Sunday, November 25, 2012


     One of the things that inspired me to start blogging again has been my experience lately with Massive Open Online Courses.  So far it has been a great experience, and it is really something I can get behind.  Though I don't think it will be the only thing happening in the future, I believe that this concept will play a huge role reshaping education for the information age.  My experience thus far has been with the startups Coursera and Udacity, and toward the end I will look more specifically at each of them.

     For you who don't know, MOOCs are a form of online education that aims for the same goals as an actual class, as opposed to just a tutorial or a surface level introduction to a subject such as is typical on the internet.  They come in a variety of flavors, but there are quite a few common links.  The classes are free, available to anybody who wants to sign up and take them.  Typically you will be in class with people from all over the world, including people who don't have access to higher education otherwise.

     Another thing is that they are very interactive.  You aren't just watching lecture videos.  There are questions along the way to test comprehension and make sure you are paying attention, as well as problem sets after each unit.  The discussion forums are always active, giving you the ability to get extra clarification or discussion on the topics covered.  There are final exams testing whether or not you learn the material, that you have to pass in order to get a class certificate.

     Speaking of certificates, most of the classes you take give you a certificate if you do well on the homework and final.  You don't get actual college credit, but you are able to track your progress, and demonstrate to others that you are learning these things.  Both will provide your transcript (and resume, if desired) to companies looking for skilled employees, so at least for now the certificates could potentially do something for you.

     At the moment all the MOOC's I have encountered skew heavily toward the tech fields.  There are some humanities courses, some math courses, etc. but for the most part they work best for computer science type fields.  This is great for me, but limiting overall.

     The other limiting factor I have encountered is more personal.  It is something that is a problem with all online classes, but seems worse for the MOOC's.  This of course is the motivation factor.  There is no class you need to show up for, and you aren't even paying for the class.  It is easy to not take it seriously, and I find myself having to consciously remind myself to take it seriously.  So far it has gone well for me, but I have witnessed quite a few dropouts already in my Crypto class.

     So as to some specifics,  the two differ in some significant ways.  Coursera teams up with top universities, getting people in the top of their field to offer content.  In addition, The classes are more traditional in that they go for a set time, with material released week by week and assignments with due dates.  They also have a much wider course offering at this point.
     Udacity, on the other hand, creates its content in house.  It is always available, and the classes are completely self - paced.  Their classes are basically all CS classes, with the exception of one physics class and one statistics class.  It feels slightly less class like, and you can re-take all the assignments until you get them right.  The big upsides are that you can start a class whenever you want, and learn at your own pace, both of which aren't possible with Coursera.

    They both have their strengths and weaknesses, and for what its worth I think they are both worth checking out.  I have completed one course through Udacity and am working on a second.  I am currently enrolled in one with Coursera, and am starting two more in January.  If you are interested in the tech fields and are a decent self learner, I can highly recommend checking them out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I have re-opened my blog in a severly truncated form.  Sorry for any lost references or links.  For anybody still listening I should be writing again in the near future.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Did dinosaurs live with people?

A few days ago I learned of the most recent Gallup poll, showing support for young earth creationism holding at 46%.  It has stayed around that level since they started the poll in 1982.  This is shocking to me, even though I know it shouldn't be.

When I was a kid I was really interested in dinosaurs.  I had tons of models of them, and liked to read and study about them.  One thing I can remember is wondering if people and dinosaurs were ever around together.  At the time (and now) I thought that would have been pretty dang cool to see dinosaurs around.

Fortunately for me, my parents taught me how to do research.  They would take me to the library and we would check out books about dinosaurs.  In that way I learned about paleontology, fossils, the age of the earth, the various geographic eons and how they all contained different plants and animals.

  As a result of an upbringing that helped me to study and find the answers to my questions, I never was able to buy in to the young earth viewpoint even at churches where that was the norm.  My early experience with dinosaurs helped me by giving me an understanding of how the scientists learn about the world.  Of course the intricacies of it were lost on a 6 year old, but the gist was clear.  Different things show up at different times in the past in predictable patterns.  Scientists learn about these things by careful excavation of the layers of the earth, and by specialized ways of finding out how old they are.

This stuff still fascinates me.  If any of the above is news to you, I would highly recommend taking an anthropology class, or geology, or at least reading some books on the subject.  It is incredibly cool, and it has been great looking at it all again now that I am older.  I am learning so much more while also connecting to something that has fascinated me since childhood.

What if, instead of going to the library and picking up some basic textbooks about paleontology, my parents had given me a book like this one (by noted creationist Ken Ham):

Note the people, primates, fruit trees and dino's all hanging out together.  Note the 2 clearly carnivorous dino's eating from said fruit trees.  This book also claims to answer the questions I had about dinosaurs as a kid, but comes to drastically different conclusions.  I would have learned that the conclusions of the scientists were unreliable because they relied on faulty presuppositions.  I would have learned that any science that deals with the past can't be verified because it can't be repeated in current experiments.  I would have learned that dinosaurs and humans did coexist, peacefully even, before the fall.

Growing up, this viewpoint on scientists would have tainted my whole worldview.  The early distrust of science in certain evangelical circles is reinforced by the insularity of the evangelical subculture I would have been raised in.  Most of the people I grew up with would probably believe the same things I did.  By the time I encounter a different viewpoint on human origins or fossils or dinosaurs, it will sound so ridiculous as to not even warrant the time of day.  If I do hear some good arguments for the "secular" view, I can always go to Answers in Genesis to remind me that my viewpoint is the right one.  This is a classic example of confirmation bias, something that everybody in the world needs to watch out for, and that we can never entirely eliminate.  It would have been possible to go my whole life without ever directly encountering the "secular" viewpoint on this subject.  Overall, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to change my views on these things, regardless of how smart I was.

Outside my hypothetical dream childhood, this is the situation a significant portion of Americans grow up in.  The shock I feel at those statistics in the Gallup poll is completely unwarranted.  It is only by an accident of birth that I grew up in a family that valued learning as much as mine did.  As a result, I am trying to do better at understanding the root of these anti-science attitudes instead of just dismissing them.  I want to know what makes these beliefs so strong and what could change people's mind on the subject.

I know that my viewpoints on a lot of subjects has changed in the past few years, and one of the reasons has been my regression to a child-like desire for knowledge.  I really started studying in earnest again, and allowed myself the freedom to accept the truth, even if it didn't agree with me.  I think if I hadn't had that spark encouraged growing up that I would not have been so willing to change my mind in the present.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Magician Pranksters, A response to Stephen Law

Stephen Law recently wrote an article arguing for skepticism regarding the existence of a historical Jesus.  It can be found in its entirety here.  It is an interesting article, written purely from a philosophical perspective, and not from a historical one.  I should note he doesn't endorse mythicism, the belief that Jesus did NOT exist.  He simply advocates for a skeptical position regarding the whole thing.  Also, the rest of this post won't make sense unless you go read his article.

Law argues for 2 claims, using some thought experiments to intuitively justify them.  He then uses those claims to form his argument for skepticism.

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.

I am willing to grant this one.  The bottom line he is going for is that we don't have enough evidence from the NT documents to justify the miracle claims therein.  I think this is reasonable for the point he is trying to make, even if there is some argument over what counts as "extraordinary."

P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

I disagree that this claim is reasonable, as I hope to show in my thought experiments.  The background information we possess is just as important in evaluating testimony as any independent evidence of the mundane claims in question.  Unless Mr. Law is willing to say that background information counts as independent evidence, P2 is invalid.  If background information does count, it is unclear that P2 undercuts belief in Jesus' existence.

I will present an alternative to the "Ted and Sarah" thought experiment and another that I think better represents the evidence we have in the New Testament, and argue that the conclusions we draw are different in my situation, even though there is no additional evidence on the specific mundane facts we have in question.

Consider "The Magician Pranksters."

You read online about a group of anonymous individuals who are inviting themselves into peoples houses and performing magic tricks for them, then leaving without any explanation.  The article gives good evidence that this is happening, as some sort of new prank kids are pulling these days.

Your friends Ted and Sarah come to you one day explaining that some people came into their house and did some really miraculous things.  One of them made their couch float in the air, and the other one cut off her hand and then reattached it.  Then, they both got up and walked through the front door while it was still closed.  Both Ted and Sarah are absolutely convinced of the miraculous nature of these events, and neither mentions or knows anything about the online article you read.  They stand by their story while you question them, insisting on what they saw.

Note that the story they tell involves a multitude of miraculous happenings integral to what happened,  and that you have no independent evidence that Ted and Sarah had people to their house.  According to P2, we have "good reason to be skeptical of the mundane claims" being made here, but intuitively that is not the case.  If the example seems far fetched, or if you feel the article constitutes independent evidence, try this one.

"The Faith Healer"

A friend tells you she went to a big tent revival and saw a faith healer.  She then regales you for a half hour on all the miraculous things she saw there.  These include a man in a wheelchair getting up and walking, demons being cast out, long lasting pains being healed, and even a dead man in the basement being brought back to life.  She tells you that the healer prophesied things about her that nobody could have known.  You didn't read about the gathering in the paper or anything, and have no other evidence regarding it having taken place.

This is a perfectly realistic scenario, and according to P2 we are justified in doubting our friend ever went to a big tent revival.  I think most people would find that conclusion absurd.  In fact, the only evidence you would expect to find for a faith healer, regardless if you believe in that or not, is reports of a miraculous nature.  It would be silly to assume that most faith healers didn't exist on account of the fact that testimony in regards to them often mixes the miraculous with the mundane.  While we have every right to doubt the miraculous nature of what she witnessed, we recognize that such experiences are incredibly probable in the context of a big tent revival.

So there is a problem with P2 as it stands, and I would further suggest that the situation we have with regards to Jesus is closer to those I mention than to Mr. Law's examples.  The reports we have of Jesus suggest he was a faith healer, and also a religious and political leader (a messiah).  We know from non-biblical sources that healers and messiahs were relatively common during the time Jesus supposedly was teaching.  We also know from current as well as ancient evidence that faith healers have miracles ascribed to them as a result of their vocation (it's right there in the title for God's sake).  Further, we know from almost ALL ancient historical evidence that movement leaders have apocryphal and legendary stories attributed to them.

So the evidence we have for the existence of Jesus is consistent with his being recognized by his followers as an extraordinary individual.  Much like our faith healer exists in a role today where we would expect miraculous stories to abound around them, Jesus was in a role in which we could expect miraculous stories to flock to him as well.  Though this in no way is meant to prove he did exist, I think it shows that we have no more reason to be skeptical of his existence on account of the stories surrounding his life.  There are certain contexts where those stories are expected, even if they are false.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Joys of Science

I'm building a DC motor right now.

It's a tedious project, you need to wind a bunch of wire around some nails, then put it all together on a board.  I look forward to hooking it up tremendously.  It will be so satisfying.  It's cool when you see how something is supposed to work, then actually verify that it works how it's supposed to.

Last week I got to derive the equations for impedence matching, then verify them in the lab.  Super simple experiment, and the derivations weren't too bad if you have a decent calculus background.  We graphed our results and compared them with our theoretical results, and for some reason it's just super exciting to me when you see how close your equations match with reality.

The same thing goes for programming.  Instead of working out theoretical problems on paper, you get to put symbols into your computer to get it to do things.  Once you learn a few things you really start to see the possibilities for what could be accomplished, even if you can't get there yet.

All this to say that if you have the ability to take some quantitative science classes in your schooling I would highly recommend it.  Even if you aren't a math person, there are plenty of classes that don't require calculus.  It might be hard, but it is worth it to learn a little bit of the magic that makes the world work.  It's important to actually see how science works, and the best way to do that is to verify it for yourself.  Once you start seeing some results, it gives you more confidence in how it all goes together.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Click Clack Moo Cows That Type - A model for peaceful resistance

Sometimes I like to analyze the media we provide to our kids.  See this post for more of that action.
We recently got a copy of Click Clack Moo, and Gabe likes us to read it to him at least once a day.  It's a silly story about some cows who find a typewriter.  They use it to demand blankets for themselves and the hens.  The Cows and Hens go on strike, refusing to produce, until the farmer gives in, trading them blankets in exchange for the cows giving up the typewriter.  There is a twist at the end, and the ducks end up with the typewriter, demanding a diving board for their swimming pond.

In reality, this story is somewhat of a parable.  Farmer Brown, as the old white man in charge of the farm, represents the status quo holding down the working class (the animals on the farm).  Imagine his surprise at the cows getting ahold of a typewriter!  They now have a voice, and begin challenging the powers that be.  Much like the 19th century women who were relegated to the sphere of domesticity and prevented from speaking in the public sphere on account of their biology, the cows can only speak moo, and thus are not offered a seat at the table as to how the farm is run.  The typewriter gives them an outlet, and represents the power of the oppressed to refuse to be ignored.

Not surprisingly, the cows begin demanding their rights.  When the farmer refuses them even basic material comforts, they respond with the only tool they have available, withholding production.  The chickens join in, forming a unified group against the dominating power.  The farmer is incredulous.  "You are cows and chickens, I demand milk and eggs!" he responds.  The powerful use cultural structures to keep the oppressed from questioning the nature of their oppression.  The caste system in India, or the biblical justifications used by southern slave-holders, rest on the idea that certain groups of people are destined to fulfill certain roles.  The cows aren't valued as persons, only as a means of supplying the farmer.

In a deal with the devil, the cows and chickens agree to give up their voice in exchange for their comfort.  Once again they will do the farmers bidding and stop questioning, so long as they have blankets to keep them warm at night.  In making this deal without the consent of the other groups that aided the cows in their struggle, they betray their cause as a whole.

In the end the ducks, who recognize the power of words and who gained no advantage from the cow's betrayal, took the power for themselves.  Instead of serving as mediators to the deal, they secretly steal the typewriter and begin issuing their own demands.  Thus the struggle continues, and those in power begin to be held accountable for their actions towards those that they govern.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty Movie Review

I'm honestly not trying to turn this into a movie blog, it's just what I've been thinking about lately.

Erin and I took our almost 4 year old to his first big screen movie last night.  It was wonderful, he had a great time and so did we.  "The Secret World of Arrietty" is the latest from Miyazaki and studio Ghibli, which happens to be the group that puts out Gabe's favorite movies, and some of my favorite animation as well.  Though distributed by Disney in the US, they aren't anything like the typical disney film and are really something people of all ages can enjoy.

"Arrietty" is based on the book "The Borrowers" about tiny people who live in normal people's houses, and "borrow" things they need while trying to avoid detection.  Arrietty, the main character, gets seen by a sick boy, and it causes problems for their family, as well as an internal conflict between her desire for friendship and the safety of her family.

There were a number of things that I really loved about this movie, and it was really worth seeing in the theatre.  From a technical standpoint, the sound was amazing.  They did a great job at amplifying the sound and making it slightly weird, just like it would sound if you were only an inch tall. The art direction was awesome as well, many of the outside scenes looked like the characters were living in an impressionist painting, and it just looked really cool overall.  One small detail I noticed was that when they cried or poured tea, it came out in huge blobs.  It was cool to see that they even thought of surface tension when designing the little people.

There was a lot to like here story-wise.  It had a strong female lead who didn't end up living happily ever after with the man of her dreams.  The characters were really interesting, and it didn't just rely on gimmicks and action to keep you interested.  Not a whole lot happened over the course of the film, but it stayed interesting throughout.  It was just the right pace for our family.  The movie wasn't dumbed down because it was for kids, which is great because it means the whole family can enjoy it. 

There was nothing objectionable for a 3 year old in my opinion, with the added bonus that it didn't impart the typical status quo disney values that most American movies do.I would certainly recommend it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Christians Gone Wild

The second post of a series on documentaries, the post list can be found here.

People, of course, tend toward learning about things they are interested in.  This seems almost too basic to be worth mentioning.  The same is true of documentaries.  Though we will sometimes watch them based on a recommendation or because it looks well done or is highly acclaimed, usually we will grab them because the subject matter is fascinating to us.

I am quite intrigued by some of the ideas that modern Christianity has been pushing for the past few decades.  There are large swaths of the christian population that are taking their theology to the extreme.  Be it a fascination with the end of the world or a complete segregation from the outside world, their ideas have real consequences for the people caught up in them.

When I am looking for documentaries, I tend to enjoy ones that are relatively objective.  Everybody has an angle, but some try too hard to push that angle.  Most of the movies I mention here try to let the people speak for themselves, they aren't trying to force reality to fit into their mold.  Even when you can tell the filmmaker disagrees with the people, they aren't mocking and they let them have their say.  In the special features for "Fall From Grace" we see the Phelps family watching the movie and loving it, even though it was nowhere near a flattering portrait of them.  It shows the documentarian really cared about presenting his subject fairly.  That isn't always the case, but it's something to look for when watching a documentary.

As mentioned above, "Fall From Grace" is really good.  It's about Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, of "God Hates Fags" fame.  The filmmaker spent a lot of time with this group, something that I would find really hard to do without losing all faith in humanity.  We get a good look at how they operate, the hardest part was watching the kids spouting off the same stuff as the parents.  I thought it was a fair look at a very charged subject.  Another good movie about religious extremists like this is "Soldiers in the Army of God" about the anti-abortion terrorist group.

Jesus Camp is one of the best movies of its kind.  It provides a very evenhanded look at the indoctrination of children into the ideology of the religious right.  It talks to parents, pastors, and then goes to summer camp to show what the kids are doing there.  I thought it was well balanced, the footage was assembled beautifully, and it was all around a great film, though somewhat disturbing.  Again, I felt it really portrayed the subject fairly, not trying to be sensationalistic.  Some other good ones on some of the aspects of conservative evangelical subculture are "Waiting for Armageddon" about the religious right's focus on Israel as the site for the end of the world, and "Hell House" about a very interesting form of evangelism based around the concept of a haunted house.

Devil's Playground is a fascinating look at a particular aspect of Amish culture.  When their children are old enough that they are to choose their own way in life, the Amish basically just let them out into the world with almost no supervision.  It creates an interesting dynamic because the kids are so sheltered, so they just go crazy.  This movie follows some of the kids as they deal drugs, party, and try to decide if they want to live the rest of their lives as Amish or not.

That's a pretty good start if you are interested in the crazier side of Christianity.  Check some of them out sometime.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Errol Morris

The first of a series on documentaries, the post list can be found here.

Errol Morris is my favorite documentary filmmaker (sorry Werner!) and one of my favorite filmmakers in general.  His movies are beautifully crafted, he knows how to unfold a story, and he gets his viewpoint across through the footage he uses without overtly interfering.  I have enjoyed everything I have seen by him, I really believe his films are a cut above most of what you see out there.

Gates of Heaven was Morris' first feature, and it's amazingly good.  Roger Ebert called it one of the ten best films of all time.  As with all his work that I have seen, it's dead-pan but incredibly tender.  He has a way of bringing out people's idiosyncrasies without turning them into a mockery.  We meet some very interesting individuals, and they just talk, telling us about life, and their dead pets.  The film centers around two pet cemeteries, one that was a failure, and one that was a resounding success.  That's the subject matter, but really it is about the people.  It's a hilarious, absurd, touching look at life, loneliness, and how we cope with death.

His style focuses entirely on the people he is documenting.  It's like we are looking them in the face, having a personal conversation.  The characters are the lens through which the story develops.  They show us objects, give tours, and tell us about their lives.  It is through these conversations that the "plot" develops.

Tabloid is his latest film and you can see his style even more developed here.  It tells a crazy story of an event that happened in the 70's regarding a beauty queen who flew to England, kidnapped a mormon, and tied him to a bed for days on end.  Once again the story is told through the people involved, both the woman who did it and other people who were involved in helping her, or covering her story in the tabloids.

We see the story unfold from many points of view, but something doesn't add up.  Each individual has a completely different perception of what happened, how it came about, and who the bad guys were.  This tension stands throughout the film.  It adds a layer on top of an already bizarre story.  This serves to call into question the whole idea of objective documentation.  In allowing each person to tell their story, Morris causes us the discomfort of never really knowing what happened.  There is a big question mark there that gives a peek behind the curtain.

I could talk about all of his movies, however each one I have seen is excellent, so I would recommend any of them.  Vernon, Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and Mr. Death are all available on watch instantly if you do the Netflix thing.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Documentaries - a Series

A few weeks ago I tried to make a post about my favorite documentaries.  People ask for recommendations, and it would be nice to have a place to point them, because I can't always give people a good recommendation on the spot, especially since many people are looking for different things in a documentary.

Unfortunately, it spiralled out of control quite quickly.  I couldn't even narrow it down to 20 or so, and so instead I just got a Pinterest account and started a documentary board.  When I think of good ones I have seen, I just put them on there so I can remember for the future or when somebody asks.

Instead of just listing my favorites, I figure maybe I can do a few highlight posts for people who are interested in documentaries beyond your typical TLC fare or Michael Moore propaganda.  I will organize it into some categories to look at the diversity of the genre, though I will of course only be able to cover a small portion of what I would recommend, if you have unlimited time to watch.

Here's a preliminary breakdown, I will fill it in with links as the posts go up.

1.  Errol Morris - My favorite documentarian, he deserves his own category

2.  Christians Gone Wild - Movies about fundamentalism, cults, or extremism within the Christian Tradition

3.  Art Subjects - Movies centered in some way around the art world

4.  Crazy Characters - Fascinating portraits of individuals

5.  Competition - Sports, Games, and Contests

6.  Hard Times - Movies about people in tough situations

Hopefully that will give people an idea of some movies worth seeing, based on what they may be interested in.  Maybe it will demonstrate what I love about the format, and why I think it deserves more recognition that it has previously received.  Some movies I love will be left out because they don't really fit into the above format.  Oh well.  There's plenty of good stuff in here to get somebody interested, so I figure that's enough.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How To Read Online Articles Critically


I like the internet.  A lot.  I think it's amazing how easy it is to access easy information, current events, and opinion pieces on just about any subject imaginable.  I have found that in the past few years, I really have learned as much through the internet as I have through my classes, though in less well focused areas. This access is incredibly good for humanity as a whole, but it does have a dark side.

I will admit that a lot of my internet time is spent browsing Facebook.  It isn't the most productive thing I could be doing, but it is good to catch up on what's happening, and it takes almost no mental effort... most of the time.  More and more often, I see people posting articles sensationalizing some new bit of research that's been done, and drawing some interesting conclusions from that research.

Because of the nature of social networking, these things often go viral, popping up over and over again in my feed.  Almost invariably when I follow the link, I find that the article has taken some serious liberties with the study it references, or else makes some crazy leaps of logic to make its point.

When we take these articles as serious examinations of their topic, it does serious damage to our abilities to come to the truth of the matter.  We can't take something as true just because it supports what we already believe.  When we do, we shut off our brain to any new information we may receive.

I would like to offer some tools to bring to articles such as these.  With all the information that is out there, it is helpful to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff and get down to the heart of the matter, whatever the subject may be.

1.  Check the sources!
     This one is huge.  If the article references a research paper, try to find the paper online and READ IT (or at least the abstract).  If the article is legit, the link should be close at hand.  For any quotes in the piece, try to determine where they come from, and what the context is.  Unfortunately, quotes often get falsified, falsely attributed, or abused by being taken out of context.  If you can't find the source of a quote, don't trust it!  Make sure research has been done ethically, and by a reputable group (a university, the CDC, a polling agency like Gallup).  Wikipedia can be helpful, but don't trust it as a valid source, go deeper than that.  Be suspicious of sites where all of the links just take you to other parts of the same website, try to get outside information.  Often times we find that the actual study comes to the opposite conclusions to what the article tries to twist it into saying, or wasn't designed to address the topic at hand.

2.  Look at the hosting site
     Does the author/ webmaster have an agenda?  Many articles on "health" websites are promoting a certain lifestyle, or even certain products.  Political sites are usually pretty one sided.  Be wary of a site that only publishes articles that upholds its point of view rather than a balanced look at it's area of interest.  Large sites like the NY post are typically better, but check out what section it's published in.

3.  Who is the author
   What are his / her credentials?  Is the person qualified to be writing on the subject?  Are they an expert in their field?  If it's a science article, has the author been published in academia (scientific or medical journals, oxford press, etc.)?  If it's a journalist, is their work shown in respected papers / websites / magazines?

4.  Eliminate the Emotional Language
     Try to get rid of the rhetorical words, anecdotal evidence, and appeals to emotion.  Break down the article into statements of fact and arguments.  Then, try to follow the trail of the arguments, paying close attention to whether or not they are valid.  If you doubt the facts, see if they are backed up by a link to a good source.  Many of these articles just contain story after story interspersed with unsupported opinions.    Articles that come across as devastating to their opposition are often nothing more than a bunch of important sounding fluff.

5.  Read the Comments Section
     This can be a minefield, but it can also be a good easy place to find intelligent dissent.  Try to avoid the flame wars and look for people who are arguing a good case for or against what is being said.  Sometimes you can find links to other articles on the same subject, or legitimate critiques you may not have thought of.  You can add comments as well, asking for sources or clarification if there is something you think is unsubstantiated.

6.  Get a Second Opinion
     Never take a single article as a good overview of a subject.  Do some research if it is something you care about.  Don't be afraid to look at the best arguments on both sides of an issue.  Find peer reviewed articles on the subject, or scholarly overviews of the issue.  Don't assume that links to the opposition in the article are representative of the best arguments.  Look for well researched pieces, or even critical responses to the very article you are reading.

7.  Snopes it!
     When people post "shared" stories or pictures on Facebook, chances are Snopes has looked into it.  It's a site dedicated to researching urban legends, rumors, and internet memes.  There are other sites as well that look into the origins of quotes.  Here is a good one for medical claims (Hint: look at the credentials of the contributors). Debunking sites can be viewed as negative and cruel, but they provide a good service when you are trying to get real information.

8.  Develop Good Thinking Skills
     Learn about logical fallacies.  There's a lot of them, and people make them ALL THE TIME!  Learn about cognitive biases (Read this article!).  Practice rationality and logical reasoning.  Then, go back to step 4 and apply all you've learned.

9.  Learn the Scientific method and How It Is Used
This will help you to understand how research is actually done, and how to read a scientific study.  Furthermore, it will help you to differentiate between real research and pseudo-scholarship.  You can always ask "Is this idea testable?"  "How can we test to see if you are right?" "What observations led you to this belief, and how else could those observations be explained?"  Finally, in some cases, if you know the method, you can do experiments!  Devise a way to see for yourself if what you are reading is true.

10.  Examine Your Motives
     If you are reading an article to prove it wrong, you will be able to prove it wrong.  If you are reading it to support what you already believe, then you will be sure to look past its deficiencies.  If you want to do real research, be willing to change your mind if the evidence warrants it and try to seek out the best information you can.  Erin and I like to joke that if you are moved to tears instead of bored to tears, chances are you aren't doing real research.

There's a lot of bad information out there.  Anybody can self-publish on the internet and get a decent following.  Fortunately, there is also a lot of good information as well.  If you have the right tools you can actually learn some things.  Look for peer reviewed websites, or educational resources.  I-Tunes has college lectures you can download for free.  When you come across information that may not be trustworthy, resources such as these can be a big help.

If you do see something going around that's propagating bad information, it's a good idea to let the poster know.  You can send a private message or post a comment, so that other people don't get drawn in to believing falsehoods. It sometimes seems harsh, but you are doing a service.  Just try to be polite and tactful.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life movie review

Into the Abyss was not an easy documentary to watch.  The new movie by Werner Herzog is a meditation on death, told through the story of a senseless act of murder by two teenagers, followed by the execution of one of them (the other is serving life).  It's the sort of documentary that in less adept hands would end up being shown late night on the National Geographic channel, but as it stands it's a beautiful and gut wrenching look at the darker side of our society.

Herzog makes it clear early in the film what he feels about the subject he is documenting during an interview he has with Michael Perry, the man who was executed eight days later.  Though I don't have the quote, he basically says "I don't have to like you, but I respect your humanity, and I don't think the state has the right to execute you."  Perry appears to be guilty, with no extenuating circumstances to excuse him.  What he did was deplorable, and the tragedy of the situation is clearly shown.  Even so, does he deserve to die?  It is a tragedy to see three people killed so some young men could take a joy ride in a stolen car, but is it justice if a fourth dies for the same reason?

Life is precious, death is senseless.  The movie opens with an interview of the Chaplain who provides comfort to the people being executed.  "Why does God allow capital punishment?" asks Herzog.  Within two minutes, the pastor is in tears (as was at least half of the audience, myself included).  The sister and daughter of the victims appears as a modern day Job, her family cruelly taken from her for no reason.  Ten years down the road and she is finally beginning to live again.

There are interviews with many people involved in the case, and it's very sad to see the culture out of which this act was generated.  There's an interview with a friend of the two culprits who tells of getting stabbed at a party by a guy just because he didn't like him.  He learned to read in his 20's... in prison.  The brother of one of the three victims was arrested for parole violation at his brother's funeral.  The incarcerated father of one of the perpetrators provides an incredibly touching interview, reflecting on the mistakes he made that led him to share a pair of handcuffs with his son on a prison bus.  

The movie was impeccably edited, and beautifully filmed.  Even the police footage transcends its original purpose.  Herzog isn't afraid to let the camera linger after somebody is done talking, and in turn allow us a moment's reflection to let the gravity of the subject sink in.  The movie is brutally human, never letting us forget that everybody involved is a human being, with dignity, family, and plans for the future.  It doesn't flinch away from asking the hard questions, and at times I felt uncomfortable for the people being interviewed. Nobody likes to reflect on the worst moments of their lives.

Overall it was incredibly well done, though not necessarily a movie one watches to "enjoy."  It's important, but not simple entertainment.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Book Review: "The Annointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age"

I don't typically read new books when they come out, but recently due to my awesome wife I have had the pleasure of reading a few brand new books I have been wanthing to read.  One of these is The Annointed, and I thought it was excellent.

The book covers the various area's of pseudo-scholarship that have been especially prevalent in Evangelical culture for the past 75 years or so.  Here's the chapter list:

1.  The Answer Man
2.  The Amateur Christian Historian
3.  The Family of God
4.  Trust Me, The End Is Near
5.  A Carnival of Christians
6.  Made in America

The first four chapters follow a very similar format through four different subjects.  Each one takes a "controversial" issue within evangelicalism and gives the main points of it.  Then they go over the history of the issue, and highlight one or two of the major spokesmen for the conservative viewpoint.  Finally, they provide a counterpoint of a legitimate Christian scholar in each section.  The authors pull no punches when it comes to criticizing the conservative viewpoints.  It's cordial, but they make it clear in each case that what they are doing is NOT real scholarship.

Chapter 1 covers the creation / evolution controversy, with a specific focus on Ken Ham.  Chapter 2 covers the "America is a Christian Nation" works of people like David Barton.  Chapter 3 is on psychology, including child raising and homosexuality.  It focuses on James Dobson and Focus on the Family.  Chapter 4 is about Pre-Millenial Dispensationalism (End of the world theology) from Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye.

I learned quite a bit about the history of these pseudo-academic ventures, and about the rise of the religious right in general, through these chapters.  The authors do a great job at writing to a general audience who might not be up on all the details of the debates, while still being in depth enough to make it worth the read for people relatively well versed in the controversies.  For instance, I knew much more about the evolution controversy than I did about Focus on the Family, but both chapters were able to hold my interest.

Chapter 5 is more general, covering the evangelical subculture that nurtures belief in these "experts" that don't actually know what they are talking about.  It talks about the concept of a parallel culture, and looks at the Christian university system.  I thought this chapter was incredibly insightful, providing a good overview of what being a conservative evangelical means in practical terms, filling in the gaps between the specific issues that were covered earlier.

Chapter 6 talks about some of the heavy hitters of the religious right: Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell, and Oral Roberts.  It talks about how they have influenced the direction of massive amounts of people, as well as taking a look at how such people get elevated to the positions they have.  This is where we get a better idea of the psychological and socialogical aspects of the evangelical subculture.  They suggest that anti-elitism is a strong American value, and that when left unchecked it can lead to the type of anti-intellectualism that fuels these leaders.

The book as a whole was very interesting, fast reading, and very relevant.  It wasn't written just to try to convince christians to have a better attitude towards scholarship, but to a wide audience who is interested in the topic, regardless of whether or not they have a personal stake in it.  The information was very current, and I left with a better understanding of the dynamics surrounding Christianity and educational politics.