone.  Truth becomes "truth", and one becomes incredibly susceptible to manipulation, as long as the sense of anger, fear and often hatred, is fed.

It doesn't happen in a vacuum.  People just don't wake up one day and decide to join a cult.  But with enough isolation, social reinforcement, and limited knowledge, and desire for some kind of affirmation of values, the ideology seeps in, puttying the gaps with its insidious dogma.

The number one priority in cults is to develop in the individual a lack of faith in outside authority.  Don't trust your family.  Don't trust the government.  Don't trust outsiders.  This enables complete mind control.  Paranoid conservatism has slowly been developing a similar tactic: don't trust the government, the media, scientists, academics, or outside culture in general.  What is left is a form of mind control in which only paranoid conservatism has any authority.

So is it economic anxiety, bigotry, loss of White Christian identity, or authoritarianism?  We've all felt economic anxiety.  Having bigoted thoughts - fear of the "other" - is a natural part of being human.  We live in a pluralistic country that values personal freedom of religion and diversity.  Authoritarianism seems as much a value as anything else that becomes socially reinforced.

What stops us from allowing these things to rule our lives and destroy our objectivity is a faith in the outside world, a maintenance of continuity with our past, and trust in institutions that have stood the test of time.  There are certainly legitimate critique of the authority of government, media, science or academia.  But each are only as good as we make them, and themselves come from principles that we ignore at our peril: democracy, objectivity, empiricism, and study.  Cultish conservatism seems diametrically opposed to each of these.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

But Isn't Trump a Free-Trader?

Something that's baffled me in this election is how much Trump's campaign seems to be built around the notion that part of "making America Great Again" is bringing back jobs that have been lost overseas due to manufacturing.  Aside from how much this is actually true, isn't a fundamental tenet of conservatism a belief in markets, free trade, and that workers simply need to adapt?
Matt Yglesias argues that this is exactly what workers have been doing, and that manufacturing, per say, hasn't really been in decline at all.  He points out that perception could be misguiding us because we tend to focus on all the consumer goods we say that don't say "made in America" on their tags.
Consumer goods and cars are two big things people buy, and both of them are things the US imports more of than we export. 
Consumer goods and cars are two big things people buy, and both of them are things the US imports more of than we export.
Meanwhile, 65 percent of our exports are either capital goods or industrial supplies — in other words, machines and equipment that companies buy to conduct their businesses. Sometimes that's something like a computer that might also be sold to a consumer. But more typically we are talking about products that aren't sold in stores or marketed to normal people. You've probably never bought a Boeing 737, for example, and almost certainly never will. But airplanes are very expensive. The sale of a single new passenger jet contains as much value of industrial output as a truly tremendous pile of shoes or toys or other consumer goods.
He also provides a couple of interesting charts:

We don't seem to see here the kind of devastating losses we all imagine when we picture rusty, hollowed-out factories.

This one gets at a better picture of what we mean when we say "manufacturing" and talking about imports and exports.
I haven't been paying enough attention - but isn't Trump pretty anti-free trade, and is this just another thing conservatives are holding their noses from? Last I checked, conservatism was all about embracing creative destruction - halcyon me remembers well listening to AM conservative radio in the 90's telling displaced workers to get over it, quit bellyaching and get retrained.
However it seems progressives are the ones who've wanted to embrace a compassionate free-trade in which government tries to facilitate the retraining and support of the displaced. Trump I understand wants to keep the jobs from leaving simply through protectionism and tax breaks. Not sure this is a very accurate vision of how economic paradigm shifts actually occur - see: automation, AI, etc.  

Personally, I'm all for disruption. But I want to make sure people get the support they need in the process.  I'm reminded of the Oregon law that required gas be pumped by employees, not customers.  I found this idiotic, as someone perfectly capable of pumping gas myself.  As much as I sympathized with the poor sap pumping my gas getting employment, the sad reality is that he made a poverty wage doing a job that was unnecessary.  I would much prefer it if he had access to job training that would allow him to find long-term, useful employment.  Barring that, a government works program that provided a non-poverty wage doing something actually useful would be a good start.  Lord knows there was infrastructure in Portland that could have been serviced while I had nothing better to do than sit on my ass in my car for 5 minutes.

Of course, Trump, as a "conservative", wouldn't go for any of this.  It is much easier for him to simply punt to the notion of tax cuts solving everything.  But he appears to be in a bind here: he gets to sell himself as the avatar of the displaced working white man, and all the racial resentment he can squeeze out of that, but without being on the hook for any actual solutions.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Peering Into Our Machines

Would it be an overstatement to say that cellular biology is the most amazing thing in the universe?  It is the basis of all life.  Zoomed in.  Right down to the atomic level, where the elements are combining and recombining, swapping electrons, trading polarities.

I was fortunate to have been able to teach basic science at the high school level without any real university study.  I was able to brush up enough to pass the basic exams for credentialing.  I sometimes felt bit fraudulent - I really didn't have the proper training.  But they needed science teachers, and I was able to pass the basic requirements.

Science is like a giant puzzle - the chemistry, the physics, the biomes, the geology - it all fits together.  And you can always go deeper.  Centuries ago, a single individual could reasonably learn all there was to know about the natural world.  Yet today, our scientific knowledge has become so deep and specialized that no one could possibly hope to know everything even in one's own sub-sub discipline.

Even if I had majored in biology I don't think I would have gotten into anything very meaty until grad school.  Even then, I would only be scratching the surface of the cell.

Today I happened upon a field I honestly wasn't quite aware exited: biophysics.  As it's name implies, it is a field that seeks to bridge biology and physics, using our knowledge of both to better understand the fundamental processes and mechanics at work.

Something had always puzzled me about cellular mechanics is how in the heck we have actually made the discoveries that we have.   How did we learn the shape, structure, and operation of organelles like mitochondria, chloroplasts, or ribosomes?  How the heck were we able to determine how Rna transcription was taking place outside the nucleus?

I used to show my students the famous digitally animated animated short film "The Inner Life of the Cell", a collaboration between Xvivo studio and Harvard.  Created in 2006, it takes the viewer on an amazing tour of some of the basic operations of animal and plant cells.  The animators worked with scientists at Harvard's Molecular and Cellular Biology to create the most scientifically accurate representations possible - with the obvious concessions for things like clarity and illumination.  But allows one to visualize what it must be like to see all this stuff in action.

However, without a deeper understanding of the work involved, one's jaw is left on the floor, pondering how it is they could possibly know this stuff.  How is it that they discovered what kinesin proteins likely look like as they make their way down a microtubule, a giant vesicle in tow?

I know that these structures are incredibly tiny, and you simply can't see them at work.  Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix only came after an analysis of Rosalin Franklin's resolution of DNA molecules through Xray crystallography.  Thats a far cry from what you can see being put forth in the film.

But like I said, I'm no expert.  I assume theres some kind of dyeing and chemical inference going on, all via very complex and painstaking analysis of extremely isolated samples.  But how exactly.  Would I never learn without attending a graduate seminar at university?

Thank to google, I came closer in my understanding tonight.  I found this article, part of a lecture on Molecular Machinery on the Institute of Physics website.  It's all rather complex and a bit much to try to go into here.  I encourage readers to check it out for themselves.  But I did enjoy mention of a particle of gold being used to demonstrate the process by which molecules can be transported throughout the cell.  One of the most astonishing portions of the Inner Life film is indeed that little protein that seems uncannily to be "walking" along a microtubule.  Well, this seems a good descrition of how they can show that process:
 The 40 nm gold bead scatters light very efficiently and the position of its centroid in a dark-field image can be fitted with nanometre resolution, even with frame rates close to 10 kHz. This small label exerts much less drag than the fluorescently labelled actin filaments (microns long) that were first used to prove that F1-ATPase is a rotary machine (see ‘Biological Energy’ Lecture 2). Combined with the fast video rates, this permits measurements with submillisecond time resolution that reveal substeps in the rotation of the stalk (rotor).

An illustration is helpfully provided.  As you can see, the gold bead is held in place, attached right to that little protein!  Marvelous!

So, it had been a while since I checked in to see what the Xvivo animation studio has been up to.  The Inner Cell was produced nearly ten years ago.  Both molecular biology and computer graphic design have surely improved greatly since then.  Boy, have they.   Their newer work is absolutely stunning.  I found this video of their work.
I'm especially impressed with the attempt to portray the stochaistic, or randomness with which the molecules bounce around against each other, jostling and jigging until their polarities match up and their function can begin.  I look forward to viewing more of their videos.  The future is just incredible.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Conservatism's Odious Upper Lip

Japanese Farting Contest (c. 1700)
Fascinating article in Cracked, of all places.
The theme expresses itself in several ways -- primitive vs. advanced, tough vs. delicate, masculine vs. feminine, poor vs. rich, pure vs. decadent, traditional vs. weird. All of it is code for rural vs. urban. That tense divide between the two doesn't exist because of these movies, obviously. These movies used it as shorthand because the divide already existed.We country folk are programmed to hate the prissy elites. That brings us to Trump.
I'm not quite sure how to process it. My main pushback is that rural Trump supporters have been sold and bought into a narrative that pits them against cosmopolitan liberals, when the conflict largely isn't so meaningful: Mexican immigrants slaughtering meat and picking crops in your town, gay marriage, Muslims, atheism doesn't have to be a bad thing, unless you buy into an ideology in which it is. So, to what extent are rural anxieties born out of actual experiences, and to what extent are they the product of the embrace of an ideology designed to inflame these anxieties? Trump sells solutions tailor-made to fix fabricated issues. My guess is that most of the issues Trump supporters complain about have little to no actual impact on their day-to-day lives, and yet somehow believe they do. White, Christian heterosexual men are not under actual assault - merely maybe some of their assumptions about how they could treat others. Neither is Christmas. But there is a "sense" in which they are. What if they simply treated others - women, gays, immigrants, Muslims, with respect? Problem solved. Ironically, one of the issues du jour - "safe spaces", trigger warnings, PC - could as easily apply to these old chauvinist attitudes. When conservatives tell fainting lefties to "get over it", one might as easily return the phrase.

The salient point in the Cracked piece is how much rural America feels condescended to by the cosmopolitan.... I'm tempted to add "elite". But that is an adjective loaded with baggage from the resentment narrative. Are they actually "elite"?

Websters defines elite in a few ways:

  1. the best
  2. the socially superior part of society
  3. a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence

This is obviously somewhat arbitrary - who decides what or who is superior?  There are indeed more elite members of society: journalists, academics, public speakers, media writers/creators, politicians. Historically this has been the city/townie schism.  

Rural resentment seems primarily motivated by civil rights resentments: religion, immigration, traditional sexual and gender roles.  Yet what is cast as a function of the elite telling urban liberals what to think, is as easily a function of the reverse.  One of the most striking elements of the gay rights triumph of the last decades has been how gays being "out" has simply shown the rest of us how normal and non-threatening in fact they are.  Larger cultural change in this way came not from the top-down but bottom up experiences in household across the nation.  The normalization of non-traditional sex roles and minority status is hardly different.  Institutional, constitutional reforms were vital -but one could argue they followed popular support as much as set popular opinion.

The use of the term "elite" signifies a power relationship in which the "non-elite" is being oppressed or disadvantaged.  As such, it is a morally righteous political attack.  It is certainly the case that there exists an urbane cultural and political elite who hold ideas that are threatening to the rural narrative of oppression.  However, it is not the elite who is doing the oppressing, but rather that larger cultural shifts that have occurred - with help from elite power,  but at least as much as the hearts and minds of individuals.  

When a rural white Christian male complains that people are speaking Spanish at the grocery store, that they can't mention Jesus in his son's homeroom, that his teacher is gay, that city-council members are openly atheist and women's basketball is being played at the boys and girls club, he is not being oppressed by elites.  He is being "oppressed" by the experiences of cosmopolitan gentry who have lived and worked with Mexicans, gays and atheists, and determined that they are deserving of respect and an equal place at the table.  

I place oppression in quotes because it isn't really oppression, is it.  Someone speaking spanish in line in front of you is not oppression.  However, if you have bought into a story that this is a bad thing,  then I could see how uncomfortable you might feel.  Yet the discomfort is of your own making.  If I decided that perfume and cologne smelled like farts, I suppose the environment might begin to feel quite toxic - oppressively so.  My that would be my problem.  

There's an old saying that expresses this quite nicely.  And it comes in language the emotionally and philosophically underdeveloped Trump supporter might understand:

He who smelt it, dealt it.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Dilema for Conservatives

Antoon Claeissens - The Judgement of Solomon (c.1536)

The election is so weird. I try to put myself in the shoes of reasonable conservatives. What if the Democrats had someone who was so ridiculous, but for all the character flaws (ego, racism, misogyny, ignorance, sadism) at least had a somewhat progressive agenda, while the opposition was going to cut taxes on the rich, appoint conservative justices, eviscerate regulations, etc.? Who would I choose?

It's so hard to separate the personal from the policy in Trump, as often his policy (mass deportation of illegal immigrants, intensifying torture, Muslim ban) directly evidences his character. What would a democratic party that elected such an asshole even look like?

This article runs commentary on the transcript of the debate. When you see his words in print, they come across as even more inane than when delivered from his beefy face, which we've all grown somewhat used to.

I suppose if ever there would be a time to "send a message" to my party, this would be it. But of course, the problem isn't "the party", it is the great masses of Republicans who want this sort of man to represent them.

I'm not sure how many people read this blog, but it would be interesting if any were conservatives who are sympathetic to the dilemma I've described. How would one go about separating out the agreeable policy in a candidate from the disagreeable policy - especially when it is backed up by an obviously vile character?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Placing Privilege on Extinction

Hieronymus Bosch- The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
- Anger (c.1450)
I recently argued that social and economic anxiety didn't explain as much of the current right-wing hatred of minorities and liberalism as the prevailing narrative would suggest. While sympathetic to real social changes providing fertile ground for hate to grow, I argued that extremism can become its own justifying, propellant force.
Victims of cults or domestic abuse may be more susceptible to begin with, but the intrinsic structure of thought becomes reinforcing.  Cult leaders and abusive spouses masterfully manipulate their victims, spinning reality so that 2 + 2 = 5.
However, Zach Beauchamp elaborates on the prevailing narrative of far-right populism being rooted in economic and social realities. In a piece in Vox, he describes a sort of controlled historical experiment that demonstrated his argument.

At the beginning of World War II, the small Baltic country of Lithuania saw two major shocks. First, in 1940, it was invaded and conquered by the Soviet Union. Just the next year, in June 1941, it was invaded and conquered by the Nazis.  In the city of Kaunas, the Nazi invasion triggered a spontaneous wave of attacks against Jewish residents, who had gained an unusual amount of power under the Soviets. The perpetrators weren’t the Nazis, who hadn’t had time to set up yet. It was the people of Kaunas themselves.  Prior to the Nazi invasion, Kaunas had a reputation for tolerance; one Jewish resident called it a "paradise." Yet afterward, the "tolerant" citizens of Kaunas tortured, humiliated, and slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. Roughly 3,800 Jews were murdered in just four days.
Just 65 miles away, in the capital of Vilnius, things were different. The city had seen pogroms in the past, so you would have expected something like the horrors of Kaunas. Yet the citizens of Vilnius mostly left the Jews alone. Why?
Indeed. Beauchamp points to an MIT researcher, Roger Petersen, who argued that this was explained not by an appeal to physical threat, nor "ancient hatreds", but rather by a sense of resentment of power dynamics.

In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, he argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn't previously held it."  Apparently WW2 Lithuanians massacred Jews who had risen to power as communists under Soviet rule.  But are gays, Muslims, Hispanics and Blacks rising to power in the US?  Apart from exceptions it seems not to be the case.  I rather think the resentment is targeted at Liberals who would pave the way towards such thinking. 
This helped explain the puzzle of Kaunas and Vilnius. In Kaunas, the Soviet invasion in 1940 had politically empowered local Jews, who had occupied leadership positions in the Communist Party prior to the invasion and ended up with plum Soviet jobs as a result. This sparked intense feelings of resentment on the part of Kaunas residents, resulting in the vicious pogrom. In Vilnius, by contrast, non-Jewish ethnic Poles held most leadership positions. The Soviet invasion didn’t empower Jews on a large scale, and thus failed to create any resentment toward them.

Beauchamp goes on to argue that this sort of deep resentment is what is motivating current far-right populism.

I have no quarry with this assessment - as far as it goes.  There is certainly resentment at work.  But I question what kind of resentment it is, and whether it is based on any real changes in power dynamics.  

For instance, in Kaunas, plum jobs and actual power were being given to a distrusted, outsider minority.  But that is not happening in the United States.  Sure, a Black man is president, but he is far from representative.  Neither are women, or gays, or Mexican immigrants.  Washing dishes and mowing laws, or picking carrots are hardly "plum jobs" of power and authority.  

And yet these groups are resented.  But rather than actual power, what seems to be resented is the mere concept of power.  Immigrants are resented for "taking our jobs", yet this is largely low-skill labor, and must be weighed against the economic stimulus plenty of economists will argue immigration also provides.  Rather, much more of the resentment is based not in any physical threat, but abstract notions of "cultural invasion", in which Spanish translations are made available, Spanish is spoken in public, or simple Hispanic expressions of culture are cause for offense.  The resentment is the idea of Hispanic culture simply co-existing with Anglo culture.

This same resentment is expressed towards gay, black, feminist, atheist (humanist) or gender transgressive culture.  The resentment is less about physical threat to power and authority, as it had been perceived from Jews in Kaunas, and more about the mere idea of these groups being accepted, respected and having an equal right, or claim on cultural and institutional legitimacy.   The idea of homosexuality being viewed as legitimate is resented.  The idea of black language being used is resented.  The idea of women taking on male roles is resented.  

While the sentiment of resentment against all these groups may not be located in any real threat to power, it is located in political and cultural space.  The civil rights movement has been about toppling the notion that white, patriarchal, heterosexual Christian culture ought to be the default American perspective. A central moral claim of the movement is that as these other perspectives are just as valid, it is thus "politically correct" to take them into consideration when engaging in cultural behaviors and practices.  That is, there is a moral responsibility to do so.  Because the default has been to ignore or deny their validity, and to assume a traditional non-inclusive perspective, an active process of self-criticism must be constantly made in one's personal behavior to correct for this bias.

It is this criticism, this open dialogue of openness to the possibility that one's privilege is unwittingly supplanting or exploiting the lack of privilege of another, this expectation of self-criticism, that ultimately is resented most.  It is a form of moral embarrassment, in which one's concept of self as legitimate and righteous clashes against the accusation by others that one is acting arrogant , chauvinistic, or disrespectful of the feelings of others.  So many today swear up and down all day that they are not racist or sexist or homophobic.  And they honestly believe it.  But through their actions, they express implicit biases.  They make assumptions, create associations and hold values that demonstrate otherwise.   

Political correct criticism is the act of pointing this out, of making the case that one is engaging in behavior that is not aligned with commonly shared values of tolerance, patience, compassion and understanding.  The critique is an attempt to shorten the distance between the speaker and the subject offense, for sake of moral clarity.  For instance, a funny joke might be told that involves the death of a parent.  If one is entirely removed from this perspective, they might find it easy to laugh at the dark humor.  However, if the joke is told to someone whose parent has just died, the joke might not be so amusing.  The pointing out of this is an attempt to illustrate the conflict between shared values (the love of a parent) and behavior (making fun of a parent's death).  Now, these sort of social errors have always been common, and obvious.  We point them out to each other frequently.  When the mistake is unintentional, the gaffe can be chalked up to a brief lapse in judgment.

However, with larger social errors, the offense reflects not merely a momentary slip, but rather evidence that a person shows much greater, persistent ignorance of a historical phenomenon, and is willing to participate in its perpetuation.  This is not always an easy call, and many people are too quick to make such sweeping moral judgments when the behavior is not reflective of ignorance, but rather could be done with contextual knowledge, or in another such way as to demonstrate not ignorance but something else entirely.  I was recently personally involved in an exchange in which my constructive criticism of an article on white privilege (I argued that it was not going far enough into the mechanisms at work), was criticized by a person friend, and person of color for having the temerity to make the criticism to begin with, as a white male.  My sense of identity and values were definitely being placed on extinction.  I thought about the comments at length, and still believe they were unfair and inappropriate.  I felt neither the content of my critique, nor the format in which I made it were legitimately being impacted by my identity as a white male.   What my friend was essentially asking was for me to "check my privilege". Yet is any criticism by a white male (no matter how mild), an unacceptable form of privilege?  

Many people themselves who have been historically mistreated or otherwise marginalized will be the first to make "politically incorrect" statements in jest, during moments of levity.  "Gallows humor" describes the phenomenon of those on the front lines of truly terrible events finding humor as much to rekindle dimming spirits as anything else.  The question, "Too soon?" illustrates the grayish quality of the line between appropriately and inappropriately behaving in such a way as to not give proper seriousness to what was at one point a painful, traumatic event.  This type of judgment is also often doing extra work, so as to bluntly wield an easy moral bludgeon over those with whom one might wish to score cheap political points.  This gives the moral importance of true political correctness - of recognizing real power relationships in effect and actuated in social behavior - a bad reputation and is counterproductive to real social change.

Yet though this type of poor judgment can be indulged in too easily, proper, "correct" socio-political criticism is always necessary.  Power differentials between man are central to our species' continue struggles for equality and freedom.

Political Correctness and the Behavioral Concept of a Stimulus Prompt
In behavioral science terms, this would be known as a stimulus prompt.  Just as a visual prompt serves to correct negative behaviors by signalling the appropriate behavior in public areas, this prompt serves as a conditioned stimulus to correct behaviors in private.  So, for instance, the "wash hands" sign in public restrooms is a conditioned stimulus that prompts us to remember to use proper hygiene after using the bathroom.  We have many "little voices" in our head that have also become conditioned through reinforcement to prompt us to engage in appropriate verbal behavior.  Even though I may find someone's style of dress unattractive, I do not say so out loud because I have been conditioned that this behavior is impolite.  Obviously, social behaviors are highly arbitrary and subjective to different cultures.  However, they have their own logic based on what has been reinforced as acceptable.  If I tell someone they look ugly, this verbal behavior will be punished by our culture.  Likewise a nearly infinite number of responses has been reinforced and punished, establishing in me a repertoire of social behaviors.

The line between what is and is not conscious in this process has to do with my behavior of reflection, or "thinking" about certain stimuli and responses.  Children are taught "strategies" to solve problems.  This amounts to a set of verbal instructions that, through reinforcement, will then be evoked in them when certain stimuli are present.  For instance, when the figures 3+ 3 = are written on the board, the behavior of looking and counting fingers is reinforced so that in the presence of similar number patterns, they can use this type of motor prompt behavior to help derive the solution to addition problems.  As their adding repertoire becomes stronger, this prompt can fade from a motor behavior to a silent "private event" verbal behavior, taking the form of imagining one's fingers.  Eventually, the prompt fades completely as it is no longer necessary and reinforcement for the correct answer is encountered without having ever using the prompt, and it disappears from use (or technically, goes "extinct").

Stimulus Prompts
Of course, many types of prompts are useful in our daily lives.  Many of them are outside of us, and physical, such as written language, signage, taps on the shoulder, railings, lines, etc.  We have just as many within our own skin and metaphysical: counting and echoically repeating phrases to memory are both very common.  Sometimes these private events become public, as when we can be heard muttering a prompt to ourselves, "where did I put that envelope" is a type of prompt we have learned to repeat to help in locating items such as envelopes or car keys.  They have been reinforced in the past when such an utterance has "triggered", or become the stimulus that evokes the behavior of remembering items we were motivated to find.  There is generally no need to be conscious that we are using these prompts.  We have more important things to concern ourselves with.  But sometimes our prompts can be faulty.  We frequently discover that our "thinking" on a particular subject had been flawed.  Recently, I began keeping a particular bowl in a different cabinet.  For weeks, whenever I was motivated to find that bowl, I looked in the location that I had previously found it in, and had been a stimulus that had reinforced my looking in that particular location.  Over multiple opportunities, when I looked in the old location, and was met with an empty cabinet, my behavior was not reinforced, but rather placed on extinction.  However, this became a prompt to look in the new location, and the behavior of looking there was reinforced when I found the bowl.  I now do nothing else.

When your uncle makes a racist joke and no one laughs, he is not getting the reinforcement he once had when he first heard the joke, among his racist friends who first told it to him.  Furthermore, he may be actively punished for telling the joke by frowns or specific verbal behavior such as rebukes.  A common "side-effect" of punishment is what we would consider negative behavior: anger/ resentment/ retaliation.  This "negative" behavior can actually be quite effective for the behaver.  If your uncle gets what he wants by angry outbursts, they will be reinforced, and he will continue engaging in them in the future.  On a societal level, this process of avoiding being "put on extinction", and having one's behavior reinforced, is what drives people to spend time with like-minded others, forming cultural groups.  Political correctness is rooted in the understanding that a class of people's civil rights have historically been privileged, and in order to guarantee an equality of civil rights to all, that previous verbal behavior need be changed.  However, even as many laws have been changed, and institutional practices have been altered, privilege still exists.  In social exchanges, verbal prompts have been established to place certain behaviors on extinction and to reinforce others.  

Privilege as Stimuli
Many members of the privileged group however, resent and are angry about the concept of political correctness.  This is a natural result of being placed on extinction.  They had previously been reinforced for reacting to stimuli from a privileged perspective, and now that reinforcement is being withheld.  This can present a tricky dilemma for social interactions.  In the example of the joke about a dead parent, the context is crucial.  It would be disrespectful to make light of someone's recent trauma, yet maybe after many years or if no one is present who has experienced the trauma, it might be perfectly fine.  The stimulus relations in these two cases are different.  Similarly, the stimulus relations for someone with a history as a member of a privileged class are going to be different than a member of that class.  Political correctness might be thought of as this individual example of an awkward reckoning of stimulus relations being played out on a societal scale.  

However, this says nothing about whether the feelings are legitimate; anger is of course often quite justified.  When one's privilege is challenged, anger and resentment are natural responses.  The question is whether the challenge was justified.  If one makes a racist joke and is offending another, who is experiencing a sort of dehumanization, or exclusion, one is at some level violating their civil rights - their right to be treated fairly and respectfully.  This might be contrasted with a joke told "in good fun" in which both parties are willing and understanding of each other's shared humanity, friendship, good-will, etc.  No civil rights in any sense are being violated.  

But in this case, if the critique is correct, if civil rights are being violated, if people are being ignored, excluded, exploited or otherwise marginalized, especially as part of a larger history of societal exclusion in which the privileged party has been reinforced for behaving in ways which contribute to this process, then the anger is not justified.  The behavior (or "response") had been socially inappropriate.  That is, it conflicted with our larger values.  It had been reinforced by a cultural space in which it was OK to assume that white, patriarchal, Christian cultural norms were supposed to be the default, and other perspectives were inferior.  Yet if we respect the rights of women, of people to be who they were born to be, of people to retain their cultural heritage in a diverse society, then this behavior ought not be reinforced, but placed on extinction.  

Throwing Tantrums
A tantrum is a common set of behaviors often involving anger/ resentment/ retaliation and seen when one has been placed on extinction, having had their previous reinforcements removed.   If you add up all of the ways in which privilege has been reinforced in a certain class of individuals, there is a considerable amount of behavior that political correctness is essentially attempting to place on extinction.  People who have lived their lives in an environment in which privileged behavior for years has been reinforced by popular culture, churches, mass marketing advertising campaigns and partisan media outlets, will no doubt experience a great deal of discomfort might this reinforcement be revoked.

Like the Vilniusians, the nationalist far-right are brimming with resentment.  However, unlike the Vilnusians, the targets of far-right resentment - the gays, immigrants, feminists and the like - have not taken away their positions of real power and authority.  Rather, all that has been asked of them, the privileged,  is that they allow that they no longer be considered the "default" setting in American social, cultural, and institutional life.  They have been asked to make room and share with others.  This has always been difficult for Americans, and is part of the core of the civil rights narrative: learning to share and express humility.  From slavery, to native peoples, to segregation, to feminism, to the disabled, to gay and transgender rights, the aim is simply to acknowledge that everyone has a right to sit at the table and be respected.

The effect of this questioning the default narrative - the electing of a Black president, the presence of illegal immigrant workers, gay marriage, minorities on television, installation of wheelchair ramps outside businesses - has not had a negative impact on real white, patriarchal Christian freedom and dignity.  It has merely rolled-back some of the unequal, out-sized privilege it had enjoyed.

What it has done, however, is to place countless stimulus prompts in places in which previously there were none.  Whether as physical prompts - seeing minority presence in the media and in places of authority, or as verbal prompts - hearing voices speaking out in critique of privileged narratives, new, appropriate behaviors will hopefully continue to replace the previously maladaptive behavior which runs counter to our core values.

In behavior science, there is a phenomenon known as the "extinction burst".  This describes what frequently happens when a previously reinforced behavior gets placed on extinction.  Kicking a soda machine when it fails to give you your soda when you press the button.  Yelling at your car when it runs out of gas.  A child screaming when it doesn't get to watch its favorite show on TV.  All are examples of an extinction burst.  It is tempting to view this far-right nationalist behavior as part of an extinction burst at the societal level.  The term "burst" refers both to a sudden uptick in severity/frequency of the behavior, as well as a sudden decline when plotted on a graph.  After the extinction burst, if reinforcement is continued to be withheld, the behavior will eventually decrease and ultimately stop completely.  However, if behaviors are reinforced, even intermittently, they will continue.

The question for us is one all behavior analysts must first address: what is the function of the behavior, i.e. what is reinforcing it, causing it to continue?  In the absence of an actual threat to the behavior of the privileged, what is reinforcing it?  Right-wing media narratives, especially when taking place in a proverbial echo-chamber, reinforce listening behavior and the adherence to rules regarding assumptions about the marginalized, as well as those who might defend them.  Indeed, if there were any group the far-right nationalists might be thought to despise more than the non-white, it would be the left-wing progressives with whom they are in metaphysical conflict.  Much of the verbal narrative of the right is spent organizing rules about the left in order to inoculate themselves from criticism that might come from those quarters, and interfere with their intra-group reinforcement.

Friday, October 7, 2016


Is this lede tactic getting tired:

"I really like X, but......."

Hey - It's the way my brain operates.  OK.  I'll try something different....

Talking about socio-economics is tricky.  Because the subject usually comes up as a result of some other context, we tend to use off-hand catch-alls like "disadvantaged", or "poor".  But these are incredibly blunt tools, and can easily be misinterpreted.

Take for example, "he grew up poor, but found a way to reach his goals."  The word "poor" is doing a ton of work here.  Depending on the case, it could mean a lot of things apart from mere financial poverty.  It could also mean an unsafe neighborhood, a single-parent home, a low-scoring school, a polluted neighborhood, parents who didn't read to him, parents who were abusive, family members on drugs, negative peer influences, etc.  All of these are environmental risk-factors that are associated with poverty.  When we say "grew up poor", any or none of them could be included.  Maybe his parents were loving, nurturing, well-educated, and lived in a relatively safe neighborhood, and sent him to a school with other high-achieving children.  Or maybe not.

Yet how often do we hear poverty spoken of in purely financial terms?  The difference between someone in the former situation and someone in the latter is vastly different.  You put a hundred kids in the first, and a hundred kids in the second, and guess how they'll turn out on average.

The reality of socio-economics is that there are a whole bunch of factors involved, some more harmful or beneficial than others, and depending on how they interact.  Often times, a child will grow up with a host of serious socio-economic risk-factors, yet will turn out quite well due to some key privileges he enjoyed: having a grandmother who was able to support him, having a teacher he connected to, living on a certain street instead of the one a block over.

The contingencies are myriad.

And so I saw this on facebook today.  It was a post by Lin Manuel-Miranda:

Apparently one of his first jobs was McDonalds.  Now, to be charitable, he did work there, and it's a completely low-rung job, and now he has an award-winning musical.  But lest anyone forget for a damned second, there is working at McDonalds, and there is working at McDonalds.  Most McDonalds employees have little education, and grew up poor.  Most will stay uneducated, and stay in poverty.

This verb finds itself at the intersection between the two types of poverty mentioned early.  One type of poverty is like lying at the bottom of a cold dark ocean.  The other is sitting in a dingy just off shore, ones tiny hands on the oars.

From Wikipedia:

His father is a former political advisor who advised New York City mayor Ed Koch, and his mother is a clinical psychologist.  His father is a former political advisor who advised New York City mayor Ed Koch, and his mother is a clinical psychologist….After graduating from Hunter College Elementary School and Hunter College High School, Miranda went on to attend Wesleyan University.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Teachers in the Hood

Peter Moskos, who writes the blog "Cop In the Hood", is a former Baltimore police office who teaches in the department of law, political science and criminal justice at CUNY, has an excellent piece in which he argues that we should be more worried about the crime rate.  He goes into some political details, points out why some on the left and right might be trying to spin it.  But what really impressed me was how he brought his own experiences to bear on the subject.

Among academics, it's quite uncool to blame criminals for crime or give police credit for crime prevention. But then how many statisticians who use the UCR Homicide Supplement can point to a specific row and say, "Yeah, I handled that one.".... How many Harvard PhD students have the intimate experience of sorted through a victims' clothes? Clothes that are literally dripping with blood and yet still reeking of body odor. You're trying to go through everything, looking for pockets, for any sign of identification of the life that used to be. And then there are the death notifications.
The piece is dripping with the kind of heartfelt, front-line experience that is crucial to our understanding of the intersection between poverty/race/violence/etc. and our public debate.  I was a teacher for years at poor schools, and this was exactly how I felt when I heard the education "conversation".  It was always missing the kind of nuanced picture of what life is actually like for the families and teachers who actually worked together day in and day out.

I ended up leaving, and am now a behavioral analyst working with many of the same populations (yet with a vastly more effective set of interventions, but that's another story).  I left teaching disillusioned and frustrated.  In the liberal studies courses I had taken I had been led to believe that a good, loving, non-prejudiced teacher with high expectations was all that was needed to turn these kid's lives around - Stand and Deliver was so inspiring!  The only real problem was racism and teachers who didn't care!  Yet the reality is so much more complex.  The disadvantage in the lives of vast numbers of kids leave them with severe cognitive and emotional - not to mention academic -  deficits that grade-level placement in standard coursework becomes increasingly absurd.  And in a classroom of 30 kids, the majority of whom have little regard for a grade, refuse to do homework, and calls home are received by parents who have zero control over their children, the situation is a recipe for failure for all but the most miraculous of teachers.  These students have already been removed from the upper-level courses (those, by the way, that Escalante taught), and generally get warehoused in the lower-levels.

When a kid curses at the teacher, hits or pushes another student, throws things at them, or consistently disrupts class, there must be consequences, and repeated consequences must increase in severity.  These students, by definition, are the most disadvantaged students: this behavior is a result of their environments.  And they are far more likely to be poor and minority.  Yet what you hear in the public conversation is that either the teachers are biased and picking on  minorities (the left), or that minorities have gotten themselves into this bad situation and need to get themselves out without intervention (the right).

There is an element of truth to both of these perspectives.  In all honestly, towards the end I did find myself almost expecting minority students to be more likely to cause trouble - I did my best to check this regularly, many teachers would not.  But both perspectives miss the larger social picture, which isn't about blame, but about what are the actual causes of the problems, and at least point us to what interventions might be appropriate.

I won't pretend that simply being there on the front lines: that working and talking to the families and kids on a daily basis is somehow enough for one to understand the problem.  It probably is as likely to lead you draw incorrect conclusions.  But it is however, essential to the discourse.  When we talk about schools, teachers and kids, we need to have an intimate understanding of what these relationships look like.  They will both disabuse us of faulty assumptions, as well as grant us special insights into the particular difficulties these complex social relationships present.

So my point is not that the problem is hopeless.  I have plenty of ideas about what we can do.  But rather, that the "conversation" we have is abstracted, removed from the front lines, and burdened by theoretical and ideological baggage that is insulated from reality.

This post illustrates this phenomenon beautifully.  Not in education, but in policing, where a larger "conversation" is also occurring, yet which too often feels like it is only coming from a ridiculous pro-police versus anti-police perspective, where there are only good guys versus bad-guys.  The reality is that there are only people doing what they know how to do.  There are innocent minorities being unfairly treated, as well as those who are acting poorly and need to be dealt with in an aggressive manner.  There are police who are being prudent, there are police who are being hot-headed and callous.  There is also a larger system in which babies are born into extreme disadvantage, and will grow up to act terribly.  We as  a society need to find a way to deal with them respectfully but firmly, all the while searching for ways to improve our system so that more babies aren't disadvantaged, and so fewer police will be required to navigate such dysfunctional communities.

Ultimately, what saddens me most is also what comes across in Moskos' piece: when we fail to properly identify the problem, we are failing the actual victims.  In his case, the victims of crime, or in my case, the students themselves.  But the victims are also all of those affected by dysfunctional behavior - from those whose lives they burden, to the perpetrators themselves who could have been more.