Articles to 2012-02-08

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First the link to this week’s complete list as HTML and as PDF.

Science editor Bruce Alberts cuts to the heart of the matter about education. As I frequently told my daughter, hoping repetition would make it stick, „Auswendiglernen ist das Gegenteil von Lernen“ (“learning by heart is the opposite of learning”) or, as Richard Feynman’s father put it You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.

The problem I see here is that just the plodders, who are good at achieving good marks by learning what answers to give, are the very ones most likely to become teachers themselves, who have never experienced the joy of understanding.

According to Murray and King the time has come, peak oil has finally arrived. They say gas is still plentiful when in fact and in spite of the primary objective of Russian commerce being, to prove themselves as dependable and reliable, it only took a single week of cold weather to make them default on their gas contracts. And it was not even particularly cold, just somewhat unexpected after an exceptionally mild December and January.

The same is true for the once plentiful supplies of coal, this time through pure mismanagement. Over centuries if not millennia countries had learnt to make self sufficiency in food and energy their primary national goals. Just one pampered generation, grown up in a few decades of exceptionally open trade and surplus, has sufficed to throw all that experience away. In 2003 a nearly new, supposedly uneconomic coke oven plant was closed, sold, and reassembled in China only months before an unprecedented price hike for coke. It is an open question, whether willfully squandered and drowned deep coal mines can ever be operated safely again.

All this in the name of so-called reduction of subsidies, while the real, economically distorting and damaging subsidies lie elsewhere. Of the three possible ways of financing new equipment, capital, credit, or leasing, leasing is always the most expensive and least economic before tax while after tax the roles are reversed, thus providing a classic case of an unnecessary and totally unproductive branch of industry, that could not and would not exist on its own and is only artificially brought into being through subsidy, without any excuse, like renewable energy or opera, of providing a public good. The same can be said for needlessly, exceptionally, and probably intentionally opaque laws, like divorce law, that force people already in economically tough straights to feed rapacious lawyers. Note that practitioners of law are the only profession with such a comprehensive grip on judiciary, executive, and legislature, that they have it in their power to make the pork barrels all roll one way.

Bowman is just one more example of the ills blamed on "global warming" having other, man-made causes. Suppressing small fires breeds big ones. Elephants at least have one huge advantage over toads and beetles: Should they turn out to be a mistake, they at least are easy to eradicate again.

The following is a quote by Richard Feynman:

All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on-with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-Number-1 experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using-not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to used in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of Cargo Cult Science."

This is from one of the most prominent lectures he ever gave and though many others have searched before, it seems that article just can’t be found. Three of my aborted attempts are Vincent 1915, Young 1938, and Young 1965. As cognitive science doesn’t fit into Paul Thomas Young’s work at all, my guess now is, it must have been another unknown Young, who placing rigour above orthodoxy never amounted to much and is totally forgotten now. The article was probably published in some obscure journal, that never had its content moved to the web. Feynman’s last paragraph tells me it can’t have been something he only half remembered, so it must have existed somewhere.

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