Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Profile of the Empirical Scientific Worldview



MOTTOES: 'Forward to the future!', 'no limits to progress!', 'progress is our most important product', 'understand Nature in order to command her'...

TIME: the mid 17th century, 1600s C.E. (the common era) to the late 20th century

PLACE: Western Europe and America, particularly the United States

PIONEERS AND HEROES: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein

MYTHIC FIGURE: Prometheus, the titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind; a figure symbolizing forethought

IMAGE/FEELING/FLAVOR: the world is a gigantic machine whose intricate workings can be analyzed and understood by systematic testing (the scientific method), and which can described most elegantly and effectively by the language of mathematics... movement is everywhere! and seems to shake out into marvelous patterns (in the past referred to as the "laws of Nature")...the physical universe is the sum total of all the forces that scientists discover: from the realm of subatomic particles to the evolution of planets, earth-crust, animal species and to the similarly evolving and expanding galaxies...

QUOTES: "And yet it moves!..." (referring to the movement of the earth around the sun - reputed to have been whispered by the defiant Galileo at his inquisition-trial).
"I value the discovery of a single even insignificant truth more highly than all the argumentation on the higher questions which fail to reach a truth." (Galileo)
"Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don't know." (Bertrand Russell)

LIFE MAXIMS: Question authority! Be critical and sceptical. Don't accept things just because people or authorities say so. Common sense as well as authorities can often be very wrong! People once "knew" the world was flat, and that one race was superior to another. Think of statements more as hypotheses to be verified rather than as statements of fact. Nothing is more precious than independent thinking unless it is your right to be different. Don't be afraid to develop your own individuality. And remember, tolerance and suspension of judgment allow for a society that respects differences and at the same time promotes fairness, impartiality and objectivity.

SOME CONTEMPORARY ADVOCATES AND CHAMPIONS: Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Hawking, Richard Dawkins; James Trefil and Alan Comer; Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner


METAPHYSICS/NATURE/REALITY: We may never know the ultimate nature or constituents of reality, but what we do have is our unquenchable curiosity and the latest current scientific summaries of theory, testing and research: quanta of energy, "laws" of mechanics, evolution and genetic exchange, entities like quarks, black holes, etc. If something has a measurable effect, chances are it's real. Consistent and reliable measurement of something is an indication of its genuine reality. Mathematics is the best shorthand way of describing how events relate (correlate) to each other. There are no isolated or permanent substances. Nature seems to be a stupendously gigantic evolving totality. Nature in its immense diversity is final frontier. There is no "beyond" Nature.

SURD/DEVIL/PRINCIPLE OF DISORDER/SOURCE OF ERROR: the fact that the universe is not a 'perfect', that is, the fact of the asymmetry or 'brokenness' of the universe rather than its perfect symmetry; the poet Lucretius' idea that atoms whirling in the void had a certain tendency to 'swerve'; Maxwell's 'demons', that is, entropic tendencies toward disorder or homogeneity; the Darwinian notion that Nature tends toward endless variability and profusion; drift, chance and/or random mutations; random 'fluctuations' in the cosmic vacuum or the sheer nothingness sea of quantum potentiality...

Francis Bacon catalogued four perennial sources of human error, four 'idols' or basic causes of human misconception and mischief: 1. 'idols of the tribe', the generic human propensity to see order no matter what (e.g. palmistry or astrology), 2. 'idols of the cave', our individual blind spots, 3. 'idols of the marketplace', the abuses of language and human discourse, e.g. the notion that to every word corresponds an actual thing, 4. 'idols of the theatre', the unending parade of poorly digested theories that we get as a result of our education and/or conditioning by the media, continually changing fads and fashions.

Bacon said in effect that ignorance of how our minds actually work, and of the habitual environmental influences to which they are prone, makes us liable to error. The critical and deliberate methods of science are the great corrective to the human condition of prejudice, rash judgment and vain speculation.

THE MIND: the 'enchanted loom' of our brain cells, the circuitry of our bio-computers, the sum total of our neural pathways and networks, creating personal and collective images (models, simulations and holographic projections) of the outside world. The brain itself is a product of evolution.

PRIMARY DISCIPLINE OR INSTRUMENT: the scientific method - putting our native ingenuity to work recording observed correlations, developing theories, testing them and making recommendations for future research, thus identifying interesting problems as well as solving them... the famous circuit of identifying a problem, framing an hypothesis, designing an experiment to check the facts, confirming or disconfirming the hypothesis and drawing tentative conclusions, perhaps - if really successful - for inclusion into theory... scientific procedure is the opposite of hit or miss... everything hinges on the application of right method versus random guesses or biased opinion or vain impossible-to-test speculation... the patient work of a community of inquirers over generations produces highly reliable knowledge that yields both prediction and the power of technology... science is the invention of invention, not just a particular discovery, but of how discoveries are made...

ESSENTIAL COSMIC DYNAMIC: all is in constant motion and evolution; patterns of order are temporary achievements; there is no standing still...

IDEAL PERSON: the person who embraces growth and change as an attitude toward life; a questioner, a sceptic; a person of competence - an expert, a specialist, a professional - one who applies scientific knowledge and/or the scientific method to his/her field

IDEAL SOCIETY: a politically democratic, liberal and capitalist society, wherein individual freedoms, economic incentives, technological and social progress, the spirit of scientific inquiry (directed reason) and the ethos of self improvement are all protected by law, respected and celebrated...

Core Disciplines and Historical Curricula

Physics and mathematics are the premier disciplines, calculus (the mathematics of different rates of change) and Newtonian physics having been developed in the 17th century...
the 18th century saw innumerable applications of the 'new science', e.g. Laplace's celestial mechanics... the secularist movement known as the European Enlightenment which questioned traditional theology and philosophy as well as royal, noble and clerical prerogatives in the political sphere... amateur and patroned scientific societies with their important journals were founded... the new sciences slowly became a part of university curricula guided by Galileo's distinction between "natural philosophy" (physics) and "moral philosophy" (ethics and philosophy generally)... curricula developed along these two parallel tracks and culminated in the culture wars of the 19th century (literature vs. science in the famous Matthew Arnold-Thomas Huxley debate) and C. P. Snow's notion of 'two cultures', the literary-artistic and the scientific-mathematical, suspicious of and somewhat hostile to each other...

If Newton saw the mathematical form of natural forces, Darwin in the 19th century saw that Nature as a whole had a history...the rise of historical geology (Lyell) and historical consciousness in philosophy (Hegel) gave rise to all sorts of sciences - linguistics, anthropology, sociology, etc. - because everything from language to cultures were now seen in historical perspective... late 19th century German/Prussian scholarship and laboratory science defined new standards of rigor in all the sciences and cultural studies, e.g. in the new science of psychology (which was originally called 'psycho-physics')...

In the 20th century there have been numerous attempts to apply the spirit, methods, and results of science to education:

- Taylorism, crude assembly-line style analytical breakdown of tasks into efficient and manageable components,

- sophisticated Skinnerian behaviorist versions of the above,

- the triumph of quantitative models of psychological measurement: IQ (Benet) and educational testing generally (Thorndike),

- various trends in the teaching of science and math (e.g. the Sputnik scare in the 1950s led to Congressional reports like "A Nation at Risk"); various calls for higher national and uniform educational standards, especially on the primary and secondary levels,

- the rise of computer-assisted and based learning arrangements, the development of computer-inspired models of artificial intelligence, and the researches of cognitive and developmental science generally.

While science as a cultural enterprise in the past has been associated with revolutionary and progressive movements (e.g. the European Enlightenment and Dewey's social progressivism) - and still has an orientation toward futurity, e.g. alliance with almost science fictionary and cosmic evolutionary themes (from Jules Verne and H. G. Wells to Carl Sagan and Olaf Stapledon) - more recently it has echoed some educationally conservative themes such as an emphasis on the "basics" (reading, writing and mathematics) and the cultural/civic significance of a common fund of shared knowledge (numeracy and scientific literacy).


STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT / DIVISIONS OF SCHOOLING: increasingly an emphasis on teaching in a 'developmentally appropriate' way, which has come to mean taking into account a host of relevant variables from 'age-appropriateness' to stage of cognitive and moral development to handicaps and socio-economic status as they constitute readiness in a student... the sequence of 'elementary-intermediate-advanced' refers both to chronological unfoldment and to levels of mastery of subject matter...

THE STUDENT: student as empty container needing to be filled, versus student as active developing/unfolding organism...some versions of "scientific pedagogy" - e.g. the tradition from British Empiricist John Locke to behaviorist B. F. Skinner - see the student as a kind of 'tabula rasa' or blank slate which experience and/or deliberate conditioning shapes almost entirely; other versions, notably John Dewey in his classic How We Think, and particularly in the developmental camps, e.g. Howard Gardner, see the student as innately active and curious and reaching out to form images of, understand, and shape the world...

THE TEACHER: poser of questions, rather than dispenser of answers; advanced researcher or scientist, one versed in the techniques of formulation and inquiry; an expert, specialist or competent professional; a coach

TEXT: Nature itself is the primary text. ('The language of nature is written in the script of mathematics.' - Galileo) Geologists speak of the 'record' or story told by the strata of the rocks (or the events implied by the different layers and formations). Well tested theories are texts in that they need to be interpreted, and are guides to ongoing research and experimentation. A text is a piece of writing that has the structure: a CLAIM made and EVIDENCE that supports the claim. Finally, school textbooks should not only contain the latest updates of knowledge, but should be graded and sequenced for maximal and effective assimilation by students (they should be developmentally appropriate). School texts should be more keyed to questions and the processes of inquiry rather than to right answers. They should thus resemble lab manuals, specifying experiments and activities to be performed before conclusions are made.

MAIN AVENUE OF LEARNING: According to John Dewey in How We Think the methods of science ape the actual processes of our everyday thought. For Dewey the process of thought is really the act of, or acts involved in, problem solving. Without disturbance and obstructions we would not think. The pregnant pause of thinking - no matter how brief - is actually the attempt at problem solving. And the hallowed history of science is nothing more than an outgrowth of the human-biological need to adjust to and accommodate the world and make it more satisfying.

Humans and animals both encounter barriers of all sorts and find sometimes ingenious and sometimes inadequate ways around them. All organisms continually scan, monitor, measure and evaluate their environments as they respond to difficult and easy conditions. The art of pedagogy is to constantly set up challenges (prefabricated or simulated problems) to stimulate thinking and thoughtful responses (problem solving skills).

So the best way to learn is to be actively involved, to be questioning, to be probing - not to be waiting passively for something to happen. The best way to learn is to become conscious of the problem solving sequences that constitute true science: pausing (not being too hasty in accepting something as automatically true without critically examining it); identifying problems (specifying goals, noticing discrepancies); the art of framing or defining problems (posing statements as hypotheses capable of being disproved!); designing ways of testing, comparing and measuring; and formulating conclusions cautiously, keeping generalizations in line with the evidence and data assembled.

Perhaps, in the last analysis, the main conduit of learning is simply pattern recognition or concept formation, how we make that leap from data to seeing meaningful pattern... In some schools of cognitive psychology the key path to learning is attention, codification and skill. For other behavioral schools, it is the setting up of favored behavioral pathways. It's not what you say or think that counts, but what you do, are able to do and want to do.

ESSENTIAL ACT OF LEARNING: is not assimilation, because that can be done automatically, but evaluation - the comparison of an actual state of affairs (the "facts") with a projected or desired state of affairs (a goal or "hypothesis")... if there is a gap or discrepancy, then there is the need for more thinking... if they fit, we are satisfied and say, "yes, good!" (we evaluate)... evaluation (judgments of yes, no or maybe) is a constant biological process... true learning sees a connection and says yes! (that is, sees it as part of a larger picture)...

ELEMENTARY SKILLS: literacy and numeracy; problem solving; the arts of creative and critical thinking; the arts of collaboration or working in teams and groups

SCHOOL: formerly a physical place or structure; whatever field or lab settings (and equipment) that support projects of inquiry; now and increasingly, the computer software and infrastructure that support the 'virtual' spaces and interactive communities which in turn direct the flow and evaluation of information...

STANDARDS: excellent results in science and mathematics; success in emulating the procedures of scientific inquiry; success in research publications, in peer reviewed journals

EVALUATION: assessment based on performance; demonstration of competency; mastery of material targeted or assigned

Reading, Writing and Mathematics

READING: In both science and reading, it is questions that guide the process. And expectations. Reading takes place on the base of a common structure of information, common referents, common expectations. But difficulties and gaps arise. Reading is like deciphering a code, a continual process of translation, a matching of texts and expectations. Beyond the simple skills of pattern recognition, it is active reading that breathes life into the process: it is having questions to be answered and purposes to be achieved. Reading is what animals do: they purposefully scan their environments: more sophisticated scanning is moving quickly over informational terrain looking for something (something that neatly fits ino an existing pattern, or something that creates a new pattern of meaning or gestalt). To have a problem, hypothesis or purpose is what initiates reading - not passing eyes over print or film or rocks.

WRITING: is framing an hypothesis or propounding an idea or solution to a problem or controversial question, in other words, making a CLAIM and backing it up with strong supportive material or EVIDENCE. Presenting evidence can for example mean giving reasons for one's position. But more importantly, it answers the question, "How does one know?" The best kind of evidence, according to the canons of science, is drawn from the field - from direct sources, reports from the field, experiments, statistically valid samplings and observations, documented research studies, etc. Writing is not simply stating or asserting something. It is making a case, a clear and strong case for one's position.

MATHEMATICS, OR PROBLEM SOLVING GENERALLY: All problems are "word problems". Beyond simple pattern recognition or simple arithmetic calculation (1 + 1 = 2), all problems are algebraic (al jebr in Arabic originally meant bonesetting, or uniting two parts that belong together). That is, there are knowns and unknowns in any givven situation and they are linked by a question. "How can I borrow the car if mom is for it and pop is against it?" "If you have an --- and a ---, how can you find a ---?" Pieces of information lying around does not constitute doing math. Neither does manipulating pieces of information. Nor does the presence of unknowns constitute mathematics. (Think of the untold unknowns that surround us!)

A problem is a question, desire or demand that links certain knowns with certain unknowns. Mathematics does not have to do with numbers, or definite values, per se. Nor is it specific answers to specific questions. Or even right answers. It is the art of framing questions and setting up contexts in which hitherto unrelated things are related. It is the art of making connections. It is the art of discovery.

Dewey was right in seeing everyday life as rife with problems, as a "force-field" of competing tugs, vectors and directions - complete with allies and enemies, desirings and avoidances. Everyday life is rarely neutral in tone; it is charged with competing values and significances. We problem solve as we breathe.

Summary, appraisals and directions

IN SUM, scientific pedagogy is based on the scientific worldview: it is 'objectivist' in that it strives for universal validity (as defined by universally aspired to theory) within the limits of state-of-the-art instrumentation. It is results or performance based and is oriented toward quantitative measurement (precisely defined or 'mathematical' relationships) and sees applications of the scientific method the surest road to human progress. The heart of science is an active stance toward Nature, and experiment is nothing more than actively posing questions (and solutions!) to Nature. Toleration of differences and freedom of inquiry are a must. Science is the extrapolation of everyday inventiveness, and modern technology is the codification and exponential acceleration of invention. It is perpetual restlessness and questioning. It is the desire for the complete knowledge and control of Nature and the systematic betterment of society.

WEAKNESSES, CRITICISMS, PROBLEMS: too great a faith in science and technology as the engine and norm of human progress... lack of recognition of other valid modalities of knowing, e.g., art and religion...too sharp a division between scientific facts on the one hand and human values on the other... if (when!) the genetic code is broken (the 'genome project') who or what will decide its potential uses?... atomic bombs and frankensteins...

STRENGTHS: the only thing that has cut through endless ages of superstition and human misery (e. g. disease) has been science... patient, humble, dogged inquiry and cumulative research... maintaining suspension of judgment till reliable evidence is accumulated... technology is not a menace but simply the amplification and focusing of human powers...

PROMISING LINES OF RESEARCH AND VISION OF SUCCESS: continued brain research and continued study of computer-inspired artificial intelligence...robotics, droid mentors and a new privileged leisure/learning class... continued technological enhancement on all fronts, from miniaturization (e. g. of personal computers) to internet access and scholarship and conferences to distance learning possibilities... knowledge of all sorts will be 'embedded' in a thousand ways into an increasingly omni-smart environment...


Classics of science: Copernicus to Harvey to Einstein (See the very readable and lovely little book, Great Scientific Experiments, Twenty Experiments That Changed Our View of the World, by Rom Harre)

Empiricist and positivist philosophers of science: David Hume, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Karl Popper (British); August Comte (French); Ernest Mach and the school of Logical Positivism (German)

Great popularizers: Carl Sagan (astronomy and anthropology), Stephen Jay Gould (essayist, biologist and paleontologist, apologist for evolution), Stephen Hawking (the lion-king of contemporary astrophysics), Richard Dawkins (polemicist, 'the selfish gene')
Alan Cromer, Uncommon Sense (a teacher defends the historically unusual nature of science as the only counterpoint to our native egocentricity: methods of investigation common to all that ensure 'objectivity' - a consensually corroborated external world), James Trefil, many popular books stressing both the accessibility and importance of scientific literacy for our culture; a collaborator with E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

A host of 20th century pioneers in scientific pedagogy: Edward Benet and Edward Thorndike (the fathers of educational testing and measurement), B. F. Skinner (father of American Behaviorism), and Jean Piaget (pioneer in the study of intelligence in children)

Jerome Bruner, Essays for the Left Hand (on creativity and intelligence)
Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (the theory of multiple intelligences) and his The Unschooled Mind (How children think and how schools should teach)
Seymour Papert, Mind Storms (the computer game of logo as a natural way to learn) and his The Children's Machine (rethinking school in the age of the computer)
Lewis Perelman, School's Out (the exponential and hybrid possibilities opened up by the latest technologies and having profound import for what we call schooling)

the n-number of patient investigators and researchers (see the ERIC, the Educational Resources Information Center system)