My Little Pony: Reality is Magic!

(Cross-posted at 3 Quarks Daily)

You probably won’t be very surprised to hear that someone decided to reboot the classic 80’s My Little Pony cartoon based on a line of popular pony toys. After all, sequels and shout-outs to familiar brands have become the foundation of the entertainment industry. The new ‘n improved cartoon, called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, follows a nerdy intellectual pony named Twilight Sparkle, who learns about the magic of friendship through her adventures with the other ponies in Ponyville.

But you might be surprised to learn that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’s biggest accolades have come not from its target audience of little girls and their families, but from a fervent adult fanbase. I first heard of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from one of my favorite sources of intelligent pop culture criticism, The Onion’s AV Club, which gave the show an enthusiastic review last year. (I had my suspicions at first that the AV Club’s enthusiasm was meant to be ironic, but they insisted that the show wore down their defenses, and that it was “legitimately entertaining and lots of fun.” So either their appreciation of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is genuine, or irony has gotten way more poker-faced than I realized.)

And you might be even more taken aback to learn that many, if not most, of those adult My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fans are men and that they’ve even coined a name for themselves: “Bronies.” At least, I was taken aback. In fact, my curiosity was sufficiently piqued that I contacted Purple Tinker, the person in charge of organizing the bronies’ seasonal convention in New York City. Purple Tinker was friendly and helpful, saying that he had read about my work in the skeptic/rationalist communities, and commended me as only a brony could: “Bravo – that’s very Twilight Sparkle of you!”

But when I finally sat down and watched the show, I realized that while Purple Tinker may be skeptic-friendly, the show he loves is not. The episode I watched, “Feeling Pinkie Keen,” centers on a pony named Pinkie Pie, who interprets the twitches in her tail and the itches on her flank as omens of some impending catastrophe, big or small. “Something’s going to fall!” Pinkie Pie shrieks, a few beats before Twilight Sparkle accidentally stumbles into a ditch. The other ponies accept her premonitions unquestioningly, but empirically-minded Twilight Sparkle is certain that Pinkie Pie’s successes are either a hoax or a coincidence. She’s detemined to get to the bottom of the matter, shadowing Pinkie Pie in secret to observe whether the premonitions disappear when there’s no appreciative audience around, and hooking Pinkie Pie up to what appears to be a makeshift MRI machine which Twilight Sparkle apparently has lying around her house, to see whether the premonitions are accompanied by any unusual brain activity.

Meanwhile, Twilight Sparkle is being more than a little snotty about how sure she is that she’s right, and how she just can’t wait to see the look on Pinkie Pie’s face when Pinkie Pie gets proven wrong. Which, of course, is intended to make it all the more enjoyable to the audience when — spoiler alert! — Twilight Sparkle’s investigations yield no answers, and Pinkie Pie’s premonitions just keep coming true. Finally, Twilight Sparkle admits defeat: “I’ve learned that there are some things you just can’t explain. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true. You just have to choose to believe.”

Nooo, Twilight Sparkle, no! You are a disgrace to empirical ponies everywhere. And I’m not saying that because Twilight Sparkle “gave in” and concluded that Pinkie Pie’s premonitions were real. After all, sometimes it is reasonable to conclude that an amazing new phenomenon is more likely to be real than a hoax, or a coincidence, or an exaggeration, etc. It depends on the strength of the evidence. Rather, I’m objecting to the fact that Twilight Sparkle seems to think that because she was unable to figure out how premonitions worked, that therefore science has failed.

Twilight Sparkle is an example of a Straw Vulcan, a character who supposedly represents the height of rationality and logic, but who ends up looking like a fool compared to other, less rational characters. That’s because the Straw Vulcan brand of rationality isn’t real rationality. It’s a gimpy caricature, crafted that way either because the writers want to make rationality look bad, or because they genuinely think that’s what rationality looks like. In a talk I gave at this year’s Skepticon IV conference, I described some characteristic traits of a Straw Vulcan, such as an inability to enjoy life or feel emotions, and an unwillingness to make any decisions without all the information. Now I can add another trait to my list, thanks to Twilight Sparkle: the attitude that if we can’t figure out the explanation, then there isn’t one.

Do you think it’s possible that anyone missed the anti-inquiry message?  Hard to imagine, given the fact that the skeptical pony seems mainly motivated by a desire to prove other people wrong and gloat in their faces, and given her newly-humbled admission that “sometimes you have to just choose to believe.” But just in case there was anyone in the audience who didn’t get it yet, the writers also included a scene in which Twilight Sparkle is only able to escape from a monster by jumping across a chasm – and she’s scared, but the other ponies urge her on by crying out, “Twilight Sparkle, take a leap of faith!”

And yes, of course, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is “just” a kids’ cartoon, and I can understand why people might be tempted to roll their eyes at me for taking its message seriously. I don’t know to what extent children internalize the messages of the movies, TV, books, and other media they consume. But I do know that there are plenty of messages that we, as a society, would rightfully object to if we found them in a kids’ cartoon – imagine if one of the ponies played dumb to win the favors of a boy-pony and then they both lived happily ever after. Or if an episode ended with Twilight Sparkle chirping, “I’ve learned you should always do whatever it takes to impress the cool ponies!” So why aren’t we just as intolerant of a show that tells kids: “You can either be an obnoxious skeptic, or you can stop asking questions and just have faith”?

RS#36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

Episode #36 of the Rationally Speaking podcast is out, and this one’s a lively debate between me and Massimo about the value of humanities departments in universities. While I don’t deny the huge amount of enjoyment we get from arts and literature, I express skepticism about many of the typical justifications for requiring humanities courses. Those justifications strike me as either (1) overly vague and subjective (“the humanities make you a complete person”) or (2) making contrived claims about the practical benefits of studying the arts (“the humanities build critical thinking skills”) to which I usually want to reply, “If that’s your goal, there are much more direct ways to pursue it than studying literature.”

Rationally Speaking #36: Why should we care about teaching the humanities?

“Stand back everyone, I’ve been trained for situations like this…”

Last night my friends and I ended up talking about real-life situations in which our math skills serendipitously came in handy. And I got to reminisce about my one exciting “Thank goodness I paid attention in math class!” moment:

I was a high school kid, working as a summer intern at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (this was back in my “I want to be a museum curator” phase). In the sales office one Friday afternoon, I overheard a conversation between my two bosses:

Boss 1: “The new ticket collector didn’t keep track of child and adult ticket sales separately this week. All she sent us is the total number of tickets and total revenue. 953 tickets, $9,050 revenue. But the accountant wants us to record child and adult sales separately.”

Boss 2: “Sigh. All right, I guess we’ll have to go get the pile of ticket stubs and sort them all. What a pain in the ass…”

Me (gasps, runs over): “Wait! We don’t need to sort ticket stubs! We already have all the information we need to solve this!”

Boss 1: “We do? How?”

Me: “We need to set up a system of equations! Okay, let’s call A the number of adult tickets and C the number of child tickets. How much does each one cost?”

Boss 1: “Adult tickets are $10, child tickets are $6.”

Me: “Okay! So we know that the total number of tickets is 953 so we can write A + C = 953. And we know the total revenue is $9050 so we can write $10A + $6C = $9050. So we have two equations,  two variables:

A + C = 953
10A + 6C = 9050

And now we just solve:
10 (953 – C) + 6C = 9050
4C = 480
C = 120. Therefore A = 953 – 120 = 833.
So that’s the answer — we sold 120 child tickets, and 833 adult tickets.”

My bosses were delighted with the “cool trick” I had used. And I like to think my 7th-grade math teacher would have been tickled pink if she’d seen that go down. How often do you get to actually apply your word-problem skills in real life?

Nothing quite that math-textbook perfect has happened since. Though I keep hoping that someday I’ll overhear someone saying, “My friend and I wanted to meet up for lunch tomorrow, so we agreed to each leave our apartments at noon and walk towards each other’s place until we met. He walks at a rate of 4 mph and I walk at a rate of 3 mph. If only there was some way to figure out where and when we would meet so that I could make a lunch reservation…”

Kindles not Replacing Textbooks Yet

Are e-readers ready to replace textbooks? The lower costs would be welcome, that’s for sure. But is the technology good enough to serve the same purpose as a physical book? Researchers gave students Kindles with their books loaded to see how they’d be used. Turns out, not much:

By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use it regularly, the researchers write, “some attempted to augment e-readers with paper or computers, others became less diligent about completing their reading tasks, and still others switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique.”

Now, I haven’t read the study so I don’t know if the Kindles made learning difficult or were merely unfamiliar and unpopular. After all, students have spent years developing study habits with physical books. Either way, they didn’t cut it. The article points out that the User Interface in Meatspace has incredible advantages:

Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper or even a hair plucked from your head (yes, I believe I’ve done that). You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book, using pen or pencil or highlighter or the tip of a burnt match (ditto). You can dog-ear pages or fold them in half or rip them out. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information.

That’s all true. I’ve toyed with the idea of buying a Kindle, but I’m an avid highlighter and found that feature extremely clunky – definitely a deal-breaker for me. Yes, the technology will probably improve with time. I’m told iPads are better at it, though I haven’t been impressed.

Of course, that’s not an insurmountable challenge. Once e-readers can handle my style of reading and highlighting, I’m sold. Just thinking about that incredible amounts of searchable information at my fingertips… *Drool*

The researchers raise one advantage that won’t be easy to overcome: the physical books have an edge at creating a better cognitive map of the information. The constant unconscious cues we get by holding the book – how thick the sections are, how many pages are left, which side of the page a passage is on – all help us remember the content. Julia’s post on Memory Champions comes to mind – we remember things much better if we tap into our spacial memory as well.

I don’t know if visual cues are as powerful as kinesthetic cues, but I’m sure we can tweak the programs to give better constant feedback about our place in the book. It might not fully compensate for the shift to digital, but it’ll help.

The study focused on whether e-readers could replace textbooks in classroom settings, which might be where they’re at the biggest disadvantage. Textbooks are dense with information students are expected to be able to recall unaided. Outside the classroom, we’re rarely unable (or forbidden!) to look something up. As more information gets indexed, we need to hold less of it in our immediate memories.

I’m curious to see a study of how spacial memory aids learning processes vs. learning facts. I suspect it helps most with facts – the exact things that searchable libraries make easiest to handle. While our education system requires the memorization of facts, physical textbooks will have an edge. If we ever change to a model that prizes process-based learning and allow students to tap into external fact-mines, that edge will go away.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Math education: you’re doing it wrong

Recent discussion about the problems with our educational system reminded me about the story of why my friend J almost didn’t make it into his high school honors math class. Now, to clarify, J is easily one of the smartest people I know. But he is also a smartass, and thirteen-year-old J was certainly no different.

On the entrance exam for his honors math class, several of the problems asked you to fill in the next number in the sequence, such as: 2, 4, 8, 16, _?_. Obviously, whoever wrote the exam wanted you to complete that sequence with “32,” because the pattern they’re thinking of is powers of 2. For n = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, the formula  2n = 2, 4, 8, 16, 32. But J didn’t write “32.” He wrote “π.”

When his teacher marked that problem wrong (as well as all of the other sequence questions, which J had answered in similar fashion), J explained that there are literally an infinite number of numbers that could complete that sequence, because there are an infinite number of curves which go through the points (1, 2), (2, 4), (3, 8), and (4, 16). Sure, he said, one of those curves is the obvious one which also goes through (5, 32), but you can also derive a curve which goes through (5, π). He showed her an example:

As you can see if you try plugging in the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, to the equation above, you get the sequence 2, 4, 8, 16, π. Here are the two curves plotted on a graph, both the “correct” curve and J’s smartass curve (hat tip to the mathematician at www.askamathematician.com for graphing this for me in Mathematica):

Anyway, after thirteen-year-old J explained the math behind his unconventional, but admittedly accurate, answer to the original problem, his teacher replied, “Oh come on, you knew what it was asking for!” and refused to give him any credit. I can’t think of a better illustration of the triumph of the stick-to-the-book method of teaching over kids’ innate creativity… or of the triumph of math education over actual math skills.

Why learn geography?

Over the weekend I met up with a group of friends who host an education-themed discussion salon. Some of them are teachers, others just interested in the subject, and all of them are very smart. (It also turned out, though we didn’t plan it this way, that they’re all quantitatively-minded, specializing in math, computer science, or statistics. This is nice because it means that whenever someone proposes an idea, someone else will inevitably say, “Let’s see, how would we test that?” and we end up in a discussion of control groups and confounding factors.)

Afterwards, I pinged Jesse on Gchat to hash out one of the more interesting questions that came up during the salon: Should students have to memorize geographical facts? Our conversation, edited somewhat for clarity, is below.

~

Julia: Last night at the education salon we were talking about whether students should have to memorize geography – you know, identifying countries on a map, knowing capital cities, etc. It’s definitely one of those things where, when news articles are lamenting how ignorant Americans are, they cite polls in which (e.g.) 2/3 of Americans can’t identify Iraq on a map. But even though that triggers this knee-jerk “What a travesty!” response, on second thought I’m not convinced it’s such a bad thing.

Jesse: Well, not knowing where things are makes it tougher to notice regional patterns. You’re not going to pick up on the common features that form a shared culture in the South if you hear about something that happened in a particular state and you don’t know whether it’s in the South or Midwest.

Julia: But it’s so easy to look up. If people hear about some place mentioned in the news, they can literally just google it, right?

Jesse: I expect they often won’t… though I’m surprisingly ok with that.

Julia: Yeah. One thing we talked about in the salon was how the most effective thing for schools to instill in their students are meta-skills: instead of making them memorize vocabulary lists, get them in the habit of looking up words they don’t know. And instead of making them memorize maps, get them in the habit of looking up unfamiliar place names.

The deeper issue here, though, is how much relevant knowledge you actually get about a situation or event, from knowing where it’s located relative to other places. Take the Iraq case. There are certainly relevant facts you need to know about Iraq in order to understand world politics: it’s in the Middle East, it’s Shiite Muslim, it has oil, etc. But how much additional important knowledge do you get by being able to locate it on a map?

Jesse: I’m sure we could come up with some elaborate example in which it’s essential to understand geographical features – access to water, relation to mountains, etc. But the fact that it’s a stretch to think of examples indicates to me that those cases are rare enough to warrant just looking up places on a map as needed. The kind of useful knowledge you were describing in the Iraq case sounds like it can be picked up through history classes, current events, simple interaction in society, etc.

Julia: That’s what I was envisioning, yeah. My general principle with education is that it’s always better to learn “motivated” facts than unmotivated facts. By which I mean: if it’s clear to you why the fact you’re learning is important or useful, then you’re going to be more interested, more willing to learn, and more likely to remember it. So the ideal way of learning geography, in my opinion, is simply on an as-needed basis, contextually, in other classes.

For example, if you’re learning about the Roman Empire, you need to learn what regions it covered in order to appreciate what a huge undertaking it was, and in order to understand the spread of Roman infrastructure and ideas. Or if you’re learning about WWII, you need to know which countries bordered each other, because it’s relevant to understanding the war. But you wouldn’t take a separate geography unit in which you’re memorizing maps.

Jesse: I’m trying to think of other times we encourage rote memorization. Just thinking ‘aloud’ – take the multiplication tables. Yes, they’re easily calculated or looked up, but we consider it valuable to learn them by heart. That’s because we use multiplication at that scale (through 12×12) so much that it’s impractical to look up answers all the time. To what extent does that apply to geography?

…I would say, a very small extent.

Julia: Although… there is one point someone made which I think might be a good one: That having a visual framework in which to store information is a really effective way of remembering it. So, if you hear something about a civil war in Burma, and you can place that on your mental map of the world, you’re more likely to remember that knowledge than if you didn’t have the mental map.

Jesse: Ah, this makes me think of your ‘Memory Palaces‘ post

Julia: Yes! That’s what I thought of too.

Jesse: I think that’s correct, but is it worth it learning the entire map ahead of time? Especially for places that are likely to come up in discussion and in the news, a map will form through interaction with the news and the urge to look it up. I don’t think it’s worth the prep time – considering how unlikely it is to be remembered without use, I suspect the time could be better spent doing other things.

That said, I have to say that video games like Medieval: Total War and Rome: Total War taught me more about those geographic regions than any class. If we ever decided that the map-facts are important, games are the way I’d do it.

Julia: Interesting… what is it about the game format that works so well?

Jesse: I think it’s just the motivated learning – there’s a reason to care which city is Milan vs. Venice. When a message pops up that your army in Venice is under attack, you care where that is in relation to the rest of the region.

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