On Teaching

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world" - Nelson Mandela

The single biggest reason why we have come to be the dominant species on our planet is the ability to teach, and to 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 discovering and conveying the learnings and insights achieved by even just a single person, to millions. Through teaching, a student can digest the hard work of countless 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 knowledgeable are gorillas today compared to a few hundred years ago? (Hardly at all). What guides that process is a faithful dedication to the goal "what is the truth?" Truth, as judged by the evidence, and the "light bulb" experience our brains are pre-wired to give us when we mentally focus, and 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, a respect for the evidence given by Nature, and refinement by way of new observations and distinctions. See my Chapter 0 for more on the biological utility and psychological nature of "understanding", for the non-science student.

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

1. 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 and not hurting someone's fragile ego 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 civil rights. 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 abhorrent not just on some visceral emotional level, but rationally as well. But ideas are not people, they are abstractions, have no dignity to assault, no feelings to hurt, and they are either right and in harmony with Reality, or they are wrong and must be discarded. Even more to the point... too many people over-identify their very souls with ideas they dare not question. Nature requires us to be right in discovering her secrets, or can be very 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 committing a moral transgression by saying out loud "this idea is just plain wrong". Align yourself with the humble attitude of accepting "my goal is - 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 motive 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 door keep, and it took over without a fight. The solution is to dissociate from that dogmatic clinging, and to take a new, more sober look from a more truth-oriented place. You'll find it's much more empowering and satisfying to your ego to let go of this clinging to dogmatic belief than it ever was to cling to it in the first place. Don't confuse repression of psychic pain with the experience of power which comes from full consciousness! If an idea doesn't pass muster, you'll find it much easier to let go of.
Notice confirmation bias (1, 2)- filtering your attention to only notice what already agrees with your current ideas. Look critically at the claims and the evidence and then take responsibility for your decision on it. If you're in over your head in a particular area of study, look to see what the best experts say and let that be your starting point. Notice the kinds of motivations that may underlay the speaker's position. Admit openly when you're wrong, and that will clear the way mentally for you to get right. Apologize, QUICKLY, to those whom you have unjustly maligned, and this too will clear the way for you to return to a good place. You really want to indulge your ego? Fine; then at least do it the right way - make Truth your ego's top priority. Otherwise, admit and apologize as quickly as you know how. Staying wrong due to "fragile ego syndrome" is a miserable way to live. Don't compromise on what you know to be true, just to tip-toe around others' fragile egos. If you're over-worried about putting off your current friends, realize that living with more integrity will bring along another benefit - new friends that will better appreciate the best in you.

To summarize - don't self-identify with ideas outside of your control! It is a guaranteed path to anxiety and hence a strong temptation to get dogmatically defensive when such ideas are challenged. There is only one idea to self-identify with...

"I just want to know the truth"

2. "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do YOU do, sir?" - John Maynard Keynes
While I'm not a fan of some of his economic advice, 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. It is such a weight off one's self to simply re-align yourself with whatever the Truth is, instead of feeling compelled to rigidly cling to a position, or 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 thought and effort. To align yourself with whatever the truth is means in a deep inner sense, you can relax - the stakes are not your very worth, they're just your position on a certain idea. 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 propping yourself up as a brilliantly infallible person. 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 to be wrong. If you instead align yourself with "whatever the Truth is", 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 "getting to the actual Truth is my #1 priority above all else", is to flow, and is also the essence of the quality we call - Integrity.
I'd suggest practicing saying in your mind how you will acknowledge you were incorrect in your previous conclusions. It'll make it easier if the time comes. One of my favorite movie lines is in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Marion says " But Indy, you told me we'd be safe " and Indy responds with a resounding "Well I was WRONG!" while at the same moment dealing with the new situation. Not meekly, not apologetically, but as if it is our right and duty to say such a thing, with gusto, when called for. That was the moment I really started to get this issue, back in that 1981 movie theater.

"Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled" - Richard Feynman, at the NASA inquest into the Challenger disaster

3. 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 of what we have come to call the Weight of Evidence. Essentially, the likelihood of an idea ultimately being correct based on the evidence. 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 with respect to the weight of evidence. Long-shot or baseless ideas remain long-shot, 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. If no evidence is yet available to bring to bear, then one cannot say much. But, some people mistakenly think that being unbiased means to give equal credibility to opposing ideas. Worse, I've seen instructors in climate science posture as paragons of fair-mindedness while simultaneously ignoring, even refusing to look at, the massive evidence demolishing their position, instead giving credibility to so-called "other views". This is a travesty of teaching. To be unbiased means to be unbiased towards the objective science, unbiased with respect to the weight of evidence. If the evidence says X is true with 95% confidence, it is biased to present anything less than this 95% level of confidence to students.
Avoid the temptation to go with a black-or-white decision: "there is no possibility X is wrong" or "We know nothing". We know a lot, in most cases! Honor that!

There is no reasonable alternative. In any such compromise between truth and untruth, it is truth that loses and untruth that wins. In a heavily politicized field, one often sees this bizarre notion of fairness being used to promote an agenda while masquerading as healthy skepticism. 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 (like the U.S. at large), I hope that an uncompromising look will help educate those 30%. I am doing you no favors to coddle you otherwise. I'll go further - to coddle you otherwise shows cowardice on the part of the teacher - it is NOT an inspiring sight. Again, align yourself with the Truth, and not with idea X. Second example: on global warming, the weight of evidence is overwhelmingly that it is occurring (i.e. is not random "natural variation"), and that the dominant (indeed, only evidence-based) cause is human activities - primarily the burning of fossil fuels (see your climate resource site). The fossil fuel industry and their political allies are waging a strategic, well-funded campaign of disinformation which has weakened the American conviction on human-caused global warming. It's not fair-minded to be 50/50 on where the strong weight of evidence points. It's extremely dangerous to your future and everyone else's.

I have seen many students in my two decades at Cabrillo who are belligerently, dogmatically attached to ideas which may have some psychological appeal but which are strongly disfavored by the weight of evidence. I'm still searching for a way to consistently get through to these students... to get through to them 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). But to instead attach their self-concept and self-worth to the sincere desire to know the actual Truth. The problem is, it can feel frightening at first, to commit to "I just want to know the Truth" before actually letting go and seeing that Truth. The fear is - what if I discover my belief system is shown to be wrong? What will my friends think? What will society think? What if I'm left alone? And similar. I recently had a vivid personal experience with this issue. For most of my adult life, I had been a registered Libertarian, and my philosophical sympathy with the libertarian paradigm dates back to age 14. In the course of assembling my website on The Science and Politics of Global Warming , I discovered that the the most prestigious of libertarian think tanks - the Cato Institute - has its major financial support from Big Oil and leadership from the disgraced Heartland Institute (whose founder sits on their Board of Directors) and has compromised its integrity by supporting agenda-driven attacks against good climate science, and promoted junk science in its place. It got me thinking about some basic tenets of libertarianism and human good. The result - I registered as an Independent, and have been eager to find more time to ponder what a valid and consistent political/economic philosophy would be - the evidence says that such a philosophy has not yet been discovered or if it has, not put to use in the real world. In fact, I'm astounded at the brilliance that so many members of our species have shown, in science and art, and the absolute cesspool of stupid and/or corrupt people whom we have consistently allowed to assume power over us in politics, and often in business as well, in ALL countries throughout history. Astounded. I think if the Aliens ever arrive at Earth and try to understand our species, this will be the single most baffling puzzle for them to unravel. We have invented an institution - science - dedicated to pursuit of Truth above all else, yet society at large ignores or denies its discoveries except if it can be used to satisfy baser desires (status, bling, military power, etc).

The interesting and gratifying thing is - admitting I was wrong about Libertarian philosophy really wasn't that hard. Granted, I've had to experience a profound sense of betrayal at the hands of those I'd once had some respect for and who were close to me in my teaching life. But since I had not self-identified my very soul with any of it, but merely judgments I'd made based on available evidence and thought, it was not hard to reject it, given new knowledge. I got a chance to see myself in the kind of 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 to one's psyche and completely unnecessary. And socially, here's the rub - if you give in to the temptation to just "not make waves", you come to resent the very people who've pressured you to accept the unreality they want you to live by, and there is, in the end, no pleasure in currying their favor. In the end, we'll only feel rewarded by the friendship of ourselves to our deeper selves, and of those others whom we actually respect. The others, just don't matter.

4. 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 intellectually honest. I've seen lectures in which the ideas favored by the weight of evidence were given NO mention at all, and time spent ONLY on climate denial lies - amazingly! 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 - it is a huge disservice to fail to present what the weight of evidence says. In the mind of most 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 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.

5. The Medium and the Message
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. Some 80% of science teachers in American K-8 schools have NO degree in science (Re-read that - Amazing but true!). While high school science teachers in most states are required to have some demonstrated competence, this is not usually achieved by holding a BS or higher degree in science. In fact, it need only be a certificate. No wonder they look so uncomfortable when young students ask them questions. Notice when an instructor shows impatience towards students who want reasoned evidence; or when they deliver a message by implication, always leaving themselves an "out" for the cowardly purposes of plausible deniability, or where an instructor has a clear agenda which conflicts with the weight of evidence, or who is doggedly determined to give credibility to ideas that have long been shown to be false, all the while cloaking themselves in the veneer of unbiased fairness, when in fact it is oil company propogated lies. Where an instructor has an obvious standing policy to never admit when they are wrong and never ever to apologize. Where an instructor's goals are murky, or who is 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 inhibits a student who asks questions they, the instructor, cannot answer. Or who engages in petty turf wars to shut down a colleague unfairly. Or who may even be kind and gentle and perhaps well-intentioned, but also doesn't understand their field and refuses to acknowledge it; or whose idea of helping you build good self esteem is in handing out "A"'s for mediocre work, or patronizing you like fragile children who cannot handle simple truths, rather than believing in you as young college adults who can. If such as these are the messages, challenge your instructor to own up to what message he/she is intending to send. Be conscious of the message.
Confront them with the MESSAGE they are sending.

5. 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 experiences and knowledge bases, can make for a spirited and enjoyable debate in which both may benefit. 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. Where cover-ups, appearances, and childish manipulative defensiveness rule the day. 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 I and other scientists favor the ideas that we 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 spare the painful truth from people overinvested and "self-identified" 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 are inspired by my teaching. I do love exploring with you what we've learned about how the World works. I've had many, many students over the years - the best students - who find my teaching to be unique, insightful, and energizing.

 

-Richard Nolthenius