A Herd Immunity to Nonsense

Mark Pagel on the internet and our cultural evolution:

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

If you go to that link above, which is something you should do right now, you’ll see evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel sorting through some free-ranging and often contradictory ideas on how the internet is shaping our evolution — or to be more precise, how it has taken the 200,000 year trend toward copying over innovation and thrown it, perhaps, into hyperdrive. If you read one thing today, read Pagel. It’s wonderfully free of polemic, and fantastically interesting. It focuses on the copier vs. innovator divide, and explores whether the incentives to innovate are so low in a hyperconnected world that we’re in deep trouble. 

I’d like to focus on something smaller than that — the “docile” part of Pagel’s equation. If you put together Pagel’s insight with Dan Kahneman’s insight that the true value of teaching critical thinking is not that you keep yourself out of trouble, but you can keep others out of trouble, I think you have an interesting argument for the importance of critical consumption to the survival of our species in a connected world.

How do I mean? In a system where people are purely docile copiers, nonsense spreads as quickly as insight. If you want your system to truly float valuable ideas to the top and let the nonsense sink, people have to do more than share — they have to engage with material, annotate it, note reservations, and in most cases simply share nonsense at a considerably lower rate than insight. They have to be able to spot cognitive bias and flaws in reasoning in the three minutes between when the tweet comes in and when they decide to retweet it (or not). That requires, as Kahneman points out, not so much a set of enlightened creators or leaders, but a culture of skilled critics. 

Again, as I noted in my last post, this is a different way of looking at education — instead of seeing it only about the impact on a student’s ability to do specific work, we are looking at more like we look at vaccination — it’s not only about the individual, but about developing a herd immunity to nonsense — getting our collective critical capacity to the point where the dumb ideas spread less widely than the smart ones. 

To do that, what do you need? A background in quantitative reasoning, critical thinking. A recognition of common biases. Critical reading skills, and a good intuition about authoritative sources. You need, essentially, a broadly rethought liberal arts education…


Cognitive Bias and Education as a Public Good

A strange but true exhortation from Dan Kahneman, the guy who, with Amos Tversky, basically invented the field of cognitive bias. After forty years of looking into the weird world of bias he says the only effective way to get around your own biases is to create a society of people skilled enough to correct you:

From the end of Thinking, Fast and Slow:

What can be done about biases? How can we improve judgments and decisions, both our own and those of the institutions that we serve and that serve us? The short answer is that little can be achieved without a considerable investment of effort. As I know from experience, System 1 is not readily educable. Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely: “This number will be an anchor…,” “The decision could change if the problem is reframed…” And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own.

The way to block errors that originate in System 1 is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2. This is how you will proceed when you next encounter the Müller-Lyer illusion. When you see lines with fins pointing in different directions, you will recognize the situation as one in which you should not trust your impressions of length. Unfortunately, this sensible procedure is least likely to be applied when it is needed most. We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available, and cognitive illusions are generally more difficult to recognize than perceptual illusions. The voice of reason may be much fainter than the loud and clear voice of an erroneous intuition, and questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble. The upshot is that it is much easier to identify a minefield when you observe others wandering into it than when you are about to do so. Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors. That was my reason for writing a book that is oriented to critics and gossipers rather than to decision makers.

Emphasis mine.

I think this is a pretty interesting way of thinking about education as a public good. Think of training in critical thinking or quantitative reasoning like CPR training — the person you are most likely to help with it is not yourself but somebody else. The most important role may be that of the informed observer, because, as Kahneman observes, what keeps us on track best is not our own abilities, but a culture of critical thought.

Evidence-Based and the Marginal Cost of Zero

If you can conceive of a solution to a problem that has a marginal cost of zero due to cheap replication and economies of scale, then that’s good. If you’re doing that by going into the digital space, where cost of experimentation is low, even better. 

Many elements of education are best seen through the marginal cost of zero lens, and it’s that dream of essentially free education, based on economies of scale, that tends to drive a lot of philanthropy. 

Where there’s dissonance, though, is that we are also told that what we do has to be evidence-based. And I think sometimes there is this show that granting agencies and philanthropic institutions make that they are going to cut through the bull and be scientific about this stuff, in a way that we have not been.

The problem is that most of the time these things don’t line up. The projects that get the most attention focus on the economies of scale (Khan, MITx) with very little focus on evidence-based practice. 

That seems to me a problem. Are we letting our dream of a completely free education undermine the more modest (and evidence-supported) goals of dirt cheap technology-assisted education? Maybe not. But if you looked at what gets covered in the press and funded on the ground, you could be forgiven for thinking that.

From Obama’s 2012 campaign blog. I am glad to see them standing up for what they accomplished here instead of running from it. This is truly something that the administration should be proud of.


Photograph: Brian J. Clark/AP

Two women share historic kiss at US Navy ship’s return
For the first time since the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ a same sex couple takes part in a traditional public embrace.

President Obama signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law one year ago today.

Semantic Mapping vs. Pictorial Cues

From A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on Instruction by RJ Marzano:

The next two techniques displayed in Table 7.2 employed the information processing function of idea representation.  Techniques that provided students with metacognitive strategies for using visual memory had an effect size of 1.04, indicating a percentile gain of 35 points.  Presumably, these strategies help students represent information they are reading in nonlinguistic form…  From these findings, one might infer that idea representation is a key aspect of the reading process…

[R]eading studies [that] addressed techniques that attempt to enhance the idea representation information processing function during reading using pictorial aids…were considered as a group in themselves (as opposed to grouping them with the idea representation techniques in Table 7.2) because they did not employ the metacognitive system.  Rather, they were considered manipulations of the environment designed to stimulate idea presentation in students.  These studies had an average effect size of .46 (n=16; SD=.20), indicating a percentile gain of 28 points.  Table 7.4 displays the differential effects of techniques within this category

I may be misreading this, but what it seems to say is that interventions that use pictures as cues presented to students while reading underperform interventions that teach students to make up their own pictorial representations by a lot (0.46 is a fairly average effect size seen in numerous interventions, whereas 1.0 and above is a fairly rare effect size).

The key seems to be that information organized for the students into pictorial form allows them to disengage from metacognitive strategies, whereas organizing their ideas into pictorial form themselves engages metacognitive processing. These findings are in line with Hattie’s findings on audio-visual aids and the like. 

But I’ve only just skimmed this at this point, and the focus is not higher education here, so one must tread carefully. I’ll come back to this tomorrow I guess. 

This all relates to a crazy idea for the Quantitative Literacy course next semester…

Stanovich on Conflict and Critical Thinking

Well, actually the Hitchcock review of Stanovich:

What types of people succeed in overriding interactional intelligence in conflict situations? As one might expect, subjects with greater cognitive ability (as measured by SAT Total scores) were more likely to do so. But so were those with the dispositions characteristic of an ideal critical thinker: even after controlling for differences in cognitive ability, reasoning performance correlated with degree of open-mindedness and epistemic flexibility (cultivating reflectiveness rather than impulsivity, seeking and processing information that disconfirms one’s belief, being willing to change one’s beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence). Further, these dispositions tended to cut across different domains.

For those unfamiliar with Stanovich, his model of the mind rewrites the typical intuition/logic model with a intuitive mind/algorithmic mind/reflective mind model. The main implication is that intelligence is not enough — in practice, many people who are highly intelligent have dispositions that shirk from the hard work of interrogating intuitions, and use rationality only to confirm gut instinct. For Stanovich, intelligence and rationality are related but separable terms. 

I like the model, though I’m still slogging through his work, and probably don’t grasp the details fully (the above is surely a simplification, and possibly wrong). What it gets at, by empirically demonstrating the gap between cognitive power and the ability and drive to interrogate intuitions, is a version of “critical thinking” that might actually mean something useful…

Openness as a Privilege Multiplier and the MIT Certificates

This is pretty huge news:

Millions of learners have enjoyed the free lecture videos and other course materials published online through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare project. Now MIT plans to release a fresh batch of open online courses—and, for the first time, to offer certificates to outside students who complete them.

The credentials are part of a new, interactive e-learning venture, tentatively called MITx, that is expected to host “a virtual community of millions of learners around the world,” the institute will announce on Monday.

Here’s how it will work: MITx will give anyone free access to an online-course platform. Users will include students on the MIT campus, but also external learners like high-school seniors and engineering majors at other colleges. They’ll watch videos, answer questions, practice exercises, visit online labs, and take quizzes and tests. They’ll also connect with others working on the material.

We’re going to see these projects roll out pretty fast now, and it’s going to be combined, I think, with a growing backlash against the money spent on traditional education. Why are we spending so much money on Random State College, the argument will go, when anyone can get a credential from MIT for free (or nearly free)? 

And it’s a good question, really. With multiple measures (CLA, PP, CAAP) showing almost no gain in critical thinking skills or quantitative reasoning among undergraduates during college years what’s the point of supporting these institutions? 

On the face-to-face side, it’s really time to start using our face-to-face resources to greater effect. The bar will be set by free or nearly-free online options. If we can’t outperform them, we won’t survive, at least not in our current form.

On the online side, it’s worth confronting the openness as a privilege multiplier question now, rather than later. It’s comforting to think of these experiments as an addition to the current range of options available to students, and therefore existing outside the normal ethical space of college. The approach to OER so far has been well, it works for some people, and not for others — we don’t worry about the failures, we just headcount successes. It’s been education as bonus points, or worse, education as a Google product — hey, we gave it to you for free, if it doesn’t work for you, lump  it.

That was fine during the broad experimental period of Open Learning. As Open Learning becomes posited more and more as a broadly applicable solution, however, such nonchalance becomes more dangerous. Any system of education can “succeed” if student failure is seen purely a reflection on the student and not the learning design. But if Open Learning is pitched as a solution to the current economic crisis of higher education, we need to do whole a lot better than that.