Tag Archives: science

The Science of Not Knowing

NOTE: This is a cross post from my mostly about reading blog In One Place. But the ideas about science are important for educators as well.

There are moments when reading and real life come together. Not to be too dramatic: but now is one of those times. As oil spews into the Gulf of Mexico, my companions for the journey are Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry. And, both of them make the same essential point about science: the real power and terror of science is that neither doesn’t nor can know everything.

For Dillard, the not-knowing can be seen in the natural world, in something as seemingly simple as an elm leaf:

Or again, there are, as I have said, six million leaves on a big elm. All right…but they are toothed, and the teeth themselves are toothed. How many notches and barbs is that to the world. In and out go the intricate leaf edges, and “don’t nobody know why.” All the theories botanists have devised to explain the functions of various leaf shapes tumble under an avalanche of inconsistencies. They simply don’t know, can’t imagine.

Berry’s comments are in response to Edward O. Wilson, who in his book Consilience, celebrates science and discounts the possibilities of learning in and from mystery:

He understands mystery as attributable entirely to human ignorance, and thereby appropriates it for the future of human science; in his formula, the unknown = the-to-be-known…If modern science is a religion, then one of its presiding deities must be Sherlock Holmes. To the modern scientist as to the great detective, every mystery is a problem, and every problem can be solved. A mystery can exist only because of human ignorance, and human ignorance is always redeemable. the appropriate response is not deference or respect, let alone reverence, but pursuit of “the answer”.

Don’t nobody know why…and yet we teach students that there are answers. I am outraged that BP was not required to have a solution to what was clearly a potential problem. I suppose we can blame it on a failure of the imagination but the cynic in me can’t help but blame it on a desire for profit. And an unwavering belief in science to solve any problem. I, of course, am hoping along with everyone else that this IS a problem science can solve, and quickly, but at what cost?

BP, with its string of abuses, clearly has not real concern for the world community other than as a market for its oil. Berry points out that science is often conducted with economics rather than community in mind and quotes Wilson’s description of the “cardinal principle in the conduct of scientific research: Find a paradigm for which you can raise money and attack with every method of anaylsis at your disposal.” Berry goes on:

This principle, in effect, makes the patron the prescriber of the work to be done. It would seem to eliminate the scientist as a person or community member who would judge whether or not the work ought to be done. It removes the scientist from the human and ecological circumstances in which the work will have its effect and which should provide one of the standards by which the work is to be judged; the scientist is thus isolated, by this principle of following patronage, in a career with a budget.

Hmmm…as I typed those last words, I realized how hard I was being on scientists, even if I was only channeling Berry. I’m blaming scientists for the flaws in a system that is much larger than them just as teachers often get blamed for failed reforms for which they had no responsibility. I imagine some scientist, in a planning meeting for the platform, quietly suggesting that this could be a problem. His solution, however, did not meet the cost analysis: what was the chance of this happening and how much would it cost? What the number crunchers failed to consider, however, was the cost if it DID happen! This could ruin BP. I don’t think anyone has the heart to bail them out.


Each year I am invited to spend a Saturday with the principalship class at William and Mary. We talk about the big picture issues related to technology in schools and spend time figuring our the role of the administrator in encouraging teachers to use technology as part of their instruction. The agenda is online if you’re interested.

I change the workshop every year based on new ideas. When I first started doing it some 7 or 8 years ago, we talked a lot about technology itself and I spent a good part of the day demonstrating emerging technologies like student response systems and Alphasmarts. Almost no one in those days knew anything about Inspiration and wikis were really just for geeks. But now, those technologies are well known and most schools are deploying all of them to some extent. So we turn our attention to the larger discussions about what kinds of skills students will need to move forward in our ever-changing world.

Many of you have heard my riff on all the 21st century skills…I like to pile them all together and call them leadership skills. And I also like to suggest that Benjamin Franklin had those kinds of skills within his own century (18th century skills, as it were). But those skills seem more pressing now, maybe because in Ben’s day they were reserved for only a few and now it seems like everyone needs them.

As part of the workshop, we do a dotting activity. After all, it’s not real professional development if you don’t put a dot on something. I use Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills and give the participants four dots (green, red, yellow, and blue). They are told to evaluate their own classroom or school in light of how well they are integrating these skills. The green dot is the one they are doing the best. The red dot, the worst. The yellow dot is the one they would work on after solving the red dot. That leaves blue: I used to give it to them as a gift. But now, I ask them to put it on the skill that they aren’t sure can be taught. And that’s usually where the good discussion comes in.

The dots often play out very similarly: most educators feel as though they are doing a good job with communication skills as well as helping students access and analyze information. They are not doing so well with initiative and entrepreneurship. And, the one that gets the blue dots, the one we can’t teach? Creativity and imagination. We had a lively discussion this past Saturday about what teachers can do to pique student creativity or foster their imagination.

And as they talked, I thought about the video clip I had edited earlier that morning. It features John Rinn who runs The Rinn Lab for Research on Large Interngenic Non-coding RNAs, part of Harvard Medical School. He’s a young guy with lots of enthusiasm for his work who likes to snowboard on the side. He is definitely creative and has some good advice for teachers who are trying to foster such in their students. The clip was a perfect ending to our conversation and the fact that I had just uploaded it at 5 AM that morning made me giddy with serendipity.

I haven’t put the clip on YouTube yet but you can view it, as well as other related clips, at the STEM Education Alliance website.

Moment of Geek

In an effort to take Tim’s advice…here’s my odd, out of left field post.  It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog and people who know me that I’m pretty liberal.  It’s a label I proudly wear.  So, it probably also comes as know surprise that I’m a huge fan of Rachel Maddow.  I tune in almost every night to her show.  If you haven’t, give it a try.  She’s smart, funny, and sarcastic, and an antidote to the often harsh rhetoric we hear from both sides.  (As an aside, I’m not a fan of Keith Olberman…he’s a little too mean for me.)

One of my favorite features is Rachel’s Moment of Geek when she highlights interesting events in science and technology.  Even if you can’t stomach Rachel, these features are fun with no seeming political bias.  You can view them at her web site or if you prefer not to have that in your computer memory, check out YouTube.  One of my favorite was about the Google camera car that takes pictures for street view:

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