Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Goat Named Bambi for Christmas

A story about my niece and nephew, who are twin four year olds, as told by my sister (their mom):

Danny and Clara, falling into the "no matches, no reading" category of religious education student, were cast as birth-witnessing barnyard animals for the Christmas pageant. Clara was content to be a cow. After hearing me list the available parts ("cow, horse, donkey, goat, sheep, chicken, pig -- no, not pig,") Dan decided he wanted to be a goat with antlers. Sadly, and I knew this, Dan confuses goats and deer, as evidenced by his once declaring his preschool had a story about a goat named Bambi. So, what he actually wanted to be is a deer.

My amazing mother said "sure" and promptly made him an entire whitetail deer outfit with a suit, hood, and antlers. A fuzzy white belly, ears, and flappy tail, too. Adorable. Why there is a whitetail deer in Bethlehem we are not going to address because upon seeing his outfit, Clara reconsidered and might go as a unicorn with wings, so a deer is practically ordinary in comparison.

The antlers do tend to fall into his eyes, so I suggested taking them off until the pageant. "No," he said. "Then I would be a doe. I want to be a puck."

Friday, December 01, 2006

Excreting AIDS

On World AIDS Day I was reminded of a report by a colleague who had been studying AIDS transmission in village Kenya. He found that many men with AIDS thought that they had a certain amount of the virus in their bodies, and the more sex they had, the more of it they expelled. Therefore men with AIDS were more likely to seek out sex partners than other men were. These guys were particularly interested in sex with virgins, so the men would not pick up a new dose of the virus while they were "expelling" theirs.

Seriously scary.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Third-World Laptop

The One Laptop Per Child project is ready to unveil a simplified, durable, rural-ready $150 laptop for kids in the developing world. Nicholas Negroponte, who has been pushing the project since his days as director of MIT's Media Lab, says governments of Argentina, Brazil, Libya, Nigeria, and Thailand have made commitments to buy and distribute the machines to help educate their kids.

The project has been opposed by big computer companies and some educators on the grounds that poor countries lack the school infrastructures to make use of these computers.

I think giving laptops to kids in poor countries is a great idea. I know they don't have the schools to go with them – but then again, neither do we. I think the real value of this project will be in the million and one unexpected things that kids think of when given access to the world's information. My friend Neil Gershenfeld, another big brain at the Media Lab, has shown that putting simple, tough fabrication laboratories in the hands of kids in the developing world releases some of them to make amazing things. I am confident that giving them computers and the web will do the same thing.

I think the people who should really worry about this project are oppressive Third World governments who wish their people did not have access to the world's information and connections. Who knows, Libya might turn into a leading free society down the road, from a peaceful revolution led by kids with laptops.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pro-Life Club, Part Two

Yesterday's blog has led to significant conversation both on the blog and among the faculty. This has been very fruitful – it is just the kind of dialogue that we should have.

There were a few criticisms of what I had said that I think deserve an answer.

Some colleagues didn't want to sponsor groups with controversial positions because they thought doing so would compromise their objectivity, or their appearance of objectivity, in the classroom. I can see this worry. As the sponsor to the College Democrats, I do not share that concern. I think we can talk about anything in class without any of us – students or professor – having to become advocates.

Other colleagues argued that there are more positions on the abortion question than simply pro-choice or pro-life. I agree with this entirely. I believe that there are many middle positions on every polarized issue, and we would make better policy if we explored them. That is one of the reasons that I think someone should sponsor the pro-life club: having someone start the conversation will bring out more nuance than we now have. Still, when students say they want a pro-life club, they are looking for someone willing to take a position in favor of legally restricting abortion. For all the nuance that my colleagues and I have offered on this question, I have never heard one take that kind of pro-life position in public.

Which brings me to the other issue. I wrote " it is clear that there is almost no ideological diversity on this crucial issue." Several faculty members have taken me to task for not having sufficient basis for reaching this strong conclusion. I want to acknowledge that they may be right. So let me tell you what I know, and why I made this educated guess.

I do not know for sure that there are any strong, ban-abortion, even ban-abortion-with-limited-exceptions pro-lifers on the Centre faculty. I suspect that there are, but they are very quiet about it. One colleague who objected to my generalization thought that not only is abortion itself a private and personal issue – "not anyone else's business" – this colleague felt the same way about one's position on abortion as a public policy issue.

I know that there are quite a few people, myself included, who would not ban abortion, but do have qualms about our current abortion law and practice. Some think Roe v. Wade was bad law and/or wrongly decided, preferring to leave that issue to the states and the legislatures. Others think that nearly all individual acts of abortion are bad choices. Some think that some kinds of abortion, such as the partial birth variety, should be banned. And one might add to this nuance. Still, even this group would be very circumspect about saying anything in public that sounded like claiming that abortion is immoral, or mostly immoral, even if it should be legal in some cases.

We did survey faculty and student opinion about a decade ago. At that time, students were about 2-to-1 pro-choice, though most were moderately rather than strongly committed to their position. The faculty were pro-choice by a larger ratio; more importantly, I think, the faculty were more likely to take a strong rather than moderate position on the issue. This survey is old, though, and perhaps things have changed.

We also have conversations about politics at the lunch table fairly often. These routinely involve a quarter or a third of the faculty over time. Here the evidence is slippery. Someone will criticize a politician as "anti-choice," in a tone that suggests that that is a settled matter and a clearly bad position. And usually this judgment will either be actively assented to, or passed over in silence. Perhaps all those being silent actually disagree. But even that proves the larger point of yesterday's post and Bob Martin's comments before that: in the public sphere among the Centre faculty there is almost no dissent from the pro-choice consensus. Perhaps I should say apparent pro-choice consensus.

All of which still leaves the pro-life club without a sponsor so far.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Who Should Sponsor the Pro-Life Club?

My colleague Bob Martin wrote in our local paper about the lack of ideological diversity in the faculty. He was approached by a student who wanted to start a pro-life student group, and was looking for a faculty advisor. Bob, a moderate libertarian on this issue, declined. But he was also struck by the realization that he was not sure any member of the faculty would be willing to advise such a club. In part, he was not certain what most colleagues' views on the issue were. In larger part, though, he knew that the overwhelming majority would not agree with the students – and suspected that our handful of pro-life faculty members would feel uneasy about sponsoring such a group in public.

Centre College is the most collegial college I know. We do have a range of views, and yet are quite civil to one another about our differences. As anyone who knows academia can testify, this friendly state of affairs is unusual. Still, like nearly every secular faculty we are heavily tilted to the left, though we teach a much more centrist student body.

Last year we were hiring a new dean of the faculty (called a provost some places), which is always a momentous event for a college. In the public Q & A with the candidates, several of us came to ask some particular question of each prospective dean. Some of the questions were clearly quite familiar to the candidates, such as "what would you do to promote racial diversity in the faculty?" All of them were for it, and promised vigorous efforts, which I applaud and have long participated in. My question, though, seemed to catch all of them off guard: "What would you do to promote ideological diversity in the faculty?" All of them said some variety of "I wouldn't," though I am happy to say that our current dean gave the most thoughtful version of "no."

Well, now that abstract issue is having a real consequence for our pro-life students. We have never used abortion as a litmus test for faculty selection, of course, nor even asked about it. Yet it is clear that there is almost no ideological diversity on this crucial issue. Worse, the few professors who do stand out against the consensus have qualms that they might be made to suffer if they buck the trend. An untenured faculty member who considered taking on the students' request said "this is one of the few positions that might actually threaten getting tenure."

The real point of seeking "diversity" is to get people who think differently to work together. All the other kinds of diversity are really just proxies for that goal. Students would be better taught by an ideologically diverse faculty.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Mixed Feelings About the Big Money

The New York Times has a fine piece by Louis Uchitelle on professionals who opt out of the comfortable money that their professions often bring, in favor of the huge money that comes from working for the top of the corporate heap.

The lead story is of a $160,000 per year doctor, married to a better-paid manager, who instead leaps to Wall Street to consult on medical firms. He won't say what he is making, but it is likely to be at least ten times what he used to make, and his net worth is probably nearly $20 million. A story even closer to my heart is of a business professor turned Wall Street buyout guy, with a similar income and wealth jump. Since he and his wife are "serious Presbyterians," they are trying to avoid the gravitational pull of ostentatious living that their new peers often succumb to.

Both of these guys talk about the strong model of philanthropy that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have created for the monstrously rich, as well as for the merely rich guys featured in this story. I am glad that the Carnegie standard of giving away huge wealth has returned to the very rich. I thank Ted Turner for leading the way with his billion-dollar gift to the U.N. (and I don't often find myself thanking Ted Turner). To have the same ethic filter down to the mere centimillionaires is a good thing.

My first reaction to the doctor's story, though, was that giving up a research career that might possibly have found a cure for cancer just to make more money seems to me to show distorted priorities. As the story added further detail, though – they had kids, he thought he had a better chance to do good by helping promising drug companies than by making promising drugs, and with a big pile he could give some of it away – I developed more sympathy for his choice. And underlying several of the cases cited in the article is the couple's desire for the family to afford to have the highly trained wife home with the kids when they were little. This is, I think, an honorable choice, and the most ancient Good Reason for him to want to make more.

So opting for the big money can be done honorably if the work itself is worthy, the family is helped more than hurt, and if you give a bunch of it away.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Evangelizing New Atheists Will Lose More Centrists Than They Gain

The current crop of evangelizing atheists – most notably Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon), and Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) – want to convince agnostics that tolerating religion is wrong. The time has come, they argue, to drive the delusion out.

They will probably convince some lukewarm atheists and agnostics to become militant atheists. But I think that, in the main, their project will backfire. It will fail not because believers will reject them – they will do that anyway. Rather, the new atheists will fail because there is a limited market for intolerance in the West these days, and there is almost no market for atheism anywhere else.

The center in our society is mostly composed of religious believers. Still, most of them are also willing to tolerate atheism and give full civil liberties to atheists. The center will draw the line, though, at any view that would require them to become intolerant. And they will lose patience with extremists who insist that, of all things, if they aren't extremists, they aren't rational.