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The Sweet Mystery of Science

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the the-leaven-is-the-best-part dept.

Science 259

Hugh Pickens writes "Biologist David P. Barash writes in the LA Times that as a scientist he has been participating in a deception for more than four decades — a benevolent and well intentioned deception — but a deception nonetheless. 'When scientists speak to the public or to students, we talk about what we know, what science has discovered,' writes Barash. 'After all, we work hard deciphering nature's secrets and we're proud whenever we succeed. But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there's a whole lot more that we don't know.' Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts, suggesting that 'knowing' science is a matter of memorizing says Barash. 'It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.' Barash isn't talking about the obvious unknowns, such as 'Is there life on other planets?' Looking just at his field, evolutionary biology, the unknowns are immense: How widespread are nonadaptive traits? To what extent does evolution proceed by very small, gradual steps versus larger, quantum jumps? What is the purpose of all that 'junk DNA"? Did human beings evolve from a single lineage, or many times, independently? Why does homosexuality persist? According to Barash scientists need to keep celebrating and transmitting what they know but also need to keep their eyes on what science doesn't know if the scientific enterprise is to continue attracting new adherents who will keep pushing the envelope of our knowledge rather than resting satisfied within its cozy boundaries."

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My College Experience Was Completely the Opposite (5, Interesting)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135463)

I guess I must have gone to a fundamentally different kind of college. Nearly every single professor I encountered wasn't excited about what was already known in their respective field but got disturbingly excited about untestable theories, suspected areas of interest and tantalizingly unknowable facts. My computer science professors would treat P=NP in an almost religious fashion -- treating that solution like the face of god. Sometimes it was just a numbers game like natural language parsing and parts of speech tagging. Here's the best-to-date accuracy, can you beat it? Ask my physics professors about entropy in space or, worse, string theory and they'd shortly be speaking in tongues. My philosophy instructors, even, loved to ask questions that had no clear answer: would you murder one person to save thousands? Why did Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner of 3,000 lives in Paris, survive the revolution and what moral implications entailed him executing his former boss the king?

And that sort of makes sense to me because what are you going to publish about if your field is dead? What is going to drive you to keep studying your field if it's a dead field. I will say I don't remember many exciting things coming out of my advanced math courses. I know that field isn't dead but my instructors were abysmal in that field. Even the statistics professor had more fire. And I think the reason behind that is that math is a very deep field with so many before us that have pushed that field so far. In order to make original progress in that field, it appears to me that you almost have to become a hermit. You've got to become some sort of phantasmal waif like the great Grigori Perelman.

And I think that's the essence of where this article becomes misaligned. The author is complaining about learning by rote but there's few other ways to accelerate young minds quickly up to the point of modern positions of each field. I feel polymaths become much more rare as each field deepens in knowledge and that's because they are all rapidly becoming very deep rabbit holes (like mathematics). For me, grade school and high school contained the teachers that this guy is complaining about and that's because they had no choice. I wasn't ready for the real questions that remain when I was learning about derivatives and integrals in high school. I probably would not have comprehended P=NP very well at that time let alone the proof to the Poincaré conjecture.

It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

I think there's a healthy balance, if you're teaching about what you don't know about then what could the students possibly be learning? Instead, I think teaching by rote and example of what we do know while using what we don't know as a carrot is the best methodology. If you can make your students excited about the unknown possibilities while at the same time conveying the boring and known but pragmatic information then you hit that sweet spot of teaching at a college level.

As to the particular field discussed in the article: Yeah, evolutionary biology is a relatively young field with a lot to be learned yet. I realized only a fraction of what I don't know when I read and reviewed The Logic of Chance [slashdot.org] .

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135503)

Something unprecedented just occurred. I was happily reading your comment, and then I heard a sound. At first, I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew that it came from somewhere near my precious ass. After a few minutes of investigation, I finally gave up on trying to find out what the enigmatic sound was. Failing at solving the mystery myself, I invited the World's Greatest Minds to aid me in solving the mystery. A few seconds passed, and then they informed me that they had reached the following conclusion: I shot a fart out of my own asshole while reading your comment.

Inconceivable! Unimaginable! Such a thing!

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135615)

The author is complaining about learning by rote but there's few other ways to accelerate young minds quickly up to the point of modern positions of each field.

But that's just it: you've done nothing for them if all they have done is learn by rote. They won't understand a thing, and everything you taught them will be easily forgettable. You do a disservice to people by making everything boring and assuming that they can't truly understand it.

And Your Suggestion? (5, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135709)

The author is complaining about learning by rote but there's few other ways to accelerate young minds quickly up to the point of modern positions of each field.

But that's just it: you've done nothing for them if all they have done is learn by rote. They won't understand a thing, and everything you taught them will be easily forgettable. You do a disservice to people by making everything boring and assuming that they can't truly understand it.

Okay well somebody modded you up so let's take the example from the article:

In my first college-level biology course, I was required to memorize all of the digestive enzymes and what they do. Even today, I can't stomach those darned chemicals, and I fear the situation is scarcely much better at most universities today.

I'm not a biologist but here's how I'd teach this: 1) here's the methodology and a brief history of how they found these enzymes 2) here are the list of the all the known enzymes and their functions 3) this is why we suspect there might be more we don't know about or why we suspect we have discovered all of them. (keep in mind I have no idea which of those is reality)

So you teach that to the class and you tell them that they will be expected to know the full list of enzymes from number two. Okay so how do you propose we teach them that? Give them a cow's stomach and tell them to get to work? I mean, at the end of the day you only have so much time and you cannot give the students the opportunity to discover in a class period what took some well funded researchers many man months. You're best off to give them these enzymes "by rote" and, should they want more information, be able to approach you about this outside of class.

I'm more comfortable speaking about computer science so a comparison of this might be telling students about the evolution of memory management systems in operating systems "by rote" instead of forcing them to code each iteration of what Unix, Minix, Solaris, Linux, Windows 1, etc did to manage memory or schedule threads. There's only so much time and while this information is valuable in some context, it's not as valuable as being able to move forward to get to more pragmatic fronts of the field in question.

I'm totally open to hear how you think biology is supposed to teach enzymes. A lot of memorizing and teaching by rote in biology has to do with just coming to agreement on what you're going to call the bones of the body or tissues in the body or fragments of the skull or whatever you want to agree on with your area of focus. How do you make naming the bones of the human body fun and then expect them to read a paper on metatarsals and expect the students to have come up with a better name from metatarsals and know that that's what the paper is talking about?

Re:And Your Suggestion? (4, Insightful)

Nemyst (1383049) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136643)

My problem with that is that we're still working on the assumption that you need to memorize those enzymes.

Why?

For the vast majority of people taking general biology classes, knowing those by heart won't be of any use. Furthermore, for just about everyone, they'll be forgotten hours after the test.

TFA is right for some courses: they're becoming memorization courses. Sciences where there is a lot of things to recall, like chemistry or biology, seem particularly affected, and I think it's the premise that's wrong, not merely the execution. To give an example, in one of my college chemistry courses we had to remember the orbitals of the hydrogen atom (1s, 2s, 2p, 3s, 3p, 3d, etc.). Now this isn't a particularly hard thing to memorize, but you didn't have much context for it. It was merely "these are the orbitals" and you'd need to regurgitate them in a test. Later, I've gone through numerous physics courses and those orbitals naturally popped up. We were never asked to memorize them, but we did because we actually needed them. We understood what the symbols meant and had to use them to get the answer.

So I say, only get students to solve problems. If something needs to be memorized along the way, they will be, and probably far more efficiently and in a far more durable fashion than would be if the question was strictly about memorization.

Re:And Your Suggestion? (4, Interesting)

HornWumpus (783565) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136903)

Just an aside.

My dad used to to teach college level general chem to students including medical students.

Every year he would get at least one med student (soon to be former med student) who could not balance a redox equation to save his/her life. Each of these students had somehow gotten an A in high school chemistry (or they would not be in this medical school).

Each of these morons would demand they get an A. They never got one. They were all very good at memorizing. Hence: MD = Memorized Degree.

He is quite proud that these idiots are not physicians. One absolute, concrete product of his years of work.

Re:And Your Suggestion? (1)

HornWumpus (783565) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136947)

Just to head off the inevitable claims of BS. Med students usually take general chem as pre-meds. This is a six year med school.

Re:And Your Suggestion? (1)

MozeeToby (1163751) | more than 2 years ago | (#41137141)

Question: Are there real situations in the field of biology where the a non-specialist would significantly benefit from having all the enzymes memorized? Understand that if it's your research field you should probably know them. And I understand that you should probably know where to look them up and how to interpret data about them. But is it really and absolutely necessary to have all the information available to memory? If it isn't, then who cares how you teach the list of enzymes? And if it is, I'd say the way to teach them would be to drop the students into the situations where the information is necessary and provide the information then.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (4, Insightful)

jedidiah (1196) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136223)

You can't participate in the discussion unless you do the reading.

The Socratic Method actually requires a good bit of that "lowly rote learning" that people like to be so dismissive of around here. It's a necessary prerequisite so that you know what everyone is talking about.

It's not glamorous but you can't skip lifting your head, rolling over, learning how to crawl and then how to walk.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

tsm_sf (545316) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136325)

As my geology prof exclaimed when the class complained about the amount of memorization required: "welcome to college."

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

somersault (912633) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136513)

Actually some people do skip learning to crawl. I found out recently that I did. But point taken! I think even those who skip rote learning from lists, would eventually pick up all the terminology that the roters use anyway.

Actually I don't really think there is any point forcing kids to memorise stuff that they'd be able to look up in a textbook in the real world. Focus on teaching them how to analyse problems and then look up the information they need, rather than trying to know everything.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

Agent0013 (828350) | more than 2 years ago | (#41137229)

Focus on teaching them how to analyse problems and then look up the information they need, rather than trying to know everything.

I can see a problem with this method. If you don't have some basic understanding of the information related to the area you are analyzing, you won't be able to think in broad enough terms to come to any type of solution or analysis. You could very easily get caught up in all of the details of the information you have to keep looking up. If you can't memorize the information you looked up, you won't have it all in your head an once for the analysis anyway. I would personally rather understand how a formula works or how it was created than just memorize it. Then, years later, I have a good chance of being able to re-create it when I need it. But without plenty of understandings of the areas around that formula, I would not be able to do that, so there is some sort of memory needed to have a good understanding of an area of study.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136679)

Come on, there are lots of Slashdotters who participate in the discussion without doing the reading OR knowing what everyone is talking about.

Or did you mean participating in a productive discussion?

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

cfulton (543949) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136783)

Or did you mean participating in a productive discussion?

On Slashdot? What are you smoking?

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (2)

am 2k (217885) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135649)

I guess I must have gone to a fundamentally different kind of college. Nearly every single professor I encountered wasn't excited about what was already known in their respective field but got disturbingly excited about untestable theories, suspected areas of interest and tantalizingly unknowable facts. My computer science professors would treat P=NP in an almost religious fashion -- treating that solution like the face of god. Sometimes it was just a numbers game like natural language parsing and parts of speech tagging. Here's the best-to-date accuracy, can you beat it? Ask my physics professors about entropy in space or, worse, string theory and they'd shortly be speaking in tongues. My philosophy instructors, even, loved to ask questions that had no clear answer: would you murder one person to save thousands? Why did Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner of 3,000 lives in Paris, survive the revolution and what moral implications entailed him executing his former boss the king?

The tasks of most professors I met were reduced to management stuff. They only appear as authors on papers because of things they did while being a postdoc, or because they want to be added to a student's paper (in order to get their references up). They had more up-to-date knowledge about the issues of the faculty's politics and the mechanical problems of the coffee machine than their (former) field.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (4, Interesting)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135883)

They had more up-to-date knowledge about the issues of the faculty's politics and the mechanical problems of the coffee machine than their (former) field.

Oh I don't know if its that bad. To the best of my knowledge I'm the only person I've ever met who always asked any post-secondary educator about their PHd dissertation. Two observations:

1) On topic, virtually all of them spent the last 10% of their discussion talking about very recent work in that field. Apparently my favorite calc teacher tells people he takes credit for inventing how pretty much every kid learned algebraic equation multiplication in the 80s based on an enormous number of teaching experiments and lots of early computer based statistical analysis, but that was superseded by a more recent fad / trend / research around 1990 blah blah blah. I never fact checked these people, but even in something irrelevant to them now, they pretty much all keep up with old times.

2) Off topic, at least a small percentage of phd's are achieved on a non-dissertation track. Maybe 5% of my phd level instructors talked about submitting a large quantity of research papers with their name on it. Maybe luck, donno, but this seemed more prevalent outside the hard sciences. My pre-civil war history prof got his PHD based on lots and lots of published research papers some fairly interesting sounding historical economic analysis of England or something very similar to this story, but he claimed to never write "a" dissertation just turned in stacks of research papers and did his written and oral exams.

TLDR if you think your prof is clueless about modern research, motivate your prof by asking about their PHD dissertation and you'll probably get a pretty interesting speech about modern developments in the field both during and since the prof's dissertation.

I don't think this is all that surprising... J random luser walks up to me and asks whats new in the modern world of computing and I probably tell them to F off I'm busy, but if they have a good conversation starter about something from my past, maybe we'll have an interesting discussion instead.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (3, Insightful)

VortexCortex (1117377) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135945)

It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

I think there's a healthy balance, if you're teaching about what you don't know about then what could the students possibly be learning? Instead, I think teaching by rote and example of what we do know while using what we don't know as a carrot is the best methodology.

I think problem solving and deductive reasoning should be the primary things taught in school. In Japan many lessons start with a question to answer or problem to solve, that the student is not yet knowledgeable of. Then the students are put to the task of coming up with a solution or finding an answer in whatever way they think best. Then the teacher presents the established known answer or solution, and discusses how the students own attempts compare and contrast with the known method. Doing so reveals things such as mathematic principals as obvious, not mysterious, and gives young minds the tools to go forth and explore.

I wish my schooling was like that in the USA. When I was 10 I was creating a 2D vector graphics space game in BASIC (moveto, lineto, rotate). I only understood linear equations, but I needed to find the angle from one ship to the other ship for the CPU player to turn towards the player's ship. I understood slopes, and made a drawing of line slopes and their corresponding angles. For the rest of the summer I spent inventing Trigonometry. There was a sin() and cos() function, but their documentation didn't explain what they were used for -- I ended up making my own slopeAngle() program.

The next school year was more long division, and ratios... When I presented my 3D distance equations and what I would soon learn were proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem to my mathematics teacher, she was unimpressed. "You'll learn about Trigonometry in high school", she said. That was the key word I needed to continue my education, I soon discovered calculus at my local library. When we did start learning Trig, I was just as unimpressed with the "Geniuses" of old as my math teacher had been of me. I found it odd that these old dead bastards were so highly praised for what would be obvious to any 10 year old.

I dropped out of Highschool as soon as was legally possible and started a career in software development. "School" was utterly useless to me, and college remains even moreso: It would cost so much for me just to be able to prove that I know what I know, and would waste so much time in the proving... I would be forever in debt. My customers like results, they could care less of my mental upbringing, only my experience and accomplishments. We should do away with "final exams" and instead place "entrance exams" at job entry points, thus freeing our minds to learn however we think best without punishing us for doing so.

YOU may not have been ready for P != NP or the Poincaré conjecture, but why should your slower development be a limiting factor to others?! I've been using Unit-Sphere Quaternions and Integration for NEAR Polynomial time Inverse Kinematics since Junior High School -- I'm not bragging, I don't feel superior at all. I'm just trying to drill it in that everyone develops at different rates, and the current establishment completely ignores this to the detriment of our race.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136331)

I guess I must have gone to a fundamentally different kind of college.

Or this Barash geezer went to a fundamentalist one.

He does seem to have a thing about evolution and homosexuality,.

Re:My College Experience Was Completely the Opposi (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136671)

I think he has a point where the public is concerned - except for a few gifted science popularizers like Sagan and deGrasse Tyson, public exposure to science seems to be too heavily tilted to the "look what we found" side, and it's ruined public perception. Even on Slashdot science stories inevitably have several "wake me up when I can buy it at the corner store" comments.

Teaching can be done without pouring facts into kids' heads too. The best teachers I had would teach well known concepts by first posing a problem. You'd get a sense of the mystery, then work through to the (known, but not to you) solution.

Oh Great (1)

canadiannomad (1745008) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135469)

Someone's going to write another book that fundamentalists will take as proof that science is wrong. o_O

Why scientists keep certain topics hushed (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135651)

Well, that's the reason scientists don't emphasize certain aspects of science: the fear that certain people will take the wrong conclusions from that. (Note: I said they don't emphasize, not that they don't talk about it at all.)

For example, if scientists (such as Fred Hoyle) state that it is improbable that life was created by chance molecular interactions, some people will take that as evidence of divinity.

If scientists pose a specific genetic origin of homosexuality, that could lead to a gaydar-based homosexual genocide (feticide?).

If scientists admit differential IQ or other traits in various subspecies of humanity, that could lead to a basis for legalizing racial discrimination.

This would become even more powerful if it were discovered that humans had independently evolved in different areas (not the currently accepted theory).

Finally, sociobiology may lead to legalized sexism.

Re:Oh Great (1)

daem0n1x (748565) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136233)

Well, scientists who are self-confident will just tell the fundamentalists to go fuck themselves and proceed with the good work.

Not an issue for physics (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135479)

I didn't do a systematic survey, but my impression is that many popular science physics books are about speculative theories like string theory.

Re:Not an issue for physics (4, Insightful)

schroedingers_hat (2449186) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135647)

Yes, but many of them are the worst of both worlds. Speculative and unproven whilst being presented as dogmatic fact. This increases the public perception that science is both certain/absolute and changes its mind frequently/frivolously, and makes it even harder to explain how it really works.

Re:Not an issue for physics (2)

jedidiah (1196) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136241)

Compared to other systems of "truth", Science does indeed change it's mind frequently and frivolously. That's not a bad thing. It's nothing to fear. It's also not something to gloss over just because half of the population is going to get a panic attack over it.

"Why does homosexuality persist?" (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135485)

This is obvious: it's because the world is full of rectangular objects with rounded corners.

Re:"Why does homosexuality persist?" (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135583)

Pastor Charles Worley told me it's because the "gays and queers" are breeding with the "lesbians and homo-seck-shoo-walls."

Re:"Why does homosexuality persist?" (0)

kiep (1821612) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135681)

female hormones in the tap water, I heard..

Re:"Why does homosexuality persist?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135951)

Do not underestimate the power of narcissism.

The Real Reason (1)

neoshroom (324937) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135993)

One of the best current contenders for the reason homosexuality persists is kin selection. [sciencedaily.com]

Re:"Why does homosexuality persist?" (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41136239)

Ya know, the parent has a little haterism in it. But it subtly raises very interesting question - how broken is the US patent system, and how stupid are our peers - specifically, jurors. From murder cases to patents, we see miscarriages, total abortions, in fact, of the law. Compare such weighty matters to something the LA Times dredged up on a slow news day - some number of angels on a pinhead lament about what "science" (as if it were one monolith of knowledge and process) doesn't and does do - useless intellectual introspection.

So ya unwashed basement dweller, mod parent down at the risk of losing your own perspective.

Sounds like he's doing it wrong (4, Insightful)

petes_PoV (912422) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135493)

Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts,

Science is about explaining things, not cataloging facts. If the guy thinks that the facts are the important bit, he's lost his way somewhere. Facts are the questions, theories are their answer and "science" is really the process of creating theories and disproving them. Hopefully replacing old theories with better or more refined ones. It's not about being able to recite the properties of a given thing, person or animal (those can be looked up).

Re:Sounds like he's doing it wrong (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135641)

Teaching and writing only about what is known risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts,

Science is about explaining things, not cataloging facts.

Explanations are the means of science, but they are not really the end. The end is predictions. Science is geared toward allowing us to predict things better - more accurately, more precisely, under more circumstances, etc. The group of procedures and approaches generalized into the "scientific method" is designed around making good predictions, and improving the quality of those predictions over time.

Re:Sounds like he's doing it wrong (4, Interesting)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136053)

Science is about explaining things, not cataloging facts

That's the big one, right there.

People think science tells them what is "true" or "false" or "real" or "unreal". This is my biggest beef with pop skeptics.

The notion that science can "prove" something is an 18th century conceit that does not have much currency among scientists today. We have models that seem to be supported by observation and we find them useful and we have models that are not supported by observation and we (hopefully) discard those to a shoebox which someone will someday open to write a book about the ridiculous things scientists once said.

I get this all the time regarding what pop skeptics would call "woo", such as Qi Gong or the concept of Qi. I try to explain that it's just a model, a way of describing something, and one that has held up pretty well to observation (yin and yang, the way a diagram of the channels and vessels of Qi is amazingly similar to the nervous and circulatory system). OK, it's a philosophical model, rather than an engineering model, but a model all the same.

Hopefully replacing old theories with better or more refined ones.

Models have different purposes. For the purposes of neurosurgery, the model of the circulation of Qi in the body is insufficient. For the purpose of maintaining and promoting health, martial arts, etc, the model of circulation of Qi is appropriate, precise, extremely useful.

Science is a funny thing. I occasionally play music with a guy who's been part of the Committee on the Conceptual Foundations of Science at the Univ of Chicago and he's a bona fide scientist. His view of "science" is very surprising, very...mutable. I find that the further up the food chain in Physics, in Math, you go, the less you'll find pop skeptics. The less you'll find the concept of "real".

Re:Sounds like he's doing it wrong (1)

paiute (550198) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136433)

I get this all the time regarding what pop skeptics would call "woo", such as Qi Gong or the concept of Qi. I try to explain that it's just a model, a way of describing something, and one that has held up pretty well to observation (yin and yang, the way a diagram of the channels and vessels of Qi is amazingly similar to the nervous and circulatory system). OK, it's a philosophical model, rather than an engineering model, but a model all the same.

Except that it isn't. Qi is presented by those selling it as ancient fundamental truth, not some model of truth.

Re:Sounds like he's doing it wrong (1)

Immerman (2627577) | more than 2 years ago | (#41137301)

I think the key word there is "selling" rather than "Qi". Anytime anyone is selling an idea (whether they want your money, your faith, or whatever) they're probably going to present it as Truth. If you've only encountered Qi through salesmen, then I'd say you've never really encountered Qi.

Re:Sounds like he's doing it wrong (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136703)

I think that was pretty much his point. Thus "risks turning science into a mere catalog of established facts." Lots of laymen already think it is.

The unknown (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135495)

I think the unknown is far more fascinating than the known.

Re:The unknown (5, Interesting)

alexgieg (948359) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136115)

I think the unknown is far more fascinating than the known.

Indeed. Aristotle wrote a book 2400 years ago called, appropriately enough, "Questions". It's 400 pages of questions without answers, things he'd like to know but didn't, most if not all of them biology-related. As of today we have about 25% of them answered. At this rate in 7000 years we'll get answers for the remaining one (much less if things proceed exponentially, but a noticeable amount of time nonetheless). And that not taking into account the tons upon tons of additional unanswered questions added since...

I made this comment with SCIENCE! (1)

For a Free Internet (1594621) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135505)

Thank GOD for SCIENCE, it is the best and most flavor of any brand! Long lasting with no toxic residuez! If GOD had not given us SCIENCE, AMERICA would still be enslaved, the vassal of the evil overlord ITALY!

I can relate (5, Insightful)

jimbodude (2445520) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135515)

This was largely my experience up through high school. Science was taught as a body of facts, and less so taught as a process. When process was mentioned, it was taught as THE scientific method...which is not exactly how research is done! The whole body-of-facts approach makes it boring to most people.

Beginning in undergraduate courses, it was somewhat better. Mainly the beginning undergraduate courses were all about getting one up to date on a few centuries of research, and there just wasn't time to discuss the frontiers of the field. Really good teachers made time for it, and stressed that there is much more to be learned. I don't think any graduate school science course, at least among the physics ones I've taken, have treated the field that way. The underlying assumption was that there is much more to be learned. But that's why there is graduate school.

Re:I can relate (4, Informative)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135673)

This was largely my experience up through high school. Science was taught as a body of facts, and less so taught as a process.

I'd agree with you but give it a different spin, in that all education begins with little kids being taught the virtues of authoritarianism and a class-based society (the classes being educational achievement which equals authoritarianism of course). Eventually branching out.

It doesn't help that an education major probably doesn't know much about science, anyway. Odd how you can separate our educational system along the lines of "this group has teachers with education majors" and they're almost universally failing, and "this group has teachers with a major in the field they're teaching" and they're almost universally the shining jewel of the entire world's educational system. I don't know anything about the the french language; I'm sure I could study educational techniques and eventually do an awful job of teaching to the test; but my students would probably end up with some pretty bizarre ideas about the french language by the time I'm done with them. /. has a subculture of science-types but the mainstream /.er is a comp sci-type. So who out there started on their comp sci path with a learned debate about the virtues of functional vs object vs procedural programming, or the virtues of ye olde waterfall vs agile strategies, or the beauty of the codd-normal forms of database design, vs the vast majority who probably started their comp sci educational adventure with "don't copy that floppy" and "I shall teach you the one true language, because its the only one I know"

I'll go out on a limb where I don't really know anything (as you can see by my writing), and make the wild bet that english majors started their educational path with hyper-authoritarian vocabulary lists, weekly spelling lists, and those PITA grammer flow charts (what is the technical term for where you break a single line of prose into a very strictly formatted flowchart / graph thing? I hated drawing those Fing things so I'm blanking it out). Then after 15 to 20 years of indoctrination / training to get a job / or even god forbid education to teach them how to think, the students are allowed to debate the relative ranking of metaphors in beowulf or whatever it is english lit majors do all day?

If a silo of hard science geeks only hang out with other hard science geeks and try to reverse engineer the 1800s era educational system they grew up in thru observation and analysis, they're going to come up with whoppers like this such as thinking only evolutionary biologists are taught this way, and surely the english lit majors are taught some other way.

Re:I can relate (2)

Sique (173459) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136475)

Hm... that's quite different from how I remember my learning days.
There was always the authoritative learning, but the topics of this type of learning were about expectations from others: To say "please", and "thank you", not to eat too much sweets, and when to stay quiet for a moment.
And then there was the learning about the nature of things: How the blade of a knife is sharp, and thus it might be better to act carefully when wielding a knife. That a sky full of dark clouds is a warning about rain, and thus wearing a jacket might be ok. That just nearly shortcutting the both poles of a battery will cause sparks, and the actual shortcutting will produce heat and cause the battery to run low very quickly.
There is nothing wrong with teaching from authority. And there is a large difference between what an adult knows and what a child. This difference shows, it's called experience, and if you want to call the usage of the difference "authority"; be my guest. But in this case, authority is mainly a shortcut. It allows the adult to choose the right example, the right setting and the right lesson to draw. And it saves the child a whole lifetime of unsuccessfull experiments. There is in general no point in letting the child for himself find the ingredients of a Volta element. It's fully ok. to use your authority and stack different coins and paper soaked with lemonjuice and show that they produce a current.

Re:I can relate (1)

OFnow (1098151) | more than 2 years ago | (#41137077)

I recall being told, in high school, that one's body was made up of cells. That made me uncomfortable because it simply made no sense. I could not have said why it made no sense to me. I just figured I was incapable of understanding. All anyone needed to say was 'Though the body is made up of fluids, non-cell tissue and cells, we will focus on the role of cells here.' Now we know all those symbotic organisims in our body are crucial too, but 50 years ago nobody knew that. So I never got interested in biology except as related to trying to eat right..,

This is news? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135521)

People like to believe we have a good handle on everything. It makes them feel safe.

The reality that we really don't know 1% about even 1% of anything. Scares them.

And you don't want the cattle getting scared.
Or they stampede over things like evolution teaching or scary new technology.

Re:This is news? (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135957)

People like to believe we have a good handle on everything. It makes them feel safe.

There's a simpler non-psychological / non-political / non-philosophical explanation, that your average J6P knows we really do pretty much have an excellent handle on most anything we can mass produce, which for J6P is pretty much everything, or everything J6P knows, anyway. Therefore we must have a good handle on everything.

On the other hand, there's a heck of a lot of things we can imagine that we can't mass produce, and history shows we're pretty good at inventing and later mass producing some unimaginable stuff, so we'll probably keep on doing just that in the future. And thats that complicated science-y stuff.

Something I Don't Know (4, Informative)

Arabian Nights (2597797) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135523)

does evolution proceed by very small, gradual steps versus larger, quantum jumps?

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

Regarding the article, science would be more honest about research if we emphasized what we don't know and what we're doing to learn new things in the field. Also, I might emphasize how science has changed, so students can see that the taxonomy charts they are filling out had less useful predecessors (kind of like making your C++ class learn how to type "Hello World" in Assembly or Fortran halfway through the year).

Bakula Versus Planck (4, Interesting)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135597)

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

I believe (although I'm not an etymologist) that the source of your frustration is the irksome fact that Scott Bakula [wikipedia.org] is better known in American households than Max Planck.

Regarding the article, science would be more honest about research if we emphasized what we don't know and what we're doing to learn new things in the field. Also, I might emphasize how science has changed, so students can see that the taxonomy charts they are filling out had less useful predecessors (kind of like making your C++ class learn how to type "Hello World" in Assembly or Fortran halfway through the year).

I think the key problem is that there's only so much time. Why did you pick Assembly or Fortran? Why not force computer science students to start out on punch cards or a PDP-6? In physics better models have been developed and while I learned of the less correct models (like combining the Rutherford and Bohr models) we never truly delved into their original states or why their failings drove them to something better. I think that's great stuff to preserve but ultimately when you're teaching high school physics there's just not enough time and students only retain so much. So I think sometimes we're forced to teach it by rote rather than as a process or journey that the student embarks upon.

Re:Bakula Versus Planck (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135725)

I think the key problem is that there's only so much time. Why did you pick Assembly or Fortran? Why not force computer science students to start out on punch cards or a PDP-6?

I think the GP gave a bad example, because C++, Assembly, or Fortran are engineering products, not discoveries. The focus shouldn't be the language, but the paradigms (like functional, procedural, or object orientated). And yes, all of these should be taught.

I also have a bone to pick with your punch card comparison. You are implying that since we have modern technology that we shouldn't look at the basics. No, I don't think we need to learn punch cards anymore. But I do think that anyone with a CS degree that hasn't studied electronics and built and programmed a rudimentary computer in machine code (not assembly) has failed in their education, even if they never use it.

Re:Bakula Versus Planck (2)

HornWumpus (783565) | more than 2 years ago | (#41137215)

If CS types could pass circuits they would never have dropped out of EE in the first place.

Re:Bakula Versus Planck (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136791)

"Why did you pick Assembly or Fortran? Why not force computer science students to start out on punch cards or a PDP-6?"

Wires. Make them use wires. My CS profs did. Once you made a gate using transistors you could use IC gates and you appreciated them. Once you made an adder out of gates you could use ALUs. Once you made a processor out of ALUs and gates, you could use processors. Once you programmed your processor using machine code entered with DIP switches you could use machine code. Once you wrote an assembler using machine code you could use an assembler. Once you wrote a compiler and an interpreter using assembler you could use compilers and interpreters.

Yes, we actually did go through all that, coordinating between the digital design and compiler courses.

Re:Something I Don't Know (1)

Lord Crc (151920) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135653)

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

It's not about size. It's used to denote a large discontinuous transition as opposed to a continuous transition. Like the transition, "jump", of an electron from one energy level to the next.

FWIW I was thinking the same as you until I was explained this, and as with all sayings it's not always used appropriately.

Re:Something I Don't Know (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135751)

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

Thanks for bringing that up. Would you agree with me that if you insist on twisting up what quantum physics is, a better way of twisting it up than saying its the biggest possible change which is ridiculously wrong, would be to say quantum physics is a way to deal with what amounts to negative probabilities and also deal with stuff that has some underlying rules that are more complicated and less random than you'd expect at the (non-quantum) level (I guess I'm aiming more at, for example, the shapes of electron orbitals not being mostly random, than tiresome schrodinger's cat analogies?).

If the guy had some physics cross fertilization with his discipline, maybe by vague simile / metaphor he could get some inspiration for one of his problems:

What is the purpose of all that 'junk DNA"?

Re:Something I Don't Know (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135891)

QM applies to objects of all sizes (the correspondence principle). It is only when they are small that it becomes interesting.

As far as quantums, you could say that they are the eigenvalues for the different eigenfunctions or eigenvectors in quantum mechanics.

Re:Something I Don't Know (0)

Rockoon (1252108) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136097)

As far as quantums, you could say that they are the eigenvalues for the different eigenfunctions or eigenvectors in quantum mechanics.

Saying eigen's without any further information is meaningless. Whats in the matrix? Are we talking some form of Jacobian or Hessian? Something else? Without the further information, you might as well replace "eigenvalues" with "some arbitrary scalers"

Re:Something I Don't Know (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41136335)

It depends on what you are looking for. If you are looking for energy then use the Hamiltonian. As far as the matrix, that is the wave function defined in a Hilbert space. You will need to project it to the proper bases (for example, energy if you want to use the Hamiltonian). It is not arbitrary at all. It works for momentum, position, or whatever. You just need to know how to project and use the proper operator.

Re:Something I Don't Know (2)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136507)

I think we are getting a little too detailed for "the ideal quantum mechanics for the masses one line popular science explanation"

For now I'm sticking with something like this one liner "all kinds of small stuff is not smooth like a ramp, its surprisingly stair steppy, and that leads to behavior that would look pretty weird at large scale, like what amounts to something like negative probabilities, which leads to using complex numbers for amplitudes, which leads eventually to all kinds of complicated math". Beats the heck out of our current popular science quantum definition which is "quantum is the largest most impressive thing possible and leads directly to warp drives, time travel and mystical new age religion". If you guys can come up with a genuine one liner or a better run-on sentence, go for it.

Re:Something I Don't Know (4, Informative)

itsdapead (734413) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135795)

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

When used properly - as in the evolution example - it refers to a sudden change between two states, without any intermediate steps. like an electron that can only jump between two "orbits" rather than gradually change energy. It may look small to you, buster, but that's one hell of a jump for an electron.

When used in an advert for dishwasher tablets (sad but true) it has the same meaning as "fantastic", "incredible", "ultimate" - i.e. "hey! sucker!"

Re:Something I Don't Know (1)

schroedingers_hat (2449186) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135839)

The phrase (as it referred to stuff outside of physics) originally was used (reasonably accurately) for discrete rather than continuous (or imperceptably small) changes. I believe it entered the common lexicon from popularizations of the quantum model of bound electrons. This spread to anything about getting from state A to state B without spending much/any time in between.
I agree with the sentiment that it's a bit odd, thinking about it form a physical point of view it seems that it should refer to a single change to a single gene in a single generation.

Re:Something I Don't Know (1)

sempir (1916194) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135867)

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

It's because other fields outside physics had use of the word previously. In financial circles it was used in place of the word " amount", see the Oxford dictionary. Also in Latin means "how much", but doesn't specify. Eventually became accepted as "A measurable amount" with no limit as to amount, or reference to how long or far the leap in a quantum leap.

Re:Something I Don't Know (1)

Dr. Hok (702268) | more than 2 years ago | (#41137089)

As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum. It means 'the smallest discrete amount possible,' not large, composite chunks.

Maybe it has to do with the way the discovery of quantum mechanics totally changed science (at least physics). I once read an anecdote about Max Planck. When he started studying physics, his professor told him: "It is nice that you are interested in science, young man, but unfortunately you are a bit late. We have uncovered almost everything. All we need to do is fill the last little corners here and there. So there won't be much interesting left for you." (quoted from my memory..) He couldn't have been more wrong.

Since then, physics as a whole has acquired a more humble stance. From "we know it all" to "we are slowly learning". I think that most physicists share this view, which shows also in the motto on my Exploratorium mug: Where the right answer is a question.

Maybe other fields of science still need to make this discovery by themselves.

What exactly are you going to 'teach' (1)

fredrated (639554) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135527)

about what you don't know?

Re:What exactly are you going to 'teach' (1)

jimbodude (2445520) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135565)

You teach, to a small extent, teach about the process of determining new facts. I don't think it should be a large part of a given course, and in fact it may be better for faculty to point students to the seminar series in the department of their choice.

Re:What exactly are you going to 'teach' (1)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136015)

about what you don't know?

Ever read a research paper? Stereotypical conclusion is something similar to "if I only had more grant money, the logical next step would be to ..." There are exceptions, but like most stereotypes this is based on a lot of evidence.

In hard sciences you could do worse than just go to arxiv in your field and cut and paste those "if I only had more money" lines from about 50 articles onto about two pages of paper and gin up a speech about where the frontier of your field is currently located. It would be a pretty good value added journalism job. There's a lot of "popular science" level magazines and podcasts, but at the high level there's kind of a big hole. Of course a lot of grad students burn a lot of time doing this job for their prof, I'd be accused of creating something of a higher academic "cliffs notes".

Teaching about what you don't know (2)

chub_mackerel (911522) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136225)

about what you don't know?

It's all "what we don't know" which is why it's so neat. I remember the following quote, I just don't remember the source:

"The difference between an old scientific theory and a new one is that the old theory is wrong in more subtle ways."

Science is the process by which we work together to collectively improve our explanations and predictions about the world over time. It's how we develop, test, and explain/record our best guesses. Our current best guesses are likely to be improved in the future (i.e. they are "wrong"), we just don't yet know how.

Teaching science in this spirit means teaching humility as part of the lesson. I suspect the author (and many others involved in learning science, and too many on the teaching side) miss this entirely. They experience "Science" as a body of techniques, terminology, and content-specific knowledge that they struggled to master, when science is more correctly described as the process that got us there.

When Can I Start? (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135531)

It is time, therefore, to start teaching courses, giving lectures and writing books about what we don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

Woo-hoo! When can I start? It'd be a job for life, because you could fill a library with the things I don't know about biology, chemistry, geology, physics, mathematics.

patronizing (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135539)

God says...
bummer holier_than_thou delightful ehh_a_wise_guy peace
I'm_God_and_you're_not outrageous ho_ho_ho ordinarily
dang_it figuratively one_small_step watch_it_buddy vermin
debt in_practice are_you_feeling_lucky hold_on_a_minute
na_na stoked so_let_it_be_written no_more_tears sky Angel
what_the_heck youre_lucky I'm_impressed daunting Shhh
jealousy honestly you're_wonderful I'm_done news_to_me
prosperity middle_class sing

It's called teaching (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135547)

> 'When scientists speak to the public or to students, we talk about what we know, what science has discovered,'
Well, if you are asked a question, teach someone, or have new findings to present, saying "yeah, that's an interresting question, but let me tell you what we don't know yet" is just not the right answer :P

Quest for the Grail (3, Interesting)

lobiusmoop (305328) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135567)

Personally I love Andrew Wiles' [wikipedia.org] description of the process of scientific research in the first minute or 2 of this science show [youtube.com] .

Evolution of knowledge (5, Interesting)

michaelmalak (91262) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135621)

The "unanswered questions" are critical for stimulating interest, but from the standpoint of accurate portrayal of science (the author's main point), what is more important is portraying the evolution of knowledge discovered thus far.

The most glaring example is the periodic table. Bam! There it is. It is knowledge in its most reductionist form. How were the elements separated and identified? Heck, how would you even go about separting elements today? (This would lead into the beginnings of material science, a subject important for everyday and political life but which much less than 1% of college students touch on, let alone grade school and high school students.)

I was really confused in all my science classes, because I was a Math/CS major. I would have been a lot less confused if someone had explained the philosophy of science -- not just the "scientific method" (and I don't think I even got that explicitly -- labs seemed to be more about showing how bad we were at taking measurements than about the process of discovery), but that the "laws" of physics were merely the best known model of observed phenomena, and that furthermore the models tended to break down at the extremes. I.e., it was never explained to me that science works backwards of math and computer science.

That's one reason I favor classical education for schools. Classical education cover the "great books" from the beginning of recorded human history to the modern era, in chronological order. Mortimer Adler, editor of Great Books of the Western World, called it the "Great Conversation".

A conversation that reveals the evolution of human knowledge is comprehensible, interesting in the way drama is, cross-disciplinary, and leads to holistic and lasting knowledge.

Re:Evolution of knowledge (4, Insightful)

vlm (69642) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136079)

That's one reason I favor classical education for schools. Classical education cover the "great books" from the beginning of recorded human history to the modern era, in chronological order. Mortimer Adler, editor of Great Books of the Western World, called it the "Great Conversation".

A conversation that reveals the evolution of human knowledge is comprehensible, interesting in the way drama is, cross-disciplinary, and leads to holistic and lasting knowledge.

Thats pretty much my education, strongly recommend.

You missed mentioning the big problem with that strategy, which is the spectacular impedance jump when you go from modern translations of ancient foreign languages, which are pretty easy reads, to original but very old texts in your own native language (assuming native English reader). For example I know from personal experience a good modern translation of Herodotus makes a hell of a lot more sense than suddenly having a foot of Gibbon dropped in your lap. Gibbon's actually pretty modern compared to Shakespeare. A modern Herodotus is a fun easy read, but Gibbon is like a part time job. A modern english translation of Nietzsche is easy vs John Locke in his 17th century original glory. You get a twisted view of the past where everything made sense until 1600 or so, then its all incomprehensible until 1850 or so, very roughly.

What is consciousness and what is its mechanism? (3, Interesting)

rgbe (310525) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135625)

I definitely agree with the article, it's not so much what we know about the universe, but what we don't know that is really interesting.

My biggest wonder is consciousness. What is it? How does it work? If I am conscious, does this mean the universe is conscious? Am I conscious? Is consciousness only available in higher order complex physical structures (like higher order mammals), or is it possible in lower order structure too, like rocks? I have to say that this there is not a big effort to solve this question. For me it's the most important question to answer, and most interesting. Where do you start to answer such a question? Of course many great thinkers have tried to answer the question, but at the moment it's little more than just philosophy.

Another interesting question is: How the heck does the universe exist?

Re:What is consciousness and what is its mechanism (1)

hAckz0r (989977) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135853)

Consciousness occurs when a being begins introspection of ones own thoughts and allows that thought process modify ones own behaviour. Most life forms that navigate through their environment have learned this trait on some level. where to draw the dividing line is more of an issue.

As to why the universe exists has nothing to do with consiencness. Clearly it existed before humans came into existance to observe anything.

Re:What is consciousness and what is its mechanism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41136063)

I observe you can't spell.

Re:What is consciousness and what is its mechanism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41136163)

This comment made me happy and even more so to see it with positive score. I'm accustomed to seeing suggestions of consciousness as anything other than a process being driven by the brain being shat on for being psuedoscientific at best and worthless babble at worst. I'm not convinced an idealistic universe is incompatible with what we see around us but that's a position I've only adopted since taking up meditation practices and experienced some very basic level of awareness extending beyond myself.

I can't help but think of characters in The Sims 25 sitting around discussing simlosophy and really struggling with the fact that if they zoom in far enough the stuff that constitutes their bodies and the stuff that constitutes all the objects around them are the same. 1s and 0s all the way down.

Re:What is consciousness and what is its mechanism (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41137153)

My biggest wonder is consciousness. What is it? How does it work?

Consciousness is an illusion, along with free will. It doesn't actually exist, but your brain perceives the world and the actions you are taking in the context of consciousness. In the same way that you perceive certain parts of the visual spectrum as the color 'blue'. Some other species could conceivably perceive that spectrum very differently. What you perceive as blue doesn't actually exist, what actually exists is just a wavelength range. What you perceive as you making conscious choices isn't actually real. It's just your perception of the result of a series of calculations that happened in your brain, but you were really incapable of making any other choice than the one you've made, the entire time.

If I am conscious, does this mean the universe is conscious?

No. And wtf?

"Evolutionary biology" sounds like an easy field (0)

Rogerborg (306625) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135631)

Those of us who do things that might benefit actual humans need to come up with more answers than questions.

Re:"Evolutionary biology" sounds like an easy fiel (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135771)

Ah, the wonders of being both arrogant and short-sighted at the same time.

Re:"Evolutionary biology" sounds like an easy fiel (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135819)

Because understanding human origins has zero bearing on human life today? Maybe you should ask neuropsychologists, marketing execs, and parents about the benefits of evolutionary biology and psychology.

Quantifiablewe (2)

aXi (6533) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135667)

What we do not know is unquantifiable, however what we do know is quantifiable, so I would rather learn something we do know.
What we do not know is what we do not know, how can we teach anyone that which we have no knowledge, after all we do not know it.

Seriously (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135677)

This passes as deception? No scientist now claims that we know everything, we just happen to know a lot more than previously in time. No need to add fuel to the science fire.

Lousy examples from the editor (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135679)

It seems like the examples given of things we don't know are somewhat misleading. There is a great deal we don't know, but we have well researched theories on a lot of what is mentioned by the editor.

Looking just at his field, evolutionary biology, the unknowns are immense: How widespread are nonadaptive traits?

Obviously this is different by species, but we can quantify it within a range for many species.

What is the purpose of all that 'junk DNA"?

This is the implicit question fallacy. Why would junk DNA need a purpose? We understand where much of it originates and how it is inserted.

Did human beings evolve from a single lineage, or many times, independently?

Originally, all the research points to one line for life on earth. As for where we draw the distinction of the homo sapiens species, there seems to have been multiple lines of progenitors evolving in parallel sometimes isolated sometimes interbreeding. There have been quite a few articles on this in recent years.

Why does homosexuality persist?

Kin selection. What did you learn biology in the 20's or something?

I'm no Einstein but he's not saying anything new. (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135733)

I'm a HS science teacher [bio and chem] and he seems out of touch. Sure, he's right about there is a tonne of shit we don't know. Great. We also know there is a tonne of stuff we DO know. I constantly attempt to draw attention to BOTH. My students are regularly attempting to verify the 'what we know' and investigate the 'what we don't'. The latter is always a challenge at the HS level. A constant difficulty is that science 'stands on the shoulders of giants' and therefore to move forward we need to appreciate the past. Again, there is nothing new here. Lastly, I attempt to focus on concepts I HOPE my students move towards mastering. The fact is, many concepts require years of scaffolding, spiraling and application to truly understand. You really think you knew Newton's laws in grade 8 or 9? Memorizing the statements is fine but applying the concepts to authentic scenarios is challenging. I don't only teach facts, I ATTEMPT to teach a way of thinking and problem solving and wondering and all the other more interesting stuff.

Right (1)

Dunbal (464142) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135793)

rather than resting satisfied within its cozy boundaries.

Right, because according to the author, there is no scientific progress at all since everyone is "satisfied". The scientific method works as is. It's up to any decent scientist to review the work of others when postulating a new hypothesis to see if the question has already been answered by someone. That's part of the steps of the scientific method. Automatically you find out that way what is known about a subject. However teaching "what we don't know" is ridiculous because there are plenty of things that we don't even know exist. In short - we don't even know what we don't know.

Re:Right (1)

gweihir (88907) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135985)

There is scientific progress. But basically every scientific discipline oscillates between times of fast, fascinating discoveries and getting bogged down in detail work, because "everything has been discovered". The way to get from the latter into the former is shaking things up and this may be what the author is trying to attempt. Of course not all such attempts are justified. For example in CompSci, unless we do a lot of detail work to solidify the foundations for actually using what we know, no real progress is possible. There have been basically no significant new discoveries in CompSci in the last 20 years or so. The reason is that when past discoveries are not put on a solid foundation to stand on, everything gets far too fuzzy for the next grand steps. (Another reason is that CompSci burned 2000 years of results from fundamental research in just a few decades, and creating new fundamental research results is a very slow process.)

Re:Right (1)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136677)

Well, if you believe in an infinite Multiverse, with infinite possibilities, then there is an infinite number of things we don't know.

homosexuality persist? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41135799)

It seems like no one picked on "why homosexuality persist" question. Isn't it obvious that brain chemistry is analog and not binary?

Note: this is about American higher education (1)

Moskit (32486) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135927)

It's even mentioned in the original article, but left out by submitter and editors (are there any true editors here?).

I guess that's why so many people say their experience has been different - they learn under different teaching systems.

My experience is also opposite. Teachers were inciting to find new solutions and think in scientific way how to make progress rather than "catalogue facts" and remember them as, say, historicians do.

The point is good but the examples are not (1)

Arker (91948) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135931)

It's a critically important point he is making, and that just makes it all the more frustrating that his examples are mostly really poor ones. It's been a few years since my biology classes but "Why does sexuality occur at all, since it is fully one-half as efficient in projecting genes into the future compared with its asexual alternative?" seems adequately explained - assortment of genes has significant benefits despite its inferior efficiency in a very narrow sense. And of course it's not like once sexual reproduction evolves asexual reproduction ends. The peculiarities of human females he mentions have at the very least quite plausible explanations that were old when I was in school. Monogenesis of modern humans is strongly supported by the evidence and the only significant dissent seems to come from states that specifically encourage multi-regional genesis theories for nationalist reasons.

But the worst of it is probably "What is the purpose of all that "junk DNA"?" That is not a scientific question. It's a teleological question. The fact that a man can actually lecture on 'science' for 40 years in this country without knowing the difference is really all that needs to be said.

Re:The point is good but the examples are not (3, Insightful)

Comboman (895500) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136589)

But the worst of it is probably "What is the purpose of all that "junk DNA"?" That is not a scientific question. It's a teleological question.

While that's true, I think there's a scientific question in there; it's just difficult to word the question in a non-teleological way. I suppose you could say, "Does 'junk DNA' have a practical function (to either the individual organism or to the species) and if so, what is it?"

Re:The point is good but the examples are not (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41137101)

Agreed, the open questions very poorly illustrate the issue. In addition, nonlactating breasts have plausible explanation too, a signaling secondary sexual dimorphism linked to bipedalism....and human female unique in experiencing orgasm within mamals? huh? I had the impression this is simply wrong, other species have something that looks physiologically like an orgasm for their female too... Does it feel the same, ie is the subjective experience the same? well, good luck with that, when it is already difficult to compare if anything "feel the same" between 2 humans....

"know" and "how much" (0)

mapkinase (958129) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135933)

> But it gives the false impression that we know pretty much everything, whereas the reality is that there's a whole lot more that we don't know.'

In reality we DO know pretty much everything. But this "everything" is not "everything" that he means. He means simplistic everything that is material, while real "everything" is "everything that could be studied by scientific method".

So, yes we don't know a lot of things, but we know pretty much almost everything we could possibly know.

Re:"know" and "how much" (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136859)

Ah good. Whenever people start saying "we know everything" tends to be when someone or something comes along and shows us how little we really know. And I'm kind of a novelty junkie.

Not a surprise and no deception (1)

gweihir (88907) | more than 2 years ago | (#41135943)

Finding this out is part of any reasonable scientific education. It is something people have to find out themselves, otherwise they would not believe it. But it is hardly the only scientific fact in that class (although most are more specific to individual disciplines) and calling it a "deception" is grandstanding on the part of this person. There is no deception, at least not by scientists. Just people that are incapable of understanding, usually because they want a simple, clear (and wrong) picture of the world.

Relevant citation:

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty
are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled
with doubt and indecision. -- Bertrand Russell

Well, if he's been deceiving all this time, resign (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41136101)

No, really mean it. If you're GENUINELY of the idea that all you've done is deceive people, then you're too clueless about the subject and how to teach people in it that you should just get the fuck out of there and become a street sweeper.

Prove the two times table you arrogant ignorant fuck. Oh, you can't teach that until postgrad maths? The proof can only be understood after a decade of teaching of maths BY ROTE???

Explaining why what we don't know matters (1)

tgibbs (83782) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136313)

There is some justice to this criticism. It was certainly my experience in high school, but by the time I got to college there was plenty of discussion of what we don't know. One problem is that in many fields, it requires considerable knowledge of what we do know to make sense of what we don't know and why it matters. Of course, there are some areas where what we don't know is sufficiently straightforward that it could be easily discussed at the high school level--the origin of life, for example, or the nature of dark matter--and it is important to get into at least some of these areas to make students understand that the scientific frontier still exists.

I think a more serious omission is the lack of discussion of the evidence base for what we think we do know. Particularly at the high school level, it is easy for students to get the impression that there is a clear distinction between scientific facts and theories, whereas in reality it's all theories, with various levels of evidence to support them. One encounters this misconception constantly, in people who dismiss evolution or global warming because they think "it's only a theory." More discussion of the evidence base for accepted theory would help to dispel this misunderstanding.

More concerned with Probability (1)

na1led (1030470) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136615)

Sure, you can discuss for infinity about all that you don't know and their endless possibilities, but why not simply teach what we know, and what is probably. I don't know for sure if Aliens do exist, but based on what we know, and the vastness of the universe, it seems quite probable that other intelligent beings exist. It doesn't make much sense to me why we should contemplate on things that are unlikely to be true .

"Immense" is a relative term (1)

Jiro (131519) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136635)

Looking just at his field, evolutionary biology, the unknowns are immense:

The parts that a nonscientist actually cares about are generally solved. To take just one example, evolution's "small" and "large" jumps are all large on a human scale. As far as everyone else is concerned, evolution takes a long time and scientists are just arguing exactly how long.

.

Not the worst thing science doesn't tell us. (2)

cfulton (543949) | more than 2 years ago | (#41136725)

It is obvious that in the daily news feed no one is ever going to say "Hey by the way did you know that today no one discovered a solution to - Frankl's union-closed sets conjecture." What we never hear is the foundation on which new discovers stand. Today there are many fundamentalist or just uninformed people who don't "believe" in evolution and geology. If the press included in the discovery of say a new medicine for cancer the fact that evolutionary theory underlies our understanding of the what and why of genetics that led to the discovery, maybe people would see that biology today is the study of the evolutionary process.

People have strange notions of what the quantum uncertainty principal means. I have heard people say that "anything can happen" and "scientists can't say for certain that gravity will work". The truth that should be told when we smash particles to find the Higgs Boson or like is that quantum physics for all of it's uncertainty makes better predictions than any mathematical scientific framework ever previously invented. It may rely on probability but, it is still very exact.

I guess I mean that if we are talking about informing the uninformed about science I think telling them how much we know and how we got there is more important than saying what exactly we still don't know.

Yeah I know. I didn't RTFA.

"... larger, quantum jumps ..." (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#41136853)

A quantum is pretty darn small. Barash should be embarrassed to call himself a scientist.

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