Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

A few weeks ago, I listened to this great podcast episode from Hanselminutes with James Bach.  While the podcast is normally about programming topics, this particular episode was more about auto-didactic learning.  Near the end of the show, they talk about the concept of ‘Strong Opinions, Lightly Held.’

The idea behind this concept is that you have very strong opinions about something, but you’re not dedicated to it.  You can make a passionate defense of a topic, but when presented with contrary evidence, you simply switch over.  Imagine making a very strong argument and then going ‘Oh, you’re right. Nevermind.’

This is something I don’t think very many people understand, but as someone who’s philosophy is scientific in nature, I’m very familiar with it.  I’ve experienced this countless times where I’ve made what I think is a very good argument for something, then had someone completely destroy it with a simple counter argument.  At that point, I have no choice but to change my mind.  And that’s a good thing.  It means I’ve learned something new, and I’ve progressed in some way.  It’s something I strive for, and when I see it in others, it’s something that gains them immediate respect in my eyes.

Being ‘wrong’ about something has been unfairly stigmatized in our culture.  If you change your mind about something, many times you’re viewed as a ‘waffler,’ or someone who doesn’t know what they believe, or someone who lacks principles.  In reality, it’s just the opposite.  Changing your mind when faced with a better argument does not represent the lack of principles, but dedication to the pursuit of truth.  Is is the embodiment of the idea that truth is more important than the self and that any opinions, beliefs, and views one has must bend to reality, because to do anything else is delusion, by definition.

It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, that you can’t be misled.  It’s easy to imagine a situation where you hear what you only perceive to be a better argument, and in reality, you’re missing some vital information that would clearly demonstrate its incorrectness.  The beauty of this philosophy of ‘strong opinions, lightly held,’ is not that it always leads directly to ‘truth,’ but that it’s self-correcting. If you take the wrong path at some point, it’s easily corrected once you do have the required information.  You never reach ‘absolute’ truth, but you do get closer to it with each iteration.

If there is a path towards wisdom, it surely must begin with the recognition of your own fallibility through self-examination, and this is exactly what is represented by ‘Strong Opinions, Lightly Held.’

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.

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

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.

Science is Beautiful

I’m getting kind of tired of people scoffing at the idea that science can make things more beautiful. For some reason, many people seem to think that knowing about something makes it less beautiful. I call bullshit, and it’s very easy to demonstrate my position.

Would the people who think understanding the world develops dullness think the same about people? Do people grow less beautiful the more you get to know them? You see a girl. She’s pretty, but doesn’t necessarily stand out. But as you talk to her and get to know her, does her beauty grow or diminish? In my experience, it’s nearly always the former; the exceptions are those rare occasions when you actually have a pretty ugly and hateful person. Ann Coulter comes to mind.

Why would it be any different for a flower, or a rainbow, or the night school, or the sunrise? Or any of the other endless examples of beautiful phenomena that we encounter everyday. It seems to me that looking staring at a sunrise without really wondering how it works is missing much of the experience. While it’s not necessarily a shallow experience, it’s certainly not as full as it could be.

It’s more meaningful to me to look at something that I have some understanding of and wonder at it. The feelings are intensified through knowledge, not dulled.

Maybe for some people, it’s the opposite. Maybe they view the world fundamentally different. That wouldn’t be terribly surprising. If that’s who they are, that’s reality, and there’s no use denying it. But I really would like you to stop scoffing at my own way, and to assume that you have it all figured out. If there is one thing that true understanding cultivates more than anything else, it’s the humility that you really know very little at all.

That’s something we can all learn from.

Scientific Literacy

Here is a recent article in Seed, written by Thomas W. Martin, entitled, Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse. Excerpt:

Science eventually yields impressive answers because it compels smart people to incessantly try to disprove the ideas generated by other smart people.

Can we make this required reading?

Mr. Martin hits upon another issue I have a real pet peeve about:

In the present cultural climate, altering one’s beliefs in response to anything (facts included) is considered a sign of weakness.

Political races especially have illustrated this perfectly. It’s a side effect of not having any popularly accepted standard of truth. People would prefer to deny reality itself in order to ‘feel-good’ or, in the political arena, appeal to some sub-group of people.

Chlorophyll Extraction

I tried another experiment last night. I had heard somewhere that if you boil green leaves, you can extract the chlorophyll from them when can then be excited by exposure to light, making the solution ‘glow’ as electrons move around. So I dutifully went out, gathered several leaves and put them in a beaker, which I heated over my Bunsen burner.

Note to self: Get new Bunsen Burner. After heating it for about 20 minutes and it still hadn’t boiled, I decided a new tactic was necessary.

Note to self: Buy more Denatured Alcohol.

I poured some of the liquid into a test tube, and added some of the leaves. Now the water started boiling pretty quickly. The water wasn’t getting any greener, though. After observing it boil for a while, I decided it was as good as it was going to get, and cut the flame. Then I removed the leaves, and exposed the final solution to a light source.

I was underwhelmed, to say the least.

There are several possibilities I have thought of as to what went wrong:

  1. Boiling leaves is not an efficient method of chlorophyll extraction. Can be fixed by discovering a more efficient method.
  2. I didn’t allow the leaves to boil long enough and need to be more patient.
  3. My light source (a flashlight) was either not powerful enough, or did not give out light in the right part of the electro-magnetic spectrum.
  4. My original hypothesis, that extracted chlorophyll will glow when exposed to a light source, is wrong.
  5. Yet to be discovered.

A cursory search on google and I discovered that my original hypothesis appears to be correct, but my methods are lacking. At least I know I’m on the right track.

I’m purposely avoiding looking at how other people have done this in the past. I want to work it out on my own. Who knows what I might figure out along the way?

First, I’m going to try to find a better method of chlorophyll extraction. Alcohol might be a better choice than water, or perhaps an acid or base. I’ll also try boiling leaves in water for a longer period of time.

Second, I’ll find different light sources, perhaps a UV light source, like a black light, and an IR light source (a remote control perhaps?).

I think I’ll also try to locate some thicker leaves than the ones I’m using. Perhaps elm’s just aren’t a good source.

If I’m only changing one variable at a time, I’ll be busy for a while!

Looking at the ‘verse

Cailin has written a great description of what it’s like to look up (and around) at the awesome beauty of the Universe we live in:

These are the moments that fill me with the greatest pleasure and wonder, my appreciation for my own existence swells within me and I feel my eyes glaze with tears of joy and sorrow.

I once read a comment by someone made when viewing a beautiful sunset.  They said, ‘How can anyone look at something so beautiful and think there is no god?’  I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, ‘Why would I want to pollute something so wonderful with something so ugly?’

Via The Friendly Atheist.

Cool Town and Great Store

On Saturday I ventured out of my apartment to a place in Kansas City I’ve not been before: Parkville. I’ve been near it, but never in it. I’ve been missing out. This is a charming little town, right on the missouri River and smack dab in the middle of the KC Metro area, but strangely isolated. The town only has about 5,000 people in it, so it’s small, but it’s home to Park University, which I wish I had known about before. Of course, as a private institution, it would have been out of my price range, but still, it looks like such a nice place.

Saturday was a nice day, and there were people milling about, I really got the whole small town feeling. But I wasn’t there to just check the town out; I was a man on a mission. About a week ago, I heard about this store, called the H.M.S. Beagle. I had posted to a local freethought group about available local amatuer science clubs, and someone mentioned this store. If only I had known about it before… This store isn’t like those dinky ’science’ store like the Discover Channel store. Those stores sell little more than ’science toys.’ This is the real deal. And it’s a nice looking store as well.

They have glassware, Science and Technical books (new, used, and rare). A ton of telescopes. Geological tools. Slides. Chemistry Sets. Kids science clubs. Adult science clubs. The people who work there all have backgrounds in science (either already have a degree, or a student working towards a degree). I talked to the owner, and he informed me that they can order anything they don’t already have, including… dissection specimans! Dissections have always given me the willies in the past, but now I’m actually looking forward to doing one. That’s a ways off in the distance, though. There’s probably a bunch of legalities I need to find out about, too.

They also supply chemicals, which would have been wonderful to know while I was making my movie over the summer. Well, a nice person supplied me with some Sodium anyway. Thanks again, nice person!

I don’t yet have the resources to start working on my lab, but next month, I ought to. It’s probably a good thing, because I need to have some idea of some specific things I want to do first. Right now, some bacterial cultures are on the list, but I won’t get a microscope until Christmas time, so I should probably hold off on that. There was a neat little book at the store called ‘Grandads Wonderful Book of Chemistry,’ that may offer some pointers. The biology book I’m working on has been great so far, but I’ve not gotten too in depth yet. I want to finish Gödel, Escher, Bach first. (BTW, if you haven’t read GEB, then I highly recommend it.)

Creativity and a War on Science

Lifehacker is talking about the benefits of skepticism.

Creativity – The best way to prevent new solutions is to believe you already have the answer. Allowing a gap of doubt can allow creative alternatives to flow in. If you are adamant that advertising will not work for your product, you might cut off hundreds of ideas for improving your business.

Amen to that!  There are several others listed, and I completely agree with what is being said.  Skepticism has been the route to balance in my life, the route to understanding.

There is also an amusing story from The Big Room calling for a government War on Science. I find the idea amusing.