Transcendental Bloviation

Politics, Space, Japan

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Debunking the value of debunking?

Entirely by accident (well, sort of), I recently joined the Tokyo chapter of The Brights. Possibly in response to what might be called my "friendly collision" with this group, its organizer just sent a message about a change of group emphasis. The gist was: was "less debunking, more fun".

It somehow reminded me of an International Herald Tribune Teaching the Controversy". Adding to the brew, in private e-mail to me, the Tokyo Brights organizer pointed out the Tony Kehoe being the person to talk to if you're interested.) Both gave me yet more food for thought.

Debunking might not be such a useful activity for Brights and Skeptics and their ilk. Not to imply that arguments against a silly proposition are simply wrong, of course. Or even that those who wield those arguments are wrong. Rather, debunking for fun (and for the pros, profit) seems to me a case of too little, too late. If we don't treat the source of silly ideas at the root, silly ideas will continue to flower. Hack at the roots? Many mentalities root themselves in the wrong soil, so perhaps even roots don't make for such good targets. Transplantation? Probably a non-starter: Earth has a whole lot of this "soil", and there's no nicely furnished other planet to move to. We should perhaps think "strategic deployment of micro-nutrients" here, if only because of the scale of the problem. And what better "micro-nutrient" than good schooling, early and often, in critical thinking?

Read the above Michael Balter op-ed before you try to absorb the next item here: in public junior high school and high school, I hated science classes almost as much as I hated Catholic school religion classes in primary school. Perhaps things have changed, but at least one evidently intelligent high school student weighs in suggesting otherwise. Make no mistake, I fancy myself a scientific rationalist, and thought so even when young. Nevertheless, after the transition from parochial to public schools, I saw something about the way science was taught that irritated me. We were told some facts, certain ways of computing things, and given some experiments to do. We were treated to a few sidebar glances at great scientists in our textbooks. Basically, though, the treatment seem to consist of, simply, WE Tell YOU How It IS. I'd gotten enough of that in Catholic school to develop an allergy to it in any form.

Think about the real and potential value of teaching science to young people at all. Why do it? Reductively, one might defend the practice by saying that science yields technology which improves quality of life. So even if you start with tens of millions of junior high school kids forced to take science courses (and many, if not most, hating it), and get only a relative handful of productive scientists out the far end of the process (after high school, bachelor's degree programs, graduate programs and post-docs), the investment tends to pay dividends.

But look at that ratio -- tens of millions of students not-so-willingly science-educated, and perhaps only a few thousand top scientists produced in the end. What a vast expense of resources for such a small yield! And perhaps a vaste waste, too.

In one study I read years ago, about what makes for a productive scientist, it was found that about 1/3rd of all scientists deemed most productive by their peers had originally entered a small liberal arts college with no particular ambition of becoming a scientist. Small liberal arts colleges can't represent more than perhaps 3% of the total student body in college education, and yet they apparently outproduce other colleges by a factor of ten, starting with what seems like unlikely material in an unlikely context. It seems the most economical system for producing the scientists would concentrate almost evangelistic science teaching resources on the rare post-secondary student who embodies a nice balance of open-mindedness and critical thinking, and also happens to be possessed of an above-average esthetic sense.

One could argue that what scientists produce, and the technological value those results often have, forms only a small (though undeniably significant) part of the economic story. Pre-college science courses help cultivate the cadres of technologists, and even of "paratechnologists", from nurses to electronics technicians, required to deliver the products and services that science and the resulting technologies make possible. Again, I wonder if the economic argument fails. The best job training takes place ON the job. Secondary education inevitably lags the state of the art in any field.

Let's call in the reinforcements, move to the high ground: what about knowledge for its own sake? Of course knowledge has its own rewards. But you'll seldom find anyone more boring than the the guy (and isn't almost always a guy?) who seems to know everything, yet somehow disgorges that knowledge without much understanding of why things are the way they are. Chocking people's brains with facts isn't really very productive or valuable in itself.

Still, that last suggests convergence on a possible answer: perhaps science teaching should concern itself with Stories of the Pleasure (OK, maybe the agony, too) of Finding Things Out, imparting thinking skills that you can apply to almost any question in life. (While studying the lives of great physicists, I was amused to discover that memorizing formulae was far less prized as a skill than being able to rapidly re-derive formulae.) Newton approached the problem of gravity by Finding Out, incidentally co-inventing calculus (though the underpinnings of his math stretch back to the ancient Greeks.) We don't celebrate what he "knew" about theology and alchemy, those grab-bags of "facts" with little basis in reality and little coherent theory from which to derive anything new. We celebrate what he figured out.

More concretely, I suggest studying science as history, along with history. Teach it as the history of some conversations, with ever-better ways to argue about the natural world emerging slowly, not just as a series of "debunking" experiments. Teach biographies of great minds who still had their faults and foibles and fixed ideas, as we all do. But avoid hagiography - rather, focus on how few of them were lone wolves, on the value of a scientific community, even with all its squabbles and jagged personalities. Don't give the human sciences short shrift in this, but perhaps even emphasize them -- after all, if we want teaching the scientific way of thinking to almost everyone has any possible meaning for almost everyone, it should be in making people better participants in democracies. And that amounts to making them better thinkers about how people behave. All the hard-science reasoning skills in the world won't help you in the world unless you can transfer those reasoning skills to other, more humanistic, domains.

In this view of the matter, Teach the Controversy looks like precisely the right approach, even if the results are likely to backfire on its original ID organizers. (Perhaps, if the study Balter points to turns out to be indicative, ID will be force to repackage and "rebrand"?) Students should not absorb the theory of evolution as a regurgitable dogma, but as the result of many good -- even great -- minds (all initially Creationist) being changed not just by Darwin's individual process of trying to discern the truth of the origin of species, but also by Darwin's social process of putting that truth across convincingly to his peers.

In the controversy we've seen so far about Creationism, Evolution and ID, much has been made of the point that evolution can be a fact even if it's not a complete theory (which it isn't, even now), and that there's nothing wrong with students being told that it's not complete. Let's extend that to how we teach the human sciences. It's in the nature of reasoning about very complex phenomena that completion often remains elusive. Among the complex phenomena students could be taught to reason about (through the examples of successes and failures of reasoning in history) is political processes, especially if they are understood through what's now known in sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics and even the branch of linguistiscs called "sociolinguistics."

So how does all this tie into my subject line? To repeat, debunking is usually too little, too late. The weeds are already too deep and thick by the time debunking seems called for, and you'll never find a weedwhacker for neurons. Inculcating a cultural pattern that favors reason has been, to steal from Richard Dawkins' title, a process of Climbing Mount Improbable, and the rigors of the routes still leave too few clustered at the peaks. Perhaps, as Daniel Dennett claims, Freedom Evolves. However, if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that dramatic reversals happen; better to guard against them proactively. Chance favors the prepared mind, but we see too few prepared minds -- or rather, too many minds prepared to accept various chance, silly ideas without question. To what extent does accepting ideas without much question -- whether simply because they are novel, or simply because they are established -- still primarily stem from how our educational system prepares young minds, no matter how true (in some narrow, purely factual, sense) its teachings may be?

Teaching science -- all sciences, including the human sciences -- as flexible processes of questioning and narrowing down possibilities, rather than as fixed systems of answer-generators, should help everyone meet the challenges of citizenship in a democracy better prepared. Good democracies depend on good citizens, and good government makes life better for almost everyone. Nobody loses, really. Debunking doesn't really reach far enough, soon enough, to have much to offer in reaching this desirable outcome. At best, it's reactive, it provides ammunition for rear-guard defense. But a defensive posture alone seldom suffices to survive and thrive. Providing educational resources for a few ardent defenders won't get us very far up this particular peak of Mount Improbable.

Any realistic solution may require a change (even if only a subtle change) in the very nature of institutionalized education. To shift the metaphor from "soil micro-nutrients" to something more like "genetic engineering of soil bacteria", one can see a kind of meme-design challenge : how to implant self-propagating thoughts about education that favor a culture of critical discourse, even for the average citizen. If teaching science as the history of fallible human beings, seeking truth in fallible (but ever-better) ways, is a key strategy, perhaps an EQ ("Emotional Intelligence") strategic element must trump pure IQ tactics: it's very much about how you leave your opponent feeling, and less about wether you "won -- on points." That's something we might learn from Darwin himself.


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The term debunk originated in a 1923 novel Bunk, by American novelist William Woodward, who used it to mean to "take the bunk out of things.

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