Archive for October, 2008

Eclectic Plagiodoxy- the map metaphor

October 25, 2008

From Martin Rudwick:

The Great Devonian Controversy:  The University of Chicago Press (1985)
P 454    “Bookish people with no practical experience of mapping often assume that a map is an unproblematic replica of reality, or merely a miniaturized version of what one would see from the air. Those who make intensive use of cartography know on the contrary that any map is a pervasively conventional representation. They also know that an indefinite number of different maps of the same area can be made for different purposes, yet all may be equally valid representations of the same natural reality. Even where such maps prove mistaken, they are always corrigible; but it makes no sense to talk of ever achieving a uniquely “perfect” representation, or a complete “correspondence” with reality, since different kinds of maps are designed for different uses, and there is no limit to the further representations that may be needed for new and unforeseen purposes.”

As field geologists know, any map is both a collection of data and an expression of theory. The theory is one answer to the underlying question that drives the science.

Global society today is caught up in a transformational process, the sharp point of the wedge of transformation being economic/financial. The maps/theories that have served as guides to the future for the past several decades are failing us. It is not that Atlas has finally shrugged. But rather he seems be showing himself as an old fool.

Pay heed to what Rudwick is saying. It is unsurprising to any one that maps are never “perfect”, because most of us can remember when we first started making simple maps, and frequently gave up on the process as not being attuned to our individual talents. Most people would rather write notes than draw maps.

But the notes, being just the expression of the other half of our intellect applied to the same reality, are no more perfectible than the maps. If we could remember our first stumbling attempts to express ourselves in words, we would be more humble about our word production efforts. Our grasp of the virtual nature of the world created in words, spoken, written or printed, would be more direct.

Correspondingly, we would have a greater appetite for alternative word-maps. We would look for different slants on the world. We would see the breakdown of our word-virtual image as an opportunity to look through the metaphor into reality itself a little more clearly.

But we are stuck with the fact that our memories are focused on the product of those first stumbling efforts and we can dredge up the feelings of frustration and inadequacy that surrounded that production only by great effort of internal examination. It seems to our minds that our knowledge of the world, expressed in words, actually precedes our experience in the world. In the current unfolding of historic time it is clear that this is in fact not so. It is simply an artifact of the data, the fact that our earliest memories are expressed in words.

Eclectic plagiodoxy- Let’s look for a diversity of maps , based on different slants.


Teaching geology

October 21, 2008

This morning I put that title into Google and hit the button. A typical response followed: a zillion things to sort through. Adding one more to the zillion does not seem significant, one way or the other.

I started in the Fall of 1963, the term wherein JFK got shot. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley followed the next year, and we were off and running through the 60’s. The question hung over my head for many years: In the face of all that was going on, what was the relevance of teaching geology? Was there any significance beyond being a decent way to make a reasonable living for my family. The answer to that question emerged slowly over the decades. But that’s not my path this morning.

My first teaching assignment was in two courses: Introductory Geology and Physical Science. The latter course was basically physics, for which I was only marginally qualified to teach. Oddly enough, it was that course that was easier for me to handle than the Geology course, for which I was highly “qualified”.  The unfolding of physics from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein follows an historical narrative path that can be followed with only a little algebra. But the geology course just seemed to be a hodge-podge of assorted facts about the Earth, in spite of the then-new Gilluly text. Modern texts have Plate Tectonics commonly as an organizing theme, but I found that only marginally better. The texts present the answer without asking the question!

The physical science  course, and textbook, presented the material along an historical line, the way it was learned in the first place. The pedagogy followed the phyllogeny, so the ontogeny of the individual student unfolded in the same way. Or at least it seemed so to me as I was both learning and teaching the subject. Paradoxically, we don’t teach geology that way. Paradoxically because we ignore our own history when introducing the first historical science. “The mind grows giddy…” said Playfair. Giddy, and perhaps more than a little afraid of the abyss of time.

A plagiodox view

October 16, 2008

Recently, Michael Reiss lost his position as Director of Education for the Royal Society because of how people reacted to what some people in the press said about what he said at a recent conference. I think I have that straight.

I have read the document that he prepared and submitted ahead of time. Assuming he said orally something pretty close to what he wrote, it is clear to me that his comments were a pretext for the precipitation of the conflict, rather than a reason. “Let’s you and him fight!” is the name of that game. Given that the media makes its living, in part, by reporting on fights, their actions are understandable, if unfortunate.

Conflict is, of course, part of the living experience of any organism that lives in a social relationship based on dominance hierarchies. Every individual spends some energy working on dominance relationships as well as cooperative relationships. And every individual draws a unique balance between these two activities, cooperation vs. dominance.

The tension between “science” and “religion” draws some very intense interest in parts of the population today. That tension provokes conflict between individuals, who take up different sides in the metaphorical struggle. Whether or not the conflict will ultimately be productive is unclear.

To me, the struggle is, in part, internal and personal. And I have been a human being long enough to be convinced that all metaphorical struggles are partly projections of internal and personal struggles. The dimensions of the struggle are expressed, at least in part, by how one responds to two problems:

  • What is true vs. what is not true.
  • What might work vs. what we can be certain wont work.

Science is much better at answering questions in the negative. As I have said before (Not…), we can say with much greater certainty that the Earth is not flat than we can say what precise shape it actually has. It seems to me that if we take falsification seriously as a working rule of science, we have to admit that science is much more attuned to saying what is not true than saying what is true. By the same reasoning, we can say with greater certainty in any new problem situation what wont work than what will work.

In the reality of life, one is confronted with problems. It is very nice to be able to sort the possible solutions into two piles: those we are sure wont work, and all the rest. But how do we choose between the alternatives in “all the rest”?

You try to find the alternative that, if it fails and catasrophe follows, you can reconcile yourself to the consequences. That, of course, requires an inward search. And humility.