On hubris and climate change.

On hubris and climate change.

Recently, a local science teacher sent me an essay written by a climate change skeptic.

Well, okay. I figured that I could skim the essay, look over the data, and briefly explain what the author’s errors were. After all, it’s really important to help teachers understand this topic, because they’re training our next generation of citizens.

And I thought to myself, how hard can this be? After all, I’m a scientist. I felt unconcerned that I’ve never read research papers about climate science before, and that it’s been years since I’ve worked through the sort of differential equations you need for even basic fluid mechanics calculations, and that I’ve never run any simulations on oceanic heat transfer or glacier melting.

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Since then, I’ve read a fair bit about climate science. I’ll be honest: I didn’t go through the math. All I did was read the papers and look over the processed data.

This is lazy, I know. I’m sorry. But my kids are at home. At the moment, this is the best I’ve got.

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Prominent climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology, recently delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lindzen when he stressed that the science behind climate change is really, really complicated.

Former senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is typical when he stated, with reference to greenhouse warming, ‘I know sometimes I can remember from when I was in high school and college, some aspects of chemistry or physics can be tough. But this is not tough. This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this.’

As you have seen, the greenhouse effect is not all that simple. Only remarkably brilliant kids would understand it. Given Kerry’s subsequent description of climate and its underlying physics, it was clear that he was not up to the task.

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Climate science is tricky. In a moment, I’ll try to explain why it’s so tricky.

When people make predictions about what’s going to happen if the average global temperature rises by half a degree – or one degree, or two – their predictions are probably incorrect.

My assumption that I could skim through somebody’s essay and breezily explain away the errors was incredibly arrogant. I was a fool, I tell you! A fool!

But my arrogance pales in comparison to the hubris of climate change skeptics. Once I started learning about climate science, I realized how maddeningly difficult it is.

Lindzen, who should know better, has instead made brash claims:

So there you have it. An implausible conjecture backed by false evidence and repeated incessantly has become politically correct ‘knowledge,’ and is used to promote the overturn of industrial civilization. What we will be leaving our grandchildren is not a planet damaged by industrial progress, but a record of unfathomable silliness as well as a landscape degraded by rusting wind farms and decaying solar panel arrays.

There is at least one positive aspect to the present situation. None of the proposed policies will have much impact on greenhouse gases. Thus we will continue to benefit from the one thing that can be clearly attributed to elevated carbon dioxide: namely, its effective role as a plant fertilizer, and reducer of the drought vulnerability of plants.

Meanwhile, the IPCC is claiming that we need to prevent another 0.5ºC of warming, although the 1ºC that has occurred so far has been accompanied by the greatest increase in human welfare in history.

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So. What aspects of climate science can we understand, and what’s too hard?

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Our planet gets energy from the sun. The sun is a giant ball of thermonuclear fire, spewing electromagnetic radiation. When these photons reach Earth, they’re relatively high energy – with wavelengths mostly in the visible spectrum – and they’re all traveling in the same direction.

What we do – “we” here referring to all the inhabitants of our planet, including the rocks and plants and other animals and us – is absorb a small number of well-organized, high-energy photons, and then release a larger number of ill-organized, low-energy photons. This is favorable according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We’re making chaos.

And here’s the greenhouse effect: if the high-energy photons from the sun can pass through our atmosphere, but then the low-energy photons that we release get absorbed, we (as a planet) will retain more of the sun’s energy. Our planet heats up.

Easy!

And, in defense of former senator John Kerry, this is something that a kid can understand. My children are four and six, and this summer we’re going to build a solar oven out of a pane of glass and a cardboard box. (After all, we need stuff to do while all the camps are closed.)

If we fill our air with more carbon dioxide, which lets the sun’s high-energy photons in but then won’t let our low-energy photons out, the planet should heat up, right? What’s the hard part?

Well, the problem – the reason why climate science is too difficult for humans to predict, even with the most powerful computers at our command – is that there are many feedback loops involved.

Some of these are “negative feedback loops” – although atmospheric carbon dioxide causes us to absorb more energy from the sun, various mechanisms can buffer us from a rise in temperature. For example, warm air can hold more water vapor, leading to more cloud formation, which will reflect more sunlight back into space. If the sun’s high-energy photons can’t reach us, the warming stops.

And some are “positive feedback loops” – as we absorb extra energy from the sun, which causes the planet to heat up a little, various mechanisms can cause us to absorb even more energy in the future, and then the planet will heat up a lot. This may be what happened on Venus. The planet Venus may have been habitable, a long long time ago, but then runaway climate change led to the formation of a thick layer of smog, and now it’s broiling, with sulfuric acid drizzling from the sky.

On Earth, an example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice caps. As polar ice melts, it reflects less light, so our planet absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Heat made the ice melt in the first place, but then, once the ice has melted, we heat up even more.

And it turns out that there are a huge number of different positive and negative feedback loops. After all, our planet is really big!

For instance, the essay I was sent included graphs of ice core data suggesting that, in the ancient past, changes in average global temperatures may have preceded changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Frank Brown Cloud holding demo ice core.
Holding a demo ice core like my spouse uses in her classroom. The real ones drilled from glaciers are several miles long! I haven’t spent enough time at the gym to lift those.

But this is just another feedback loop. In the past, there was no mechanism for carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere before temperatures rose – dinosaurs didn’t invent internal combustion engines. This is the first time on Earth when carbon dioxide levels could rise before temperatures, and we don’t know yet what the effect will be.

Extra carbon dioxide will probably cause an increase in temperature, but a planet’s climate is really complicated. We have huge quantities of poorly mixed water (otherwise known as oceans). Our topography is jagged, interspersed with valleys and mountains. There are huge forests (only some of which are on fire). The air is turbulent.

We might find that temperatures are buffered more than we thought. The ocean might act like a giant heat sink.

Or then again, the ocean might warm up, accelerate polar ice loss by lapping at the undersides of glaciers, and magnify the changes.

The mathematics underlying fluid mechanics and heat transfer within an enormous, inhomogeneous system are so complex that it’s almost impossible to say. Nobody knows how much detail you’d need to put into a simulation to get accurate results – all we know for sure is that we can’t simulate the world with as much detail as actually exists. All our models are approximations. Some of them contradict each other.

With my admittedly limited understanding, I don’t think anybody knows enough to assert with confidence whether our climate will exhibit either buffered or switch-like behavior. Maybe we can muck about without hurting much. Or we might bring about our own doom with a tiny mistake.

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Our planet’s climate is so complex that you could make a similar argument – we really don’t know whether we’re going to be buffered from future changes, or whether we’re at the precipice of doom – no matter what evidence we obtain.

Maybe sea levels start rising – well, perhaps that will somehow reduce the further heating of our planet. Maybe we get more horrible tropical storms – well, perhaps they’re linked to a greater density of sunlight-reflecting clouds.

Maybe things seem to be changing fast for a little while, but then we enter another stable state.

Or, insidiously, maybe it will seem like we’re in a well-buffered system – pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without seeing much harm – until, suddenly, we tip over the edge. We often see that sort of behavior from positive feedback loops. Nothing seems to happen, for a while, then everything changes at once. That’s how cooperative binding of oxygen to hemoglobin works in your body.

Another problem is that climate change will probably happen on a very different rhythm from our lives. Weather happens on timescales that we can understand. A decade of droughts. Two years of tropical storms. A few hard winters, or hot summers. But climate happens over hundreds or thousands of years. Most of the time, it changes more slowly than we’d notice.

A two degree shift in average global temperatures, spread out over a few decades? That’s bad, but it’s boring. Which was the main focus of Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history. With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem. As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

Climate science doesn’t fit our culture. Especially not now, when the pressures of surveillance capitalism have forced even the New York Times to run like an advertising company. They earn more from news that gets clicks. Stories need to be sensational. Yes, they run stories about climate change. For these, the polar bears need to be dying, now, and there needs to be an evil villain like Exon lurking in the shadows.

Nobody wants to click on a story explaining that we, collectively, have made and are making a whole lot of small shabby decisions that will cause grizzly bears and polar bears to re-mix and de-speciate.

I got bored even typing that sentence.

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Life is incredibly robust.

Our planet has swung through many extremes of temperature. At times, it’s been much hotter than it is now. At times, it was much colder. And life has marched on.

The human species is much less robust than life itself, though. Our kind has flourished for only a brief twinkling of time, during which our climate has been quite stable and mild. A small change could drive us to extinction. An even smaller change could cause our nations to collapse.

Disrupt our food supply – which could happen with just a few years of bad weather, let alone climate change – and there will be war.

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So. I tried to learn about climate change, focusing on the work of skeptics. And in the end, I partly agreed with the skeptics:

I agree that climate science is too complicated for anyone to understand.

I appreciate that people are trying. I had fun learning about ice cores, atmospheric modeling, energy absorption, and the like. Well, sometimes I was having fun. I also gave myself several headaches along the way. But also, my kids were being wild. They’ve been home from school for three months now! I was probably on the precipice of headaches before I even began.

Here’s where I disagree with the skeptics, though: given that climate science is too complicated for us to understand – and given that we know that small changes in average temperature can make the world a much worse place to live – why would be blithely continue to perturb our climate in an unprecedented way?

Maybe things will be fine. Yay buffers! Or maybe we’ll reduce the carrying capacity of the planet Earth from a few billion humans to a few million, dooming most of our kind.

I know, I know – eventually our universe will dwindle into heat death, so our species is terminal anyway. We will go extinct. It’s guaranteed.

I still think it would be neat if our great-great-grandchilden were out there among the stars. At least for a little while.

Or even, if they stay here on Earth, it’s nice to imagine them living on a comfortable planet with lots of beautiful trees, and interesting animals to see.

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Also, I’m biased.

After all, what are the things that you’re supposed to do if you want to reduce your carbon emissions?

Eat fewer animal products. Live in a smaller home. Drive less. Fly less. Buy less stuff.

Those are all things that I’d recommend to most Americans, for ethical and philosophical reasons, even if we weren’t concerned about climate change. So for me, personally, I don’t need to see much proof that we’ll ruin our climate unless we do these things. I think we should be doing them anyway.

Instead, I think the burden of proof should fall to the people hawking Big Macs. I’d want them to show that a world full of CAFO-raised cows won’t cause climate change, won’t propagate antibiotic resistant bacteria, won’t condemn billions of conscious beings to a torturous existence.

The world is complex. We’re going to err.

I’d rather err on the side of kindness.

On education rankings.

On education rankings.

Note: the original version of this post included a section on individual teacher ratings. I could not find public references for the statements I made, and have deleted these two paragraphs. My apologies!

I recently placed a copy of How to Lie with Statistics in a little free library near campus.  Not because I want people to be more deceitful – if you don’t understand how to trick others, then you yourself will be easy game.  Numbers sound like facts.  They can be used for malicious ends.

Consider medical ratings.  These are ostensibly beneficial – prospective patients get to learn how well-trained their doctors are! 

Saurabh Jha wrote an excellent essay explaining why these rankings are misleading, “When a Bad Surgeon Is the One You Want.”  In brief, doctors who take easy cases will improve their ratings – their patients are more likely to have good outcomes.  When doctors are assessed on their patients’ outcomes, then the doctors who take hard cases will appear to be incompetent.  Even if they are much better at their craft than others.

The same phenomenon holds in teaching. Schools and teachers are often evaluated based on their students’ performance, without normalizing for the unique challenges faced by different populations of kids. 

This week, the Indiana Department of Education released federal evaluations of local schools. 

The elementary school located amidst our town’s most expensive houses, at which the lowest percentage of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, was rated as “exceeding expectations.”  

The elementary schools that serve our town’s most disadvantaged students – one of which holds bilingual classes in English and American Sign Language to support deaf children, and has 86% of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch – were rated as not meeting expectations.

My spouse and I are sending our own children to one of the schools that was rated as not meeting expectations.  We know a fair bit about education – among other things, my spouse is the editor-in-chief of a national journal of teacher writing.  I’ve observed classrooms in this low-rated school, and they are excellent.

But teacher morale is low, because the teachers are continually evaluated as being sub-par, despite the fact that they have chosen to work harder than others.  Our school district is mandating that teachers in the low-rated schools spend time on unfulfilling test-prep regimes, even though these practices are known to further alienate under-resourced students.

Our nation’s school administrators ought to read How to Lie with Statistics, it seems.  They’ve looked at a set of numbers and allowed themselves to be misled.  Which bodes ill for the learners in their care.

On changing a life.

On changing a life.

Back in the 1990s, a buddy of mine was locked up repeatedly for possession of heroin in California.  The drug itself is illegal, and apparently my buddy was making some poor choices while under the influence.  You know, little mistakes, things like turning & running backward to flip off a cop while he fled, only to flip over the hood of a police car coming from the other direction.  Liberating quarters from coin-op laundromats.  Moving meth to fund his habit.

As a condition of probationary release, he was sentenced to rehab.  Required to participate in AA meetings.  He’d show up sullen, at least for a while, then start showing up stoned, then quit altogether as his addiction took hold.  Nobody can force you to get sober, he told me.  You can be forced not to use – if you’re locked up without it, then you’ll kick.  But that’s not the same as being sober.  You can’t be clean – not really – until you have a choice.

Unfortunately, that first moment of choice often comes at an awful time in people’s lives.  Incarceration is traumatic; so is release.  From Susan Burton and Cari Lynn’s Becoming Ms. Burton:

burtonThere’s also no logical reason why federal prisons offer halfway houses to those newly released, but state prisons provide nothing.  Four thousand newly released women arrive in Los Angeles County every year to nothing.  No re-entry programs, no counseling, no services, no assistance.  You have no house key, no credit card, no checkbook, no driver’s license, no Social Security card, no identification of any sort because anything you were carrying when you were arrested has been destroyed by the state.  You’re just one woman in the crowd of mostly black and brown faces, one number in the recidivism stats that are decidedly not in your favor.

Like vultures, the pimps circle, eyeing you, assessing you.  The drug dealers circle.  You know them from the old neighborhood, and they call you by name, offering their brand of a welcome home party.  You have little incentive to say no.  Ego tells you you’re gonna make it by any means necessary.  Ego tells you you’re a grown woman.  But you’re scared.  How do you calm yourself?  How do you connect with something healthy and hopeful when you’re surrounded by Skid Row?  When you haven’t been allowed to make a decision in five, ten, twenty years?  When all you want to do is wash prison off you, but you can’t, because it’s in you.  It’s seeped into your psyche and into your soul.

All I wanted was to ease the fear, ease the self-loathing, ease the hopelessness.  It seemed the only thing in the world I was certain of was how to escape by taking drugs, by self-medicating.  Three days: that’s the average time for someone to relapse after getting out of prison.  I knew nothing about statistics, but I knew that, in a drug high, I could escape into silence.

It takes a lot for an addict to get sober.  I don’t fault the people who want to get clean but keep slipping.  Still, this much is clear: you can’t change your life until you choose to.

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I started teaching in the local jail because I felt ashamed.  I am a citizen of the United States, and the horrors of mass incarceration are inflicted on behalf of all citizens.  I personally owe an apology to those who’ve been yanked away from their lives unfairly … and to those children whose parents were taken away … and to those parents whose children were taken away … and to those who lost their neighbors … and to those whose loved ones were harmed by the violence begat by entire community’s loss of trust in the police, which required inhabitants to take justice into their own hands … and …

Given that some 2.5 million people in the U.S. are currently incarcerated … with another 5 million on probation or parole, a tiny slip away from being shipped away again … and which surely means tens of millions more whose lives have been sundered by the loss of a loved one … many of them innocent children … there is no way I could give a personal apology to everyone who deserves one.  I’m sorry, as a citizen of the United States, that your mother was yanked away on my behalf.

But I can go in and teach.  Last year, I spent about five hours each week inside the most miserable place in town.  Even now, after one of my classes was canceled, I spend close to three hours a week in there.  And I hate being in jail.  Everyone does.  It’s loud, bleak, malodorous, filled with stale air and flickering fluorescent light.  Full of angry people who won’t make eye contact when you talk, but will stand at the front of their cells and stare.  If you don’t see a dude, he might bang the glass and shout – I jump.

The elevator has buttons.  The buttons do nothing.

There is waiting.  Lots of waiting.

But the time I spend with the men in class (only men – the administration has declared all female inmates to be manipulative, irresistible seductresses and will not let male volunteers work with them, for the volunteers’ protection) is great.  They love our poetry class.  Despite the fact that many of these men stopped out of school and never looked at poetry on the outside, they are astute readers.

Several of the men in our classes grew to love writing as well.  Monster House Press has put together a literary magazine featuring some of their work, available here.

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Each week, we met with mid-level offenders in a classroom, and with recovering addicts inside the New Leaf New Life dormitory.  This latter was an incredibly grim space.  Twelve men lived inside this dormitory full-time; there were two steel tables with uncomfortable round seats attached for their meals in the “living area”; there were bunk beds in the “sleeping area”; they had a toilet and shower, the only portion of the room not under constant camera surveillance.  The concrete walls were painted gray, and the only window was a small, wire-reinforced pane in the door: this window looked out to the booking desk on the ground floor of the jail.

So: no exterior windows, no glimpse of sunlight, no fresh air, twelve grown men crammed together for months in a space smaller than the living room of my own (small) home.  A wall was shared with the drunk tank – sometimes somebody would be kicking & shit everywhere.  Sometimes a schizophrenic would sing ceaselessly for days.  Sometimes an angry inmate would rhythmically kick the steel door, every three seconds another KLOOOM reverberating through our skulls.

New Leaf had been granted this space by the jail because no one else wanted to be in there.

And yet that is where we held our best classes.  Even though the space was wretched, the men chose to be in there.  Volunteers – like J-M & me, and a dude who held AA classes, and a local linguist, and others – came in to offer some “enrichment.”  The men also created their own programming: one of the twelve conducted a meditation session each morning.  After our class had been going for a while, the men started reading poetry out loud to each other.  They were suffering, but they learned to suffer together.  In that small, crappy space, dudes riddled with Aryan Brotherhood tattoos befriended black men.  A dude forgave the informant who’d put him there.  Together, these men weathered the deaths of their parents, girlfriends, wives – mass incarceration has ravaged our country.  In the devastated communities left behind, people die all the time.

Hell, mass incarceration caught up with my wife and me, too.  Last November, my wife’s mother was murdered.  It’s unlikely the killer would’ve done it if he hadn’t been so severely distanced from his friends and family, locked up for a decade for a pair of low-level, non-violent drug crimes.  He sold crappy amounts of cocaine; ten years of his life were yanked away; now my mother-in-law is dead.

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To publicize the Monster House Press magazine with the men’s poetry, we made a video using the text of a poem from the collection, Max E.’s “San Diego 1985: I Felt Your Presence in the Absence of Time.”

 

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I love this poem for its depiction of epiphany.  It’s hard work to change your life, but before that work can even begin, you have to want to change.  As much as I hate the way we treat “criminals” in this country, many men have told me that they’re glad they were jolted from their routines – their lives were on a bad course and jail shook them awake, making them realize that they needed to change.

Surrounded by angry angels, this poem’s narrator realizes he’s made a mistake.

Given a reprieve from fate, that is when the hard work begins.  Here’s another excerpt from Becoming Ms. Burton:

Drugs are insidious.  A social ill for some folks, a criminal ill for others.

Jail had done nothing to stop my addiction.  Education, hard work, dedication, a support system, and knowing there were opportunities for me and that my life had value: these were what had made all the difference.  For the past twenty years of my sobriety, I deployed each of these facets, every day.

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Few people find the right path on their first attempt.  Collectively, nobody in the U.S. can claim to be on the right track.  We’re wrecking the environment, we’re wrecking lives … some of us try to tread lightly, but the world is still being wrecked on our behalf.  We all share the blame.

We, too, need to be jolted into change.

On race and our criminal justice system.

On race and our criminal justice system.

I’ve been teaching poetry in the local jail for over a year. The guys are great students, and I love working with them… but there are differences between these classes and my previous teaching experiences. Not just the orange attire or the chance that somebody down the hall will be rhythmically kicking a cell door all hour.

When I was teaching wealthy pre-meds physics & organic chemistry at Northwestern & Stanford, none of my students died. Nobody’s boyfriend or girlfriend was murdered midway through the semester. Nobody was sitting in class with someone who had ruined his or her life by becoming a police informant. Sometimes people got teary eyed, but only over grades.

plowWhereas… well, when we were discussing Norman Dubie’s “Safe Passage” last December – a beautiful poem about riding in the snowplow with his grandfather the night before the old man died – we wound up talking about our families. A forty-year-old man wept: he had thought that this year, for the first time in years, he would get to spend Christmas with his kids … but, even after they let you out, they take away your license … and make you show for blow-and-go some fifteen miles away, every single day … and charge you for the classes, but those classes mean you have no way to schedule regular work hours … so they put you on warrant when you can’t paid … and then, if you make one tiny mistake …

Christmas was in two days. He’d spend another month inside.

Ai_bwThe accumulated trauma that these guys shoulder from their past lives is heartbreaking. One of the best lesson plans my co-teacher and I have come up with uses several poems from Ai to prepare for writing our own persona poems. A former student – now released, & still sober after two months – says he still feels changed by the experience of writing in someone else’s voice. In that space he was made to feel so small, but taking a few minutes to ponder the world from another perspective let him escape. And it gave him a new view of the consequences of his own choices.

But a lot of Ai’s poetry is very difficult. She writes from the perspectives of murderers and rapists. We’ve discussed her poem “Child Beater” with several groups of men, and at least a third of the guys, every time, shared harrowing stories of their own.

On a good day, these men have long histories of suffering weighing them down.

And on a bad day? My co-teacher and I might show up with a stack of poems, start teaching class, and, mid-way through, learn that another of our students’ family members has just died. Over the course of a year, at least two had wives die of overdose, another’s partner was murdered … and, in that case, one of the killers was placed overnight in a cell adjacent to his own …

And, half an hour after my second class there ended, one of my students died.

The men do great work, both interpreting poems and writing their own, but, just think for a moment: what could they accomplish if they weren’t oppressed by so much misery? Compared to my experience teaching at wealthy universities, the emotional toll is excruciating. And I am just a tourist! After every class, I get to leave. A guard smiles and opens the door for me. I walk away.

This is their life.

And it’s my fault. All citizens of this country – all people who benefit from the long history of violence that has made this nation so wealthy – bear the blame. As beneficiaries, the suffering caused by mass incarceration is our responsibility.

So, the guy who died? He was just a kid. Nineteen years old. And he’d gone over a year without medication for his highly-treatable genetic condition. I’ve written previously about the unfair circumstances he had been born into: suffice it to say that his family was very poor. He’d been in jail awaiting trial since sixteen – he was being tried as an adult for “armed robbery” after an attempted burglary with a BB gun – and then, when he turned eighteen – please ignore the irony of this age constituting legal adulthood – the state said he had to pay for his own medication. With beta blockers, people with his genetic condition have a normal life expectancy. Beta blockers cost about $15 per month.

No, a dude whose family is so poor that he attempted robbery with a BB gun can not afford $15 per month. Sitting in jail, it’s not like he could help pay.

A few weeks after his death, I remarked to one of the other guys that he probably wouldn’t have been charged as an adult if he’d been a white kid. I told two anecdotes from the local high school: a student with psychiatric trouble amassed weapons in his locker and planned a date to do something violent. Another student participated in a food fight during the last week of school. The former was welcomed back; the latter was told that he’d be arrested if he returned to school grounds. And he hadn’t taken all his finals yet! If all his teachers had known about this disciplinary ruling in time, he wouldn’t have received a degree.

The first student was white; the latter black.

snowflakeThere’s no universal standard. Maybe there can’t be – we are all “beautiful unique snowflakes,” and so every case will be slightly different. But unfairness blooms when so much is left up to individual discretion. Black students are punished excessively throughout our country. Black children as young as 4 or 5 are considered disproportionately threatening and are treated unfairly.

Prosecutors in the criminal justice system have even more power. There’s no oversight and often no documentation for their decisions. Charges can be upgraded or downgraded on a whim. A white kid might’ve been sent to reform school for his “youthful indiscretions”; this dude sat in jail from age 16 until his death.

“Yeah, but _____ always said, ‘I’m not black. I’m mid-skinned.”

(You can also listen to a podcast about his unfair treatmeant and premature death here.)

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This spring, I said to one of the guys whose trial date was coming up, “I feel like, if I’d done the exact same thing as you…” I shook my head. There was no reason to go on. “But black guys get the hammer.”

He disagreed. Not with the idea that black people are punished disproportionately in this country, just that it would be his burden, too.

NCA-Earth“Well, but I’m not black,” he said. “My family is from all over the place … I’m Native American, and Caribbean, and …” He listed a long pedigree. Indeed, his ancestors had come from around the globe: Europe, India, Africa, the Americas …

“My apologies,” I said. “And, I guess … so, my wife teaches at the high school in town, and one of her kids, his family is Polynesian … but at school everybody assumes he’s black. So he mostly identifies with Black culture here.”

“I get that,” the guy said to me, nodding. He’s a really kind and thoughtful dude. “Cause, yeah, some of it is just who other people think you are.”

His words stuck with me: who other people think you are.

We were sure he could walk. Probation, rehab, that kind of thing. We’d seen other people with equivalent bookings go free.

We were wrong. Dramatically so: he was sentenced to seven years. His family was devastated. You don’t even want to know the extent.

Soon after, I was looking up his prison address to send him a letter and a few books of poetry. On the page of “Offender Data” provided by the Indiana Department of Correction, it read,

Race: Black.

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On perception and learning.

On perception and learning.

Cuddly.

Fearful.

Monstrous.

Peering with the unwavering focus of a watchful overlord.

A cat could seem to be many different things, and Brendan Wenzel’s recent picture book They All Saw a Cat conveys these vagrancies of perception beautifully. Though we share the world, we all see and hear and taste it differently. Each creature’s mind filters a torrential influx of information into manageable experience; we all filter the world differently.

They All Saw a Cat ends with a composite image. We see the various components that were focused on by each of the other animals, amalgamated into something approaching “cat-ness.” A human child noticed the cat’s soft fur, a mouse noticed its sharp claws, a fox noticed its swift speed, a bird noticed that it can’t fly.

All these properties are essential descriptors, but so much is blurred away by our minds. When I look at a domesticated cat, I tend to forget about the sharp claws and teeth. I certainly don’t remark on its lack of flight – being landbound myself, this seems perfectly ordinary to me. To be ensnared by gravity only seems strange from the perspective of a bird.

theyallsawThere is another way of developing the concept of “cat-ness,” though. Instead of compiling many creatures’ perceptions of a single cat, we could consider a single perceptive entity’s response to many specimens. How, for instance, do our brains learn to recognize cats?

When a friend (who teaches upper-level philosophy) and I were talking about Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, I mentioned that I felt many of the aims of that book could be accomplished with a description of principal component analysis paired with Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s lovely New York Times Magazine article on Google Translate.

My friend looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and pity and said, “No.” Then added, as regards Philosophical Investigations, “You read it too fast.”

wittgensteinOne of Wittgenstein’s aims is to show how humans can learn to use language… which is complicated by the fact that, in my friend’s words, “Any group of objects will share more than one commonality.” He posits that no matter how many red objects you point to, they’ll always share properties other than red-ness in common.

Or cats… when you’re teaching a child how to speak and point out many cats, will they have properties other than cat-ness in common?

In some ways, I agree. After all, I think the boundaries between species are porous. I don’t think there is a set of rules that could be used to determine whether a creature qualifies for personhood, so it’d be a bit silly if I also claimed that cat-ness could be clearly defined.

But when I point and say “That’s a cat!”, chances are that you’ll think so too. Even if no one had ever taught us what cats are, most people in the United States have seen enough of them to think “All those furry, four-legged, swivel-tailed, pointy-eared, pouncing things were probably the same type of creature!”

Even a computer can pick out these commonalities. When we learn about the world, we have a huge quantity of sensory data to draw upon – cats make those noises, they look like that when they find a sunny patch of grass to lie in, they look like that when they don’t want me to pet them – but a computer can learn to identify cat-ness using nothing more than grainy stills from Youtube.

Quoc Le et al. fed a few million images from Youtube videos to a computer algorithm that was searching for commonalities between the pictures. Even though the algorithm was given no hints as to the nature of the videos, it learned that many shared an emphasis on oblong shapes with triangles on top… cat faces. Indeed, when Le et al. made a visualization of the patterns that were causing their algorithm to cluster these particular videos together, we can recognize a cat in that blur of pixels.

The computer learns in a way vaguely analogous to the formation of social cliques in a middle school cafeteria. Each kid is a beautiful and unique snowflake, sure, but there are certain properties that cause them to cluster together: the sporty ones, the bookish ones, the D&D kids. For a neural network, each individual is only distinguished by voting “yes” or “no,” but you can cluster the individuals who tend to vote “yes” at the same time. For a small grid of black and white pixels, some individuals will be assigned to the pixels and vote “yes” only when their pixels are white… but others will watch the votes of those first responders and vote “yes” if they see a long line of “yes” votes in the top quadrants, perhaps… and others could watch those votes, allowing for layers upon layers of complexity in analysis.

three-body-problem-by-cixin-liu-616x975And I should mention that I feel indebted to Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem for thinking to humanize a computer algorithm this way. Liu includes a lovely description of a human motherboard, with triads of trained soldiers hoisting red or green flags forming each logic gate.

In the end, the algorithm developed by Le et al. clustered only 75% of the frames from Youtube cat videos together – it could recognize many of these as being somehow similar, but it was worse at identifying cat-ness than the average human child. But it’s pretty easy to realize why: after all, Le et al. titled their paper “Building high-level features using large scale unsupervised learning.”

Proceedings of the International Conference on Machine Learning 2010
You might have to squint, but there’s a cat here. Or so says their algorithm.

When Wittgenstein writes about someone watching builders – one person calls out “Slab!”, the other brings a large flat rock – he is also considering unsupervised learning. And so it is easy for Wittgenstein to imagine that the watcher, even after exclaiming “Now I’ve got it!”, could be stymied by a situation that went beyond the training.

Many human cultures have utilized unsupervised learning as a major component of childrearing – kids are expected to watch their elders and puzzle out on their own how to do everything in life – but this potential inflexibility that Wittgenstein alludes to underlies David Lancy’s advice in The Anthropology of Childhood that children will fair best in our modern world when they have someone guiding their education and development.

Unsupervised learning may be sufficient to prepare children for life in an agrarian village. Unsupervised learning is sufficient for chimpanzees learning how to crack nuts. And unsupervised learning is sufficient to for a computer to develop an idea about what cats are.

But the best human learning employs the scientific method – purposefully seeking out “no.”

I assume most children reflexively follow the scientific method – my daughter started shortly after her first birthday. I was teaching her about animals, and we started with dogs. At first, she pointed primarily to creatures that looked like her Uncle Max. Big, brown, four-legged, slobbery.

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Good dog.

Eventually she started pointing to creatures that looked slightly different: white dogs, black dogs, small dogs, quiet dogs. And then the scientific method kicked in.

She’d point to a non-dog, emphatically claiming it to be a dog as well. And then I’d explain why her choice wasn’t a dog. What features cause an object to be excluded from the set of correct answers?

Eventually she caught on.

Many adults, sadly, are worse at this style of thinking than children. As we grow, it becomes more pressing to seem competent. We adults want our guesses to be right – we want to hear yes all the time – which makes it harder to learn.

The New York Times recently presented a clever demonstration of this. They showed a series of numbers that follow a rule, let readers type in new numbers to see if their guesses also followed the rule, and asked for readers to describe what the rule was.

A scientist would approach this type of puzzle by guessing a rule and then plugging in numbers that don’t follow it – nothing is ever really proven in science, but we validate theories by designing experiments that should tell us “no” if our theory is wrong. Only theories that all “falsifiable” fall under the purvey of science. And the best fields of science devote considerable resources to seeking out opportunities to prove ourselves wrong.

But many adults, wanting to seem smart all the time, fear mistakes. When that New York Times puzzle was made public, 80% of readers proposed a rule without ever hearing that a set of numbers didn’t follow it.

Wittgenstein’s watcher can’t really learn what “Slab!” means until perversely hauling over some other type of rock and being told, “no.”

We adults can’t fix the world until we learn from children that it’s okay to look ignorant sometimes. It’s okay to be wrong – just say “sorry” and “I’ll try to do better next time.”

Otherwise we’re stuck digging in our heels and arguing for things we should know to be ridiculous.

It doesn’t hurt so bad. Watch: nope, that one’s not a cat.

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Photo by John Mason on Flickr.