Tag Archives: institutions

Meet science: rationalizing evidence to save beliefs

This is how science classes mostly went in high school. We would learn about a topic that had been discovered scientifically, for instance that if you add together two particular solutions of ions, some of the ions will precipitate out as a solid salt. Then we would do an experiment, wherein we would add the requisite solutions and get something entirely wrong in its color, smell, quantity, or presence. Then we would write a report with our hypothesis, the contradictory results, and a long discussion about all the mistakes that could be to blame for this unexpected result, and conclude that the real answer was probably still what we hypothesized (since we read that in a book).

Given that they had not taught the children anything about priors, this seems like a strange way to demonstrate science.

Why is bad teaching attached to uni certification?

When most things are certified, like coffee or wood or insanity, the stuff is produced by one party, then someone else judges it. University is meant to be a certification of something or another, so a nagging question for all those who can think of a zillion better ways to learn things than by moving their morning sleep to a lecture theater  is ‘why can’t university work like those other things?’

If the learning bit were done with a different party from the certification bit, everyone could buy their preferred manner of education, rather than being constrained by the need for it to be attached to the most prestigious certification they could get hold of. This would drastically increase efficiency for those people who learn better by reading, talking, or listening to pausable, speedupable, recordings of good lecturers elsewhere than they do by listening to someone gradually mumble tangents at them for hour-long stints, or listening to the medical autobiographies of their fellow tutorial-goers.

This is an old and seemingly good idea, assuming university is for learning stuff, so probably I should assume something else.

Many other things university could be for face the same argument – if you are meant to learn to be a ‘capable and cultivated human being’ or just show you can put your head down and do work, these could be achieved in various ways and tested later.

One explanation for binding the ‘learning’ to the certification is that the drudgery is part of the test. The point is to demonstrate something like the ability to  be bored and pointlessly inconvenienced for years on end, without giving up and doing something interesting instead, purely on the vague understanding that it’s what you’re meant to do. That might be a good employee characteristic.

That good though? Surely there is far more employment related usefulness you could equip a person with in several years than just checking they have basic stamina and normal deference to social norms. Presumably just having them work cheaply for that long would tell you the same and produce more. And aren’t there plenty of jobs where the opposite characteristics, such as initiative and responding fast to suboptimal situations, are useful? Why would everyone want signals of placid obedience?

Bryan Caplan argued that university must be long because it is to show conformity and conscientiousness, and anyone can pretend at that for a short while. But why isn’t university more like the army then? People figure out that they don’t have the conformity and conscientiousness for that much faster than they do university from what I hear. University is often successfully done concurrently with spending a year or five drunk, so it’s a pretty weak test for work ethic related behaviours.

Another possible explanation is that the system made more sense at some earlier time, and is slow to change because people want to go to prestigious places and not do unusual things. While there’s no obvious reason the current setup allows more prestige, it’s been around a long time, so its institutions are way ahead prestige-wise.

What do you think?