This chart is a lie

Serial cables are neutral? No way. Chaotic evil. I had to make too many of them. DB9 or DB25, or some ghastly custom pinout some manufacturer saw fit to stick on their device? I’ve encountered lots where all you need is 3 pins — ground, transmit, and receive — but even then you have to worry about whether this is a straight pass-through cable or a null modem cable. Some devices require one or several of the handshaking lines to be enabled — but different machines require different handshakes. Do you need DTR or DCD? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Then some of those handshake lines are completely redundant, and you can make it work just fine by shorting out the line to one of the other pins.

I remember the bad old days when you’d buy laboratory devices and they’d have some odd connector hanging off the back and there’d be a cryptic pinout diagram in the specs, and you’d have to solder up your own cable for it. It was not a happy time.


Lovely green landscape, charming people, and…a hurricane?

I’m keeping up with the news from Ireland, where Ophelia is rushing up the west coast. Hurricanes and fierce winds and massive storm surges just aren’t what I picture when I envision Ireland.

I hear our national stockpile of thoughts and prayers were seriously depleted by hurricane Maria. Maybe that means we’ll actually have to give appropriate aid where needed.

Just like we’ve been doing in Puerto Rico.


Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Friendly fellow


Serious Inquiries inquired seriously

Thomas Smith and I had a conversation this weekend. Whew, he was merciless. Now I know how Carl Benjamin feels.



A science video about gonad development

A bit about the early development of human gonads.

A few useful sources:
Sadler TW. 2014. Langman’s Medical Embryology. LWW. ISBN: 1451191642.

Everyone needs to have a copy of Langman’s around. Diagrams in the video were taken from this text.

Sajjad Y. 2010. Development of the genital ducts and external genitalia in the early human embryo. J Obstet Gynaecol Res. 36(5):929-37. doi: 10.1111/j.1447-0756.2010.01272.x.

A good review of the embryonic plumbing.

Zhao F, Franco HL, Rodriguez KF, Brown PR, Tsai MJ, Tsai SY, Yao HH. 2017. Elimination of the male reproductive tract in the female embryo is promoted by COUP-TFII in mice. Science 357(6352):717-720. doi: 10.1126/science.aai9136.

New stuff: a nice example of a female gene product that actively suppresses a male developmental feature.


The Science of the Female Orgasm

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Since the beginning of humanity, humans have been fucking. And since the beginning of the scientific method, humans have been fucking for science. In the olden days that probably meant fucking while a beardy old man used a protractor to measure the angle of your dick and compare it to the phases of the moon, or something, but these days that means fucking in an fMRI scanner.

An fMRI scanner is basically a big hole that you push a cylindrical object in and out of repeatedly, but despite that it is not a particularly sexy place to fuck. And yet, humanity perseveres with countless studies involving people getting down and dirty in a clean and cold imaging room.

The fMRI is used for a lot of brain research. It’s a machine that measures changes in blood flow in the brain, and it can do that without any invasive procedures and it can show researchers what’s happening in the brain in real time. That’s why it’s so handy for studying what happens when we have sex and when we orgasm.

In a recent study, researchers at Rutgers University put 10 heterosexual women in the fMRI while they brought themselves to orgasm. Then they had them do it again while a partner brought them to orgasm. The researchers found that contrary to previous research, women’s brains don’t “turn off” during orgasm.

This is one of those things that can be tricky to learn about just from asking women what happens when they orgasm, as it’s so subjective and it’s so intense that it might be difficult to describe. Previous research using PET scans suggested that when women orgasm, our brains shut out everything except for our sensory regions. As always with a finding like that, people were quick to make up a just-so evolutionary story to fit it, like how women in the Pleistocene needed to only focus on orgasming even at the risk of being mauled by a tiger because they needed to make sure they conceive a child, which, yes, makes no sense on multiple levels, like how female orgasms aren’t proven to aid in conception and also how it is very hard to bring a baby to term and give birth to it after you’ve been mauled to death by a tiger during conception.

This study, though, found that there was actually an increase in blood flow to the areas of the brain responsible for emotions, which peaked at orgasm.

The researchers suspect the different result may be due to the fact that PET scans are lower resolution and not as rigorous as fMRIs. PET scans use radioactive elements injected into the bloodstream in order to follow blood flow in the brain — the only real benefit to using them over fMRI is that the subject can move around a bit without corrupting the data. In an fMRI, the subject has to stay perfectly still or else the resulting image will be a mess.

It’s worth noting that this and other noise problems can make fMRI tricky to use, as proven in the past by a clever researcher showing interesting brain activity in a dead salmon using an fMRI. Feel free to insert your own joke here about the similarities between a dead fish and trying to make your wife orgasm. It’s YouTube, I’m sure you have some good ones.

Anyway, even more interesting than the increase in emotional response during orgasm is the fact that the researchers learned why women are less likely to feel pain during orgasm (something they showed in previous research where they pinched women while they orgasmed — I know, science is a magical occupation). They found that during orgasm, women experienced increased blood flow to the dorsal raphe nucleus area, which is responsible for pumping out serotonin, a pain reliever (and all-around happy-time hormone).

The study authors then take a stab at why this happens, guessing that it might have something to do with making childbirth hurt less. While it’s true that some women experience orgasm during childbirth, this frankly sounds as dumb and poorly researched as the previous study’s authors guessing that women mauled by tigers might give birth. This study is purely, exclusively about the “how” — maybe some future research can try to tackle the “why.”

The post The Science of the Female Orgasm appeared first on Skepchick.

sam harris

Facing the Crowd

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Nicholas Christakis about mob behavior, moral panics, and current threats to free speech.

Nicholas A. Christakis is a sociologist and physician who conducts research in the area of biosocial science, investigating the biological predicates and consequences of social phenomena. He directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, where he is appointed as the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Social and Natural Science, and he is the Co-Director of the Yale Institute for Network Science. Dr. Christakis’ lab is focused on the relationship between social networks and well-being. Ongoing investigations in the lab explore the genetic bases for human social behaviors and the application of social network principles to change population-level behavior related to health, cooperation, and economic development. Along with long-time collaborator, James Fowler, Dr. Christakis has authored a general-audience book on social networks: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Twitter: @NAChristakis

new humanist blog

The business of death in a growing world

As the population increases, so does the number of corpses – and the way we dispose of the dead may be about to change.
school of doubt

Cons of Participation Grades 4

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

4. Classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading.

This view is quite common among teachers who follow certain schools of thought in teaching. It has three assumptions built in.

First, that things related to class management are clearly distinct from other things we grade.

While this is sometimes true, there are many subjects and situations in which classroom management and curriculum overlap. Let me highlight a clear example of this very situation. In the aforementioned article, the author even agrees with a comment describing this very thing, with neither person realizing it undermined the argument it was presented to support.

Bogatz states in his article (titled Can We Please Stop with the Participation Grades?) “Student behavior is a classroom management issue, not a grading issue. You should never find management strategies and solutions in your grade book.”

One of the comments (sandra) describes her role as a music teacher “I can’t know how well they understand a new concept if they don’t demonstrate how much they know. If the student shows the skill we are learning (“active participation”), and makes noticeable effort to achieve and improve, their grade will be absolutely satisfactory. Sitting motionless when asked to move, chatting or playing with trinkets, or refusing to sing, play games, or instruments will be considered less than satisfactory. […] Do they need to comply and follow instructions? Yes. But not “because I said so,” because that is how you demonstrate the acquisition of skills in the performing arts.”

Bogatz replied that he loved the story and comparison, but both of them seemed to have missed the implication. In cases such as this, “participation” and classroom management were directly related to the subject skills the teacher needed to assess. Refusing to participate in a music class is simultaneously a classroom management issue and a grading issue, for the simple reason that participation is the only means through which certain skills can be assessed.

A second assumption that is built into this claim (we shouldn’t grade participation because classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading) is the idea that participation always relates to classroom management.

Similar to the example above, in the case of a performance-based class, participation is tied in with the skills involved in the subject. Even if one agrees with Bogatz’s claim, there is no reason why a participation grade must be a tool of management.

The third assumption is the statement itself.

I did not set out in this post to debunk Bogatz’s blog post, but it happens to exemplify the very things I aim to discuss here. When he made the claim “Student behavior is a classroom management issue, not a grading issue,” he did not go on to provide evidence or reasoning to support it. It was presented in the same way that I usually see teachers present it, as if it is an obvious statement that does not warrant any argument or justification.

In my own experience as an education student, my classes on assessment addressed including classroom management. Largely, it’s a matter of individual / local school policy. My professors discussed better and worse ways to go about it, in case it came up in our future practices. My classes on classroom management likewise included ways in which grading could be used as one element of a well-managed classroom.

It turns out that there are some good reasons why some classroom management issues should be included in grading (which I will give in a follow-up post).

Finally, there is one more main argument against grading participation that is often brought up:

5. It is not fair.

(Yes, this must also unfortunately be addressed in a follow-up post.)

The post Cons of Participation Grades 4 appeared first on School of Doubt.

sam harris

The “After On” Interview

This episode of the Waking Up podcast features an interview that Sam did with Rob Reid on the After On podcast. They speak about publishing, psychedelics, terrorism, meditation, free speech and other topics.

Rob Reid founded, which built the pioneering online music service Rhapsody and created the unlimited subscription model since adopted by Apple, Spotify, and many others. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Year Zero, a work of fiction; Year One, a memoir about student life at Harvard Business School; and Architects of the Web, the first true business history of the Internet. His latest book is After On: A Novel of Silicon Valley.


new humanist blog

When our sun was young

The "faint young Sun paradox" has puzzled scientists for decades.
new humanist blog

Can the BBC remain impartial?

The BBC’s commitment to a tepid impartiality is inappropriate for these chaotic times.

Why Having a Daughter Might Make You Get a Divorce

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A new study shows evidence that couples who have teenage daughters are more likely to divorce, compared to couples with teenage sons (or younger children in general). Right now you’re probably thinking of your own family or the families that you know and wondering if that jibes with your experience, but it’s very important to remember in a case like this that your experience is practically meaningless. Sorry.

I say that because this isn’t the first study of its kind — there have been many studies that seek to learn whether the gender of children affects their parents’ relationships. Some studies find that girls are worse on marriages, and some others find that there’s no difference at all. This is one that supports the former, and it’s pretty rigorous in that unlike previous studies, it uses existing data instead of relying on self-reported surveys. Surveys can be useful, but they are also prone to mistakes, as people misremember details and timelines that can be important. The data used in this study shows exactly when people got married, when they had their first kid, the gender of that kid, and if and when the couple divorced.

You’re probably thinking there’s no way a parent could screw up when their kid was born and if that is what you’re thinking then I say congratulations on having decent parents. My mom once missed my birthday by a week and then tried to cover it up by saying she was waiting for my present to go on sale at Kohl’s. Everything is always on sale at Kohl’s, mom! Dammit!

Anyway, this study did find a difference in divorce rates between female children and male children, but it was pretty slight. Statistically significant but slight: cumulatively, it’s a 1.8% increased chance, though it peaks at an 8.8% increase when kids are 15 years old.

So then the question becomes, “why?” To answer that, I turned to the Reddit comments on the study posted in r/science, where ShastaMcLurky writes:

“As a father of two daughters, I can relate my own personal feelings on the matter that wasn’t brought up. Girls are sometimes just bitches.”

Boboblah780, who mostly posts in video game subreddits, concurs:

“I think this has something to do with it, too. I just don’t know how they would quantify different levels of “bitch.””

Fascinating! This truly opens up a whole new field of study in the sciences: scientifically defining the word “bitch” and studying the effects of bitches upon the rest of the population. What other havoc have bitches wreaked under cover of just being “teenaged girls”?

Thankfully, the study actually does address the possible reasons why the data looks the way it does, albeit in a slightly more rigorous manner that doesn’t just decide millions of little girls are bitches. They found that the divorce rate for parents of teenaged girls was vastly higher when the parents had different immigration statuses or had a large age gap between them. This can be explained by the fact that some cultures and generations have much, much more restrictive ideas about girls compared to boys. Boys can, generally, just be boys, but there are huge differences between how people expect girls to behave, with more conservative people wanting to severely control the way they dress, the friends they have, and the activities they do. When the parents can’t agree on that, it leads to strife, and that leads to divorce.

The researchers also found that the higher divorce rate didn’t apply to couples in which the father grew up with sisters. Could it be possible that men who grow up close to women have a better understanding that women are people and not mystical bitches who want to destroy your marriage? Could those fathers have benefited from learning how to form enriching relationships with young girls? Or could it be, as SmiTe1988 says on Reddit, they “were pre-conditioned to the irrational crazy”?

I know I said at the start of this video that your anecdotes don’t matter because it’s a small effect and you’re probably wrong, but after reading all these comments I can’t help but chime in with my own anecdote — not to confirm or deny this paper, but to point out something to Redditors lurking r/science. I grew up with two older brothers and saw them go through their teen years before me. Was I a total bitch to my parents in high school? Probably, at times, though to be honest I was mostly pretty boring and got good grades and wasn’t very high on drama. But you know who else was a total bitch to my parents at times? My brothers. Oh god, the drama! The yelling and the fighting and the grounding!

And if I hadn’t been raised to see men as complete human beings with valid emotional states, I too may have ended up being like those Redditors, expressing sheer horror and confusion at the bitchiness of my teen brothers while maintaining that my teen self was perfectly rational and easy to parent.

If you have daughters, or have them one day, I hope you keep that in mind.

The post Why Having a Daughter Might Make You Get a Divorce appeared first on Skepchick.


Why Preschool Kids Aren’t Learning Science

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What should you teach a pre-schooler? When I think of kids that age, say 3-5 years old, I think of teaching them their colors, the ABCs, how to count, how to say please and thank you — what’s shocking is that I don’t think of teaching them science. That’s shocking for several reasons: one, because I obviously love science and think it’s incredibly important for kids to understand; and two, because I know that kids that age have the capacity to start learning scientific principles.

I thought of all this recently when I read a study showing that preschool teachers in the US are vastly unprepared to teach kids science. 99% of teachers surveyed taught literacy 3 or 4 times a week, compared to 75% for math and only 42% for science. Amazingly, how educated a teacher was didn’t correlate with whether or not they spent ample time on teaching science. What did seem to determine that was the teacher’s self-reported comfort levels with each subject. Teachers who had a high self-efficacy in science were more likely to incorporate scientific tools and lessons into their classrooms. Those with low self-efficacy were less likely.

The researchers report other reasons for low interest in science, like the fact that preschool teacher training programs don’t emphasize science, and kindergarten-preparedness tests don’t emphasize it either, so with limited time, more teachers will focus on literacy.

But self-efficacy in the subjects definitely seemed to be a motivating factor, which is why I was surprised to not see any mention of gender in the entire report.

97% of pre-school teachers in the US are women, and we know for a fact that women do worse on math and science tests when they’re reminded that they’re women and that women are supposed to not be good at those subjects. In other words, women have lower self-efficacy in those fields, even if they have the education and the talent to put them equal to men.

Thanks to the research in this area, we know that women are dissuaded from pursuing careers in those fields, but here’s another example of how our society’s sexism negatively impacts everyone. When women aren’t confident in their abilities in science and math, they’re less likely to teach science and math to the next generation. And considering that our society has demanded that women be the ones doing the teaching, we’ve really shot ourselves in the proverbial foot.

Considering that by fourth grade, only about 38% of American children are proficient in science, and that number drops to 22% by the time they graduate high school, we really need to realize how important it is to start kids early with a healthy interest in science. One way to do that is of course to make sure that preschool teachers are trained in the importance of science. But this study shows us that another thing we can do is to do away with old, tired sexist standards. We need more women realizing that they are capable of understanding (and enjoying!) math and science, and we need more men realizing that they are capable of teaching young children.

If we can manage that, then maybe all children can grow up knowing that they are capable of anything they set their minds to.

The post Why Preschool Kids Aren’t Learning Science appeared first on Skepchick.

sam harris

What Happened to Liberalism?

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Mark Lilla about the fate of political liberalism in the United States, the emergence of a new identity politics, the role of class in American society, wealth inequality, and other topics.

Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and a prizewinning essayist for the New York Review of Books and other publications worldwide. His books include The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction; The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West; The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, and The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.


Survey: People Hate Nazis but Love Nazi Ideology

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Why aren’t more people Nazis? That’s a question I never thought to ask myself until very recently, when I read about a survey conducted by the University of Virginia, Reuters, and Ipsos. They asked more than 5,000 American adults various questions on race, shortly after the deadly neo-nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The good news is that only 4% of respondents said they supported neo-nazis, although that’s not actually “good” because holy shit that’s like 200 people in a random sample of Americans, but I digress. And “only” 8% supported white nationalists.

The bad news is that 31% of respondents agreed that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage.” Umm…that’s kind of the central tenet that white nationalist neo-nazis abide by. 16% agreed that marriage should only be allowed between members of the same race. They’re not saying they don’t like interracial marriage…they’re saying it should be illegal. Again, that’s some neo-nazi shit.

Also, 39% thought that white people are under attack in the US, and to make matters even worse, 14% of all respondents said that white people are the ONLY race under attack in the US. Like, they literally don’t think people of color have anything to worry about, at all.

And all of that is not to mention the huge number of people who neither agreed nor disagreed with many of those statements. The researchers point out that many of those noncommittal answers came from people who leaned more towards the bigoted side then the progressive side.

So here we have a bunch of people espousing every belief the neo-nazis stand for, and yet they don’t say they support neo-nazis. Thinking this over, I realized that more people aren’t Nazis not because they’re good people who believe in equality, but because Nazis have a public relations problem. Consider the alt-right, which the survey also asked about. Slightly more people said they approved of the alt-right compared to neo-nazis (6% versus 4%), even though they’re the same thing. And about twice as many people said they didn’t support or oppose the alt-right, compared to neo-nazis (19% versus 10%), meaning that way more people oppose neo-nazis than oppose the alt-right.

The alt-right, in other words, was a very smart rebranding move on the part of the Nazis. Kids on 4chan and Reddit proudly declare they’re alt-right because it seems cool — kids who would probably never actually want to identify as a Nazi.

For that reason, it’s more important than ever to publicly voice the fact that the “alt-right” is just a rebranding of Nazism. And even if a person doesn’t identify as either Nazi or alt-right, they need to be told when they’re sharing Nazi viewpoints. They’ll cry about it, the same way people cry when they’re told they’re being racist or sexist, but when they walk away from you they may start to rethink their biases.

The post Survey: People Hate Nazis but Love Nazi Ideology appeared first on Skepchick.


UC Irvine Gets $200 Million to Teach Homeopathy

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Good news! A billionaire gave $200 million to a public university to set up a new college! Bad news! It’s a college for baloney!

Henry Samueli founded a now-huge semiconductor maker, and he and his family think homeopathy is real. As a reminder, homeopathy is based on a few key beliefs, and I’m not making this up:

  1. Diluting something makes it stronger
  2. Water can remember things that were in it, even when those things are no longer in it.
  3. “Like cures like.”

This means if you’re dying of mercury poisoning, you should take more mercury. And to make it even better, you should put a tiny amount in water and then dilute it to the point that there’s no mercury left in it at all. Now drink the water. There, you’re cured.

Homeopathy is maybe one of the all-time stupidest beliefs. It’s not even like “naturopathy” where you consume actual things that might have (unproven, unregulated) active ingredients. It’s just nothing. It’s literally just water.

So Henry Samueli’s wife Susan once went to France and caught a cold and instead of just dealing with it because there is no cure, she took the homeopathic remedy aconite. She got better, and ever since she’s been on the anti-real-medicine train.

Now they’ve given millions to UC Irvine, a public university, to set up a school for baloney….I mean “alternative medicine.” It’ll be called the “College of Health Sciences,” misusing at least three words in a four-word name, which is really pretty impressive.

I read about all this in a positively glowing article in the LA Times, which didn’t seek out a single voice to disagree with the idea that a college of baloney is a brilliant idea. The LA Times didn’t even consult the LA Times of six months ago, where they reported on another woman who took aconite as a remedy. That woman was hospitalized for weeks and then she died, because aconite is a poison. Susan’s aconite product must have been real homeopathy, meaning that it was just sugar water and there wasn’t actually any aconite in it at all. Otherwise, instead of getting better naturally from her cold she also would have fucking died, and then nobody would be giving millions of dollars to a public university to spread dangerous baloney.

I’m not saying I wish Susan Samueli had died — but I do wish she would have been slightly less gullible, because now our tax dollars will be hard at work making a whole lot more people gullible.

The post UC Irvine Gets $200 Million to Teach Homeopathy appeared first on Skepchick.

new humanist blog

Book review: Religion and Atheism

This collection of thought-provoking essays shows that dividing lines often cut in different ways.
school of doubt

Cons of Participation Grades 3

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

3. It is misused to justify bias.

As I’ve mentioned before, some teachers use participation grades to justify using their like or dislike of students as a part of their grades. This is clearly a problem, but once again, not one of participation in itself. The real issue here is educators grading based on their own biases. This can happen with any sort of assessment. A teacher, upon seeing the name at the top of the paper, could overlook mistakes or grade more strictly because of a subconscious bias.

I don’t think most teachers mean to grade in a biased way, but that’s the insidious way that biases work. We don’t even know it is happening, even when we are aware that such biases exist.

Following a rubric carefully and consistently (and taking active measures to avoid biases, such as obscuring student’s names beforehand) can work as well with a good participation rubric as with any other rubric. Many of the arguments against participation grades that I have seen take this for granted and equivocate grading participation with changing students grades arbitrarily, like this blog. This article also repeats another key issue with participation grades:

4. Classroom management shouldn’t be a part of grading.

(Yet again, this must unfortunately be addressed in a follow-up post.)

The post Cons of Participation Grades 3 appeared first on School of Doubt.

new humanist blog

Making a killing: examining the arms trade

An examination of Britain’s arms trade tells us who we are as a country and what our role in the world really is.
sam harris

Into the Dark Land

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Siddhartha Mukherjee about his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. 

Siddhartha Mukherjee is a cancer physician and researcher. He is an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and a staff cancer physician at the CU/NYU Presbyterian Hospital. A former Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford (where he received a PhD studying cancer-causing viruses) and from Harvard Medical School. His laboratory focuses on discovering new cancer drugs using innovative biological methods. He has published articles and commentary in such journals as Nature, New England Journal of Medicine, Neuron and the Journal of Clinical Investigation and in publications such as the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New Republic. His work was nominated for Best American Science Writing, 2000. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. His most recent book is The Gene: An Intimate History.

sam harris

The Impossible War

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about their latest film, The Vietnam War.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are two of the most accomplished documentary filmmakers of our time. Their work includes The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, The War, along with many other acclaimed films. Their most recent project is the ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, The Vietnam War, which tells the epic story of one of the most consequential, divisive, and controversial events in American history. Ten years in the making, the series includes rarely seen and digitally re-mastered archival footage from sources around the globe, photographs taken by some of the most celebrated photojournalists of the 20th Century, historic television broadcasts, evocative home movies, and secret audio recordings from inside the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. The Vietnam War also features more than 100 iconic musical recordings from greatest artists of the era.


school of doubt

Cons of Participation Grades 2

Continuing my previous post (which I unfortunately must do in installments due to my schedule) here is another common criticism of grading participation.

2. It is nebulous.

What exactly does participation mean? A strong criticism of participation-based grades is that participation itself is a nebulous concept. There are a wide variety of actions that could be considered ‘participation.’ Once again, this is not a unique problem of participation grading and is resolved, like all assessment, by an educator choosing which specific skills to assess. The problem with nebulousness in terms of participation is the way that many educators actually implement their participation grades. Often ‘participation’ is just a line-item on a syllabus and does not even have a dedicated rubric, which could altogether fix this problem. There may be a sentence or two that mentions things like speaking during in-class discussions, but it is rarely fleshed out more than that.

This degree of vagueness does pose a real problem. It creates room for a teacher to assign grades without following consistent criteria. The issue here is more a matter of the difference between theory and practice. In theory, educators could construct robust and explicit rubrics that nail down precisely what they mean by ‘participation’ within the context of their classrooms. Yet, many do not and so participation itself becomes too unclear and arbitrary to be useful. That brings the next common criticism of participation grading:

3. It is misused to justify bias.

(Once again, this must unfortunately be addressed in a follow-up post.)

The post Cons of Participation Grades 2 appeared first on School of Doubt.

school of doubt

Cons of Participation Grades 1

There are better and worse ways to assess students and participation is no exception. Some teachers use a “participation grade” as a justification to assign grades based on how much they like students. Obviously, that is not a good grading practice. However, there are others who use participation to assess valid and measurable things. I’m going to go over some commonly given strengths and weaknesses of grading participation as well as counterarguments for each (hopefully from a skeptical viewpoint). I’ll start with the criticisms.

1. It is subjective.

This is true, but almost all forms of assessment have some degree of subjectivity to them. Indeed, if we limited ourselves to only assessing things that can be measured completely objectively, we would often find ourselves assessing the wrong things. Much like the often cited problems with standardized testing, there are valuable things that can only be assessed subjectively and an overemphasis on objectivity results in an overemphasis in things like rote memorization. Treating objectivity as the only thing that matters is falling into the same problem as scientism. Subjectivity itself isn’t the problem with participation grades.

Some argue that participation is particularly subjective and is therefore more heavily influenced by teacher’s biases. One retort is that the teaching is a profession for this very reason. Teachers undergo years of training and certification precisely to develop skills in making good decisions regarding subjective things. Still, teachers do have biases and are affected by them as much as anyone else. They can have a profound effect on grading participation. However, I have found this is only the case when participation is being assessed poorly. A poor implementation with over-reliance on subjective measures is largely created by another problem attributed to participation:

2. It is nebulous.

(…which my next post will address. I unfortunately have an excessively busy life so my two readers will have to wait.)

The post Cons of Participation Grades 1 appeared first on School of Doubt.

school of doubt

Curse of Knowledge

Regarding my previous post on the lack of accessibility of critical thinking information, even Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has this problem. Despite being hailed as supremely understandable for general audiences (both the book and the series), I found that it also posed too many challenges in its basic linguistic accessibility to be useful in my classes.

Before you point out that I gave up without actually trying it out in my class, I do have evidence that my assessment of its accessibility was proven right. After I decided not to use Cosmos in my teaching, another teacher at my school did actually use several “easy” passages from the book. Students were utterly confused by it. Some even bought copies in their native language, and despite reading it together with some of the highest-level students in their grade, they were unable to understand it.

You might be thinking that I am projecting my own students’ ability on others and you are right to some extent. But, I must point out that there’s a reason why atheists and skeptics tend to be better educated than average. Most of the arguments for critical thinking are exclusively presented at an advanced level. There’s a cognitive bias called “curse of knowledge” in which we assume that others have the same background knowledge we do. Assuming that Sagan is going to be suitable for general audiences is falling into this bias. To many, he’s just not. He is certainly accessible in terms of not needing a background in astrophysics to understand, but there is still a prerequisite of prior knowledge.

When skeptics and atheists ignore this, they are missing a huge audience. It’s the echo chamber that many in the movements talk about. We spend a lot of time interacting with people and data that are on our level, it is easy to forget that the majority are elsewhere. Most people don’t have the basic background knowledge that skeptics take for granted, and it can take years to build up.

The language issue is even larger. Though the skeptical movement is not exclusive to English, it seems to be predominantly in English. Even international skeptics groups often use English sources. (Not to mention English’s vast over-representation in scientific publications.)

There is estimated to be over a billion non-native English speakers in the world. By presenting things in the way that we do, we fall to the curse of knowledge bias and create barriers of inaccessibility to literally hundreds of millions of people who might otherwise benefit from a more skeptical mindset. By keeping the dialogue at a high intellectual level, we might actually be shooting ourselves in the foot.

However, I must address a counterargument to my position, the issue of oversimplification. In making things accessible, simplification must occur. This presents a problem with truly complex topics (which, as it turn out, almost every topic is). To be understandable, ideas need to be explained in more basic terms but in doing so, there is a risk that they could be simplified to the point of being incorrect. Which case is worse: A person misunderstands something because it was too complicated, or a person misunderstands something because it was oversimplified?

To some extent, we need oversimplification anyway. Everyone can’t know everything about every topic. But, topics can’t actually be simplified without losing their nuance. By definition, that’s what simplification does. There’s a huge problem in the skeptic movement with a lack of understanding about nuance. But a big part of this problem relates to the fundamental problem about certain information being too difficult for most people to understand.

I hear skeptics say “we need better education in critical thinking” all the time. When I try to do that for my students, I find myself on an island, surrounded by water that I can’t drink. I wind up needing to either re-create all the materials that are out there to be basically understandable, or create them from scratch. We need to rethink the concept of general audiences and start prioritizing them in our work.

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