I also check my skeletons twice. You can never be too careful.
October 20, 2014 3:12 AM   Subscribe

I waited silently for her to explain that the female pelvis is shaped slightly differently from the male’s, with a larger opening for childbearing. That part was the giveaway. The real purpose of the exercise was to make her prove her conjecture with measurements--to translate the theory to practice. I also wanted her to explain why this sexual dimorphism--that is, this sexually determined physical difference--is not nearly so pronounced in nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees.

She spoke: Males have one fewer pair of ribs than females.
When teacher Robert S. Root-Bernstein got this answer to his question on how you should distinguish between male and female skeletons, he had to find a way to make her realise her error without disparaging her religion.
posted by MartinWisse (271 comments total) 110 users marked this as a favorite
 
Good for him.

Bad for whatever keyword-based advertising put a giant ad for "The God Vitamin" on that page.
posted by themanwho at 3:17 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


"My mandible dropped."
posted by drowsy at 3:32 AM on October 20, 2014 [53 favorites]


Wow, does he ever have a lot more tact that I do. That was a good read.
posted by Naib at 3:34 AM on October 20, 2014 [19 favorites]


Marine Tod in Reverse!
posted by St. Sorryass at 3:35 AM on October 20, 2014 [33 favorites]


Great story. Sounds like an excellent teacher. It was insightful when the author noted that not having a problem that the student cares about is what can keep the student from really learning the information the student may "know" from intensive study. I teach economics. In grad school and ever since, every thing I learned I learned because I had concrete problems I cared about. After studying cap and trade policies one summer, I started the next semester by implementing a new attendance policy based on it. Students were given three absence "permits" and could buy and sell them in class to other students. Something about just designing a market that did not exist and witnessing first hand how many factors affected its performance gave me a much deeper understanding of when and why a market could move something around. I also remember once forcing myself to go back and relearn statistics and elements of game theory so that I could become a better poker player (which at the time was keeping me from completing my dissertation). Oddly enough, models of poker managed to make themselves into my dissertation even though they had nothing obvious to do with what I was studying. So I agree with the author -- I do suspect that absent real problems we care about, ideology and superstitions abound.
posted by scunning at 3:35 AM on October 20, 2014 [51 favorites]


I was always taught, by everyone from my parents to my school teachers, that you should take the opportunity to critically appraise what you're told. Literally everyone taught me this from my earliest memory. My daughter is 9 and if I told her she had one fewer pair of ribs than me I have no doubt whatsoever that she'd be pressing fingers into torsos and searching Google for x-rays within seconds.

Sometimes it staggers me how privileged I am.

If you want to defer to priests on matters of the existential soul and morality then I won't disparage that. And if you want to take a cosmologist's word for it when it comes to the chemical make up of some far off star then I can see the sense. There are limits to our time, skills and understanding. But if you don't have presence of mind to count ribs for yourself then you've been trained to be an idiot, and everyone that trained you is contemptible and the system they worked within needs constant disparaging.
posted by samworm at 3:39 AM on October 20, 2014 [87 favorites]


Spoiler alert, and to frame my previous comment: this story is the opposite of LOLxtians. It must be read for the prose alone, and the lesson within is impressive too.
posted by drowsy at 3:44 AM on October 20, 2014 [20 favorites]


Im just trying to understand why disparaging ridiculous superstitious beliefs is such a sacred cow. I get that maybe you don't need the hassle of an argument, but when we do not negate ignorance we are complicit in its endurance.
posted by sfts2 at 3:45 AM on October 20, 2014 [30 favorites]


he had to find a way to make her realise her error without disparaging her religion.

Why?

I mean I appreciate his pedagogical approach but dead wrong is dead wrong.
posted by rdr at 3:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Because otherwise she would simply double down, shut in, and not learn anything?

Much like Metafilter on topics of religion, I might add.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 3:50 AM on October 20, 2014 [238 favorites]


I have conducted surveys of nearly a thousand first-year college students who either are nonscience majors or have not yet declared a major. More than 25 percent report believing that God created the Earth within the last 10,000 years and that man was formed in God’s image exactly as described in the Bible. Another 50 percent report being undecided as to whether evolution is a valid scientific theory or a hoax. Only about 20 percent enter my university having learned enough about science and the evidence for evolution to consider it a valid scientific theory.

Jesus wept.
posted by Wet Spot at 3:50 AM on October 20, 2014 [58 favorites]


I believe a relatively well-known riddle among painters and sculptors of medieval subjects that provides a conflict of reason and dogmatic belief involves two scientists that discover a sub-terranean cave around the region of Mesopotamia and come upon a wall of ice in which two human figures are preserved in perfect suspended animation. As the ice is shaved away, from only a visual inspection, one scientist exclaims to the other that they've discovered Adam and Eve. The other scientist soon agrees. How could this claim be proven?

I thought of it because a typical response (beyond fig leaf and apple) is a missing rib. To which a response is people can be born with an anomalous number of ribs. And I don't believe an ice cave exists any where in the middle east, but like any story or joke, it's in the telling.

The answer is not having a navel, which is true of most depictions of Adam and Eve from before and after the Rennaisance.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:55 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


Im just trying to understand why disparaging ridiculous superstitious beliefs is such a sacred cow.

It's honestly not that hard, to the extent that I can't help wondering if you're really trying to understand, or actually give a shit at all.

All people hold beliefs that are not fact-based; some of these beliefs are tied inextricably to our identities, our cultures, our societies etc. When people insensitively attack these non-fact-based beliefs without understanding how they are connected to someone's identity, or the cultural/social/historical context in which the beliefs have developed, it fosters animosity, resentment, disengagement and a perception in the attacked party that it is not a belief you are attacking, but their identity (a difference not so easily defined, really). This generally hinders any chance of engagement, learning, respect etc. Kinda the opposite of what any teacher should strive for, really.

tl;dr: the difference between being right, and actually changing society.
posted by smoke at 3:58 AM on October 20, 2014 [198 favorites]


he had to find a way to make her realise her error without disparaging her religion.

Why?

I mean I appreciate his pedagogical approach but dead wrong is dead wrong.


Because by doing it his way, he actually taught her something. If he had said, "No, you're dead wrong, and by the way, your religion is a castle of lies built on that foundation of wrongness (which, of course, has fuck-all to do with this class)," do you think she would have learned anything?

Incidentally, the way he corrected her belief is right in line with even the most literal Bible literalists.
posted by Etrigan at 4:02 AM on October 20, 2014 [28 favorites]


Smoke. I know you think you are helping by being empathetic in this but I sincerely doubt that your approach would have a net positive effect. I also said nothing about in sensitively attacking. I think a laugh and walk away would be my response.
posted by sfts2 at 4:04 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


"Im just trying to understand why disparaging ridiculous superstitious beliefs is such a sacred cow. I get that maybe you don't need the hassle of an argument, but when we do not negate ignorance we are complicit in its endurance."
Because he is teaching a class on anthropology, not theology or hermeneutics. It would be at best a shitty distraction.

I mean, assuming you don't just want professors to just evangelize your religious values at students in state sponsored institutions, the student's hermeneutic approach is also as demonstrably useless and worth correcting as their scientific one. Scientific inquiry does have a solid theological foundation dating back to the works of Tertullian and rooted into the bedrock of every major Christian church by Galileo's forceful and viciously flowery argument in 1615. It is largely vestigial to modern scientific communities, but still there and still useful.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:05 AM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


At some point when I was a kid, I picked up the idea that women have one less rib, and I assumed the myth was a Just So story made up to cover an odd biological fact. I think I would have been as surprised as the student... although Wikipedia says "About 1 in 200-500 people have an additional cervical rib, and there is a female predominance." so, you know, maybe someone in antiquity got just the wrong skeleton to examine.
posted by Leon at 4:05 AM on October 20, 2014 [34 favorites]


To insist that students accept my word (or the word of any scientist) about any fact would undermine the one thing that makes science different from all other belief systems.

Is science generally seen as a belief system ? Facts are facts, if you believe in them or not.
posted by Pendragon at 4:11 AM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


m just trying to understand why disparaging ridiculous superstitious beliefs is such a sacred cow. I get that maybe you don't need the hassle of an argument, but when we do not negate ignorance we are complicit in its endurance."

My kids say completely ridiculous things all the time. Strangely enough, making fun of them doesn't actually help them learn anything; it just makes them mad. It's hard to reason with them when they're mad, and it just makes me sound like an ass.

No, this woman isn't a child. But if your job is to teach her, you're still better off not being an ass.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:16 AM on October 20, 2014 [23 favorites]


"I think a laugh and walk away would be my response."
That might be fine in an ordinary context, but without a change in attitude you would make a terrible university professor. Ridicule has absolutely no place in a college class room, there is no meaningful rational for it, no excuse for it, and a gigantic pile of empirically demonstrated reasons why it is not an ok thing ever. It contributes to student attrition, actively interferes with learning, and in a professional academic environment only exists to prop up the fragile misaligned egos of assholes who either haven't thought much about what it means to teach or think there are no consequences for their failure to do so.

This professor is doing his job exactly right in a way that is worth learning from.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:17 AM on October 20, 2014 [149 favorites]


For people looking for more in this vein, Phil Plait's Don't Be a Dick talk (31 minutes on Vimeo) is excellent. His message is the same as that of the professor the in the FPP: it's not just good manners to address someone's religiously-driven wrong beliefs respectfully, it's more effective at changing their mind on that topic and for getting them to be more skeptical and scientifically-minded in general.

I'd venture that most people who have changed their mind on something significant and dearly held would agree. Being laughed or yelled at is inferior to someone explaining kindly and straightforwardly and then giving you space to make your own decision.
posted by daveliepmann at 4:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [23 favorites]


Is science generally seen as a belief system ? Facts are facts, if you believe in them or not.

Of course it's a belief system; the very idea of science is a belief system - one that at one time encompassed an awful lot of what we would call superstition, magic, nonsense etc today.

Science didn't spring up fully-formed and immutable in the human consciousness from day dot. It's something that has developed over time and is continuing to develop. This is not reducing the importance of 'facts', or 'reality', but I frankly think it does a gross disservice to science, to reduce it to mere facts. It's so, so much more than that and its construction as a belief system is (cross) cultural, is social, is behavioural.

I mean germs are a fact, but absent a microscope, are they really more plausible than humours?
posted by smoke at 4:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [28 favorites]


Is science generally seen as a belief system ? Facts are facts, if you believe in them or not.

There are certain axiomatic assumptions... you can call them beliefs if you want. Reality exists, you can trust your senses, the universe is capable of being understood... that kind of thing. And, of course, science-as-it-is-done and science-as-it-should-be-done are two different things, so pragmatically belief does creep in.
posted by Leon at 4:26 AM on October 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


I just want to jump back in one last time:

I think a laugh and walk away would be my response.

I'm not saying this applies to you, or is universal or anything, but in my experience as a generality, "laugh and walk away" is the remit of the powerful in society. It's not an option that is equally available to everyone, and the consequences of pursuing it as an approach are disproportionately metered out.

It might be a better world, as you contend, if everyone could laugh and walk away, but I really genuinely and deeply believe as a matter of personal political conviction - and as close to spirituality as I'll ever get - that very little was ever changed by laughing and walking away alone, and further; in my personal philosophy for my own life - not that I always live up to it - it's immoral to do so, when you have the power to connect with someone as a fellow human being, foster that connection, promote that sense of fellowship and goodwill.
posted by smoke at 4:27 AM on October 20, 2014 [19 favorites]


"Is science generally seen as a belief system ? Facts are facts, if you believe in them or not."
Science, properly understood, is neither of these things. It is much much more than just the simplistic list of facts that are true to the exclusion of things that aren't true, which most of us only scratched the surface of and then largely forgot from boring classes in high school. It is a process, a verb, a way of doing that this professor is teaching beautifully.

Prof. Root-Bernstein is walking his students through hypothesis formation and testing, demonstrating the failures of their hypotheses, helping them form new ones, and through this process allowing them to construct new, more valid, and more useful models for understanding the nature of the human skeleton. Learning science isn't really about learning the number of ribs in the human body, its about learning how to count them and then fit the number into a broader understanding useful for asking deeper questions.
posted by Blasdelb at 4:29 AM on October 20, 2014 [36 favorites]


Why?

Because he was there to teach her science, not to be a dick.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:30 AM on October 20, 2014 [58 favorites]


Is science generally seen as a belief system ? Facts are facts, if you believe in them or not.

The idea that the universe works based on knowable, mathematical laws and not the whims of deities is a belief. Some very compelling arguments for it exist, but it cannot ultimately be proven.

For all you know, Zeus might have been sitting still and snickering in his beard for the last couple thousand years.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:31 AM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


We don't, primarily, teach facts in university courses. We teach methods.

The problem with derision or dismissiveness is that it wastes a teaching moment. You go from one authoritarian source (the bible) to another (the teacher/textbook). Rib counts aren't a super-important issue: what's important is that students cultivate the ability (and more importantly, the predilection) to test hypotheses.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:47 AM on October 20, 2014 [81 favorites]


When I moved up to secondary school at around 10 or 11, our science teacher, a proper old-school tall, skinny, beardy pipe-smoking science dude, did the classic 'animal/vegetable/non-living' lesson, where we built up a list of things that distinguished living and non-living things.

The way he phrased the question was this: 'What things can only a living thing do?' I put up my hand and answered 'die', knowing that this wasn't exactly the answer a scientist would be looking for, but that it was valid nevertheless. For some reason he decided that my answer was the most hilarious thing he'd heard in a long time, and soon had the whole class laughing at me about how something that died could possibly be 'alive'. I felt about the same way that I would have felt if I'd been stood there naked.

Looking back, he was actually a pretty good teacher, all things considered. But I never got over that early incident; it was probably not intended to be hurtful, but I don't think I ever raised my hand to answer a question in that class again. Other kids probably had the same experience with him over the years. I myself became (briefly) a science teacher, and sometimes had a keep a straight face when kids said things that were clearly not the product of a reasonable mind. But I don't think I was ever dismissive or ridiculed any of my students. Because they would have quite correctly thought I was a dick.
posted by pipeski at 4:53 AM on October 20, 2014 [60 favorites]


Your answer was also perfectly sensible. Christ, what an asshole.
posted by mellow seas at 4:59 AM on October 20, 2014 [64 favorites]


pipeski, your answer was tautological, but not in the slightest bit wrong. Your teacher was an asshole. Give me a time machine and I'll clobber him like Marine Todd.
posted by Faint of Butt at 4:59 AM on October 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


(Jinx, mellow seas!)
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:00 AM on October 20, 2014


It is also a learning experience to read the various methods of argument and persuasion being used in this mefi thread.
posted by ardgedee at 5:02 AM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


"The idea that the universe works based on knowable, mathematical laws and not the whims of deities is a belief. Some very compelling arguments for it exist, but it cannot ultimately be proven.

For all you know, Zeus might have been sitting still and snickering in his beard for the last couple thousand years.
"
You are right that scientists do not and can not prove things, only mathematicians get that logically incestuous privilege when describing human description, but the application of scientific principles does something subtly but categorically different. The whole point is not to say this is true and that is not, but to use data in clever ways to generate or improve theoretical models that usefully explain natural phenomena. Were Zeus to start dicking around with the laws of the universe to fuck with us, scientific principles would still function, at least assuming that we would still both function and not just be outsmarted, they would just have to be used along side theological ones that would instantly be science.

In this hypothetical scenario, modeling the mind of Zeus would then be a necessary component of usefully modeling the natural world for purposes related to where Zeus was being a dick.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:02 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


If I were this professor I would have screamed "there is no god BUT ROCK" and then done a sweet skateboard trick while fireworks spelling out 'empiricism' went off behind me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:13 AM on October 20, 2014 [89 favorites]


I take the fact that apparently all religious beliefs are correct as very significant evidence for modal realism.
posted by mikelieman at 5:17 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Were Zeus to start dicking around with the laws of the universe to fuck with us, scientific principles would still function

Why? God might decide to invent an entirely new model of physics for each individual fundamental particle every few minutes, rendering any kind of repeatable observation or generalization moot. In fact, they could invest every particle with the free will to decide how to interact with other particles around it.

The existence of natural laws you can usefully model from observation is not a given at all - humanity took quite some time to come up with the idea. I have always wondered why there's so few religious people in the sciences, since god provides a very convenient authority from which to derive an answer to such questions.

In this hypothetical scenario, modeling the mind of Zeus would then be a necessary component of usefully modeling the natural world for purposes related to where Zeus was being a dick.

How could you possibly model the divine mind? It is by definition not subject to any kind of constraint. I mean it's Zeus we're talking about here, so it's probably just an adolescent sex drive plus an obsession with fireworks, but still.
posted by Dr Dracator at 5:20 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


so, you know, maybe someone in antiquity got just the wrong skeleton to examine.

sir

sir are you suggesting that men might come from women
posted by curious nu at 5:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [33 favorites]


When the hegemonic culture under discussion is white and/or male, "tone" arguments against the minority are bad.

When the hegemonic culture under discussion is religious, "tone" arguments against the minority are the highest form argument can take.

You guys are buying into the "we're the victim!!11" message that American Xians have created. Why do atheists, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?
posted by DU at 5:23 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Why do atheists, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?

If this dumb kid was some other dumb religion I would have wanted the professor to react in the exact same way, because "ha your beliefs are stupid" isn't a good teaching method. Why don't people want to engage with the fact that "shut up, idiot" isn't a great way to teach someone? A person doesn't HAVE to be a persecuted minority for that to be a non-workable idea.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:25 AM on October 20, 2014 [50 favorites]


Why do atheists, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?

Because it works?
posted by Twain Device at 5:25 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'll be sure to keep these methods in mind next time a "mock the white males" thread comes up. Unless you don't want them to learn anything?
posted by DU at 5:27 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


When the goal is "teaching", direct attack of someone's belief system is probably not the way to go. If the goal is "changing the person's mind", again, direct attack of the belief system is not the way to go. If the goal is "making the person defensive and unwilling to listen", then direct attack of the belief system is a great idea.

I concur with many other posters that this particular belief system is crack-smokingly wrong and stupid, but telling the student that is not going to result in any desired outcome (like learning or testing a hypothesis or looking at the evidence to see what is really going on) whereas gentle questions that sidestep the TRUTH (or lack thereof) of the Bible and instead address actual countable verifiable things might actually help the person decide for themselves to reevaluate the belief system.

Using the incorrect theory of Lamarckian inheritance to showcase the problems in the student's line of reasoning was particularly brilliant.

Sometimes Being Right (by snarkily telling the student that only deluded religious nuts believe that crap about the ribs) works against what one wants to achieve. Sometimes, Being Right is not the best answer. Heck, sometimes Being Right is one of the worse options available. The author is a teacher because he sets aside Being Right in favor of actually educating the person in a way that fosters and encourages learning.
posted by which_chick at 5:27 AM on October 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


Ridicule has absolutely no place in a college class room, there is no meaningful rational for it, no excuse for it, and a gigantic pile of empirically demonstrated reasons why it is not an ok thing ever.

I used to be an arrogant, smug person, fuelled mostly by my own perceived intellectual superiority. I slowly started to get out of it, trying to make myself a better person - but then in the midst of that I was given a teaching job at the university. At that moment I decided to draw a harsh line and abandon my old self: I decided never to say anything like 'you're completely wrong' to any student, and to see if I can make the best of whatever anyone says. Granted, it's easier in the humanities, the 'interpretive sciences' so called, but I decided to try and understand any and every viewpoint, and to see what are the positive aspects that can be derived from them.

It was one the best decisions in my life. I'm not going back to my old self, ever.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 5:28 AM on October 20, 2014 [56 favorites]


I was pleased to see that my ploy had worked. My student accepted this rebuff of accepted wisdom with good grace and an active intellect. Her religion was intact, but she was learning to think about her assumptions and to reason a bit more like a scientist. She was soon back at the human skeletons counting and measuring other bones.

What a terrible outcome. He should have kicked her out of class instead.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:28 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I do appreciate his approach. Fighting faith with faith is no way to win an argument and, let's face it, most religions have a few thousand years' head start. Much better to show people the evidence and guide them through the thought process, to make their own minds up.

Mind you, I think he built his arguments on very dodgy ground. The answer to "how many ribs would Adam have left" or "how many ribs would the kids inherit" can only be "however many God wanted", because surely one of the perks of being omnipotent is that you don't have to follow the rules. The teacher is trying to use a framework of logic and assumptions in a context where they simply don't apply.

It's the same old problem (which, on preview, Blasdelb has phrased more elegantly): science can't have anything useful to say about God until someone succeeds in building a God-proof room to run tests in. The most we can do is continue building up the cases where we say "well, we have a model that doesn't include a God, and it predicts [phenomenon] pretty well so far".
Only about 20 percent enter my university having learned enough about science and the evidence for evolution to consider it a valid scientific theory.
This is key, I think. I've had conversations about evolution with quite a few creationists* and, with extremely rare exceptions, the versions of evolution they've internalised range from "badly flawed" to "batshit insane". This doesn't, though, mean that the people are either of those things. They've been taught a silly version of evolution, and correctly looked at it, determined it to be silly, and concluded that believing it requires at least as big a leap of faith as believing in God. Hence a lot of the weird talk about "evolutionists", etc: from their perspective it only makes sense as a somewhat daft (and decidedly unfulfilling) competing religion.

The only way to combat this is education about what the theory actually says and what the evidence actually is. There's often a lot of stuff to unpick (Types and Forms, which are tautological and often shifting goalposts during debate anyway, and for some, particularly young earthers, evolution and the big bang are different aspects of the same theory, so a perceived weakness in one is enough to disprove the other), but it's the only way I've ever managed to make headway in these conversations. I mean, it's obviously a tone argument, but otherwise people will never engage with your ideas.

*I never start conversations about religion, but if someone knocks on my door or collars me on the street with leading questions about my faith and the aim of converting me, I figure that they're fair game for a recreational argument.
posted by metaBugs at 5:28 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'll be sure to keep these methods in mind next time a "mock the white males" thread comes up. Unless you don't want them to learn anything?

1. Wait, so you definitely SUPPORT mockery when it comes to religion, but if it's directed at white men, no dice?

2. Every feminism thread on this site is overflowing with patient explanations that attempt to meet the questioners halfway. (And, of course, this is not a university.)
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:32 AM on October 20, 2014 [49 favorites]


> You guys are buying into the "we're the victim!!11" message that American Xians have created.

You're failing to persuade me about, well, anything. You're just ranting.

And that's more or less how anybody receiving a aggressively-delivered argument against their opinions is going to respond, too. They're going to react to the anger, not the message.

Save the shouting for when you have to get somebody out of the way of a runaway truck.
posted by ardgedee at 5:32 AM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


I grew up in a fairly non-religious household, not militantly so, more like where the bible was discussed in terms of its historical basis and its parables -- that there were real natural disasters, real cities, and real people who became the foundations of stories that were retold and finally written down and that those stories had moral and cultural significance, rather than being the literal word of truth. Somewhere along the way, I independently decided that the rib story was another example of this, an observation about natural history that had became the centerpiece of a section of Genesis.

It was in a random conversation in the dining hall in college where I was finally corrected, and it really blew my mind, because it had just been a background "fact" in my mind since childhood and then I learned it was totally wrong. And I was the child of educated, skeptical people with a good scientific education who wasn't taught this as part of a Christian worldview or anything like that – in fact I was the reverse, someone who had tried to apply a skeptical and historical perspective to a story where it did not apply. All of us are wrong about things at times, and being kind and careful when those errors come up is absolutely the right thing to do.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


Wait, so you definitely SUPPORT mockery when it comes to religion, but if it's directed at white men, no dice?

Your attempt to deflect the discussion from the topic into a personal attack is declined. I refuse to state my beliefs on either topic.

They're going to react to the anger, not the message.

You are restating the premise. You haven't not yet addressed the question of how this is different from a "tone" argument against feminists/minorities/etc.
posted by DU at 5:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


In one town in Spain, there has been so much inbreeding that almost everyone has six or seven fingers on each hand.

Maybe my Google-fu is weak, but I cannot find any solid source for this factoid. It appears in several places, sometimes with a vague discription ("small town in the mountains") but no one ever names the town. The idea seems to have first been popularized in Ripley's Believe It or Not!

So, is there really a Spanish town with an unusually high number of six-fingered people? Or did this rational teacher of the sciences uncritically accept and disseminate a bit of badly-sourced folklore with no factual basis? (And would I, in the context of this article, find the latter possibility delightful? Yes, yes, I would.)
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


"I also said nothing about in sensitively attacking. I think a laugh and walk away would be my response."

Hold on, you don't see laughing at someone as an insensitive attack on their beliefs?

I am fairly certain that if you were to share an idea with me, in person, that you believe in earnestly and deeply, and my response was to laugh at you and walk away, you would indeed feel attacked, belittled, dismissed, etc.
posted by oddman at 5:40 AM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


So, is there really a Spanish town

I think it's one of those things that if your French, there's a Spanish town, if you're Irish, there's a Welsh Town, if you're a Yankees fan, there's Boston....
posted by mikelieman at 5:41 AM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


Your attempt to deflect the discussion from the topic into a personal attack is declined. I refuse to state my beliefs on either topic.
You are restating the premise. You haven't not yet addressed the question of how this is different from a "tone" argument against feminists/minorities/etc.


Wait, so WHO'S deflecting the discussion? Because it seems to me like you're the one who brought this bizarre digression into this discussion about teaching methods.

Like I am actually trying and failing to figure out how you got from "professor decides not to attack his students' religions while trying to teach them" to "he shouldn't have been so helpful and understanding, especially given that sometimes people are mean to white men on the internet."
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:44 AM on October 20, 2014 [31 favorites]


You are restating the premise. You haven't not yet addressed the question of how this is different from a "tone" argument against feminists/minorities/etc.

Very few of the feminist articles/graphic novels/etc that are linked here have as their primary goal "converting" sexist dudes. (The only counter example I can immediately recall was a set of anti-rape campaign ads and posters.) It's a total derail and sexist tone argument to criticize an article analyzing a situation from a feminist perspective and written for people interested in those issues for its purported failures to use the exact right tone and language to connect to sexist guys.

It's a wild misapplication to suggest that the techniques of effective teaching and connection in this FPP apply to that, any more than an article about economics written for other economics should be criticized for not doing more to reach out to biologists.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [17 favorites]


For whatever it's worth, I've never counted a skeleton's ribs. I feel sort of bad about that, but also I know that I just don't have time to count all the literal and metaphorical ribs in the world. Really, though, "did you count it yourself?" isn't a dictate that's easy or even possible to follow in most cases; if we tried, we'd starve to death because we've wasted all our time tallying up trivial facts rather than producing anything valuable to capitalists.

I mean, yes, I do tend to trust institutionally produced science more than I trust other claims about the world1; like, I trust that the temperature's been going up lately and that weather's been real weird most places, even though I haven't been keeping records myself and only have second-hand reports to go on (just like I only have second-hand reports to go on for the number of ribs in human skeletons), I trust that Ebola is highly infectious but not highly contagious, even though I didn't know about that distinction until a few days ago and think I (oops!) might be saying it backwards, I trust that the planet Neptune exists, and that other galaxies exist, even though I've always lived in major metropolitan areas and can normally only see Venus and like two stars.

The reasons for why I trust scientific claims are really complex, though, and I'm not sure I can even begin to unpack them. Moreover, looking at the actual sausage-making of science (and especially listening to grad students in the sciences describe how scientific work actually gets done) gives one just scads of reasons to completely mistrust scientific knowledge's relation to any sort of underlying truth. Probably when it comes down to it the real reason I tend to trust scientific knowledge produced within particular types of organization is just because of how clever modern technology is. Which, well, that's just the lamest, worst, most vulgar reason possible to trust scientific claims about the world, right?

Anyway, I want to just say that it's good to cultivate a certain level of uncertainty about the world — to not be certain that you know how many ribs there are until you've counted, to not pretend to yourself that you've already counted the ribs (this is an easy trick to play on yourself), and to moreover not be certain you know what a book says until you've at least read it, and to not trick yourself into thinking that you've read the book before you actually have (also an easy trick to play on yourself).

The twist is, in most situations there's very little individual survival value in cultivated uncertainty — too much uncertainty, and you start developing time-consuming needs to count and read things, and then eventually you starve to death on the street behind a sign reading "YOU ARE ALL COMPLICIT". So I can't even militate for that as a grounds for interpreting the world.

1: well, with the proviso that all of this is contingent upon the assumption that anything like a world exists, which like is something I'll play along with here, for reasons of argument, but, like, don't get me started.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:47 AM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


I teach physical anthropology at a large Midwestern university; this (or something analogous) is a situation which I find myself in at least a few times every semester. My class is a gen ed course called "Introduction to Physical Anthropology" and fulfills the same natural science requirement as things like general chemistry and physics. We always have students who just want to take ANYTHING BUT A HARD SCIENCE and don't read the course description carefully or who just don't know what anthropology is, and find themselves in a course all about human evolution, much to their dismay.

This offers me an excellent opportunity to give students tools to evaluate the world in a scientific framework! For evangelical kids from rural Ohio, this is often the first time that anyone has both told them they are SUPPOSED to critically evaluate evidence, given them the tools to do that, and then challenged their worldviews at the same time. It's confusing, and fraught, for a lot of them. I have had students write that they are taking this class to test their faith, that they are taking this class because they haven't learned anything about evolution ever and are confused, that they know the class is full of lies but it is supposed to be easier than chemistry so let's see what happens. And I have kids from Somalia and Indonesia who are devout Muslims who were told this was an easy science class by their incompetent advisors.

So with this as my student population, coming in and laughing at their silly beliefs would alienate a significant chunk of my students - which (as well as making for a semester of dread and aggression) would really impact my ability to teach anything! And it's an awesome class! I talk about primates for about 5 weeks! And they play with bones! And hear about genitals! And Alfred Russell-Wallace! Cool stuff!

SO what I do is at the beginning of class, tell students that what they believe in is fine with me, but I don't want to hear about it in class. I am there to help them develop a scientific framework through which they can choose to view the world. An understanding of the concept of evolution is a tool through which you can examine humans and other organisms. They are in college to develop intellectual maturity, and part of that is examining things that they don't currently understand and may even be hostile to. So with the goal of getting students to understand something they are currently irritated about, hostile to, or scared about (seriously - "taking this class to challenge my faith" is a terrifying concept! What if it works and you are forced to completely reevaluate the way you see and interact with the world?), I very purposely DON'T CHALLENGE THEM ON WHAT THEY CURRENTLY BELIEVE. I give them a new lens for seeing humans through.

And you know what? This method works. By the end, most of my students can explain why the eye is not an example of irreducible complexity. Why it's not that scientists think humans came from monkeys, but that humans and monkeys shared a common ape-like ancestor, and what evidence supports that assertion. They understand that Lucy is just one representative of Australopithecus africanus, and why the Laetoli footprints show that she was a biped, and why the concept of transitional species is basically meaningless, and what it means to be an apelike human ancestor, and how to make and test a hypothesis, and how to evaluate evidence and read scientific articles and how you can see skeletal evidence of similarities between chimpanzees and humans, and so on and so forth. And then they tuck this away and think about it and even if they are still deeply devout (which is fine for them!), they are a little more open to science and a little more fluent in the language of science, and can go to a zoo and say "Yeah, that's a great ape - you can tell because it is large and big-brained and doesn't have a tail. Just like us." And if that is the case, then I have been a successful teacher.

Laughing at a student for believing in what they grew up believing in, and their parents believe in, and their friends believe in - that accomplishes nothing.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:51 AM on October 20, 2014 [375 favorites]


Actually, I was talking about a much broader societal context than the limited university professor scenario, posters discussing the inappropriateness of my response for a university professor, are probably right. I still cannot help feeling frustrated with our societies acceptance of superstition, not at the personal level, but more at the institutional level. I for one will continue to not accept religious arguments, and sorry, if that leads to certain peoples feelings being hurt. I would like for society to become better at this, and am willing to work for that, but its not really my primary goal, which would be to get superstitious people completely and totally out of my life. Maybe that is a selfish perspective, but I am not out to change the world, just my world.
posted by sfts2 at 5:55 AM on October 20, 2014


Well then it's a good thing you're (hopefully) not a university professor of anthropology, biology, or ecology - and, since that is the situation for the guy who wrote the article, maybe this isn't the thread to vociferously argue for intolerance of "superstitious people."
posted by ChuraChura at 5:56 AM on October 20, 2014 [35 favorites]


I learned today that men and women don't have different numbers of ribs. I vastly appreciated this professor's approach to one of ridicule. I had always assumed that this parable had some basis in fact. Why would it last so long otherwise?

I am agnostic about the existence of a God or Gods. I have a Ph.D. in a scientific field (though clearly not a natural-science field).
posted by frogmanjack at 5:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


I was taught that men have one fewer rib than women in a totally atheist school. I believed it for a long time... I figured there was no way the Christians would be so daft as to count wrong, and I didn't exactly have any girls who would let me check....
posted by miyabo at 5:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


> You haven't not yet addressed the question of how this is different from a "tone" argument against feminists/minorities/etc.

You, in turn, should hew to the ethos of empiricism and observe how your style of argument is being received and how effectively it is persuading others to your position.

This is ultimately not a minority/majority issue, but instead a matter of persuading an individual to accept new knowledge that conflicts with firmly held belief. To politicize it or make it an issue of social order is to miss the point of the piece.
posted by ardgedee at 5:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


sfts2: "Im just trying to understand why disparaging ridiculous superstitious beliefs is such a sacred cow."

Because then they dig in and double down and you get nowhere. If your goal as a university-level teacher is to teach your student something true about the world, being confrontational about religious beliefs that tell them false things is the absolute worst way to do it.

(One of my colleagues and I used to keep an informal tally of how many fundamentalist Christian philosophy students he, a stout atheist, turned atheist with philosophy, and how many I, a devout Christian, turned atheist with philosophy. I was WAY AHEAD and he could not understand why, but the simple answer was, I was not a dick about their religious beliefs and created a safe space for very young people who had never been outside their religious upbringing before to interrogate those beliefs. He just mocked them and shouted at them and they responded by shutting down and ignoring him, except to memorize things for tests. They were smart enough to give him the answers he expected, without taking any of it on board, and left class having learned nothing except that philosophy is stupid and mean. But he couldn't bring himself NOT to mock their religions (or mine!), so I kept pulling ahead.

Leon: "At some point when I was a kid, I picked up the idea that women have one less rib, and I assumed the myth was a Just So story made up to cover an odd biological fact. I think I would have been as surprised as the student."

Me too! I thought that for years and years, that it was a Just-So story to explain rib differences. There was only ever one skeleton in science classrooms, it was always default male, and rib-counting never came up in my life!

DU: "You guys are buying into the "we're the victim!!11" message that American Xians have created. Why do atheists, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?"

A university professor is in a position of power and privilege over his or her students. Punch up all you want in a bar argument or on metafilter, but in a university classroom, if you are the professor, you are always punching down.

When I taught philosophy I would straight-up tell my "oppressed victim Christians!" there was no way they were an oppressed minority when they constituted 85% of the population, the first time that narrative came up, but that was largely to protect other students who were members of minority religious groups. And I did it the same way, by walking them through a couple of scenarios and inviting them to think it through and why that sort of narrative had so much power. That generally kills it dead when you make them figure it out for themselves.

Because the purpose of being in a university classroom isn't, in the end, to memorize vast bodies of knowledge, or to replace false knowledge with true knowledge, but to learn how to acquire and test knowledge. Responding to "God said so!" with "No, you're wrong, I say so!" is literally the worst possible pedagogical response. Replacing one authoritarian source of knowledge with another accomplishes literally nothing. You are replicating what you profess to hate and disdain. If you can't walk them through the process of interrogating their false beliefs and help them learn to do it themselves, you probably do not belong in a university classroom.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:59 AM on October 20, 2014 [120 favorites]


Why do atheists, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?

That's not what tone arguments are about, though. If you really are trying to persuade people of something, then you always have to consider how you do it. Your tone has nothing to do with the veracity of your claims, but it will certainly impact your persuasiveness.

Where tone arguments come in is when an interlocutor tries to brush you off, not by responding to your substance, but to your tone. This happens disproportionately to minority viewpoints.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:59 AM on October 20, 2014 [10 favorites]


Okay so dickish mockery is out but what about making surreal, outré claims that only elliptically address the matter at hand?

That's still a valid pedagogical technique, right?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:02 AM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


On topic, I hope.

A big problem with science and engineering that I have encountered as a teacher is that terms used in common discourse are used differently in the context of these field. The word "theory" as it is ordinarily in every day conversation is synonymous with "hypothesis." In science this is not so--a theory is a hypothesis that has been tested and supported by evidence. This misunderstanding is what leads many to say that evolution is "just a theory."

I completely agree with how the professor handled this student. Humiliating students is not effective, and it is just plain mean. And kudos to you ChuraChura. I want to take your class.
posted by haiku warrior at 6:06 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


When the hegemonic culture under discussion is white and/or male, "tone" arguments against the minority are bad.

When the hegemonic culture under discussion is religious, "tone" arguments against the minority are the highest form argument can take.

You guys are buying into the "we're the victim!!11" message that American Xians have created. Why do atheists, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?

...
You haven't not yet addressed the question of how this is different from a "tone" argument against feminists/minorities/etc.

Here's the thing. People like this typ eof argument because it changes minds instead of attacking people so that they get defensive. In a university/teaching setting, this is an appropriate argument style and should be used with every student, regardless of beliefs.

The problem with the "tone" complaints that women/minorities/etc. recieve is that the person making the complaint is assuming that those people are there to teach them. That's one of the problems with the "tone" arguments.

Random person on the street: not in any way obligated to be nice or hold a hand through the logic for someone who can't be bothered to do the work themselves

University Professor: it's their job to walk people through logical arguments and to examine their beliefs.
posted by LizBoBiz at 6:06 AM on October 20, 2014 [26 favorites]


When the goal is "teaching", direct attack of someone's belief system is probably not the way to go.

Precisely.

If you look back at the article again, you will note that by the end of the story, the student did indeed learn what the teacher had set out to teach - which was "what is a good way to differentiate between male and female human skeleta." So he did actually teach her what he had to, without having to resort to mocking her religious beliefs or telling her how wrong wrong wrongity wrong she was.

So why isn't everyone here happy that everyone there in the story won?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:06 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


That's a very tactful professor but I'm not persuaded that a more direct response would have equaled disparaging her religion or (nearly) anyone else's. The number of ribs thing is more like an urban legend sort of nonsense. It's not biblical, just oft-repeated mindlessly.
posted by rahnefan at 6:07 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


From the article:

But in this instance, I was dealing with a pretty bare-bones case.

I see what you did there.
posted by Twain Device at 6:07 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


> "... how this is different from a "tone" argument against feminists/minorities/etc."

It's ... the precise opposite of the tone argument, isn't it?

I mean, no one has ever said, "Jeez, I can't believe how that feminist thoughtful and respectfully engaged that other person on the topic and brought them around to a different point of view with reasoned argument! What a jerk! They should have been condescending and dismissive instead!" That's not the tone argument, although it is, bizarrely, the rough equivalent of what some people have said in this thread, that others are objecting to.

The tone argument is, "When you choose to nitpick my choice of words rather than the substance of my arguments, you are effectively giving yourself and excuse to dismiss me without thought." If the *student* had refused to do any further work on the grounds that the professor was being condescending or something, that would be closer to the equivalent of the tone argument ...

Except still not, because it is the actual job of the teacher to educate the student, so if the teacher had actually been condescending, they would have been failing to do their job, even if they were technically in the right and the tone-argument-using student was in the wrong. Whereas that is, in fact, not the actual job of strangers on the internet commenting on web articles.
posted by kyrademon at 6:07 AM on October 20, 2014 [10 favorites]


When the hegemonic culture under discussion is white and/or male, "tone" arguments against the minority are bad.

When the hegemonic culture under discussion is religious, "tone" arguments against the minority are the highest form argument can take.


Tone argument: "I don't have to listen to this person because they're not being nice to me." False.

This article: "I should be nice to this person so they'll be more likely to listen to me." True.

These are about as contradictory as "don't run over pedestrians" and "look both ways before crossing the street".
posted by narain at 6:08 AM on October 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


pipeski, your answer was tautological, but not in the slightest bit wrong.

Technically, it's not a tautology but a binary opposition, which is basically a linguistic necessity. Out of all the options - say, homeostasis, reproduction, etc. - pipeski chose the one that is necessarily true, because on the most basic level that's how language works, to a considerable extent: by dabbling in binary oppositions, that is, words that are defined by their opposite, by their negation, as it were (left-right, up-down, good-bad, etc.)

So basically, pipeski, your answer was the single one that is true a priori. And in consequence, your teacher was both an asshole and an ignoramus. Tell him to learn some Kant.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 6:09 AM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


Why? God might decide to invent an entirely new model of physics for each individual fundamental particle every few minutes, rendering any kind of repeatable observation or generalization moot.

But God can also mess with your mind so it all looks consistent under reach new model, so you always think that model was the one you've always had.
posted by biffa at 6:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Punch up all you want in a bar argument or on metafilter, but in a university classroom, if you are the professor, you are always punching down.

Finally, someone addresses the issue rather than (ironically) attacking me for being elliptical or whatever.

It's a good point and I guess I agree. But the corollary is that when you are in fact not in a position of power, punching up is probably the right thing to do. I hope we can keep this in mind the next time "redditor atheists" or whatever comes up.
posted by DU at 6:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Why do atheists science teachers, who are a tiny minority, have to handle the majority culture with kid gloves?

Is this a good time to bring up David Barash's "talk" he gives to his first year biology students and wrote about in the NYT? That seemed like a good approach - it's straightforward, doesn't belittle anyone's beliefs that I can see, and sets an important tone for a university science course.

But I thought some of the reaction was really weird. I'm not a Christian, but I remember getting something similar in first year science, and nobody complained, at least in public (this is Canada, which probably doesn't have as large a population of fundamentalist Christians).

The idea that he's gone against some overarching pedagogical more strikes me as deeply counterproductive.
posted by sneebler at 6:22 AM on October 20, 2014


Eyebrows McGee: I was WAY AHEAD and he could not understand why, but the simple answer was, I was not a dick about their religious beliefs and created a safe space...

I took a college class like this, and it was one of the best classroom experiences I have ever had.

As a Freshman I took an upper-level seminar on Martin Luther that turned out to be listen in the German, History, and Religion departments. Now, I had already tested out of the German language requirement, and this was to be an easy grade for a kid who was still cocky about the comparative religion material from a Midwestern Catholic education. (I mean, where else can you see Lutherans so close-up in the wild?!)

And then I met Prof. Dan Brown. You'll never believe what happened next!

Brown is a marvelous piece of work: Army vet, Swahili & German teacher, Pentacostal, and reputed glossalalist. And also patient and thorough and slyly funny. He engaged with one of the school's dozen-odd religion majors -- a pompous but willing Episcopalian, I believe -- over the entire semester. As we worked through the course's tall stack of books, Prof. Brown listened to this kid's confident dismissals and condescending put-downs (including, yes, requests to speak in tongues, which struck the rest of us as kind of tasctless), and walked him through his own dogma. He made sure that the student felt safe enough discussing his own faith that his ears were still open to the study of Luther's thoughts. Brown didn't try to convert him, just to teach him…and the other eight of us were just lucky enough to go along for the ride.

So what may be overlooked is that a good teacher may be talking to one student at a time, but the whole class is listening.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:30 AM on October 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


The number of ribs thing is more like an urban legend sort of nonsense. It's not biblical, just oft-repeated mindlessly.

Yeah. I kept reading on to find the part where the Prof was forced to confront his assumption that the student's belief was rooted in her family's brand of Christianity rather than plain old non-denominational ignorance*.

Above, St Sorryass referred to this as "Marine Todd in reverse." It certainly is that, from the clash of religious and non-religious (or at least broadly scientific) world views, to the methods employed to demonstrate which view is superior -- a punch in the face versus a patronizing Socratic dialog.

We at metafilter are mostly patronizing Socratic dialogists, and so this story resonates for us. I wonder how it's received among the Marine Toddists.

--------------
*I'll have to visit the anthropology department this week so I can count the ribs myself, just to be sure; I'm a standard variety ignoramus who has only just now learned something about science.
posted by notyou at 6:33 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


showbiz_liz: If I were this professor I would have screamed "there is no god BUT ROCK" and then done a sweet skateboard trick while fireworks spelling out 'empiricism' went off behind me.

Well, there's only one thing left to do: ding-a-dang-dong-my-dingaling-lang-long.

kyrademon: The tone argument is, "When you choose to nitpick my choice of words rather than the substance of my arguments, you are effectively giving yourself and excuse to dismiss me without thought."

Yep. An example of a tone argument is picking into Ron Reagan's painfully mild advertisment for the line "not afraid of hell." (And it is an extremely mild ad compared to at least half of what I get through Hulu these days.)

"I'm more effective as an educator when I teach this way," isn't a tone argument.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:36 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


> "... patronizing Socratic dialog"

It was patronizing to depict a student as intelligent, engaged, and willing to consider relevant evidence?
posted by kyrademon at 6:36 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Much more understanding than I would have been, and I'm a Christian who went to Catholic schools all her life. I remember my sophomore year where we were explicitly told, in religion class, that despite our own personal beliefs we were not going to be taught the book of Genesis as the literal truth so we better suck it up and deal.

Once again, I'm reminded of how lucky I was to go to such a high school, for religious education and otherwise.
posted by bgal81 at 6:42 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


If we're taking a poll - I'd also also heard that there was some "just-because" scientific basis to the "men have one fewer rib" thing, and the Biblical story was devised in part to explain that existing quirk. I vaguely remember reading it in a kids' popular-science book or something.

If I were in the class, though, I still like to think I'd have gone for the differing-hip-width, which is something else I'd also picked up through popular-science means (or maybe LAW AND ORDER SVU reruns).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 AM on October 20, 2014


I'd wager that even STEM majors have a menagerie of incorrect conceptions about the world floating around in their minds. Nobody has the time to critically examine literally every piece of information that they come across.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 6:45 AM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


If I were in the class, though, I still like to think I'd have gone for the differing-hip-width, which is something else I'd also picked up through popular-science means (or maybe LAW AND ORDER SVU reruns).

It's definitely mentioned in the first season of CSI.
posted by frimble at 6:47 AM on October 20, 2014


It was patronizing to depict a student as intelligent, engaged, and willing to consider relevant evidence?

I was referring to the pedagogy (punch versus dialog), rather than the depiction of the event.

You've hit upon a distinction between Marine Todd and Professor Root-Bernstein that I had overlooked; depiction of the antagonist.
posted by notyou at 6:47 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


> It's definitely mentioned in the first season of CSI.

Comes up a bunch in the Gideon Oliver books, too, which I recommend.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:49 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's definitely mentioned in the first season of CSI.

Hell, it's probably come up in every police procedural where they have lots of M.E. scenes.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:51 AM on October 20, 2014


>> "... patronizing Socratic dialog"

> It was patronizing to depict a student as intelligent, engaged, and willing to consider relevant evidence?

Nice.
posted by Leon at 6:55 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


So, is there really a Spanish town with an unusually high number of six-fingered people?

There's a Brazilian family, but that's all I got.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 6:55 AM on October 20, 2014


I really liked this article. Thanks for posting.
posted by josher71 at 6:58 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]




So why isn't everyone here happy that everyone there in the story won?

My suspicion is that some people, at least in some situations, tend to regard personal interactions as a zero-sum game. In which case, a successful outcome is unimportant compared to one participant being "the winner"and the other "the loser". I also suspect that online interactions exacerbate that tendency.

Anyway, that's my hypothesis: for a smallish grant, I'll be willing to test it.
posted by happyroach at 7:10 AM on October 20, 2014 [31 favorites]


So why isn't everyone here happy that everyone there in the story won?

Nope, there is one group of people who lost: the majority of students in the class. They didn't believe the religious superstitions. They lost because the teacher had to waste everyone's lab time addressing the errors of a student who believed in something irrational. This was time the other students could have used to their benefit, learning something more advanced than how to count to 12.

And besides, if you really want to teach medical students about sexual dimorphism, you'll tell them about the occipital protuberance.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:15 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not my religion(s) but is it possible that the "missing rib" might be a something of mystical dirty joke?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:19 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nope, there is one group of people who lost: the majority of students in the class. They didn't believe the religious superstitions. They lost because the teacher had to waste everyone's lab time addressing the errors of a student who believed in something irrational. This was time the other students could have used to their benefit, learning something more advanced than how to count to 12.

You don't think the demonstration of "why the Lamarckian theory of evolution wasn't correct" wasn't useful to those students? Or "how to think critically"? Or even "how to calmly speak to someone - say, your parents - about science without pissing them off or making them feel stupid"?

That last one sounds like something a few other people could stand to learn, to be honest.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:19 AM on October 20, 2014 [59 favorites]


That's silly. As the article made clear, that student is not the only one who had that erroneous belief. Also, labs exist to give personal attention and clear up misconceptions. The whole point is giving students individualized attention like this. Additionally, I don't think those were med students - lots of people incorporate anatomy into their work, including archaeologists, anthropologists, gen ed students in an introductory evolution class, etc. It's terrible methodology to sex someone based on one skeletal feature, especially since individual features can be outliers for particular individuals. You might have a woman with a particularly large occipital protuberance, but she'll probably still have a female-looking pelvic girdle, straighter coccyx bone, etc. And, working in an archaeological context, you're not always going to have an occipital protuberance around to tell you whether something is male or female. You need to have multiple lines of evidence to corroborate hypotheses.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:23 AM on October 20, 2014 [27 favorites]


In my imagination, simple skeletons rose with a clamorous rattle to take on new lives as bones of contention.
*swoons*
posted by glasseyes at 7:24 AM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


(plus part of the point is that, unlike gorillas and orangutans and australopithecines, there aren't a lot of really obvious pieces of evidence for sexual dimorphism. Our canines are boringly similar, our body size isn't THAT dimorphic, nobody has sagittal crests, and so forth.)
posted by ChuraChura at 7:25 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


The whole point was to get her to do the science herself, both in terms of collecting the data and also thinking critically about why things might or might not be the case. He would have undermined the whole enterprise if he'd just left it at, "no, they have equal numbers of ribs, count them yourself some time". This is especially true considering that people often undermine their own measurements according to their own biases.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:25 AM on October 20, 2014


Nope, there is one group of people who lost: the majority of students in the class.

YOU ARE WRONG. *snort*.

Q: was that an effective way of making you reconsider your viewpoint?
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:25 AM on October 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


You don't think the demonstration of "why the Lamarckian theory of evolution wasn't correct" wasn't useful to those students?

Yes I don't not think that teaching it wasn't correct was not useful to those students. Just what were you trying to say there?

Teaching students that you can't inherit an amputated thumb was a waste of their time, even if you dress it up with Lamarckian theories. This is a college level class, not junior high school.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:26 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


The answer is not having a navel

So why do men have nipples, then?
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:27 AM on October 20, 2014


Teaching students that you can't inherit an amputated thumb was a waste of their time, even if you dress it up with Lamarckian theories.

"Using analogies to help someone understand a point" is also junior-high level stuff, but it seems to have escaped you....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:35 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


The beauty of this exchange is that it illustrates a nonviolent way of achieving several pedagogical goals:
  • He got the student to engage in hypothesis-testing.
  • He got her to interrogate her own process of reasoning. (Why two ribs? Why just males? And there are questions buried under this that she might well ask herself later.)
  • He did these things without leaving her the sense of feeling demeaned. (She may feel that way later, but it likely won't be laid at the professor's feet and might not color her experience of learning.
It all looks good to me. Well done, mission accomplished: She learned. Maybe she won't be a young-earther anymore, maybe she will, but at least now she has tools she didn't have before.
posted by lodurr at 7:36 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Obscure_reference: So why do men have nipples, then?

Oh, well, that's just Evil talking.
posted by lodurr at 7:38 AM on October 20, 2014


nobody has sagittal crests,

Well, they would complicate the wearing of hats. And hairstyles!

Apparently some assume all people with fundamentalist religious beliefs are lost causes and therefore not worth our time. But if you actually talk to people who give up their fundamentalism, you will find that many of them did so in college, when they first got exposed to a new world and new ideas. Why do you think the hardcore types have worked so hard to create their own college system with fundie-approved curricula? They know knowledge is dangerous, that their teachings don't stand up well in the light of day. And their kids are raised in bubbles not of their own choosing and just maybe deserve a little compassion. If you want to read more of those kinds of stories, you might start here. Some of these kids are being homeschooled or private schooled in a way that deliberately misinforms them. That's not the same as an adult being raised with a scientifically accurate education and choosing to reject it.

So if you want to just hate people raised with irrational beliefs, that's fine. But you could also view college as their one chance to escape that life, with all its limitations and unhappiness. Your willingness to just not be a jerk might play a crucial role in them joining your fight for rationality.
posted by emjaybee at 7:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [19 favorites]


YOU ARE WRONG. *snort*.

Q: was that an effective way of making you reconsider your viewpoint?


You remind me of a friend who told me that during her college class discussion, someone mentioned the zombie movie she saw on TV last night, then the whole class was derailed by a discussion of the zombie movie, even the teacher got engaged. After about ten minutes of this, she said, "hey I'm paying a lot of money for this class and we have a test on Friday, can we get back to the lesson?"
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:41 AM on October 20, 2014


I would venture to say that the foundation of the "men have one less rib" meme is the Genesis story, regardless of whether it has been "secularized" to the point of being anatomical misinformation rather than dogma.

Under any circumstances, for a "young earth" creationist who believes that everything was created by The Creator out of nothing a few millennia ago, the "Eve out of Adam's rib" story should be theologically off-putting anyway--why should an omnipotent G-d need to pull a rib from The First Man in order to create The First Woman? Unless of course, the Genesis story is actually a patriarchal allegory from an endogamous desert-dwelling ethnic group.

Discuss.
posted by rdone at 7:41 AM on October 20, 2014


I've met more than one person who believed this for completely non-religious reasons. They'd been told it was true at some point and, like most sciencey things, the subject so rarely comes up that that was the only information they'd ever heard on the subject.
posted by the jam at 7:43 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


rdone, it's been a long time but some years back I read a bunch of letters of Jonathan Edwards that are relevant. He viewed the idea of witchcraft in a very similar way. It was offensive to him that people believed God would suffer effective witchcraft to exist -- ergo, anything that looks like witchcraft, must be something else. He devoted a lot of time and energy to debunking witchcraft claims, and found a bunch of different causes.

I remember being impressed that he wasn't just hung up on a particular cause. He found many people claiming the ability to enhance their status or get attention -- but he also identified many cases where it was persecution by others. His gender-bias was apparently pretty neutral, too.
posted by lodurr at 7:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


This brings to mind the theory that the rib mentioned in Genesis is just a euphemism for the baculum.
posted by novelgazer at 7:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


You remind me of a friend who told me that during her college class discussion, someone mentioned the zombie movie she saw on TV last night, then the whole class was derailed by a discussion of the zombie movie, even the teacher got engaged. After about ten minutes of this, she said, "hey I'm paying a lot of money for this class and we have a test on Friday, can we get back to the lesson?"

And if the class in the original article had derailed to a conversation about the best cover version of the song "Dem Bones" you'd have had an equivalent point.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:47 AM on October 20, 2014 [12 favorites]


sfts2: I still cannot help feeling frustrated with our societies acceptance of superstition, not at the personal level, but more at the institutional level.

Superstitions and myths help people cope with a universe of things that is too big to grasp, and helps put them in scale with that immensity. I can't fault people for finding figures that reach the billions beyond comprehension, or the fact that they're destined to die and fade from memory, leaving behind some photos and records to show that they existed. That kind of thinking sends my head spinning, but I've come to terms with the fact that there is no grand plan for my life, or that I'm part of something bigger in any meaningful way.

Anyway, everyone has their quirks and eccentricities, be it fears, habits, or beliefs based on speculation and personal feelings. The only thing that makes religion any different is the sheer scale of the shared beliefs, and how people agree to act based on those beliefs.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:51 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


> I've met more than one person who believed this for completely non-religious reasons

Yes, there are many of us. I suppose my teacher, or my teacher's teacher, or her teacher's teacher, might have had religious reasons for believing this, but I was taught it as a plain old fact.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:53 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Or maybe people with a twisted sense of humor.
posted by lodurr at 7:54 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


And if the class in the original article had derailed to a conversation about the best cover version of the song "Dem Bones" you'd have had an equivalent point.

I think someone upthread made some remark about being able to understand analogies. Perhaps you can consider the cultural impact of the story of Adam's Rib as analogous to contemporary myths about zombies. It might also be useful to consider that these were both college courses that students were paying money to attend, and thus classroom time was a precious resource that could easily be wasted.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:56 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


someone mentioned the zombie movie she saw on TV last night

The rib issue was actually relevant to the class, with regard to the discrete assertion itself, as well as the broader issues of "how do we resolve questions in science?".

The zombie movie, on the other hand, would only be relevant in a class about zombies, or movies.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:58 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think someone upthread made some remark about being able to understand analogies.

My position on that score hasn't changed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:02 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Analogies aside, CDS, it would seem valuable for scientists of all stripes to have effective rhetorical skills which enable them to convert people from superstitious to evidence-based worldviews, because those people vote, which effects policy, which impacts the world in a real way.

If that sort of counting-the-ribs exchange went on every day in that class and legitimately hampered the education of all of the non-bible-literalist students it would be one thing. But, from reading the article, it seems like this was a unique event which offered a unique teaching opportunity which also served as a prime example of how to engage someone with a problematic viewpoint.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:03 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


classroom time was a precious resource that could easily be wasted

... By learning why a fairly common belief is wrong? By learning how to create a hypothesis and test it?

No, you're right - the professor should just have told that student (and everyone else within earshot) to shut up and take what he was saying on faith.
posted by rtha at 8:04 AM on October 20, 2014 [21 favorites]


The zombie movie, on the other hand, would only be relevant in a class about zombies, or movies.

Or in this case, a class about epidemiology. And it was still irrelevant.

While ideally education is a process that can dispel ignorance, at a certain level (presumably college) classes are intended to develop the brighter minds, rather than focus on remedial education.

The world needs ditch diggers too.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:07 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


drowsy: "My mandible dropped."

There are a few more good dad-level bone and anatomy puns in that article. Here are the few that I caught:
  • But in this instance, I was dealing with a pretty bare-bones case. The skeletons stood there as mute models of reality.
  • After all, comparative anatomy lab exercises should be fairly straightforward stuff. The body of the work consists in finding and describing the usual anatomic features essential to understanding basic evolutionary theory.
  • Are you sure those are male and female skeletons? My cocksure friend was back, looking a little puzzled. They’re the bona fide item, I answered. (I know, "bona fide" means good faith, but it seems like a homophone-type dad joke)
  • In my imagination, simple skeletons rose with a clamorous rattle to take on new lives as bones of contention. Wherever they appeared, dozens of Bible-toting students followed, egged on by ossified Sunday school teachers clustering around my desk to demand how I dare question Scripture.

Anyway, on re-reading the article, my one-line quote to respond to "why didn't the prof just tell the student she was wrong and she was duped by her religious beliefs" is this: Questions are what drive science, not answers. (A close second: Skepticism is a very useful scientific tool, and scientists do sometimes make mistakes. )

Maybe this has always been the case, but it seems that kids of the last 10-15 years are looking only for the right answer, not the right questions and how to solve them. Spending time helping students critically examine what they assumed was true is a great focus for any introductory science course.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:08 AM on October 20, 2014 [28 favorites]


Responding to "God said so!" with "No, you're wrong, I say so!" is literally the worst possible pedagogical response.

Just as there are lots of religious people who know how to think critically, there are plenty of non-religious people who just want to be at the top of the authoritarian structure rather than get rid of it.
posted by straight at 8:09 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


> Wait, so you definitely SUPPORT mockery when it comes to religion, but if it's directed at white men, no dice?
>> Your attempt to deflect the discussion from the topic into a personal attack is declined. I refuse to state my beliefs on either topic.


Translation: yes.
posted by Behemoth at 8:10 AM on October 20, 2014


This is a college level class, not junior high school.

Well, technically it's higher ed, but at a land grant university. While technically that definition includes some prestige schools like Cornell and MIT, they're usually not structured around or attended by the top academic performers who already have strong foundational knowledge.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:11 AM on October 20, 2014


The world needs ditch diggers too.

You must be real fun at parties.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:13 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


charlie don't surf: It might also be useful to consider that these were both college courses that students were paying money to attend, and thus classroom time was a precious resource that could easily be wasted.

Classroom time, whether you're directly paying for it or not, is pretty precious. But just like in the workplace, it's hard to stay focused on the same task without distraction for hours and hours every day, so distractions are welcomed to break up things and get people to think about different things in different ways, maybe even coming back to an earlier discussion and understanding something that had eluded you before.

And zombies are also useful for discussing how Native Americans have been treated in the history of the United States (it's a great talk, BTW, and not just a cutesy attempt to hop on the zombie bandwagon).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:15 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Lentrohamsanin, thanks for the link to the land grant university wiki page. I wanted to look into those, because I'm not familiar with them, and they indeed have a logo worthy of a sweatshirt, though I was imagining something more like Land Grant U.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:17 AM on October 20, 2014


The fact that this is a stunningly good example of good faith is also really important. The prof is modeling the proper deployment of skepticism and hypothesis testing, and doing it in a way that promotes the idea that you can and should examine beliefs based on your reading of dogma.

Shift perspective a bit, and have some of us older folks search our memories, and I'll be a few of us can remember Sisters or Brothers in our childhood Catholic high schools taking a similar approach. That's not a bad thing.
posted by lodurr at 8:18 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Add me to the list of people who assumed the Eve-from-a-rib story was a just-so explanation for a difference in rib counts, and not just a story. I learned something!
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:18 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


(Not speaking of myself, btw. rather, of friends my age who had those experiences.)
posted by lodurr at 8:19 AM on October 20, 2014


As far as origins...I've never been comfortable with the 'just-so story' approach to the study of mythology. I've never thought it was very good at accounting for the fact that smart people not only buy these stories but expend a great deal of effort maintaining, elaborating and justifying them.
posted by lodurr at 8:20 AM on October 20, 2014


Responding to "God said so!" with "No, you're wrong, I say so!" is literally the worst possible pedagogical response.

Nup. Murdering the student in cold blood would be worse pedagogy than saying "No, you're wrong! I say so!" Killing them and sending their family for re-education would be even worse than that. And killing them, ritually devouring pieces of their corpse in class, and then killing all members of their ethnic or religious group would be even more worser.

The bar for "worst possible pedagogy" is actually pretty hard to achieve without having the resources of a large nation-state at your disposal. Lord knows I've tried but I'm just one man.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:20 AM on October 20, 2014 [23 favorites]


Pol Pot, I thought you were dead!
posted by benito.strauss at 8:22 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


Or in this case, a class about epidemiology. And it was still irrelevant.

So we are still agreed that the zombie discussion was irrelevant in that class. This yet again distinguishes it from the rib discussion, which was relevant in that class.

Either way, the class was very lucky to have such a skilled, talented educator to deal with that potential speed bump. The class was lucky to not have a less skilled, less talented educator, one who would deal with it in a less professional manner.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:23 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Perhaps someone else has already pointed this out, but there is no intrinsic reason why there would be one less rib for men.

You take one rib (or set of ribs) from humanbeing 1.0, you build a humanbeing 2.0 around that. You notice that humanbing 1.1 (post rib-ectomy) clearly seems to function with one less rib (or set of ribs), why bother to up the number to the original humanbeing 1.0? The accounting department is already on your back for cost over runs, and if this is to be a mass produced item, you want to save on every part possible. You already had to fight tooth and nail to keep the appendix, for My sake.

This guy was way over thinking it.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:31 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Um, didn't this guy have it awfully, awfully easy?

His student had a misconception that was not really part of her religious belief. The Bible doesn't say anything about how many ribs people have. He led her through an exercise that left her in a position to keep holding the same belief, showed her that men and women having the same number of ribs did not in any way contradict the Biblical creation account. He didn't have to challenge the belief directly.

Now let's see how he handles something actually a little tricky, like the age of the earth, or the fact that humans and dinsoaurs didn't live together, or whatever.
posted by Hizonner at 8:33 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


... a misconception that was not really part of her religious belief. The Bible doesn't say anything about ....

But what the Bible says is not the extent or even the main determinant of what constitutes her religious belief.
posted by lodurr at 8:35 AM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


I also cannot find any substance to the spanish town where all inhabitants have polydactyly. I think mister professor needs to have this belief challenged... or, it may be a deliberate plant in the article to see if we got the lesson...
posted by Vindaloo at 8:37 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


His student had a misconception that was not really part of her religious belief.

Of course it was. She traced it back to Adam and Eve. A huge part of Christianity consists of stuff which is not in the Bible. The sweeping majority of Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th - the fact that neither Christmas the holiday nor December 25th show up in the Bible is entirely irrelevant to the fact that they're part of the Christian experience. The fact that the rib thing has no effect on any major theological/ethical/etc. issue is not relevant, either: it's still a part of a religious fact set and mindset.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


His student had a misconception that was not really part of her religious belief. The Bible doesn't say anything about how many ribs people have.

But she thought is was part of her religious belief, and that the Bible is much more specific about it than it is.
posted by rtha at 8:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


The fact that the rib thing has no effect on any major theological/ethical/etc. issue is not relevant, either
Of course it's relevant. It's the difference between something that's really important to somebody and something that's incidental.

The literal inerrancy of the Bible is important to a lot of people. It's important philosophically, it's important religiously, and it's important because of a lot of past political battles around it. Rib count is not important that way. Rib count may at best be one of the weaker arguments they may have heard for the account in Genesis being true. Dropping a belief about rib count is just not that big a deal for them; they still have Genesis just about as strongly as before.

If you tell the average reasonably thoughtful fundamentalist Christian that you've recalculated the date of Christmas based on whatever, and it should really be celebrated on December 23, then they may be a bit disinclined to hear it. They may argue against you. They may say that the actual date doesn't matter anyway, and what's important is that you celebrate Jesus' birth.

If you tell them Jesus was never born, that is threatening. The difference is relevant. And no, that doesn't mean that biblical literalism is as important to them as the existence of Jesus, but it's sure a lot more important than anatomical details.
posted by Hizonner at 8:48 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


nobody has sagittal crests

Well, at lest it would explain what those fedoras are hiding…

posted by wenestvedt at 8:50 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


But she thought is was part of her religious belief, and that the Bible is much more specific about it than it is.
Um, she was able to repeat the actual account from Genesis where only one rib was taken, and nowhere are we told that she actually thought the Bible said men had one fewer pair of ribs. That was just what she'd heard somewhere else, and it had sounded plausible to her because of Genesis, or as support of Genesis.

I would be pretty surprised if she ever actually believed the Bible had rib counts in it.
posted by Hizonner at 8:54 AM on October 20, 2014


If you tell them Jesus was never born, that is threatening.

It's also wrong, so who cares? Breaking through the rib issue breaks you through the idea that your religious teachings are factually correct with regard to the outside world. Once you've shaken that stone loose, you're much better-positioned to pry out things like Young Earth Creationism - another idea which does not come from the four corners of the Bible itself, but rather a post hoc interpretation thereof.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:55 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


The bar for "worst possible pedagogy" is actually pretty hard to achieve without having the resources of a large nation-state at your disposal.

I believe the term you are searching for is "Lysenkoism." There is an important lesson about Lysenko that is essential to any high school class discussing evolution.

It might also be worth considering that the author of this essay was a founder of the AIDS denialist movement.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:59 AM on October 20, 2014


I would be pretty surprised if she ever actually believed the Bible had rib counts in it.

From the piece:

But what does the Bible actually say? I asked. Surely there had to be some way out of this mess.

That God took a rib from Adam to create Eve.


In the end, we readers cannot know how seriously the student took this as part of her religious faith; what we can know is that the professor approached her as if she did, and got her to think this erroneous belief through. Arguing that some other religious people out there don't take the rib thing seriously misses the point, and isn't really relevant. Let's say she didn't really take it seriously as part of her faith: would it have been better then for the professor to laugh at her, or tease her, or do some other thing than what he did?
posted by rtha at 9:03 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


It might also be worth considering that the author of this essay was a founder of the AIDS denialist movement.

Well, how would it be worth considering such a fact? The points raised do not become magically less true merely because the author has been wildly wrong about other things. On the other hand, one could take that opportunity to look into how and why science does unfold the way it does, including the fact that it is necessarily a social activity, with other scientists checking other scientists. Very smart people often get things wrong. This is why we design systems so that we don't just take smart people at their word. Don't just take the professor's word for the fact that men and women have equal numbers of ribs - don't just work off of your own independent observations, either - observe the data, record the data, be accountable for the data, think critically about how you formulate and evaluate hypotheses, pay attention to why a consensus of scientists may agree or disagree on something, etc.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:05 AM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have no problem with what he actually did. My point is that he had a very easy case to handle, and it's a mistake to think that the general problem is easy based on that, or that the same approach will get you out of the hard cases.
That God took a rib from Adam to create Eve.
I'm sure she did take that seriously as part of her faith. And at no point was that challenged. At the end of the exchange, she still believed that God took a rib from Adam to create Eve. Nothing in the lesson challenged that, because the number of ribs on modern skeletons does not contradict it in any way, as the professor explained. It is easy to reconcile the real rib counts with the Bible.

Whereas lots of other stuff that you get in the sciences is a lot harder to reconcile with Genesis being literally true. To the point where you really can't do it without absolutely ridiculous contortions.

So how will he deal with it when he does have to contradict her religion? That's what I want to know.
posted by Hizonner at 9:08 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


i find the aids denial worth considering because i won't pass on this post now. it doesn't matter to the rib story, but it absolutely matters as far as wanting to engage further with his work.
posted by nadawi at 9:16 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


It might also be worth considering that the author of this essay was a founder of the AIDS denialist movement.

Who has since distanced himself from said movement, if his quote from the 2006 POZ article (make sure to Control-F Root-Bernstein!) cited in his Wkipedia entry is accurate. The man is an empircist, through and through.
posted by KingEdRa at 9:17 AM on October 20, 2014


So how will he deal with it when he does have to contradict her religion?

Possibly by reminding her of their earlier discussion about the ribs - one which she will also happen to have a more open-minded view about, moreover, because he wasn't a huge jerk back then.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:20 AM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


i can't tell from that quote from wiki what his current position is other than he disagrees with other deniers that hiv is harmless. he still seems to believe that hiv in and of itself doesn't lead to aids unless you've seen that retracted somewhere?
posted by nadawi at 9:20 AM on October 20, 2014


Hizonner, so is it that you wanted him to be dealing with a harder case? Or that you don't think the solution is well-demonstrated without a harder case?

But having asked that....

You use the phrase (as have a lot of people) 'contradicting her religion.' That's not a phrase that actually makes sense out of the context of who's saying it, though for conversational convenience we're pretending we all share a common understanding of what it means. We get to see where it's a problem when someone says something like 'a misconception that was not really part of her religious belief.'

Religious belief is a thing in your head. It can get expressed in actions; it derives from the interactions between inputs and your own brain. The religion as such could be a lot of different things, though. It might be the set of objective rules for the faith; it might be shorthand for "what most people think [christianity, buddism, islam, wicca, asatruar, etc.] is." So 'contradicting religion' is less precise than 'contradicting religious beliefs.'

Religions are never objectively true or false (except oftentimes in the religious beliefs of their adherents), so contradicting someone's religion is a fuzzy concept. You can say part of it is wrong and still leave most of it intact; you can say most of it's wrong, and for some people, even if they believe you, they'll still think there's an objective thing out their called 'my religion' that they have just erred (sinned?) in understanding.
posted by lodurr at 9:21 AM on October 20, 2014


"And then I met Prof. Dan Brown. You'll never believe what happened next! "

You found out that Martin Luther was an albino who wanted to expose the descendent of Christ?
posted by klangklangston at 9:28 AM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


I think that the solution is well-demonstrated to deal with the easy case, but that that doesn't mean that it's going to do anything at all in a hard case. If anything, it succeeds by dodging the hard case. And I'm not sure the easy case is worth the trouble of writing about, precisely because it's so easy.
posted by Hizonner at 9:29 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


The world needs ditch diggers too.

fun irony: when you instrumentalize other people, you become a real tool yourself.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:30 AM on October 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


Sometimes you need to dodge the hard case. Most of the time, the hard case is going to be irrelevant, anyway. If you have a young earth creationist working on site geology for a nuclear waste storage facility, you potentially have a problem, but I'm not interested in holding education hostage to that scenario.
posted by lodurr at 9:32 AM on October 20, 2014


charlie don't surf: "They lost because the teacher had to waste everyone's lab time addressing the errors of a student who believed in something irrational."

Well, look, part of becoming an effective teacher is learning when to spool it out and when to reel it in. It's true, professors who are easily diverted into addressing a single student's hyperspecific questions at length are maddening to have in class. But on the other hand, engagement with student questions, even in a lecture-format class (this sounded like a personal-attention lab), is an important part of the dialogue of the classroom. Even students who already know X can learn something from how we move a student's erroneous belief Y over to correct understanding X, and generally (if it were me), I'd be helping to contextualize and expand X. But you have to know when to cut it off and say, "You need to come discuss this during my office hours" or "We don't have time to unpack this idea today, so for the sake of argument, accept my premise, and you can argue with me about the premise at the break."

(If you're going to cut off the annoying student who wants to stubbornly insist that diseases are cause by God and not pathogens, neither of which has ANYTHING to do with today's lesson on free will, it does really help to have already established your classroom as a safe space for questioning and gentle interrogation of preconceived ideas, because that kid is going to get really ANGRY at being shut down, and it's better if the rest of the class believes you as the teacher are acting in good faith to move class along or avoid irrelevant tangents and not just shutting people up for disagreeing with you.)

Lentrohamsanin: "Well, technically it's higher ed, but at a land grant university. While technically that definition includes some prestige schools like Cornell and MIT, they're usually not structured around or attended by the top academic performers who already have strong foundational knowledge."

I bite my thumb at you, sir! In the midwest (he says he's at a midwestern land-grant U), they're often flagships of the state system -- U of Illinois, Minnesota, OSU, UW-Madison -- or otherwise well-recognized, like Purdue and Michigan State. Land grants created a peerless group of public research universities in the Midwest, in places where there had been very little higher education available before the land grants, and extended that education to young men and women, especially in rural areas, who had never before had the access or the means to attend college. Today midwestern land grant universities are world-wide leaders in agriculture, engineering, medicine, and the hard sciences. It's hard to think of a MORE successful government program, or a better group of public universities.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:33 AM on October 20, 2014 [39 favorites]


For truth: In the midwest (he says he's at a midwestern land-grant U), they're often flagships of the state system -- U of Illinois, Minnesota, OSU, UW-Madison -- or otherwise well-recognized, like Purdue and Michigan State.

Sadly, the idea of public education has suffered greatly in the US, but the great american land-grand universities have really been critical to the development of science and technology in the US (and arguably, just in general).
posted by lodurr at 9:36 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


The extent of the author's AIDS denialism is neither here nor there, with regard to the article: he is not a virologist, the article is not about HIV/AIDS, and the ideas brought up in the article can each be addressed on their own merits. A huge part of science is critical thinking, and a huge part of critical thinking is learning to avoid things like ad hominem arguments - the idea that the author's arguments are magically affected by the fact that he has believed in, and maybe still believes in, wrong things which exist outside of the article, and even outside his area of expertise. The same principle underlies why we shouldn't take AIDS denialists seriously, even if many of them are otherwise respected scientists: the "work" of AIDS denialism fails on its own merits.

Hell, you'd only be proving the author's point by taking this opportunity to double-check his work.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:38 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


It it seems that kids of the last 10-15 years are looking only for the right answer, not the right questions and how to solve them.

Because, in general, high school classes are looking for answers, and then they're tossed into post-secondary where you need to switch over without all that much support about how to do this. And university now is a debt machine required to have a chance at a middle class life, so people are much more concerned with finishing it in time than learning how to learn.
posted by jeather at 9:39 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


What the everloving fuck is happening in this thread?

The professor's gentle but rigorous approach taught his student -- and likely all the students in the classroom -- how to question (and really, even identify) unexamined assumptions. Whether that assumption is Christian dogma, a child's folktale, or simply a bit of ill-conceived conventional wisdom is besides the point. (Although he did have to tread lightly here, given the prevalence of belief in Christian dogma at this university, and the potential controversy around contradicting it.)

Professors often tell students to ask relevant questions, even if the student thinks those questions are stupid or simple, because it is likely that someone else in the room is confused by the same thing. A classroom is not -- or rather, should not be -- a place where professors simply impart the wisdom of the ages unto blank minds. A really good professor encourages questions and discussion, even and especially in STEM subjects, because a lot of learning happens in those nooks and crannies between lesson plans. And the ability to notice and question your assumptions is a hugely valuable tool to have in any discipline or career!

This is all leaving aside the professor's apparent AIDS denialism, which is abhorrent and will indeed prevent me from passing on this article. It's a shame because his approach here is really insightful.
posted by Ragini at 9:56 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I win at Google.

The polydactyl town is Eycaux, France. That there are a couple of JAMA articles thrown in with "human oddities" sites makes me think this may be real answer.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:56 AM on October 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


Something is very puzzling to me here. How on earth could a belief that men and women have a different number of ribs possibly develop? Yes, there's the Bible story, but even the earliest Jewish peoples would have seen bodies of men and women decompose into skeletons and be well acquainted with the typical number of ribs in each. And it's not like the number of ribs would change significantly over the centuries, or that there would be an extensive period where even a very small community could exist without some basic level of anatomical knowledge being retained (gravediggers, soldiers, medical practitioners of various kinds).

How would it even be possible for something so laughably, obviously, easily verifiably incorrect to become "common knowledge"? Somebody in a position of power would have had to start teaching this, absent any training in anatomy whatsoever. This isn't some "teach the controversy" nonsense like the Texas textbook fights, because there's not even a gnat's width of fact here. Amazing.

Love that the professor mentions getting some students to count the ribs again and come up with the wrong answer - their preconceived notion actually overcame their direct experience. Using science to teach science... such a great idea.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:03 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yea I've heard the Adam and Eve rib story though I wasn't raised strictly Christian, but I never heard until now that people really thought men and women have a different number of ribs, and thought that the Adam and Eve thing was a just so explanation of scientific observation.
posted by sweetkid at 10:06 AM on October 20, 2014


Love that the professor mentions getting some students to count the ribs again and come up with the wrong answer - their preconceived notion actually overcame their direct experience. Using science to teach science... such a great idea.

Reminiscent of many parts of Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man - in which it later turned out that SJG had himself allowed his own biases to cloud some of his own observations for the book. The book was more true than he had ever realized!
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:11 AM on October 20, 2014


I signed up for an anthropology class when I was an undergrad. The professor said, early on, that anyone who didn't believe in evolution didn't belong in the class, so I dropped it.

I can't remember if he said that in response to anything I had said or implied--it was twenty years ago--but my thoughts on it aren't as clear and certain as they would have been at the time.
  1. I'm amazed that even into early college I was still a fundamentalist; it's easy for me to (mis)remember events at the time as being influenced by what I came to believe later.
  2. I wonder what was covered in the class.
  3. I wonder if I would have learned much of what was covered in the class.
  4. He's right in his implication that I wouldn't have made a good anthropologist; at the time my attitude towards things I didn't believe was generally a sneering condescension. It's really a horrible approach to life, and I wonder what made me interested in an anthropology class with that attitude.
  5. I wonder if I would have interfered with other students' ability to learn, or if I would have had little to no effect on them. I tended to be really quiet in class and preferred reading and rereading the textbook over asking questions.
posted by johnofjack at 10:15 AM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


> "How on earth could a belief that men and women have a different number of ribs possibly develop?"

Electric fans won't kill you if you leave them on while you sleep. Bulls are not enraged by the color red. Eating before swimming doesn't cause cramps. Every part of your tongue can taste every kind of flavor. Shaving doesn't cause hair to grow back thicker.

People believe all kinds of untrue things that are relatively easy to check.
posted by kyrademon at 10:16 AM on October 20, 2014 [22 favorites]


Shaving doesn't cause hair to grow back thicker.

And thank the FSM for that. I went through an exploratory phase which would have left me looking severely silly looking were that true.

My scalp, on the other hand, finds this news distressing.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:26 AM on October 20, 2014


I'll hold my hand up and say that this unchecked nonfact was hanging around somewhere in my brain. Not because I had a religious upbringing - both my parents are atheists. I think I can trace it to an occasion where my young self found a copy of the periodical Spare Rib in the house and, questioning his mother about the name, received a version of the bible story along with the erroneous biological connection. If I'd thought about it long enough to google I'd have soon become disenfranchised of the notion, but as it was I spent a while trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance, on reading this post and article.
posted by iotic at 10:31 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


So, is there really a Spanish town with an unusually high number of six-fingered people?

I assumed he chose a nonspecific european location because the two US examples of community polydactyly are either Amish or Hasidic, and maybe he felt that pointing it out could be construed as further attacks on religious beliefs/communities/idk?
posted by poffin boffin at 10:33 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


" How on earth could a belief that men and women have a different number of ribs possibly develop? Yes, there's the Bible story, but even the earliest Jewish peoples would have seen bodies of men and women decompose into skeletons and be well acquainted with the typical number of ribs in each."
The confusion clearly originates from the note in the story combined with a general lack of familiarity, and the note doesn't necessarily need a neat explanation to make sense in the context of the story, but you're right - ignorance of the author is a really implausible explanation for why the writer of that section of Genesis included the note. A much more plausible explanation would be that, while what we've translated as "rib" literally meant that, the writer could have been using the word figuratively to refer to the penis bone found in other mammals and missing in humans.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:37 AM on October 20, 2014


The professor's gentle but rigorous approach taught his student -- and likely all the students in the classroom -- how to question (and really, even identify) unexamined assumptions. Whether that assumption is Christian dogma, a child's folktale, or simply a bit of ill-conceived conventional wisdom is besides the point. (Although he did have to tread lightly here, given the prevalence of belief in Christian dogma at this university, and the potential controversy around contradicting it.)

I think you're getting closer to the implications of this article, by this author, and why recontextualizing it with AIDS denialism is important to the interpretation. The author has previously made claims that AIDS is medical dogma akin to religious belief, and that great pains must be taken to accommodate discussions by dissidents. Even irrational or unscientific arguments must be considered at length and dealt with by the scientific method.

I did also note that the author was a MacArthur fellow (before the AIDS denialism) but I have been unable to find any reason why that grant was given.

Anyway, the whole premise of the article was apparently how to make a student realize her error without disparaging her religion. Here is how that works.

Prof: Here is a male skeleton and a female skeleton. Can anyone describe their sexual dimorphism?
Student: The male skeleton has one less rib.
Prof: No, both male and female skeletons have 12 ribs. [Counts them aloud] Anyone else?
Student 2: The female pelvis is wider.
Prof: How can we measure that to verify your hypothesis?
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:44 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


A much more plausible explanation would be that, while what we've translated as "rib" literally meant that, the writer could have been using the word figuratively to refer to the penis bone found in other mammals and missing in humans.

An interesting idea. Not sure if the etymology supports it, though. Wikipedia says:
English-language tradition describes the part as a rib, but the Hebrew word tsela, from which this interpretation is derived, having multiple meanings, could also mean "side".
posted by iotic at 10:53 AM on October 20, 2014


> "I have been unable to find any reason why that grant was given."

According to the MacArthur Fellows Program, "Robert Root-Bernstein is a biologist and a historian of science. His work concerns applications of the concepts of molecular and philosophical complementarity to theories of evolution, molecular immunology, disease, and neurobiology. Root-Bernstein has developed a new theory regarding autoimmune diseases and the drugs used for their treatment. He has also studied the process of scientific discovery and the methodological connections between the sciences and the arts. He also investigates nonverbal 'tools for thinking,' such as pattern forming and recognition, abstracting, analogizing, modeling, and visualizing."
posted by kyrademon at 10:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


charlie don't surf, your approach less effectively conveys what budding young scientists must do, from conducting your own observations even when you already feel confident about your theory, to realizing that your own biases can cloud your own observations. Besides, as you will recall from the article, he talks about how he now brings many X-rays, so as to make the mini-lesson more efficient.

Your attempt to staple his AIDS denialism back onto the article's argument is not convincing - it comes off as a post hoc, conclusion-first exercise, i.e. "I will find the way to make a connection". The whole point of why people like the rib example is because it's discrete and easily resolved. Contrast with going down the wormhole with HIV, where it does not behoove us to approach a complicated subject with an already broken epistemology.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


My mother used to be a believer in the rib thing. I don't know if she still is.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:02 AM on October 20, 2014


How on earth could a belief that men and women have a different number of ribs possibly develop? Yes, there's the Bible story, but even the earliest Jewish peoples would have seen bodies of men and women decompose into skeletons and be well acquainted with the typical number of ribs in each. And it's not like the number of ribs would change significantly over the centuries, or that there would be an extensive period where even a very small community could exist without some basic level of anatomical knowledge being retained (gravediggers, soldiers, medical practitioners of various kinds).

How would it even be possible for something so laughably, obviously, easily verifiably incorrect to become "common knowledge"? Somebody in a position of power would have had to start teaching this, absent any training in anatomy whatsoever. This isn't some "teach the controversy" nonsense like the Texas textbook fights, because there's not even a gnat's width of fact here. Amazing.


That's 'folk wisdom' for you. A bunch of just-so stories passed along by people who can't be arsed to verify them and get mad when you try. Which is to say that sure, anybody who bothered to check would know, but how many people bother to check?
posted by empath at 11:03 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


CDS, it's vaguely amusing to watch you repeat your view of how teaching a class works while ignoring the actual data provided by people who do teach. Probably the only way you'd be shaken from your beliefs is if you actually had the experience of teaching a similar class and could see the results of your beliefs.

<lovitz_voice> Analogy! </lovitz_voice>
posted by benito.strauss at 11:03 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


And, btw, creationists _don't_ generally teach that men have fewer ribs than women. It's one of those 'facts' that people pick up as kids somewhere and then never double check.
posted by empath at 11:05 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Another thing: the rib issue was resolved by a student who knew she was a student, under the supervision of a professor. Whereas, the author's AIDS denialism was performed by a man who made the mistake of assuming that he was an expert on something outside of his field, that he knew more than virologists. Was he a lone genius battling bamboozled pencilnecks, or an outsider who couldn't resolve apparent inconsistencies in a complicated topic? We know that it's the latter, but it can be hard to realize this from the inside. It's less easy to fall down the rabbit hole when you are aware of your limitations.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:05 AM on October 20, 2014


The extent of the author's AIDS denialism is neither here nor there, with regard to the article: he is not a virologist, the article is not about HIV/AIDS, and the ideas brought up in the article can each be addressed on their own merits. A huge part of science is critical thinking

(emphasis mine). The fact of his AIDS denialism--and he is a biologist if not a virologist--casts some serious doubt on his critical thinking skills.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:07 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh yes, and that 5,300-year-old man they found frozen in a glacier in the Alps a few years back? He’s got only 11 pairs of ribs. It happens. Still, imagine what might happen if the creation scientists get hold of a replica of the 5,300-year-old man’s skeleton and try to pawn it off as proof of the Bible.
I'm surprised this hasn't happened yet.
posted by clawsoon at 11:11 AM on October 20, 2014


That's 'folk wisdom' for you. A bunch of just-so stories passed along by people who can't be arsed to verify them and get mad when you try. Which is to say that sure, anybody who bothered to check would know, but how many people bother to check?

Other true facts:

1. sharks are ravenous human-eating monsters
2. water spins down the rain differently south of the equator due to Coriolis force
3. Christopher Columbus proved the Earth was round
4. a plane on a giant treadmill will never fly
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:11 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Regarding his AIDS denialism, here's what the book "Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy" had to say about it:

"Many factors can facilitate the progression of HIV disease ... In the early 1980s, it was perfectly reasonable to hold the position that AIDS was the result of multiple competing factors. [Some] AIDS pseudoscientists falsely claim, however, that without co-factors, HIV alone cannot cause AIDS. One of the early proponents of the co-factor theory of AIDS was Robert Root-Bernstein ... Root-Bernstein published a book in 1993 ... in which he claimed that HIV is insufficient to cause AIDS. As AIDS science advanced, Root-Bernstein softened his views ..."

"Like nearly all dissident scientists, Root-Bernstein and Sonnanbend altered their views as the facts of AIDS became clear ... [A]s science moved forward into the 1990s and scientists discovered how HIV causes AIDS, most dissident views faded. Nearly all dissident scientists critically examined the evidence, adapted their views to accommodate the facts and moved on. Science is after all a forward-moving and evolving enterprise."
posted by kyrademon at 11:15 AM on October 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


The fact of his AIDS denialism--and he is a biologist if not a virologist--casts some serious doubt on his critical thinking skills.

Perhaps, but with regard to the article, that's addressing the person, not the argument. It would be a textbook example of ad hominem argument to say that this article is less reasonable as a result of other nutty beliefs of his.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:16 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Still, imagine what might happen if the creation scientists get hold of a replica of the 5,300-year-old man’s skeleton and try to pawn it off as proof of the Bible.

I would swear I saw a story on this a while back. IIRC I just assumed it was parody.
posted by lodurr at 11:18 AM on October 20, 2014


Heck, I was raised pretty atheist and believed the rib story to be a folk explanation for an observable fact for quite some time - many myths are fanciful explanations for real physical phenomena. I don't have to believe that crows' feathers are black because they got singed stealing fire from the sun to think that a story is telling the truth about crows having black feathers.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:18 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Not gonna lie, for much of my youth I had always assumed the premise was true, and figured the Adam / Eve story there was just a the Christian explaination for the unusual trait.
posted by pwnguin at 11:21 AM on October 20, 2014


it was too many years after i left mormonism that i realized i still believed carbon dating wasn't settled science - and not actively believed it, but just that it was still lingering back there, unexamined. the insidiousness of beliefs that go against facts is that you are given the story before you know the fact exists so when you hear of the fact you already know the story that "disproves" it and your brain just rides on auto pilot for a minute.
posted by nadawi at 11:24 AM on October 20, 2014


We don't generally go around butchering humans (or any animals, for that matter, anymore); furthermore, we don't typically have a reason to count our ribs.

Where it gets more interesting to me is a thing like the distribution of taste buds. I "learned" from several textbooks that taste buds were distributed on the tongue in different areas by type; as an adult I know from experience that's not true and that, in fact, I also have them on the roof of my mouth. But again, most people don't have a reason to ever question that -- it's not really relevant to their experience of the world.
posted by lodurr at 11:25 AM on October 20, 2014


One thing I like to do to sort of ease students into this idea of challenging biblical literalism is to trace the way people developed the theory of evolution historically - and the fact that many of them had to cope with the fact that they were challenging a literal interpretation of the bible. Part of this historical development was the fact that, during the age of exploration, people started to discover new and crazy animals like tapirs and capybaras and caimans and buffalo and spider monkeys, and the ark was starting to get really crowded, and what exactly is a cubit anyway - maybe the ark was built with some sort of special cubit that we don't use anymore... or something ... And then Lyell was looking at geological formations and realizing that for current geographic features to form with geology working at the same general rate it does now - that would have taken way more than 6,000 years to form ... like ... hundred of thousands of years, or maybe millions of years. Well, shit. And all of this immutibility of forms, and special creation, and types, and race, and you know? People have always been wrestling with this idea of what they believe and what they observe and there's something vaguely comforting to the fact that people have always shifted their perspective and rectified their beliefs with their science, and students feel slightly better about it.
posted by ChuraChura at 11:28 AM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]



Other true facts:


5. Cereal is not a soup.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:30 AM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


5. Cereal is not a soup.

You would not believe the argument I had with my girlfriend over whether a hamburger is a sandwich.
posted by empath at 11:33 AM on October 20, 2014 [12 favorites]


I still get into it over the "difference between fruits and vegetables."
posted by lodurr at 11:35 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Perhaps, but with regard to the article, that's addressing the person, not the argument. It would be a textbook example of ad hominem argument to say that this article is less reasonable as a result of other nutty beliefs of his.

If he's setting himself up as some sort of exemplar of critical thinking, it's pretty relevant to point out that in fact he is not.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:37 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


> "You would not believe the argument I had with my girlfriend over whether a hamburger is a sandwich."

Out of curiosity, did you take the correct position, or the insane one?
posted by kyrademon at 11:37 AM on October 20, 2014 [10 favorites]


Heck, I was raised pretty atheist and believed the rib story to be a folk explanation for an observable fact for quite some time - many myths are fanciful explanations for real physical phenomena. I don't have to believe that crows' feathers are black because they got singed stealing fire from the sun to think that a story is telling the truth about crows having black feathers.

I just didn't know so many people thought it was observable fact.
posted by sweetkid at 11:38 AM on October 20, 2014


Out of curiosity, did you take the correct position, or the insane one?

Hamburger = sandwich.

Also, a previous insane argument with a friend led to this front page post.
posted by empath at 11:45 AM on October 20, 2014


> I "learned" from several textbooks that taste buds were distributed on the tongue in different areas by type; as an adult I know from experience that's not true

Uh, I knew that, sure.

TIL that my childhood education maybe wasn't as good as I think it was.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:46 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


'just-so stories' are often really patronizing, when you get down to it. I mean, you basically take a tall-tale, told for amusement, and turn it into canon so you can make fun of it. So a story about Raven having black features because they got singed when he stole something -- did anyone older than about 8 believe that, as anything other than something to make the kids laugh when you bored during a long winter?
posted by lodurr at 11:48 AM on October 20, 2014


> "If he's setting himself up as some sort of exemplar of critical thinking, it's pretty relevant to point out that in fact he is not."

On the other hand, if he is setting himself up as someone who empathizes with what it is like to hold a very wrong view that can eventually be changed by exposure to more information, it's possibly relevant to point out that this is also true of him.
posted by kyrademon at 11:48 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Hamburger = sandwich.

That's insane.

sorry, someone had to say it.
posted by lodurr at 11:48 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh, I understand it being an element of folk wisdom, but I don't get where it could possibly start, since there is no factual basis to it at all.

I mean... they wave red flags at bulls, and bulls get angry. So yeah, somebody could mistakenly suggest one caused the other. I'm sure some people have gotten cramps while swimming, after having recently had a meal. There was a belief in a flat earth at one time, and many people thought Columbus a fool for trying to reach India by a westerly route. Crows do have black feathers, things that are singed often turn black, and the sun can singe things. There's some misapplication of logic that's linking actual bits of knowledge resulting in these bits of folk wisdom.

(As for the idea that we don't butcher humans... thousands of years of military history up to and including the present day suggest otherwise, let alone our unwavering ability to find new and interesting ways to cause ourselves accidental grievous bodily injury.)

But the whole rib thing? You can't say it's a fanciful explanation of an actual physical phenomenon, since it's physically incorrect. The Bible doesn't say a damned thing about how many ribs anyone had. It's never been Christian religious teaching to suggest women and men had different numbers of ribs. I know I'm assuming this is an Abrahamic belief, but I suspect people in non-Abrahamic cultures don't confuse this. So if Christians never taught this, and it's not information that could be supported by anything other than a mistaken reading of the Bible, I find it very strange that this idea has gained any widespread belief. It wasn't present in Biblical times, so I wonder when exactly it became so significantly "known".

If a group of Hindus suddenly decided tomorrow to believe that Jews, Christians, and Moslems are forbidden from eating apples, it would be almost the same kind of bizarre. Sure, there's a story in the Bible that makes a vague reference to the situation, but without ANY bit of actual factual experience that could be misconstrued somehow to support it I just can't see how the idea took hold.

I guess I'll just have to chalk it up as an anatomical mondegreen.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:51 AM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


mondegreen is probably a pretty good analogy.
posted by lodurr at 11:52 AM on October 20, 2014


If he's setting himself up as some sort of exemplar of critical thinking, it's pretty relevant to point out that in fact he is not.

Your comment is about him, not the article. That is why, with regard to the article, it is a textbook example of an ad hominem argument: it is not about the article, but the author's own qualities as a person.

It would be fair if you did not want to take his word for an unknown claim, but the article already exists and can be readily read. It doesn't become magically untrue as a result of the author's other problems.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:53 AM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


But the whole rib thing? You can't say it's a fanciful explanation of an actual physical phenomenon, since it's physically incorrect.

I'd wager that most people don't count the ribs of their dead friends- studying internal human anatomy isn't something that all cultures do. All it would take would be one dude thinking "hmm, I bet women have more ribs because Adam." No one in a culture without a tradition of either anatomy or ritual defleshing is gonna think "hmm, better mutilate several dead people and count their ribs to make sure!"
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:56 AM on October 20, 2014


I'm not disputing that the article exists.

1) He is presenting himself as someone who exemplifies critical thinking
2) He is an AIDS denialist, which is the exact opposite of critical thinking
3) Therefore, one should be careful about taking him at his word about critical thinking

The author's qualities as a person matter when the author is talking about his qualities as a person.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:57 AM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


> "2) He is an AIDS denialist"

Was.

I kind of feel that point is important to this discussion.
posted by kyrademon at 11:59 AM on October 20, 2014 [17 favorites]


"1) He is presenting himself as someone who exemplifies critical thinking" is also open to dispute. What I see him presenting himself as here is a teacher.

World's full of teachers who are mistaken about facts. Some of them are still excellent teachers.
posted by lodurr at 12:04 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Also probably relevant that his version of AIDS denialism, which he no longer believes, was "I think HIV causes AIDS, but not all by itself; I think other co-factors are necessary."

While this is untrue and can be harmful, I can't help but think it's kind of the Zeppo of AIDS denialism, as they go.
posted by kyrademon at 12:06 PM on October 20, 2014 [16 favorites]


There was a belief in a flat earth at one time, and many people thought Columbus a fool for trying to reach India by a westerly route.

True, but the two ideas were never connected until relatively recently, along with Washington and his Cherry Tree.

But here's a possible explanation: Christian fundamentalism is a modern movement that developed alongside modern funerary practices of embalming and whole-body internment, with a modest taboo against handling human remains. So you have a movement of "because the Bible says so" combined with the development of funeral practices that don't involve periodic stacking of bones in the charnel house.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:06 PM on October 20, 2014


kyrademon, the most recent quote from him (linked upthread) indicates that he definitely still does believe that; there's no 'was.'
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:09 PM on October 20, 2014


1) He is presenting himself as someone who exemplifies critical thinking
2) He is an AIDS denialist, which is the exact opposite of critical thinking
3) Therefore, one should be careful about taking him at his word about critical thinking


Regarding 1), would you please quote where you are seeing this in the article? Or is he "presenting himself as someone who exemplifies critical thinking" merely by having the audacity to write an article?

Regarding 3), you have changed the subject from the author to "his word about critical thinking", which would include this article. Why did you make this categorical leap, from the person to his arguments? A basic building block of critical thinking is to avoid employing ad hominem fallacies, including those of the tu quoque variety, i.e. "we cannot trust this author's arguments because he has not followed his own advice".

The goodness or badness of the pedagogy described in the article exists independently of other nutty things which the author may believe (or may have believed in the past). Transistors did not magically stop working when William Shockley became a crank: good pedagogy does not magically become bad pedagogy, even when it is used by someone who has also believed in some wrong things.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:27 PM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


To elaborate on an earlier comment, Isabella of Castile was neither illiterate nor a dummy. One of her patronage projects involved the translation of Greek and Arab philosophy from plundered Arabic libraries. Any debate over navigating across the Atlantic rested on distance vs. food and water. Columbus's argument wasn't that the Earth was round, but it was significantly smaller than Greek and Arab estimates. (He was wrong, they were right.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:37 PM on October 20, 2014 [6 favorites]


Hm. Most of what I've seen online implies he's changed his mind, e.g., "... it should be noted that several prominent scientists once associated with HAD [HIV/AIDS Denial] have changed their views and have come to accept that HIV is an important causal factor in the development of AIDS: Robert Root-Bernstein, a professor of life sciences at Michigan State University ...; Joseph Sonnabend, retired physician, scientist and AIDS researcher; and Walter Gilbert, winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in chemistry."

On the other hand, he still links to sales pages for his 1993 book on the subject on his website, which, I will freely admit, ick.
posted by kyrademon at 12:42 PM on October 20, 2014


nobody has sagittal crests

My partner does; it's subtle, I daresay even cute, and you wouldn't be able to see it unless she was completely bald, but it's definitely there -- I made the mistake of calling her 'Ridgey' once, and she was NOT AMUSED.

I note that neanderthals had one, and I wonder whether a very slight sagittal crest could be one marker for neanderthal ancestry. I don't think she'd necessarily be very amused to hear that, either, but I would like it.
posted by jamjam at 1:00 PM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


"kyrademon, the most recent quote from him (linked upthread) indicates that he definitely still does believe that; there's no 'was.'"

The most recent quote from him is from the mid-'90s.

His email is publicly available. I sent him a note to see what he would say.

It is worth noting that while he wasn't a virologist specifically, part of his work involved mathematically modeling the HIV molecule.
posted by klangklangston at 1:10 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sticherbeast: I think "Transistors did not magically stop working when William Shockley became a crank" is going to go into my random-quotes file. On fortuitous days it may come up immediately following "Reality is that which, when we stop believing in it, does not go away."
posted by lodurr at 1:48 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's wrong to call him an AIDS denialist. That is literally not true: he never denied that AIDS existed.

Instead, he was part of a group of early scientific investigators working on the role of HIV in causing AIDS. He was never even what you'd call a skeptic: he was working on an alternative theory.

He's still publishing on HIV cofactor issues, and what's more HE'S STILL PUBLISHING THAT WORK IN PEER REVIEWED JOURNALS. That means it's relevant and important work that has undergone much more rigorous testing than the Metafilter detective squad's Google-fu.

Perhaps he's still wrong or wrong-headed. That's part of science: being wrong. If we already knew everything we need to know about AIDS, we wouldn't be arguing about this. But what's important is that, in the absence of a vaccine for HIV, we need to keep digging and trying out new theories, trying to fit the parts of several theories together, and trying to get an understanding of how the immune system works.

I'm not equipped to understand the role of lymphocytotoxic antibodies and other potential cofactors in HIV and AIDS. But unless you are, you should take it seriously that Root-Bernstein is still publishing in highly respected journals on this topic. It means that the cofactor debate isn't over.

Oh, and here are two papers that Root-Bernstein had nothing to do with that claim that some classes of HIV antivirals work successfully by targeting cofactors:

TALEN knockout of the PSIP1 gene in human cells: analyses of HIV-1 replication and allosteric integrase inhibitor mechanism.

A Critical Role of the C-terminal Segment for Allosteric Inhibitor-induced Aberrant Multimerization of HIV-1 Integrase.

So... that's probably worth considering.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:58 PM on October 20, 2014 [29 favorites]


Yeah, this feels like an increasingly weird derail. I'm all for exercising one's skeptical faculties, but takedown on Root-Bernstein here is starting to remind me of the kind of armchair detective work that sees a beating victim's black eyes and says "black eyes don't look like that, he's faking them".
posted by lodurr at 2:09 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh, anotherpanacea, you and your facts.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:18 PM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


The world needs ditch diggers too.

~80% of the US believes in god(s). We don't need 240 million ditch diggers. We need an educated populace. I've never had a coworker whose religious beliefs impacted their ability to work effectively*.

Also, "we shouldn't teach ignorant people things" doesn't seem a very tenable position.

(*I don't work in evolutionary sciences, obviously some religious beliefs may be incompatible with some jobs.)
posted by el io at 2:39 PM on October 20, 2014 [5 favorites]


"We don't need 240 million ditch diggers."

Only because my plan to have humanity live in subterranean mag-lev bullet trains has been stymied by the LaRouche splinter cells that control the government.

THANKS OBAMACARE
posted by klangklangston at 2:54 PM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


I reject out of hand the notion, charlie don't surf, that no classroom anywhere should ever engage in anything not "relevant" to the topic of the class itself, unless we're talking about some sort of hypothetical perfectly-defined topic matter taught by robots to other robots. Since we're not, it's just absurd to suggest this as the standard. I'm not even convinced that one can come up with any sort of test for deciding what's relevant or not (it's a matter of degrees), never mind that we're talking about human beings here. Finally, even if you could come up with a test and induce people to always apply it, I think there's an argument to be made that you've now made the quality of education worse, because there ought to be room for free exploration of ideas in a freaking classroom, for pete's sake.
posted by axiom at 3:00 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm with charlie don't surf on this one.
Most of the other students have gained nothing from this exercise, because it was trivial. Typically, there are hundreds of students sitting in such intro classes, all of whom pay tuition to actually learn something. Even if this particular class was smaller, it was not a one-on-one coaching. This tiptoeing around stupidity is just a waste of time. College students are old enough that they don't need that much hand holding, geez.
posted by travelwithcats at 3:05 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


While ideally education is a process that can dispel ignorance, at a certain level (presumably college) classes are intended to develop the brighter minds, rather than focus on remedial education.

The world needs ditch diggers too.


I don't remember when I stopped believing in young-earth creationism, but it was somewhere towards the end of high school. I can directly credit my high school for that - and it's probably not a coincidence that my teachers weren't at all hostile or ridiculing of creationist beliefs despite the fact that creationism is not widely believed in Canada.

While I'm sure being a ditch digger would have been very rewarding for me, I'm happier in my current "job" as a PhD student doing cancer research. I'm glad I wasn't forced out of science for a few weird beliefs I was raised with that I didn't manage to shake until I was almost an adult.
posted by randomnity at 3:23 PM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


This tiptoeing around stupidity is just a waste of time. College students are old enough that they don't need that much hand holding, geez.

Anything that reinforces critical thinking and the practice of the scientific method, particularly in a freshman-level course, and extra particularly in a course geared toward non-science majors, is hardly a waste of time.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:36 PM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


Oh, and while we're at it:

The world needs ditch diggers too.

Putting aside the fact that people can be both intelligent and religious, it would be super great if we could stop associating physical labor with a particular degree of intelligence or level of education.

Even colloquially.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:41 PM on October 20, 2014 [31 favorites]


judge Smails was an asshole, though

That was like his thing
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 3:53 PM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


The position that other students got nothing from this exercise basically requires one to accept that transfer of rote information is more important than modeling a process for critical learning.
posted by lodurr at 4:21 PM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


"Anything that reinforces critical thinking and the practice of the scientific method, particularly in a freshman-level course, and extra particularly in a course geared toward non-science majors, is hardly a waste of time."

Critical thinking and the practice of the scientific method can be taught in a more efficient way.

"The position that other students got nothing from this exercise basically requires one to accept that transfer of rote information is more important than modeling a process for critical learning."

We are talking about a basic fact of human anatomy here. Of course it is about transfer of information. There is no need to analyze or challenge the number of human ribs. Plus, basically in any class there will be better suited situations when to play the critical thinking card.
posted by travelwithcats at 4:31 PM on October 20, 2014


Atheists upset scientist wasn't sufficiently smug and rude towards person of faith.

"The sonofabitch just went about doing his job, all teacher-like and shit. BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CAUSE, MAN."

(And you wonder why no one listens to you, they just wait for you to stop speaking.)
posted by Dark Messiah at 4:45 PM on October 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


We are talking about a basic fact of human anatomy here. Of course it is about transfer of information. There is no need to analyze or challenge the number of human ribs. Plus, basically in any class there will be better suited situations when to play the critical thinking card.

A single line on a bullet point of a powerpoint would have been the most efficient way to convey information about the differences between male and female skeletons. The fact that there were actual skeletons in the room indicates this was meant to be a process of learning, not a way to transfer information most efficiently.
posted by el io at 4:58 PM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


We are talking about a basic fact of human anatomy here. Of course it is about transfer of information. There is no need to analyze or challenge the number of human ribs. Plus, basically in any class there will be better suited situations when to play the critical thinking card.

Except that in 101-level science classes, most of the information is "basic fact." There's rarely anything that scientists would generally consider controversial, debatable, or cutting-edge in them, because students need a solid foundation of accepted research from which they base their further studies -- which will, handily enough, include newer theories and recent research. But if students don't exercise their critical thinking and analysis skills from the start, on low-level material, they'll never be able to use those tools to understand more complex topics in science. These classes are certainly supposed to teach scientific fact, but they are also supposed to teach the scientific method.

BUT this is absolutely not to say that everything in those intro classes is right. Anyone remember being taught about "junk DNA" that served no purpose? Or that stomach ulcers were caused by stress? Yeah, those things aren't true anymore.
posted by Ragini at 5:03 PM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Uh, Dark Messiah, you do realize there are plenty of us atheists here who aren't upset about the professor's approach, and believe being smug and rude towards people of faith is just plain smug and rude?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:05 PM on October 20, 2014 [14 favorites]


"The fact that there were actual skeletons in the room indicates this was meant to be a process of learning, not a way to transfer information most efficiently."

Yeah, the skeletons were there so the students could see the differences between female and male anatomy. For which the number of ribs is irrelevant.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:09 PM on October 20, 2014


The professor's approach was great. He modeled respectful interaction to all of the other students in the class, and he demonstrated that his classroom is a place where you can ask questions without fear of being dismissed or humiliated.
posted by cadge at 5:15 PM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


You can sure tell the people in this thread who've never taught a 101 level course before.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:30 PM on October 20, 2014 [15 favorites]


For which the number of ribs is irrelevant.

Which a surprising number of people - some right in this thread - don't know is an irrelevancy, and is a bit of trivia so trivial that most people seem to just have a sense of "knowing" it, but not being taught it, and never really thinking about it, because it's so trivial. Most of us would never need to question it because we'll never need to figure out what sex a person is by looking at their skeleton. I feel like this is a fantastic place to start a 101 way of thinking about scientific knowledge and evidence and questions.
posted by rtha at 5:43 PM on October 20, 2014 [9 favorites]


I watched a very similar conversation unfold in an astronomy 101 class where the young lady believed in astrology rather than extra ribs. Our prof wasn't quite this respectful and gentle. He asked her if astrological effects decreased with distance; if planets still influenced our destiny prior to their being discovered, and many other questions like that. I don't know if she gave up her belief in astrology, but you could almost hear the gears turning in her head as he walked her through these questions and got her to experience critical thinking by actually doing it, maybe for the first time in her life.

It was really something. I doubt the effect would have been the same if he'd simply announced "Hey dummy, astrology don't real" and moved on to how hot the Sun is, or whatever. I do think the rest of us got something out of it, since I still remember the scene over a decade later.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 6:12 PM on October 20, 2014 [10 favorites]


I'm really puzzled by the obsession with 'efficiency', here.

I mean, as I read this narrative, this exercise eats somewhere between 1 and 3 minutes of class time.
posted by lodurr at 6:15 PM on October 20, 2014 [7 favorites]


sigh.

I just had a circular discussion with a grad student friend today, who is TAing and working on grading a bunch of papers. She was a bit miffed about the fact that there were "a lot of dumb assumptions" in the papers she was grading, and "omg these students are idiots". I was like, um, dumb and idiotic in what way, and define idiots? Were these errors in logic / rationale, or were they analyzing the problem in a way that didn't wholly conform to rote, but provided correct answers? She was like "UGH this is a complete waste of my time, why doesn't this prof just give me a simple grading key?" and I was like "um, probably because you're grading a senior level math course that requires people to show their understanding of the process, which can be a journey through analyses, not necessarily a yes/no result?" which, idk jack for math anyhow but it seems fitting to teach some actual, you know, analytical process for tough math courses, right?

Chalk me up as someone who thought the entire point of college was to learn about how the process of gathering knowledge works, not merely collecting an assortment of facts to regurgitate pedantically at parties.

anyhow this article resonates with me because I have been that pedagogical anti-faith stubborn pedant before and trust me, it's the easiest way to shut down any kind of discourse. Which, okay, that maybe your goal, but then you wonder why no one talks to you and it's tough making friends. Been there. You may or may not believe this but if this is your conversational style / general approach in life, then it's probably because you're kind of a jerk. Which is fine, the world needs ditch diggers assholes, too. For, you know, perspective.

signed --

a remedial jerk on the eternal path of enlightenment
posted by lonefrontranger at 6:17 PM on October 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


ghostinthemachine: Uh, Dark Messiah, you do realize there are plenty of us atheists here who aren't upset about the professor's approach, and believe being smug and rude towards people of faith is just plain smug and rude?

Speaking as a staunch atheist: Yes. Being smug and rude toward people of faith does no good for anyone.
posted by lodurr at 6:18 PM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


MetaFilter: a remedial jerk on the eternal path of enlightenment

/I've been there too.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:22 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


> I'm really puzzled by the obsession with 'efficiency', here.

It's a strategy you see used here from time to time. People just don't like something or some group but don't feel that they can come right out and say "Ick, I don't like that". So they find some principle they can claim is violated, like efficiency, balance, seriousness, etc., and claim that it is being violated instead. There was a Meta a while back where a user was complaining about the number of posts about same-sex marriage. After initially saying that they were all for SSM they later said that they "had some problems with it". (That's me summarizing their statements.)

I don't think they are necessarily being deceptive. Or maybe it's themselves they're deceiving. I know there are some categories of posts where I think "Oh god, not more of that.", instead of just passing them by. So it eventually strikes me that there must be something about the subject that bothers me — and resolving exactly what's going on can take a while, or maybe not even happen.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:36 PM on October 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I watched a very similar conversation unfold in an astronomy 101 class where the young lady believed in astrology rather than extra ribs. Our prof wasn't quite this respectful and gentle. He asked her if astrological effects decreased with distance; if planets still influenced our destiny prior to their being discovered, and many other questions like that.

Yes, I did that in my astronomy classes, and I still do that constantly on MeFi. It was amusing to see my professor's mind seize up when he was reminded that Kepler was an astrologer and his laws of orbital mechanics were all developed in order to make more accurate astrological predictions. In fact, all modern science and mathematics evolved from astrology. The entire history of human mental evolution started with primitive cave men trying to understand the rising and setting of the stars in the night sky.

To answer your question, yes the planets absolutely influenced our destiny before they were discovered. The planets and the Sun and Moon influenced our destiny before there were even human beings. What might life on Earth have been like without a Moon and the tides? What if there were no other planets to sweep away the asteroids, to allow humans to develop without more extinction events? And if someone wants me to explain the influence of planets at a distance, I will ask them to explain quantum entanglement in a way that does not violate local causality. I will assert that all life in this world exists solely due to the energy of a star in the sky, the Sun.

But the fact is, I don't expect anyone to actually be convinced of these ideas, or accommodate their own conception of the world to fit with my own semi-religious nuttery. If I do have any dispute, it is generally with astrologers who don't understand mathematics and physics. I don't even necessarily believe in astrology myself. It is not a way to predict one's fate, it is merely an interesting hypothesis about human psychology. It is my personal gedankenexperiment, what if life was both mundane and mystical at the same time?

But to return to the matter at hand, I had to laugh at the entire topic of skeletal sexual dimorphism. In my first comment, I mentioned the occipital protuberance, which I knew is larger in men than in women. I knew about the hips generally being the widest point of woman's skeleton while the shoulders are generally the widest point of a man's skeleton. Men generally have squarer jaws and wider cheekbones than women. The female pelvis tends to tilt forward more than men's. And there are quite a few others I knew, I did not learn any of this from science classes. I learned this in Life Drawing class in Art School, studying painting lessons in the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. There are many roads that lead to the same knowledge.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:49 PM on October 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yes, I did that in my astronomy classes, and I still do that constantly on MeFi. It was amusing to see my professor's mind seize up when he was reminded that Kepler was an astrologer and his laws of orbital mechanics were all developed in order to make more accurate astrological predictions.

and then Marine Todd stood up and said "you tell 'em" and a bald eagle flew in the window and dropped flowers on everyone
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:56 PM on October 20, 2014 [11 favorites]


"she finally realized that the reason she wore a different cut of jeans from the men in the class was because she is built slightly differently"

Turns out our author is not entirely free of unexamined assumptions, either.

(in case anyone's wondering, most of that difference is soft tissue)
posted by tigrrrlily at 8:17 PM on October 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


yeah, that seemed wrong to me, too. The BIG BIRTHING HIPS thing seemed a little overdone.
posted by sweetkid at 8:29 PM on October 20, 2014


I got curious and asked the Prof. about the AIDS/HIV thing, since the previous quote was over a decade out of date, and told him I'd post his reply:
Dear ————,
Fascinating! Here I am arguing that even a theory such as Darwinian evolution by natural selection should be treated skeptically and students taught to observe with their own eyes, but when I apply that philosophy in the real world to ask whether we actually understand HIV-AIDS, people start questioning my reliability! I would think that walking the talk would count for more than just yakking!
So what’s my current position on HIV/AIDS? To begin with, I wrote an entire book on this called Rethinking AIDS: The Tragic Cost of Premature Concensus (Free Press, 1993). It’s out of date, but the basic arguments are still valid. In the book, I point out that there are basically four positions on HIV/AIDS and that is still the case today. Here’s my current take.
One is that AIDS is caused by something other than HIV and that the virus is just another opportunistic infection that takes advantage of an already suppressed immune system. There are a very tiny number of people who develop “idiopathic T-cell lymphopenia” that is characterized by all the symptoms of AIDS but in whom HIV is never found. The problem is that no one knows what causes “idiopathic T-cell llymphopenia” (in fact, in medicalese, “idiopathic” means “of unknown origin”) so these cases may or may not shed light on how the immune system is suppressed in AIDS, with or without HIV.
The second position is that HIV is both necessary and sufficient to cause AIDS. “Necessary” means that you must contract an HIV infection to develop AIDS; “sufficient” means that no other factors are required. This is the standard approach to HIV/AIDS in the US and leads to conclusion that everyone is equally susceptible to HIV and AIDS.
The third and fourth positions involve what are called “cofactors”. The “weak” cofactor approach argues that HIV is necessary and sufficient to cause AIDS, but that the rate at which AIDS develops after HIV infection will be influenced by a person’s nutritional status, drug use, exposure to other infections (especially sexually transmitted diseases), etc. So anyone can get HIV but people doing lots of drugs and getting lots of STDs will die faster than those who avoid such behaviors.
The “strong” cofactor approach argues that HIV is necessary but not sufficient to cause AIDS. In other words, you could contract an HIV infection but without other factors such as severe malnutrition, other infections, drug use, or severe medical problems such as hemophilia or blood transfusions (all of which can cause immune suppression on their own), you would not go on to develop AIDS. The “strong cofactor” theory therefore negates the HIV=AIDS equation, replacing it with HIV + Cofactors = AIDS. The “strong cofactor” theory also argues that HIV cannot be transmitted easily, if at all, from one person to another, in the absence of cofactors. (It is well-established, for example, that HIV transmission is far more likely if either the HIV-infected person or his/her partner has a sexually transmitted disease at the time of HIV exposure.) The implication of the “strong cofactor” theory is that there are two different ways to prevent and treat AIDS: one is to find a vaccine or cure for HIV; the other is to eliminate or treat the cofactors.
One of the basic problems you are probably encountering is that most of the people writing about AIDS, and especially those in the press, want to simplify the problem to “either HIV equals AIDS or it does not.” The reality is that everyone, without exception, who develops AIDS has both HIV and cofactors, so the real issue today is whether the “weak” or the “strong” cofactor theory is correct and therefore whether HIV is the only target for prevention and therapy or not.
I refer you to the writings and interviews of Luc Montagnier, the Nobel Prize winner who discovered HIV. He argues that HIV is necessary but not sufficient, and that a person infected with HIV need not progress to AIDS if that person’s nutrition is good, they avoid drug use, and protect themselves against various cofactor infections:
Montagnier interviews:
http://www.healthy.net/scr/interview.aspx?Id=187
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PyPq-waF-h4
http://www.cirs.info/chercheurs-fiche,langue.eng-id.627.html
Not everyone believes Montagnier, but I would point out that having won the Nobel Prize for discovering HIV, he has no reason to undermine his own discovery unless he really believes that there is more to AIDS than just HIV.
I’ll add that I am a proponent of the “strong cofactor” theory myself.
I’ll also tell you that you cannot rely on anything that Peter Duesberg or Eleni Papadopoulous-Eliopolous, the major proponents of the “HIV is a pussycat” club – they very frequently misconstrue, completely misunderstand, and sometimes even make up “facts”. For example, HIV does exist; it has been “isolated” as well as any other infectious agent as ever been isolated; there are photographs of it; it can kill T cells in experiments under the right conditions (all of which involve either cofactors or the use of leukemia cells); etc. About the only thing the HIV critics are correct about is that there has never been an animal model in which HIV causes AIDS (all of the animal models use animal-specific versions of similar viruses such as SIV), so HIV may not be sufficient to cause AIDS. Unfortunately, no one has ever tried to infect animals with HIV plus cofactors (except using simian immunodeficiency virus), so neither the “weak” nor “strong” cofactor theories have yet been tested properly. The SIV experiment, by the way, yielded just what I would predict: no AIDS with just HIV or just cofactors; AIDS when both are present. Someday someone will try this with HIV and then we’ll finally know…
One final point, I’ve continued to publish on the autoimmune aspect of HIV/AIDS up to the present. Why none of my more mainstream stuff gets picked up by the web, I don’t know. But I haven’t dropped out. I’m still trying to understand how HIV causes immune suppression, because anyone who’s truthful knows that HIV does not directly kill T cells and therefore can’t be the direct cause of immune suppression in AIDS. Back to Montagnier….
I hope this is useful.

Best, Bob Root-Bernstein
Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph. D.
Professor of Physiology
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824 USA
In light of that response, I would not consider him an AIDS denialist. I can see how some discussions of "cofactors" could lead to ugly stereotyping and victim blaming, as well as how his position could be easily cherry-picked for AIDS denial.
posted by klangklangston at 10:06 PM on October 20, 2014 [84 favorites]


I'm impressed that he gave a thoughtful response with citations to a random person who emailed him outside of academia.

I'm generally not that generous in responses to random folks emailing me (my rule of thumb is to give a response that is roughly as well thought out as the person who is emailing me; I won't spend an hour replying to an email that someone took 45 seconds to write).

I'm unqualified to judge his response, but it certainly doesn't look like someone outside the mainstream of science.

Personally I thought the attacks on his AIDS/HIV work were really unwarranted in this context (this wasn't a post about AIDS, it was a post about a teaching incident). I'm honestly quite ashamed at metafilter for digging up someones research in an attempt to attack him on a matter utterly unrelated to the matter at hand (I almost started a metatalk on the matter).
posted by el io at 11:14 PM on October 20, 2014 [13 favorites]


Yeah, I feel terrible for having taken the accusation at face value. That said, I stand by my position that, even if he had been an AIDS denialist, which he is not, it still would have been irrelevant to this discussion.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:21 PM on October 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Metatalk thread.
posted by el io at 1:46 AM on October 21, 2014


That was a very giving and comprehensive response.

If you are reading this thread, thank you, Dr Root-Bernstein.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:18 AM on October 21, 2014 [17 favorites]


Something is very puzzling to me here. How on earth could a belief that men and women have a different number of ribs possibly develop?

Lots of people believe things that are false, and which they've never bothered to check. Aristotle famously thought that men have more teeth than women. I suppose he happened to count the teeth of a young woman (whose wisdom teeth were not developed) or perhaps just someone who happened to have fewer teeth.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:06 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


[Comment deleted. Regardless of the sort of extended derail, this post isn't about HIV/AIDs, and isn't the place to insist on a debate about that. Make a new post about the topic if you'd like.]
posted by taz at 3:40 AM on October 21, 2014


(in case anyone's wondering, most of that difference is soft tissue)

Eh, in a lot of cases it's going to be as much 'social expectation' as 'soft tissue.'
posted by lodurr at 3:49 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


It is unjust that women are forced to bear more social expectation than men.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:10 AM on October 21, 2014


Hey Klang, that's for emailing the guy and posting his response. That was an incredibly reasonable thing to do.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:24 AM on October 21, 2014 [8 favorites]


el io: I'm impressed that he gave a thoughtful response with citations to a random person who emailed him outside of academia.

He seems like an all-around thoughtful fellow, and I'd like to think he saw the active and mostly healthy discussion taking place here, and figured he's not responding to someone who would cherry-pick quotes from him and twist his words against him.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:08 AM on October 21, 2014


As a kid I'd heard the religious angle that men had fewer ribs than women and figured it had to be true. Not because the bible was authoritative because I was already well down an agnostic and falsifiable road but because I figured the bible was a collection of fables with a basis in historical fact and surely they wouldn't include anything that was so self evidently wrong. Anyone with access to the rib cage of someone of the opposite sex would be able to tell whether this was true or not.

When I finally tracked down the truth if it I was a little surprised and also a bit disappointed that supposedly educated elders had been so self confidently wrong.
posted by Mitheral at 9:54 AM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the whole thread, so forgive me if this point has already been made, but I think that a lot of people believe that the "men have fewer ribs than women" thing without being fundamentalists or bible-bashers. That is, they assume that the biblical story was a myth that arose based on a real physiological quirk. They assume it was a kind of Just-So story, in other words.
posted by yoink at 9:56 AM on October 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


Huh. Today I learned... I wonder if this was based on the mildly religious upbringing or just a collective misunderstanding in general
posted by Jacen at 10:47 AM on October 21, 2014


I learned a lot from this thread. That's not the first time this happened to me on MeFi, but it is the first time I felt compelled to mention it.
posted by ambulocetus at 5:27 PM on October 21, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sticherbeast: The zombie movie, on the other hand, would only be relevant in a class about zombies, or movies.

charlie don't surf: Or in this case, a class about epidemiology. And it was still irrelevant
.

Oh really?

One of the reasons that we have labs in introductory natural science classes is to give students the opportunity to learn how to collect empirical evidence independently. Teaching staff generally spend a lot of time wandering around to the small groups or individual students, helping them troubleshoot and sorting out misapprehensions. Guiding this student to correct her own unsupported and false claim using the evidence at hand is exactly the job, and doesn't take away from any other student in the classroom, because it models precisely the behaviors that we seek to teach. It's no more a waste of the other students' time than having students work through math or physics problems on their own and at the whiteboard.
posted by gingerest at 8:13 PM on October 21, 2014 [7 favorites]


That's 'folk wisdom' for you. A bunch of just-so stories passed along by people who can't be arsed to verify them and get mad when you try. Which is to say that sure, anybody who bothered to check would know, but how many people bother to check?

Until Vesalius, most of Galen's anatomy was considered just so, even though there were parts of it that were just plain wrong -- you'll find 17th century brain anatomists like Steno and Willis, in particular, basically laughing at everybody who took Galen's word for the past 1500 years when there were things he ascribed to the human brain that only exist in sheep. The roving womb wasn't refuted until the 1720s (Pedro Martin Martinez) but the concept of hysteria remained in popular currency a lot longer, because it was considered a ladypart-phenomenon in need of another explanation, as opposed to bullshit.
posted by holgate at 9:32 PM on October 21, 2014 [4 favorites]


Interesting article. Thanks, MartinWisse.
posted by homunculus at 5:41 PM on October 22, 2014


Im just trying to understand why disparaging ridiculous superstitious beliefs is such a sacred cow.

Because there are some times when it's rude to do so.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:27 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Rude, and counterproductive, if one's goal is to actually communicate.
posted by lodurr at 7:00 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


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