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Declining standards May 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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As if being a Chasidic mom in London wasn’t hard enough already:

The British leaders of a major Chasidic sect have declared that women should not be allowed to drive. In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that having female drivers goes against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions.

It added that, from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there.

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

The UK Education Secretary launched an inquiry, and in response, the Chief Executive of the Belz Day School wrote her a letter of explanation. After complaining about “misrepresentation” and apologizing for a “negative impression” created by an “unfortunate” choice of words, the letter continues:

Our community is guided by religious principles and strong traditional values. We are concerned by the erosion of such values, especially amongst our youth, caused by the proliferation of technology and the declining standards of visual and printed media.

We are proud of what we stand for and we do not feel the need to excuse ourselves for our deeply held beliefs and staunchly maintained way of life. It has withstood the test of time and is not prone to the vagaries of passing fads.

We fully accept that despite being private schools we have responsibilities to our members and to the wider public. However, as private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children. Our community invest in our way of life and it is our duty to ensure that we provide an education in line with our time-hallowed traditions.

For this reason we have seen it necessary to issue guidelines which are restricted to our community and guided by the Torah and by the teachings of the Rebbes of Belz. We do not impose these guidelines on anyone who has not chosen to adhere to the mores of our community of his or her own free will.

That claim is disingenuous with regards to the community’s women — who know that their children will be expelled from school and their families ostracized if they choose to disobey any of the “guidelines” handed down from the rabbis — but it’s downright false with regards to those who are most vulnerable: the children.

We hope that this clarifies our true intentions. We will continue to remain vigilant and unbending in ensuring that our children are shielded from the onslaught with which we are all faced today. It is our belief that only in this way will they grow up proud of our traditions and lifestyle which is built around the Torah, the family and mutual kindness. This is our purpose in life and for which we will always stand up proudly and unflinchingly.

You might be proud of a tradition that subordinates women and obsesses over policing their “modesty”, but your children deserve a fair chance to make up their own minds — and that requires exposing them to the existence of other worldviews and allowing them to think for themselves, without penalty. Otherwise, the claim that they have freely chosen to belong to your community is a mockery. And if the only way you can get your children to grow up proud of your traditions and lifestyle is by “shielding” them from alternative viewpoints and demanding obedience and conformity, then perhaps your principles are nothing to be proud of, after all?


To see it as it is May 24, 2014

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Science.
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In his essay “The Place of Science in a Liberal Education”, Bertrand Russell argues that one of the benefits of a scientific education has to do with “the temper of mind out of which the scientific method grows”:

The kernel of the scientific outlook is a thing so simple, so obvious, so seemingly trivial, that the mention of it may almost excite derision. The kernel of the scientific outlook is the refusal to regard our own desires, tastes, and interests as affording a key to the understanding of the world. Stated thus baldly, this may seem no more than a trite truism. But to remember it consistently in matters arousing our passionate partisanship is by no means easy, especially where the available evidence is uncertain and inconclusive…

The scientific attitude of mind involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interests of the desire to know—it involves suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly, without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relation, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be, or to what we can easily imagine it to be…

The instinct of constructiveness, which is one of the chief incentives to artistic creation, can find in scientific systems a satisfaction more massive than any epic poem. Disinterested curiosity, which is the source of almost all intellectual effort, finds with astonished delight that science can unveil secrets which might well have seemed for ever undiscoverable. The desire for a larger life and wider interests, for an escape from private circumstances, and even from the whole recurring human cycle of birth and death, is fulfilled by the impersonal cosmic outlook of science as by nothing else. To all these must be added, as contributing to the happiness of the man of science, the admiration of splendid achievement, and the consciousness of inestimable utility to the human race. A life devoted to science is therefore a happy life, and its happiness is derived from the very best sources that are open to dwellers on this troubled and passionate planet.

The Magic Dogma Ball December 25, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Humor, Reason.
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It is certainThis holiday season, take all the hard work out of finding the answers to life’s more perplexing questions: the Magic Dogma Ball™ has all the answers you’ll ever need! Ask any question, no matter how complex, and the Magic Dogma Ball™ will give you the definitive answer (according to your selected tradition). No thinking required!

The Magic Dogma Ball™ answers questions about ethics, politics, metaphysics, fashion, sex, and more. Possible answers include:

  • It is certain
  • Without a doubt
  • It is forbidden
  • Don’t even think about it

The Magic Dogma Ball™ is long-lasting and can remain in your family for generations — no tuning or adjustments necessary. Give your loved ones the gift of Certainty today!

Recommended for children and adults age 0 and up.

Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Scientology, and Aztec versions available.

Caution: Do not mix different versions of the Magic Dogma Ball™ among children in the same household, neighborhood, or school. We are not responsible for the consequences of contradictory answers provided by different traditions.

Forced ignorance is legal in Virginia September 15, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Freedom, Religion.
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Denying children a basic education severely harms them for life: it restricts their opportunities and limits their ability to think for themselves and make informed choices. Obvious, right? That’s why we have compulsory education laws, right?

Nearly 7,000 Virginia children whose families have opted to keep them out of public school for religious reasons are not required to get an education, the only children in the country who do not have to prove they are being home-schooled or otherwise educated, according to a study.

Virginia is the only state that allows families to avoid government intrusion once they are given permission to opt out of public school, according to a report from the University of Virginia’s School of Law. It’s a law that is defended for promoting religious freedom and criticized for leaving open the possibility that some children will not be educated.

I’ll bet you saw that coming: “promoting religious freedom.” I wish I didn’t have to keep repeating the obvious: The religious freedom of a parent does not include the freedom to harm his children. Not by abusing them physically, and not by keeping them ignorant (which is also a form of abuse). Parents are free to teach their religion to their children as persuasively as they can, but they have no right to keep them cut off from the world, denying them the freedom to decide for themselves how they want to live their lives.

Home-school advocates say the law is essential to preserving the rights of families who believe that any state control of their children’s education would violate the tenets of their faith. It takes on particular importance in the state where Thomas Jefferson helped define religious freedom as a bedrock principle for the country.

“They feel that their deity has given them that responsibility,” said Amy Wilson of the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers. For such families, she said, to have to file paperwork and evidence of progress would put them in a crisis of conscience.

What about parents who believe that any state control over their ability to beat their children would violate the tenets of their faith and put them in a crisis of conscience? Must the law preserve those parents’ rights, too?

The statute does not allow exemptions for political or philosophical beliefs “or a merely personal moral code,” but the beliefs do not have to be part of a mainstream religion.

In other words, you don’t need any rational justification for your position; you just need to say the magic word — “religion” — and you’re exempt from the law that applies to everyone else.

In Fairfax County, which reported nearly 500 children who had been granted the religious exemption as of the 2011-12 school year, parents and children older than 14 must submit a letter explaining their religious beliefs, and letters of support vouching for the authenticity of their beliefs.

Steven Staples, executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, said that once families have written to the district to request the exemption, superintendents tend to honor the families’ wishes. “Most folks who choose religious exemption have some very strongly held beliefs that we want to respect,” Staples said.

I’m asking you now, Mr. Staples: Would you honor and respect folks who very strongly believed in beating their children? Regardless of how many letters they submitted vouching for the “authenticity” of their beliefs?

Parents who seek the exemption, [Yvonne Bunn of the Home Educators Association of Virginia] said, “would probably rather go to jail rather than put their children in school, because they have very strong convictions that they’re following what God has directed them to do.”

Actually, jail sounds like an appropriate place for them — together with all the other abusive parents. Better to imprison the parents than to let them imprison their children’s minds.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

The Easter Bunny, Jesus, and other mythical figures April 7, 2012

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Education, Religion.

In The Washington Post, pastor Mark Driscoll shares his strategy for explaining the subtleties of holiday traditions to children:

My wife, Grace, and I choose to tell our five kids that the Easter Bunny, while fun, isn’t a real, magical bunny that hops from house to house laying colored eggs, candies, and toys on Easter morning. That’s a make-believe story, and we have no objections to fun and imagination so long as the kids also know that the Resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact and not a fanciful myth. With the overt commercialization that comes along with the Easter Bunny, and consequently Easter, as parents we don’t want to lose sight of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But that doesn’t mean those things are bad in and of themselves. We simply want to enjoy them in their proper context. We are for fun. We are for Jesus.

As with many things, we redeem the idea of the Easter Bunny. We tell our kids that the Easter Bunny is a make-believe character from a non-Christian holiday. We tell them that years ago in Germany children would build a nest for the “Easter hare” to lay her eggs in, and that it wasn’t until Germans immigrated to the United States that this tradition was widely accepted and practiced here. We stress that Easter is a time for us to remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but that the Easter Bunny is a make-believe character who has been adopted as the official Easter mascot.

We take the same approach to the Easter Bunny the way we do with Santa Claus at Christmas.

Yup, Driscoll has a Santa policy, too:

Since Santa is so pervasive in our culture, it is nearly impossible to simply reject Santa as part of our annual cultural landscape. Still, as parents we don’t feel we can simply receive the entire story of Santa because there is a lot of myth built on top of a true story.

… We tell our kids that he was a real person who did live a long time ago. We also explain how people dress up as Santa and pretend to be him for fun, kind of like how young children like to dress up as pirates, princesses, superheroes, and a host of other people, real and imaginary. We explain how, in addition to the actual story of Santa, a lot of other stories have been added (e.g., flying reindeer, living in the North Pole, delivering presents to every child in one night) so that Santa is a combination of true and make-believe stories.

We do not, however, demonize Santa. Dressing up, having fun, and using the imagination God gave can be an act of holy worship and is something that, frankly, a lot of adults need to learn from children.

What we are concerned about, though, is lying to our children. We teach them that they can always trust us because we will tell them the truth and not lie to them. Conversely, we ask that they be honest with us and never lie. Since we also teach our children that Jesus is a real person who did perform real miracles, our fear is that if we teach them fanciful, make-believe stories as truth, it could erode confidence in our truthfulness where it really matters. So, we distinguish between lies, secrets, surprises, and pretend for our kids.

Driscoll is so unaware, his writing reads like satire. Sadly, though, it’s not: he really believes this stuff. He really is comfortable asserting that Jesus’s resurrection is historical fact, as if it were a well-established truth that no sane person could doubt. He’s oblivious of the fact that to those who haven’t been indoctrinated by Christianity, Jesus is a mythical figure just like Santa Claus. After all, flying reindeer from the North Pole isn’t more ridiculous than walking on water and coming back from the dead.

I think Driscoll is right to be concerned about lying to children, and about the importance of distinguishing fact from fiction. But the crucial question is: How do we know what’s true? Driscoll seems to think the answer is: Whatever our parents tell us. But the fallacy of that approach is obvious. If Driscoll had happened to have been born in Saudi Arabia, for instance, he would be teaching his children that Allah’s revelation to Muhammad is historical fact, while Jesus’s resurrection is a lie.

The only way to gain reliable knowledge about our world, and to correct the mistakes of previous generations, is by using the tools of the scientific method: evidence, reason, skepticism. We should teach children to evaluate claims critically and to think for themselves, not to unquestioningly believe whatever their parents believe. The stakes could not be higher, because our actions are motivated by our beliefs: people really are killing each other over disagreements about mythical characters and fictional books.

Superman could totally kick Jesus’s ass, by the way.

(via Why Evolution is True)

What is wrong with psychopaths? January 15, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Ethics, Science.
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It is estimated that about 1 percent of the U.S. population are psychopaths — distinguished by their extraordinary egocentricity and their total lack of concern for the suffering of others. What exactly is wrong with them? The answer to this question may help us understand more about how moral intuitions develop in us. In The Moral Landscape, neuroscientist Sam Harris notes that while psychopaths do understand the concept of right and wrong (thus meeting the legal definition of sanity), they

generally fail to distinguish between conventional and moral transgressions. When asked, “Would it be okay to eat at your desk if the teacher gave you permission?” vs. “Would it be okay to hit another student in the face if the teacher gave you permission?” normal children age thirty-nine months and above tend to see these questions as fundamentally distinct and consider the latter transgression intrinsically wrong. In this, they appear to be guided by an awareness of potential human suffering. Children at risk for psychopathy tend to view these questions as morally indistinguishable.

And indeed, studies show (Blair et al., 2005) that psychopaths are often unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others, suggesting that the negative emotions of others, rather than parental punishment, may be what goad us to normal socialization:

Blair […] observes that if punishment were the primary source of moral instruction, children would be unable to observe the difference between conventional transgressions […] and moral ones […], as breaches of either sort tend to illicit punishment. And yet healthy children can readily distinguish between these forms of misbehavior. Thus, it would seem that they receive their correction directly from the distress that others exhibit when true moral boundaries have been crossed. Other mammals also find the suffering of their conspecifics highly aversive. We know this from work in monkeys (Masserman, Wechkin, & Terris, 1964) and rats (Church, 1959) that would seem scarcely ethical to perform today. For instance, the conclusion of the former study reads: “A majority of rhesus monkeys will consistently suffer hunger rather than secure food at the expense of electroshock to a conspecific.”

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are born with mental defects that make it impossible for them to value the right things. Like those who are congenitally deaf or blind, they don’t know what they’re missing.

The education of John Stuart Mill January 12, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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John Stuart Mill was born in London in 1806. In his autobiography, Mill describes his rigorous home-schooling by his father, who began teaching him Greek when he was three years old. By the time he was eight he had already read the first six dialogues of Plato (among many other classics), and began learning Latin. His father deliberately shielded him from association with other children his age — apart from his younger siblings, whom he was responsible for tutoring. By the age of fourteen he had a broad knowledge of history, mathematics, logic, poetry, and more — but his severe upbringing would take an emotional toll later in life: Mill suffered a nervous breakdown when he was twenty. Looking back later, while critical of certain aspects of his father’s methods, Mill saw much value in them as well:

There was one cardinal point in this training … which, more than anything else, was the cause of whatever good it effected. Most boys or youths who have had much knowledge drilled into them, have their mental capacities not strengthened, but over-laid by it. They are crammed with mere facts, and with the opinions or phrases of other people, and these are accepted as a substitute for the power to form opinions of their own: and thus the sons of eminent fathers, who have spared no pains in their education, so often grow up mere parroters of what they have learnt, incapable of using their minds except in the furrows traced for them. Mine, however, was not an education of cram. My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory. He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching, but, if possible, precede it. Anything which could be found out by thinking I never was told, until I had exhausted my efforts to find it out for myself. As far as I can trust my remembrance, I acquitted myself very lamely in this department; my recollection of such matters is almost wholly of failures, hardly ever of success. It is true the failures were often in things in which success in so early a stage of my progress, was almost impossible.


A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.

Despite Mill’s precociousness, his father never allowed him to become arrogant:

in my fourteenth year, on the eve of leaving my father’s house for a long absence, he told me that I should find, as I got acquainted with new people, that I had been taught many things which youths of my age did not commonly know; and that many persons would be disposed to talk to me of this, and to compliment me upon it. What other things he said on this topic I remember very imperfectly; but he wound up by saying, that whatever I knew more than others, could not be ascribed to any merit in me, but to the very unusual advantage which had fallen to my lot, of having a father who was able to teach me, and willing to give the necessary trouble and time; that it was no matter of praise to me, if I knew more than those who had not had a similar advantage, but the deepest disgrace to me if I did not.

Mill was raised in a secular household — his father rejected religion for moral reasons: “He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.” Furthermore,

he regarded [religion] with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies, — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind, — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.

Still, Mill’s father thought it imprudent to make his disbelief public. Mill himself disagreed:

On religion in particular the time appears to me to have come, when it is the duty of all who being qualified in point of knowledge, have on mature consideration satisfied themselves that the current opinions are not only false but hurtful, to make their dissent known; at least, if they are among those whose station or reputation, gives their opinion a chance of being attended to. Such an avowal would put an end, at once and for ever, to the vulgar prejudice, that what is called, very improperly, unbelief, is connected with any bad qualities either of mind or heart. The world would be astonished if it knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments — of those most distinguished even in popular estimation for wisdom and virtue — are complete sceptics in religion; many of them refraining from avowal, less from personal considerations, than from a conscientious, though now in my opinion a most mistaken apprehension, lest by speaking out what would tend to weaken existing beliefs, and by consequence (as they suppose) existing restraints, they should do harm instead of good.

At the end of the day, while there is no doubt about his father’s critical contribution to Mill’s accomplishments, Mill did fault him for a lack of tenderness — preventing them from being as close as they could have been. Nonetheless, Mill thought that some measure of severity is necessary for a good education:

I do not believe that boys can be induced to apply themselves with vigour, and what is so much more difficult, perseverance, to dry and irksome studies, by the sole force of persuasion and soft words. Much must be done, and much must be learnt, by children, for which rigid discipline, and known liability to punishment, are indispensable as means. It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the young are required to learn, easy and interesting to them. But when this principle is pushed to the length of not requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed. I rejoice in the decline of the old brutal and tyrannical system of teaching, which, however, did succeed in enforcing habits of application; but the new, as it seems to me, is training up a race of men who will be incapable of doing anything which is disagreeable to them. I do not, then, believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with; but I am sure that it ought not to be the main element; and when it predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence on the part of the child to those who should be the unreservedly trusted advisers of after years, and perhaps to seal up the fountains of frank and spontaneous communicativeness in the child’s nature, it is an evil for which a large abatement must be made from the benefits, moral and intellectual, which may flow from any other part of the education.

He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.

Essential tools to think with December 18, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Reason, Science.

Despite appearances, the two tabletops are identical in both size and shape.

I’m preparing a special lesson for my high school students on the subject of critical thinking and the scientific method. In the first half of the lesson, I aim to undermine the students’ certainty about what they think they know, by demonstrating the many types of errors and biases we are all prone to. I’ll start with optical illusions, like Roger Shepard’s “Turning the Tables.” Carefully measuring the two tabletops shows that they are identical in both size and shape, even though we feel very strongly that this is not the case.

Exactly one of the doors has a new car behind it. After you choose door 1, the host opens door 3 to reveal a goat. He then offers you the chance to switch to door 2. Should you?

We know we cannot always trust our senses, but surely our intuitions are better in more theoretical areas? Try this: if a bat and a ball together cost $1.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost? Sounds easy, and it is, but a majority of university students give the wrong answer (hint: it’s not 10 cents). Our intuitions are especially bad when it comes to probability. I’ll present the famous Monty Hall problem, to which many smart people refuse to accept the correct solution (switching doors doubles your chances of winning) even after it’s explained to them. I may also mention the gambler’s fallacy — if ten consecutive tosses of a fair coin come up heads, is tails more likely to come up next? — which makes lots of money for casinos.

Instead of jumping to conclusions based on intuition, we can attempt to construct formal logical inferences: if all Greeks are handsome, and Socrates is a Greek, then Socrates is handsome. Do we ever make mistakes in our use of logic? Consider this: if some men are doctors, and some doctors are tall, can we conclude that some men are tall? (No.) Or this: if we assume that all reptiles lay eggs, and we know that alligators lay eggs, does it follow that alligators are reptiles? (Nope.)

I next turn to the fallacy of assuming that correlation implies causation. If the percentage of black people among those convicted of violent crimes is significantly greater than the percentage of blacks in the population, can we conclude that blacks are inherently more violent? No: it could be that most judges are white and some are prejudiced, or that blacks are poorer on average and poverty causes crime, or that blacks are treated as second-class citizens creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, etc. Another example: let’s say surveys show that people who use olive oil are less likely to develop heart disease than people who use other oils. Does it follow that olive oil helps prevent heart disease? Consider that olive oil is more expensive than other oils, so people who buy olive oil are more likely to belong to higher socio-economic groups — implying a more healthy diet in general, a higher chance of belonging to a gym, more money to spend on health care, etc. Of course, this does not prove that olive oil does nothing to prevent heart disease: merely that the causal connection cannot be deduced from the correlation alone.

Perhaps the most subtle causes of error are cognitive biases. I’ll talk about confirmation bias: people tend to give more weight to evidence that supports what they already believe; they tend to seek data that confirm their hypotheses instead of attempting to disprove them; they tend to remember examples that support their theories and forget those that don’t. One study was conducted on two groups of people: one group contained people who were in favor of capital punishment, and the other group contained people who were against it. All subjects were shown the same set of data, which included evidence and argument for both sides of the issue. Participants from both groups tended to report that the data had caused them to strengthen their original beliefs! So much for objectivity. Confirmation bias is also what keeps many superstitions alive: people notice those times when unlucky events happen on the 13th floor, and disregard the times when they don’t, or when they happen on other floors.

I’ll conclude the first part of the lesson with the fallacy of appealing to authority: “Einstein was a genius, so whatever he said must be so;” “If it’s written in the Bible, it must be true;” “Democracy is the best form of government, because that’s what they taught us in school;”  “My teacher says that appeals to authority are logical fallacies.” The truth or falsity of a claim is not affected by the authority of the claimant; even Einstein made mistakes.

So far, then, we’ve seen that our senses can deceive us; our intuitions are often wrong; we are prone to logical fallacies and cognitive biases; it’s difficult for us to be objective; and even smart people can be mistaken. Is it impossible to obtain reliable information about the world?

Enter the scientific method. I’ll present the basic model of gathering evidence, offering a hypothesis to explain the observed phenomenon, making predictions based on the hypothesis, testing those predictions, and revising the hypothesis based on new data. This method is not infallible, of course, but science makes use of many mechanisms for minimizing errors and correcting them: transparency, documentation, reproducibility, peer review, etc.

To further explore the nature of scientific theories, I’ll use Carl Sagan’s example of the fire-breathing dragon in my garage: when my friend asks to see it, I reply that it’s invisible. She then suggests that we spread flour on the floor and look for tracks, but I explain that this dragon floats in the air. And there’s no point in trying to touch it, either, because it’s incorporeal. At this point my friend would hopefully begin to wonder what makes me think the dragon exists at all. The dragon hypothesis is unscientific because it’s unfalsifiable — there is no evidence that could possibly disprove it. This makes it useless: if there could never be any detectable difference between a world in which the dragon exists and one where it doesn’t, why should we care?

Another useful heuristic for judging scientific theories is Occam’s razor: all other things being equal, the simplest explanation of the facts is usually the right one. In other words, we should strive to minimize unnecessary or arbitrary assumptions. If I hear the clacking of hoofs coming from inside a race track, for instance, it could theoretically be a zebra escaped from the zoo, or a recording designed to fool me, or an alien language — but absent any evidence for those hypotheses, it makes sense to tentatively assume that it’s horses I’m hearing. It’s important to stress that all scientific knowledge is provisional: we can never achieve absolute certainty, but our confidence in an hypothesis grows with the amount of supporting evidence. A scientific theory is a hypothesis of sufficient explanatory power which has withstood all attempts to falsify it. But all theories are always open to revision based on new evidence.

Homology of forelimbs in mammals is evidence of evolution.

I’ll give two examples of successful scientific theories and the evidence supporting them. Firstly, how do we know the Earth is spherical? Thousands of years ago, people had already noticed that the stars in the night sky look different from different locations, that the sails of a ship can be seen on the horizon before its hull, and that the shadow cast by the Earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse is round. More recently, of course, people have circumnavigated the globe and even seen it from space. My second example is the theory of evolution, supported by evidence from fossils, comparative anatomy, the geographical distribution of plants and animals, genetics (DNA), artificial selection (e.g. dog breeding), observed natural selection (e.g. antibiotic-resistant bacteria), and more.

Let’s now try to apply the scientific method to medical testing. Does the fact that my condition improved after taking a certain drug or undergoing a certain therapy mean that the drug or the therapy are inherently effective? No: we must take into account the placebo effect, confirmation bias, the possibility of coincidence, etc. We can, however, attempt to neutralize those factors — and raise our confidence in a treatment’s effectiveness — by performing controlled double-blind trials, and analyzing the results statistically.

Having previously rejected appeals to authority, it’s important to point out the difference between authority and expertise. While the statement “90% of mathematicians recommend Acme toothpaste” does not carry any special weight, the statement “90% of dentists recommend Acme toothpaste” does. When we (provisionally!) accept the consensus of experts on matters of fact in their field of expertise, we are not doing so merely on the basis of their authority: we are relying on the scientific method itself, which includes all the self-correcting and error-minimizing mechanisms mentioned above.

The first smallpox vaccine was developed in 1796; smallpox was eradicated in 1979.

The strongest argument in favor of the scientific method is that it gets amazing results. Science can land a spacecraft on Mars, and can predict the exact time of an eclipse a thousand years in the future. Closer to home, the smallpox virus — which killed hundreds of millions of people over 10,000 years — was eradicated in 1979 after a successful vaccination campaign, the culmination of centuries of scientific effort. We often take such things for granted, but until the beginning of the 20th century, human life expectancy was only 30-40 years. It’s now around 80 years in the developed world.

This is a good place to give the students a chance to practice their own critical thinking skills on real-world examples, like the assertions of faith-healers or astrologers. What questions should we ask before accepting such claims? Are there any fallacies or biases that may be getting in the way? What data support these hypotheses, and are there more parsimonious ways of explaining them? What experiments could we perform to help us decide?

In summation: it’s essential to evaluate all ideas critically. The smartest people we know could be wrong; we should never accept something just because someone said so, or because it’s tradition, or because it feels right intuitively. Our level of confidence in a proposition ought to scale with the level of available evidence in its support. Being skeptical of extraordinary claims is a good default position — but we must also make sure to keep an open mind and be willing to consider strange and unintuitive ideas (quantum physics, anyone?). We must recognize that there are many things we do not know, and that some of what we think we know may be mistaken. It is possible, however, to expand our knowledge of the world, and to correct previous mistakes, using the scientific method.

I’ll conclude with an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World:

Except for children (who don’t know enough not to ask the important questions), few of us spend much time wondering why Nature is the way it is; where the Cosmos came from, or whether it was always here; if time will one day flow backward, and effects precede causes; or whether there are ultimate limits to what humans can know. There are even children, and I have met some of them, who want to know what a black hole looks like; what is the smallest piece of matter; why we remember the past and not the future; and why there is a Universe.

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists — although heavy on the wonder side and light on scepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question’.

But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts’. By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little scepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers. . . .

There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.

Bright, curious children are a national and world resource. They need to be cared for, cherished, and encouraged. But mere encouragement isn’t enough. We must also give them the essential tools to think with.

I won’t be giving the lesson for a while yet, so I’d be happy to hear any comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Just stories November 13, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Philosophy.
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In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is worried about the impact that the mythological stories of his day are having on children:

they are stories not to be repeated in our State; the young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is far from doing anything outrageous; and that even if he chastises his father when does wrong, in whatever manner, he will only be following the example of the first and greatest among the gods. . . .

If [our future guardians] would only believe us we would tell them that quarrelling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Here his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer — these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

I wonder what Socrates would have thought about the stories of Korah, the Binding of Isaac, the plagues of Egypt, the conquests of Joshua, the destruction of Amalek

Stupidity below and love of power above October 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education, Politics.
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Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I often wonder if this will ever cease to be the case. After all, if we look around us, the organizations that are most innovative and efficient, that are best at encouraging excellence and learning from mistakes, are not run democratically. Steve Jobs doesn’t need a majority of his company’s employees (or of his customers) to approve his every strategy. Generally, the greater the number of people who participate in making a decision, the worse the decision will be. (It is said that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Of course, this is all fine so long as Steve Jobs doesn’t have the power to put anyone in jail, levy taxes, or declare war. We have learned the hard way how important it is to limit the power given to any individual. The problem is that our system of government seems to mostly produce politicians whose main (if not only) skill is getting people to vote for them. And sadly, this is still most easily accomplished by appeals to emotion (especially fear), rather than by rational argument. Moreover, politicians have an interest in perpetuating whatever state of affairs will cause people to continue voting for them.

In “Freedom and the Colleges,” Bertrand Russell claims to have no doubt that democracy is the best form of government, and yet:

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power — namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for them to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

We need our educational system to produce a population that is rational enough and critical enough and well-enough informed, so that politicians will leave a five-minute conversation with the average voter feeling neither smug nor depressed, but challenged.

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power-namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for-them. to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.