Month: July 2018

What Is an Argument?

What Is an Argument?

When people create and critique arguments, it’s helpful to understand what an argument is and is not. Sometimes an argument is seen as a verbal fight, but that is not what is meant in these discussions. Sometimes a person thinks they are offering an argument when they are only providing assertions. What Is an Argument? Perhaps the simplest explanation of what an argument is comes from Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic” sketch: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition. …an argument is an intellectual process… contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says. This may have been a comedy sketch, but it highlights a common misunderstanding: to offer an argument, you cannot simply make a claim or gainsay what others claim. An argument is a deliberate attempt to move beyond just making an assertion. When offering an argument, you are offering a series of related statements which represent an attempt to support that assertion — to give others good reasons to believe that what you …

How to Improve Your Skeptical Thinking

How to Improve Your Skeptical Thinking

It’s easy to say “be more skeptical” or “exercise better critical thinking,” but just how do you go about doing that? Where are you supposed to learn critical thinking? Learning skepticism isn’t like learning history — it’s not a set of facts, dates, or ideas. Skepticism is a process; critical thinking is something you do. The only way to learn skepticism and critical thinking is by doing them… but to do them, you have to learn them. How can you break out of this endless circle? Learn the Basics: Logic, Arguments, Fallacies Skepticism may be a process, but it’s a process that relies on certain principles about what constitutes good and bad reasoning. There’s no substitute for the basics, and if you think you already know all the basics, that’s probably a good sign that you need to review them. Even professionals who work on logic for a living get things wrong! You don’t need to know as much as a professional, but there are so many different fallacies that can be used in so many …

A popular theory that some people learn better visually or aurally keeps getting debunked

A popular theory that some people learn better visually or aurally keeps getting debunked

In the early ‘90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently? Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you? Today, 16 questions like this comprise the vark questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone’s “learning style.” Vark, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,” sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences.  (“I learned much later that vark is Dutch for “pig,” Fleming wrote later, “and I could not get a website called vark.com because a pet shop in Pennsylvania used it for selling aardvarks—earth pigs!”) …

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception

Americans are deeply religious people—and atheists are no exception. Western Europeans are deeply secular people—and Christians are no exception. These twin statements are generalizations, but they capture the essence of a fascinating finding in a new study about Christian identity in Western Europe. By surveying almost 25,000 people in 15 countries in the region, and comparing the results with data previously gathered in the U.S., the Pew Research Center discovered three things. First, researchers confirmed the widely known fact that, overall, Americans are much more religious than Western Europeans. They gauged religious commitment using standard questions, including “Do you believe in God with absolute certainty?” and “Do you pray daily?” Second, the researchers found that American “nones”—those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular—are more religious than European nones. The notion that religiously unaffiliated people can be religious at all may seem contradictory, but if you disaffiliate from organized religion it does not necessarily mean you’ve sworn off belief in God, say, or prayer. The third finding reported in the study is by …

When Leaving Your Religion Means Losing Your Children

When Leaving Your Religion Means Losing Your Children

Chavie Weisberger was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Monsey, N.Y., and was forced to marry a man she barely knew when she was 19. The couple had three children, but when she began to question her faith and sexuality, she and her husband divorced – and she almost lost her children. The case is highlighting how New York courts handle divorce and custody issues for the state’s large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. While Weisberger’s case was reversed on appeal last August – she has now regained full custody of her children – it brings to light the issues that arise when secular courts decide child custody in the religious community. People who leave the Hasidic community are often shunned by their family and friends, but they also are often forced to fight for their children, says Lani Santo, executive director of Footsteps, a social services organization that provides social and financial services for those transitioning to a secular lifestyle. “Time and time again, the argument of best interest of the child, as interpreted as …

Using a Sphere to Talk to Mars?

It’s hard to send a message from Mars. When the Curiosity rover, currently active on the surface of the red planet, has something to tell NASA back on Earth, it formulates its communication in binary code and beams it our way. Noise inevitably creeps in during the long transmission, so that the message received by NASA is different from the one the rover sent. At that point it’s a game of telephone, as NASA engineers make their best guess about what Curiosity was trying to tell them. The situation from Mars is an exaggerated version of what happens whenever a message is communicated through any noisy channel — be it from a flash drive to your computer or an air traffic control tower to an airplane. In each case, the receiver has to estimate what the sender meant to say. One way to ensure that the message gets through is to use a geometric way of packaging information called a “spherical code.” A spherical code is a way of translating a message written in one …

China Rebalancing?

China Rebalancing?

I increasingly suspect my view on Chinese “rebalancing” is at odds with the current consensus (or perhaps just with a plurality of the investment bank analysts and financial journalists who watch China). In two significant ways. One. I think China’s balance of payments position is fairly robust. In both a “flow” and a “stock” sense. The current account isn’t that close to falling into a deficit (and it wouldn’t be that big a deal if China did have a modest deficit). And China’s state is back to adding to its foreign assets in a significant way. The days of “China selling reserves” are long past. And two, I think the rebalancing that has lowered the measured current account surplus is more fragile than most think. It is a function of policies—call it a large off-budget “augmented” fiscal deficit or excessive credit growth—that some believe to be unsustainable, and many think are unwise. The IMF, for example, wants China to bring down its fiscal deficit and slow the pace of credit growth, policies that directionally would …

How parents need to figure out how to talk to their kids without involving religion

Emily Freeman, a writer in Montana, grew up unaffiliated to a religion — culturally Jewish on her father’s side, a smattering of churchgoing on her mother’s. She and her husband Nathan Freeman talked about not identifying as religious — but they didn’t really discuss how it would affect their parenting. “I think we put it in the big basket of things that we figured we had so much time to think about,” Emily joked. But then they had kids, and the kids came home from their grandfather’s house talking about Bible stories. Nathan acknowledges that this came from a good place, and his father was acting in concern. “He feels like these lessons encapsulate a blueprint for how to move through life. And so of course, why wouldn’t we want our children to have those lessons alongside them as they travel through the world?” But while Nathan and Emily wanted their kids to learn about love and compassion, they didn’t want them to hear Bible stories. When the boys were so young, the certainty of those stories …

Atomic clocks are helping physicists search for New Laws of Physics

Atomic clocks are helping physicists search for New Laws of Physics

In the late 1990s, Jun Ye, a young physicist at the research institute JILA in Boulder, Colorado, decided to dedicate much of his career to making the world’s best atomic clock. He spent some time getting to know different atoms — magnesium, calcium and barium. Eventually he settled on strontium for its internal stability. He then set to work building a laser that would tickle strontium atoms at just the right frequency. What Ye didn’t know is that he was also designing a dark matter detector. That realization came only in April 2015, when he got an email from Victor Flambaum, a physicist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Flambaum told Ye that according to certain theories, dark matter could subtly tweak the fundamental constants of nature, ever so slightly changing how fast clocks tick. Ye’s latest device — improved 20,000 times over his first version — was one of the few in the world sensitive enough to have a chance of picking up this faint signal. Ye is now carrying …

Disobedience

Disobedience

The first sound we hear in Disobedience is the sharp, prolonged blaring of the shofar. In the Jewish religion it’s a call for people to pay attention, to wake up from a slumber of complacency and think about our relationship with God. Immediately the film places us in the middle of an Orthodox congregation, gazing up at the final sermon of a dying rabbi; we can see the rows of women in wigs and long, black skirts far above him, watching from the gender-segregated balcony. The oddness of the image — the faith leader in the foreground, his life draining as he speaks, his perspective dwarfed by the often out-of-focus women watching him from above — has the peculiar effect of inverting the ways we typically understand Orthodox power dynamics. In this moment, who is closer to God? Based on a novel by Naomi Alderman, the film chronicles a forbidden romance between two women with ties to this London Orthodox community. Ronit (Rachel Weisz), the rabbi’s free-spirited daughter, left the religion years ago to make …