Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: For Good Friday

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  • Hadyn Green,

    Just to be contrary about science education, aren't there two parts to it?

    In maths, we mostly want kids to learn arithmetic and useful techniques - we don't in fact teach them much if anything about induction and proof. And in science, don't we really also want to impart a lot of handy basic facts? I'd say that evolution just squeaks in on that count, if only to make sure they understand why they have to finish all their antibiotics, but I reckon a curriculum that was really focused on applying empirical techniques to establish a body of provisionally provable "knowledge" wouldn't bear much resemblance to school science as we know it at all. Plus all those skeptical experimenting kids would drive every adult in the vicinity insane.

    What [I think it was Stephen] described above is actually what the education system is doing right now (I assume I'm not going to get into trouble for this)

    A few years back there was a brouhaha over a finding that students were not doing as well at basic mathematical facts as they had in previous years. The reason of course could be seen in the figures for analytical thinking: much higher. Of course that doesn't matter as much as a "Students can't do times-tables" headline

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2081 posts Report Reply

  • Lyndon Hood,

    I'd be as happy with 'a particle or a wave' to 'a particle and a wave' because the graspable experiments find that it's one or the other; which leads us to conclude it's both and neither.

    Anyhoo, I'm not sure the approach you're advocating is "people taking a relativistic sense of 'balance' or 'fairness to both sides'" in the sense that Caleb was disparaging. There's exploring scientific uncertainty, and then there's everybody getting a chance to put their opinion forward. The latter isn't actually balanced or fair in this case, but it looks like it is.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1096 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    I was rather surprised when someone answered my question "should we be teaching students that light is a particle or a wave?" with a "yes", instead of a "no; we should teach them it's both."

    I think in context both answers mean the same thing.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • James,

    I do not think that schools should only teach that light is a wave. I do not think that schools should only teach that light is made of particles. I was rather surprised when someone answered my question "should we be teaching students that light is a particle or a wave?" with a "yes", instead of a "no; we should teach them it's both."

    My other example (what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs?) was obviously the better one for getting the general point across that disagreement and differing points of view do have a place in science.

    The essay I linked to before gives a nice case-study about how the scientific disagreement about waves or particles was eventually resolved (as "neither-nor").

    Eventually Freeman Dyson showed that three apparently different theories were really giving the same explanation of what was going on. QED (as Feynmann punned).

    But the disagreement wasn't between points of view; it was between different observations . People like Einstein and Bohr grappled with the different observations - they didn't argue that only one of them could be real.

    New Zealand • Since Feb 2007 • 34 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Awesome perspectives, dudes.

    In fact ...

    EXCELLENT!!

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18991 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart,

    A few years back there was a brouhaha over a finding that students were not doing as well at basic mathematical facts as they had in previous years. The reason of course could be seen in the figures for analytical thinking: much higher. Of course that doesn't matter as much as a "Students can't do times-tables" headline

    Had a discussion about the facts vs. theory in science teaching at uni level the other day, and the conclusion reached was that you have to teach all the boring facts at undergrad in order to be able to do the theoretical research later on. No matter how well-versed you are in the scientific method and the overall theory, if you don't know what the hell you're looking at when you're looking down the microscope, you're going to waste a *lot* of time rediscovering the wheel (or re-Googling the wheel, anyhow.) So, yes, the boring basics are important; they often provide the tools for applying the analytical thinking effectively.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    I collected some data on religion for a study I ran recently (as yet unpublished).

    I would love to hear more about this study.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2968 posts Report Reply

  • Isabel Hitchings,

    Typing as I think here but...I think it's pretty different when you're at university level and you've got students who have chosen to study science and have specialised a fair bit already. If you're teaching them "facts" you can be pretty sure they want to learn those particular facts, that they have a purpose for knowing those facts and that they will easily see how those facts were discovered in the first place. It's a bit different for kids at primary and secondary school doing general science because they have to and, for them, I do think process needs to come first.

    Christchurch • Since Jul 2007 • 706 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Dragging this slightly more back on topic, but remaining on the science vibe:

    The latest thinking from white-coated boffins is that we are hard-wired for belief and pattern-recognition.

    It makes sense in the context of foraging on the serengeti plains for my monkey forebears to see an odd pattern of light and shadow in the grass and instinctively assume TIGER! In that context, scepticism might get you killed....

    It also makes sense to me, working from that starting point, that over millenia the instinctive pattern-recognition we are hardwired for would evolve into something a lot more complicated and odder - the teachings of organised religion.

    We sacrificed a virgin last year, and the harvest was ok. We'd better do the same this year. QED.

    Thrug mocked the Mountain God, and now the Thunder has come. Burn Thrug to appease the gods. QED.

    So, we're hardwired for belief. It doesn't actually mean that there is anything out there to believe in.

    Personally, I find it useful to know that, and to use it as a good dose of weedkiller in the fertile garden of belief. I can train myself out of it like sportspeople re-train the flinch reflex.

    There are dozens of sports where the instinctive reaction (the flinch reflex) is entirely the wrong thing to do in any given situation. Training to do the right thing first involves recognising the natural instinct, and then either training to work around it and use it to your advantage, or re-programming it into a different instrinctive reaction.

    This isn't going to stop the hairs on the back of my neck standing up when I hear an odd sound in a dark house in the middle of the night, but it might instinctively stop me automatically assuming thatit's something malevolent crawling through gaps in my non-euclidian geometry.

    I find it very difficult to take any sort of supernatural stuff seriously. No-one believes in Jupiter or Thor or Ishtar or Cernunnos any more. But they did once, as fervently as people these days believe in.....whatever.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown,

    Personally, I find it useful to know that, and to use it as a good dose of weedkiller in the fertile garden of belief. I can train myself out of it like sportspeople re-train the flinch reflex.

    Or, occasionally, indulge it. I regard my irrational thoughts as poetic. They have a place.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18991 posts Report Reply

  • Nick Melchior,

    Kind of? What part of fanatic Maoism during the 50s and 60s wasn't religious in nature? i.e. the cult of personality, the little red book, the irrational hatred of class enemies, etc etc.

    The belief in any form of supernatural power is what makes it not religious. You're describing an extreme ideology. Many religions are sometimes expressed as extreme ideologies but they're jsut a subset.

    Melbourne • Since Nov 2006 • 31 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    Or, occasionally, indulge it. I regard my irrational thoughts as poetic. They have a place.

    Yes, true. There's a lot of great art I enjoy that wouldn't have been created if the artist(s) hadn't been freaking out of their tiny minds. And one needs a bit of sympathetic resonance to really, like, groove on it.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Stephen Judd,

    Thanks Rich - that's pretty much exactly how I feel too.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2968 posts Report Reply

  • ScottY,

    The belief in any form of supernatural power is what makes it not religious. You're describing an extreme ideology. Many religions are sometimes expressed as extreme ideologies but they're jsut a subset.

    I'm not sure it's clear where to draw the line between extreme ideology and religion. They usually have the same features. The deification of Mao, for example, is textbook god-worship.

    Anyway, the point I had been making (and which other made more eloquently) was that religious or quasi-religious hatred lurks behind most wars.

    On the fact v theory debate, secondary school isn't the best place to teach why things happen, because the explanations are often so complex so as to be beyond the comprehension of most NCEA students. Facts are important, because science is a body of knowledge establshed by reference to observable facts.

    So Intelligent Design doesn't belong in science classes, because there is no body of reliable evidence to prove it exists.

    Yorke of The Atatu • Since Feb 2009 • 790 posts Report Reply

  • philipmatthews,

    The artists don't have to be out of their minds. There's a ton of great art made from a place of religious or spiritual sincerity that we can appreciate without necessarily having an iota of it ourselves: the art of Rothko or Durer or McCahon or Malevich, the music of Bach or Arvo Part or Led Zeppelin, the films of Carl Dreyer or Tarkovksy or Kenneth Anger ... Shouldn't be too quick to reject the irrational.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2007 • 642 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    Thoughts on religion. Slipped into Scotch-induced garrulous rambling mode...

    Also, collaterally, too drunk to be arsed finding links mode...

    There was announced recently a project to research religion from a scientific basis... why the hell do we shaved monkeys do that sort of thing and so on... the immediate objection was, 'well, what do you mean by "religion", exactly?'

    While John Gray is (aha, thank you Robert Fox) is definitely, deeply, annoyingly frustratingly unhinged, his book Black Mass has some damn good points to make, he does go over the top and shoot himself in the foot (which is almost as bad as mixing metaphors, or diluting Scotch, but I digress).

    Apocalyptic or transcendental religion is of a different category than, say, animist religion. I mean, the former is based on a specific expectation of there being a grand cycle of time and a superior overseeing forces, which the overtly religious see as being governed by a (usually) monotheistic God or in its covert manefestations, the 'invisible hand' of market forces, or Marx's historical inevitability. I think Gray is right to characterise Marxists as covertly religious with their myth of an impersonal force governing human affairs, a telos as it were, and of course an apocalypse in which all would be revealed and all of the unworthy conveniently eliminated (in satisfyingly appropriate and painful ways).

    On the other hand, 'animist' religions are a form of cognitive mapping. These are religions that anthropomorphise nature... the storm appears because it has a will and needs and must be appeased. You can make sacrifices to that storm god and objectively the storm is no such thing with no such needs, but the community needs to find a way to articulate its relationship with nature. This serves no 'objective' goal, but satisfies existential needs and is in many ways more pragmatic - there's no expectation of justice in this world of the next, less of a need to slaughter the unbelievers and the basic mode of thinking, which is -how do we find a way of articulating our relationship with nature' is the basis of modern science, which eventually evolved its empirical self-checking methods.

    I suspect that the real conflict is not between the 'superstitious' and the self-declared 'rationalists' (amongst whom I'd include the crypto-religious Marxists, actually), but between the transcendentlist and apocalyptic and the the animist and proto-scientific. Possibly this survey means that we have a natural tendency towards animism despite the transcendentalist/apocalyptic conditioning of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic metanarrative and that there is a long-term shift going on as 'New Age' spiritual systems start to turn people away from transcendentalist/apocalyptic formal religions to a sort of animist hybrid.

    Personally, I aspire to a sort of agnostic empiricism, but the evidence from evolutionary psychology is that our brains are not destined to create rational worldviews, but ones that enhance our functioning as a social species. Thus, religion will always be with us in overt or covert forms. 'Ratiionalism' is, excepting the empirical self-correction of hard science, just another religion, one that is anthropocentric but which also allows us to cognitively integrate ourselves with the matrix of the natural world.

    I think we have to acknowledge the irrational, and the fact that people are irrational.

    OK, back to the booze...

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 980 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    Rich, Stephen, Scott, Philip...

    heartily agree.

    Please don't get me started on Part or Tarkovsky, otherwise I'll never stop in my raptures...

    Or Lovecraft.

    Strogly recommend S. T. Joshi's biography of the man, if you can get it on abebooks.com

    (Hic).

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 980 posts Report Reply

  • Rich Lock,

    The artists don't have to be out of their minds.

    I was being a little flippant/facecious/whatever. I do appreciate the good stuff, wherever it comes from. Truly.

    Love William Blakes stuff, for example.

    back in the mother countr… • Since Feb 2007 • 2401 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    ... and Nick.

    Sorry if I missed anyone. I'm in a generous mood.

    Or, occasionally, indulge it. I regard my irrational thoughts as poetic. They have a place.

    Yeah, they're ways of describing, within the bounds of human cognition, a relationship with a cosmos that is not really in any way anthroppocentric. One either throws up one's hands and declares utter disconnection and nihilistic despair, or acknowledges the 'fictional' but affecting sense of existential engagement. Myth and fantasy are not objective falsehoods, they are tools.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 980 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Litterick,

    Ratiionalism' is, excepting the empirical self-correction of hard science, just another religion, one that is anthropocentric but which also allows us to cognitively integrate ourselves with the matrix of the natural world.

    Just another religion, but without the tax benefits. Rationalism is a means of responding to the world, based on empirical evidence. To call that a religion is stretching the term somewhat.

    ship with a cosmos that is not really in any way anthroppocentric. One either throws up one's hands and declares utter disconnection and nihilistic despair, or acknowledges the 'fictional' but affecting sense of existential engagement.

    There are many other choices. Besides it would be insincere to use as a tool something in which one does not believe.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1000 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    To call that a religion is stretching the term somewhat

    Yes, my point exactly. The point should be stretched.

    would be insincere to use as a tool something in which one does not believe.

    So? Is sincerity a virtue? The measure of its value is whether it works on the whole for the species.

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 980 posts Report Reply

  • WH,

    We're still trying to answer questions about our origin (in cosmological terms), our purpose and life's meaning. There seem to be two basic kinds of answers: either there is some kind of objective meaning and purpose to this whole life scam, or there is not.

    As a "weak" agnostic with strong warm and fuzzy leanings, I tend to think that it's natural that our philosophical and religious speculation should evolve alongside our scientific understanding.

    In contrast to what Russell said, I think "new atheism" is a convenient label for a strident and intolerant (perhaps even smugly arrogant) way of discussing "strong" atheism.

    One of the great things about the UK is its comedy shows. Check out Bad Vicar and Numberwang from the Mitchell and Webb Look if you get a chance.

    Since Nov 2006 • 605 posts Report Reply

  • Paul Litterick,

    You stretch it beyond recognition.

    Religion as a pious fiction is hardly a new idea, yet still it retains its cynicism as of new.

    The people who sacrificed to the storm god sincerely believed that they would make the storm stop by doing so. Their sacrifice was a solution to the problem of the storm. It didn't work, but they did not know that. They were wrong, but at least they were sincere. If they sacrificed to satisfy existential needs (whatever those might be) then they would be insincere. And yes, sincerity is a virtue.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 1000 posts Report Reply

  • Hilary Stace,

    Interesting discussion on Media7 tonight about the media and Helen C. Great to have Judy Callingham on, and for more than a gesture at gender balance. Although they did still talk a lot about Helen Clark's appearance and only talked about Key's personality (showing that gender politics is alive and well).

    But the overall discussion still treated politics as a choice between (in Helen Clark's words) brands of toothpaste. As if it's all about management - of people, of media, of issues. Why can't we have sensible grown up discussion about politics and values? Politics and Helen C''s leadership and government was more than just opportunist brand marketing. What about social justice, human rights, inclusion, sustainability? No wonder people are getting cynical about politics if the mainstream media doesn't see these as significant - or worse doesn't see them.

    Wgtn • Since Jun 2008 • 2099 posts Report Reply

  • Kracklite,

    You stretch it beyond recognition.

    Beyond your recognition. I'm not responsible for your limits.

    The people who sacrificed to the storm god sincerely believed that they would make the storm stop by doing so.

    Actually, not. Animist religions had/have nothing to do with 'controlling' nature by 'appeasing' it, but serve to articulate a functional relationship and hierarchy. However illusory it might be, psychologically, it enables societies to function despite their fundamental inability to control nature. That is the point of such religions. People who are unable to articulate a functional relationship... are not able to function. It's a basic psychological fact.

    Their sacrifice was a solution to the problem of the storm. It didn't work, but they did not know that

    It is an arrogant fallacy to assume that 'primitive' equates with 'unintelligent'. 'Primitive' people are, if anything, far more aware than we are that they cannot control nature. Clearly they could observe that the storm could not be appeased or controlled, but they could declare that they were subordinate and should therefore behave accordingly.

    And yes, sincerity is a virtue.

    Why? What external force or telos validates it?

    The Library of Babel • Since Nov 2007 • 980 posts Report Reply

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