Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

“It is natural to describe key [scientific] events in terms of the work of individuals who made a mark in science – Copernicus, Vesalius, Darwin, Wallace and the rest. But this does not mean that science has progressed as a result of the work of a string of irreplaceable geniuses possessed of a special insight into how the world works. Geniuses maybe (though not always); but irreplaceable certainly not. Scientific progress builds step by step, and as the example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace [who independently and simultaneously put forward the theory of evolution] shows, when the time is ripe, two or more individuals may make the next step independently of one another. It is the luck of the draw, or historical accident, whose name gets remembered as the discoverer of a new phenomenon.

“What is much more important than human genius is the development of technology, and it is no surprise that the start of the scientific revolution ‘coincides’ with the development of the telescope and the microscope. … If Newton had never lived, scientific progress might have been held back by a few decades. But only by a few decades. Edmond Halley or Robert Hooke might well have come up with the famous inverse square law of gravity; Gottfried Leibniz actually did invent calculus independently of Newton (and made a better job of it); and Christiaan Huygens’s superior wave theory of light was held back by Newton’s espousal of the rival particle theory. …

“Although the figure of Charles Darwin dominates any discussion of nineteenth-century science, he is something of an anomaly. It is during the nineteenth century – almost exactly during Darwin’s lifetime – that science makes the shift from being a gentlemanly hobby, where the interests and abilities of a single individual can have a profound impact, to a well-populated profession, where progress depends on the work of many individuals who are, to some extent, interchangeable. Even in the case of the theory of natural selection, as we have seen, if Darwin hadn’t come up with the idea, Wallace would have, and from now on we will increasingly find that discoveries are made more or less simultaneously by different people working independently and largely in ignorance of one another. …

“The other side of this particular coin, unfortunately, is that the growing number of scientists brings with it a growing inertia and resulting resistance to change, which means that all too often when some brilliant individual does come up with a profound new insight into the way the world works, this is not accepted immediately on merit and may take a generation to work its way into the collective received wisdom of science. …

“In 1766, there were probably no more than 300 people who we would now class as scientists in the entire world. By 1800, … there were about a thousand. By … 1844, there were about 10,000, and by 1900 somewhere around 100,000. Roughly speaking, the number of scientists doubled every fifteen years during the nineteenth century. But remember that the whole population of Europe doubled, from about 100 million to about 200 million, between 1750 and 1850, and the population of Britain alone doubled between 1800 and 1850, from roughly 9 million to roughly 18 million.”

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. xix-xx, 359-361.

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Cognitive Miserliness

In today’s excerpt – the human brain is a “cognitive miser”- it can employ several approaches to solving a given problem, but almost always chooses the one that requires the least computational power:

“We tend to be cognitive misers. When approaching a problem, we can choose from any of several cognitive mechanisms. Some mechanisms have great computational power, letting us solve many problems with great accuracy, but they are slow, require much concentration and can interfere with other cognitive tasks. Others are comparatively low in computational power, but they are fast, require little concentration and do not interfere with other ongoing cognition. Humans are cognitive misers because our basic tendency is to default to the processing mechanisms that require less computational effort, even if they are less accurate. Are you a cognitive miser? Consider the following problem, taken from the work of Hector Levesque, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto. Try to answer it yourself before reading the solution.

Problem: Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?

A) Yes
B) No
C) Cannot be determined

“More than 80 percent of people choose C. But the correct answer is A. Here is how to think it through logically: Anne is the only person whose marital status is unknown. You need to consider both possibilities, either married or unmarried, to determine whether you have enough information to draw a conclusion. If Anne is married, the answer is A: she would be the married person who is looking at an unmarried person (George). If Anne is not married, the answer is still A: in this case, Jack is the married person, and he is looking at Anne, the unmarried person. This thought process is called fully disjunctive reasoning – reasoning that considers all possibilities. The fact that the problem does not reveal whether Anne is or is not married suggests to people that they do not have enough information, and they make the easiest inference (C) without thinking through all the possibilities. Most people can carry out fully disjunctive reasoning when they are explicitly told that it is necessary (as when there is no option like ‘cannot be determined’ available). But most do not automatically do so, and the tendency to do so is only weakly correlated with intelligence.

“Here is another test of cognitive miserliness, as described by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Shane Frederick.

“A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

“Many people give the first response that comes to mind – 10 cents. But if they thought a little harder, they would realize that this cannot be right: the bat would then have to cost $1.10, for a total of $1.20. IQ is no guarantee against this error. Kahneman and Frederick found that large numbers of highly select university students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton and Harvard were cognitive misers, just like the rest of us, when given this and similar problems.”

Keith E. Stanovich, “Rational and Irrational Thought: The Thinking That IQ Tests Miss,” Scientific American, November/December 2009, pp. 35-36.

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In today’s encore excerpt–sharks, slave ships and the depravity of man, circa 1780:

“Sharks began to follow slave ships when they reached the Guinea coast [of western Africa]. … What attracted the sharks (as well as other fish) was the human waste, offal, and rubbish that was continually thrown overboard. Like a ‘greedy robber,’ the shark ‘attends the ship, in expectation of what may drop overboard. A man, who unfortunately falls into the sea at such time, is sure to perish, without mercy.’

“If the shark was the dread of sailors, it was the outright terror of the enslaved. No effort was made to protect or bury the bodies of African captives who died on the slave ships. … Slaving captains consciously used sharks to create terror throughout the voyage. They counted on sharks to prevent the desertion of their seamen and the escape of their slaves during the long stays on the coast of Africa required to gather a human ‘cargo.’ … So well known was the conscious use of terror by the slave captain to create social discipline that when Oliver Goldsmith came to write the natural history of sharks in 1774, he drew heavily on the lore of the slave trade. … Goldsmith recounted two instances:

” ‘The Master of the Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least that some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, the sharks had bit off all but the feet.’

“A second case was even more gruesome. Another captain facing a ‘rage for suicide’ seized upon a woman ‘as a proper example to the rest.’ He ordered the woman tied with a rope under her armpits and lowered into the water: ‘When the poor creature was thus plunged in, and about halfway down, she was heard to give a terrible shriek, which at first was ascribed to her fears of drowning; but soon after, the water appeared red all around her, she was drawn up, and it was found that a shark, which had followed the ship, had bit her off from the middle.’ Other slave-ship captains practiced a kind of sporting terror, using human remains to troll for sharks: ‘Our way to entice them was by Towing overboard a dead Negro, which they would follow till they had eaten him up.’ ”

Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship, Viking, Copyright 2007 by Marcus Rediker, pp.37-40.

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In today’s encore excerpt–Catherine the Great, Tsarina of Russia. King George III sought Catherine and Russia’s help in suppressing the American rebellion, but was rebuffed. Further, Britain’s dominance of the seas was diminished when Catherine formed a naval alliance from which it was excluded. Her concern in both cases was not for the American rebels, but instead for the European balance of power. These two developments, when combined, significantly limit Britain’s ability to sustain the war against American independence:

“Confronted with the increasing frenzy of ‘His Majesty’s unhappy and deluded people’ on the other side of the Atlantic, George III’s ministers approached Empress Catherine the Great for Russian assistance. Britain had the best fleet in the world but a negligible army, traditionally resorting to hired mercenaries. By contrast, the Russians had a homogeneous force hardened by war, toughened by the elements, and thoroughly brutal. … King George requested 20,000 disciplined infantry, ‘completely equipped and ready to embark’ as soon as the Baltic navigation was possible in the spring; he also sought to hire Russian naval ships to bolster his own navy. It was a tempting offer, but Catherine refused. … Publicly she wrote to George III, wishing him ‘good luck,’ but privately she was far more smug, convinced that George had badly bungled his handling of the rebels and ‘should be taught a lesson.’ … Britain was forced to resort to its second choice … the German House of Hesse. …

“[Catherine] was equally unwilling to acknowledge the existence of the American rabble. … But as fate would have it, the tsarina was also supremely fickle. Edgy and ambitious, she distrusted republics and despised insurgents, but even more than that, she craved power on the grand European stage. This would lead to one of history’s most curious moves. The consequences would be far-reaching. …

“Under the guise of protecting ‘freedom of the seas’ and ‘international law,’ Catherine … grasped her own opportunity to spearhead an alliance that would include the other great powers in Europe–Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and eventually Prussia, Austria, Portugal, and the Ottoman Turks–against the belligerents, which, in effect, meant England. Notably, the French and Spanish also rallied to the cause. … John Adams and Francis Dana now lauded Catherine’s ‘idealism’ and hailed the empress as ‘our friend.’ George Washington referred to her as the ‘great Potentate of the North.’ …

“In one bold stroke, [Catherine’s] Doctrine of Armed Neutrality redressed the balance of global sea power. More than that, the tsarina had isolated Britain diplomatically–the first time that had happened in the eighteenth century–and had curtailed Britain’s vaunted maritime fleet while aiding France’s. In so doing, she helped bolster the hopes of the beleaguered American rebels fighting for their lives and, in effect, almost inadvertently helped midwife America to independence.”

Jay Winik, The Great Upheaval, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik, pp. 37- 40.

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The creation of Iraq

In today’s excerpt–in the aftermath of World War i, Britain carves the new country of Iraq out of the defeated Ottoman (Turkish) Empire to protect access to its newly discovered oil interests in Iran, and to protect transportation lanes to its imperial possessions in Asia. The inherent divisions within Iraq–which will shortly lead Britain to bomb its villages–are already apparent:

“During the war, London had encouraged Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, to take the lead in raising an Arab revolt against Turkey. This he did, beginning in 1916, aided by a few Englishmen, of whom the most famous was T.E. Lawrence–Lawrence of Arabia. In exchange, Hussein and his sons were to be installed as the rulers of the various, predominantly Arab, constituents of the Turkish empire. Faisal, third son of Hussein, was generally considered the most able. …

“The British put Faisal on the throne of the newly created nation of Syria, one of the independent states carved out of the extinct Turkish empire. But a few months later, when control of Syria passed to France under the postwar understandings, Faisal was abruptly deposed and turned out of Damascus. He showed up at a railway station in Palestine, where, after a ceremonial welcome by the British, he sat on his luggage, waiting for his connection.

“But his career as a king was not yet over. The British needed a monarch for Iraq, another new state, this one to be formed out of three former provinces of the Turkish empire. Political stability in the area was required not only by the prospect for oil, but also for defense of the Persian Gulf and for the new imperial air route from Britain to India, Singapore, and Australia. The British did not want to rule the region directly; that would cost too much. Rather what [Winston] Churchill, then head of the Colonial Office, wanted was an Arab government, with a constitutional monarch, that would be ‘supported’ by Britain under the League of Nations mandate. It would be cheaper. So Churchill chose the out-of-work Faisal as his candidate. Summoned from exile, he was crowned King of Iraq in Baghdad in August 1921. …

“Faisal’s task was enormous; he had not inherited a well-defined nation, but rather a collection of diverse groups–Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs, Jews and Kurds and Yazidis–a territory with a few important cities, most of the countryside under the control of local sheikhs, and with little common political or cultural history, but with a rising Arab nationalism. The minority Sunni Arabs held political power, while the Shia Arabs were by far the most numerous. To complicate things further, the Jews were the largest single group among inhabitants of Baghdad, followed by Arabs and Turks.”

Daniel Yergin, The Prize, Free Press, Copyright 1991,2 by Daniel Yergin, pp. 200-201.

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In today’s encore excerpt–in the waning days of his presidency, George Washington was vilified for his support of the Jay Treaty. Though the treaty averted war, solved many issues left over from the American Revolution, and opened ten years of largely peaceful trade in the midst of the French Revolutionary Wars, it was reviled because it favored America’s former enemy, Britain, and failed to end to the impressment of American sailors. So Washington and other treaty supporters became despised by much of the public, with countless angry demonstrations–including one where his house was surrounded for days by hostile, chanting protesters:

“When the president dined alone with John Adams to enlist his support [for the Jay treaty], his vice president worried, ‘I see nothing but a dissolution of government and immediate war.’ … The press denounced Jay, criticized the treaty, derided the Senate, and in a constant drumbeat, reserved some of its most trenchant words for Washington himself. One Virginia editor actually suggested a toast for a ‘speedy death to General Washington.’ Meanwhile, when the press wasn’t sticking its finger in Washington’s eye, popular meetings were. Across the country–in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and countless other cities–they screeched until their voices were hoarse for Washington to reject the treaty, while in Manhattan, seven thousand Republicans, stretching from Broad Street to Wall Street, noisily marched against it. And day after day letters poured in condemning the pact as a deal with the British ‘Satan.’

“Then the opposition truly got ugly. Jay’s treaty, and his effigy, were burned up and down the entire Eastern Seaboard. Rioters in Philadelphia, clogging the avenues, broke windows in the houses of the British ambassador and a Federalist senator. In New York, Alexander Hamilton was pelted with stones. And John Adams was stunned to see the presidential mansion surrounded from morning to evening by protesters repeating the same stinging calls, a deafening refrain chanted over and over again in an ever-escalating crescendo, demanding war with England, cursing Washington (a ‘horrid blasphemer’), and calling for the success of the French patriots; marchers even impaled the treaty on a pole and carried it to the home of the French ambassador. The vitriol was unrelenting: A pale and utterly depleted Washington was [even] compared unfavorably to King Louis XVI.”

Jay Winik, The Great Upheaval, Harper Collins, Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik, p. 495.

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In today’s excerpt–at the founding of our country, Americans drank more alcohol than at any time before or since, five gallons of pure alcohol per person per year as opposed to two gallons today. Currently, America is a nation of relatively moderate drinkers, ranking around 20th among the world’s countries. Along the way, American anti-German hysteria during World War I helped usher in thirteen years of Prohibition:

“American prohibitionists believed the demon rum and its church, the saloon, were the world’s prime sources of evil. ‘When the saloon goes,’ said Ernest Cherrington, a leader of the Anti-Saloon League, ‘the devil will be ready to quit.’ The American temperance movement is as old as America itself, but it became a political force in the mid-1800s, fueled in part by a bias against immigrants, including Irish and Italian Catholics, who were stereotyped as shiftless alcoholics. After the Civil War, it spawned two powerful groups–the Prohibition Party and [hatching-toting Carry Nation’s] Women’s Christian Temperance Union, whose slogan was ‘For God, Home and Native Land.’

“But is wasn’t the antics of Carry Nation that won the fight for prohibition, it was the political savvy of the Anti-Saloon League. … Founded in 1895, the league pioneered many of the techniques now used by modern advocacy groups. Working through local churches–generally rural Methodist or Baptist churches–it raised money, endorsed candidates and successfully lobbied for laws banning liquor in many towns and counties. In 1905 the league demonstrated its growing power by defeating Ohio Governor Myron Herrick, who had thwarted the league’s legislative agenda–an upset that terrified wet politicians.

“In 1913 the league kicked off its drive for a constitutional amendment prohibiting liquor with a march on Washington and a massive letter-writing campaign that flooded Congress with mail. The amendment failed in 1914, but gained strength during World War I, when the league exploited America’s anti-German hysteria by deliberately associating beer with German-American brewers. ‘Kaiserism abroad and booze at home must go,’ declared the league’s general counsel and wily Washington lobbyist, Wayne Wheeler.

“It worked. Congress passed the amendment in 1918. … When the new law went into effect on January 17, 1920, evangelist Billy Sunday held a funeral for John Barleycorn in Norfolk, Va. ‘The slums will soon be a memory,’ he predicted. ‘We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. … Hell will be forever for rent.’

“Alas, it didn’t work out that way. Prohibitions not only failed to eradicate slums and prisons, it even failed to curtail drinking, a pastime that now took on the allure of a forbidden thrill. … In 1935, two years after Prohibition’s repeal, two middle-class alcoholics, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, founded an organization– Alcoholics Anonymous–that proved far more effective than Prohibition in combating drunkenness.”

Peter Carlson, “Uneasy About Alcohol,” American History, December 2008, p. 37.

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