ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
Psychologist, Hope College
(Michigan); Author, A
Quiet World: Living with Hearing
Doubling Hearing Aid Functionality
I foresee a friendlier future
for us 31 million Americans with hearing loss. It's
no news that cochlear implants, which were unavailable
to my late-deafened mother, should spare me her fate. But
few people are aware that many more of us could benefit
by doubling the functionality of our hearing aids.
We can dream of a future where
hearing aids serve not only as sophisticated microphone
amplifiers, but also as wireless loudspeakers that deliver
clear, customized sound. In theatres, auditoriums,
worship centers, airport lounges, drive-up order stations,
and home TV rooms, sound signals will be transmitted via in-the-ear
loudspeakers, much like wi-fi transmissions to laptops.
Good news! That future
has arrived in the UK and much of Scandinavia, and now
here in more than one hundred west Michigan facilities,
and it is coming to several other American cities. When
people experience public address or TV sound via "hearing
aid compatible assistive listening" (with their flick
of a hearing aid switch) they typically respond with amazed
joy. What's more, they report increased satisfaction
with their hearing aids.
It's a challenge to persuade
a nation to exchange its current hearing assistive technology
(which requires locating, checking out, and wearing conspicuous
headsets) for a technology that many more people would
actually use. But the results of our west Michigan
experiment, and another in 1000 California homes, supports
my optimism. Doubling hearing aid functionality will
greatly increase hearing aid acceptance and use.
With on-the-horizon technology,
we can also foresee music buffs with wireless ear bud loudspeakers. When
that day comes, having something in one's ear will
become as mundane as glasses for the eyes, and millions
of people with hearing loss will be enjoying fuller and
more connected lives.
of Skeptic magazine,
monthly columnist for Scientific
American; Author, Why
and The Decline of Magic
am optimistic that science is winning out over magic
and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the
data from pollsters on what people believe. For example,
a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent
of Americans believe that "living things have
existed in their present form since the beginning of time." The
situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions,
such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002
National Science Foundation study:
I take the historian's long view,
and compared to what people believed before the Scientific
Revolution, there is much cause for optimism. Consider
what people believed a mere four centuries ago, just as
science began lighting candles in the dark. In 16th- and
17th-century England, for example, almost everyone believed
in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, astrology,
black magic, demons, prayer, and providence. "A great
many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose
anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers,
whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at
their hands," noted Bishop Latimer in 1552. Saints
were worshiped. Liturgical books provided rituals for blessing
cattle, crops, houses, tools, ships, wells, and kilns,
not to mention the sick, sterile animals, and infertile
couples. In his 1621 book, Anatomy of Melancholy,
Robert Burton explained, "Sorcerers are too common;
cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them,
in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help
almost all infirmities of body and mind."
Just as alcohol and tobacco were essential anesthetics
for the easing of pain and discomfort, superstition and
magic were the basis for the mitigation of misfortune.
As the great Oxford historian of the period, Keith Thomas,
writes in his classic 1971 work Religion and the Decline
of Magic, "No one denied the influence of the
heavens upon the weather or disputed the relevance of astrology
to medicine or agriculture. Before the seventeenth century,
total skepticism about astrological doctrine was highly
exceptional, whether in England or elsewhere." And
it wasn't just astrology. "Religion, astrology and
magic all purported to help men with their daily problems
by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account
for it when it struck." With such sweeping power over
nearly everyone, Thomas concludes, "If magic is to
be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques
to allay anxiety when effectives ones are not available,
then we must recognize that no society will ever be free
from it." The superstitious we will always have with
the rise of science ineluctably attenuated this near
universality of magical thinking by proffering natural
explanations where before there were only supernatural
ones. Before Darwin, design theory (in the form of William
Paley's natural theology, which gave us the "watchmaker" argument)
was the only game in town so everyone believed that life
was designed by God. Today less than half believe that
in America, the most religious nation of the developed
democracies, and in most other parts of the world virtually
everyone accepts evolution without qualification. That's
rise of science even led to a struggle to find evidence
for superstitious beliefs that previously needed no propping
up with facts. Consider the following comment from an early
17th-century book that shows how even then savvy observers
grasped the full implications of denying the supernatural
altogether: "Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft
is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft
(contrary to what has been so long generally and confidently
affirmed), why should we think that there are devils? If
no devils, no God."
transitioned into empirical magic and formalized methods
of ascertaining causality by connecting events in nature—the very basis of science. As science grew
in importance, the analysis of portents was often done
meticulously and quantitatively, albeit for purposes both
natural and supernatural. As one diarist privately opined
on the nature and meaning of comets: "I am not ignorant
that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are
frequently also the presages of imminent calamities."
Science arose out of magic, which it ultimately displaced.
By the 18th century, astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry
succeeded alchemy, probability theory dislodged belief
in luck and fortune, city planning and social hygiene
attenuated disease, and the grim vagaries of life became
less grim, and less vague. As Francis Bacon concluded
in his 1626 work, New Atlantis: "The end
of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the
secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds
of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."
Sic itur ad astra — Thus
do we reach the stars.
Author, Machines That Think
What Really Happens To Humans In Groups
seventeen I saw that contemporary literature—I studied
it then, and hoped eventually to be part of it—is an abyss
of despair. No surprise: it reflects the unspeakable
circumstances of the 20th century. Even so, it's no good
thing to be seventeen and without hope. Luckily, chance
brought me together with some scientists, and I discovered
that in science, optimism was, and is, abundant.
Since then, I've spent much of my life trying to persuade
my friends in the humanities that optimism on behalf
of the human condition is a plausible point of view.
It isn't the only point of view—the 20th century's
horrors are a fact, and most of them happened through
human agency. But the full life can support several
points of view, often simultaneously, and my personal
inclination is toward optimism, however qualified it
For a long time my optimism centered on computing in
general, and what kinds of benefits it might bring us.
Events have shown I entertained far too modest an optimism—I'm
embarrassed to say that the impact of the Internet, in
particular the World Wide Web, eluded me completely at
first. A few years ago, I returned to artificial
intelligence, which I'd written about early on, and then
gone away from. Press narratives were uncritical about
the field's death throes, and I expected to write an
elegy. Instead, I found a revelation. Artificial intelligence
is not only robustly healthy, building on its very significant
gains since I first wrote about it, but the field's present
ambitions burst with, well, vitality.
Lately I've been examining a new aspect of computing,
the modeling of human behavior in groups, small and large,
beginning from the bottom up, playing out dynamically,
as only computer models allow. Years ago, in a casual
dinner conversation with a social scientist, I wondered
aloud if what prevented us from understanding what really
happens to humans in groups is that we haven't found
the code. I meant to make a vague comparison between
the genetic code and something hypothetical that encoded
human behavior. Instead of laughing, she solemnly agreed.
Such a code is not yet on the horizon, but thanks to
some marvelous new work by very gifted social scientists,
its intimations are teasing us. I'm optimistic
that it will eventually be found. When it is, it will
be a scientific triumph. It will open not just the future
to our understanding, but also the past. It will be a
What will it mean to have such a code? For one thing
we can plan more intelligently. Want to wage a war? Call
in the experts to run a few scenarios for you, laid out
in bottom-up detail, humans and their interactions with
each other and the terrain they're going to fight it
Watch silicon agents melt away to fight you another day;
watch them reach out for help elsewhere. Once you watch
the model run its course, maybe you don't want to fight
that particular war after all. Want to predict the possible
spread of a disease? Good, the silicon model will tell
you how many will fall, and where you can intervene to
pinch off contagion effectively, where it's a waste of
effort. Want to figure out the ebb and flow of urban
crime waves? And then how to prevent them? Play it out
in silicon first. Why do humans cooperate, at least as
much as they compete? Compare identical silicon societies,
same people, same resources, but vary the amount of cooperation,
the amount of competition. Which one collapses?
Which one survives? Which one thrives? Where's
the tipping point?
Perhaps as interesting, we'll be able to reach backward
in time. How, really, did Mesopotamia become a desert
when once it had supported a network of rich societies? How
much of that collapse was climate change, how much human
folly? Build a model of early modern Europe and show
what really caused the European Renaissance. Compute
in detail how Great Britain came to rule the waves—and
then didn't any more.
We assume we've solved some of these problems, though
historians dispute one another ferociously, as do epidemiologists,
as do economists, sometimes over details, sometimes over
emphasis, sometimes over fundamental assumptions. Here
comes a chance to nail it down, and these techniques
offer us insights we couldn't get any other way. Finding
the code I once thought was only hypothetical will revolutionize
our view of who we are, how we got that way, and who
we might become, the same way cracking the genetic code
But of course I'm chronically too modest in my hopes,
so you can comfortably hope for more.
Communications Expert; Author, Smart Mobs
The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds
The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds. This does not guarantee that they will do the hard work of democratic self-governance: the tools that enable the free circulation of information and communication of opinion are necessary but not sufficient for the formation of public opinion. Ask yourself this question: Which kind of population seems more likely to become actively engaged in civic affairs — a population of passive consumers, sitting slackjawed in their darkened rooms, soaking in mass-manufactured culture that is broadcast by a few to an audience of many, or a world of creators who might be misinformed or ill-intentioned, but in any case are actively engaged in producing as well as consuming cultural products? Recent polls indicate that a majority of today's youth — the "digital natives" for whom laptops and wireless Internet connections are part of the environment, like electricity and running water — have created as well as consumed online content. I think this bodes well for the possibility that they will take the repair of the world into their own hands, instead of turning away from civic issues, or turning to nihilistic destruction.
The eager adoption of web publishing, digital video production and online video distribution, social networking services, instant messaging, multiplayer role-playing games, online communities, virtual worlds, and other Internet-based media by millions of young people around the world demonstrates the strength of their desire — unprompted by adults — to
learn digital production and communication skills. Whatever
else might be said of teenage bloggers, dorm-room video
producers, or the millions who maintain pages on social
network services like MySpace and Facebook, it cannot
be said that they are passive media consumers. They seek,
adopt, appropriate, and invent ways to participate in
cultural production. While moral panics concentrate the
attention of oldsters on lurid fantasies of sexual predation,
young people are creating and mobilizing politically
active publics online when circumstances arouse them
to action. 25,000 Los Angeles high school students used
MySpace to organize a walk-out from classes to join street
demonstrations protesting proposed immigration legislation.
Other young people have learned how to use the sophisticated
graphic rendering engines of video games as tools for
creating their own narratives; in France, disaffected
youth, the ones whose riots are televised around the
world, but whose voices are rarely heard, used this emerging "machinima" medium to create their own version of the events that triggered their anger (search for "The French Democracy" on video hosting sites). Not every popular YouTube video is a teenage girl in her room (or a bogus teenage girl in her room); increasingly, do-it-yourself video has been used to capture and broadcast police misconduct or express political opinions. Many of the activists who use Indymedia — ad-hoc alternative media organized around political demonstrations — are young.
My optimism about the potential of the generation of digital natives is neither technological determinism nor naive utopianism. Many-to-many communication enables but does not compel or guarantee widespread civic engagement by populations who never before had a chance to express their public voices. And while the grimmest lesson of the twentieth century is to mistrust absolutist utopians, I perceive the problem to be in the absolutism more than the utopia. Those who argued for the abolition of the age-old practice of human slavery were utopians.
Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of History of Science, Harvard University; Author, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought
The Increasing Coalescence of Scientific Disciplines
Under our very eyes, research in science has been taking a courageous and promising turn, to realize in our time an ancient dream.
Since Thales and other philosophers on the island in the Ionian Sea, over 2500 years ago, there has been an undying hope that under all the diverse and fluctuating phenomena, there could be found in Nature a grand, majestic order. This fascination, the "Ionian Enchantment," persisted ever since in various forms.
Thus, Isaac Newton thought mechanical forces that explained the motions of the solar system would also turn out to run all else, including human senses. After Darwin's magnificent synthesis, many attempts were made to extend it to include all societal phenomena. The influential Austrian polymath, Ernst Mach, to whom young Einstein referred as one of his most important influences, taught that the true task of scientific research is to establish a form of fundamental science, an Einheitswissenschaft, on which is based every different specialty. From about 1910 on, an increasing number of scientists in Europe and America gave allegiance to the idea of the "Unity of Science," a widespread movement hoping to find functioning bridges between not only different sciences but also between science and philosophy—Niels Bohr being one of the prominent promoters.
But, by and by, it became clear that such hopes were at best premature, that there was not enough of what William James had called "cash value," in terms of having secured many actual accomplishments—not least in attaining a Unified Field Theory. At one of the last meetings devoted to discussions about the Unity of Science, in 1956, J. Robert Oppenheimer, with typical eloquence, offered a valedictory to the Ionian Enchantment, with these words:
"It may be a question [whether there] is one way of bringing a wider unity in our time. That unity, I think, can only be based on a rather different kind of structure than the one most of us have in mind....The unity we can seek lies really in two things. One is that the knowledge that comes to us in such terrifyingly inhumanly rapid rate has some order in it....The second is simply this: We can have each other to dinner. We ourselves, and with each other by our converse, can create, not an architecture of global scope,but an immense, intricate network of intimacy, illumination, and understanding."
But even as such opinions were accepted with resignation, something new had been born, quietly grew, and in our time has become the source of increasing optimism about the value of the old dream—by turning in a new direction. I mean that scientific research, at first only sporadically during the last century, but more and more in our time, has been successfully reaching out for a new sort of unity—in practice, for an integration among disciplinary fragments. This time the movement is not driven by a philosophy of science or a search for the Ur-science. Rather it is appearing as if spontaneously in the pursuit and progress of research science itself.
There is an increasing coalescence of scientific disciplines in many areas. Thus the discovery of the structure of the genome not only required contributions from parts of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and information technology, but in turn it led to further advances in biology, physics, chemistry, technology, medicine, ecology, and even ethics. And all this scientific advance is leading, as it should, to the hopeful betterment of the human condition (as had been also one of the platform promises of the Unity of Science movement, especially in its branch in the Vienna Circle).
Similar developments happen in the physical sciences—a coalescence of particle physics and large-scale astronomy, of physics and biology, and so forth. It is a telling and not merely parochial indicator that about half of my 45 colleagues in my Physics Department, owning to their widespread research interests, now have joint appointments with other departments at the University: with Molecular and Cellular Biology, with Mathematics, with Chemistry, with Applied Sciences and Engineering, with History of Science. Just now, a new building is being erected next to our Physics Department. It has the acronym LISE, which stands for the remarkable name, Laboratory of Integrated Science and Engineering. Although in industry, here and there, equivalent labs have existed for years, the most fervent follower of the Unity of Science movement would not have hoped then for such an indicator of the promise of interdisciplinarity. But as the new saying goes, most of the easy problems have been solved, and the hard ones need to be tackled by a consortium of different competences.
From other parts of this university, plans are under way to set up a program for higher degrees in the new field of Systems Biology, which has the goal of reaching "an integrated understanding" of biological/medical processes; that program is to bring together faculty and students from biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computation and engineering. And these parochial examples are indications of a general trend in many universities. The new password to success is now "integration" and "interdisciplinarity." If an "official" sacralization of this movement were needed, it would be the 2005 release of a big volume by the National Academy of Sciences, with the title "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research."
All this is not precisely what the philosophers and scientists, from Thales on, were hoping for. We will not, at least not for a long time, have that grand coalescence of all sciences and more. What has come lacks exalted philosophical pretensions, being instead a turn to weeks and years of many-heads-together, hands-on work on specific, hard problems of intense scientific interest, many of them also of value to society at large.
And, of course, these co-workers can also still have each other to dinner.
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence
We Will Soon Devise a Scientific Theory for the Perennial Mind-Body Problem
The enigmatic relation between conscious experiences and the physical world, commonly known as the mind-body problem, has frustrated philosophers at least since Plato, and now stonewalls scientists in their attempts to construct a rigorous theory. Yet I am optimistic that, despite millennia of prior failures, we will soon devise a scientific theory for this perennial problem.
Why such optimism? First, the mind-body problem is now recognized as a legitimate scientific problem. In 2005, the journal Science placed it second in a list of 125 open questions in science. During the twentieth century, a multi-decade detour into behaviorism sidelined scientific investigation of the mind-body problem. But three decades into the cognitive revolution, the problem was dusted off and again given serious scientific attention.
Second, scientists soon rediscovered that the problem is surprisingly hard. Neurophysics, real and artificial neural networks, classical and quantum algorithms, information and complexity—standard tools that prove powerful in the study of perception, cognition and intelligence—have yet to yield a single scientific theory of conscious experiences. We cannot, for instance, answer the basic question: Why must this particular pattern of neural activity or this functional property cause, or be, this particular conscious experience (say, the smell of garlic) instead of that other conscious experience (say, the smell of a truffle), or instead of no conscious experience at all? Precise predictions of this type, de rigueur for genuine scientific explanations, have yet to be fashioned, or even plausibly sketched, with the standard tools.
Third, although science is laudably conservative, yet when pushed to the wall by recalcitrant data and impotent theories, scientists have repeatedly proved willing to reexamine dearly held presuppositions and to revise or jettison the ineffectual in favor of unorthodox assumptions, provided that these assumptions permit the construction of explanatory theories that answer to data. Aristarchus, then Copernicus, countenanced a heliocentric solar system, Newton action at a distance, Einstein quanta of light and distortions of space-time, Bohr probability waves, superpositions and nonlocality. Theories of quantum gravity now posit eleven dimensions, vibrating membranes, and pixels of space and time. The initial response to such proposals is, invariably, widespread incredulity. But considerations of explanatory power and empirical adequacy, wherever they point, eventually win the day. Scientists revise their offending presuppositions, adjust psychologically as best they can to the new world view, and get on with the business of science in the new framework.
Evidence is mounting that the mind-body problem requires revision of deeply held presuppositions. The most compelling evidence to date is the large and growing set of proposals now on offer. All are nonstarters. They are, to quote Pauli, not even wrong. We have yet to see our first genuine scientific theory of the mind-body problem. This has prompted some to conclude that homo sapiens has been cheated by evolution and simply lacks the requisite concepts: Those concepts necessary for us to survive long enough to reproduce did not include those necessary to solve the mind-body problem. If so, there is little hope, at present, for swift progress.
I am optimistic, however, that the obstacle is not in our genes but in our presuppositions. Tinkering with presuppositions is more clearly within the purview of current technology than tinkering with our genes. Indeed, tinkering with one's presuppositions requires no technology, just a ruthless reconsideration of what one considers to be obviously true. Science has risen to the task before. It will rise again. But progress will be tortuous and the process psychologically wrenching. It is not easy, even in the light of compelling data and theories, to let go of what once seemed obviously true.
Here are some obvious truths that guide current attempts to solve the mind-body problem: Physical objects have causal powers. Neural activity can cause conscious experiences. The brain exists whether or not it is observed. So too does the moon, and all other physical objects. Consciousness is a relative latecomer in the evolution of the universe. Conscious sensory experiences resemble, or approximate, true properties of an independently existing physical world.
Will we soon be forced to relinquish some of these truths? Probably. If so, the current ontological predilections of science will require dramatic revision. Could science survive? Of course. The fundamental commitments of science are methodological, not ontological. What is essential is the process of constructing rigorous explanatory theories, testing them with careful experiments, and revising them in light of new data. Ontologies can come and go. One might endure sufficiently long that it is taken for a sine qua non of science. But it is not. An ontology breathed into life by the method of science can later be slain by that same method. Therein lies the novel power of science. And therein lies my optimism that science will soon succeed in fashioning its first theory of the mind-body problem. But at the feet of that theory will probably lie the slain carcass of an effete ontology.
Guardian; Author, The Darwin Wars
Proper Scientific Understanding of Irrationality
In General, and of Religion In Particular
not actually optimistic about anything very much,
but it's clear that if civilisation is to survive,
we need a proper scientific understanding of irrationality
in general, and of religion in particular. To be
optimistic about that is a precondition for optimism
about anything else. What might such an understanding
a start, it would be naturalistic and empirical. It
would not start from definitions of religion or faith,
but from a careful study, in the spirit of William
James, of how it is that religious people actually
behave and believe. What would be found, again in a
Jamesian spirit, is that there are varieties of religious
behaviour, as there are varieties of religious experience.
We would need to know how these are related to each
other, and to other things that are not described as
religious. It may well be that "religion" is
a concept no more useful than phlogiston.
would take seriously Dan Dennett's distinction between
beliefs and opinions—more seriously, I think,
than he sometimes does himself. A belief, in Dennett's
sense, is a kind of behaviour or a propensity to behave
as if certain things were true. It need not be conscious
at all. The kind of conscious, articulable propositions
about the world which most people mean by "belief" he
calls an "opinion".
this sense, an enquiry into religious belief would
be distinct from an enquiry into religious opinions:
Religious "belief" would involve all of the
largely unconscious mechanisms which lead people to
behave superstitiously, or reverently, or with a disdain
for heretics; religious opinions would be the reasons
that they give for this behaviour. We need to understand
both. It may be that their opinions would correspond
to their beliefs but that is something to be established
in every case by empirical enquiry. It's obvious that
in most cases they don't. Intellectuals are supposed
to be motivated by their opinions; some of them actually
are. But everyone is motivated by their beliefs and
prejudices as well.
particular, such an enquiry would be very careful about
what counts as evidence. A friend of mine who does
consciousness research once said sourly that "The
problem with the brain is that if you go looking for
something in there, you're very liable to find it." Similarly,
if you go looking for some particular quality in religious
belief you are likely to find it there, as well as
its opposite. What's needed is the distinctly scientific
attitude that takes disconfirming evidence seriously,
and doesn't respond to it by simply repeating the confirming
happened to see a play "On Religion" by the
British atheist philosopher AC Grayling last night,
which is an excellent dramatisation of some of these
issues. The atheist character, a woman lecturer, is
given a speech in which she recounts the story of a
scientist who has spent fifteen years arguing that
the Golgi apparatus does not in fact exist. It is an
artifact of the inadequacies of our microscopes. Finally,
he attends a lecture from a visiting cell biologists
who proves conclusively that the Golgi apparatus does
exist. And, just as the whole department is trying
to avoid his eye from sympathetic shame, he rushes
up to the lecturer, grabs his hand, and says "My
dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong
these fifteen years." It is an improving and inspiring
story, which pitches over into bathos as soon as the
atheist spells out the moral. "No religious person
could ever say that" she says. Has she really
never heard of the phenomenon of conversion? What do
the converted say, if not that some evidence has convinced
them they were wrong all their lives before?
I think, if I am to be optimistic, that there will
be a real breakthrough in the empirical study of religion,
at the end of which no scientist will ever feel able
to assert that "no religious person could ever
say" without making a careful enquiry into what
religious people actually do say and what they mean
of Astrophysics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Real Purity of Pure Science
grew up reading heroic stories about progress in
science, the absolute superiority of the scientific
method, the evil of superstition, and other one-dimensional
half a century later, I have a much more nuanced
view of progress, method, and ways of looking at
the world. What has been presented as the scientific
method, at any given time, has been a simplified
snapshot of an intrinsically much more opportunistic
enterprise. As such, much damage has been done by
suggesting that others areas, from social science
and economy to politics, should adopt such a simple
and always outdated picture.
strength of science is not at all its currently accepted
method. The strength is the fact that scientists
allow the method to change.
way the method changes is the exact same way through
which progress is made by applying the method in
doing everyday research. Change of method takes place
slowly and carefully, through long and detailed peer
discussions, and may be almost imperceptible in any
given field during the lifetime of a scientist. The
scientific method is like spacetime in general relativity:
it provides the stage for matter to play, but the
play of matter in turn affects the stage.
real basis for the success of science is its unique
combination of progressive and conservative elements.
A scientist gets brownie points for crazy new ideas,
as long as they are really interesting and stimulating,
and also for being extremely conservative in criticizing
any and all new ideas, as long as the criticism can
be shown to be valid. What is interesting in new
ideas and what is valid in criticism thereof is determined
solely by peer review, by the collective opinions
of the body of living scientists, not by falling
back on some kind of fixed notion of a method.
optimism is that other areas of human activities
can learn from science to combine conservative and
progressive approaches, taming the usual black-white
duality in a collaborative dance of opposites.
science has been held up as a beacon of hope, as
a way to allow scientists to pursue their own intuitions,
and thus to find totally new solutions to old problems.
This is seen in contrast to applied science, where
short-term goals do not allow sufficient room for
finding really new approaches. Indeed, the irony
here is that the best applications of sciences are
ultimately based on pure, rather than applied research.
moral of the story has been to say that long-term
research should not focus on goals, but rather it
should let the scientific method follow its own course.
Purified from goals, the scientific method is held
up as the beacon to follow. But I think this story
is still misleading. The greatest breakthroughs have
come from a doubly pure science, purified from goals
and methods alike. In small and large ways, each
major breakthrough was exactly a breakthrough because
it literally broke the rules, the rules of the scientific
method as it had been understood so far. The most
spectacular example has been quantum mechanics, which
changed dramatically even the notion of experimental
am optimistic that all areas of human activities
can be inspired by the example of science, which
has continued to thrive for more than four centuries,
without relying on goals, and without even relying
on methods. The key ingredients are hyper-critical
but non-dogmatic conservatism, combined with wildly
unconventional but well-motivated progressiveness.
Insofar as there is any meta-method, it is to allow
those ingredients to be played off against each other
in the enactments of scientific controversies, until
consensus is reached.
Executive Director, Center for the
Study of Language and Information,
Stanford; Author, The Millennium
Will Finally Get Mathematics Education Right
For the first time since Euclid started the mathematics education ball
rolling over two thousand years ago, we are within a generation of
eradicating innumeracy and being able to bring out the mathematical
ability that research has demonstrated conclusively is within (almost)
everyone's reach. The key to this development (actually two developments,
one in the developing world, the other in affluent, technology-rich
societies) is technology (actually two technologies).
First the developing world. Forget the $100 laptop, which I think has
garnered the support it has only because of the track record and charisma
of its principal advocate (Nicholas Negroponte), the ubiquitous computing
device that will soon be in every home on the planet is the mobile phone.
Despite the obvious limitations of a small screen and minimal input
capability, with well-crafted instructional materials it will provide the
developing world with accessible education in the basic numerical and
quantitative reasoning skills that will enable them to escape from the
poverty trap by becoming economically self-sufficient. Such a limited
delivery system would not work for an affluent consumer who has choices,
but for someone highly motivated by the basic desires of survival and
betterment, who has no other choice, it will be life transforming.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, the immersive,
three-dimensional virtual environments developed by the gaming industry
make it possible to provide basic mathematical education in a form that
practically everyone can benefit from.
We have grown so accustomed to the fact that for over two thousand years,
mathematics had to be communicated, learned, and carried out through
written symbols, that we may have lost sight of the fact that mathematics
is no more about symbols than music is about musical notation. In both
cases, specially developed, highly abstract, stylized notations enable us
to capture on a page certain patterns of the mind, but in both cases what
is actually captured in symbols is a dreadfully meager representation of
the real thing, meaningful only to those who master the arcane notation
and are able to recreate from the symbols the often profound beauty they
represent. Never before in the history of mathematics have we had a
technology that is ideally suited to representing and communicating basic
mathematics. But now, with the development of manufactured, immersive, 3D
environments, we do.
For sure, not all mathematics lends itself to this medium. But by good
fortune (actually, it's not luck, but that would be too great a digression
to explain) the medium will work, and work well, for the more basic
mathematical life-skills that are of the most value to people living in
modern developed societies.
Given the current cost of developing these digital environments (budgets
run into the millions of dollars), it will take some years before this
happens. We can also expect resistance from mathematics textbook
publishers (who currently make a large fortune selling a product that has
demonstrably failed to work) and from school boards who still think the
universe was created by an old guy with a white beard (no, not Daniel
Dennett) 6,000 years ago. But as massive sales of videogames drives their
production costs down, the technology will soon come within reach of the
This is not about making the learning of mathematics "fun." Doing math
will always be hard work, and not everyone will like it; its aficionados
may remain a minority. But everyone will achieve a level of competency
adequate for their lives.
Incidentally, I don't think I am being swayed or seduced by the newest
technology. Certainly, I never thought that television, or the computer,
or even artificial intelligence, offered a path to effective math
learning. What makes immersive 3D virtual environments the perfect medium
for learning basic math skills is not that they are created digitally on
computers. Nor is it that they are the medium of highly seductive
videogames. Rather, it is because they provide a means for simulating the
real world we live in, and out of which mathematics arises, and of doing
so in a way that brings out and confronts the player (i.e., learner) with
the underlying mathematical structure of our world. If Euclid were alive
today, this is how he would teach math.
Cultural Historian; Provost,
Georgetown University; Author, Augustine:
A New Biography
Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable
Karenina famously begins with the line, "Happy families
are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own
way." A little less famously and a great deal more
astutely, Nabokov turned the line on its head at the opening
of Ada: "All happy families are more or less dissimilar;
all unhappy ones are more or less alike." I'm
with Nabokov, and that's why I can be an optimist.
course in the long run, optimism is impossible. Entropy is
unforgiving: even a historian knows that.
history repeats itself. The same stupidities, the same vengeances,
the same brutalities are mindlessly reinvented over and over
again. The study of history can help the educated and the
wise avoid the mistakes of the past, but alas, it does nothing
for helping the numbskulls.
the study of the past and its follies and failures reveals
one surprising ground for optimism. In the long run, the
idiots are overthrown or at least they die. On the other
hand, creativity and achievement are unique, exciting, liberating—and
abiding. The discoveries of scientists, the inventions of
engineers, the advances in the civility of human behavior
are surprisingly durable. They may be thwarted or attacked,
and at any given moment it may seem that the cause of women's
rights is beleaguered in too many places in the world. But
the idea of women's equality with men is not going away.
Too few students may master the natural sciences, but the
understanding enshrined in Newton's laws of motion and the
calculus are not going away. Too many people may eat and
smoke their way to early graves, but the accurate understanding
of the mechanisms of the human body and how they can be healed
and repaired and kept healthy—that's not going away
all, we started out in the African savannah, trying to run
fast enough to catch up with things we could eat and fast
enough to stay away from things that could eat us. Our natural
destiny is to squat in caves and shiver, then die young.
We decided we didn't like that, and we figured out how to
do better. Even if the numbskulls get their way and we were
to wind up back in a cave, we would remember—and we
wouldn't be in the cave long. We do not remember everything,
and there are losses. But we turn out to be a stubbornly
smart, resilient and persistent species, and we do not forget
the most important things.