Wrong, but Useful

One of my favorite essays of all time is “The Relativity of Wrong” by Isaac Asimov.  If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to take a few minutes and click the link to check it out.  A few years ago, my attitudes about being wrong shifted drastically, and it started with that essay.  I used to feel very bad when I was wrong about something, to the point that my ego would kick in and argue that I wasn’t really wrong at all.  This is not helpful to anyone.

There are two other things that really re-enforced this change in my beliefs. One was the short lecture “You have no idea how wrong you are“:

The other is the book “Being Wrong” by Kathryn Schulz.  It turns out, I had been very wrong about what it meant to be wrong.  The consequence is that today, I rarely look at things through the lens of Right/Wrong dichotomy.  These days, I try to consider the usefulness of the thing.

For example, in my previous post, I kind of stretched the definition of what constitutes a “prison.”  That might be distracting to some people, even to the extent that it makes them miss the point I’m trying to make.  But to me, it was a useful way to think about these things, and to the extent that it’s useful, it doesn’t really matter that it’s wrong.

But that can be a dangerous way to approach things.

Whether or not something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is always important, especially because finding something that is ‘right’ is very rare.  We are wrong about practically everything, and we must never forget that.  We can be wrong about something being useful. Those are not static properties.  Something that was useful yesterday can be toxic today.  So the foundation that all these things must be built on is the conscious acceptance that you are wrong about everything, and the most you can hope to achieve is to become a little less wrong.  When you base things on that, it becomes much easier to put your ego to the side and truly consider the merits of something.  It becomes much easier to improve and get better.  And it becomes much, much easier to say you’re sorry.

Being Wrong

“A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.”

– Kathryn Schulz in “Being Wrong“

Nine-tenths of our brain

It is a popular fact that nine-tenths of the brain is not used and, like most popular facts, it is wrong. Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary gray goo if its only real purpose was, for example, to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys. Is is used. And one of its function is to make the miraculous seem ordinary and turn the unusual into the usual.

Because if this was not the case, then human beings, faced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing big stupid grins, similar to those worn by certain remote tribesmen who occasionally get raided by the authorities and have the contents of their plast greenhouses very seriously inspected. They’d say “Wow!” a lot. And no one would do much work.

– Terry Pratchett in “Small Gods”


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

This has been on my mind lately.  I can’t yet put into words what this makes me think.


This has given me much to think about:

The natural tendency of most organizations is to restrict choices in favor of the obvious and the incremental. Although this tendency may be more efficient in the short run, it tends to make an organization conservative and inflexible in the long run. Divergent thinking is the route, not the obstacle, to innovation.

– from “Deign Thinking for Social Innovation” by T.Brown, J.Wyatt

When Science Meets Anti-Science

As the war between PZ and the folks at the Intersection heats up again, I can’t help but throw my own voice into the cacophony.  The argument is age-old and tries to answer the question: “Why are people so gosh darn ignorant?”  On one side, the answer is because they cling to superstition and ritual.  On the other side, it’s because scientists aren’t good enough educators.  To be fair, the previous two sentences were gross over-simplifications of the respective positions.

To a certain extent, both sides are correct, but it’s not a debate I’m really interested in.  As an educator, the reach of my influence is greater than the common person, but not that great, and I’m personally satisfied with what I’m doing.  I can’t do anything about the rest.

The question I have seems to be the one that the accomodationalists (that is, the people who think scientists should focus only on the science) have yet to answer.  What should be done about those people who are not merely ignorant, but ignorant and proud of it, and actively work against known truth.

I don’t have a problem with people believing evolution is wrong and the earth is only 6000 years old, until those beliefs start influencing public policy.  How should those demonstrably harmful beliefs be handled then?

I don’t have a problem with people taking homeopathic medicine and other alternative medical treatments, but how should those beliefs be treated when they’re foisted upon children and others who are unable to protect themselves?

How should the psychic who preys on the weak and hurt be treated?

How should the faith healers who use honest belief as instrument for personal profit be treated?

The popularization of science is not going to make the young-earth creationist change their mind.  When they come to the schools and attempt to gut science curriculum, what should be done?

Education will work in the long term.  We see it working already.  But it will take decades before we get the kind of literacy society really needs.  What are we supposed to do in the meantime?  Sit silently and hope we don’t destroy ourselves out of ignorance?  What can we do right now beyond education?

These are the questions I’d like answered by the accomodationalists.

Fact Checking the Alamo

System Of Government

System Of Government

For part of my vacation this year, I visited my friend Tara, who lives in San Antonio.  It was a beautiful trip, and San Antonio was very nice.  Maybe I will write more about that later.  There was one quick thing I wanted to post about, however.  When I visited the Alamo, there was a short sentence that really jumped out at me.  There is a picture on the right.

The first sentence reads: “Republicanism, a new idea about government, became popular in the late 1700s.”

I realize this may be over pedantic, but I just couldn’t let this drop.  Republicanism was a new idea about government?  Perhaps the author of this short blurb should have read Plato.

That’s all for now.  I need to get back to catching up on email.

Being Critical of Anything is Good

This story gets under my nerves.  A professor asked his students to write an essay critical of U.S. VP Candidate Sarah Palin.  The article doesn’t provide any details of the assignment directly, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any reason why such an assignment would be wrong, especially at the college level.

This isn’t about your views.  This isn’t about whether you like or dislike Sarah Palin.  Reading the sentence on it’s own merits, it doesn’t even necessarily mean finding flaws in Ms. Palin:

1. To find fault with: criticized the decision as unrealistic.
2. To judge the merits and faults of; analyze and evaluate.

I would like to draw your attention to the second definition, as it is the one most commonly used in higher education.

But let us suppose that this wasn’t the case.  The assignment really was to write an essay that found fault with Sarah Palin.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that either.  One thing any well balanced should be able to do is formulate an argument whether they agree with it or not.  It is a necessary part of being able to understand anything.

Where is the problem?

It drives me batty that anyone attending an institute of higher education would not recognize this.  It drives me batty that the press are even paying attention to this.  Isn’t the skill this lesson is aimed towards a fundamental part of being a journalist?

I’m planning on voting for Barack Obama this fall.  Here are a few faults he has:

  • His recent FISA vote was so wrong, that to completely explain why would not be appropriate for this blog post.
  • He appears to think it’s wrong to criticize other people’s religion.
  • A few of his commercials have not been completely honest in their criticisms of his opponent.

Those are three things right off the top of my head.  If I sat down to think about it more, I’m sure I could come up with several more.

I fear the real issue here is avoidance of being self-critical.  If you agree with Sarah Palin, criticism of her is criticism of you.  We can’t have that in the classroom, obviously.

Dammit, grow some courage, people.

“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. -Carl Sagan”

What NASA Taught me About the Olympics

I’m on vacation this week, and it’s been glorious!

I’m not watching the olympics this year.  Actually, it’s been several years since I last watched either the summer or the winter olympics.  I’ve just felt there is something wrong with them.  I wasn’t sure what until this year.

It started when I bought the awesome series off the iTunes store called “When We Left Earth.”  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.  It chronicals NASA starting with the Mercury program to the current day.  While I watched this, there is something that repeatedly jumped out at me:  the difference between calling the achievements of the program ‘American’ achievments or ‘Humanity’s’ achievements.  I realized that don’t really view the moon landings, for example, as the fomer of those, but the latter.  When I think about those events, they don’t make me proud to be an American.  They make me proud to be a human.

There are those that go the other way.  At the time, NASA was a source for national pride, and that continues to this day for many.  We were better than those Commies, and we showed them.  I understand that’s important, but we would be better off without it.

From the perspective of space, you can’t see the borders of nations.  There is only one earth, and everything in it is connected to everything else by location.  All our quibles are meaningless from that perspective.  Carl Sagan said it much better than I ever could.  And so I get tired about hearing about all of it.  I get tired about hearing what comes down to idiotic squabbles like the Russian-Georgia fiasco, or our own country’s fiasco in Iraq.  Or China’s censorship and human rights violations.

I always thought the olympics were meant to be a place where we could set aside our differences and participate in sporting competition.  But when I hear the coverage, it continues to be portrayed as just another place for nations to duke it out.  “Hey, look!  China has the most Gold medals.”  “We Americans lead the medal count, HA!”

You know what I want to see?  I want to see an event that can bring everyone together, but in a way that doesn’t reflect nationalities.  We need a worldwide event dedicated to celebrating the abilities of humanity itself, not the ‘products’ of it’s nations.

And that’s why I don’t really care about the Olympics.  As long as it continues to be some way for a nation to exert it’s superiority over another nation, my reaction continues to be: meh.

Plagiarism and Copyright

As the drama surrounding the release of ‘Expelled‘ continues to unfold, there seems to be a lot of confusion around the difference between Plagiarism and Copyright violations.

A copyright violation is when you take the copyrighted work of someone else and use it in a way that they have not given permission for. Want to video tape an NFL game and show a portion in a classroom? That’s a copyright violation. Want to copy a DVD and give it to a friend? Technically, that’s a copyright violation. IANAL, so the subtleties of copyright continue to elude me, but that’s the basics.

Plagiarism is where you take the work of someone else and claim it as your own. If you take a photograph off of flickr that has been released under a certain creative commons license and you claim it as your own, that is not a copyright violation. It is plagiarism. If you take a copy of my .NET Geotagging library and claim you have written it, that’s not a copyright violation, since I released it to the public domain. It is plagiarism.

Taking a video, recreating it without the authors permission, and claiming it as your own? That is both a copyright violation and plagiarism. You fail.

P.S.  This great explanation has been posted over at ERV in the comments:

What the fuck is the matter with those people???

It’s beginning to look like some of them think that this is what scientists actually do all day. They muck about a bit, copy each other’s work, and ad lib their own bullshit on top. More cargo cult science. “Waah, why isn’t it working for us?” I don’t know how they are missing the parts where we collect new data and do experiments.