Is the NSF on board with “other ways of knowing”?

August 7, 2020 • 10:30 am

If you read this announcement that many scientists got from the National Science Foundation, and didn’t read the linked paper, you might get really queasy thinking that the NSF is touting “other ways of knowing.” Have a gander:

The part that got my hackles up was this:

The specific innovation we are advancing is that future STEM programs must dissolve the traditional silos between scientific knowledge, essential skills, and human values, nurturing what we are calling “humanistic knowledge” and “meta knowledge” alongside traditional “foundational knowledge”. More about this framework can be found here.

(What is it with “silos”? Is this some new postmodern term?)

But if you click on the link and go to the short paper, you do indeed find different kinds of “knowledge” conflated, and mixed up with subjective things like systems of ethics. Fortunately, the statement apparently isn’t saying that intuition or revelation are alternative ways of achieving “knowledge.” Rather, if you read the paper you’ll find a mishmosh of different techniques and strategies for applying the true empirical knowledge gained by science, with some of these strategies not knowledge based at all. Here’s a graph from that paper; note that all three categories are labeled “knowledge”:

Now the kind of knowledge to which I refer often is in the top circle: “Foundational Knowledge.” That means facts about the universe that must be derived empirically, and it is in that sense that I’ve maintained that science (or science “construed broadly”, derived from the empirical method) is the only “way of knowing.” This is also known as “declarative knowledge” (“knowing that . . “).

“Subjective” knowledge, like “knowing” how to ride a bike, or “knowing” that you’re hungry, is called “procedural knowledge” by philosophers (i.e., “knowing how. .  “, like knowing how to ride a bike). There is some overlap between these—science can probably determine if you’re hungry by checking your physiology or brain state), but the “ways of knowing” controversy is, by and large, about declarative knowledge.

But the (apparent) purpose of the paper—though I don’t know about the upcoming seminar—is not just to get students to acquire declarative knowledge, but to figure out how to use it: to have tactical and achievable goals (like ending global warming), and to develop a morality that involves good, humanistic goals (ending global warming is the right thing to do). The former is to some extent based on declarative knowledge. For example, if you do tests to figure out which tactics are the best for realizing a goal then that becomes declarative knowledge. But application also involves procedural knowledge honed from experience that can’t be cleared conveyed as a way of knowing that. 

The paper also promotes emotional and ethical awareness, which has nothing to do with knowledge but has to do with values. As the paper says (my emphasis):

Humanistic Knowledge (to value). Humanistic knowledge include attributes that provide a learner with a vision and narrative of the self within social contexts, scaling from local to global. It includes life and job skills, cultural competence in a global context, as well as awareness of how the actions of the individual affects others and the ability to assess those actions against a set of broader humanistic standards.

Well, yes, you need to have a value system to use science in society, but this is basically asking the reader to develop a value system that comports with “humanistic standards”, and that has nothing to do with knowledge of any sort, though it can be informed by declarative knowledge.

And there’s this:

Ethical & emotional awareness. Ethical awareness included the knowledge and skills necessary for success in a culturally diverse society, such as the ability to imagine oneself in someone else’s position and feel with that individual as well as the ability to engage in ethical decision making. It also includes the ability to intuit the feelings of others, as well as a deep understanding of human emotions and successful human interactions.

Although this is considered part of “humanistic knowledge”, it isn’t itself “knowledge.” Yet the NSF funded this, and the authors underscore it again (my emphasis):

Similarly, Humanistic Knowledge rises to the forefront as technology provides individuals with more power to effect change, thus placing a greater burden on individuals to act ethically and with an awareness of the complex ways in which technologies can both positively and negatively impact broader society.

The balance among these categories must evolve in response to economic, environmental, and societal disruptions that accompany the advance of global civilization and technology. This implies a need not merely for innovation across the substance of STEM education, but for a kind of principled innovation that seeks to account not only for what ought to be known, but also for the unique contexts, cultures, and challenges that would-be innovators need to include in their approach to improving the world. Whether we consider issues of privacy and intellectual property or bio- technology and stem-cell research, individuals today (and in the future) have to develop fine- tuned ethical and moral modes of thought and action. In contexts like these, developing a value system that respects differences and yet maintains a core of empathy and understanding becomes critically important.

Here we see a gemisch of declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, and morality and ethics. The last of these is not “knowledge” because there is no objective morality.

In the end, though the NSF hasn’t fallen prey to theological or postmodern claims about “different ways of knowing”, they still have muddied the waters about what knowledge consists of. Worse, they’ve taken something very obvious—if you want to apply the knowledge of science to society, you have to know how how to approach and convince people and also have some foundational system of ethics—and made it into a very complicated and confusing schema.

There go your taxpayer dollars at work (if you’re an American and not a corporation)!

h/t: Bill, Matthew Cobb, Maarten Boudry

41 thoughts on “Is the NSF on board with “other ways of knowing”?

    1. “And I really can’t expect God to jump in supernaturally and prevent that. That’s just the nature of things.”

      Combine that with 45’s coronavirus deaths comment “It is what it is” ‘ and Biden “trying to hurt God” makes me think god is in desperate need of a better PR firm.

  1. Got a little carried away here – but here’s my comment:

    • I assume the four word sequence “other ways of knowing” does not appear.

    • if ^^ so, it is no mistake – the language goes out of its way (“framework”) to avoid using “other ways of knowing”. I note their slogan touts doing things “differently”. Inspiration from a Steve Jobs ad campaign, perhaps.

    • do grown ups really need the acronym “STEM” anymore, and is the A for art deliberately omitted?

    • one of the organizers is from the company Amazon?

  2. I agree. They seem to have stretched the meaning of “knowledge” to the point of absurdity. There are metaphorical uses of the term, and they are liberally throwing it around as if to intentionally confuse.

  3. “If you want to apply the knowledge of science to society, you have to know how to approach and convince people. . . .”

    There’s a word for knowing how to approach and convince people; it’s called “rhetoric,” and one could make the case that rhetoric has no place in the scientist’s arsenal.

    The founders of science were explicit about this. Francis Bacon wrote, “And for all that concerns ornaments of speech, similitudes, treasury of eloquence, and such like emptinesses, let it be utterly dismissed.” Bacon considered rhetoric a stumbling block in any attempt to collect the unadulterated facts of the physical world and from them to derive axioms and laws. In place of “the Artifice of words,” the New Philosophy would substitute “a bare knowledge of things,” an attitude reflected in the Royal Society’s motto: “Nullius in verba” (roughly, “Don’t take anybody’s word for anything”).

    In short, if something can be demonstrated empirically, which applies to all true scientific knowledge, then there should be no place or need for knowing “how to approach and convince people.”

    1. A BBC Radio 4 series that finished today (How They Made Us Doubt Everything had an interesting discussion about this. In Climate Change debates on TV, scientists were often faced with deniers who had no scientific background but often seemed to come out on top through their willingness to cherry pick arguments and to use rhetoric effectively. And the scientists used words such as “positive” and “uncertainty” in ways that lie outside of the common usage (e.g. a “positive correlation” isn’t necessarily a good thing, and admitting to “uncertainty” based on a range of probabilities doesn’t mean you don’t know something). I never know how BBC Sounds works outside the UK, but you may be able to listen to the series here:

          1. Thanks for the link, jezgrove. A perpetual pitfall for “concerned scientists” convinced of their position and of a real threat to society (as in smoking or climate change per the BBC piece) is to lose confidence in the power of factual truth and resort instead to rhetoric. For example, experimental studies have found that when messages emphasize respect for God’s creation, conservatives are more likely to accept climate science and say they’re likely to take environmental action. So here’s an incentive even for scientists who are confirmed atheists to resort to the rhetoric of religion in order to further the ends of science. As with other forms of rhetoric, scientists would do best to resist this temptation.

    2. Steven Pinker has repeatedly claimed that climate deniers know about as much about climate change as people who accept it (not much at all). So it comes down to climatologists having a high social status and effective outreach 😐

      I like to believe that being patient and understanding might help to change minds, but every gain made by this method is probably offset manyfold by charismatic individuals with poor insights but better salesmanship.

      1. Have you perhaps completely misunderstood Pinker? Examples, several of them for the “repeatedly”, are surely appropriate here, in a non-blog emphasizing science.

        1. I think there have been polls which show that a large fraction of the public on both sides, believers and deniers, have little understanding of the science and are simply basing their opinion on whether their allegiance is to Trump or Clinton, GOP or DEM, red or blue. Not sure how this involves Pinker. Seems unlikely he would disagree with that assessment.

          1. Actually I may have been thinking that the “people who accept it” as scientists, even in that field, or at least the science-literate. So maybe should have said that—which makes it even more interesting to see specific statements from Pinker to see what he might be saying here.

            I think people who are strongly in favour of action to reduce climate change are mostly capable of making general statements which are perhaps not super-precise, but easily acceptable as speaking the truth, as nearly as most of us can. As for the opposite bunch, much less so.

            Perhaps Pinker has reliable surveys on this which you know about? including the specific questions, the source and its reputation?

            To refer to a poll as an assessment is misleading, especially with respect to a question like this.

            1. I misspoke by calling it a “poll” which makes it sound like it merely tested people’s opinions. It was designed to test opinions but also their knowledge of the underlying science.

              As you say, those that believe man-made climate change is real are telling the truth more than those who deny it. However, both could still be equally ignorant of the science. If monkeys were given the choice, they would presumably make the right one about 50% of the time but none of them understand the science.

              It might have been this Pew report:

              1. Thanks for that very large PEW report, about 4 years old. My understanding is that PEW are reliable and objective. But we still have little support for, and no evidence about, Pinker supposedly claiming that accurate knowledge about climate science is no different when comparing supporters to opponents of climate change action. Mostly that report does confirm however the wide dependence on political identification as far as I can see, reading much of it.

                Very recently with corona virus, the differences relative to political leanings in concern for humanity’s welfare has certainly been laid bare with a vengeance.

                A separate point near the report’s end on the brief topic of the relative general science knowledge of whites, blacks, and latinos is actually a bit shocking in laying bare the grave differences in educational opportunities.

                And support for more nuclear plants being clearly in with coal fired CO2 spewers, rather than with solar and wind, is non-surprising and depressing in its ignorant opposition to what is our only feasible hope for really effective action to improve the prospects for our descendants 2 or more generations from now. That’s true of Germany too, despite the differences with US in general. That irrational opposition to nuclear seems likely to lead to several magnitudes more loss of years of human life in the end than, say, the election of Hitler did. That’s what many of us outside US also realize about the election of Mass Murderer donald re climate change.

              2. Right. As I said a few comments back, I don’t know of Pinker’s connection to this work though it wouldn’t be out of character for him to mention it. I certainly don’t find it surprising that most people’s opinion on climate change is based on tribal loyalty more than science. While I certainly favor people having more science knowledge, at the same time we should be ok with people deferring to experts. The biggest problem right now is that the leaders of one tribe have based their policy on lies and political position rather than science.

    1. I think you mean Silos ‘as’ a business term. The silos I know of store grain: grain in, grain out.

      1. At the risk of being pedantic, I wouldn’t call silo a business term as it’s used in all kinds of contexts. It’s just a simple analogy with grain silos.

  4. Silo is a term I’ve often heard these days. By itself, it is a perfectly fine term meaning that something (people, knowledge, etc.) is stored separately (as in a grain silo) and doesn’t mingle with other silos or with stuff outside the solo. Of course, uses of the term may still be unreasonable.

    My take on this is that the NSF were doing their utmost to keep the Woke wolves at bay by issuing a bland statement that allows all stakeholders to read into it whatever makes them happy.

  5. The word “silo” is used in the sense of “isolated grouping, department, etc., that functions apart from others especially in a way seen as hindering communication and cooperation” (Merriam-Webster).

    By the way, strictly speaking, there aren’t different ways of knowing (that p), but only different ways of *coming to know* (that p), i.e. ways of acquiring (propositional/factual) knowledge.
    In this respect knowing is unlike believing, thinking, and speaking. For example, you can believe strongly or weakly, think coherently or incoherently, and speak loudly or quietly; but you cannot know (that p) x-ly or non-x-ly.
    (Compare: Two people can die in different ways, but they cannot be dead in different ways.)

    1. We can call e.g. seeing (that p) and hearing (that p) different *means* of knowing (that p); but what is known on the basis of different means of knowing isn’t known in different ways. From the superficial grammatical point of view, there are adverbial qualifications in “knowing visually/auditorily”; but, from the ontological point of view, the adverbs don’t really represent properties of the knowing, because the state of knowledge resulting from vision or audition doesn’t itself have any visual or auditory qualities. So what is really meant is knowing *through seeing/hearing*, with seeing/hearing being different means of knowing (or coming to know).

  6. People are always trying to reinvent education, which is fine, but a lot of new methods proposed over the decades is fraught with subjective prejudices.

    And that’s what concerns me with these approaches. They tend to stray uncomfortably close to teaching how to think and even what to think rather than just providing knowledge and letting the students draw their own conclusions.

  7. This appears to be written in academese, an ugly language designed to make small and pedestrian points appear original and profound, basically by making them incomprehensible. Who knows where the NSF stands?

    1. Yep. Looks like a school of education production…places that often are populated with former teachers and education majors rather than research scientists. it is nice that they have disaggregated some day to day activities that research scientists (and engineers) generally engage in without really thinking about it. And maybe it is good to teach future (pre-service) and current (in-service) k12 science teachers this explicit material. Unfortunately many though certainly not all, but many of the science ed teachers really have not done science research, do not know that engineering is different from career and technical education, and are not aware of the massive level in which traditional science core disciplines currently are multidisciplinary. I am happy to see that these folks have thought about this area and disaggregated the components, but this material should never substitute for core (or cross) disciplinary knowledge.

  8. I don’t mind if they’re trying to create new curricula that combine these three things. A couple of thoughts:

    1. I do wonder how much of it is just bandwagoning & fitting traditional learning into new catchphrases. You learn science theory in class, you study how to do experiments in a lab, and you learn the ethics around using subjects in your experiments, that would fulfill their ‘to know/to value/to act’ concept but not be anything too unusual.

    2. We should treat these new curricula are the equivalent of hypotheses. I.e. things to be tested and discarded or modified if they don’t work. Personally, I’m skeptical any sort of great departure from tradition will be more effective than the traditional approach, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise…with empirical data.

  9. Where this rubber seems likely to meet the road is in NSF grant proposals, where the “Broader Impacts” of the proposed work on society often emphasize values and efforts to change the world (rather than just understand how the world works). I guess that could be the back door through which other ways of knowing might enter.

  10. I am more exorcised about this than is Professor Ceiling Cat. This is likely due to my familiarity with NSF’s STEM education directorate. I have competed successfully and unsuccessfully for NSF STEM education research funds. My fear is that the sentiments expressed in the workshop and supporting paper likely will become institutionalized and used as de facto criteria for the evaluation of research proposals. The directorate as a whole is drifting away from scientific evaluation of education hypotheses and strategies and is instead increasingly embracing the woo. The directorate needs to get back to its roots. It is, after all, a component of the National Science Foundation.

    1. Many years ago i served on a couple of committees of visitors to peer review the programs of one of the engineering divisions. It seems like at that time the education research wasin a directorate with human resources and was totally separate from the science and engineering research directorates. Its a shame in one sense that research scientists do not easily inform science ed activities, but in another sense, i was always glad that fundamental science could be supported on its own merits…with a nod to broader and societal impacts.

  11. It almost seems like they are mixing up those tests you take to see what your top preferences are and they are emphasizing “values” as some people are more interested with how things work and others are more interested in that the right things happen (to oversimplify). It seems weird anyway and not that well thought out.

  12. I think that empathy, to the degree that it is accurate, could be considered a form of knowledge. It is information gained from a simulation, in the same way that people with good visuospatial skills are able to simulate objects moving around and come to conclusions without ever personally witnessing the movement of said objects. The accuracy of empathy is harder, but not impossible, to measure, I think.

    I actually think you could make a case that there is a natural progression of ethics that follows from empathy, although this is: a) Just my speculation and b) Even if true, would simply mean that this ethics is what us humans are generally wired for, and in increasing degrees as we hone our empathy – it would still not say anything about whether or not this style of ethics is objectively preferable (For example, human ethics, if it is largely empathy based, favors other humans enormously, and so even at our most eco friendly, we still have a huge preference for destroying nature to do things like grow food for humans; or harm other species to do things like create housing for other humans. For awhile now I have wanted to add a patio to my house but was seriously freaked out when I realized this would probably involve burying at least some number of animals and insects alive, if they happened to be in the soil under the foundation. It then occurred to me that this likely happens whenever a house is built, yet we would never preference letting a family be homeless over saving a handful of turtles and chipmunks and a multitude of bugs.)

  13. Arthur Koestler resolved this problem for all time in an essay from the 1950s — he said instead of talking about “other ways of knowing” we should refer to “other ways of experiencing”.

    End of.

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