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Science

The Sweet Mystery of Science 259

Posted by timothy
from the the-leaven-is-the-best-part dept.
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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The Sweet Mystery of Science

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  • 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].

    • by am 2k (217885)

      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.

      • by vlm (69642) on Monday August 27, 2012 @08:09AM (#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.

        • by Convector (897502)

          In the sciences, the dissertation is typically published. Each chapter is usually a separate paper. In fact it's common to take all your published (or at least submitted) research papers and staple them together (or combine into a single LaTeX file), and call that the dissertation.

    • 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.

    • 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,.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      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 posin

    • What THE FUCK could possible be the point of the Poincaré conjecture anyway? From a pathfinding point of view it seems obvious that any ring can be compacted into a point in any sphere like object. Could you explain it in terms a software engineer could understand?

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:13AM (#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).

    • by PopeRatzo (965947) on Monday August 27, 2012 @08:37AM (#41136053) Homepage Journal

      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".

      • by paiute (550198)

        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.

        • by Immerman (2627577)

          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.

          • by paiute (550198)

            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.

            But just saying the word and bringing up the topic is selling it.

        • Except that your parent is completely right and you are completely wrong.

          You are not a Qi scientist, so you don't qualify anyway, however it would be interesting how you come to your opinion. If you ever had done a 10 minutes qi gong cours, or tai chi or kung fu you would realize: oh, that is funny, that is what they call qi, interesting.

          There is no one "selling an ancient fundamental truth". It is only you who does not believe (because you never tried) just like people did not believe the sun is the center

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      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.

  • I can relate (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jimbodude (2445520) on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:17AM (#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 (Score:5, Informative)

      by vlm (69642) on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:42AM (#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.

      • by Sique (173459)

        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 thu

    • by OFnow (1098151)
      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 biolo
    • When process was mentioned, it was taught as THE scientific method...which is not exactly how research is done!

      This. And it's a misconception that persists among a surprisingly large number of very smart people, well into adulthood. How many /. arguments have we seen in which people casually dismiss rigorous, well-founded scientific results because the process by which those results were produced doesn't fall into their high school science class idea of how "the scientific method" works? It's very comforting to think that there is a single, fixed process which scientists in all fields can follow, and if they fill

  • by Arabian Nights (2597797) on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:19AM (#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 (Score:5, Interesting)

      by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn AT gmail DOT com> on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:29AM (#41135597) Journal

      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: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        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 t

      • by ceoyoyo (59147)

        "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

      • by Khashishi (775369)

        The earlier models that survive, survive because they are useful. Newtonian mechanics is simpler than general relativity and is highly accurate for many applications. There are other, obsolete and obscure models which we only hear about in passing (eg phlogiston, aether, Lamarkian evolution, miasma, classical elements) since they aren't as useful.

    • by Lord Crc (151920)

      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.

      • It's used to denote a large discontinuous transition

        No. It isn't. It's used to denote a small discontinuous transition. The smallest possible in a system. It is a term that pops up when discussing the low energy behaviors of a system.

    • by vlm (69642)

      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 ele

    • by itsdapead (734413) on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:57AM (#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!"

    • 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 sing
      • by Dr. Spork (142693)
        Exactly! "Quantum" has nothing to do with size, but with discreteness. And the physicist grandparent should know about Bose-Einstein condensates, superconductors, superfluids and other big things that display quantum effects.
    • by Dr. Hok (702268)

      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 mor

    • by Compaqt (1758360)

      >As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum

      Probably because the word basically just meant "quantity" before physicists decided they wanted to used it to mean "smallest possible amount". Sort of like "force", "power", and "work" were words in English before physicists decided to use them, too.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      As a physicist, I would like to read a book on why people outside the field consistently refer to large things as quantum

      The same reason they refer to cyber-burglars and cyber-vandals as "hackers". The popular press latched on to "quantum leap" without understanding what the phrase meant, and it has been perverted. Just as "Hacker" use to mean "someone who repurposed hardware or writes quick and dirty code" but has changed to "bit burglar".

      kind of like making your C++ class learn how to type "Hello World" i

    • by treeves (963993)

      I guess it has to do with the fact that quanta are being compared with a continuum (infinitesimal steps) not with bigger things. In that case a quantum , a discrete step change, is more dramatic than a smooth, continuous change.

  • about what you don't know?

    • by vlm (69642)

      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

    • 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. t

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:20AM (#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.

  • Quest for the Grail (Score:4, Interesting)

    by lobiusmoop (305328) on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:25AM (#41135567) Homepage

    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].

  • by michaelmalak (91262) <michael@michaelmalak.com> on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:33AM (#41135621) Homepage

    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.

    • by vlm (69642) on Monday August 27, 2012 @08:40AM (#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.

      • by Immerman (2627577)

        So, then why not a translation of Gibbon, etc. into modern language? There's nothing sacred about the fact that the writings can deciphered without knowing a different language. In fact I'd venture that a direct literal translation of most older writing would for the most part be similarly impenetrable, full of cultural context and usages of language that are no longer relevant.

        • by vlm (69642)

          So, then why not a translation of Gibbon, etc. into modern language?

          The problem is there's a long tradition of "translating" Shakespeare into the modern era, in fact about every 5 years we have to suffer thru yet another agonizing utterly awful "Romeo and Juliet, the hip hop years" and "Romeo and Juliet in the 1950s" etc. The pretty accurate stereotype is a translation from a foreign language, say, Plutarch's Lives will be done pretty well, but a "translation" from Ye Olde English into modern american english is just going to be awful.

          I have occasionally considered how awe

  • by rgbe (310525) <(simonwerner) (at) (gmail.com)> on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:34AM (#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?

    • by hAckz0r (989977)
      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.

      • by s.petry (762400)

        Before you get that far, one must look to Descartes work (also Aquinas) to know that they exist without question. If you do not know you exist, the question of being conscious is not relevant. If you know you exist, being conscious is just an extrapolation of that same principle.

        This is the foundation for critical thought, which in my opinion everyone should be trained in.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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 whe

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday August 27, 2012 @07:50AM (#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.

  • by Dunbal (464142) *

    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 w

    • by gweihir (88907)

      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 prog

    • by na1led (1030470)
      Well, if you believe in an infinite Multiverse, with infinite possibilities, then there is an infinite number of things we don't know.
  • 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.

  • 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 sexua

    • by Comboman (895500) on Monday August 27, 2012 @09:47AM (#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?"

      • by Arker (91948)

        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?"

        If I could I'd give you a +1 insightful for that. You understand. I have to hope the gentleman quoted in the article does too, but if he does he's guilty of simply atrocious semantic hygiene. Or egregiously misquoted perhaps.

  • 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

  • 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 na

  • 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 .
  • 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.

    .

  • by cfulton (543949) on Monday August 27, 2012 @10:06AM (#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.

  • Well, of course. He's a biologist. A full understanding of biology, to the level of understanding that physics provides to mechanical and electrical engineering, is a ways off.

    On the genomic side, full genome sequencing for complex organisms is only about ten years old. That just provides the raw bits. Now the meaning and the expressive mechanisms have to be figured out. We're nowhere a tool like SPICE where you put in a DNA sequence and an organism simulation runs. People are still trying to figure out

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