Monday, September 29, 2008

Building the Corrigendopedia

My intended fashion of constructing the Corrigendopedia website is piecemeal: I will write tiny little sections to use as 'bricks' from which to build entire articles.

This is probably the most effective method; especially at this time, since moving house and finding a third job are my two foremost full-time activities.

In writing a series of somewhat self-contained article sections, I plan to develop my ability to keep the reader interested enough to read onto the next section.

Frankly, my hope is that those reading this blog feel disappointed that there's not more to these small pieces, so that satisfaction can only be met on the Corrigendopedia website.

At this time, I am using my spare minutes to focus in on the opening of my first article: I have decided that it needs more work, so that will be in my next post rather than this one.

As for today's personal morning news, so far I've applied for a pawn shop, a video rental place, and two different restaurants... well, back to it!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Challenges, Challenges!

Sure, we all learn new things about the world, though do you ever think much about how, in order to learn something, you must often unlearn something else that was contradictory?

As a critically thinking person, I cannot help but notice that the culture surrounding me propagates many misconceptions about the world:
` A small, but prevalent, example is the assumption that the direction water spirals down the drain is affected by what side of the equator it is on.

While a phenomenon having to do with the earth's rotation, called the Coriolis Effect, determines the cyclical direction of storms and water currents, it is virtually negligible when it comes to plumbing; its effect on less-than gargantuan scales can only be glimpsed in carefully controlled laboratory conditions.

You can challenge this myth in real life: If you watch water drain from a sink a few times, it will probably swirl one way just as often as it does the other. (You can also change the direction with your hand!)
` And one more thing; a flushing toilet flows either clockwise, counterclockwise, or straight back, and this is determined by the angle of the spouts near the rim of the bowl!

However, it is possible that if this is the first time you've heard this revelation, you may yet forget it in the future! Why?
` Because; I repeated the myth first and corrected it afterward, placing the myth most prominently in one's awareness.

A month from now, which would you remember? The well-ingrained myth that you've heard a hundred times, or that one instance in which you've seen it dispelled (assuming this is the case)? Will you forget it or not?

I've known this general principal for some time, though just prior to this writing I found an interesting article which really exemplifies it. (Shankar Vedantam, Difficulty in Debunking Myths Rooted in the Way the Mind Works, Washington Post, 2007.) It starts out with the description of a psychological experiment:

Norbert Schwarz, a University of Michigan social psychologist, had some volunteers read a flyer issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This flyer repeated many commonly held views about the flu vaccine and labeled which ones were correct and which ones were actually common misconceptions.

Half an hour later, the older volunteers incorrectly remembered the 'trueness' or 'falseness' of 28 percent of the statements! Younger volunteers misremembered the same amount, except this was after three days rather than thirty minutes.
` As for the older individuals at three days, they falsely remembered about 40% of the statements!

The unsettling thing about this is not just that the volunteers wound up with misconceptions about which statements were true and which were false, but that they believed their own mistaken perceptions were put forth as fact from the Center of Disease Control!

That didn't shock me, considering the well-established fact that conscious memories are basically reconstituted from a surprisingly sketchy recording in your brain, resulting in a picture of what you think happened, or what you think you learned.
` It could be relatively accurate to begin with, but over time you can forget more and more details, and to compensate, your brain may 'flesh out' the sketch differently - thus your memory changes without your being aware of it.

This is why people get into arguments over the details of what happened, say, last Wednesday, or what they did on a road trip, or perhaps even what they learned in physics class! Interesting indeed, and you can rest assured that I have more to say on the subject.

Schwarz's study, which has since been confirmed in many peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, shows that reciting a myth to someone - even for the purpose of dispelling it - makes that myth more memorable in the person's mind!
` If they cannot remember the correction as clearly as the myth, they're more likely to believe the myth is true.

And so, the very fact that many myths are challenged may actually help them to stay around. In addition, according to research by Kimberlee Weaver at Virginia Polytechnic (and others), a message heard often enough may seem to have been repeated too many times to have come from only one source.

When that happens, the sheer number of repeats can mentally 'overflow' from the original source and be perceived as coming from other, independent sources.
` So if an untrustworthy source says one thing over and over, you might get the sense that you've heard the same thing elsewhere, giving the impression of believability.

Plus, research by cognitive social scientist Ruth Mayo of Hebrew University found that after two things are shown not to be associated, repeating the names of both things close together in time still create the feeling that they are connected.
` If I say; "Bill was shown not to have stolen the car," you feel that Bill is associated with stealing cars, don't you?

So, what if you don't say anything at all? According to a recent study by University of Southern California organizational psychologist Peter Kim, when you don't challenge an assertion, the silence is taken as confirmation.
` Apparently, in the absence of a reply, people will still hear what they want to hear!

The whole point to this is; ensuring that I'm getting correct information across to someone can be difficult if they are also exposed to contrary information.

So you may wonder; what authority do I have to go around shelling out correct information in the first place? That's an excellent question.
` To begin with, I've long been a science enthusiast and have a huge amount of scientific and skeptical understanding from reading the hundreds of publications currently in my possession.
` Secondly, I have more than seventy college credits so far - mostly in science and math - at Everett Community College, though I have not been able to afford tuition since successfully completing Spring 2008.

Someday, however, I will be able to say that I have at least three degrees - in psychology, biology and writing - most likely from Washington State University. You can count on that.

` In the meantime, each day that I go to work at my blue-collar job, I will be pondering the cost of attaining those degrees versus the cost of not having them.

Friday, September 19, 2008

I have a dream...

Greetings and welcome, people of all stripes and backgrounds! There's room for everyone, so please make yourselves comfortable.

My name is Sarote E. Quine, your friendly neighborhood science writer, working
to offer you an understanding, not only of what's going on in the world, but also how to figure these things out for yourself... and then use this knowledge to deceive others and bend them to your will.

Do you ever wonder why one person's recollection of an event can be so different from someone else's, yet both people are sure their own account is correct? That's an important topic in psychology and manipulation - which I'll discuss, of course - but did you know that this is part of the reason why human beings bother to practice science?

It is well-known that we have many various biases and soft spots in our thinking, and the whole point of science is to find them out so that moving forward with some level of confidence is actually possible.
` Though part of the scientific method involves taking great pains to avoid mistakes, scientific research is also required to go through a gauntlet of criticism (by scientists whose jobs do not depend on the outcome).
` Also essential is for independent researchers to actually repeat these studies or observations in order to see whether or not they find the same thing. If they don't, it may be 'back to the drawing boards' again!
` Basically, just about any scientific claim is considered to be possible as long as no real contradictions are found.

That's the general gist of what scientists do every day: If you can understand that, then I expect you can also understand all sorts of things about scientific methodology, critical thinking and other things with big scary names, as well as the hows and whys of amazing scientific discoveries.

Along the way, I'll be instructing my readers how to do all kinds of fun stuff, including various ways to come up with crackpot ideas and sell them to the unwitting public. At the same time, I hope that they wisely use this knowledge to spot other crackpot ideas.

Sound dangerous? You bet it is!

In all seriousness, I'm here to promote our natural human curiosity and problem-solving abilities, as well as to enhance public perception and enthusiasm for science. At this time, especially, I believe it is sorely needed because science education in the United States (and many other countries) has been rather substandard for some time.
` It is a fact that most Americans fail to understand basic scientific concepts that they would probably be better off knowing, and a lot of this probably has to do with a large amount of
poor and unreliable science presentation in school and the mass media.

Thus, it is no wonder to me that there are so many intelligent people with a lot of misconceptions about science and critical thinking who fancy themselves as having superior knowledge. As a consequence, they help to continue spreading misinformation, confusing yet others.
` On the other hand, we have people who may feel that even basic critical thinking skills would take too much time and effort to learn, or perhaps that they are not 'smart enough' to learn them, or that they don't want to bother because it is 'not their job' and they will supposedly never need to know these things.

My true goal here - besides creating conniving masterminds - is to demonstrate that, although our minds are very fallible and although we are often presented with more information we know what to do with, any feelings of being overwhelmed or cynical are not warranted.

Here I go....