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A Perplexity

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I suppose I ought to start by saying that although an individual can make up his mind about what is moral or immoral on the basis of anything at all, I still maintain–and have maintained–that you can’t base a moral code on the Great Tradition.

And studying the Great Tradition won’t make you more moral than you would be otherwise, nor will it teach you how to live, or any of the rest of it.

The Great Tradition is information, and that information will certainly come in useful for all kinds of things, but the kind of information it is–the record of human beings thinking and writing in a particular way–will preclude it from being the basis of a moral code.

What can be the basis of a moral code is a thorough understanding of reality–not only of how human beings think and act as individuals, but how societies progress or regress and develop when they are founded on and run by particular sets of ideas. 

And yes, I think I can get far more of a consensus on that than I could on any religion-based moral code, for the same reason that people of differing religions do indeed accept the germ theory of disease, the heliocentric solar system and the basic principles of engineering as applied to suspension bridges.

I think that if we can prove, factually and materially, that polices a b c produce a society with attributes d e f, while attributes g h i produce a vastly different society with vastly different attributes j k l, more people than not will opt for the arrangement that most increases their prosperity, their physical health and their ability to pursue happiness.

I think DNA has a lot to do with it.  I think most people do indeed make a decision for such an option every day.  That’s why we’re in the period of mass migrations.

You’ll note that, no matter how much the great socialistic dictatorships promised cradle to grave economic security, nobody was banging down their doors to get in. 

People vote with their feet for the very set of assumptions I’ve been talking about.  And it doesn’t require God or ideology to recognize them.  A clear look at the way the world operates will do fine.

But now I’ve got a strange problem, and I’m hoping some of you can help.

This term I assigned some of my students Darrell Huff’s How To Lie About Statistics, in the hope that it would get them to think critically about at least some of what they read.

It’s short, it’s clear, it’s engagingly written, I think it would have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the fact that the book itself was written in the fifties, the examples are all from the fifties, and that means the dollar amounts for things like salaries are…well, from the point of view of my students, ludicrous.

Theoretically, of course, it shouldn’t matterin any logical sense, but it causes a huge hole in the willing suspension of disbelief, if that makes any snse.

Anyway, they can’t get past it.  They get so fixated on the numbers that they find absurd–wow!  some executives make hundreds of thousands in bonuses a year!–to the point the illustration is supposed to make.

So I’ve been wondering if there isn’t something else out there with more contemporary examples that is still, essentially, the same book. 

The extent to which my kids cannot read numbers in any sense, statistics or otherwise, is really incredible. 

Okay.  It’s hot.  I’m miserable.  I have to go listen to multimedia speeches on cat behavior.

Long story.

Written by janeh

April 30th, 2009 at 11:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'A Perplexity'

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  1. About 30 years ago I had great success with freshmen and a book called Teaching As A Subversive Activity. the book was premised on the idea that students should be able to ‘crap detect’ what they were taught. I liked the book a whole lot. Don’t know how outdated it might be by now.

    Janet Lewis

    30 Apr 09 at 12:31 pm

  2. Huff’s is the classic one on the subject, but I can see how some people would find it too dated.

    A quick google gave me the following, although neither seem to have the charming simplicity of the original.

    http://anonymousprof.com/how-to-lie-with-statistics-%E2%80%93-part-1/

    http://www.statcan.gc.ca/edu/power-pouvoir/ch6/misinterpretation-mauvaiseinterpretation/5214805-eng.htm

    cperkins

    30 Apr 09 at 12:59 pm

  3. Sorry: Huff is what I keep on my own shelves, and even if he had a rival, anything written more than 10 or 20 years ago would be subject to the same thing. I have hardcover books purchased new for $4.00 and $.50 peperbacks printed 15 years after Huff. Huff is a great choice, regardless. Are the students in fact sidetracked, or do they find talking about wages and prices less demanding than paying attention to the statistical manipulation?

    I’d advise them to multiply every number by at least a factor of 10, and give them the following quote from TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE:

    “$400 placed at 7 percent interest compounded quarterly for 200 years will increase to more than $400,000,000–by which time it will be worth nothing.”

    Given fiat money, inflation are inescapable, and they might as well get used to it.

    robert_piepenbrink

    30 Apr 09 at 4:17 pm

  4. I have the Huff book and would have chosen it for the course. Perhaps you could talk about inflation and teach a bit of economic theory.

    I did some browsing in Amazon and this looks promising.

    Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists (Hardcover)

    But I haven’t read it so cannot comment.

    jd

    30 Apr 09 at 5:04 pm

  5. My recommendation would be just to instruct the students to multiply every number by 10 (to make it easy). If they’re still having trouble with the concept of inflation, give them a list of prices from when they were born, and ask them to compare it to now.

    If they want to play a bit, I found this inflation calculator at

    http://www.halfhill.com/inflation.html to compare wages, prices, & other numbers past & future.

    And this page has a lot of government facts & figures:

    http://www.halfhill.com/inflation.html

    Lymaree

    30 Apr 09 at 10:10 pm

  6. My recommendation would be just to instruct the students to multiply every number by 10 (to make it easy). If they’re still having trouble with the concept of inflation, give them a list of prices from when they were born, and ask them to compare it to now.

    If they want to play a bit, I found this inflation calculator at

    http://www.halfhill.com/inflation.html to compare wages, prices, & other numbers past & future.

    And this page has a lot of government facts & figures:

    http://www.bls.gov/data/

    Lymaree

    30 Apr 09 at 10:10 pm

  7. Michael.Fisher

    3 May 09 at 6:37 am

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