The Myth of the Closed Mind, 6

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

The fourth and final part of the book discusses immunizing strategies (ways of changing ideas to protect them against criticism to try to avoid refutation). The book says these strategies are costly. I agree.

In general, changing ideas, by adding exceptions, or any other ways, ruins the explanation. So the ideas lose their appeal and the new ones are actually really easy to criticize for lacking a good explanation, even if they're hard to criticize empirically. David Deutsch covers this in his books, especially the dialog about induction which is chapter 7 in The Fabric of Reality.

So I consider this topic already covered and not terribly interesting because it's easy to see the answer from more general principles.

Another way to look at it is that if you can easily vary an idea in the face of criticism, then your idea is easy to vary. You may hope this will protect it against criticism, but being easy to vary is itself an important criticism (as Deutsch explains at length in The Beginning of Infinity). So this kind of thing doesn't work.

I think the problem situation which is concerned that people will try to avoid criticism is wrong. What do you care what they do? People can live badly and there is nothing you can do to stop them, other than violence or persuasion. And if they don't want to be persuaded by you, they won't be, at least not directly. They don't have to listen to you at all, they don't have to read your books or arguments, they can turn off the TV or radio when you come on, etc... People have to use some of their own initiative to learn things. It's a choice.

I think the problem situation which is overly concerned with immunizing strategies, and big general principles like "is human nature rational enough that persuasion will always work?" is too concerned with proof, with formal argument, with having some sort of rules of the game under which progress can be made that people cannot resist. It's concerned that if people have free will they may use it badly. It wants guarantees for reason, progress, etc...

But I don't mind if people can make choices, even bad ones. I'm happy to tolerate diversity. I know that will include irrationality and other mistakes, but so what? I draw the line at violence but that's it. I recognize my philosophy is fallible and conflicts need to be worked out by reason, to the extent people want to, and if they would rather do something else for now that is part of freedom. There are plenty of people interested in learning things who might want to read my writing or have discussions or improve society, and that's good enough. We don't have to make every single person pursue our vision of progress or find some way to prevent them from choosing to ignore us; we shouldn't want that, it's anti-liberty.

Let people do whatever they want, don't worry about it too much. Offer them value and some people will come around because they are motivated by their problems to seek some solutions and they find value in what you have to say. Some of them will tell their friends, persuasion can happen and can spread. We don't have to worry about people shutting out our criticism because reality provides criticism too -- problems are inevitable and motivate people to try to improve. People who don't have bad lives and in the extreme it becomes obvious their lifestyles are worse when they have a thousandth the wealth we do or that kind of thing. People notice that, even bad people, and make get jealous or angry, but the point is they don't completely ignore all their problems and do care to improve, so there's nothing to worry about. I think this sort of perspective is a better problem situation than trying to figure out what to do about people who don't want our help -- the proper answer to that is to leave them alone.

Live your own life, make it awesome, cooperate on a voluntary basis with the best people you can find, offer up value with mass appeal if you want. The book tries to solve a problem that this sort of good attitude to life doesn't have. And the more you start worrying about trying to find ways to stop people living irrationally in your view, the closer you may get to intolerance, tyranny, anti-freedom.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 5

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

p 81 begins chapter 2 by saying "Darwinian evolution has made us rational." A bit later:
Cognitive psychology has shown that children already have an intuitive grasp of the world.
This is an appeal to authority. Worse, it's also unsourced. The purpose of appeals to authority is to justify ideas; they are a justificationist error. They do not serve as good criticisms or explanations, which are the tools of learning.

One of the propositions it's used to support/justify is:
[Children] also have the capability of forming hypotheses
There's no reason to appeal to authority for this claim. It can be argued for in a short, Popperian way. Children learn things. We know this because if you wait a while you'll find they know a bunch of stuff they didn't know before. And how does learning work? By conjecture and refutation. So the implication is that children can conjecture (aka form hypotheses). And, by the way, they can also think of criticisms.

This argument could be evaluated by the reader instead of just irrationally accepted (how are you supposed to correct errors in the propositions you accept without knowing the reasoning for them?). I think this argument is an important part of child psychology and more generally that using epistemology is crucial to understanding how people think, but the discussion in the book has a different approach.

p 81
If a child sees a cow give birth to a live calf, the child will be surprised if told the next one will lay eggs. Children are born with a categorizing disposition that places animals into natural exclusive classes, all the members of which are assumed to have the same characteristics. This is their intuitive natural history.
This is pretty much advocacy of induction and non-general-purpose thinking (Popperian conjecture and refutation is general purpose, this is something else). It claims children observe stuff and generalize it and then are surprised if their (inductive) generalizations turn out false. And the stuff about categorizing sounds like induction too, it doesn't say anything about conjecturing what categories will solve problems and criticizing one's categories until they are useful, or other Popperian stuff.

Next, in a book about how everyone is rational, we're told about how children will "automatically assume" things which is the epitome of irrationality (since automatic assumptions is a method of thinking that doesn't involve error correction or criticism, or even any opportunity for choice or thinking).

p 85 tells us:
This approach [denial of universality of human thinking; modular approach] fits well with what psychologists have found. Our reasoning abilities are domain-specific and have their own biases and limitations.
This contradictions Popper's general purpose explanation of how we create knowledge (by conjectures and refutations). And it's an appeal to the authority of unnamed psychologists. And it's unsourced.

I get that the modular approach is required for evolutionary psychology (because different variants of genes could make the modules be built in different ways, with different biases), but this stuff is all false.

p 85
Jerry Fodor (1983) was the first to conjecture that the mind has a collection of special-purpose machines.
I have a very hard time believing no one ever thought of that idea before 1983. No argument that he was the first is provided, apparently I'm just supposed to accept it on authority.

The book does have some arguments. Like an example: people who open their eyes "can't help but see a stable three-dimensional environment". I don't think that's actually true -- sometimes I tune out and don't look at the world around me even though my eyes are open. Further, the test subjects are all adults or at least people who know how to communicate, so assuming it applies to all people is unwarranted. Nor do I think if everyone had this experience would that prove it was built into our brains -- we could all learn this approach, much like basically all Americans learn to spell "cat" the same way. Arguing something is common is not a proof that it isn't learned. I don't see anything surprising about convergence on some truths about vision and knowledge about how to see the world being widespread in our culture and reliably passed on to children, so this example fails to impress me.

Backing up, the arguments for the modular approach do not address my arguments against it. They don't address the clash with the Popperian conjectures-and-refutations approach, nor the arguments in David Deutsch's universality arguments in his book The Beginning of Infinity. And more generally, I don't think the book shows any understanding of what it would take to imply specialized brain modules as the only explanation and rule out all alternatives, so it never provides successful arguments that can actually refute all the rival ideas. Since the arguments I find compelling are not addressed, Percival fails to persuade me. Consequently I'm skipping the rest of chapter 2.

Chapter 3 (p 169) is titled "Does Emotion Cloud Our Reason?" and will presumably argue for "no", which I agree with. This sounds more interesting.

But the first sentence of the chapter treats "irrational" as being "insulated against all criticism". But irrationally is normally (perhaps always) partial. It's not all or nothing. We can be better or worse at correcting errors (more or less rational). No one is perfect. Percival also then immediately asks if emotion-based irrationality would make ideologies spread better. This topic comes from chapter 1.

p 169 says
I grant that intense emotion engendered by an ideology may impair the appreciation of critical argument, but I insist that argument is always relevant because our emotions are under the control of our theory of the world and our place in it.
I agree. Good point.

I would add William Godwin's argument: even when people are in the most emotional, passionate situations, such as in the middle of intense sex, or whatever other scenario you want to bring up -- at a moving Church service, immensely enjoying getting married, mourning at a funeral, excited by a sports game, extremely angry, etc -- they will promptly snap out of it and put the emotion aside if presented with something more important (in their own judgment) than what they are doing. Like if a terrorist shows up and points a gun at them, they will forget about the wedding or prayer or football game or whatever, and pay attention to the threat to their life. Emotions can be abruptly dismissed when people want strongly enough to focus on something else. And actually emotional states are pretty fragile which is why people having sex will seek privacy and put lots of effort into preventing anything from "ruining the mood".

Really angry people have also been observed to abruptly change to apologetic when they are told some simple fact they hadn't known before and it puts them in the wrong. This refutes the concept that we are slaves to emotion. Certainly sometimes you correct an angry person and he stays angry, but the point is people *can* resist their anger, not that they have to. They can choose to live badly. That people do both things shows that they have the choice.

p 170-171 presents an argument by Pareto which blatantly assumes justificationism as a premise and thus goes wrong. It's really a non-sequitur. And then there is an assertion that that irrational faith can only be based on feelings, which is given as the conclusion of an argument but is actually just a premise written at the end and isn't argued for in any way previously. Percival doesn't point these things out though, I don't know why.

p 179
Psychological research, on non-human animals at least, shows that the range of conditioned responses that can be established depends on the specifies of animal.
More unsourced appeal to authority. This also assumes without argument that animals have psychology, a proposition I reject on primarily philosophical grounds (so even if I were impressed by appeals to scientific authority, that would miss the point!).

This style is common throughout, e.g. p 180
Experimental research into emotion suggests that...
Worse, we're then told, p 180
Everyone agrees that...
Then, p 180
Now research seems to show that...
There is a section heading, p 180, which reads, "Evidence From Psychology". Then we are told things like "research ... suggests that [stuff]". But evidence does not suggest anything, it is used in criticism, not to establish any positive ideas. So this is non-Popperian.

Then we get, p 180
More recently, Schachter and Singer tested the theory that both cognition and physiological arousal were necessary for a genuine experience of emotion.
This is scientism. It is the purported application of scientific method to reach conclusions outside the domain of science. Supposedly they are research scientists doing scientific tests to figure stuff out. But that isn't what's going on. The meaning and proper way to think about "genuine experience of emotion" is a philosophical issue. Genuineness is not an issue open to scientific research, except perhaps after having some philosophical ideas about it, which, depending on what they say, could then be open to some kind of scientific investigation.

You also cannot establish what is necessary for emotion from a handful of examples that you test. A single example could refute that X is necessary by observing emotion in the presence of Y but no X. But how can any finite number of tests establish that X is required for genuine emotional experience? Just because you invoke emotions 500 different ways, all with X, and you try to invoke them 50,000 other ways without X and fail every time, simply does not logically imply that X is necessary to emotion. So the project is utterly incapable of reaching the conclusion it purports to reach. And it has failed -- like bad science often does -- due to philosophical issues.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 4

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

p 60 talks about Bartley wanting to define criticism in terms of truth instead of justification. Meaning criticism doesn't try to show something is unjustified, it tries to show it's false. I agree. That's good.

It doesn't define what a criticism is though. So I will. A criticism is an explanatory idea about a flaw/mistake/error in another idea. A criticism both identifies some aspect of an idea and explains why it's bad. The explanation is necessary because one has to say *why* the thing is bad. The identification is necessary to point out what's being criticized (this is trivial in some cases where one criticizes an idea directly, but we can also criticzie meta-aspects of ideas and implications of ideas, in which case identifying the thing being criticized is less simple).

p 63 says:
In this chapter I will be arguing that the logic of the propagandist's situation impels him, on pain of failure to spread his ideas, to be -- among other things -- corrigible [open to correction]. In the next chapter, I will argue that Darwinian theory suggests that no person is incorrigible in their beliefs.
This is true. But I also think it misses the point a bit. It doesn't mean people will be corrigible. They might not care about spreading their ideas, or they might be mistaken about what methods will be effective. Error is everywhere and routine, and the mistakes people make can be arbitrary, and so they can easily confuse people on any point such as how to be an effective propagandist or whether they should want to spread their ideas or have discussions at all. But so what? There's also many different paths to solutions everywhere too. In practice, no one is totally closed to incoming information in all areas. So one way they can improve is by improving in the areas they like and listen some in. And those improvements can have implications for other areas.

This point that living irrationally makes one an ineffective propagandist does not contradict Popper's points discussed earlier about how people can live irrationally if they want to and basically good rational arguments cannot force anyone to do otherwise (which is not a bad thing!).

As to how being closed to correction makes one a poor propagandist, I think it's easy. We're all fallible. We make lots of mistakes. That means without error correction we'll be bad at absolutely anything, because we'll make lots of mistakes at it and never fix them. Anything includes being a propagandist.

As to Darwinian theory next chapter, that sounds like it's going to be more evolutionary psychology, which is false. One issue is: by what mechanism do the evolved genes control human pscyhology?

p 63 continues by bringing up Marxism and Freudianism as examples of ideologists that Popper and Bartley consider irrational. Percival takes this as meaning Popper thinks Marxists are beyond help, and takes issue with that. But I don't think Popper ever thought that, I think it's just a misunderstanding. Marxism is an irrational, closed system with general purpose ways to deflect criticism. But you can reach Marxists with meta-criticism. Popper's essay The Myth of the Framework is a good discussion of this sort of issue about how people who are very different and come at things from different perspectives can still always learn from each other and make progress.

So we get, p 64, "The propagandist who restricts his propagandistic efforts in the hope of evading criticsm and rival positions has to incur a number of costs:". Yes, indeed, irrational lifestyles have costs, and have ways out! This is just a special case.

p 77 points out that even if people use brain surgery to prevent creativity, they couldn't perpetuate a static society indefinitely b/c successfully dealing with all natural disasters that may come up requires some innovative thinking, without that they will one day fail. And if they allow any innovative thinking, the consequences are unforeseeable and can get out of hand. More generally I'd add (following The Beginning of Infinity) that *problems are inevitable* and *solving arbitrary problems requires creative thought*, and the consequences of creative thought cannot be arbitrary restricted (there is a nice sci-fi book touching on this issue, Quarantine by Greg Egan).

p 78
Martyrdom and other religious sacrifices are rational decisions of people trying to achieve their personally conceived ends by what they regard as effective and efficient means.
This is a misunderstanding of rationality. You cannot take someone's idea and just directly judge if it's rational. Rationality is an attribute of the methods by which one deals with ideas. To judge if ideas are held rationally, one must do things like suggest better ideas and offer criticisms, and see how the guy reacts to the possibility of change.

The standard and mistaken conception of rationality has to do with ideas being *good*, true, correct, legitimate, justified or having authority. It's about the quality of the idea, not the attitude to the idea. The point Percival is making is basically that even martyrdom and other apparently bad ideas can be good ideas from the perspective of the person doing them. That's true. And certainly such sacrifices can be done rationally, but also irrationally.

Rationality allows for unlimited mistakes, so trying to argue that something isn't or needn't be a mistake is missing the point. You don't have to argue that to point out something is or could be a rational decision. And you can't show something is rational just by showing it's correct. Maybe the person was thinking irrationally but got lucky. Maybe he relied on traditional knoweldge he never criticized but which had a lot of truth to it.

End of chapter 1 (there are only 4 long chapters, plus a prologue, for 275 pages).

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Mises on Psychiatry and Anarchism

Ludwig von Mises in Human Action:
Anarchism believes that education could make all people comprehend what their own interests require them to do; rightly instructed they would of their own accord always comply with the rules of conduct indispensable for the preservation of society. The anarchists contend that a social order in which nobody enjoys privileges at the expense of his fellow-citizens could exist without any compulsion and coercion for the prevention of action detrimental to society. Such an ideal society could do without state and government, i.e., without a police force, the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion.

The anarchists overlook the undeniable fact that some people are either too narrow-minded or too weak to adjust themselves spontaneously to the conditions of social life. Even if we admit that every sane adult is endowed with the faculty of realizing the good of social cooperation and of acting accordingly, there still remains the problem of the infants, the aged, and the insane. We may agree that he who acts antisocially should be considered mentally sick and in need of care. But as long as not all are cured, and as long as there are infants and the senile, some provision must be taken lest they jeopardize society. An anarchistic society would be exposed to the mercy of every individual. Society cannot exist if the majority is not ready to hinder, by the application or threat of violent action, minorities from destroying the social order. This power is vested in the state or government.

State or government is the social apparatus of compulsion and coercion. It has the monopoly of violent action. No individual is free to use violence or the threat of violence if the government has not accorded this right to him. The state is essentially an institution for the preservation of peaceful interhuman relations. However, for the preservation of peace it must be prepared to crush the onslaughts of peace-breakers.
As far as anarchism goes, the idea that an anarchist society would have no police, no defense of property rights, no defense against violence ... is pure straw man.

More interesting, I think, is the discussion of the mentally ill.

To agree to use force against those deemed antisocial or insane is pure tyranny and totalitarianism. It is the suppression of dissent and all radical new moral ideas (because those will deviate from current social norms). It is the opposite of a free, tolerant, liberal society (Mises is advocating liberalism in the book).

The only possible liberal attitude is to refuse to dehumanize any large groups of humans. To label someone "insane" does not make him less of a person. To dehumanize the large and vague group of "antisocial" people, and to endorse violence against them, is even more broadly destructive.

We must thoroughly renounce violence in human relations, not let psychiatry sneak it back in. Mises wants social cooperation but he apparently doesn't understand that social cooperation ought to include everyone, at least in a minimal way. The value of social cooperation must not be used as a justification for violence against those I deem insufficiently cooperative or who do not socialize in the ways I want them to.

I further object to Mises mixing up the insane and antisocial with the criminals and peace-breakers. Most people labelled mentally ill are not criminals, not violent, and do not hurt anyone. To smear all the psychiatrically-labelled deviants as criminals is awful. And completely unnecessary: the people who do break laws can be dealt with according to the law without any psychiatric claim. So the only purpose of the smear is to legitimize violence against the non-violent, non-criminal people who are, nonetheless, targeted by psychiatry.

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The Myth of the Closed Mind, 3

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

Chapter 1 begins on p 39. It offers an analogy comparing ideas to fish, "all competing for resources and opportunities for reproduction". I think this is meant to dramatize and illustrate the connections between the logic of genes and memes. Percival adds that, "People have only so much attention and memory capacity to devote to these ideas. Because of these constraints..." These are important constraints but I don't think they are the most important ones to focus on. People reject memes they consider immoral, consider false, or have some other criticism of. That constraint is crucial to the logic of how memes work, as explained in David Deutsch's book The Beginning of Infinity. I bring this up primarily because I consider human choice a very important part of life, and I am wary of how some meme theory tries to attack that and deny us responsibility for our choices (sometimes by denying we made them at all). Which fish are successful in an ocean is an issue that doesn't involve human judgment, choice or responsibility, but which ideas are successful in a culture does involve those human factors, so that's a major difference the analogy doesn't capture. Maybe we'll get more detail on this later.

pp 40-41 talks about ideas with more content or generality that are easier to refute but would be more valuable if true, and ideas with less content, less potential value, but also less opportunity to refute them. It's the issue of more or less bold ideas. Percival gives a nice clear example:
A. All cyclists live longer than non-cyclists.
B. All non-smoking cyclists live longer than non-cyclists.
Idea A is bolder and tells us more about the world, but can be refuted more easily than B (by a smoking cyclist who dies young).

p 41 comments about how making ideas more attractive (more general purpose, meaning more content) may unintentionally make them more open to criticism. While the intended point is right (more bold ideas that say more can be refuted in more ways), I think there's an issue here. We can criticize ideas for lack of boldness! The moral of the story, as I see it, is that there is simply no way to hide from criticism. All ideas are always quite vulnerable. Similarly, vague ideas may try to avoid criticism by not providing any clear statements to be disputed, but vagueness is itself a well known and important flaw to criticize.

p 42 advocates the "modular hypothesis" that the human mind is not like a general purpose computer but has specific modules for specific tasks (it leaves open the possibility of some general-purpose thinking too). But Popper's method of conjecture and refutation is inherently general purpose (it's how we learn all types of things, it applies to every field), so what is the appeal of the modular hypothesis? If we think by conjecturing and refuting when it comes to every topic, why have different modules for different topics? This Popperian objection is not discussed and the book quickly changes topic (maybe it will come up again later?).

I skipped some pages about religion and then find, p 51
There is a similarity between being converted to a religion and being struck by the power of a scientific explanation.
I don't know about that. The vast majority of religious conversions are done with children who don't know much about critical thinking yet, while being struck by the power of scientific explanation in the usual way requires knowledge of critical thinking and scientific method as a prerequisite. Percival goes on to attribute the spread of Christianity and Islam (partly) to them having some closeness to the truth and value (monotheism is an example). I'm not so sure about that either because there are Eastern religions with vast numbers of followers which lack monotheism and other valuable attributes of Christianity.

p 57 says Popper and Bartley have "claimed that some ideologies and their proponents are impervious to criticism. I disagree." No source is given. Where did Popper say that? What I know he did say is that all frameworks can be criticized, and we can always learn from each other despite differences in perspective. That's in his essay The Myth of the Framework. Also, fallibility itself implies nothing will be completely impervious.

There are ideologies -- e.g. Freud's -- which are impervious to direct criticism because they have general purpose anti-critical methods built in. But they are still open to criticism, e.g. for their closedness to criticism itself. Whenever there is an anti-critical mechanism which is impervious to some category of criticism, we can still analyze it itself and criticize in a different way. I think Popper knew this. He himself did criticize Freud's ideology, so I don't think it makes sense to consider him to have believed it was completely impervious to all types of criticism.

p 58 quotes Popper saying:
no rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.
Percival calls this "pessimistic". But what's wrong with it? By an effort we can improve. If we don't want to, and try not to, we won't. Learning requires active thinking, taking steps to learn, in general it can't be forced on someone from without. If you tie someone to a chair and play some educational videos, hey may not pay attention. If you tell him a rational argument, he may not listen (he may literally walk away and put in ear plugs). So what?

In our society, almost all people do want to adopt rational attitudes -- at least partially and inconsistently -- because they are aware of some of the value of such an attitude. But there is nothing a priori necessary about this, and there have been cultures in which no one knew what rationality was nor wanted to be rational.

I don't see anything bad in people having some control over their lives. Consider: you might disagree with me about what is a rational attitude and which arguments are rational (or true). And you might disagree even more fundamentally about what kinds of attitudes and arguments are good (if any). That's freedom! That's important. I might be mistaken. I might have gross misconceptions about what rational arguments are, what rationality is, what is good, and so on. It's important that anyone can disagree and live life their way. This is a wonderful thing. If what I deemed a "rational argument" was guaranteed to affect you, against your will, then you would lack freedom, I would have an awful sort of power over you. That would be a sad state of affairs; the one Popper speaks of is a happy situation.

None of this is to say that I actually agree with Popper's full position on this topic. He was mistaken when he wrote "Thus a comprehensive rationalism is untenable." and "irrational faith in reason" (in OSE). But when Popper says the blockquote above or "a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective", he's right.

The mistake which he's struggling with is foundationalism and justificationism. The solution is not to justify reason itself, nor anything else, and not to base it on any foundation. Popper wrote, "[the rationalist attitude] cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience." Yes, but so what?

Rationality is about methods of thinking which allow for the correction of mistakes. It's wise because irrational attitudes, if they are mistaken, stay mistaken. Mistakes in rational attitudes can be fixed. Can someone reject the premises of my argument, or refuse to listen to it if they don't want to, or misunderstand it? Yes. And for all I know they can understand it and reject it -- maybe I'm wrong. But none of this is a problem or bad thing. Progress doesn't come from airtight arguments that force people to accept reason or anything else. It comes from voluntary action, people choosing to think and wanting to gain values by thinking, people having problems they want to improve on, people recognizing their mistakes and wanting a better life. Life presents problems which can inspire people to take some initiative in improving, we don't have to worry about forcing passive people to live the way we deem correct (and we must not do that, because we might be mistaken; a tolerant society is the only rational society).

Summary: reject justificationism (which Popper struggled with early on. He was the first person to understand this, but at first only partially) and then there is no longer any problem of justifying reason. And as to people being free to choose not to listen, that isn't a problem at all but a virtue of a free society.

Percival starts talking about how Popper must think irrationalism is psychologically viable. But I think he recognized that in our society basically no one fully embraces it. One can be interested in refuting irrationalism for other reasons, e.g. because it's an important philosophical position.

Percival misreads Popper in the discussion. Popper wrote (OSE):
That is to say, a rationalist attitude must be first adopted if any argument or experience is to be effective, and it cannot therefore be based upon argument or experience. (And this consideration is quite independent of the question whether or not there exist any convincing rational arguments which favour the adoption of the rationalist attitude.)
Percival writes:
Popper first says that the rationalist attitude must be adopted to make criticism effective, but then immediately retracts this implicitly by saying that this is independent of whether there are any convincing arguments for adopting rationalism. Is Popper saying that a convincing argument can fail to convince?
The parenthetical was not a retraction, it's a correct logical point. And Percival mixes up the concepts of "convincing argument" and "convincing rational argument". Popper does not discuss convincing arguments, unqualified.

The point is that we must adopt a rational attitude (one capable of learning, correcting mistakes) in order to learn from any argument (or experience). Correct so far. Then, Popper adds, this point is true regardless of whether or not there is a rational argument for adopting a rational attitude. Whether or not such an argument exists has no bearing on the first statement that irrational attitudes prevent learning.

I see Popper's position on this topic in OSE as flawed, Percival's analyze of it as also confused, and I think my take on the topic resolves the issue (basically there is no issue, there only seems to be from a justificationist perspective). Next, Percival discusses Bartley on this topic (who he also thinks isn't good enough), and then I think he will present his own answers after, we'll find out next time.

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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.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

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.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)