July 16, 2009

Was Brontosaurus A Herbivore?



1a. George Washington is the father of our country, the Revolutionary War general who helped free the colonies from their British rule. In what country was George Washington born?

2a. What modern animal is most genetically similar to a triceratops?

3a. T or F: The majority of the available scientific evidence strongly suggests that nicotine increases the risk of cancer.

4a. Your best friend in the whole world, Tom, sends you a letter which begins with the first two lines of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent..."  That's bad, right?

5a.  Galileo, the scientist famously remembered by his first name, invented the 3x telescope.  What, if anything, was going on in America at the same time?


1b.  Could someone born in another country become President of the US?

2b.  Does a rhinoceros lay eggs or have live young?

3b. Do nicotine gum and patches have the surgeon general's warning?

4b. Does Tom like Shakespeare?

5b.  What was Galileo accused of?


Why did the b questions help you answer the a questions?  Because they made you think from a different angle.  You were first trying to remember the answer, but then trying to deduce the answer.

These questions should have been the stuff of elementary school education, but somewhere between learning that Washington had wooden teeth and "brontosaurus ate plants" we missed lessons that could be applied.

What we were taught was facts.  We were also taught never to question the facts.  No one thinks a 7th grade textbook is wrong.  The results of a study may be questioned, but the Introduction section isn't.  What makes a statement in the Introduction true is that it is in the Introduction.  And go look how often studies reference the Introduction of another study...

Unfortunately, even these facts,  tested in exams and backed by certainty were wrong, but there was no public apology.  No one ever says, "wow, we were wrong."  They just move past it.  Some of these facts ruined lives.  For me, infuriatingly, some of these facts resulted in worse grades in high school.  Do I get to go back and reapply to a better college?

  • Brontosaurus ate plants (there's no such thing as a brontosaurus)
  • introns "do nothing" (not: "we don't know what they do")
  • giraffes evolved long necks because it helped them reach higher leaves (the giraffe did it?)
  • Everyone thought the world was flat in Columbus's time
  • etc

By focusing on facts, we learned a way of thinking which is not generalizable to knowledge or useful for its application. Worse, the isolation of these facts outside of context makes it difficult for us to detect them as wrong.

Education is at the convenience of the educators.

God Wouldn't Have Made The Same Thing Twice For No Reason

Most people know that birds are the closest relative to most dinosaurs; and they definitely know that dinosaurs are reptiles, but they pick rhino-- a mammal-- anyway.  A triceratops is closer to a snake than to a rhino; indeed, a rhino is closer to a unicorn than a triceratops and unicorns don't even exist.  Similarly: an eel isn't a snake or a worm, it's a fish.

They learned about evolution wrong(ly.) For most people 1) evolution is about morphology and not genetics; 2) they don't believe evolution is a random, sometimes redundant and repeating process, but rather a process of refinement, of moving towards something better.

Do you know why they think that?  Because they were taught that.

"Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong"

Everyone knows cigarettes are bad, and that they have nicotine.  So perhaps it's not surprising that 70% of smokers think that nicotine increases the risk of cancer-- because that's the one the evil tobacco companies spiked the cigarette with. 

In fact, out of the 60 carcinogens, tar, arsenic, lead and CO inhaled with each puff, nicotine is one of the few chemicals that doesn't cause lung cancer or heart disease. 

But, be honest, break the fourth wall: reading this blog, you quickly reasoned that the mere fact that the question was asked suggests it's a trick.  "Aha!" you may have figured.  "Nicotine patches!"  Which is fine; The Princeton Review actually formalizes this way of approaching the SAT test  (e.g. for the first third of questions the obvious answer is correct; last third of questions, the obvious answer is always wrong...)

Now, you have never once in your life said to someone "nicotine causes cancer."  But it is 100% certain that within the next 5 days, you will repeat this question to others, and teach them that nicotine doesn't cause cancer.  Knowledge is rarely offered freely; debunking of conventional wisdom is shouted from the rooftops.

I'll repeat: you've never told someone that nicotine causes cancer, but it is certain that you will now tell people that it doesn't.  Because it's cool.

Unfortunately, nicotine does increase the risk of cancer-- just not in the same way that other carcinogens do it.  (It facilitates the development of lung cancer, and possible breast cancer.)  The evidence for this is not substantial but it isn't inconsequential, either.  So telling people it doesn't cause cancer-- the information you were motivated to disseminate-- is absolutely, and dangerously, wrong.

Science is no different.  Is a 2000 calorie diet the same as a 2000 calorie diet?

Everyone Else Is So Wrong That You Can Never Be Right

Look at the "decimate" cartoon at the top.  You know deci means ten and you never applied it.  You follow the herd, the herd that used decimate in the comic book sense: "we will decimate our enemies!"

But because decimate has taken on the common usage 'kill a lot of", it's not actually wrong to use it that way; indeed, if you try to use it the other way, you will confuse people.  So the meaning that is actually conveyed will depend on your audience, not on you.  You don't get to decide what you meant. 

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

Line 1 sounds bad, but line 2 flips it:  things that were bad have been made good by the king.  So what does it mean in the letter you received, bad or good?  What matters is what Tom thinks it means.

That requires you to know Tom.  And requires Tom to assume you're going to think it means what he does, i.e. that he is not aware that it means different things to different people, even though it really only means one thing.

This is knowledge claimed by misuse, anyone who wants to be understood should simply steer clear of the word decimate and Richard III.  Take a minute and you'll come up with a thousand other words and concepts that have been murdered by misinterpretation. 

Expression affects thought.  When there are restrictions on expression, there are restrictions on thought. 

Compartmentalization of Information

Even if you didn't know that Washington was a 3rd generation American, you should have been able to reason that since all Presidents must be born in the U.S., Washington had to be born in the U.S. (1) You possessed all of the necessary information; but you could not apply it.  It's not your fault.

Galileo lived around the 1600s, and was found suspect of heresy by the Inquisition for supporting heliocentricism-- in 1632.  This made it a decade after the Jamestown Massacre and Plymouth Rock.  Consider, therefore, that the Pilgrims had guns and still believed the sun went around the earth. 

Consider that the Age of Exploration-- Magellan, Columbus, et al-- happened 100 years before Galileo-- with a wrong understanding of solar system and before the invention of the telescope. 

It's a game you can play all day: King Arthur (500AD) was twice as far from the time of Leonardo Da Vinci (1500AD) than to Jesus; Jesus was 500 years closer to us than to the building of the Pyramid of Giza.

Learning famous dates is of no value if they can't be used to contextualize events.  Which, of course, wasn't the point of learning them.

And by learning so many bits of disconnected factoids, you are fooled into thinking you know something.

The Solution To The Problem Of Useless Education:

Where did George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln go to college?


1. Actually, this isn't true.  Article II of the Constitution says the President must be natural born or a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.  But it's safe to assume if you had any trouble with this question, you didn't know about that caveat.