Friday, October 28, 2011

Science is Not a Game

Janet Stemwedel at Doing Good Science has been blogging about Marcus Ross, the young earth creationist who earned a mainstream Ph.D. in paleontology. She's trying to pin down exactly what scientists and science-minded people think is wrong with what he did. Where exactly is that gut feeling of something not being quite right coming from?

One of the possibilities she examines is that, "It’s wrong for Ross to maintain his young earth creationist beliefs after the thorough exposure to scientific theories, evidence, and methodology that he received in his graduate training in geosciences". Here, however, she says that young earth creationism is a religious belief, not a scientific one, and scientists typically have all kinds of non-scientific beliefs. This seems like a weak argument to me, as Ross' particular religious beliefs directly contradict scientific ones. This isn't a case of a scientist simply not applying their training to certain belief; it's a case of irreconcilable conflict.

Still, I think that the problem here goes deeper than that. I would argue that when Marcus Ross was doing his dissertation research, he was not doing science, despite using completely standard methods. Ross is not a scientist. He only plays one on TV.

I make this claim because I think that science is defined by its goals, not its methods. The goal of basic research is to improve your understanding of the Universe and share this understanding with others. Janet Stemwedel has referred to the "inferential machinery" of science several times in her blog series, but this machinery (to the extent that a general scientific method even exists) is only a tool. We do experiments, make observations and carry out statistical analyses because doing so is a fairly reliable method of learning about the natural world. If carrying out Ouija board seances while standing on your head was a better way of learning about the world, graduate students would have to master inverted Ouija board use.

This is how we can distinguish Ross from real scientists. His belief in young earth creationism was fixed, so he can't be said to have believed the conclusions in his dissertation. Therefore, Ross' understanding of the world was not and could not have been improved by his work. His research was only a pantomime of science -- maybe a good pantomime, but a pantomime nonetheless.

Monday, October 24, 2011

An Ethical Ad Blocker?

I just read George Monbiot's new essay about advertising and it got me thinking about how we might reduce ad exposure on the web. Like many people, I sometimes use an ad blocker. However, because I'm aware that the free content and services I depend on are paid for by advertising, I generally only use the blocker for sites with really annoying ads. Still, it would be better for the environment if we weren't exposed to so many messages telling us to buy stuff.

I propose that somebody develop a subscription-based ad blocker that would automatically make micropayments to the sites you visit. Content providers would register and the ad blocker plug-in would keep track of where you go on the web. (Ideally, for privacy reasons, this data would only be stored on your computer.) For practical reasons, you would probably pay a fixed amount of money each month. At the end of the month, the money would be divided among content providers according to how much you used them. If you disabled the blocker on certain sites, they wouldn't get any money.

So, what do people think? Is this workable? How would you modify the idea?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

On Not Being a Fish

There's a quote that's been making the rounds on the internet and elsewhere. Attributed to Albert Einstein, it says, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” (I very much doubt Einstein actually said this, as I've never been able to find a source for it. If you know where this quote comes from, please tell me in the comments.)

I have very mixed feelings about the "everybody's different" meme in education. On one hand, it's (trivially) true -- everybody IS different. On the other hand, I think it causes people to internalize their limitations as part of their identity. "Oh, I'm just not good at art/math/writing/music." Worse, it can cause teachers to give up on certain students.

I've been on the receiving end of this. In seventh grade, I started algebra and went from getting A's in math to getting C's. After a while, I concluded -- with ample support from people around me -- that I simply wasn't a "math person". This lasted until my fourth year of college when, for some reason, I decided to take a mathematical ecology class. To make a long story short, I bombed the midterm and was going to drop the course. When I went to see the professor and started talking about dropping, he just said, "Don't do that. That would be a mistake". He then sat down with me and we spent half an hour going over what I had gotten right on the test and what he thought that meant about my thinking. Result: I got help from a friend who was excelling in the course, earned a B+, and then went back and relearned the algebra and calculus I hadn't mastered earlier. In grad school, I successfully took several undergrad math classes and a large part of my research is now theoretical. So much for being a fish!

The fundamental flaw in the "fish trying to climb a tree" metaphor is the hidden assumption that people have fixed abilities and talents. But this is just wrong. My favorite example of the flexibility of our abilities is John Mighton, who was interested in both math and creative writing as a child, but was discouraged from pursuing them by some low grades and the belief that he would have to have been born a prodigy to do well in either field. Eventually, though, he became an award-winning playwright by deliberate practice, following the example of Sylvia Plath. While trying to make ends meet in theater, he started tutoring kids. His first student was a teenager who had been told by his teacher that he was too dumb to do well in math. (We'll return to him later.)

Mighton ended up creating a program called JUMP Math that allows kids who were far working below grade level to catch up and excel. Even more remarkably, when used as a full-class program, JUMP both increases achievement and drastically shrinks the gap between "stronger" and "weaker" students. It does this by combining careful step-by-step instruction with a strong emphasis on developing self-confidence.

Confidence in one's ability to learn is absolutely critical to learning. My grandfather, a retired engineer who was appalled at my calculus grades, once offered to pay for a tutor for me -- and I declined because I didn't think it would do any good. When a student doesn't believe their work will pay off, doing the minimum amount of work necessary to get by isn't laziness but a perfectly rational strategy. Why waste your time? Conversely, experiments have found that kids who are taught that intelligence can be developed with practice do better in school.

The bottom line: Most of us have the ability to excel in many fields and they can inform each other. While letting kids have time to explore their interests is certainly valuable, we should err on the side of educational breadth. So let's work to find worldchanging ways of teaching that work for everyone!

Oh, and about John Mighton? He ended up going back to school and earning a Ph.D. in mathematics. So did his first student.