Friday, August 11, 2017

Science Education And Reality

Victor Reppert has produced yet another stunning blog piece, called The authoritarianism of science education, that caught my attention because of its sheer ignorance.  It attempts to denigrate educational methods in science as being "authoritarian", and not "following the argument where it leads".  Here is the article in its entirety:
Science education is NOT an example of following the argument where it leads. If you do a chem lab and your results differ from those prescribed in the textbook, you are not to ask whether you  have made a new scientific discovery. No, you are asked to figure out where you made a mistake. - Reppert
I think it is worth commenting on this, not just to point out its ignorance, but because is illustrates the huge rift between scientific thinking and religious thinking, in general.  I'll get to that, but first, I need to explain why Victor is 100% wrong.

Victor speaks of following an argument where it leads, and he uses a chem lab experiment as his example.  The student is told to figure out why the result wasn't what was expected.  So one might ask what is the point of doing this experiment in the first place?  What are they trying to teach students?  Is it that a certain combination of chemicals causes a reaction that produces a certain compound?  Not really.  You can learn that by reading the textbook.  Is it to convince the skeptical student that the theory presented in the textbook really is true?  I don't think so - at least that's not the main point of the lesson.  Science labs in an educational environment teach students how things work in the real world.  And that's something that is difficult to learn from a book.

It isn't enough to just know the chemical formula.  If you aspire to work in the physical sciences or engineering, you need to understand the effects of environmental conditions, of contamination, or other factors that degrade or interfere with the process that you are trying follow.  Why doesn't the result turn out as expected?  Could it be that you are a genius that has made a new discovery, or is it more likely that the same mistake has been made by thousands of students before?  The task of the student is to use his critical thinking skills and figure out WHY this experiment behaves the way it does, and what changes are needed to get the correct results.  In the real world, things are more complicated than the idealized process described in the textbook.  The textbook process is important, and the student must understand the theory, but getting it to work in practice requires something more.  And that's what you get from working in the lab.

Now Victor seems to think that students are being taught to follow instructions without question.  He talks about their lack of freedom to "follow the argument".  But just what is this argument?  I think he has no idea what he's talking about.  The fact is that without thinking logically, they will have a hard time completing the experiment.  And that's the whole point of doing the lab.  You have to be able to follow the observed evidence and reason to a conclusion that fits with reality.  If you simply assume that you've made some new discovery, you are deluded, and you will fail to complete the exercise.  More importantly, you will fail to learn the intended lesson.

And this brings up the larger point that I wanted to make.  Victor went through a full educational path culminating in a PhD in philosophy.  But he doesn't seem to understand some of the aspects of logical thinking that freshmen in a science curriculum must master.  How can this be?  Unfortunately, for many philosophers, there is no distinction between theory and practice.  I don't want to generalize to the point that I place all philosophers in the same basket, but if your education doesn't involve any experience with the real world, and learning how things actually work, then you are likely to be missing something vital.  And this is particularly a problem for theistic education.

In theism, there is no practical side.  You learn theories about God, but you never get to see if they are correct by observing how those theories correspond to reality.  That's why there are so many different versions of religious belief, many of which are contradictory with others.  You can't test or verify them.  You just have to  accept them on faith.  You can claim that you have logic on your side, but so does the other theist with different beliefs.  Which one is right?  How do you resolve these differences?  Philosophy in the absence of science provides no means to come to the correct conclusion.  There will always be differences in beliefs, and no definitive way to decide between them.  One theory is as good as the other, unless you happen to be the proponent of one of these theories.  In that case, you are right, and everyone else is wrong, and you know this, not because of any rigorous process of analysis and testing, but because that's what your faith tells you.

There are competing theories in science, too, but science has objective methods of resolving those differences.  The answer might not be known for some time, but sooner or later, it will be resolved.  And when that happens, there will no longer be serious dispute among scientists over that issue, because the the evidence has been shown and the logic is clear.  The successful theory has been scrutinized and tested and verified repeatedly, and it still holds up.

To Victor's way of thinking, science is a just-so story, the same as his theistic beliefs.  That's why he thinks a scientific theory like evolution could have turned out differently.  If only a different theory (like intelligent design) had gained traction first, then that might be the one we accept now.
With respect to science, it seems as if those who claim that scientific evidence has established something, there has to be an alternative history of science that would have established the opposite. - Reppert
And that's why he thinks that he can postulate a whole new theory of physics that includes "theons" and "psychons" to explain the existence of gods and mental events.  In his limited understanding of science, you can just make these theories up, the same as you do in theism.  He doesn't grasp the idea that these things are tested and verified, and that the theory that stands up in the end is the one that most successfully proves to be consistent with reality.  And that's the real reason science doesn't accept the existence of "theons", or the validity of intelligent design theory, but instead accepts evolution theory.

That's the big difference between scientific thinking and theistic thinking.  In science, theories are derived from evidence, and must withstand testing and verification.  Furthermore, scientific thinking requires the ability to view evidence objectively, and the ability to abandon a theory if the evidence is not consistent with it.  Theistic thinking makes no such demands.  The theist can make up whatever story he likes, and never subject it to any testing or verification at all.  In fact, he typically declares that his belief is exempt from any testing.  In this manner, he can get away with believing anything that suits his fancy - no matter how illogical, or how much his theory diverges from objective reality.


  1. In doing a course in formal logic, Victor would have been exposed to problem solving skills that are similar to solving mathematical equations or scientific problems. In logic, you might get some problem where you need to show some statement is a theorem. If your proof fails, then you need to re-do the proof. It's no different than solving equations. Even if Victor didn't have familiarity with high school mathematics or high school science, I think he should have known better in that post since I'd expect him to have taken formal logic courses at some point.

    1. I have no doubt that Victor is capable of performing formal logic. I think the real issue is that it has to be grounded in reality. Like all theists, he makes assumptions that have no connection to the real world - like the idea that minds cannot be a product of physical nature. An argument based on bad premises is not sound. But he (and many others) places his philosophical presumptions above empirical facts. He sees no reason to ground those presumptions in reality, or make any effort to verify their truth. As far as he's concerned, they ARE truth.

    2. My point, more so, is that Victor ought to understand, given his understanding of formal logic (supposing he has some), that education in maths and science is not teaching people not to follow the arguments where they lead. In logic, just like in math, you are given problems to solve where you have an already existing answer and must show that you can find the proof for it. The issue Victor has is that he is forgetting the difference between teaching people how to solve a problem with a known answer vs teaching people to scrap their solution if it doesn't produce the answer someone only thinks is correct.

    3. Yes, that seems to be the case.

  2. The more I read from Reppert, the more I am convinced he has forfeited any salvageable ability he might have possessed in applying logic and reason. It boils down to his decades of arguing from initial premises, all founded in religious nonsense which cannot, and can never be, substantiated in any ontological or epistemological framework, inspired in the main by a punt to unfounded belief or 'faith'. His forays into math and science education are no less driven by the same idiotic misperceived principles of logic and reason he applies to christian apologetics. Anyone that can insist that a putrescent 3-day old corpse can revivify is half a sandwich short of a picnic.

    1. You'd think that with his philosophical education, he would at least be able to understand the philosophical views of others, even if he doesn't agree with them. I don't think he does. He is so stuck on his own views, he automatically rejects everything else without even bothering to listen to the rationale. So he rejects the methods of scientific education without even understanding them. No rational argument is involved.