Monday, February 11, 2008
  By and by, part II

I've been arguing with (or more precisely arguing at) Lawrence Krauss for a while without naming him; he has been writing some truly obnoxious opinion pieces in New Scientist, and I've been responding indirectly.

My quote on the right-hand side in this post was from Krauss.

Right now Krauss is giving a speech at AEI, broadcast on C-Span, in which he makes the same terrible points. Luckily, some questions are allowed, and luckily the questioners are excellent. It would have been better to format the whole presentation as a debate, with questions after each point, so that Krauss's illogical arguments weren't allowed to stick in the audience's minds.

Krauss (to his credit) backed off in some places, but he stuck to a couple of silly and dangerous arguments, which nobody questioned in the time available.

Krauss began by associating ignorance with totalitarianism. He gave the example of the Taliban destroying important parts of world culture (the ancient Buddhist statues) "because of ignorance", and proceeded from there to state that Americans must understand the BASICS of evolution as taught by the current consensus, in order to avoid totalitarianism.

This is worse than nonsense.

First, the most effective totalitarians were very smart. Hitler and Stalin poured huge amounts of money and emphasis into research and education. German and Russian math and science teaching was -- probably still is -- vastly superior to ours. Modern Russians know more about nearly everything than modern Americans.

Our entire space program depended on scientists educated under Hitler, not on scientists educated in America. Hitler's problem was emphatically not ignorance.

Second, Krauss seems to think that American science and math education is bad because we hesitate to tell students that evolution is an axiom.

It's exactly the other way around.

Our science and math education is awful BECAUSE WE HAVE FOLLOWED the Krauss model: start with a few axioms, build theories, consider the theories to be settled. Ever since the Scopes trial, we have IN FACT been telling students that evolution is the only possible theory, and this hasn't made a damn bit of difference.

Science and math education -- for that matter, science and math in general -- work best when you start with experimentation. Students learn best when they know first why each fact or theory is important. Why did I slip and fall on the ice this morning? Why did the fried egg stick to the pan? Why did the snow hit Spokane instead of Pullman? Why did this resistor burn, while that one over there is nicely cool? How do I know which part of the computer needs to be replaced?

After the students have their motivation, after they feel the frustration and puzzlement of the question, after they know that the answer will help them to live better or earn more money, THEN you can go into the lab and check out the details. And after the details have been discussed and settled, preferably with some (carefully contained) failures to show what doesn't work, THEN you can show the math and theoretical background.

This is how the Russians did it, with great results; yet despite a few good local programs, we still don't teach this way in most schools.

The Taliban way of thinking is destructive because it starts with definite knowledge and proceeds to immediate action. Allahu akbar, therefore we must destroy all evidence of other gods.

Krauss's own mindset is much closer to the Taliban than to science or Christianity. He takes evolution and global warming as unquestioned axioms, from which we must proceed to immediate action.

A good Christian, or a good scientist, is far more humble. "We'll understand it all by and by" is a Christian attitude and a scientific attitude.

= = = = =

Update: It appears that NBC Nightly News will be doing a feature on math teaching, called "Math Wars", Mon 2/18. Dispute is an encouraging sign ... but it would be more encouraging if the CORRECT method, the EXPERIMENTAL method, had been chosen 100 years ago when it was already obvious.

In a backward sort of way, the Kraussites are right about one thing. Good teaching is actually opposed by conservative and religious factions, but this is totally unrelated to Darwin. Every respected "conservative" is required to rant for "sticking to the basics" and rant against "progressive" education. Unfortunately "sticking to the basics" always means teaching by memorization of verbal facts, while "progressive" education includes the Montessori methods that work, PLUS a batch of egalitarian ratshit about eliminating competition and eliminating grades.

The correct solution, the Russian solution, is not "the basics", but Montessori PLUS competition and evaluation. Since the correct solution lies outside the rigid chalk lines of each team, it will never be adopted. The "conservatives" will never allow experiential education because it has been dirtied by association with the Left; and the Left will never allow competition because insane egalitarianism is an absolute core belief of the Left, second only to the sacrament of Abortion. I conclude that the teams have drawn the lines this way intentionally, since the one thing our political teams WILL NEVER ALLOW UNDER ANY CONDITIONS IS A CORRECT SOLUTION TO ANY PROBLEM. We must, must, must, must, must, must, continue our pointless repetition of opposing meaningless mantras, while the ship continues to sink with nobody at the helm.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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