B.S.

I just submitted my last assignment for my Bachelor’s degree with Arizona State University.

I finally went back to school three years ago, at the age of 35, for the Spring ’14 semester. I’ve exhausted my G.I. Bill. I’ve taken 18 credit hour semesters. I made the Dean’s List every semester except for two in which I deployed to Afghanistan and couldn’t complete enough credit hours. I have a 3.85 GPA, and if I didn’t mess up the finals for my last two classes too badly I’m on track to graduate Summa Cum Laude.

After three years, it’s a weird feeling to realize I’m done. Now all I can do is sit here and wait two weeks until graduation.

I think I’m gonna go spend some more time with my wife and son. They’ve been exceedingly patient with me, and I want to spend every last minute with them.

Indefinite hiatus

Jorge_Luis_Borges

My writing has become dry and un-fun and rather than persuade people, the facts I present are perceived as hostile. I should have known better. My goal was to foster critical thinking, to participate in a second Age of Enlightenment. Instead, I’ve caused the very minds I would open to become even more doxastically closed. This makes me tremendously sad. I have further harmed the journey to reason and failed in my goal.

It’s time for self-reflection. Maybe I’ll try my hand at writing fiction, for a change. I need to re-learn how to tell a story. I’ll be back when I can improve the silence.

One last procrastinating post

An unexpected recent interest of mine is the field of philosophy. Like the cheering masses at philosophy’s mischaracterization during a GOP presidential debate [1], I had largely written it off as meaningless navel-gazing. But most of the silliness comes from misunderstanding metaphors as literal, or bad and later disproven arguments.

The root words we get philosophy from mean “love of knowledge”, and it lives up to the title through my most cherished topic: critical thinking.

It’s worrisome that so many people cheered the dismissal of thinking or assume they understand a field they haven’t actually studied. To both paraphrase and summarize Thomas Jefferson, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

To that end, here’s the Crash Course philosophy playlist. Because thinking is good.


  1. Fourth Republican Party presidential debate, November 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Survivor bias

This was supposed to be a summary of my recent trip to Paris (France, not the Las Vegas casino), but my internet connection has slowed to a crawl so I don’t dare try to upload photos or open too many tabs for cross-reference. Instead, while I stew in utter contempt for CableOne I’ll share this video on survivor bias that really made me stop and think.

It’s a fascinating thought, and since my primary interest with this blog is promoting critical thinking and recognizing/destroying biases I had to share it. Enjoy!

Who knew maps could be mind-blowing?

Portraying an entire three-dimensional object in only two dimensions leads to unavoidable distortions. Any gamer that has created custom skins for a mod knows this. What blew my mind was learning about different world map “projections” and just how skewed our perceptions can be.

world-map

Above is the first image that came up when I did a Google image search for “world map”. Looks pretty standard, right? This version is based on the Mercator projection, which basically just takes the longitudinal lines and reshapes them from a globe to a grid. The problem is it creates extreme distortion at the poles.

Mercator_projection_SW

See how big Greenland is? Or Canada? In reality, Africa is 14 times larger than Greenland, Mexico is larger than Alaska, South America has almost twice the land mass of Europe, and every nation in the northern hemisphere is skewed down toward the center of the image. If the horizontal grid lines were redrawn proportionately to show land mass in scale, the resulting map looks like this:

1280px-Gall–Peters_projection_SW

The problem stems from conical sections of a globe being forced into grid representation on paper. From a Wikipedia entry on cylindrical map projection, “The poles accrue infinite distortion, becoming lines instead of points.” This happens with all 2-D representations, but how often do we really think about it? How distorted is the map on a game of Risk?

The majority of us are grossly mistaken about the relative size and even location of land masses. Isn’t that crazy?

Reason, rationalizations, and belief

Jonathan_Swift

The above quote is fairly well known in some circles, but there’s one glaring problem: it’s not true.

Really, this becomes an exercise in hypothesis testing. The quote is a null hypothesis: a person will never be reasoned out of a belief they weren’t reasoned into. To reject the null hypothesis, all we need is one example of this happening.

There are a number of unreasonable beliefs out there to choose from where a person may have come to their senses: conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers, belief in psychics, etc. But many of these utilize a form of reason (rationalization, or motivated reasoning). They use faulty methods and dishonest selection of evidence, but it’s still an attempt at reason.

At the risk of offending readers, the primary example of something a person is not “reasoned into” is religion. The single greatest predictor of one’s religion is the religion of their parents. The second greatest predictor is the geography into which a person is born. Religion is overwhelmingly an inherited trait.

And yet, people are capable of using reason to escape insular (Amish) and cultish (Scientology) beliefs systems. Despite being born into these belief systems, indoctrination from an early age, active avoidance of conflicting ideas or information, and the threat of shunning from friends and family, there are still people who use reason and critical thinking to eventually shake themselves free of their mental imprisonment.

It’s incredible, commendable, and brave in the face of the social retribution they face. But most importantly it discredits the quote of the day.

I understand the sentiment behind the quote. It can be frustrating to engage with a person that either can’t or won’t see reason and it becomes easier to simply “write them off” as a lost cause. Leon Festinger’s book When Prophecy Fails details the mental gymnastics of a UFO cult when faced with a failure of their prediction. Rather than admit they had been wrong, or believed something false, they pivoted the claim and continued in their (revised) belief anyway.

This can be maddening to see from the outside.

One thing to keep in mind is that beliefs are intertwined and seldom stand alone. This is one reason for the persistence of a belief in the face of damning evidence, and what makes leaving a belief such a difficult feat. For example, one’s opinion on capital punishment has strong correlations with opinions on prison policy and 2nd Amendment rights. Opinions on foreign policy and military matters tend to correlate, as well. Our beliefs are like a ball of yarn, or a loose knot comprised of multiple threads- it is very difficult to tug on one isolated thread (belief) without jostling the whole thing. Separating beliefs from one another can be time-consuming, distressing, and a lot of hard work! But it can be done if the belief holder wants to put in the effort.

It would be more accurate to say that it is useless to try and reason with somebody if they refuse to consider and revise their beliefs (doxastically closed).

Finding one’s voice

My wife gave me some feedback from yesterday’s essay and I think she’s exactly right. I lost my voice. I was so busy laying the groundwork and establishing premises for future writing that I got lost in the details and cranked out a really dry read.

The worst part is, I think I knew it before I hit publish.The only parts of yesterday’s post I was really proud of was my almost-pun at the beginning, and a joke about Birkenstocks that was lost in a bunch of psychology jargon. When I wrote the shoe joke, the sudden feeling of joy I got from it should have been a clue to how boring the rest of it was.

Obviously, I can write a decent research paper. The problem is nobody reads research papers for leisure.

So I’ll chalk that one up to still growing as a writer. I would very much like my blog to be inspirational, though that word seems almost garishly overdramatic. I’m not pausing to look up better words in a thesaurus today- this is almost stream of consciousness. I want to grow as a writer, which probably means I should read more as well, and I want this blog to be thought-provoking. There. I found the word without using a thesaurus, after all.

I want to write things that will get people to think. I don’t want to play fast and loose with exclamation points or bold, underlining, and italicizing. I want to write good content. I want the content to be where the value is. I want to get people to use critical thinking, realize there’s more to the world than the 50 mile radius around them, and to be curious and explore.

Finding my voice in that pursuit is going to be tricky. There are very few educational experiences that are also fun, and I think that’s what I’m trying to achieve. I’ve never really wanted to write a novel, but I used to be fairly decent at story-telling. Factual events and things have stories, too. Maybe that’s what I need to work on?

TL;DR: Yesterday’s post was boring, and I apologize. I will do better.