Tailoring eTextbook content to different regions

2 10 2013

Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) got some press for its introduction of iPads into their high school classrooms. They have instituted a program to loan iPads to all of their high school students to aid in their studies. Inevitably, the subject of electronic textbooks came up in this discussion.

Electronic textbooks have enormous potential to aid in education. Of course, as is the case with any technology, there are drawbacks.

An electronic text can be updated constantly in the background. As current events unfold, they can be added to textbooks and classroom discussion and thought can be centered around those events. There is no way to do this with paper textbooks without printing a whole new edition and convincing school districts across the entire country to invest in them.

jesusondinoIt is also possible for a school district to get a copy of a textbook from a publisher and tailor it for their schools and students. This could solve much of the turmoil caused be folks like those on the Texas Board of Education. Texas purchases many textbooks and publishers do not want to be burdened with making two versions of a 500-page book. Because of this, there is a possibility that future American biology textbooks will include Creationism, euphemistically called “Intelligent Design.”

This is where we get into dangerous territory. In theory, it would be possible for states with more religious legislators and officials to approve science books with Bible verses in them and the other states to put actual science into their science books. We would risk further bifurcating America by producing two groups of citizens, those who learn about evolution and actual science and those who do not understand science and mistrust it.

My first instinct was to say, “So what? Let those backward states have their pseudoscience. Once they get passed up by the other states, they will see the error of their ways.” Unfortunately, it would not work this way. For things like science, we must have everyone learning the same basic principles and facts. To do otherwise would be risking a dangerous division in our country.

Obviously, this is not a problem that is going to be solved overnight. Maybe it will not be as bad as I think it will be. Hopefully, it will not. That said, this is probably going to come up in one form or another.

More than a body of knowledge

28 12 2010

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grand children’s time … when awesome technologi­cal powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representi­ng the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgea­bly question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes­, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguis­h between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstiti­ons and darkness.”

-Carl Sagan

Clinging to relevance

14 12 2010

I have been thinking about the relationship between religion and science lately. It has always been a strained, complicated relationship. To be honest, I really have never understood the conflict. They seem to deal with two very separate areas of human thought. Then it struck me, this was not always the case. During the Dark Ages, the church dictated what science could and could not say. Today, we have a battle for relevance between science and religion and religion is losing.

There is a long history of religious institutions acting as a road block to scientific or social progress. The Catholic Church censured Galileo for his scientific conclusions. Baghdad was the center of scientific discovery on Earth for centuries until conservative Islamic forces took hold. Then there is the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception, claiming that it is sinful because it prevents new life. (This seemed like an odd argument, seeing as that is the explicit purpose of contraceptives.) In 2009, the Pope went as far to say that condoms help spread the AIDS virus. He said this on a trip through Sub-Saharan Africa, where about 22 million people are infected with HIV. There are a host of other examples.

Really, what we can see here is a religious establishment, centuries old, that is finding its ship in shallower and shallower waters. With the increasingly educated global population and the persistent advance of scientific knowledge, it is harder for them to maintain previous public opinions. There is little religious leaders can do about this trend except try to modernize their respective faiths much as possible.

In a world where fewer and fewer of our problems can be solved with faith and spirituality, religion can no longer offer us the advice or insight we need. If anything, it is doing the exact opposite at a time when we cannot afford many mistakes. Humanity needs clear thinking and a sharp turn toward rationality if it is to survive.

The secular movement needs diplomats, not warriors

18 08 2010

I watched a great half-hour talk from Doctor Phil Plait, who was at The Amazing Meeting. In it, he gave his insights for bringing people over to rationality and skepticism. Most if it I agreed with and it changed the way I think about my interactions with non-skeptics.

He sums it up succinctly, “Don’t be a dick.” Whenever you, as a non-believer goes after a believer with ridicule and anger, it instantly turns that person off to your point of view and can cause them to dig in even more deeply on what they believe. Phil cited a recent encounter he had with a young-Earth creationist at a talk in West Virginia. She cited the observation that the moon is moving away from Earth and its rate of recession indicated that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Instead of calling her out and ridiculing her position, he simply explained that the moon’s recessional rate is not constant and the Earth is indeed 4.5 billion years old. They ended up having a discussion afterwards.

He made more progress by respecting the other’s views than he would have by mocking them. For people who are scientifically literate and have a skeptical mind, it is very easy and tempting to make fun of people who are credulous when it comes to religion, UFOs, homeopathy, the like. To those of us who do not believe those claims, they seem so absurd. However, when trying to convince someone who does not thing they are absurd, diplomacy is key.

To paraphrase Dr. Plait, we need diplomats, not warriors. It may feel like we are fighting a war, but we really are not. We are trying to skew people towards a skeptical method of thinking and analysis.

I would set aside half an hour to watch the talk in its entirety and read the accompanying blog post. It was definitely worth it.

Argument from ignorance

27 04 2010

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an excellent lecturer and public speaker. He is also a great advocate for science and rational thought.

At a PBS/NOVA-sponsored event, he answered a question regarding his belief in the existence of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors. He began his response by reminding the audience what the “U” in “UFO” stands for and how humans, in a desperate need for answers, will fill in the blanks of our perceptions.

He was quite right in saying that humans are flawed information gatherers. We are forced to rely on precision instruments, repeated observations, the Scientific Method, and comparing observations with others to get a reliable picture of reality.

Perhaps we are not given to naturally processing information reliably, in favor of forming quick conclusions and quick reactions. An animal in the wild is not usually benefited by calm, slow, patient reasoning and analysis. In a life-and-death situations, an animal must react quickly to escape or fight and survive.

I do not blame people for seeing a mysterious light in the sky and instantly filling in all the banks with whatever happens to be on their minds. That is just the way the primal human mind works. However, it is within our power to stop that thought from reaching our lips and sit down and think about what we just saw. I do not know the exact numbers, if they exist, but the odds of seeing a genuine alien spacecraft or their occupants is far less likely than catching a glimpse of Venus or a meteor hitting the atmosphere.

While not an irrefutable piece of logic in scientific circles, Occam’s razor would seem to apply here. “The simplest solution is usually the correct one.”