Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ways of knowing

The downside of working at a university is the infinite stream of nonsense that is produced by various committees. I believe that evaluating our course offerings and educational outcomes are an important part of improving the curriculum so that we produce students who can use their education to live meaningful lives while contributing to society.

In the spirit of this goal, our university is rethinking its general education requirements. The committee charged with this activity has produced a document that describes what every student should learn prior to graduation, and has outlined a proposed curriculum that leads to these results. I generally agree with the goals. However, based on the wording of the document, some of the committee members need a refresher course in critical thinking.

The document contains a section called "WAYS OF KNOWING," which states as one of the learning goals: "To understand science as a way of knowing." This statement shows an ignorance of the meaning of science.

In terms of understanding the material world, science provides a process for culling out false hypotheses that painstakingly leads us closer to the truth, sometimes through a circuitous path. The concept of a way of knowing is imprecise; it implies both a false multiplicity within a body of knowledge and a non-existent certainty.

Americans' disbelief in anthropogenic global warming serves as a good example of why it is important to have a clear concept of what is meant by knowledge. Certainty is nonexistent. Rather, we use the preponderance of evidence to tentatively add new bits and pieces to a body of knowledge. There are clearly uncertainties in the science of global warming, but the picture that emerges shows with a reasonable degree of confidence that humans are having an effect on climate. Within the range of uncertainties, the prognosis for its effects on humanity ranges from not so good to disastrous.

Rather then spending time and effort arguing whether global warming is real, we need to do a cost-benefit analysis of methods that mitigate the effect. The longer we wait, the more costly the solution. Only after shedding ridiculous concepts such as Ways of Knowing can we get to the task of solving the world's problems. It all starts with a solid education that gives students the tools needed for effective reasoning. I hope we succeed.

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