Saturday, February 11, 2012

Science vs. information

OK, this is a long one, mostly scattered thoughts written on a snow day two years ago, after reading The Mayor of Casterbridge for the last time. It's mostly for me. If you want to come along for the ride, bring a steaming Thermos of coffee.

People degrade themselves all the time in order to make machines seem smart. Before the 2008 stock-market crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before the bank makes bad loans; we ask teachers to teach to standardized tests. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species' bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology good, but every manifestation of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.
Jaron Lanie, Harper's Magazine, February, 2010

I find it fascinating that as information becomes cheaper, we worship it more.


There's value in owning things in your mind, as opposed to relying on social networks or Google or Wikipedia. The brain does not work in programmed algorithms. We screw up. Ideas mutate. We make leaps and bounds that often fail, but occasionally resonate.

"No ideas but in things" William Carlos Williams

There is value in owning those things in your mind. You cannot connect ideas, or things (thank you, Dr. Williams), lying loose all over the place. You can only shuffle file cards so fast, you can only link so many web pages before losing the gist.

We are privileged to have sensations, neural connections to this world, and a brain to know it, so far as it can be known. The machine is the product of an imperfect animal. If there is perfection, it lies outside the machine.

In Thomas Hardy's time, scythes and hay-rakes and mattocks ruled the countryside. No electricity, no phones, and social networks were formed at pubs. The economy of Casterbridge depended on the earth--livestock, corn, wheat, and all the labor and tools that went into reaping what our land can grant us.

Despite our conceits, our algorithms, our nanosecond technology, the gifts of the true economy have not changed. We still reap what we sow. We still eat and shit, we still woo and reproduce, we still depend on others. That the others are now strangers and driven by profit and not love has changed us, for now.

Bacteria communicate with each other. They have different signals for those of their own kind, and share universal signals with other clans/species.

Squids "talk" through light. Humans "talk" through smell.

Nothing can replicate the utter joy and sorrow I felt seeing the eerie dying glow of a comb jelly on a warm August beach, so contrary to what I know that I could not see it for what it was. Until my imagination exceeds the possibilities around me, I'll trust my thoughts, my clan's stories, our collective, flawed understanding of a world that exists before I plunge into the grid that frames a limited, knowable world.

(And I will add the story of the "talking" bacteria....)


I see bright senior high school students struggle with basic tasks subsumed by the network. Seniors who cannot look words up in a dictionary. Seniors who "know" calculus, but cannot solve simple arithmetic problems.

These are among the kids that will easily pass the state exam.

I suspect that most folks in charge of detailing curriculum at higher levels do not grasp science. Or perhaps they grasp science but are under unprecedented pressure from the Feds to ignore what they know and develop something that results in more money.

I get that real biologists need to speak a common language, a professional language, to communicate cogently and efficiently to fellow professionals. I get that kids need a basic understanding of the language of science to grasp (and critically assess) the technical leaps and bounds now more dependent on profit than promise.

Most of my students, however, need to grasp how science works. We are creating a generation of children who look cute spouting off big words and phrases, yet do not wonder why a light goes on when you hit a switch.

We need to cultivate wonder.

Pick any wonk in control of education policy today, and you'll get the same results. Growth. Standards. Competition. Economy.

I'll bet a bottle of my best home-brewed blueberry melomel that not one of my elected governmental oficials grasps respiration or photosynthesis or meiosis, or even a quarter of the things dictated by our current state standards.

If you're a bit stir crazy today, go out and find a tree. Trace its branches. Imagine the wind, the light, the forces that shaped that tree.

No two trees have exactly the same branch pattern--the tree's branch pattern tells a story of seeking light, or bending to wind, of battles with bugs and fungi and and perhaps lightning or a child's tree fort.

Two acorns with identical DNA will produce two very different oak trees--trees are designed to respond to their environment. Each new branch arises from a complex combination of triggers. Each tree is unique.

Humans and trees share a common ancestor. We have errant children--one of the joys and frustrations of a functioning classroom. I need the to pass the state exam, and I want them to learn science.

We are going to learn the hard way that the true economy is based on life, on the dirt we walk on, on life itself. I plan to keep on teaching science. It's what I'm paid to do.

If I had to test my lambs on whether they grasped anything new this year, I'd give them a few pill bugs, access to the various pieces of equipment in the classroom, and ask them to learn something about their behavior. I'd expect them to develop hypotheses, and set up replicable experiments. I'd hope they can examine evidence. And most of all, I hope that when they're done, they realize how little they can know about a pill bug trapped in a Petri dish, how little they know about anything.

I'd furtively trail them as they walked home--and if one lifted up a rock to find another pill bug, they pass.

The daffodils are peeking through the earth a few weeks early.

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