Walnuts and engagement

3 October 2009

One of the things I really like about Corvallis is that so many different trees flourish here; there are at least two different kinds of walnut within a block of our house. We’ve harvested some already for eating, but there is a slightly menacing corollary of that bounty manifesting itself about this time of year. As if the hazards of being hit by a falling walnut or having your feet roll out from underneath you on a carpet of them wasn’t bad enough, when shedding fruit in great quantities, these trees draw crows in flocks large enough to qualify as Hitchcockian.

In attempting to devour the crop, crows can be seen trying to crack walnuts by attempting to pin them between their feet to peck at, or drop them from lamp posts, or wedge them in the manhole cover, or (my personal favorite) hurl them at human interlopers. Displaying an amazing variety of tactics, and using elements of the natural environment to their advantage, as well as (superficially, at least) learning from past mistakes presents something very close to empiricism.

How (or even whether) ‘science’ is defined differently than empiricism is evident in the Stanford article above, but a definition of ‘science’ is pretty difficult to pin down, even by example or in contrast. Nonetheless, it is something that isn’t present in the book Unscientific America, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. I liked a lot of things about the book, including their specific policy examples and seamless inclusion of philosophers of science in a discussion generally very practical in nature.

Their main point is diluted somewhat, though, by the absence of a definition of science, except by the research fields of either the authors themselves or those they quote. That range is not particularly broad, including primarily genetics, physics, astronomy, and some kinds of biology. This limitation to things that happen in the lab, and generally happen with complex infrastructure, either of mathematics or of instruments, does represent the esoteric and expensive character of a lot of contemporary research. It doesn’t, however, instill much fellow-feeling with other teachers or researchers, and while I agree that even without being overly thorough a definition of science could consume an entire book in itself, I think that a run at it would have helped the authors’ case.

One of the things I liked best about the book was that the authors don’t repeat the frequent lament about researchers bearing the burden of an uneducated public. Instead, they discuss the imperative for citizens to understand how scientific research and government policy fit into their lives while also pressing researchers and policy makers to own up to their lack of effort in teaching those citizens. This is a key point, illustrated by some insight into the training and career rewards of academic researchers. This also dovetails well with another distinction the authors make, and that is between citizen’s knowledge of isolated bits of information as opposed to a coherent fitting of conceptual knowledge with daily decisions. Another key point, and one not made often enough, especially not on purpose.

A curious omission is the lack of discussion about race, class, or gender in the science professions. This is an issue that can be either seemingly confirmed or apparently refuted, depending on whose anecdotes we listen to, but it is an important issue. It seems slightly inconsistent that the authors decry the weaknesses in the college education pipeline for scientists, but then in almost the next sentence, claim that the broken process produces high quality results. While I am not at all interested in attacking any career track or school or even mode of schooling, this a discussion of how rife the postdoc process is with infighting does not jibe with the successful products of that process having research as their greatest skill.

All of that said, I found that this book renewed my commitment to working in education, and to educating myself. The authors are arguing for greater public involvement in an important arena, as Jim Giles points out in a review in New Scientist, and that is a sentiment always worth stating.


2 Responses to “Walnuts and engagement”

  1. Gregg Christopher Says:

    Colin recently explained to me the bartender trick of cracking walnuts with one hand. If you hold two walnuts and press them together, one will break relatively easily, but breaking a single walnut barehanded is very difficult. (The trick is to break two, then suggest that the victim of the trick “start with just one.”)

    Hi Erik! How are you doing?

    • erikrau Says:

      Things are well, thanks. You? Alicia found either you or Colin on FaceBook awhile ago, so we looked at some pictures in which everyone looks exactly the same. Including Jerry Phillips, which is awesome.

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