Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Trouble with Education

While in Indonesia last August I read a fascinatingly mind bending book called The Trouble with Physics.

I never liked physics at school, but love reading the odd pop physics book. As with all these types of books you feel that the explanations often gloss over details and make pretty large leaps of logic, which I suppose is understandable. It reminds me of reading American economics text books back in the day.

In any case, The Trouble with Physics is about how physicists became besotted with string theory in the 80s (while the rest of us became besotted with Wham!) and how String theory has stayed in vogue (even though Wham! are way past their sell buy date and we are all listening to the Jonas Brothers now).

The author, Lee Smolin, critiques string theory and says it's a load of codswallop. It turns out that string theorists have created fancy theories that are not disprovable - they may as well be disciples of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster!.

Smolin then talks about the Physics education system. The people that succeed are good at exams, diligent when learning the received wisdom. They are not people that think outside the box or rock the boat, because if you want an academic job you have to kowtow to your professors (I have seen this happen a few times).

And so 20 years on String theory is entrenched in theoretical physics departments everywhere. 20 years of research probably gone down the drain.

The scary thing is, the same problem exists in economics faculties (plus, economist's theories "proofs" are very very wishy washy) and probably in most academic institutions.

It's not unlike those almost alien-like hardcore religious people, with their labrynthine detailed knowledge of religious dogma.

The real danger occurs when people actually pay attention to these people steeped in string theory, religious, economic and [add social science discipline of choice] dogma.

3 comments:

A Feminist Blog said...

John,
In the school where I am teaching, I am struggling to explain the importance of learning BAHASA INDONESIA. The students are very lazy to learn it. :) somewhat out-of-date discussion that Indonesian people always think science (physics, chemistry, biology) and math are more important to study than any social lesson, including Bahasa Indonesia.
In the uni I am teaching, the students complain why they should study literature, such as Poetry Analysis, Drama Analysis, et. :)

delvi said...

wishy washy prof! never had one.
well, i pity those who have to kowtow to someone/thing/system/wham!!! in order to get a job (i pity myself too.
But i reckon we, in literature, fare better than our peers in science. For us Conrad's Heart of Darkness can be considered as both colonialist text and anti-colonialist text. for them 1+1 must be 2 or or else. he he he he he he
btw. i never love fisika....nevah

johnorford said...

nana, yeh i remember some of my pals were the same when it came to english, but slowly they came to enjoy it : )

delvi, neveh love fisika? your loss! (and mine ; ))