Saturday, April 29, 2006

Analyzing the War on Terror in the Context of Network Theory

In a post dating back to last July, there was a good discussion about how we need to think about various organizations such as al Qaeda in terms of a network structure. Attacking networks effectively will involve understanding the topological structure in order to develop strategies to dismantle the network. I want to expand on this with some new thoughts and after thinking about what and how we should learn from the mistakes that have been made during the war on terror.

In a post from John Robb at Global Guerillas, he refers to a paper that investigates the effect of noise on, ultimately, the decision making/consensus building process in small world networks. This is all related to how information spreads throughout a network, and how rule sets evolve in order for global consensus can be reached when individual agents within the network only have access to local information. Perhaps the best known rule set is the majority rule, which says that an agent will conform to the state of the majority of its nearest neighbors. What research has shown, though, is that in a perfect, noise-free environment, the majority rule will fail to reach global consensus, even if there is some amount of longer-range crosslinks within the network (meaning that some small number of individual agents not only see some number of nearest neighbors, but an occasional link to another agent outside the local boundary defined in the initial conditions). However, the boundaries between local pockets of differing viewpoints does breakdown when noise is introduced into the environment. This is, of course, a better simulation of what the real world is like anyhow. Noise, in the context of simulation work, means that there can be miscommunication between neighbors. This allows for incorrect information to be passed along and will influence agents to switch their state.

As always, theory is one thing and a real-world environments is quite another, particularly when dealing with social networks. If we think of human characteristics such as emotion, peer pressure, greed, deceit, psychological abnormalities, and so on, it becomes clear there is a great deal of 'noise' in actual environments that will need to be considered when an individual makes a decision. Here are some issues to consider for a network such as al Qaeda, as well as some lessons we should make sure to learn from from this time forward.

Lesson 1: Network formation takes time. Time can be an enemy or an ally, depending on circumstances.

I think just about anyone would agree, at least in an intuitive sense, that network growth is effective and efficient when environmental noise is low. It takes time to form real networks, especially social networks, and the world essentially allowed al Qaeda to grow unabated (i.e. the world made no noise) even though everyone new they posed a threat and had actually carried out terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda did not form overnight, but instead took years to form a global network structure. We need to learn from this, and as the current network is dismantled, we will, from now on, need to search for evidence of other networks forming or peripheral branches of al Qaeda trying to expand, and do something about it quickly. This will require police work, and not massive military action, if we want to control the spread.

Time is an enemy in noiseless environments that allow networks to grow. Time is an ally if you catch network formation early on, knowing that it takes time to form more extensive link topologies. Creating a 'noisy' environment that disrupts the initial network formation (such as through surveillance; apprehending leaders, who are hubs in the network, early on; disruption of communications between known agents; making financial and hardware accumulation difficult, etc.) will cause disruptions in new links being added to the network. This would also have the advantage of allowing us to work locally rather than globally, which is much more difficult, as we now know. Having said that, the reality is that we allowed this massive terror network to form. Then came 9/11/01.

One must remember that in large populations, typically the vast majority of people want to live their lives and are nonviolent. In the Mideast, there is a relatively small percentage of the population that would fall into the 'extremist' category, or who would actively assist extremist groups unless forced to do so. After 9/11, we had about as much world support as is possible in this day and age to go after al Qaeda and their main supporters, the Taliban. Fortunately, the bulk of those groups were in Afghanistan. This was all to our advantage, since they were also in the mountainous regions with low civilian populations. There was a low risk of any significant collateral damage or casualities. We had a great opportunity to strike at multiple hubs in the network (which would geatly weaken the network) and avoid making too noisy of an environment that would break down the boundaries between the two decisions that are possible in this scenario (tryng to connect to the simulation research mentioned earlier): either you decide to actively support al Qaeda in some way, or you don't support them in any way.

Our first mistake was to allow Afghan forces and, worse, warlords, take the lead when al Qaeda and Taliban members were on the run. It should have been large groups of special forces going in for the kill. I don't think anyone would have objected to this right after the attacks on the U.S. But then we took the pressure off to a large degree and put the focus on Iraq. What is especially disturbing is that we did this when we had weapons inspectors on the ground. Sites that were suspected of housing WMDs were given to the inspectors, including some from the CIA, and all were turning up clean. I personally refuse to believe the President and the war planners did not know our intelligence was faulty at best, because they had evidence on the ground (from the inspectors) that it was faulty, if not simply bad intelligence. Regardless, the war started.

This is where numerous mistakes were made that seem to fit into our understanding of network structure and theory. War is the ultimate source for 'environmental noise.' As studies suggest for common small world networks, noise is what is needed to break down boundaries between pockets of network agents and allow for widespread, if not global, consensus within the network. There were two main decisions individuals in Iraq could make: welcome the U.S. or resist the U.S. This is greatly simplified, of course, and one would hope that the majority rule would sway towards freedom and welcoming the U.S. This is certainly what the Vice President and Sec. of Defense tried to sell the American public on. However, what we must learn from Iraq is that the absolute necessity for a society to reach the peaceful decision and consensus is security.

Lesson 2: In social networks, law and order and security reduce environmental noise. If you do not maintain low noise levels, the local boundaries between those in the network who agree with you and those who disagree with you break down.

Iraq is a large country in terms of area, and it obviously required many more forces than we had to maintain order and security over the entire country. We did not provide this security. Very quickly, tremendous amounts of 'noise' were introduced into the social network of Iraq. Little or no food, clean water, power, money, jobs, medical facilities, trash collection, and large amounts of lawlessness appeared and remained for great periods of time that weren't there earlier. What almost certainly started off as a majority of individual agents in the network that would welcome the U.S. was now put into an environment where the boundaries between the majority and minority views, which hold steady with no noise, suddenly are perturbed from noise. The boundaries break down, and suddenly more in the majority change their view. As the research suggests (see figure 2 in the paper), a near consensus has been reached that no longer welcomes the U.S. in Iraq. It has simply been too 'noisy' for too long. In terms of time, another factor that plays into all this is the widespread exposure and use of communications technology. Individuals in the network are more connected within the network with more crosslinks, as opposed to just knowing nearest neighbors in the network. A combination of noise and 'rewiring probabilities' (in network language) accelerate the decision making process both locally and globally. Again, this is something we must learn from.

In a paper by Calvert Jones at UC Berkeley (check's%20Innovative%20Improvisers.pdf#search='al%20qaeda%20and%20network%20theory'), which addresses al Qaeda's networks and the ability to learn, adapt and innovate, a similar idea is presented:

"Although its globally oriented ideology, spectacular successes, and US focus in a time of rising anti-Americanism have no doubt also encouraged worldwide collaboration, the loss of the state-based sanctuary is likely to have accelerated the process. According to Bruce Hoffman, the greatest change after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has been the breakdown in the rigid boundaries that used to separate militant Islamist groups.8 These groups are growing much more permeable, as individuals from varying backgrounds, of different nationalities, and with diverse skill sets are working together in temporary teams to pursue similar goals. Although some, primarily motivated by local grievances, may not share Al-Qaeda’s commitment to a globally oriented jihad, many have adopted a more pragmatic approach to terrorism, having recognized the advantages of increased cooperation and networking when domestic efforts fail. Al-Qaeda’s cooperation in varying degrees with Jemaah Islamiyah, the Abu Sayyaf Group, Hezbollah, and the Egyptian Islamic Jihad is well documented.9 The more decentralized, networked structure – as an adaptation to the loss of the Afghan sanctuary – is likely to encourage further interorganizational cooperation. "

The key is that the noise in the main network as well as the loose ties to other networks has broken down boundaries and allowed widespread consensus to be reached, leading to an insurgency that apparently has surprised most military personnel and war planners. It is time that traditional war games, planning and training need to move on and research into areas like network theory must become much more prominent. Perhaps the results coming out of network and organizational theory research would have changed some minds and resulted in a more prepared occupancy of Iraq.

I hope this spurs good discussion and debate, and I encourage comments from those who have a much better grasp on military planning than I have to see what you think about how what has happened on the ground in Iraq fits into some of the research that has been producing results and predictions from network theory.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Children More Sensitive to Negative Feedback

Just a quick post, which is in reference to the latest post on the Eide Neurolearning blog. Physical evidence in the form of brain scans show that, indeed, children are affected more by negative feedback than adults. This is one of those things that certainly seems like common sense, and those of you with children just know it is true, but it is always ideal to have the evidence. Have a good Sunday.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Interesting Finding in International Science Education Study - Middle Schools

Over 400 8th grade science lessons were videotaped and analyzed as part of a study looking at how science is taught. Random classes in the U.S. and four other nations that perform higher than the U.S. on the international TIMMS test were included. The other four nations were Australia, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Japan. Here is a clip from the NSTA Express email I received:

"A video study of eighth grade science classrooms in the United States and four other countries found that U.S. teachers focused on a variety of activities to engage students, but not in a consistent way that developed coherent and challenging science content. In comparison, classrooms in four other higher-achieving countries—Australia, the Czech Republic, Japan, and the Netherlands—exposed eighth graders to science lessons characterized by a core instructional approach that held students to high content standards and expectations for student learning.

The National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Education Department’s Institute of Education Sciences released these and other findings in a report titled Teaching Science in Five Countries: Results From the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) 1999 Video Study that draws on analysis of 439 randomly selected videotaped classroom lessons in the participating countries. To view the reports and for more information, visit

A second report released by NCES compares science content in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2000 and TIMSS. To download, view, and print the publication as a PDF file, please visit:"

The most interesting part of the report, in my opinion, is that U.S. classes tended to do numerous activities for the sake of doing an activity. The percentage of those hands-on activities (i.e. 'labs') that were actually related to course content was much smaller than activities done in the other countries. I would have to agree that science classes in American schools (including high schools), at least based on my own observations, do include activities for the sake of activities a great deal. Unfortunately, many teachers do not make it a point to have a lab experience relevant to what is being studied, as difficult as that is to believe.

Most science teachers in the U.S. do not have actual science research experience. In university education programs, education majors take a battery of courses including methods courses, but they rarely spend time in the lab for extended periods of time to do actual science research of any kind. Rather, in methods courses and then in student teaching, they are exposed to numerous examples of 'cookbook' labs that are recycled and passed on from generation to generation of teachers. Often these activities give students step by step instructions and even have fill in the blanks which guide students to answers. While these can be useful if students are learning a new procedure, it gives a very poor example of what science is and how it works. And if the activity is not even related to the content being studied, I know from talking with them specifically about this, students feel as if it is all just 'busy-work.' It is a turn-off for students to science in general, and in fact it seems as if a lack of interest in science among the masses begins around grades 5-7 or so, right in the middle school range.

We truly need to re-evaluate how we teach science, and begin acting like a scientist would by looking at actual data such as that presented in this and other studies. Real reform needs to begin in university teacher training programs for the next generation of teachers as well as in staff development programs for current teachers.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Some Interesting Tidbits

The always interesting and informative Eide Neurolearning Blog has some recent nuggets relevant to teachers.

First is the finding that different types of memory differ significantly with age. For instance, 7-10 year olds typically excel in memory base on color, and are not as strong with memory based on position. They use as an example color strategies for spelling, which work well (when used in a well thought-out manner, and not just for visual effect), versus activities that use location of letters that are not as effective. Location works better for adolescents and young adults.

A second interesting post suggests that sensory classrooms are effective for different types of students, and that allowing kids to fidget in class can be used to one's advantage in learning. This makes me think of some schools which are getting rid of recess time, in order to have kids in class even more to work on material relevant to testing. Recess time is invaluable because students, especially in primary grades, naturally want to expend energy. Some amount of classroom time can be and should be tied into that energy, and can lead to effective learning experiences for many students. As with anything, these types of strategies have lmits as well. Not all kids learn best when physically active, and it is easy to overuse any one method/strategy as well. I am a fan of variety, where numerous learning techniques and strategies are used to keep students engaged and address all learning styles of individuals. It is good to see the research, though, that hopefully will be used constructively by teachers and staff developers, as well as teacher-training colleges.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Brits Revamping Their Pre-High School Education System

Yesterday in Great Britain, teachers decided that the present high stakes testing model of their education curricula for students under 16 years of age needs to be scrapped in favor of a more well-rounded curriculum. Rather than just a knowledge-based, fact-filled memorization system to prepare for test after test, teachers will be able to teach the way they want to begin the addition of skills-based learning. This has largely been the American model over the years, as I have written about in the past (for instance, last year's post). Here in the U.S., the education system has begun to look more like the European and Asian systems where testing is the one and only criteria for assessing how students are performing.

It appears as if the Brits are taking an approach that follows the lead of Harvard's Howard Gardner. As stated in the Guardian article,

"We need to give teachers the freedom to inspire youngsters so they want to learn, not just pass tests. We also need pupils to have the space to develop as rounded people, and that includes physically, emotionally, creatively, socially and ethically."

There needs to be a balance between skills and knowledge objectives. In order to be be prepared for life, students need both. As is often the case in any field, fads develop and the system leans almost exclusively towards one side or the other. In physics-speak, we need to find a point of stable equilibrium between skill and knowledge based curricula, where if we begin moving one way or the other we will be forced back to the middle and include both. I am a firm believer that the best life skill we can give a student is for him or her to want to learn and then have the ability to go about actually learning and finding information. It's nice if a person simply knows the answer off the top of their head (knowledge), but in life those who are successful in just about any field have the intellectual training and abilities to take on new problems and devise ways of figuring them out (skills). Again, one needs both to be successful. This is why I argue against the U.S. leaning too much towards an exam meritocracy, as (especially) many Asian nations have done. We should avoid falling into the testing trap at the expense of losing all opportunities for creative thinking, problem solving skills, and higher order critical thinking skills. Many areas of study in the real world are moving into the era of big-picture problems, where complexity and overlapping disciplines become vital for new progress. Students, who are the next generation of workers, must be prepared to think in new ways and not rely on old facts. They also need to be able to recognize and define new knowledge as it is discovered and applied. This requires some amount of skill and experience with how to learn, and, at least for the higher level American student coming out of our education system, is why we have been able to remain the sole superpower. Much of the world, it appears, is beginning to catch on to this and are making changes to their test-dominated systems.

Kudos to Eideneurolearning blog for finding the Guardian article.

What to do About Iran

Iran has been in the news daily because of its nuclear ambitions and the reality that it has now enriched uranium. Enrichment is the first step in the process needed for both nuclear power on a large scale as well as for nuclear weapons production. A lively debate has spread across the blogosphere, and check out my longtime friend, historian and all-around scholar Zenpundit, for some good discussions.

From Zen's post, here are four options that can be considered from the U.S. point of view:

"Unilaterally demonstrate that Iraq was no anomaly and militarily devastate unfriendly states that try to acquire nukes - i.e. impose high potential costs on regimes having clandestine programs.

Build a Core-wide consensus to rewrite the NPT as a treaty with teeth backed by a stringent, updated, version of COCOM.

Bilaterally and multilaterally negotiate with rogue states piecemeal to buy them off for disarming completely( Libya Model).

Revise military nuclear warfighting doctrine and embark upon a weapons-building program that renders nuclear missiles too dangerous to use against the United States, perhaps with an entirely new class of nuclear or high energy weapons."

It seems that options I and IV are the type we would want to avoid at all costs. The world knows that, militarily, we have limited options. Public opinion has decidedly turned against the present war in Iraq, and I cannot imagine that this administration would be able to convince the public or Congress that we should continue to unilaterally try to nation-build, which is what it would turn out to be in Iran (replace the more radical factions that have gained power recently). We also do not have the financial resources at this point, with new record deficits projected into the foreseeable future. And, in addition to domestic realities that would prevent unilateral action, think about the reactions and possible consequences in the Middle East. Another attack on a Muslim state may very well unleash widespread jihad, making the insurgency in Iraq seem minor. I think, at least hope, we have learned a lesson in Iraq, and actually plan for the worst case scenario instead of looking at everything through rose-colored glasses, as we seem to have done on a massive scale in our supposed planning for Iraq.

Option IV not only will place Iran on the defensive and justify their need for weapons (as well as reinvigorate al Qaeda's quest for nuclear weapons), but will likely reduce what little international credibility we have left. We would have to look at the bigger picture, thinking in terms of what Russia may do, or China, or internal pressure that would be felt in Pakistan, as reactions to increased U.S. nuclear proliferation and hypocrisy about telling the rest of the world to not think of developing nuclear weapons, while we go ahead and do our own thing.

The U.S. has been proceeding along with versions of options II and III. We should get directly involved in talks with Iran, which is something they have requested. If necessary, we can hurt them economically and convince the rest of the world that Iran and nukes is a bad combination that the world does not want to see (and the rest of the world is largely at this point already). One thing we should watch for is any hard-line rhetoric from Israel, which could disrupt any negotiations. This is one time I think we need negotiations to work. It is not at all clear how talks will go with the current leaders of Iran. Any pressure that may be placed on Iran from other Mid-East nations would be useful, as well as from Russia. It is a pressure cooker that has just been turned on, and now it is a matter of timing to ensure it does not explode. There are clearly no easy or clear-cut options, and the Iranian regime is one that is most difficult to predict how they will react to carrots and sticks we offer. Iran has had the past three to four years to expand and build their infrastructure since we have largely ignored them due to Iraq, and now we are realizing the consequences (of placing them in the 'axis of evil' and then putting an army right next door...why should we be surprised that radicals have been able to put down moderates and then feel the need for nuclear weapons since they perceive us as a true imminent threat?).

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Pressure on White House for Explanation of Leaks

As congressional Republicans continue to fear that multiple White House scandals and continuing drops in the President's approval ratings, Sen. Arlen Specter (R - Pennsylvania and chair of the Judiciary Committee) has asked for detailed explanations of any role the President and Vice President have played in a series of leaks of classified intelligence over the past few years. We the people do deserve an explanation.

I would have to assume the White House will not give details. Watch for the phrases,"continuing investigation," "national security," and "the President has the power to declassify" as the spin continues to be flung without any substance to it. This has been the case for years from this White House. My last post is about how the administration wants to hold not only public primary and secondary education districts accountable, but also colleges by having a battery of testing. And yet the White House has taken the opinion, particularly since 9/11/01, that they are above and beyond any accountability as required by the Constitution. Those who take part in a true democracy and challenge them on anything are now talked about as near traitors. Those who question the "stay the course" mentality are showing a "lack of respect" for the troops on the ground during wartime, even when everyone involved has, mostly, the best interests of the troops in mind (obviously in an election year there is politics at work on both sides) . The President does not have to comment on anything related to scandals since "investigations are in progress." The White House dismisses any questions about intelligence failures because of classified material and the need to not live in the past.

I highly doubt Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to the Vice President, took it upon himself one day to leak the name of Valerie Plame and her role as a CIA operative. A chief of staff at times needs to be made the fall-guy when scandals hit...that is part of the job, as evidenced more recently when Andy Card (former chief of staff to the President) suddenly resigned as approval ratings plummet. But chiefs of staff do what they are told to do by their superiors. They make things run based on the wishes and commands of the Vice President and President. I find it hard to believe that Libby would do this on a whim, without some meeting concluding that this is the warning shot that needed to be fired to those who question decisions about Iraq. This is a serious matter, and for once the administration needs to be held accountable. If true, why would something like congressional censure not be an appropriate hand-slap on the President (I won't ever bring up impeachment since that won't happen with this Congress)? It will be interesting to see how the spin comes out of the White House and whether Congress has the capacity to do its constitutional duty by keeping the executive in line with the nation's interests, and provide some sort of oversight/check-and-balance.

Standardized Testing in Colleges

An idea being promoted by the Bush administration involves standardized testing in college, as a way of holding colleges accountable for the high costs being placed on students and their families. This follows in line with the battery of testing now taking place in elementary school through high school via No Child Left Behind; in their eyes, testing is the fix for all of education's ills.

Testing in college is, in my opinion, simply a bad idea. To get into middle and top tier institutions and programs requires, in part, testing. Obviously, the SAT I and ACT exams are important pieces of a portfolio one must send in during the application process. Some argue that we should end things like affirmative action and stick to a strict level of accountability by holding the line on test score levels, so if you do not meet the cutoff score which is part of the admissions criteria, then you need to look elsewhere...end of story. We can talk about that the day things like legacy admissions no longer exist (our president, by his own admission, was not qualified to go to a place like Yale based on entrance criteria, and yet he was accepted because of his family...why does he have a problem with affirmative action programs?). I don't see this happening any time soon.

As we skip ahead to those students who want to go to graduate school, law school, or medical school, another layer of testing already exists through the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT exams. This leaves those who are going to graduate with either an associates or bachelors degree, and then enter the job market. Why is there a need for testing? If a student has worked hard, learned, and built up the skills necessary to have the potential to make contributions to a particular field or job, he or she will be hired. If a person does not have the skills, abilities, or has put in the work to do well in college, it is likely that person will not find a job, at least not in that particular area/field. Doesn't 'the market' already determine what a successful student is upon graduation? It amuses me when those who feel free markets are the cure-all for the world's economic, political and social problems, believe college-level testing is necessary.

Rather than adding another layer of testing and bureaucracy, colleges should maintain high academic standards in their programs. We all know there are 'weed-out' courses in every major, which help students determine if a particular area of study is really where they should be. If professors maintain the rigor and high academic standards that are relevant for a field of study, and issue grades according to how well a student has mastered the material and has demonstrated the ability and talent necessary to stay within that major (this may be an area colleges should take a second look at), what will some new test accomplish?

It is also difficult for me, at least, to imagine what such a test will be like in the first place. There are many dozens of majors students move into in college, and after the freshman or sophomore year of common courses, the material and types of talents and abilities diverge rapidly from major to major, and specialization becomes most important. The ultimate test for competency and ability already exists: do you have what it takes to find a job and make a career built around that college experience? Let 'the market' determine the answer to the question.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Preparing for the Energy Crunch

Population projections can be downright scary at times when one thinks of the shear number of people that will inhabit the earth in the not-so-distant future. At current birth rates and death rates, in about twenty years there could be 8 billion people. By the end of this century that number rises to around 12 billion. In order to maintain anything close to our current standard of living, new energy sources are absolutely essential, as we will likely exhaust oil and gas supplies by that time. One of the energy sources that may theoretically be an ideal energy source is fusion power.

Fusion is the process that keeps stars burning and allows hydrogen bombs to make conventional fission bombs look like firecrackers. Deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, can actually fuse their nuclei together during a collision if temperatures are hot enough (but we are talking millions of degrees). During this process a small percentage of the mass converts diretly into energy according to Einstein's relationship E = mc^2. A goal of plasma physicists is to create sustainable fusion reactions in a reactor, and use the tremendous heat to run turbines for power production. Benefits include the lack of production of greenhouse gases and long-lived nuclear waste.

Research into this proces has been active for a number of years, but the large-scale funding for the basic research has never truly materialized. However, the largest international collaborative effort ever in fusion researc has materialized, and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is scheduled to be built and commissioned in France by 2016. Nations with over half the world's population (including China, India, numerous European nations, and the U.S.) are involved in the funding for this multi-billion dollar venture.

It is encouraging to finally see a serious research effort in this field. The engineering challenges are as great as anything ever undertaken, but the future quality of life on our planet will be determined by our energy production capabilities and environmental health. Just imagine a plant that can produce some some 7 billion kilowatt hours of energy in a year with only 100 kilograms of deuterium and 3 tonnes of lithium, compared to a conventional power plant that needs 3 million tonnes of coal or as to generate the same amount of energy, with large quantities of pollution on top of that. Now, we just have to figure out how to make it work. Click here for a good summary article of ITER and the fusion movement; kudos to

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Suggestion for Getting Science to Wider Audience

As in past posts, one of my personal worries has always been the relatively weak exposure to science in early grades, say K-6, in many school districts. It is no secret that elementary teachers routinely feel least comfortable teaching science because of a lack of training and experience in their schooling, and that is understandable. Add to this the focus on only math and reading due to No Child Left Behind, and there is even more reason to spend less time on science.

One suggestion I'd like to throw out there is to arrange for science-related shows on local cable channels. For example, I've been involved in a local show (Science Power) that was designed by a friend of mine from Loyola University, and for the past five years has done monthly shows throughout the school year which are intended to reach elementary and middle school students. Each year there is a different theme, and each show emphasizes the scientific method to reach some conclusions about the topic for that particular show. This year we are focused on the senses, and, using sight as an example, we get into the physics of light, the specific sensory organs and mechanisms in the human body, and even adaptations of other animals. The show is done live, and students can call in to help us make the show. It is actually quite fun when a second grader calls in and we have a discussion about some phenomenon; it is a very different experience than when I have my normal discussions with the high school seniors in AP Physics who will be attending MIT or Stanford next year.

The point is, over the years we have reached on order of a couple thousand students and have exposed them to some ideas they otherwise would not have experienced, and perhaps some of them may be influenced and motivated to do some more in science some day. In a time of uncertainty about the U.S. future in science and technology, every little bit may least that is the hope.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Down-Side of Wikipedia and Other Online Sources

As I was typing my last post yesterday, I was looking for an accurate, relatively brief description of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. I first checked Wikipedia and searched for "multiple intelligence," and the entry that is online gives a very brief, sketchy rundown of the main ideas, but most of the post was spent blasting away at Gardner. More and more I and my students have found entries on this public-built encyclopedia that are perhaps questionable (most are fine, though). This is a problem when information, often of a technical nature that one would prefer to find written up by an expert in a formal, peer-reviewed medium, can be entered by just about anyone. I have to be careful to warn students to not blindly accept information found on Wikipedia and the Internet as a whole. If one wants to use a source that has not gone through peer review or is not supported by known experts in the field, or is written up in what is supposed to be a neutral forum of knowledge but clearly has a personal bias built into it (as is the case with the multiple intelligence example), then readers need to be able to make the distinction between what is valid information and what is questionable information. This is a difficult decision to make if you are a nonexpert, which of course is normally the case of the users of Wikipedia and similar online sources of information (it is unlikely experts would be looking up the information in the first place). This is a growing problem educators and researchers will need to address in this age of massive amounts of information: How legitimate is the information being used by today's students, since there is a rapidly increasing number of questionable and downright faulty sources that are being used?

I need to mention, to their credit, Wikipedia does allow online edits and rebuttals to entries, and this particular entry for multiple intelligences is tagged as one whose "neutrality" is "disputed."