Critical thinking in an arena of abundant information

Here is the start of a list of themes for critical thinking in an arena of abundant information, namely, the internet: Read more of this post

A rapid PBL that probes the Protestant reformation, pellagra studies of the 1910s, and promises of the internet

At short notice I designed the following session for a faculty seminar on “Science in Context” using a rapid Project-Based Learning format.  After 50 minutes, the five participants reported back on their very different paths of inquiry.  I hope to add a comment on this post when I have digested the experience.


I want to:

  • provide participants with an experience of project-based learning (PBL) of the kind I use in my teaching about science in context. Students often learn a lot in a short time — usually 3 weeks, but sometimes 50 minutes — by addressing a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry, and reporting back.
  • gain stimulation from your reporting back about whether the seemingly liberating possibilities of PBL research using the internet are producing biases analogous to those from pellagra studies of the 1910s (see #1 below) or even a fundamentalist resurgence (see #2 & #3).

Process: During the first hour, read the three exhibits below, use the internet to follow any leads or angles that emerge for you, and prepare to give a spoken report (5-minutes incl. discussion) to the group at the end of an hour. Grab my attention if you want more coaching.

#1. Sydenstricker and Goldberger established the cause and cure of pellagra in the 1910s, but the very methods they were able to use created biases and, in Goldberger’s case, precedents that had costs. Here is an annotation of an article about research that Sydenstricker conducted.

  • Marks, H. M. (2003). “Epidemiologists Explain Pellagra: Gender, Race, and Political Economy in the Work of Edgar Sydenstricker.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 58(1): 34-55.
  • Goldberger, a US Public Health Service doctor who showed the connection between diet and pellagra through observation and experiments with a prison population, also worked with Sydenstricker in the mid-1910s to show the association in data derived from 7 mill towns in S. Carolina. The association was clear against income per adult male equivalent (with nutritional needs of wives and children set lower). They did not go beyond this statistic to examine distribution within households and shed no light the higher incidence of pellagra among women. In subsequent work on sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Mississippi, Sydenstricker examined the annual and debt-related restriction on food supply but made no distinction between whites and blacks and shed no light on the disproportionate incidence of pellagra among blacks. Marks concludes that, by distracting attention from gender and racial inequalities, “research methods and traditions, no less than overt ideologies, played a role in maintaining the subordinate social position of women and African-Americans in the southern United States” (p.34). There is more to Marks’ account, including the more pluralistic idea of race in the areas of high immigration in the industrial Northern USA.

#2. In a recent blog post I “invite digging deeper into analysis of the social currents that produce at the same time the evolving internet, the promotion of the internet in terms of a Big Transition in Society, and fundamentalist denunciation of all readings of the text except that of one’s church.”

#3. The blog post was informed by my having read Burning to Read, which presents the Protestant reformation and access to printed text in the vernacular as the origins of fundamentalism, as described in the second paragraph of this review.

The internet, big transitions, and fundamentalist denunciations

The challenge I intend to raise in the following juxtaposition of quotes is not lament for the lost potential of the early internet, nor to take a dig at the naivete of people who promoted (or hyped) those ideals, but to invite digging deeper into analysis of the social currents that produce at the same time the evolving internet, the promotion of the internet in terms of a Big Transition in Society, and fundamentalist denunciation of all readings of the text except that of one’s church.

David Weinberger’s (2002) Small Pieces Loosely Joined argued that the “The Web… is challenging the bedrock concepts of our culture: space, time, matter, knowledge, morality, etc.” because it resists the idea that knowledge should be “context-free and universal.” The Web represents not only “databases,” but also

jokes, the other form of knowledge on the Web, [which] reveal what you weren’t expecting. If they’re predictable, they’re about as funny as a database… Jokes reveal a link we hadn’t seen, an unfolding we hadn’t anticipated. Laughter is the sound of sudden knowledge.

In this spirit, he claimed that:

When we make a tough decision, often it’s tough because we have too much information and it isn’t all consistent… Making a decision means deciding which of these “inputs” to value and how to fit them together to make a coherent story. In fact, the story helps determine which of the inputs to trust by providing a context in which the inputs make sense. That means the causality runs backwards: the inputs don’t determine the decision; the decision determines which of the inputs will count as influences.

A decade later, faced with students claiming that the Sandy Hook massacre may be a hoax, Brooke Hildebrand Clubbs writes in a 2013 Chronicle of Higher Education commentary:

Previously, although we may have disagreed, we had what I told my classes was “civil discourse.” But we had to agree on the facts. We could all have different opinions, but we couldn’t be basing our opinions on different facts. Now I realized that in the age of Facebook memes and YouTube conspiracy videos, my students had somehow got the idea that facts were subjective and supporting material unnecessary. They seem to be following “opinion leaders” who model how to respond when they are challenged: Vilify and name-call.

Demoralized, I went home and wrote to my longtime mentor. He sympathized, saying, “It almost makes you doubt the utility of the public marketplace of ideas, an idea which we defenders of the First Amendment have always cherished. Facts and information seem to be increasingly shut out of the market. Indeed, there seems to be a market for conclusions that have no connection to reality.”

When the Social, not the Medium, is the Message: On the spaces we make for virtual and face-to-face interactions

Periodically I find myself confused about my online presence and contributions.  Am I using wikis, blogs, twitter, social networks, and email effectively?  Effective by what criteria?  Indeed, who am I trying to influence?

My explorations of what others say about this recently has led me to a position—albeit a provisional one—that I don’t see expressed elsewhere.  The social, not the medium (or technology), should be the primary consideration. Read more of this post

When the Social, not the Medium, is the Message: A Workshop on Community-building and Research Collaboration in Virtual Spaces

On the internet, individuals, groups, and communities try to create or contribute to spaces where they can communicate and build knowledge in ways beyond what is possible in the daily round of face-to-face interactions. Yet it can be difficult to navigate—either as a designer or user—the changing technologies of social media, each with its own interface and device configurations. To better facilitate personal development, group collaboration, community engagement and inquiry, designers need to find processes and mechanisms that are at once integrated but flexible and adaptable to multiple purposes and audiences.

When the Social, not the Medium, is the Message (the title a gesture to McLuhan) will be a day-long workshop at UMass Boston, consisting of a series of explorations, dialogues and conversations will bring together people who share an interest in community-building and research collaboration in virtual spaces—as well as in the wider social world. The sessions are designed to build on the experiences and practices of those who participate. Although a minimum of on-line technology will be used in the sessions, a small number of participants from a distance can join the workshop via skype.

Hosted by the new Science in a Changing World graduate track.  For more information, see

Problem-Based Learning (PBL): A guided tour

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)
begins from a Scenario in which the problems are not well defined*,
Students brainstorm so as to identify a range of problems related to the scenario and choose which of these they want to investigate and report back on.
* e.g., (from a biology-in-society course)

The problem-definitions may evolve as students investigate and exchange findings with peers. If the scenario is written well, most of the problems defined and investigated by the students will relate to the subject being taught, but instructors have to accept some “curve balls” in return for

  • a) student engagement in self-invented inquiry, e.g.,
  • b) content coverage by the class as a whole, e.g.,, and
  • c) increased motivation for subsequent, more-focused inquiry (see “inverted pedagogy” below), e.g., the student who produced in response to the scenario in b), went on to complete a term paper reviewing citizen-based governance of science, which is under revision for a Science Studies journal. She then participated in the Public Impact Campaign associated with the “Unnatural Causes” health disparities project. (This student was a college-librarian with no prior science background.)

Interdisciplinary Coaching. In the case-based learning, the instructors facilitate the brainstorming and student-to-student exchange and support, coach the students in their individual tasks, and serve as resource persons by providing contacts and reading suggestions drawn from their longstanding interdisciplinary work and experience.

Inverted pedagogy. The experience of case-based learning is expected to motivate students to identify and pursue the disciplinary learning and disciplined inquiry they need to achieve the competency and impact they desire (This inverts the conventional curriculum in which command of fundamentals is a prerequisite for application of our learning to real cases.) E.g., the same student as above later took a course in social epidemiology for non-specialists.

KAQ framework for inquiry and exchange,
By linking Knowledge and Action, this framework promotes the emphasis of one strand of science and technology studies since the early 1980s on examining what it takes in practice to establish knowledge or make technology reliable.

Internet facilitation. The internet makes it easier to explore strands of inquiry beyond any well-packaged sequence of canonical readings, make rapid connections with experts and other informants, and develop evolving archives of materials and resources (e.g., presentations to the class, new cases, annotated bibliographies) that can be built on by future classes and others (see

Extracted from

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