Educational Research in Practice, 5

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

Chapters 9-12 are dialogues, each with one Popperian and one other person. I found them strange to read. To begin with, there isn't enough back-and-forth. People will sometimes speak for a page or two without interruption or comment. By the time the other person speaks, many issues have been raised, most of which will never be analyzed. I thought people talked past each other a lot and glossed over some details.

Sometimes Joanna Swan would ask the same question several times. She wanted to get people to talk about what sort of concrete ideas they had about what to actually do differently. But it was hard to get much out of them. And when people speak a lot at one time, and space is limited, you can only ask the same question a few times before the dialog is over.

The way people speak is also interesting. It's full of a ton of big words and pretty vague (the non-Popperians more so). I think it takes a lot of effort to learn to speak that way. And it's one of the things which (rightly) marginalizes academic discourse. Why don't people speak more clearly and straightforwardly? Some reasons are:

  • That'd lower their prestige, make them seem less like experts visiting from ivory towers
  • Sunk cost invested in learning bad approach
  • It'd make their ideas easier to criticize by anyone
  • They have nothing important or useful to say and need to hide this
  • It's a tradition with momentum. Whoever changes first will have a hard time
  • Speaking and thinking well and clearly is a skill which has to be learned. That's hard
  • Learning to think well and clearly would involve learning lots of ideas with some general purpose use and this would actually imply abandoning positions like postmodernism or Marxism. A clear speaker advocating such bad ideas would be a contradiction because clarity of thought leads to improving one's ideas to the point they aren't Marxist/etc
  • The process of learning to speak in the obscure academic way is difficult and people have to mess up their psychology to succeed at it, and then that keeps it entrenched
This is all a bit ironic given they were talking about things like how postmodernism loves to dissent and challenge established views.

One of the things that stood out to me was how people use their allegiance to some position as part of their argument. Like, "I can't accept X because one of the premises of postmodernism is Y, and I'm a postmodernist." It was closed minded. People shouldn't just pick camps and stick to a single camp. They should try to openly improve any of their ideas in any way, piecemeal, even if that means not having a clear identity as a postmodernist or Marxist or other group member.

p 131 says, "Postmodernism simply cannot accept this, although it offers useful conceptual tools..." But shouldn't the issue be what's true? (Actually that particular thing was a straw man. The postmodernist was eager to create disagreements and found an easy way to do that: by not figuring out what Popperian ideas are about and attacking a bunch of straw men, e.g. the idea that knowledge floats around in the ether and that all people have the same values.)

Chapter 12's dialog was a big attack on Popper which I don't think was handled very well. It was very silly and involved replacing all assertions with fuzzy assertions: rewordings of claims to make them irrefutable due to added vagueness. Basically instead of saying, "X will happen" you say "X might happen". Or instead of saying, "X causes Y" you say "X might cause Y, sometimes". Or instead of, "The laws of physics say inertia is universal and applies to all objects and motion" you say, "Inertia is an idea that might happen sometimes". By avoiding all bold or even meaningful assertions, one has a ready-made way to disregard all refutation.

If we aren't going to make useful statements in the usual way, what will the replacement be? Authority. "professional assessment" (p 165, italics in original). Everything is a "might" and then the authorities get to assess how likely stuff is.

It's weird how people mix together what seems like an epistemology of skepticism -- saying we don't know anything solidly, all our ideas just "may" turn out right sometimes -- with an epistemology of authority. BUt I guess there is a sort of logic to it: if you don't get any knowledge from rational means, but you still have to life live, make decisions, etc, -- things skepticism fails to help with -- then what's left? Irrational approaches like authority.

Chapter 13 by Joanna Swann and John Pratt advocates an approach to educational research involving: purpose, rigour, imagination, care for others, and economy. All good things. One of the interesting points, I thought, is that you should pick a problem you want to solve and then figure out an appropriate research method to address your problem. Apparently some people do it the other way around: they come up with a research methodology then go looking for a problem it can address. That's a little like people who take words and then go looking for concepts to use to define them. It should be the other way: first have a clear concept, then pick a word or phrase to denote it. Whenever someone asks, "What are qualia?" or "What is consciousness?" they have things backwards -- they are starting with a word instead of a concept and trying to find the concept second.

p 203, in the glossary, discusses induction
As Hume pointed out, there is no logical reason to assume that the future will be like the past.
I don't think this is the best criticism to make. People read this as saying the future can't be proved to be like the past, but they think it still will be. Actually, the future is always like the past in some ways, but not in other ways. A large part of their mistake is selective attention: when they think the future will be like the past, or "things will continue", they have in mind some things and aren't thinking about other things that will change in the future and not continue.

It is this selective attention which lets them falsely believe that the future will be like the past in most important/relevant/notable ways, even if we can't prove it. But that's wrong. The laws of physics will be the same in the future, but our knowledge of physics will be different. Both are important.

What it comes down to is that induction tries to use a general principle -- the future is like the past -- which does not hold generally. So that's a big problem. It doesn't just go one way or the other in all cases, in goes both ways. What we have to do is come up with reasons that the future will be like the past in selective ways, explain our reasoning, and critically evaluate it. In so doing, we'll find that in many ways the future will be different than the past -- which is good, that is a requirement for progress.

Inductivists constantly forget that there is more to life than what they are parochially focussing on, and in addressing induction it's crucial to remind them of that. By simply saying there is no logical reason for their position, one isn't addressing their selectivity mistake. They are still going to see ways the future will be like the past which they have good explanations for, and they will be right not to be too concerned if those explanations are logical proofs. And as long as they aren't also noticing the ways the future won't be like the past, they will be confused and not realize that figuring out which is which is a big step instead of something to just assume.

The glossary goes on to explain several Popperian ideas about induction, but doesn't discuss this point which I think is crucial.

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Educational Research in Practice, 4

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

Chapter 3 is by a postmodernist, Elizabeth Atkinson. I chose not to read it. I did take a look at the start where she states the main points of what she means by postmodernism that she advocates. Here's what it's like:

p 35 opposes and scare quotes "certainty" and presents postmodernism as a voice of dissent against too much certainty. It also says the author does work to do with "social justice".

p 36 has a list summarizing postmodernist ideas. Here is the complete list:

  • resistance towards certainty and resolution
  • rejection of fixed notions of reality, knowledge or method
  • acceptance of complexity, lack of clarity, and multiplicity
  • acknowledgement of subjectivity, contradiction and irony
  • irrevernce for traditions of philosophy or morality
  • deliberate intent to unsettle assumptions and presuppositions
  • refusal to accept boundaries or hierarchies in ways of thinking
  • disruption of binaries which define things as either/or
So if you were wondering how postmodernists see themselves, now you know.

While I appreciate the goal of criticism, I disagree with their values like: lack of clarity, not resolving issues, ambiguity ("multiplicity"), rejection of philosophy, and rejection of values (disrepect for morality). And I do not think unclear criticisms that don't resolve any issues are valuable, so I don't think that really leaves anything to like.

Chapter 4, by John Pratt, says on p 54
A Popperian approach has an important benefit for research into policy. Policy is concerned with doing things. In policy, it is important to do the right things. Policy-makers need to choose policies that are likely to be successful. Merely to experiment is dangerous, and, in this context, even immoral.
If one wishes to take a Popperian approach, first one must understand Popper's epistemology. But Pratt does not. This passage says to act on probabilistically-justified ideas rather than unjustified conjectures. It says it's dangerous to act on ideas without enough epistemic status, and that epistemic status is a matter of probability.

But Popper is the philosophy that taught us epistemic status and justification are mistakes. And that we are fallible and do not know how good our ideas are. We can't justify our ideas as true, nor as probable. And we don't need to in order to act.

The Popperian method is to act on ideas that survive criticism, not ideas that are "likely to be successful". Popper repeatedly emphasized that surviving criticism does not make ideas likely to be successful.

Lack of understanding of Popper by self-declared Popperians -- even ones who do understand a fair amount -- is common. Here's Swann, earlier on p 30
Recognize that although it might feel good to find evidence that supports an idea, the discovery of such evidence plays no direct role in learning.
One can see here an intention and attempt to be Popperian. But this statement assumes, contrary to Popper, that there is such thing as evidence that supports ideas. Popper refuted the concept of epistemic support.

Back to Pratt, he continues not to be a Popperian, e.g. p 55, immediately after quoting Popper we're told:
...we should have some grounds for believing that the outcomes of policy will be what we hope...
This is seeking "grounds" or in other words foundations or support for one's ideas. That's just the sort of thing Popper primarily criticized and rejected. E.g. Popper's comments about science being built on a swamp in LScD, with no solid ground underneath.

p 55 also arrogantly claims that "I and others ... have gone beyond Popper..." Don't you need to catch up to Popper first? Otherwise you're not going past him but simply in a different direction.

If you want to be a Popperian, that's great, but please study Popper adequately first. What's the point otherwise? Popper has valuable ideas to teach, but only if one makes the effort to learn them.

I realize that people can understand parts of Popper, and benefit from this partial understanding. Pratt learned something from Popper about a problem-centric approach to life. That's good. But people ought to pay more attention to the limits of their knowledge. Knowing about one's ignorance gives one the option to do something about it. If one wants to be a Popperian, then it's important to be self-critical about how well one understands Popper or one will never achieve his goal.

Popper's most important idea, and largest contribution, was his non-justificationist epistemology. This challenges and corrects many of the assumptions of virtually everyone. Philosophers would do well to take note.

Chapter 5 is by a Hegel quoting Marxist who thinks discussion between Marxists, neo-Marxists and postmodernists will be fruitful. No further comment.

Chapter 6 makes no mention of Popper. It is in favor of science having a role in educational research. It ends on pp 95-96 with a list of "Key points we wish to convey to new researchers":

  • Develop a solid understanding of critical meta-theoretical issues in the philosophy of science.
  • Do not adopt a radical postmodernist view of science.
  • Reject the incompatibility thesis.
  • Understand that scientific research can involve either quantitative or qualitative data (or both).
  • Learn how to develop a clearly defined research question that stems from a well-developed theoretical framework.
  • Always let the research question dictate the research methodology, not the other way round.
  • Follow Quine and Ullian's dictum that 'whatever there is to be said can, through perseverance, be said clearly
  • Avoid naive, retrograde empiricism (that is, hypotheses without theory)
  • Learn the basics of research design and statistics, even if only to understand the published research of others.
  • Realize that educational research is more than just telling stories or analyzing discourses.
Pretty basic and agreeable.

Chapter 7 starts out by saying Western ideas are biased and hinting they are bad. It talks about the Maori a bunch and doesn't mention Popper. No further comment.

Chapter 8, p 119
In place of the scientific generalization, which states what is, I have introduced the idea of a fuzzy generalization, which states what may be. With this perspective it is possible to generalize (in fuzzy terms) from a single case.
So it's like induction but with more making up whatever you want without any pattern, and even less clarity. This guy would do well to study Popper.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 3

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

This post finishes discussion of chapter 2.

p 28
If, for example, a team of teachers wishes to improve its teaching of literacy, it is insufficient for the teachers merely to learn more about literacy. At some stage they will have to implement change and evaluate the outcomes.
Evaluate the outcomes? How and why?

Wouldn't it make more sense for students to evaluate their own outcomes and then choose the educational help and methods they find most useful? Why should the teacher be the one deciding what goes on and evaluating what is good? Teachers should be helpers not directors.

Many outcomes shouldn't be evaluated at all. For example, it is immoral to whip children for low test scores. Suppose a school ends whippings. And finds that over the next 2 years, average test scores decrease. So what? Should they start whipping kids again? If something is immoral, stop doing it whatever the outcome.

Many school policies are immoral and should be halted without concern for whether the teachers evaluate the outcomes positively or not.

If you give kids freedom, many of them will not focus on doing the thing that get them positive evaluations from their teachers. But the purpose of freedom is not to get high teacher evaluations -- it isn't to please others. Freedom lets people please themselves.

Chapter 2 offers a lot of generality about improving education but doesn't bring up many concretes, like these:

- most children do not like school and do not want to attend. making them attend is therefore immoral and the situation is not suited for learning anything. learning works best in voluntary situations because the learner must take an active role and can't be forced to do that (if he's being forced, the forcer is taking the active role)

- most children do not like tests or homework. but teachers impose these on students anyway, disregarding the students' preferences

- many children disagree with the moral values behind the evaluations (by the people in charge) of their life outcomes -- in other words they may not wish to be what their teachers (or parents) want them to be

- teachers commonly pressure students to participate in class, such as by answering the teacher's questions in public, even if the student doesn't want to

- many children are unsafe at school, due to bullies (more broadly, due to dealing with other children in a situation that isn't based on voluntary association), and have other stuff to worry about besides education

- children are expected to show up at school on a regular schedule even if their preferences about how to spend their time don't match that schedule. even children who like school have days where they would prefer to do something else. teachers are not sympathetic.

- school authorities routinely betray children. for example they say things like, "if you have a problem (like another student being mean), tell a teacher". but most teachers aren't particularly helpful most of the time. so some children try to solve their own problems that their teachers aren't solving for them. then, sometimes, they are punished for taking initiative and self-defense.

- teachers have a great deal of arbitrary authority and sometimes use it, sometimes very badly

- initiative and confidence are valuable in life, but schools teach kids to ask permission from authority to even use the bathroom

- schools typically expect students to follow a lot of instructions (often quite exactly and rigidly) and are intolerant of people with different ideas about what to do

- there is a conflict of interest when the same person does both teaching and testing or evaluation on a subject. If I give the lectures and also write the test, then I have to try to be "fair" about how closely the test matches the lecture material. I have to hold back on how helpful my lectures are so the test isn't too easy. In a better situation, I would do my very utmost to make the test easy with my lectures, and there would be no problem because I don't know exactly what's on the test and it isn't my responsibility to look out for the interests of the test maker.

- school tests often use simplistic question types such as multiple choice. success can come from test taking technique rather than topical knowledge. but whenever teachers try to grade anything without clear objective criteria for scoring, there are severe problems with arbitrariness and, from the student's point of view, vagueness about what is being asked of them.

- teachers commonly refuse to answer student questions. there is an idea that it's bad to tell kids the answer, even if they specifically ask. teachers routinely thwart their students in even the most basic ways.

- the interests of all the students in a class are far from identical. yet they are subjected to the same activities and course material

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Surprising Way Apple's Supply Chain Reforms are Self-Interested
Apple, in a statement, said the company fully supported the monitoring group’s recommendations. "We think empowering workers and helping them understand their rights is essential. Our team has been working for years to educate workers, improve conditions and make Apple’s supply chain a model for the industry, which is why we asked the F.L.A. to conduct these audits."
Setting aside humanitarian issues, let's consider this purely from a business perspective. Apple asked for these audits; it's taking initiative to make this happen. Why would Apple do this?

An answer is revealed in Apple's desire to be "a model for the industry".

What happens when the whole industry makes changes like this? Increased cost of labor.

And in the whole industry, Apple will be hurt the least by increased cost of labor. All of Apple's competitors will be hurt more. Increased cost of labor will give Apple a competitive edge over its lower-profit-margin, lower-average-sale-price rivals. (To learn more about Apple's financial situation, follow

Apple has a robust business with long term viability. Apple is a highly efficient creator of value. Apple benefits from cheap Chinese labor but does not require it to have a successful business. Labor costs will increase over time and Apple is already in a position to thrive in that future scenario.

Apple's rivals are inferior in these regards. They bring less value to the table and get more of their profit from the *temporary* low cost of labor. Their businesses are less sustainable going forward.

If Apple can accelerate labor cost increases, its rivals will have less time to adjust and more of them may fail.

In a free market, profits are always somewhat temporary. There is always pressure over time for progress. Companies must continuously innovate to keep up or their profits will decrease. The most efficient companies, the best value creators, and the best innovators will thrive , and companies doing nothing special will fade away.

Accelerating this process benefits the best companies and puts increased pressure on the worst ones.

John Rockefeller used this technique in the past. In some cases he lowered his prices to where he could make a profit but his competitors could not (source: ). This demonstrated to his inefficient competitors how their companies weren't good enough and didn't have a long term future without improving. He shortened the period of time that poor competitors could hang around.

By ending cheap labor early -- something the well-run Apple can easily afford but some of its competitors will struggle with -- Apple is, like Rockefeller, trying to more quickly remove *temporary*, *unsustainable* market conditions that prop up inferior competitors.

Some of Apple's critics are genuine humanitarians. But others dislike Apple in particular and wish to harm Apple. Ironically those critics may end up bankrupting some of Apple's competitors and strengthening Apple's position.

Apple genuinely values humanitarian interests but I wonder if Apple also sees the business advantage in more quickly ending the temporary condition of cheap labor that helps prop up its competitors' inferior business practices.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (3)

Alex Epstein Energy Articles

The Beginning of Infinity is a book about our journey of infinite progress. Part of that journey is increasing human power and control over the natural world.

As The Beginning of Infinity explains, nature does not provide a habitat that is automatically ideal for human life. The Earth is naturally inhospitable, but with knowledge and technology we're able to live here and thrive.

One of the ways we do this is called "wealth". Wealth is our capacity to control our world and make it the way that's best for us. It gives us power against nature (but does not give us power over other humans, in the context of a society with law and order).

A major part of our wealth is energy. We use energy, like electricity and gasoline, to enable so many aspects of our lives from using the internet to driving.

The history of increasing human control over energy is an amazing and uplifting story.

But many lies are told about it, and there is much misinformation.

In these two articles below, Alex Epstein, from the Center for Industrial Progress addresses two misconceptions while also explaining the positive side of the story.

The first article is about Rockefeller and Standard Oil. It addresses the misconception that Rockefeller's monopolistic practices necessitate anti-trust law and serve was a warning against the free market.

Actually Rockefeller was a virtuous leader in recognizing the power of ideas and efficiency in business. He prized the application of human thinking to improve his business. He invested heavily in science; today R&D is a standard aspect of business but it wasn't always, Rockefeller first showed people the way. He valued efficiency and wanted to have a large business operating efficiently. He lowered prices, expanded production, and made the world dramatically better.

Rockefeller made available products that dramatically improved quality of life. And he did it for unprecedented numbers of people at unprecedentedly low prices. In particular he sold kerosine to be burned for light (until it was surpassed by the electric lightbulb). Do you know what life is like without affordable lighting? It gets dark and you can't see. Providing light adds hours of valuable human life per day for people. Later of course Standard Oil sold gasoline for transportation, as well as many other things.

The second article is about nuclear power and how using it more it can save human lives. It addresses the misconception that nuclear power is unsafe.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 2

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

(Still in chapter 2) p 20 amused me by quoting Popper saying "All life is problem solving" and specifying page 100 in the cite, even though the quote is also found as the book's title.

Some more general comments: so far I'm finding the writing pretty clear and not meant to impress, haven't found appeals to authority, haven't found anti-human sentiments, and have found the statements about Popper's ideas pretty accurate (by contrast, most Popperian books are wildly inaccurate when they talk about Popper's ideas).

For example some of the criticism of induction is good. Swann comments that David Miller is better qualified to defend Popper's philosophy but I think she underestimates herself. So far I like her writing on this topic better than Miller's. I hope Swann hasn't been dazzled by math and logic and a more authoritative writing style.

I'll give two comments on Miller here. One I posted previously (btw if you like my comments on Popperian writing, you'll love this older post with a lot more of the same regarding a bunch of different authors):
David Miller / How Little Uniformity Need an Inductive Inference Presuppose

Discussing induction with formal symbols and a formal style does not suddenly make it interesting. Popper refuted it more than enough times, and this isn't even a refutation. Most of this is tedious analysis of many possible meanings of sentences inductivists have uttered. It also comes to a conclusion about how the more evidence you have, the less strong of an inductive principle is needed. This is a vaguely pro-induction conclusion which Miller follows up by insulting induction for some reason. And anyway it can't be true unless Popper was wrong about induction's non-sequitur status, e.g. this whole argument presupposes you can have positive evidence for statements which actually you can't.
My other comment is about Critical Rationalism by David Miller. On page X, Miller describes Popper's epistemology, as explained in _The Logic of Scientific Discovery_ as "falsificationism". He also explains Popper's epistemology in section 1.2 "Outline of Falsificationism" in which he focuses exclusively on science and speaks of rejecting ideas from science when he means rejecting them as false.

But science isn't the only legitimate field and any good epistemology ought to be general purpose: it ought to reach to all fields. Popper's epistemology does work for all types of knowledge, and presenting it as being specific to only science is a mistake.

Falsificationism is a bad description of Popper's philosophy because it has been repeatedly misunderstood as meaning to justify theories by how well they withstand criticism and their rivals don't.

It's also bad because it is taken to mean empirical falsification to be used only in science -- which it often is used to mean -- but most criticism is not empirical even in science (as David Deutsch has pointed out in his books, e.g. with the example of the idea that eating grass cures the common cold, which we reject without testing). And because of Miller's heavy focus on only science, I don't even know if he meant only empirical falsification or meant criticism in general -- that ambiguity is another flaw.

And, finally, "falsificationism" a bad description because Popper himself explicitly rejected it in print! In Realism and the Aim of Science, p xxxi, Popper says, "... my views on science (sometimes, but not by me, called 'falsificationism') ..."

Back to Swann's book, I was also glad to see Popper's schema included (though I don't like abbreviating the terms, and have expanded them below):
Problem 1 -> Trial Solution -> Error Elimination -> Problem 2
Also I didn't find any anti-Popper stuff like advocacy of justificationism so far. Maybe it's sad that that's even worth mentioning, but it matters and a lot of people don't even manage that much.

The comments on what a problem is on p20 are good. Including:
The educational implication of this alternative view [of problems] is that the teacher's role should be construed in the context of problems that originate with the students (hence the idea of student-initiated curricula, discussed later in the chapter).
p 20
When problem solving involves learning, a greater degree of creativity is involved
But all problem solving involves learning. How can a problem be solved other than creating knowledge of what the solution is? Or in other words we solve problems by learning what would solve the problem (then there's also doing it, which is trivial with sufficient knowledge and only hard when our solutions are inadequate or incomplete).

p 20
Within a process of learning, there are two points at which creativity is entailed: at P, when a mismatch [between expectations and reality] is turned into a problem (as mentioned above), and at TS, when a solution to the problem is devised. [P and TS refer to Popper's schema: Problem and Trial Solution]
But the Error Elimination step in the schema also involves creativity. We must think creatively to come up with good criticisms and find mistakes and also to think of good experimental tests.

p 21
Although the logic of learning applies equally to human learning and to the learning of creatures such as cats, dogs and chimpanzees, the scope of our learning is, of course, considerably greater than that of other creatures.
But cats never learn anything. All their knowledge is biological, they don't create new knowledge. All cat behavior can be explained without attributing learning capability to cats.

We also see here the common view that ability to learn comes in degrees. But it doesn't. How can the method of learning -- guesses and criticism (aka conjectures and refutations) -- come in degrees? Either something does the method or doesn't. And if it does do guesses and criticism, what is to limit learning? The method is powerful enough for all types of learning.

And Deutsch's explanations about universality are relevant here.

p 21
Two significant features distinguish us [humans] ... our facility for descriptive and argumentative language ... and ... our creation of and interaction with a world of objective ideas
I'm a little confused now. If only humans have ideas, then what does it mean to say cats learn? How does learning differ from creating good or useful ideas, in Swann's view? If Swann agrees a cat can't create new ideas, then in what sense does it learn and what does that have to do with the usual concept of learning?

Trying to guess what could be meant: sometimes people abuse language and say things like that computer hard disks learn, and try to refer to all information storage as learning. Cats do learn just as much as computer hard disks do: they store information and later retrieve it for use in computations. But that isn't learning in the usual sense that humans do. Swann has not made this mistake and hopefully won't.

Previously Swann tried to explain learning in terms of gaining new expectations. Cats, however, never gain new types of expectations that are not already defined by their biology/genes. Dogs will make a better example here since cats don't do as much. When we teach a dog a command like "sit", "stay" or "fetch" it's easy to confuse that with learning. But it isn't going beyond the dog's biology. But it sort of looks like it is. I'll explain:

When we teach the "sit" command the dog remembers it (stores information) and seems to gain a new skill. And we could try to phrase this in terms of creating a new expectation: the dog now expects that after hearing "sit" it will get rewards for sitting and complaints for walking around.

But the whole thing is scripted by the dog's genes. The "teaching" process for the command, the storage of information, the retrieval of that information, the behavior algorithms that take into account that information when present. Dogs don't actually have expectations in the human sense: they aren't actively thinking and wondering about what will happen and coming up with ideas and predictions and expectations. Rather, dogs don't think, they just run computations like Microsoft Word or Angry Birds. Those computations compute what behavior the dog will perform, taking into account input data from both the dog's senses and memory (information storage).

If you try to teach a dog a trick that doesn't fit with its genetic programming, you will never succeed. If you try to teach a dog to form an expectation that white has a large material advantage in a chess position it can see then white will usually win unless it's an odds game or white is about to get checkmated or something, then the dog will never be able to create that expectation. Dogs can't create expectations in general, they can only store information that is taken into account by the algorithms that control all their behaviors.

p 22 makes some points connecting Popperian epistemology, and a rejection of conventional epistemology, to education. I agree and think this is important. For example it points out that the following list of common ideas about what learning involves are wrong:

  • direct instruction from the physical or social environment
  • direct copying of what we see
  • the exact replication of something we have done previously
  • the accumulation of confirming evidence
However then p 22 says:
The case in support of a Popperian position, and against the common assumptions stated above, is complex.
But it's a non-Popperian mistake to judge issues by how much "support" they have or to believe ideas can be supported at all. That is justificationism!

The book then provides some references and leads for getting further information and moves on to the topic of attempts to apply Popper's ideas to education in the UK. Taking Children Seriously, David Deutsch's Popperian educational philosophy, is not mentioned.

Swann gives a list of things she thinks should be avoided when promoting learning (p 23):

  • restricting autonomous activity
  • discouraging confidence and desire
  • penalizing the discovery of error
  • offering inappropriate and inadequate criticism
  • offering 'unwanted answers to unasked questions' (Popper 1992b[1974], p. 40)
  • using objectives-based (in contrast to problem-based) planning and evaluation
What is inappropriate criticism?

And what is inadequate criticism for that matter? Our ideas, including our criticisms, are never perfect. We always use and learn from flawed criticisms.

I agree with the others.

Swann goes on to talk about "safe" learning environments without explaining what "safe" means. She also, in the same paragraph, praises a "critical attitude towards ideas". So presumably "safe" doesn't mean never being told you're wrong, as some people might mean it. But what does it mean? Does it merely mean that no one should be mean or hurt each other? Does it mean no "inappropriate" criticism, whatever that is?

p 24
A distinctive feature of the approach we have adopted in our own educational practice, and advocate in our publications, is the development of student-initiated curricula, whereby students are responsible, with tutor support, for devising their own learning programmes based on their own self-formulated learning problems.
It's good to allow students to do this. But what if they don't want to? Making them responsible for doing this sounds bad to me. I think they should have the option of using default curricula as much as they want, and using their own as much as they want, too.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Educational Research in Practice, 1

Educational Research in Practice: Making Sense of Methodology is a collection of papers edited by Joanna Swann and John Pratt.

I liked the introductory chapter 1 and want to share two criticisms.

p 3
... working [doing research] on the basis of inadequate or false assumptions could result in unnecessary difficulties, delays or even invalid outcomes. [bold mine]
The word "even" here is used to emphasize something surprising or extreme. But it wouldn't be surprising or extreme if one's false assumptions led to false outcomes for one's research. The passage would work better with "even" deleted.

p 3
What people do in the name of research is influenced by their assumptions about knowledge...
Our own assumptions about the growth of knowledge draw on the philosophy of Karl Popper...
The correct word is "ideas" not "assumptions". "Assumption" is a negative label suggesting lack of rational consideration. But our research can be influenced by our well-considered ideas -- which may still be mistaken -- rather than by assumptions. And Swann and Pratt's own views about Popper are not assumptions but things they've thought through.

The rest of this post is about chapter 2, "A Popperian approach to research on learning and method", which is by Swann.

p 11
Personal and broader social purposes sometimes conflict, as in the seemingly rare cases in which researchers falsify findings in order to further their reputation.
But is falsifying research an effective way to achieve personal success or fulfillment? Not at all. It's a terrible and ineffective approach. The approaches which actually work personally are also good more broadly -- there is no conflict.

Whether or not there are conflicts of this type is an important issue. If there are, they are insoluble problems because there are legitimate interests on both sides, and the meaning of conflict here is that both sides can't get what they want, so at least one side has to lose, and if someone loses that isn't a solution.

But all problems are soluble as explained in The Beginning of Infinity, and this is important to liberal political philosophy. If there must be winners and losers, that implies there will be force. There can't be a way to agree on who will be the losers because no one will agree to lose. Conflicts of interest means persuasion can't be a universal method of conflict resolution -- as liberalism wants it to be -- and therefore opens the door for the use of force.

(Force is something like the opposite of persuasion. And there isn't a neutral, middle ground, similar to how actions can't be partially voluntary.)

Further, the idea of such conflicts contradicts the idea of objective moral truth. Either there is a best thing to do -- which, being the truth, everyone can agree to and which is best for everyone -- or there isn't. To say there isn't an objective moral truth is basically to say that men must struggle for the outcome best for them and bad for others, and fight over who shall win. And that they have no way to resolve their differences by persuasion, because persuasion requires reference to one truth.

The very concept of criticism is about deviation from the truth. If there is no truth, there can be no criticism. If there are multiple truths best for different people, then why should you care if your ideas deviate from my truth? We'll each offer criticism with regard to the truth we care about, and we won't persuade each other.

So it's important to deny that there are any conflicts of interest, even in rare cases. People do sometimes believe there are conflicts of interest, and have conflicting ideas, but that is a mistake and they can get past it by learning better ideas. And if they do get past it, they will be better off and it won't hurt anyone.

A good source for persuasive arguments against the conflicts-of-interest idea is The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand (chapter 4). Another good philosopher on this topic is William Godwin (who, by the way, did educational philosophy around 1790 that is still ahead of its time today).

pp 14-15 has a good summary of part of Popper's epistemology. Two things I would add are discussion of explanations and that the majority of criticism of scientific theories is arguments not experiments. The approach of criticizing ideas with arguments does not set philosophy apart from science.

p 15 says the word "knowledge" in the education field is often used to mean "true belief". I found this comment a little odd. The usual description of the conventional view of knowledge -- by both its advocates and opponents -- is "justified, true belief". Why omit the "justified"? Do most educational philosophers drop it for some reason?

p 15 follows Popper in using the word "theory" to refer to all sorts of ideas (including things not always considered ideas such as "implicit assumptions and unstated expectations"). I think this is a mistake because the word "idea" is better suited to the task.

p 15-16 attributes the invention of the idea of induction to Francis Bacon. But Popper blames Aristotle and considers it a much older idea. Swann doesn't tell us why she differs from Popper here. I wonder if she's aware of his The World of Parmenides (see e.g. p 265) (there are a lot of Popper books in the bibliography, but not this one).

p 19
Central to understanding a Popperian account of learning is the recognition that learning is often - indeed, mostly - an unconscious activity, implicit in situations
I agree and want to add an example. When we have conversations we have to learn what ideas the other person is trying to communicate. There is no other way to know them but learning what they are. Like all learning, it must be done with trial and error, guesses and criticism, piecemeal refinement and improvement of ideas. We can't simply know what they are talking about, we must think and learn and figure it out.

But we aren't normally aware of all this. Most learning is an unconscious activity.

p 20
What distinguishes a learning organism from a non-learning organism is the ability of the former to acquire new expectations, that is, expectations which are not purely the outcome of genetic inheritance.
I think Swann overuses the concept "expectation". Not all learning is the creation of new expectations. Learning is about creating all types of new ideas, not all of which are expectations. Some are new perspectives on problems, others are new mathematical derivations, others are understanding of what a conversation partner is talking about. Expectations are an important type of idea but not the only important type.

I do not, however, think that Swann's criterion turns out to be wrong. Due to universality (see: The Beginning of Infinity), organisms either can use the method of guesses and criticism to create new ideas of all types, or can't. If it can create new expectations then it's using a universal method and could create other new ideas too. Because it's an all-or-nothing issue, looking at capability in one area turns out to reveal the whole answer.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 2

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

Page 4 begins a list of arguments in favor of the closed mind, each with a rebuttal. I don't agree with any of the arguments for the closed mind, but I also don't agree with some of the rebuttals. Some comments and criticisms follow:

#1 Rebuttal relies on evolutionary psychology which is false.

#2 Assumes we have to continue to believe refuted ideas in order to continue considering them. We don't. We can take a more sophisticated view that something is both refuted and worth trying to save (create a related idea that isn't refuted), without actually believing the refuted idea.

#3 Rebuttal is too weak and concedes too much. It concedes that people can get stuck in frameworks but points out that not everyone will. A better answer is Popper's criticism of frameworks in The Myth of the Framework; we don't need to make concessions here.

Also the rebuttal says "the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been shown to be false" but doesn't include any source nor enough explanation to judge or criticize this idea well; apparently the reader is intended to believe there is persuasive, unspecified research on the matter and take it on authority.

#4 Agreed.

#5 Agreed.

#6 I'd add that faith doesn't guarantee a closed mind since it's well known that people sometimes lose faith.

#8 This badly misrepresents Dawkins' view and is false. In The Selfish Gene, when introducing memes, Dawkins did not say memes are mind-viruses. He explained a meme as a unit of cultural transmission, and replicator, and gave various examples and explanations making it clear that they can be good or bad, and the concept doesn't have anything built-in about memes exercising control over humans.

#9 The crucial point here is that just because people make mistakes does not imply that can't learn better.

I'm up to page 24 now. I think the book so far mixes up arguments. It argues two different things at different times: 1) all people are not literally 100% closed minded. 2) most people are significantly open minded and can learn things and make progress in real life in practice

(1) is easy to argue for and true, but (2) is what people care about. (2) is a bit vague but would be true if elaborated in a reasonable way. The book states (1) as its thesis and keeps repeating it and arguing for it, but then at other times the argument for (1) is trivial but it spends time arguing for (2), apparently because (1) isn't enough.

Page 24 asserts both Ayn Rand and Marx as examples of people who wanted to spread their ideas without any criticism allowed, like leaders of religious sects. That's insulting, offensive and unargued.

The book generalizes about people too much. Example on p 25:
People prefer to adopt and spread ideologies that: [list of 6 criteria]
Some people use those criteria and some don't. People can and do invent all sorts of criteria. People aren't all the same and don't have all the same preferences, values or ways of thinking.

Page 25 also locks in claims about how evolution shapes our thinking as part of books main point. This is elaborated on p 28 with statements like
Evolutionary psychology shows us that...
Note that this and many related assertions are unsourced.

Page 200 tells us that it would be "impossible" to understand Ayn Rand's ideas about art, morality or metaphysics from her novels, without reading her non-fiction. The novels only explain classical liberal ideas "identical" to those of Herbert Spencer and Ludwig von Mises.

The "impossible" and "identical" claims are silly. While similar, her politics aren't identical to those others. One reason is that you can't completely separate politics from morality and Rand's morality is different. More mundanely I'm not aware of Mises proposing an end to coercive taxation as Ayn Rand did. And according to Wikipedia Spencer opposed land being private property so that's very different!

Regarding "impossible", it's hard, certainly, to understand Objectivism without studying it carefully, but the novels have a lot of information and if you thought about it a lot why couldn't you learn more from them than Percival allows for? What's to stop you and make it *impossible*? Take Rand's morality. She does explain and illustrate a lot about that in her novels. I'd say her novels are the *best* source for learning her morality. Why does Percival -- who apparently dislikes Ayn Rand even though her philosophy has a great deal in common with Popper's -- choose to make such strong and negative comments about her in passing?

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 1

The Myth of the Closed Mind is a book by Ray Scott Percival.

I appreciate the conversational style of the writing so far.

EDIT: Note that the early part of the book is introductory in nature and the ideas will be elaborated on more later in the book. And I'm commenting as I go, I did not read the whole book first.

p 1
The myth of the closed mind is the popular theory that some people, or some beliefs, are impervious to argument. Almost everyone today seems to accept the myth of the closed mind.
Not the people I know, e.g. on The Beginning of Infinity email list. It's generally accepted there that such a thing is false.

What people do have is criticism-resistant ideas. But if you know the right thing to say, you can still persuade them. This can be hard. Often the right thing(s) to say isn't the direct approach. Just directly explaining the truth on some subject, in the straightforward way, doesn't reliably work very well with criticism-resistant people/ideas/attitudes.

People do things like argue in circles. Or make a bunch of inconsistent statements to defend some entrenched idea they have, and each time one is refuted they make another, either an old one or an ad hoc new one, and they just keep going forever, not caring that they often contradict themselves and keep being wrong over and over.

Why? Well, one reason is they have some other misconception(s) they aren't communicating which is behind the whole mess. And if you explained better ideas about *that* then you could make progress, but they won't give you much help in figuring out what that is.

Another reason people don't accept ideas we try to persuade them of is that we are mistaken. (They may also be mistaken, too, or not.)

Another common issue is that people are in a mode of trying to lecture and correct you, instead of listening and learning. Or that you are in such a mode and not listening enough. Even if you're mostly right -- and you might not be -- the other guy may have some good points which your view doesn't address well enough. If you improved your view to better address those issues, it'd be more persuasive.

p 2
Our evolution has made us sensitive to the way the world is, given us a degree of general curiosity about the world, a respect for logic, and a respect for effective and efficient means.
Not so. Some cultures, and persons, do not respect logic (really: Percival's conception of logic, which I share, but some people do not share). And biological evolution doesn't have knowledge about logic. These descriptions of our attitudes to life our cultural not biological.

pp 2-3
We can decide not to read or listen to an argument, but we can't decide to remain untouched by a telling argument that we have heard or read.
I agree we can't just arbitrarily decide to ignore it *once we decide it is telling*. But there is a big gap between reading it and understanding why it's telling.

By "we" I mean most people in our culture. There have existed cultures and people that wouldn't care if an argument was telling, and which don't respect reason or logic.

The gap between reading something and understanding it is that you have to *learn the content* which goes beyond the words. One can hear or even memorize sentences without understanding what they are about. To understand, we have to think about them. We have to *guess* the meaning and *improve* and refine our guesses with *criticism*. That's how we learn things.

Whether we take an *active*, learning role -- with guesses and criticism -- or take a *passive* role and don't make the effort to understand -- is a choice that's up to us. Learning is an active process -- requiring activity by the learner himself -- passivity after hearing or reading can sabotage progress.

The book goes on to say we can't decide to be unmoved by arguments that we grasp, and can't knowingly accept error (what we regard as error). I agree there but it's not equivalent to the prior statement and also doesn't elucidate issues about how people must take an active, learning role in order to grasp things. There's a common assumption that if we listen to someone say something in English, and we speak English, then we know what it means automatically. Not so, as Karl Popper's philosophy implies and is covered more in The Beginning of Infinity chapter 10 and here.

p 3
Darwinian evolution has given us rough and ready but robust and irrepressible, specialized brain modules for solving special recurring problems our ancestors faced during the Pleistocene: choosing a mate, detecting cheats, making inferences about the world of people, animals, and objects.
No, as The Beginning of Infinity explains our minds have universality (with regard to creating knowledge), they aren't a collection of special case algorithms.

Even setting that aside, as a matter of logic and some basic facts, nothing from Darwinian evolution is "irrepressible" which means "impossible to repress". Our minds are powerful enough to create technology including technologies for changing human genomes. So at the very least we will be able repress such things using those technologies, when they are a bit more advanced. There's nothing impossible about that kind of technology, and nothing about our genes to absolutely prevent us from taking that kind of action.

Or, similarly, we could upload our minds into computers to escape our genes. I don't think such drastic steps are necessary to be autonomous persons in control of our own lives, but in any case they mean it is possible to repress our genes.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comment (1)

Psychiatry iOS app

My Psychiatry app is now on sale for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It is significantly bigger and better than my previous philosophy oriented apps. It has more content as well as more programming (e.g. I included a quiz).

It is a universal app. I also recently updated my previous apps to be universal.

If you're interested in psychiatry, you'll love it. Also if you haven't read Szasz, you really absolutely must read the app as well as some Szasz -- you are likely to make some major moral blunders in your life if you never learn about this stuff. Some of the prevailing, mainstream views in this area are grossly immoral and harmful, so you really better learn something about the topic before you screw up.

Not trying to do a hard sell, but I'm serious, psychiatry is important and affects at least tens of millions of Americans every year, and the illiberal, anti-freedom ways a lot of "mentally ill" persons are treated are a big deal (e.g. imprisonment without trial), and there's also a whole host of more subtle issues that you better know about before you, say, get couple's therapy, or have a conversation with your friend about the couple's therapy he is considering getting, or go see a shrink, or let a guidance counselor see your kid, and so on...

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Berkeley Student Protest March

I filmed it. A sign read, "Make banks pay". They chanted "Our university".

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How To Create Knowledge

So you want to participate in the TCS or ARR projects. How does one do that?

The primary thing to do is knowledge creation: learn the ideas and help improve on them. And learning them enables using them to improve one's own life, while improving them allows one to further improve own's own life.

Secondarily, one can promote the ideas, spread the word, hire people to work on it, publish on the topic, and so on. This will help people as well as creating a bigger community with more people to contribute improvements, which can benefit you.

Let's consider knowledge creation in more detail because there are some misconceptions and confusions about how it works, and because some understanding of Karl Popper's philosophy is helpful to doing it better.

How are ideas like TCS or ARR created? Learned? Further refined and improved?

All knowledge is created by *guesses* and *criticism*. It is a process of trial and error, not one of deriving, induction, abduction, justification or empiricism.

Knowledge also addresses problems. Problems aren't necessarily a bad thing but would include any question one has, or anything one wants to get and isn't sure how to get it.

Step one is to identify a problem. Just find anything that one thinks could be better in any way.

In step two, brainstorm ideas which might solve the problem; make guesses. There's no quality standards here, no rules or limitations, anything goes. And don't worry about coming up with enough ideas right away, you'll have unlimited chances to revisit this step later, so just move on as soon as you want.

Step three is to criticize the ideas. If anything at all is wrong with them, that's grounds for criticism. A criticism is an explanation of a flaw in an idea, and we want to be merciless here and find every flaw we can.

Step four is to do a mix of the previous steps in no particular order. You can have a lot of things in progress at once and bounce around between them, or you can be more methodical, either way is fine. Every time you criticize an idea, you have created a new problem: how could that idea be improved not to have the flaw criticized? And you've also created a new idea (the criticism itself) which can be exposed to criticism. So step three naturally feeds back into steps one and three.

So, criticism drives the process. Criticism identifies new problems we can try to solve, must be criticized itself in case it's mistaken, and sends us back to brainstorming as ideas are rejected. Criticism is the reason the initial steps are relaxed and easy: if any mistakes are made, they are supposed to be caught in the criticism step, you don't have to worry about them in the first steps.

The goal is to come up with a single idea which has no criticisms of it which you think will solve the problem best. When you reach that point, you're done. Everything you learned along the way, and this final result, are knowledge you have created.

There's also the possibility of criticizing the problem one is trying to solve, itself. Problems can have flaws too. Maybe there is a better way to frame the issue, or a better goal to try to accomplish instead. If a problem is criticized, one can try to brainstorm better problems or ways to improve it.

Now that we're familiar with the general method of knowledge creation, let's consider some specifics.

This covers how to solve problems, such as trying to improve an idea. How does this apply to learning?

Learning is itself a problem: trying to gain knowledge one didn't have before. This is accomplished by brainstorming what the ideas one is learning are, and how they work, and improving on that with criticism. It is fundamentally the same process. The main difference is that existing material on the topic can provide suggestions for problems to consider, brainstormed ideas to consider, criticisms, and so on. And one can criticize his brainstormed ideas not just by considering if they are good or bad, but also by considering if they are compatible with the existing material on the topic that one is trying to learn.

How much can this be a collaborative process? Or does it work best as an individual process? It works either way. This process is just as valid within one mind as for a group discussion.

People always do some of their thinking in their own mind, even in the midst of a group discussion. That's important and good. And it leads to the question: is collaboration is important too, or can we rely on individual thinking? And does collaboration create too much extra work having to deal with other people?

Collaboration is extremely important and valuable for two reasons. But first let's consider how difficult it is. Actually, people can frequently work together to create knowledge in an efficient and effective way. All they have to do is share what problem(s) they are working on, share any brainstormed ideas for a combined list, and share their criticisms. This is simple to organize since the basic outline of knowledge creation involves two lists associated with each problem, and anyone could add to the list, all they'd need to do is read it first to avoid duplicates.

To collaborate, people also need to explain their ideas clearly enough for others to understand them. This does take some effort but on the other hand clarifying one's ideas is important even if one is doing individual thinking. Making them clear instead of vague improves their quality and addresses the criticism of the vagueness flaw.

The first benefit of collaboration is that if someone else has a good problem, brainstormed idea, or criticism, then I don't have to think of it myself. Instead of having to figure everything out personally, I can benefit from thinking other people do, and they can benefit form thinking I do. This is the same principle as not reinventing the wheel, and learning math from other people instead of trying to figure it all out from scratch by yourself.

A lot of ideas about TCS and ARR have already been figured out, and it's advantageous to learn those instead of trying to think of them all yourself.

The second benefit of collaboration is that we all have weaknesses, blind spots, irrationalities, and hang ups, as well as strengths and areas of expertise. Thus, someone else might be good at what I'm bad at, and vice versa. So that provides an opportunity to help each other.

It's too hard and unrealistic to find all of our own mistakes. We can find a lot, but we're not perfect at everything and will miss some that other people might find. This is one of the reasons that people who don't collaborate enough sometimes get stuck and don't make much progress.

For topics like romance and parenting, virtually everyone has blind spots and irrationalities. Sometimes it's hard enough for one person in a group of a thousand to see an error that everyone else is making without realizing it. Trying to do that all by oneself every time would be folly. Making mistakes where we don't realize anything is wrong is common for everyone, and it's a hard problem, and collaboration helps us better deal with it since only one person has to find a mistake and can share it with thousands of other people to help them get past their blindness or irrationality.

Now we've covered how to create knowledge to help the TCS and ARR projects make progress, and we've seen why collaboration is important. Let's consider a few specifics.

The best medium for collaborative discussion is email lists. That is why TCS and ARR have email lists which you should join here:

Email lists enable people to brainstorm ideas and share them, to explain problems they are interested in solving (such as problems with current TCS or ARR ideas), and to share criticisms. They also enable asking questions people may have.

Some people like to have discussions in person. That's fine, but it's no substitute for an email lists which allows for worldwide collaboration. Worldwide collaboration means that anyone in the world who knows about this stuff can criticize or contribute, and it means that people from different cultures can use the strengths of their differing perspectives to augment weaknesses of other cultures -- the added variety of perspectives is helpful.

Exposing one's ideas to criticism -- from oneself as well as others -- is crucial. Otherwise one's ideas will have lots of mistakes. This includes one's understanding of what TCS or ARR are. It's not just improvement that works by critical discussion but also learning the existing ideas. Learning is not trivial and needs criticism to deal with mistakes.

This means that people who read a lot of stuff, but never write anything which could be criticized by others, almost certainly do not understand the ideas very well (which may be why they never think of anything they want to say). One needs to expose his understanding to criticism to get it to high quality, not just expose his proposals for improvements to criticism.

Besides email lists, online forums are another good tool. Any online collaborative tool can also be valuable such as instant messaging, IRC chat channels, wikis, collaborate document creation websites, and so on. Computers and the internet are amazing technologies which surpass what came before. The various offline options have some use but are more limited.

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