Thursday, September 30, 2010

Who cares about the environment, Part II

Last week I wrote a post about why humans may be "hardwired" not to care about environmental change. This week I would like to talk about what evolutionary theory has to say about how we can get people to care, as we discussed in one of my classes.

Most environmental education programs cater to our propensity to reason about economics. They present our relationship with nature as a business exchange, meaning that we tend to focus on the depletion of valuable resources. They target our "business sense" by suggesting that the resources that we need, like coal for example, may not be as readily available to us in fifteen years as they are now if we keep using it at the rate we are. These environmental education programs then suggest that we can each make small cutbacks to offset the predicted deficiency, such as riding our bikes to school and work or purchasing locally grown produce that doesn't need to be shipped in. It is then implied that if we each make these changes, then in the future we won't face as severe of an oil shortage. This reasoning is sound. However, the truth is that environmental education programs are essentially asking individuals to make substantial sacrifices for relatively small, long term rewards. I say that they are relatively small rewards because you know that MOST people are not willing to make these sacrifices, so the payback to you will be minimal if there is any at all. (We know this inherently, see Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons for further info). To put it in more concrete terms, you may spend an extra hour each day commuting on your bike (time that could be spent studying, earning money, going on dates, etc.) but in fifty years we may be totally out of oil anyway. See for yourself, are the business-style arguments depicted in the following images convincing?

I mean, having seen these images, are you now going to make a significant change to your lifestyle to be more green? Probably not.

But there is another option, another way to convince people to change their behaviors. Instead, perhaps we can appeal to peoples' softer side. Throughout human history, the genes that have been successful in getting passed down (i.e. the genes that you and I carry) have belonged to people who favored the well-being of themselves and their family members over others (Hamilton's rule for you biologists). Said another way, we have psychological adaptations, built in by evolution, that cause us to share benefits with the people with whom we have common genes, that is, our family. Additionally, we are also inclined to form social alliances with non-kin who can provide us with benefits. (This is probably where division of labor comes from - maybe I know the best way to shape an arrowhead and you know the best way to build a stable hut so we team up and form a social alliance, since neither of us has both talents.) The professor of this class suggested that if perhaps we were to encourage people to view nature as a family member or even as a social partner rather than just a collection of resources, then people might be more inclined to treat nature with more care. We have all experienced the joys of helping out a friend or family member, and the pangs of disappointment when one of them may be in trouble. How about the following images? Observe what goes on internally for you as you view them.
These are more convincing, right? Did you notice yourself thinking or feeling something along the lines of, "Oh no!" And did you have that reaction with the first set of images? Maybe the family fleeing from their home that is being destroyed by flooding really got to you. Or the hungry child in the desert is displaying the same mannerism that your favorite nephew does. The family of worried-looking polar bears that is stranded on the few remaining icebergs might remind you of how you feel trying to support your own children in these tough economic times. Or the frogs dying in droves might bring home what we are doing to the earth we live on. Maybe these are the types of arguments that environmental education programs should be making in order to actually convince people to change their ways.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

HSAC UHP Town Hall: Preview Night Improvement

Town Hall Test Run

HSAC's new committee, the Honors Student Action Group a.k.a. HSAG, is all about making changes on campus that benefit UHP students and the UNM community. HSAG is in the process of organizing a 'Town Hall' for honors students. This town hall would offer honors students the opportunity to voice their opinions and influence change within the honors program. The first thing that HSAG would like to tackle is UHP's Preview Night, so they centered the 'Town Hall Test Run' around that topic. We all know that honors students have long complained about preview night and it's inconveniences, so HSAG is going to try and improve the format of Preview Night and remind honors students that it really is an awesome event and privilege that is unique to the honors program. At this test run town hall meeting HSAC members discussed what preview night is, the goals of preview night, whether or not preview night is currently reaching those goals, possible improvements to preview night, and ways to implement these improvements. HSAG will be announcing the first UHP wide town hall meeting in the next few weeks. If you think that this is something you think you'd like to participate in look out for the meeting announcement on the UHP list-serve and flyers in the forum.

Quite Interesting

Click on the title to check out an article about religious knowledge. Turns out the most knowledgeable people in America about religion are the ones who are least religious. The survey shows that, on average, Atheists and Agnostics know more about religion than their Christian and Jewish counterparts. I won't spoil the whole article for you, I just wanted to highlight the very interesting contrast in religious knowledge.

Friday, September 24, 2010

ARTS Lab Stretches Boundaries of Digital Media

Just when I think I have a good grasp of the potential uses of digital media, an article like this comes along to blow my mind away and show me that I haven't even grasped the beginnings of what such media might be capable of. Any other new uses of digital media that blow your mind?

ARTS Lab Stretches Boundaries of Digital Media

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

GOP To Retake Congress...

...Not likely. I know the media outlets have been buzzing about how the country is dissatisfied with the Democratic White House and Congress at the moment, and also how the Tea Party is picking up a lot of popularity, but it would take a lot for the Democrats to lose the House, let alone the entire Congress. The Republicans are currently up against a large number of incumbents in Congress, and a little fact that the media doesn't often mention is that incumbents win.

For anyone who hasn't taken much PoliSci, an incumbent is a politician who is running for reelection. At least in American politics, incumbents tend to have a sizable advantage over challengers, especially in Congressional elections. For one thing, members of Congress don't have to pay postage. This may not seem like a big deal, but think about the millions of pamphlets and other campaign items that Congressmen send out to their districts, and the cost of stamps start to add up.

I would go into more examples, but I know how boring it would be, so I'll just sum it up this way: It doesn't matter what party you are, if you're a member of Congress, you want to continue being a member of Congress. Regardless your party affiliation you want to be able to get reelected. And it's a handy fact that members of Congress happen to be able to pass the laws regarding election regulations and such.

Now I'm not saying that the Democrats won't suffer losses. They won a lot of seats a few years back that originally belonged to Republicans, and odds are they'll lose a few, if not all of those. But honestly, to gain a majority in Congress, the Republicans would have to win more seats than they did in the 1994 election, to which the current election has been much compared. So again, could the Republicans take Congress back? Sure. Will they? Not likely.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Who cares about the environment?

Last week I posted something about a topic we discussed in one of my classes, Evolution of Religiosity. This week again I was inspired to write about something else from discussion in that class. Climate change - and why we may not be wired to care.

If we go back about 70,000 years ago, there was a supereruption of Mt. Toba (in Sumatra, Indonesia) that was so powerful it ejected 670 cubic miles of volcanic ash (the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens ejected 0.29 cubic miles of ash). Scientists conjecture that a 6 to 10 year volcanic winter followed, and that it caused a huge bottleneck in human evolution, reducing the number of breeding pairs down to somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000. So who survived?

What we know for sure is that Homo sapiens survived, and some scientists speculate that H. sapiens were able to adapt to the new climate and that Neanderthals, for example, couldn't adapt and therefore became extinct. The hominids that did survive must have been doing something right. It may be the case that the survivors of the Mt. Toba supereruption, the ones that got through the bottleneck and are the ancestors of you and me, were of the mindset that natural disasters, climate change, and huge ecological turnovers really aren't that big of a deal. This kind of thinking may or may not have directly influenced their ability to survive the volcanic winter and ensuing ecological changes, but the survivors obviously did not need to be as worried about these things as did their counterparts who perished. You and I both carry the genes of the volcanic eruption survivors, and those genes may very well not be too concerned with environmental change. The bottom line is, we may not be hardwired to care about the current climate change we experience in the world today.

Look for a future post about what evolutionary science says about how we CAN get people to care...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is Mathematics For?

A colleague gave me an interesting article the other day. Titled What is Mathematics For?, it claims that proponents of higher math education (algebra and up) are way out of line when they claim that math is useful for most people out in the world in the jobs they do. It is by Underwood Dudley and published in the May 2010 edition of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Maybe you'll find it interesting too.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Nintendo Marks Super Mario's Anniversary With A Commercial

Nintendo Marks Super Mario's Anniversary With A Commercial

Super Mario is now 25. The little clip of the original theme song still brings joy to my heart. Many of my life long friendships were formed through playing this game, and several of those friends now live in Japan, essentially thanks to Mario's role as a cultural ambassador. Domo, Miyamoto-san.

Campus Safety

With the semester in full swing and a lot of new students starting at the university, I just wanted to make a brief note about campus security. While violent crime is not a prevalent issue at UNM, theft is. A recent Daily Lobo article highlighted several recent thefts on campus, most from parked cars. So if you're planning on being on campus late at night, make sure to lock up your vehicle, and not to leave any valuables laying around. And in the interest of being safe, don't spend too much time lingering outside after dark. While the statistics for violent crime at UNM are low, it would be better if they were simply non-existent.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Child v. Chimp

Researchers who are interested in the evolution of human behavior often compare our behaviors to those of chimpanzees, our closest living genetic relatives. Comparative studies such as these help us decide what makes humans so uniquely... well, human.

Click the title of this post ("Child v. Chimp") to access the link to a video of a learning experiment between a child and a chimpanzee. The gist of it is this: given an opaque puzzle box with a reward inside, both chimpanzees and children follow the directions of the demonstrator about how to open the box - even the instructions that have nothing to do with actually accessing the reward. However, when the box is transparent and it is obvious which actions need to be taken to get the reward and which ones don't, chimpanzees go straight for the reward and children continue to include the erroneous actions as well. The kids seem old enough and certainly bright enough to see that sliding the bars and tapping the box have nothing to do with getting a gummy bear - afterall even the chimp sees that - so Why does the chimp skip the BS and the child doesn't?

We talked about this video in one of my classes recently and the students came up with some interesting perspectives. Perhaps the child includes the erroneous gestures because he or she wants the approval of the experimenter, or is signaling that he or she defers to the experimenter's authority as a subordinate. Or perhaps going through the motions is not so much a sign of respect, but it may be an indication of higher level learning geared towards dealing with technology. Often we don't know how technology works, but we know we must go through a ritualized set of steps in order to get the result we want, even though it is not apparent what each of the steps is for. For example, I have no clue how my car works - but I do know that I need to insert a key into the ignition and turn it, and push the gas and break pedals if I want it to move. And I know that if I don't put gas and clean oil in it every once in a while it won't run either. There is nothing intuitive about using and maintaining a car, because you cannot see all of the moving parts and how they work together to produce motion. Using technology requires a type of learning that tacitly accepts not understanding the mechanism behind the action and result. Perhaps the child, who is probably used to using very advanced technologies and certainly doesn't understand them, is simply using the same mechanisms for learning about the puzzle box as he or she does to use the family computer.

This experiment may be evidence of the fact that humans have highly evolved, extremely complex, social interactions, and that children thus learn to navigate this social landscape using techniques such as deferral to authority. Or it may indicate our propensity to go through highly ritualized behaviors, perhaps as a by-product of our ability to use technology and all of its "unobservable" parts. There is something akin to supernatural belief about using technology. I don't know how my car works, but I do know that if I put x in I get y out, and I'm perfectly content with that. This suggests that humans may uniquely have a propensity towards supernatural beliefs as a result of the highly adaptive value of using technology. That's not to say that supernatural belief entirely or necessarily arose from using technology in human history, and it's also not to say that supernatural beliefs are false. (After all, that which cannot be detected by our natural sense, i.e. the supernatural, of course cannot be observed by science, which can rely only on the natural senses.) It merely suggests that humans' unique ability to use highly advanced technology may result in our propensity to utilize rituals that do not appear to have any practical meaning in completing tasks.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lobo Article

Dr. DeSantis pointed out this article to me last week. It's been pretty common knowledge that the faculty are generally pretty upset with the current administration, but it's interesting to see just how much.
The horrible thing is how much people at the University are affected from the bottom up. First the students have to deal with tuition and fee hikes, then the staff have to worry about being laid off, and now the rumors are that faculty might be the next ones taking pay cuts. Somehow the possibility of cutting an unneeded layer of bureaucracy off the administration is hardly ever addressed.

Very cool art posting sight

This sight has the latest and greatest contemporary art from artists who are pushing the envelope.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Adventures in my White Coat

For all of you who plan to go to medical school someday, check out the new blog
     "Adventures in my White Coat" by recent UHP graduate Sevy Gurule.

It is in its initial stages, but it already has some wonderful firsthand perspectives on what medical school is like.

An Interesting Use of Google Maps

A Google Chrome Project titled "The Wilderness Downtown" has been getting a lot of attention lately. Many of you may have seen it already, but I looked at it recently and found it to be an engaging and quite moving example of interactive digital storytelling. For those like me who have wondered what Google Maps might be used for other than Geography or travel projects, it gave me some new and interesting ideas about ways digital projects can connect to a variety of areas and lives. If you have not seen it, check it out:
     The Wilderness Project

(If you don't remember your childhood address, that's OK. Just put down any address to see how it works. Also, write anything on the postcard to your younger self  to get the full impact of the project's experience. It is meant to be a start-to-finish experience, rather than an explore-and-browse site)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Real invisibility threads would be fit for an emperor - tech - 28 August 2010 - New Scientist

For those of us who thought The Invisible Man was just a fantastical movie idea, check out the article below on how scientists are working on making invisible threads for clothing a reality. So, what is the first thing you would do if you were wearing a head-to-toe suit of invisible threads?

Real invisibility threads would be fit for an emperor - tech - 28 August 2010 - New Scientist

Spanish Students Spend Summer in Nicaraguan Bicycle Venture - UNM Today | The University of New Mexico

If you did not see the article below, this is the fun and rewarding work some of our students got to take part in this summer.

Spanish Students Spend Summer in Nicaraguan Bicycle Venture - UNM Today | The University of New Mexico