Influential Prose

Kevin McLeod's Portfolio

Cultural Differences in Moral Reasoning

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Cultural differences in moral reasoning are driven by various influences — history, leadership, religious belief, experiences with peace and warfare, available resources and the strategies for extracting and distributing those resources. These cultural differences are not limited to the scale of nations. There can also be differences in the culture and moral reasoning between schools, communities, companies, even families. Moral reasoning has a way of adapting to or being shaped by people’s needs and perceptions.

Absolutes vs. Relativism
There’s an ongoing, cross-cultural debate on whether moral values are absolute or relative. Are there universal morals that apply to all regardless of culture, or are moral values a negotiation between the environment, natural selection and social conditions? It’s a hotly debated topic, but clearly moral reasoning diverges among cultures. In some areas, gay marriage is accepted and not in others. Some countries permit personal firearm ownership, in others you can be jailed. The same is true for possession of certain plants.

National Differences
Overpopulation has led China to impose some restrictions on family size. Today it has over 1.35 billion people and most Chinese live with an average density of 326 people per square mile. People living at that density calls for, and perhaps requires, a moral system that emphasizes cooperation and harmony — exactly what Confucianism teaches. In China, conditions and moral reasoning lead to limits on family size.

In Russia, conditions and moral reasoning lead to an opposite conclusion. Russia’s population density is slightly below 14 people per square mile, with about 143 million total population. Government policy encourages families to have as many children as they can (which also requires cooperation and harmony).

Japan’s situation is complex. They face a rapidly aging population and steep decline in fertility, in part because strong Confucian values demand marriage before children, but marriage rates are dismally low. Japan is caught between cultural values and an inevitable economic decline unless fertility and immigration increase; thus Japanese moral reasoning is now forced to resolve this conflict to maintain national prosperity.

Economic Differences
Consider a simplified example of conflicting interests between a factory owner and a farmer. To remain in business, the factory owner must balance costs and expenses. This may mean discharging pollutants in the atmosphere because it is the lowest-cost way to eliminate wastes. If costs are not well-controlled, the factory could fail and people would lose jobs. From this perspective, cost control is a moral good.

From a farmer’s perspective, if crops are contaminated by mercury particulates from the factory, the moral good of cost control becomes the evil of food poisoning. Similarly, an agricultural society will have a different moral perspective on some issues than an industrial society. Cultural values — morals — tend to dovetail with practical needs.

On the issue of global warming, there’s a clear clash between the view in academic culture, which is driven by several lines of evidence pointing toward anthropogenic climate change, and the views of fossil fuel and other industries, a culture that tends to combat any conclusion that will affect profits. When scientific facts and self-interest diverge, the effect on moral reasoning is illuminating.

Humanitarian Differences
Cultures vary in how they value others in their midst. Slavery is a stark example, and had its advocates. It is now widely condemned, yet persists in the form of human trafficking, or sex slavery. Sexual slavery victims tend to flow from economically insecure areas to regions of relative stability. When times are hard, the young women who comprise the majority of victims can be manipulated and entrapped with promises of phony jobs. Some locales, most famously Bangkok and Amsterdam, tolerate the sex trade by reasoning that it’s a matter between consenting adults. This blurs the line between consent and coercion and complicates enforcement against human trafficking.

Social Stratification
Other forms of devaluation persist, cutting across lines of ethnicity, gender, age and disability, resulting in societies stratified by economic class (U.S.), social castes (India, Pakistan) and ethnicity (U.S, Japan). Social stratification is inherently hierarchical, a pre-rational behavioral pattern, and proactive moral reasoning is working to reduce it through affirmative action programs in the U.S. and India.

Moral reasoning varies by culture in accordance with what the culture values. As noted American author Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, “Man is not a rational animal. He is a rationalizing animal.” It’s clear that moral values are relative in practice. If there are also absolute universal moral values, no clear consensus has yet emerged that identifies them.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:20 am

Physics for Curious Teenagers

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Physics is often an intimidating subject because it encompasses so much – it is the foundation for how everything else works. Our understanding is advanced and growing, but not yet complete. There are still holes, and this is where the excitement lies – exploring the unmapped territories, standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing farther than any have seen before. The easy parts have been mapped, and the hard parts beckon. Teens with the academic capacity for this subject can benefit from strong parental encouragement and support. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs are proliferating, and physics provides a reliable foundation for these areas. Check your teen’s school to learn about local courses.

Particle Physics
The most fundamental questions have been asked for centuries. Where are we from? How did we get here? Physics is part of our pursuit for answers. By examining the most basic building blocks that everything is made of, we discern the properties of both matter and energy, and how matter is essentially a form of energy. Chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry, the basis for life, all originate in particle physics. It’s like the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” shows, but this is the detective work of reality – physics underlies a lot of criminal investigative work.

Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s powerhouse of particle physics, offers a solid list of books on physics for regular people, and the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh offers a selection of engaging physics books for teens — such as the “Manga Guide to Physics” — that are accessible without being dumbed down.

Electromagnetism
Fundamental particles carry positive and negative electrical charges, and these charges regulate the interaction of matter. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, at the particle level electrical charge is so powerful that the absence of only one electron out of every billion molecules in two 70-kilogram (154-pound) persons standing two meters (two yards) apart would repel them with a 30,000-ton force. If you want to understand how that works, “Physics for Idiots” has good explanations, even if you’re not an idiot. Teens looking for the story behind the science can also enjoy “Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World,” an overview of the history and human drama behind electromagnetism’s discovery.

Physics of Motion
Energy and matter together becomes motion. Isaac Newton formulated the Three Laws of Motion on an English sheep farm in the mid-17th century and revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos. He worked out how the motion of the moon affects the oceans on Earth and creates tides. The same laws that govern the fall of an apple from a tree form the basis of our understanding of orbital mechanics – how the planets orbit the sun through the principles of inertia and mass. The online Physics Classroom presents these laws in a clear, accessible way for teens.

Physics of Relativity
Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity picked up where Newton left off by showing that space itself is warped by gravity, and that even light is affected by it. This effect is so powerful it enables us to see galaxies hidden behind clusters of other galaxies because the galaxies in front create a lensing effect, warping the light around them. Relativity also gave us light’s speed limit – 186,000 miles per second. By this measure, the sun is 8 minutes distant, Saturn is 15 minutes away, and the Voyager 1 space probe at the edge of the solar system is over 17 hours out. Cornell University, the workplace of renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, has a good overview of Einstein’s theory, and yes, there’s a “Manga Guide to Relativity” too.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:24 am

Why Parents Shouldn’t Be Able to Refuse Medical Treatment for an Ill Child

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Legally, refusal to provide or access medical care for children can be termed medical neglect. According to the latest available national statistics, documented child abuse and neglect in 2011 affected more than 675,000 children, or nearly 1 in a 100 kids. On average, 3 percent was stemmed from medical neglect in 41 reporting states. Some states average higher. Arkansas’ medical neglect rate is 7.5 percent, while the District of Columbia, Georgia, New York and Puerto Rico all average about 5 percent. The lowest rates are in Delaware and Utah at 0.04 percent and 0.02 percent respectively, plus both Wisconsin and Nebraska at 0.01 percent.

Causes
Medical neglect can have several causes, including economic hardship, lack of access to care or health insurance, family chaos and disorganization, lack of awareness, knowledge or skills, lack of trust in health care workers, impairment of caregivers, caregivers’ beliefs and children’s behavior, according to a 2007 article in the journal “Pediatrics.” Of these causes, two can involve active refusal of care: caregivers’ belief systems and children’s behavior.

Legal Exceptions
In most instances, medical neglect is legally actionable. The exception is faith-based exemptions, which are written into law in most states, according to Childhealthcare.org. These exemptions vary in scope. Forty-eight states permit exemption from immunization programs. Most states permit exemption from metabolic testing of newborns that can detect developmental problems, including some that can be prevented with treatment. Ten states have religious exemptions for eyedrops that can help prevent blindness in children who contact a venereal disease carried by their mothers. Seventeen states have religious exemptions to felony crimes against children.

Consequences
A study titled “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect” in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal found that of 172 cases of child fatalities attributed to faith-based medical neglect, 140 had excellent (90 percent positive) prognosis with standard treatment. Many of the remaining 32 children were treatable, with good outcomes likely. The consequences of not participating in immunization programs can be widespread. In 1991, “The New York Times” reported on an outbreak of 492 measles cases in Philadelphia that led to the deaths of six children, two of them unrelated to the Faith Tabernacle and First Century Gospel churches at the center of the outbreak. A later check of the Faith Tabernacle school found 201 of the children in attendance had never seen a doctor.

Prevention
Most faith-based cases of medical neglect leading to illness and death are preventable. The nonprofit educational charity Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty lists other treatable conditions that resulted in the deaths of children in the care of Christian Science parents between 1974 and 1994; five by meningitis, three of pneumonia, two of appendicitis, five of diabetes, two of diphtheria, one of measles, one of septicemia, one of a kidney infection, one of a bowel obstruction, and one of heart disease. In the Philadelphia outbreak, three children were hospitalized under court order to ensure treatment. However, as long as religious exemptions remain in place, the justice system has legal limits on what they can do.

References
American Academy of Pediatrics: Religious Objections to Medical Care
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Maltreatment 2011 report
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Neglect: A Guide for Intervention
American Academy of Pediatrics: Recognizing and Responding to Medical Neglect
American Medical Association: Miracle vs. Medicine: When Faith Puts Care at Risk

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:11 am

High School Swimming Lessons

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

In school districts with sufficient budgets and facilities, high school students can choose from beginning, intermediate and advanced swimming courses, often modeled on the American Red Cross’s Learn-to-Swim program. Some schools also offer competitive swimming. Knowing how to swim well is a valuable skill, for both safety and physical fitness. Regular swimming can yield lifelong benefits as a low-impact activity that can continue as one grows older. For students who desire additional challenges, swim programs also often offer diving lessons and lifeguard training. CPR training is another possible pursuit.

Beginning Lessons
Early lessons stress water safety and comfort. Safety training begins with a review of pool rules, including how to use a life jacket, how to recognize another swimmer in distress and how to get help in an emergency. Then, beginning in shallow water and working progressively deeper, the goal is to become familiar with various positions and movement while supported in the water. Learning how to tread water, swim unassisted for short distances on the front, back and side, change directions and roll over are skills needed to move on to the next level.

Intermediate Lessons
At this level, your teen will be relaxed and comfortable in water and ready to build on and refine existing skills. This begins with learning strokes that aid efficient swimming by conserving energy and extending range. Strokes include front glide, front crawl, back crawl and butterfly kick, plus demonstration of longer float times and specific float positions, including the HELP and Huddle strategies for conserving heat in cold water, and how to do a survival float. At this point, the swimmer should be able to dive and retrieve objects from chest-deep water.

Advanced Lessons
Skills introduced at this level include swimming underwater, specific dive types, several specific strokes for treading water, open turns for lane swimming and several safety techniques. Rules for safe diving, how to do a compact jump from a height while wearing a life jacket, how to conduct a throwing assist and how to care for a conscious choking victim are all reviewed. Swimmers demonstrate a back and survival float in deep water for a minute and the ability to swim using back crawl, butterfly, breaststroke and elementary back stroke between 15 and 25 yards.

Fitness and Lifeguard Readiness
Swim distances are lengthened, additional equipment such as pull buoys, fins, pace clocks and paddles are introduced. Training techniques, understanding target heart rates and principles of swimming programs and water exercise are reviewed. In preparation for competitive swimming, a variety of of open turns as they vary by stroke are practiced. Lifeguard readiness trainings build endurance in swimming and treading water, develop diving and submerged swimming proficiency, practice an assortment of rescue techniques, and demonstrate the ability to swim 500 yards — 10 lengths of an Olympic-sized pool — using six different strokes.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:06 am

Child Behavior Checklist Items

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

As children develop, parents like to see them hitting normal developmental milestones. When it appears something is not quite right, a screening behavioral review is an early step. The widely accepted Achenbach System of Empirically Based Assessment offers two screens, one for children ages 18 months to 5 years, another for children 6 to 18. The preschool list has 100 questions, while the school-age list has 113. Some areas examined include anxiety, depression, aggression, attention, language and sleep.

Checklist Structure

Items on the child behavior checklists are graded by a short scale:

0 = Not True (as far as you know)
1 = Somewhat or Sometimes True
2 = Very True or Often True

The scale allows for a measure of intensity. Teenagers can be moody; some more or less so than others. Scale provides a sense of frequency and extent of the behavior. Some screens come with an additional component, such as the Language Development survey, which measures vocabulary. There are also multicultural supplements that adjust behavior scores as appropriate for cultural context.

Aggression
Aggression is sometimes related to lack of empathy. This shows up in two items from the preschooler screening: “cruel to animals” and “hurts animals or other people without meaning to.” Actually aggressive behavior is signaled by several other items: “destroys his/her own things,” “destroys things belonging to his/her family or other children” and “physically attacks people.” Items asked of the K-12 set include these and some additions: “cruelty, bullying or meanness to others” and self-aggression — “deliberately harms self or attempts suicide.”

Anxiety
Items indicative of anxiety among preschoolers include “afraid to try new things,” “clings to adults or too dependent,” “doesn’t want to sleep alone,” “gets upset when separated from parents.” Among young children and adolescents, some additional markers are “feels he/she has to be perfect,” “feels or complains that no one loves him or her,” “feels worthless or inferior.”
Everyone experiences anxiety at some time; intensity is a key diagnostic element in assessment. Excessive anxiety can be alleviated with treatment.

Attention
Some items can apply to multiple syndromes. For example, “avoids looking others in the eye” could be a sign of inattention, anxiety, depression or anger, depending on context. Having multiple items related to single syndromes helps triangulate the source of the behavior to discern which syndromes are applicable. Attention-related items for preschoolers are “can’t concentrate, can’t pay attention for long,” “can’t sit still, restless or hyperactive,” “can’t stand waiting, wants everything now,” and “demands must be met now.” From 6 to 18, additional items are “fails to finish things he/she starts,” “daydreams or gets lost in his/her thoughts,” “impulsive or acts without thinking,” and “inattentive or easily distracted.”

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:02 am

Effective Programs to Help at-Risk Teenagers Stay in School

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Keeping at-risk teens in school entails a variety of strategies. It begins by identifying who is mostly likely to drop out and the influences that compel them to do so; these can include bullying, homelessness, financial insecurity, poor nutrition, substance abuse, early pregnancy and abuse at home. Solutions can be targeted individually or schoolwide, but whatever the approach, these problems are difficult, widespread and not always responsive to generalized programs. Although, effective programs do exist.

Check and Connect
Developed at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, Check and Connect has 20 years of documentation to demonstrate program effectiveness and is highly rated by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. It is a relatively low-cost program that trains mentors to check on at-risk students’ attendance, behavior and grades while connecting with them personally to provide coordinated support with school staff, families and community providers. The goal of the program is to build academic and social competence on the path to graduation.

Positive Action
Rated by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse as a top program, Positive Action’s approach is summarized by its logo, which features three arrows representing thoughts, action and feelings revolving around a plus sign for positivity in a virtuous circle. As the program states, “Positive Action is the philosophy that you feel good about yourself when you think and do positive actions, and there is always a positive way to do everything.” If it sounds like a feel-good program, it is, but it also lowers truancy and increases attendance. Success is compelling.

Ripple Effects
Ripple Effects recognizes the varied influences on dropouts and addresses them by sorting students by risk level, identifying specific behaviors and targeting them with specific, useful interventions. Academic performance is deeply influenced by social and emotional needs. Ripple Effects provides responsive support, aiding students who need to believe in themselves when family, peers or community leads them to doubt. Suspension alternatives are part of the program, steering students toward assessments that also watch for structural unfairness and unconscious bias by school administrations.

Success Highways
This program begins with a comprehensive early warning assessment that not only identifies at-risk students, but determines the reasons underlying their risks and can be reviewed at the district, school, classroom and individual levels. Intervention focuses on six resiliency skills, teaching the essential lesson that failure is occasionally inevitable, but that persistence pays off. Specific skills taught include stress management, intrinsic motivation, academic confidence, balanced well-being, connectedness to others and connecting educational relevance to achievement of life goals.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 2:57 am

Evangelism in the Early Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

The roots of American evangelism go back to 16th century Europe, when Anabaptists began suggesting that church should be separate from the state. This view did not find favor among governments closely aligned with the Catholic church, and consequently Anabaptism was brutally suppressed. The means, as the Global Mennonite Encyclopedia starkly describes it, was often “the scaffold and the stake.” By the end of the 16th century, most European Anabaptist leaders were dead. Some of the survivors fled to America, where evangelism would later resume, but the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites who were descended from the original Anabaptists abandoned evangelism in the United States.

Evangelism, Not Evangelicalism
The most common personal experience with evangelism and apologetics in America today is with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who go door to door to advance their faith. Evangelists are the local equivalent of missionaries who go abroad to spread the word. Evangelism is not the same thing as evangelicalism. Evangelism is a practice, a way of sharing belief. Evangelicalism is a dogma and a trend that led to American political activism and megachurches in large U.S. cities.

Early American Settlers
The early 17th century in North America was marked by the establishment of colonies, including Jamestown, Plymouth and Boston. Some settlers came to escape religious persecution; others came to make money. It was a brutal time: Many colonists failed to survive the deep winters, and native Indians were a danger as well. Although there was ample religious fervor among the colonists, there was little energy or enthusiasm for evangelism. Simple survival was the priority.

The Great Awakening
After a period of relative quiet in the religious sphere, like the calm before the storm, evangelism suddenly caught fire again in American culture during the Great Awakening. A charismatic preaching style modeled on the fiery, emotional sermons of George Whitefield, paired with dramatic “religious revival” events, drew increasingly larger crowds to Protestant churches in the late 1730s. Beginning in New England over six years, then spreading to the South, revivals were aimed at the faithful whose convictions were weakened by doubt and the unchurched who had little contact or experience with organized religion.

George Whitefield
Whitefield was a central figure in establishing American evangelism, but according to some, he may have also been a factor in sparking the American Revolution. Before Whitefield, sermons were top-down affairs — the pastor preached, the congregation listened. Using the call and response technique, Whitefield established congregational participation and encouraged emotional expression. This exciting new dialogue, together with a generally defiant attitude toward authority, stirred what Nancy Ruttenburg calls the “democratic personality.” The Great Awakening unleashed more than a religious revival; it reinforced a fierce sense of independence. This eventually led to the separation of church and state that Anabaptists had advocated.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 2:53 am

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