The Immigration Debate Disrupts My Vacation

July 27, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

I didn’t think I’d run into the immigration debate out here on the eastern reaches of Long Island. (I didn’t think I’d pick up an Internet signal here either. It’s weak, but enough to blog by.)

The Hamptons, summerplace of wealthy New Yorkers (This season there’s a rock concert series – Dave Matthews, Prince, et. al. Tickets will run you $15,000.) But the presence of Hispanics is obvious. The people who landscape the property of the wealthy, clean their swimming pools, wait on them in restaurants – many of them speak Spanish. So do the people who are building the new 7-figure houses.

That’s fine for the vacationers, the people who own these houses and come out here for weekends in the summer. But the immigrants are not seasonal; they have settled here, and that demographic change has created some tension with the other full-time residents. There have been a few nasty incidents. The public schools of East Hampton are now at least one-third Hispanic. The big issue, of course, is jobs.

“They really have to do something about this immigration thing,” says Joe, who now delivers heating oil. “I had a job in construction. I was making $35 an hour, which out here is pretty good. Plus benefits and a 401k. And one day my boss calls me in and tells me straight out: ‘Look, I can hire three illegals for $10 an hour. I get three workers, don’t have to pay benefits, and I still save $5.’ I mean these immigrants are really a problem.”

Joe called his US senators to complain. He called Sen. Clinton’s office so many times that eventually Hillary herself called him back. Joe’s animosity seemed to be directed mostly at the immigrants, especially illegals – some estimates put their number in the county at 180,000. But I asked him if the moral of his story wasn’t so much about the immigrants as about employers. Wouldn’t it be easier to enforce laws on a relatively smaller number of employers than on a relatively huge number of immigrants?

We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches . . .

July 24, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

The blog is heading out to the beach and taking me with it. A week or so of sun and sand . . . unless the weather forecast is actually correct, in which case it'll be a week of clouds and rain. Either way, the blog and I may be oceanswept out beyond the reach of the Internet.

Thinking and Working

July 23, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston
Early in my teaching career, I was talking casually after class one day with a student. “What are you, some kind of intellectual?” he asked, more challenging than curious.

Well yes, I thought. Isn’t that a legitimate thing to be at an institution of higher learning? I had not yet gotten used to the very practical orientation most of my students had towards their education. They weren’t interested in ideas as such. They wanted to learn stuff that would allow them to get better jobs and make more money.

I was reminded of this again by a front page story in Sunday’s New York Times. “Enough thinking, already. Roll up your sleeves.” So said France’s new finance minister recently.
France’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was elected on a platform of more work for the French people, who by law have 30 paid vacation days and one paid holiday each year. (The US, by contrast, has no law requiring employers to give workers even one paid vacation day. See my earlier blog post.) Apparently, M. Sarkozy’s government sees thinking as antithetical to working, and they are trying to change a long-standing French view about abstract thought.

It may be hard for those of us in the US to appreciate the status that thinking and ideas have in France. Intellectuals and philosophers become famous there – a line that goes from Descartes through Sartre to today’s Bernard-Henry Lévy, a name virtually unknown here but so familiar in France that he’s known by his initials, BHL. Sort of like ARod and JLo.

Intellectuals appear regularly on French TV and are allowed to speak at length, not the three-and-a-half minute interview or crossfire shouting match that passes for discussion on the US airwaves. We Americans want our answers short and, if not sweet, at least easy to grasp and to use. We are generally suspicious of intellectuals and of abstract ideas. Our orientation has always been more pragmatic.

Things haven’t changed much since deTocqueville, 170 years ago, opened Book II of Democracy in America with this:

Chapter I

    I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

A few chapters later, “The Americans show a less decided taste for general ideas than the French. This is especially true in politics.”
DeTocquville attributes this disdain for abstract ideas to democracy, equality, and individualism. In an egalitarian society, where nobody is better than anyone else, each person relies on himself and winds up being able to manage very well, thank you. So if a person’s ideas are sufficient for his own life, what need does he have of other ideas?
As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of their understanding.
This orientation also leads to a focus on the concrete and a vague suspicion of abstractions, especially those that have no practical application
They like to discern the object which engages their attention with extreme clearness . . . . This disposition of mind soon leads them to condemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth.
But the French are more concerned with ideas and the logical connections among those ideas. Americans might reject a line of thought because it leads to nothing useful. The French might reject it if it is pas logique. Americans, on the other hand, are much more concerned with concrete facts.

Adam Gopnik, a journalist who lived in Paris for a while, describes his difficulties in France when he had to “fact check” an article. Fact-checking is standard procedure in American magazines: you call people mentioned in the article to make sure that the facts – dates, quotations, etc. – are correct. The French had never heard of such a thing (“What do you mean, une fact checker?”) and were suspicious when Gopnik explained.

Dubious look; there is More Here Than Meets the Eye. . . .There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.

I was baffled and exasperated by this until it occurred to me that you would get exactly the same incomprehension and suspicion if you told American intellectuals and politicians, post-interview, . . . .

“In a couple of weeks a theory checker will be in touch with you.”

Alarmed, suspicious: “A what?”

“You know, a theory checker. Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

. . . A theory checker? What an absurd waste of time, since it’s apparent (to us Americans) that people don’t speak in theories, that the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation, that the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of theoretical constancy is an absurd denial of what conversation is. (pp. 95-96)

Well, replace fact (and factual) for theory in that last sentence, and you have the common French view of fact checking.

Apparently President Sarkozy has his work cut out for him.

Music? At a concert?

July 21, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

We went to the Philharmonic concert one evening this week on the Great Lawn in Central Park. People come early, meet friends, spread blankets, put out all sorts of food. Most find the others in their group either by cell phone (“I see you now. Turn about a quarter-turn. I’m waving”). Some had more striking visual techniques, like waving the Turkish flag.

And when the concert starts, they listen to the music. Or not.

As a sociologist, I should have remembered that music is only one of the reasons that people go to a concert, especially a free, outdoor concert. I also should have realized that there’s a strong correlation between how interested people are in the music and how far they are from the stage.

In the diagram, the X marks where we were, nearly 200 yards from the stage, and the crowd stretched back to the farthest reaches of the Lawn. (You can get some idea of distances by using the baseball diamonds. The blue lines indicate emergency lanes the Park establishes – nobody’s allowed to sit there – that divide the area into quadrants.)

I know that the demographic for classical music tilts heavily towards the geezer end of the scale, but around us were thirtysomethings, people who in an earlier decade would have been called “yuppies.” And they never stopped talking, to one another or on their cell phones. Even when the music began, and all through the concert, they didn’t even lower their voices. I heard about baby sitters and hedge funds and the Yankees’ pitching rotation. I heard conversations I didn’t understand because they were in Italian or Turkish.

It was clear that almost nobody at this remove from the stage was listening to the music at all, even though the orchestra had selected “pops” pieces that might be familiar (“Til Eulenspiegel” “Pictures at an Exhibition”). But I would bet that if you asked them, “What did you do last night?” a lot of them would say, “We went to the concert in Central Park.”

Why would people come to a concert if they were going to completely ignore the music? They could picnic in the park any time. I speculated that there must be some attraction to doing something that many other people are doing. The presence of lots of other people makes the same activity more pleasant, more social.

One other reason became obvious at the end of the concert.

Still, I doubt that most of the people there knew about the fireworks in advance, and I’d guess that most of them would have come even without the fireworks.

Full disclosure: I could not get my own shot of the fireworks to print, and I grabbed this image off the Web. It looks much better than mine.

Draw-a-line Contest

July 17, 2007Posted by Jay Livingston

My previous post was about methodological dishonesty. Here we go again.

A line is a convenient way of illustrating the relation between variables, a quick way to make sense of the trend in an array of points. Here’s a graph showing two variables – the percent of income that corporations supposedly pay (X-axis) and the percent of GDP accounted for by taxes.

Your assignment is to draw a line that shows the relation between these to variables. (Try doing it before you scroll down to see my solution.)

Here’s what I got.

The line is not quite straight – I used Paint, and I haven’t figured out how to draw a straight line – but you get the idea. The higher the tax rate, the more money for the government. That’s only common sense. And the graph seems to show that it holds true even when that money is figured as a proportion of GDP.

If these data points were hours of study time and GPA, we’d conclude that studying generally raises your GPA.

Norway is an “outlier” and we’d need to take a closer look at it to figure out why its tax revenues are so much higher, relative to GDP, than are those in countries with similar corporate tax rates. (If this were studying and GPA, we’d probably conclude that Norway must be unusually smart.)

But that’s not how conservative economists want things to work. They believe in something called the Laffer curve. It’s based on the idea that if you raise taxes too much, people and corporations will be discouraged and not bother working. For example, if the government taxed 100% of your income, would you work? Of course not, and the government would get no taxes from you.

Conversely, if you lower taxes, revenue will actually go up because people will work more, make more money, and even though the percentage paid is lower, the total amount paid will be higher. Twenty percent of $100,000 is more than 30% of $50,000.

When the Cheney-Bush administration proposed huge tax cuts back in 2001, some people thought the loss of tax revenue would erase the surpluses built up in the Clinton years and create a deficit. But the conservatives hauled out the Laffer-curve theory to counter these arguments. Of course they were wrong. The tax cuts quickly wiped out the surplus and ran up huge deficits.

So what’s a Laffer believer like the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal to do with this array of points? Look at the line they draw to illustrate the relation between tax rates and revenue.

Now Norway, instead of being an outlier, is the point that best allows the Journal to draw the Laffer curve. It's a bit of a stretch, much like travelling from the United Arab Emirates to France by going through Norway

Usually, we try to draw a line so that it minimizes the distance of points from the line. The Wall Street Journal line maximizes the distances. Seems like a good idea, doesn't it. If you studied a fair amount and still wanted to improve your GPA, I guess the Journal would suggest cutting down on book time. Let’s party.

Hat tip: Several other bloggers have picked up on this bit of nonsense. Kieran Healy, in his own commentary, links to several of them

Conclusions First, Then the Research

July 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes in class, I’ll ask students how they might find get information on some sociological question. “Do a survey,” is the frequent answer. Students seem to think that a survey, any survey, has magical powers to reveal the truth.

“A survey is just asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions,” I usually say. “Who are you going to ask, and what are you going to ask them?” In other words, the validity of a survey depends on the quality of the sample and the quality of the questions.

Michael Schwartz, when he was a grad student TA for the methods course, would give students an assignment intended to tarnish the objectivity-mystique of surveys: : “Design a questionnaire to show that . . .” Conclusion first, then the research. Mike’s point was that the questions – the order in which they are asked, the phrasing, etc. – can bias the results. I think part two of the assignment was to design a second questionnaire that would yield a result directly opposite to the first.

It was all in good, educational fun, I thought. Real researchers would never deliberately do something like that. But today, Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community gives some examples of result-oriented questions from Zogby polls. Zogby is a pretty good source on political questions, especially their surveys of international populations. So it was sobering to see these polls custom-tailored to produce the results wanted by the people who were paying for the survey.

Here’s an example for a poll Zogby did for Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that gets a lot of its money from the Clinton-hating Scaife foundation.

Some people believe that the Bill Clinton administration was corrupt. Whether or not you believe the Clinton administration was corrupt, how concerned are you that there will be high levels of corruption in the White House if Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2008?
I think that the Sociology department at Montclair will rewrite some of the items in our teacher evaluation forms.
Some students in this professor’s other courses have said that this instructor is one of the best in the university. Regardless of those other courses, how would you rate the professor’s performance in this course?


July 13, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks, in his Tuesday op-ed column in the Times, wrote about today’s young women:
These iPhone Lone Rangers are completely inner-directed; they don’t care what you think. They know exactly what they want; they don’t need anybody else.
A lot of people on the left wish the Times would dump Brooks. He holds down the neoconservative seat on the Times op-ed page, and he usually writes about politics. He was a staunch supporter of the Iraq invasion and many other policies of the Cheney-Bush administration. But sometimes he looks at social and cultural matters, so he’s providing something for us sociologists, even though, as with his politics, he usually gets it wrong.

For the text of his sermon on Tuesday, he took three hit songs: Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” “U + Ur Hand,” by Pink, and “Before he Cheats,” by Carrie Underwood. (He could have added Nelly Furtado’s huge hit “Maneater.”)

These songs, according to Brooks, herald the appearance of a new kind of young woman – “hard-boiled, foul-mouthed, fed up, emotionally self-sufficient and unforgiving.” She’s the female counterpart of the hard-bitten hero of Western movies or the hard-boiled detective of crime fiction. Clint Eastwood and Bogie in drag.

But Brooks’s radio must be tuned in to unusual versions of these songs. These women are not emotionally self-sufficient, they’re angry, and they want revenge. The tough guys in US culture are essentially devoid of feeling. They don’t get mad, they get even. Suppressing their emotions, including anger, allows them to mete out justice, even against those they might once have been romantically involved with. In the well-known ending of I the Jury (see the film “Marty” next time it comes around on TCM), private eye Mike Hammer shoots his former love Charlotte after figuring out that she’d killed his partner.
“How c-could you?” she gasped.
I only had a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.
“It was easy,” I said.
The justice is not purely abstract or ideological; the hero has been personally touched by the crime. But he also acts on the basis of personalized principle, not a simple emotional reaction. Sam Spade puts it nicely at the end of “The Maltese Falcon,” in circumstances similar to those of I the Jury. He discovers that Brigid O’Shaughnessy has killed his partner. She appeals to their past relationship: “You know in your heart that in spite of anything I've done, I love you.”

But Spade is adamant: “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” He explains, “When a man's partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something. It makes no difference what you thought of him. He was your partner, and you’re supposed to do something about it.”

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

The women in these songs are not acting on any general principle. They are responding, violently and personally to personal insults. They don’t want justice; they want revenge.

That I dug my key into the side of his pretty little souped up 4 wheel drive,
carved my name into his leather seats,
I took a Louisville slugger to both headlights,
slashed a hole in all 4 tires...
Maybe next time he'll think before he cheats.
(In America, if you really want to take revenge on a guy, go after his car.)

As Brad deLong points out, the rage of a woman scorned goes back a few years – Medea, Clytemnestra, Frankie and Johnny. But in our culture, it’s usually been the men who are allowed to express their anger by seeking revenge. So in a way Brooks is right; the tone in these songs may not be completely unprecedented, but it is atypical. The women in these songs also don’t bother with the typically feminine strategies of seduction, pleading, or guilt-tripping to get what they want. They make direct demands, and if the guy can’t meet those demands, to hell with him.

Brooks attributes the ethos of these songs to the Zeitgeist. They are “a product of the cold-eyed age of divorce and hookups. It’s also a product of the free-floating anger that’s part of the climate this decade.”

Not exactly. The emotions and actions in these songs have been around for centuries. It’s just that for most of that history, they had been restricted to men. If the popularity of these songs illustrates anything, it’s the democratization of emotions and actions, much like the “foulmouthed” language that upsets Brooks. Those words, reactions, and actions which have long been a male preserve are now becoming legitimate for women as well. At least for rock stars.

These songs are all hits. I just wish we had some data on who’s downloading them – men or women.


July 8, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Ratatouille” opened to universally great reviews, and it’s a delightful film. The more important question for Hollywood, though, is not whether a film is good but whether it will make money. No, not just whether it will make money but whether it will make a lot of money. “Ratatouille” had an opening weekend gross of “only” $47.2 million, and people at Disney already felt they had to spin the numbers to rebut claims that the movie was a disappointment.

The “trades” (I love using show-biz lingo) were comparing it unfavorably with “Cars,” Pixar’s 2006 summer movie and a big money make. But besides the financial comparison, the two films also provide an interesting cultural comparison. They exemplify the “culture wars,” the red-state blue-state divide.

“Cars” embodied the Nascar red-state mythology, not just because of its obvious theme (stock car racing) and setting (the American Southwest) but because of its moral: the triumph of American small-town virtues (friendship, community) over egotistical self-fulfillment and achievement.

The Michael J. Fox film, “Doc Hollywood,” was nearly identical in plot (career-minded doctor headed for Beverly Hills crashes his Porsche and winds up in a small Southern town; you can guess the rest), but this theme is a staple in many American fictions. Community is to be prized over individual achievement; plain small-town folk are better than city fast-trackers.

“Ratatouille,” by comparison, is downright unAmerican. I imagine Disney-Pixar was taking a chance even with the title, a foreign word unknown to many Americans, and most of those who do know it probably can’t spell it. On the other hand, what could be more American than “Cars”? The movie is set in France, a country US patriots were boycotting not so long ago (remember “freedom fries”?).  As for the virtues of bucolic settings, the rural life shown at the start of the film has little to recommend it, and our hero, the rat Remy, quickly winds up in Paris. And this movie loves Paris, a city which has long been, in the American imagination, the antithesis of down-home American virtues and values. Paris is tempting because of its sensuality (“How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?”) but ultimately evil.

Even the basic concept of the film must seem foreign to the red-state mentality. It’s not about a manly pursuit like driving fast; it’s about cooking. While other films may extol just plain folks who eat plain simple food that nobody made too much of a fuss over in preparing, “Ratatouille” dismisses such an attitude as unworthy. Food is something that requires attention, both in the cooking and the eating. And the film takes frequent jabs at the American way of eating. It makes Remy’s rival (the evil chef Skinner) all the more repugnant by having him promote his line of micorwavable frozen foods – burritos, pizzas, and other things you’d find in many American freezers. Even worse, he has his people working to produce a frozen corn dog.

The attack on American bread is a bit more subtle – a didactic speech by a female chef giving the audience a lesson in what makes for good bread: a crunchy crust. The slap at our preference for squishy bread (Wonder) is so obvious she doesn’t need to say it out loud.

Despite this unAmerican aura, the film seems to be “doing well,” and the grosses from the weekend will probably look encouraging. I take these numbers as a sign that things are changing in America, that good food, even good European food, is not something that happens only on the coasts. Remember the Republican attacks on Democrats in recent elections as “brie-eating, chablis-drinking” pretentious snobs? But stores in the heartland are selling brie and chablis. David Kamp is probably exaggerating in calling America The United States of Arugula, but apparently a lot of Americans now at least know what arugula is.

In fact, the red-state blue-state division may be less an accurate representation of reality than a convenient stereotype dreamed up by politicians and the press. Like any stereotype, it may be a useful shorthand with some truth to it, but like other stereotypes, it can also make real-life contradictions harder to see. Not so long ago, a caffe latte was an exotic drink reported on by adventurous tourists returning from Italy. Now, every kid in Iowa and Wyoming has grown up with Starbucks. The drinks have been Americanized (a spoonful of high fructose corn syrup makes the espresso go down), but now latte and cappuccino are as American as pizza.

Maybe the next time you stop in at Flo’s Café in Radiator Springs, the menu will feature ratatouille.

The Colorblind Doctor

July 5, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Big hat tip to Mark Liberman at The Language Log for this post.)

Deepak Chopra, of all people, is writing about language and politics. The good doctor was blogging at Huffington Post about the recent Supreme Court decision that forbade school districts from giving any consideration to race in assigning students to schools.

The cities involved in the case (Louisville, Seattle) had been struggling to achieve some degree of integration in their schools. Where other factors were equal, the school district would avoid assigning a white student to a predominantly white school or a black student to a predominantly black school. The Court ruled 5-4 that this policy was unconstitutional.

Chopra’s point is that the majority opinion makes clever use of language in defending an indefensible position. He is particularly ticked off about the Court’s use of the word colorblind “as a disguise for racial neglect.”

He’s right, though I would put it more in terms of individual and group effects. Being colorblind at the individual level will probably lead to more segregation at the school level. The schools will become indistinguishable from pre-Brown schools, where students were deliberately segregated by very color-conscious policies and laws. So the ruling mandates a policy that is both colorblind and segregationist.

Justice Roberts, in his majority opinion, made an equally facile statement, one quoted in many news stories: “The way to end discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.” Clever, but sees the problem of race and schools as a purely individual matter (discrimination) rather than a social one (segregation). What about putting it the other way: “The way to end racially segregated schools is to end racially segregated schools.”

But Chopra makes a wonderfully ironic mistake. He writes:
Despite the overwhelming public support for school integration in both Seattle and Louisville, five powerful white males were enough to squash a society's better nature.
Those five powerful males are Scalia, Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, and . . . Clarence Thomas, the only African American on the Court.

Chopra was obviously being colorblind. His classification of a man as white had nothing to do with the color of his skin but only with the content of his characteristically white opinion on integration.

Why I Am Not a Psychologist

July 2, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

A link on some political blog – I wish I could recall whose – took me to this posting on a site called StraightDope:
I recently read Phantoms by Dean Koontz and was curious about his description of the “flatworms in a maze” phenomenon – namely that a flatworm can be taught to negotiate a maze and then ground up and fed to a flatworm that has never seen the maze. This new flatworm will absorb the knowledge of the maze from the first flatworm.
I’ve never read Dean Koontz, but I’m pretty sure the cannibalized-learning theory is bunk, at least where it concerns flatworms. But the mention of these studies took me back to a summer long ago when I worked in a university psych lab run by two psychology professors. It was the beginning of my disillusionment with psychology. It was as though I’d taken a lowly summer job at a law firm and discovered that most lawyers never saw the inside of a courtroom and that their work did not in the least resemble that of Perry Mason.

I had just finished my first year of college, and at the time I still thought that psychologists studied ways to understand and heal minds that were troubled and confused. Minds like my own. I also thought that a professor’s work involved the teaching of students – courses, lectures, exams, that sort of thing. But these two men did neither. They were researchers, and most of their research was about communication in rhesus monkeys. The way they treated the monkeys would today probably land these guys in jail, but as I said, this was a long time ago.

Their domain was the top two floors of one of those tall buildings that gets very narrow at the top. There were a half-dozen linoleum-floored rooms, most of them occupied by monkeys. Most of the monkeys were in cages. The few in the experiment were kept in uncomfortable “primate chairs” that allowed very little movement. Our own little Gitmo.

That summer the professors had read a journal article showing that planaria (flatworms) could be conditioned to swim or crawl a maze. For some reason, the article inspired them to branch out from monkeys and to try to replicate these experiments. Step one was to buy some flatworms – I guess there must have been a planaria supply house. Step two was to assign the groundwork to me.

Planaria (flatworms) are very simple organisms. They are worms, and they are flat. They measure less than a half-inch, with a triangular head featuring two eyes that are set so close together it makes them look cross-eyed.

My job included their care, feeding, and education (or “conditioning” as psychologists call it). Feeding meant dropping a piece of raw beef liver into each worm’s Petri dish. The hungry worm would crawl up on the liver and chow down. For their conditioning, I was to put the flatworm in a narrow, water-filled trough with electrodes at each end. I would then turn on a light — planaria are senstive to light — give the worm a second to realize that the light was on, and then zap him. The worm’s body would contract.
It was “classical conditioning.” The idea was that the worms would learn the light-shock connection. Then, even without the jolt of electricity, the worm would react to the light the same way it reacted to the shock, just as Pavlov’s dogs started salivating at the mere sound of a bell because it had been rung so often at Alpo time.

It sounds easy, but there was one catch. How do you move a worm from its Petri dish to the experimental trough? Our technique was to dip an eyedropper into the dish, suck the worm into the eyedropper, then squirt him out into the trough. After the worm’s experimental session (I forget how many light-shock trials I hit them with each time, maybe twenty), I would put the worm back using the same suck-and-squirt method. Unfortunately, the eyedropper aperture was a bit narrow, and the worm got squeezed each time in its rough passage in or out of the dropper.

The research plan was that after we succeeded with the classical conditioning, we would move on to the “operant conditioning” phase, teaching the little guys to swim a maze – i.e., to bear right at a Y-intersection.

We never got that far. The hardest part turned out to be keeping the planaria alive. Each morning I would check the tank and find a few more of my charges getting paler and paler, becoming translucent and finally giving up the ghost. We brought in new subjects, but they too withered. I figured that the reason for their failure to thrive was the combination of being squeezed through the narrow aperture of the eyedropper and then being electrocuted. That and maybe having to live in water that quickly became murky from the liver decomposing in it.

When I left at the end of the summer, I had not taught a single worm anything – preparation for my eventual career – and as far as I know, my bosses gave up without a publication. Ever since, I have been extremely skeptical about reported findings on flatworm learning. Yes, I know that these studies have been done and replicated. I just choose not to believe them until I see them first hand.

My bosses did publish several articles about the monkeys, but my first-hand experience with those experiments makes me very skeptical of those results too. But that’s another story.

The road sign, which I found using Google, is from the
MySpace page ofTeresasaurus Rex .