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Econ talk on The Blind Spot, Science and Uncertainty

May 22, 2011

For about 5 years now, I’ve given up listening to music in favor of listening to podcasts. One of my favorites is Russ Roberts’ Econ Talk. Roberts invites very interesting thinkers on his show and then conducts in-depth hour long interviews that are often very captivating. Last week, he interviewed William Byers, Author of Blind Spot, Science and Uncertainty, which just jumped up on my reading list. Roberts interview spanned the gamut of topics from the nature of science to teaching, the nature of creativity and more.

In the interview, Roberts reads this quote from the book:

You cannot understand a definition by parsing it. You acquire an understanding by working with the definition in many different circumstances, by thinking about it, by solving problems involving the concept, and by making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Understanding is a process without end. At a certain stage in the process, one can say, “I understand randomness.” But in reality, you can always understand it better, understand it differently. The better you understand it the more grounded you are in the primal notion. Randomness is not a thing. In a way, it does not exist; it is open and inevitably incomplete. Yet every formal definition produces it own reality that needs to be understood. All interesting and important concepts have definitions with this kind of depth. An explicit formulation is not the definition, but should be thought of as an “entry point,” the beginning of an exploration. We the work with this (tentative) definition trying to expand our understanding. We do this by exploring in two directions simultaneously—backward by evoking the informal situation out of which it arose, forward by exploring examples and consequences. In the process of this exploration, our understanding will be expanded and made subtler. This process may then be iterated a number of times. Each subject we explore should be thought of more as a “field” (like an energy field in physics) than a fixed definite object. A field does not have fixed objective meaning. It is much larger than that.

This is a lengthy quote, but it beautifully describes the process of learning science for me. Now how can I help my students to see this?

Roberts and Byers go on to talk about teaching, and in particular, teaching the science of wonder versus the science of certainty, which he explains nicely in the quote below from the show notes:

As a teacher, in economics, I’m often torn between the science of wonder and the science of certainty. It’s very tempting to teach equations and graphs with neat, clean answers that make for good exam questions. But as I get older, I find myself really interested in conveying a sense of wonder. So, when I talk about the price system–which Hayek, by the way, called a “marvel,” really capturing your concept of the science of wonder–it’s much deeper and more important for my students to be amazed by the price system than for them to be able to answer an exam question about it. But then again, I have to give exams. And so, pedagogically, I’d love to give a set of wonder-full lectures rather than analytical lectures, so I do a mix of both.

I certainly find myself identifying with Roberts’s quote above. Byers’s response is also quite powerful:

So my answer is: If you don’t develop the other [a sense of wonder], and I grant that this makes teaching into an art and not a science–it’s just easy to convey the fact–but it’s hard to convey the wonder of the situation, how remarkable it is. And even in mathematics, these are problems that actually intelligent human beings found intellectually exciting and stimulating, and not just a set of techniques that you have to memorize. Or a set of blocks you have to arrange in a certain order. It’s like building a Lego house. Like a proof is you just show the different steps and when you are done you have a house. I think you lose the poetry of the discipline, for sure. I think that’s precisely my point. In my first book, which was about mathematics, I made this point about that notion that even every proof is based on an idea. You mention this wonderful analogy as a Lego system. We think of it as a kind of Lego system, but actually if you look carefully at any argument in any subject, you’ll see that in fact it’s built around an idea. If you’ve got the idea, in my opinion, you can forget about the details and reconstruct the argument. But, when you study a subject from a formal point of view, no one tells you what the ideas are. Funny how that works. That’s something you talk about and evoke very nicely, which is the sense of exploration, the sense of discovery. Obviously if someone tells you how to get from A to B, it looks rather mundane. You just go here, take a left here, take a right there. But the actual journey, the person who first mapped it out, it’s almost an unparalleled human experience.

As my students are studying busily for the exam tomorrow, emailing me with all sorts of questions about how to solve this or calculate that, I’m wondering how I can better teach them to focus on the journey—the idea, and use that to reconstruct the techniques and procedures.

The entire podcast is great—so I encourage you to check it out.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 10:06 am

    Thanks for the directing me to the podcast. It’s great! I’d love to center a discussion at the beginning of the year around it. (Maybe like a socratic seminar — good thing the transcript is posted!)

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