Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Thursday, December 8, 2016

C. P. Snow: Goldmine

The C. P. Snow anthology that I'm reading includes a long 1970 essay titled "The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case."  The first third of it is about some sort of interpersonal literary dispute that isn't worth parsing.  However, after that he starts discussing the English educational system, and he quickly gets into pay-dirt.  I do not know if his assertions are factually correct, but his analysis and attitude are interesting.

He starts by noting that admissions to the Oxbridge schools had become more meritocratic in the 20th century, but the earlier era had actually produced finer intellectual leading lights.  Whether or not we buy his declension narrative, his other observation is an interesting one:  In the less meritocratic era there were both finer intellects but also more dull-minded party boys of the elite classes.  I've made a similar point before about the effects of competition in simultaneously weeding out most of the dull-minded but also keeping people from showing their true distinction.  De Tocqueville has also offered similar observations; leisure matters for intellectual accomplishment.

That said, Snow does not uncritically embrace the cultivation of excellence; he fully spells out the dangers of educational inequality.  He cites the warnings of a state school official in a low-income area of England, and says that:
...there is no chance of human harmony in England until we pay whatever price we must (not only in money) to avoid the rancour of the educationally neglected.
It would be a mistake to read this solely as a call for access and credentials; below I will quote verbatim some of the fiery things that Snow had to say about excesses of egalitarianism.  But certainly we cannot afford to let an entire class feel neglected.  Indeed, I believe that America's white working class knows on some level that America's educational elites do not truly consider them to be diverse, no matter how poor they might be, and that this bears some connection to the recent election result.  Also, while conferring credentials is not the same as spreading knowledge, ignorance is dangerous; consider the words of The Ghost of Christmas Present:
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
Even more sobering, Snow (rightly!) admires the achievements of the Soviets in cultivating pockets of intellectual excellence.  One needn't be an apologist for Communism to appreciate Russian contributions to mathematics, theoretical physics, and other fields in the 20th century.  However, any advocate for excellence over access should pause and contemplate what it means that one of the most miserable totalitarian states in history chose to develop excellence over equality, and had the means to do it better than the West.

Regardless of where you come down on those issues, Snow is unsparing in identifying the dangers of egalitarianism in education:
Education cannot become an elaborate masquerade to disguise the fact that some are more gifted than others.  Social justice is not comfortably reconciled to intellectual excellence; as a harsh possibility, it may not be reconcilable at all.  Certainly the extreme of egalitarianism isn't.
I don't care what we call such places [for the very brightest to develop their full potential], nor where we put them.  But, unless we have them, we shall already, within a generation, have made ourselves more stupid than we need to be.
Social justice is a great value, and we shall be judged by how much of it we can achieve.  But we shall also be judged by what we add to the world's mental life: and that depends on what opportunities we can make for our gifted.
Personally, I would take at least as much care of them as we take of potential athletes.
Surely all academics can agree on the last point!

More great quotes:
You can abolish an elite only by not educating at all.
But for all our purposes, human and social as well as narrowly academic, we need a sprinkling of good intelligence to remind us what rigour is.  It would be very easy to become flabby.  Perhaps especially easy in the flux and confusion of the next ten or twenty years.

There are two other great observations in this essay.  First, Snow noted that university students in all subjects were (in the English system, which is more elitist than the American one) coming to college with improved median skills in math, which would equip them to grapple with the computers and statistics that would be integral to social decisions in the coming decades.  While one could debate the extent to which the educated layman's mathematical knowledge is either useful or adequate for grappling with those matters, his foresight concerning both statistics and information technology was interesting.  There's virtually no matter of human administration today that people don't seek to reduce (not always rightly) to a "data-driven" one.

Finally, Snow identifies a more interesting distinction between the Two Cultures than he had in previous writings:  Scientific culture is cumulative, while the arts and humanities are innovative.  A scientist needn't read much of the original literature from an earlier era to understand a subject; those parts that have survived into current literature will suffice in many ways.  There are, of course, insights to be gained from old literature, but in terms of mastering enough knowledge to work on the subject and contribute, the original literature is at the very least an inefficient path to productivity.

In the arts and humanities, on the other hand, the primary sources are the essence of the subject.  You cannot learn about the Trojan War without reading the Iliad.  Yes, you could read modern archaeological investigations to learn what is currently known about the possibility of an actual war in an actual city called Troy in the approximate time and place where Homer set it, but if you want to learn about the (real or imaginary) war that has captivated the imaginations of countless generations you must read the original.  Likewise, you could learn something about Romeo and Juliet from West Side Story, just as you could learn something about Pyramis and Thisbe from Romeo and Juliet, but in each case you get only an imperfect shadow; there is no substitute for the primary source if you want to learn the story.  Stories may carry influence, but each story is a work in its own right, and what is lost in a subsequent work is not objectively an improvement but simply a case of subjective decisions on what to carry and what to omit.

The cumulative nature of science, the fact that what we carry forward has (hopefully) passed the test of time, is part of its strength.  But if the cumulative development of science is a testament to one aspect of human ingenuity, surely the endless emergence of new artistic and literary works is in its own way a testament to the endless bounty of the human mind.  I am unconvinced that the two cultures need each other for their own advancement (too often that point is made as a form of mushy ecumenicalism) but I am fully convinced that the human mind needs both in order to realize its full potential.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Two Cultures Revisited: Knowledge is necessary but not sufficient

I read the 1963 follow-up to "The Two Cultures", titled "The Two Cultures: A Second Look."  He covers a number of points in response to the criticisms he'd received from his surprisingly widely-received lecture, and I have responses to two key aspects.

First, a number of critics were unclear on how, exactly, he was defining the two cultures, or whether he approved of the arrangement.  He tried to clarify that he drew a science/humanities line because he saw the "literary intellectuals" as the people who interact more with the wider society, since they write about people, but the scientists are communicating neither with the wider society nor with the intellectuals who speak to the wider society.  I think a lot has happened with science communication, science journalism, and science publicity in the last several decades, but I agree that the gap is still there.  What's interesting to me is the mechanism by which the National Science Foundation has tried to address this over the past two decades, pushing basic researchers to engage in public outreach via the Broader Impact criterion for funding.  While public outreach is laudable for those who have the time, interest, and talent, it is not in everyone's skill set and it is not necessarily the best use of everyone's time.  Nonetheless, as I have noted before, Broader Impact is consistent with many of America's democratic cultural notions, so here we are.  The implicit assumption is that direct engagement of scientists and the public is what matters at least as much as engagement between scientists and other intellectual classes.

Second, Snow conceded that some of his predictions about economic development had been too rosy, but he believed that what would ultimately improve the lives of billions around the world would be the spread of the Scientific Revolution.  On that I think he erred badly.  There are plenty of poor countries with universities that actually do a fine job in educating students in science; many of those countries produce a great many science graduates who get better test scores than Americans.  What holds those countries back, what stands between their populations and the fruits of modern science and medicine, is NOT a lack of scientific knowledge or appreciation.  Rather, it is failings of economic and political systems.  The problem is not that the classes of intellectuals who study people and make recommendations about human affairs don't understand the importance of science, but rather that they either fail to make good recommendations about human affairs or else fail to get the people in power to listen to good recommendations.  As Kentaro Toyama said in Geek Heresy, technology and the fruits of science are mere instruments, not conductors.  Technology can amplify advantage, and the lack of technology can amplify disadvantage, but the mere possession of technology does not improve a society.  Human efforts, human decisions about the use of technology, those are the things that improve a society.

There are plenty of good reasons to break down walls between the two cultures, plenty of ways in which science can inform the efforts of the general public, the policy-makers, and scholars of the humanities, but spreading the fruits of science may actually be the least of those.  The fruits of science are tremendously valuable, and tremendously beneficial.  They will be fairly distributed (by whatever your yardstick of fairness might be) in an economic and political system that efficiently and fairly distributes value and benefit (again, by your yardstick of fairness).  Scientific knowledge is a necessary condition but not a sufficient one.

Anyway, my book has several more lectures and essays by C. P. Snow.  Let's see what else he had to say.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bias, Madison, and Human Perfectability

Today's blog post by Dean Dad is a good one:  He responds to a recent article in the Chronicle, by a hiring consultant talking about the importance of raising awareness of our implicit biases.  Dean Dad makes the point that this smacks of trying to re-educate people and cleanse their thoughts.  There's plenty of bad history behind such efforts, and it is ironically at odds with the idea of diversity:  The goal is less to get everyone on the same page and more to bring together a bunch of different perspectives and let people check and balance each other.  (Hence James Madison.)  I like the way of looking at it.  If our implicit biases are deep-seated, persistent, and always acting then the very utility of awareness is questionable.  OTOH, bringing together different people with different viewpoints and giving them equal voting power in a consensus-oriented process might actually mitigate some of the effects of our biases.

It's also worth noting that the author of that piece in the Chronicle would be delighted if you wished to hire her firm to help you run a search process that will minimize the effects of bias...

Two Cultures: Where's the other one, dude?

I finished reading C.P. Snow's Two Cultures essay of 1959.  It isn't quite what I was expecting.  I've always heard it described as a lament of the divide between the two sides of academia.  I was thus expecting some sort of essay along the lines of a defense of broad liberal arts education, and I was dreading the platitudes.  Instead, it seems to be more of a critique of the UK's historic emphasis on humanities over the sciences in their elite educational establishments, followed by a comparison of the ways in which the UK, US, and USSR educated people in the 1950's and a discussion of alleged needs for more scientists and engineers in the UK. He's not trying to integrate science and humanities so much as get STEM up on the pedestal.  He might insist that it's a call for equality, but there's precious little discussion of the UK's needs in any area outside STEM, or a comparison of how other countries educate people in subjects besides STEM. In many ways it could be read as an early "STEM crisis" narrative.  However, it's difficult for me to extract much from that for comparative purposes, because I'm mostly only familiar with American "STEM crisis" narratives, not the UK analogues, so I can't really say if this essay is sign of everything happening before and happening again, or a sign of genuine change.

Here are some interesting tidbits that I can take away from it:

First, Snow acknowledges that the Industrial Revolution happened in the UK despite the lack of a first-rate basic science establishment in the 18th century, and without much involvement from college grads.  This is an important thing, one under-appreciated by the STEM crisis hand-wringers.  I made this point before regarding Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon.  I wish he'd considered what this might mean for future economic development.  We academics over-estimate our own importance, and he went from academia to the Ministry of Labour and then a post as a civil service commissioner.

Second, the differences that Snow notes between the US, UK, and USSR systems, regarding their relative levels of specialization, seem to remain true today.  To this day, Russian scientific research institutes often have incredibly narrow names and mandates.  They don't produce mechanical engineers; they produce graduates in computational thermal systems analysis, and structural mechanics, and so forth.

Third, he traces the cultural differences between science and humanities to the fact that the humanities scholars study the human condition, which tends to inflict pessimism, while scientists believe that technical solutions to problems are possible.  On that point I agree with him completely.  I wish he'd said something interesting about how to educate people who integrate those mindsets on some interesting level, not just "OMG, I'm, like, so broad-minded!  Because I see multiple perspectives!"

Fourth, I give Snow credit for recognizing that the production of Einsteins is not the main task of a STEM education program.  He believes that the "alpha plus" types will do fine as long as they're put in some sort of half-decent academic environment.  It's hard to screw up with them.  It's also pretty hard to screw up the "alpha" types.  (He seems to have adopted the language of Huxley's Brave New World here.)  He recognizes that the hard part is training people in the third tier, some of whom will do technical work but many of whom will go on to do managerial or business ("human") work in the technical fields.  I give him credit for recognizing that that's more important than trying to ensure that a system maximizes the output of top talent.  With the top talent you mostly have to get out of the way, and it's only the dilettantes who worry about how The System is allegedly so unfair to would-be Einsteins.  He doesn't have much in the way of practical advice on how to do it, but he gets full points for at least recognizing it.

He has one spectacularly wrong prediction:  He predicted that since human ability is pretty much the same everywhere it's inevitable that the gap between the rich industrialized world and the rest of the world would evaporate by 2000.  While he was right on the even distribution of ability around the world, he under-estimated the systemic, cultural, and institutional factors that are needed to develop successful industrial sectors.  That said, he was at least right that the poor countries would start to compete with rich countries; by 2000 the off-shoring of factories was well underway, and this November we felt the effects of that in the US election.

So, in sum, Snow's "Two Cultures" lecture isn't what it is usually cited for being about, but it contains an interesting bunch of tidbits.  I purchased an edition with several more essays and lecture transcripts, so I'll have more to say about Snow in the coming week.

Legitimacy, authority, and diversity

One theme of this blog is pondering why educational elites are disproportionately interested in dimensions of diversity that don't relate to social or economic class.  Certainly there are sound moral reasons for attaching high significance to ethnic diversity (frankly, if I were pulled over by the police I'd sooner be a poor white man than a black man of any class, even a politician).  Then again, there are also valid moral reasons for treating class more seriously than it's currently treated in many academic environments.  Ultimately, it's a value judgment, and the question is why people judge it the way they do.  (I should be clear that treating it as a value judgment rather than a matter of objective fact is not to trivialize it.  Some of the most important issues in human society are value judgments, and the fact that values are ultimately just, like, your opinion, man, does not make the stakes any lower or the moral significance any lesser.)

America's educational institutions are institutions dependent on the patronage of the state and the upper classes (via donations), and a large part of their task is to train people for public service, whether we're talking about people studying criminal justice before going on to law enforcement careers, ROTC students, or Ivy League schools training future Cabinet Secretaries and Supreme Court Justices.  The United States government has many sins to answer for, but in two crucial political conflicts the US government came down on the better of the two sides.  Both of those conflicts involved race, and both involved existential questions for the government's power:  The Civil War and the Civil Rights Era.

In the Civil War the authority of the federal government was challenged in the starkest terms possible, and the root of the controversy was slavery.  Say what you will about state power, or economics, or whatever else, but the state prerogatives in play concerned slavery, and the economic issues concerned the needs of a slave-dependent economy.  The federal government was on the better side there.  There's much to be said about the federal government's failures regarding the rights of African-Americans after Reconstruction, but it is ingrained into the institutional and cultural memory that the starkest challenge to our political institutions concerned race.

The next starkest internal challenge to the authority of our political institutions concerned the ending of de jure segregation (not to be confused with de facto segregation).  Southern states tried to openly defy the feds, resulting in National Guard troops being deployed to desegregate schools, and numerous federal court cases and Department of Justice civil rights actions starting in the 50's and continuing to the present.

Race in America is thus an issue where the existential imperatives of public institutions are intimately entwined with moral imperatives. Seen in that light, it makes sense that institutions that exist to serve (in part) the workforce needs of public institution would prize racial and ethnic diversity over class diversity.  We thus have a mix of sound moral concerns (like I said, a case can be made that race is rightly more important), institutional imperatives (at its core, the state will preserve its own authority), and somewhat hypocritical class sympathies.  Like any cultural fact on the ground, it is neither wholly pure nor wholly tainted.  It is tied into the good and bad of human history.

I said a few weeks ago that in the era of Donaldik Fydorvich Trump academia will no doubt damp down some of its internal political tensions in order to unite against a common outside threat.  While I hope that some sort of sincere effort to improve the lot of the working class in the Rust Belt and small towns might emerge from the post-election soul-searching, this is me recognizing that there are deeper historical reasons for our focus on race, and in the era of an unabashed bigot in the White House it is appropriate for reasons of past, present, and value judgments that racial and ethnic diversity not exist our moral calculus.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Next reading project: The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow

My next reading project will be The Two Cultures by C. P. Snow.  It's a famous critique of the humanities/science divide.   I've heard it referenced many times but never actually read it.  It's often noted ruefully by scientists that you can be considered truly sophisticated.  Chad Orzel has often noted this.  In certain circles, people would look at you funny if you confessed to being unable to grasp history or literature or fine arts, but they would chuckle appreciatively if you said that you never got math or science.  Snow apparently had a lot to say about this.

Of course, one theme of this blog has been the increasing emphasis (in many but certainly not all) elite circles on STEM over other subjects.  At first glance it might seem like disinterest in science is becoming less socially acceptable, and science is no longer a second-class subject in the eyes of "sophisticated" types.  Certainly administrators and politicians are pouring money into STEM.  However, much of this emphasis on STEM is happening in the context of democratizing STEM, of bringing egalitarian impulses to bear on a specialized, technical, difficult subject.  Nobody said that the democratized STEM graduates will be admitted to the fancy cocktail parties.  I don't get to go to many of those myself, but my limited observation of that world suggests that classical music is still more popular than planetarium shows.  Democratizing STEM is how we will fill technician jobs with the more worthy among the masses, and elevate a precious few to elite research positions, so that the elite world can be legitimized by its ostensible openness.  That doesn't mean the opera will be replaced by public lectures on science by Neal de Grasse Tyson.  Science popularizers will be invited to go to receptions and schmooze the donors in private banquet halls with violin music after their lecture to the public; the public science lecture will NOT be the treat for the donors.

So, in a strange way, although this is allegedly the moment of STEM's ascendancy, I think that democratizing it will ironically reinforce its tradesman-like status, not elevate it.  I will be curious to read Snow and see what he has to say about it.

Stage lights flashing, it ain't so smashing...

Sort of related to They're Not Dumb, They're Different, in which outsiders critiqued physical science instruction and what they found off-putting, I occasionally have people come up to me and tell me that they might have majored in physics if only physics professors had [FILL IN THE BLANK].  But I don't think I've ever seen a physicist come up to someone in another field and say "You know, I would have majored in your subject, but..."  I think they do this because STEM is on a pedestal and physics places itself on a pedestal among STEM disciplines.  It would almost certainly be considered rude if we went up to people in other fields and did the same.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Beltway advocacy groups gonna Beltway

Something making the rounds among physicists right now is the following press release, which was posted by the American Physical Society but soon taken down after many physicists called it inappropriate:
Press release pulled from APS website

(Click on the image too enlarge it)

The American Physical Society is a DC-area advocacy group.  Yes, it exists to serve its members rather than the federal government, but most of its members are scientists who work or study in institutions that get federal money for research and educational purposes.  In recognition of that reality, the American Physical Society has its headquarters in College Park, Maryland, just outside DC.

Professional Societies that want the federal government to spend money on science invariably articulate that goal in language that will be pleasing to the people in power.  Donald Trump has used "Make America Great Again" as his slogan, and while that slogan carries quite a bit of baggage (e.g. it is historically uninformed, and carries an embedded assumption about certain demographic changes representing changes for the worse) it is clearly something that he likes to say and hear.  In fact, there's already an official government website devoted to the concept.  Moreover, we've been hearing for decades about an alleged "STEM crisis" threatening America's scientific pre-eminence and global leadership, so Trump's catch-phrase is (on the surface) tailor-made for the neuroses of academic scientists.

Seen on that level, the press release put out by APS was completely reasonable and squarely within their charge.

However, Donald Trump is also a bigot who threatens peace, prosperity, and freedom, and in light of his complaints about Mexicans and Muslims there's a clear implication that America will be great when we have sent certain people away.  Seen on that level, no decent person should invoke his catch-phrase in anything except a critical (or perhaps ironic) manner.  To the extent that the American Physical Society exists to serve its members as more than just an advocate for federal spending on science, they should pay attention to how the members will read and process their statements.

Here's the thing:  Barring some unexpected change in direction, the American Physical Society will, one way or another, engage with the Trump Administration.  It pains me to type "Trump Administration", but that is the reality that we live in, at least in this sector of the multiverse.  Most APS members are dependent on federal research funding, and the APS will almost certainly pursue an agenda that is cognizant of that fact.

There are two possible responses to the reality I just identified:  One is to ask something more substantial of the APS than slightly more sensitive phrasing of press releases while they continue to advocate for federal funding of science.  It means operating as an opposition group rather than a group that seeks a piece of the pie within the existing system. There have always been proud dissidents in the physics community (e.g. some great anti-Soviet dissidents) and perhaps the American Physical Society should rally us in that spirit of dissent.  But this is a radical path.  It means retaliation both on the large scale (reduced funding for physics) and the individual level (professional consequences for federal employees who resist their employer).  It is noble to choose that, and we can have that conversation, but it comes at a cost that people will have to weigh.

The other option is a practical one:  Accept the reality that the American Physical Society will serve primarily as a DC-area advocacy group, and just ask that press releases be sensitive to the fact that most (but not all) APS members don't want to be reminded that this means engagement with the Trump Administration.

I'm not writing here to promote one path over the other.  Resistance is hard.  Physicists have mortgages and kids and medical conditions that necessitate keeping jobs with health insurance.  Maybe it's better if the APS sticks to advocacy and lets physicists who choose the path of dissent do so in some other venue. On the other side of the coin, dissent is virtuous and the world may someday applaud those who took risks to dissent.  Maybe the APS should do that.  We can argue it either way and I'm not going to reach and defend a considered conclusion in this post.

What I am suggesting in this post is that we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the second path is all that virtuous or sensitive.  It is practical and seemly, but it is NOT making a stand in any meaningful sense.  It is NOT a stride for social justice.  It's just what people do when they have mortgages to pay.  The reality is that--barring some substantial change in direction at the behest of the membership--professional societies will engage with the Trump Administration, and that engagement will mean speaking in the catch-phrases of the Administration.  Now, I've written curmudgeonly articles on eschewing buzzwords and catch-phrases, so I'm fine with doing so, but I also choose not to chase large sums of money.  Advocacy groups advocating for large federal research budgets will not make my choice.  At best they will cloak their choices in seemly appearances.

Finally, remember that the physics community engages in hero worship of people who built nuclear bombs.  Let's not fool ourselves into thinking that using a new President's catch-phrase is the worst thing we've ever done.  Moral outrage over pure appearances is shallow.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Well, here I am, blogging late at night/early in the morning after a shocking election.  I have no interest in dissecting partisan politics here, only intellectual politics.

In the 1990's, an interregnum between the Cold War and War on Terror, academics drew knives on each other for the "Science Wars."  We got to hear from a certain type of humanities student that science is just, like, a Western hegemonic patriarchal cultural construct.  That all ended when Bush The Lesser took office, and all academics agreed that global warming is objective scientific fact.

In recent years we have been going at each other in higher ed over a somewhat different set of issues, but I suspect that we'll come together again.  Most academics will be on the same page about Trump, and there will be a degree of internal unity that we haven't previously enjoyed.  Even many academics of rather conservative views on certain issues (e.g. me) feel that Trump is illiberal, uninformed, and reckless.

What are the things that we will declare a truce on?  Well, we have been talking a lot about unconscious bias and invisible advantages, the subtle things.  But we are now confronted with a large number of people supporting a man who spouted undisguised, clearly visible, not-at-all subtle bias.  The problem we face is not good people who are slightly biased in spite of good intentions, but something much more blatant.

That's the part where I ask for people to give less emphasis to something that I disagree with.  Here's where I give less emphasis to something:

I've been going after the anti-intellectualism of progressive education.  I'm still opposed to it, and I will still pursue the path that I believe is most intellectually appropriate.  But anti-intellectualism manifests in many ways and in many aspects of American life.  Progressive educators cannot be my only targets.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Final thoughts on _They're Not Dumb, They're Different_: The policy consensus side

In her conclusions (pages 83-86), Sheila Tobias starts off going in a promising direction:  She briefly questions the forecasts of a shortage of scientists.  These questions are so juicy, so refreshing, that for a moment I was taken to the present!  (Where a few people--just a few, mind you--are starting to question that narrative.)  I felt like maybe I'm reading something from the here and now, not the 1990's.  But after acknowledging that we can't be certain, she moves on to make recommendations rooted in the consensus assumption of a 1990's science education researcher.  I shall quote the bottom of page 86:
The first step is a moral and strategic imperative: no college student should be permitted to say "no" to science without a struggle.
I cannot imagine anyone in a modern university calling for such an overbearing push to get more students  into humanities.  I cannot imagine majoring in humanities being declared a "moral imperative."  The STEM pedestal is an astounding thing.

Anyway, Tobias goes on to recommend the formation of an industry of advisers, mentors, recruiters, and STEM education and pipeline professionals who will devote all of their efforts to trying to get more students into and through science programs.  To a large extent the National Science Foundation has done as she recommended more than a generation ago.  There is indeed an industry of such people, largely funded by NSF.  She wasn't the only person urging this, and such an industry was already present in some form then, but we see how the elite chatter of a generation ago to some extent does shape the enterprises of today.  John Maynard Keynes was right about "practical men" being "slaves of some defunct economist."  Even as we hear rumblings against the notion of a "STEM crisis", tremendous numbers of well-funded people proclaim their desire to seek "data-driven best practices" to solve a crisis whose existence was proclaimed as gospel a generation ago.

More thoughts on _They're Not Dumb, They're Different_: The pedagogy side

The best critique of physical science education offered by the outside observers in this book is that we focus mostly on technique over concepts and the big picture.  We focus on technique over concepts because we want to equip students with the tools to get meaningful, testable answers to questions, not just general ideas.  The ability to precisely and accurately calculate something, even something simple and boring, means that you can engage with the material world in an objective manner that is not accessible with only qualitative, conceptual, "What does it really mean?" types of explanations and analyses.  That is the power of what we offer.  It's what makes progress in our disciplines possible, it's what makes us employable, it's what advances society's technological and material comfort, and it's what gives us access to truths of some sort.  Whether you value the advancement of society on an intellectual level or a material level, whether you value the advancement of the pure or applied sides of the discipline, and whether you value the students' intellectual development or career preparation, the case for focusing so much attention on technique and problem-solving is quite strong.  I make no apology for it.

Where I think the outside observers have a point is that we can do more to motivate technique, more to provide context.  We can do this both in the structure of the material, the textbooks, the syllabi, etc., and in the structure of an individual class session via sign-posting of what we're doing, interspersing more context-rich examples with technique, etc.  In the past 20 years I think there's been more (justifiably!) raised awareness of these points in science teaching, and greater emphasis on context, motivation, and organization of class time is all to the better.

But there are limits to how far we can go.  These limits are best understood by contrasting two very different types of science courses: General Education science for students not majoring in science or engineering, and the more technically-focused classes for students in science and engineering.  In a GE course, one can spend a quarter or semester building up, say, a basic understanding of what energy is, and the basic concept of how a nuclear power plant works, how a solar cell works, etc.  In doing so, one can help the student become an informed citizen and appreciate the basic points of major societal issues and why science matters.


When you look at what it takes to prepare a person to actually make a tangible contribution to these issues, what it takes to prepare a person to make progress in solar cell technology, or to help design a safer nuclear power plant, it is painfully necessary to step back from context and focus on technique.  For years.  Once we've established that solar panels work by photons getting absorbed and raising electrons to higher levels, if you ask "How does that photon get absorbed? How can we improve the efficiency of that process?" we need to talk about matrix elements in quantum mechanics.  There's no getting around that.  If you ask "How can we make this material more cheaply?" we need to talk about a host of issues in chemistry and materials science and manufacturing, all of them highly technical.  To go beyond "Oh, we need to make these parts less expensively" to "So, we'll have to deposit thin films of materials made from exotic elements, and do so in vacuum chambers..." now we're talking about highly technical matters.  The goal of a science class for a science major is to help a person along that long journey.  We can do some sign-posting and motivating at the beginning, but at some point you have to accept a long slog through basic optical physics in order to get at what's going on inside the solar cell on a level sufficient to improve it, and basic diffusion and transport theory in order to understand the nuclear reactor on a level deep enough to actually improve it.

As far as the competitive nature of science classes, I agree  that competition can be off-putting.  I didn't like taking freshman chemistry with grade-obsessed pre-meds asking questions about curves and critiquing each and every aspect of the grading scale.  (I'm typing this from a cafe in a medical school, incidentally, as I wait for an appointment with a specialist.)  But what I don't think students get is that when you look at the trajectory of physics problems, and the decreasing math level, in many cases "grading on a curve" is not about putting students in a Darwinian competition but about lowering our own expectations to the point where "enough" students can actually pass.

Also, lab work has always been hands-on and involved groups.  Never, ever forget that.  LAB WORK IS HANDS-ON!!!  Critics of science education love to miss that point.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The curmudgeonliness is strong with this one.

I don't have time to offer much commentary on it, but I like this post about project-based learning.  It's quite devastating.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Tobias, Chapter 2

I don't have time to write up my full thoughts on chapter 2; a lot of the themes seem to be repeated in what little I've read of the next chapter, so I think I'll just respond to those themes after I've read the whole book.  But a few quick thoughts:

1) The student in the second chapter took a physics class.  Some of the things that he reports are valid criticisms of how we teach physics.  I think we've actually made progress on a subset of them (remember, this book is more than 20 years old), but we could stand to make more progress.

2) Some of his critiques go to points that sound nice on the surface, but they would not work as well as he thinks if we actually tried to do it at scale with the students that we get.  The student does note that we actually do some things right, that our students do get motivated in certain ways that many humanities students don't (in his observation).  Of course, we also fail to motivate in certain ways that the humanities do more effectively.

It's tempting to say "Well, obviously just take the best of each!" but that implies that upsides and downsides are completely separable.  I don't think real life works that way.

3) I'm not going to name names, but in addition to the observations of the student, the author frequently cites (positively) the observations of someone whom I've interacted with.  I was...not impressed.  To put it mildly.  That colors my reading.

4) One thing that outside critics of physics often miss is that we'd love to spend more time on the Big Picture but we have a hard, cumulative, technical task in front of us.  There's no evading that.  We can talk about Big Ideas all day, but the real progress on those ideas was only made through painstaking technical work.  On the margin, we could (and probably should) spend a bit more time than we do on Big Ideas rather than technical calculation, but those technical skills are vital to either using physics or making progress on advancing the field of physics, and they take a lot of time to hone.  I'm open to providing more complementary/supplementary treatment of Big Ideas, but if students don't get a whole lot of practice on the hard, technical side of the field then we are cheating them out of the opportunity to have a career where they either use physics or make advances in physics.

5) Frankly, a lot of the "I am more, like, into the Big Ideas, man!" types are dilettantes, and usually white dude dilettantes.  Sorry, but it's true.  Yes, yes, there are flaky women and flaky people of color; I recognize and support the right of people of diverse identities to be flakes.  Still, the flaky "I'm, like, more into, like, the ideas than, you know, the math, because my mind is more about being weird and flexible and seeing the Real Ideas, you know?" types are disproportionately white dudes.  That's my in-the-trenches observation.  I try to avoid stereotyping but this one is born out by observation.

That's not to say that everyone who wants to talk about Big Ideas is a flake, but the flakes ALWAYS say that.  Always.

Why am I commenting on it?  Because everyone agrees that physics needs to diversify, so I find it hilarious that our critics then come at us with something that the dilettante white dudes have been saying to us since forever.  Believe me, you don't want us designing curricula around those guys if you want us to attract women and people of color.

6) That said, there are curricula that do more to address Big Ideas while also developing technical skills.  Moore's Six Ideas That Shaped Physics and also the Matter and Interactions curriculum are both excellent examples of that.  We need to do more of that.

7) While I can and will weigh the pros and cons of the critics in more detail, it is very much a marker of when the book was written that she couches the critiques in terms of "Maybe if we addressed this we could solve the STEM shortage..."  I am listening to Sublime as I type this.  The 90's were good times, man.  Good times.

Monday, October 31, 2016

90's flashback: _They're Not Dumb, They're Different_ by Sheila Tobias

My next reading project is They're Not Dumb, They're Different by Sheila Tobias.  Whatever else I might ultimately come to dislike about this book, it's 94 pages.  Too many people turn out 200-300 page books because they think that they need to, but Tobias doesn't do that.  Kudos to her.

This book was written in 1990, and while I've only read the introduction I can say that it definitely feels like a trip back to the 90's and old ideas about STEM shortages. You can almost hear Kurt Cobain singing Heart-Shaped Box.  You can almost feel the political and racial tension in the air as people are glued to their TV for the latest twists in the OJ case. It's easy to remember an era when X-Files was on TV and the Clinton Administration was rocked by sex scandals.

In the intro, Tobias motivates her work by talking about the country's shortage of science talent, and the need to recruit more people into science.  She mentions a longitudinal study that started with 750,000 high school students who declared a possible interest in science in the 1970's, and after more than a decade of follow-through a bit less than 10,000 of them have gotten PhDs in STEM.  In my opinion, 1.3% of a potentially interested cohort getting a PhD in science is hardly a problem; it might actually be over-production. But it's presented as evidence of a problem.

More tellingly, she notes that 61,000 of them started graduate study in STEM, even though "only" 9,700 of them got a PhD.  This is a lesson in how narratives are made when people start from the assumption of a moral crisis in need of resolution.  If 61,000 people enrolled in PhD programs and only 9,700 of them got a PhD I would agree that there's a problem.  I might not classify it as a problem of under-production, but I would agree that there is a problem of inefficiently identifying and channeling talent.  There's no reason for so many people to invest prime years in a hard endeavor that so few will finish.  But who said that they all entered graduate school in pursuit of a PhD?  The gold standard for an engineer in industry is an MS (and many have great careers with just a BS, or even a BS and MBA).  And who said that the gold standard for retention in STEM is completion of a PhD?  Can't a person have a career doing economically and socially significant things in science and engineering without a PhD?

The fact that Tobias opens with these dubiously status quo assumptions, these cultural artifacts of a long-standing consensus, does not mean that there will be nothing of value in what follows.  But it does mean that when I read it I detect a certain voice in the author's writing.  It's like reading an old novel written in the musty language of an earlier era; you know you're reading something of a particular place and time and class.  It's a narrative that sounded so seductive when I was young and dumb, something that never should have made sense yet somehow did even in an era where the SoCal aerospace industry was being completely restructured (and mostly downsized) while the IT industry was taking shape.  A narrative of a strange era that is past.  Oh, people still tell this narrative, but now it's a narrative that faces challengers, because the internet exists and every disgruntled postdoc and adjunct out there can take to social media.

Anyway, the focus of this book will be her "Second Tier" study.  The premise is that science and engineering only select for people who will stick with it through numerous hurdles, rather than recruiting.  (We shall ignore the fact that since Sputnik there have been numerous efforts to sell science and engineering to kids, numerous earnest people standing in front of students and telling them that STEM Is Our Future and we desperately need them, numerous Official Reports On The Need To Recruit and subsequent curricular redesign efforts in k-12 and beyond.)  So, Tobias recruits smart people who have been successful in other fields but never gave any thought to science, and asks them to audit college math and science classes, to provide a field study of one tribe by another.

Sociologically I agree that it's an interesting concept on its own, and certainly worthwhile for a science educator who wants to engage in introspection and take in some outside critiques.  I can read it with that goal in mind.

What I can't do is read it as a study that must a priori be relevant to solving systemic problems in my field, and not just because I reject the narrative of a STEM shortage.  Working in the trenches of college-level science education, the problem that I face is not an abundance of empty seats while students flock to other fields.  Rather, I live in a world where the classroom is filled with ill-prepared students, the cultural mindset of my peers and superiors is that it would be unjust to tell them to consider another field, and scholars in the humanities and social sciences are scared that their disciplines will be axed for the ascendant STEM fields.  In this world, our biggest challenge is not to win over the bright kids who chose to major in literature or accounting, but rather to help the ill-prepared kid who harbors a dream of rocket science, and either make them into a rocket scientist or gently guide them to another path.

We can still learn something from the observations of genuine outsiders, just as we can learn something from any number of experiences and observations.  There may be serendipitous insight in here, and if so, great!  But I don't think that I can feasibly or realistically approach this book as one whose design promises solutions to the practical problems immediately in front of me.  The design of the study means that any such solutions will emerge by lucky happenstance, not by careful targeting.  I can learn new things to add to my general mental toolkit, but my inner Bayesian assigns a low prior probability to the notion that this book has direct solutions to my problems.

Also, I can read this book as a cultural artifact, as an example of what people actually believed in the early 1990's, an era when the Cold War was won, our greatest geopolitical problems were (allegedly) solved, a tech boom was building in the aftermath of a recession, the House of Clinton was ascending after a Bush presidency, and the music on the radio was good.  The elite consensus that places STEM on a pedestal is a source of never-ending frustration for me, and this book is a time capsule that might help me understand it.  Mind you, STEM mania predates this book by several decades, but in order for a consensus to survive it must adapt, and this book might tell me something about the current incarnation of STEM mania.

With all that said, let's see what outsiders have to say when they observe a science class.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Another article in the Chronicle!

I have just published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  "Tips for Managing Curmudgeons."

Easiest $300 I ever made.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Shove it up your pipeline

I know that I should treat this report on preparing students for non-academic careers as a good thing, because it involves academic physicists and professional societies finally recognizing that we need to get serious about the fact that most physics majors will go into industry, not the PhD pipeline/pyramid.  I should be glad that people are recognizing this, and that the Important And Serious Types get it.

The problem is that I hate the important and serious types because they are always so disconnected from reality, half of them still say all the Acceptable And Serious stuff about PhD production, and it seems like they only figured out 4 minutes ago what the physics community should have figured out 4 decades ago:  That most people don't get PhDs and don't wind up in academia.  How can I take these jokers seriously when they started revising their Party Line yesterday while I've been taking students to industry meetings and teaching computational physics and applied optics since I was a junior professor?  These jokers will no doubt get the world to pat them on the back for "Steering the Conversation to Recognize the Need for Change" while some of us have been in the trenches doing this stuff for a long time, and we figured it out without the Serious And Important People issuing reports and trying to "Change The Conversation" or whatever.

And they dress it up in all of their administrative language instead of plain English, speaking the language of administrivia and bureaucracy.  And I know, I just KNOW, that when the next grant opportunity comes along, if it's for some PhD pipeline bullshit they'll be talking up the importance of that when five minutes earlier they were talking about preparing students for industry.  Because they're a bunch of parasites.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Gritty reality

I just came across this article from May arguing that grit research is over-hyped.  Essentially, the claims are that (1) the effect of grit is sometimes exaggerated, (2) a lot of other known variables (e.g. the much-maligned standardized tests) are more predictive, and (3) grit is not nearly as novel as Duckworth claims.  It was mentioned in the comments on this article, where the author worries that if grit is the key to success then advantaged kids are more likely to be in environments that emphasize it.  The problem is that advantaged kids are, by definition, the ones with the greatest access to the secret sauce of success, whatever you think that secret sauce may be.  Also, whether we respond to [insert latest success fad here] by seeking to help the poor get access to it or by blaming the poor for not having it depends not on our theory of success but our theory of the poor.  If we see them as victims through no fault of their own then compassion will move us to help them develop [grit, growth mindset, whatever the latest trendy thing is].  If we see them as people of low character then we will blame them for not possessing our trait.  We don't need a humane theory of success, we need a humane theory of poverty.  I've said this before.

As an aside, Duckworth spent some time at McKinsey early in her career.  Those people are everywhere.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Post-Literate Society

Today an administrator sent out a request that faculty fill out a survey as part of some study involving educational fads.  Since I love to be the fly in the ointment I naturally took the survey as soon as possible.  Among the questions on the survey were a few about whether/how frequently we use videos in our classes.  The context strongly implied that assigning students to watch videos is considered a good, progressive thing to do.  Reading assignments did not receive commensurate attention.

Mark 2016 as the year that one of my "superiors" openly embraced the post-literate society.

Alternative is back in style, so I said "What about Breakfast at Tiffany's?"

The editors of Nature deign to notice reality:
Alternative career paths should be celebrated, not seen as a compromise.
Do go on.
...but young scientists have more reason than most to be disillusioned when things do not go to plan. Almost all have completed a PhD. And almost all would have been told that the qualification — and the effort and dedication involved — was the first step on the ladder to a permanent academic position. 
Nature and others have long pointed out that this is a lie. There are simply too many PhD students and too few senior posts. Hence the purgatory of the postdocs: trapped in transition and trying to accrue the necessary credit to move on.
Well, I'm not sure how "long" they've pointed it out.  Their link is to 2011.  If they'd pointed this out in the 1970's I'd be more impressed.

Up next:  The editors of Nature suspect that these newfangled desktop computers might have an effect on how people do science.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Niches vs. Competition

I was talking to a student, and I was articulating some of the points that I make on this blog, concerning the folly of trying to send everyone to college or get everyone to succeed equally in the same programs.  He asked me if I believe that in any group of people there will inevitably be a winner and a loser.  I paused, and tried to come up with something less stark, and came up with this:

If everyone tries to succeed at the same thing then there will indeed be a winner and a loser, because it really is that zero-sum and stark when everyone is trying for the same path.  But if people find their niches, then you can avoid that brutal competition because people mostly avoid going head-to-head.  The only time competition really matches econ 101 and really gets at the absolute efficiency limits of the most ideal econ models is when everyone tries to go head-to-head.  When people find niches then you still get a good outcome for consumers via choice, and there's a moderate level of efficiency so they do get the benefit of innovation and (some) cost competition, but it isn't so brutal that everyone's profits go to zero (when opportunity costs are taken into account) and nobody can get ahead and everyone is constantly sweating.  The best growth opportunities come via niches.

If we try to send everyone to a classic 4 year degree program then the world will be a stark place.  Credential inflation will strip away any value from education.  If we recognize that people need a variety of paths, and that no one path is for everyone, then we can develop people to their potential without sacrificing quality and rigor.  I hope we go for sanity and embrace a diverse range of paths for people.  The worst part of US economic and social policy for the past few decades has been the belief that increasing the production of 4 year degrees is the only way forward in a post-industrial economy.

SF story accepted

I forgot to blog this, but last weekend one of my stories was posted at 365 Tomorrows, a daily blog for flash-fiction sci-fi stories.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The false ecumenicalism of STEAM

There's an editorial that I half-agree with in the latest issue of Scientific American, and like many things that get at half of an issue it's almost as dangerous as simply ignoring the issue.  The editors make the completely valid point that our society need more than just people who are trained in natural science and engineering, that we also need people who study the humanities and social sciences.  I agree completely, as you might gather from the fact that most of the books I've blogged about here are written by people who aren't trained in math, natural science, or engineering, and are primarily about non-technical issues.  I denounce the short-sightedness of politicians who want to focus our higher education system primarily on STEM.  Partly because (as I've said before) putting STEM on a pedestal is actually quite bad for STEM* and partly because the rest of society (i.e. the world beyond the walls of the science buildings on campus) also needs more than STEM.

The editors of SciAm get that society needs more than STEM, but they can't help but couch this need in terms of the economic competitiveness of high-tech industries:
The need to teach both music theory and string theory is a necessity for the U.S. economy to continue as the preeminent leader in technological innovation. The unparalleled dynamism of Silicon Valley and Hollywood requires intimate ties that unite what scientist and novelist C. P. Snow called the “two cultures” of the arts and sciences.
Steve Jobs, who reigned for decades as a tech hero, was neither a coder nor a hardware engineer. He stood out among the tech elite because he brought an artistic sensibility to the redesign of clunky mobile phones and desktop computers. Jobs once declared: “It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—that it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” 
A seeming link between innovation and the liberal arts now intrigues countries where broad-based education is less prevalent. In most of the world, university curricula still emphasize learning skills oriented toward a specific profession or trade. The ebullience of the U.S. economy, which boasted in 2014 the highest percentage of high-tech outfits among all its public companies—has spurred countries such as Singapore to create schools fashioned after the U.S. liberal arts model.  
My problem with this is that it still has STEM on the pedestal:  There's nothing about the value of the humanities and social sciences** in their own right, only their significance for high-tech industries. Personally, my reason for reading and blogging about so many books on history, social issues, and so forth is that I want to understand people, not that people often work in STEM.  Teaching is an activity in which one can benefit from knowledge of history, psychology, etc. irrespective of what discipline one is in.  The value of humanities and social science for my work can thus be measured by how much my work involves people, not by how much humanities and social science help STEM.  More importantly, the value of humanities and social science should be measured according to more than just the extent to which they matter for my work (or anyone's "work", as opposed to the rest of life).

Now, in academia I can sense a backlash starting to stir against the current STEM craze.  However concerned I might be about how this pedestal will affect STEM, I can hardly expect sympathy from people who aren't in STEM.  The pedestal might have its downsides, but not being on the pedestal has even more downsides.  Consequently, some administrative types now talk about "STEAM", which stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics."  Nobody is entirely sure whether the "Arts" only include visual and performing arts, or also the liberal arts*** more broadly.  I'm less interested in definitions listed in some particular document and more interested in usage. When I hear administrators talking about the "A" in "STEAM" I've heard several different points, some of which could be roughly summed up as:

  1. "Designing technology requires attention to aesthetics."  This is a completely valid point that has been known for millenia, hence the field known as "architecture."
  2. "Designing technology requires attention to human factors more broadly."  Again, a completely valid point.
  3. "Scientists can learn a lot about their field from historians and philosophers of science and technology."  This is a point with which I also agree completely, and it informs much of my blogging here.  Indeed, I strongly encourage students to make connections between their major and their general education by taking classes on the history of science.
  4. "Solving workforce issues in the sciences requires the involvement of people who have considered the cultural factors and problems of inequality that affect the pipeline of talent."  While I might dissent from some of the most common narratives offered in regard to these topics, I completely agree that these are important areas for inquiry.  I would like to see more and broader inquiry on these issues.
However, do you notice that in each case the "Arts" (however construed) are examined only in regard to how they interact with STEM?  That's fine if the specific topic on the table is whether to include some non-STEM people in a STEM-focused endeavor, but not if the topic on the table is the purpose and future direction of a comprehensive university.  The STEAM buzzword could probably be invoked to justify hiring an art historian who emphasizes architecture, an English professor who is an expert on teaching technical writing, or an ethnic studies professor who studies equity issues in STEM.  However, I'm not sure that it could be invoked to justify hiring a historian who studies the cultural history of China, an English professor who's interested in 18th century American poetry, or an ethnic studies scholar who's interested in representations of ethnicity in cinema.  These people might fit under the Arts (at least in the sense of Liberal Arts) but I doubt that they would fit under any but the most bland (and thus pointless) definitions of STEAM.  STEAM is false ecumenicalism, a way of offering University Strategic Initiatives that are nominally inclusive of disciplines beyond STEM while still measuring those disciplines by the yardstick of STEM.  As long as the paramount yardstick of academic inquiry and teaching is relevance to STEM the Academy is going to suffer.

*In a society that is democratic in the way described by de Tocqueville, those academic fields that are deemed most important will have an obligation to take in the huddled masses, however unprepared and untalented they may be.  This may provide some benefit for members of the masses as individuals, at least initially, but it tends to impede the pursuit of excellence, and eventually the phenomenon of credential inflation will rear its head, to the detriment of all, but disproportionately hurting the least privileged.

**Whether or not the social sciences are included in STEM depends on whether the "S" in STEM is implicitly "NS" (Natural Science).  I personally exclude the social sciences from STEM, not because I disrespect the intellectual rigor of those fields but because I eschew linguistic prescriptivism in favor of looking at how people actually use words.  To wit, consider the following thought experiment:  We have two students, both of whom start off majoring in chemistry.  One of them then switches majors to physics, while the other switches majors to economics.  Would a typical "STEM crisis" hand-wringer react to both with equal nonchalance, saying "They're still in STEM", or would they evince more concern over the new economics major than the new physics major?

***We could also ask which disciplines get counted as "liberal arts", or the extent to which the liberal arts overlap STEM, but let's set that aside for now.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Quick thoughts on Averroes

This book didn't make a strong impression on me.  He starts by noting some places where the Koran proclaims that some fact of religion is apparent from observation of the world, and from that concludes that reasoning from those facts is also commanded. Commanding people to embrace a lesson that is easily apparent from observation is different from commanding them to engage in subtle reasoning and laborious deduction.  To be fair, he concedes that people can err in long chains of deduction, and thereby be led astray.  Consequently, he argues that literalism is fine and even best for the ordinary masses, and philosophical inquiry is only for those who are skilled enough to not be led astray.

In this regard he is making an argument similar to that of Galileo's critics--the Church was unperturbed when Copernicus published heliocentric theory in Latin and as a hypothesis, but they were quite upset when Galileo published heliocentric theory in vernacular Italian and proclaimed it as a truth that he could expound without clerical permission.  So I am unlikely to assign Averroes for a comparative perspective on science/religion debates if I ever teach the Galileo affair.  OTOH, I do understand now why the faculty at Paris cited arguments by Averroes 400 years earlier when the Church was upset about Aristotelian philosophy: Averroes only defended the right of the intellectuals to pursue truth in scholarly debate, not indiscriminate dissemination to the masses.  And the faculty at Paris were seeking similar rights.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Current reading: Decisive Treatise by Averroes

I'm reading the Decisive Treatise by Averroes, a 12th century Muslim philosopher from Spain.  Averroes argued that the logical study of philosophy is not contrary to the will of God, a theme somewhat similar to Galileo's argument in his letter to the Grand Duchess Cristina.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Lyrics to live by

One of the themes of this blog is that there are no secret tricks, no correct politics.  I just found some more lyrics that I think capture that idea:

This is how it works
You're young until you're not
You love until you don't
You try until you can't
You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else's heart
Pumping someone else's blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don't get harmed
But even if it does
You'll just do it all again

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Next reading project: Subtle is the Lord by Abraham Pais

I'm currently reading Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein by Abraham Pais.  It's a biography of Einstein, heavy on scientific detail.  I'm about half-way through.  Some key observations:

  • Historians have debated ad nauseum whether Einstein himself was aware of the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1905.  Pais seems to believe that he wasn't.  However, even if Einstein himself wasn't, it was very much "in the air" that no sound experiment had ever found direct evidence of the ether, and Einstein was certainly aware of that fact.  Moreover, regardless of whether Einstein himself knew of Michelson and Morley, many of the prominent physicists of that era were definitely aware of it, and directly cited it.  To the extent that Einstein's work on relativity was guided by concerns that we well-known among scientists of that era, he was influenced by Michelson and Morley, irrespective of whether he was directly aware of their experimental result.
  • Poincare, Lorentz, Fitzgerald, and others had all worked on ways to modify physics to account for the non-observation of ether effects.  The Lorentz transformations and length contraction formula had been written down, and Poincare openly pondered a possible need for modifying the laws of motion.  However, everybody was positing these things as either ad hoc fixes or as mere observations on the symmetry of the Maxwell equations.  Nobody prior to Einstein posed these ideas as being derivable from the equivalence of all inertial reference frames.  That's Einstein's real contribution:  To see that these equations that address all of the deficits in the ether model are in fact consequences of the laws of physics being the same to all observers.
  • I learned about the post of privatdozent in German-language universities, which seems quite similar to the modern phenomenon of the adjunct professor.  Apparently a privatdozent could teach classes and receive a very modest fee for it, but did not have the status, institutional role, salary, or research support that a professor would enjoy.  Many people back then said that academic careers were only suitable for the independently wealthy.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Interesting history of the Broader Impact Criterion

In order to get a grant from the National Science Foundation, a research proposal must score well on the basis of two criteria:  Intellectual merit (in a nutshell, does a panel of experts in the field think that this is a well-designed project addressing a scientifically important question?) and Broader Impact.  Broader Impact is complicated and can't be summed up in a single parenthetical.  Ostensibly it could cover research that will address things like environmental issues, technologies of economic significance for the US economy, and other ways in which science could benefit the US economy and society as a whole.  It could also cover "research infrastructure", e.g. if somebody wanted to develop a technology that will rapidly and systematically study key properties of hundreds of fluorescent probes used in biology then that would clearly be both of immediate intellectual merit (we learn something about those fluorescent molecules) and of broader benefit to science (this tool would push countless other projects forward).

In practice, though, Broader Impact is usually about education, public outreach, and inclusion.  A researcher submitting a proposal to NSF would be well-advised to incorporate some aspect of their research into a course module (preferably one that can be easily adopted by other instructors) or a presentation to grade school kids, and include some members of under-represented groups in their labs.  These are fine things, things that are often worth doing.  HOWEVER (you knew there was a "however" coming) in a country with lots of instructors if every instructor out there is developing course modules and trying to get everyone else to use them, well, that's more modules than we need, and the quality will be variable.  Outreach is fine, but some people are better than others, and frankly the occasional dog-and-pony-show at grade schools is probably not the biggest thing that we need if we're serious about improving k-12 science education.  Moreover, inclusivity in a research group is a fine thing, but even that is better addressed at the level of admissions committees than individual research groups. (Though I do acknowledge that tying it to funding for individual labs creates a bottom-up pressure that can matter.)

I've pointed out some of the drawbacks here, and other people have documented just how confusing and contradictory the implementation of this criterion can be.  I do freely acknowledge its upsides, of course.  What's more interesting to me, for the purposes of this blog, is not the "on the one hand...on the other hand..." stuff, but the history of it:
From 1981 to 1997, NSF guidelines identified four criteria for the evaluation of proposals:
● Research performance competence.
● Intrinsic merit of the research.
● Utility or relevance of the research.
● Effect of the research on the infrastructure of science and engineering.
Since 1997, however, NSF has used two criteria for the review of grant proposals: one focuses on the “intellectual merit” of a proposed activity, while a second asks for evaluation of the “broader impacts” of the research.
One could note that from the 1990's onward we no longer felt that our chief geopolitical problem involved an adversary with world-class nuclear physicists and rocket scientists.  In the 1990's our chief geopolitical concern was, um, actually, nobody really knows.  The 90's were a weird time.  We did "humanitarian" interventions against penny ante-foes and worried about French industrial espionage.  Since 2001 our chief geopolitical concern has been people whose arsenal primarily consists of improvised explosives, rifles, and box-cutter knives.  Yeah, yeah, Iran and North Korea, but Iran is more of a diplomatic issue and North Korea's nuclear program is even less sophisticated than that of Mao-era China.

Anyway, in this era where we no longer worry about adversaries with world-class nuclear physicists and rocket scientists we are quite comfortable trying to bring democracy to science.  One constant theme of this blog is the tension between academic excellence and democratic values.  One can quite easily resolve those tensions by viewing the academically successful as simply having a place in society but not viewing academia as the path to prominence in society.  It means that you'll have to make place for the middle class (and especially the lower-middle class) on their own terms, in an economy that needs them.  Alternately, one can engage in self-deception and deny any tension between academic excellence and democratic values.  Broader Impact is, in some sense, NSF's attempt to do that, and de Tocqueville would no doubt recognize it as such.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Two problems with two theories

The biggest problem with a theory of rational economic behavior is not that humans are irrational (though they often are) but that rational economic incentives under-determine human behavior.  Given that we have to act rationally and maximize some measure of self-interest (usually a monetary return, but not always) there are multiple ways to get there.  A glance at the great variety found in human endeavors, in business models, in industrial practices, etc. should be enough to persuade one of that.

The biggest problem with technocratic approaches to education is not that students are complicated (though they are) but that even if you knew enough to optimize some measure (whether an evil standardized test or a progressive concepts inventory that looks remarkably similar to a standardized test or some more holistic measure of "critical thinking" or whatever) you would still be under-determining what you can/should do in the classroom.  There would still be multiple ways to get there, and culture and values would enter into the choices.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Ibn al-Haytham on refraction

I'll start with the confession:  I'm not going to read all of Book 7 of the Kitab al-Manazir.  Experimental papers are best read when they have the diagrams on the same pages as the main text, not when you have to flip around constantly to find diagrams and tables.  Not to mention that he got a lot of stuff wrong, and according to the translator's preface he probably didn't do all of the experiments that he described.  But I did want to see if he presaged the Principle of Least Time.

So I read the translator's preface.  One fascinating tidbit is that Ibn al-Haytham did measurements of the effect of refraction in the atmosphere on the apparent positions of stars near the horizon.  That was pretty amazing.  He was able to show that the atmosphere refracts light, implying that its optical properties are different from the more distant medium separating the earth from the celestial sphere that they believed the stars inhabited.  I didn't know that.

The translator mentioned a discussion of "easiest paths" at the end of chapter 2, so I read the first two chapters.  I skimmed the experimental section because (as I said above) it's hard to read.  I did carefully read the theoretical discussion in the last few pages, and it is definitely interesting.  Ibn al-Haytham thinks of refraction as occurring because the light encounters difficulty in piercing an interface, and we know that when chopping wood it is easiest to piece the wood if the ax strikes it perpendicularly rather than at a glancing angle. He talks about breaking up motion into components perpendicular and parallel to the interface, and if the perpendicular component is small then it is difficult to pierce the interface. In Ibn al-Haytham's view, when light encounters a denser medium (higher index) light tries to incline toward an easier direction.  There's a vague concept of a "path of least resistance" in here, but he doesn't actually use the word "path."  Rather, he talks about the direction that is easiest to move in.  That is a purely local description of the dynamics of the light (whether it's a ray or particle), based entirely on things that happen at the interface.  Likewise, the rest of the discussion involves only the interfaces, components of motion at interfaces, and analogies to mechanical phenomena that involve changes in motion at interfaces.  Fermat's Principle of Least Time, on the other hand, is a global principle, one that involves a consideration of the entire path that light will take from one location to another.  There's no hint of a global principle here.

Also, he has a much fuzzier explanation of what happens when you go from a high-index medium to a low-index medium.  There's no principle of time-reversal here.

Now, I haven't read any of Fermat's work. I don't know if he read Ibn al-Haytham. Maybe he really liked Ibn al-Haytham's idea about picking a direction that makes motion easier and then generalized it to a global principle.  Maybe not.  I don't know.  What I do know is that there's no hint of the Principle of Least Time in Ibn al-Haytham's work, because the Principle of Least Time is (1) global rather than local and (2) based on a model of a medium-dependent speed rather than a medium-dependent resistance.  The second point is less important, because I'm drawing a distinction that isn't really salient until you appreciate inertia and the fact that light doesn't have mass (not points that are required to do important things in an optics class) but still, I see none of the seeds of Fermat's work here.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.

DISCLAIMER:  I only read a translation of the Latin text.  Maybe the Arabic text has something better.  However, the translator noted a number of errors in the translation from the original Arabic text to the Latin edition, and this section wasn't mentioned. Barring some additional evidence from a historian who knows medieval Arabic I consider it very unlikely that Ibn al-Haytham can be credited with the Principle of Least Time.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A succinct take on the post-industrial economy

I figured out a way to encapsulate a lot of what frustrates me about discussions of the post-industrial economy.  Everyone mouths "STEM" and "college", as though the great thing about the industrial economy was the opportunity that it provided for college-educated STEM professionals.  In fact, the great thing about the industrial economy was the sort of opportunity it provided for everyone else.  Yes, college-educated STEM professionals did their part in maintaining the system that provided those opportunities, but they were just one factor among many.

We've assumed that we can credential our way out of this problem, but that's insanity.  We need to ask what sort of economic arrangement can provide good opportunity for those who don't have college degrees, rather than asking how to get more people through college.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Next book: Book 7 of De Aspectibus/Kitab-al-manazir by Alhacen/Ibn al-Haytham

My next reading will be Book 7 of the Book of Optics by Ibn al-Haytham, an Arab scientist of the 10th and 11th centuries.  I read the first part of his treatise in 2009; in that part he debunks the ancient idea (going back to the much-lauded Greeks) that vision involves the emission of something from the eye.  I skipped the next 5 books, which expand his theory of vision and then delve into image formation by curved mirrors.  However, I recently came across an assertion that Ibn al-Haytham was the first person to discover that refraction phenomena can be derived from the Principle of Least Time, presaging Fermat's statement of the principle by more than 600 years. The Principle of Least Time is one of the most beautiful principles in physics, being closely related to the Lagrangian formulation of classical mechanics, and this coming year I am scheduled to teach optics in fall and Lagrangian mechanics in spring, so I absolutely MUST find out if the great Ibn al-Haytham has priority over Fermat in discovering the most beautiful principle in physics.  If you do a Google search for "Ibn al-Haytham" and "Least Time" you will find a great many pages that assert this discovery, but so far I've found none that actually quote directly from his writings.  Consequently, I'll have to read it for myself.

The matter gets complicated by the fact that Ibn al-Haytham's writings took two different forms, historically.  Ibn al-Haytham did most of his work in Cairo (though he was apparently born in Iraq) and wrote it up in Arabic under the title Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics).  However, much of his influence on the subsequent history of optics came via a Latin translation titled De Aspectibus (which, as I understand it, means roughly "On Perspective").  In the Latin translation his name was given as "Alhacen." The Latin translation is not entirely faithful to the original Arabic, which means that it is not always useful for gauging what Ibn al-Haytham actually thought.  However, because of its influence the Latin translation is nonetheless worthy of study as a historical document, as a way of gauging what the Europeans did or didn't learn about optics from the Arabs.  I've had trouble finding a translation of Book 7 directly from Arabic to English  (it's easier to find translations of the first book, which made the vital contribution of debunking the emission theory), so I'm going to be using Prof. Mark Smith's English translation of the Latin version.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Oh, there you go, bringing class into it again

I'm not sure I agree with everything in this article from the latest American Conservative, but one needn't agree  with all of it to appreciate the extra analytical dimension that it brings.  Thinking about class along more dimensions than rich and poor, bringing ideology and sector into it, helps a lot.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Anderson being curmudgeonly

1) Anderson notes that physicists are the shamans of our day, charged with telling a secular world what the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything might be.  He likes particle physics hype even less than I do.

2) In a 2004 address to the Santa Fe Institute he has some pretty harsh words for an academic system that is more interested in collecting tokens of prestige and generating overhead on grants than generating genuinely insightful work.

Next book: More and Different by Phil Anderson

I'm reading More and Different, a collection of essays (of varying length and, sadly, readability) by Nobel-winning solid-state physicist Phil Anderson.  Most of the essays that I've read so far have been his remembrances of great moments in the history of solid state physics and his work at Bell Labs.  However, in his reflection on the trajectory of 20th century physics as a whole, he makes the unusual move of offering a sober-eyed lament about the state of science careers at the dawn of the 21st century.  People know that there is a game, and so they collect tokens of accomplishment rather than simply pushing forward on problems that they find to be intellectually significant.  I've noted before that sometimes you learn more about people when you observe them in comfortable circumstances rather than competitive ones.  Alas, as we keep expanding the number of scientists (while proclaiming that project to be a moral and economic imperative) we get fewer chances to observe how people respond to comfort and more chances to observe how they respond to competition.  Of course, it is completely impossible in a democratic culture (a concept that is related to but somewhat distinct from a democratic government) to afford intellectual elites too much visible comfort.  Forget about what the masses will say--the educated themselves will recoil from it, because Americans are Americans.  Just look at how the National Science Foundation wants to keep people busy with the democratic work of outreach, whether graduate students or established faculty, rather than let people focus on science.

Recent reading: Richard Hofstadter, An Intellectual Biography

I recently read Richard Hofstadter--An Intellectual Biography by David Brown.  For some reason I didn't feel like blogging it.  But a few takeaway observations:

  1. A few months ago I was aghast that anybody would call Hofstadter a smug liberal.  In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life he displayed nothing but contempt for a certain type of progressive posing!  However, after reading more about his views, writings, and political activity (such as it was) in the 50's and 60's I now admit that he was a creature of a certain liberal consensus, and while he had no use for fluffy progressives (including student protesters) he clearly had a disdainful attitude toward conservative detractors from a centre-left consenus.
  2. Perhaps Hofstadter's worst transgression was to see the defeat of Adlai Stevenson by Dwight Eisenhower as the triumph of Mencken's "booboisie."  Whatever might be said in favor of Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower was a highly accomplished man who had commanded millions of people in one of the most logistically complicated acts ever undertaken by the US government.  If that isn't a plausible resume for a Presidential contender, what is?
  3. Hofstadter started college a year early, married the daughter of a doctor, and loved doing impressions.  JUST LIKE ME!!!11!!!! 
  4. The author's description of his undergraduate college (University of Buffalo, now SUNY Buffalo) is absolutely fascinating.  The university started as a med school, added an undergraduate college of arts and sciences much later, and then (according to the author) was pushed to become a place of serious theoretical study as the children of immigrants started to pour in.  I cannot imagine a university today saying "We are getting more immigrants so we are going to up our academic game."  Even though that would actually be the right course of action when serving the disadvantaged, the Academy of today would go full-on bleeding heart, necessitating intervention from the heart surgeons of the med school.  
  5. Hofstadter had no patience for hypotheses of America's authentic past being rooted in the now-closed frontier (e.g. Turner).  To Hofstadter, the true present, future, and character of America was in the diverse cities of the east coast.  Being a descendant of people who came here to farm (in some branches of my family) and also people who came here to work in cities (other branches) I don't see it as an either/or.  I think it's a mistake to dismiss the impact of a few centuries of expansion on the national character; we need a historical narrative that balances the many different reasons that people came here.  OTOH, I fully endorse the idea of America as a melting pot, and I reject the notion that small towns are the "Real America."
All in all, I found reading about my idol to be a bit less inspirational than I thought it would be.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Bala, chapter 13

I was not aware that the Jesuits were operating schools in China and moving in Chinese astronomical circles in the 16th century. Good job, Fathers.

Bala, chapter 11

Two quick thoughts on chapter 11: Bala finally lists an impressive roster of Chinese technologies that reached Europe in the late Middle Ages.  Second, apparently the Chinese and Arabs understood blood circulation well before the Europeans did.  And while he does not present firm evidence of Chinese medical texts reaching Europe, he notes that there had been extensive direct interaction between Europe and China before Europeans figured out the circulatory system, so it is quite plausible that Europeans were influenced by the Chinese in this area.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Bala chapter 9

This chapter is about atomism.  Apparently atomic ideas held a place of prominence in Islamic science, for theological reasons, but were marginal in Greek science because Aristotle rejected them.  It is thus hard to argue that atomism in modern science is a Greek legacy.  More interestingly, the Arab philosopher Averroes argued in favor of Aristotle and in the process offered an argument in favor of science and against clerical philosophy, one taken up by European scholars to the alarm of the Church. Ironically, his defense of incorrect science was used to carve out a space in which science could eventually thrive.

However, given the paucity of evidence for atoms during the time in question (my recollection is that evidence for them didn't really come into play until the 18th century) it is hard for me to treat older ideas for or against atoms as no more than wildass speculation. Like string theory.