What makes us good at learning some things and not others?

One of the questions that students ask me is why it is that they find some subjects easy and others hard to learn. Students often tell me that they “are good� at one subject (say writing) and “are not good� at another (say physics), with the clear implication that they feel that there is something intrinsic and immutable about them that determines what they are good at. It is as if they see their learning abilities as being mapped onto a multi-dimensional grid in which each axis represents a subject, with their own abilities lying along a continuous scale ranging from ‘awful’ at one extreme to ‘excellent’ at the other. Is this how it is?

This is a really tough question and I don’t think there is a definitive answer at this time. Those interested in this topic should register for the free public lecture by Steven Pinker on March 14.

Why are some people drawn to some areas of study and not to others? Why do they find some things difficult and others easy? Is it due to the kind of teaching that one receives or parental influence or some innate quality like genes?

The easiest answer is to blame it on genes or at least on the hard-wiring of the brain. In other words, we are born the way we are, with gifts in some areas and deficiencies in others. It seems almost impossible to open the newspapers these days without reading that scientists have found the genes that ‘cause’ this or that human characteristic so it is excusable to jump to genes as the cause of most inexplicable things.

But that is too simple. After all, although the brain comes at birth with some hard-wired structures, it is also quite plastic and the direction in which it grows is also strongly influenced by the experiences it encounters. But it seems that most of the rapid growth and development occurs fairly early in life and so early childhood and adolescent experiences are important in determining future directions.

But what kinds of experiences are the crucial ones for determining future academic success? Now things get more murky and it is hard to say which ones are dominant. We cannot even say that the same factors play the same role for everyone. So for one person, a single teacher’s influence could be pivotal. For another, it could be the parent’s influence. The influences could also be positive or negative.

So there is no simple answer. But I think that although this is an interesting question, the answer has little practical significance for a particular individual at this stage of their lives in college. You are now what you are. The best strategy is to not dwell on why you are not something else, but to identify your strengths and use them to your advantage.

It is only when you get really deep into a subject (any subject) and start to explore its foundations and learn about its underlying knowledge structure that you start to develop higher-level cognitive skills that will last you all your life. But this only happens if you like the subject because only then will you willingly expend the intellectual effort to study it in depth. With things that we do not care much about, we tend to skim on the surface, doing just the bare minimum to get by. This is why it is important to identify what you really like to do and go for it.

You should also identify your weaknesses and dislikes and contain them. By “containâ€? I mean that there is really no reason why at this stage you should force yourself to try and like (say) mathematics or physics or Latin or Shakespeare or whatever and try to excel in them, if you do not absolutely need to. What’s the point? What are you trying to prove and to whom? If there was a really good reason that you needed to know something about those areas now or later in life, the higher-level learning skills you develop by charging ahead in the things you like now could be used to learn something that you really need to know later.

I don’t think that people have an innate “limitâ€?, in the sense that there is some insurmountable barrier that prevents them from achieving more in any area. I am perfectly confident that some day if you needed or wanted to know something in those areas, you would be able to learn it. The plateau or barrier that students think they have reached is largely determined by their inner sense of “what’s the point?â€?

I think that by the time they reach college, most students have reached the “need to know� stage in life, where they need a good reason to learn something. In earlier K-12 grades, they were in the “just in case� stage where they did not know where they would be going and needed to prepare themselves for any eventuality.

This has important implications for teaching practice. As teachers, we should make it our goal to teach in such a way that students see the deep beauty that lies in our discipline, so that they will like it for its own sake and thus be willing to make the effort. It is not enough to tell them that it is “useful� or “good for them.�

In my own life, I now happily learn about things that I would never have conceived that I would be interested in when I was younger. The time and circumstances have to be right for learning to have its fullest effect. As Edgar says in King Lear: “Ripeness is all.�

(The quote from Shakespeare is a good example of what I mean. If you had told me when I was an undergraduate that I would some day be familiar enough with Shakespeare to quote him comfortably, I would have said you were crazy because I hated his plays at that time. But much later in life, I discovered the pleasures of reading his works.)

So to combine the words from the song by Bobby McFerrin, and the prison camp commander in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, my own advice is “Don’t worry. Be happy in your work.â€?

Sources:

John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn, National Academy Press, Washington D.C.,1999.

James E. Zull, The Art of Changing the Brain, Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, 2002.

Why is evolutionary theory so upsetting to some?

One of the questions that sometimes occur to observers of the intelligent design (ID) controversy is why there is such hostility to evolutionary theory in particular. After all, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are pretty much guaranteed to find that the theories of any scientific discipline (physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, in addition to biology) contradict many of the things taught in the Bible.

So what is it about evolution in particular that gets some people’s goat?
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The questions not asked

You can tell more about the sorry state of the mainstream news media by the kinds of questions that are not asked as by the questions that are.

Take for example the news this week that North Korea publicly acknowledged having nuclear weapons and withdrew from the six-nation talks, saying that it wanted bilateral discussion with the US. The news communiqué from the North Korean government said that the reason it had developed nuclear weapons was to defend itself from possible attack by the US.

In response to this announcement, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said that “The North Koreans have no reason to believe that anyone wants to attack them,�

Really? Let’s see now. The Bush administration famously created the ‘axis of evil’ that consisted of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. The first country (Iraq) has since been invaded by the US, and the second country (Iran) now has US forces on two of its borders (Iraq and Afghanistan), with the bellicose language and arguments that preceded the attack on Iraq being now reprised against Iran

Then there is the fact that there are nearly 40,000 US troops in South Korea, along the border with the North.

Also, Rice identified North Korea as an “outpost of tyrannyâ€? at her confirmation hearings just last month. And Bush earlier called the North Korean leader a loathsome “pygmy.â€?

Given all this, I think a person might reasonably conclude that the North Koreans have grounds for being concerned about an attack.

So when Rice pooh-pooh’s North Korea’s fears about an impending strike, you might think that a reporter might question her about these past statements and ask her why she expects the North Koreans to believe her. But as far as I can tell, it did not happen.

Or as another example, take the case of the recent horrific bombing in Beirut that killed the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. In response to this event White House spokesman Scott McClellan is quoted as saying that the United States will consult with other members of the U.N. Security Council about how to restore Lebanon’s independence by ending what he termed foreign occupation.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher went further and said that the killing undercuts Syria’s stated reason for keeping 14,000 troops in Lebanon which was to maintain the multiethnic country’s stability.

Mr. Boucher also said that this “shows the distortions of Lebanese politics that are created by the Syrian presence that shows that the excuse, the reason, the rationale, that’s given for the security — for the Syrian presence really doesn’t work. It has not provided internal security for Lebanon, and therefore, in light of that kind of event, we need to look at the whole range of issues that we’ve had, including Syrian presence in Lebanon.â€?

Now when statements like this are made, the adage about glass houses immediately jumps to mind. How can these spokespersons say that one bombing in Lebanon, however major, underscores the need for the removal of 14,000 foreign troops there since no security has been created by them, when just down the street in Iraq there are more that ten times that many US troops present, yet civil war seems a possibility, bombings on the scale of what happened in Lebanon are almost routine daily occurrences, and lawlessness is so rampant that even the road to the Baghdad airport is now a no-go zone?

The reason that these spokespersons can make these statements is that they know they will not be pressed on the awkward contradictions.

The point is not that there may not be good reasons that explain away the contradictions. The interesting question is why these people are not even expected to make the case.

These are not isolated instances, and in future postings we will look at further examples and pose the question of why it is that reporters who have access to these spokespeople do not seem to ask the obvious questions.

Can we ever be certain about scientific theories?

A commenter to a previous posting raised an interesting perspective that requires a fresh posting, because it reflects a commonly held view about how the validity of scientific theories get established.

The commenter says:

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“A scientist cannot be certain about a theory until that theory has truly been tested, and thus far, I am unaware of our having observed the evolution of one species from another species. Perhaps, in time, we will observe this, at which point the theory will have been verified. But until then, Evolution is merely a theory and a model.

While we may have the opportunity to test Evolution as time passes, it is very highly doubtful that we will ever be able to test any of the various theories for the origins of the Universe.�
******

I would like to address just two points: What does it mean to “test� a theory? And can scientists ever “verify� a theory and “be certain� about it?
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Beware the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade

In a previous post, I seemed to be taking two contradictory positions. On the one hand, I argued that Third-Tier Punditsâ„¢ (of the Jonah Goldberg, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin variety) contribute almost nothing valuable to the public discourse. On the other hand, I argued that they should be countered. So why should we waste time on people who have little to say?

The answer is that though they add nothing to the public debates, they do subtract a lot. To understand this point, let’s start with historian Juan Cole, author of the invaluable blog Informed Comment. He says:

“Cranky rich people hire sharp-tongued and relatively uninformed young people all the time and put them on the mass media to badmouth the poor, spread bigotry, exalt mindless militarism, promote anti-intellectualism, and ensure generally that rightwing views come to predominate even among people who are harmed by such policies. One of their jobs is to marginalize progressives by smearing them as unreliable.�

Cole nails it. The main purpose of these people seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. Because they swarm through the media in such large numbers, they convey the misleading impression that they represent the mainstream, and their style of argumentation (shouting, sarcasm, ridicule, quips, and barbs) is such that the lack of actual evidence and reasoned arguments is not immediately apparent.

There are a host of well-funded foundations and think tanks and media outlets which are willing to hire telegenic young people who are facile with words and let them loose as front line troops in the media war to persuade the public that policies that in reality will harm them are good for them. These people get repeated media exposure and soon, like Paris Hilton, are famous for just being famous, although they really have little of substance to contribute.

The antennae of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade are carefully tuned to pick up the cues about what their patrons want. Want the public to support an attack on a country like Iraq that never threatened the US? Want to privatize social security and cut back on Medicare? Want to undermine public education? Want to take away even the little support that poor people get from the government? In a flash, the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ Brigade come storming out of their luxury penthouse barracks, laptops blazing, occupying all the vantage points in the media so that more thoughtful voices are squeezed out, leaving little room for reasoned discussion. They can do this confidently knowing that they will rarely encounter a knowledgeable interviewer or host who will hold them accountable or ask them to back up their statements with anything resembling a useful fact or a line of coherent reasoning.

Another ‘benefit’ of having the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade™ around is that they enable other extreme voices who voice much the same policies but in a more sophisticated manner (people like Charles Krauthammer and William Safire) to acquire that much-sought-after media label of ‘moderate’. These pundits are anything but moderate in their proposals. They only manage to appear so because they lack the shrillness of the Third-Tier Pundit Brigade™, the shock troops whose function is to soften up the ‘enemy� (i.e. public opinion) so that they will be more easily taken captive by the smoother-talkers and their pro-administration sponsors.

This is no trivial matter. The consequences are serious because this kind of know-nothing punditry lays the foundation for bad policies that go unchallenged. Again, as Juan Cole continues:

“The thing that really annoyed me about Goldberg’s sniping was it reminded me of how our country got into this mess in Iraq. It was because a lot of ignorant but very powerful and visible people told the American people things that were not true. In some instances I believe that they lied. In other instances, they were simply too ignorant of the facts to know when an argument put forward about, say, Iraq, was ridiculous. … They were never contradicted when they said this on television, though.
…
“The corporate media failed the United States in 2002-2003. The US government failed the American people in 2002-2003. That empty, and often empty-headed punditry, which Jon Stewart destroyed so skillfully, played a big role in dragooning the American people into a wasteful and destructive elective war that threatens to warp American society and very possibly to end the free Republic we have managed to maintain for over 200 years.�

To be a member of the Third-Tier Pundit Brigadeâ„¢ requires you to have no sense of shame because you will have to urge policies for others while exempting yourself from its consequences. For example, Jonah Goldberg was one of the most vociferous voices urging an attack on Iraq. When asked why he did not enlist himself if he felt so strongly that Iraq was such a menace to the US, he replied that it was because he was 35 years old, a new father, and enlisting would require him to take a cut in income.

Really? The fact that this war has resulted in the deaths and dismemberment of many American soldiers in similar or more dire need of exemption, and left many, many young children fatherless and motherless and in serious financial trouble, not to mention the deaths and devastation in Iraq, does not seem to cause him any unease as long as he personally does not have to bear the sacrifices he is urging on others. And chickenhawk Jonah is by no means alone in this kind of behavior.

He also said that “one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people.� Not “bring the guilty to justice.� Not “try to prevent such future occurrences.� Not “find out what made people commit this mass murder.� No, what is most important is to satiate his desire for death.

One wonders about the moral sensibility of a person who can so fervently wish for the death of anyone, let alone innocent people. Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire has tracked that over three thousand Afghan civilians, more than the number of those who died on September 11, none of them complicit in the attack on the World Trade Center, died as a result of the US bombing of that country.

Afghanistan is a country with a wretched history, abused and kicked around repeatedly by great powers playing their global games. Its inhabitants are among the poorest of the world’s poor. Yet Goldberg is comfortable calling for their deaths because he and his friends feel the need to lash out.

This is the time of year when soon-to-be college graduates are looking for jobs. Are you bright, articulate, photogenic, able to write glibly, have a highly developed sense of sarcasm, and are willing to sacrifice your integrity and say anything in order to advance the agenda of your patrons? Join the Third-Tier Pundit Brigadeâ„¢ and be all you can be!

Wanted: “Godwin’s Law”-type rule for science

Mike Godwin coined a law (now known as Godwin’s Law) that states: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.�

This makes sense. As the discussion drags on, people start running out of fresh or relevant arguments, begin repeating themselves, lose their tempers, reach for something new to say, and Hitler/Nazi comparisons inevitably follow.

But Godwin”s Law has been extended beyond its original intent and is now used as a decision rule to indicate that a discussion has ceased to be meaningful and should be terminated. In other words, as soon as the Hitler/Nazi comparison is brought into any discussion where it is not relevant, the Godwin Rule can be invoked to say that the discussion is over and the person who introduced the Hitler/Nazi motif has lost the argument.
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The Unbearable Lightness of Third-Tier Pundits

In the educational system that existed in Sri Lanka when I was growing up, students had to decide in the eighth grade what direction their future education would take, Since I knew I wanted to do physics, I chose to go in that direction and the rest of my education consisted of heavy doses of physics and mathematics with absolutely nothing in history, geography, literature, and social studies.

Naturally, this created huge gaps in my own knowledge base that later in life I have had to fill in as best as I can on my own.

This is not entirely a bad thing. One benefit is that I have not developed a hatred for the omitted subjects that those who have had heavy doses of formal education sometimes get. I actually like history and read about historical events for fun. And as I get older, I find that I know a lot of recent history by default, as I have actually lived through events that my children must learn about from history texts.
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Evolution III: Scientific knowledge is an interconnected web

In an earlier posting, the question was posed as to whether it was intellectually consistent to reject the findings of an entire modern scientific discipline (like biology) or of a major theoretical structure (like the theory of evolution) while accepting all the other theories of science.

The short answer is no. Why this is so can be seen by examining closely the most minimal of creationist theories, the one that goes under the label of ‘intelligent design’ or ID.

ID supporters take great pains to claim that theirs is a scientific theory that has nothing to do with religion or God, and hence belongs in the school science curriculum. (This particular question whether ID can be considered a part of science or of religion will be revisited in a later posting. This is becoming a longer series than I anticipated…)

ID advocates say that there are five specific biochemical systems and processes (bacterial flagella and cilia, blood clotting, protein transport within a cell, the immune system, and metabolic pathways) whose existence and/or workings cannot be explained by evolutionary theory and that hence one has to postulate that such phenomena are evidence of design and of the existence of a designer.

The substance of their arguments is: “You can claim all the other results for evolutionary theory. What would be the harm in allowing these five small systems to have an alternative explanation?�

Leaving aside the many other arguments that can be raised against this position (including those from biologists that these five systems are hardly intractable problems for evolutionary theory), I want to focus on just one feature of the argument. Is it possible to accept that just these five processes were created by a ‘designer,’ while retaining a belief in all the other theories of science?

No you cannot. If some undetectable agent had intervened to create the cilia (say), then in that single act at a microscopic level, you have violated fundamental laws of physics such as the law of conservation of energy, the law of conservation of momentum, and (possibly) the law of conservation of angular momentum. These laws are the bedrock of science and to abandon them is to abandon some of the most fundamental elements of modern science.

So rejecting a seemingly small element of evolutionary theory triggers a catastrophe in a seemingly far-removed area of science, a kind of chaotic ‘butterfly effect’ for scientific theories.

Scientific theories are so interconnected that some philosophers of science have taken this to the extreme (as philosophers are wont to do) and argued that we can only think of one big scientific theory that encompasses everything. It is this entire system (and not any single part of it) that should be compared with nature.

Pierre Duhem in his The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906) articulated this position when he declared that: “The only experimental check on a physical theory which is not illogical consists in comparing the entire system of the physical theory with the whole group of experimental laws, and in judging whether the latter is represented by the former in a satisfactory manner.� (emphasis in original)

Of course, in practical terms, we don’t do that. Each scientific subfield proceeds along its own path. And we know that there have been revolutions in one area of science that have left other areas seemingly undisturbed. But this interconnectedness is a reality and explains why scientific theories are so resistant to change. Scientists realize that changing one portion requires, at the very least, making some accommodations in theories that are connected to it, and it is this process of adjustments that takes time and effort and prevents trivial events from triggering changes.

This is why it usually requires a major crisis in an existing theory for scientists to even consider replacing it with a new one. The five cases raised by ID advocates do not come close to creating that kind of crisis. They are like flies in the path of a lumbering evolutionary theory elephant, minor irritants that can be ignored or swatted away easily.

Extra note:

For those of you interested in this topic, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is having an all day symposium on “Teaching Evolution and the Diversity of Life� on Saturday February 12. I am one of the speakers, speaking on the topic “Science and Intelligent Design� in classroom C from 9:45-10:45. Unfortunately the symposium is not free except for the 4:30 pm talk by Dr. Brian Alters.

The Plain Dealer ran a news item about the symposium and related topics in the Metro section yesterday (Thursday, February 10, 2005).

Ossie Davis, stereotype threat, and academic underachievement

Veteran actor Ossie Davis died last Friday. In reading the tributes to him, I was struck by what he had said just a year earlier when he received the Kennedy Center awards.

“We knew that every time we got a job and every time we were on a stage, America was looking to make judgments about all black folks on the basis on how you looked, how you sounded, how you carried yourself. So, any role you had was a role that was involved in the struggle for black identification. You couldn’t escape it.�

This comment underscores research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson on what makes black students underachieve academically. They identified one possible cause as something they named ‘stereotype threat.’ When members of an identifiable group are placed in a testing situation where failure would reinforce a negative stereotype of that group, this places a pressure on them that makes them under-perform. This was true for blacks in any academic situation, for women being tested in mathematics, and even for white men competing academically against Asians, as is illustrated by this cartoon.

doonesbury.jpg

In Davis’ case, we can see that he felt immense pressure to always succeed on stage and never do anything that would reflect negatively on him or his performance. Any action that would be a sign of individual failure if done by a white person would, if done by a black, be taken as a sign of black people’s incapacity or incompetence.

It is possible that because of this fear, Davis could not afford to take risks in performing and try edgy and unflattering roles, the kinds of things that might have made him an even greater actor. He may have suffered from ‘Sidney Poitier Syndrome’, which I have named after another great actor who seemed to always play characters that were kind, noble, clever, ‘perfect in every way’ as Mary Poppins said.

This was carried to an extreme in the nauseating film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?� in which Poitier played this brilliant, wonderful, flawless human being whose white fiance’s parents’ struggle to overcome their prejudices and accept him as their son-in-law.

I wonder how much Davis and Poitier regret that, even at the height of their powers, they were not able to expand their skills and improve their craft by playing unflattering, evil, sinister, or criminal characters, the way white actors like Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro do. Perhaps they take comfort in knowing that their sacrifices enabled later generations of black actors to do so.

Similarly, it was not that long ago that Doug Williams faced a similar stereotype threat when he was the first black quarterback to play in a Super Bowl (XXII in 1988). There was a ridiculous notion floating around then that quarterback was a ‘brains’ position and that perhaps blacks could not handle it. I remember Williams saying that he felt pressure to succeed just to prove that blacks could do it.

Fortunately Williams, like Davis and Poitier, was a gracious man and handled the pressure exceedingly well (340 passing yards, four touchdown passes) and his Washington Redskins handily defeated their Denver opponents. He was even awarded Super Bowl MVP honors.

These days the presence of top-flight black quarterbacks at all levels of the game is taken for granted, and it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have questioned their abilities. But we do not know how many black quarterbacks before Williams, or actors before Davis and Poitier, did not handle the pressure as well as these pioneers and hence had lesser success or even outright failure and did not make it to the heights that they did.

But even though stereotype threats have been somewhat suppressed in football and acting, it is still alive and well when it comes to schooling and is likely to continue to suppress academic performance of the affected groups until we break free of that kind of thinking.

Sources:

1. Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual
Test Performance of African Americans,� Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95, no. 5 (1995): 797–811.

2. David J. Lewin, “Subtle Clues Elicit Stereotypes’ Impact on Black Students,� Journal of NIH Research, November 1995, 24–26.

Evolution II: Science is not a smorgasbord

In an earlier posting, I noted that the US population is roughly evenly split on whether or not to accept the basic tenet of evolution on the origin of humans. What is interesting is that the people who reject evolution feel quite free to do so. They seem to feel that there is no price to be paid.

This is because science is taught pretty much as a set of end results and disconnected facts: The universe is over ten billion years old. The Earth revolves around the Sun. Atoms are made from protons, neutrons, and electrons. Trees take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Our genetic information is encoded in our DNA.
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