Tag: education

Science doesn’t teach us anything

When someone says science teaches us such and such, he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach it; experience teaches it. … And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments (but we must listen to all the evidence), to judge whether a reusable conclusion has been arrived at. [187]

What a problem is

The essence of experimental testing is that there are at least two aparently viable theories known about the issue in question, making conflicting predictions that can be distinguished by the experiment. Just as conflicting predictions are the occasion for experiment and observation, so conflicting ideas in a broader sense are the occasion for all rational thought and inquiry. For example, if we are simply curious about something, it means that we believe that our existing ideas do not adequately capture or explain it. So, we have some criterion that our best existing explanation fails to meet. The criterion and the existing explanation are conflicting ideas. I shall call a situation in which we experience conflicting ideas a problem.

The example of a conjuring trick illustrates how observations provide problems for science – dependent, as always, on prior explanatory theories. For a conjuring trick is a trick only if it makes us think that something happened that cannot happen. Both halves of that proposition depend on our bringing quite a rich set of explanatory theories to the experi­ence. That is why a trick that mystifies an adult may be uninteresting to a young child who has not yet learned to have the expectations on which the trick relies. Even those members of the audience who are incurious about how the trick works can detect that it is a trick only because of the explanatory theories that they brought with them into the audi­torium. Solving a problem means creating an explanation that does not have the conflict. [16-17]

On the use of authority in critical thinking

But shouldn’t an expert’s authority count for something? And isn’t there some appropriate use of authority in critical thinking?

If what I have been saying is true, then courses in critical thinking should teach our students how to criticize authority instead of teaching them how to defer to it. But if this is true, then a statement by an ‘appropriate’ authority should be the first word in a critical inquiry instead of the last. It should be the word that we listen to in order to discover how things stand in a field, what its major problems are, and which of the solutions that have been proposed seem most promising. And it should be the word that we then examine and question and put to the test as we begin to think critically about the field ourselves. I have no doubt whatsoever that this use of authority is very often necessary, appropriate, and rea­sonable. But it is not an argument from authority. It does not pretend to be good evidence. And it is not presented as a justification of any claim. It would, however, be one that is fully consistent with the goals of critical thinking. [136]

Science and art: hidden likenesses

The discoveries of science, the works of art are explorations—more, are explosions, of a hidden likeness. The dis­coverer or the artist presents in them two aspects of nature and fuses them into one. This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to be right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation. The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work. In the moment of appreciation we live again the moment when the creator saw and held the hidden likeness. When a simile takes us aback and persuades us together, when we find a juxtaposition in a picture both odd and intriguing, when a theory is at once fresh and convincing, we do not merely nod over someone else’s work. We re-enact the creative act, and we ourselves make the discovery again. At bottom, there is no unifying likeness there until we too have seized it, we too have made it for ourselves. [31]

Popper prevails

Popper’s epistemology has, in every pragmatic sense, become the prevailing theory of the nature and growth of scien­tific knowledge. When it comes to the rules for experiments in any field to be accepted as ‘scientific evidence’ by theo­reticians in that field, or by respectable journals for publication, or by physicians for choosing between rival medical treatments, the modern watchwords are just as Popper would have them: experimental testing, exposure to criticism, theoretical explanation and the acknowledgement of fallibility in experimental procedures. In popular accounts of science, scientific theories tend to be presented more as bold conjectures than as inferences drawn from accumulated data, and the difference between science and (say) astrology is correctly explained in terms of testability rather than degree of confirmation. In school laboratories, ‘hypothesis formation and testing’ are the order of the day. No longer are pupils expected to ‘learn by experiment’, in the sense that I and my contemporaries were – that is, we were given some equipment and told what to do with it, but we were not told the theory that the results were supposed to conform to. It was hoped that we would induce it. [331-2]

Science: learning from experience

But, in reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. We do not begin with ‘white paper’ at birth, but with inborn expectations and intentions and an innate ability to improve upon them using thought and experience. Expe­rience is indeed essential to science, but its role is different from that supposed by empiricism. It is not the source from which theories are derived. Its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed. That is what ‘learning from experience’ is. [4]

The catalysts of reason

School ought not be about factual knowledge. That simply shouldn’t matter. Facts aren’t so clear cut anyway, and it is hard to remember them unless you can make regular use of them. Education ought to be about preparation for real life. The intellectual issue in real life is reasoning, not recitation. We need to avoid telling students how things are and instead help them discover things for themselves. The job of a school and a teacher is to serve as the catalyst for that discovery. [22]

The enlightened American soldier

Steuben ist es nicht gewohnt, dass Soldaten darauf bestehen, Rechte zu haben, aber er versteht, dass er aus diesen Männern niemals Preußen machen wird. Einem Soldaten in Europa könne man befehlen: „Mache das! und er macht’s“, schreibt er einem europäischen Freund. Dem amerikanischen müsse er zuerst erklären: „Dies und das ist der Grund, warum Du dieses oder jenes machen sollst, und dann erst macht er’s“.

An old tradition of scientific writing

Most “popular” writing in science simplifies concepts (usually trivializing them as well, if unintentionally) in the belief, often false, that understanding will thereby be enhanced. Perhaps, sometimes—but for me, the essay is then not worth writing. I will, of course, clarify language, mainly to remove the jargon that does impede public access. But I will not make concepts either more simple or more unambiguous than nature’s own complexity dictates. I intend my essays for professionals and lay readers alike—an old tradition, by the way, in scientific writing from Galileo to Darwin, though effectively lost today. I would not write these essays any differently if I intended them for my immediate colleagues alone. Thus, while I hope that you will appreciate my respect, our bargain may require from you more than the usual item of American journalism demands. [xiii-xiv]

No compromises in explaining science to the public

I deeply deplore the equation of popular writing with pap and distortion for two main reasons. First, such a designation imposes a crushing professional burden on scientists (particularly young scientists without tenure) who might like to try their hand at this expansive style. Second, it denigrates the intelligence of millions of Americans eager for intellectual stimulation without patronization. If we writers assume a crushing mean of mediocrity and incomprehension, then not only do we have contempt for our neighbors, but we also extinguish the light of excellence. The “perceptive and intelli­gent” layperson is no myth. … We must all pledge ourselves to recovering accessible science as an honorable intellec­tual tradition. The rules are simple: no compromises with conceptual richness; no bypassing of ambiguity or ignorance; removal of jargon, of course, but no dumbing down of ideas (any conceptual complexity can be conveyed in ordinary English). [11-12]