Education

Fearing that Google or Wikipedia makes us dumber is just as silly as fearing that abacuses or slide rules did the same

A frequent debate in American schools around the early 1990s was whether the reliance on pocket calculators would weaken math skills. The debate is similar to the debate about subsidizing dying industries. When technology replaces a job, life is hard for the unemployed, but we achieve a net benefit in the reduced cost of goods. We might say, "Well, then people won't know how to use multiplication or times tables," but we can replace that with the phrase, "Well, people won't know how to use this thing they don't need anymore." After all, we don't lament abacuses or slide rules. When we lose our facility with times tables, we more than compensate for it by doing other things mathematically.

A roundabout example is that calculators have made it easier to build computers and smartphones which have increased technological literacy, and therefore mathematical literacy. Calculators have made it simpler to make complex video games which require players to quickly count health points versus hit points, without the aid of calculators. Calculators have made it easier to make computers, which have made screen interfaces more common, which has dramatically increased the number of characters, many of which include numbers, which the average person encounters on a daily basis.

People know as much about times tables as they need to. If their situation requires them to multiply things quickly without having easy access to a calculator, then they will learn.

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Statistical Insignificance

The words "statistically significant" don't belong together, because there's nothing objective about significance. Something has statistical significance when it deviates from a normal distribution curve in a way that is rare. For most people "statistical" just translates into "scientific," leading the whole expression to mean, "scientists think it's important." If a sample of 30 men and 30 women show that men have 120 points and women have 125 points, the magazine article could say that the difference is statistically significant. Technically this means that there is likely a population difference between men and women, but to the average reader, it says Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, leading to a new social order for a new generation.

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The popular understanding of evolution won't improve until it stops seeming like a miracle

It wasn't until we developed science that we could stop imagining that the sun was a god on a chariot racing across the sky. And yet, even though we know the science of how the eye works and we know the science of evolution, a large portion of the American population still would prefer to see an intelligent designer behind it all. Books have been written speculating on the actual evolutionary steps necessary to get to the eye, but most people haven't internalized it. People don't have a gut feeling that it was all random natural selection.

Simply knowing how things work won't be enough. We have to know how to copy nature to eliminate the mystery. Until we can evolve an eyeball in a laboratory, it will always seem like the eye is too complex to be possibly explained by the random drifting of genes over billions of years.