Bare Bones Biology 107 – Right, Left, or Wrong?

Warning – my use of the terms right-brain and left-brain in this blog is almost entirely metaphorical, and not scientifically precise. But I hope you’ll get the point.

In my career as a semi-faculty person there was a time when I needed support from the other women in my academic institution. But there weren’t any other women scientists, barring one or two who had problems of their own. So I turned to the women of the social sciences for support and the rest of that story is long and tedious, and though it was very successful, you don’t want to hear about that.

In the meantime, it seemed to me that my liberal arts supporters didn’t understand what I was talking about much of the time. It evidently seemed to them that they DID understand, and so I set out to improve myself. I began to attend seminars on the social science side of campus, in addition to the science side, and what a shock that was. It wasn’t the words – not even the specialized vocabulary, which is easy enough to learn if one makes the effort. It was how we think differently; how they don’t think like I think.

I am talking about how a scientist thought about her subject in those days. Now it has changed again, and most of what they call science is really technology, but that only deepens the divide. And I’m talking about how a social scientist thought about her subject. I found it to be – not a different way of talking, but a different way of thinking.

Think about it. The intuitive, fluid, “right-brain” sort of thinking, recognizes the importance of emotion in the whole construct, and instinct, and therefore has very few numbers to guide its logic. But that’s the way it must be, because social scientists are basically studying people. The hard sciences — there is a reason they are called the hard sciences, and it’s not because they are difficult. In many ways they are easier, if that’s how one learns to think. Linear, crisply defined, boxed-in, precise scientific thinking. Because that’s how the universe appears to us to function, scientific logic is best suited to the study of subjects that are outside the control of the human mind. The molecular structure of water, or the sequence of genes in a chromosome. These things lend themselves to “left-brain” sort of thinking. Unfortunately, we generally do not recognize these right brain/left brain differences, and when academicians say “critical thinking skills,” they are almost invariably talking about right-brain skills. I have found it easier for the students to the more direct and straightforward critical thinking skills through science, and then graduate to the more difficult, fluid, questions addressed by the liberal arts.

There was an age when we taught both skills to all the students. I was required to take two years of liberal arts before beginning my training in science. That seems like day before yesterday. And then the pendulum swung far to the left (brain) and it seems just yesterday that science overtook the liberal arts, and then technology took over science and helped to create modern left-brain economics. When this was taken to the extreme our human values were swallowed up, and so we developed a corposystem that is now trying to recreate life itself in our human image.

I suppose it is in reaction to these excesses that today the pendulum is swinging all the way back toward the right brain. It seems like we are currently engaged in a battle between those on the right (brain) and those on the left (brain). Just today I learned that the right (brain) is taking a stand (again) in Tennessee, where all the schools will now be required to use inappropriate right-brain critical thinking skills to evaluate hard core science in the classrooms. Folks, the universe does not operate on right(brain) human skills and neither does the corposystem, although it’s happy to take advantage of what it knows about these. It would be better if we understood the world we live in. Right, wrong and left.

And I have an even better idea. Why not everyone learn to use BOTH right brain logic AND left brain logic and also learn where each approach is most useful to our common welfare.

Bare Bones Biology 107 – Right, Left, or Wrong?
KEOS-FM 89.1
Audio available here
or at
http://www.BareBonesBiology.com

Benicia Education

As you know, our group has several tentacles. The Benicia group is very active. You may remember that Dot’s article about population growth even “made” the Benicia newspaper. Now I bring you news of two more actions from Benicia, California. The first is Marilyn’s letter in answer to my recent rant about education. Her letter is posted below.

The second activity is a lecture series sponsored by The Community Sustainability Commission, collaborating with Solano Community College. The lecture series is intended to help us understand and fulfill our obligation to create a more sustainable community and economy, to reduce our impacts on climate and respect, repair and restore the natural world around us. The series is entitled:

“Stewards of Our Children’s Future: 2011… For Ecologic + Economic Health = Community Resilience.” CSC.flyer for lecture series.3.21.11

The lectures begin April 12, run for 6 weeks, and will be posted on UTube and we will plan to maintain copies in our library at the Peach Clubhouse. The commission is also planning a longer series beginning in the summer.

But today we hear from Marilyn in Benicia.

Last night, several of us Sustainability Commissioners on the edu workshop, attended Mary Farmer Elementary school’s science fair, which was set up in a multipurpose room at the school in Benicia, California. There were about 12 long tables set up, and each one had room for about 4 projects, each done as a panel display, (main panel in the center, two wings on the side). It was clear that the science teacher had given guidance and limits as to the formatting of the displays, which did remind me of an international cell-biology conference held in San Francisco, which several of us had been invited to drop in on, to view the displays. The studies involved hypotheses about sources for evolutionary changes in various critters (for instance, about evolution of dorsal fin structure in dolphins).

Anyway, I was impressed to see the kids’ displays and what they’d chosen to investigate. Each display outlined, in the child’s own words, (this varied, depending on age and whether info was sought by computer search, etc) a subject problem that would be probed by investigation, observation and experiment. Also noted: the hypothesis, the chosen method that would be pursued to accomplish a comparative study; tools involved; controls and limits, including time frames; journal entries of observations made, and finally, a conclusion that restated the hypothesis and the “result” derived. The last statement was “what I learned” from doing the experiment. I think you would have been moved. There were kids at all grade levels up to 6th grade involved, yet the requirements for the studies were consistent, so that even a kindergarten level project demonstrated that the child had learned about the nature of an experiment and how to think through the process of investigation, how to observe, etc etc. Some of the projects were very simple to accomplish. For example, to show how an egg could be made to float, the child only needed a wide beaker, water, an egg, and lots of salt. Photos were taken of the egg in the glass as more salt was added to the water. The last photo showed a floating egg. The project had been defined in terms of a question to be answered: “What is density?” There were other pictures explaining the concept–of a fist being pushed through a bowl of popcorn, and by contrast, a fist being “stopped” by a hard popcorn ball. There was a brief statement about the molecular character of different materials as related to the idea of density, so that the invisible structure of water and that of an egg could be compared by virtue of how much space a particular molecule occupied in relation to others in its vicinity. So, even a very simple experiment, to float an egg, had huge import for learning about the physical world.

What was evident was the level and quality of instruction by the several science teachers whose classes were represented.

The problem you cite about the quality of science education, or lack thereof, (teaching by memorization–too true, I imagine, in undergrad training for medicine!), is not limited to the physical sciences. Twenty-five years ago, studies in liberal arts became “fuzzied up” or politicized, “PC’d” or what have you, until you could hardly think why you were bothering to read a book rather than its annotated “deconstructed” version produced either by venerated lit critters installed in various named chairs at ivy league schools, or, echoed by the lower level acolytes of same, stuck and underpaid at Podunk State College. Sociological analysis trumped any tribute to feeling for the ineffable qualities so intrinsic to great works of art. (Example: a third-rate etching of sowers in the field could be rendered “equal” to a Van Gogh or Millet, if a work’s cultural value is made equivalent to its social content and “lessons” thus derived about class and whatever other topical issue prized. Apparently, there’s hope that this fashion is waning… none too soon. It’s a dismal situation, but havoc is being wrought, departments are being dismantled or drastically cut, so that maybe all that will be left is the facsimile, “edu online”. If there ever was the opportunity for serious teaching, (and there were always noble teaching efforts made by a few who really stood out, looking back) now there’s going to be even less opportunity and hope for real mentoring and apprenticing… well, the worst case scenario may be the only affordable option anymore.

Your rant about people not being able to discern FACT from OPINION with regard the physical laws of the universe, and also, about the applied uses scientific research is driven toward and where we’ve ended up without sense of restraint or judgment as to long term effects, etc. etc., speaks to a VERY DEEP problem of communication, considering the propaganda for status quo, and given the enormous deficit in people’s grasp of the interrelatedness of all things and beings on the planet, and how utterly dependent we are on a maintained healthy diversity of life and living systems on land and in the oceans. It seems there’s hardly any discussion of the concept of a closed system and LIMITS. I’m especially sensitive to the kind of casual banter about promoting “sustainability” as if discussion of ecology were a sidebar discussion not central to conceiving of a “more sustainable” way of life. So few seem to understand the fundamental necessity of the concept of LIMITS. We seem in a rush to talk about making a “green economy” while avoiding the third rail discussions pertinent to how, in a short space of time, in no more than 150 years, have we reached such a point of accelerated declines of all earth’s ancient resources. After 30+ years, even after the second book “Beyond Limits to Growth”, it’s still difficult to get anyone to spend more than a few minutes talking about “overshoot” of the planet’s carrying capacity by expanding populations. (The “Story of Progress”, the single reignite story we continue to tell ourselves, according to Greer is the most destructive mythos humankind has ever promulgated.) How to bring people toward deeper understanding of the core problem is a central question for those of us who find ourselves working with others on projects that might invite such learning, such as the aquaponics project proposed to us by Randy, as we gardened on Wednesday.

A project such as aquaponics suggests invites curiosity, and a learning opportunity about closed systems–at least, until you take a fish out of the water and eat it. That, too, is a lesson! Perhaps there should be an altar nearby, where a ceremonial act of gratitude could be performed to acknowledge the taking of a fish from its tank. The utilitarian function of such a project, e.g., to provide food for others and also plausible income for those operating it, can also shed light on the problem of producing more food for more people — when do we stop having so many mouths to feed anyway? Why not fund birth control centers everywhere instead and build schools for girls and get women into colleges?

Well, as always, your meditations and “rants” open up whole realms of questions to ponder. In the end, we address both the immediate sense of urgency and emergency (I love how the word “emergency” suggests an emergent “thing”, no matter whether a crisis or the bloom on a rose in spring), but we can’t help ourselves but look way farther out and around, beyond our own deaths, about the fate of our wondrous world and to that “end”, what our brief time here means.

Marilyn talks about aquaponics because that is another of the education proposals of the Benicia Council. More about that very active group in an upcoming blog.

Education

For what it’s worth on a slightly peripheral issue (science teaching), my interest in school, as a student, was the way in which knowledge empowered my understanding and therefore my ability to function using my own resources instead of as a tool of the system. I have seen this happen to a small percentage of my students every year when I was teaching (college level).

We have replaced science in the curriculum from the bottom up we have replaced it with nature study and “fuzzy bunny” (feel-good) compassion lessons. In fact realistic compassion often doesn’t feel good, and nature study is not science. Neither the appreciation of nature nor that nice fuzzy feeling leads to empowerment. I doubt if most teachers want their students to be empowered to know how to function and learn without the help of a teacher.

It is not appropriate to teach students critical empowerment tools for thinking until they are about 12 or 14 years of age, because that’s when they begin to “get it.” However, in our school system now (and we in Texas are working on continuing this into college) we do not teach students how to learn for themselves. We the teachers are “God,” the student must memorize and believe what we say. Only last week I had a friend (college graduate) rant on for about half an hour about how he was taught the names of all the humanoids in his anthropology class, and then they changed them all. Therefore you can’t believe anything in science. He never let me answer, but it is obvious that he was never taught any science. Science has nothing to do with memorizing the names of anything (except you have to have words to talk about things). Science is about learning how things work so we can be empowered not to throw a spanner in the works (spanner is british for wrench). The way to win an argument in that world where only words are real is to believe whatever you believe and don’t let anyone else have a chance to change your belief. The way to grow one’s understanding through science is to discuss/evaluate the issues based on the differences between measurable facts and opinions. To avoid talking about anything because it doesn’t feel good to be wrong — that is the outcome of teaching feel-good “science.” (I’ve had other people tell me “the facts keep changing” and I know very few people who actually know what a fact is, as differentiated from an opinion.)

There is no better tool in our arsenal than real science, starting with the basics, to teach students how to answer questions for themselves and in their communities — and come up with answers that correlate with reality. If we base our behaviors on opinions (as this generation has been taught to do) then we will have continuing massive disasters, because human opinions CAN NOT CHANGE physical facts. However, our teachers are trained in the liberal arts and do not know how to do this for themselves — much less teach students how. The liberal arts (out of curiosity I spent a whole year going to seminars in the department) have an almost entirely different set of critical thinking skills, and that is where our best students tend to go now, because they do get answers that relate to self-empowerment. So whenever they tell us they are teaching critical thinking skills — they are — but those skills involve HUMAN behaviors — not the primal laws of the universe.

And then there is technology, which is not science. Science is the quest to understand how things work in the real world — not our ticket to sell those things to the highest bidder.

So we are in a mess, but it will not help to train more and more students about human behaviors in the absence of aligning those behaviors with reality via the basic sciences. Nor will it help to train more and more students about the power of reductionist science in the hands of humans — without also teaching them both about basic science and about our human responsibilities to each other and to the way the world really does function — that we can’t change. How many of our teachers have even been exposed to these ideas? Why not? So then what do we expect of them or of their students?

How many people at Lawrence Livermore really understand what I just said above? If not, how do they expect to train more scientists who have the compassion to care about the implications of what they are studying and learn biology to go with their physics and their obligation to humanity and the ecosystem?

You have a wonderful project. I feel quite sure you can get funding from the “system” to set this up and it will train people how to make more food. But, really, why do we need more food? The bottom line is that only the ecosystem can make food for us to eat — and the more of the ecosystem resources we use for ourselves to eat, the less likely the ecosystem is to survive with us in it? And the more human suffering will result.

OK? That’s your question for today. Most people answer that this is an interim action for the emergency. I heard that 50 years ago and ever since. What I want to see is someone making some kind of effort to deal with the real problem that causes the emergencies — and teaching all these fine students that there is no such thing as winning unless we address reality itself.