[SFRA-L] "Teaching the controversy"
Allen, Virginia [ENGL]
vallen at iastate.edu
Wed Oct 26 02:36:19 EDT 2011
Starting with Nichols: this is very interesting, but it makes me a little squeamish. I'm going to follow up your lead here, but before that, I'd like to make a pitch for rhetoric.
I was reading a story last night by Simon Ings, "Russian Vine." The aliens come to take over the planet and to quell uprisings among the conquered humans, they (somehow, not specified) deprive them of literacy. Without literacy, the capacity for abstract thought is lost....
Remember when E. D. Hirsch was touting "cultural literacy"? And he listed all the bits of knowledge the culturally literate person ought to recognize: "The horror! The horror!" and "watered stocks." It reminds me of when TR wanted to lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill all on horseback and all waving their shot guns with blood curdling cries of exultation. They brought the horses over on the ship, but no one thought about how to get them off the ship without a wharf and most of them drowned. The horses drowned, not the Rough Riders, more's the pity.
Like most any English major would, Hirsch left out the architecture of reasoning: burden of proof and the ordinary language fallacies. Those bits of procedural knowledge that some of you all regard as the esoterica of ancient biblio-arcana. This brings us back to the question of what is a meme? Is the basic unit of human thinking more like the theme of Conrad's Heart of Darkness or is it more like a tree diagram or a Venn diagram? The POWER you have at your disposal when you start drawing diagrams!
There are three generally recognized methods of problem solving: (1) algorithmic -- follow the steps and you get a correct solution; (2) heuristic procedures -- the rules of thumb we use are systematic but the results are only probable; (3) trial and error -- when in trouble when in doubt run in circles scream and shout. (I wrote my dissertation on rhetorical theories with a heuristic component.) So much of rhetoric can be reduced to heuristics: the four stases -- an sit? quid sit? quale sit? and the question of jurisdiction, the Latin for which always flitters away from my decaying brain. Explanation forthcoming upon query. The heuristics of rhetoric are those procedural strategies that have stood the test of time.... But there are two things you should know about heuristics: (1) when you choose the right heuristic, they speed up problem solving like grease on a pole; (2) and if you choose an inappropriate heuristic, they will inhibit your search for a solution like nothing else in this world. All available homely metaphors seem really inappropriate right now.
The first part of "teaching the controversy" should be teaching what a pro-versus-contra looks like. Show me your analysis of an argument about the existence of Santa Claus, and then we'll talk about God. Break down the arguable points in "The Cold Equations," and then we can discuss whether the sex of the sacrificial innocent matters more when he is Isaiah son of Abraham or she is called Marilyn Lee Cross. Just matching claims to statements that do or do not support those claims is hard enough for some people. How can we make it easier? Draw a reusable diagram and then point.
I suppose we could blame Protagoras for saying there are two sides to every question, but I'm as sure as sure can be that you have to begin with the bare fundamentals of making claims and answering the claims of others. Not because it's an algorithmic process with a guaranteed solution if you go through the steps properly -- it's not that -- but because whether Jesus ever claimed to be God is not a tenable response to whether we have any need for the supernatural hypothesis in understanding evolution. Darwin probably wrote the Origin with Whately's explication of Paley's Natural Theology open beside him. To the best of my knowledge (notably brittle and thin as it is), there aren't any new claims to muddy the waters. This is what we call common knowledge. It's probable knowledge.
"Absence of proof is not proof of absence": and THAT is the supernaturalist's strongest claim. It's POSSIBLE but so far as anyone knows it is UNPROVABLE that some divine entity (none of the contenders has a stronger claim to that possibility than any of the others) or white mice are pulling all our invisible strings. It looks deadly dull and simplistic when you strip it down to the fundamentals, but there it is. Fred Pohl wrote a story in which a character very much like himself woke up one morning and all the mathematical constants had changed. Hello, Divine Presence.
Teaching someone to articulate what would have to be different for their hypothesis to be wrong is a teachable/learnable strategy almost as powerful as learning to draw diagrams. Biases, like cognitive strategies, can be taught and learned. I'm agin' setting up well-intentioned boundaries around instruction. I accept the rules for teaching offered by G. Polya: Rule 1. Know what you are supposed to teach. Rule 2. Know a little bit more than what you are supposed to teach. Allen's corollary is "Don't try to teach everything you know all at once." I'm still working on that part.
From: sfra-l-bounces at charlemagne.cddc.vt.edu [sfra-l-bounces at charlemagne.cddc.vt.edu] On Behalf Of Ryan Nichols [ryantatenichols at gmail.com]
Sent: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 9:18 PM
To: sfra-l at charlemagne.cddc.vt.edu
Subject: [SFRA-L] "Teaching the controversy"
After following the debate thus far about the SF conference at Oral Roberts, creationism/evolution and 'teaching the controversy', allow me to weigh in with a few follow-ups:
Perhaps the following is an appropriate way to bridge somewhat the opinions of Joan and Rich. Teach the controversy. Just don't do it in a science class. Do it in a history of science, history or philosophy of science class.
The biggest hurdle in changing the minds of people who endorse Intelligent Design Theory, Creationism and other non-evolutionary accounts of life typically goes unrecognized by proponents of evolutionary theory, even by prominent, best-selling proponents like Richard Dawkins. Evolution has itself selected for psychological modules that inhibit belief in evolution. Strange, you might think, but true, as those who have done research in the cognitive science of religion will be quick to point out. Research by E. Margaret Evans and D. Kelemen shows that children have a bias to explain events and states of affairs in nature by appeal to purpose and agency. J. Barrett and others have identified a module, called the 'hyper-active agency detection device', that produces belief in non-human agency under a variety of conditions; Barrett and others argue that this was an adaptation in the biological sense of the term. (False positives? Of course. But when an ancestral humans hear bumps in the night, would it be best that they return to sleep or fear that some agent is on the attack and react accordingly?) D. Johnson and others have shown pretty convincingly that human bands acquire fitness advantages in ubiquitous between-group competition by being religious as opposed to being non-religious. Welcome to the world of 'Supernatural Punishment Theory,' an incredibly fascinating interdisciplinary pursuit. On top of her early results, Kelemen has now done a fascinating experiment that strongly suggests that atheist scientists--atheist sciences with Ph.D.'s in the hard sciences no less--she wasn't making it easy on herself--will show a bias towards teleological explanations for natural states of affairs when those people are placed in speeded conditions!
The upshot is that atheism presents a number of cognitive struggles and subjects people to increased cognitive loads. In contrast the ingredients for teleological thinking and the transmission of 'minimally counterintuitive ideas' is not only natural but is argued to be or to have been adaptive. Engaging in deductive or inductive argument with creationists or anti-Darwinists is probably not going to convert believers. The underlying methodological presupposition behind 'teaching the controversy' is that doing so will change minds. Doubt it. I speak from my own limited experience thus far teaching philosophy and philosophy of religion. But I would suspect there are data about this from education science.
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