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.

Paper: Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds

As I work through my Educational Technology Masters Degree, one of the things I’m very interested in is the use of video games for educational purposes.  So when I saw this article (pdf) entitled “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds” a few months ago, I couldn’t wait to read it.

This particular study focused on the users of the popular massive multiplayer online role playing game (mmorpg) World of Warcraft, and specifically an online discussion forum used by players to communicate.  The abstract sums up their findings:

Eighty-six percent of the forum discussions were posts engaged in “social knowledge construction” rather than social banter. Over half of the posts evidenced systems based reasoning, one in ten evidenced model-based reasoning, and 65% displayed an evaluative epistemology in which knowledge is treated as an open-ended process of evaluation and argument.

The paper itself it very accessible, and doesn’t take long to read.  The findings are surprising, and I think important for educators to be aware of.  Since I’m not much of a gamer, I was unaware of the level of detail and care gamers put into playing this game, although after reading “Everything Bad is Good For You” last fall, this really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.  From the paper, here is an example of what I’m talking about:

The calculations correctly show that mind flay [spell]
receives just as much +damage percentage as mind
blast. However mind blast has a 1.5 second cast time,
and mind flay has a 3 second cast time. And therefore
mind flay receives half the dps [damage per second]
boost it should. (post #2609.43)

There are two things about this kind of thinking that really demonstrates something I hope I can foster in my own classroom: the depth of analysis, and social knowledge construction.  The user in this case, wasn’t satisfied by the damages given by a particular attack; they took it a step further and came up with their own method of identifying what kind attack is better (damage per second).  While this particular example seems simple, since it only involves one issue (a single tactical decision), it’s important to realize that this is just a piece of a much larger discussion that involved many more variables. From later in the paper, here is an example of a more complicated, user generated equation:

For Mindflay, SW:P, and presumpably VT [3 priest spells]:

Damage = (base_spell_damage + modifier * damage_gear) *darkness * weaving * shadowform *misery

The second thing they did was post their analysis in a forum, generating discussion and debate.

It was this paper that inspired me last semester, when I was assigned to create a lesson plan that integrated some form of technology, to use Schorched3D as a way for students to create models for learning about trajectory and range.  While I wasn’t able to give this lesson to actual students, and it’s outside the field I actually teach, I think this kind of integration will be necessary in the classrooms of today and tomorrow.

For further reading, there is a wealth of information to be found in the citations of this article.  I also recommend the book “Everything Bad is Good for You.”  Finally, check out Constance Steinkuehler’s website.  She’s done a lot of great work in this area.


  1. Steinkeuhler, Constance & Duncan, Sean (2008). Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17 (6), 530-543

Implicit Acceptance of Evolution as Fact

Hulu recently made Carl Sagan‘s famous PBS documentary series Cosmos available for free viewing online.  If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend watching it.  It is the best documentary series I’ve ever seen, and for me, it was a complete life changer.  There is a moment in the last episode of the series that completely shattered some cognitive dissonance that had been building up for months: the amount of evidence for evolution, versus my dogmatic rejection of it.  The moment is just a simple statement:  “[we] accepted the products of science, but not it’s methods.”  The intensity I felt in that moment has been rarely replicated.  It perfectly described my actions in a way that was undeniable, but also provided the solution: drop my dogmatic beliefs in favor of evidence based knowledge.

Since that time, I sometimes forget what it’s like for people who reject evolution.  Sometimes, as hard as it is to believe, I forget that anyone actually rejects evolution.  It’s so obvious to me now, that I forge that there are other perspectives out there.  There are probably many causes for this, but there is one that I want to focus on for this post:  Nearly everyone benefitting from modern technology has implicitly accepted evolution.

The theory of evolution was a breakthrough of truly monumental proportions, and today, it’s applications have extended well beyond just academic biology.  For example, it’s used in forensic science to help solve crimes.  How many people accept DNA evidence, but don’t realize that without the theory of evolution, we wouldn’t be able to analyze DNA?  How many people use materials everyday that were designed using principals derived from the theory of evolution?

How many people wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the theory of evolution?  Modern medicine depends on an understanding of evolution.  If the theory of evolution didn’t accurately reflect reality, modern medicine would not be successful at all.  Instead, we see life expectancy growing at an exponential rate.

Shouldn’t someone who truly believes evolution wrong and even evil, reject all these things? If they’re truly dedicated to their beliefs, they should.  Instead, we see their rational side appear when they need it.  If they’re sick, they ignore the man behind the curtain, and implicitly accept the benefits of evidence-based knowledge.  Next time I’m pulled back down to earth by someone who doesn’t believe in evolution, I just want to ask them this:  then why do you accept it’s products?

God is not Necessary


It was once nearly universal that people believed that god existed, and that without god, life would be chaos.  That time is in the past.  Recent data has shown that somewhere between fifteen and twenty percent of americans are non-religious, placing this group in second place in terms of population.  Only Christianity as a group can claim higher numbers.  But that’s tricky, because Christians are great at fighting between themselves.  Are the Catholics really Christians?  How about Calvinists?  Or Mormons?  Or Fundamentalist? Or evangelicals?  When you break down Christianity into incompatible subgroups that love to hate each other, the non-religious numbers more than many of them.  There’s all sorts of interesting things to consider about these statistics, but I’ll have to take those up in another post.  This post it aimed at posing a simple question:

In a nation where around one out of every six people are non-religious, why are things as ordered as they are?

While you’re thinking about that, consider these numbers as well.  If you don’t want to take the time to read it, it talks about the disparity between the religious percentages in society and in prison.  Outside of prison, the non-religious number one out of six.  Inside prison, the non-religious number around one in 500.  If it’s true that non-belief leads to chaos and anarchy, why aren’t the prisons overflowing with the non-religious?  Why are our prisons instead overflowing with people who claim belief in god?

Another example is Norway.  Norway is over 70% atheist.  According to the theory that god is necessary for morality and meaning, we would expect Norway to be anarchy and a hell hole.  But that is not the case.  Norway is one of the most responsible and peaceful nations in the world.   The hypothesis that god is necessary for morality and meaning is falsified by this evidence.

The fact of the matter is that god is not necessary for living a moral and meaningful life.

Is god necessary for you to love your family?  If you discovered that god did not exist, would you suddenly hate your wife, your husband, your sister, or your brother?  How about your children?  Would you kick them to the curb if you discovered Richard Dawkins is correct, and god was only a delusion?

Would you find your hobbies suddenly unfulfilling?  Would fishing become a chore?  Or hiking?  Or watching your favorite sports team?

Would you no longer donate to charity?  Would you ignore someone broken down on the side of the road?  Would you decide not to help your neighbor change their tire?

Would you decide that it’s now okay to steal whatever you want, to rape and murder whoever you want?

If you’re anything like everyone I know, your answer to every one of those questions is ‘no.’  And that’s my point.  God isn’t necessary for any of those things.  So let’s stop pretending that it is.  I know how the religious are stuck to their beliefs, but please, why don’t you reconsider this particular belief.

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”

Summer Love

If a June night could talk, it would probably boast it invented romance. – Bern Williams

It’s that time of the year where love seems to be on everyone’s mind. Summer is starting, and we hear the ancient call to find someone special. There have been seemingly endless songs and poems written about this phenomena. But really, who wants to study this academically? It’s so much more interesting to talk about that special someone.

We can loose our more poetic side, discussing at length how that person can make you smile just be being present. How you can see her at the distance and fight with yourself against the urge to run to them. How her hair flows freely, and every minute detail of her figure is considered a thing of exquisite beauty. She may be the homeliest person in the world, but to you, she’s an angel.

You go out of your way just to be near her, to catch a glimpse, to say hello. When you talk to her, no matter the subject, you mouth runs dry, and the eloquent things you try to say inexplicably comes out with a stutter. The heart races, your palms feel clammy. It can feel like you’re on a roller-coaster when your stomach seems to drop to the floor, but you’re not moving at all.

You wish you could just put your arm around her, or hold her hand, but any physical contact at all can seem to be nearly overwhelming. When your lips meet that first time, it’s like a bolt of electricity shooting through your body. It’s not painful, but staggering. The softness of her lips is delectable, and the moment stretches as time slows. Your brain struggles to keep up with all the sensory information it’s receiving. How long has the moment lasted? But eventually, the kiss ends, and your arms snake around her, pulling her close. You never want to let go, but you do, eventually. The night ends, and you can’t help but smile. Part of you wonders if it was all a dream.

Sometimes, it is.


It’s easy to get bogged down in the drudgery of day-to-day life. When you do the same thing day in and day out, it’s hard to stay focused on where you want to be, and how you’re going to get there. I’ve been feeling some of that lately, as my regret for my first degree sets in and anxiety for my new direction begins to emerge. The semester is really starting to roll along, and we’re so busy where I work, that I have little time to think about going back to school, and no time to study.

So the video from Randy Pausch that has been circulating has hit at just about the perfect time. I haven’t had time to finish watching it yet, but this has been great. I had held off watching, believing that I wouldn’t really like it, but I couldn’t have been wronger. This is without a doubt, one of the most inspirational things I have ever seen. The trick now is to translate that inspiration until real work.

The problem that most of us find ourselves in is that we get inspired about something, but then do nothing about it. Perhaps ‘inspiration’ doesn’t really describe it well enough; we need to add the modifier ‘feel-good.’ We feel good about someone else accomplishments and wish we could do the same, but then we keep drudging along, doing the same stuff until the next ‘inspirational’ thing comes along. I know I’ve fallen into this trap many times, and have seen others fall into it as well. I don’t know the cure, other than ‘get off your butt and do it.’ You have to make sacrifices to get what you want, and it’s not going to be easy. As Pausch puts it:

“Brick walls are there for a reason. They let us prove how badly we want things.”

I like that. I’ve been hitting several brick wall as I start pursuing Neuroscience studies with nothing more than a B.A. in Music. But Progress is being made, and I can show that if this is really what I want, then it will happen.

In other news, I received my Chemistry Set from the H.M.S. Beagle on Saturday, and have had lots of fun with that so far. Especially the Alkali metals (sodium and potassium), as twice the amount was in the kit than was advertised. I’m also on the lookout for other experiments to tackle, though I need to work on some of my lab skills first. I’ve never tried bending glass before, and it’s probably time to learn. I think I’ll try distilling water before synthesizing different gases, just so I can get used to how everything works together.

It’ll be interesting tomorrow, as people from the apartment complex will be entering my apartment to change out the furnace filters. Will anything get said? Will I have a notice waiting for me that I should get rid of the equipment? I hope not…

“But Science has been Wrong Before!”

Someone once argued with me, concerning evolution, “science has been wrong before.”

True enough. I didn’t reply at the time, for a variety of reasons. Today, I would challenge them to name something that science has been wrong about. There are several possible choices. One common answer is thinking the earth was flat (most people don’t know about Eratosthenes calculating the diameter of the earth around 200 B.C). Never-the-less, the fact remains that the argument is right. We have been wrong about things in the past. We’re still wrong about some things. We know that many of our theories are incomplete.

Given all of that, though, there is a better point to be made. Science is unique in the way that it is the only self-correcting field out there. All of those times science has been wrong about something, I can guarantee you, it was not the priest that fixed it, but another scientist.

What is Scientific Skepticism?

I’ve been a scientific skeptic for over nine months now, and I’ve discovered that most people don’t really know what this means. So, I’m going to attempt to explain it.

You can boil down the concept of scientific skepticism down to one single concept: we know things based on empirical evidence. But what does that mean? It means that the only evidence acceptable in support of something is that evidence that is available to everyone and can be verified by anyone.

When looking at the phrase ’scientific skepticism’ it’s important to focus on the first word. A scientific skeptic uses science and the scientific method to verify or discover new evidence.

There are many famous scientific skeptics you probably already know about. Here is a short list: Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Penn & Teller, and even the Mythbusters crew.

Using the scientific method, there are several things already know. We understand the effects of gravity (but are still working on how it works), the concepts of thermal-dynamics, the workings of the atom, evolutionary biology.

The things that there isn’t empirical evidence for are the things that the skeptic rejects. Examples of these things include: homeopathy, psychic readings, telepathy, and faith healing.

Sometimes the question arises about things everyone feels that they know, but we don’t really have evidence for. There is a scene in the movie, Contact, that illustrates this. The main character is asked to ‘prove’ that she loved her father. The point is that this was something she knew was true, but couldn’t really prove.

But is this a proper application of the skeptic epistemology?

There are several ways I’ve approached this problem. The first goes something like this. Personally, she has a lot of evidence for the fact that she loves her father. She has no problem knowing beyond all doubt that it is a simple fact. However, getting proof to this fact demonstrable and verifiable to a third person would be a bit more difficult. Some say that it would be possible for her to be hooked up to an MRI or EEG machine and readings of her brain to be taken. Or perhaps measurements of her body chemistry and how it reacts to thoughts of her father. In the end, however, there is an important thing to note that makes all of this rather pointless. She’s not trying to get other people to believe that she loved her father. It doesn’t really matter what anyone else believes. If she were to take on the task of trying to get other people to believe, perhaps then it would be necessary to provide such evidence.

When approaching a new idea, a skeptic will take a neutral stance and then look at the evidence. If the evidence contradicts the idea, then the idea is wrong, or incomplete. If the evidence is not enough to render a judgement either way, the skeptic will withhold judgement. This is an extremely important point. Skeptics are more tied to the method of knowledge discovery than to the knowledge itself. If contradictory evidence appears, the original idea is discarded and the search for a new one begins, one that fits with the evidence. Sometimes such new ideas are easily located, others may forever be out of our reach.