Towards Real Science…or Not.

There is an excellent essay by Lyell Asher, of Lewis and Clark College, about the value added by “real liberal arts education” in The American Scholar.  The crux of the argument is captured by the following passage.

A college ought to be the ideal place to help students learn to resist such simplifications—to resist them not just inside the classroom, in the books they read, but outside in the lives they lead. Rightly understood, the campus beyond the classroom is the laboratory component of college itself. It’s where ideas and experience should meet and refine one another, where things should get more complicated, not less.

Of course, this is exactly the relationship between “theories” and “science.”  As I keep repeating, all of “science” is just a set of theories, and by definition, all theories are wrong, or at least incomplete.  They are all deliberate oversimplifications so that we can keep our heads reasonably organized, for the time being.  Learning science, really, is the process where we learn the old theories, figure out all the different ways in which they are wrong, and try to develop new theories that are hopefully less wrong, but in full knowledge that we will never actually get to the truth.

I used to be extremely proud that I used to follow this path when I was still in academia, but also, that this proved my undoing both in the publication business and in teaching business.  Papers need to be “on point,” which often amount to being in favor of some theory or another, not pointing to complexities in the reality that fit no theory very obviously.  Ironically, it is much easier to be published in top journals, provided that you have findings that are significant enough, but without the disclaimer “I’m with theory A” or “I’m with theory B,” publications in low tiered journals is difficult, and a lot of findings, while potentially thought-provoking if you think through their implications carefully, are not “obvious” or “big” enough for publication in top journals.  A common complaint from students I had was that they felt that I was making things more complicated than “they needed to be.”  (partly true–although I dispute that I was going beyond “where they needed to be.”) and that what “the right answers” were was not always clear.  (This perversely echoes Asher’s observation, “But what happens when the administrators who supervise this lab—sometimes in tandem with professors who teach the courses—pretend to have so mastered the difficult questions of race, of social justice, of meaning and intention, that they feel entitled to dictate to others?”  In order to clearly define the answers as being “right” or “wrong,” we do have to dictate to others, and for that, we have to pretend that we have an absolute mastery of the “science,” when it is, by definition, ridiculous as noted above.)  One of my friends from graduate school–ironically, a Lewis and Clark grad–wondered incredulously if I am trying to make my students more confused, which, in a way, is actually true, by challenging their assumptions, by showing that the world is complicated, and the topics on hand demand clearer, deeper thoughts.  Alas, these make for very polarizing classrooms.

To be honest, I have to empathize with the students:  they are not really in classrooms to think, realistically speaking.  They are attending college because they need a degree, and they are, in a sense, right to feel that they should go through a clearly-defined process en route to that goal, not get waylaid by having to think about things that are of little interest or concern to them.  They have a lot of demands on their lives–often, very serious ones, as the students who have multiple full time jobs while attending school are not unheard of in state colleges.  Being forced to think endlessly about questions without good answers is, to be honest, a waste of time.  So complicated questions wind up being dismissed with simplistic answers that are, in their core, quite insulting, if you think about them.  I call them “flying spaghetti monsters.”  I don’t know if I really believe in a religion (I call my uncertainty about belief or unbelief my Judas sin, if you read my earlier posts), but I take religion seriously as I know that many people do, and that religion, as a shaper of collective action, is a vehicle for tremendous good and evil.  The significance of religion in society is something that cannot be overstated, whether one believes it or not or likes it or not.  But the “flying spaghetti monster” kicks away all these questions as undeserving of further thought in a flippant and dismissive manner.  Most canned answers rooted in “morality” and “normative bases” wind up falling in such traps, but are welcomed by the students who just need the right answers to get their A on the transcript.  There were speculations that, when MOOC comes to replace classrooms, famous actors might be better suited to teach them than academics.  I don’t see why not:  they don’t need to know, they don’t need to think things through, they just need to offer canned answers with nothing more than an appearance of conviction.  Academics already do this, for most part, and are doing them badly.  Professional actors can at least deliver their lines with a better show of conviction than not.

I keep coming back to the debate between Ken Hamm and Bill Nye, and what made me truly respect Nye–that he basically said that he does not “believe in” evolution, that, if presented with incontestable evidence of creation, he will change his beliefs.  Science is not about “righteousness.”  It is about understanding and getting the facts “right.”  If our previous understanding is wrong in face of facts, we have to change our understanding to be “right.”  This, however, makes science bad at shouting matches.  We don’t ultimately believe, not even our own arguments beyond what the evidence suggests.  We are prepared to change our mind when things change.  We have, in principle, no conviction other than our knowledge is imperfect and we need to learn constantly in order to repair the gaps.  (I joke that the idea of “God of the gaps” is both true and false–true because we need a God because our understanding is full of gaps, and will never fill them up completely, but false in that God does not consist of the specific gaps.  That we know more now has opened up even more questions–filling in specific gaps open up new gaps that we did not know about, and the process will continue as long as there is still science.)  If Nye’s statement has prompted some young creationists to search for the credible evidence that will convince scientists to believe in evolution, not phoney evidence to score PR points with the mass public, that actually is a real victory for science, far more than a moralizing sermon that creationists for going to hell for not believing in evolution god as their personal savior, or something like that.  Very few students got the point of a lecture I gave about this, in context of political persuasion.  But I was extremely proud of the students who did.  (NB:  In an odd way, I am actually deeply respectful of the creationists who have come up with creative approaches to reconcile fruits of modern science that arise directly from evolutionary process-e.g. flu vaccines.  One of my friends ridiculed them as a sign that they are not “true believers” in what they are saying…but science should have no “true believers.”  In the end, though, I think all forms of “scientific creationism” is doomed to failure because, in order to be a “science,” God has to be a theory, and every theory is fallible.  I’m reminded that, as fond as I am of saying this, this was actually argued by Fr. Georges LeMaitre, the father of the Big Bang Theory and yes, a Catholic priest on top of an MIT PhD in physics.).

Of course, it was Nietzsche who said “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”  Education should demolish all convictions so that the truth may thrive.  Alas, more education seems to lead more conviction, not less–as evidenced by the reactions to the 2016 elections.  Our higher education system may be to blame for this.

PS.  This passage, near the end of the essay, is worth chewing over.

This ought to be, but seldom is, what’s implied by all the talk about diversity in higher education. It’s not that the talk about diversity goes too far, but that it never goes far enough. It’s long on the differences between groups, but short on the differences within them, and within each one of us. Yet these last differences—the “multitudes” and contradictions that Whitman found within himself—provide the surest route to human connection and regard, because only when we recognize and admit just how mysterious we are even to ourselves, can we begin to relate to one another with open attitudes of humility and uncertainty, rather than closed attitudes of judgment and fear.

The same statement could be reexpressed in statistical terms, via my favorite example that confounds many students.  It may be that the average Belgian is taller than the average Hungarian, but the overlap between the distributions their heights is enormous. Large sample size can only tell us about the means and cannot make tall Hungarians or short Belgians disappear.  The variance within the populations, how fat the distributions are, and how much they overlap, for some questions, are far more important than the misleading differences between the means.  Higher education should teach students what the right questions are, for different circumstances, not look for simple and easy “right answers” which probably do not even exist.

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