free debate

January 25, 2012

Book Review: Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science

Second Edition Published by
Dover Publications
If you have an interest in telling reality from nonsense, I have found history to be one of the most insightful guides. UFOs, Scientology, and end of the world theories did not show up yesterday. Each of these has a long chronicle of claims and critics. Understanding that history is a window into the world of frauds, cranks, and the misinformed.

Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science was written by Martin Gardner in 1952, with the second edition coming out in 1957. I have heard this book referred to as one of the first modern skeptical books. The book covers a wide rage of topics each in about 10 pages. As I read, I was surprised at how many of these ideas are still around today, only repackaged for a modern audience.

Personally, the most informative and frankly fun cases to read about were the UFOs. You have to keep in mind this book was written before the launch of Sputnik, so our understanding of the universe was very different. This was a time when most UFO were believed not to have come from other stars or galaxies but from Mars or Venus. The dropping of the first atomic weapons was still fresh in the public consciousness as well. This led a whole slew of explanations for why the aliens were visiting the Earth. Some were fairly straightforward, like the idea that the aliens wanted us not to destroy ourselves. Other explanations were outright bizarre, like the idea that beings the size of bees made from precious gems were piloting these UFOs because the atomic blasts were somehow disrupting the sun and threatening their home on Mars.

It is fun to look at these old ideas and see how ridiculous they are. But they also give us a very important cautionary tale. After all, Martin Gardner was not writing on these ideas simply to make fun of them. He wrote on these topics because these are things people believed. 60 years later, you could write basically the same book on a new set of weird beliefs that have cropped up. We need to be careful on what grounds we accept what we are told and carry on this legacy of informing those around us.

January 20, 2012

Getting Students Invested

One of the hardest parts of teaching, especially in a K-12 classroom, is getting your students engaged. This is a huge issue because the difference between having a student engaged and having one just not care can be the difference between them asking thought-provoking questions or having them disrupting the rest of the class. In training, I was told to get students engaged you need to get them invested in their education. That is great advice but at the same time it can be really hard to implement. There are only so many ways to tell a student that their education is important before they start blocking you out. That is why I got really excited by a new paper published in Sage Open that came up with a new way to get students engaged: contracts.

I have seen teachers use contracts in the classroom before, but not like this. The basic idea is you show students the requirements for each letter grade at the start of the semester. Each assignment is pass fail and can be repeated a fixed number of times. So for example to get an A you needed to get above 80% on 4 exams, do 3 of 4 written assignments, and 3 of 4 activities. To get a B in the class you would need to get above 80% on 4 exams, do 2 of the 4 written assignments, and 3 of the 4 activities. The student gets complete control over what activities and written assignments to do but for whatever assignments they chose they need to show a very strong understanding of the material. The idea is to get students to set their own goal at the start of the semester and then focus on mastering the material throughout the semester, not just remembering a percentage of it.

I really like this idea for several reasons. Giving students more control makes them more responsible for their own learning. That alone can be really motivating for many students. I also like the idea of letting students retry assignments because it makes them look at their previous work critically and look for ways to improve on it. Lastly, I think it is really good for students to learn to set goals early with a clear idea of what they will need to do to achieve that goal.

As nice as it is that this kind of student contract caters to my philosophical notions about how we should teach students, the real question is, does it work? The answer appears to be a tentative yes. To test it researchers at Western Illinois University compared two freshman psychology classes. The teacher and content was the same in both courses but one is a traditional grading system and the other used this contract grading system. To quote the press release... the end of the semester, the group of students who were graded contractually were three times more likely to earn an A grade, one third as likely to fail or withdraw from the course, perceived a higher degree of control over their grade, and consistently rated their own effort, their instructor, and the course overall more favorably.
It is important to note that is was a small study and it was done on the college level so it is hard to say how well it would apply to a K-12 environment. We also can't rule out effects like the teacher being biased towards the contract grading system or the result being a statistical fluke. Still I think it is a really interesting idea. One that deserves more studies at more educational levels.

The full paper is titled "Use of Contract Grading to Improve Grades Among College Freshmen in Introductory Psychology" by Dana F. Lindemann and Colin R. Harbke and can be found at

January 18, 2012

Dynamic Earth: Happy Birthday, Baby Island!

On Thursday, the first clear pictures of a new land mass were revealed. And here they are:
From Universe Today
This new deserted island is part of Zubair Island chain in the Red Sea. A large volcanic eruption in December pushed this new piece of land above the water's surface, and this is the first clear shot, free of clouds and volcanic ash plumes, of the island. Like most island chains, this one is a series of shield volcanoes, which form as the continental plate moves over a "hot spot" in the upper mantle. This new volcanic island, therefore, is most likely nowhere near done growing, however, so it will be a while before anyone visits this place. It's an awesome reminder, however, of how the surface of our planet continues to grow.

January 17, 2012

Scientific Unknowns: What is Life Redux

Image Credit: JFantasy via Wikimedia Commons
Almost three years ago now, I wrote a post about the difficulty of defining life. Now this has come back into the news and I thought I would add my two cents.

This all started when Edward Trifonov, a biologist at the University of Haifa Isreal, proposed a three word definition of life. To quote from the article by Carl Zimmer on Txchnologist...
Trifanov analyzed the linguistic structure of 150 definitions of life, grouping similar words into categories. He found that he could sum up what they all have in common in three words. Life, Trifonov declares, is simply self-reproduction with variations.
In his article, Zimmer does acknowledge that there is a considerable amount of criticism but he mostly focuses on what this definition might be missing, metabolism, information and so on. I was interested, though, when I read a critical piece by Sean Carroll asking if reproduction should even be a part of our definition. He says...
...the idea of reproduction looms large in many people’s definitions of life. But I don’t think it really belongs. If you built an organism from scratch, that was as complicated and organic and lifelike as any living thing currently walking this Earth, except that it had no reproductive capacity, it would be silly to exclude it from “life” just because it was non-reproducing. Even worse, I realized that I myself wouldn’t even qualify as alive under Trifonov’s definition, since I don’t have kids and don’t plan on having any.
3 Legged dog on the right
Photo Credit: Jon Hurd via Wikimedia Commons
It is a really interesting question. We could define dogs in part as having four legs, but does that mean if a dog loses one leg it is no longer a dog? If we created a cell in the lab that is identical to a natural cell in every way except it can't reproduce is it alive? To give another example, I think it is easy to imagine a robot that can copy itself but that we would still not want to call alive.  My personal thought, is that reproduction is a necessary component for any type of life that will survive for long stretches of time. That doesn't mean reproduction is what makes something alive.

So what is life? I certainly don't have an answer. Right now we have a sample size of one*. Until we find life somewhere else in the universe, I wouldn't expect any real agreement on this deceptively simple question.

*After all, every living thing we have found on the Earth shares a common ancestor.

January 15, 2012

Pardon Our Construction

Due to some issues with changing links and image hosting, we'd decided to redesign Scientifica. All through this weekend, we will be changing templates and making adjustments, so we apologize if you come on while the site is a mess. These changed should be complete by Monday the 16th, at which time we hope you'll explore the new layout. If you find anything broken or that looks off, or have any other comments or suggestions, send us an email through our Contact form, or in the comments below.


January 7, 2012

Welcome to the Future

From the SGU and Skeptical Robot
According to some, this year, 2012, is going to be the end of the world. For me, however, this year feels, once again, like a reminder that we live in the future. I am writing this post not on a desktop or laptop computer. Instead, I am on a device sold as a phone, but bearing more resemblance to a Star Trek type pocket communicator, with options to access an instantaneous world-wide network of information. I can communicate several collections of individuals with whom I can share photographs, pages of information and data, and even talk to in a nearly face-to-face manner. It can give me directions to anywhere I want from where ever I am at a given point in time. I can find almost any book I want to read at any time. It allows me to never miss a perfect photo again. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that it also makes food and does my laundry, if you install the correct app. And this smartphone edition came out several years ago. The new ones, and their sister technology the tablets, seem even more like something out of a science fiction book.

And more exciting technology than this is coming out all the time. Last year, Google put driverless cars on the road. The first prototype electric airplane were funded through the NASA Green Flight Challenge. No-focus camera technology was developed. And those are just a few of the innovations that may come into the public field as early as this year, and each of them could revolutionary to how we live our daily lives.

Technology, and the science that allows us to develop it, can be amazing. For all that it can be annoying at times, it can be valuable to step back and realize just how fantastic the items we take for granted really are. We live in a world where science fiction is coming true. No, we don't have flying cars or mammoths on jetpacks, yet, but the things our smartphones, our tablets, our computers, our cars, our GPSs, our televisions, and more, allow us to travel, communicate, and do work in ways I wouldn't have imagined even as a kid just over a decade ago. Welcome to the future, and get ready to see what we discover in 2012, and beyond.