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Senior Vice-President for Research and Innovation, Professor of Theoretical Physics, Michigan State University

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Seasons and Veritas

Harvard graduates explain why we have seasons. If only their understanding matched their confidence.

See also Why is it dark at night?  ,  Inside HBS: "kill, f^^k or marry"  ,  Frauds!  and
High V, Low M: ... high verbal ability is useful for appearing to be smart, or for winning arguments and impressing other people, but it's really high math ability that is useful for discovering things about the world -- that is, discovering truth or reasoning rigorously.


HomoSapiens said...

It appears that none of the people interviewed had studied astronomy, geography or meteorology. So they made up explanations that made sense to them and communicated that effectively. This says more about the education system at Harvard (C.P Snow's Two Cultures) than it does about "High V, Low M" ability or anything of the sort. They were thinking physically about the problem but came to the wrong conclusion because they were missing key data.

I think a lot of folks trained in mathematical fields overestimate the importance of mathematics to the exclusion of other modes of thinking. A certain amount of mathematical skill may be required to have in order to make discoveries about the physical world, but it has not always been necessary. Faraday and Darwin made significant discoveries about the physical world without high levels of mathematical fluency. Even Einstein, who was no slouch mathematically but not of the caliber of Poincare or Hilbert, made his discoveries through "physical" intuition, whatever that is. That is why he got to relativity first, even though Hilbert and Poincaré had gotten parts of it before or near simultaneously as him. Maybe you need to add a mode of thinking called P to your V and M.

steve hsu said...

"none of the people interviewed had studied astronomy, geography or meteorology"

How about elementary school or middle school science? Do you think they were exposed to that? It seems likely that all had been exposed to the idea that the Earth's axis is tilted relative to the orbit plane, etc. Whether they could recall this *geometrical* picture and its implications does have something to do with math/spatial ability. They might also have wondered why their elliptical orbit model doesn't explain variation in day length.

If the film makers had tried something similar down the road at MIT graduation, would they have had a harder time finding clueless but confident grads?

dxie48 said...

That explains why the US senate is voting on whether the climate change is real http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jan/22/us-senate-man-climate-change-global-warming-hoax

Recollection on the Indiana Pi Bill http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Pi_Bill that passed the house of rep but at the senate

"it was nearly passed, but opinion changed when one senator observed that
the General Assembly lacked the power to define mathematical truth."

HomoSapiens said...

I think that's an unfair assumption. People learn many things throughout their life that they promptly forget since they have no interest in them. I think people tend to remember facts and associations between facts that hold an interest for them. If you have no interest in science, you will not be likely to remember scientific facts. Would the vaunted engineers at MIT be likely to remember and recite on the spot the subtler points of argument in Plato's Republic or Voltaire's Candide?

"If the film makers had tried something similar down the road at MIT graduation, would they have had a harder time finding clueless but confident grads?"
Maybe. But they would have found "engineers" who were clueless about the most basic facts about electricity

Some of those kids could probably explain Maxwell's equations in their sleep.

BobSykes said...

From an engineering viewpoint, this is not a bad idea. Setting pi = 3 is less than 5% error. Most real world engineering data (like river flow rate, etc) has errors approaching 50%, and safety factors of 2 or larger are common.

Setting e = 3 has a 9% error, which might be acceptable in some cases.

By the way, to simplify calcs, physicists often set many constants and groups = 1, which they claim could be true in some unspecified system of units.

HomoSapiens said...

I would be reluctant to fly on a plane designed by engineers who use the wrong value of pi to design the engines. There is a difference between adding a safety factor to a known quantity and having the wrong value for a quantity. As Feynman said, "Nature cannot be fooled."

BobSykes said...

Homo sapiens nonhumorensis

HomoSapiens said...

The humor gene skipped me

Henning said...

I can see people making mistakes here much more readily than with "Why is it dark at night?" That seems like a ridiculous thing to get wrong.

It would probably take me a little while to think about this question before arriving at "earth moving away from the sun would not be relevant to seasons occurring at different times in different regions", and then remembering the other word with "earth" connected to it and iterating this in my mind.
Though my IQ is only 128, and i only have elementary education (7 years ago since I took science classes).

I think what plays a role is people get stressed out and just want to give an answer.

Unknown said...

Wasn't some faux environmental group successfully having students sign a petition to remove hydrogen dioxide from our water supply?

Unknown said...

Rather di-hydrogen oxide

HomoSapiens said...

I think what's galling is that they speak so confidently about matters they don't know. Somehow, that is being viewed as "high verbal ability". I didn't see any extraordinary verbal gifts in that video. Just some ignorance and maybe hubris. Go to any corporate meeting (even technical) and you will see people talking in this manner about things they don't know.

David Coughlin said...

"I think what's galling is that they speak so confidently about matters they don't know." This is a cultural feature of high-achievers, no? I had to tell [in an IM] my third-level-boss [doctorate from a fancy northeast technical school] that his most current idea wasn't just useless, it was destructive, and that he need to stop talking [during the telecon we were on]. He was pretty sure he had a good idea before my IM.

HomoSapiens said...

I think those who have achieved more tend to speak in this manner. Not sure if it is cause or effect, i.e. confidence gained from past success (getting into Harvard, getting promoted fast at the job etc). Even Einstein went around saying (supposedly) that God doesn't play dice when it is pretty clear that he was absolutely wrong.

namae nanka said...

Two of my friends(and most probably more since I didn't go around asking for this) were confident that it was due to earth being farther from the sun during winters. Though their error was far less egregious than a prof. starting off his lecture with a FTL electron.

Henning said...

Situation seems to lend itself well to this behavior. They are supposed to represent. Not just knowledge, but appearance.

I am not convinced from the clip that they thought much anything about the question. I do think 30 seconds after a "let me think about it" would improve people's chances.

aseuss said...

I don't think the finer points of argument in Plato's Republic or Candide are comparable to a basic understanding of how the tilting of the earth results in seasons. These students were not asked to provide an equation laying out how the sun's energy is spread out over a larger area, in terms of the angle of tilt. If they simply said that the seasons resulted from the tilting of the earth--rather than the distance from the sun--that probably would have sufficed. This explanation would be comparable to an engineer's basic understanding of The Republic. The engineer would not be asked for the finer points of Candide, any more than the wordsmith would be asked for mathematical formulae. I think Steve's point was that these people spoke with great confidence about things that they did not know, which is something high V people are more prone to than others. My sense is that a more mathematically-inclined person would not have "winged" it if they did not know the answer; they might even have sensed that the "distance" explanation is not tenable, even if they did not have data.
The other thing is that we are talking about Harvard graduates who are supposed to have at least a basic understanding of science and math. I am not a science person, but I do remember being taught in middle school that the tilting of the earth creates seasons. Sure, it's unfair to hold people to a lot of arcane scientific facts, but what causes the seasons is pretty basic. Not just Harvard graduates, but average people, should know basic things about nature as well as civics and society--it is central to what it means to being a responsible citizen. So, I don't think they should be able to chalk up their ignorance to lack of interest: it's their duty, our duty, to know these things. This isn't just theoretical--I think the debate over climate change might be a bit more thoughtful if people had a basic background in geology and understood the greenhouse effect. Most people, it appears, do not.
Having said all this, I do realize that it is hard to remember everything one has learned, as you have duly noted, and they might have been able to explain other scientific concepts more accurately.

AG said...

High verbal skill is only for selling idea or product to average folk. Very useful as salesmen, politicians, religion figures.
Math is the rule how universe works (or rule of God).

DK said...

There is a longer version of this video that shows some university professors giving completely moronic explanations of the reason for moon phases. Seasons and the Earth axis is a stuff solidly from the middle school - but failure to learn is not the really bad thing here. It's the failure to think that's the obvious problem - these people clearly never pondered why it's always warm on equator and why there is polar night and polar day. With their supposedly high verbal IQ, it means that they never actually understood (or thought about) the phrase "low winter sun". Etc, etc, etc. Sad.

HomoSapiens said...

wow! Algebra explains the universe. If only I had studied harder in high school, I would have a portal into the mind of God

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