Friday, April 03, 2015

If it says so on the Internet it must be true

At one point in my life I may have understood phonetic spellings of words.  But no longer.  So I may get this bit wrong, but I hope it is not too far off.

Perhaps my favorite Limerick, it was not written by Edward Lear, has the first line starting as follows:

There was a young lady from Niger.  

The last line is:

And a smile on the face of the tiger.  

How many sins have been committed in the name of rhyme?  In this case the problem is that the country's name is of French origin and therefore should be pronounced, knee-jair.  A little knowledge is a troublesome thing.  Undoubtedly, kids learn the wrong pronunciation first, as Limericks precede geography in the education sequence.  If only I could figure out why I mispronounce Qatar.  I don't recall any rhyme with Qatar in it.

As of late I have not trusted my own glib response to a friend's birthday announcement in Facebook.  So I've taken to do a Google search or two in the hope of finding something off the beaten path that I might post.  Today one of my classmates from junior high and high school turned sixty.  What search would I do?  Since I've been on a rhyming kick as of late I did a search on rhymes with sixty.  The first hit brings up a page at RhymeZone.  From the list there one should conclude that a word which ends in itty rhymes with sixty.  Yet I'm saying to myself, no it doesn't.

A few moments latter, I do a different sort of search.  Last week I wasn't sleeping well at all and felt exhausted.  I'd get up around 2 AM but then have a lot of trouble getting back to sleep, often not succeeding at all.  I attributed it to drinking too much, so this week I decided to be a teetotaler.  It is harder to first go to sleep that way and there is still some getting up in the night, but I feel the sleep has been more restorative and I'm almost caught up with it.  So I searched for drinking alcohol and sleeping.  The third hit is to a page at WebMD.  It tells you that alcohol interferes with REM sleep and the more you drink the more pronounced the effect.

Some years ago I recall having a discussion with my brother, he is an MD and a PhD,  where paraphrasing what he said - in the even numbered years eating eggs for breakfast turns out to be bad for you but in the odd numbered years it is good for you.  This was a commentary on clinical trials and that individual trials are not conclusive.  Further, in human subject research, identifying causal link while controlling for other factors is no mean feat.  So I'm at least a little clued in to be skeptical when reading about medical research.

Nevertheless, I completely trust what is on the WebMD page.  It jives entirely with my experience.  That is proof enough for me.  On the rhyming, however, while I concede that both witty and sixty end in ty, I don't think that is enough to make the two words rhyme, so I don't trust the RhymeZone page.  I've been scratching my head about why the one but not the other.  This is what I've come up with.

I have some sense of what it means to be an expert.  Though I'm not now current in either area, I believe it fair that I can still claim expertise in economics and in learning technology.  I write rhymes as a hobby.  My proficiency there is not as great and my formal training in doing do is none whatsoever.  But even a hobbyist develops some sense of taste about what makes for a good product.  When I get information from the Internet that comes into conflict with that sense of taste, I will first rely on the sense of taste and reject the information from the Internet.  I will need a lot more convincing to change my mind on that.

In contrast, while I think I'm reasonably well informed about my health as a patient, I recognize that I'm coming at it from a patient's perspective only.  I willingly concede that I don't have a doctor's perspective.  The lack of expertise there makes me more willing to trust what is on the WebMD site, especially when what it says coincides with my experience as a patient. 

There is a perhaps surprising derivative way to consider this, from the perspective of our students.  The more of what they do as students that has an authoring function, the more they will develop their own sense of taste and come at information they find online armed with that.  The more that they merely take as given what is presented in class, the more they are like a patient who knows he is not a doctor.  Acceptance of the information will then be the norm, and the norm will be adhered to unless it contradicts experience in a strong way. 

So, if we want our students to be skeptics, let's encourage them to write.

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