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.

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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.