Tag Archives: critical thinking

Boycott With Your Brain


Did you know Nike is under boycott?

I only recently learned! Or only recently re-learned, maybe. I feel like it’s the sort of thing I heard about and immediately dismissed because, well, it struck my ear as being a little bit ridiculous. Or maybe a lot ridiculous. I mean, I get it. It’s the age of protest and all. Wasn’t it last year that Time magazine named “the protester” its person of the year? (Bit of a cop out, actually, that. Hard to pick one really stand-out individual so let’s put a faceless mob on the cover and call it a day.) (Also, I’ve looked it up, and it turns out 2011 was when “the protester” was person of the year, which, well, I mistook 2011 for happening a year ago, and can you blame me?) (Also also, 2011 wasn’t the only time they copped. Last year it was “the guardians” and in 2017 it was “the silence breakers” and in 2006 it was — ugh — “you”. Which is not to take anything away from their reasons for the choices, but collectives like that aren’t really a “person” are they? Rabbit-hole dive over)

But that sort of thing always feels a little far away. Those people over there are making a big stink about it, but these people over here in my circle? Nah, they’re clever, they wouldn’t go in for that sort of nonsense. Sure, people are on YouTube and even, sometimes, the news (because the news is a nonstop trash fire these days), shooting up their coolers with automatic rifles or whatever. (Why shoot up a perfectly functional cooler, by the way? The company already has your money. What message are you sending, and to whom?)

Except, well, sometimes those people over there? They’re actually over here.

And, look, I get it. We all have opinions, and it’s the age of protest and power to the people and to the individual and let your money talk and blah, blah, blah. If you feel strongly about a thing, by all means boycott, protest, stage a walkout, whatever. That’s your right, whether you’re right or not.

Image result for boycott everything

But here’s a modest proposal to anybody protesting or boycotting or walking-out. Don’t do it because your favorite talk show host or YouTuber or social media guru told you to. Do it because you’ve studied the issue, analyzed the point-of-view of the victim of your civil action, and disagreed with it on legitimate grounds.

This is called arguing in good faith, and it’s not hard to do, though it might be inconvenient.

In the Nike example, the reason to boycott (as I understand it generally) is this: Colin Kaepernick disrespected veterans when he refused to stand for the national anthem. Nike then hired him as a spokesperson. Therefore Nike is disrespecting veterans, therefore boycott Nike.

But the truth is, Kaepernick never said a cross word about veterans, did he? Or took any action which led to harm for a veteran? Did he actually do anything to harm somebody who wasn’t out looking for a reason to be harmed? (Here’s a newsflash — if you go out shopping for offense, you’ll have no trouble finding it, and you don’t have to watch an NFL game either.)

To argue for a boycott of Nike in good faith is to first ask yourself: what did Kaepernick actually do? Well, he knelt during the national anthem. That action in and of itself is harmless even if it’s unexpected or shocking to the sensibilities. In the absence of physical or emotional harm, then, the next question which must be asked is, why did he do it? The lazy answer is to disrespect veterans because that’s what a lot of other people interpreted the action to mean, but to answer in good faith is to take the reason he gave, which is: he was upset about the apparent murders of black children by police and the lack of justice for the officers involved. Why kneel during the anthem? Because as a professional NFL player, it was a unique platform afforded to him that most other people who felt as he did were not entitled to. He used that platform to bring visibility to the issue. You can choose to change the channel when news of another unarmed black person being killed floats across the screen, can’t you? Or not watch news at all? (Not a bad idea of late if you ask me.) But when you turn on the TV for the game on the weekend and you see the quarterback taking a knee, you have to ask yourself “what’s going on there?”

So, he used a unique platform afforded to him to bring visibility to a racial issue. His actions got him fired, effectively, but Nike saw that, figured it was a campaign worth giving voice to, and hired him on.

To boycott Nike, in other words, is to boycott the hiring of a man who used his platform to bring attention to a racial issue that was negatively affecting the country.

Now, you’re entitled to think that’s a bad thing, and if you do think that’s a bad thing, then by all means, never spend another dime on anything Nike in your life. Set fire to your sneakers, toss your jumpsuits in the ocean. (No, don’t do that, the ocean has it hard enough.)

Here’s the point, the phrasing of which I’ve basically stolen from Sam Harris in more than one of his debates: if you can’t summarize the other person’s point of view in a way that they would agree with, then you haven’t understood them — and you definitely shouldn’t be taking action based on that flawed misunderstanding. And it’s my sneaking suspicion that most of the Nike boycotters — or boycotters of most other things in recent history — couldn’t articulate their reasons in this way.

In other words, think critically. Spend, or refuse to spend, your dollars mindfully, based on the reality we live in, not on the basis of an imaginary world that you’ve heard about somewhere.

In even simpler terms: brain harder.

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Fear for the Future: Evolution Edition


While discussing current events (specifically the primaries) with my students today, things took a shocking turn.

Students were asking me about Trump, because they’re nervous about what his presidency might mean for the country, and for them personally. Now, I’m really careful to remain as objective as possible, but I also think it’s important to be honest. So I told them why I don’t think Trump could be elected, even if he wins the primary. (I don’t believe he can appeal to moderates, and I think he’ll anger enough Republicans along the way to ensure victory for the democratic candidate, whoever that may be.)

All fine and good. Then another student asked if there were any black candidates in the race. I mentioned Carson, but also pointed out that I don’t think he can win. Naturally, they asked why. And I spoke about how, for better or for worse, the Republicans have amassed behind the three frontrunners, and anybody else — Bush, Carson, Fiorina, et al — are basically muddying the waters at this point.

“But is Carson a good candidate?”

“I don’t know enough to say for sure.”

“Would you vote for him?”

“Probably not.”

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, he doesn’t believe in evolution.”

Silence in the classroom for a moment. Then: “What, you mean like that stuff they teach in science class? That we come from monkeys?”

“Well, that’s oversimplifying a little. We didn’t come from monkeys. But yes, evolution like you learned in science class.”

“Oh. I don’t believe in that either.”

My turn to be silent. A handful of students begin to nod their heads in agreement.

Me: “You guys don’t believe in evolution?”

About a third of the students are shaking their heads at me.

“Darwin? Natural selection?”

Now several talk at once. “That didn’t happen,” or “We didn’t come from monkeys,” or “I believe in God.”

I paused. I’m not a science teacher, so it’s not really my job to go straightening them out on the finer points of evolution. Further, I’m not about to stand up in front of a classroom full of young, impressionable minds, and begin hammering away at their religious beliefs. I like having a job too much to go getting tangled in that debate.

Luckily, another student asked a question and pulled us onto another (less sensitive) topic, for which I was thankful. Not because I don’t want to have difficult discussions in my classroom, but because I really didn’t know how to proceed. I want to foster critical thinking, but I don’t want to offend. And I don’t see critical thinking behind “that didn’t happen” and “I believe in God.” Belief, in that sense, is the absence of critical thought. It stopped me cold. Even some of the smartest students — and when I say “smart,” I’m saying “capable of independent, out-of-the-box thought” — were nodding along in agreement with the roadblock that was thrown down.

This frightens me. I teach a class which has, as some of its primary concerns, the structure of argument, the support of said argument with evidence, and the thoughtful communication of said argument. And this — their knee-jerk, casual and offhand dismissal of a well-researched, scientifically documented theory — well. It frightens me.


The Weekly Re-Motivator: Math Problems are Writer Problems


Okay, this is a blarg about writing (mostly), how the fargo did math come into it?

Like this. My wife and I were reading a Buzzfeed article today (yeah, I know) about a dad who sent in a check using Common Core mathematics to send his own sort of indignant statement about his feelings on the Common Core. And yeah, it’s funny. But I also take an interest in this because I’m a teacher and Common Core, like it or not, is kinda my business these days.

Also, I’m a dad whose son is going to be headed off to the hallowed halls of learning soon, so Common Core is doubly my jam. Apparently, lots of parents in my generation struggle with the way they’re teaching math now, and that’s a problem, because math is hard enough for kids without coming home and seeing that their parents can’t do it either. Which is not a situation that I want my kids to be in. So I did a quick search to see if I could get a handle on this “new math” thing.

And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. For clarity, here’s what I read:

Lifted from Business Insider:

First, Carney explains the old way subtraction was taught:

Take this: 474-195.

Old way: Try 4-5. Nope. So cross out 7, carry the 1. Add 1 to 4. Now subtract 6 5 from 5. Write down 0.

Wait. That’s wrong. It’s not add 1+4. It’s 10+4. So cross out my 1. 10+4=14. Minus 5. Write down 9.

Next subtract 9 from 7. Carrying again. But remember it’s 9 from 6. Dammit. Cross out 4. Add a one … wait, a 10 to 7 … err, rather 6. 16 minus 9 is 7.

The four is crossed out. So it’s a three. Minus one

My answer is: 279.

To get that I had to add and subtract a lot. You can actually count the operations.

(1) 4-5.
(2) 7-1
(3) 10+4
(4) 14-5
=9
(5) 6-9
(6) 4-1
(7) 10+6
(8) 16-9
=7

(9) 3-1
=2

= 279.

Notice how many occasions for error and how much switching between addition and subtraction is required. This is a system built to fail.

Now here’s Carney explaining the new way subtraction is taught:

They key to (new way) is realizing this subtraction problem is asking you to measure the distance between 474 and 195. You do that, in turn, by measuring the distance between landmarks (easy, round numbers). It’s turning math into a road map.

So 474-195.

Starting point is 195. How do we get to 474? Well, first we’ll drive to 200.

(1) 200 is 5 from 195
(2) 400 is 200 from 200
(3) 474 is 74 from 400
(5) 74+200 = 274.
(6) 274 + 5 = 279.

Not only are there fewer steps, the steps are far less complex. You aren’t carrying, or worrying about adding 10 then subtracting the other thing, then remembering to subtract one from the other column. It’s much straighter.

Now, if you’re like me, you probably read that and experienced a bit of skepticism. The way we learned it is simple; why complicate it by bringing in addition?

Except that the way we learned it isn’t simple. It isn’t any simpler than any other way. It’s only simple to us because that’s how we learned it, and we have, god, I dunno, maybe about ten thousand repetitions of it throughout our educational careers reinforcing that way of doing it? Of course our way is simple and this looks like gibberish.

But our way of doing math is no more intuitive for a child than this “new” way is. One way or another, kids have to be taught subtraction, and whether they do it this way or our way or some completely different way entirely (let’s come back around to this discussion in twenty years or so), the important thing is whether they get the right answer or not.

Come to think of it…

I seem to recall there being some argument about the way math was being taught around the time was being taught math. Lots of parents couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Tom Lehrer even had a song about it:

Which is great for making you feel very, very confused if you never learned how to do math in base 8. (What, you didn’t learn how to do math in base 8? That’s okay, NOBODY knows how to do math in base 8.)

Back to my point: there’s pushback on the current state of affairs in math classrooms. So the fargo what? There is always controversy about what’s going on in classrooms. Like it or not, our kids are in those classrooms, and no small measure of their success in life depends upon their success in their classrooms. So, to my way of thinking, digging in your heels and saying “No, this new math is stupid, I don’t get it, and I don’t see why my kid has to learn it” is a little bit like a dinosaur shouting at the oncoming meteor that if it’s all just the same, he’d like to get on munching on these palm fronds.

Boom.

This iteration of mathematical thinking is here. It’s time to get on the train, whether it makes sense to you or not. Guess what? If you’re a parent, it’s your job to make sure you understand at least some part of what your kid is learning in school. And I’d much rather take a little time to learn something myself so that, when my kid comes home with a math problem he doesn’t understand, we can work through it together, than the alternatives: he flunks out since he sees dad doesn’t care enough about math to learn it, or we hire a tutor because dad can’t be bothered.

If you struggle with the way they do math, I’m not judging you.

But if you are sitting here insisting that Common Core math is bad and needs to be repealed because you don’t understand it, then I am judging you.

I’m not saying it’s perfect. Common Core in all disciplines has no shortage of flaws, but holy cheese doodles, at least educators are trying new things to fix our abysmal test scores. Point is, for the moment, this is the only train running. You can either hop on or walk.

Now.

This is a writing blog, as I said before, so — is there a tie-in here to writing?

You betcha.

Because the person who can’t — or won’t — wrap his or her mind about the “new math” is in a rut. They’re stuck in a routine that’s comfortable, that they see no reason to change. Which is all fine and well as long as they stay insulated in their own particular corner of the world.

But, short of living out your life on a mountainside, draping yourself in the skins of the animals you slay for food, the world has a funny way of not allowing you to remain insulated. You have to interact with other minds, which means interacting with other ways of thinking.

The good writer will embrace this inevitability. He’ll adapt his craft based on new things he learns, he’ll absorb and experiment with ideas from the world outside his bubble. He’ll continue to craft stories and characters and worlds that reflect the changes going on in the world around him rather than rowing his boat backwards against the current. The good writer — hell, the good human — will see something that challenges his way of thinking and examine it, poke at it, see what makes it tick, rather than casting it aside as a foolish diversion.

To do otherwise is to live in the past.

To do otherwise is the antithesis of growth.

To do otherwise is the root of so much conflict in our world it absolutely makes my head spin.

Give the new stuff a try. Just because it’s strange to you at first doesn’t make it wrong. It just means you haven’t tried it yet.

This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.


Do We Really Listen to Advertisements?


Who loves commercials?  This guy does.  Commercials are fantastic.  They’re an art form, really, and a tremendous challenge: in what other medium are you up against the task of wresting your audience’s attention away from their phone, their wife, their plate of hot wings, their fridge?  In what other medium do you have a limit of just fifteen or thirty seconds to make a convincing point — enough for your ideas to stick in the mind of your audience?  Advertisers have a hard job, and some of them are very very good at it, but some of them are very very bad at it.  Pardon my complete lack of wordsmithery, I’m still coming down off the pain meds and the old bean is throbbing something fierce.

But that’s a nice tie-in, because I want to talk about a specific commercial that’s affected me in a very specific way.  The product in question is Lumosity, a product I neither use nor endorse, because — as is my wont — I know nothing about it aside from what I’ve seen in the ads.  What I’ve seen, however, is beyond stupid.

First things first.  Is the ad effective?  That depends.  I can’t ever see myself buying or recommending the product.  That would seem to be a fail for the ad.  However, I don’t know that I’m in the target demographic for the product (brain training, memory retention, seems to be marketed at an older crowd, even though it’s all young people in the ads), so that’s a wash.  However, the ad has without a doubt stuck with me: so much so that I’m here blarging about it and I’m about to tell you why it’s stuck with me so inextricably, and if the goal of an ad is to plant an idea in your mind — to Inceptionize its audience, so to speak — then it’s certainly effective.

Take a look at the video below.  I saw this ad on my television about three days ago and it’s latched into my brain with white-hot raptor claws.

Anything in there strike you as odd?  Nonsensical?  Let’s ignore the central claim about games being able to strengthen your brain.  That may or may not be a valid claim; I certainly haven’t done the research, though I did play a sharknado-ton of video games as a kid, and well, let’s just say I didn’t become a rocket scientist or anything.  But no, it’s not that.  Ads claim all kinds of things that are dubious.  Just look at any ad for a weightloss product.  No, at about the 14 second mark, the talking head in the ad says something so idiotic that my brain actually made me play back the commercial — I ACTUALLY REWOUND THE PLAYBACK TO RE-WATCH A COMMERCIAL, OK — and watch it again to make sure I heard it properly.

He says “It makes my brain feel great.”

Ponder that for a moment.  Let it marinate in your thinking parts and ooze its septic juice all over your cortices.  Feel the throbbing pleasure build in your brain as you process the wonderful feeling that critical thinking produces.  Oh, what’s that?  You don’t feel anything?  That’s because the brain is not a sensory organ.  Ergo, it can no more feel great than it can ride a bicycle or teach a monkey to dance.

I’m straying into the realm of science I don’t know enough about here.  I know that.  The brain is nothing short of a miracle of evolution.  But it can’t feel things.  It can interpret electrical impulses that your various organs that actually do sensing relay to it, but it does not create sense data of its own.  Claiming that your brain can “feel great” is beyond stupid.  YOU can feel great.  YOU can feel intelligent or smug or satisfied or capable of world domination after playing Lumosity’s games, but your brain doesn’t feel ANYTHING.

But, they said it.  And it made it through first draft to the final draft and into the commercial, so they obviously thought it was a good line.  And why not?  Who wouldn’t want their brain to feel great?  I know I would!  Gosh golly gee, my brain just lives in the dumps all day long.  It feels like total crap most of the time.  I want my brain to feel better!

…See how dumb that sounds?

There’s another ad in recent history that I sadly can’t find online at the moment.  It was an ad for a toothpaste, Sensodyne I think.  In it, a woman says she suffered from tooth pain due to damage to the enamel that drinking coffee had done over years and years, and that Sensodyne helped her get some relief.  WELL AND GOOD.  But then at the end of the commercial, she starts listing the virtues of this magical angel’s butt-paste.  It whitened my teeth.  It repaired the damage I’d done.  It allowed me to drink cold beverages again.  It helped me to eat healthier.

Wait.  Hold on.  Stop the train.  You want to claim (or rather, the company wants you to claim) that this toothpaste turned you from a french-fry mobbing, pizza-devouring, I’ll-have-seconds-on-my-ice-cream-no-make-that-thirds unhealthy eater into a healthy person that makes smart food choices?  NO IT DIDN’T.  Sorry, it didn’t.  MAYBE in learning about the toothpaste and the damage you were doing to your teeth you realized that you were eating like a human garbage disposal and THAT realization made you reconsider the things that you put into your mouth-hole.  But the toothpaste has no more to do with the decision than it did with Obama’s re-election.  (Unless I’m on to something here.  In which case.. uh… yay, Sensodyne?  Please don’t bug my house?)

Okay, I’m fixating.  I’m reading way too much into what should otherwise be a throwaway moment in a commercial that shouldn’t matter to me.  BUT THIS IS THE POINT.  Advertisers will say anything — literally, ANYthing — to make you buy a product.  Who among us doesn’t want to eat healthier?  Who wouldn’t like to have their BRAIN FEEL GREAT?  These nonsensical claims, ridiculous as they are, sound good when we hear them and they work on us subconsciously , tricking us into thinking that the products they’re hawking are actually worth a monkey’s turd.

All this is to say, next time you see an ad, just think about what’s really being said.  Seriously.  Stop and think and engage those critical muscles in your brain (OH WAIT THE BRAIN DOESN’T HAVE MUSCLES JUST KIDDING) and actually consider what they’re saying.  You might just stop yourself from wasting your money.  Or at the very least you can get a preachy blarg topic out of it.


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