Nit Picking

I’m going to do a bit more nit picking with falsehoods, explaining why I think it is both important and necessary to use words and phrases which best fit the message being conveyed, or at the very least, showing the courtesy of defining said terms prior to using them in an educational approach.

When we are attempting to convey complex ideas from within our own brains* to another person, it is necessary to be both concise and correct to a certain degree varying with audience.** For instance, in my posts here, I attempt to convey maximum correctness, while I allow myself the freedom to descant on and aberrate (why doesn’t Firefox recognize that word?) from any given topic to further explain my intention and meaning. Blogs such as this are highly useful for this reason. Other forms of communication, Twitter, for example, require concision far more than blogs do, thus requiring a sacrifice in the correctness of a statement.

One can consider verbal descriptive accuracy, in nearly all fields of science, to be similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in that you can either be precise (location) or brief (velocity) in explanation. This is, of course, a metaphor, I do not imply that there is some chart labeled brevity v. accuracy and only voluminous works can be accurate; it varies with subject, breadth, and audience.

This is what “good” falsehoods are used for, they are mostly or partly correct and illustrate main ideas in concise language. (read: “they are memorable”) Typically, with “good” falsehoods, if one were to go through and specify exactly how the words are being used in this context, along with the connotations and implications specific to this instance, it would no longer be a falsehood; it would also defeat the purpose of using the falsehood in the first place.

We are left with a wide spectrum of descriptive approaches ranging through (but not limited to) metaphorical, euphemistic, narrative, allegorical, mathematical, physical, and visually illustrative methods. These approaches can, and often are, quite mixed in presentation. Visually illustrative explanations typically incorporate at least one other method, but do so with direct imagery rather than relying upon the reader or listener to imagine. For descriptions of environmental or social disasters, (Katrina, overfishing, reef loss…) these images can illustrate the problem in a far more emotionally charged manner. Metaphor and euphemism are useful for discussing topics often considered taboo or difficult to explain without sufficient background (equating electrons to little balls bouncing around atoms or diseases transmitted through excrement, effluvia, etc).

Good falsehoods are, and will continue to be, useful in education, but we should always, when we have the opportunity, explain them. The desire to present  accurate information in an optimally condensed form is precisely where falsehoods arise from, but one must be careful not to strip away or insert ideas which alter the meaning, lest we end up with another falsehood.

“brains” rather than “minds” as this dualism is another falsehood (also not explained by quantum mechanics)

**Also note:
1) the more the two individuals discuss a topic, the more likely it will be that other related topics can be somewhat condensed; the working definitions will (generally) already be established
2) individuals in a the same field of study and discussing an idea within this field will also be more likely to not require such defining for terms as they will be familiar with its use in this field.


5 Responses to “Nit Picking”

  1. 1 Pliny-the-in-Between
    August 28, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Great post. I deal with this problem all the time. My research is pretty abstract but I have to resort to visual ‘falsehoods’ or approximations of mathematical processes when explaining the work to others during presentations. These pictographs carry more meaning to most observers than if I actually present the algorithms themselves. The images clearly aren’t what is happening in reality during program execution but they convey the flavor of it. But no matter how many times you repeat that this is only a facsimile there are those who don’t get that. The expect to see the swirling Venn diagrams and three dimensional decision spaces spewing from the computer. (In fact it took me 3 years to come up with a visual representation that I was comfortable with)

    To some extent I also see this problem in shows like those on the Discovery channel, etc. The visual metaphors they use seem to be more designed for dramatic impact rather than to truly convey the concepts. Perhaps all this results in is a population more exposed to a wider range of topics about which they are ill informed.

    Another danger in all of this mass produced metaphor is that it sometimes trivializes the enormous amount of knowledge backing the concepts. I think that is part of the problem with teaching evolution. Using the least common denominator approach to education or using marketing bullet points along side ID or creationist talking points doesn’t convey the enormous gap between the science of evolution and the belief of ID.

    You do a much better job of conveying information succinctly with a minimum of simplification and tha is a rare skill. Certainly not one I have! (hope the ribs are healing ;))

  2. 2 jaredcormier
    August 28, 2009 at 11:36 am

    Thanks, and I have a bit more to add:

    The images clearly aren’t what is happening in reality during program execution but they convey the flavor of it

    Therein lies the issue; humans don’t do well with abstractions. It requires lots of time devoted to understanding a concept. Due to this, we teach and discuss through falsehoods. Only upon actual at-length discussion or research relating to the issue will one come to grasp why these are falsehoods. Images and pictures are some of the worst falsehoods to dispel, but, at the same time, some of the most information-intense descriptions.

    As far as the Discover Channel et al.-I must say I have a love-hate relationship with them. While they certainly appear to try an honest presentation of information in an interesting manner, they frequently slip into falsehoods and fail to explain what is actually going on.

    I’m actually in favor of teaching modern science through an historical approach (physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc) starting in the mid-1600s and presenting the pivotal research itself. This would encourage the students to formulate their own ideas and those ideas would be similar to the next time period resulting in an easier time grasping the concepts as they developed. Additionally, this approach would allow greater understanding of what has changed throughout the history of science dispelling the falsehood that “discoveries are stagnant.”* At least, that’s my hypothesis. I’d like to test it out some day. It couldn’t possibly be worse than our modern system of “here are the ‘facts,’ now do with them what you will” where often times “facts” means “somewhat true” and “do with them what you will” means “forget them after the exam.”

    *”Darwin discovered evolution” is a good example of this; it was “discovered” long before that, but it was first given a functioning mechanism by Darwin. It was again revolutionized with the “discovery of DNA” which was, again, known long before, but had no proposed function. Things are often “discovered” long before they are understood. An historical approach can demonstrate that falsehood, and many others, for what they are.

    Also, what do you research?

  3. 3 Pliny-the-in-Between
    August 28, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Next year we are presenting an elective at my Daughter’s school that attempts to a degree what you propose. We are going to look at a couple of pivotal classical experiments after studing the history of the period. First one is using knowledge and tools of the period – determine if the earth is flat or not. Two, assuming they determine that it isn’t, what is its average circumference. They have the requisite math at their level and being near an ocean should help.

    One of my favorite quotes is the one attributed to Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants. We hope to get the kids to start understanding a little more about what that means.

    I work in the area of autonomous expert systems development.

    What’s interesting to me when I think about it is that all of my research methods and concepts began as ‘falsehoods’ by this definition. I use thought experiments and visual metaphors to formulate the computational concepts exploring the notion of ‘what if…’ until it makes sense to me. Then we sit down and try to crank out the math or code that reliably executes that vision. Then it gets torn apart in QA until it either does what it’s supposed to do or proves that my metaphor was cracked and we start over. If it works we turn it over to others to try and break independent of our bias. Not terribly glamorous but what survives works very well. Then I have to create the next set of metaphors to explain it to others.

    There is a cumulative cost of all this simplification though. At a meeting while listening to our senior project administrator talk about the work, I realized that he really did not understand important details about the algorithms. Since his knowledge was all based upon simplification some of the most important implications of the work had been lost one him. One of the most critical misunderstandings mimicked our conversation about DNA and information. Separating the normalized data structures used to represent data from the entities created from those structures was a problem. It was my own fault since, long ago having started out in molecular biology, it was often useful to illustrate abstract concepts using biological systems.

    I stopped trying to explain most of it and now work through an associate and software engineer who serves as my translator. He’s much better at it than I am.

  4. 4 jaredcormier
    August 29, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Let me know how that goes!

  5. 5 Pliny-the-in-Between
    August 29, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Let me know how that goes!

    Surprisingly well as it turns out. One of our systems is in phase II testing and scaring the beejeezies out of some people.

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