Monday, November 28, 2005

Go Cal

It's no longer timely, but the NYT ran a story last week, archived here, about a lawsuit against the University of California system by a group of Christian schools. These schools offer certain courses taught from a strict Biblical perspective (including Christianity's Influence in American History and Biology According to Bob Jones) and UC refuses to accept these courses on an applicant's transcript. The lawsuit calls this policy a First Amendment violation.

I say give 'em hell, Cal. Getting into a name-brand college isn't a right. UC Berkeley ought to be able to set its admissions standards according to its own mission and values, and if a high school has curricular priorities that are antithetical to UC's priorities--free and open-minded inquiry, investigative rigor--then students of that high school ought to expect to be penalized.

Evangelicals are trying to have their cake and eat it too in this case. If they think their values are Godly ones and they are God's elect, they should expect to be scorned by sinful society, not rewarded with status and consumer choice. God or Mammon? Put up or shut up, you yahoos.

Oops, I almost forgot: I learned about this story at The Revealer, which praised Carolyn Marshall for "an admirable job of refereeing... Marshall lets the parents of Calvary hang themselves (or at least hang their cause as somewhat hysterical) with their own rope ... in a way that makes the case for overreaction better than any editorializing could." THAT'S the way to report on these Scripture vs. Scientific Consensus stories.

Sis Boom Bah

You thought college cheerleading was silly? That all those young people take away after senior year is a souvenir megaphone and the memory of a little slap and tickle in the school van on the tail end of a road trip?

Not so. Conveying enthusiasm and getting people to do what you want them to do are abilities that come in handy in business. Being a cute athletic young woman never hurt either. Anyway, according to this article, there is a pipeline between being a cheerleader (especially at a big state school where the sports culture is king) and working as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.

I find this kind of thing interesting. Maybe because I didn't have a clue about career planning or networking when I was in school, I'm intrigued by people who really do leverage their school ties and networks. I also find it interesting that below the George W. Bush league of prep school and Ivy League cronyism, there's a regional brand of social networking driven by college sports and fraternities/sororities. I haven't tested this theory, but I suspect that by studying a list of, say, the 1965 DKE pledge class at Chapel Hill, you could figure out quite a bit about business and politics in the state of North Carolina today.

So being a cheerleader is a ticket to a high-paying sales job. Besides the benefit of being an attractive perky woman, there are advantages to being, for instance, a former University of Kentucky cheerleader when calling on doctors in Kentucky. Of course, it mainly works for women, since female sexuality has more exchange value in the marketplace. (We still feel a little weird about male cheerleaders, don't we?) I also wonder if we'll ever read of a pipeline of college athletes into a certain profession--say, that lacrosse goalies make great dentists, or soccer forwards make great clinical psychologists--and if not, why not. Isn't cheerleading the derivative activity, the auxiliary, the parasitic?

Looksism is nothing new, I guess, and I give these women credit for combining beauty with some brain power and initiative, and making some real money. Though it's disturbing to think of doctors dispensing meds because of the bounce of the sales rep's pom-poms, not whether patients benefit from the meds. And it makes me wonder whether Big Pharma devotes nearly as much insight and innovation to developing new medicines as they do to highly-focused efforts to hire cheerleaders.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

She Said, He Said, I Said

A month or so ago I defended Jodi Wilgoren for a story she wrote about the culture war over evolution. Some in the blogosphere felt that the New York Times shouldn't devote any ink to a disreputable scientific position (namely, creationism or I.D.). Basically, I felt (1) that the mere fact of the controversy, of a large segment of the lay public that differs with expert scientific consensus, was newsworthy; and (2) the creationist position looked bad under Wilgoren's scrutiny. Myopia, self-delusion, even malicious anti-intellectualism are on the march in the U.S. The best response progressives can make is not to curse these movements, nor ignore them, but describe them calmly and closely--if possible, let the Flat Earthers tell their own story, give their own account, alongside established scholarly opinion. The Flat Earthers will shoot themselves in the foot, or worse.

Wilgoren's coffee shop story, which I blogged about yesterday, may have been lightweight lifestyle journalism, but was basically unobjectionable. The he said-she said approach is a problem when applied to matters of national politics and/or when high-powered spin doctors are involved. But in Wilgoren's hands, on these softer cultural stories, with selective use of detail, I think the merits of the two sides can be fairly judged. And hey, Wilgoren's piece won't lead to an unjust war or a skewed presidential election, like the work of some NYT reporters I could name.

Now for an encore, I'm going to pick another bone with Pharyngula and defend another mainstream reporter who gives voice to the wingnut position on science. NPR's religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty has come in for criticism in the past from Atrios, Media Matters and elsewhere for some items on her resume: she lectures at a seminar for evangelical journalists, and has received money from one of Howard Ahmanson's foundations (other Ahmanson foundations support the Discovery Institute as well as anti-gay causes.)

I started to compose a hair-splitting point-by-point defense of Hagerty, but the hell with it. (If you care to, raise some points in Comments and I'll see if I can answer them.) I don't always think she does a great job; a couple of years ago I heard her freeze up during a live report on "All Things Considered"--the worst I've ever heard a broadcast reporter choke under pressure. But I'm reminded of the protest some right-wing blog made recently, that a gay reporter should not cover the gay marriage debate--it's a conflict of interest. That's horseshit, and so, in a milder form, are some of the complaints about Hagerty. An evangelical can cover the religion beat--if she's careful.

The story in question, from last weekend, examines a tempest in a teapot: an editor at a small science journal approved for publication a paper on Intelligent Design. The journal has ties to the Smithsonian Institution, a fact which amplified the inevitable protests of evolutionary biologists, and led to some negative consequences for this editor Richard Sternberg: basically, a certain amount of professional ostracism. (Which he deserves. If not a reactionary, he's at least a dope.) The story goes on to discuss young biologists who hold anti-Darwin views but who feel they must conceal them in order to receive tenure. Hagerty interviews both sides, the mainstream Darwin defenders and the conservatives. She lets the right-wing biologists tell their story, air their gripes, and at the end we (I, at least) get the feeling they're whining. It's noteworthy that that a few scientists are trying to get Intelligent Design on the agenda. It's somewhat enlightening to get this window into the workings and politics of scientific publishing and academic hiring. But in the end, you conclude that ID proponents are marginal, and for very good reasons. (Having a science Ph.D. and believing in Intelligent Design is an absurdity, and should never have been allowed to happen, and if such a person is weeded out at the tenure stage, well, better late than never.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

using my inside voice

Jodi Wilgoren of the New York Times strikes again, this time reporting from the North Side of Chicago, on a controversy over the deportment of toddlers in coffee shops. One local barista has posted a sign stating that "children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven". Fightin' words! A band of rogue stroller-pushing angels has unholstered its Blackberries and fired a volley of e-mails, threatening boycott.

Two observations. First: My God, people are touchy on the subject of children. Parents are stressed and guilt-ridden and oversaturated with information and opinions about child-rearing, so offer them one more opinion and get ready to have your head handed to you:
"I love people who don't have children who tell you how to parent," said Alison Miller, 35, a psychologist, corporate coach and mother of two. "I'd love for him to be responsible for three children for the next year and see if he can control the volume of their voices every minute of the day."

But even non-parents have a chip on their shoulder about their choice NOT to have children.
Mr. McCauley, 44, said the protesting parents were "former cheerleaders and beauty queens" who "have a very strong sense of entitlement."

Me, I have a very strong sense that this fellow is still dealing with the trauma of all the wedgies he got during 10th grade gym class. I've noted in the past that there is a nascent "rights of the child-free" movement that projects some weird shit at times. Do they think we parents are jealous of them? That we think they're selfish? That we are lemmings, whereas they have the courage of their convictions? Look, I can picture the noise and the X-games antics that kids get up to in a coffee shop; mine have done it occasionally. (I remember my oldest TKOing herself, running headlong into the edge of a table; I remember my youngest howling with pain when she stuck her fingers into my piping-hot cup of Kona Blend. Each was age 2 or 3 at the time.) But is it really that persistent a problem? Is it way over the level of rudeness and unpleasantness Mr. McCauley should expect and be prepared to tolerate as proprietor of a retail business? Obviously, I can't know for sure, but in this yuppie neighborhood (in Wilgoren's description), I'm skeptical that this is an epidemic.

Second observation: Coffee shops are modern-day lifestyle temples, some kind of wired-for-WiFi cross between lending libraries and cloister walks, only with a not-too-edgy alt-rock soundtrack warbling at a tasteful volume. I occasionally enjoy lingering in quiet and comfort with a latte and a newspaper. I really don't normally have my kids in tow when I go for coffee, I recognize that Starbucks and its ilk are essentially adult spaces, but on a day when I'm going to have my daughters with me and want to juggle child care with some other errands, I'd resent the suggestion that I'm barred from them. The coffee shop seems to be one of the places where the rubber hits the road in balancing public against private, and access for all against our own standards of comfort and convenience.

At any rate, the celestial battle over A Taste of Heaven is headed for an apocalyptic showdown:
Mr. McCauley said he would rather go out of business than back down. He likens this one small step toward good manners to his personal effort to decrease pollution by hiring only people who live close enough to walk to work.

"I can't change the situation in Iraq, I can't change the situation in New Orleans," he said. "But I can change this little corner of the world."

I salute you, sir. Others are working with great fanfare on issues like child abuse, poverty, failing public schools, but nobody is confronting the little-acknowledged crisis of toddler etiquette as boldly as you.