Friday, October 18, 2013

And the answer was... or should have been...

John J Williams, last US Civil War
casualty. A victim of slow
information updates.
(From Wikimedia)
John J Williams is widely regarded as the last casualty of the US Civil War.  He was killed at the Battle of Palmito Ranch (Texas) on May 13, 1865.  Civil War buffs will recognize that this was a full month after the sides reached an accord at the Appomattox courthouse in mid-April.  

It's clear that news about the end of the war spread slowly.  Even though telegraphy was widely used, there were still many places that weren't "wired" to receive the news.  Those gaps in coverage cost time (at least 1 month here), and ultimately, lives.  

This same thing still happens, though perhaps with lesser consequences these days.  

In my earlier post about the Capitoline Wolf, several people asked "So what did your daughter put on her test?"  

I finally got the answer:  She put down that it was of Etruscan origin, even though she knows it's not.  

"Why did you put down something you know is wrong?" I asked.  "Because I need the point on the test..." was her reply. 

That's a pragmatic answer, and I can't give her a hard time for wanting to do well on the test.  

Naturally, I think I would have objected and fought for the point. 

This is personally important because a similar thing happened to me when I was a high school sophomore, and it pretty directly led to my career as a research scientist.  

In my high school biology class, my teacher kept talking about the various causes of diseases--"there are millions of diseases caused by bacteria and viruses... and thousands of diseases caused by protozoa..."  

I heard that and thought about all the diseases I could think of that were protozoan-caused.  I thought of malaria, elephantiasis, sleeping sickness... and I couldn't think of any more.  "Thousands?"  Really?  

Malaria infected cells.
So I raised my hand and objected to the "thousands" characterization.  In response, my teacher picked up a fat book (I believe it was the Merck Manual) and tossed it to me saying "Look it up!"  

I did.  And discovered a few more diseases that I hadn't known about.  But that took the number up to 12, not thousands.  

But it was that inspirational moment for  a kid in school, and I worked for a few weeks on the question, visiting libraries, and ultimately writing to the head of the Microbiology department at UCLA.  

Graciously, and to my everlasting debt, a faculty member wrote back to me with a few photocopied pages from a textbook (I believe it was Human Parasitology), with a kind note saying that I was correct, there aren't that many protozoan-caused diseases.  Here's the list: there are (at the time) around 20.  

That was a pivotal moment for me: I developed a life-long habit of probing deeply into the whys and hows of assumed information. 

Of course, since my time in high school (in the 1970s!), it's become much simpler to do this kind of questioning of received knowledge.  

It's a habit I think we ALL need to take on--in both our roles as students (because we're all permanent students now), and as teachers (because we're also all teachers now).  

Which takes me back to the Capitoline Wolf problem.  It's been known for a long time that the Capitoline Wolf isn't of Etruscan origin--but the books haven't been updated to reflect that.  

I would think that responsible teachers would WANT to be as up-to-date as possible, and maintain an errata or updates file on all of the materials they're using.  It's a pity that textbook publishers don't do this.  (Or if they do, I want to know about it!) 

There's a long list of things we used to teach that are no longer considered to be true.  Junk DNA is no longer "junk,"  Pluto is no longer a major planet, but now a "minor planet," the largest known prime number (currently 257885161-1, but certain to change soon), etc. 

I'm not expecting the textbook publishers to step up here, so it's really all of our jobs.

Although it might be really useful to create a socially-generated site that updates "facts that have changed in your field" wiki. Anyone up for the challenge?

And most of all I would love it if teachers would be actively modeling this for their students.  Kids shouldn't have to give the "expected answer" when they know it's wrong.  They should get extra credit for discovering an update to the course.

I got an extra point in my biology class in the '70s for fixing a misconception on the part of my biology teacher.  (But I wonder if he fixed it in the class materials for the next year...)  

And then we could feed this back into the publishers and help keep our students' materials up-to-date.  

Just a thought.  

What would you do?  What knowledge do we teach that's woefully out of date? 

Search on! 


  1. "Although it might be really useful to create a socially-generated site that updates "facts that have changed in your field" wiki. Anyone up for the challenge?"

    That sounds like a fun project and I'm tempted to try setting it up. I'm curious what your ideas are on what the content or format should look like. Of the top of my head, I'm envisioning just a simple wiki where people can create a page, say for your Capitoline Wolf, and then provide the correct, current information and discuss or list the common misconceptions floating around.

    1. Really haven't thought about it much. Off the top of my head: I could image either a "topic-centered" approach (add a new topic, wiki-like, then let people edit that article. One article might be "Capitoline Wolf" with both places where it's mentioned as being Etruscan in textbooks, and then updates. Example: on page 212 of "Art History" we see the Capitoline Wolf claimed as Etruscan, but from the work of ..." etc.

      Another approach might be by textbook. The "head topic" is the textbook, and then people submit errors they find.

      Of course, there's no reason you couldn't do BOTH approaches. Topic-centered (a la wikipedia) and have articles on specific books that would list the errata.

    2. Dr. Russell, reading your idea, maybe we can create a community on Google plus and begin to work in both paths you mention

  2. "John J Williams is widely regarded as the last casualty of the US Civil War. "
    John J. Williams
    … in battle, but even that is in dispute - see comments: "I believe that distinction goes to Corporal John W. Skinner, of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry. He was killed in action during a skirmish called Hobdy's Bridge on May 19th, 1865. When Confederate guerrillas ambushed troopers from the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry."
    Not to parse the point too finely, but the parameters of the definition need to be a bit tighter…seems your daughter has learned to pick her battles - and while the specific, best available answer at the time is a notable goal, it is the curiosity and drive to uncover useful knowledge that should be the impetus of education - especially now, when such diverse, copious and often misleading amounts of information is available with little effort. I wonder if your HS experience would have had the same impact if you had had access to the tools you have now? Don't you think the investment of time and physical effort you made contributed to the impact it had on you as much as uncovering the actual information? Facts can change, the desire and skill to uncover and understand the facts needs to be the constant.
    Since the genesis of this came from art (Capitoline Wolf), I'll close with art -
    Larry Rivers, "The Last Civil War Veteran"

    1. Excellent, excellent, excellent. There are frequently better updates, newer, more precise information. Thanks for the story of John Skinner. Just out of curiosity, HOW did you find that story?

      WRT "picking battles" -- I agree. I'm not upset with her at all; I know she's perfectly capable of asserting her knowledge in class. (But I found out that these tests are peer-graded, and she didn't want to have to tell one of her classmates that the answer was wrong, and then escalate *that* discussion.)

      WRT my HS experience... I can only speculate. I think I would have LOVED being a HS student in these days... Ahh, to be 16 today. Very different. Very interesting.

    2. til - 4,096 character limit
      Thanks for the story of John Skinner. Just out of curiosity, HOW did you find that story?
      sorry for the delayed response, computer access here at the ADXFlo can be arbitrary & spotty………
      I jest, this Amazon cubicle just seems that way at times - and now we have to generate WP content too.
      Found the Skinner story when I used [John J Williams, last US Civil War causality] and the Civil War Talk site came up
      ("It is history that teaches us to hope." interesting motto - I have a darker view that suggests history teaches us to put a plastic bag over our heads…")
      and in the comments section, there was reference to Cpl. Skinner.

      Have found some supplemental info on Williams and Skinner — this may be tl;dr;dc, but think there are some interesting bits that are intertwined…
      Skinner: a little confusing because the skirmish site was also a battle ground in 1836 with the Creek Indians…
      Hobdy's Bridge
      the Creek battle
      Williams: a bit more detail and dioramas - if there ever is any "spring breaking" on S. Padre it's just a quick jump over to check it out…
      TX military forces museum
      Palmito Ranch
      can't talk CW without KB
      also found info on the William/Williams, ironic that she/he stayed in Trinidad, CO. for a time & she was denied healthcare/pension benefits by the Feds…
      and out of an Indiana regiment like John…
      Cathay Williams
      buffalo soldier
      post Civil War Buffalo Soldiers
      while reviewing Palmetto, ran across a reference to a "Col. John S. “Rip” Ford" and it occurred to me that Sergey might want to consider adopting
      "Rip" as a nickname - Sergey "Rip" Brin: has a ring to it, but I digress…
      Here's a letter from the Col. describing the fight, from the archive at Wofford College - a place your daughter might want to throw into the hopper
      as a wild card school selection: imagine it would be like attending a foreign institution for her, without the need of a passport. And they have the cute terrier icon/mascot.
      Rip's missive
      Littlejohn collection @ Wofford:
      WC Library
      special collections
      just to keep Fred guessing :o

    3. part 2
      "I think I would have LOVED being a HS student in these days... Ahh, to be 16 today. Very different. Very interesting."
      liked that viewpoint - would make you ONE year older than Google… amazing speed of change.
      The Guardian Google
      which kinda leads to Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post, Glenn Greenwald and ebay/Pierre Omidyar and treating news and investigative functions as data products for
      tailored consumer segment consumption… is Eric eyeballing Time? Apearrs ~ $250M is the buy in? dangerious game, imho.
      If some of it was used to document the history of the interwobby & S Valley that would be worthwhile - it would rival the story of the opening of the WEST…the
      drama of virtual carnage and spectacular successes & excesses - as SPJ suggested: "Think Different" - NOW, NEXT, NEVERMIND… or was that Sir(i) JPI? that's why chronicling is needed.

      enough Capitoline inspired wandering - one last note - you may want to avoid any dive excursions to the Kara Sea - for some unknown reason liquid metal cooling turned out to be less than optimal…
      who knew? and I guess that's how south Texas is related to the Arctic regions of Russia… Dimitri, новые Северное сияние, они настолько яркие ...
      tick K-27

      Dan,Stay frosty, you're 16 at heart (but you do have to wear the Noogler beanie then)

      "Everything will be alright in the end, if it's not alright, it's not the end"
      the best key on the keyboard is the ⌦ Delete key

    4. remmij - You intrigued me and lost me at the same time with the last link on your 7:30PM reply. ???

    5. after the Wolverines, Spartans, & Buckeye references, had to throw the Hoosiers into the mix… or maybe the Boilermakers… who should consider changing their moniker to the Sensemakers…
      the Big Ten of old.
      in honor of you making it through that meandering post:
      …Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes
      Hail! Hail!…

  3. It might be helpful for teachers to be more open to listening to
    students when an error is found. At my school we're working on creating a collaborative learning model where teachers and students learn and fail together. This post and the previous post make generalizations that textbook publishers are slow to update and correct errors and that students need to somehow be the force to post and publish corrections.  Doing a search for [ textbook errata ] shows that there are web sites from publishers and other groups issuing corrections. Institute for Safe Medication Practices has a textbook errata section. The book Parallel Computer Architecture: a Hardware/Software Approach has a page correcting errors. Do a search for [ mcgraw hill textbook errata ] and you can see by the SERP that publishers try to make corrections available too. I even found a correction page for most of the mistakes in The New Joy of Cooking (cookbooks are notorious for errors too.)

    When an error is found, I would suggest communication between student and teacher. Check to see if the publisher already has acknowledged the error by publishing the correction. If no correction has been published, then contact the publisher. If the publisher ignores or refuses to publish a correction, then form Dumbledores Army.

  4. there really is no "last"…a small addendum - sadly not unique, but still poignant (page 10, memory dedication DuBose brothers
    guess in a way it ties into the theme of brothers fighting/killing each other and why there is NO Remusville Holiday -
    in paint, PPR
    the state of ed. today, note duration

  5. My reaction to the idea of updating information is that 1) we share it with everyone who wants to learn 2) we build on facts as they become available 3) we anticipate that what we know today may soon be outdated and/or no longer relevant 4) our facts be credible & substantiated and 5) the facts are open to peer criticism/acceptance.

    I recently read that colleges will not accept papers if the source came from Wikipedia which I think misses the point. I have experienced very positive things using Wiki but I do think it's a starting point for most papers. Wiki seems to be an ideal platform for what we are talking about. But perhaps prior to posting new facts to Wiki we could have a "sounding board" so what we do post is solid factual information. I don't know the history of Wikipedia but I see it as a viable source for now.

    1. Agree. It's foolish to ignore Wikipedia; but agree that your paper shouldn't be SOLELY sourced from Wikipedia.

      WRT "solid factual information" -- one of the fascinating things we're finding is that "solid" and "factual" are _provisional_ -- that is, subject to later updates as we learn more. Which is why textbooks shouldn't be set in cement. They need an update strategy, and perhaps a way to signal when information in them has changed. (We'll discuss this more in the weeks ahead!)

    2. Dan, off JW's twitter, Tim O'Reilly point, edu related:
      WAPO - not peer-graded

  6. Dan,
    I think this comes back to something I think you've said before that education should be more about critical thinking now than learning facts. When a fact can be pretty instantly found, wherever an Internet connection is available, then do we need to force too many facts in. But we do need to be critical of those facts when they are important. To not take facts at face value, to double check them. Where did the info come from? Does the creator have a bias or is trying to sell something? Sensible suspicion should be default mode in Internet world.
    But humans are inherently lazy so I'm not sure whether this will ever happen (and I include myself in that).
    But when 2 billion people and increasing are getting online, maybe it is enough if 5% of them are willing to point out that a "fact" is wrong.

    And as a sample of what can go wrong, read this BBC News story about a misattributed Blake poem

    Have a good weekend,


    1. being a somnolent hominoid myself, I would just point out that the popular media/entertainment machine contributes much misleading misinformation
      itself - the interwobby is sometimes too easy a target. Take this Tarantino example:
      25:17, in action
      fwiw, know you are in Wales, but this is a little Capitoline Wolf related and it's good to know where Rome stopped…

    2. Ha. Indeed. And the Scots are still trying to get away -

      Maybe there is something in this genetics idea ;)