Monday, May 23, 2011

Apocalypse -- Not Now, Maybe Later

It’s Sunday, May 22nd, and as f
ar as I can tell from looking out the window, the world and its human inhabitants are still here and going strong. Yesterday was supposed to have been the end, or the beginning of the end. This prophecy emanated from Family Radio Worldwide, a Christian broadcasting company headquartered on a grungy street of my home city, Oakland. Head prophesizer Harold Camping must have messed up his math again. He issued a false alarm a few years ago but later retracted it after the apocalypse failed to materialize and the Earth failed to dematerialize. The math was quite complex, he explained, and he had simply miscalculated. Well, even Einstein had problems with his math, by his own admission, so Camping's faux pas is understandable, although dignifying his bizarre numerology by calling it “math” is a little like calling astrology “astrophysics.”

This wasn’t the first time the Earth did not self-destruct as scheduled. In the 1950s, the Seekers, a Chicago-based cult, received interstellar communications predicting a cataclysm and promising their own rescue in a flying saucer. They were ready for the spacecraft that didn’t show up (some had quit their jobs and sold their homes). Accompanying them as they waited for extraterrestrial transport was Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger, who wanted to see how people react when their belief system is demolished by irrefutable facts. Festinger found that the non-destruction of the earth and non-arrival of their spacecraft led the Seekers to strengthen their belief system and rationalize the prophecy’s failure: they decided that their willingness to believe it had saved the Earth!

A few weeks ago on this blog, Vicki Cobb wrote about “motivated reasoning” — how our pre-existing beliefs influence our thoughts and color our conclusions, even when we think we are reasoning impartially. As explained in the current issue of the magazine Mother Jones, there is a neurological explanation and an evolutionary basis for self-delusion. In pre-industrial societies, it could improve one's survival ability. Now it has some curious manifestations. One of them is that the major factor people use to decide on the credibility of a scientist is how much agreement they find between the experimenter’s results and their own pre-existing beliefs.

This leads me to education. Providers of professional development for teachers are supposed to draw upon research-based teaching practices. But does it matter when the audience (teachers) must answer to higher authorities (administrators, school board, parents) who bring so many biases to the decision-making table?
Does it matter that Denmark and other Scandinavian countries where schoolchildren begin school reading programs at age seven, not before, are the countries with the world’s highest literacy rates? You might think that it would inform those who want to push high-stakes reading tests on seven year old American kids, but don't kid yourself! (Nor should you let Denmark’s top rating in a survey of the “world’s happiest people” fool you into inferring a cause-and-effect relationship between the age at which reading is first taught in school and later happiness. Instead the Danes attribute their contentment to Carlsberg beer.)

In Singapore, children are taught math through a deep understanding of numbers and concepts. Visual aids and hands-on items known as manipulatives are staples of math class. First graders spend a great deal of class time talking about ways to understand each one digit number, and Singapore 5th graders whop ours in comparative international studies. I once saw a video of a typical Japanese middle school math class in which the teacher presented a difficult geometry problem; after many minutes of thought, every student in turn proposed a solution to their peers and defended it. It was not at all the drill-and-kill rote learning many Americans have come to associate with math class.

Yet very few U.S. school districts have tried to adopt success
ful Asian techniques that often don’t “feel” right to American sensibilities. Perhaps we can be encouraged by the small number that have given it a try. (See “Making Math Lessons as Easy as 1, Pause, 2, Pause…” in the New York Times, Sept. 30, 2010.) We can hope that their success will foster wider acceptance — if teachers get adequate training and parental support. Those are pretty big “ifs” these days.

Someone just handed me this message, printed on a slip of paper:

“WARNING! As of Friday, Facebook will automatically start dragging the Earth into the Sun. To change this option, go to Settings > Planetary Settings > Trajectory > then UNCLICK the box that says ‘Apocalypse.’”

1 comment:

Vicki Cobb said...

Terrific post, David. The lesson no one seems to learn is that science (math is the languague of science) gets us past the limitations of our senses and experiences. We can argue experimental design and interpretation of data, but ultimately there is a preponderance of evidence from scientific studies that may be non-intuitive. When will we all learn that gut feelings get us into trouble again and again?

I love the idea of little kids discussing the meaning of one for hours! Not only do they grasp the basis for the nominal scale of measurement but they can discover their own power of intellect!