CNN Poll: 20% of Americans

December 23, 2008

Either 20% of Americans have never heard of Aaron Burr, or only 20% of Americans are paying attention.  I can’t decide which, but this CNN poll clearly points to one, or the other, depending on your view:

WASHINGTON (CNN) – A new national poll suggests that one of out of five Americans think that Dick Cheney is the worst vice president in American history.

Twenty-three percent of those questioned in a CNN-Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday say that Cheney is the country’s worst vice president, when compared to his predecessors. Another 41 percent feel that Cheney is a poor vice president, with 34 percent rating him a good number two.

Only 1 percent of those polled say that Cheney is the best vice president in U.S. history.

Aaron Burr, Library of Congress image

Aaron Burr, Library of Congress image

Vice President Richard Cheney, White House photo

Vice President Richard Cheney, White House photo

Aaron Burr, you recall, is the vice president who, when the electoral college organization goofed and put him into a tie with Thomas Jefferson for president, suddenly thought he was better qualified than Jefferson and tried to take the race from him; the only vice president ever tried for treason; and the fellow whose dueling killed Alexander Hamilton, the financial genius of our nation’s early years.

20% of Americans think Cheney was worse than Aaron Burr?  Wow.  Just wow.

Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton, or Dick Cheney hunting doves in Texas?

Aaron Burr shooting Alexander Hamilton, or Dick Cheney hunting doves in Texas?

Robert Zajonc, and what he revealed to teachers, politicians, and propagandists

December 23, 2008

The Situationist brings the sad news:  Psychologist Robert Zajonc died on December 3. (It’s a repost of a story by Adam Gorlick from Stanford News Service.)

Zajonc wasn’t a household name (I didn’t even know it rhymes with “science”), but his research was.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Psychologist Robert Zajonc, pioneer of social psychology

Plus, he led a stunning, dramatic and sometimes wonderful life, surviving horrors in the Holocaust and contributing great things to science.

Gorlick’ s memorial may be best read there, and I encourage you to click over there to read it.

Several of  Zajonc’s articles are listed as “Classics” at Science Magazine, including his 1981 defense of research spending, in the first year of the Reagan administration.

I also urge you to consider what teachers might do with some of Zajonc’s findings, things that propagandists and dastardly politicians (and a few nice politicians) have already used:

  • People like images they see over and over, the “mere exposure” effect  (It’s important what pictures you post in your classroom, yes?)
  • Parental contact with older children can raise their IQs — well, parental contact does raise the IQs of older children, but having less time for younger children tends to keep the younger kids’ IQs from developing as much.  (Did you read to your youngest kid last night?)
  • Challenging kids to tell why things work the way they claim makes them smarter. (This was the same research:  The younger kids’ challenging the older kids made the older kids smarter.  Heck, their challenging of the parents probably make the parents smarter, too.  Do we make students defend their views to other students?)
  • Facial expression affects emotions (“Emotions and Facial Expression,” Zajonc, Science 8 November 1985: 608-687; DOI: 10.1126/science.230.4726.608-b)
  • People who perform tasks well, perform them even better in front of an audience.
  • People who perform an unknown task before an audience tend to make more mistakes than they would if they practiced it in private.

Some of Professor Zajonc’s most influential work concerned “social facilitation” — the effect of the presence of others on a person’s performance of a specific task. Previous research on the subject appeared contradictory, suggesting that spectators helped performers in some cases but not in others. But in which cases?

What Professor Zajonc found was that when performers have mastered a skill at a high level, they are helped by the presence of an audience. (Think of professional musicians or athletes.) But he also found that when a performer has mastered a skill only imperfectly, the existence of onlookers is a hindrance. (Think of Sunday duffers in any arena.)

Elsewhere in his work, Professor Zajonc explored the nexus between psychology and physiology. In one widely reported study, he found that smiling or frowning can alter blood flow to the brain as facial muscles relax or contract. This in turn affects the parts of the brain that regulate feelings, helping induce happy or sad emotional states.

And do you ever wonder about why old couples tend to resemble each other so much?  Zajonc worked that out, too.

Why didn’t he get a Presidential Medal of Freedom?


Want to poison Boise? Apply within

December 23, 2008

Ada County, Idaho, is home to the state capital, Boise.

As with most county governments in the U.S., a lot of work is delegated to groups that are governed or advised by citizen boards.  Volunteers make up these boards.  In many municipalities, it’s difficult to recruit good citizens to do the work.

Perhaps Ada County is having difficulty getting volunteers to worry about mosquito abatement. Maybe that’s why the advertisement at the city’s unofficial “City Smart”  website urges unnecessary DDT poisoning of the town.

Tell Ada County What to Do

The Ada County Courthouse, in Boise Idaho.  HPB photo by LCA Architects

The Ada County Courthouse, in Boise Idaho. HPB photo by LCA Architects

Feeling disenfranchised? Not happy with how the elections turned out? Well, there is still a way for you to impact the body politic in Ada County—the County Board of Commissioners is calling for volunteers to serve as advisors on a number of boards.

The County Commissioners, Paul Woods, Rick Yzaguirre, and Fred Tilman, made the appeal for volunteer advisors in the most recent edition of Ada County’s monthly newsletter.

“The county has numerous volunteer boards and advisory committees that help the Ada County Board of Commissioners in policy development and general operations in areas ranging from housing, planning and zoning, social work and recreation. The unpaid volunteer positions give citizens a unique, insider look at county government while they roll up their sleeves to help their local community. While each board has its own bylaws and varying terms of service, interested parties are always encouraged to apply for a position on any volunteer board,” the county said.

The county went on to describe eight examples of boards that rely on volunteer participation, I’ve profiles the three coolest boards here.

Historic Preservation Council—Are you one of those folks that loves to see historical photos from Ada County’s storied past? Would you love to help identify sites of historical significance or help with education efforts? When then consider helping out with the Ada County Historic Preservation Council where, according to the county, “members must demonstrate an interest, competence, or knowledge in history or historic preservation” and can have a positive effect on how the county coordinates its preservation activities.

Mosquito Abatement Advisory Board—I’m a huge advocate for bringing back DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) that insecticide extraordinaire which got a bad rap in the 1960’s when it was panned in Rachel Carson’s inaccurate book, Silent Spring. Turns out that DDT is safe for humans and Silent Spring, “contains certain statements at variance with the facts as we now understand them”, as Cecil Adams so eloquently put it in his The Straight Dope column from December 13, 2002. If you feel like I do about slaughtering mosquitoes and ending West Nile Virus in Idaho, then consider volunteering for the Ada County Mosquito Abatement Advisory Board wherein you can meet to discuss our collective war on these blood-sucking bugs. If you are a mosquito-lover who thinks bugs are people too, I would not recommend this board for you. [emphasis added]

Board of Community Guardians—Finally, if you have a heart for the disabled or the mentally ill, you might be the right sort of volunteer for this important board. According to the county, “The Board of Community Guardians manages the Community Guardian Program, which assists individuals who cannot make decisions for themselves because of mental and/or physical impairments or disabilities. These individuals, who are either legally incapacitated or destitute with no financial security or family support., can be determined a ward of the county, and court-appointed volunteers oversee those wards.

If you are interested in volunteering for any of these advisory boards contact:

Board of Ada County Commission office

200 W. Front St., Third Floor, Boise.

Even the vaunted Cecil Adams writes a clunker from time to time, and his agreement with the wholly unsupportable claim that Rachel Carson was wrong is one of those clunkers (but his description of Lyndon Larouche will make you smile).  The facts differ from the claim in this ad:

  1. DDT’s “bad rap” was well deserved.  In the past three years dozens of news articles matched the science journals commemorating the recovery of bald eagles, brown pelicans, osprey and pergrine falcons — recoveries made possible by ending the use of DDT in the wild.  DDT kills entire ecosystems, starting with the predators at the top.  It’s dangerous stuff.
  2. Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, pioneered the use of good, hard scientific data in popular writing.  In its 53 pages of footnotes to scientific studies, science journals and correspondence, critics have been unable to find inaccuracies.  Especially on the issue of DDT’s effects on wildlife, more than a thousand follow-up studies vindicated Carson.  I have not found a contrary study, not one.
  3. DDT is NOT the pesticide of choice for West Nile, in any case.  It’s almost like arguing that DDT is the pharmaceutical of choice to use against malaria — confusing the pesticides used to kill insects with the pharmaceuticals used to treat disease in humans.  DDT is unsuitable for outdoor use, illegal for outdoor use under the 1958 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) and its subsequent amendments because it is “uncontrollable.”  DDT kills non-target species, often better than it kills target species. For mosquito abatement, DDT kills mosquito predators much more effectively than it kills mosquitoes. Plus, it sticks around for years, and it bioaccumulates up food chains, multiplying poison doses to predators, sometimes millions of times.
    West Nile mosquitoes can be effectively treated as larva, if their water homes are known; but DDT is particularly ill-suited for use in water. DDT works best when its spread can be confined indoors, which is where malaria-carrying mosquitoes usually bite. West Nile carriers live and bite outdoors.

I hope Ada County gets volunteers for the mosquito abatement board who know a little bit more about DDT, or who are open to listening to the mosquito abatement experts.

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