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Kumiko and background knowledge

30 Jun

This last weekend I say Kumiko The Treasure Hunter at my favorite movie theater. I enjoyed the movie but was also perplexed by it. I now believe that I could not fully appreciate the film because I had insufficient background knowledge, first because I had not seen the movie Fargo and, second, because I was unaware of the true story on which it was based.




The state of science literacy

16 Jan

BoingBoing posted this amazing video from QVC:



For a more detailed take down, here is Rachel Maddow:


Knowledge builds on knowledge

17 Dec

One of the biggest myths about memory is that your brain only holds so much information and there is no point committing anything to information when you can easily look it up.

It is certainly true, that you can’t remember everything and you must be selective about what you learn, but all our evidence suggests that the more you know the easier it is to learn new material.  Knowing facts about the world, knowing background, history, and context improves memory. Psychologist James Weinland  pointed out;

“Memory is in one respect like money. The more money one has, the more interest it earns, which increases the capital and earns still more money. The more memories one accumulates, the more easily new memories are accumulated, which increases one’s memory capital and earn more memory interest. Memories breed memories.”


Londoners memory of the 50 states

4 Dec

Buzzfeed asked Londoners to fill in a map and identify the fifty US states, the results are something to behold.


Background knowlege: Lawrence Welk edition

28 Nov

I am interested in the role that background knowledge plays in cognition. Lack of background knowledge often leads to embarassing consequences. Here is a video from the Lawrence Welk Show where  Gail Farrell and Dick Dale  perform the Brewer and Shipley song One Toke Over The Line, with out any apparent idea what the song is about.

Here Steven Colbert makes a joke that also depends upon catching the reference to the Brewer and Shipley song.

Finally, here is a recent post by Diane Ravitch about background knowledge and the Common Core curriculum.

Ralph Waldo Emerson on memory

2 Sep

 Ralph Waldo Emerson on the importance of memory:

Memory is a primary and fundamental faculty without which none other can work; the cement, the bitumen, the matrix in which the other faculties are imbedded; or it is the thread on which the beads of a man’s life are strung, making the personal identity which is necessary for moral action” (Emerson, 1974, p. 271).

As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves” (Emerson, 1974, p. 271). 

Source: Emerson, R. W. (1974). The portable Emerson. Van Doren, M. (Ed.). New York: Penguin Books

Using Google Scholar

10 Jul

Outside of the universities, most people learn about science through secondary media sources. These sources can be quite valuable allowing knowledgeable individuals to interpret important research findings to the public. Deric Bownd’s Mindblog is an excellent example of this approach and, of course, this blog is itself a secondary source. On the other hand, media can sometimes distort or sensationalize research findings.

One of the great untapped possibilities of the internet is that primary research literature is now much more available to the public. In most cases you can find, at least, the abstract of important research reports. Often you can find the entire research paper on line. This means that you have the opportunity to read research without filters. In my opinion the easiest way to access research is through Google Scholar.

Google Scholar searches published research and patents. Let’s say we were interested in the reading the research on aspirin and Alzheimer’s disease. All we would have to do is to open Google Scholar and enter the relevant search terms.

search terms

Note that I have unchecked the box for patent search since they would not be relevant in this case. Here are the search results:

search results date sorted

A couple of things to note. The links tend to be links to abstracts, however, the original papers are often available as pdfs in the right hand column.

Google Scholar also gives you option of sorting by date, so you can easily read the most recent research (but, be careful here, recent research is not always better research, each study should evaluated on its own terms). In addition, there is a link that shows how often, each paper is cited. If you click on the citation link it will produce a list of papers that have cited that work. This is very helpful because it allows you to see if other researchers have found similar results.

Primary research papers are often written in a technical language. But technical does not mean inpenetrable. With a little patience you can often follow the main thread of the argument and evaluate how well the evidence supports that argument.

One the central goals of modern education needs to be the creation of informed consumers of research.


Defending the Humanities

5 Jul

I don’t always agree with John Horgan, but I am on board with his spirited defense of the Humanities.

Intellectual jokes and background knowledge

4 Jul

This Reddit thread about intellectual jokes has been getting a lot of attention. For me, it created an opportunity to think about the importance of background knowledge. Here is one of the jokes

Q: What does the “B” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?

A: Benoit B. Mandelbrot.

Now, I think that this is a genuinely funny joke but its humor depends on knowing something about Mandelbrot and such esoteric topics as the Mandelbrot set and recursion. We see this need for background knowledge in humor all the time. My son often has to explain the pop culture references that I miss on the Simpsons. In other words, I don’t have sufficient pop culture knowledge to appreciate all the jokes. Indeed, I am often unaware that there even was a joke.

While appreciating a joke is may be a trivial matter, not having background knowledge can have more serious consequences. An important 1999 paper, by Hofstadter, Sticht, and Hofstetter. found evidence that

“that higher levels of declarative knowledge about “mainstream” culture and politics in the United States are associated with achieving and exercising power regardless of cultural background. “

This is in line with other evidence suggesting that having a rich body of general knowledge stored in long term memory has important benefits.


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