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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Improving the Conformity Factories Known as Science Graduate Schools

Modern science started out as a rather anti-authoritarian type of thing. The great scientists of the Enlightenment era often opposed ancient authorities such as Aristotle and more modern authorities such as the Catholic priesthood. But in the past hundred years scientific academia has itself taken on a strongly authoritarian character. Scientists have set themselves up as a kind of new priesthood. Of course, any priesthood requires conformity and regimentation. One key tool in the production of conformity and regimentation among scientists is the typical science graduate school.

Consider the way in which students are typically taught in such a school. In the modern Internet age with so many opportunities for computer-assisted study and self-study, there are 101 ways in which students could learn without being in the shadow or gravitational pull of authority figures, without being subject to conformity pressure. But it seems that the average graduate school seems to teach classes in the same old way.

Students are given some textbooks produced by professors (typically not the professor teaching the class). Students sit in lecture halls listening to lectures by a professor, who may assign certain chapters in the book for reading. The subject matter may have 1001 great uncertainties, but the combination of the officially approved science textbook and the similar lecture by the professor send a message to the student:

This is the official version of truth we want you to accept. This is the official party line that you should not question. Please accept this standardized pablum we are spoon-feeding you.

But, you may object, isn't it possible to engage in a debate in a science graduate school? Yes, it is technically possible, but the setup makes it pretty unlikely that a student will make any lengthy challenge to what is being taught in class. A setup in which there is a professor standing in front of a class sends a kind of “here is the guy who knows this stuff, so accept what he's saying” message that is enforced by the officially approved textbook. A setup in which there are lots of students sends a kind of “each student has just a little time slice to talk” message in which it would be considered weird for any student to stand up and make a substantive ten-minute challenge to what the professor is teaching. After one or two minutes, such a student would probably be cut off by the professor, who might do something like continue lecturing or ask some other student for his opinion. Then there's the fact that if your professor is giving you a grade, you may feel he will grade you more poorly if you challenge his teachings.

What are the output products of these type of science graduate schools? The output products are too often what we may call sheepentists, a word that can be constructed from the word “sheep” and the word scientist. A sheepentist is a scientist that has been conditioned to be a meek creature of the herd. He will move in whatever direction the members of his science herd are moving in. If a particular theory becomes fashionable among scientists, a sheepentist will be sure to parrot the claims of that theory. 

But how might we teach scientists differently? You might start with the textbooks. The first step would be to abolish the use of fixed hardcopy textbooks in science classes taught in graduate schools, making all books online. The second step would be to create a system whereby student comments could be anonymously inserted anywhere in the text of a textbook. Whenever any student read a claim in a textbook that he felt was dubious or unsubstantiated, the student could insert into the textbook his comments or rebuttal, at exactly the point in the textbook the claim was made. Any such insertions would be permanently preserved in the textbook, so that, for example, if a textbook was used in 2017, 2018 and 2019, then in 2019 students would read (in the middle of the text) all comments made by students in the previous years of 2017 and 2018.

Such a system presumably would not work in high school, and perhaps not even for freshmen college classes – since the text might be cluttered by junk anonymous comments. But presumably by the time someone has entered graduate school, we can assume that he will not be submitting sophomoric or obscene comments to be read by future students. Anonymous comments would be vital to allow people to express opposing opinions without fear of being socially ostracized or peer-pressured within the small subculture of the science graduate school. Some computer software could assign academic credit based on the number and length of comments a student added, giving an incentive for students to insert critical comments into the textbook.

Imagine the benefits of such a system. Now instead of being spoon-fed some “official party line” of truth written only by some conformists, our science textbook reader in graduate school might now get a full spectrum of opinions.

Another improvement would be a system of real-time anonymous feedback from students, which can easily be done using Internet technology. As a professor was droning on to his students, his slide show presentation might be interrupted by popup messages telling him his presentation was useless or unfair or unintelligible.  Also, allow any independent-minded student to opt-out of receiving professorial instruction, by using online options and self-study options (preserving in-class testing). 

Another way of diminishing the “conformity factory” aspect of science graduate schools would be to allow students to choose their own projects for a master's thesis or a doctoral thesis, without getting approval from professors. Requiring approval from professors discourages paradigm-challenging research projects, and encourages “same old same old” type of research. Let a vote of 3 graduate students be sufficient authorization for a master's thesis project or a doctoral thesis project.

Another way of diminishing the “conformity factory” aspect of science graduate schools would be to create a system of frequent public debates inside the school. All of the key assumptions that are rarely questioned would be publicly debated. For example, in a biology school there might be frequent debates such as this:

Do We Really Understand the Cause of Biological Complexity?
Does Your Brain Actually Produce Your Consciousness?
Are We the Only Intelligent Species in Our Galaxy?
Is DNA Actually a Blueprint for Making a Human?
Do We Actually Understand What Causes a Fertilized Egg to Become a Baby?
Are Mental Illnesses Primarily Biological in Origin?
Are Genetically Modified Foods Potentially Hazardous?
Do We Have a Credible Theory for the Origin of the Human Mind?

The debates might be between two contestants, the first having 40 minutes, the second having 40 minutes, and both having 15 minutes for rebuttal. One contestant would argue the “Yes” side and the other the “No” side. A contestant might be either a student or a professor. Academic credit could be given for any students participating as a debate contestant. A winner would be awarded for each debate, based on anonymous audience judging of which contestant won. Extra academic credit would be given for any student who was judged the winner of a debate in which a professor was the opposing contestant.

So if you were a student you might get 3 academic credits for being a contestant in a debate, and 6 academic credits for winning a debate in which a professor was your opponent. This would create an incentive for nonconformity and opinions challenging conventional wisdom, one that would help to counteract the enormous conformity pressure in science graduate schools. Students could also be given academic credit for simply attending a certain number of debates, which would help to make sure that they were exposed to both sides of issues.

These are only some ways in which our current “conformity factory” science graduate schools could be reformed to produce outputs other than conformist “sheepentists” who act like followers of the herd. Among the outputs of such improved schools might be bientests (scientists who have been educated in both sides of controversial issues) and defyentists (scientists who defy unwarranted but entrenched assumptions of the scientific community). If you don't like the idea of creating defyentists, you might want to study tech culture, which currently assigns a great value to what is called disruptive innovation. We need science graduate schools that will generate more disruptive thinkers who will challenge the ossified complacent assumptions of the science priesthood.