On Teaching

"What I seek to accomplish is to serve, with my feeble capacity, truth and justice at the risk of pleasing no one" - Albert Einstein

The single biggest reason why we have come to be the dominant species of our planet is the ability to teach and learn. While a few other species have a limited ability to learn, for the most part they survive by instinct - instinct based on a limited set of genetically programmed behaviors which can change only over generational time scales. We, on the other hand, have a mind capable of reasoning and developing complex language, and thereby conveying the learnings and insights achieved by a single person, to millions. Through teaching, an individual can digest the hard work of many others and therefore leapfrog generations of effort, placing new members of our species at the forefront of knowledge, ready to advance our understanding further. The result is a mastery that reaches to the edges of the universe, most of which was accomplished in just the past few hundred years. By contrast, how much more knowledgable are gorillas today compared to a few hundred years ago? What guides that process is a faithful dedication to the goal "what is the truth?" Truth, as judged by the "light bulb" experience our brains are pre-wired to give us when we can integrate without contradiction a new idea into an existing whole of non-contradictory knowledge. Truth, in science, as discovered by forming hypotheses, insightful testing by observation and calculation, and refinement by way of new observations and distinctions. See my Chapter 0 for more on what constitutes the biological nature of "understanding".

Wrong Ideas Have no Feelings to Hurt
A damaging notion has crept into American education. That it is somehow unfair to judge ideas too harshly. That compromise is more important than the verdict of evidence. That truth is relative and ideas somehow deserve the famous Biblical admonition "judge not, that ye not be judged". Pondering how this bizarre notion could have taken root, I find myself wondering if it is perhaps a naive extrapolation of the civil rights movement. The thing is, there is good scientific evidence supporting the idea that all PEOPLE are genetically equally deserving of respect and rights, that racism and classism are abhorant not just on some viseral emotional level, but rationally as well. But ideas are not people, and they are either right and in harmony with Reality, or they are wrong and must be discarded. Nature requires us to be right in discovering her secrets, or can be unforgiving. Disagree with the law of gravity and you'll be schooled very quickly. It is not "discrimination" to reject wrong ideas. Ideas, under the natural selection of Reality, rise or fall by their own merits. When evidence shows that an idea is false, you are not commiting a moral transgression by saying out loud "this idea is wrong". Align yourself with the humble attitude of accepting whatever is true, instead of idea X or idea Y. Some people cling to ideas not because they are right, but because they satisfy some felt need. But ideas let in by this means will come to dominate your sense of self. To hear evidence against your idea can feel intolerable because it feels like your very nature is being attacked. But that idea came to dominate you because there was no "you" to doorkeep, and it took over without a fight. The solution is to dissociate from that identification and to stand on your own, and take a sober look from outside. If an idea doesn't pass muster, you'll find it much easier to let go of.

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do YOU do, sir?" - John Maynard Keynes
While I'm not a fan of his economic theories, I do love this famous quote of his. It reflects perhaps the most important attitude about anything that one can have. I will call a spade a spade, and happily change my mind if and when the weight of evidence says to. Believe me, it is such a weight off one's mind to align yourself with whatever the Truth is, instead of feeling compelled to rigidly cling to a position, to please this or that person or group, or to keep up appearances, or to flatter yourself, or to never admit you've made a mistake, or to relieve yourself of the responsibility of effort. To align yourself with whatever the truth is means in a deep inner sense, you can relax. You are not in fear of Reality. You simply flow with it, seeking to know it and say what you know as clearly as you can. It doesn't mean you're proping yourself up as the smartest guy in the world. It means only that you will flow with the evidence and keep your commitment to What is True? as the evidence itself may change. For the philosophical among you, I believe this is a major part of Eastern philosophical wisdom of non-attachment. To be dogmatic is to be condemned to eternal anxiety, fearing the possibility that Nature may prove you wrong. If you have self-identified with a position, proving that position wrong can feel like proving your very soul wrong. If you instead align yourself with the Truth, then YOU are never proven wrong, it is instead an idea you had held which is proven wrong. Pause... and let that sink in! To self-identify with "I am always right" is to condemn yourself to eternal anxiety. To align yourself instead with "whatever the Truth is", is the essence of the quality we call - Integrity.


Judgment by the Weight of Evidence
Ideas deserve an honest hearing and close look. And in a complex world, assessing Truth is usually not quick and easy. Progress towards Truth will be quickest when scarce resources of time, energy and funds are most efficiently put to work. This requires a constant evaluation by the scientist of what we have come to call the Weight of Evidence. Essentially, the likelihood of an idea ultimately being correct based on the best evidence to date. Sometimes we're lucky and an idea can be ruled out with near perfect confidence if it fails a crucial test, or is seen to be the result of fraud or cherry-picking of relevant parameters or assumptions. But scientific testing requires technology, which will always have limitations. Sometimes, we can only say that the weight of evidence is strongly against an idea, but not yet conclusive, due to limitations in observations or computing power or understanding of the relevant physics. And since Science is an open system (i.e. we do not know a priori all the laws of Nature, they must be discovered), we must be constantly checking and double checking for errors. By this means, the weight of evidence must be given respect, or no progress is possible. The weight of evidence must be given respect, or one is left in a sea of self-made ignorance. If one refuses to acknowledge the verdicts of best evidence, that demonstrates an unwillingness to acknowledge the judgment of Nature herself. This is bias. A good scientist is unbiased - unbiased against the weight of evidence. Long-shot or baseless ideas remain so, until and unless they prove themselves better. They are not given 50/50 odds, they are not given grace-period credibility, they are given respect only in proportion to the weight of evidence. Some people mistakenly think that being unbiased means to give equal credibility to opposing ideas. It's not. To be unbiased means to be unbiased towards the objective science, unbiased towards the weight of evidence.

There is no reasonable alternative. In any compromise between truth and untruth, it is truth that loses and untruth that wins. In science, we "call a spade a spade". And we give proper respect if evidence points strongly towards this being a spade , we therefore judge it's very probably a spade. We don't say "well, all possible, conceivable evidence isn't necessarily in, so we remain 50/50 on where truth lies". This is not fair minded, this is not open minded, that does not advance our knowledge - this is biased. Biased against the weight of evidence. Biased against where Nature is telling us Truth by rights is pointing itself to be. In a heavily politicized field, one often sees this bizarre notion of fairness being used to promote an agenda. To pick two examples... I'll be pretty critical of astrology, because the weight of evidence is crushingly obvious. And if 30% of the classroom believes in astrology, I hope that an uncompromising look will help educate those 30%. I am doing you no favors to do otherwise. Again, align yourself with the Truth, and not with idea X. On global warming, the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly that it is occuring, and that the dominant (or perhaps only) cause is human activities - primarily the burning of fossil fuels (see your climate resource page). Nature doesn't care that the oil and mining interests are waging a strategic, well-funded campaign of dis-information which has weakened the American conviction on anthropogenic global warming. It's not fair-minded to be 50/50 on where the strong weight of evidence points. It's actually extremely dangerous to our future.

I have seen many students in my two decades at Cabrillo who are belligerantly, dogmatically attached to some idea which may have some psychological appeal but which is strongly disfavored by the weight of evidence. I'm still searching for a way to consistently get through to these students. To get through, that they do not need to attach their self-worth and self-concept to an idea that somewhere inside them they probably know is wrong (like for example astrology, or some other pseudo-science). Instead, attach their self-concept and self-worth to "whatever the truth is". I recently had a personal experience with this issue. I've been a registered Libertarian for most of my adult life, and my philosophical sympathy with the libertarian paradigm dates back to age 14. In the course of assembling my website on Politics and Science of Global Warming , I discovered that the the most prestigious of libertarian think tanks - the Cato Institute - has significant financial support from Big Oil and has compromised its integrity by supporting biased, junk science on climate. It got me thinking about some basic tenets of libertarianism. The result - I'm now a registered Indepdent, and still pondering what a valid and consistent political philosphy would be. The interesting and gratifying thing is - the transition really wasn't that hard or traumatic. I got a chance to see myself in a situation in which I put some of my students - to challenge strongly held attachments - and I feel more convinced than ever that dogmatic clinging is damaging and completely unnecessary.

On Intellectual Objectivity
What does all this imply about the art of teaching? Just this - that a good teacher will not merely present possibly significant or at least commonly quoted alternate ideas purportedly explaining a set of phenomena, but will also present what the current weight of evidence says about each. If lecture time is really limited, it is best practice to present in any detail only the idea(s) the evidence favors. For the others, tell students "there are other ideas, but they're looking pretty weak by the evidence", and give them links to study on their own. Period. To do otherwise is simply not honest. Especially for a classroom of non-science majors who may be in their first serious exposure to science, such as in many community college classes such as this one - it is a huge disservice to fail to present what the weight of evidence says. In the mind of most beginning students, any idea presented without criticism by a teacher they trust will likely be given credibility. To present an idea, but fail to explain when the weight of evidence is strongly against it, is to grant that idea a credibility in the mind of a student which that idea does not deserve. A credibility it has not earned. It displays BIAS on the part of the instructor.

The Medium and the Message
Note too, that every word, every phrase, every omission and commission, is guided by the desire of a teacher to deliver a message. We are all geniuses at reading between the lines at what the message is. Unfortunately, we are not always on alert to be conscious that that is what is happening. I urge you to be conscious of what the message is, so you can judge whether it's a good one or not. As a happy example, I've been fortunate enough to listen many times to the lectures of my good friend Dave Schwartz at his Geology 27 class at Pinnacles National Monument. As I listen, I can hear in my mind the goal-oriented structure underneath which guided the design of those lectures. I hear... what is the geologic history of Pinnacles and how best to present the evidence leading to our understanding of that history? Stratigraphy at Pinnacles vs the Neenach Formation is key. But understanding that requires understanding rock types, so let's show them in person the rocks on a hike from Bear Gulch to the high peaks at Pinnacles. To understand rock types, they need to understand some physical chemistry and describe the cooling rates of molten rocks - how best to show that? Grain crystal sizes; microscopic for these fast-cooling rocks, show by examples along the trail. Now, Pinnacles and Neenach are hundres of miles apart, so I need to show how movement along the San Andreas accomplished this, show calculations of slip rates and how they give pretty decent agreement with the offsets. So we'll want to SEE the old trace of the San Andreas fault; which we can do from this spot on the trail, so make a lecture here. etc. etc. Dave doesn't SAY these goals explicitly, but any student who's listening will experience them in the delivery of the message. It's a good message - oriented around what is the truth and how best to show the evidence for it? And, it is great to see Cabrillo reward him for his great teaching with the Floyd Younger Award. Most of you, unfortunately, can probably think of much less happy experiences in your K-12 classes (hopefully not at Cabrillo). Where a teacher shows impatience towards students who want reasoned evidence. Where a teacher has a clear agenda which conflicts with the weight of evidence. Where a teacher's goals are murky, or who's only trying to spoon feed factoids for later regurgitation at an exam. Or who is defensive about their lack of proper knowledge in their field. Or who may be kind and gentle and even well-intentioned, but also doesn't understand the field. Or who's idea of helping you build good self esteem is in handing out "A"'s for mediocre work. If that's the message, challenge your instructor to be explicit about what message he/she is intending to send. Be conscious of the message.

Challenging your Teachers
Two people who respect the weight of evidence and who are sincerely aligned with discovering the truth but who come from different directions, can make for a spirited and enjoyable debate. It's really one of the great joys of science to be at a colloquium and hear an exchange and see the logic and the evidence win over the other side. Makes me feel good to be part of the human species and in the company of fellow scientists, every time. It is the most frustrating and infuriating experience, on the other hand, to watch (or worse, be part of) a "debate" which does NOT have both sides in single-minded pursuit of the truth and fairly following the rules of evidence. If you feel your teachers are not telling you the straight truth, challenge them, and don't let them off if they can't give you an honest answer with evidence. This school is here for you, to learn. It's not here as a soapbox for teachers to inculcate what they want, regardless of the truth. Feel free to challenge me on ideas if you think I'm wrong, or if you don't believe I've made a case for what I've said. I'll always be happy to present the reasons why scientists favor the ideas that they do. If I don't know the answer, I'll simply say so, and try to find the answer you want, or lead you to how you can discover it yourself. But if the weight of evidence lies strongly in one direction, don't expect me to back down in order to be gentle towards people overinvested in ideas not passing muster. I'll be uncompromising in saying where the current weight of evidence lies. If you ask me about something harder to pin down (like, do you believe in ET's?), I'll give my thoughts and label clearly what is well supported and what is not.

I hope you enjoy my teaching. I do love exploring with you what we've learned about how the World works.

-Richard Nolthenius