Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

I read a very badly-written news item today.

The news item, on the Fox News website, headlined Scientists Generate Powerful Antimatter Ray, is a small little story with a big headline. I mean, after all, what green-blooded geek doesn't get his heart pounding upon hearing that they've made an Antimatter Ray!

Basically all that happened was that the North Carolina State University Nuclear Reactor Program ran an experiment and managed to create a stronger positron beam than the previous record-holder, which is an outfit in Munich. And this is the way that science progresses; one little milestone at a time. Kudos are of course in order for the team that accomplished this....

...but Fox News made it sound as though we were about ready to start vaporizing Klingons.

But more important than the disappointing headline, was the fact that the article contained a statement that is flat-out wrong. In fact, it's so wrong that anyone with a passing familiarity with current theories of cosmology--not just the physics geeks, total math-phobes who took the Science for Poets college courses to satisfy their GE requirements--could pick it out. Behold:

Theoretical physicists believe there are equal amounts of matter and antimatter in the universe, but few antimatter particles have been found "in the wild."
Um.... no.

Our best understanding is that there's a whole lot more matter than antimatter out there. If there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter, standard cosmology predicts that it all would have annihilated each other just after the Big Bang, and there would be nothing left in the universe but photons. And even if this didn't happen, and there were non-annihilated clumps of antimatter still out there (say, entire antimatter galaxies separated from normal matter galaxies by many light-years of space), we would expect to see places in the universe where matter and antimatter were coming in contact and annihilating each other, giving off certain tell-tale frequencies of light.

And, in fact, this imbalance of matter of antimatter in our universe has been a source of great debate for decades, pretty much since Dirac predicted the existence of the positron back in '28. For a long time there was no understanding of how the imbalance could have come about, since it was believed that all physical processes treated matter and antimatter exactly the same. Then in 1964 a couple of physicists discovered a condition called CP violation--which, in layman's terms, meant that certain interactions involving the Weak Nuclear force favored matter over antimatter. This discovery earned its discoverers the 1980 Nobel Prize for physics, and led directly to our current cosmological models, which rely heavily on CP violation to work.

So while the math and physics behind it is pretty exotic, it is not hard for us laymen to grasp the fact that there is a lot more matter than antimatter out there. That much really is common knowledge even among those of us whose only ongoing contact with science comes from the National Geographics we read when we go to the dentist.

Of course, this brings up a question about Fox News. How'd they pick their science correspondent? Who wrote this thing? The article doesn't say. But it's pretty apparent that both the jounalist who wrote it, and the editor who let it through, reach for either People or Ladies' Home Journal while waiting to get their teeth cleaned. And while it would still be unfortunate, this wouldn't be such a bad thing if they weren't actually trying to inform the public on science matters. Yes, the public doesn't have the patience or expertise to handle all those differential equations, so reporting of scientific explanations has to be simplified somewhat; but there's still an obligation to make sure the explanation isn't actually total bunkum.

And before you think I'm bashing Fox News, no.... This happens to every news outfit. It's not just Fox News, because sooner or later every news outfit does this. And it's not just scientific reporting, it's pretty much any technical field. I remember watching CNN back in January of '91 when we launched Operation Desert Storm. Some reporter was standing at the side of a flightline "Somewhere in Saudi Arabia" in the middle of the night as F-15s were streaking down the runway with a deafening roar and bright streaks of white flame trailing the engines. And the poor hapless reporter was standing there watching this, and telling us, "We're seeing more aircraft coming in for a landing now...." Anyone who had spent any time around military aircraft, or even just reading about them--and I grew up the son of an Air Force officer, so this included me--could tell that those planes weren't landing. A plane that's screaming down the runway in full afterburner is not landing. The reporter was completely clueless about military affairs.

(And sure enough, about 45 minutes after that wave of planes launched, Bernie Shaw in the Al Rashid hotel in Baghdad started recording explosions. Let's see... if we know roughly how fast an F-15 cruises, and CNN just told us when the planes launched, and Bernie Shaw told us when the bombs fell, we can get a pretty good guess how far from Baghdad the airbase in question was. See how this game works? Funny the reporters couldn't figure it out....)


There's a specific problem here, and a more general problem. The specific problem is that the journalists in question lack a basic familiarity of the subjects they cover. But to be fair, the world is a mighty big place. It is not possible for any one person to learn so much that he or she can carry on an informed, technical conversation on any topic you throw at him or her. Anyone, no matter how well-informed, will eventually get stumped if you play that game long enough. But if someone is tasked with passing on knowledge to an audience, and the audience is expected to make decisions based on that knowledge, then that person has a responsibility to bone up on the basics of the topic in question:

  • A reporter who is reporting on economics needs to know and understand Adam Smith, Keynes, Galbraith, and Milton Friedman; he needs to understand what the Fed actually does; he needs to know the basic facts of the economic history of the US and of the rest of the world.
  • A reporter who is reporting on science probably needs to get himself a subscription to National Geographic and or Smithsonian, and read every issue through twice. He should also get subscriptions to several of the major scientific journals, and at least be able to skim the articles for the main points, even if the math is a little too deep.
  • A reporter who is reporting on military matters needs to understand strategy, tactics, logistics; needs to understand the equipment our forces use, and why; needs to understand the meanings of enfilade, defilade, raking fire, and a bunch of other terms; needs to know the facts of famous battles and campaigns, especially (in this day and age) counterinsurgency; and needs to know when and why an airplane uses its freakin' afterburner!
That this sort of stuff doesn't happen enough is a serious problem in the journalistic profession. In order to do their jobs well, journalists need a broad base of factual knowledge in history (especially military history), science, literature, philosophy, religion, art, music, and geography.

And this is true for aspiring educators, too. Like journalists, educators are tasked with passing on knowledge and understanding; so like journalists, they need to develop a broad base of factual knowledge in all those subjects as well.

But this brings us to the more general problem (and, at long last, the point of this blog post): in modern educational theory, the learning of facts is disparaged, in favor of critical thinking skills. The idea is that learning facts, rote memorization, is the lowest form of learning; that a person who spends his or her time memorizing facts isn't actually learning to think. Just in the few years that I've been a parent and thinking about education, I've seen numerous schools and other educational establishments proudly announce that "we don't spend all that time on kill-and-drill. We don't make our kids do all that rote memorization. From an early age, we teach them to discover the facts on their own, through their own process of discovery; and we teach them to use their own powers of reasoning, to think critically."

Forgive my cynicism, but I tend to think this kind of reasoning directly leads to people that can't tell when planes are landing or launching. They haven't learned the plain, dull, boring fact that afterburners are there to produce tons of thrust, needed in takeoffs; and that landing aircraft are trying to bleed off energy, so they don't use the afterburners. (Although the Navy lands planes a wee bit differently, but I'm not going to get into that right now.)

Critical thinking skills certainly have their time and place; but without a large store of basic, factual knowledge about the way the world is, those critical thinking skills have no data on which to operate. If I tell you my pet theory about why Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, how can you tell whether there's something worth considering in my theory, or if I'm just pulling your leg? The only way you can judge the truth or falsity of my theory is if you know something about the course of events of the battle of Waterloo. If you have the facts, you can evaluate my theory. If you don't have the facts, you have no frame of reference from which to say what's right and what's wrong.

This has ramifications for education. As the book The Well Trained Mind puts it:

Young children are described as sponges because they soak up knowledge. But there's another side to the metaphor. Squeeze a dry sponge, and nothing comes out. First the sponge has to be filled. Language teacher Ruth Beechick writes, "Our society is so obsessed with creativity that people want children to be creative before they have any knowledge or skill to be creative with."

Especially with the younger kids--whose minds are designed to soak up knowledge, we need to expose them to as much of the real world as we can. They need to hear stories from literature; they need to know history facts, and geography facts, and math facts, and grammar facts, and language facts, and nature facts--preferably drawn directly from nature, and only secondarily from books; and on and on. Without having a large store of knowledge, they won't be able to judge whether the philosopies and theories they hear about are valid, or complete bunk; they'll wind up susceptible to what the Bible refers to as "every wind of doctrine".


It's a common complaint that both journalists and educators often come out of their schools with all kinds of theories about how they should do their jobs, and even with social agendas that have been shaped by their time in school; but that too many of them don't come out with a good, down-to-earth understanding of the way things work in the real world. It would seem to me that the best education aspiring journalists and educators could recieve to prepare them for their jobs would consist almost entirely of general education--as mentioned before, history (especially military history), science, literature, philosophy, religion, art, music, and geography. Too often college students (and I was guilty here) see these subjects as unwelcome distractions from our real education in our respective majors; but that is absolutely the wrong way to look at them. These subjects are not distractions from one's education; if we wish to be well-informed citizens, they are the core of one's education. And journalists and educators, of all people, need to be well-informed.


Jason said...

With the background of coming from college and working in an engineering field I can honestly say that the best people are not the ones with the most college but with the most life experciences. I work with engineers who are probably the smartest in their field, but when it comes to using their knowledge from "Management" courses, they are the worst. In order for kids in college to get a full education, they need to work; not as an intern or part-time in their field, but in a different environment from what they are going to school for. A well-rounded (smarts-wise not body shape-wise) individual is one, I believe, who is more understanding of the world around them and how it works. Therefore can do their job tons better.

Chris said...

Good heavens! My brain is tired.

But seriously, what a tremendous and thoughtful post. I'll not delve into the details and respond (which is usually just a hearty "amen"). Rather, just a quick affirmation that I really enjoy your posts (and your comments back home at yours truly's blog). I look forward to a continued "conversation" for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Okay, so seeing as I am the little brother of said blogger, I feel a certain need to respond. Sorry if this gets a little wordy...perhaps it is in our genes.

BTW, please do not take any offense in any comments here, this was all written by a very tired, worn out person with way too much to do and working on way too little sleep. This is my attempt to respond to a number of philosophical issues in your most recent blog.

Okay, so here's the deal.

Critical thinking is a skill. Yes it is spectactularly important. In fact, if you don't have the ability to think critically, your ideas, no matter how cool they are, can not be considered credible (google the "Donation of Constantine" and you'll see what I mean). Critical thinking involves knowing and understanding that you don't know everything, doing investigative research, and putting together a logical, responsible conclusion based on what you do discover. A very important lesson I have learned is that "the more I learn, the more I realize that I have to learn." The world is much to big and complex to ever hope to know everything, or to know all the facts... in fact if anyone ever claims to "know all the facts," it means that they refuse to keep searching (and thinking critically).

You mention rote memorization as being great. The problem is, it doesn't really work. To really learn something (even someone you think is learning by rote), people do something called "scaffolding"--they attach meaning of new items to what they already know. This is why, after reading the thingee on antimatterwhatever stuff, I have no idea what you were talking about. Because I don't care. However, if you were to start talking something having to do with European History of the 1600s, I would understand completely--I have some background knowledge. This is one of those mistakes that outsiders to education (like first year teachers) always make. You cannot cram information down the throats of little children without giving them connections to help them understand things (like mnemonic devices).
Now, back to that thing about the antimatter photon thingees... you understand the material that was being discussed on FoxNews because you have been connected to this knowledge in the past--you have the ability to scaffold it. Therefore, you had the ability to use *critical thinking* skills to *discern the validity* of what you were just exposed to.

So, without the ability to think critically, we will never be able to evaluate, to learn from, to debate, or to (responsibily) dismiss any ideas that we may not have already had. We will be just like the mediieval scholastic catholic theologians, who, when expeosed to the scientific, artistic, and philosophical ideas of Renaissance humanism or the Protestant Reformation either lost their faith completely, or turned off their brains (Council of Trent), started burning books in bonfires and heretics at the stake.
If we do not teach our kids to think critically, to evaluate, and to research stuff on their own, rather than parrot what their textbooks, teachers, and parents say, thier shelterred--no, their stifled world will be shattered when they run into the first "truth" that seems to make any sense.

Kids learn by observing (you sounded a lot like Roussea here--on the education part, not the proto-communist social contract ideas). Kids learn by observing, by making connections to what they already know, by thinking about stuff, by experiencial learning, by scaffolding, and by trying new things (note how children learn how to talk, ride bikes, etc. We reward their ATTEMPTS, which encourages them to try harder).
If we just try to cram childrens' heads full of facts, without giving them the skills/abilities to evaluate the facts they are being given, they will either never remember the information (teach 11th graders about some period of history that doesn't connect to them and you'll know what I'm talking about), or they'll simply accept as gospel truth anything they ever read. Without the ability to use critical thinking, our children's ability to understand the "real world" will always be handicapped.

So about history. There are many kinds of history. As a historian, I believe the most important, lasting historical events that need to be studied are those events that led to real changes in the world. Funny. This isn't military history. That's not to say that war has never changed history. But seriously.
You cannot be freaking serious that you think military history is the most important kind of history. In war, a couple of things happen universally, 1. PEOPLE DIE. 2. THINGS GET BLOWN UP. 3. COUNTRIES GO BANKRUPT. *Everything else is just trivia.* Seriously, every war has dealt with these three truths. The side that wins is the side that kills more and blows up more of the enemy, or the last side to go bankrupt (The cold war, Vietnam, the Civil War, 7-Years War/French and Indian War, Punic Wars, they're all the same. Nothing changes, just the names and the flags). Oh, and by the way, the winning sides write the history books. Again, the importance of thinking critically (in the field of history, we call this historiography).
As Karl Von Clauswitz, the early 19th Century Prussian Military philosopher said, "War is an extension of politics by another means." Military history is worthless on its own. Its just the story of a bunch of people killing each other.

Okay, so back to this real world thing. You are being critical of the "social agenda" (I love hot button catch phrases) that you see in the media and public education--specifically that they (we) don;'t know how things work in the "real world." You need to be careful that you don't make exactly the same error you say journalists and educators are making.
The real world is where we live and work and teach. It is where the American population lives. It is where my students come from and where you go to work. It is the world outside our houses. It is full of a lot of wierd things, that we do not necessarily have to like, but we do have to deal with. And it is what we have to teach our children to deal with. It is what we have to equip our children to deal with.
Here is the real world. There are countless voices out there by countless people that have lived life and learned things. You and I and everyone else reading this blog are no exceptions. No one (present company included) is 100% right, and no one is 100% wrong (Note, I am not disavowing any divine universal truth, I am just mentioning certain issues prevalent in us, physical, mortal, tainted, human beings).
If we (me as a public high school teacher, and you as a home schooling father) fail or refuse to teach our children to respect, evaluate, learn from, and think critically from these different voices that we are all exposed to, our kids will never be able to cope with the real world. Their only options at that point will be to either completely give up and give in to them, or completely withdraw from it, to ignore the real world, and spend the rest of their lives in their imaginary one. We must teach our children, wherever they are at to think critically about everything. If we do not, the facts won't matter.

Okay, seriously, this is my one and only blog entry/response I think I will have time to make for the next 19 months. (Seriously, folks, where do you guys get the time to sit and write this kind of stuff for hours and hours? Do you guys...like... have jobs? :) ) Okay, really, I am like totally swamped with grading AP European History essays and homework, Government homework and quizzes. I've got lesson planning to do and a letter of recommendation or two to write. Maybe after that I'll be able to crawl into bet at 2 or 3, get a couple hours of sleep, wake up kiss my wife and kids, and go back out to be a missionary to and a public school teacher back in the real world.

-Andy (Tim's little brother)

Timothy Power said...

Hello, Andy! Thanks for stopping by my blog.

I've been thinking about your comment, and I think we're coming in from different directions. For one thing, you're teaching AP European History to high-schoolers, and my wife and I are homeschooling a 5-year old. This does create differences in outlook.

For one thing, 5-year-olds and 16-year-olds use their brains very differently. Our daughter hasn't gotten to the age yet where she's asking "Why? Why? Why?" She's taking things as she finds them. At her age, her brain is wired to slurp up factual knowledge. To use the "scaffolding" metaphor, she's constructing the scaffold; that's what a five-year-old brain is designed to do, and it does it very well. She will listen, quite happily, to nonsense poems over and over again until she has them down cold. She's got Jabberwocky down; she's gotten many of the Tolkien poems from Lord of the Rings (There is an inn, a merry old inn...). She's even had an interest in some of the longer, more obscure ones, such as "Earendil was a mariner, who tarried in Arvenien...," even though there's no way anyone could understand the poem without reading the Silmarilion (which she hasn't, obviously).

Five-year-old brains simply are not wired to do abstract logic. They're wired to absorb info. They're great at learning languages; they're great at learning physical motion (musical instruments, for example); they're great at memorizing poems and learning stories; they can even memorize math facts, like what you get when you add this number to that number. The Fairy is making progress on all of these things. But their brains aren't wired for abstract logic. The capacity for logic and critical thinking skills starts to kick in later, about fourth grade.

By the time someone is in high school, they're way past this point. They should be able to assimilate new data, to understand where the data came from and how reliable it is, to see new connections between what they've learned and what they already know, and to express these new ideas persuasively in writing and speech. This is what I was referring to when I said, "Critical thinking skills certainly have their time and place..."

But I still stand by the second half of that sentence, as well: "but without a large store of basic, factual knowledge about the way the world is, those critical thinking skills have no data on which to operate". If critical thinking skills are the software, then facts are the input data; if you don't have the latter, then the former won't work properly.

What I was getting at was not that learning of facts should replace critical thinking skills. What I was getting at was that critical thinking skills cannot replace the assimilation of new facts. And the educational establishment has been guilty of attempting to do exactly this in the past--as evidenced by the disaster that was the New Math phenomenon. It is not sufficient to learn historiography, and call ourselves done; we must also learn who Washington was, and Jefferson, and Napoleon, and Alexander the Great, and Charlemagne, and what all these people were famous for, before our historiography will do us any good at all. After all, the number of high school seniors out there who are unable to identify these characters, or even find the U.S.A. on a map is appalling; they don't need historiography, they need the basic facts.

And indeed, while a 5-year-old can learn and understand stories about all these people, he or she is not ready to hear about historiography. Think of it as being just one or two levels higher on our Hierarchy of Needs.


Regarding military history: you said "You cannot be freaking serious that you think military history is the most important kind of history." I didn't say that. What I said was that various people need "a broad base of factual knowledge in history (especially military history)..."

I happen to think that the most important currents of history are cultural and spiritual, rather than military, political, or economic. There have been peoples that have survived centuries of oppression with their national identities intact because of their cultural strength (think the Poles, or the Jews); and there have been military and economic powerhouses that have gotten decadent and then collapsed (think the Romans and the Byzantines).

Nevertheless, I believe that military history is very important. And I for one am astounded that you can say something like "In war, a couple of things happen universally, 1. PEOPLE DIE. 2. THINGS GET BLOWN UP. 3. COUNTRIES GO BANKRUPT. *Everything else is just trivia.*" Actually, there are a couple of other things that frequently happen in wars:

1) Occasionally, entire civilizations get wiped out (think the Carthaginians, the Byzantines, the Aztecs, the Hittites).

2) Nearly always, the winning side imposes its will on the losing side (think American Civil War, World War I, World War II, Franco-Prussian War, just to name a very small sample).

3) Wars have huge social and political effects on the societies that fight them--even those societies that emerge victorious. The U.S. would be a very different place today if we had sat out WWI or WWII; these wars changed us, tremendously.

These three facts make wars some of the most powerful drivers of human history out there. Because of this, we need to understand how and why wars start; how and why wars end; what causes certain countries to win, and certain countries to lose; and what wars do to the societies that fight them. We need to understand this stuff because wars happen, and the stakes involved for those who are in them are huge. Reducing wars to a simple matter of "these people died, this stuff was destroyed, these people went bankrupt, plus assorted trivia" is almost guaranteed to prevent an understanding into items I listed above.

There's a whole lot more to say on this topic, but I'll let someone say it who knows a lot more than I do. This is an essay by Victor Davis Hanson, who has taught at CSU Fresno and Stanford (as a Hoover Fellow) as a classicist and military historian. He covers my little argument above in a lot more detail, and a whole lot more eloquently than I did.

Well, I hope after all this, that you're doing well. I know that educators and history buffs tend to be pretty opinionated. (I'm married to one, you know.)

Do take care.

Tonya Power said...

I just wanted to add a little bit having to do with people getting facts wrong.

It is one of my pet peeves, when someone who is supposed to be informing the public gets their facts wrong. After hearing about a major news story of a disaster such as a devastating earthquake, I listen briefly for the basic facts as they have them and then not check back for many hours (especially if I have relatives or friends in the area), because I have experienced too many occassions of news-people trying to fill the void of "we just don't know yet" with guesses, opinion, rumors and all sorts of distortions. My time is better spent in those cases with doing something useful, like checking on family or donating to a relief organization.

Another thing that I have experienced a lot of (especially in college) was how I will instantaneously lose respect for a professor who makes a factual error that is obvious to me. I remember one occassion when a history professor of mine referred to the "Saint James Bible." Arrgh! How can I feel like this person can teach me what I don't know yet, if they make obvious mistakes in what I do know. He was not joking, he had no clue. I went to four colleges with four different majors. I am a reader and like to learn a little of everything in my path. During that time, I found that reading on my own better supplied me with facts than lectures from teachers. The lectures and papers and tests were helpful in instilling discipline, but the reading was what educated me.
I will also say that with all the time I spent in college I came across a lot of people (professors, fellow students, and staff) who displayed both lack of the basic facts (ignorance) and an inability to process information logically.

By the time I was established in my career as a college librarian, I thought that I would be able to appreciate the other side of things. I now see the difficulty of dealing with bureaucracy, the insanity of dealing with a constantly changing work schedule (12 diffent work schedules a year), and ever present office politics. I saw co-workers who had the appropriate credentials, who were completely lacking in common sense to the point of being useless. I saw students who came to the college with huge gaping holes of basic knowledge about the world around them. I remember one young lady who was delighted when she learned the meaning of the word "ignorant" because she now knew that she wasn't stupid, she just didn't know a lot of things.

We often get caught up in a person's credentials or in physical presentation to determine ability. They can help, but nothing can take the place of knowing enough yourself to be able to evaluate competence in those around you. If you are having to rely on other people to shape your opinions on important subjects (think election advertisements or financial gurus), because you don't want to inform yourself or because you are too lazy to inform yourself, don't be surprised if those other people were wrong and you have to reap the consequences.