Posted in Life & Happiness

I Don’t Know

How a person responds to a question that they don’t know the answer to tells you quite a bit about what kind of person they are. Some people try desperately to hide their lack of knowledge by rambling or even making up facts. Sometimes, people will become very defensive and heatedly argue a point even if they are not sure it is the right answer or not, attacking the person asking the question (ad hominem argument).

The model answer would be to admit that you don’t know the answer. A marker of a well-adjusted person is their ability to admit that they are imperfect, as well as an openness to continue learning to keep filling their gaps of knowledge.

The world is an extremely vast place and our sphere of knowledge is rapidly expanding in the age of information. It is impossible to know everything in the world and it is arrogant to assume that you can.

Furthermore, knowledge changes with time. Facts and paradigms once deemed to be concrete have faltered with new evidence. New concepts such as the theory of evolution and the Big Bang were shunned initially, but are now basic knowledge that best explain what we observe. Without an openness to learn and change our minds, we would become stagnant and boring.

No one likes to be wrong or perceived as stupid. But if we let our pride get in the way, we could never improve and grow. It is okay not to know the answer, as long as you are open to learn.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard” in Latin) is one of the most well-known dinosaurs. It is the poster child of the sauropods, a group of massive four-legged dinosaurs with very long necks and tails, known as some of the largest animals to ever walk on land.

After going extinct around 66 million years ago, the Brontosaurus was rediscovered in fossil form in 1879 by palaeontologist O.C. Marsh, who is infamous for his rivalry with another palaeontologist called Edward Drinker Cope as part of the “Bone Wars”. The Bone Wars was the fierce competition between the two palaeontologists, involving aggressive digging to discover as many dinosaurs as possible, while both tried to slander and impede each other through dishonest, unprofessional means. This dispute resulted in rushed announcements of new discoveries sometimes, leading to fascinating stories such as Cope accidentally putting the skull of the Elasmosaurus on its tail instead of the neck.

So what does the historical context of the Bone Wars have to do with the Brontosaurus? In 1903, another palaeontologist argued that the Brontosaurus was actually a specimen of the already discovered Apatosaurus. Two years later, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted sauropod skeleton and named it a Brontosaurus. However, they had accidentally used the skull of a different dinosaur called Camarasurus, mounted on the skeleton of an Apatosaurus. With no further evidence supporting Brontosaurus as a separate genus, the scientific community agreed that the Brontosaurus was really just an Apatosaurus.

Despite this news, Brontosaurus remained hugely popular amongst the general population thanks to its early publicity. At the same time, Brontosaurus not being a real genus of dinosaur became a popular factoid (false information accepted as fact due to popularity). In a field such as palaeontology where evidence can be scant or incomplete, such misclassification is common. For example, the Triceratops is in fact simply the juvenile form of another dinosaur named the Torosaur.

But then in 2015, a group of scientists used computer modelling to analyse sauropod fossil data including the original fossil discovered by Marsh. What they discovered was that there were enough differences between the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, such as differences in pelvic bone structure, to classify Brontosaurus as its own genus. After more than a century, the Brontosaurus has had its name cleared and restored to its former glory.

The story of the Brontosaurus is a great example of one of the principles in science: nothing is 100% true. Science never proclaims something as the one truth. We can hypothesise, support it with evidence and construct a theory that makes sense of the cosmos, but we can never be sure that we definitely have the answer. In the face of new evidence and re-examination of the analysis, what was once regarded as “truth” can easily be proven to be wrong.

This is an unpopular aspect of science, because people tend to want security and certainty to soothe their anxieties about not knowing. But instead, we get to stay curious and continuously question the nature of the universe and how everything works, making fascinating discoveries and learning something new every day.

For how boring would life be if we had nothing more to learn?

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Posted in History & Literature

Headline

With the advent of the internet, the media has become faster and more accessible than ever before. Nowadays, breaking news is reported within minutes and you can browse multiple different news agency at the click of a button. But speed and access has become a double-edged sword, with many articles following a trend of focussing less on the content (or the truth) and more on how sensational the headline is, so that more people will click on it (known as clickbait).

Sensational headlines have always been popular, particularly in tabloid journalism. Headlines such as “Are the government lying about event X?” or “Have scientists found the cure to cancer?” attract people as hypothetical questions allow journalists to report on something without conclusive facts or evidence. Luckily, there is an old journalistic adage that allows us to combat this.

Betteridge’s law of headlines was devised by technology journalist Ian Betteridge, based on an old journalistic principle. It states that: 

“Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”. 

If you apply this law to the above sensational articles, then you can avoid wasting time reading an article that will add nothing to your knowledge.

Learning is not only about acquiring knowledge, but also knowing what “knowledge” to avoid.

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Posted in Philosophy

Mary And The Black And White Room

Mary is a brilliant scientist who specialises in colour. She knows everything about colour – the spectrum, wavelengths, properties of light, the mechanism of how human vision works… She knows exactly how a certain wavelength of light will excite the retina and what kind of electrical impulse it will send in the brain. However, Mary has never seen colour. She has lived all of her life in a black and white room and can only observe the world through a black and white TV screen. The question is: if Mary was to leave the room and see the colourful world for what it is, would she learn something new?

Considering that Mary already knows everything theoretical about colour, would her seeing colour change anything? Or is the experience of seeing a colour something that you cannot learn without actually experiencing it?

This was a thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson to question the nature of knowledge. Is physical knowledge truly everything, or is there something more than that? In philosophy, there is a concept called qualia, which describes the subjective, qualitative properties of experiences. That is, experience is a unique type of knowledge that cannot be learnt without experiencing it first-hand.

A further expansion of this idea is the refutation of physicalism – the school of thought that argues that everything (including knowledge and the mind) is physical. The logic is that since Mary knew everything “physical” about colour before leaving the room, her learning “something’ (i.e. experience of colour) is a direct argument against all knowledge being physical, as she learnt something “new”.

Another way to look at it is this. Some things in life can only be learnt through experiencing it. It is not enough trying to learn about life and the world purely from stories and books. To truly learn everything, you must get out there and experience it yourself.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Silence Of The Trees

A timeless philosophical question goes like this:

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

This may sound absurd, but the question hangs on the definition of sound. Is sound the physical phenomenon of vibrating particles forming a soundwave, or is sound the sensory information that we perceive by converting said soundwave using our hearing system? If you accept the first definition, then yes, the falling of the tree will generate energy that pushes on the air particles around it, causing a soundwave that if someone were to hear it, would sound as a “thud”. But if you accept the second definition, then that tree would not have made a “sound” per se because no one was around to perceive the soundwave. Following this logic, a sound cannot exist without a recipient to hear it.

As simple as this may seem at face value, the riddle explores some deep philosophical and scientific issues.

The most obvious one has been discussed: the definition of sound. But then one must question what would happen if a tape recorder was running when the tree fell. Can a machine hear, even though it cannot “sense”? Is the sound we hear being played from the recorder the same as the sound that was originally made by the tree?

Following on from this thought, how do we know that the sound you hear is an accurate interpretation of the actual soundwave? It is common knowledge that the brain frequently modifies the senses to change what it sees and hears, as seen in various illusions. Furthermore, the brain can generate sensory information without any input, known as hallucinations. You assume that your hearing is flawless and accurate, but in your mind, it is almost impossible to know for sure that the sound you heard is “real”. Taking this further leads in to the massive debate of “what is real?” and “is reality real or is it a product of our mind?”.

A more fundamental question is this: if no one was around to hear the tree fall, does it matter if it made a sound? A pragmatic philosopher might say “no”, as whether the tree made a sound or not makes no difference to your life. However, a scientist may say “yes” as the tree did fall and a soundwave was generated. Whether a person was around to observe it is irrelevant as it does not change the fact that something real occurred. Then what effect does observation have on reality? How do we know that trees make the same sound when we are not around to hear it?

This is a crude dissection of the vast number of questions the riddle offers, but it shows how such a simple thought experiment can be an effective tool to engage your critical thinking. If you do not fully understand the philosophy discussed, at least you can take away the fact that you can use the excuse of “sound is only a perception, I did not hear you, therefore what you said did not happen” when someone tells you to do something.

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Posted in Philosophy

Black Cat

Philosophy is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat.

Metaphysics is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that is not there.

Theology is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat that is not there and shouting “I found it!”

Science is like being in a dark room and looking for a black cat using a flashlight.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Transactive Memory

It is common to find couples, families or teams where someone always asks another member about a certain memory, while the opposite happens for a different memory. For example, a mother might always consult his son about computers and technical difficulties, while the father might always consult the mother about his plans for the month. This kind of “shared memory” is named transactive memory, where a group becomes organised in a way to share memory around in an efficient manner. This is usually done by the group reorganising itself so that each member specialises in a certain field, with the other members only remembering that that person is the expert. This means that instead of memorising every field, you can simply remember who is the expert in that field. It is much like learning where the reference text is rather than learning the contents.

Although it may look like dependence, transactive memory is an extremely useful tool in tight groups such as a couple or a small team. By having members specialise in certain domains of knowledge, the group is able to expand their capacity to acquire knowledge and create innovation. Transactive memory allows for a group to become efficient and effective in learning and retrieving knowledge. Overall, it improves decision making processes and the efficiency of the group, allowing for better outcomes. This is achieved by the division of responsibilities from specialising, shortening the time needed for finding the appropriate knowledge (as everyone knows the “guy” or “gal” to go to) and the shared understanding of the teammates regarding the interpersonal relations in the team. This means that everyone knows exactly who to go to for a certain domain of knowledge, while understanding their strengths and weaknesses, allowing for well coordinated interactions. Because of this, transactive memory only works in groups with limited numbers, with the maximum number being similar to the Monkeysphere (150).

Many studies prove the effectiveness of transactive memory. It has been found that couples have much better memory recollection compared to when they are paired with a stranger. In the modern technological era, transactive memory has expanded to the internet, with studies showing that people are more likely to know the source of information (such as Wikipedia) rather than the actual information. Given the ease of access to the internet and large databases containing all the information we need, sometimes it is far more efficient learning how to find these sources rather than rote learning all the information.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Question

The word that children say the most as they grow up is probably “why?”. Children always ask this and that, seeking knowledge as if they want to understand every object and everything happening around them. This is an extremely important developmental step that trains the most powerful weapon a human being possesses: the brain. Children can use their brain’s amazing information processing abilities to start building a massive knowledge tank, absorbing information like a sponge. Furthermore, they never ask a question just once but love to repeat the same question over and over, driving an adult crazy. This is not because the child wants to frustrate the adult. Just like how you cannot fully understand all of the meanings in a good book on the first read, a child learns through repetition and ruminating knowledge. If you do not repeat something, the knowledge only lasts in short term memory and is soon deleted, making it a very inefficient study process. Ergo, famous children’s educational programs such as Sesame Street and Blues Clues teach children things by constantly repeating the same thing. After that, the children watch the same episode over and over again to acquire knowledge.

As children do not know much about the world, they need to inherit knowledge from adults. Because adults possess a vast amount of knowledge, children need to ask a series of specific questions to build their knowledge base slowly and steadily. As their basic knowledge base builds, they can start to learn through other means such as books and encyclopaedias. However, whether you are a child or an adult, if you have something that you want to know, there is no faster and effective way of finding out than asking someone that knows. If you do not ask, you cannot learn and your brain will atrophy. Curiosity is a sign that there is still something you can learn. Thus, no matter how old you are, you should have the courage to ask a question. Curiosity is progress.

On the other hand, if someone (especially a child) asks you a question, do not brush them away; calmly answer their question and try to pass on as much of your knowledge to them as possible. That is your responsibility as a member of society; a sacred duty of feeding and nurturing the future generation.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Newton’s Apple

Common belief is that Newton discovered gravity after an apple dropped on his head. Although there is no historical evidence to support this myth, it has become a popular story. There are two common responses to this story: the first is “Wow, Newton was a smart cookie” and the second is “Pfft, I could have discovered gravity without an apple, it is such an easy thing.”

The latter group of people are idiots. Newton did not “discover” gravity. Human beings have known that objects fall to the ground since the dawn of time and have utilised it in ways ranging from sports to killing other people by crushing them with giant rocks. Even animals know of the concept as seen by eagles dropping turtles on rocks to crack the shell. In fact, if you could not figure that out, then you would really be an idiot.

The reason why Newton is famous is not because he found that apples fall from trees, it is because he observed the phenomenon, noting that it was always perpendicular to the ground, which in combination with the knowledge that the Earth is round suggests that objects tend to fall towards the centre of the Earth. Again, Newton’s brilliance was not that he simply observed an apple falling, it was that he pondered it and spent years researching it until he discovered the way gravity behaves. He devised formulas to estimate how gravity functions, even applying it to predict how the moon orbits around the Earth. Thanks to Newton, we are able to model the world around us and send rockets to the moon without launching our astronauts in to the depth of space with no hope of recovery. 

Interestingly, physicists still do not know what causes gravity. There are many theories, such as particles called gravitrons attracting two objects to each other. Although the mathematics of two objects attracting each other has been accurately calculated, it is unknown what causes it. Only after you discover the truth behind how gravity functions can you say that “I could have discovered gravity in my sleep” (actually, even then you probably spent decades just trying to grasp the concept).

Before you criticise, know what you are criticising. 


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Posted in History & Literature

Language

If one was, for some twisted and malicious reason, wished to systematically destroy a culture, what would the first step be? Genocide? Brainwashing? The answer is destroying the native language.

Language is the skeleton that supports the culture of the people. It is an integral part of every culture that allows for effective communication of ideas and thoughts. Each language is tailor-made for a certain culture and best exhibits the culture’s character and ways. Language is one of the greatest inventions of mankind as it allowed for the preservation of thought. If you do not record thought into words, it may be distorted, warped or worse – be forgotten. Using words, one can pass on knowledge to others, even in the future. This is essentially what culture is: a collection of ideas and knowledge that we inherit from our predecessors.

As these thoughts were recorded in one language, there is bound to be some distortion during translation. We can often see examples of barriers in communication due to the inability to properly translate a word from one language to another. If you cannot describe an idea with words, it is extremely difficult to preserve the idea. Ergo, by destroying the language of the people and enforcing your own on them, you can mutilate or eradicate their culture over time. Of course, since language is a major part of the endemic culture, you have gotten off to a great start already. When the people lose their language, they become susceptible to being assimilated into another culture. Slowly, they talk and think like the oppressors until they lose all identity of their roots.

During the early 20th century when Imperial Japan was invading neighbouring countries, they used the exact same method to try and eliminate other cultures. They outlawed the native language and enforced the use of Japanese. To protect their cultural identity, Koreans (and other countries invaded by Japan) had to teach children in underground schools at the risk of torture or death. The preservation of the Korean language allowed the people to unite with strong patriotism, fuelling the resistance against the oppressors. Without the dedication of the people, who knows how much precious cultural heritage would have been lost forever.

When the people lose their language, they lose their voice. When people lose their voice, they lose their identity. When they lose their identity, they lose the fight.

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