Questions and Answers

By Leyden Marks

After recess, the children settled into their seats. It was time for social studies, and the youngsters (most of them, anyway) knew what to do. They had dutifully placed the appropriate text on their desks.

The teacher (holding her own copy open) instructed that they not yet open to the pages they had studied the day before. She intended to start with a review, and so she moved to the front of the room and began the lesson this way:

teacher1“We’ve been studying about what humans need to live. Yesterday we learned about three different basic human needs. So, who here can tell me one of the things we know all people need for survival?” (Many hands shot up; some quite energetically.)

“Yes, Nathan?” (Not using real names, of course)


“No, no – that’s not it. Who remembers?”

“I do,” said Lorna, having waved her hands frantically for attention.


“It seems you’re forgetting what we’ve been studying. Who can tell me something humans need that we studied yesterday?

(Fewer hands now.). Josh puts forth a tentative: “Food?”

“Right. Food. That’s it.  And what else?”

And onward the lesson goes until the “correct answer” – food, clothing, shelter – is reached.

No kidding. This was a real event. And in a second or third grade, no less (I forget which – it’s been a long time and I witnessed it well over twenty years ago). Still, I’ve never forgotten the overall message I drew from the incident.

Air (not needed). Water (not the correct answer).

There is so much right with the children themselves here. The students respond to the teacher’s query forthrightly and likely from direct experience (perhaps insufficiently “switching gears” to recollect yesterday’s lesson?).

Just so many questions are raised by this type of lesson, though. One can question the presence of the material itself, which is hardly an easy match to most of the youngsters’ developmental or experiential levels, even if the academic understanding is grossly simplified to match reading capability. One can question the approach. One can question a teacher’s drive for “the right answer.”

What is really taught? Is it the “basic needs” drawn from sociology and “watered down” for transmitting in an elementary school classroom?

Moreover, one can wonder what children take away from even such a short exchange. What is it they really learned?

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12 Ways to Raise a Savvy Skeptic

curious kidSkepticism is sometimes given a bad rap.

Skeptical doesn’t mean cynical. Raising your kids to be mindful, to question, to apply critical thinking to ideas that are popular in the culture (often undeservedly), will help them become more informed and woo-averse adults. So how do you raise a little Bright?


1. Teach your child to see everything in new ways. When you pass a garden, ask her to imagine seeing it as though she were a mole, from underneath, or from above, as if from an airplane. Paying attention is not about staring at a thing, but about really seeing it. And when your child has the habit of finding the novelty in any situation, she can never be bored.

2. Play “What’s the difference?” In this any-age game, choose an easy route in your neighborhood, even simply around the block. Each time you take the same walk (or the same car pool route), see how many differences you and your child can discover. Has that old tree begun to lose its leaves? Is there a picket missing from Mr. Jones’ fence? Does the Rodriguez family have a new car? In what ways is it different from the old car? In what ways might it be different that we can’t see unless we go inside or underneath it?

3. Show kids how to reflect on their thinking processes. You might ask, for example, how you would divide up eight items among four people. One might move eight cubes around to see how many each person would get, while another might manipulate eight sticks, and a third child would think the problem through in her head. They learn that there are many ways of coming to the same right answer

4. Have your child interact with story characters. One elementary school teacher told me he would point to a picture in a book and ask the children, “What’s his name? What is he doing?” When reading them “The Princess and the Pea,” he’d ask them to write letters to either the Princess, the Prince, or the Princesses who didn’t get picked by the Prince. One child wrote, “Dear Princesses: I’m sorry you didn’t get picked. Maybe there aren’t enough princes. I think you should marry someone your own age.”  These youngsters learn that there is more to the story (or any situation) than what is first presented to them, and that they can contribute to the working out of the story. In addition, humor is a great way to break open people’s mind-sets.

5. Draw unusual solutions. Though schools mostly teach how to react analytically to what’s already been suggested, children need to learn to come up with novel ideas. Noted educator Edward de Bono suggests the drawing method. Begin by giving your child a problem: How would you weigh an elephant? Then have your child illustrate a solution with a drawing, and discuss the drawing.

6. Make use of the method called “Consider All Factors.” For any situation, think of everything that must be considered. For instance, what factors must you take into account when deciding where to go on vacation? Cost, climate, nearness to a beach. What about the availability of other children? Distance from home? Ask your child, “What else must be considered?”


Photo: Nick Kenrick /

Photo: Nick Kenrick /

7. Introduce new cultural perspectives. Visit different ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants, read library books about kids in other cultures, and point out simple differences (bowing versus shaking hands). By becoming comfortable with diversity, kids adapt quickly. And by adapting, they absorb the knowledge that there is no one right way to be.

8. Use television mindfully. Just because some celebrity says something tastes good doesn’t mean it does. Point out that famous actors, singers, and sports figures are paid millions of dollars to convince us that a cola drink is the best one, even if they never drink it themselves. Teach your child to ask why the person who says a thing has taken that perspective, whether it’s to sell a product or win public office. Talk about how advertising is designed to get people to buy things they might not even need.

9. What else could it be? “B b b. . . ball,” says your toddler, and most parents respond, “Yes, honey, that’s a ball.” However, according to Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer, a better answer in the long run might be, “Yes, that could be a ball. But it could also be. . . .” “The point,” Langer explains, “is to begin at a very early age to get across the idea that all knowledge is provisional.” In everyday life, that means that, although that round thing might be called a ball (someone once gave it that name and it stuck) and even be used for bouncing games, it could also be a footrest or a drain-stopper or a pillow.


10. Demonstrate Edward de Bono’s 6 thinking hats. Say your child is trying to decide whether to join Girl Scouts.

  • Use the White Hat for gathering information and facts (what activities do they do?)
  • Put on the Red Hat for dealing with the emotional angles (are her friends in the troop?)
  • Don the Black Hat to represent cautious thinking (will she have time for her other activities and homework if she joins?)
  • The Yellow Hat helps you think up advantages and benefits (she can make new friends and learn new skills)
  • The Green Hat represents exploratory thinking (what other groups might offer the same benefits? What if she delayed joining for another year?)
  • The Blue Hat is for thinking about thinking (have we considered all possible ways for thinking about Girl Scouts?)

11. Give up fairy tales sooner rather than later. When your child expresses a doubt about the existence of large furry creatures who deliver candy to every child, or fairies who deposit cash under pillows in exchange for used teeth, admit that it was just a story told for their fun. That way, you’re showing them they can trust their own perceptions.

12. Make up a research study. Educator Neil Postman suggested saying that a new study has shown, for example, that there’s a connection between homework and shin muscle development, that “they” believe it has something to do with the way students tense their legs when they concentrate. That’s bogus, of course. Postman found that two-thirds of his friends won’t disbelieve his made-up studies. Encourage your child to question you, or anyone, who comes up with the results of a study. Who was the study done on? How did they measure the variables? And so on. (Try this with a four year old: “I’m going to make up a story. Eating ice cream makes it rain. Can that be true?” Little kids can be pretty gullible, so you might add, “That’s not true. Rain comes from the clouds, and clouds don’t have anything to do with ice cream.”)

Finally, you needn’t worry that your savvy child will have a problem getting along with people who see objects as only one thing. According to psychologist Langer,

You’re going to raise a super-fit, a multi-fit kid, not a misfit. You can use a dog’s chew toy your whole life as a dog’s chew toy, but to know that chew toy is a name and function that people have put on this thing, that it can be many different things, even if you never use it, sets you up for a whole different way of understanding the world.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel and of the parenting guide Playing Smart: The Family Guide to Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4 to 14.

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The Truth About Getting Older

old people signIt’s said that age is just a number. Sure it is. But I wonder why that number, the one that implies, “Now you’re actually old,” varies so widely among individuals.

My husband Stephen and I are both in our 60s. Yet often (too often) he says to me, “We’re old now.” With our four parents aged 85, 89, 89, and 90, I refute his assertion. Not that we can count on that sort of longevity. After all, they’ve all made a habit of some kind of regular exercise, and we haven’t been consistent in that way. We do eat far more healthfully. Anyway, who knows the future?

The other day my son told me he thinks about death daily and he can’t wrap his head around eventually not existing, being nowhere forever. He hopes he’ll face the end gracefully once he gets older, not with the sort of denial he sees around him. I hope so, too, as much as I hope it for myself.


An old/new book has come to my attention. It features brief essays (actually polished journal entries) by a superb writer facing old age, May Sarton. She was sharp enough to offer genuine insight into the stage of life we all enter (if we’re lucky) before we exit the stage of life entirely.

May Sarton, the celebrated poet and novelist who died in 1995, wrote At Eighty-Two, A Journal, in 1993-4. It’s available this month as an e-book (Open Road). Her conversational comments are laced with poetic observations. Most of all I noted and appreciated her honesty about the highs and ever-more-frequent lows of her mood. Need I add “Trigger warning for depressives”?

I have begun this journal at a time of difficult transition because I am now entering real old age. At seventy-five I felt much more able than I do now. Forgetting where things are, forgetting names even of friends, names of flowers (I could not remember calendula the other day), what I had thought of writing here in the middle of the night—forgetting so much makes me feel disoriented sometimes and also slows me up. How to deal with continual frustration about small things like trying to button my shirt, and big things like how to try for a few more poems. That is my problem. It does help to keep this journal; it forces me to be alive to challenge and to possibility.

The third cause of my depression I have already described: the chaos of my life and all that is asked of me beyond my strength. Day after day I wait it out, wait for the time when I can lie down and have my nap.

But life right now is joyless. There is nothing that I look forward to, and that is bad. Yes, I look forward to reading. . . . Another is that nothing has to be done; it has to be done in my mind because of my conscience, “I must write this answer,” but it is not as if I had a job which required me to appear at four-thirty and be brilliant. I can choose what I am going to give and when I am going to give it, and that is a wonderful dispensation to old age.

I have entered a new phase and am approaching my death. If I can accept this, not as a struggle to keep going at my former pace but as a time of meditation when I need ask nothing of myself, will nothing except to live as well as possible as aware as possible, then I could feel I am preparing for a last great adventure as happily as I can.

Most of the time I am happy, learning a new kind of happiness for me which has nothing to do with achievement or even with creation. Each day I plan something I can look forward to. Today it may be ordering bulbs. I think of a letter I want to write today.

Of course I do not want to die, although death seems to be the only solution to my problem at present. Let us hope that Prozac will help me, and it might even begin to happen next week. But the fact that it has not happened and that I have to take strong laxatives or I am constipated does not help; it is the worst thing possible for me. Why talk about this? But I say also, Why not? I seem to be totally absorbed now in my body and what it is doing, and this is miserable.

Unfortunately, the Prozac didn’t help May Sarton. Her previous cancer returned with a great deal of pain and killed her the following year. Still, she had all those good days and never seemed to tumble into self-pity.

NOTE: In the midst of writing this post, we got a call that my father-in-law had fallen again (at Walmart!), banged his already cognitively-impaired head, and was being taken to the ER. Shortly after, we learned he was transferred to a larger hospital where a neurologist would have a look. I spent an hour looking up subdural hematomas in the elderly. But at 3 in the morning, he called us to say, “They didn’t find anything. I’m clear! I’m home.”

It begins.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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The End is Near

cherry tomatoesThe following narrative is closely based on a deeply moving conversation I had with “Knut,” an elementary schoolmate whom I’d never forgotten, and with whom I managed to get back in touch just as he was facing his mortality. In this novel excerpt, the grieving narrator, an atheist, is trying to decide her own future.

Knut lives in a fatigued yellow wood-frame bungalow with windows overlooking the sea. When he opens the door to my knock, he has on silk pajamas. “Come,” he says, and his soft warm voice and presence reminds me of the Knut of my school days and dissolves my nervousness.

“Would you like to take some tea into the garden?” He pours us mugs, and I follow him out the back door, where we walk along a curvy stone path as he points out his vegetables in various stages of growth.

He stoops here and there to pull a weed. Then he says, “I’m dying.” Startled into muteness, I withhold an impulsive “Me too.” Some vague complaints over a period of several months last year spurred him to see a doctor, and blood in his urine led to a diagnosis of bladder cancer. “About four months ago they found it had metastasized into my lungs.” I wait, determined to emulate the nine-year-old boy he used to be who listened so well. A wind chime tinkles.

“It’s okay though,” he says. “Maybe some of the way I feel has to do with my Zen Buddhism. I’m comfortable with the idea that my life is coming to an end.” He points to a stone bench, and we both sit. “Of course, it’s always a little scary at first. I had no idea what the options were, what the prognosis would be. Actually I was curious,” and though this startles me, he’s relaxed, his body posture unresisting, no sarcasm or irony in his tone. “And it’s been educational, fascinating.” He laughs. And then he isn’t smiling. “But I’m not going to get better.”

“What do you think comes next?” When he hesitates before responding, I work out that the scattered design on his pajamas is a series of short ladders leading every which way.

“I don’t claim to know. I’m open to whatever it may be. It could be oblivion, or something I don’t have a clue about. It could be spectacular.”

“Amazing,” I say. “I mean, that’s really open-minded. It reminds me, somehow, of what a non-judgmental kid you were. If it makes sense to say that about a fourth grader.” He nods and sips his tea, pleased. “Do you think Zen has the key? Is it the non-attachment?”

hourglass“Maybe,” Knut replies. “Back when I was studying meditation, I had a long conversation with a Buddhist monk from Cambodia. A couple of days before that, his daughter had been killed in a car accident. He kept repeating, ‘She didn’t do anything wrong.’ I asked if his faith was of any help to him with such terrible grieving.”

“How did he answer you?” I ask, desperate to know.

“‘I’d be weeping non-stop if it weren’t for that.’ That’s what he said, exactly. I’ve never forgotten it.” We’re both quiet for a minute or so. The sun is behind a cloud, leaving the sky the washed-out tan of cheap bleached canvas. I ask him how he feels now.

“Surprisingly okay, aside from the debilitation and the pain.” For a second, I suspect he’s kidding, until I realize he’s not. Taken aback by his equanimity, his patient endurance, I shake my head.

“Really, I’m enjoying myself.” He laughs again, not nervously, and I can see he means it. Mostly, he says, he reads, tends the garden when he has the energy, sleeps when he doesn’t, talks on the phone, and friends often come to visit. He has a profusion of friends, and it’s easy to see why. “I didn’t mind saying good-bye to the classroom. I did what I needed to do. No regrets. I like thinking that I’ve always been able to live in the moment.”

Ah, well, sure, if you’ve got the knack for that. Me, I make lists of my lists and plan tomorrow today.

“So what’s next, Knut? There must be some experimental medications?” I don’t know how to let go.

“I see hospice nurses,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes, “and soon I’ll see a doctor once every six weeks or so, but I’m pretty much beyond the medical. Chemo was only making things worse. Nausea, vomiting, terrific exhaustion.”

“Can’t they do anything for you?”

He lets loose a light sigh. “I take two kinds of morphine. One is the pill form, and I take that twice a day.” Perhaps it’s the drugs that allow him to laugh in spite of the ghastliness. Is there a drug that causes you to perceive horror as enlightenment?

“The other one is the liquid,” he goes on, “and I take that as needed. I’ll probably have a third: a line with a pump that runs from my elbow into a vein,” and here he points to his elbow, “and then into the vena cava of my heart. That’s faster and more direct. I’d be in charge of that one myself.”

He’s so willing to share that I dare to ask, “Don’t people—?” I glance away. Now, as the sun slides downward, the sky turns pale shades of orange and pink. He gets up and pulls some cherry tomatoes off a tangled set of vines. I get up, then, too, and pull a couple off to help. He pulls a folded bag out of his pajama pocket and pops his tomatoes into it, but waves me off when I try to put mine into the bag.

“Take them with you,” he says before responding to my question. “We’re given careful instructions for what not to do and what to do. They limit how much of the drugs you have on hand. But of course I think, I’ve heard, people do hoard and eventually—.” He stops there.

fleeting“I think it’s only fair for people to have that option, if they want it,” I murmur, still hesitant about crossing a line.

“I do, too. It would be better if it were formalized and legal.”

Out with it. “Can you imagine being at a place—a time—where you’d want to do that?”

“Oh, sure. From the desire to have it over with. At a certain point, if you were just existing and you were staring blankly out the window. I can see making that decision. Deciding it was up to you and you were here by choice.”

A lay minister once wrote to my column  to describe how he gets into a trance-like state while helping a person to die. He said it was an extraordinary experience. I hope Knut has someone like that. I wish it could be me who shares it with him. Or is it that I long for someone to be there for me?

We hug gently, and I leave with my handful of diminutive tomatoes. The ocean is to my right as I drive south alongside the last of the sunset. Surely I don’t envy Knut? He is getting it to “come out even.” No partner left behind, no children, no work uncompleted except a vegetable garden that will keep growing for a while yet.

No regrets.

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Spirituality and “Inner” Life

By Vinod Wadhawan

I have come across many scientists who say: “I do not subscribe to any religion, but I am a spiritual person.” What exactly is spirituality? Here are a couple of definitions:

The term “spirituality” lacks a definitive definition, although social scientists have defined spirituality as the search for “the sacred,” where “the sacred” is broadly defined as that which is set apart from the ordinary and worthy of veneration. The use of the term “spirituality” has changed throughout the ages. In modern times, spirituality is often separated from Abrahamic religions, and connotes a blend of humanistic psychology with mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions aimed at personal well-being and personal development. The notion of “spiritual experience” plays an important role in modern spirituality, but has a relatively recent origin. (Wikipedia)

Photo: Alice Popkorn /

Photo: Alice Popkorn /

Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to church, synagogue, a mosque, etc. For others, it’s more personal: Some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks. Research shows that even skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world we see. As the brain processes sensory experiences, we naturally look for patterns, and then seek out meaning in those patterns. And the phenomenon known as “cognitive dissonance” shows that once we believe in something, we will try to explain away anything that conflicts with it. Humans can’t help but ask big questions  –  the instinct seems wired in our minds.
(Psychology Today)

Shorn of the superfluous and logically untenable God concept (or the “some higher power” concept), spirituality is mainly about the so-perceived “enhancement” of the so-called “inner life”. Each person has his inner life, pertaining to what his mind perceives, or imagines, or aspires for, but so what? I think it is no different from idle reverie. My inner life is different from yours, and all that really matters is the “outer-life” expression or manifestation of the inner life, and this outer-life manifestation is a natural phenomenon like any other, amenable to scrutiny by science.

Our brain is a physical organ, subject to the laws of physics. And our mind is what our brain does. I subscribe to the view that there is nothing wrong or unscientific about any efforts to make one’s thinking more productive and innovative and original by meditation etc.; and there is nothing mystical about that. It is perfectly fine for a person to do meditation if that helps him achieve better mental health, and greater intuitive capabilities or originality.

Photo: Federico Coppola /

Photo: Federico Coppola /

One of the most innovative minds I know of is Ray Kurzweil (2012). Here is what he does for getting new, problem-solving ideas: “Relaxing professional taboos turns out to be useful for creative problem solving. I use a mental technique each night in which I think about a particular problem before I go to sleep. This triggers sequences of thoughts that will continue into my dreams. Once I am dreaming, I can think  –  dream  –  about solutions to the problem without the burden of the professional restraints I carry during the day. I can then access these dream thoughts in the morning while in an in-between state of dreaming and being awake, sometimes referred to as ‘lucid dreaming'”. Fine. And very impressive.

The mind-body relationship is a subject of great importance. There are so many unexplored examples of what the mind can make the body do or endure. Scientific researchers should be duly skeptical on one hand, and open-minded on the other, when it comes to accepting or rejecting outlandish-looking claims. Reproducible verification has to be the final arbiter, always.

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The 9 Commandments

10 CommandmentsSay it’s an extremely hot day, and you’re out in the sun and get a vision. Metaphorically, of course. You ponder what might be on the tablets you’d bring down from a mountain to share with the world, your own version of the ten commandments. Because, obviously, only about four of the so-called Biblical commandments have any value whatsoever in a rational world.

So make up your own, without overthinking. Any number will do—we needn’t continue using the ancient religious magic numbers 3, 7, and 10 (but 9 = 3 x 3, and was thus held by some to be magical too).

Here are my personal “9 SUGGESTIONS”:

1. Don’t kill any viable beings (unless a very wise committee—way more medically trained than a jury of your peers—agrees that the person is in irremediable pain, and he or she is ready to be done with life).

2. Don’t steal. Unless they stole it from someone else, and then get the law involved. Or work to change the laws if they favor stealing in any form.

3. Don’t mess around with someone else’s mate while your own prior commitments are still in effect.

4. Always be nurturing to young children and treat them the way you wish you’d been treated when young.

5. Act as though you’re part of a society and community, because you are. No one is entirely independent so we all have to chip in to ensure than no one lacks the basics, including a chance at a healthy future when you’re no longer around.

6. Live lightly. Making and getting rid of our excess stuff clogs up the world in so many ways, it’s kind of obscene to waste that many resources on ephemeral junk. Even if you earned the wherewithal fair and square.

7. Live as though there’s no tomorrow, meaning that there’s no heaven or hell beyond this life, so appreciate every possible moment.

8. Be kind, even though there’s no such thing as karma. True niceness requires no direct payback, but it feels good to give it and also to receive it.

9. Be honest. Don’t lie to yourself either, which can mean admitting to yourself that you’re making a bad choice.

Those are my suggestions/commandments. They won’t create a utopia, but they won’t hurt either. What are yours?

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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What’s a Flower For?

flowersNot very long ago, when I went to our local post office to buy a couple of rolls of stamps, I noticed a display of flower stamps. Putting my mouth close to the inch-thick partition, I asked the postal clerk, “Do you have those? My husband loves flowers.”

Reaching for the little booklets of stamps imprinted colorfully with lilies, zinnias, gladioli, marigolds, and roses, the clerk told me that every man who’d come in to buy stamps had wanted some of those too.

“But they always say, ‘They’re for my girlfriend,’ ‘They’re for my sister,’ or ‘They’re for my mother.’  I can’t understand why not a single man will admit he likes flowers.”

I thought about that. In my family, my husband is the garden-lover. When we first married, he turned our front yard from a weed-infested eyesore into a fairyland of miniature roses, border iris, and flowering ground cover, invitingly divided by a curvy brick walkway. He always grabs my arm so I’ll slow down and appreciate the flowers instead of rushing past them on my way to the car.

Some time later, we were watching a documentary when I discovered why I rush past the garden.   The program was about two men whose accidental brain damage had caused them not to recognize familiar things, including their own images in the mirror. One of the men spoke of how, after his accident, he could no longer appreciate the spring—he could see the flowers clearly enough, since the perceiving part of his brain was fine. But apparently there was a break between that part of the brain and the limbic part, the part that controls emotions.

“I can’t feel the beauty anymore,” he explained.

I paused the program and turned to my husband. “That explains it!” I told him. “You know how you’re always trying to get me to marvel and gasp over every flower we pass? And I always say, ‘Yes, they’re beautiful, but let’s go now?’ Now I understand: I’m simply limbic-ly impaired.”

He was happy enough to concur with my insight, but a moment later I  realized I wasn’t the only supposedly flawed person in the family. In fact, my younger son, when he was about 10, asked us, “What’s a flower for?” and we were momentarily without a response. Do you talk about biodiversity and birds and bees and evolution? Or would a reply that focused on beauty make much sense to him? (He became an engineer and, years later, his garden is almost exclusively vegetables and fruit trees. Though the other day he did tell me he was considering planting a second bougainvillea because the first is so stunningly beautiful to look at.)

And while I’m just not moved by flora, many situations do pique my emotions. For instance, when I read that a drunk driver has wiped out a family, or that a robber has taken the money a mother was going to use to buy flowers for the nurses who treated her terminally ill child, I feel plenty of negative emotion. And I’m very moved by babies and tiny children. Their vulnerability and trustingness sets off a shower of sparks in my limbic system.

My mate doesn’t get emotionally aroused by either adult imbecility or infant vulnerability. He is a caring person who shares my overall values, yet he doesn’t feel my urge to at least say, “Isn’t that the most infuriating thing you’ve ever heard?!”

“Well,” I said to the postal clerk that day as I reached for the flower stamps, “these are for my husband.” He gazed at me for a moment through the clear wall separating us, then crinkled his mouth into a grin.

“Oh, sure,” he said, winking. “Have a nice day!”

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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Only a Theory?

By Laurie Hatton (in collaboration with her local Brights Community Cluster)

Sherlock Holmes commonly stated to Watson, “I have a theory.” The word “theory” means that something is a guess or speculative idea. Right?  Well, yes it can. However, when a scientist uses the term theory, he or she means something totally different.  A scientific theory is an idea that has a lot of evidence to back it up – no guessing involved.

NACA Physicist Studying Alpha Rays

Photo: NASA

Scientists start with a hypothesis – an educated guess based on observation.  A hypothesis can be either supported or refuted through testing or observation. Key hypotheses are tested over and over by independent researchers.

When people say, “I have a theory about that,” what they often mean is that they have a hypothesis.

A scientific theory is much more than a hypothesis.  It is a hypothesis that has been tested and shown to be true beyond any reasonable doubt.  Either that or it is an all-encompassing explanation of a set of well supported hypotheses.  Scientific theories can be shown to be false. But, by the time an idea has made it to “theory,” the evidence is so strong that this almost never happens.  Scientists may argue about the details of the supporting evidence, but rarely about the theory itself.

People used to believe that the sun, moon and stars revolved around the Earth. Evidence now shows that the Earth is a tiny speck orbiting a relatively average sized star, hurtling along on the inside edge of one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. These are theories.  They are supported by rigorously tested hypotheses.  In this day and age, people don’t seem to have a problem believing Earth’s puny position in the universe.

Up until very recently, most people believed that the continents had always been where they are now. It was generally considered “just a coincidence” that they looked as though they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. It was suggested in the late 1500s that they might have once been joined, and since the 1960s, most people understand that the continents were once one, and have split and moved apart or crashed into each other over billions of years, and are in fact still moving. There is strong evidence for the theory of plate tectonics.

Evolution by natural selection is a theory.  It is supported by many lines of evidence. This evidence includes the obvious fossil record, but also genetics, comparative anatomy, and the geographic distribution of species, among many other things. Prior to Darwin’s On The Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection, some scientists suspected that evolution had happened.  However, they could not explain how it happened.  Darwin gave us a clear overarching explanation.

Next time you hear someone use the word theory, play Sherlock Holmes; do they really mean hypothesis?

I recently saw a bumper sticker that read, “Evolution is only a theory.  Just”  Oh, wait.  It’s on the back of my car.

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6 Silly Things You Shouldn’t Do

silly emuEven the most psychologically and philosophically aware among us make mistakes. As a Bright, I believe that most of us aim to behave rationally most of the time. So how come we sometimes act in mindless ways that aren’t in our best interests?

Here are some ideas for bringing daily actions more in line with a belief in rationality:


1. Get addicted to your media. Top of the list for me personally, as I’ve just bought my first Smartphone. I love it and its capabilities. I even got my first spam message this morning (ugh). And while it’s tempting to shop for more free apps, text my kids just for the fun of it, and learn how to take good photos, these activities are not my first priority. Allow me to remind myself here, and perhaps some of you also, that there’s a time and a place for everything. Sure, those little pings (or whatever tones you’ve chosen so carefully) are intermittently reinforcing. Just like checking your email constantly on your computer (guilty!). Still, using our media mindfully makes the most sense.

2. Make rituals into work.  Rituals, both the tried-and-true (or untrue) and the ones we make up for ourselves and our families, come in several varieties. Some add nothing to our lives, and some are  possibly worth the effort. Creative people of all kinds develop rituals around their work (sportspeople, too, and many others). All fine. But when it comes to rituals like cooking more than you have time for around the end-of-year holidays, we ought to rethink what we’re doing. I recall a long-ago comment of my father’s, that all this ritual stuff is for children. Funny, my ex-husband said something similar about birthday parties. No need to be a wet blanket, but don’t try too hard to be politically incorrect (making a big deal out of winter solstice, simply replacing all the time-consuming rituals you used to perform with another set).

3. Try to change all your no-longer-wanted habits at once. Self-control is a limited resource. When you struggle to resist a second helping of popcorn in the evening, after a long day of using your self-control on other matters, you’re more likely to fail. Learn to manage your self-regulatory capacity in order to achieve your goals, which sometimes means making environmental changes (don’t keep stuff around that you don’t want to be tempted by, power down all your media at a certain point of the evening, etc.). Hoard your self-control for when you really need it.

4. Finish reading every book you begin. Actually, that’s a really mindless habit. According to Kim Stafford, author of The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft (University of Georgia Press), “Now I can hardly read a book to the end. If the book bores me, I put it down in a hurry, and turn my gaze, if I can, to a tree, or a distant bird, and my mind to thoughts of my own. If the book inspires me, often I am stricken with a feeling of mortality by its truth, and ask myself, ‘If I have time to read this, shouldn’t I be writing? Life’s not that long.’” Don’t read less, necessarily, but choose mindfully, and quit when you feel like it.

5. Don’t assume good-will. In fact, do assume good-will on the part of everyone with whom you share a close relationship. That doesn’t necessarily mean the guy who sold you your cell-phone plan, or anyone whose goal is to make a profit from your gullibility and loyalty. But your family and your good friends? You will rarely go wrong by assuming they mean well, no matter how their words may come out wrong (to your ears).

6. Don’t be grateful for our amazing lives. In fact, gratitude is very much called for, considering all the really grotesque problems most of us, most of the time, don’t have, especially if you’re a so-called First Worlder with indoor plumbing and more or less dependable electric power and access to more or less modern health care. Certainly, highly developed civilizations could be so much more efficient, so much more fair, so much less irritating. I’m just grateful that I wasn’t born in earlier times.

Got any candidates for things we do mindlessly that we should re-think? Please share.

Copyright (2014) by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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Tiffany Education

The Chittenden Memorial Window at Yale University

By Fran Evanisko
(in collaboration with his local Brights Community Cluster)

To my dad, the old days were either better or worse than the present, depending on the point he was trying to make.  If he wanted me to appreciate all of the good things I had, he would emphasize how bad things were during the depression.  If he wanted me to feel bad about the degradation of values, he would reflect on the community he shared with his neighbors at the homestead.  He would reminisce on how he and his friends would swim and fish in the now polluted river.  The lesson is that most anything may be either true or false, if the meaning or relevance of words can be changed to suit our purposes.

For instance, there is some debate as to whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. I guess if you are looking for tax-exempt status for Buddhist activities on religious grounds, you would argue that it is a religion. On the other hand if you wanted to distance your Buddhist worldview from the fundamental western religions view, you might argue that it is a philosophy.

There has long been a debate over the relationship between science and religion. Is religion a science, or is science a religion?  Arguments are made for both views.  Both science and religion seek to explain the world using evidence and reason, and both, at times, require leaps of faith.  But, the way evidence and reason are used in religion and science is very different, and so is the meaning of “belief”.

We use “belief” in many ways:  to express a desire (I believe I’ll have another piece of cake.); to express and expectation (I believe it’s going to rain); to express a value (I believe in the sanctity of marriage, or I believe in equal rights for all); to express an intention (I believe I’ll take the day off).  These are rather casual ways we use the word belief.

More relevant to what I am talking about here are statements like:  I believe the earth is round, or I believe the earth orbits the sun.  These express the acceptance of some claim as true.  I accept it to be true that the earth orbits the sun.

Pythagoras and Aristotle

Aristotle (far left) and Pythagoras (far right) depicted in Raphael’s “The School of Athens”

An important distinction between religion and science regarding belief is that religion emphasizes what is believed, while science focuses on why things are believed.  Sometimes two individuals may agree on what they believe, but one can hold the belief religiously and the other scientifically.  The Greek philosopher Pythagoras held that the earth was round.  Later on, so did Aristotle.  However, Pythagoras’ belief was religiously held, based not on observed evidence, but based on his religious doctrine regarding the harmony of the universe.  Aristotle’s belief in a round earth was based on several observations, including the recognition that the shadow of the earth on the moon during a lunar eclipse is always round.  He also recognized that different stars are visible in the north than in the south.  This is inconsistent with a flat earth.  Pythagoras’ believed in a round earth religiously, Aristotle’s belief was a scientific hypothesis grounded in observable facts.

Other times, two people can hold divergent beliefs, but they both may be scientific in nature.  In Ptolemy’s view that the sun and the other planets orbit the earth and Copernicus’ held that the planets, including the earth orbit the sun.  Both are scientific theories, since they are grounded in careful celestial observations, and both can predict the positions of the celestial bodies.  Ptolemy’s model is more complicated requiring the assumption that the planets at times circled back on themselves as they orbited the earth.  Copernicus’s model is simpler.  The debate between these two views continued into the middle ages.  When, finally, Galileo turned his telescope toward Jupiter and Saturn, and saw that both of these planets had moons orbiting them, this laid a serious blow to the idea that everything in the heavens orbited the earth.  Both the earth centered and the sun centered views of our planetary system are scientific theories, but eventually the weight of evidence led to the acceptance of the Copernican theory by reasoned people.

There is a difference between how disagreements about beliefs are resolved within religion, and how disagreements are resolved within science.  Often disagreements about religious beliefs result in expulsions, sectarian splits, or even violence. The Inquisition forced Galileo to recant under the threat of excommunication.

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, by Cristiano Banti (1857)

Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition, by Cristiano Banti (1857)

There are also emotional and contentious disagreements within the scientific community that lead to factions, however, quite often disputes are resolved rather quickly.  A recent example is the theory of plate tectonics which relates the movement of continental plates over the surface of the earth.  The hypothesis was proposed in 1912 and was roundly ridiculed by almost all geologists.  As late as the 1950s, the idea was not widely accepted as true.  However, the discovery of mid-ocean ridges in the 1950s provided convincing evidence of sea floor spreading, leading to general acceptance of the theory within ten years.  This conversion resulted from compelling evidence, without resorting to coercion or threats of expulsion or violence.

Our beliefs direct our actions, and the more confident we are in our beliefs, the more comfortable we are in our actions.  Doubt, on the other hand, inhibits our actions and causes anxiety.  Our effort to fix belief is driven more by a desire to overcome the anxiety caused by doubt than it is to find truth.  Often, when people reach the state of being confident in their belief, they suspend the search for truth; they take a more defensive stand toward their belief.  Efforts to fix belief are either grounded in emotional appeals to tradition, authority, and social or familial pressure, or to more objective intellectual appeals to evidence.  Emotional appeals can be very effective and require less energy and effort, and in the end may be more compelling than a more objective intellectual approach.

At the personal level, the truth of what we believe is not particularly relevant.  As long as we are by ourselves, or in community with only those who share all of our beliefs we can be comfortable about our actions, and force anyone who may lose faith out of the community.  It is in our associations with others, who don’t share our beliefs, that we need concern ourselves with the notion of truth, if we hope to come to common understanding.  In a more integrated world, where we cannot and may not wish to avoid involvement with people holding diverse beliefs, we need to strive for common understanding, peaceably.  More objective, evidence-based means of fixing belief are more conducive to this end than are emotionally based appeals.

Several years ago, while driving, I happened on to a radio show where the host was interviewing a young boy, who sounded to be about 10 years old.  The boy complained that his teacher was teaching him things he didn’t believe.  I accept that it is a parent’s prerogative to instill any belief system they choose in their children; still, I think this child’s situation is unfortunate.   So, what should parents teach children?    I taught mine that there is nothing in the world you have to believe, and that anyone who tries to frighten you into believing something  has nothing of value to offer.

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