Of Siblings and Sea Sponges

Until our early twenties, my sister and I had almost identical academic histories, right up to and including dropping out of a physics degree. The only significant substitution was that she took an A-Level1in electronics while I took one in chemistry. This had an interesting side-effect: I have a paired control case for studying A-Level chemistry. It's especially interesting as I'm fairly sure that A-Level chemistry was one of the more practically useful academic endeavours of that period, even though I never went on to study it further.

There are so many common domestic activities where a working knowledge of chemistry is useful. Thickening a soup, thinning some paint, picking a suitable cleaning product or using the right glue all become a lot easier to do on the fly when you understand the principles behind them. I have learned a lot of useless stuff in my life2, but I've never regretted understanding what emulsification is, or how detergents work, or why acids are corrosive. I've never wished the knowledge of why glass and metal and rubber behave that way be replaced with something more useful. I also have a reasonable test for whether any given piece of knowledge is dependent on me having studied A-Level chemistry: I can just ask my sister.

You know what I didn't study at A-Level? Biology. I did one chemistry module in biochem, and I've picked bits up as an interested observer over the intervening years, but there's some alternative version of me in some Bizarro Biology A-Level world, wandering around with all sorts of knowledge of metabolic processes and enzyme production and protein synthesis, using the crap out of it in assorted everyday ways that I can't imagine. It's tantalising to think about Bizarro Biology A-Level me. So tantalising, in fact, that I've taken a few small steps towards becoming him.

You may already be familiar with brothers John and Hank Green as YouTube Internet Celebrities, who started vlogging to each other in 2007, and ended up with a committed internet following. They are both eloquent and diversely well-educated, with a broadly-appealing nerdy charisma and sense of humour. A year or so ago they started expressing frustration that while the internet is very informative, it's not necessarily as educational as they might like. There are many ways of learning a lot of atomic facts about a subject, but it takes a certain amount of effort to put those facts into a broader context where you actually start to appreciate what they mean. With this in mind, they started CrashCourse.

CrashCourse consists of playlists of 10-12 minute videos, with each playlist intending to provide a broad introductory overview of a subject. At present those subjects include Biology, Chemistry, Ecology, World History, US History and Literature. Over the past couple of weeks, I've worked my way through Hank's Biology playlist. It clocks in at about seven hours, and while I doubt I'm equipped for a Biology A-Level exam after that, I have more substantial foundations in place for further inquiry. I'm not very well-equipped for Chemistry A-Level right now either, but the useful concepts are still there.

The videos are produced with laudably high production values, and while they are watchable and entertaining, I believe they also succeed at the broader goal of being genuinely educational. "OK," they'll sometimes say, "this one is going to be pretty involved, but please bear with me; it's kind of important". I have a massive amount of respect for this approach, and feel it adds to the credibility of an educator if they have some faith in your motivations for learning.

While my biology appetite has been whetted, I'm not sure what to follow it up with. It is a massive subject, and yet it doesn't intersect too neatly with anything else I'm studying at the moment3. I may just let it brew for a while. There's also eight hours CrashCourse World History playlist sitting there, winking at me, and if I'm honest, I think I prefer John's delivery to Hank's.


  1. For non-Brits, A-Levels are among qualifications typically obtained between the ages of 16 and 18 before going to university. 

  2. I possess an alarming number of "facts" about starships, supernatural creatures and the metaphysics of fictional TV shows, which I'm sure will serve me well if I'm ever stuck in a piece of Star Trek/Buffy/Quantum Leap crossover fanfiction. 

  3. In actual expensive-piece-of-paper education, I've just finished a unit on medical statistics, and pharmacology/methods of action/chemistry crossovers is something that piques my interest when reading Derek Lowe's blog, but this would presumably require some pretty heavy and well-directed study before I have any appreciable understanding, which I then probably wouldn't have much use for. 

Triptych: Foundations of Logic

Part of what I want to accomplish with this blog, and my mission to read an introductory textbook in every subject I claim to be interested in, is to map out my own ignorance. It's easy to convince yourself of your own imaginary expertise in a subject if you've never been forced outside of your comfort zone within that subject. I notice that a lot of people haven't been forced outside of their comfort zone on the subject of logic.

Many people who have done a bit of programming, a bit of maths and read a few Wikipedia articles on logical fallacies seem to fancy themselves experts on logic. A lot of these people are very vocal on the internet. I used to be one of them and I'm very, very sorry. In more recent years I'd found these people frustrating to look at, mostly because I'd done a bit more maths and read a bit beyond the Wikipedia articles, but I didn't have a particularly high horse to climb on.

By accident rather than design, over the past few months I've wound up completing something of a foundations-of-logic triptych, studying a coherent body of knowledge on three different fronts. It started with Lepore's Meaning and Argument, which I've mentioned previously. Then for unrelated reasons I ended up working through the Coursera Think Again: How to Reason and Argue MOOC, and Doug Walton's Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach.

Meaning and Argument

This is something of a misnomer as far as book titles go, as it doesn't really cover anything about meaning in the sense of semantics. I got hold of it on the recommendation of the Less Wrong Best Textbooks list. It is primarily an introductory text on formal logic, covering propositional, categorical and first-order logic, as well as use of logic-tree techniques to validate deductive arguments. It doesn't cover inductive logic. It excels at presenting a large number of exercises for drilling oneself in translating natural language into logical notation, as well as manipulating that notation and evaluating it for deductive validity. A very strong emphasis of the book is demonstrating the resistance natural language exhibits to being systematically translated in this manner.

Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach

Whereas the previous text dealt with formal logic as an abstract set of relationships between propositions, this text, as its title suggests, covers informal logic in the familiar environment of human discourse. It primarily concerns itself with the purpose of different types of dialogue, pragmatics, different categories and subcategories of informal argument, and in particular distinguishing cases where these categories of argument are and are not fallacious. This book strikes me as a very pleasing antidote to anyone who first sees a list of logical fallacies and thinks "woah! I'm totally going to win me some arguments with these!" In fact, it almost seems to be written for this specific purpose. It is not the easiest book to read from cover to cover. Previous versions had the subtitle "a handbook for logical argumentation", and the reference/handbookiness of it is very apparent. While it is very fit for purpose in terms of ironing out one's understanding of informal fallacies, I would recommend it only until I find something more readable.

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue

The goals of this course are wide but not lofty. It is a very broad introduction to a selection of topics surrounding reasoning and the formation and evaluation of arguments. I can't even remember why I started watching the video lectures, but I very quickly found myself charmed by the course instructors Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Ram Neta. Their deliveries were warm and entertaining, and I found myself watching video after video. I skipped quite a few of the videos on subjects I'd covered in detail elsewhere, and watched most of them at 1.5x speed. In my case this was very much a gap-filling exercise, but over such a broad area there were quite a lot of gaps.

Think Again covers the linguistic foundations of arguments, formal logic up to first-order (along with a lot of drilling exercises, which I didn't really bother with off the back of Meaning and Argument, but which strike me as potentially useful), inductive arguments, causal and probabilistic reasoning, various categories of fallacious reasoning and processes of refutation. This was my first introduction to Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, whose academic work involves practical ethics and the evolutionary basis of morality. Off the back of this course I obtained his textbook, and while I've only flipped through it, the first half seems structurally similar to the Think Again course, only a lot less MOOCy and in much greater depth.

This triptych has definitely given me a much stronger position of meta-knowledge on various concepts and activities that get labelled "logic", though at some point I should take a more comprehensive introduction to mathematical logic and make it a tetraptych1. Off the back of it, I'm probably going to investigate Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's other philosophical work, and I'm motivated to investigate the linguistics/pragmatics angle in more depth; I've been sitting on O'Grady's Contemporary Linguistics for about a year.

The triptych format (approaching a subject from three different sources) seems like a good format for building a solid subject foundation, so I may very well employ it again in future.


  1. This is totally a real word. I just looked it up.