Role Reversal

Like most people, I enjoy engaging in activities that I have a good time in. Seeing as many of my preferred activities are sports (though I do hold mathematics, science, reading, and writing in high regard as well), I like to be good at what I do as well. Therefore, the kinds of activities I do usually are ones I am good at. I’m good at basketball, so I play basketball with my friends. I’m good at running, so I enjoy running with others. I’m good at mathematics, so I’ll frequently help people out in their studies.

Because of this tendency to do things I’m good at, I’m not often shown the other side of the equation: the side where people aren’t good at the activity. I can only empathize so much when I talk with most of my friends about grades, because only a few get grades that are similar to mine. In this same way, I can hardly imagine what it’s like to be less than stellar at a sport, because I’m decent at most that I participate in. This isn’t to brag, it’s simply to say that I am usually towards the “stronger” side of the spectrum.

Of course, no one is good at everything, and this reality was brought into sharp focus once again while doing an activity with my friends. It was an activity that was enjoyable, but I simply am not great at it. Therefore, I was the weaker link on a team.

And honestly, it wasn’t fun. I didn’t enjoy being the worst on a team, but it was an interesting experience. It gave me the chance to see what a team or an activity looks like from the perspective of those who aren’t as good at it. It made me think about how I behave when I am in a position of being better than others at an activity. I hope to be more humble and treat those others not just as liabilities (such as in a team sport, perhaps), but as participants who want to succeed just as much as I do.

Cynical

A refrain I often hear from people regarding my scientific and skeptic mindset is how cynical I’m being. They tell me I’m just shooting down anything that I cannot see proven in an equation or carried out in some sort of lab experiment. Since I can rarely get that kind of validation, I always seem to hold negative views of new ideas.

To a certain extent, I can see how others see this. My first response to new information is usually a way of invalidating it. Honestly, this does seem quite cynical. However, that’s because we often use terms interchangeably, and this is most definitely the case here.

According to Dictionary.com, “cynical” is defined as: “distrusting or disparaging the motives of others, bitterly or sneeringly distrustful.”

This is obviously not my intent when responding to certain claims, though I’m sure it has occurred throughout my years of hearing crazy “science” from the media. The real word that should be used is skeptical.

According to Dictionary.com, “skeptical” is defined as: “Having an attitude of, or showing, doubt.”

This is definitely the word I’m looking for.

In my eyes, the difference between these two words stems from the negativity the former expresses. When I hear a new scientific “fact”, I don’t have any negative view of it. I simply question its validity. That’s not particularly negative. In fact, I would argue it’s neutral, because questioning the fact simply means I want to know more about how this fact relates to other scientific ideas.

I don’t necessarily need _a controlled laboratory experiment to think something is true. I can make a certain subset of inferences about the world that are probably more or less accurate for my purposes. However, my skeptical side kicks in as soon as I hear something about a “wonder drug” or the “one simple thing you can do to be happier”. These statements are usually under the guise of being scientific, but in reality they are misguided at best and pseudoscientific at worse. When I hear _those kinds of statements, I try not to reason it out myself and instead ask for evidence. If something is as powerful or great as someone says, then surely there is a wealth of evidence to support it. If not, then there is something lacking in the statement.

A quote that I particularly like from Carl Sagan (at least, he is the prominent figure that I know of who said it) is, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It encapsulates the idea that skepticism for something that is particularly incredible needs a lot of evidence. Otherwise, we could be swayed by anything just because someone is persuasive. With this mindset of skepticism, you give yourself a way to trust statements because of the evidence, not because it “sounds” good.

On a related note, I’ll often get accusations of being close-minded because of my skepticism. This usually results from some really enthusiastic person not understanding why I can’t seem to ever be convinced that something they say is true. What they won’t say is that the claims they always make to me are extraordinary, and come with little explanation or evidence. When I prod for evidence, they switch the onus onto me to go read and find out for myself because they didn’t go through the whole study or article.

Unfortunately, that’s not how good conversation goes (at least, in my experience). If one wants to state something, they’re going to need some evidence or else it will be dismissed pretty quickly. But even if I do accept to go read further about it, the conversation will continue as if the statement was true.

This is a problem, because the conversation has shifted dramatically from what we know (or are reasonably certain of), to what we don’t know. Furthermore, I will then be chastised for never keeping my mind open to new possibilities.

My response: I’m always open to something new, but I need to see some kind of credible evidence. And unlike what many people think, witnessing an event is not a great tool to make these kind of claims.


In the end, I’m skeptical because I understand the rigour needed to correctly do science. The scientific process is a process, and one of the steps in it is to repeat experiments. Therefore, having a one-off study isn’t necessarily convincing to me. Likewise, many studies saying the same thing won’t be convincing if they all have some kind of flaw in the procedure.

Being skeptical does not make you cynical. It forces you to look at evidence before you integrate that knowledge with the rest in your life. A skeptic will be open to change, but the change must be convincing.

And it just so happens that the best tool we have to make convincing statements about the world is science.

Jagged Edges

As a student, you’re responsible for a fair amount of material from the various classes you’re taking. Whether that’s a bunch of facts concerning a part of world history or the way to prove the equivalent capacitance of capacitors arranged in series and parallel, it can be difficult to keep all of it in one’s mind while tests loom ever closer.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that there comes moments where a small piece of information is presented and simply makes little sense. When this happens, it’s certainly tempting to let the detail slip away into the ether of your mind. It’s easy to convince oneself that the piece of information is of little consequence, and that practically speaking, there is a small chance this detail will be on the test. One will then forget about this detail, deeming it unimportant.

However, this is not a wise decision to take. Personally, I’ve done this many times and have usually paid the price on my exams. Discarding a detail is usually not the best course of action to take. Instead, one needs to take the time to address the confusion.

If it’s a small detail, asking the teacher during the class is a good idea. This can clear up any issue immediately and allow you to mentally be back in sync with the class lecture. I recommend this course of action first.

I know that this isn’t always possible (perhaps you don’t want to interrupt the entire class for your question), so the next thing to do is to figure out a way to ask the teacher about it later. This can be after class or during office hours, but the important step in this option is to write your problem down. The reason I want you to write down your issue is that I want you to detail exactly what doesn’t make sense to you. By doing this, you’re ensuring that you can accurately describe your confusion to your teacher at a later time. Additionally, this list of ideas that don’t make sense or don’t quite jive can be used as study guides for exams. By looking at these, one can virtually guarantee that these issues won’t be present in a test.

The best way to avoid jagged edges in one’s knowledge is to embrace them, and then work to improve them. It can be difficult to understand a lot of the content in classes, but by keeping a running list of what doesn’t make sense in a class, you’re creating a systematic way to tackle those issues.

No more getting caught in a test by the one thing you didn’t look at for the test.

Not Just For The Test

I have a bad habit when receiving an exam that is graded: instead of looking at my errors and trying to figure out what I could have done better, I simply try to put the whole exam out of mind.

This happens whether I have a good or bad exam. Basically, I want to see my grade and that’s it. I think the underlying reason is that I won’t need that information for a long time (until the end of semester). Therefore, I can afford to push it out of my mind once I receive my exam back.

Obviously, this points to a problem with the way we structure our learning. At the moment, I’m encouraged to become proficient with certain content, and then I’m free to forget it until the final exam. What this means is that I’m familiar with the content for only a small sliver of time before forgetting it once again.

If I asked you if you were good at foul shots in basketball and you proved to me you were by draining ten shots in a row, I’d probably think of you from then on as a great foul shot shooter. However, what I don’t know is that you practiced this shot for the past two weeks and you never plan to do it again after showing me.

Would this be considered as being great at foul shots?

I’d venture to say “no”, but this is exactly what happens for a lot of classes in school. I’m familiar with mathematics and science, but I’m sure this is applicable to other classes (particularly where memorization is important). Spend a few weeks remembering important content, take the test, and then forget. Rinse and repeat.

The consequence of this is that we don’t learn concepts as fully as we could. Sure, it’s an efficient way to get good grades (and nobody knows that more than I), but it isn’t as useful in the long term. Years later, I wish I took the time to understand more material.

Of course, it’s difficult to take this long term approach in the moment. Not only because one does not think of the consequences, but simply because taking this approach with a heavy course load is inconceivable if one wants to get good grades. Therefore, the shortcuts ensue.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the solution to this. I know that taking a long look at the mistakes made on a test and making an effort to understand those mistakes is a good step towards long term learning, which is why I’m trying to do that now. Additionally, I think returning to old content every once in a while as a refresher can be very valuable.

If you want to learn (and remember what you’ve learned!), take the time to internalize content even after the test is done.