Jan 01 2009

I knew they were nuts

Category: education,higher education,societyharmonicminer @ 10:43 am

I have recently played a part in the revision of the general studies curriculum at a Christian university. One of the topics of discussion was whether all students should be required to take psychology. Many of us felt that psychology is a “baby discipline” without fully formed content as yet, as witnessed by the “fad of the decade” approach to theories of personality, theories of cognition, etc.  A psychology faculty member argued (incredibly, to me) that half of our incoming students had serious psychological problems, and that we had to address them.  I asked if there was any evidence that students who had taken an introductory college psychology course had better mental health at any point later in life.  (There is none, of course….)  By way of admitting this without admitting it, my faculty friend insisted that the way HE teaches it is different, and he IS effective at teaching the content of “intro to psychology” while also achieving therapeutic goals.  All of this struck me as “special pleading”, of course, but it seems that maybe he was right that half of college students are whacko:

Results Almost half of college-aged individuals had a psychiatric disorder in the past year. The overall rate of psychiatric disorders was not different between college-attending individuals and their non–college-attending peers. The unadjusted risk of alcohol use disorders was significantly greater for college students than for their non–college-attending peers (odds ratio = 1.25; 95% confidence interval, 1.04-1.50), although not after adjusting for background sociodemographic characteristics (adjusted odds ratio = 1.19; 95% confidence interval, 0.98-1.44). College students were significantly less likely (unadjusted and adjusted) to have a diagnosis of drug use disorder or nicotine dependence or to have used tobacco than their non–college-attending peers. Bipolar disorder was less common in individuals attending college. College students were significantly less likely to receive past-year treatment for alcohol or drug use disorders than their non–college-attending peers.

Conclusions Psychiatric disorders, particularly alcohol use disorders, are common in the college-aged population. Although treatment rates varied across disorders, overall fewer than 25% of individuals with a mental disorder sought treatment in the year prior to the survey. These findings underscore the importance of treatment and prevention interventions among college-aged individuals.

Can’t we just put ‘em all on Prozac and teach ‘em algebra, instead?

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Jan 01 2009

the Impossible dream?

Category: science,space,technologyharmonicminer @ 9:19 am

For 50 years we’ve been Waiting for ET to phone us.

West Virginia. It is 6 am on an April morning in 1960 and Frank Drake is freezing cold. He peers up towards the focal point of the radio telescope. He mounts a flimsy ladder to the top and climbs into a space about the size of a garbage can. For the next 45 minutes, he tunes the receiver inside, which feels like starting an old car. He climbs back down and begins to listen.

Drake and colleagues were conducting a seminal experiment: the first modern search for extraterrestrial life. For four months, the researchers used the Tatel Telescope in Green Bank to listen for any intelligent signals from the stars Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani that might be hidden on the same wavelength as radiation emitted naturally by hydrogen. Drake named the effort Project Ozma after the princess in the 0z books by Frank Baum, who wrote that he used a radio to learn of events there.

April 2010 will mark the 50th anniversary of the start of Project Ozma, and those involved in the search for extraterrestrial life, or SETI, will be raising a glass. Not only did the experiment inspire countless people to continue the search, it brought alien-hunting into the mainstream and arguably seeded the science of astrobiology.

Other famous searchers for things that were never found:

   Albert Einstein and Unified Field Theory.

   Don Quixote and defeatable windmills

   Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth

   Isaac Newton and a way to turn lead into gold

   AI researchers and actual machine intelligence

   Modern physics and cold fusion

You get the idea.  Some things just SOUND plausible, even likely.  The argument that “the universe is just so big that there has to be intelligent life out there” is like that.  It just instinctively sounds right.

That doesn’t make it right.

And even if they are there, the aliens are almost certainly far, far ahead of us, so far that we wouldn’t recognize one of their artifacts or communications methods if we saw it.  Or, they are so far behind us that they’re still working on inventing the bow and arrow, or controlling fire.  The odds of intelligent aliens in a detectable state of technological development anywhere near us are so small as to be laughable.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll all for funding more SETI, though I’m not acquiescent about more active approaches.  ET may not be nice.

But I don’t expect much to be found.