August 1999

Feminism: Progress and Potential

The political struggle to get the Equal Rights Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution awakened millions of people to the plight of American women, Ms. Luci Malin told more than 60 people attending the July meeting of the Humanists of Utah. Ms. Malin related her coming to Utah 18 years ago to organize support in the Beehive state for the ERA. The efforts of the National Organization of Women to get two-thirds of the state legislatures to approve the proposal failed but the campaign succeeded in educating millions of citizens to the lower salaries paid women, the limited career opportunities they have, and the glass ceiling that keeps them from high-level corporate executive positions.

The ERA campaign encouraged women and men to join the feminist movement, which has opened doors of opportunity for women in medical schools, colleges of law, science, and engineering. Today more women are willing to get involved in party politics and to run for elective offices. Malin cited examples of women being more empowered now than they were 20 years ago but said that there is much more to be done to create a genuine culture of gender equality, a culture where every person has the opportunity to fulfill his or her individual potential.

The former president of NOW said eventual passage of ERA remains a primary goal of the organization. Other NOW goals are improved abortion laws, better access to reproductive health care, more child care facilities, and effective affirmative action laws that will equalize opportunities for women of all races.

Malin said the feminist movement has in some areas been more effective in generating cultural changes than it has in causing political and legal changes. An increasing number of women are expressing their opinions on public issues, more women are visible in professional sports, and a higher percentage of the work force are women. She says the feminist movement has stimulated a positive change toward equality and urged both men and women to keep the momentum going.

–Flo Wineriter


Why Do So Many Bright Persons Believe So Many Dumb Things?

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

The question in the title of this article raises an intriguing question, one of several that were raised at a Council for Media Integrity conference in Los Angeles on November 14, 1998. Other questions raised there were: Is there empirical evidence that portrayals of the paranormal really do have an influence on what people believe? Do the media have a responsibility to maintain balanced reporting? Why do the media hype the unexplained while casting science in a negative light? Is there any hope that the situation will change?

Here are some opinions expressed by conference speakers:

STEVE ALLEN (author-entertainer): There has been a loss of cultural standards in the media. Television and radio have succumbed to vulgarity, the “Howard Stern-ization” of entertainment. The loss of standards encroaches on media treatment of science. “Why do so many bright people believe so many dumb things?” Part of the problem rests with Hollywood writers, who may want to produce intelligent stories using science but lack the basic knowledge.

JUSTIN GUNN (twenty-something Hollywood insider): Television producers don’t aim to give science short shrift but are simply reacting to perceived viewer demand and response. The paranormal is treated uncritically because sensationalized presentations gain high ratings. The quest for ratings has blurred the line between hard news and entertainment. Tabloid journalism shows like Inside Edition and A Current Affair are examples of how producers fell in love with easily packaged story lines and programming that streamlined costs and reduced staff size. “With ratings controlling content and few qualified editors available to review reports, the need to generate controversy is paramount regardless of the actual events or facts of a story.”

TREY STOKES (special effects artist and a skeptic with a comedic flair): After the airing of the Fox network show, Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction, Stokes set up a Web site to address the numerous flaws and inconsistencies in the footage. He polled the opinions of fellow effects artists on its authenticity and found none who supported the alien body as genuine. Similar alien autopsy videos have since popped up in Canada, Europe, and Argentina.

PETER BONERZ (TV director of Friends, Murphy Brown, and Home Improvement): His cynical take on the paranormal fads of Southern California was not always appreciated. There is a desire among producers to favor mystery over science.

SCIENTISTS:

JERE LIPPS (University of California at Berkeley) Passionately indicted the media for promoting scientific illiteracy and superstition. National Research Council statistics describe 98 percent of Americans as scientifically illiterate. The media are the major cause. “Television is allowed to run rampant over science.” The media are central to reinvigorating interest in science. Film and television “ignore the beauty and excitement of science and scientists, turning a blind eye to a wealth of viable subjects” that are “creative, inspiring, thrilling, intriguing and fun.” A drama with scientists as central characters similar to ABC’s ER could be just as dynamic, successful, and entertaining, while inspiring generations of Americans. For an example of positive potential media images of science, visit the popular paleontology Web site at: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu.

WILLIAM EVANS (Georgia State University): Television and film have frequently portrayed science and scientists as inhibiting progress, deranged, and villainous. Research suggests that positive portrayals of scientists are rare. Scientists are the occupational group in dramas most likely to kill or be killed. They are usually depicted as physically peculiar, socially incompetent, neglectful of family and friends, and unable to initiate or maintain romantic relationships. Science is portrayed not only as dangerous but as useless in solving problems. Scientists are stubborn, dogmatic, or idiotic, and only after they have been “removed” from the action can the paranormal danger be eliminated. These negative presentations of science appear to affect viewer opinions. One study found that habitual TV viewers are more likely than infrequent viewers to believe that scientists are dangerous, that they are odd and peculiar, and that a career in science is undesirable.

GLENN SPARKS (Purdue): Presented empirical evidence that media portrayals of the paranormal can influence public belief. However, any type of disclaimer before a television program may trigger a more critical reception from audiences. For summaries of his research, look in the Summer 1994 and July/August 1998 issues of Skeptical Inquirer.

Suggestions made by these speakers to bring good science to television and the media are: to write letters of protest to publication editors and news producers about bad science or hype, to contact television reviewers or offer to write reviews ourselves, to issue statements about bad science, to provide science stories to television news and newspapers, to petition the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences to institute a “Best Science” category, to lecture and discuss the need for sound media presentations of science with teachers, to produce television drama that features the work and lives of scientists, to do a “strategic framing” of the science and media question into that of a consumer angle, and to conduct further research and publicity surrounding the link between media depictions and paranormal belief. Television dramas that feature the work and lives of scientists are in the works through efforts by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, with some money going to NYPD Blue, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Ongoing discussions with the entertainment industry are continuing. The Council for Media Integrity is proactively working for balanced presentations of science in the media.


The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Originally published in the July 1999 issue of Humanist News and Views by the Humanist Association of Minnesota, this article was written by Bob Kern.

Last month’s article by Richard Dean observed that Duane Gish again brought up the Second Law of Thermodynamics in his argument for Creationism. It’s not clear how he used it this time, but in the past Creationists have claimed that evolution is a violation of this law of physics.

I studied thermodynamics when I was an undergraduate engineering student. When I first saw someone argue that evolution violates this law I thought to myself that they would really be embarrassed when they found out that they had totally misinterpreted the law. Silly me. About twenty-five years have gone by and they are still making this bad argument.

Unfortunately, relatively few people have studied thermodynamics and so most people don’t understand what is wrong with the argument. I’d like to take a stab at explaining it to the humanist readership.

The Second Law says that in a closed system, entropy is always increasing. I will talk about “disorder” rather than the scientific quantity “entropy” since disorder is probably more meaningful to people and entropy does imply a certain kind of disorder.

The argument made by the creationist is that the Second Law says that the universe is becoming increasingly disordered, but evolution represents a steady increase in “orderedness,” so evolution violates the law. Bearing in mind that the word “ordered” is a bit sloppy compared to the actual definition used by physicists, the very simple rebuttal is this: The Second Law only says the universe as a whole (or any part of it that doesn’t have energy flowing in or out) has increasing disorder. It is extremely obvious to physicists that there can be increasing order in one place if it makes use of a greater decrease in order someplace else.

In the case of evolution, the sun is losing “order” at a staggering rate as it radiates energy out into space and onto the earth. The process of evolution makes use of a tiny amount of the “order” lost by the sun to produce increasingly complex life forms in a thin layer on the surface of our small planet. The Second Law does reliably tell us that without the sun or some suitable replacement source of energy, evolution could not take place, and I’m sure there would be little disagreement among scientists about that.

The absurdity of the Creationist position is even clearer if we consider the context in which the Second Law is ordinarily used. The First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy is conserved, meaning that no process can create or destroy energy. If we have a boulder at 500 degrees and an equal sized one at 0 degrees and put them together in a perfectly insulated chamber, they will both wind up with a temperature of 250 degrees. Heat being a form of energy, the energy one gains will equal the energy the other loses. However, when there was a big temperature difference, it would have been possible to use this energy to run a steam engine by having the cold boulder cool water and the hot boulder boil it. This engine could create useful work, but it could not run once the boulders have reached the same temperature. The second law of thermodynamics captures the idea that the ability to do useful work declines over time even though the total energy doesn’t.


Limit Exemptions

The Tribune’s editorial about Utah teachers’ pay (June 15) was welcome in identifying “the real reason there is not more money for schools: the higher number of children per household.” But like Mark Twain’s weather, we talk about it (occasionally) but do nothing about it. Envision Utah, for example, decided only to manage growth, not control it.

Well, someone has to stick his neck out if we’re ever going to address this problem. I suggest, at the risk of being run out of town, that society deny economic incentives for couples to have more than two children. Radical, I know, but our society today should be interested only in maintaining the population, not growing it. Parents who have more than two children should have to pay for them.

More specifically, our Legislature might consider that for a couple’s third child and beyond, born one year or more after the Legislature acts, tax exemptions would be eliminated and parents would pay the entire cost of educating such children. The one-year period would be, of course, so parents would not be penalized who already have more than two children, and so couples could plan their families in light of the new law.

–Earl Wunderli
published in the 
Salt Lake Tribune June 27,1999