Thursday, February 25, 2016

People in glass houses shouldn't call smart kids ignorant

So, an acquaintance forwarded another "kids these days can only take tests but don't know anything important" link; it included these questions as example of the problem:

"Who fought in the Peloponnesian war?  What was at stake at the Battle of Salamis?  Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach?  How did Socrates die?  Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Canterbury Tales?  Paradise Lost? The Inferno? 
Who was Saul of Tarsus?  What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect?  Why does the Magna Carta matter?  How and where did Thomas Becket die?  What happened to Charles I?  Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him?  What happened at Yorktown in 1781?  What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural?  His first Inaugural?  How about his third Inaugural? Who can tell me one or two of the arguments that are made in Federalist 10? Who has read Federalist 10?  What are the Federalist Papers?"

The funny thing, and I'm not the first one to notice this, is that the people who ask these questions in order to call others ignorant have little knowledge of the sciences, technologies, engineering, and math. (Or economics and business, for that matter.)

So, here's my response:

What happens when you drop metallic copper into sulfuric acid? What does it mean that the half-life of caffeine in the human body is approximately 2 hours? What is the main function of the kidneys and how does the heart work, namely what's connected to each part? Raise your hand if you can write the chemical equations for sodium hydroxide reacting with hydrochloric acid and for the combustion of propane. The quadratic equation solution formula? The equations of motion for a ballistic projectile? The complex conjugate of $(4 - 7i)\times (3+ 2i)$? 
What is discounted cash flow? How far are the Sun and the Moon from Earth? What is kinetic energy, and for a given moving object does it increase more when you double the mass or the speed? Why does the standard error for an estimate matter? How does a pressure cooker do its faster cooking? What's the difference in market outcomes for an increase in demand and an increase in supply, everything else being constant? What happens at Lagrange Points? What amino acids are essential, and why are they "essential"? What's Newton's first law of motion? His second law? What's an example of the difference in programming languages between a cycle and a conditional statement? Who can tell me one or two main differences between Newtonian physics and general relativity? Newtonian physics and quantum mechanics? What makes quantum mechanics "quantum"?

I contend that knowing the answers to my questions is a lot more important than to the first set of questions. Alas, many "educated" people don't think so. After all, most of the top questions lead to discussions where one can say more or less what one wants, but the bottom questions all have outside validators (the science, engineering, math, and economics or business).

The kids may well be ignorant, but the haughty superciliousness of most people whose knowledge base is the Humanities or Social Sciences is completely undeserved.

I'm going to start asking people who make big pronouncements about the ignorance of today's youth to calculate something like the missing value in the diagram above. It's basic Pythagorean theorem, applied twice, so everyone with a basic education should be able to do it, right? Right? RIGHT?

[Thoughts ruminate during the work day…]

The more I think about these two cultures, the more I see it's not just about different knowledge, it's about the focus of attention.

Compare the following question, from the original article:
Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach?  
What is kinetic energy, and for a given moving object does it increase more when you double the mass or the speed?
The answer the author was looking for, I think, is Socrates and Aristotle. Not the thoughts of Socrates and of Aristotle, but simply the persons. A lot of the questions in the original article are about people or events, not about concepts, ideas, or tools, which are what all my questions are about. (Kinetic energy is the energy of motion, $E_{K} = \frac{1}{2} m v^{2}$ so doubling the speed quadruples the kinetic energy, while doubling the mass only doubles the energy.)

Of course, some questions are out-and-out cultural virtue signaling. I'll see your
Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
And raise you a
Raise your hand if you have read both Molecular Biology of the Gene and Walter Rudin's Real and Complex Analysis and can answer the questions at the end of the chapters.
Game, set, and match, as they say in the Super Bowl.

One of the funniest things to see is the collision of these two focuses of attention, for example when people who don't like science try to pretend they "love" science by emphasizing people or events. That's when we see "science" questions like
  • Where was Einstein born? 
  • What Nobel Prizes did Marie Curie win?
These are, at best, history questions. Compare with
  • What is the energy of a 1kg mass going $99\%$ of the speed of light? 
  • If we start with 100g of Thorium-231 ($^{231}\mathrm{Th}$, an isotope in the decay chain of Uranium) and wait 51 hours (two half-lives), how much $^{231}\mathrm{Th}$ is left?
The answers to these don't depend on historic events or individual people. (They do relate to the people in the questions above by way of their work.) They require computation and thinking, for real. And that "for real" part is killer. For example, one can argue endlessly about the meaning of texts and the existence of "penumbras" in law or sticking to original intent, but there is no arguing with the technical questions.

That's one of the big issues that separates technical material from "soft" material: there's really an answer, and that answer can be shown to be right or tested with experiments that don't depend on feelings or whether Taul of Sarsus came up with it in the $94 \frac{1}{2}$ theses he nailed to the door of the Delicatessen in Wittenberg while he went in for a Schlagobers after the battle of the Salamis (pork against beef against chicken against vegan).

BTW, people who "love" science and haughty non-STEM professoriate: what's the answer to those two technical questions? Hint: don't forget the Lorenz correction.

"Won't someone rid us of these meddlesome quants?"