Dear parents, are our children being taught computer coding the wrong way?
Last Thursday, I registered my 11-year-old son Zachary for a free three-hour trial in computer coding. This trial class was held at KidoCode at Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur. This preview class was not just for the child but also for the parents, so that both parents and child would have a general idea of how coding was taught at KidoCode and about the center’s general philosophy on learning, teaching, and social work.
KidoCode is a coding school where students learn on their own by watching proprietary online tutorials and completing certain number of tasks, which are then scored. Trainers are available should the children get stuck or want advice. (Photo from www.kidocode.com)
Alas, at the end of the three hours, I came away disappointed. What I experienced instead strengthened my suspicion and skepticism that our children are being taught the wrong way about coding.
The late Steve Jobs said over twenty years ago that “Everyone should learn how to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” Since then, many others have advocated that our kids must be taught coding, especially in today’s world of ubiquitous technology.
Increasingly more countries today are incorporating coding or computer science into their national school curriculum. Britain, for example, was the first G7 country to do such that for their 5 to 16 year old children. Even Malaysia is cognizant of this importance. As far back as 1988, the then Education Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, announced that coding was to be a part of the national curriculum by 1990. But Malaysia being Malaysia, flip-flop education policies are the norm: Anwar’s national coding policy never materialized. Since then, other similar national coding policies have been reintroduced, only to fail, wane or be quietly abandoned, such as the 2012 1BestariNet project, due to many reasons such as financial and logistics constraints.
Today our national ICT custodian is the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), and at the risk of failing to learn from history, MDEC too announced in 2016 that it had plans to make coding part of the pedagogy of teaching at national schools, particular for science and math subjects by 2017. The year 2017 came and went, and it appeared that MDEC’s policy too have quietly been abandoned, now replaced by a less ambitious plan to create a Digital Innovators School instead by 2019.
So, yes, we are increasingly being told that our children, the younger the better, should learn coding. Coding schools and online self-learning portals (such as code.org and Codeacademy) are becoming increasingly popular with parents looking to enroll their kids for coding lessons. Even most schools today have at least some coding extracurricular activities to promote coding among students.
My problem is not whether children should learn coding; I firmly believed they should. But my problem is about the way our kids are being taught coding. Coding taught at online self-learning portals and coding schools are like ‘pop computing’ – a term coined by Dr. Idit Hazel, CEO of Globaloria, an organization for computer science education. Pop computing refers to a coding culture where coding is taught only to be quick, comfortable, and entertaining but suffers from being superficial, that kids do not have the necessary background or training to develop a deep and independent way of computational thinking.
A popular software to teach kids coding, for example, is Scratch, where kids learn programming by dragging-and-dropping blocks of code in a visual and colorful manner. Fun to use and even more fun to play the game kids develop, but it fails to deliver a multi-dimensional thinking required to apply computer science principles in other contexts.
Scratch is a visual programming platform where children learn programming by dragging and dropping blocks of code. Scratch is created by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab (photo from freeCodeCamp).
My own son once took a Scratch class for seven months, and he immensely enjoyed his classes. He was willing to spend even up to six hours at his then coding school. But even up to today, he still fails to understand, let alone use, fundamental computer coding concepts like logical comparisons, conditional statements, and loops.
In other words, our kids are not taught the fundamentals. Coding learning software such as Scratch and Turtle Logo may make programming fun, but they teach software and computer science concepts in a very superficial manner. The fundamentals are made implicit rather than explicit. Without having a strong grasp of the fundamentals, I fear kids can only build apps they have been “guided” by their schools. MIT researchers Marvin Minsky and Alan Kay remarked that computer literacy is akin to music literacy. Musicians become proficient by listening, improvising and composing, not just playing (or duplicating) other people’s composition. Pop computing risks our kids having a poor foundation in coding. Pop computing, I feel, is a more of a marketing rather than educational tool and more catered to hyperactive children or those with short attention spans to keep them focused long enough at the computer (or mobile) screens to learn … something, anything.
Consequently, I fear coding schools teach is a case of “a little of this and that” but each topic in a very superficial, inadequate manner.
Furthermore, coding schools may boast of having several hundreds, even thousands, of enrolled students, but nothing is made known to the public about how many of their enrolled students actually follow through to the end of the course or about the quality of their “graduated” students. These schools are also neither accredited nor the quality of their teaching or lesson materials independently accessed.
My son Zachary never has a problem with his attention span, and he would actually want to understand what he is doing rather than just “duplicating” or making small adjustments to the provided coding guide or lesson. So, I see the usual, albeit more fun, route of pop computing is not for him. I have actually started to teach him coding, starting with Python programming.
For instance, for his first lesson, I taught my son the following classic example:
My son actually sees more meaning in this single line of code than his trial coding lesson at KidoCode such as follows:
tom = Turtle()
for c in [1,2,3,4]:
where the concept of object-orientation is actually taught but in an implicit manner. Furthermore, would kids actually understand what [1,2,3,4] or even Turtle() mean? Sure, the above seven lines code help to make a cute animated turtle move and make a square on the screen — but I suspect most kids would secretly wonder about [1,2,3,4] — what sorcery is this?
Herein lies part of the problem: the lack of fundamentals being taught.
There is actually a difference between computer science and coding. Coding is really just our written instructions to the computer so that the computer does exactly what we want it to do. Computer science, on the other hand, is not just about coding but also a way of thinking that involves problem solving through a logical and methodological manner. Yevgeniy Brikman, who is a software engineer and writer on technology matters, went even as far to say that learning about coding or technology is less important than learning how to think. Sure, technology is ubiquitous, Brikman remarked, but that does not mean we must study about technology in schools.
“For example, we all fly in airplanes,” Brikman further explained, “but getting a pilot license is not part of the K-12 [school] curriculum …. but the tools you need to understand how to think about flying should be part of the curriculum.”
In other words, learning the fundamentals is crucial. Learning how to fly a plane should not be compulsory for everyone, but we all should learn the fundamentals related to flying. We should learn physics and math because they teach us about gravity, forces, pressure, velocity, friction, and lift. We should also learn biology because it teaches us about the effects of high altitudes on our human bodies, and we all should also learn history because it helps to explain about the invention of airplanes and their effect and role in societies.
The crux then for my son – and your children – is to understand the fundamentals, not just learn to duplicate or ‘modify’ guided code (or just build some apps because everyone seems to be doing it now). Once my son has nailed down his fundamentals, then I might consider sending him to coding schools to learn other topics and even build apps. Yes, the school’s lessons would probably be more fun and flashier than his dad’s, but at least my son would actually understand and appreciate what he is doing whilst having great fun.
Is watering our houseplants with washed rice water really that effective? Here’s the scientific evidence
Our friends, our neighbors, even strangers we meet swear by it. They claim watering our household plants with water from our washed rice is effective, as good as or even better than using fertilizers. My neighbor, for instance, says her house orchids have never failed to bloom because she feeds her plants with that one “special ingredient”: the water from her washed rice.
But where is the scientific evidence that washed rice water is effective?
Surprisingly, there has been no research done on the effectiveness of using water from washed rice specifically on the growth of any plant. Most studies have been about the potential use of washed rice water as a beauty product or about the loss of human nutrients when rice is washed. Studies such as by Malakar and Banarjee (1959) and those reviewed by Juliano (1985, 1993) have reported that washing rice can cause up to half of the water-soluble vitamins and minerals to be lost from the rice.
The exact amount of these nutrient losses would depend on the type of rice, how much water was used in washing of the rice, and how rigorous was the washing done. But generally, washing rice causes rice to lose up to 7% protein, 30% crude fiber, 15% free amino acids, 25% calcium (Ca), 47% total phosphorus (P), 47% iron (Fe), 11% zinc (Zn), 41% potassium (K), 59% thiamine, 26% riboflavin, and 60% niacin.
But what was lost from the rice is now gained by the water. Perhaps these leached nutrients now in the washed rice water could be beneficial to our houseplants.
Let’s find out. I asked one of my final year agriculture students to conduct such an experiment to answer this burning question “once and for all”.
Water spinach (Ipomoea reptans), or more widely known as kangkung, was used a test crop. Kangkung was planted in 150-mm wide and 200-mm tall polybags, so each polybag had only one plant. Each polybag was filled with 9 kg of soil (Bungor soil series, which has a rather coarse texture, about 50-60% sand and 20-40% clay).
The treatments were: 1) washed rice water (RIC), 2) NPK 15:15:15 fertilizer (NPK), and 3) control (CON).
The RIC treatment meant that the kangkung plant in each polybag was watered daily with 200 ml of water from washed rice, whereas the NPK treatment was where 5 g of NPK 15:15:15 fertilizer was applied per polybag once (before planting) onto the soil, and the kangkung plants in this treatment were watered daily with 200 ml of tap water per polybag. The CON treatment is the control, where the kangkung plants were only watered daily with 200 ml of tap water per polybag, without any application of fertilizer or washed rice water. Each treatment had five replications.
The RIC and NPK treatments would determine whether washed rice water is as good as or more effective than applying fertilizer in increasing plant growth. The CON treatment is the baseline upon which the kangkung growth in the RIC and NPK treatments will be compared when kangkung is grown without any fertilizer or washed rice water applications.
In this experiment, my student always used the same white rice, and the rice to water ratio was 1.0 : 1.5 L (in other words, for every 1 L of white rice, she used 1.5 L of water to wash the rice). The washing of rice was always maintained in the same way.
The experiment continued for five weeks, after which several plant growth parameters (leaf number, plant height, fresh and dry plant weight, leaf area, and specific leaf area or leaf thickness) and plant nutrient content (N, K, Ca, and Mg) were measured. Additionally, soil properties such as pH, K, Ca, and Mg were measured. Unfortunately, due to faulty equipment, plant P, soil N, and soil P content could not be measured.
Statistical analysis revealed that of all the plant growth parameters measured, only the number of leaves and fresh plant weight (Fig. 1 and 2) were significantly affected (p <0.10) by the treatments. Fig. 1 and 2 show that there was a 90% chance that kangkung grown in both RIC (washed rice water) and NPK (fertilizer) treatments were equal with each other and both of them being higher than that in the control (CON) treatment in terms of their number of leaves produced and fresh plant weight.
Fig. 1. Mean (± standard error) of the number of leaves for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.10) according to SNK test.
Fig. 2. Mean (± standard error) of the fresh (wet) plant weight for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.10) according to SNK test.
On average, kangkung grown in both RIC and NPK treatments had 26% more leaves and were 59% heavier than the kangkung grown in the CON treatment.
The better plant growth in the RIC and NPK treatments were due to additional supply of N and K by the washed rice water and NPK fertilizer. This was reflected in the higher N and K content in the plant and soil in the RIC and NPK treatments (Fig. 3 to 5). Fig. 6, for instance, shows that washed rice water had about twice the amount of K than tap water.
Fig. 3. Mean (± standard error) of the plant N for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.
Fig. 4. Mean (± standard error) of plant K for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.
Fig. 5. Mean (± standard error) of the soil K for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.
Kangkung has a high demand for N and even higher for K nutrient (Susila et al., 2012). Consequently, the supply of additional N and K nutrients from either washed rice water or fertilizer would be beneficial to kangkung and result in better plant growth such as producing more leaves and heavier plant biomass, as observed in this study.
Fig. 6. Mean (± standard error) of the K, Ca, and Mg content in the washed rice water and tap water.
Fig. 7 and 8 show an interesting trend, that in the RIC treatment, soil Ca was the highest but plant Mg was the lowest. This is because Ca and Mg are antagonistic with each other: high Ca content would suppress the plant intake of Mg. Fig. 6 shows that, compared to tap water, washed rice water had four times more and nearly six times less Ca and Mg, respectively.
Fig. 7. Mean (± standard error) of the soil Ca for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.
Fig. 8. Mean (± standard error) of the plant Mg for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.
Lastly, soils in RIC treatment showed higher pH (less acidic) by about 19% than the soils in the NPK and CON treatments (Fig. 9). The consequence of this pH increase is minimal because soil pH in the RIC treatment still remained rather low, below 5. But perhaps over a longer run with regular additional watering with washed rice water, soil pH could further increase, making more soil nutrients available to the plant as the soil becomes increasingly less acidic over time.
Fig. 9. Mean (± standard error) of the soil pH for the three treatments. Means with same letter are not significantly different from one another (p>0.05) according to SNK test.
So, what do all of these results mean?
Results showed that using water from washed rice is as effective as NPK fertilizer in promoting plant growth, at least in terms of the number of plant leaves produced and the higher plant biomass (fresh).
The implication from this study means washed rice water can replace NPK fertilizer. This study adds credence that, rather than discarding the water after we wash our rice, we can recycle or reuse the water by watering our houseplants with it, and this water is generally as effective as applying NPK fertilizer; thus, we save on fertilizer and energy use and money.
The level of confidence in this study for the plant growth parameters was 90%, not the usual 95% or 99% in most scientific studies. But perhaps with a larger sample size, these results would be statistically significant at a higher level or more plant growth parameters would be found to be statistically significant from using washed rice water.
Nonetheless, the belief that higher plant growth can be encouraged by using washed rice water is supported by the findings of higher N and K content in the plant (as well as in the soil for K). Their level of significance was 95%. Washed rice water do supply the essential nutrients of N and K, which are very much needed by the kangkung plant. With the additional supply of N and K nutrients, it can be expected that kangkung as well as other plants would respond favorably by having increased plant growth and yield.
Potential problems of using washed rice water
Admittedly, using water from washed rice will always be for domestic, household use. Using such enriched water for large-scale or commercial farming production systems would be impractical as it would require too much washing of rice! Nonetheless, domestic use of washed rice water, as stated earlier, is a good way to recycle water in the household rather than just discarding it down the drain.
Reusing water from washed rice can be a part of household campaign to save energy and water and to reduce wastages. (c) Stockgiu @ fotolia.com
The second potential problem is the washed rice water will have to used almost immediately. Leaving the water out in the open would encourage fermentation and create unwanted sour-like smell, though it would interesting to compare between fermented and unfermented rice water on our houseplants.
The third potential problem is whether prolonged use of washed rice water on our plants would encourage the incidence and spread of pests (like rodents) and diseases. This kangkung experiment was only carried out over a period of five weeks, too short to see any potential incidence of pests and diseases.
At the end, I am encouraged by the results of this study – the first perhaps to study in a more scientific rigorous manner if using washed rice water is really that effective in promoting plant growth. This should be a start of more experiments: testing on more plant/crop types (such as fruit or flower plants) and the inclusion of more plant growth and soil parameters.
I like to thank my student, Syuhaibah, for her hard work in this experiment.
Juliano, B. O. (1985). Rice: chemistry and technology, 2nd ed. St Paul, MN: American Association of Cereal Chemistry.
Juliano, B. O. (1993). Rice in human nutrition. Rome: International Rice Research Institute Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Malakar, M. C., & Banerjee, S. N. (1959). Effect of cooking rice with different volumes of water on the loss of nutrients and on digestibility of rice in vitro. Journal of Food Science, 24, 751-756.
Susila, A. D., Prasetyo, T., & Palada, M. C. (2012). Optimum fertilizer rate for kangkong (Ipomoea reptans L.) production in Ultisols Nanggung. In A. D. Susila, B. S. Purwoko, J. M. Roshetko, M. C. Palada, J. Kartika, L. Dahlia, K. Wijay, A. Rahmanulloh, M. Raimadoya, T. Koesoemaningtyas, H. Puspitawati, T. Prasetyo, S. Budidarsono, I. Kurniawan, M. Reyes, W. Suthumchai, K. Kunta & S. Sombatpanit (Eds.), Vegetable-agroforestry systems in Indonesia. Special Publication No. 6c. (pp. 101-112). Bangkok: World Association of Soil and Water Conservation (WASWAC) and World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF).
Small acts of resistance
I recently picked up “Small Acts of Resistance”, a book by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. This book is a collection of stories around the world about individuals, groups of people, and citizens fighting for change in their countries. As authors, Crawshaw and Jackson, admit “Small Acts of Resistance” is a bit of a misnomer. Some of these acts of resistance may be carried out by one or a few individuals, but their acts have resulted in large and cascading repercussions, some powerful enough to topple governments and dictators.
“Small acts of resistance,” by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson, tells of the courage of normal people fighting for change in their countries
Consider some of the following “small” acts of resistance in some countries.
Resistance in Poland
In February 5, 1982, the Polish people in the town of Swidnik decided to boycott watching their TVs because they grew tired of the lies and government propaganda often propagated through their TV sets. But this wasn’t your normal turn-off-your-TV boycott. Some the town folks went for a walkabout on the streets, bringing along their TVs in strollers and wheelbarrows. Some turned the TV so that the screens faced outward towards the window, sending a message that their TVs were broadcasting fictional messages to no one. Additionally, to show support for the banned Solidarity movement, the people in Warsaw, capital city of Poland, flashed their house and apartment lights on and off at pre-determined times of the day. As some witnesses report, the whole city of Warsaw would lite up like Christmas trees, much to the fury of the government.
Resistance in Uruguay
The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985 was very much hated (and feared) by the people. One of the consequences was the Uruguayans’ lack of passion in singing their national anthem. It can be hard to show nationalistic passion when one’s country is ruled by a corrupt and violent military junta. However, to indirectly show support and unity against the junta, Uruguayan football fans would first sing their national anthem with indifference before the start of any football match. However, when the anthem declares “Tiranos temblad!” (or “May tyrants tremble!”), the Uruguayan football fans would shout in unison, “Tiranos temblad!” and waved their flags. After that brief and emotive roar, the fans would resume back to their disinterest tone until the end of the long anthem.
Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America football cup. But in the 1970s and 1980s, Uruguay football fans showed their united hatred for their ruling military junta by singing the country’s national anthem, prior to football games, in a “special” way. (photo by Getty Images)
Resistance in Peru
In May 2000, the people of Peru performed a curious flag washing activity. They would gather every Friday from noon to three in the afternoon in front of Plaza Mayor in Lima (Peru’s capital city) and wash Peru’s red-and-white flag. This weekly flag washing activity was a message that Peru’s flag had become soiled due to the corrupt President Fujimori, who, in 2009, was eventually jailed for 25 years for numerous killings under his rule.
Peruvians performing their weekly flag washing as a sign of protest of the corrupt and brutal President Fujimori (photo from img.timeinc.net)
Resistance in Iran
Taxi drivers in Iran show their disdain for the current Islamic Iranian government by refusing to pick up mullahs (male religious leaders or teachers). So, if you a turbaned man of God in Iran, one thing is for sure: forget about getting a cab ride in Tehran – because they hate you.
Resistance in Myanmar
In Myanmar (Burma), the military junta directed that the citizens dress conservatively during the country’s annual water festival in 2009. Some youths, however, thought differently as defiance against the hated junta. The result? See for yourself below.
“Dress conservatively,” the military junta of Myanmar directs the people. Some Myanmarese youths, however, thought otherwise (photo from www.smallactsofresistance.com)
More resistance in Myanmar
In Myanmar, the one-kyat note remains banned even until today. The back of the note is a drawing of the much revered General Aung San, the founder of the Burmese army. The note designer, however, deliberately soften the general’s face to look more like his daughter: Aung San Suu Kyi, the well known and much feared opposition voice in Myanmar. By the time the military junta discovered the similarities of appearance to Aung San Suu Kyi, it was too late. The one-kyat notes had already been printed and widely circulated, much to the secret pleasure of the Myanmar people and to much of the embarrassment of the ruling junta. The note, however, was eventually banned. It is no surprise then to learn that the Myanmar’s one-kyat note is also called the “democracy note” by some people.
The banned one-kyat note had been subversively modified so that General Aung San’s face features appeared softer and made to look more like his famous daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi (photo from banknotes.com)
Resistance in the Philippines
In Philippines in 1986, thirty female computer technicians refused to comply when they were asked to omit election vote numbers favoring the opposition. They walked out of the counting hall for a “toilet and rest break” and never returned. After a hasty press conference, they went into hiding. This was the start of the very well known “People Power Revolution” against President Ferdinand Marcus who was subsequently ousted after 25 years in power and replaced by the people’s choice, Corazon Aquino.
People’s choice, Corazon Aquino, overthrows the brutal and corrupt President Ferdinard Marcos through People Power in 1986 (photo from img.timeinc.net)
As far as you can see. People Power in the Philippines in 1986 (photo from static.panoramio.com)
Resistance in Sudan
In 2002, the women of southern Sudan, tired after endless wars, decided to withhold sex from their partners. Comical it may first appear, this “sexual abandoning” was a powerful drive to force “their men” into working for peace and not for war – and the women’s’ efforts worked. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed between the warring north and south of Sudan. Recently, on July 9, 2011 (same date as Bersih’s rally), the south of Sudan achieved sovereignty and independence, and this country is now known as The Republic of South Sudan.
Resistance in the Soviet Union
In August 20, 1991, over a hundred thousand people gathered in central Moscow to oppose the ruling Politburo overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader and General Secretary of the Politburo. Facing tanks and the army, these people must have feared for their lives. Although three people died, the coup lasted less than three days, defeated not by violence or by the might of another army but defeated by peaceful and normal protesters who were ready to risk their lives against bullets and tanks.
Resistance in East Germany
In the summer and autumn of 1989 in Leipzig town, East Germany, the number of protesters participating in Monday weekly street marches grew larger by the week. In an attempt to quash these protest marches once and for all, the East German authorities gave a final warning that these marches would no longer be tolerated and be firmly dealt with, even with lethal violence. On October 9, 1989, seventy thousand people defied government warnings of lethal violence and took to the streets. Reports said that earlier that day live ammunitions had already been distributed among the security forces, but instead of a historic bloodbath, nothing happened. The authorities caved in because they were shocked by the people’s lack of fear. No shots had been fired, and after a month, the East German regime collapsed and made way for Germany’s unification.
On October 9, 1989, 70,000 people defied government’s threats of lethal violence and marched in unison on the streets of Leipzig, East Germany. The East Germany regime later collapsed a month after this event. (photo from alannothnagle.files.wordpress.com)
There are many more such stories in the book “Small Acts of Resistance” – stories about individuals who would risk their lives to fight for change and to correct the many wrongs.
However, I noticed that stories in “Small Acts of Resistance” carry a common theme. They are stories about individuals and collective resistance against highly corrupt and oppressive authorities and governments, where voices of dissent by the people are barely, if at all, tolerated. People with opposing views are often severely punished, even by imprisonment or death.
Note: this article is a modification of my own blog article I wrote way back in 2011. I am republishing it to give this book more of its due.
Engineering the climate: Ridiculous movie Geostorm has some important questions for us
Imagine a future where we are able to control the climate by using some very sophisticated technology involving an array of satellites orbiting Earth. With these satellites we can control the weather, overcoming detrimental climate change. Storms, hurricanes, and harsh winters are all but a distant memory of the “bad old days of not knowing any better”. Such is the premise of the recent 2017 Hollywood movie Geostorm.
The 2017 Hollywood movie Geostorm is ridiculous but raises interesting questions especially relevant today: the role, risks, and effectiveness of geoengineering in climate change mitigation.
But sadly, instead of science, what we get from Geostorm is an apocalypse porn. The movie over-indulgences style over substance, obsessing on the pandemonium special effects rather than on the science. This is a shame and missed opportunity because Geostorm addresses some very pertinent issues today: climate change and the role of geoengineering.
Geoengineering is the large scale and deliberate modification of Earth’s climate, primarily to mitigate climate change. But geoengineering is controversial because it is dangerous. And it is dangerous because we cannot predict its outcome or fully control it. Climate science is complex. Climate is the net outcome of many factors that interact with one another in a nonlinear manner. Alter one or more climate factors, and the whole climate system goes out of sync in a manner that can be difficult to predict. Moreover, the effects of geoengineering may not be reversible and may even exacerbate the problem.
The world is slow to respond to climate change mitigation. Our collective efforts are still far short of what is needed to correct the imbalance in Earth’s energy budget. The world appears to be warming unrelentingly and could even surpass the 2 degrees Celsius in warming, the tipping point where a warmer world becomes a permanent, irreparable state.
“Climate change is happening faster than our ability to respond,” observed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in particular for methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), have increased steadily every year, with an overall increase of 91% from 1970 to 2012. Only carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have surprisingly stalled for three years in the row in 2016. This could be due to efforts of Russia, China, Japan, the US and the EU in reducing or stabilizing their CO2 emissions.
The effectiveness of geoengineering strategies have so far not been promising. A recent study in Nature Scientific Report estimated that one popular geoengineering strategy, the ocean fertilization method, if deployed, could alter global rainfall patterns and affect water resources. The idea of ocean fertilization is simple: pump iron into the ocean and because iron stimulates the growth of plankton, the plankton would in turn absorb greater amounts of CO2; thus; “sucking out” more CO2 from the atmosphere.
Solar geoengineering strategies suffer the same fate. Releasing sulfur-based aerosols into the stratosphere would scatter and reflect incoming solar radiation; thus, reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground, even by as much as 20%. Likewise is the use of a giant space mirror (or many small space mirrors) and parking these mirrors in the sky or in space to reflect a portion of the incoming solar radiation. Both these strategies work by reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground; thus, resulting in cooler air temperatures.
Ocean fertilization: Introducing iron into the ocean encourages plankton growth, and in turn, the plankton absorb CO2; thus, removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing the carbon in the ocean (photo: www.oceanpastures.com).
Injection of aerosol into the stratosphere helps to reflect solar radiation (much like volcanic ash); thus, cooling Earth (photo: large.stanford.edu).
But the major problem with these aerosols in the stratosphere is they form sulfuric acid which eats ozone, and the use of space mirrors is prohibitively expensive and requires very advanced technology that we do not have today. Moreover, these mirrors could cause uneven distribution of solar radiation and unintended cooling on Earth. A country could get lesser solar radiation, upsetting the energy balance, and altering rainfall patterns. The net outcome may be a negative to the country’s agriculture crop yields. The consequences could be far reaching: causing economic crisis or political unrest in countries whose climate have been unpredictably affected by these space reflectors.
Installing space mirrors over Earth to reflect solar radiation (photo from www.scmp.com).
Another concern of geoengineering is it addresses only the symptoms but not the root causes of climate change. Solar geoengineering, for instance, reduces the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground but it does nothing to reduce the amount of CO2 released by human activities. Geoengineering risks being used as a “band-aid” solution to climate change and an excuse to continue with our business-as-usual polluting practices.
At the end, we need to realize that there is no all-in-one solution, no magic bullet in mitigating climate change. Geoengineering is only one option. But even then, Prof. Frank Keutsch of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA realistically puts geoengineering in its place: “Geoengineering is like taking painkillers. When things are really bad, painkillers can help but they don’t address the cause of a disease and they may cause more harm than good. We really don’t know the effects of geoengineering, but that is why we’re doing this research.”
Research on geoengineering methods needs to continue and expand to determine if they can be safely and reliably deployed. David Keith of Harvard University, Cambridge, MA and his associates, for instance, have developed aerosols that are made of calcite that are effective to reflect solar radiation but without the side effect of sulfuric acid formation which would destroy the ozone. This is a step in the right direction, but ultimately, the most important strategy against climate change is not in geoengineering but in reducing GHG emissions from human activities.
Dirty, rotten, immoral, godless, evil atheists
I was recently interviewed by a journalist from Free Malaysia Today (FMT), in which she asked me on what I thought about the recent 2017 study by Gervais and his associates regarding the near worldwide bias against atheists. The prejudice against atheists isn’t really news to me, but what was news was Gervais’s study reported that even atheists were found to be unconsciously biased against their fellow atheists, thinking them immoral.
My FMT interview was published today [PDF article], but sadly a great deal of what I said in the interview was not published. Consequently, the FMT article was a little emasculated. So, I think it wise to publish my full opinion and remarks here for posterity.
The strong distrust of atheists should not really surprise us. There is a tendency in many countries, including secular ones, to be biased against atheists. In the US, for instance, the Gallup poll in 2015 revealed that atheists were the second least trusted group of people, and the American people would rather have a Muslim than an atheist as their President. Bias against atheists is even stronger in highly religious countries like Malaysia, where for one to come out as an atheist can be socially very detrimental. A recent statement by a Malaysian government minister, for instance, have called all atheists, in his own words, “to be hunted down vehemently”.
The recent results from the study by Gervais and his associates are not unique because they are supported by the findings from other studies. But unlike previous studies that were smaller in scope and limited to only participants in the Western countries, Gervais’s recent study is much more comprehensive, covering over 3,000 people across 13 countries (including secular and religious countries) in five continents.
Gervais’s study reveal our preconceived notions or bias against atheists, that atheists are morally bad. But we need to be careful not to extrapolate or misinterpret Gervais’s findings to mean something they are not. They cannot be taken as evidence that atheists are indeed morally bad –- or even good. Science is not a democratic-like process. Just because the majority share the same opinion does not make the opinion factually true. Instead, science often reveals what seems at first to be common sense or intuitively right to be at the end inaccurate, if not entirely erroneous. A 2016 study by CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), for instance, reported that nearly two thirds of Australians said it was “common sense” that climate change was not real and even if real, not human-induced.
Studies like Gervais’s are really, at the fundamental level, asking us two questions: why is religion so important to us, and what is morality and is it only derived from religion?
How many gods have we humans worshiped, past and present? One encyclopedia of religions I read says 2,500, another 4,000 to 5,000, and if we include the various Hindu gods, one estimate even reported over 33 million gods. The world has currently over 7 billion people, and about 85% of them hold onto some sort of religious beliefs. Atheism is growing in some parts of the world, but the religious still far outnumber the atheists. Why are we humans so religious? Why has religion survived and thrived throughout human history? Some religions, like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, have persisted for centuries, but this is not true for most religions. The average lifespan of a religion is 25 years. Religions literally come and go, but our desire to worship “something” persists. Religion is not a fluke, a one-off, short random event in our human history.
Religion is evolutionary by-product of human cognition. We use religion to help us to find meaning, to make sense of our world and our purpose. Unlike animals, we have an innate propensity to find meaningful patterns out of seemingly random or chaotic events. We seek to understand how our world works, why it works –- and who caused it. It is insufficient for us just to know the “hows” and “whys”. We also seek to find explanations of events in terms of agents; that is, determining who or what have caused those events. Even children as young as three years tend to invoke supernatural reasoning to explain phenomena they do not understand. And these agents are perceived by children to act for a purpose and not by chance -– and these agents need not be visible. Children find it easier, for example, to accept that plants and animals are brought about for a reason rather than they arose by chance or for no reason. In other words, we tend to be religious rather than not.
Religion is important to many people because their identity, hopes, culture, and moral system are derived from their religion. To many people, morality is by default some very complicated code of conduct that requires supernatural definition, justification, and guidance.
Many believe our morality can only be derived from supernatural code of conduct. (c) Stéphane Bidouze @ fotolia.com
But morality is actually a very simple concept, so simple that many people find hard to believe it at first: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This so-called Golden Rule is essentially: if we want to be treated nicely by others, then be nice.
Even primates have shown to have some sense of morality too. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have been observed to drown in zoo moats trying to save others, and they have also been observed to console others. In a classic experiment where given the chance to obtain food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to another, rhesus monkeys would rather starve themselves for several days than cause pain to their companions.
Morality in animals? In a classic experiment where rhesus monkeys would rather starve for several days than cause pain to their companions because pulling a food chain brings food to them but delivers electrical shocks to their companions. (c) ake @ fotolia.com.
If forsaking religion is bad, then there should be some evidence that secular societies tend to fail or be worse off than religious societies. Yet, scientific studies consistently show the opposite: that the tendency is people in secular countries, compared to those in religious ones, are more involved in charity work; are more trusting of strangers; have higher IQ scores; have lower levels of prejudice, ethnocentrism, racism, and homophobia; show greater support for women’s equality; are more appreciative of science; and have higher rates of subject well-being. Secular countries also show higher economic growth, higher democratic stability, and better governance than religious countries.
At the end, the results from Gervais’s recent study is interesting and important, for they highlight how strongly inclined we are toward religion and how many of us still see morality on a supernatural basis.
But perception is not proof. Our perception is limited by our personal experience and myopic perspective, and it is strongly influenced by our bias. Science have instead shown that the link between the absence of religion and moral deficiencies is not as clear, strong, or straightforward as the majority of us like to believe.
Ignorance: Science behind the toughest question ever asked in a Miss Universe pageant
No one watches Miss Universe pageants to exercise their intellect. But Miss Universe 2000 is one very rare and notable exception. Katja Thomsen Grien, the then Miss Uruguay, made it into the last five finalists, only to be flummoxed by what is perhaps the most difficult and profound question ever asked in any pageantry. Her question, set earlier by Miss India, Priyanka Chopra, was simply nine words long: “If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?”
Miss Uruguay 2000, Katja Thomsen Grien, was asked what is perhaps the toughest and most profound question ever asked in any pageant: “If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?” @ missosology.org
Miss Uruguay, whose first language was not English, struggled to understand, let alone answer the question. Nonetheless, brave Miss Uruguay, choosing not to request any help from a translator, did finally give a fairly competent answer: ignorance, she opined, was the source of world problems at that time.
I remember catching that particular Miss Universe episode on TV that time, and I remembered thinking, “Wait a minute. Ignorance isn’t bliss because ignorance means none or lack of knowledge. Really, who wants to be stupid?” Easy peasy. Question successfully answered.
Ignorance is not just an absence of knowledge but can take various forms. Ignorance is sometimes desired. Manufactured ignorance is another form of ignorance to deceive or hide truths (c) olly @ fotolia.com
Contrary to common belief, ignorance does not always mean an absence of knowledge. Ignorance can include false knowledge – and in certain cases, ignorance is actually good and desirable (and, yes, bliss too) and even our right to have.
Ignorance appears in several forms, one of which is inherent in science. Ignorance is a resource that drives science. We humans are naturally inquisitive creatures. We are creatures uncomfortable in our ignorance: of not knowing or knowing too little. Our ignorance prompts us to inquire, to observe and collect information, and to understand – and science is a methodological manner by which we use to reduce our ignorance. The whole point of science is to fill in gaps in knowledge – but ignorance cannot be completely eliminated, and very often, as any scientist can attest, more knowledge actually begets more ignorance.
Socrates famously once said, “The more you know, the more you realize how little you know.” We answer some questions only to realize there are even more questions to answer. But this is not to say science is a worthless pursuit. Far from it. Science is forever pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge. It is science, not religion or other superstitions, that has revealed more about us, our environment, and our history and possible futures.
Ignorance can also be a product of deliberate omission. We cannot, for instance, possibly understand, know, or focus on everything. Science continuously chips away at our ignorance, but by choosing to focus or study on certain aspects of our ignorance, we inevitably leave some of our ignorance unanswered and unexplored. Over time, Proctor and Schiebinger remarked, the price of our selection is “lost knowledge”: we become ignorant of what we do not know.
But not all knowledge is good: some are dangerous. There are many examples which we wish we could put back the “genie in the bottle”. Knowledge that enabled us to create nuclear or biological weapons, knowledge about torture, and unethical animal or human studies are only some examples about which we wish we had remained ignorant.
So, in some cases, ignorance is good because it protects us. Consider military and other sensitive national information – or even our personal information – that could otherwise be potentially used against the country and us if they are revealed. National secrecy laws are strictly enforced to maintain ignorance. Such secrecy laws keep the country and us safe and secure. Individual privacy laws are even seen as a basic human right by many countries. Complete knowledge is not always desired in all cases.
Manufactured falsehoods are the final form of ignorance, where false information are deliberately created with hidden agendas to confuse or mislead people. History and even current events are replete with examples of manufactured ignorance to mislead people regarding the truth such as about smoking causing cancer, air pollution causing acid rains, CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) destroying the ozone, and recently, human activities causing global warming.
Manufactured ignorance is a strategic and hidden ploy, often driven by greed, to counter the truth because exposing the truth would disrupt the profitable status quo of the political or business environment. Manufactured ignorance work by sowing seeds of doubt by obfuscating facts and cherry picking evidence. It works to prolong the debate on issues by creating or amplifying disputes or controversies.
“Doubt is our product.” Tobacco industries worked hard to manufacture ignorance by obfuscating facts to prolong the debate as long as possible the risks of smoking. (c) Artem Furman @ fotolia.com
“Doubt is our product,” so wrote one tobacco executive in a leaked memo, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
Tobacco and fossil fuel industries and their lobbyists are guilty of manufacturing ignorance to protect their investments and profits because the truth is dangerous, inconvenient truths that would detrimentally affect their business dominance and profits. But governments too stand guilty. Our leaders manufacture ignorance to protect their power and positions against their scandals, corruption, misdeeds, and incompetence, and even manufacture ignorance to attack those who oppose them.
Fossil fuel industries today continue what the tobacco industries have been doing for the past four decades, by sowing seeds of doubt about the science of climate change, claiming more evidence are needed. (c) spiritofamerica @ fotolia.com
The current US President, Donald Trump, exemplifies a leader who frequently lies and embraces ignorance, leading Jake Tapper of the CNN to remark about Donald Trump, “I’ve never really seen this level of falsehood … it’s conspiracy theories based on nothing.” Even the former US President, Barack Obama, mocked Trump by saying: “Ignorance is not a virtue.”
What is worrying that despite calling out Trump, his exaggerations, outright lies, and ignorance are becoming acceptable ar at least tolerated by a great deal of the American public.
The ubiquity of the internet and social media, for example, has made the spread of ignorance faster and more frequent. Fake news and conspiracy theories, automatically taken as truths, are clicked, read, and quickly shared. In a moment’s notice, alternative facts are spread into every corner of the world and enforced to the point that it is becoming harder today to distinguish facts from fiction. The explosion of online (and independent) news channels have helped to present alternative viewpoints, but just as there are more of them, many others proliferate that deliberately present falsehoods, driven by hidden agendas, to spread and enforce ignorance.
“Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance”edited by Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger (Stanford University Press, 2008).
Published nearly ten years ago, Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger’s book, “Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance” is a fascinating read. The science of ignorance, or agnotology, coined by Robert Proctor of Stanford University, is a field yet to be established, but it is perhaps timely to formalize the study of ignorance especially today.
“If ignorance is bliss, why do we seek knowledge?”
Short question, true, but in its brevity and apparent simplicity, hides a profound, thought-provoking intellectual exercise.
TN50 (National Transformation 2050): What do Malaysians really want?
Race and religion strongly define us Malaysians. They define who we are, who we friend, who we marry, where we live and work, and who we support. Our country leaders, including those from the opposition, strive instead to encourage and strengthen these racial and religion lines, polarizing Malaysians into distrusting groups.
TN50 or National Transformation 2050 is a crowd-sourced national plan for our country from 2020 to 2050, but I am doubtful if this whole initiative will be meaningful because it ignores the elephant in the room: the growing us-vs-them mentality between Malaysians simply on the basis of one’s race and religion.
What would happen, for instance, if Lim Kit Siang, leader of the DAP political party, were in a room full of PAS supporters in the heartland of PAS? What could he possibly say that to these PAS supporters that would invoke them to genuinely cheer and applaud him? Similarly, what would Dato’ Seri Haji Abdul Hadi bin Awang, leader of the PAS political party, say to a room full of Chinese that would make these Chinese willingly stand up and give the PAS leader an honest and rousing applause?
In our current political and sociological climate, there is nothing these two leaders could say, without lying or betraying their own party, race, or religion, to their respective audience to win their admiration and support.
Yes, our mindsets are defined by our race and religion. But look closer – dig deeper. You will find we are not that different from one another in our basic needs.
We Malaysians, regardless of our race and religion, want the same things. We desire a country that provide us with ample opportunities to lead good, comfortable lives. We want an environment that provide us with opportunities for good education, work, health care, and opportunities to find love and grow old with our loved ones. We want an environment that allows us to find and develop our skills and opportunities for us to express these skills for the good of the society and even for the good of our religion and god. We desire an environment that is fair, that we are not oppressed or exploited, and that we are not cheated of our opportunities and rights.
So, yes, we Malaysians are different. One may be a Chinese, another a Malay, or one a DAP supporter but another fervent champion of PAS or UMNO – but all of us really, at the end, want the same things. No Malaysians want chaos or anarchy. No Malaysians really want to annihilate or kick out people of other races or religions. Malaysians want a tolerant society. Ultimately, our fundamental desires are what unites us all.
Until we Malaysians and our leaders understand and truly appreciate this and learn to respect one another’s race and religion and learn to downplay personal and selfish agendas to create the kind of aforementioned kind of environment, the TN50 initiative, whatever grand plans it dreams up, will be a futile exercise.
We are not special
Let’s face it. We are not special. We like to think we are, that our goals, rants, aspirations, and struggles really matter. But we are stardust, as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us. Sounds poetic but it is also true. We are made up of molecules constructed from the crucibles of stars from deep space. When these stars exploded, they ejected their elements, becoming building blocks upon which increasingly heavier elements could be formed and finally combining with one another to form matter: new stars, planets – and, yes, little us too.
Look at Earth, our home. A pale dot amidst billions and trillions of other planets out there. A mote of dust, as the late Carl Sagan remarked. And if the entire 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history was condensed into a 24-hour clock, humanity’s history would emerge only less than two minutes before midnight. That is how insignificant we are compared to the grand scheme of the universe. Our 80-or-so years of life on Earth is but a negligible fraction of time.
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” – Carl Sagan, in his 1994 book, “The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”
But we like to be extraordinary. Today’s sages tell us to. They feed upon our narcissism that yearns to be extraordinary, to do the extraordinary, and to live extraordinary lives. But the advice to be extraordinary is itself contradictory. If everyone was extraordinary, then no one, by definition, would be extraordinary because no one would stand out from the rest.
So, yes, we are not special.
But that should not depress us. Instead, it should drive us to appreciate that our time on Earth is very short and finite. We may not be special, that on the scale of the universe, we are insignificant and our lives a fleeting moment in history, but this does not mean our lives should not matter. The idea that we are not special should humble us. It should challenge us to re-orientate our lives to make it count with what little time we have left, that our lives will make a significant impact on those around us. Because we have lived, others have been changed and have benefited.
So, what then is our purpose in life? What is our legacy, our immortality project? Our life’s purpose is a compass that helps us to distinguish between the important, trivial, and irrelevant in our lives. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It distinguishes between struggles and aspirations that matter, those that deserve our full energy, attention, time, and money and those that we should ignore or at least, emphasize less. Our purpose in life liberates we because it provides us guidance, that we are dedicating our lives on goals or pursuits more noble than ourselves.
But it is not all psychology and pep talk. Having a strong purpose in life cascades down to even at a biological level. A 2013 study by Steve Cole from the University of California found that people with more hedonic lifestyles had genetic expressions similar to those seen in people suffering from loneliness and stress, compared to those with people choosing more eudemonic lifestyle, a life driven beyond self-gratification. And brain scans of people with a higher eudemonic lifestyle showed lower stress response than those with lesser eudemonic lifestyle. In other words, people with long term life purpose live longer and are healthier.
The late Steve R. Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” probably said it best on how we can find our purpose in life: “[Imagine attending your own funeral] … What would you like each of the speakers to say about you and your life? … What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? … What difference would you like to have made in [people’s] lives?”
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.
Our deaths are inevitable, but rather than dreading it, our deaths should warn us of wasting our lives. But change is difficult and fraught with pain, suffering, and struggles. Athletics, for instance, are willing to bear the tedium and pain of training because they know the outcome of their struggles is becoming fitter, stronger, and faster. No one likes pain, but people are willing to face and endure it provided the outcome is worthwhile and fulfills their purpose in life. Mark Manson says it best: our self-worth isn’t a measure of how we feel about our positive experiences but about how we feel about our negative experiences. Pain is telling us to pay attention and to learn. Our pain, if we respond correctly and are willing to learn, initiates meaningful change. Trying to pursue a pain-free life is instead foolish because it avoids learning and meaningful change, and it leads to inconsequential and perhaps even selfish, self-indulgent lives.
Achieving the extraordinary is then not a target by itself but an outcome, perhaps even by accident, due to our pursuit of our aspirations. We may dedicate our lives in helping the poor, for instance, and our efforts might gain us recognition, awards, and even a celebrity-like status, but they are an outcome, not the goal, of our purpose.
Why am I here? (c) freshideas @ fotolia.com
But what characterizes a meaningful life purpose? Obviously, identifying one’s purpose in life is highly specific to individuals. Mark Manson however offers that a person’s purpose in life should encompass good values, and such values are those that are reality-based, socially-constructive, and immediate and controllable. Honesty is an example of a good value, says Mark, because it is real, it benefits others, and it is under our control, whereas popularity isn’t because it is out of our control (i.e., we need to convince others to like us), may not be real because people may not really see us like we want them to, and being popular is, well, selfish, indulgent, and does little to help others.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.” So, if our lives were to be made into a TV drama, what would our story be, after all the boring, doldrums bits of our lives cut out? Did our lives matter?
Burrell, T. 2017. Why am I here? New Scientist. 28 January 2017. p. 30-33.
Fredrickson, B.L., Grewen, K.M. Coffey, K.A., Algoe, S.B., Firestine, AM., Arevalo, J.M.G., Ma, J., and Cole, S.W. 2013. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 33: 13684-13689. [link]
Manson, M. 2016. The subtle art of not giving a f*ck. A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. New York: HarperOne.
Malaysians use 3 billion plastic shopping bags per year, so why is limiting or even banning their use still a grossly inadequate strategy?
Intuitively, it seems a good idea to charge Malaysian shoppers for the use of plastic shopping bags to reduce our nation’s plastic wastes.
A study published in Science by Jambeck and his associates in 2015, for instance, estimated that, out of 192 coastal countries in the world, Malaysia is the eighth largest producer of mismanaged plastic wastes. (wastes that are not adequately disposed or recycled). This study estimated that in 2010 Malaysia had produced 0.94 million tons of mismanaged plastic wastes, of which 0.14 to 0.37 million tons may have been washed into the oceans. Thirteen percent of Malaysia’s solid wastes are plastics, of which 55 percent are mismanaged.
Malaysia is the 8th larger producer of mismanaged plastic wastes in the world. It is estimated that between 0.14 to 0.37 million tons of our plastics may have been washed into the oceans. (c) aryfahmed @ fotolia.com
But how much of these mismanaged plastic wastes are from plastic shopping bags? Unfortunately, no rigorous study has been conducted to determine this amount – or even how many plastic shopping bags Malaysians use in a year. For the latter, various estimates do exist, but they vary widely with one another, swinging from a total of 9 to 22 to even a whopping 55 billion plastic shopping bags per year.
That Malaysians use 55 or even 22 billion shopping bags in a year seems disproportionately very large, especially when you compare our use with other countries. All 27 countries in the European Union, with a combined population of about 500 million, used a total of 86 billion plastic shopping bags in 2010 – but Malaysia’s population is only 6 percent of EU’s. The problem with Malaysia’s estimates is that most of them, if not all, were derived from informal observations at supermarkets.
So, how many plastic shopping bags do Malaysians use in a year? To answer this question, I used the internet to scour for data of plastic shopping bags use by various countries along with the countries’ respective GDP (Gross Domestic Product) (Table 1). I figure that countries with a higher economic activity or growth would lead to a higher use of plastic shopping bags. Some countries, however, do have existing plastic shopping bags bans or charge, so to get a better representation between GDP and plastic shopping bags use, I did not consider countries that have some forms national plastic shopping bags bans or charge, such as Taiwan, Australia, UK, Canada, Ireland, Estonia, Bulgaria, UK, Germany, and Denmark.
Table 1. Number of plastic shopping bags (PSB, in billions) used per year by countries
The result is what you see in Fig. 1. It turns out that there is a linear relationship, albeit a weak one, between GDP and plastic shopping bags use.
Fig. 1. Relationship between the annual number of plastic shopping bags used and gross domestic product (GDP) of countries.
Using the linear regression equation and Malaysia’s mean GDP for the past five years from 2011 to 2015, I estimate that Malaysians use a total of 3 billion plastic shopping bags, rounded to the nearest 1 billion, per year. This number is incidentally the same as for our immediate neighboring country, Singapore. But since Singapore has a smaller population than Malaysia, this means a Singaporean use nearly six times more plastic shopping bags per year than a Malaysian. However, Singapore is ten times more efficient in managing their plastic wastes compared to Malaysia. As stated earlier, 55 percent of Malaysia’s plastic wastes are inadequately disposed or recycled, compared to Singapore’s outstanding five percent. So, despite Singapore’s greater use of plastic shopping bags per capita than Malaysia’s, Singapore’s mismanaged plastic wastes per capita are actually 28 times lower than that for Malaysia’s.
Malaysia’s nationwide No Plastic Bag Campaign Day every Saturday and similar such campaigns elsewhere in the country are unfortunately a knee-jerk response to our country’s waste management problems. Limiting plastic shopping bags use will indeed reduce plastic wastes but one question we often neglect to ask is: “What is the alternative to plastic bags?” We still need to carry home our purchased items.
Research have shown that plastic bag alternatives such as paper bags and cotton tote bags are actually more environmentally unfriendly than plastic bags. One of the most comprehensive studies, published by the Australian government in 2007, showed that paper bags, because it is thicker than plastic, have a higher carbon footprint than plastic bags. Also because of paper’s greater thickness and weight than plastic, paper take up more space in trucks and transport vehicles would burn more fuel transporting paper than plastic. A 2011 research by a British agency estimated that a paper bag has to be used by at least four times to equal the carbon footprint of that a conventional plastic bag.
Existing alternatives to plastic bags have far higher negative environmental impact than conventional plastic bags. Instead of paper or cotton tote bags, good alternatives are bags made from recycled plastics (photo from greenyatra.org).
Another alternative is the cotton tote bag but which fares even worse because cotton is a resource-hungry crop. Less than three percent of the world’s cropland is cotton, but yet cotton accounts for about one-fifth of the global market of insecticides and one-tenth of pesticides. Moreover, to produce one kg of cotton requires 20,000 L of water. A cotton tote bag is estimated to require an average of at least 150 number of reuse to equal the environmental impact by a single plastic bag. This number of reuse is nearly 40 times higher than that for a paper bag.
In other words, replacing plastic shopping bags with existing alternatives may be a case of reducing one problem but greatly exacerbating another.
So, yes, charging for plastic shopping bags use is a good idea but only because it raises awareness among the public about our fragile environmental, but this strategy cannot stand alone. It cannot be the onus of the Malaysian public to fight the large amount of plastic wastes our country generates every year. To do this is to ignore the larger problem.
As stated earlier, Malaysia’s has a large plastic disposal and recycling problem, where 55% of our plastic wastes are mismanaged. The key strategy is then to increase our recovery of plastic wastes through greater reuse of our plastics. Malaysia’s economy, like any middle high income countries, is growing rapidly but this growth is not matched by greater effectiveness of managing our wastes.
Unfortunately, how much Malaysia recycles is also uncertain. Estimates vary from none (0 percent) to 17 percent. A 2011 report for the Malaysian Ministry of Housing and Local Government put our country’s annual recycling rate at only 7 kg of wastes per capita. If this estimate is accurate, this means our country recycling rate is less than 2 percent, placing Malaysia at the lower end of the countries in the world that practise nearly no waste recycling. Also consider the following: the average recycling rate of the top 20 countries with the highest recycling rate in the world is 35%, nearly 20 times higher than that for Malaysia’s. Austria and Germany are two countries with the highest recycling rates in the world, both countries recycling about 62 percent of their wastes (Fig. 2). And again, our nearest neighbor, Singapore, has one up on us. Singapore is the fourth highest recyclers in the world, with an impressive recycling rate of 59 percent.
Fig. 2. Countries that most recycle their wastes (2015).
What then can Malaysia do?
Limiting plastic shopping bags through outright bans or charging for their use is vastly inadequate. Why? As mentioned previously, Malaysia generates about 0.94 million tons of mismanaged plastic wastes a year, and I estimated we use approximately 3 billion plastic shopping bags a year. A plastic shopping bag weighs between 4 to 7 g, so taking the upper limit of 7 g, this means 3 billion plastic shopping bags would weigh a total of 21,000 tons. So even if we cut down our plastic shopping bags use to completely none (i.e., zero plastic shopping bags use), we would have only reduced our mismanaged plastic wastes by a maximum of only about 2 percent.
What Malaysia needs to do is then to greatly increase our recycling of plastic wastes. The same 2011 report for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government recommended the following for greater plastic wastes management in the country:
More tax incentives be given for companies that undertake waste recycling management,
Members of the public be given rewards and redemption for turning in recyclable plastics,
Companies should be encouraged to buy back their plastics, such as buying back empty plastic bottles, containers, wrappings, and other forms of packaging,
Recycling infrastructure in the country should be improved, and
Innovation on the use and reuse of plastics should also be prioritized.
Our efforts ought to be diverted so that we instead recycle more of our plastic wastes, rather than just limiting our use of plastic shopping bags. (c) Aisyaqilumar @ fotolia.com
Unfortunately, recycling is not only unpopular but poorly implemented in Malaysia. Starting September 2016, for instance, households in Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, and several other states would have to separate their solid wastes into three categories: paper, plastics, and miscellaneous (which includes glass, metal, and organic wastes). Failure to do so risks a penalty of between RM50 to 500. This is a positive step in the right direction, but it suffers from poor implementation.
Despite good intentions, recycling of trash is poorly implemented in Malaysia. Malaysian households, despite mandatory instructions to separate their trash, still have their separated trash dumped together (photo from nst.com.my).
My family and I live in KL, and we have been separating our wastes as per given instructions since Day 1, but until today, our three plastic bags, each containing the separate groups of wastes, are still collected and dumped together. We are disheartened to see that despite our efforts to separate our wastes as instructed, our three bags are still treated as equal and dumped together.
So, Malaysia needs to identify and rigorously implement the most effective solutions to reduce our plastic wastes. Limiting the use of plastic shopping bags is a good start, but alone, it is grossly an inadequate strategy. Cliché it may be, our strategy can simply be summarized as this: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Rather than focusing so much of our energies on limiting the use of plastic shopping bags, Malaysia needs instead to greatly increase the recycling of our plastic wastes. (c) aryfahmed @ fotolia.com
Update (2 Mar. 2017): A condensed form of this article was published today in the New Straits Times newspaper [link].
Are plastic-bag bans good for the climate? by Ben Adler, Jun 2, 2016 (http://grist.org/climate-energy/are-plastic-bag-bans-good-for-the-climate/)
Billions of plastic bags still being used (http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/community/2016/08/22/billions-of-plastic-bags-still-being-used-six-years-have-gone-by-since-the-government-launched-the-n/#MhaHPEvvUByM2ywv.99)
Edwards, C. and Fry, J.M. 2011. Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006. Report: SC030148. Environment Agency, Bristol.
Environment: Commission proposes to reduce the use of plastic bags (https://www.euractiv.com/section/sustainable-dev/news/eu-to-halve-plastic-bag-use-by-2019/)
Golden Ecosystem Sdn. Bhd. 2011. A study on plastic management in Peninsular Malaysia. Report for the National Solid Waste Management Department, Ministry of housing and Local Government Malaysia. Golden Ecosystem Sdn. Bhd., Petaling Jaya.
Jambeck, J.R., Andrady, A., Geyer, R., Narayan, R., Perryman, M., Siegler, T., Wilcox, C. and Lavender Law, K. 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean, Science, 347: 768-771.
Miller, R.M. 2012. Plastic Shopping Bags: An Analysis of Policy Instruments for Plastic Bag Reduction. MSc. Sustainable Development Thesis. Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands.
Recycling rates worldwide in 2015, by select country (https://www.statista.com/statistics/516456/rate-of-recycling-worldwide-by-key-country/)
The good and the bad of plastic bag bans: Research review (https://journalistsresource.org/studies/environment/pollution-environment/plastic-bag-bans-grocery-shopping-environment)
Root of all evil: How agriculture became our bane and worst mistake
In 1987, esteemed Professor of Geography, Jared Diamond, stunned many people with his article in the Discover magazine entitled, “The worst mistake in the history of the human race” in which he argued that agriculture, far from being a blessing, was instead our worst mistake. Agriculture has indeed changed the world – but for the worst, causing gross social and gender inequality and increases in malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases. In some ways, Jared Diamond added, pre-agriculture societies were actually better off than post-agriculture societies. UK newspaper, The Telegraph, went as far as to ask in their article in 2009: Is farming the root of all evil?
How could that be? Could agriculture really be our worst mistake, the root of all evil?
No one is certain exactly how agriculture started, only that agriculture started around 10,000 years ago independently and almost simultaneously at six main locations in the world. Charles Darwin, in his book, “Descent of man, and selection in relation to sex” (published in 1871), casually speculated that agriculture may have started when humans observed that seeds fallen to the ground have gone on to sprout and grow into plants that had desirable qualities.
But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that archaeologist Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh suggested that agriculture started probably more out of desperation than inspiration. Evidence suggest Cohen could be right: that rising human populations, combined with a cooling and drying climate, left pre-agriculture societies short of food. People became desperate and started to grow their own food, rather than depend on the unstable food supply via hunting and gathering.
Considering that modern humans appeared about 250,000 years ago, agriculture is consequently a very recent human discovery – and a momentous discovery too. The start of agriculture is undoubtedly a very important milestone, for better or worse, in modern human history for several reasons.
Agriculture is the foundation upon which all human civilizations, past and present, from the least to the greatest, are built. Every civilization, without exception, begins near rivers for a simple reason. They required easy access to freshwater to feed their crops and animals. Ancient Egypt and Nubia civilizations, for instance, begun along the Nile River in North Africa, and the Yellow River in China was the birthplace of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties. Likewise, the Harappan civilization begun along the Indus River and the Mesopotamian civilization along the Tigris-Euphrates River.
Agriculture is the foundation of every human civilization, from the least to the greatest. Only with agriculture could a civilization expand its population to large numbers quickly and to develop complexity and sophistication in its culture and socioeconomic and political structures (c) Pius Lee @ fotolia.com.
Agriculture allowed humans to stop moving from place to place in search of food and to settle down permanently in one area. This carried important consequences. Agriculture provided humans stability. And stability meant humans could increase their populations to large numbers and to do it very rapidly. Before agriculture, humans depended on hunting animals and gathering of fruits for food. Such a lifestyle would simply not be able to sustain a large population all year round.
It is estimated that the world population, without agriculture, could not exceed 150 million people. But today the world population stands over 7 billion people, nearly 50 times more than what a hunter-gatherer world could cope.
Hunter-gatherer societies or tribes are small, nomadic, and austere (c) marziafra @ fotolia.com.
Having stability also meant post-agriculture societies could develop increasingly complex and sophisticated culture, education, and socioeconomic and political structure. Human skills, no longer limited to just hunting and gathering, became more diverse, specialized, technical, creative, and methodological. Because of agriculture, societies could now comprise a myriad of professions such as teachers, doctors, politicians, musicians, artists, engineers, farmers, and builders.
But a farm is no Garden of Eden. Agriculture has several important and serious drawbacks. In recent years, anthropologists have quietly revised the view that the outcome of agriculture, rather than a blessing, was more of a fall from grace. Why?
Because of agriculture, we have inadvertently traded quality of our food for quantity. True, agriculture has allowed us to produce abundant food consistently, but agriculture has also limited the types of food we eat. This in turn caused higher incidences of nutrient deficiencies and unbalanced diets. Hunter-gatherers, for instance, ate a much more varied of food, as many as 60 to 70 types per year. But once we converted to agriculture, we became dependent on a much smaller number of food types.
Today, for instance, half of our daily calories come from only three crops: rice, wheat, and corn. Without these three grain crops, we would truly have difficulty in fulfilling our daily calories. Such staple foods are rich in carbohydrate but low in protein and do not contain the essential nutrients in sufficient amounts for a healthy life. Having to depend on a very limited number of crops means we are vulnerable to food shortages and society upheavals should our crops fail from drought or pest and disease attacks, for example.
The Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 to 1879 highlights such a case. The Irish’s over-reliance on a single crop (potato) as their staple diet and the lack of genetic diversity in the planted potatoes meant that when the potato blight attacked in the 19th century, the blight disease caused devastating and widespread losses to their food supply. Mass starvation ensued during which a million people either died from starvation or famine-related diseases and another one million people emigrated. Even those of whom emigrated, it is estimated that one in three still lost their lives.
Examinations of human skeletons in the Nile Valley, Egypt showed that the hunter-gatherers who lived there some 13,00 years ago had lower signs of malnutrition and illness (as indicated by their teeth) by as much as 40% than their farming successors 1,000 years after they had adopted agriculture. Furthermore, the average height of a hunter-gatherer was 5’ 8’’, but when agriculture was practiced, the average height of people fell by four inches.
Examination of human skeletons showed that the hunter-gatherers were actually more healthy and longer-living than their early farming successors (c) ymgerman @ fotolia.com.
Such discoveries in Nile Valley in Egypt are not unique. Skeletons in Greece and Turkey showed similar signs. Prior to agriculture, the average height of a hunter-gatherer there was 5’ 9’’ for men and 5’ 5’’ in for women, but after agriculture, people’s heights fell by nearly half a foot on average. Yet again, people’s health deteriorated as a result of agriculture, where early farmers, compared to their hunter-gatherer predecessors, had 50% more enamel defects which is indicative of malnutrition, four times more iron-deficiency anemia, three times more bone lesions which are indicative of infectious diseases, and an increase in degenerative spine conditions which are indicative of harder, more physical labor. Even life expectancy fell from 26 years for hunter-gatherers to 19 years for people in the early post-agriculture period.
And the fact that agriculture allowed humans to settle permanently in one area and in large numbers and in crowded spaces encouraged the occurrence and spread of infectious diseases and pestilence. Keeping farm animals close to people further exacerbated the risks of epidemic diseases.
Besides encouraging malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, agriculture worsened social divisions and inequality. Research from the 1960s to 1970s showed anthropologists such as Richard Lee (University of Toronto) and the late Yehudi Cohen (then Rutgers University) that hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian and consensus-based. Food was not always available and whatever food that were available were consumed quickly; little were stored. Such survival conditions meant that hunter-gatherers had to closely depend on one another for finding food; thus, cooperation, sharing, and mutualism were essential in such societies.
But with the adoption of agriculture, food became abundant, so much that now not everyone needed to be involved in obtaining food. The society eventually divided into food producers and non-producers. Skills became diversified and specialized, some of which were more useful and more sought after than others. Distribution of wealth became more disproportionate, depending on how well one could control the production and distribution of resources. Social hierarchy gradually evolved and became institutionalized, polarizing groups of people, creating the haves and have-nots, the elites and peasants, the rich and the poor. Social inequality was inevitable and that meant some people had more food and were consequently in better health than others.
Examinations of skeletons from the Greek tombs at Mycenae around 1500 B.C. suggest that royal members had a better diet than the commoners, since the royal members were two to three inches taller and had better teeth than the commoners. Likewise, Chilean mummies around the year 1000 showed that the elites were healthier, as indicated by their lower bone lesions by as much as four times, than the peasants.
There have even been suggestions that agriculture created gender inequality, or at least made it worse. In farming, it is the women who often have the harder, more physical labor than the men. Frederick Engels, the German philosopher and social scientist, remarked nearly 150 years ago that farming was the onset of social and women inequality and the time when political innocence was lost.
Agriculture may have worsened gender inequality. Women often had the more labor-intensive, back-breaking jobs than the men in the farms (c) cronopia @ fotolia.com.
Agriculture, together with forestry, are today responsible for a third of the world’s total greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions – gases that are responsible for global warming. In 2003, William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia proposed that it was the start of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, not the start of Industrialization period in the early 18th century, that started the detrimental climate change which we now experience today. Ruddiman could well be right. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) have risen steadily since 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, respectively. Their rise in atmospheric levels are consistent with the timeline of farming intensity. Ruddiman proposed that large scale land clearing and expansion of irrigation have been increasing GHG emissions ever since farming begun. A study in 2011 by Dorian Fuller of the University College London suggested that the expansion of rice and livestock could be responsible for the additional atmospheric methane levels 1,000 years ago.
The litany of detrimental effects due to agriculture activities is long. Climate change is only one of them. Loss of biodiversity and environment damage due to land clearing and farming activities are two more.
Talk about returning to our hunter-gatherer roots is pointless. Even if we could reset history and have humans return to their pre-agriculture days, it is most likely that nothing would change: that humans would again discover and practise agriculture. Agriculture is not a random event, started spontaneously out of chance. As discussed previously, agriculture occurred not once but six times around the world, independently of one another and nearly simultaneously. In other words, agriculture was inevitable. As human populations grew, humans simply needed another way to obtain their food in a more reliable and effective manner.
Do we want to return to a hunter-gatherer life anyway? A hunter-gatherer life was hardly romantic or idealistic but arduous, short, and ruthless. Violence was common in such societies. Two-thirds of hunter-gatherer societies were in constant warfare, and nearly 90% of them would go to war at least once a year. The death rate due to tribal warfare was about 0.5% of the population per year, as calculated by Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois. This rate is equivalent to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century. Other research estimated that 15% of young men in hunter-gatherer societies were murdered, and Richard Wrangham of the Harvard University calculated that more people had died before than after the advent of agriculture.
Incessant innovation is our intrinsic characteristic. We cannot help but innovate. Agriculture is only one of our innovations, as means to obtain food more reliably and abundantly. Without agriculture, nearly all of our innovations we see today would not have been possible.
Yes, our innovations have caused us problems and crisis, often as unintended side-effects, but our innovations have also brought much benefits to improve our quality life. Health during the early periods of agriculture may be worse off than that before the advent of agriculture, but today, health has greatly improved due to better knowledge and more effective resource management.
Agriculture practices today too have changed, no longer solely focusing on profits and productivity but also on adopting sustainable practices to reduce agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment and society. Zero burning (during land clearing practices), mixed farming, organic agriculture, permaculture, intercropping, crop rotation, minimum soil tillage, mulching, composting, and biological pest control are only some of our agriculture innovations to reduce our energy use and detrimental impacts.
Agriculture practices today are moving towards greater sustainability to reduce agriculture’s detrimental impacts on the climate, environment, and society. This photo shows an intecropping field of maize and rice in Daklak, Vietnam (c) xuanhuongho @ fotolia.com.
There is no turning back; only onward. So, whether agriculture is for our better or worse would very much depend on how we respond to agriculture and its consequences.
Waiting for Bernie Sanders: Igniting a political and social revolution in Malaysia
Let’s face it. There is not going to be political or social revolution in Malaysia anytime soon—not for at least one generation. Here are the facts. Nearly 60% of Malaysians are apathetic to politics, with more than 70% of Malaysian youth aged between 19 to 24 years declared themselves as simply ‘not interested in politics’. Moreover, two-thirds of Malaysians feel they are individually powerless to exert any meaningful changes to the country.
Oddly, though, only one-third of Malaysians feel that the country is moving the wrong direction. Malaysians are strongly segregated along racial and religion lines, where 64% Malays identified with religion first, compared to 11% Indians and 6% Chinese. On the other hand, 71% Indians identified as Malaysians first, followed by 55% Chinese and 26% Malays. No surprise then that different races in Malaysia have a different perspective of this country. The most discontent race is the Chinese, where less than one-fifth of Chinese agree that the country is moving in the right direction. In sharp contrast, however, a whooping 70% of Malays see the country as moving in the right direction.
Despite appalling human rights and deteriorating social unity in Malaysia, oddly more than half of Malaysians still see the country as moving in the right direction. (c) dizain @ fotolia.com
While about half of Malaysians agree that corruption is a major concern in the country, only less than 10% see racial issues as a serious problem. The latter is surprising considering that nearly half of Malaysians agree that national unity has declined over the years. While many other countries are concern about their race inequalities and have attempted to mitigate such problems, Malaysia is rather unique because there is a large disparity in agreement between races on whether all people in Malaysia should be treated and accorded to the same rights regardless of race or religion. You would think having such a fundamental and important human right is a no brainer, that there would be a clear consensus in agreement by all Malaysians. Not true. Only 39% Malays agree that all Malaysians should be treated equally, compared to 64% Chinese.
While the government is guilty of playing the race and religion cards to divide and subdue the people, the opposition parties stand just as guilty as the government and are as crazy as for power as the government is in staying in power.
Malaysia’s future is bleak. Not only are many Malaysians uninterested in political issues, many are unaware that Malaysia is regressing politically and socially into an oppressive, divisive, ignorant, and unenlightened country. Instead, more than half of Malaysians think the country is actually progressing in the right direction, and this trend has been increasing steadily over the years since 2008.
There is no one party or one person in this country who truly represents all Malaysians, regardless of race, culture, or religion and whom is accepted by every Malaysian to champion for their respective rights.
No leader, no political party truly represents all Malaysians regardless of race, religion, or even sexual orientation. Malaysians have also allowed themselves to be strongly divided along racial and religious lines, so distrust between groups of people and racism are sky high. (c) alphaspirit @ fotolia.com
No surprise then that I gradually find myself particularly captivated by the ongoing US Presidential elections. I am captivated by the elections there because they express my desires for Malaysian politics. How I yearn that our country’s politics move closer to that in the US than the quagmire it is now.
I am of course not naïve. US politics, though touted to be the most democratic in the world, is hardly perfect or even free and fair.
In the current (and past) US elections, there have been accusations of election fraud (or at least, election mismanagement), voter suppression, and media blackout of certain President candidates. US politics are also unfortunately heavily influenced by interest groups, lobbyists, and a select powerful few (oligarchy), taking away the power and voice from ordinary US citizens. Consequently, voter turnout in US elections is among the lowest in the world, as many Americans do not see their government as serving their interest. Like Malaysian youth, the American youth too have little to no interest in politics.
But something interesting and profound is happening in the current US Presidential elections that have relevance to us Malaysians. The US is of course the sole superpower country in the world, so whoever is elected to hold the most powerful job position of a US president is of great interest to many countries. Whatever the US does (or does not do), unwittingly or not, will directly or indirectly affect us all, the rest of the world.
Sure, the US Presidential nominations may have started off in the usual, expected way, but over a span of one year, we have seen the current US elections evolving to one essentially about electing a candidate who is either willing to break or keep establishment politics, whether a given candidate wants to break or keep the status quo of a political system heavily influenced by interest groups and oligarchy.
Independent voters, so called for their disenfranchisement and disillusionment of US politics, have suddenly become interested in the current US elections. For many, this is the first time—and for the older folks, the first time in several decades—that they suddenly feel empowered that they have a say to shape the government of their future. The election of Barrack Obama as the US President in 2008 was hailed as a very significant and progressive point in US history, but many Americans have since become disillusioned by President Obama. Some see him as not being liberal enough, still held back by establishment politics. Without doubt, the US have improved under President Obama’s leadership – but the changes or improvements under him, despite over eight years, have not been enough.
In the current US elections, many Americans find themselves being offered three contrasting pathways to their future: to keep or break establishment politics, and if the latter, through divisiveness by Donald Trump or inclusiveness by Bernie Sanders?
I first heard of Bernie Sanders when he participated in one of the early Democratic debate. He, along with the other Presidential candidates, were asked what was the biggest security threat to the US at the moment. While the other candidates gave the expected answers of China, Iran, ISIS, or the instability in the Middle East, Bernie answered climate change. His answer was radical, totally unexpected, and different from others.
Some have called Bernie Sanders as a once-in-a-lifetime politician. Integrity, consistency, honesty, and authenticity are rare attributes for any politician today, but yet they accurately describe Bernie.
It was clear to me then that Bernie has a different mindset from the rest. A simple search on the web would reveal that Bernie has been astonishingly saying and fighting over the same issues for the past four decades. Bernie wants to break big banks, tax the rich, expand Social Security, and improve medical care and education by offering free health care to education to all. Like him or hate him, even Bernie critics cannot accuse him of flip flopping over issues and stance. Honesty, integrity, and consistency are characteristics not normally attributed to politicians. But such attributes do apply to Bernie.
Even when certain issues were unpopular, Bernie stood by his principles. He fought for gay rights in the 1990s when it was very unpopular and potentially a political suicide to do so then.
Bernie was against the Gulf War and Iraq war even before they happened. He was against free trade agreements when they were first proposed. Such free trade agreements have been disastrous to the US because they have cause millions of job losses in the country. Even the so-called Panama Papers controversy have shown Bernie was right when he first opposed to the Panama free trade agreement. He argued that such a trade would encourage money laundering and tax evasions in Panama. At hindsight, Bernie, the prophet, was exactly right.
Everyone can claim to be a genius after all answers have been revealed. It’s easy to say, “I told you so” after the event. For Bernie, however, his genius is his foresight. Bernie has a remarkable clear and steadfast idea of what exactly constitutes social righteousness.
Bernie is now 74 years old, old enough to be the grandfather of many – hardly a model of charisma, youth, and eloquence that would draw people to him, but yet an overwhelming majority of US millennials (ages between 18 and 34 years) have adhered strongly to Bernie. Why? As Cenk Uygur, the host of “Young Turks”, said, “It’s the authenticity, stupid. You can’t fake a 40-year record.”
US millennials are a very progressive lot—and Bernie is as progressive as they are, but not because Bernie has cleverly fashioned his stance and message to appeal to the millennials for winning the US elections. No, Bernie is authentic, fighting for the same values cherished by millennials of today even since the 1960s. Bernie himself have said that his message and views are not radical. He is merely echoing what the 99% of the country are wishing for.
Bernie was active in civil rights even in the 1960s. Here, Bernie was arrested in 1962 for his protest against racial segregation against blacks at his university.
Like Donald Trump, Bernie is a representation of anti-establishment politics, but in sharp contrast to Trump, Bernie fights for a society that runs on cooperation and inclusiveness and for a government that, for once, represents the common people, not just the few. Bernie rouses and challenges people’s desire for unity and for change towards common good and greater social justice.
Bernie is a Jew, but you wouldn’t know it because he doesn’t make a meal of it. He never pushes for any “Jewish agenda” but instead he supports immigration reform and respect for Islam—even Palestinian rights, something no US politician has ever openly defended—and these are further reflections of his inclusive universalism. No wonder then even the US Muslims have come out to support Bernie the Jew. Championing for only one race, one religion, or one group of people would strongly violate everything Bernie stands for.
As it currently stands, Bernie is trailing his Democrat opponent, Hillary Clinton, and it is very unlikely he would win the party nomination for US Presidency. But Bernie has surpassed all expectations. From initially being just an interesting footnote in the news media, Bernie has mounted a very strong challenge that no one had anticipated. He has strongly fought Hillary for the nomination, winning 18 primaries, and with overwhelming support by the millennials, far more than even Obama had when he ran for the nomination in 2008. In open primaries which allow for independents (not just registered Democrat members) to vote, Bernie has won by large margins.
Bernie Sanders has overwhelming support of US millennials (those aged between 18 and 35 years) due to his progressive and inclusive ideas. @ fuelingthebern.com
Bernie may be 74 years old, but youth support for him as the US President 2016 is very high, even higher than that for Obama in 2008. An interesting poll found that more young Americans would rather have dinner with Bernie Sanders than music megastars Kanye West and Justin Bieber combined. @ www.businessinsider.my
Even many political observers have agreed that Bernie’s campaign has brought important changes to not only the Democratic party but to the country as well. Bernie has forced his opponent Hillary Clinton to take up and even support his issues. Most of all, Bernie has galvanized the youth and independent and first time voters to fight for a more just society and for a government that truly represents the people and not just, as Bernie would say, the 1%. Bernie may at the end lose the nomination, but he has won. He brought change, true change, that whoever forms the new US government of tomorrow can no longer afford to ignore or underestimate the grassroots of the country.
You must be saying something right when you get such a large crowd to hear you speak. This was the size of the crowd of 20,000 (with a further 8,000 outside the stadium) at Portland, Oregon to hear Bernie speak in Aug. 9, 2015.
The US and Malaysian politics are of course vastly different from each other. But from my observations, it is interesting to note that we Malaysians and our leaders can learn a few things from Bernie Sanders on how to start a political and social revolution here in Malaysia. The following are the principles I have gleaned from Bernie’s movement:
Create a shared vision that everyone in the society understands — a vision that is clear and achievable and that brings together everyone, across all races, ages, culture, education, and religion. No such revolution has occurred in Malaysia because Malaysians are still religion or race first, then a Malaysian. We Malaysians are too busy looking out for our own agenda to strive for the common good.
There would be no compromise or settling for less in achieving our vision. So-called Citizen Declaration, for instance, will fail because it lacks long term and clear vision and compromises principles to achieve “vague” goals.
Work for and not against any group of people. Use positivity, not negativity. Rather that a reacting against injustice, create a movement that strives to achieve a better future. Movements like Bersih or those from the opposition parties have not achieved the desired social traction because these movements are always about negativity (like getting rid of current leaders, corruption, social injustice, etc., etc.).
Keep people engaged and allow them to work independently to achieve the goals. Again Bersih and other movements have failed because people are always “waiting for instructions” and cannot work independently. To keep people engaged, the use of social media and alternative news media are absolutely imperative to keep the momentum.
The support and involvement of the youth are crucial. They can break or trigger the revolution. The youth are full of energy and creativity but require a vision to empower and trigger them into activity. As someone once said, “the old are full of vision but lack the energy. The youth are full of energy but lack the vision.”
At the end, Malaysia still has some hope. Not much, but a potentially nascent one. A survey carried out by Cenbet (Centre For A Better Tomorrow) in 2015 showed that the youth between 18 to 25 years were the most open and accommodating than the older groups. Despite a high 40% of these youth admitting that they are racists, 91% of Malaysian youth have friends from other races and 63% of them are willing to vote for a leader from a different race. Even 26% of the Malay youth surveyed would accept a notion of having a non-Malay Prime Minister. An overwhelming proportion of Malaysian youth felt merits were more important than race when it comes to awarding projects, hiring of staff, and other business-related fields. Even 62% of the youth were comfortable with having a relative bringing in a partner of a different race to the family.
Malaysian youth are the future of the country. They are the most open minded and accommodating than all other age groups. @ sdfg.com.my
Malaysia’s future lies with its youth. They may be uninterested, even disillusioned by local politics, but Malaysia needs a Bernie Sanders-like leader to break them out from their slumber and start a political and social revolution that would truly shake the establishment to its core.
As Abraham Lincoln once famously said, “A government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Radical idea? As Bernie would answer, “No, it isn’t.”
Where is the Bernie Sanders leader of Malaysia who is able to draw in all Malaysians to strive for a common, unifying goal of a greater well-being country? (c) wellphoto @ fotolia.com
Merdeka Center Survey (2010) Malaysian political values survey 2010. Public opinion poll. Highlight of findings. Bangi, Selangor.
Merdeka Center Survey (2011) Perception towards ethnic relation: Sentiments, interaction and public policies. Bangi, Selangor.
Merdeka Center Survey (2013) Issues of voter concern. Bangi, Selangor.
Noor, N.M., Leong, C-H (2013) Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore: Contesting models. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 37: 714-726.
Preparing and surviving your Master’s or PhD’s viva voce (oral exam) in Malaysian universities
Viva voce, or simply called viva, is the most anticipated stage of your research postgraduate study because this is the stage where you will defend your research work under the intense scrutiny of several examiners, which may include examiners from outside your university, even from overseas universities. These examiners will determine if your work is credible, important, scientifically robust, and worth the level of your study (Master or PhD). Most of all, your examiners will determine if your research have adequately extended the frontier of knowledge.
A successful viva is the final major hurdle of your postgraduate study, after which, and providing you do all the corrections as recommended by the examiners, you will at long last be awarded the coveted Master or PhD degree.
Viva is an oral examination different from a written or take-home exam where for the latter, you can delay or research further before answering any difficult questions. In your viva, however, you have no such options. Consequently, you must thoroughly understand your work and be able to convince to your examiners on your expertise, confidence, intelligence, competency, and maturity in your research work.
There is no universal operating procedure for conducting a viva. Different universities will conduct their viva differently, but regardless of the exact viva procedure in your university, you will find that all universities share several commonalities with one another in several respects. Your viva will have examiners who will critically examine your work. Your viva will require you to do a short oral presentation of your research prior to your examination. And most importantly, the criteria on what determines a successful viva candidate are very similar across all universities.
I have been a university lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) for many years and have participated in many vivas. My postgraduate students too have undergone their vivas, and I am glad to report none of my students under my main supervision have faltered in their vivas. All of them have successfully graduated.
This blog article is to share my experience with you on how to prepare and survive your viva in local Malaysian universities.
Your internal and external examiners
There are two types of examiners: internal and external. Internal examiners are people from within your university, whereas external are those from outside your university. External examiners can also be from a foreign university. Some universities make it mandatory that external examiners be those who are attached with a foreign university, whereas some are more flexible: allowing external examiners to be appointed from another local university.
One of the viva rooms at Uni. Putra Malaysia (UPM). Seated around the table would be your examiners, your supervisor, and, well, you!
Teleconferencing with your examiners is possible at my university, UPM.
For my university, UPM, Master’s students will have one internal examiner and one external examiner, where the external examiner can either be from a local or foreign university. For PhD students, they will have two internal examiners and one external examiner, and the external examiner must only be from a foreign university. Your main supervisor selects your viva committee, but the final selection requires approval from the faculty level, then the university graduate school before formal appointments can be made.
To succeed in your viva, you must convince your examiners that: 1) your thesis is your own work (plagiarism and data fabrication are very serious offenses that can return to haunt you even years after your graduation), 2) you understand what you have done and written, 3) you are aware where your work sits in relation to the wider research field, 4) your work is of sufficiently high standard (in terms of scientific rigor and writing maturity), and 5) you can defend your work in response to the examiners’ questions.
What some students fail to fully realize is your examiners will evaluate your research strictly based on your written thesis and face-to-face interaction (question and answer) with you during your viva. Your examiners will not contact you or any members of your supervisory committee prior to your viva to obtain further explanation or to clear up any confusion about your work.
What this means is your thesis must robust enough as a standalone defense that adequately explains the problem and justification of your work, the purpose of your work, how you carried out your work to meet your work’s objectives, your results and interpretation of those results, and the significance of your work to the body of knowledge, as well as to the society.
Consequently, do not submit a shoddily prepared thesis, thinking you would be able to explain any shortcomings or confusions during your viva. Your examiners, reading your shoddy thesis, will not be kind in their evaluation of your work. I have witnessed such students who, because they were in a hurry to return home, submitted a shoddy thesis, only to almost fail their viva. One PhD candidate, ignoring my warning that his thesis was not ready, still submitted his subpar thesis. Unsurprisingly, his viva committee was merciless in their evaluation of his work. Although he was very, very fortunate to receive an “Accepted with Major Revisions” outcome from his viva committee, he, at the end, still failed his PhD because he was unable to make the corrections as demanded by his viva committee. His required thesis corrections were just too much for him to handle, as they would require a deep overhaul of his work methodology, analysis, and reinterpretation of results.
Some universities make it a confidential affair on the appointment of your viva examiners. But if your university allows even you to suggest possible candidates to be your examiners—or if the appointment of your viva committee is not confidential, then I recommend that you find out as much as you can about the research background and the current research of your examiners.
Read up on the publications of your examiners (even if they are not directly related to your work) to determine their research interests. This will help you anticipate the kind of questions your examiners would likely ask you. Finding out their research interests would also help you identify specific areas in your work that would strongly draw interest from your examiners; thus, these areas would likely be more rigorously examined by them.
Are external examiners more critical or stricter than internal examiners? Not always. Internal examiners can examine your work in a more rigorous manner than your external examiners. But do not be surprised, if during your viva, you find that it is the other way around. In other words, treat both your internal and external examiners as equals, that no one is automatically more lenient or stricter simply on the basis of being appointed as the internal or external member in your viva committee.
Lastly, you should not contact any of your examiners before your viva such as to get tips or hints on their questions or even to get their overall impression on your work.
Your oral presentation
Just before the Q & A (question and answer) session begins in your viva, you will be required to make an oral presentation in front of your viva committee for usually 20 to 30 minutes.
The purpose of this oral presentation is to highlight the problem and justification of your work, the objectives of study, how your work was conducted (methodology), key findings and your interpretation of them, and finally, the conclusions.
Keep your oral presentation to the allocated time. Do not exceed the time, or try to speak fast (or flash the slides forward too fast for the examiners to read) just to keep your presentation within the time. As a rule of thumb, one slide takes an average of one minute to present, so a 20-minute presentation means you need no more than 20 slides in total. As usual, practice your presentation prior to your viva, preferably also in front of your supervisory committee to obtain their feedback.
You do not have to present all your findings in this oral presentation, merely the key findings or those that are most important and interesting. There is no need to have a separate literature review section in your presentation but to incorporate this section as you discuss your results. For instance, as you present your study’s results, you can cite references or discuss previous studies that support your results and your interpretation of them.
One common mistake among postgraduate students is to present the conclusion of their study as if it is a summary or an abstract. The conclusion section is the “take home message” from your work. One way to present a conclusion section during your viva is to imagine trying to succinctly answer a news reporter on live TV who is sticking a microphone at your mouth and asking you, “What did you find out, and why should we care?”
Although examiners often wait until you have finished your oral presentation before asking you any questions, some examiners may interrupt you to seek further clarification or give their comments on any of your slides. Expect to be interrupted during your presentation; there are no rules that examiners must stay quiet during your oral presentation.
Know your thesis, Please
The days leading up to your viva date are crucial. Use this time to mentally prepare yourself and to reacquaint yourself with your own thesis.
Prepare for your viva by familiarizing yourself with your own thesis, reading up on your examiners’ work (if possible), and reading up on scientific literature related to your research. (c) torwaiphoto @ fotolia.com
I find it irritating when viva candidates sometimes behave as if their thesis had been written by someone else. These candidates, for instance, forget about what they had written or forget the location of some text excerpt, equation, figure, table, or chart in their thesis.
Some viva candidates even become surprised by what they had written or become perplexed by their own written explanation in their thesis.
Of course, no one expects you to have a photographic memory of your thesis, but at least, please be aware of what you have written and generally know what is located where in your thesis. Of all people, you the author of your thesis should be most familiar with your own written word!
Supporting documents and note-taking
Bring your notebook (laptop) into the viva room. Ensure your notebook contains all the necessary supporting documents (such as photos of your work or results, articles, saved web sites, etc.). Depending on where the discussion leads to during your viva, you might find it most useful to show one or more of your saved supporting documents to your examiners.
Other than your laptop, you should also bring a pen and scratchpad for taking down comments, suggestions, and corrections from your examiners. Your notes will ensure you do not inadvertently forget any corrections or improvements your examiners want you to do for your thesis. Even if you have an outstanding memory capacity, jot down the comments from your examiners to at least show them that you are treating their comments as important and useful.
Question and answer (Q & A)
Whatever questions your examiners ask you, their questions are intended to evaluate you based on the following nine main areas:
Is the problem of study clear and important?
Are the study’s objectives clear, achievable, and sufficient?
Are the methods used sufficient?
Are the results clear, sufficient, and important?
Can the results be explained clearly and sufficiently?
Have the study’s objectives been achieved?
Is the scientific work robust/rigorous?
Is the level of work sufficient for the awarded degree?
Are the presentation of work and writing in thesis adequate?
In other words, to pass your viva, your examiners must be convinced by the following:
that your research problems are clearly identified and important
that your research objectives are adequate and correct
that you have used the correct methodologies
that you have correctly interpreted your results
that your research objectives have been achieved
that your research scope and workload are sufficient for your awarded degree
that the presentation of work in your thesis is clear, understandable, correct, accurate, professional, and follow all formatting guidelines
that your work is original
Anticipate the questions your examiners could ask you. Be honest with yourself. Identify weaknesses in your study and prepare good answers on why and how these weaknesses exist. No research is perfect, but it is important to identify the weaknesses in your research and understand how they impact the validity of your work.
Anticipate the questions your examiners could ask you and come up with good answers for each of them. (c) takasu @ fotolia.com
Examine your research methodology. Why did you use this particular method to measure a given parameter? Why this particular method and not another, for example? Why did you design your experiment in such a way? Justify your research design, even if it was based on an accepted or standard method. Deeply understand your methodology, in particular of your statistical analysis and design. Why the large error bars?
Examine your research results too. Do your results make sense, and are your results dependable? Can you explain the observed trends in a scientifically robust manner? Do your results agree with previous studies? If not, can you explain why? And how do your results answer your research objectives?
If you have published any papers about your research during your postgraduate study, consult the feedback from your paper reviewers or referees. Their feedback is immensely useful because these are the types of questions, comments, criticisms, and suggestions you could be asked during your viva too.
As discussed earlier, knowing who are your examiners will be beneficial to you, so you can better anticipate their questions and pinpoint areas in your work that would likely be more intensely examined.
How to receive questions and answer them
The mood during your viva is extremely important. You want a cordial, diplomatic, and conducive viva environment. You want a discussion but not a heated one.
Your viva should be an environment where healthy, meaningful, and useful discussion about your research take place. (c) Minerva Studio @ fotolia.com
Avoid heated, angry discussions during your viva at all cost. You may win the battle of an argument but lose the war — and badly. (c) Minerva Studio @ fotolia.com
Some viva candidates can adopt a “siege mentality” especially under the intense questioning by their examiners. So, these viva candidates become confrontational, angry, or impatient at their examiners. But even examiners cannot entirely be faultless. Some examiners, due to their personalities, can appear aggressive, authoritarian, or confrontational, even if that was not their intention. If you encounter such a personality, relax. Do not be offended or become confrontational; you will only make things worse for yourself. Instead, take a relaxed, thoughtful, and non-confrontational response to such personalities, and you will often find the viva discussion rebalances itself back into a more diplomatic tone.
Do not be defensive or confrontational with your examiners. Do not take their criticisms or suggestions on your research as a personal attack. Your examiners can add value to your research. (c) pathdoc @ fotolia.com
Be confident, eager, and enjoy the opportunity to share your work to the examiners. Receive any questions gladly, without being defensive or offended. Do not rush to answer the questions, but take time to consider before answering. Do not take any criticism, comments, suggestions, or feedback about your work as a personal attack. No research, even if carried out by a world-renowned scientist, is free of weaknesses or faults. No research is perfect or complete such that no more suggestions can be offered to improve it.
Realize that your examiners, rather than being your taskmasters or saboteurs, are actually your impartial evaluators to help improve your research work. You will find that your examiners’ comments, criticisms, and suggestions will add value to your work. Your examiners can give you a deeper insight of your work or make you realize of other possibilities that could explain your research results. Your examiners may offer suggestions of additional or more detailed data analysis that add value to your research.
If you do not know the answer to a question, it is best that you just admit it – but then still try to answer it based on your most intelligent guess. Your examiners will respect your effort. Avoid lying, being evasive, or “talking in circles”.
If you have difficulty answering any question, avoid blaming the whole world and everyone else except yourself. Avoid blaming your supervisors, university, data, resources, or situation. You need to show competency, intelligence, and maturity in your work. So, merely blaming others or your situation for your work difficulties, especially without showing sufficient problem-solving efforts, will not reflect kindly on you.
Also avoid giving common excuses like “this is beyond the scope of my study”, “this problem occurs in all studies”, or “it’s like that” without first giving a convincing argument to support such excuses.
Handle misunderstandings or misinterpretations
So, what happens if you think your examiners have misinterpreted or misunderstood your work? Do not be so quick to blame your examiners. You need to ask yourself first: “Was my explanation clear in my thesis?” Some misunderstandings or misinterpretations can occur due to unclear, misleading, or even missing explanations on your part. You of course did not intend it as such, but before blaming your examiners, you need to re-look at your thesis to evaluate if their misunderstandings or misinterpretations were caused by you.
Of course, your examiners are not perfect. Your examiners may misunderstand some aspects of your work due to their careless reading or simply because of their absent mindedness. This can happen if they are reading a thesis on a large, multi-faceted research work. Your examiners often do not read your thesis in a single continuous session. They may, for instance, have read your chapters 1 to 3 two weeks ago, chapter 4 one week ago, and only complete reading your thesis this week. Some facts you had earlier written could have been forgotten by the examiners.
Whoever fault it is, it is important to explain well to your examiners to clear up any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. If your writing was indeed unclear, then merely explain you would rewrite that section of text. If your examiners had read your work wrong, then kindly explain their mistake.
Outcome of your viva
Your examiners will complete their evaluation of your thesis and your ability to defend your work and then decide to give you one of the following viva outcomes: 1) Accepted with distinction, 2) Accepted with minor modifications, 3) Accepted with major modifications, 4) Oral re-examination (Re-viva voce), 5) Re-submission of thesis, 6) Re-submission of a PhD thesis as a Master’s, or 7) Fail/reject.
Different universities will have slightly different viva outcomes than that presented here. One local Malaysian university has an additional viva outcome: Accepted with moderate modifications.
Whatever the set of viva outcome your university offers, you must aim for either viva outcomes (1), (2), or (3). It is important that your viva receives the “Accepted” outcome. This means there are only corrections to be done on your thesis before you would be awarded your degree (provided of course you satisfactorily do the corrections according to the examiners’ recommendations). You need to consult your university on the exact definition for each of the viva outcome, and I would not discuss them here.
All other viva outcomes (i.e., those without the “Accepted” outcome) are bad, really bad, because they involve a very major re-work of your study and a re-sit of your viva. It could also mean a downgrade of the offered degree (instead of a PhD, you would be awarded a Master for your work) or, the worst outcome, you fail.
If your viva is one of those with the “Accepted” outcome, you would be given some time to make the corrections. Again, consult your university on exactly the time limit given (i.e., different universities set different time limits). Stay within the time limit given to make your corrections.
Do not pick and choose which corrections to do – all recommended corrections must be done. Read the examiners’ reports for the list of corrections to make, as well as check the examiners’ copies of your thesis. The latter is because your examiners will also write along the margins inside your thesis on the corrections you need to do.
You can see or contact any of your examiners to resolve issues like contradictory corrections suggested by two or more examiners or unclear corrections or comments. If you disagree with the corrections, you need to give your reasons for your disagreement, but again, as discussed earlier, you need to ask yourself first if your writing, explanation, or presentation was unclear, leading to that misunderstanding.
Failing your viva – but only if you want to!
You might be surprised to learn that failing your viva is actually pretty difficult – unless you intentionally, ill-advisedly, or recklessly want to.
Before you even submit your thesis for examination, your supervisors must collectively agree that your thesis and research work are able to hold up to the intense scrutiny of your viva. In other words, you only head into your viva with your supervisory committee’s blessings. If they feel your research work are not up to the standard of your degree, you would not be given their permission to head into your viva.
So, do not “arm-twist” or “emotionally blackmail” your supervisory committee into letting you head into your viva despite their objections or reservations about your viva readiness. Unfortunately, there are some problematic or stubborn viva candidates who do this: for whatever reasons, adamantly convince their supervisory committee to allow them to head into their viva – and this is where these viva candidates face a torrid time during their viva, with some even failing or unable to make the recommended corrections.
But for most postgraduate students, their viva, though nerve-wrecking, often left a good memorable experience because their vivas had allowed them to share and discuss their work with their examiners in a cordial and professional manner.
It is normal to be nervous going into your viva. But your nerves are good. They keep you alert and ready for questions coming your way. As you grow in confidence during your viva, you will find yourself relax and even enjoy the discussions about your work.
interview with one viva student
To end my article, here’s a brief and simple video interview with one of my Master’s student, Abba Nabayi, who recently went for his viva on April 5, 2016 at Uni. Putra Malaysia.
Abba Nabayi, my Master’s student, recently had his viva at Uni. Putra Malaysia on April 5, 2016. Find out how he did by watching the brief video interview just before and after his viva!
The following video is just prior and after Abba’s viva.
Should we, religious Malaysians, indoctrinate or teach our children religion or protect them from it?
We as parents want the best for our children. We strive hard to provide the resources and opportunities to our children to discover and build up their strengths. Our hope is that our children become meaningful contributors to the society, who make full use of their lives to become a positive change and influence on others and on the society, country, and even the world.
One skill our children need to master is in critical thinking. Few parents would disagree on this. But most parents have an incomplete or erroneous understanding about critical thinking. Critical thinking is not merely about acquiring knowledge, but also, in large part, about the process of analyzing the acquired knowledge. This skill involves questioning ideas, even those that are accepted as norm. Critical thinking involves breaking down a problem into simpler chunks to be analyzed. It also involves looking at a problem from different perspectives and coming up with good solutions.
Critical thinking is an essential skill our children must muster, failing which our children have difficulty in distinguishing facts from nonsense, reality from fiction, and have a poor understanding of their surroundings and the world (c) Creativa Images @ fotolia.com.
Critical thinkers are open-minded, who are mindful of alternatives, curious, well-informed, and good judges of credibility. Such thinkers may be open-minded, but they are also skeptical. They are cautious about immediately accepting norms, assumptions, and reasons about a given stance or a belief system. They are cautious about drawing any conclusions without rational reasoning first.
Critical thinking cannot be reconciled with religious thinking because the latter involves accepting superstitions (such as “magical events”) that violate physical laws and causal relationships.
So, though we as parents say we want our children to think critically, yet many of us allow religious beliefs to be implanted and inculcated into our children, often with our blessings. In other words, we parents may be skeptical and protective of our children’s minds when it involves unusual claims, ideas, or hype, yet religion often gets a free pass to influence our children. Why is that?
Wendy Thomas Russell, author of “Relax, It’s Just God”, says this is because many of us look to religion for answers to four fundamental questions about life, which are: 1) how did the world come to be, 2) what happens when we die, 3) how should we behave, and 4) why do bad things happen? In other words, many of us turn to religion to answer questions related to the purpose in life, morality, and justice.
“Relax, It’s Just God” by Wendy T. Russell discusses on what parents should do about teaching religion to their children.
And we Malaysians are among the most religious in the world. About 80% of us are religious, and nearly two-thirds of those religious are fundamentalists: people who adamant that their religion is the one (and only one) true religion. And while people in the rest of the world would generally become less religious as they grow older, we Malaysians are religiously devout throughout our lives.
We Malaysians are highly religious, among the highest in the world. 80% of us are religious and two-thirds of the religious are fundamentalists. And religion is central to many Malaysian lives. (c) Tan Kian Khoon @ fotolia.com
There is a risk children brought up in a pious religious background may affect their critical thinking skills. Scientific studies, in particular by Corriveau and her research team in 2015, have shown that there exist differences in the perception of reality between religious and secular children (below 6 years). Secular children were reported to have a keener sense of reality, who, for instance, understood that magical events in any story they read could never happen in reality. In contrast, religious children had more difficulty differentiating reality from fiction. For instance, they were more receptive that magical events in stories they read, whether these stories had any religious background, could actually happen in real life.
Nonetheless, one important caveat from such studies is all children they studied were all aged below 6 years. Children’s perceptions of reality, including those from religious background, would likely improve as the children develop more complex critical thinking skills, especially with increasing education in science at schools.
No doubt that even religious parents do value critical thinking in their children, but these parents would not hesitate to expose their children, even at a very young age, to religion. And the religion to which these children are exposed is very often only a single religion – their parents’ religion. Rarely do religious parents expose their children to other religions. Religious parents indoctrinate their children, whether wittingly or unwittingly, that their religion is the only one worth believing. All other religions are often claimed to be false, inferior, or even evil and thus should be avoided.
Many religious parents expose and teach only one religion to their children, leading to a myopic understanding of other people from other faiths (and those without any) (c) Distinctive Images @ fotolia.com
Parents who are non-religious often also expose their children to religion. These parents fear that if their children are not taught about religion, then their children risk leading immoral, wasteful, and aimless lives. They also fear that depriving their children of religion could deprive their children of spiritual guidance and comfort in times of trouble.
At the other end of the extreme, secular or atheist parents fear of indoctrinating their children with religion, or that teaching religion to their children would backfire by making their children religious instead and believe in superstitions at the cost of rational thinking. So, some atheist parents completely shield their children from religion, having no patience and zero tolerance—a “religion blackout”—on any religious ideas.
Should we instead protect our children from superstitious, religious thinking? (c) Thomas Perkins @ fotolia.com
So, what are we as parents to do?
Regardless whether we are religious, our children should still be taught religion, but not just on a single religion but on a variety of them. The idea of teaching our children religion is not to convert our children to a particular religion but to develop religious literacy in our children, that our children have a much greater understanding about how religion plays an important role, past and present, in the society, arts, media, music, literature, politics, and building architecture.
By having greater religious literacy, our children learn about differences between groups of people and why people behave as they do. Through greater religious literacy, our children learn about tolerance and appreciation on human differences. Religion may not be important to us or to our children on a personal level, but it is important to some people, so it is important our children understand this, regardless whether our children believe in any of their religious teachings.
Through greater religious literacy, our children would also better understand what drives religious violence, hatred, racism, intolerance, sexism, and terrorism in the world today. If our children are ignorant about religions or are myopic to only a single viewpoint of one religion, then it is difficult to get our children to understand why things happen as they do in the society and world.
So, yes, we should teach religion – not just one but many religions – to our children. But we as parents need to do this on our own, without relying on others or hoping the Malaysian government would suddenly become progressive to allow the teaching of comparative religions at schools. The latter, even if well-intended to promote greater tolerance and harmony among people, would probably be abused by certain people who would indoctrinate our children. Recall that many Malaysians are highly religious, and it is easy to see how a well-meaning policy of teaching multiple religions at schools would lead to abuse, discrimination, and bias by teachers with their religious and personal agendas.
As Wendy Russell, in her book “Relax, It’s Just God”, says, “Religion isn’t rocket science.” Every parent, regardless of religiosity (or lack of it) is able to impart the generalities about any religion: on its beliefs, traditions, practices, and celebrations. Such information can easily be obtained from the web. Children books about religions of the world, free from judgement, are also available, such as those listed in Wendy Russell’s book.
Our children are our precious gifts. But our children should not be miniature versions of us but who would blossom into mature and independent individuals, capable of using critical thinking based on reason to decide for themselves on their belief system. Our children should derive their conclusions about their beliefs without coercion, indoctrination, or having been force-fed by us with our own belief systems. But to achieve such goals, our children’s critical thinking skills need to be honed. Having poor critical thinking means our children will have difficulty separating facts from nonsense or too accepting of all sorts of beliefs including dubious ones.
Inculcate a strong critical thinking based on reason in our children. Teach them to think, reason, and question everything, even accepted norms. Critical thinking is a priceless gift we can endow our children (c) DragonImages @ fotolia.com.
As the late Carl Sagan said, “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out”.
Corriveau, K.H., Chen, E.E., Harris, P.L. 2015. Judgments about fact and fiction by children from religious and nonreligious backgrounds. Cognitive Science, 39: 353-382.
Russell, W.T. 2015. Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Brown Paper Press, California.
Stern, M.J. 2014. Is religion good for children? The Slate (link).
Why we want sex with beautiful people
We can’t help ourselves. Why do we like and favor beautiful people? It’s because we want sex with them. Crude answer, no doubt, but think about it.
What if I told you that the underlying motive for all human behavior, whether in politics, religion, and socioeconomics is about reproductive success, that everything we do, either directly or indirectly, whether we realize it, is ultimately about passing on our genes to the next generation?
If what evolutionary psychologists are telling us are correct, then all our behavior are at the end governed by sex and mating. Reproductive success is the purpose of our biological existence, so they say. We live so we can successfully pass on our genes to the next generation. Sure, we may say we work hard to earn that job promotion or higher salary. But underlying our justification, evolutionary psychologists exert, is actually about creating a more conducive environment that ensures our genes are more successfully passed on to our children and to theirs and so on. In the same way, we may say we ought to choose our life partner with great care. Someone to love, so we say, someone we can grow old with. Whatever our reasons, ultimately, choosing the right life partner (or partners) ensures our genes are successfully and effectively passed on to the next generation.
And to ensure good—not inferior—genes have the greater chance of surviving over many successive generations, nature relies on beauty. Beautiful, good looks are often a sign of good health and fertility in an individual, so evolution has conditioned us to prefer certain looks. This is why we immediately recognize beautiful people.
Admit it, we like beautiful things. We like beautiful houses, beautiful gardens, beautiful sceneries, and beautiful cars. We prefer pedigree to mongrel pets. Even movies are somehow better when their main actors are beautiful. And, if the world was our oyster, we would likely have more than one life partner, either simultaneously or serially, and all our partners would be strikingly beautiful. And, yes, we would rather have sex with beautiful people than with plain looking people and certainly not with ugly people. Holding everything else constant, we prefer our children to look beautiful too.
Some scientists have established several criteria that defines female beauty such as having a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.7 and even how far apart must the eyes be from each other (i.e., optimally 46% of facial width) and how high the eyes should be above the mouth (optimally 36% of facial length). But no one needs to whip out a ruler or measuring tape to determine whether someone is beautiful. We immediately recognize beauty when we see it. More than three decades of research have shown that our beauty detection sensor is innate, built in into our DNA. How do we know this?
Studies have shown that even babies as young as one week to three months old will look more intently and longer at pictures of attractive faces. Infants, twelve months old, were observed in one study to play more and were less distress and less withdrawn when interacting with adults wearing attractive masks than those who wore unattractive masks. Even these infants played more with facially more attractive dolls than those with less attractive faces.
Not only do we immediately recognize beautiful people, but we are also compelled to want beautiful people to be around us. Social experiments carried out by ABC’s 20/20, an investigative journalism for TV, for instance, revealed that attractive people are more likely to receive help from strangers (whether of the same or opposite gender) than less attractive people. Even attractive waitresses earn higher tips, as much as 50% more, than their less attractive colleagues. Such trends are not isolated because other experiments, carried out in a more controlled and scientifically rigorous manner, have observed similar trends, that attractive people often have the upper hand over their less attractive counterparts.
Whether we care to admit it, especially in today’s age of political correctness, being physically beautiful can put us in a significant advantage over those who are plain looking. Being good looking, simply put, makes us more sexually attractive, and this in turn promises us great rewards.
In the animal kingdom, peacocks with large, showy tail get the peahens. The larger and the more showy the tail, the more chances the peacocks would mate and the more offspring they would have in their reproductive lifespan. This is an astonishing phenomenon considering having a large, showy tail carries enormous cost and risk to the peacock. Having such an elaborate tail is costly in terms of resources needed to maintain such a tail, and it also endangers the life of the peacock because such a tail can be more easily seen by predators. But the reward is enormous because the owner of such a large, showy tail gets to mate and pass on its genes to the next generation. Such animal signaling is very common in the animal kingdom. The mating dance of Birds-of-Paradise is only one of the many more examples where the more extravagant and choreographed the dance, the more chance the male bird will successfully mate.
Rewards of being beautiful: At great cost and risk to its life, the larger and the more showy the peacock tail, the more likely the male bird gets to mate and pass its genes to the next generation. Likewise, our physical beauty makes us sexually attractive with potentially great returns (photo from wired.com).
But animal signaling is not just constrained to the animal kingdom. We too behave in such a way. Being physically attractive is our version of animal signaling. In the intense competition of the workplace, first impressions do matter. Our face and our body are our ambassadors, instantly recognizable, whether we want it, because being good looking quickly conveys our potential worth: that we are competent, talented, trustworthy, intelligent, and superior. Our resumes or certificates can only take us so far, so says Allison Wolf, British economist and author of “The XX Factor”. Our worth will also include face-to-face evaluations—and being physically attractive, in addition to how we dress, can heavily tip the balance in our favor.
Life, so it appears, is unfair. Daniel Hamermesh, author of “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful” remarked that while many people are concern of discrimination over race, religion, and gender in the workplace, favoring attractive people over others is a much lesser known but just as important form of discrimination. Even employers who say they would not discriminate over people’s appearance will unwittingly go ahead and do so, as studies revealed. This is because, as stated earlier, we are all hardwired to respond favorably to attractive people. According to Gordon Patzer, author of “LOOKS: Why They Matter More Than You Ever Imagined”, we tend to find attractive people more talented, kind, honest, and intelligent than less attractive people.
The victims are then the unattractive women and men, who according to Allison Wolf, tend to suffer just as much as each other in the workplace. However, it is the obese women, in particular, who tend to suffer more for their weight than men for their short height, according to a survey, cited by Allison Wolf in her book, of the labor market in the US and UK.
To further rub salt into the wounds of unattractive people, their attractive counterparts really do tend to be smarter, richer, and more successful.
The research led by Satoshi Kanazawa from the London School of Economics, for example, studied more than 52,000 people in the US and UK over many years and found that attractive men and women scored respectively 13.6 and 11.4 points higher in IQ tests than the sample average. Furthermore, a 1994 study by Hamermesh and Biddle observed a positive relationship between attractiveness and the labor market earnings across a variety of occupations. Attractive individuals, they found, earned 5% more than those with average looks, and less attractive individuals earn 5 to 10% less.
Other surveys since then have observed the same trends. A US survey cited by Catherine Hakim in her book “Erotic Capital: The Power of Attraction in the Boardroom and the Bedroom”, for instance, found that good looking lawyers earned 10 to 12% more than less good looking lawyers. Similarly, a survey among MBA graduates found up to 15% difference in earnings between the most and least attractive people in the group. Even in courts, more attractive defendants tended to receive more lenient sentences (or even escape conviction entirely) or more likely to win their case and get larger financial settlements.
Taller men are perceived to be more attractive and have greater strength, energy, and resources. No surprise then that a study by researchers at the University of Florida, University of North Carolina, and University of Pittsburgh found that taller men tended to do significantly better in the labor market than shorter men, after controlling for differences in education, class, race, and general health.
However, that good looking people tend to be smarter, more confident, and more successful than their less attractive people could be a result of a so-called cumulative effect, according to Lisa Walker and Tonya Frevert, two social psychologists from the University of North Carolina. Because attractive people tend to be looked upon favorably by others, they are often given more opportunities and challenges in which to cultivate and demonstrate their talents, knowledge, confidence, and other positive beliefs. So, it is perhaps not so much that attractive people are innately better than the less attractive people, but more because more doors are opened to attractive people. Less attractive people are simply not given as many opportunities than their attractive counterparts to excel.
But what exactly constitutes beauty? What makes a person beautiful? One popular misconception is that the media defines beauty for us based on some arbitrary standards, that girls, for instance, like to be slim and dye their hairs blonde because the media has arbitrarily defined slim blonde girls as beautiful. But this is simply untrue. Beauty as portrayed by media and ads are the consequence rather than the cause of what people find as beautiful. Although different cultures have different standards of beauty, there is a great deal of overlap or similarities between these various so-called beauty standards.
A common misconception that the media and advertisements set or enforce the standard of beauty on us. What we see on the media and ads are instead a consequence of what we ourselves desire in physical beauty (photo from koreanindo.net).
A series of studies in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that regardless of culture, race, geography, and level of exposure to Western media (or its lack thereof), people remarkably agree with one another on whom they find as attractive and whom they do not. When photos of Victoria’s Secret lingerie models were shown to the men from the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rainforest, for instance, the men remarked that these models were moko dude (or ‘perfectly ripe’ for mating).
Different cultures have similar views on what constitutes beauty. Yanomami tribal men, when shown photos of Victoria’s Secret lingerie models, remarked that these models were ‘perfectly ripe’ for mating (photos from Ariana Cubillos/AP and Victoria’s Secret).
In 1989, David Buss from the University of Michigan, surveyed more than 10,000 male preferences of females across 37 highly diverse cultures in 33 countries. Regardless if the males were from urban, Western societies or from traditional societies such as the Ache of Paraguay or Shiwiar of Ecuador, males consistently place a high premium on the physical attractiveness, in particular on youth, of potential female mates. On average, men all over the world found women most suitable as mates at 25 years of age. Studies by Langlois and his associates at the University of Texas in 2000 and in particular those spanning the late 1980s to 1990s carried out by Michael Cunningham from the University of Louisville consistently showed that people within the same culture or across different cultures were still able to agree with one another about whom was attractive and whom was not. Work by Cunningham and his colleagues showed that men found female faces with the following characteristics to be physically very attractive: relatively small chins, large eyes, high cheekbones, and full lips.
Controversial evolutionary psychologist, Satoshi Kanazawa, co-author of “Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters”, went further by distinguishing six characteristics that define the ideal image of female beauty: youth, long hair, small waist, large breasts, blonde hair, and blue eyes, and there is an evolutionary logic, though some contentious as admitted by Kanazawa, to each of those six characteristics. Women with long hair, small waist, large breasts, and blonde hair reflect youth and good health, and in turn high reproductive value (the expected number of children a woman could have over her reproductive age) and high fertility (average number of children a woman would have at any given age).
A 2004 study led by Grazyna Jasienska from the Jagiellonian University, Poland, for example, showed that Polish women, aged 24 to 37 of age, with small waists and large breasts have greater reproductive potential, as indicated by their higher levels of reproductive hormones, over those with larger waists and smaller breasts. And the light blonde hair of young girls tend to turn darker and eventually into brown hair as the girls mature into older women. So blonde hair is often an indication of a woman’s age. A woman who still retains a blonde hair often means she is still young and at peak fertility. Similarly, women with long hair indicate good health. Older or unhealthy women tend to have shorter and less lustrous hair due to less than optimal health. Consequently, men find women with long hair, especially if the hair is lustrous, to be highly attractive because such women radiate good health and good fertility.
Even without looking at a woman’s face, hands, or body, we can often tell quite accurately if the woman is young, healthy, and good looking merely by looking if she has long lustrous hair like in this photo (photo from hairfinder.com).
But why we find people with blue eyes to be most attractive is still open to conjecture, but one possible reason is the color of the eye is related to how easily we can tell the size of the eye pupil. Our eye pupil increases in size when we see something interesting or captivating. See an attractive woman and our eye pupils dilate. So, compared to dark colors like dark brown or black, blue is the brightest color for human iris and such, blue makes it the easiest for us to tell the size of the eye pupil and thus, if the person is attracted to us. Perhaps not a coincidence then that studies in the 1960s and 1970s have found that some people describe people with light brown eyes as ‘mysterious’, but those with dark brown eyes are instead disliked by many, presumably because such a dark eye color makes it difficult for us to ‘read’ the emotions of the other person.
Blue eyes are most attractive perhaps because blue is the lightest color that allows us to ‘read’ people’s interest in us (photo from cnn.com).
Other properties define beauty too, one of which is bilateral symmetry of a face. People find symmetrical faces more attractive because facial symmetry (where the left side of the face looks the same as the right side) indicates good genetic health and fertility. Ill people or people with genetic disruptions or those born in environments with high exposure to parasites, pathogens, and toxins tend to have less than symmetrical faces and are often regarded to be less than attractive.
Having mixed parentage may also endow us with exotic, good looks. Mixed or interracial marriages are an effective way to breakdown racial barriers and racism, but with several more added benefits. Children of mixed parentage are often attractive, sometimes much more so than their parents. Such good looks are a consequence of hybrid vigor or heterosis, a theory first put forth by Darwin in 1876. Heterosis is the tendency of a crossbred offspring to have enhanced traits or better genetic quality than both its parents. Canadian actor, Kristin Kreuk, among many others, is one such example of being stunningly beautiful due to mixed parentage. Even the facial features of Americans are expected to change by 2050 due to increasing popularity of mixed marriages there.
The exotic and stunning good looks of Canadian actor, Kristin Kreuk, the heterosis product of her mixed Dutch and Chinese parents (photo from CBS Portraits).
The future ‘average’ face of an American by 2050 as mixed marriages become increasingly frequent in the US (photo from National Geographic).
Recently in 2015, researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia used an innovative approach to mimic evolutionary selection of female beauty. Using computerized images of female bodies and with the help of more than 60,000 online participants, female bodies were evolved over eight generations. Evolution of successive generations of female beauty was shaped by ratings given by online participants based on how much they liked the current generation of female beauty. At the end of the experiment, these Australian researchers found that female beauty evolved as we had expected, that female shapes considered beautiful are those characterized by small waists, long legs, and large breasts. Nonetheless, these researchers found that it is not any given female trait that makes a female shape beautiful but rather how well the various beauty traits are collectively expressed. In other words, it is not so much that large breasts makes a woman beautiful, but the combination of two more beauty traits such as the large breasts, small waists, and long, slender legs that ultimately makes a woman highly desirable.
Being beautiful, however, has its downsides. While attractive men can be considered as better leaders, sexist prejudice can work against attractive women, as opined by Lisa Walker and Tonya Frevert, social psychologists from the University of North Carolina. So, while attractive women can have the upper hand over their less attractive counterparts in certain levels of jobs, attractive women can be discriminated against in acquiring high-level jobs that require authority and strong leadership. Moreover, jealousy can occur among attractive people in the workplace, causing discrimination or loss of opportunities.
Justin Trudeau, the recently elected Prime Minister of Canada. He is hugely popular, not only for his liberal and progressive ideas, but also for his youth and good looks. But had Justin Trudeau been an attractive woman instead, the outcome of ‘her’ election could have been quite the opposite. Sexist prejudice can discriminate attractive women from holding high level posts that require authority and strong leadership.
But our perception of beauty is changing. Social norms of what should be considered beautiful are now emphasizing more on social fairness, sensitivity, and realism.
Falling sales of Barbie dolls by 20% between 2012 and 2014 has seen Mattel, the doll maker of Barbie, do a makeover of its once highly popular Barbie. In 2015 Mattel introduced 23 new Barbie dolls with eight skin tones, 14 facial structures, 22 hairstyles, and 18 eyes colors. And on Jan. 28, 2016, Mattel has further introduced three types of Barbie dolls: curvy, tall, and petite. The curvy doll in particular has noticeably fatter thighs and protruding tummy and behind.
Slumping Barbie sales meant in 2015 and 2016, Mattel had to revamp its popular Barbie doll by introducing Barbie dolls with different skin and eye colors and physical attributes, notably including a curvy, petite, and tall versions of Barbie. The curvy Barbie, in particular has fatter thighs and a protruding tummy and behind (photo from Mattel).
Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old fashion model, is yet another example of a change in people’s perception of beauty. What makes Madeline story inspiring and highly unusual is she has Downs Syndrome.
Madeline Stuart, the 18 year-old doing what was previously unthinkable: being a fashion and runway model and having Downs Syndrome. She is in the 2016 New York Fashion Week (photo from Madeline Stuart’s Facebook).
Lane Bryant, a popular US retail store on women clothing, has recently been aggressively promoting a campaign celebrating women of all shapes and sizes. Print and video ads by Lane Bryant featured black-and-white pictures of six models, all of them plus-sizes.
Changing the perception of beauty: Lane Bryant’s celebration of women in all shapes and sizes, featuring all plus-sizes models (photo from Lane Bryant).
Plus-size model, Ashley Graham, will feature in the 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition (photo from SI).
So, blonde women who are slim and tall and who have small waist, large breasts, blue eyes, high cheekbones, petite nose, full lips, and small chins may be considered as highly desirable by men. But such beauty standards are increasingly seen today as too idealistic, that most of women would not be endowed with one or more such features for beauty perfection. The society is instead beginning to accept imperfection because that is more real and fair. Perhaps one day then, meritocracy based purely on people’s intelligence, talent, and experience will no longer be skewed by physical and social attractiveness.
What is beauty then? It comprises outer and inner beauty. Focusing too much on our appearance can itself be detrimental, even if we are considered attractive, because it creates stress and anxiety. While our outer beauty fades with time, our inner beauty, in contrast, develops, and as it matures over time, we become an increasingly wonderful human being.
Dockterman E. (2016) A Barbie for Every Body. Time. Feb. 8, 2016, pp. 34-41.
Gangestad S.W., Scheyd G.J. (2005) The evolution of human physical attractiveness. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, 23-48.
Miller A., Kanazawa S. (2008) Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire—Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do. Penguin, New York.
Do robotics activities help our children learn better?
I recently enrolled my son, Zachary, to a robotics school called Little Botz Academy. This school, which has a partnership with Universiti Malaya, teaches children mainly between ages 8 to 12 years robotics using Lego Mindstorm EV3 and Rero. Also included in their curricula are computer programming and computer practical skills.
My son, Zachary, just recently started his robotics classes at Little Botz Academy. His classes are twice a week for six months.
Like most boys, Zachary loves Lego and robots. I too had my fair share of Lego and robots whilst growing up, but back then, Lego was not as popular or as widely available as it is now. Today, there are Lego movies, Lego TV series—and, blimey, even Lego theme parks. Robots today too have changed. No longer docile or passive of the past but more flexible, programmable, and reactive of today. So, combine the two—Lego and robots—and what we have is a integration of two very popular playthings for children. But are Lego and robots, at the end, just that—toys? Sure, they are addictive and nice to play with, as evidenced recently when one of Zachary’s friends visited us in our home, and they played for five hours straight building Lego pieces into robots, both of them stopping only for toilet breaks and coerced lunch. But ultimately, what do Lego and robots actually teach our children?
Only some of the many bots of the highly configurable and programmable Lego Mindstorms (photo from linuxgizmos.com).
Another popular programmable robot is the Rero (Reconfigurable Robot) (photo from rero.io).
No doubt many of us would intuitively regard that robotics activities will motivate and fortify our children’s learning. But if there is one thing I have learned from science is this: our intuitions, though seemingly common sense, are not always correct.
In other words, I was looking for empirical evidence, not anecdotes, subjective experiences, or sales pitch from robotics school brochures, on how effective robotics classes would help in my son’s general learning experience.
The reality, at the end of my research, is simply this: there is still insufficient evidence on robotics’s actual impact on enhancing our children’s learning experience. But before you conclude that robotics classes are a waste of our precious money, be aware that having robotics activities in classrooms is a rather recent novelty, so expect still an unsatisfying number of studies carried out on their effectiveness. A more serious problem, however, is how these past studies have been conducted.
Most past studies that did evaluate the use of robotics activities in school classrooms are unfortunately descriptive in nature, that solely rely on teachers’ and children’s mere subjective reports of their learning experience. A recent 2012 review of studies by Benitti from the Universidade do Vale do Itajai, Brazil, for instance, found that during the ten-year period from 2000 to 2009, only ten studies had used empirical analysis to measure the impact of using robotics as a teaching aid in school classrooms.
Moreover, robotics in the past have mostly been used in a limited manner, typically in teaching topics directly related to robotics. Benitti remarked that robotics need not always be about robotics per se, but can be made general enough, without being tied down to any academic area or scope, to accommodate to the children’s interests, whatever that may be. Children who are interested in cars, for instance, would apply what they have learned from robotics to create motorized vehicles, or even children who are interested in music or arts to create interactive sculptures.
Even though limited in number, the ten studies found by Benitti are nonetheless comprehensive enough in scope, covering a total of over 1,200 school students from ages 6 to 15 years old and from various countries. More importantly—to me, at least—that these studies were specifically designed to determine the effectiveness of using robotics activities not to teach robotics per se but to enhance children’s learning in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) topics.
The outcome from these ten studies are promising. They generally report that students in classes that had robotics activities scored higher in exams related to maths, computer programming, robotics, engineering, and physics than those in the control group (classes without any robotics activities). Also encouraging is robotics activities made students more intellectually stimulated and engaged about the topics being taught. The students in one robotics-aided class, for example, showed a greater understanding and appreciation in evolution topics and were more engaged in classroom discussions among their peers than those in the control group. One study found tentative evidence that the use of Lego had helped one group of students, those who perform averagely in mathematics, to improve their maths scores a year later.
Nonetheless, merely having robotic activities in the classrooms is no guarantee that they would succeed to enhance learning. There have been reports where no improvement in learning were observed. Even after a year of Lego robotics training, for instance, about 200 students in several schools across Sweden performed overall no better in mathematics and problem solving than those who did not receive any Lego training.
Consequently, the effectiveness of robotics activities in enhancing learning depends on several factors, some of which, as asserted by Lindh and Holgersson from the Jönköping International Business School, Sweden, are: 1) children must be given enough space in the room to work with their robots, 2) no more than two or three students to be assigned to a single group working on a single robot or activity, and 3) the robotic tasks given to the students must be specific, realistic, and be related to the currently taught topics at schools. But the most important criteria of effective robotics training is ultimately the teacher, who must not only be knowledgeable in robotics, but also have a positive attitude and be motivated to steer the children’s learning process.
Scientific evidence about the effectiveness of robotics activities may still be lacking or not be entirely convincing. But just like the progress of any other scientific enquiry, I am sure, over time, the effectiveness of robotics training will eventually become increasingly clear with mounting evidence. Without doubt, robotics classes are becoming increasingly popular today, especially among children, and scientists would want to establish their efficacy.
So, at the end, it is important to have realistic expectations about the effectiveness of robotics classes. Yes, such classes can be effective, but much depends also on the school itself: their robotics curricula, how the school carry out their classes, and the kind of learning environment they create. Little Botz Academy, my son’s robotics school, does appear to have the right ingredients, as I have listed earlier, but I am not sending my son there because I have become totally convinced about the effectiveness of robotics activities. No, I am sending Zachary there because I see that he enjoys playing with Lego and robots, and I am sure some meaningful learning outcome will emerge as he designs, builds, and programs his robots. It is also important to allow Zachary discover if his fascination and enjoyment of Lego and robots would go beyond of just being toys to something more meaningful and life-changing.
But most of all, I want my son to learn robotics because I do not want him to grow up thinking that learning becomes meaningful only in the absence of fun.
Zachary having a go with his Lego Mindstorms set during class.
Benitti F.B.V. (2012) Exploring the educational potential of robotics in schools: a systematic review. Computers & Education, 58, 978-988.
Lindh J., Holgersson T. (2007) Does lego training stimulate pupils’ ability to solve logical problems? Computers & Education, 49, 1097-1111.