Saturday, August 26, 2006

Some Thoughts on Learning

brianj's comment on my previous post has got me to thinking about learning and formulating conclusions. He said:

"it would be more useful scientifically to discuss the shortcomings of the theory."

Do you feel this way about all science, or just evolution? What percentage of "facts" taught in schools, would you say, are without controversy or ambiguity? Is it limited to biological science, or does it also apply to history, law, physics, art, etc?
I replied:

Oh, I feel this way about any and every subject. It just seems as though evolution is given a pass. As for a percentage of facts without controversy or ambiguity, I wouldn't be able to say. Any subject that lends itself to interpretation, which is just about every one of them, can have at least some controversy or ambiguity. What concerns me is when things begin to be interpreted in only one way, when there isn't adequate support of evidence for doing so. If something is true, it will stay true through the rigors of honest investigation. Perhaps we rush to decide that something is a fact, when there needs to be further research and testing. Perhaps we let our biases determine too much (and really, us being human, this is always a problem).

(BTW, thanks for your questions, brianj!)

Very seldom do any of us simply list facts. We interpret them to illustrate a point, to reach a conclusion. Even if the facts themselves are very uncontroversial and unambiguous, we create a certain controversy or ambiguity when we begin to interpret them. Yet how else are we to progress in our learning? So interpretation in and of itself is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a necessary part of learning to put things together and thereby make progress.

I suppose what frustrates me is when an interpretation is one-sided and is then taught in schools as if it were the only correct interpretation. This is much of my quarrel with evolution and with history and with just about any subject you can think of. Certain views become popular, for whatever reason, and then become so entrenched in society that other views are suppressed or even condemned. What does this do to honest learning? It stifles honest learning. It closes avenues of investigation that might (or might not) lead to the truth.

It is true that this happens on both sides of any issue. We seem to become quite fond of a certain viewpoint and we stick with it no matter what. We become protective of it. We attack anyone who disagrees with it. Then what?

I know I do not find it easy to listen attentively to viewpoints that I disagree with and I am sure that others do not find it easy to listen to my viewpoints if they do not agree. Still, that is probably the best solution--to maintain a certain open-mindedness. Otherwise, we might miss out on a truth, either because the other person can teach us that truth or because in our search to learn more about what he said, we find either that we already had the truth or that the truth is actually a third option that we had not yet considered.

Of course, it doesn't do to not formulate some conclusions that we can stick with--convictions, if you will. We don't want to be forever vacillating from one view to another to another. That isn't a good way to become an educated person. There comes a time when we should choose what we believe to be true, using our best thinking to come to the best conclusion we can. Even then, new facts may make it necessary to change our mind, but changing our mind shouldn't come about merely because someone disagreed with us, or said we were ignorant, or some equally foolish reason. (And that happens on both sides of any issue.)

I have some fairly firm viewpoints on politics and science, as evidenced by this blog. In some ways, these viewpoints are the products of a lifetime, tempered by new information as it becomes available. I share them because I believe they are important to at least be considered by all. I may be a bit assertive at times--it is a reaction to some past disagreements, I suppose, and to things written by those with differing viewpoints. It is a reaction (over-reaction?) to those who think that I am the one who needs to change my mind, never considering that they may be wrong, at least on some points. I think I will overcome that as I write more. I have longed to express myself on politics and science and other issues and this blog gives me an outlet for that. In addition, it helps me refine and correct my views and express them more clearly.

Thinking about how we learn and reach conclusions is an interesting exercise in and of itself.



At 4:29 PM, Anonymous Barb said...

I have been going to some of your links and reading them. I believe that I will be better informed. It is not easy to know how to comment on politics so I may not always comment. I do think that it is important to keep up the debate on issues. For instance, there are two sides to the "population explotion theory." I had a professor in Education for Elementary Teachers say that we would be grateful to China and their one child rule in the future. There was no balance to her position and no consideration of any possible negative consequences. Theories adapt or change as we have seen in recent history with the "Black Hole" theory. Another finding from archeology reveals that "cave men" were probably more likely to bop rabbits on the head with clubs than they were to hunt large pre-historic creatures as was previously thought.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Mary A said...

Barb, I agree. Debate is good as it brings new facts and theories and ideas to our attention. It is hard to keep up with everything--there is so much information available anymore that we can't possibly read it all. If we hear of a new fact or idea that interests us, then we can do more research on it and learn more. It just becomes necessary to pick what we pursue so we aren't spending all our time reading!!

New information is always coming to light, so if the debate will keep up with it and present both sides (or however many sides there might be), people will be better informed and better able to make decisions about what to believe, what causes to support, who to vote for, etc.


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