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I am a former middle and high school science teacher pursuing a doctorate in Science Ed. at George Mason University, with a concentration in cognitive science and the evolution of cognition and learning. Postings on this blog represent my own views, not those of my employer or school. All writing displayed on this page is original work unless otherwise noted, and thus copyrighted.

15 September 2009

Well, Last Time it Was Sarcastic

... but apparently I am a bit too harsh. A professor in the PhD programme chose tonight to discuss what she terms "professional discourse". I'll boil down her points as I understood them, and then I'll give my take on them.
1. It's not OK to directly confront wrong notions, ideas, and statements. Instead, you need to phrase a rhetorical question or frame the response in such a way that you sound as if you're only giving your view on the subject.
2. Asking for evidence to support an assertion is unreasonable because "we don't have the books in front of us."
3. You need to refrain from using big words, or if you do you should explain what they mean. Using big words make you sound like a know-it-all.
4. Don't dominate the discussion, but don't sit there silent either. By dominating the discussion you're silencing someone else who might want to talk, and sitting silently isn't contributing.

To be fair, I see nothing terribly wrong with #4 provided that other people do actually want to talk. The other three are a bit of an annoyance, and rely upon some poor reasoning.
It's perfectly acceptable to confront some one's wrong ideas with empirically supported ideas of your own. This is called debate, and in the absence of being directly handed information, it's how we might actually learn something from a course web discussion. I agree that it's a logical fallacy, and counterproductive, to attack the person themselves. However, since when does professional discourse have to include deference to absolute horseshit? (oops, I just broke #3, again). Calling the idea horseshit is a bit rude, I'll admit, but demonstrating that it's not correct is another story. We have a style over substance fallacy working here, and apparently it's the dominant culture in the course.
Evidence is how we, as rational human beings, actually support what we're saying and manage to establish some measure of veracity for our assertions. Operating under the assumption that I can just assert something and that should be good enough leads to the submission of personal experience and anecdote as proof of (insert concept here), and just doesn't work. These people are PhD students in Science Education, surely they grasp the idea of evidence? All that aside, how frackin' difficult is it to Google something?
The last sentence applies heavily to #3 as well. You don't know a word I used? Really? All right, I can accept that, now open another browser window and use OED to figure out what it means. Still don't get the concept? Wikipedia is full of entries on just about everything; Not necessarily ones that contain loads of perfectly verified information, but I'm not discussing anything particularly controversial here. Alternately, you might try something like searching the name of the person I just cited, and it's just possible that the very source I used will pop up, or something that at least summarises the ideas espoused in that source.
/rant. Perhaps I should have stuck to the actual sciences, or looked into Philosophy despite my scant background in it if I wanted to be able to have real discussions with people in my programme. Or perhaps these people need to grow a thicker skin, take Sagan's advice and not get so attached to their hypotheses, learn to look things up they don't understand, and possibly provide something to back their assertions beyond "Well, in my experience..."


  1. In my experience, personal anecdote is good enough. That settles it, then. Ed is a touchy-feely world, though, in which protecting fragile self-esteems is prioritized right alongside creating and imparting knowledge, and I'm surprised you haven't learned that lesson by now.

    I've reviewed Timothy Keller's The Reason for God over at my blog, which, like a bad friend and person, you haven't been to yet.

  2. JPS> Ed is a touchy feely world, and that doesn't surprise me. The part that took me aback was the fact that the touchy feely extends all the way into the academia aspects of Ed with regards to others in the same setting. That's not a useful way to discern information or build a knowledge base.
    As a bad friend and person, I've been to your blog several times, I just hadn't left a comment on your latest. bitch. I've corrected that now.