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When was the last time an argument changed your mind?

I mean, really.

Imagine you are watching a debate for the presidential candidates and you go into the debate with certain opinions on how things should be run – say: tax code. Then, after sitting and watching the candidates outline their rationale (right?! I know I’m reaching here) you think to yourself, ‘huh. Well, that guy just changed my mind.’

Does this ever really happen?

Fairly certain this guy has never been persuaded to a different opinion

Fairly certain this guy has never been persuaded to a different opinion

Can people who believe in a ‘flat tax’ be persuaded that a ‘progressive tax’ structure is more fair and more worthy of their support? (I threw in the ‘and’ there because you can be shown the rationale for something and agree with it without changing your position)

Can proponents of a ‘pathway to citizenship’ be convinced that it’s simply too impractical to actually be enacted?

Can pro-lifers be converted to pro-choice by the right argument?

(as a side note, I wrote the above statements in a completely arbitrary manner, because I recognize that people also seek out ‘echo chambers’ for their own ways of thinking, which may be a part of the problem as a whole. Anyway, I don’t mean to deter a reader because they see words like ‘pro-choice’ or ‘pro-life’.)

Kepler could have applied himself better...

Kepler could have applied himself better…

Sometimes I question whether the Greeks were just wasting their time spending all that energy thinking about rhetoric. They didn’t persuade the Romans to stay out of their lands and to not steal their whole pantheon of gods. Maybe if they spent a little more time practicing their phalanx formations and a little less worrying about whether there was really a place filled with Perfect Forms (I’m looking at you, Plato) that we vaguely remember from before the time we were born, they might have effected a more sturdy border guard.

Nevertheless,

I changed my mind today about something. (I’m still working on changing it about some other things that would make my life easier, but I’m off to a good start) I got an email pointing me to the following post by Brett Berry on Medium this morning.

https://static.medium.com/embed.jsWhy 5 x 3 = 5 + 5 + 5 Was Marked Wrong
My first reaction was to be upset with the teacher who gave this kid points off for correct answers. I opened the article in order to satisfy my own desire for hearing an echo chamber of my thoughts only to find that the author took a different stance.

I kept reading because I was determined to write a comment to express my ire – but, you know, wanted to make sure that I could point out the best examples of the author’s flawed thinking first. I first saw that he was making a reasonable argument, but felt like it was still wrong. Then I saw how his examples supported his way of thinking and was starting to lament that he was making it more difficult for me to undercut him. Finally, he added that, depending on the order that things were taught, the answer could be considered correct under some circumstances, but that it was better to teach the meaning of the maths stepwise in order to law the proper framework for future lessons.

I give up. You win, Math Guy.

Not only did you change my mind on this issue, but you also laid the framework for me to re-examine my whole approach to Common Core.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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DNA Schedule and the GOP debate

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.48.27 PMFirst and foremost, I have to admit that tonight’s was the best run debate I can remember seeing – ever. With the prospect of pandemonium breaking out with so many candidates on stage at the same time, and the ‘kids debate’ (for candidates garnering less support in recent polls) happening just prior to this one, it was a pleasant surprise to see that Fox News was actually quite competent in hosting this debate. Each of the candidates got a reasonable time to talk, many were forced to stay on topic by the questioner as well as their fellow debaters on stage, and some of the answers actually sounded thought out rather than just released from a can.

Personally, I thought Mike Huckabee, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie came of as appearing most ‘presidential’ tonight. I think Huckabee may have benefited the most from the restricted format as he hold some interesting ideas that tend to come out during less guarded moments. Christie came across as a strong man of convictions and was able to voice these while simultaneously taking down Rand Paul. I actually thought Trump came off much better than I expected, but apparently Republican focus groups saw his performance as lacking.

However, one thing stood out for me:

The ‘DNA Schedule.’

Despite by background in biology and teaching science (including genetics) for a number of years, I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of a DNA schedule. But who doesn’t get tongue tied once in a while and winds up saying something silly? I can forgive that. It’s like me referring to an ‘accounting sheet’ when I mean ‘balance sheet’ or something. But what about the context?

…we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception. The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on.

Um … what?

I guess I can agree that even single celled zygotes have the same cellular DNA makeup as the adult this will become, but I’m not sure what bearing this has on anything. What does this statement mean?Defining the moment that an embryo ‘becomes human’ is a tricky thing to do. What does it mean to ‘be human’? In my mind, a single zygotic cell is no more human than a cancer cell extracted and cultured outside of a person. They both have that DNA schedule thing – more or less. I suppose I have to admit that cancer cells have such messed up DNA that it is hard to be precise about this – but they are both relatively non-differentiated human cells. One has the potential to develop naturally into a human being if kept in the right environment. One was human, but has departed.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 12.00.38 AMPeople are always trying to find new ways to describe when life begins in ways that it is most consistent with their beliefs, but it’s a slippery thing. Does life begin at conception? Does it begin when the baby is developed enough to survive outside of the womb? I caution politicians to be careful when treading into this area. It’s a minefield for all sides and we often come up with definitions that are more arbitrary than they are useful.

And … there’s no DNA schedule.

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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The Utility and Futility of Debate

ken-ham-bill-nye-debateOn the evening of February 4 at 7pm EST Billy Nye and Ken Ham debated on the topic of whether “creationism is a viable model of origins in today’s modern scientific era?”

The Richard Dawkins Foundation’s Dan Arel wrote what many scientists have thought for a long time. Don’t debate creationists, it just eggs them on.It is typically the position of scientists to discuss data and how it should be interpreted, but not to simply debate on a larger idea that does not hinge on some critical observation. There are many reasons for this: 1) It’s too large in scope to actually present all the evidence for and discuss it rationally, 2) This debate in particular is coming about more than a century too late (when there was new data challenging the old paradigm, and 3) debate doesn’t actually solve anything.

It was also argued that Bill Nye might not be the best representative of the field of biology and its primary tenet. It would be counter productive to have a debate of questionable utility and then not send the best qualified person for the job.

But it happened. You can watch the whole debate here:

I was fidgeting in my seat waiting for the thing to start thinking, ‘this could go poorly, what do I really know about Bill Nye? By being held at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, Bill is definitely speaking before a potentially overwhelmingly biased audience. I hope he’s done his homework.’

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

Dino with a saddle at the Creationism Museum

The two took the stage, were introduced to the audience and the rules of the game were outlined (intro statements, a 30 minutes opportunity to build a case, then shorter Q&A style back and forth.)

Mr. Ham won the coin toss and went first. In his opening statements he spoke very well, redefined a couple of terms for us, like ‘science’ (which he broke into observational science and historical science) and talked a bit about the theory of knowledge (what can we know? What counts as evidence?)

I was thrown off by some of his definitions and didn’t like his assertion that we cannot use observations of the laws of nature today and apply the lessons we learn to the past, but overall, he came off fairly well and charismatically.

Then Mr. Nye took the mike and started telling a story about bow ties. I like bow ties and I think he pulls it off very well, but I didn’t like where this was going. Luckily, he came back to his message and gave a strong introduction that settled my nerves somewhat.

For the meat of his talk, Mr. Ham really went all out to establish the language that could be used and what he deemed admissible as evidence. The short story was, we can’t know anything about the past, except from the eye-witness account of history the Bible gives us (God’s Word). Anything else is ‘Man’s Word’ and inherently faulty.

-Great! we can agree on something! I also believe that humans make mistakes, misremember things, etc. This is why data beats anecdote.

So, what’s troubling about this?

Well, a lot. It means we can’t really learn anything. We cannot expect the same rules of nature to apply tomorrow as they do today. And we can know nothing about the past by studying the world as it is today. This sounds suspiciously, and tragically, like David Hume’s Empiricism, i.e. we may think we observe causation, but this is impossible – and even if we are not wrong, every instance of the world is new and different, so we can’t extrapolate from past experience at all. Mr. Nye, like myself, had a problem with this and repeatedly asked, ‘Where does this leave us? Can we make no predictions about how the world will work? ‘ (not a direct quote)

Rather than getting too hung up on epistemology, Nye did an extraordinary job discussing the Earth, Life on this Planet and What evidence we have for these things. My favorite part of his talk was the example of Kangaroos in Australia. How did they get there? (he relied on Mr. Ham’s story of the flood) If all animals left Noah’s ark, how is it that all the marsupials marched directly to Australia leaving to trail of fossils along the way?

Nye pursued several lines of reasoning, including the kangaroo story above, fossil progressions, plate tectonics and paleomagnetism. I would have included more biochemical evidence for the relationship between all life, but that’s just me.

However, I feel like it all came down to one question. One that, perhaps, should have been asked right at the beginning. If the answer to this one is ‘nothing’ then you just undermined the purpose of your debate.

“What, if anything, would ever change your mind?”

Jonathan Holowoka, writing for the Liberty Voice, claims that Nye’s performance was something that all scientists should be proud of and that he effectively rebutted the concerns expressed by the Richard Dawkins Foundations.

Dan Arel answered, admitting that Nye did not fail in any of the ways he worried about in his first column. However, he remains convinced that the debate was useless and may still have done harm.

 
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Posted by on February 6, 2014 in Education, Uncategorized

 

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Debate Season

So far I’ve watched three debates and I’m looking forward to more. Unfortunately, we only had one chance to watch Biden and Ryan discuss the issues and their campaign’s positions on them. I thought the Vice Presidential debate was great because it was well moderated (what a relief), engaging and I think we actually got to hear more frank and interactive discussion than we see from candidates at the top of the ticket. Further, both candidates brought their A game – I don’t think anyone thinks either candidate was unprepared or asleep at the switch.

However, there was another debate that was both highly entertaining and informative this year: Stewart and O’Reilly’s ‘Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium.’ Here O’Reilly played the part of Obama and was less engaged than I would have liked to have seen him and moderation was as farcical as the title of the debate itself. Of course this debate was largely in fun, but there was a lot of honest and detailed discussion of the issues… well, maybe not that. Actually, I felt that this debate should have been titled, ‘Which is the real world?’ because listening to the two debaters, you would definitely assume that they could not be talking about the same planet.

Anyway, I thought I’d see what you guys thought.

ps – here’s a link to last night’s debate on Youtube if you missed it: http://youtu.be/j3roG09O6T4

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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