Posted by: James P Burke | August 23, 2009

Been Around The Block


Since everyone is posting their origin stories, I figured I would jump in as well. Despite my superhero name, I was not bitten by a radioactive physicist. The true story is more boring, and that’s just the tale I tell the tourists.

I am a child of the late 60’s, which means I was steeped in 80’s music when I was a teenager, and all the trauma that implies. Actually I love 80’s music because it seemed like there was at least some popular embracing of science as a force for good in the 80s.

From the time I was very young, my parents encouraged me towards science. I’d watch NOVA on PBS with my mom and think that those scientists were pretty damn amazing.

But truly, I was interested in anything out of the ordinary. I was fascinated by religious beliefs, and when I befriended a born again christian kid in middle school I wouldn’t leave him alone questioning him about the most outlandish aspects of his dogma. He was happy to spill; people always think you’re listening because you want to get on that train. I didn’t even think it was crazy to believe all sorts of outlandish things at that point, even though my own upbringing was Catholic and i was an altar boy.

It seemed not too difficult to reconcile conflicting supernatural stuff. Magic was supposed to be mystery, right? I was heavily interested in UFOs, ghosts, poltergeist, E.S.P. and demonic possession.  Your average 12-year-old steeped in popular culture and with access to a number of libraries. I read every book about those subjects and the Bermuda Triangle, strange disappearances, dowsing, premonitions, dreams, alien abductions and the like.

When I had exhausted the credulous publications, I began to realize that the same stories were being printed over and over again, yet nobody seemed to get very far in answering any questions. Eventually I started looking for more formal treatments of these subjects: there were researchers at the respected SRI who had done ESP tests and there were famous people who supposedly still displayed powers (Uri Geller). they had data!

If that was true, though, then why hadn’t anyone harnessed the knowledge?

The stories got boring when I realized that nobody asked the obvious questions that I would ask, if confronted with someone claiming to be reincarnated, or having seen an unlikely creature, or whatever. Science had at least taught me something about questions.

Then I learned of skeptical literature, and people like James Randi and Martin Gardner. Gardner I knew from his articles in Scientific American, which my father left around the house now and again. They, and others like them, were asking questions that the paranormalists could not answer. They couldn’t answer the questions because the data was fudged, the methods intentionally sloppy, the observations inaccurate, the eyewitness accounts misremembered. It was all what people wanted to believe, not what they could support with evidence.

I got into computers because they fascinated me, and my academic interests veered toward the application of software for education. My personal track took me away from academia at first and toward building a family. I’ve got a wife and two daughters, one of which is about to enter high school.  I came back when an opportunity was presented to explore mathematics education and how software could play a role.

For over 15 years now, my role has mostly been in designing technology rather than exploring theory. But that is all about to change as I await acceptance in a mathematics education Ph.D. program.

My interest is in formal thought. There are many reasons why this is so, but part of the reason is that I see now that a lack of rigor, a lack of the ability to think formally is not only contributing to poor math learning, but is a general problem with understanding science and adopting a habit of thinking critically.

It was fun, for a while to believe in UFOs and such, but I felt horribly betrayed by publishers when I realized that so much of it is bullshit. I could have spent my time reading about true wonders of the universe, and those are myriad. We all have a responsibility to intellectual rigor that applies to varying degrees in everything we do. It is an ethical issue.

I want to understand how people think, how they learn, and how better to help them build knowledge. If you ask me to define “knowledge” I will say that for the purposes of this discussion, I have two definitions. Philosophically and skeptically, knowledge is justified true belief. And learning deals with both figuring out if your beliefs are true and also learning how to justify them. But there is very basic knowledge of science and mathematics that even now are not making it into the population in a way that allows these people to understand their world more deeply. I would like to help correct that.

I have not decided what my exact focus is yet, but I feel I have a good deal of theory to get through before I concentrate on that point.

I’ve agreed to participate in this group blog where I understand there will be many voices contributing to a conversation about the graduate student experience. Knowing some of my fellows, I expect there will be many harsh comments, and I welcome seeing honest passion and frustration expressed here and an attitude that everyone is responsible for his own opinion.

I, like Derek, will probably also use this as a dump for concepts that either strike me as particularly surprising or interesting. As I have a strong interest in politics and policy, you’ll probably see news stories every so often. I welcome all comments and discussion. And I hope this site can be an honest place to vent, to learn and to help get through this experience.

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