(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘education

“Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes”*…

This artist rendering provided by the European South Observatory shows some of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system

… That said, some facts may morph out from under us. In consideration of “in-between” facts:

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world. Do you know the percentage of people in the world who use mobile phones? In 1997, the answer was 4 percent. By 2007, it was nearly 50 percent. The fraction of people who are mobile phone users is the kind of fact you might read in a magazine and quote at a cocktail party. But years later the number you would be quoting would not just be inaccurate, it would be seriously wrong. The difference between a tiny fraction of the world and half the globe is startling, and completely changes our view on global interconnectivity.

Mesofacts can also be fun. Let’s focus for a moment on some mesofacts that can be of vital importance if you’re a child, or parent of a child: those about dinosaurs. Just a few decades ago, dinosaurs were thought to be cold-blooded, slow-witted lizards that walked with their legs splayed out beside them. Now, scientists think that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and fast-moving creatures. And they even had feathers! Just a few weeks ago we learned about the color patterns of dinosaurs (stripes! with orange tufts!). These facts might not affect how you live your life, but then again, you’re probably not 6 years old. There is another mesofact that is unlikely to affect your daily routine, but might win you a bar bet: the number of planets known outside the solar system. After the first extrasolar planet around an ordinary star made headlines back in 1995, most people stopped paying attention. Well, the number of extrasolar planets is currently over 400. Know this, and the next round won’t be on you.

The fact that the world changes rapidly is exciting, but everyone knows about that. There is much change that is neither fast nor momentous, but no less breathtaking.

Introducing the mesofact: “Warning- Your reality is out of date,” from Samuel Arbesman (@arbesman) who went on to develop this notion in a wonderful book, The Half-Life of Facts. Via @inevernu who notes that the above article, which ran in 2010, contains examples of mesofacts that have already changed again– illustrating Arbesman’s point…

* Jawaharlal Nehru


As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1642 that the first American college commencement ceremony was held at Harvard College. It was North America’s first taste of non-religious ritual– and was designed to send a clear message to England that its American colonies were a going concern. Still, of the nine seniors graduated, three soon crossed the Atlantic the other way, one to serve as a diplomat for the rebellious Oliver Cromwell and another to study medicine in Italy.

Apropos the piece above, the curriculum followed by those graduates was rather different– was filled with different facts– than those of classes in later centuries.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2021 at 1:00 am

“You can never be overdressed or overeducated”*…

So many choices…

Take online courses from the world’s top universities for free. Below, you will find 1,700 free online courses from universities like Yale, MIT, Harvard, Oxford and more. Our site also features collections of Online Certificate Programs and Online Degree & Mini-Degree Programs

From Open Culture (@openculture), “1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.”

A personal fave: MIT’s “Gödel, Escher, Bach: A Mental Space Odyssey.”

[image above: source]

* Oscar Wilde


As we hit the e-books, we might recall that it was on this date in 1922 that the United States paid tribute to the man instrumental in the technology that enables on-line education, Alexander Graham Bell…

There were more than 14 million telephones in the United States by the time Alexander Graham Bell died. For one minute on August 4, 1922, they were all silent.

The reason: Bell’s funeral. The American inventor was the first to patent telephone technology in the United States and who founded the Bell Telephone System in 1877. Though Bell wasn’t the only person to invent “the transmission of speech by electrical wires,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired, achieving patent primacy in the United States allowed him to spend his life inventing. Even though the telephone changed the world, Bell didn’t stop there.

Bell died on August 2, 1922, just a few days after his 75th birthday. “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” Alfred writes.

On the day of the funeral, The New York Times reported that Bell was also honored by advocates for deaf people. “Entirely apart from the monumental achievement of Professor Bell as the inventor of the telephone, his conspicuous work in [sic] behalf of the deaf of this country would alone entitle him to everlasting fame,” said Felix H. Levey, president of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes.

In fact, Bell spent much of his income from the telephone on helping deaf people. The same year he founded the Bell Telephone System, 1880, Bell founded the Volta Laboratory. The laboratory, originally called Volta Associates, capitalized on Bell’s work and the work of other sound pioneers. It made money by patenting new innovations for the gramophone and other recorded sound technologies. In 1887, Bell took his share of the money from the sale of gramophone patents and founded the Volta Bureau “as an instrument for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf,’” writes the National Park Service. Bell and Volta continued to work for deaf rights throughout his life.

Volta Laboratory eventually became Bell Laboratories, which was home to many of the twentieth century’s communication innovations.



“One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity”*…

But, as the tale of the disastrous diet demonstrates, that instruction needs to start early and go deep…

While on vacation, Marcial Conte, the Brazilian publisher of my first book, met a woman who asked about his work. Upon learning he was responsible for A Mentira do Glutén: E Outros Mitos Sobre O Que Voce Comê (The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat), she lit up.

Her husband, she said, had followed my revolutionary diet protocol and changed his life. Pounds melted away. Myriad health problems resolved themselves.“ She told me to thank you for saving her husband’s life with the ‘UNpacked Diet,’” Conte grinned at me. “Incredible, no? The only change they made was keeping aluminum foil.”

Incredible, indeed. The diet was satire, invented by me, and it came at the end of a book dedicated to exposing pseudoscientific nutrition claims. For the centerpiece of the faux diet, I used just such a claim: that the cause of all modern ailments was food packaging. By “unpacking” your food — that is, by refusing to eat food that had come in contact with plastic, styrofoam, or aluminum foil — I pretended to promise readers a magical panacea for everything from autism to Alzheimer’s, as well as effortless weight loss.

The satire should have been clear. Every chapter was packed with warnings about precisely the kinds of claims made in the diet, such as:

• Beware of panaceas… like a diet that promises miraculous weight loss and a solution to every chronic illness.

• Distrust the promise of secret knowledge hidden by conspiracies… like the diet that “they” don’t want you to know about.

• Don’t trust individual anecdotes… like the glowing testimonials I included at the end of the invented diet. (I took them from other pseudoscientific diet books.)

• Stay alert for myths and fallacies such as the “appeal to antiquity”… the idea that our ancestors lived in a dietary paradise and that modern technology is uniquely evil and dangerous.

• Watch out for grains of scientific truth turned into alarmist falsehoods… like the cherry-picked scientific studies that filled the UNpacked Diet’s footnotes.

Each deceptive tactic in the UNpacked Diet had been scrupulously debunked in the chapters that preceded it. Not only that, but after the diet there was another section called the “UNpacked Diet, UNpacked,” in which I went through each of the deceptive tactics and explained why I chose it. How could this couple have taken it seriously, much less followed it? Even if they had missed the final section, their reaction to the UNpacked Diet should have been skepticism and disbelief, not enthusiasm.

I would have been more shocked at Conte’s story if I hadn’t already heard from others who had likewise tried the diet. Readers have emailed asking where they can buy the “UNpacked Diet-approved unbleached coffee filters” that I dreamed up as part of the satire, or with follow-up questions about what’s permissible within the framework of the “diet.” In just a few pages, those powerful rhetorical techniques overcame chapter after chapter of carefully crafted guidance on how to resist them.

My current approach is to present my students with what you’ve just read: transparency about my own thought process. Misinformation exploits the (reasonable!) suspicion that authority figures are hiding something, coming up with secret ways to “nudge” us in certain directions or manipulating us with… well, with science communication techniques. Transparency about how we approach the communication of science — or the communication of a lot of things — creates trust, which is essential to effective persuasion. I’ve found that students report increased trust and a sense that I’m an honest broker of information when I take the transparency approach.

At the same time, knowing that some people believe in the healing power of my satirical diet immediately after reading almost 200 pages on why they shouldn’t has left me deeply shaken. Changing how we communicate science can help, but it’s a Band-Aid solution. A real solution means changing education so books like mine are obsolete.

By the time children finish high school, they should be intimately familiar with manipulative rhetorical techniques, common fallacies, and their own susceptibility to persuasive anecdotes. Alongside hours of studying the Krebs cycle and mitochondria, there should be hours allotted to how to distinguish scientific reasoning from pseudoscientific nonsense. From vaccines to climate change, misinformation poses an existential threat when it inhibits our collective decision-making ability. The time has come to start treating it that way.

How exposure to misinformation inoculation sometimes makes things worse– and how to do better: “They Swore by the Diet I Created — but I Completely Made It Up,” from Alan Levinovitz (@AlanLevinovitz), via the always-illuminating @DenseDiscovery.

* “One of the chief obstacles to intelligence is credulity, and credulity could be enormously diminished by instructions as to the prevalent forms of mendacity. Credulity is a greater evil in the present day than it ever was before, because, owing to the growth of education, it is much easier than it used to be to spread misinformation, and, owing to democracy, the spread of misinformation is more important than in former times to the holders of power.” – Bertrand Russell


As we think critically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1789 that partisans of the Third Estate, impatient for social and legal reforms (and economic relief) in France, attacked and took control of the Bastille.  A fortress in Paris, the Bastille was a medieval armory and political prison; while it held only 8 inmates at the time, it resonated with the crowd as a symbol of the monarchy’s abuse of power.  Its fall ignited the French Revolution.  This date is now observed annually as France’s National Day.

See the estimable Robert Darnton’s “What Was Revolutionary about the French Revolution?

Happy Bastille Day!

Storming of The Bastile, Jean-Pierre Houël


“Your library teacher would say, ‘What happens to a generation that doesn’t read the Classics?’ Me, I’m not your library teacher. But I have some of the same questions and concerns, you know?”*…

A logistical note to those readers who subscribe by email: Google is discontinuing the Feedburner email service that (Roughly) Daily has used since its inception; so email will now be going via Mailchimp. That should be relatively seamless– no re-subscription required– but there may be a day or two of duplicate emails, as I’m not sure how quickly changes take effect at Feedburner. If so, my apologies. For those who don’t get (Roughly) Daily in their inboxes but would like to, the sign-up box is to the right… it’s quick, painless, and can, if you change your mind, be terminated with a click. And now, to today’s business…

My Atlantic colleague John McWhorter and I must have received the same high-frequency language-nerd alert, audible only to the types of people whose idea of fun is Esperanto grammar. We both recently learned that Princeton’s classics department had ceased requiring its students to study Latin and Greek, and we reacted in predictable horror. A classics department without Latin and Greek is like a math department without multiplication and division, or an art department without paint. More than a thousand years ago, the monk Ælfric prefaced his Latin Grammar by saying it was “the key that unlocks the understanding of books.” I had a vision of a new generation of Princeton classicists, sniffing and thwacking at padlocked volumes of Thucydides or Cicero with looks of total incomprehension, like Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson trying to get the files “in the computer” in Zoolander.

But then I remembered my own language training, and I’ve come around to Princeton’s point of view. My classical education started, oddly enough, just like Owen Wilson’s. We attended the same private school about a decade apart, and like all students, we were subjected to a mandatory year of Latin. (After that requirement was abolished, Wilson and his co-screenwriter Wes Anderson made the film Rushmore, in which the nixing of Latin from a prep-school curriculum is a plot point.) We had the same teacher, who told me that Wilson was one of the worst students he’d ever taught. I took another five years of Latin, plus four of Greek, while Wilson went off to find his fortune in Hollywood. I think even Ælfric would agree he got the better end of that deal…

Saving classics from oblivion? Graeme Wood (@gcaw) ponders the news: “Princeton Dumbs Down Classics.”

* poet and rapper Saul Williams


As we decline to decline, lest we decline, we might recall that today– and every June 16– is Bloomsday, a commemoration and celebration of the life of Irish writer James Joyce, during which the events of his novel Ulysses (a modern classic set on this date in 1904) are relived: Leopold Bloom goes about Dublin, James Joyce’s immortalization of his first outing with Nora Barnacle, the woman who would eventually become his wife.

The first Bloomsday was observed on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel, in 1954, when John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine) and the novelist Brian O’Nolan organized what was to be a daylong pilgrimage along the Ulysses route. They were joined by Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Tom Joyce (a dentist who, as Joyce’s cousin, represented the family interest), and AJ Leventhal (a lecturer in French at Trinity College, Dublin).

 The crew for the first Bloomsday excursion


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 16, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Inanimate objects sometimes appear endowed with a strange power of sight. A statue notices”*…

Scan the World is an ambitious initiative that gives you the possibility to enjoy 3D printable representations of cultural artifacts in a remarkably tangible way. The community led project enables everyone with access to the internet to experience material culture in an emotionally impactful manner, one which digital images cannot otherwise offer. The collaborative, living network removes the barriers of geographic location and socioeconomic backgrounds by empowering you to engage, behold, scan or own a copy of 3d printable artifacts that hold significance for you. The collective effort is as much about renowned historical artifacts as it is about household antiques with deep culturally significant roots.

Your contributions work to bridge the gap between technology and the arts. The web of diverse sharers range from educators, scanners, storytellers, artists, makers, historians, art lovers, globe trotters and all passionate individuals, eager to share a piece of their unique culture. Scan the world is about adding dimension to your cultural identity by sharing your views, roots, artifacts and narratives with the world. Providing you with space to deepen your understanding of your personal heritage while giving you the freedom to enrich the otherwise untold story of your ancestors. This initiative was born to put culture back on the map; to connect you to your roots and sense of belonging, and give you a chance to share and strengthen your understanding of yourself. You are the result of the generations that came before you. This network in its truest form is a shared, open access, museum of the future, built by and for you…

Cultural heritage is important for historical research and education as well as establishing a sense of identity amongst communities. Through documenting the past, cultural heritage comes in both physical and intangible forms which include objects, monuments, beliefs, rituals and traditions. 

Scan the World collects stories from people and museums alike, to share various views on the importance and impact of culture, helping diversify our personal approach to art. As different individuals will have very different experiences and values within their own culture, this network provides a safe space for culture to be shared and discovered, no matter where in the world it comes from… 

Access to heritage: Scan the World collects and shares 3-D printable files of cultural artifacts (since it’s inception in 2014, over 17,000, by over 1800 artists/artisans, from over 800 places around the world).

* Victor Hugo


As we peruse our past, we might spare a thought for someone whose work is in STW– the painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, physicist, chemist, anatomist, botanist, geologist, cartographer, and writer– the archetypical Renaissance Man– Leonardo da Vinci.  Quite possibly the greatest genius of the last Millennium, he died on this date in 1519.

 Self-portrait in red chalk, circa 1512-15 [source]

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