Monday, August 04, 2008

Science and Torah are the same

Simon Blackburn writing in TNR:

My own view is that science education would do well to pay far more attention to this context than it typically does.

I like to illustrate this with an event in my own daughter's education. She came back furious one day from her very good (and very expensive) school, announcing she was fed up with science. I asked why. Apparently the class had been told to solve some equations governing the motion of the pendulum. In particular they had been told to use the equation of potential energy at the top of the swing with kinetic energy at the bottom, to calculate the velocity at the bottom of the swing. I asked what the problem was. She said she didn't see what this so-called energy was. I asked if she had raised this with the teacher. She said she had, and had been told to get on and solve the equations. She never pursued any science again.

Yet if you look at the history of the pendulum from Galileo's work at the end of the sixteenth century, you will find a wonderful story of ingenuity, of mathematics, of contested observations, of problems of trade and the need to find the longitude, of the gradual evolution of the calculus, of debates about whether "force" should be thought of as proportional to velocity or square velocity (which set Newton and Leibniz at each other's throats). A century later there were yet more disputes, involving Carnot, Joule, and Helmholtz, about the relationship between work, heat, and energy. You do not find the conservation law in the form of the equation that was tossed at my daughter until the 1860s. And as an aside, it is a pretty silly place to start in explaining anything about the pendulum, since energy depends on mass, and Galileo asserted, right at the beginning, that the period and the velocity of the pendulum are independent of its mass.

Such dogmatic, stupid teaching not only loses bright children to science. It also means that the ones who remain have been spoon-fed a bunch of results and techniques with no understanding of how they were hammered out, of what their birth pangs were. This disqualifies students from understanding the epistemology of science, and therefore of engaging effectively with doubters and deniers, whether the issue is one of the age of the earth or the measurement of its temperature. Either they go off science with a shudder, or (if they stick with it) they know only to mock anyone who cannot see why, for instance, energy might not be proportional to velocity, without themselves knowing why. Or they suppose that science speaks with one voice, and the only dissenters must be Luddites such as the notorious Cardinal Bellarmine, who allegedly refused to look through Galileo's telescope, whereas the truth is that many of Galileo's assertions, including those about the pendulum, were contested by careful observers, including Descartes and Mersenne, probably the leading physicists of the time. And if peoples' miseducation in science has simply taught them to be dogmatists, they can hardly complain if those on the outside can see only dogmatism. But the reality is that science is a human activity, not an abstract calculus, and this properly makes its great achievements a subject of pride and awe, not suspicion and skepticism. It should also make us aware of its desperate fragility, and the hostile cultural forces that it constantly has to overcome.
What this excerpt brings to mind is nearly every argument about parsha I've ever had. Like Blackburn' daughter, I've come home from shiur or school "furious and fed up" with teachers who present only one view and one opinion without any back story, or discussion of how the ideas were hammered out by Sages who took a plethora of contradictory positions. Like Blackburn, I know people who've responded to such "dogmatic and stupid teaching" by going off Torah "with a shudder" or by becoming the sort of people who know only to mock anyone who can't see why, for instance, Rivka had to have been three at her wedding. Or they suppose Torah "speaks with one voice and the only dissenters must be "Kofrim" or "Havdalah oblivious."

And if peoples' miseducation in Torah has simply taught them to be dogmatists, they can hardly complain if those on the outside can see only dogmatism.

Where does the dogmatism come from? A scarcity of intelligance, I believe. Most things are taught this way because neither the teachers nor the students are especially bright. They care about the bottom line only. They want to deal in discrete bits of information, and they aren't curious or wise enough to seek reasons and development.

Perhaps some examples after you've digested this.

No comments: