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Math Motives August 28, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Teaching.

Since the influential 1983 study A Nation at Risk, we have been debating the question of how to improve education in the U.S. The debate has focused on improving teacher competence through new teaching methods, reorganizing schools as in the charter school movement, or using high stakes testing to punish teachers for their student’s low scores.

The motivations of students and cultural expectations regarding the purpose and importance of education are usually ignored in this debate, as if we could just take them for granted.

On a related topic, there is a debate raging within the sciences and engineering regarding the lack of women in these fields. Explanations range from lack of encouragement, lack of interest, to differences in brain structure between men and women.

This study conducted in Iceland suggests that, for both issues, the role of motivation is primary. The study found that girls perform vastly better than boys in math in the primary grades and high school because they are more highly motivated. However, this difference disappears in college and the work force because girls lose their motivation.

It is difficult to draw conclusions from one very limited study, but it suggests that the U.S. debate about improving schools, since it ignores motivation and cultural expectations, is looking for improvement in all the wrong places.


What Good is a World View? August 26, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy, Teaching.

I suspect that many philosophy professors, when asked what cognitive benefit students acquire in a philosophy class, would respond that students should begin to acquire a world view.

What is a “world view” and why is it good to have one?

“World view” seems to refer to an understanding of how everything in our experience fits together conceptually. (Assuming it does fit together conceptually, which is not obvious.) And I suppose that the great thinkers in history–Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, etc.–have attempted some sort of comprehensive, synoptic understanding. But this is a devilishly difficult intellectual task and they all seem to have gotten it wrong, since we are still preoccupied with figuring out exactly what they were trying to say and posing an endless stream of objections to their respective world views.

But if these accomplished and devoted thinkers got it wrong, how can we expect our students to get it right? Yes, I know there is value in understanding how the great thinkers of the past got it wrong, but that understanding is not sufficient for constructing a comprehensive alternative view that gets it right. So it is likely that whatever our students come away with will be wrong in some significant respect.

What is the value of a world view that is likely to be false? I suppose the maxim “any port in a storm” applies here but, in a real storm, imaginary ports are dangerous. Isn’t this true of imaginary ideas as well?

Is the Big Bang a Bust? August 18, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Philosophy, Science.

Physicist Michael J. Disney thinks modern cosmology is in trouble. Essentially his argument is that, in a maturing science, the number of purely theoretical constructions invented to explain observed phenomena should be less than the number of independent observations that confirm the theory.

Apparently, given the proliferation of theoretical constructions such as dark matter, dark energy, etc. and the paucity of independent observatations confirming them, cosmology doesn’t qualify as a maturing science.

Is this a good standard for evaluating a science? We humanistically-trained scholars would like to know.

A Proud Legacy August 12, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.
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Since Ronald Reagan announced that government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem, rhetorical attacks on government have been the centerpiece of political discourse in this country. We are now governed by the “philosophy” that everything the government does is wrong unless it’s blowing stuff up. As a consequence, we have elected and appointed government officials to perform jobs to which they are philosophically opposed.

None of us would seek out a doctor who didn’t care about the health of her patients. But when it comes to government, electing people who are opposed to government seems to be one of the pillars of wisdom. Then we sit transfixed, appalled, yet perplexed as we stumble incompetently around the Middle East, allow bridges and cities to collapse, and witness the transformation of the Department of Justice into the Department of Torture and Tyranny. 

The legacy of this perverted logic, as this report by Democracy Corps shows, is that we have an electorate that believes government cannot solve problems. By 57 percent to 29 percent, Americans believe that government makes it harder for people to get ahead in life instead of helping people. 83 percent say that if the government had more money, it would waste it rather than spend it well.

Yet, when we look at the problems we confront as a nation–global warming and resource depletion, terrorism, immigration, a broken health care system, aging infrastructure, competing in a global market while maintaining health and safety standards, educational deficits, etc.–it is hard to imagine how any of them can be solved without competent government. 

There is no issue more important than rebuilding confidence in government. It is anybody’s guess how we do that with a public that mistrusts government and politicians willing to pander to their cynicism.

When Leaping into a Snakepit, Bring a Scorecard August 9, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.
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This is about the best description of our current predicament in Iraq that I have seen.

Complete with YouTube commentary.

McWages Get a Boost; The End is Near August 7, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events.
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Thanks to a Democratic  congress we have finally raised the minimum wage for the first time in ten years.

Could we finally put to rest the endlessly repeated right wing mantra that throwing a few pennies at fast food workers will bring down civilization.

Here is some evidence that just the opposite occurs. Putting more money in people’s pockets actually helps the economy.

Bonds Away: The Short History of an Asterisk August 5, 2007

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events.
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The sturm und drang of Barry Bond’s quest for perhaps the most hallowed record in sports is now over. He ties Henry Aaron for the most career home runs and will likely break the record in a day or two.

But there is little joy in Mudville. Although, his use of chemical substances has not been proven in court, the evidence is mounting and strongly indicates guilt, and Bonds has admitted he may have used the substances though he claims he did not know what he was taking. Bond’s alleged use of now banned performance-enhancing drugs will taint this record, which is likely to be notated by an asterisk in the record books.

Should we care whether Bond’s home runs were chemically induced? I have heard three arguments that the record is not tainted–none are convincing.

The first is that Bonds is among the best players to ever play the game with or without chemical enhancement so we should not begrudge him this honor. But this argument is a non-sequitur. The issue is not whether he is a great player (he is) but rather whether he has earned the career home run record. The chemical boost is a reason to doubt that.

The second is that in order for these strength-building substances to have an affect, you have to hit the ball first, which is a skill that performance-enhancing drugs do not influence. Thus, Bond’s performance is largely due to natural ability and training, not drugs. This is unconvincing because these substances prolong careers thus giving Bonds time to accumulate home runs. Furthermore, steroids boost the performance of fast-twitch muscle fibers that influence bat speed. Thus, not only his power but his consistency is likely to be chemically enhanced.

The third argument is some version of the claim that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Everybody cheats to try to gain an edge; that is just part of the game. So why single out Bonds for disapproval?

There is some truth to this claim. Shortstops, on a double play, rarely actually touch second base, first-baseman often illegally obstruct runners diving back to the bag, pitchers often doctor the ball to influence its rotation, etc.

But there is an important difference between this sort of “ordinary” cheating and the use of performance-enhancing drugs. “Ordinary” cheating does not undermine the competitive dimension of the game because it is equal opportunity cheating. Everyone knows the practices that count as cheating and their consequences and can evaluate the risks involved in getting caught. How far to push the boundaries of the rules is a strategic decision and the umpire’s job is to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. It is simply another dimension of the game that one has to excel at in order to win, and no one is excluded from competing by pushing the boundaries of the rules.

This is not the case with performance enhancing drugs such as steroids or human growth hormone. We do not know the long term consequences of using these drugs, and many are known to have disabling short term effects on mood, temperment, etc. When players use these drugs, they are taking excessive risks that can substantially harm their well being in a variety of ways. When some players use these drugs, it creates a coercive atmosphere that undermines the competitive aspects of the game. Players who do not want to use them are at a competitive disadvantage simply because they don’t wish to risk their health and well-being.

Of course, all players in competitive sports incur risks of injury; and some risk long-term disability. But these risks are well-known and players have the opportunity to evaluate for themselves how much risk they are willing to incur. This is not the case with performance enhancing drugs. Given the uncertainties surrounding performance-enhancing drugs, no player should be coerced into taking them.

Thus, the problem with Bonds is not that he had access to something Henry Aaron didn’t have–that would be true of all players today who have better equipment, better training regimes, better instruction, etc. Rather, the problem is that Bonds is guilty of taking unfair advantage of other contemporary players, an advantage which has enabled him to break the record. The asterisk seems appropriate.

There is one argument, however, that I think is compelling. In 20 years or so, it is likely fans will look back on this controversy and wonder why it created such heat. We will eventually learn enough about performance-enhancing drugs to administer them safely. Once we have that understanding, it is not obvious that we should treat these drugs any differently than the new technology and training regimes that improve performances in most sports. See this article for more discussion.

At that point, perhaps the asterisk noting Bond’s transgressions should just disappear.