Patronizing students

Sometimes it seems to me that there is no half-baked idea that originates anywhere in the known universe that does not quickly find influential adherents anxious to institutionalize it in Ohio.

Barely has the dust settled on the push to include Intelligent Design into Ohio’s science standards than we now have Marion state senator Larry A. Mumpers introducing Ohio Senate Bill 24 in order to “prohibit instructors at public or private universities from “persistentlyâ€? discussing controversial issues in class or from using their classes to push political, ideological, religious or anti-religious views.â€? (Sorry, no link to this quote from the subscriber only Columbus Dispatch news item by Kathy Lynn Gray on 1/27/2005.)

This is bound to raise the free-speech, academic freedom debate in all its full-blown glory and I am not going to revisit that. But one statement by Senator Mumford jumped out at me. He feels that college students need this kind of legal protection because “These are young minds that haven’t had a chance to form their own opinions.�

Such words can only be uttered by someone who has never really listened to adolescents and young adults or tried to persuade them to change their minds. Does he really think that young people have not already formed strong opinions about things?

The education literature is full of research on how people’s minds are resistant to new ideas. Students cling to Aristotelian ideas of motion, and harbor serious misconceptions about the seasons and the phases of the moon, even though they may have been taught the standard views many times in the course of their education.

And this happens in the area of physics, where students do not even have a commitment to retaining their old ideas, or are often unaware of what those ideas are until asked to explicitly articulate them. Imagine how hard it would be to change their minds about politics and religion, which are much closer to the surface of their consciousness.

Many a professor (including myself) has been aghast at discovering that all their careful lectures and arguments have had little impact on what students really believe, even though the students may be highly adept at reproducing the professor’s views on exams.

This kind of comment betrays at best a naivete, and at worst a contempt, for the ability of college students to think for themselves and resist indoctrination by their teachers. But this is not going to prevent politicians like Senator Mumpers from going ahead in their condescending efforts to “protect� students.

Get ready for the legal battle…

Problems with censorship

An amusing news item from the BBC website illustrates a real difficulty with censorship.

A devout Baptist couple who bought a Doris Day DVD from a supermarket were shocked to find a sex film instead.


“It was a pretty raunchy, explicit film, it certainly pulled no punches,” Mr Leigh-Browne said.

“My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

“The film became progressively more graphic, there was no plot to it, it was just sex.”

Alan and his wife Anne, 60, a retired teacher, complained to Safeway the next day and all copies of The Pajama Game were removed from the store.


What was interesting about this news item was that at the first sign of sex in the film this couple, despite being described as devout Baptists, did not stop watching but kept viewing right through to the end. Although they say they were “very shocked�, they clearly did not feel that they had compromised their souls by seeing this film.

This highlights a practical problem for would-be moralists and censors. In order to keep the world “pure” for the rest of us, they have to believe that they themselves will be uncorrupted by the things they have to view to check for content suitability. But how do we decide a priori who will or won’t be corrupted by this kind of experience? I can understand not allowing children to have free access to certain kinds of material, but how do we choose among adults? I have the feeling that most people, if asked, would say that they can watch such a video without being “harmed”, whether they would freely choose to do so or not.

Also, the news item said the couple complained to Safeway but did not say they actually returned the DVD…

Science and proof II

In his comment on my earlier posting on “Science and Proof”, Kurtiss Hare raises an interesting point about the value of religion and what kind of validity criteria I was referring to, so I thought I would elaborate.

When it comes to the *value* of belief structures to an individual, then there are really no external criteria that can be imposed. For example, for someone who has experienced a personal tragedy, a belief in God and a divine purpose for life may be of far more value than all the science in the world.

The point I was trying to muddle through to about science is that it is not being “proven true” that gives scientific theories their credibility, but the fact that they seem to work well, are reliable, and can be used to make predictions.

The probability argument that Kurtiss raises is interesting but has two directions in which it can be taken. The first (which I think is the one he makes) is that the fact that very few planes crash means that the probability of that particular application of the scientific theories (i.e., arriving safely) is high.

But does that translate into a high probability of the underlying scientific theories being true? No, because if you you want to assign a “truth probability” to a scientific theory then you have to compare (for any given theory) the number of predictions that are confirmed to the total number of predictions that are conceivable. Since for any non-trivial theory the number of possible predictions is infinite, the truth probability for *any* theory (however “good”) turns out to be zero!

This seems paradoxical but philosophers of science have not been able to get around it.

Science and Proof

On a plane earlier this week, I was seated next to a very nice woman and we struck up a conversation that quickly turned to religion. She was a Biblical literalist who belonged to an evangelical Christian church. In the course of comparing the scientific and religious approaches to describing the world, she made the claim that the theories of evolution and the big bang had not been “proven” and that thus they were articles of faith, just like any religious dogma.

This is a familiar argument to anyone (like me) who has been involved in the whole brou-ha-ha about whether “intelligent design” should be taught alongside Darwinian natural selection in science classes, and it reveals a common misperception about the nature of science.

This view is not held just by religious people, it is widespread. In the first class in my course on the history and philosophy of science, I ask students how they would distinguish science from non-science and invariably they begin by saying that science consists of things that have been proven true.

But nothing, even the most robust of theories, is “proven to be true” in science. But does that mean they are pure articles of faith, on a par with religious beliefs? Surely not. Newton’s laws and the laws of hydrodynamics have not been proven true either, but the woman and I both boarded the airplane confident that the those laws would hold and that we had a very high chance of arriving safely at our destination. Are there any religious beliefs to which we would trust our lives as confidently?

Clearly, the fact that the laws of science are not proven true does not diminish their worth and validity. Thus their credibility must be based on something other than simple proof. But most teaching of science, at any level, pays little attention to this important feature of scientific knowledge. And so the public policy discussions on issues like intelligent design rarely get beyond a fairly simplistic level.

Too bad.

And then there were two (entries)…

Thanks, Vincenzo and Jeremy, for the words of encouragement. I must say the fact that people actually read the blog (and took the trouble to comment) is quite an incentive to post more and post better.

But to follow up on Jeremy’s thought, I have decided that ultimately the blog (for me at least) is going to be a place-holder for those ideas and thoughts that I have to get off my chest but which are not ready for prime-time (i.e., publication as a book or articles). I am sure we all have such ideas. triggered by events in our lives, that occupy our thoughts for awhile and may even obsess about briefly, but which slowly disappear from our consciousness. I alwasy regret losing that initial flame of passion and concern. Just writing it down in a personal journal seemed a little pointless to me. The blog might be the place for them. Jeremy is right – we cannot predict what others might find interesting. Trying to do so is a good strategy for getting published but it does distort the message. The blog alows you to just say what you think and see what happens. (Thanks for the bloglinescom tip!)

I see that Vincenzo is using his blog to supplement his lectures. I use the web in my own courses but I used to use the Physics department’s own website template and now use Blackboard to create a course website. I am wondering about the possible advantages of using the blog over Blackboard. Vincenzo, why did you choose this method?

A final practical question. When I wanted to reply to Vincenzo and Jeremy, clicking on jms8 took me to Jeremy’s blog but vincenzo.liberatore did not work. It also seemed like to send private replies to people who comment on my blog, I need to use my normal mail utility and insert their addresses by hand. Is that how it works or is there something more streamlined that I am not seeing?

I am posting this publicly but will send copies privately as well.

My own blog!

Well, here we go into the (by now) fairly well charted waters of blogdom. While I regularly read quite a few blogs written by other people, the thought of starting my own was rather forbidding for several reasons.

The first was the sheer time and effort involved to keep posting fresh entries that might draw readers.

The second was that some of the best blogs I read were by people who seemed to either have sources of information that were not readily accessible to me (such as Josh Marshall) or who had the time (like Atrios) to scour the web for interesting nuggets that were missed or ignored by the mainstream media or wrote so wittily and cleverly (like James Wolcott) that my entries would be lame by comparison.

The third was that although I have many interests and have opinions on them, there are clearly people who have deeper knowledge in each of the areas that I am interested in. So what could I contribute that could not be found anywhere else?

Well, I figure the only way to find out is to venture in and see where it all goes. So this entry is the equivalent of slowly dipping my toes in the water. Hmm, not bad so far…

Moving to Freethought Blogs?

I have been invited to join the stable of bloggers over at Freethought Blogs. There are some well-known ones already posting there, such as Greta Christina, Ophelia Benson, P. Z. Myers, John Loftus, and Ed Brayton.

There will be no restrictions whatsoever on what I post and so the content will remain the same. I am leaning towards joining but before I make the decision, I wanted to throw the idea out to the loyal readers of this blog as to how it might affect their reading enjoyment.

The present site is on a platform run by my university and has been terrific in providing support whenever I needed it and not placing any restrictions on my writing, so any move will not be due to any dissatisfaction with the current situation but purely as a means of creating greater visibility by being part of a broader network of bloggers with similar interests.

So, what do you think?