Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

How well do you understand the physical world?

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Some time ago, I realized that I had never really wondered about the physical causes of many little things that were happening around me. We all live in a physical universe, and yet most of us take its operations for granted. We may have the comfortable conviction that there’s a scientific explanation for everything we see, and so we may consider ourselves rationalists. But if we don’t ourselves know the explanations for many of the events of our daily lives, then practically speaking it’s like we are surrounded by magic and mystery.

Over the years, I’ve assembled a list of some strikingly common and obvious phenomena whose causes most people don’t actually know—not because they’re unable to understand, because the explanations are usually not so very complex, but merely because they’ve never bothered to ask.

Here are a dozen of my favorites. How many of them can you yourself explain? I used to make the mistake of cheerfully confronting friends and acquaintances with these questions, but I stopped because I found it usually annoyed the hell out of them. Even though my point was that I had myself spent most of my life blissfully ignorant of the explanations for some of these phenomena, bringing them up in conversation inevitably gave me a know-it-all air, I think. Hopefully blogging about them won’t have the same effect.

1)               Why is the sky blue (and why do clouds look red and yellow at sunset)?

2)               Why does the sun emit light?

3)               Why do things look black and white in moonlight?

4)               Why does water put out fires?

5)               Why do wool and down keep you so warm?

6)               Why is it colder in winter and warmer in summer?

7)               Why does lightning produce the sound we call thunder?

8)               Why do sharp knives cut better than dull ones?

9)               Why does a magnifying glass make things look bigger?

10)          What causes rainbows?

11)          Why can’t you see through milk but you can see through water and vegetable oil?

12)          Why does really hot water make glass crack (and why doesn’t Pyrex crack)?

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

December 4, 2011 at 8:36 pm

How Wikipedia is like modern science

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A lot of teachers aren’t wild about Wikipedia, particularly when students cite it as a source in papers they’re writing for class. I wouldn’t advise a student to use it as a source in a formal paper in a college course, except maybe for an uncontroversial fact like the population of France—and even then you need to be careful to cite a specific dated version of an article, rather than the article in general, which changes over time.

But some teachers don’t even accept Wikipedia as a valid source of background information, because it’s written by whoever wants to contribute to it, rather than by acknowledged experts. What these people don’t get is the power of crowdsourcing, even when it’s as unregulated as Wikipedia is. Yes, Wikipedia contains some mistakes. Hoaxes have been successfully added to Wikipedia, and in some cases have stayed there for years. Anyone can add complete nonsense to a Wikipedia article anytime they like. Yet somehow Wikipedia articles consist almost entirely of correct information. How is that?

What the Wikipedia doubters don’t realize is (1) the number of active, responsibly motivated contributors Wikipedia has, and (2) that people who know what they’re talking about have more staying power than boneheads and vandals. One brilliant feature of Wikipedia is the Watchlist. Dedicated Wikipedians put articles that they’re interested in on their Watchlist. Checking it shows them any changes that have been made recently to any of those articles. Some Wikipedians check their Watchlist several times a day, and so can eliminate newly added bad information soon after it happens.

The article France, for example, was being watched by 846 Wikipedians the last time I checked. The three most recent bad edits had been reverted in just 18, 8, and 7 minutes. And none of those three edits even included outright misinformation—they were merely considered inappropriate (I guess) by the people who reverted them.

Wikipedia is also tended by a wide variety of bots—software tools written by Wikipedians, which automatically make certain kinds of changes to articles. Some of those bots are specialized to find and revert vandalism. Fortunately for us all, Wikipedia vandals aren’t terribly smart. They tend to use certain words (poop is a particular favorite, it seems), they like exclamation marks, they often write in all caps or all lower-case, etc. These habits help the bots root out their bad works. Most such vandalism is reverted by a bot in less than a minute.

I’m a big fan of Wikipedia myself. It’s improved enormously from when it first burst into the public consciousness, and I suspect many of the Wikipedia doubters haven’t noticed how much better it is now, than it was when they formed their opinions of it. Ironically, many teachers will readily allow their students to cite other internet sources, when in many cases a Wikipedia article is the most complete and accurate single internet source for information on a subject.

Most Wikipedia doubters probably also don’t appreciate how similar the seemingly-so-sloppy Wikipedia system is to the modern scientific process. Like Wikipedia, science is an intrinsically social form of knowledge construction. Controversial scientific questions are debated among the members of a scientific community, at meetings and conferences, and in the published scientific literature. Before a question is resolved, there may be several competing hypotheses, each of which has its proponents, each of which is supported by some observations but contradicted by others. As scientists gather more information relevant to a question, members of the community are persuaded to drop one hypothesis and embrace another. A question is considered settled only once the vast majority of scientists in a community have converged on one of the competing hypotheses. When there is near-universal consensus, scientists stop gathering information to investigate that question, and move on to other, still-controversial topics.

Similarly, Wikipedia articles settle into a stable form by consensus. Controversies arise over particular claims in an article, they are hashed out on the article’s talk page, a community consensus is arrived at, and that part of the article stabilizes. If newbies later edit that part without realizing that consensus had been achieved, the old guard typically reverts their changes, pointing to the earlier discussion and the consensus that had been reached. The newbies have a perfect right to re-open the discussion if they’re unconvinced, and sometimes new blood can make new arguments that shift the consensus a bit.

As long as enough people are involved, this process usually produces a thoughtful, responsible article. Often, resolving controversies is just a matter of finding more cautious wording that most everyone can agree on, or presenting both sides of a debatable matter in a fair-minded way. Disagreement may spur the members of opposing camps to read up on the subject more, and to find citations in support of their point of view.

Just as an idea that satisfies the members of a scientific community usually has merit, an article that satisfies the diverse members of a Wikipedia community is usually reasonable and accurate. As a result, when comparisons between Wikipedia and other reference sources find shortcomings in Wikipedia, they are usually errors of omission rather than errors of commission. Many Wikipedia articles are accurate as far as they go, but not as complete in coverage as articles in expert-generated reference sources.

But c’mon—Wikipedia has only been going at it full-bore for a few years now. The system is working, but we still have more work to do. You can help out by joining the community and moving forward with articles on subjects that you care about enough to research and edit. So get going!

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

November 8, 2011 at 7:53 pm

Posted in science

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What is faith?

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I’m concerned that faith is widely misunderstood—particularly by people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and others that have been dubbed New Atheists. My sense is that they understand faith as a kind of antithesis of scientific knowledge. While scientific conclusions come from logical reasoning based on consistent observations, faith they say is unreasoning belief in something that can’t be observed, belief in an idea just because it’s written in the scriptures of some traditional religion.

Some sort of contrast between faith and knowledge certainly isn’t new to the New Atheists. The Oxford English Dictionary defines faith as:

strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof.

But taking this definition as a starting point, we still have to ask what this spiritual conviction is. Is it just blind acceptance of the teachings of a religious authority? I say no.

While that could be true in theory for rank-and-file members of a religion, it can’t possibly be true for a religion’s founders. Nor can it be true for any of the later teachers that had a role in developing a religion’s doctrines over time. These people weren’t just accepting pre-existing ideas—they were formulating new ones—so where did their new ideas come from? Inspired by God? From a deep spiritual insight into the nature of reality? But such explanations are rejected out of hand by New Atheists and other people who categorically prefer science to religion. So where do the formative figures in a religion get their ideas?

I don’t think acceptance of authority is a complete explanation even for the faith of a religion’s rank-and-file members. Some societies may be so closed to outside influences that they offer only a single belief system, and everyone is pressured to accept it. But in most societies today, people are exposed to a variety of beliefs, so how do they choose which one they believe?

I guess the path of least resistance is to accept the religion you grew up with. But plenty of people don’t—they give up the religion they grew up with and convert to another one. I can’t imagine they choose their new religion at random, so there must be some other explanation for their faith, besides a blind acceptance of authority.

I’m convinced that the spiritual conviction in the Oxford English Dictionary definition is a kind of intuition that draws from emotions and unconscious cognition and half-formed ideas that can’t quite be put into words. I agree that faith is distinct from reason, insofar as the logic behind a reasoned conclusion can be described step-by-step. But I don’t agree with the New Atheists’ conviction that faith is distinct from empiricism. Faith is empirical, but the observations are introspective rather than sensory. We each make our own evaluation of the teachings of a religion not by looking at the world but by listening to our heart. The truth that a person finds in their religion is present and real to them through their intuitions, even though they can’t justify it with the instruments of reason.

Note that this description of faith says nothing about whether the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true or not. If their metaphysical content is not true, then our “spiritual” intuitions actually tell us something about the human brain, and the deep undercurrents of emotion that it produces in our experience. As Pascal said—the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. But if the metaphysical content of religious beliefs is true, then our spiritual intuitions are a channel through which we sense an underlying metaphysical reality. Either way, faith results from experiences that are present to us in our intuitions. The metaphysical ideas and other doctrines of a traditional religion may be taught to us by someone else, but we will only sincerely embrace those doctrines through faith if they resonate with what we feel in our heart. That’s very different from the notion of blind faith that is so common today.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

October 18, 2011 at 7:49 pm

Earth as a tourist destination

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In August, the journal Acta Astronautica published some dark thoughts by scientists at The Pennsylvania State University about what intelligent extraterrestrials might want to do to us if they ever find their way to Earth. This became hot news for a few days. While one can never rule out the possibilities that extraterrestrials might come here to exploit us, I’d like to offer a sunnier alternative.

For several years now, I’ve been convinced that if extraterrestrials ever do visit our dear little planet, it won’t be for conquest but for tourism. Extraterrestrial planetary connoisseurs will, I think, be attracted by Earth’s peculiar mix of water and land masses. They will like how plate tectonics and the geological rock cycle have only very slowly remodeled the surface of our continents, allowing rain and runoff to sculpt it into the many beautiful shapes that we so often take for granted. Their tours will take in the craggy, snow-capped peaks of our high mountain ranges, the broad valleys and deep gorges cut by our rivers, and the shorelines and island chains eroded into so many unique shapes by our oceans’ waves.

Earth will likely be prized for having the right range of temperatures to support water as solid, liquid, and gas—and all three in substantial quantities. Interstellar tourists will watch the calving of icebergs near its poles and then bask in its tropical rainshowers. They will also enjoy the pace of our planet’s cycle of evaporation and condensation, and the speed of our jet streams, which together produce such a diversity of weather patterns and cloud formations. Our sunsets will, I think, be particularly acclaimed.

They will appreciate the diversity of elements in Earth’s crust—a remnant of the long-ago nova of our solar system’s first sun and the subsequent re-aggregation of the matter thrown off by it, to form Earth and the other planets. Having been to other less chemically diverse planets, they will marvel at the range of colors and textures in our planet’s rocks, thanks to the many combinations that can be formed of its various elements.

Needless to say, any extraterrestrials who are able to travel to our planet must have gained so much control over matter and energy that they could engineer other planets to achieve whatever aesthetic effects they desire. But just as we prize natural diamonds over more flawless synthetic diamonds, the more discerning extraterrestrials will prefer the rare idiosyncrasies of naturally occurring planets like Earth.

The beauty of our planet owes much to the plants that cover so much of its landmasses, and to the softening effect they have had on the landscape—turning rocks and gravel into dark, rich soil. Interstellar visitors should enjoy how many of our planet’s photosynthetic organisms are multicellular, and in so many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Even to our Earth-accustomed eyes, the beauty of a landscape so often comes of how a diversity of plants have grown over the attractive shapes of the land itself. I suppose the home planets of our interstellar visitors are likely to have multicellular photosynthetic organisms, but still ours are bound to seem exotic to beings who haven’t grown up here. And the flowers and fruits that we so often take for granted may be unique to our planet’s angiosperms.

The beauty of Earthly scenes is further enlivened by the animals that move over our land, in our waters, and through our air. Terrestrial biped though I am, I’m guessing that Earth’s birds and flying insects will be most celebrated by interstellar visitors, followed closely perhaps by our brightly colored tropical fishes. Mammals may appeal to us humans, but most of them are rather drably colored, and they seldom make themselves as conspicuous to a casual glance as birds do.

The tourism appeal of our planet should benefit from the welcoming service they will get from our species. Once we have gotten over the initial shock of contact, and as we grasp the benefits to us of interacting with so technologically advanced a civilization, I am confident that we will extend the same gracious hospitality to extraterrestrials that people all over the world already do to human tourists. Not having yet encountered any other intelligent lifeforms from other planets, I can of course only offer my own hunches, but I doubt that many others will exhibit so many of the gentle and agreeable emotions that we humans do, or be so well-suited to supporting an interstellar tourism industry. With their vastly more advanced civilization, extraterrestrials will I think be charmed by our simple ways. Those who have come to enjoy visiting Earth will presumably resist any attempts by others to exploit our planet more violently.

I suppose even as beautiful a planet as ours won’t be for everyone. We have evolved on Earth and so are adapted to its particular conditions, and so to us its gravity and air pressure feel just right. Visitors from other mid-sized rocky planets may feel at home, but other extraterrestrials will presumably need technological assistance to feel comfortable here.

The big question will be whether they can tolerate the oxygen gas in our atmosphere. Thanks to the molecular adaptations of our distant single-celled ancestors, our cells produce anti-oxidants that protect us from the toxic oxygen free radicals produced from O2, and the O2 in our atmosphere actually helps in the release of energy from organic molecules. Extraterrestrials from other planets with oxygen-rich atmospheres should have analogous adaptations and so will be fine, but how common are those I wonder? The oxygen gas in our atmosphere has been produced from water molecules through the action of electron transfer systems in photosynthetic organisms. Such biochemical adaptations may evolve often on water-rich planets, in which case interstellar visitors would likely be unharmed by our atmosphere. Otherwise, the tourism potential of Earth would be more limited, as visitors would have to be encased in protective suits and so the experience could hardly be relaxing.

To appreciate the colors of our planet, they will have to be able to sense light in the wavelengths put out by our sun. Depending on what molecules their bodies are made of, they may need to grow their own food or show us how to develop chemically isolate environments in which we can grow their food for them. These and other problems will no doubt have to be solved before our interstellar tourism industry can really take off. But if they are motivated to vacation here, our visitors should take the lead in offering solutions. I just hope I’m here to see it.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

September 22, 2011 at 7:43 am

The evidence for biological evolution on Earth

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I’m constantly amazed by how many people in the US either reject the idea of biological evolution or have serious reservations. By contrast, in Europe and other countries with developed economies, only a relatively small fraction do. And the mainstream Christian denominations that most Americans belong to all explicitly accept the reality of biological evolution. That includes the Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Anglican churches

The simple fact is that there is overwhelming evidence for biological evolution. As the 20th century biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said (when the evidence for biological evolution was not even as strong as it is today), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” If we were compelled to reject the idea of biological evolution, there would be literally thousands of unexplained biological phenomena that currently make perfect sense as consequences of the evolutionary history of life on Earth.

No credible biologist rejects the reality of biological evolution. Even the very few biologists that have signed on to the Intelligent Design movement, like Michael Behe, accept the reality of the vast majority of evolutionary thought, arguing merely that certain biological phenomena cannot be explained by a purely mechanistic process.

When asked to make a quick case for the reality of biological evolution, I like to focus on the evidence for common descent—that all animals including humans have descended from a common ancestor that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and that animals are likewise related to other groups of living things, with a common ancestor that lived billions of years ago. The evidence for these conclusions includes the following:

All living things use DNA as their genetic material.

The genetic code, determining which three-nucleotide DNA sequences code for which of the 20 amino acids that are used to make proteins, is essentially the same in all living things.

All living things use essentially the same molecular machinery (involving over 100 proteins and other molecules) to synthesize proteins based on DNA sequences.

All living things use ATP and some of the same other molecules as energy carriers.

Many metabolic pathways are shared among all or a considerable fraction of living things. Many enzymes have essentially the same shape and catalyze the same chemical reactions in those pathways in animals, plants, fungi, and other living things.

The cells of all animals (including humans) are made of many of the same components, including their membranes, internal organelles, cytoskeleton, etc. Many of the same proteins are found in these various structures, in animals as diverse as humans and other mammals, fish, birds, worms, and flies. And those proteins interact with each other in many of the same ways in these different animals.

Mammals exist in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, but they all share substantial similarities in their bony structure, internal organs, cell types, and the organization of cells in different tissues.

In other words, though we may be accustomed to thinking of humans as distinct from other animals, on the levels of molecules, organelles, cells, tissues, and organs, there are literally thousands of ways in which our bodies function in essentially the same ways as the bodies of other animals.

Over ¾ of the approximately 22,000 genes in the human genome have specific, one-to-one equivalents in the mouse genome. Also, 90% of the mouse and human genomes can be lined up based on the occurrence of equivalent genes in more or less the same order.

96% of the over 3 billion nucleotides in the DNA sequences of the human and chimpanzee genomes are identical. This includes both functional and non-functional (“junk”) nucleotide sequences, the latter having no identifiable genetic influence on either organism. Similarities in functional DNA might be explained based on similarities in the structure and functioning of  the two species, but similarities in “junk” DNA only make sense if the two species share a recent common ancestor.

The fossil record presents a succession of forms of living things over time that is entirely consistent with evolution of life on Earth over the past 3.5 billion years or so. There are some gaps in this record, but it is far more complete and detailed than one would think after reading creationist literature. Given the thousands of fossil species that have been identified in rocks dating from just a few million years ago to billions of years ago, the chance that a succession of forms consistent with biological evolution would occur by chance is infinitesimally small. For example, even one fossil rabbit or bird in rocks from 500 million, or 1, 2, or 3 billion years ago would be completely inconsistent with an evolutionary process; and yet such inconsistencies are strikingly absent.

There are also many demonstrated cases of natural selection causing evolution among present-day living things. These include the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria, experiments in which model organisms like fruit flies and yeast have evolved when placed in new environments, and studies in which populations of organisms are compared in two different environments where different characteristics should be selected for. Creationists, however, discount all of this evidence by supposing that small evolutionary changes do occur as a result of natural selection, but there are limits to how much any given species can change. There is no evidence for such limits—evolutionary changes observed in the present are relatively small only because such small time periods are involved. More dramatic changes in living things typically involve millions to hundreds of millions of years.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

September 10, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Posted in biology, evolution

Eid saeed

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The Islamic month of Ramadan ended Monday, and yesterday was the beginning of the festival of Eid ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fasts of Ramadan. Thinking about Eid ul-Fitr this morning, I was reminded of one of my first encounters with Islam.

I grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC, and as a teenager I bicycled a lot in and around the city. One day, a friend showed me the Islamic Center of Washington, and I was impressed by the beauty of the mosque and grounds, and by the spiritual atmosphere of the space. Muted light came through latticework, there were lovely columns, and tilework with a beautiful blue-on-white arabesque. It fronted right on Massachusetts Avenue but was quiet and contemplative within.

Some weeks later, I was bicycling near the Islamic Center with another friend and I suggested we stop in. I showed him into the mosque, where we sat on a bench near the back. But even though we were trying to be quiet and respectful, a woman who was in there praying kept shooting us dirty looks. This weirded me out, because the last time I was there the people had struck me as friendly and welcoming.

While we sat there, she had a brief conversation with a man who then came over to speak to us. He welcomed us, and explained that we were wearing short pants and in Islam men did not bare their legs. The moment he said this, I remembered having heard about that and was ashamed for being so stupid. When my other friend first showed me the place, we must have been wearing long pants and it just hadn’t occurred to me this time that shorts would be a problem.

I apologized and said that we would leave right away, but he stopped me and in a tone of kindness said, “No, next time.” Even though we were clearly in the wrong, he didn’t want us to feel we had to leave—he just wanted us to remember how we should dress the next time we came.

His patience and compassion on top of the embarrassment I already felt moved me so much that I almost started to cry. He saw that I was fighting back tears, and I think that made him feel even worse about our being made uncomfortable as a result of our unintentional mistake. I probably attempted some explanation or reassurance, but what I really wanted to do was leave and stop offending people, which we did.

That was some thirty years ago, but thinking about his kindness still brings me almost to tears. It was one of the key experiences of my young life, and it has stuck with me as a model of how I should treat other people in similar circumstances.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

August 31, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in humanity, religion

Using counterfactual thinking

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What is counterfactual thinking? It’s thinking about things that aren’t real. I introduced the idea in my last post, and proposed an interesting counterfactual scenario in which people all of a sudden start living about twice as long.

Thinking about counterfactuals may seem silly or strange, but in fact we do it all the time. Any time you imagine having a conversation with someone so you can prepare for how they might react to something you’d like to say, you’re engaging in counterfactual thinking. The same goes for any future thinking, whether it’s disaster preparation or wedding planning. To do that well involves imagining possible futures to anticipate the consequences of possible events and actions. When we do that, we’re thinking about things that are not currently, actually real. The military does this in deadly earnest all the time, as does the Center for Disease Control in developing strategies for dealing with possible epidemics.

We also apply counterfactual thinking to the past, as part of reasoning about causes and effects. Whenever you’ve regretfully thought, “ If only I hadn’t…,” you’ve thought counterfactually. Lawyers do it all the time when questioning witnesses, and to persuade a jury that one person’s actions were or were not to blame for something that happened. Historians do it too, spinning scenarios like How would World War II have played out if the US hadn’t entered the war? Some historians are disinclined to take this approach seriously, but others have argued that historians actually deal in counterfactuals all the time, often without even noticing that they’re doing it, and that counterfactual thinking is unavoidable if historians want to draw conclusions about cause and effect.

Of all the courses I’ve taught at St. Bonaventure University, my personal favorite is a seminar in our Honors Program that’s called Counterfactual Thinking. I developed the course a few years ago because I’m convinced that counterfactual thinking is a powerful vehicle for seminar discussions.

The great thing about counterfactual thinking in a seminar course is that it forces students to think creatively and independently. So much of college learning involves mastering facts and concepts that other people have already worked out, and that are widely considered to be true. When teaching that sort of material, we’d like students not only to learn an idea but also to see why it makes sense, but most of the time students just learn that an idea is true and are happy to take that fact for granted.

How do we figure out why an idea makes sense? For practical problems, it often involves imagining how the system (physical, logical, etc.) would work differently if a different idea were put in its place, and that is thinking counterfactually. Why do scientists perform controlled experiments? Why do accountants use double-entry bookkeeping? Why do we have trial by jury? We can justify those practices by showing that the systems they’re used in wouldn’t work as well in their absence.

But while counterfactual thinking can be used to make sense of real-world practices like these, that’s still well-worn ground. Students wouldn’t have to work terribly hard to find pre-existing justifications for such practices, which means they’re letting “experts” do the counterfactual thinking for them. The best way to force (!) students to think for themselves is to jump out of the real world altogether, and preferably in ways that haven’t already been done to death. There’s no point thinking counterfactually about time travel because whole books have been written about different ways it could be done, paradoxes that would result, ways around those paradoxes, etc. Only new and different counterfactual scenarios will get students thinking without a net, as it were.

In my course, I use a blend of “realistic” counterfactuals that sensible people will have already thought about (what is needed to develop driverless cars and how would that change our world?), and more bizarre, otherworldly counterfactuals (how would human life and society be different if there were three different human genders rather than the existing male and female, and what might the third gender be like?). The more realistic scenarios let students see other intelligent people thinking counterfactually, which gives them a jumping off point for their own further explorations, and gives the seminar ideas either to agree or disagree with. The more bizarre scenarios give students the ultimate hallucinogenic counterfactual experience, forcing them to start the thought process pretty much from scratch. They also give students an opportunity to question things that are such fundamental parts of the real world that we almost always take them for granted. The discussions that develop out of these scenarios can be exhilarating as well as sometimes hysterically funny.

Really and truly—you should try this yourself and with your friends. It’s best when it’s not an anything-goes discussion but when each counterfactual possibility is critically analyzed, questioned, second-guessed. Some of the best ideas come not from the initial inspiration, but from the alternatives or modifications that come out of this critical process.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

August 12, 2011 at 9:59 am