Wednesday, July 08, 2009

science: the ancient / modern distinction

This is a longer extract from the Its An Education Project (IAEP) list (start here for original) that I mentioned a few days ago.

Alan Kay draws a distinction b/w Aristotle's way of doing science (thinking up a good answer) and the later way started by Galileo (inquiry plus tinkering or real experiments). He says that it is unfortunate that the ancients and the moderns used the same word (science) since the activity radically changed across the time span. Modern science is more than thinking and gathering knowledge, it also involves active debugging of our thinking based on rigorous experiments. This is something that is usually poorly done in schools, eg. most experiments done in science are prepackaged, with too much hand holding to be real scientific inquiry.

Here are some parts of the exchange b/w Alan (AK) and K.K. Subramanian (KKS). KKS argues that there has been continuity with the ancients whereas alan asserts that there has been a radical rupture with the past. I have bolded some parts which I think are particularly good

(However, it is difficult to find any physics text for high school or college that actually teaches physics and physical thinking. Even lab courses usually use the lab to verify the "truths of physics" (there are actually no such things) rather than to try to get evidence for formulating and guiding the creation of theories which can lead to further experiments.)

As an example, the lab for gravity is used to verify the Galilean formulas (which postulate constant acceleration). This is because with simple tools in air it is difficult to measure accurately enough to get data which more closely resembles what is going on. (Dropping a heavy object 14-16 feet in a vacuum measured very very carefully will reveal a difference of about 1 part in a million between constant acceleration and inverse square acceleration, and it takes incredible tools to show that inverse square acceleration is not the whole story either.)

The sad results according to those who have studied this in colleges for more than 30 years (for example Physicist Lillian McDermott) is that 70% of all students (including science majors) fail to understand even Galilean gravity, and a much higher percentage don't understand that Galilean gravity is an approximate theory, that Newton's theory is a much better but approximate theory, that Einstein's General Theory is a much better theory but also approximate). There are many reasons for all this, which can be gisted as (a) "the epistemology of science" is not at all what most people suppose, and it is rather distant from the normal ways our minds are set up to work, and (b) that most "educational" processes most places in the world including the US are still teaching "knowledge as religion to be believed in", which *is* what our minds are set up for, and this is how things have been since the Pleistocene.

KK Subramanian:
Could you please elaborate it? [referring to point (a) above)] Isn't the desire to seek the deeper principles behind things and events around us a unique aspect of human mind?

One of Anthropology's "human universals" (found everywhere in human societies) is indeed the "desire to seek the deeper principles ....." etc.

"Science" is used in at least two distinct ways these days. The roots of the word connote "the gathering of knowledge" and this sense some years ago in my European lunch companions led me into a very fruitless argument about e.g. whether Aristotle was a scientist. There I should have said "modern science" to denote the kind of science that Galileo and a few others started, which Francis Bacon discussed so well as a debugging process for what is wrong with our brains/minds, and which Newton first showed how different and incredibly more powerful it could be from all previous forms of thinking.

Human beings had been on the planet for at least 40,000 and as many as 100,000 years before the enormous qualitative leap was made in the 17th century. So we could say that the issue is really about (a) the kinds and forms of explanations that can satisfy "the desire to seek deeper principles", and (b) that qualitative leaps are changes in kind not just degree, changes in outlook, not just in quantity of knowledge gathered. The duration of time before the discovery/invention of modern science is an indication of how well our minds can be fooled by appearances and beliefs and customs, etc.

The difficulties of teaching real science have to do with the huge differences between the kinds of explanations which are sought and accepted, and with outlook changes that go considerably beyond our normal built in ways of perceiving, explaining, coping with the world, etc.

There have been qualitative leaps (paradigm shifts) before too, esp. in south/east asia where philosophy developed without interruptions for thousands of years[1,2]. Patanjali's treatise [Yoga Sutras] on psychic processes is highly regarded even today. You can see applications of its theory in documentaries like "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence Blair [3]. I see people like Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Feynman, etc. as part of a long line of paradigm shifters.


The word "scientia" -- meaning knowledge -- is Latin and is old. And the use of the word "science" to denote the gathering of knowledge is also old. The big problem is that the 17th century inventors of modern science didn't pick a brand new word, but tried to overload the old one with new meanings. This has not worked well.

The point is not that paradigms got and get shifted, but the qualitative power of the "modern science paradigm". So, while one can make a list of people and movements that have shifted the way people think, to me (at least), what is more interesting is how well certain ways of thinking work in finding strong models of phenomena compared to others. So, if we get pneumonia, there are lots of paradigms to choose from, but I'm betting that most will choose the one that knows how to find out about bacteria and how to make antibiotics.

... and this is where I get stuck ;-), particularly in the context of school education (first 12 years). Unlike the 3Rs, thinking processes have no external manifestation that parents/teachers can monitor, assess or assist. The economic value of deep thinking is not realized until many years later. The latency between 'input' and 'output' can be as large as 12 years and 'evaluation' of output may stretch into decades!

Here's one way to look at this...

IQ - What if you had an "IQ" of 500, but were born in 10,000 BC. You would not be able to make a lot of progress. For example, Leonardo was very smart but couldn't come up with the engines his vehicle designs needed in order to work -- he was born in the wrong century for what he wanted to do.

Knowledge - On the other hand, Henry Ford was not nearly as smart as Leonardo, but was born at a very good time and in a good place, so he was able to combine engineering and production inventions to make millions of inexpensive automobiles.

Outlook - what made Henry Ford powerful (and most other things today) was an enormous change in Outlook (you called it a paradigm shift) which we can symbolize by invoking Newton.

"Knowledge is Silver, but Outlook is Gold" (IQ is Lead ... because most worthwhile problems we want to work on and solve are beyond mere IQ)

In other words, most human cultures accumulate and use a lot of knowledge (this is what a culture is all about) that is used to survive, to accommodate to the environment and even sometimes thrive. But the knowledge of a traditional society is very different from that of a feudal society which in turn is very different from a technological scientifically based society.

The bug most people have about schools (including many who set up schools) is the idea that they are there to teach knowledge. (Not a bad secondary goal, but it's a very bad idea for it to be the main goal.) Montessori was an early voice who pointed out that the main purpose of schooling (especially early schooling) was to help students learn and deeply internalize the most powerful outlooks that have been discovered/invented by humans. She observed that otherwise children wind up living in the 20th century but with a 10th century (or much earlier) outlook.

Both farms and schools (and books) can be limited or can be great learning environments for certain kinds of things. Historically, changes of outlook rarely happen on a farm, but sometimes happen in a school or from reading. Being around adults who have interesting outlooks works the best for most kids.

I was brought up on a farm (a somewhat unusual one), but the farms in the region were not at all conducive for learning powerful outlooks, nor were the schools particularly. However, my grandfather was "a writing farmer" and had a huge library of books of all kinds in his farmhouse. This allowed me to bypass both the farm and the school. But someone helped me to learn to read at an early age, and someone had the library of books in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Someone decided that it was OK for me to read for hours every day instead of working on the farm (I had to do that too). So I very much depended on adult help but of a very different kind than my school friends got in their homes. The outlook in my farmhouse was that there was a lot more to life than learning to raise one crop a year.

One size doesn't fit all, so a personal story can't be generalized very usefully to cover the plight of other children and of their parents.

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