The Theory of Science

Most of the essay 5 scientific myths you probably believe about the universe is stuff only a science geek could love. However, item number five is a wonderfully concise explanation of the scientific term “theory” that anyone can understand.

The Big Bang: just a theory. Gravity: only a theory. Even the entire field of putting these ideas together is called theoretical physics. It’s not like these are facts, truths or even laws. They’re only theories.

But that completely misses the point of what a scientific theory is. Facts are the most basic elements of science. You make an observation and that’s a fact. You make a measurement and that’s a fact. A single experimental data point is a fact, and so we collect as many of them as we can, and devise setups to collect even more. When you notice that things are correlated, that relationships between various measureables/observables obey a particular form or equation, that’s a law. It’s only when you can put together an overarching framework that not only explains the facts and encompasses the laws, but also makes new predictions about things you can go out and observe that you’ve got a scientific theory. If you then go out, validate and verify your theories and push them to the absolute limits, that you’ve got a theory as good as the Big Bang or General Relativity.

In other words, science requires a very high threshold of evidence before a hypothesis rises to the level of a commonly accepted theory. Even then, it’s still not the final answer.

And it’s true: even a theory as robust and accepted as these examples will never be the final answer. There’s always more to learn, more boundaries to cross and more questions to uncover and probe. But the best accepted theories of the day are as close to the truth as science can ever get, even as we always strive to get closer. Better to understand reality, with all the nuance involved with it, as best as we actually can, than to persist in a comforting myth.

Now maybe your uncle who says “theories” the earth is 6000 years old are just as valid as that of the Big Bang can better understand the use of the word theory.

Or maybe not.

Still a Demon Haunted World

Sagan Tweet

Olga’s tweet reminded me of Sagan’s very cautionary book, The Demon Haunted World, published just over 20 years ago and one of the few paper books still on my bookshelf.

These thoughts from early in the book seem especially relevant as we face a very uncertain future.

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

He goes on to address something that sounds very much like our current state of affairs.

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

Throughout his life, Sagan freely admitted that science was not perfect and makes mistakes. But also that the scientific method of inquiry and discovery will always be the best process for leading society into the future.

Hopefully, we are not at that point where it all blows up in our faces.

Rebooting School

Following up on my previous rant about the PISA tests, Yong Zhao had a wonderful post about them from a few years ago that is still very relevant. In it he imagines a great educational conspiracy: “I would suggest that PISA is a secrete plan of Western powers to derail China’s education reforms.”.

However, Zhao notes evidence from right here in our backyard that argues against the existence of such a plot.

Seeing the damaging effects of PISA on Western education systems debunks my conspiracy theory. PISA, rather than an evil ploy hashed out by Western powers to keep East Asian countries from being innovative, is an ironic tragedy of the 21st Century born out of ignorance. The genuine anxiety over their low rankings, the sincere admirations (or envy) of Shanghai’s status, the eager actions to borrow from top performers, and the authentic efforts to emulate Asian education are all evidence that political leaders of many Western nations, particularly the U.S., England, and Australia did not work together to use PISA to derail education reforms in Asia. They are truly concerned about improving their own education, but they have been misguided by PISA.

There is no question that education in the West, and for that matter everywhere in the world, needs transformational changes, in the face of transformative changes in the world. Education in the U.S., for example, is far from adequate to prepare citizens for the future. It is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm. However PISA is not offering such a paradigm. The top performers of PISA are simply better implementation of the old paradigm—the Prussian industrial model of education, which many Western education systems, including the U.S. system, are based on.

In other words, the PISA does not only have the effect of discouraging East Asian systems from abandoning their old paradigm, but also luring Western countries to fix the old paradigm by shaming them for not having been as perfectly obsolete as their Asian counterparts. It keeps them fixated on things (e.g., test scores) that matter little for the future, while neglecting the work they should be doing—inventing a new paradigm.

The US certainly has been “misguided by PISA”. We look at international rankings such as these without understanding how little they actually say about both our system of public education and those of the other countries. Even worse, we fail to question whether the data they produce is relevant to efforts to improve that system.

However, for me, the key concept in Zhao’s post (taken from his excellent book “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?”) is the middle sentence in the middle paragraph: “It [education] is obsolete, broken, and must be replaced with a new paradigm.”

Reproducing the old educational paradigm in structures like charter schools, automated learning systems, or online classes is not reform. None of the common tweaks offered as “change” will prepare kids for a new, transformational, and very uncertain future.

We need to start at the beginning. We need a serious discussion about the purpose of school and the role it plays in our society. One that can draw on traditions, but cannot be rooted there. A discussion that includes students, dropouts, recent graduates, parents and other important stakeholders, not just politicians and business people.

School Math is Void of Common Sense

A research mathematician turned teacher has a word problem for you: “There are 125 sheep and 5 dogs in a flock. How old is the shepherd?”

Most adults would quickly come to the conclusion that there is not enough information to find an answer. Not most students.

Now consider that, according to researchers, three quarters of schoolchildren offer a numerical answer to the shepherd problem. In Kurt Reusser’s 1986 study, he describes the typical student response:

125 + 5 = 130 …this is too big, and 125–5 = 120 is still too big … while … 125/5 = 25 … that works … I think the shepherd is 25 years old.

Remarkable. In their itch to combine the numbers presented to them, students negotiate three solutions. They show some awareness of context in dismissing the first two candidates. But a 25-year-old farmer is plausible enough for students to offer it up as their answer. The calculations are correct, but they are also irrelevant. Common sense has deserted these students in their pursuit of a definitive answer.

He says those findings are the direct result of the type of problems we ask students to solve during their travels through school math.

Students believe that all math problems are well-defined, usually with a single right answer. They strongly associate mathematics with numbers, to the extent that they will instinctively derive numerical answers to problems regardless of the context. They are subservient to computational procedure and trust that accurate calculations will always lead them to relevant truths. They accept that confusion and ambiguity is a staple fixture of mathematics, willingly offering up solutions that are void of context, meaning or even common sense.

So, what’s the alternative to our current standard math curriculum, featuring repetitive pages of calculations and ambiguous word problems with one right answer? The writer has some excellent ideas. However, they would require completely reimagining the way we teach math.

At the core of those changes is an emphasis on understanding process rather than finding answers.

Mathematics is a journey; it is defined by process, not rigid outcomes. That process can not be reduced to a series of discrete computation steps. It is governed by a flow of reasoning that guides the thinker towards a solution. Problem-solving often an unstructured, messy affair that requires several iterations of developing and testing assumptions. Error and ill-judgement are the most natural components of problem solving; they should be embraced. All mathematicians need pause to reflect on their problem solving strategies; to step back and retain full view of the big picture. Students must be afforded the same opportunities; their development as mathematical thinkers depends on this sense-making.

Punching Holes in Your Comfort Zone

I disagree with the very negative opinion about the education system expressed by James Altucher, an economic writer who says he needs very little in life. However, in this post, he does make a couple of great points about something he finds essential: curiosity.

For one thing, he says it leads to happiness: “Dopamine is being released because I am in anticipation of the reward of curiosity getting satisfied. Higher dopamine equals greater happiness, better brain and heart health. Live longer.” I admit, I feel pretty good when I’m satisfying my curiosity.

I think he’s also correct that curiosity leads to greater creativity, maybe to better relationships and community. Not so sure about fighting Alzheimer’s but anything that exercises your brain can’t be bad.

But for me, this is the core of his thoughts on creativity.

Our comfort zone is where we are safe in the womb of life. Our real self is everything beyond that.

The Curiosity Zone is bigger than the Comfort Zone.

Every time you are curious, you punch another hole in that comfort zone.

I am certainly saving that idea to use sometime, somewhere.