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On Technology, Discovery, and the Modern World June 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I have a book that I bought at a used bookstore in Meadville, PA, circa 1976.  It’s titled The History of 19th Century Science, and is full of stories of scientists in the 1800s and their discoveries in fields such as biology, geology, and chemistry.  That century really was the Golden Age of science and discovery in the modern era.  The advances in science during the latter part of the 1800’s was really amazing.

(I paid the $1 written on the flyleaf, although the proprietor groused that it was mis-marked and probably worth more.  One of these days I’ll have to find out if it’s worth anything.)

But original science today is usually a very different beast.  Much of science, especially the physical sciences, are funded at millions of dollars, with large teams pursuing, quite frankly, is often incremental knowledge.

And that’s what many scientists have come to expect of the fruit of their labors.  In an era where scientists seem to be satisfied with very modest advancements over the course of decades of research and millions of dollars, there remains the opportunity to do significant and important work.

The real problem is that taking a mental leap is not the safe way to do science.  And if you are trying to establish a life career as a research scientist, you won’t take chances, so you won’t look for a breakthrough.

If you are a scientist, maybe you should look for breakthroughs more often.

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What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.

Science Education, Fear, and Our Reaction September 16, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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This is the story of the Irving, Texas school district and its wild and likely liable overreaction to a Muslim student building a novel clock. That said, it’s more about the education establishment and its poor relationship with science and technology.

I had the opportunity recently to hear about a teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina who was supporting her third grade students in a project to build a frog habitat in conjunction with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. I did a backstage tour there several years ago, and found it a wonderful and educational experience.

My grandnephew (I don’t really feel as old as that sounds) is a participating student, and I contributed a small amount of money to the effort. I received a long and personal thank you from the teacher. I would like to quote from that thank you. I don’t have her permission to use her name, but for those of you who care, I hope that you know who she is.

“I’m very interested in science. I’m not sure how much you know of the back ground of an elementary education major, but it has little to do with the content of science. My first year teach [sic] in 5th grade, years ago, the Science End of Grade test was implemented by the state. Our students failed. Upon figuring out why, it came down to teachers knowing content.  We are not taught science-specific content in a general elementary ed degree. So I taught myself science so my students could be successful. I continue to do so. I’ve since been placed in 4th grade (last year) and 3rd grade (this year), so I am learning new content with the hope that this will make science instruction easier on my 5th grade colleagues and even more so on the success of the students.”

You have to love teachers like this, who seem light-years away from those in Irving who participated in this debacle, and who continue to try to justify it. The Irving teachers are little people who seek to control our youth, not enable them. And, regrettably, you have to reject our society’s approach to science in our schools, and how we train our educators in that regard. That fact that we don’t train them at all should be frightening to any reasonable American.

Those of you who read me know that I am highly supportive of education, yet am justifiably distrustful of the education establishment. The Irving school district has proven me correct in that attitude. As individuals, we cannot measurably effect change. Together, as a voice, we may be able to raise the bar just a little bit.

Do We Really Hate Science? February 25, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Despite the provocative title, the March cover story in National Geographic magazine, entitled The War On Science, is a well-conceived and thoughtful feature (in fairness, the website uses a much less controversial title – Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?). It points out that the making of accepted science isn’t something that happens overnight, but can take years, even decades of painstaking work by researchers in different fields around the world before it solidifies into mostly accepted theory. Even with that, there are contrary voices, even within the scientific community.

I think the explanation is slightly off-base. I learned the scientific method fairly rigorously, but in a very imprecise science – psychology. The field has entire courses on statistics and experimental design at the undergraduate level, and labs where students have to put the scientific method into practice.

Still, because psychology is an imprecise science, I was frustrated that we were usually able to interpret outcomes, especially those in real life, in ways that matched our theories and hypotheses. But our explanations had no predictive power; we could not with any degree of confidence predict an outcome to a given scenario. That failure led me away from psychology, to mathematics and ultimately computer science.

It’s true that science is messy. Researchers compete for grants. They stake out research areas that are likely to be awarded grants, and often design experiments with additional grants in mind. Results are inconclusive, and attempts at replication contradictory. Should we drink milk, for example? Yes, but no. In general, the lay public tries to do the right thing, and the science establishment makes it impossible to know what that is.

And the vast majority of scientists who purport to explain concepts to the lay public are, I’m sorry, arrogant pricks. We have lost the grand explainers, the Jacques Cousteau and the Carl Sagan of past generations. These scientists communicated first a sense of wonder and beauty, and rarely made grand statements about knowledge that brooked no discussion.

Who do we have today? Well, except for perhaps Bill Nye the Science Guy, no one, and I wouldn’t claim for a moment that Bill Nye is in anywhere near the same league as past giants.

The scientists who serve as talking heads on supposed news features and news opinions have their own agendas, which are almost invariably presented in a dour and negative manner. They are not even explaining anything, let alone predicting, and they certainly have no feel for the beauty and wonder of their work. Doom and catastrophe will be the end result, unless we do what they say we should do.

To be fair, this approach represents a grand alliance between the news agencies, which garner more attention when their message is negative, and the scientists, who promote their work as a way to gain recognition and obtain new grants.

In short, I would like to think that there is not a war upon science. Rather, there is a growing frustration that science is increasingly aloof, rather than participatory in larger society. Everything will be fine if you just listen to me, one might say. The next day, another says the opposite.

That’s not how science should be communicating to the world at large. And until science fixes that problem, it will continue to believe that there is a war on.