Weekend reading: three easy pieces

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:

An excerpt:

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!



  1. GBJames
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:06 pm | Permalink


  2. ronsch99
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Regarding Lecturing: I went all the way to my Ph.D. paying very little attention to lectures, nor did I ever take notes. I usually spent that time doing homework or working on math problems. I received very good grades because I studied the material, the required books and articles. I paid attention in graduate seminars because there was back and forth discussion that I enjoyed.

    In the same way (as I’ve stated here before) I really don’t like podcasts. I read a lot faster than I listen and I’m impatient.

    I believe my experience is support for the claim that lectures are unnecessary. Just learn to study the material.

    I do like the idea of active learning. My graduate seminar experience supports that.

    • jezgrove
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I believe that on some devices you can set the audio speed a little faster to overcome the problem that you mention.

      • Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I discovered this recently. Helps a lot with some slow speakers.

        I still agree with ronsch99 in preferring a well-written paper or even the transcript of a lecture or podcast. On the other hand, a very few lectures are excellent and mind-blowing.

        • ronsch99
          Posted September 5, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

          That’s a good point. You are reminding me that there were some excellent lectures that got my attention. Also, later on when I was a professor and was lecturing, I worked hard to make them entertaining, and I believe I mostly succeeded.

  3. Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    On active learning, I find it completely unsurprising that some minorities learn better with active learning, because basically all students do. Furthermore, if we assume that some groups of students received sub-par education at earlier levels, and that active learning structured classes are significantly more effective than “regular” classes, then of course previously disadvantaged groups will be likely to catch partway up. The fraction of total learning acquired during college will be larger, if students suddenly encounter a better teaching approach.

    Steve Yalisove is a University of Michigan engineering prof who uses and teaches active learning methods. (I couldn’t find, with a quick Google, the outcome studies I read about many years ago, but I vaguely remember them being very impressive.) I haven’t taken classes from him, sadly, but I worked in his LIBS lab.

  4. bjornove
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    “I went all the way to my Ph.D. paying very little attention to lectures, nor did I ever take notes”

    So did I, from I started study at the university, until I graduated as Master of science in Molecular Biology.

    No I work as a teacher in high school and I tell my student: “I love beeing your teacher and give lectures. I hope you find it interesting and motivating. But to be honest, you don’t need me or any other teacher to learn stuff. Read, watch educational videos, do exercises, think, engage, be critical and active………….and you will learn the stuff all by yourself.

  5. jezgrove
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    “[…] most famously about his theological analysis of why animals can’t go to Heaven” – what happened to all the Biblical stuff (note my polite choice of vocabulary) about lions lying down with lambs etc.?

    • jezgrove
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Apparently, I fell for a common misquotation. The real (?) version is “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them”. (Isaiah 11:6) The Biblical um, “stuff”, goes on to say “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent’s meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the Lord”. (Isaiah 65:25) Presumably Feser has no problems with that unlikely science?

      • Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

        What happens in the manger, stays in the manger?

        • Mike
          Posted September 5, 2020 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          Las Manger

      • Hunt
        Posted September 6, 2020 at 2:08 am | Permalink

        Oh, the Lord was just being metaphorical.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Looking at the last selection on teaching by lecture or active learning is dependent on the subject being taught. Teaching is not my field but being a student at various times in life gives one the experience to know a bit about it. Going through the complete experience of becoming a medical doctor requires both kinds with more lecture at first and more active learning later. A lawyer probably gets a lot more lecture than active learning.

    Something like pilot training requires both but eventually active training is most important. Even continuous training required of professional pilots is mostly active via check rides or time in a trainer. Management is a little trickier and some people think management cannot really be taught. You are either born with it or you are not. That may be true up to a point but who knows for sure.

    The military tends to mix lecture and active learning depending on the subject or career. I went through a tech school to learn aircraft maintenance and a lot of it was classroom learning but also included going out and working on various airplanes they had in the school. Active learning in the military is called OJT or on the job training. Once you finish the classroom work it all becomes OJT in aircraft maintenance.

    • chascpeterson
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      I used to teach Physiology and it always seemed to me that lecturing was the only way I could impart the necessary intrinsic detail of the material. Of course we did lab exercises (which of course I called ‘active learning’ in my promotion dossiers), but I found lecture–with liberal use of highly curated visual aids–the only practical method of (frankly) cramming it all in.

  7. Posted September 5, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Teaching by active learning is very different from traditional lectures. I do as much of it as I know how to (having students do ‘think-pair-share’ activities, and they use remote control devices called iClickers). But it is hard for me to ‘let go’ of traditional lectures so I do that too. And the students enjoy active learning more.

    I have a pair of colleagues here I work and they are very big on encouraging us to do more active learning in our department. They too did research on the effects of these methods and found as well that at-risk minorities do better when these methods are applied.

  8. jezgrove
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    I presume that when it comes to traditional lecture versus active learning, some students will benefit more from the first approach while others will learn more from the second. In which case, the solution isn’t an either/or but a varied curriculum containing both; perhaps teachers/academics might enjoy the variety, too?

  9. Posted September 5, 2020 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    And Feser is a bit insulting when describing how scientists think. I know plenty scientists who model complex systems with math. None of them would ever deny that “the models are merely abstractions”. They know it. They admit it literally all the time. You see, scientists are smart and well educated. They admit their ignorance while Fester will not.

    • jezgrove
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely. I regularly proofread papers about mathematical/statistical modelling and they always acknowledge, front and centre, that models are mere approximations of the real world and so inevitably dependent on imperfect assumptions and simplifications.

      • Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        That’s true, but which approximations and simplifications are reasonable, and which aren’t, is often a source of disagreement.

        • jezgrove
          Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, but they are acknowledged and discussed in the papers, which aim at incrementally improving the models and/or their interpretation/application.

    • Posted September 5, 2020 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Getting wrapped up into thinking that the model is reality is a well-known pitfall that scientists can fall into. Though, when it happens, other scientists will be only too happy to point out their mistake.

      • Posted September 5, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

        I have thought that one area where they come close to forgetting reality is in string theory. I am sure the model itself becomes very immersive though.

        • Posted September 5, 2020 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

          I think fundamental physics, of which string theory is but one theory, is one of those areas where progress has been difficult for such a long time that people get frustrated and start to come up with all kinds of extravagant theories. Consciousness, and brain function in general, is another. Eventually we’ll know that most of the theories are bunkum but we don’t yet know which ones.

  10. bugfolder
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    The irony of Feser’s ignorance of how science is actually done is that since he is at Pasadena City College, he could literally walk across the street to Caltech, where any number of working scientists would be most willing to show him how real science is carried out and how we use mathematical models.

  11. Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Lecture time is very scarce and must maximize the value of the lecturer to the student class. Using it for discussion groups while the professor walks around listening in only works with smaller classes, and is rarely a good use of lecturer face time. Clickers are an adjunct to lectures, a vain hope to keep the students’ attention. (Good luck) And what good lecturer does not already assign readings in advance of class and class discussion questions? The authors are simply describing good lecturing skills.

    I find it objectionable to suggest that lectures are “racist” or that minority students are not able to learn the way white students do. I lectured for forty years to diverse classes of students and never found student ethnicity an issue in outcomes. Some students of any background may need more help than others. That is what office hours and remedial work are for.

    • Jim Danielson
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      “Clickers are an adjunct to lectures, a vain hope to keep the students’ attention. (Good luck)”

      Perhaps if students were given an M&M for each click their attention would be more focused. It works for my dog (with dried liver bits). I suppose lecturers could try bits of dried liver too.

    • Posted September 5, 2020 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      I’m probably a pretty good lecturer, having won some awards and stuff. But iClickers are really enlivening. It is best to use high Blooms’ level questions, and the really fun ones are sort of out from left field. They start debating, and engaging with each other– persons who they might have been sitting next to but never talked to before. I often have to ‘sush’ them so they can hear the answer. And then the uproar of surprise or delight…laughter. They never forget those questions!

    • Mike
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think the argument is that some racial groups learn differently from others. The argument is that active learning is better for pretty much all students, but in these college classes some racial groups are farther behind others and so they realize even more benefit from active learning.

  12. W.Benson
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    The term “scientism”, if I’m not mistaken, was a neologism that was used by Catholic periodicals beginning in the 1870s or slightly before as a synonym for “Darwinian evolution”.

  13. C.
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    So, have I just had different STEM courses than everyone else? My history courses that made up the bulk of my courses as that was my major, were almost all lecture-only, but my science classes, Biology and chemistry, were all lecture AND lab. In fact, the biggest issue with online Covid-classes is the inability to do LABS, for EVERYONE, not just minority students. Lectures should be the front loading, the preparation that will fortune will favor in lab and field, to reverse the quote. Or to misuse another quote, we need labs, yes, but lectures too! Now I see no problem with combining them into a single class, and if you wanna call that “active learning”, fine, but a rose by any other name still belongs to Rosaceae. And if you say well, instead of lectures students need to study the material more, asking for guidance when needed, yeah, I get that. But not everyone is an autodidact, nor will everyone put in the effort, which is probably where the real issue lays. Too many want the grade, not the knowledge, and want cliff’s notes and short cuts rather than rolling up the sleeves and putting in the time and energy required. Killing lectures won’t help that.

    I would love to hear McWhorter’s response to this claim. I imagine it will be something along the lines of “why must we have lower expectations for minority students?” I make that assumption because a goodly portion of his book “Losing the Race” talked about very similar ideas.

    As always, I reserve the right to be wrong or to have missed the point completely.

    • Posted September 5, 2020 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Labs are part of active learning. But what is meant here for ‘active learning’ are periods where maybe the prof does some lecturing, to give background, and then puts up a paragraph question that is challenging. They divide into groups of 3 or 4, discuss the answer, and someone writes it out and hands it in with their names on it. This really happens. No one is napping. Most are talking to each other. Others are listening intently. After a few periods they really just dive into these sorts of things with enthusiasm. And they were probably raised on it since grade school so they know the deal.

      For example, I would teach them about the light reactions of photosynthesis. Embedded in that they hear that blue and red light is preferentially absorbed, yada yada yada, and a waste product made is oxygen gas, blah blah blah (there is lots of detail in addition. The pigments, the electron transport chain, the final electron acceptor, and so on).
      Then I put up a picture from a well known experiment where a strand of algae is held across a rainbow of light. In the water are aerobic bacteria (‘aerobic’ means they do that kind of respiration, and they learned of it a couple days ago). So: Why are the bacteria concentrated in certain areas around the algae? (They need to notice that they are concentrated in the blue and red light).

      • C.
        Posted September 5, 2020 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        Sounds like my experiences in elementary school science classes. Granted, the kids aren’t always talking about science in the class, or paying attention but that’s probably an issue with age and maturity. I do recall my biology 101 lecture, filled with a couple hundred pre-med students. Being 6’4” I tend to sit in the back of the class, so I got a good look at all the “notes” being taken on laptops…shopping on Amazon, Ebay, watching YouTube, and so on, so not much change in maturity level there. For everyone’s sake, let us hope these bums were weeded out before they got unleashed on unsuspecting hospital patients.

        • Filippo
          Posted September 5, 2020 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

          Re: your ‘ . . . I got a good look at all the “notes” being taken on laptops…shopping on Amazon, Ebay, watching YouTube, and so on, so not much change in maturity level there.’

          From the “Don’t Lecture Me” article http://www.nature.com/articles/d42473-019-00339-6):

          “Passively listening to lectures (maybe even while being distracted by your smartphone, chatting with colleagues, or the lecturer’s anecdotes) does not help the brain to exercise.”

          Why have the precious, sacred smartphone out to begin with? Does anyone believe they would never have them out during an active learning discussion period? (Regarding maturity level, must the lecturer, as if in middle/high school, go around monitoring student device use?) Why be chatting with colleagues during a lecture, or during an active learning discussion group when a group member is trying to state their views on the assigned problem?

          Why don’t the authors expressly criticize these activities?

          And why should a lecturer’s anecdotes distract a listener from the lecture? (Thus it is in the Land of the Short Attention-Spanned.) I offer Professor Hitchens as an example of a lecturer whose anecdotes surely many here always welcomed. Dawkins and several others too, of course.

          From the article:

          “ACTIVE LEARNING 101

          Advance reading

          Students are given some reading assignments ahead to ensure a basic understanding of the topic and terminology. Alternatively, a class may begin with a very short introduction.”

          A “very short introduction” is a satisfactory alternative to readings prior to class?

          Some students don’t want to read. For them the lecture is the path of lesser resistance. If no lecture but instead active learning group, what then, other than not meaningfully participating in the group?

          Re: C post 13 beginning with, ” . . . not everyone is an autodidact, nor will everyone put in the effort . . . .”

          Re: darwinwins Post 11: ” . . . what good lecturer does not already assign readings in advance of class and class discussion questions?”

          What if the lecture is offered as part of the preparatory readings? Is it still “racist” as the authors imply (if not aver) in their title?

  14. jezgrove
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Graeme Wood’s The Pinnacle of Looting Apologia review is devastating. Let’s hope Osterweil’s dangerous and inflammatory views, and Wood’s skewering of them, both get the reception they deserve!

    • Jimbo
      Posted September 5, 2020 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

      Agreed! Wood’s short piece was a devastating rebuttal to Osterweil’s tripe. I hope people at NPR read it and reflect. I used to listen to NPR but haven’t for years precisely because its interviews are so conciliatory and trigger-free that I just couldn’t take all the happy consensus. NPR is the wrong venue to grant air time to controversial speakers or subjects. Assuming the role of antagonist in a discussion appears to be taboo to NPR staff and deemed illiberal.

      • Posted September 6, 2020 at 12:34 am | Permalink

        I haven’t made a study of it but there’s always been something that bothered me about NPR. I think you’ve put your finger on it. They’re just too bland for my tastes.

  15. jezgrove
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    There’s an interview with Vicky Osterweil in The New Yorker from a few days before the NPR piece was published: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/vicky-osterweils-case-for-looting

  16. KD
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    If Feser’s remark is confined to physics, then I don’t see it being objectionable.

    Further, as a physics professor of mine once said: “Chemists are very good a measuring things that they don’t understand.”

    From the standpoint of many physicists, if you don’t have a mathematical model of something, you can’t actually understand it, and while chemists and biologists may technically be scientists, they are there as support staff, there to measure stuff and collect data until a real scientist comes along and creates a mathematical model with it.

    Feser’s comment is interesting because it touches on what might be called physics-envy in the other natural sciences. [I am not saying physicists are better or are the only real scientists, but many physicists think they are better because they have rigorous mathematical models for everything.]

    • Posted September 5, 2020 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      A mathematical model seems like a good step toward understanding something but it is not sufficient. In fundamental physics, scientists have several mathematical models that fit the data but disagree as to which is right or how they should be interpreted. Generally, understanding is a level beyond being able to match the data with a mathematical model. Given, say, three points in a plane, there are an infinity of mathematical models that contain them. Understanding requires a network of objects, forces, and causal properties and an agreement of most that they seem to explain observations. This is discussed in Sabine Hossenfelder’s book, “Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray”. As the title implies, she is not a fan of the search for beauty in fundamental physics. I haven’t read the book so I’m not sure what she thinks about mathematical models. It is interesting to me that deciding we understand something is so subjective.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted September 6, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      As a (very) ex-chemist, I resent that inaccurate, patronising and offensive comment! To adapt Dawkins’ T-shirt slogan about science: ‘Chemistry: it works!’ (I have omitted the last word of the original).

      Chemists are good at constructing hypotheses based on evidence that they can observe, measure and relate to reality. Some physicists, these days, are happy with mathematical abstractions for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

      • KD
        Posted September 6, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

        If you thought that was offensive, you should have heard him defending Shockley.

  17. Geoff Toscano
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Feser is a twit. I can’t think of a suitably long winded comment to add to this!

  18. James Walker
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Re scientism: I work in the humanities and social sciences and make use of mathematical models all the time, but they’re meant to provide evidence to answer questions, they’re not the answers themselves. Most of the opposition I get from colleagues in HSS about ‘scientism’ is from people who, apparently, just don’t like or can’t deal with numbers.

    Re lecturing: I agree that lecturing is one of the worst teaching methods. Apparently I’ve been using active learning all along, because I typically set problems, brainstorm or ask questions in my lectures (harder to do over Zoom). The problem with the active learning model is that it requires students to take some responsibility for their learning – the good ones will, but a lot of students are quite passive and don’t engage.

  19. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Chrissake, the best that can be said about reading Feser is that it’s like hitting oneself in the head with a skillet — it feels good when one stops.

  20. Mike
    Posted September 5, 2020 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand the criticism of models in science. In Jerry’s field of population genetics, the model is important: without the model a population genetics dataset is just a bunch of biochemistry. But by fitting the model parameter values to the data one can make some inferences about what happened in the past or predict what is likely to happen in the future (two different types of model). Why is this suspect or wrong? Of course it matters what the model captures and does not capture, but this is true of all models and all quantitative analysis.

  21. peepuk
    Posted September 6, 2020 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    Scientific abstractions refer to relevant and real aspects ignores the non important aspects.

    Paul Feyerabend’s claim is analogous to the claim that a map of Paris is not the same as the real Paris. Maps of Paris never do capture everything, but different maps can capture everything important about the real Paris.

    Maps do often contain non-real aspects, like the border of the city of Paris. Borders do not exist in reality. In science we can say the same thing about “the collapse of the wave function”, nothing collapses in reality (as far as we know), the wave function is just a mathematical object. What happens in reality we don’t know yet.

    Our brains have great difficulty to distinguish between real and non real things and to make it worse, human brains creates nonreal things on masse (f.i. God’s, morals, ideology, the American dream, money). This and that we happen to live in a complex world is what makes science so difficult.

    But still, empirical science is the only way we can make justified claims about the real world and it is the only way that we can be confident that it creates models that approximately describe objective reality.

  22. Posted September 6, 2020 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    I can’t find the sources right now, but have read that even in grade school, boys and girls are ready to learn at different ages. I also know by observation that grade school children have different requirements regarding structured vs. nonstructural classrooms. As children and adults, we have diverse sensory needs and preferred (or required) methods for learning. For example, in the classroom, I have to observe, listen, and take notes; all three senses engaged. I also do better in small classes than in large ones and prefer discussions with lectures as opposed to lectures only. In my years of schooling from grade school through college, I have had relatively few teachers that were excellent lecturers (or even excellent teachers using whatever teaching techniques). Many of them have a great interest in and have studied the material they teach, but have had little or no training in methods of teaching. As a lifelong reader, I’ve learned as much or more by reading and researching on my own and discussing with my peers. Unfortunately, I am not a talented student of hard sciences and maths, so can’t comment from personal experience. However, I’ve heard much from science and math students about the difficulties of learning from lectures in great halls with huge numbers of students. Often the teacher is unavailable for student questions after class, which may have to be asked of and answered by TAs, who may not have English as their native language and may not be proficient in it as a second language. This causes difficulties in communication and may deter students from going to ask questions through that gauntlet.

    • James Walker
      Posted September 6, 2020 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      I started out my university education in physics at the University of Toronto in 1985. The lecturer, an eminent professor nearing retirement, would speak in a slow, soporific voice and rapidly write complex equations on the blackboard. Once he’d filled up the blackboard, he’d erase it immediately and start again. No PowerPoints, no lecture notes, no handouts. If you didn’t write fast enough, you were out of luck. I tell this to students nowadays 🙂

      • Posted September 7, 2020 at 6:56 am | Permalink

        I’m so sorry to hear that, but am not surprised. Due to my years of careful listening in classes, combined with note-taking, I was often invited to attend meetings and other sessions at work to take notes for whichever group. (I might have done better for them if I’d been smart enough to learn shorthand in high school, but I didn’t.) However, I had excellent hearing and remembered what I heard long enough to transcribe it and was able to provide good written notes. Not earthshaking skills, but somewhat useful.

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