25 June 2007

Naïveté and Expertise

When I read Enrst Mayr’s book “What Is Evolution?” I found that he had very helpful synthesis of the philosophical, and therefore conceptual, problems with the creationist position with regard to explaining the unified yet diverse nature of living things. To summarize, I think that he is saying that essentially the creationist questions are aiming in the wrong direction for studying biology, therefore the answers are correspondingly off target.

The strength of the scientific community is the ability to progressively transform not only the answers they give to questions but to also progressively transform the questions that are asked. In the example of evolution the naïve question is, “How can individual organisms of one type beget organisms of a different type some generations later?” The question itself is pointing us in the direction of looking for clues to the mystery of species diversity in an individual or in the type of individual that we have chosen to put under consideration.

The conceptual mapping of the question itself has implied the scope and nature of the answers that would be relevant, but the genius of more current evolutionary theories is framing the question in terms of the populations, not individuals and dispensing with the notion of types by acknowledging that all “types” are arbitrary constructs within our minds not in the world. This is a completely underwhelming observation to those of us who are naïve about populations and the problems of types because we will automatically conceive of the population as a meta-individual with the same kinds of properties and qualities that we expect of a single individual and types as natural qualities of the world. The problem is the difficulty of breaking the habit of conceiving of something in our usual default way. Even if you understood what I just said, there is no reason to believe that you can actually change how you think from only one isolated explanation, therefore your naïve concepts will continue to mislead you. Thus we arrive at the central problem of being an expert versus being naïve.

The evolutionary idea may be conceptually great for biology, but it is next to useless for those who do not have the ability to shift their conceptual tools for understanding at will. In fact, I have fallen into a naïve trap in the last sentence by referring to an singular “evolutionary idea” when the reality is that what I am considering as “an idea” is the complex emergent result of a cacophony of contributions by a diverse population rather than a singular monolithic item. While I will continue to refer to it in the singular for convenience, I also know that in reality there is no such thing. The same is true of referring to a generic idea of “creationism,” there is no singular idea, only a dynamic plurality of ideas that are complex and difficult to comprehend entirely.

An expert perceives accurately, thinks clearly and makes appropriate decisions based on their chosen purpose, meaning that they are consistently good decision makers. The naïve person tends to fail at one or more of these tasks. I say “tends to” because of what most people refer to as beginner’s luck. Sometimes, despite their own limitations, a novice will turn in a performance that seems utterly brilliant. The difference is in their consistency, the expert is consistently able to make good decisions, whereas the beginner is just lucky.

For example, if you want to understand biology you have to be able to see the difference between the naïve view of a divine creation metaphor and the more expert view of an evolutionary metaphor for explaining biological phenomena. It is not necessary for me to posit the truth of either of these views because that is irrelevant here. They are both metaphoric conceptual structures that have varying degrees of useful application within the phenomenal world of biology. Creationism does not contribute to biological understanding or meaningful predictions of biological phenomena plus it is a view that children easily comprehend, therefore it is naïve. The evolutionary view is in the expert category because this view has made the most substantial contribution to the ability of biologists to make meaningful predictions and continue to conduct substantial inquiries that contribute to the improvement of our understanding of the phenomena of life and the reality of how living things exist.

Creationism and evolution are both true to some degree, but the question is whether each is useful under a particular set of circumstances. For parents explaining the forms of plants and animals to young children it is perfectly true to say, “God made them that way.” For a biologist to say that to her colleagues is absurd but is still perfectly useful even to the biologist who is also a parent. Of course, the biologist parent should also share some appropriate level enthusiasm for the scientific style of inquiry that helps to discern how God continues to achieve such magnificent artistry.

Which brings us to the question of expertise and naïveté in education: I believe that defining education as the delivery of knowledge, skills, and information is naïve. The biologist parent would be wasting time if she simply delivered accepted biological dogma to her child. The creationist parent is equally wasting time if they simply deliver the accepted creationist dogma. Both parents would be negligent of they did not also delve into the reasons why their particular view helps them to be a better person, either a better biologist or a better follower of the creationist religion. The delivery of the information will be useless data until there is some context of meaningful relationships into which the data can be inserted in order to become useful.

I propose cognitive cartography as a more useful metaphor for developing expert understanding of education. The biologist parent has highly developed methods of relating to the world through the field of biology. The field provides a way of relating to certain kinds of experiences in order to make predictions and extend the stories of explanation about the phenomena that the field takes into consideration. In each person who has some expertise in biology is a conceptual structure in their mind that helps them to navigate both the phenomenal world of living things and the field of biological inquiry itself. What makes biology both useful and intellectually satisfying are the rich relationships that it helps to develop. The data of biological studies are merely the most obvious manifestations of those complex relationships and it is relationships that are useful and provide satisfaction, not the data alone. What would be educational for the biologist’s child is experiencing the passionate relationship the parent has to the biological stories that make sense of the wondrous phenomena that the child experiences. It is only within a rich set of physical, emotional and spiritual experiences that the mental data from biology can become useful. It is how the field enriches the life of the whole person that is important to convey to the child, not just the obvious data that it generates.

The same educational point is true for a creationist parent. It is not the data contained in religious texts and ideas that make it a useful pursuit. It is how the religious community enriches the whole person that makes it useful and highly valued. (It is just a crying shame that the religious community and the field of biology are so misguided about how they each interpret data differently to believe that there is a conflict between them. They are simply expressing different and inconsistent values about how to relate to apparently similar data.)

Both cognitive cartography and the delivery of knowledge, skills and information are metaphoric conceptions, but I believe the former has much richer possibilities for developing meaningful predictions and conducting more substantial inquiries into appropriate educational practice.

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