Saturday, September 24, 2011

On "Gully Washing"

These interblogs can be hard to keep up with.  Once a Thirsty is posted, it must be read, then digested, and pondered for a while until a response occurs to the reader, which response must then be put into words and crafted into a written form that hopefully conveys a useful answer.  By that time, the original Thirsty is last week's (or last month's) post.  So I hope nobody will mind if I write a new post about Yaro's Summer Thirsty:  What would clear the air around our universities the way a thunderstorm clears the air in the desert?

This came to mind when I was recalling a trip of my own to the Southwest when I was in grad school - this one in winter, to Taos to ski.  Not all of our group were as avid about skiing as I was, so we took a cheap motel in town, and I caught a shuttle bus to the ski area.  It was a creaky old bus with a creaky old driver, of limited organizational skills.  On the return trip in the afternoon, as you emerge from the mountain canyon, and turn south towards the town, there is a mountain straight ahead, rising from the plateau on the other side of Taos, where it dominates the skyline, especially after a winter storm when it is white with snow in the sunshine.  One of the skiers nearer to the front asked the driver the name of the mountain.

"That there," he announced, pointing a shaky finger out through the windshield, "is Las Truchas Mountain."  He paused momentarily.

"When I was a child," he went on, "we were taught.. that Las Truchas Mountain.. was the highest mountain in the state of New Mexico!"  His declaration was emphatic. 

Overhearing this, I raised an eyebrow, because I new it wasn't.  Just that afternoon, I had stood at the top of the chairlift and looked at Wheeler peak, while reading the signboard describing how the peak was hidden from the plateau behind lower mountains, and had not been properly measured until the mid 1950's when it was found to the the highest in the state. 

But our driver wasn't finished..

"And then," he continued ruefully, "some goddamngeologists went and found another mountain up there somewhere." And he waved a dismissive hand towards the mountain range we had just left. 

I was stuck by the resentment.  Those Goddamngeologists!  Those interlopers!  That arriviste mountain whose name he would not speak!  He was genuinely pissed off that anyone had discovered a higher mountain than the one he had been taught about as a kid.

I told this story to a colleague a while back, and his response was apt:  "You can do all the science you want," he mused "but you'd better not mess with received wisdom."

Which brings me to my answer to Yaro's Thirsty:  What would clear the air for me would be for people to welcome, rather than resent new knowledge.  Wouldn't our lives (not just ours in universities, but everybody's) be so much simpler if we could welcome new more accurate understanding, and replace erroneous ideas without all the anger and resentment?  I want to do my job in an atmosphere where knowledge is welcomed.  I want the final arbiter of our work to be whether it aligns with external reality (my science roots are showing), not whether it makes us feel good.  Or raises the university's profile.  Or makes good marketing copy.  Or sells newspapers.  Or attracts tuition-paying students.  In fact, I want knowledge to be the whole point of what we do, and what people value us for.
But no.  People want to believe the same thing on Wednesday that they believed on Monday - no matter what happens on Tuesday.   Climate change, Continental Drift, Evolution, The heliocentric solar system.  Each met with hostility and resentment.  Even raise an issue as trivial as whether Pluto should be considered a planet, and everyone totally loses their shit.  

I vaguely dream of some event that would confront people so directly with the real world that they would be forced to see the wisdom of accepting reality, and the folly of clinging to myth.  Something to make people actively seek the solid info over the comforting illusion.

We touched on this idea a while ago in the comments about Cassandra's Doonesbury post. Having to deliver real work in an job setting is one small form of external reality that students will eventually face. Individually.  One at a time.  What if everyone could face that "Aha" moment all at once.

But I fear the storm that would bring that clarity.  What cataclysm would it take?  How dark would the day be before humans are finally willing to admit that opinions/beliefs/hypotheses/notions aren't knowledge if they are at odds with the outside world?  Would we even survive such an upheaval?  For while a thunderstorm can sure clear the air, the flash floods make a real mess down here on the ground.

And more than I fear the storm, I fear that the storm would fail.  I fear that after the storm, through the flotsam, and mud and receding floodwaters would come the fools and the hucksters.  The conspiracy theorists and the charlatans.  And people would cling ever tighter to their superstitions.

And so perhaps it's just as well this is nothing more than an idle daydream.  We must instead go about patiently arguing for real standards, real thought and analysis, real knowledge.  Slowly.  One student at a time.



  1. But, in true hypocritical irony, do you suppose people like the Taosian bus driver would want to go back to the Monday before penicillin
    ... or refrigeration
    ... or indoor plumbing?

    (Well, for today, we'll ignore Michele Bachmann and vaccines.)

    It is depressingly maddening how a scientific advancement is cast through a personal/social/theological lens.

    If I, me, personally is able to discern a benefit of a particular advance, then WOOT!

    But if it challenges a held belief or ::gasp:: doesn't benefit me directly, but "them" ... then it is just activist elitist scientific socialism.


  2. Try to perform research to support these hypotheses and see what your colleagues think:
    On average, men are more intelligent than women.
    Students do not learn very much in a science laboratory.
    Children are better off when the father works and the mother stays home.

    There are many ideas that you must handle carefully, even in academia. Especially in academia.

  3. My favorite quote by Charles MacKay in "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds" is "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." Whenever faced with an emotional reaction to Pluto's demotion, I have an emotional reaction of my own: WHY is is SO DIFFICULT for SOME PEOPLE to ADMIT THEY WERE WRONG?!?!? It may be small consolation, but the heliocentric Solar System and Continental Drift finally have caught on. It helps to be able to use them to tell where one should drill into the ground to find oil, or to track spacecraft, which in the wake of Sputnik was seen as essential to national security. Or help win a world war, as radar certainly did. If changing people's minds by rational argument were easier, many more people would be interested in becoming academics, and the job market for university faculty would be even more godawful than it is now. Remember also that Galileo himself never used the names that Simon Marius gave to Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto: to the end, he insisted they be called I, II, III, and IV, and that was that.

  4. I'm not sure it's just the students who are afraid to admit that they're afraid to learn new things. Ever bring up an update to something someone wrote their dissertation on? Stand back and watch the storm clouds gather and be prepared to be lectured on why that new information is flawed, in light of their dissertation conclusions that were printed (printed!)...

  5. Since I teach a skills course (writing with some research and critical thinking mixed in), I'm fond of telling students that most of what they learn in college will no longer be true a decade or so after they get their degrees (this varies by discipline, of course), and that what employers really expect of college graduates is the ability to make new knowledge, and identify when received wisdom needs to be re-evaluated or scrapped entirely. Some of them actually seem excited by the idea, but others look distressed or disbelieving.

    Not everyone is attached to the ideas in their own published scholarship. I now recognize the ideas that were central to my undergraduate thesis (which was a much higher-quality example of a particular kind of scholarship of its day than my dissertation, which was still something of a chaotic mess when I defended it) as very much belonging to their time, and am not impressed when I see similar arguments in more recent scholarship. If I were to come across someone refuting parts of my argument (which is becoming more likely now that google scholar resurrects all kinds of obscure publications) it's quite possible that I'd agree. Maybe it's different with a dissertation of which one is proud, or a "real" book (the thesis is out there as a true monograph -- a little booklet with an ISBN); a year's investment of time isn't the same as many years' worth. But I hope I'd be willing to see a book I wrote now challenged -- right away or decadess later -- in good grace. It is, after all, all part of the process.

    In my personal life, I tend to be small-c conservative -- not fond of change. But when it comes to ideas (or political/social change), I'm pretty fond, if not of gully-washers, then at least of the processes that gradually, almost imperceptibly, but ultimately irresistably change the course of rivers. It probably helps that both I and the academic fields in which I work have benefited enormously from the changes of the last 50 years or so, but I'd like to think that I'm willing to accept the changes that are harder for me to take as well.

  6. @ Ben: Not sure whether you are agreeing of disagreeing here. I agree that these topics need to be handled carefully, but that's precisely because people hold such firm a priori views about them. Views that would be very resistant to any contradicting evidence (note that I make no claim whether such evidence might exist for any of the hypotheses). They also tend to run off half cocked with unwarranted extrapolations based upon flimsy evidence when that evidence seems to support their worldview.

    At the risk of being pedantic, I usually design research to test rather than to support hypotheses. I try to reserve support or refutation for the evidence once it comes in. An affectation perhaps, but it helps me to ride herd on my own pre-conceptions.

    @ Cassandra: Thanks for the vote of confidence in the other thread. I actually rather enjoyed the Conan bit - a harmless (and literate) prank that was genuinely funny.

    @ Frodo: My favourite bit was Illinois' declaration that Pluto has planet status "while passing over Illinois"! Does Pluto ever pass over Illinois? I haven't done the geometry in my head, but I would imagine it happens for less than ten minutes per millenium.

  7. Try teaching writing to students who want to use religious texts (especially the Christian Bible) as proof of their arguments. I'm sure I'm not alone in having to explain the difference between academic discourse and religious faith to resentful students who willfully ignore the point of such a discussion.

    R and/or G, I teach many students from low-income backgrounds who are often the first in their families to attend college, and among that demograph is a large percentage that believes in the most outlandish conspiracy theories created. Many of them also believe in the most ridiculous folk remedies for illness (I won't even go into how these manifest themselves in public).

    Of course, we're still living in an age when people--including educated people--will still spout the old change-of-weather-brings-disease nonsense. When people offer, "It's the change in temperature that makes people sick," I counter with, "People get sick most often because of bacterial or viral infections, not because of the weather," and I'm met with looks of horror, as though I'd sacrificed a baby on Satan's altar right in front of them.

    Ignorance is one thing, but the willful ignorance is something I increasingly find difficult to handle. In the past 10 years, such nonsense has proliferated in ways I never anticipated, given the time period in which I grew up, thanks to a ridiculously lax mainstream media and a serious chunk of the population that values arrogantly singular faith over science.

    Speaking of which, I wonder how that theory of gravity is working for Rick Perry?

  8. @Greta: Rick should also be concerned about the theory of aerodynamics, particularly since he wants to fly in Air Force One.

    @R and/or G: Pluto does pass over Illinois, frequently, especially in the summer. By international treaty, however, the jurisdiction of the Illinois legislature ends at an altitude of 100 kilometers above Earth's surface, where Outer Space formally begins. (Eisenhower was concerned about how the Soviets would react to U.S. spacecraft overflying their territory; the Soviets did everyone a favor by making the point moot by not asking anyone's permission before they launched Sputnik 1.)


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