RE: virus: Building Faith in Science

carlw (
Fri, 12 Feb 1999 21:01:45 -0600

> -----Original Message-----
> From:
> []On Behalf
> Of Reed Konsler
> Sent: Friday, February 12, 1999 6:34 PM
> To:
> Subject: virus: Building Faith in Science
> >Date: Thu, 11 Feb 1999 10:47:06 -0600
> >From: "carlw" <>
> >Subject: RE: virus: Science and faith
> >
> >I was lucky. I was home taught by skeptics and raised on a mixture of
> >classics, history, literature, maths and physics.
> Interesting.
> >So far as I remember, I
> >was not asked to accept things "on authority" but was lead
> into questioning
> >most everything through a combination of historical
> backgrounding and an
> >interrogative teaching process.
> What is "historical backgrounding"? Could you describe the process?
The establishment of an understanding of the social and technological environment which creates a need which leads to the discovery or invention of a principle, system, technique or item. An investigation into other techniques which should have evolved from the discovery or invention, or which would have have solved the problem in another fashion. Maybe more elegantly. Often more elegantly. Then a process of trying to establish why we made one choice or discovery rather than another. Interesting stuff. H.G. Wells, Lancelot Hogben and Arnold Toynbee were masters of this technique. To my mind, understanding our history is a critical prerequisite to understanding not just our today, but our tomorrow as well.

> >The classical Alcohol/Water molar mass/volume experiments
> were enough to let
> >me figure out that there was something to molecular theory.
> Electrolysis was
> >I think, the other experimental platform that clinched it. The answer
> >(today) for that kid is to show them SEM images and computer
> models. So much
> >easier to grasp than intellectual models.
> Magritte once said "this is not a pipe".
> An SEM *image*? A computer *model*? Both are pictures on a
> TV screen. Have you seen any TV recently? Is that real, or fiction?
> An energetic skeptic wouldn't buy a TV image as the truth. You have
> faith in the apparatus and the principles on which it is
> designed. You
> believe it is an accurate representation of what you cannot see with
> your own eyes. When the 8 year old asks you "How do I know this
> isn't made up in Adobe Photoshop?" what are you going to say?
> How many years do you have...and how does the eight year old
> know the truth of your words from Greek Mythology?
Because if s/he had a grounding in how the models that we use today developed, and looks at the early SEM papers and images of the "crude" laboratory equipment that proved that it worked, s/he could see that there is no "magic" behind it. The principle is very clear and suprisingly easy to explain. Especially if you have done some preliminary work with electrostatics (comb and paper stuff) and feedback (model robot arms etc).
> Nevermind...if the picture is flashy enough, the kid will never even
> ask. You didn't. I didn't. We played at questioning, but
> in the process
> we absorbed more than anyone could have convinced us to accept
> on faith alone. As McLuhan said, "the medium is the message"...what
> neither of us questioned was everything implict in the questions we
> were encouraged to ask. We accepted a frame of reference, a
> scientific
> worldview, the moment we tried the first experiment.
Umm, I don't know about you. I was lucky. The adults around me kept encouraging me to say why. I know that I kept asking why and still haven't stopped :-) . I also know I am not unique. A long time ago, in a far away land, I was involved in a project designed to take "gifted" children (IQ from 132 to 156 as I recall) between the ages of 8 and 12 and exposed them, in very small groups, to university level philosophy, history, maths and sciences on Saturday afternoons. We frequently opened learning sessions by creating false theories and introduced them to experiments which would allow them to disprove the hypotheses - if they kept their eyes open and asked questions about discrepencies. All of them learnt to say "why" very quickly. All of them thrived on it. Later we left it to them to design the experiments. All of them did much better after one year (in formal tests, but administered orally) than a control group of similarly gifted students without the exposure and a selected group of 1st year students who had previously tested to about the same IQ levels at the same ages, but had the misfortune of having been through the school system. A few of the kids were "geniuses" at "opening" new lines of thinking when exposed to anomolies. (University of Stellenbosch, Stimulus Program, 1980 to 1984).

> Showing young children pretty pictures and colorful models doesn't
> bring them closer to reality, it just puts a more
> sopisticated layer of
> media between them and the substance of the issue. When one points
> to the moon, only a fool focuses on the finger.
I guess it depends on the children. And even more, on the teachers.

> The experiements which any single person can do (like electrolysis
> and mixing alcohol and water) in a lifetime are the thinnest slice
> of all that would be required to prove exaustively even the existence
> of something simple like atoms. If your experiments were like mine,
> they began with an explanation and what the
> experiment was going to show (or what questions you were supposed
> to ask) then told you how to do it. Finally, there would be a
> discussion section where the explaination was given and sources of
> error contemplated. You were given the "frame of reference" to
> begin you made the inevitable conclusions...all according
> to that "Good Book".
Ummm, any experiment that doesn't have a theory to attempt to disprove (<--- That was the key to my education and the stimulus program) before performing it, is not an experiment, it is simply mucking about in the lab or the mind. Disproving things is so much more fun anyway.
> Having practiced as a scientist and engineer, you know the difference
> between that illusion-experience and a legitimate experimental
> foray into the unknown.
Thanks. I like to think so :-)

> I'm speaking of the unknown which noone
> knows, and for which there is no "frame of reference". It is a
> different kind of thing entirely to design and build novel insturments
> from scratch to do formerly impossible things...when there is
> no authority figure (be it a person or a book) to guide you.
True. Not wanting to toot my horn, I'll skip a detailed reply to this one. But it is fun.
> If you had really learned everything empirically then I would expect
> you to have a much different language to describe the phenomena
> you encountered. Even translating observational results from one
> language to another requires creativity and finesse...not to speak
> of the conclusions. But you are very articulate. You sound like
> a scientist, like an engineer, like a philosopher.
Nothing like a classical grounding to give you the words - and if you are smart, lessons in realizing that having worked from 'a -> b' that there is probably a 'c' floating around and waiting to be discovered too.
> Sure sign of indocrination. What is the chance that you would
> randomly arrive at all the some words and concepts which have
> traced such a tortured path through history? Home schooled or
> not, your use of language leads me to deduce that you've bought
> much more than you've questioned.
Well, I am not sure I was indoctrinated as a kid. Innoculated perhaps. My Alma Mater tried very hard, with very limited success; and I have had a long time since then to "unlearn" things - at which I have succeeded fairly well I think.
> The medium is the message. You use the medium, ergo, you've
> been infected by our message. I'm floored that you think you
> made all this up yourself.
To communicate effectivly, you need to know not only the words used by that discipline, you need to understand how to play with them in context. As an example: May I suggest, without being rude, that "The medium is the message" while an effective soundbite, is both a "compositional error" and an "untestable fallacy". Maybe even an example of "style over substance". While "You use the medium, ergo, you've been infected by our message." is a "false conclusion". I have a message. My (<- my emphasis) message. I use the expected medium to convey my message effectively. You now introduce "our" as a modifier to "message". Where did the "our" arise. What were you attempting to imply? And "I'm floored that you think you made all this up yourself." is a classic example of a strawman with feet of clay :-). Where did I ever assert that I was arguing ex nihil. I specifically quoted "we stand on the shoulders of giants". I no less than any other man.

> [grand gesture indicating the meta-culture]
> Reed

TheHermit bows gracefully :-)
> ---------------------------------------------------------------------
> Reed Konsler
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