Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Alan Kay on Real Science

Alan Kay on the IAEP list:

It's possible that the Physics Activity could get students interested in Physics, but the deepest and most important parts of real science cannot be learned from a book or a computer or from just doing mathematics no matter how wonderful.

The notion that they can has been a major misconception for thousands of years, and is shockingly widespread in the US educational system. This is because all representation systems we use, including the ones inside our heads, are ultimately hermetic, and thus in the end are only about themselves.

Science is a kind of negotiation between our representation systems and "what's out there?". And the negotiation is always there. As Richard Feynmann liked to say "Science means you don't have to trust the experts".

This is why books, computers, math, etc., don't work. Because natural languages and math have negation, we can write just anything in a book. Because math depends on premises taken as given (called definitions in modern math) we can make a perfect logical system that has nothing to do with "what's out there?" (and many people have over the ages).

Because we can make detailed maps of places which have never existed (e.g. Middle Earth) and can make perfect deductions from them (Gondor is North of Far Harad, and the Shire is North of Gondor, therefore the Shire is North of Far Harad, etc.) we have no way at all of knowing whether this map represents any thing "out there" or not unless we actually exhaustively look for it.

Telling children to learn what is in a book or computer model is absolutely no different from telling them to learn this catechism or that one. They have to be grounded in learning to deal with the actual world in ways that get around what's wrong with our perceptual systems and the minds attached to them.

Because scientific knowledge is now large, it is not possible to learn all of science from doing personal experiments. The major point here is that the "outlook" (simple name for "epistemological stance") of science has to be internalized before one can understand just how to garner scientific knowledge from writings rather from the real world.

Scientists (not just science teachers) have trouble with this, because our brains/minds are set up to believe not to understand or doubt. For example, in spite of the fact that the Victorian Brits considered Maxwell their best scientist (he was) they could not find it possible to get into Maxwell's Equations, in large part because they were non-Newtonian, and Newton had been made into a god that exemplified the "master race" that all such cultures love to think they are. And they were not going to go against their god. As a result, it was left to several prominent Germans, including Heinrich Hertz, to experiment with the ideas in the equations and to invent and build the first radio transmitter.

The fact that this happens doesn't make it excusable, but it does illustrate how hard real science is to really do -- and how difficult it is to teach and learn.


doyle said...

This needs to be nailed to the door of the Church of Science, stapled on every bulletin board in every classroom, laminated and displayed in every superintendent's office, broadcast over PBS and (more importantly) Fox News.

If you get this, the world cracks open into a frightening (and awesome) chasm of possibilities.

If you get this, you will get that much of what we do is ultimately unknowable.

If you get this, your world changes, and democracy might (just might) survive corporatism.

(Or maybe I just should have said "Amen.")

Tom Hoffman said...

I figured you'd like this one, doyle.