Latest update:                    July 6, 2001
As long as this "blackboard" is posted, this section will be under construction, awaiting further input from those of you who share our interests concerning ineffective learning of science.  We need feedback on what of our efforts works.
 


A Childís View

"Letís go outside and see," the physicist said to his young son.  The son had come home from grade school eager to tell all about the planets he had learned about in school.  The father wanted to emphasize that the science learned in school is about the real world.

The night sky was clear and the stars shone brightly. The father pointed out the brilliant one on the horizon and said, "That one is Venus." Then he pointed to the reddish Mars, and the bright Saturn and Jupiter.

The son drunk it all in, thought about it awhile and asked, "Which one is Earth?"*


 
The childís misunderstanding amuses adults.  When the boy gets a little older, it will amuse him, too.  He will acquire some reasoning skills he lacked under the stars that evening.  He may acquire enough of certain skills that he will begin to "see" some of the science that today stems from what a few people saw by thinking more deeply about the night sky.  He might even come to see today's widespread "pseudoscience" as reminiscent of his question, "Which one is Earth?"

Letís look up again at those stars and wonder, as perhaps did our pre-electric-light ancestors centuries ago, about those motions we see from dusk to dawn and from night to night. It's only a few small steps from the childís naivete to the genius needed to arrive at today's science.  It's all human thinking and no other of Earth's creatures can do it.  But even the first step is a bit of a challenge.  Try it: Recognizing that the moon rises a little later each night and that a star due south at midnight will be due south a bit earlier the next night, can you correctly describe the directions of the spins and orbits of earth, sun, and moon?  Thatís one small step towards manís knowledge of astronomical motions.

Then came the reasoning of Kepler and Newton.  They made measurements of those motions and reasoned that the orbits are ellipses whose sun-to-planet lines sweep out equal areas in equal times, a fact that is equivalent to the law of conservation of angular momentum. If we develop the right logical insights, these facts are "obvious."  But they were unobserved before Kepler, and they remain largely unobserved today.

If the which-one-is-Earth insight of the child and the genius of Newton seem far apart to us it's because our logical abilities lie somewhere in between. Today's three very simple conservation laws of mechanics--energy/mass, linear momentum and angular momentum--are subtleties that grew from sophisticated thought.   They are simple, very subtle, and very powerful ideas.  Their power comes from the application of a few logical insights not yet developed in the child. 

The pseudoscience that surrounds us is much closer to "Which one is Earth?" thinking.  In the eyes of many, the pseudoscience is like the controversies and differences of interpretations of observation that characterizes working science.  It is not.

Or perhaps it is seen as a matter of "faith," and not subject to observation and logic.  Here we need caution:  "Faith" might be defined as believing something desirable for which observation and logic are inadequate, perhaps even missing.  Thatís also a pretty good definition of "self-deception."

The physicistís son will grow from the faith in his fatherís knowledge to faith in his own observations and logic.  Pseudoscience cannot survive this other kind of faith.

How can we spread the faith?

*This physicist in this account was one of the editors of The American Journal of Physics, either John Rigden or Robert Romer.  It occured in the early 1970's.  I don't recall whether this was published in the Journal, or if he told it to me at a meeting or, perhaps, in a letter.  I will try to find out.


 
What is "pseudoscience"?

Martin Gardner gave a definition in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, published in 1957.  It remains  as good a working definition as can be found.

[I can't find my copy of the book, and, as far as we can discover, the library systems in Portland do not have it in their collections.  Does anyone have it and can send me the several criteria he gave for testing an idea for pseudoscience status.  I feel these are important and useful to help anyone to pinpoint pseudoscience.]

One of the several criteria that distinguish science from pseudoscience is the logical consistency that Jean Piaget identified as the most advanced (and latest to develop as we mature) of human information processing skills. See "A Case Study."

What is "pseudoscience"?

Recent reader book reviews of Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science on amazon.com were generally very favorable.  Two, however, were very negative.  Both offer alternative definitions of science and pseudoscience.

One comment assumed the distinction between science and  pseudoscience is falsifiability and nothing else.  Then he said Gardner doesn't mention falsifiability, therefore "doesn't show a firm grasp of what's science and what isn't."

The other equated science with skepticism and stated that Charles Fort is skeptical, that Gardner criticizes Fort, and therefore Gardner is "inconsistent." 

The first comment shows how easily error follows from fixating on but one of many pieces of the puzzle.  We also see the confusion of an implication with an equivalence: "science implies falsifiability" is interpreted to mean science is equivalent to falsifiability. This is a very common error.

The second comment improperly inverts an implication:  "Rationality implies skepticism" is misinterpreted to mean "skepticism implies rationality."


 
Dave Chapman (pres, O4R) has come up with Martin Garnder's criteria for crackpottery:

Signs of a Pseudo Scientist as seen by Martin Gardner
(in Fads and Fallacies, in the Name of Science)

 1. He considers himself a genius.

 2. He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant  blockheads.

 3. He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated  against.

 4. He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the  greatest scientists and best established theories.

 5. He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in  many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.


 
One technique for developing those logical "insights" implicit in the work of Piaget is to struggle with puzzles,  hopefully interesting puzzles.  Knowledge for Use assembled a set of twenty questions that might help reveal some of the insights needed to usefully understand entropy and its relationship to life.  They are posted on this site:
TWENTY QUESTIONS

 
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