About this blog

This is the blog of Neil Ingram and reflects a variety of my interests over the years. As a biology teacher, university academic, examiner and author.

I have been deeply interested in the use of IT in schools when Windows 3.0 came out in May 1990.

About ten years ago, I was invited to be part of the Hewlett Packard Catalyst initiative and I developed a model about how school pedagogy could work in the Web 3.0 world. Some of this has been published, but quite a lot has not.

The development of Artificial Intelligence systems is generating the same levels of excitement as Windows 3.0. As the CEO of Microsoft said, “It feels like the 1990s again!“.

In the coming weeks will blog about my thoughts on this, using ideas from the HP Catalyst project.

To show you round this site:

Stories from Nowhere was a lockdown project, trying to use stories to bring important ideas into middle years biology lessons. It is built on observations in a wood and work we were doing on a 16-19 curriculum framework for the Royal Society of Biology

Exploring the epigenetic landscape is a microsite about how genes interact with the environment and uses the ideas of Conrad (Hall) Waddington.

The home page contains a mixture of posts relating a university course I ran on genetics, society and education.

There are also posts on Evolution relate to a book I co-authored for Oxford University Press.

The title “tools for clear thinking” is based on a book by Conrad (Hal) Waddington, whose ideas run through every article on this site. The cover image was designed by Dall-E3, and the prompt included Waddington’s term “epigenetic landscape. I was delighted that its rendering resembled the original conception by the painter John Piper.

#T03 Beware the “either or” of binary thinking

a baby learning
a baby is learning about her world

Learning to understand the world

From our earliest days, we try to make sense of the world by dividing it up into categories:

me/not me, safe/not safe/, dog/mum

and so on.

These are called “binary” categories, because everything has to fit into one of the two choices.

“Would you like tea or coffee?” forces you to choose one of the categories.

You might prefer milk, but you can’t have it, because it is not available to you.

Binary categories are how we navigate people and things in the real world.

We use categories like:

like/dislike, good/bad,  hungry/not hungry, day/night, presence/absence, ill/well.

Binary thinking is quick and easy.

To survive we need to think quickly and easily about our world. However, binary thinking also oversimplifies the world.

Unless we live on the equator, day/night are not discrete binary categories. Twilight blends day into night; sunrise gradually turns night into day.

The same is true of many other supposedly binary categories.

Type two diabetes can show a range of symptoms, from mild to severe.

So can depression and  conditions like autism, dyslexia and bipolar disorder.

Thinking about spectrums

We are learning to talk about these conditions in terms of spectrums. The analogy comes from the light spectrum:

there is a continuum of wavelengths of light, each associated with a particular colour

The wavelength of light increases continuously from left to right from about 380 to 780 nm.

The colour changes imperceptibly depending on the wavelength.

We can use the spectrum to distinguish obvious landmarks such as red or blue.

Recognising the exact shade of red or blue is much more difficult.

Traditionally, genetics has been built on binary thinking.

Its founding father Gregor Mendel studied differences in pairs of contrasting characters.  Such as tall/short pea plants or round/wrinkled pea seeds.

It is easy to think that everything is like that.

In fact, everything is not like that.

In a population of individuals, most characteristics vary continuously from the minimum to the maximum.

Think of human height,  it is more like a spectrum than a binary category. Individuals can be any height, rather than just being either tall or short.

#T03 We need to be very wary the “either/or” of binary thinking. 

One of the biggest pitfalls of binary thinking,  is the binary category of nature/nuture. This is causing real problems in our contemporary thinking on genetics.

Of this, much more, later.