I commend three items to your attention for weekend reading, assuming that you’re not gallivanting about this Labor Day weekend, mingling with crowds and spreading viruses. You can access each article by clicking on the screenshot of its title.
First up we have an attack on science, seen as “scientism”, from Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, who works at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. I’ve written a few times about Feser, most famously about his theological analysis of why animals can’t go to Heaven. (Yes, someone gets paid to think about that kind of stuff!) Feser was furious at my critique and issued a bunch of ad hominems, including the usual claim that I’m theologically unsophisticated and need to read more Feser—the usual riposte to an attack on Sophisticated Theology®. (Feser is a nasty piece of work, and lets no attack go unrebutted, usually with lots of nasty counterattacks that tout his own superior wisdom.)
That aside, he’s now written an attack on scientism in The American Mind, the organ of The Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank. From reading it, you’d gather (well, I gathered) that Feser really knows very little about how science is actually done, adopting most of his criticisms from the rather erratic Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science.
Here’s one sign that Feser is scientifically unsophisticated (my way of a tu quoque response):
There is nevertheless a methodological tendency that scientists do have in common, which brings us to Feyerabend’s third point about method. In his view, scientists have a predilection for replacing the richness and complexity of actual, concrete empirical reality with abstract mathematical models. When some aspects of the world of ordinary experience prove difficult to fit into the models, they are tempted to deny the reality of these aspects rather than to acknowledge that the models are merely abstractions, and as such cannot capture all of reality in the first place. That a mathematical abstraction is technologically useful and captures part of physical reality does not entail that it captures the whole of it.
Never in my life did I make a mathematical model, though many scientists do. Darwin didn’t make a mathematical model, either about natural or sexual selection, and many scientists either make verbal models or simply describe phenomena and hypothesize about them or simply let them become part of our knowledge about nature. People like Feser don’t seem to realize that an important part of science is simply describing stuff. Mathematics, while immensely useful in science, isn’t always necessary if you don’t need a mathematical model, though statistics is essential for reaching sound conclusions about quantitative data.
But you can read the piece for yourself; after all, that’s the point of this post. When I read it last week, I found myself saying over and over again, “Wait! That’s not a good description of science.” And if you don’t understand enough about science to describe it properly, and especially if you rely on Paul Feyerabend as your go-to expert, you’re going to produce an attack that will be embraced only by those who already despise science—like Feser. (Feser also seems to think that the pandemic is overblown.) It’s ironic that Feser, a Catholic, disparages science by saying it’s our “state religion.” “See! You’re as bad as we are!”
Here’s Graeme Wood in The Atlantic going after Vicky Osterweil’s new book meant to justify looting as a positive social force. It’s a humorous and well written piece, and it’s clear Wood doesn’t much like the book:
My view wasn’t that Osterweil’s interview with NPR shouldn’t have been published, but that the interviewer didn’t ask her any hard questions about her ridiculous thesis. NPR finally agreed, and walked the article back a bit. Wood argues—and I agree—that we need to hear the best case possible for excusing looting, but also that NPR wasn’t critical enough. An excerpt:
Instead of writing off NPR or Code Switch, I prefer to think of them as coming very close to doing excellent journalism—and indeed I am jealous that I did not think of conducting this interview first. Since looting became widely reported in this season of protest over police violence, the reaction has split among those who do not support the protests or the looting, those who support the protests but denounce the looting, and those who support the protests and consider the looting a condign response to systemic injustice. Osterweil is enthusiastically in the last category and has given voice to a view that has heretofore been only gestured at. Good journalists find such voices and interrogate them roughly and fairly. The roughly part could, in the case of the NPR interview, have used a little work.
In a funny reversal of the normal polarities of “cancel culture,” conservatives might object to NPR’s decision to give Osterweil a platform at all, given that her defense of looting is a call to criminal behavior likely, even if not intended, to cause death and impoverishment. Should NPR also interview Nazis? Yes, actually—if the year is 1933, and most Americans don’t know what Nazis believe. Osterweil is not a Nazi (I have even sweeter compliments for her where that came from), but she has taken up a position that others espouse implicitly. A full exploration of that position is exactly what we need, and Code Switch found its best defender. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch.
Finally, we have this provocatively titled article from Inside Higher Ed, and the answer to the title question is “yes.” Well, it’s a bit misleading—the title is apparently chosen to make the article look more au courant in the George Floyd era. Lecturing isn’t exactly racist, but it does, say the authors, discriminate against minorities, who learn better using other methods.
Before you dismiss the piece entirely, read it (it’s short). There are apparently data showing that some minorities don’t learn as well in lectures as they do under a method called “active learning”. I haven’t looked that method up, but, if the purpose of lectures is to help students learn, and if the authors’ studies really show that active learning is better for everyone than are lectures, then we need to rethink how we teach. Of course there’s considerable inertia here, as that’s the way we’ve always done stuff, and there’s a pleasurable frisson of showmanship involved in lecturing. Remember, though that the evidence seems to come largely from the authors’ own research:
Chemistry classes at the university we studied, like most chemistry and indeed STEM courses in North America, are dominated by lectures. But in a study published just this March, we showed that on average and across many STEM courses and institutions, achievement gaps for URM and low-income students shrink dramatically when lectures are replaced by the innovative approaches to teaching collectively known as active learning.
Earlier work from our group shows that all students do better with active learning. The news in the new data was that underrepresented groups get an extra bump — a disproportionate benefit. Changes in difficulty don’t explain these patterns, either. The active-learning courses in our studies were just as rigorous as lectures; we only looked at comparisons where students were taking identical or equivalent exams in the lecture and active learning versions of the same course.
Using evidence-based approaches to shrink achievement gaps could have profound consequences for representation in STEM degrees, which are associated with many or most of the highest-paying careers in our economy. For example, one of the analyses in our chemistry study showed that if students from underrepresented groups got a C or below, they dropped out of the STEM track at much higher rates than their overrepresented peers with the same grade. But if women, URM or low-income students got a C-plus or better, they persisted at much higher rates. They hyperpersisted, even if their grades were only at the class median.
Closing achievement gaps with active learning, then, means that more underrepresented students pass critically important introductory courses, which means that more move into the hyperpersistent zone and stay in STEM majors, which means that more become doctors, dentists, technicians, computer scientists, engineers, research scientists, entrepreneurs and problem solvers.
But for a one-off, like a visiting talk or a short series of talks on board a ship, I still think lectures are the way to go.
Have a good weekend!