Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"The ignorance of experts"

Tom Friedman, a vacuous knucklehead who's made a nice living sugar-coating the fecal material spewing out the buns of the powerful,  recently suggested that Arne Duncan, whose ignorance may rival that of the basketballs he cherishes, be Secretary of State. 

Friedman was kidding, sort of, in a Swiftian way, if Jonathan Swift had been dim-witted and  unfunny. 

It's December, I'm flagging...a reminder (written when the days were long and warm) why I teach science.

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.
Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman, boy from Brooklyn.

I recently ranted about what should not be presented as science in school.

We live in an age of the expert, of the specialist. Few folks can even change a tire anymore because they can call someone else whose job is to do just that.

We also live in an age of magical thinking--we accept what we are told out of ignorance, out of fear, but (sadly) mostly out of comfort.

Science class is the one place in school where a the discipline requires that a child be taught to question, well, everything, at least everything that forms our ideas about the natural world.

Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.
Richard Feynman 

The Republican state platform in Texas wants critical thinking skills banned in classrooms if it leads to "challenging the student’s fixed beliefs ...." There goes science.

We chuckle, but we take this lightly at our peril.
Science requires questioning authority.

That's how science works!

xkcd, of course--Randall Munroe may be the best science teacher ever!

Galileo, arguably the father of modern science, spent his final years under house arrest for pushing heliocentrism. We have come close to seeing the major tenet of biology pushed aside in Kansas, in Pennsylvania, and (naturally) Texas.

If kids in class get what science means, learn how to do it, and most important, become in charge of their own thinking (which means questioning their own assumptions as well), we'll still see the rabble bearing pitchforks at board of ed meetings.

But the rabble will be rooting for truth, not dogma, and this Great Experiment started by Tom, John, and George back in the 1770's will have a chance to right itself.

Feynman photo from idea where they got it, I'd guess Cal Tech.


Shannon said...

This brought to mind a quote from John Dewey, "To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry — these are the essentials of thinking."

I think it is shame that it took me until my senior year of college to start to truly understand what critical thinking means. We pay a lot of lip service to how much we say we value it in education but, we don't practice what we preach. I think this stems from the fact most people are poor practitioners of it themselves.

Questions are scary to some people. They fear their ideology will come crumbling down and maybe it will. We are fighting human nature here. Humans tend to cling tightly to ideology, even more so in the face of contradicting evidence. It is a bizarre thing. This is why science is so important. It teaches us to put aside our instinct to cling and allows us to let go. Personally, I've found it quite freeing.

Also, I love Feynman so I felt compelled to comment :-)

David said...

I recently read the Council of 10' report. They were pretty clear - science could only be taught effectively through hands on labs. While I think we can obviously expand the labs portion of that statement to include a lot of other experimental spaces, I do think they were basically right, observation is science.

Unknown said...

I have a real problem with Thomas Friedman. He's a clever author and I would say not dim-witted at all. Instead, he takes complex issues and deliberately spins them in a pro-business fashion with clever metaphors and anecdotal "evidence." He did that with globalization and now he has done that with education. I can't think of a single columnist or writer for that paper that comes close to understanding education.