THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 19

Subject:  Metacognition – Copernicus’ Definition of True Knowledge

Event:  Birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473

Today is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who not only changed the world as we know it, but also the universe.  

Nicolaus Copernicus (Wikimedia Commons)

Born in Poland in 1473, Copernicus was both a polyglot and a polymath.  He spoke Latin, German, Polish, Greek, and Italian.  In addition to holding a doctorate in canon law, he was also a physician, mathematician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist.  Today, we know him best as the astronomer who challenged the orthodox belief that Earth was the center of the universe.  Fifteen-hundred years after the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy established his theory that the planets, the sun, and the stars revolved around a stationary Earth, Copernicus presented his revolutionary theory.  He claimed that not only did the Earth rotate on its axis, but also that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun.  Copernicus’ work in astronomy was the quintessential achievement of the Renaissance, totally transforming mankind’s view of the universe and paving the way for future work by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

A true man of science and of learning, Copernicus embodied the Renaissance ideals of searching for knowledge and challenging conventional wisdom. His opus On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was published in 1543, the same year he died (1).

One quotation that typifies Copernicus’ scientific approach is one that uses simple terms to express a profound insight:

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

Today cognitive psychologists sum up Copernicus’ insight using a single term: metacognitionMeta is Greek for “about,” and cognition is Latin for “to know.” Metacognition, therefore, is “thinking about thinking.”  More than just being aware that we think, metacognition is the process of monitoring our own thinking.

As Copernicus reminds us, metacognition is not just what we know, it is also being aware of what we don’t know, as well as being aware of the ways we sometimes delude ourselves.  To understand the ways we think best and the ways we fall short of sound thinking, we should always keep in mind the relationship between both knowledge and ignorance.  

Notice, for example, how the following wise voices from the past express this relationship:

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.  –Confucius

-The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

-The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance. — Socrates

-The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. — Elbert Hubbard

-To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge. — Benjamin Disraeli

-The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. — Frank Herbert

In the book Make It Stick, the authors discuss one specific learning strategy that employs metacognition to help learners be more productive and more efficient in their study.  The strategy is called retrieval practice, and recent studies have documented that this strategy is much more effective than rereading a text, highlighting a text, or even reviewing notes.

The key aspect of retrieval practice is self-quizzing or testing.  When reading a text or listening to a lecture, therefore, the student should generate questions for self-testing.  Once the student has finished reading or listening, he or she should use the questions to recall and recite out loud the facts, concepts, or events from memory, without using the book or notes for reference.  The basic premise of retrieval practice is that learning that sticks is learning that is effortful.  Furthermore, the effortful act of retrieving knowledge from memory strengthens the memory, increasing the likelihood that knowledge will stay in long-term memory.  Like walking an unfamiliar path through the woods, the more you travel the path, the more confidence you have in remembering your way without getting lost.  Retrieval practice also decreases the likelihood that students will delude themselves into believing they know what they don’t know. Since the strategy requires that students recite answers aloud without notes, they are able to exercise good metacognition by clearly determining what they know and what they don’t quite know yet (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is retrieval practice and how does it relate to metacognition?

Challenge – What Do You Know?

How can you apply retrieval practice to increase your metacognition?  Select an article or short story that you have not read before.  As you read the passage, write down three questions based on the key ideas you’re reading.  When you finish the reading, put the passage away, and attempt to answer each of your questions by reciting the answers out loud.  As you answer each question, rate your level of confidence with your answer on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being you feel highly confident; 1 being you need to look back at the passage to answer).  Once you have finished, take a moment to reflect on the strategy.  How did it feel to answer out loud?  Do you feel like this strategy will work for you in the future? 

Sources:

1-”Nicolaus Copernicus” – New Mexico Museum of Space History

2-Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.  Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2014.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 18

Subject:  Thought Experiments – Ring of Gyges

Event:  Birthday of Austrian physicist Ernst Mach

Imagine being a scientist so accomplished that they named the speed of sound after you; furthermore, imagine being so accomplished that Albert Einstein credited you with inspiring his Theory of Relativity.

Ernst Mach, 1905 (Wikipedia Commons)

The scientist imagined above is not a figment of your imagination; instead, he was a real person, the physicist Ernst Mach, who was born on this day in 1838 in Austria.  More than just a scientist though, Mach was also accomplished in the fields of philosophy and psychology.

We often picture accomplished scientists doing experiments in their laboratories, but what we don’t often contemplate is the level of both curiosity and imagination that precede physical experiments.  It is in this area that Ernst Mach was also accomplished, recognized as a pioneer in Gedankenexperiment, the term that originated in Germany and is known today in English as “thought experiment.”

In an essay he wrote in 1897 “On Thought Experiments,” Mach discussed how innate human curiosity is the spark that ignites the imagination, the mind’s laboratory, to visualize ideas long before the become physical facts:

Our own ideas are more easily and readily at our disposal than physical facts. We experiment with thought, so as to say, at little expense. This it shouldn’t surprise us that, oftentime, the thought experiment precedes the physical experiment and prepares the way for it. (1) 

Of course, long before the terms “science” and “thought experiment” were coined, philosophers were employing their imaginations to conduct experiments of the mind.  For example, in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Socrates paints an imagined scenario of men living their entire lives chained in a dark cave, seeing shadows rather than reality.  He then imagines what might happen if one of these men were loosed from his chains, freed to see the real world outside the cave.  Through this exercise of imagination, Plato provides us with insight into how philosophy can equip us with a broader view of reality while at the same time warning us of our blind spots and our human tendency to confuse perception with reality.

Another ancient thought experiment from Plato’s Republic, presents a story about human nature that addresses the following questions:  Is it true as the famous quotation by Lord Action proclaims that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?  And does true justice exist in the world, or is it just a facade motivated by self-interest?

In the story, a seemingly humble shepherd name Gyges finds a ring that suddenly great powers:

According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening, where, among other marvels, he beheld a hollow brazen horse, having doors, at which he stooping and looking in saw a dead body of stature, as appeared to him, more than human, and having nothing on but a gold ring; this he took from the finger of the dead and reascended. Now the shepherds met together, according to custom, that they might send their monthly report about the flocks to the king; into their assembly he came having the ring on his finger, and as he was sitting among them he chanced to turn the collet of the ring inside his hand, when instantly he became invisible to the rest of the company and they began to speak of him as if he were no longer present. He was astonished at this, and again touching the ring he turned the collet outwards and reappeared; he made several trials of the ring, and always with the same result—when he turned the collet inwards he became invisible, when outwards he reappeared. Whereupon he contrived to be chosen one of the messengers who were sent to the court; whereas soon as he arrived he seduced the queen, and with her help conspired against the king and slew him, and took the kingdom. 

After telling the story of the Ring of Gyges, the narrator asks the reader to join him in a thought experiment:

Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. 

The thought experiment attempts to illustrate the paradox of justice — that justice and injustice, instead of being opposites, are really the same thing.  Justice is never authentic; instead, it is merely an act, motivated by the fear of being exposed for who we really are: people who would act unjustly if we, like Gyges, could get away with it.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Ring of Gyges thought experiment, and how does it challenge our thinking about justice?

Challenge – Imagination Lab:  Research some other famous thought experiments.  Pick one that captures your imagination.  Explain the thought experiment, and explain why you find it interesting.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 18, 1884:  Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. Unlike other American novels of the time, which were imitations of European literature, Huckleberry Finn was a truly American book, the first to be written in the American vernacular.  Twain’s revolutionary move was to give the narration of his book to the uneducated, unwashed Huck, who speaks in dialect and introduces himself in the novel’s famous first sentence:

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another . . . .    

Sources:

1-Thought Experiment: How Einstein Solved Difficult Problems. FS Blog.

2-“Plato: Ethic – The Ring of Gyges.” Great Philosophers. Oregon State University.

February 18: Sequel Day

On this date in 1884, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the United States.  Since its publication, the language of Twain’s novel has sparked controversy, yet it remains a book unparalleled in its influence. Unlike other American novels of the time which were imitations of European literature, Huckleberry Finn was a truly American book, the first to be written in the American vernacular.  Twain’s revolutionary move was to give the narration of his book to the uneducated, unwashed Huck, who speaks in dialect and introduces himself in the novel’s famous first sentence:

Huckleberry Finn book.JPGYou don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth. That is nothing. I never seen anybody but lied one time or another . . . .    

Ernest Hemingway praised Twain’s book, saying, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn’ . . . . All American writing comes from that.  There was nothing before.  There has been nothing as good since.”  

Twain began writing his masterpiece in 1876, but after writing 400 pages he set it aside unfinished.  At one point Twain threatened to burn the unfinished manuscript, but luckily he took it out of his drawer and went back to work on it in 1882, finishing in August 1883.

Twain’s novel is so influential and so distinctive that some forget that it was a sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).  It is the rare sequel that achieves the level of its predecessor, let alone eclipses it.  

In 1995, American novelist E.L. Doctorow highlighted the differences between the two books, pointing out that Twain’s motivation was to take on the issues of racism and slavery in his sequel — issues he had ignored in Tom Sawyer:

But Twain had to have understood, finally, that, in its celebratory comedy, his book [‘Tom Sawyer’] was too sentimental, too forgiving of the racist backwater that had nurtured him.  He had ignored slavery as if it hadn’t existed.  And after all was said and done his Tom Sawyer character was a centrist, a play rebel, who, like Twain, had been welcomed into the bosom of a ruling society he sallied against.

Today’s Challenge:   It Takes II to Tango

What are some examples of great sequels, great books or movies, that continue the story of an original book or movie?  Make your argument for the single sequel, book or movie, that you think is the best, and explain what makes the sequel so great.  See the list of examples below.  Don’t assume your reader has read the book or seen the movie. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Books:

The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling

That Was Then, This Is Now  by S.E. Hinton

The Odyssey by Homer

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

Movies:

The Color of Money

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

The Bourne Supremacy

Monsters University

The Matrix Reloaded

Quotation of the Day:  It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky, up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened- Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. -Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn