Sunday, June 12, 2011

Obvious, but not intuitive

Frank Noschese and Rhett Allain have a good on-going discussion on the Khan Academy's  work with physics. Some excerpts:

Science is obvious, but it's not intuitive. Obvious in the sense that we can observe what we observe, even as our brains refuse to accept it.

Intuition kept us alive for thousands of generations. There may be real survival value in accepting cultural illusions, even when they conflict with our empirical data. The concept of god(s) long preceded our worship of data.

We forget this at our peril. We did not survive as the simians we are by applying logic; we survived through intuition. We feel we are right, even when we're not.

The past three years, I have started class the same way. I climb up on a lab table, holding a paper clip in one hand, an old edition of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics in the other. I feel the heaviness of the ancient book, over 2000 pages being pulled towards the Earth. I barely feel the paper clip.

The kids (predictably) assert that the book will hit the ground first. I know in my gut that the book will hit first.
They both hit the floor simultaneously. I am surprised, as I always am. Obvious. But not intuitive.

Even after hundreds of trials, I still  feel cognitive dissonance. I'm an odd duck--I like cognitive dissonance.

The visceral trumps the cerebral in our culture. One of the ironies of pushing for their new science standards is that their preamble eschews reason:

"There is no doubt that science—and science education—is central to the lives of all Americans."
No, not true. Not even close. But it feels right.

Science is at the heart of the United States’ ability to compete and lead, which of course means that all students—whether they become technicians in a lab, PhD researchers or simply consumers—must all have a solid K-12 science education.
Science matters, but not because of some abstract flag-waving piece of jingoistic nonsense. The second half of the sentence is a non sequitur--unless our being "simple consumers" both requires a solid science education (I would argue otherwise) and leads to the heart of America's "ability to compete and lead."

Science also drives innovation, which in turn drives the economy.
Science certainly drives some innovation, and some innovation has some effect on the economy, but we're still bound to the earth, to the air, to the water more than we are bound to the kind of abstract economy the folks appear to worship.

If we're teaching children science simply because we're holding them accountable for the success of our economy, we are guilty of abusing our children.

Just a few hours ago a pod of dolphins snorted just a few feet from our kayaks.

Nowhere in the preamble does speak of the wonders of this natural world, of the joys of discovery, of our human need to lift up stones to see what lives underneath.

If I do my job well, that is, if I teach a child science, she will scoff at the premises holds as sacrosanct. If I do it really well, she will scoff at any premises I hold sacrosanct.

Is there no joy in Mudville?
Photo by Leslie--looks like a shot of Nessie, true, but we were both too excited to take a straight shot.


Mary Ann Reilly said...

I listened to representatives from Achieve a couple of weeks ago and thought how naive and foolish, as their VP spouted a bit of rhetoric about literacy. "Literacy" and mathematics were positioned as means to gain greater goods and winning some pitiful race. I see now as they add science to their repertoire of things to kill--that they are consistent; a one tune wonder.

I want to stop this madness and I know that there will be those who will read the crap from Achieve and think it brilliant and repeat soundbites over and over and over again until science and economy are interchangeable and the former can no longer be observed, just tallied.

I will point all to this post with its shiny truth--obvious enough, and for some, intuitive.

John T. Spencer said...

Tonight I helped the kids pick tomatoes and onions in the garden. We’re making salsa. I taught them how to find ripe vegetables. They taught me how to find joy in smelling a fresh tomato. The tomatoes are exploding in red. The onions are hiding behind the dwindling death of their of their flowers.


A garden dance.


I didn’t do anything beyond adding some water. For much of the garden, we didn't even plant the tomato seeds. What came from compost? What came from rotting plant? I haven't the slightest idea.

I need tangible moments like this as a reminder that God is real. No, it’s not that. I believe he’s real. I need moments like this as a tangible reminder that God is good and that what I believe is not crazy.

Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I'm much too spiritually conservative for most of the readers of this blog. But my thoughts are both incredibly empirical and incredibly intuitive when I'm in the garden.

Blame it on the evening sunlight or the cooling evening temperatures (and by cool, I mean ninety degrees), but it felt magical. It felt like a slice of heaven, hand-delivered when I least expected it.

And here’s the thing: as amazing as the tomatoes and garlic and onion were, the real gift was the joy I saw on my children’s faces.


I didn't earn it.

In a very secular sense, I don't trust leaders who don't get grace. I wonder how many gardens Bill Gates, Arne Duncan or members of the Khan Academy keep. I wonder if they can tell me where their food comes from. I wonder if they've ever made salsa from their own backyard.

doyle said...

Dear Mary Ann,

The irony is, of course, that if Achieve and their ilk succeed in confusing people what it means to be educated, what it means to think, they will fool even more people with their nonsense.

Not sure why truth and power bump heads in our culture, but I have faith in people, and faith in truth, and eventually people will remember what matters, and what makes them happy.

In the meantime, I'll keep planting seeds.

Dear John,

Grace, of course, exists, and folks who read here have a sense of how I view the universe. Folks also know my views on the unknowable change minute by minute.

Grace cannot be explained through data, and day to day grace not only keeps us alive, it makes living worthwhile.

I don't trust anyone who cannot see grace, some because of arrogance, some because of ignorance. I do, however, truly feel for them.