A CITIZEN’S GUIDE TO SCIENCE

WHAT SCIENCE IS,
HOW IT WORKS,
WHERE IT’S POORLY TREATED,
AND WHY SCIENTISTS HAVE
THE RIGHT TO FEEL UPSET

___

FIRE YOUR DOCTOR

You’re sitting in an upholstered chair, there is a duck painting on the wall and a paper weight on the desk. Your doctor comes in, opens a manila folder, and looks at the papers inside. She set’s her face and with calm and compassion tells you that the tests indicate cancer. What do you do?

Quietly take the papers she’s holding, alter the test results with a pen (so they can’t be erased) and go home and celebrate. You beat cancer!

Right?

PRIMER ON SCIENCE

What Science Is: The dangerous idea behind science is that it’s a way of trying to understand how the universe (nature) works by actually studying the universe. Science can be used to answer big questions like the age of the universe, the origin and evolution of life, and smaller questions like Bilbo Baggins’ “What have I got in my pocket?” Because Science is based on looking at nature, it’s open to everyone: every gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, religious (or non-religious) background, even bald people. We are all scientists. As we move through the day we are constantly erecting hypotheses, conducting tests, evaluating results. I grasp my coffee cup and use the external temperature of the cup to judge how hot the coffee is and how big a sip I can take. Science ten-thousand times a day.

However, at birth we humans are ill equipped to understand the universe, we are rife with biases and handicaps. It really seems like the Earth is sitting still while the sun moves across the sky. Calculus (calculus!) is required to understand that gravity is more than a series of random events. We wash hands and fruit to remove invisible bacteria. We lose at the casino, but remember winning. We hear something that confirms a strongly held belief and remember it, while we forget or deny those things that refute the same idea. (This last, known as “Confirmation-” or “Myside-Bias,” is the greatest demon of all scientists, professional and amateur alike. Certain recent geo-political events are almost certainly the result of this human defect.)

How Science Works: Coupling the two ideas—to understand the universe, study the universe; and that humans are prone to mistakes—results in the process we call Science. Every time we discover a new human failing, scientists incorporate that into the next round of tests to make sure results are less tainted by bias. The double-blind test, where neither doctors nor patients know who is getting the active medicine and who the placebo, is an important result of this rule. The very design of Science—rejection of arguments from authority, peer-review, public publications, reproducibility, falsifiability, and findings that are constantly subject to testing and skepticism—creates a system designed to remove human failings and provide accurate descriptions of nature. Whenever this process isn’t used, there is an enormous chance conclusions will not accurately reflect reality.

When a scientist tests an idea about how nature works they do not simply gather evidence for that idea. Rather they work as hard as they can to show that the idea isn’t an accurate description of nature. Only if they fail to show it doesn’t work (note double negative) do they reluctantly accept that it might be acceptable. It sounds counter intuitive until you put it to a test. In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, we learn that the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” is 42, an answer arbitrarily picked by the book’s author, Douglas Adams. Recently a fan compiled an entire book listing hundreds of instances where 42 is an “important” number. As a fan myself it pains me to say 42 isn’t any more magical than, say, 37. Imagine the Cult of 37 compiling their own list. Has the group with the longest list really found the ultimate answer? Conspiracy theories are created in this way, too, by only seeking explanations that affirm a preconceived notion, never being skeptical of them. An idea/ explanation/ description of nature only has merit if it can stand up to scrutiny, tests, and skepticism. Confirmation bias is simply the failure to be skeptical of your own beliefs. Many of the most spectacular failures in Science and Politics are the result of confirmation bias. We are very good at fooling ourselves.

What Science Isn’t: If you don’t do Science right—include ALL of the steps—then it’s not Science. Pseudo-science, non-science, and just plain lies presented as Science are not Science. Making random noises is not the same as speaking Mandarin Chinese. Science is not political. Tree growth, earthquakes, the energy required to boil water, in fact, all the known “rules” of the universe, are indifferent to, and unalterable by, human endeavors including politics, religion, charming ad jingles, hacktivism, etc. If a group holds that the moon is made of green cheese, it is not the moon’s responsibly to change. Science does not prove anything (talk to a philosopher about why not). Science is not perfect. Scientists are humans with all the usual human failings of lust, pride, greed, bad breath, etc. We realize this, and a major part of the scientific process is designed to remove those failings from research. (Science does seem to produce fewer felons than Politics, though.) Science doesn’t know everything. There is still a lot to learn, give us time or feel free to join in.

“Truth”, “correct”, “incorrect”, “right”, “wrong”, “real”, “fake”, “good” and “bad” are all words that work well in many everyday situations but don’t work well in Science. Those words are too generalized and can carry (often moral) connotations. (It might be right that you backed over the cat, but it’s not right that you backed over the cat.) The appropriate way to consider Scientific findings is to refer to accuracy and precision. As we develop better tools, technology, and techniques we can make finer measurements and more accurate models (think climate change). More accurate descriptions/ measurements do not invalidate past findings, they enhance them.IMG_1146cMorpho.jpg

The terms “accuracy” and “precision” also highlight uncertainty which is a real part of the real universe we live in. Scientists cannot say “absolute”, “100%”, “never”, etc. because all things carry uncertainty. We humans are very poor at dealing with uncertainty and probability. One way to think about it is to consider warranties. If a product has a warranty, the manufacture feels the probability of failure within that time is low. A lengthy (strong) warranty implies confidence that the product will be defect-free for a long time. A short (weak) warranty implies the product may break quickly. For example, scientists can offer a very strong “warranty” concerning the notion that human-caused global climate change is an accurate explanation of current climate events.

Abuses of Science: Current abuses of Science come in many forms, but two are the most pervasive. The first (and oldest) rejects the idea that the best way to understand how the universe works is to look at the universe (Science), and embraces the idea that the universe is best understood through interpretations of sacred literature. Creationism is a specific example of this larger issue (age of the earth, origin of languages, and rights for homosexuals are a few other examples). Creationism is based on the idea that interpretations of sacred literature are a better way to understand life than actually studying nature. That’s why groups with different sacred literature celebrate different creation stories (Genesis, Spiderwoman, Brahma) and why individuals that share sacred literature disagree over what it says (the vast majority of Christians see no conflict between evolution and their interpretation of the Bible, others interpret an old Earth, others a young Earth, etc.). Interpretations of sacred literature do not help us understand how nature works with any accuracy or precision and are often incredibly misleading if taken literally. If you disagree, complain to the universe, it’s the one that “made” the rules.

A related situation is not the rejection of Science itself, but the rejection of using Science. Kurt Vonnegut articulated this well in his essay, “Your Guess is as Good as Mine“. He pointed out that many decisions made in the past were guesses, simply because information and ability to know was lacking. “Our most enthralling and sometimes terrifying guessers are the leading characters in our history books. I will name two of them: Aristotle and Hitler. One good guesser and one bad one.” Today we have information. Today we have models. Today we don’t need to guess. Listen to representatives and pundits, when are they speaking from knowledge and when are they guessing? Don’t turn this into a drinking game.

Maligning Science for financial reasons is the second major abuse. “Skepticism” over global climate change is not based on lack of scientific rigor or clarity, it is simply a technique to reduce competition. Rejection of scientific findings in order to denigrate the EPA, OSHA, NOAA, NIH, and other organizations that rely heavily on science to set policy and make decisions to improve environmental and human health and safety is another red-herring argument. In both cases scientists should continuing to refute these red-herrings with evidence and rational discourse. However, much more time needs to be devoted to specifically pointing out that “uncertainty” in Science is used as an excuse to institute policies that specifically profit a small number of people while reducing the health and wellbeing of a much larger group. We could have cheaper food if companies weren’t forced to buy rat traps.

These and other abuses of Science and scientists are offensive. Scientists are professionals. The very nature of Science requires that it’s always open to review and scrutiny. No other institution and no participants in any other institution, political, religious, legal, artistic, etc., are subject to such public examination. While scientific fraud can and does happen, in the long run scientific fraud will always be discovered. As Richard Feynman put it, “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory.” Scientists are held accountable for their work and called upon to check the work of others. When levies fail, no one interrogates a religious leader, when health supplements are associated with heart attacks, scientists are called in to investigate. Scientists are working to describe the universe, a fixed element, and report what they find. Sometimes the answer is not what a particular person, group, industry, etc. wants to hear. Jon Stewart put it simply, “Reality has a liberal bias.”

A SCIENTISTS’ LAMENT

Science works: We went from walking behind a plow mule to walking on the moon, we eradicated small pox and have revolutionized medicine, we can look into the heart of stars, we can edit genomes, we have the internet and Angry Birds. By applying scientific principles to industry we’ve been able to take things that even gods and kings couldn’t imagine and make them available to virtually anyone: flying through the air, instant communication, air-conditioning.

It’s no easy feat. Making a lightbulb—tungsten, florescent, LED— requires that we work with what exists in the universe, the raw elements, and combine them in a fashion agreeable to the rules of the universe. Efficiently mass-producing lightbulbs requires that we develop techniques to work with materials, energy, and processes on a large scale. Both science and industry experience real constraints placed on them by the rules of the universe and reality of the available resources here on Earth.

Science and industry have developed technological solutions to most of the problems associated with humans’ basic needs. The technological impediment to providing adequate food, water, shelter, healthcare, housing, transportation, and communication is gone. We know how to grow LOTS of food. We can purify and deliver LOTS of water. We figured most of this stuff out in the 1970s and have improved on it since then. Absolutely, Science has provided us with bulldozers, diesel fuel, pesticides, and loud speakers. Inappropriate and over judicious uses of technology have caused enormous environmental damage and human suffering. But here again, Science not only anticipates, detects, and measures damage, but provides technological solutions to these problems. For example, Science has been telling us for decades that the one and only lifeboat we have in the enormity of the universe is currently being radically altered by (among other things) over use of fossil fuels.Nallachius_americanus_Morgan_square_small.jpg

Natural Experiments: There are nearly 200 countries on Earth. Each one has a health care plan for its citizens ranging from full coverage to no coverage. Each one has air and water quality regulations, drug laws, and gun control laws that range from strict to nonexistent. Each action or inaction taken by each country represents an experiment, one that is freely observable, one we can learn from. Watching the United States flail about trying to enact adequate health care is both one of the greatest comedic farces, and one of the greatest tragedies, the world has ever seen. When others have gone out of their way to reap the rewards or suffer the consequences of their own experiments, why would we not want to learn from their experiences?

“Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed.”: If Science and industry solved so many of the problems of human basic needs, then why do hunger, slums, and cholera still exist? Why doesn’t everyone have access to clean water? If Science anticipated and measured (and is measuring!) the maladaptive changes to the Earth due to fossil fuel use, then why are we still using so much fossil fuel when reasonable alternatives of solar, wind, waves, and biofuel are available?

There is no evidence that human endeavors are held back by lack of energy or materials. No evidence that lack of human imagination or ingenuity is keeping us from solving basic problems like adequate food, shelter, healthcare, and education for all humans on Earth. Nothing in the laws of physics says we can’t visit Europa, double our lifetimes, or even jury-rig a reasonable facsimile of a Woolly Mammoth or Dodo. And there is no reason to believe we have to poison streams or factory workers to achieve those goals.

So many times when we ask our political leaders to explain why they can’t solve these problems, their answer invariably is: “We can’t afford it.” But we can. Economy is a human creation, partially dependent on nature (there is only so much fresh water), but mostly one of our own making. What we can’t afford any more is guessing about how economies work. Science and Industry stepped up to the challenge and delivered, but Economy has failed. Economy has failed because those that institute it are not interested in discarding ideas that don’t work, but have become entrenched in dogma and ideology. It’s time we began treating Economy as what it really is, hypotheses and experimental statements, rather than an immutable ideals. It’s time economic practices had to withstand the scrutiny of Science.

The only way to truly solve the problems we face today is through economic and social change. For example, we need politicians brave enough to admit that a capitalist model that relies on profit will not work for a government service that should be available to everyone. We need to change the “moral” attitude we take when providing basic needs. For example, we live in communities where people are guaranteed a sidewalk but not food. No moral judgement is assigned to use of government-mandated and taxpayer-financed sidewalks, but a government-mandated and taxpayer-financed food assistance program comes with moral indignation, “my tax dollars,” “warm food not allowed,” etc. Science and Industry have given us plenty, we should not waste, but we are not without resources. We should be indignant when others lack basic needs, not when they receive them.

Economic and social policies are created by humans, for humans. We are in control, and those can easily be changed. What can’t be changed is the fact that one group of humans isn’t better than another, that pollutants cause damage, that climate change is happening, and that reality can’t be altered with paperwork, even if you use a pen.

Earth Day, 2017

Citizens_Guide_To_Science PDF

 

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Design

“Because every design must satisfy competing objectives, there necessarily has to be compromise among, if not the complete exclusion of, some of those objectives, in order to meet what are considered the more important of them.” –Henry Petroski, Small Things Considered

Extension Pete in: The Case of the Hothouse Hot Seat

Open on a packed courthouse, lots of stained wood, hanging lights, public in seats, judge in the middle, bailiff standing, stenographer sitting, defendant on the stand—nervous. Defendant is an older, inoffensive gentleman, slightly greyed, putterer at heart, gardener type. The charge: Murder Most Foul.

Prosecution: You claim to have never seen Miss Susan Fade before the week of March 27th. How did you meet?

Defendant: (stammering along the way) She noticed my Welwitschia through the greenhouse glass and came over and started talking to me. I have quite a few unusual plants and she recognized several of them Entada gigas, Amorphophallus, Lithops. She said she was “informally traveling,” hitchhiking I think, across the country. She said she was headed west to see a wild Boojum.

Prosecution: Boojum, you say? [Chuckles.] So how did the young lady suddenly become your house guest for nearly a month Mr. Bloom?

Defendant: Well, first she said she wanted a place to stay for the night, and she helped out with some repotting in the greenhouse, but she turned out to be a wonderful cook, and [pause, wistful look], I have this pool you see, and, well, she didn’t have a bathing suit. So, a few nights turned into about a month. She had a magnificent imprint of a parsnip leaf on her backside, a furanocoumarin burn from having sat on one during an earlier outing.

****

            Prosecution: State your name for the record.

Witness: Mrs. Evelin Dropper. [Older lady, 60s, hair neatly placed, proper.]

Prosecution: Mrs. Dropper, can you tell the jury about your experience of May 16th.

Witness: I was checking my yard for pet waste—the neighbors across the street just let their cat go anywhere it wants, like an animal—and suddenly I smelled this horrible stench. Like death! And it was coming from Mr. Bloom’s greenhouse! [Points accusatory finger at Defendant.] I went by the next day and the smell was still there, but by the third day it was gone. That’s when he must have moved the body! [General kerfuffle in the courtroom, defense springs to feet objecting, judge banging gavel calling for an end to speculation and audience participation.]

****

Prosecution: Mr. Bloom had yellow sticky traps hanging in his greenhouse, one had fallen to the ground, and these traps collected insects. As a forensic entomologist, what did you learn from these traps Dr. Wilson?

Dr. Wilson: [Long blonde hair, very professional, but with a sense that she could drink you under the table.] The traps contained a number of common greenhouse insects: whitefly, aphids, thrips—millipedes in the case of the fallen trap. But they also contained quite a few blowflies, that’s the family Calliphoridae, the metallic green flies, and flesh flies, Sarcophagidae, these guys are grey with black stripes on their back. [Indicates each on an enlarged photograph of a sticky trap].

Prosecution: [Complete with courtroom dramatic pauses and emphasis.] Dr. Wilson, the prosecution argues that Mr. Bloom killed Miss Fade, placed her body in the greenhouse where it was left for several days, then removed the body and disposed of it. Does the evidence from the sticky traps contradict this hypothesis?

Dr. Wilson: It is unlikely there would have been that many calliphorids and sarcophagids in the greenhouse unless they were specifically attracted to rotting flesh of some kind. Absence of fly larvae on the sticky trap on the ground indicates the dead item was moved before fly larvae matured. Additionally absence of carrion beetles, family Silphidae, which show up later in the decay sequence, indicates that whatever was rotting was removed before later stages of decay set in. So, yes, the entomological evidence does not contradict the scenario put forth by the prosecution.

****

Defense: Peter —, Mr. Bloom maintains that Miss Fade went on her way, alive and well, on May 5th to continue her westward quest. A few days later he left to hike the Ozark Trail and see the spring wildflowers, and did not return until May 24th.

You’ve heard the prosecution’s argument: that Mr. Bloom befriended Miss Fade in late March, they cohabitated, she spurned his advances and sometime in mid-May he killed her, her body was left in the greenhouse for several days, then he disposed of the body on or about May 18th. The prosecution presents damning evidence: Mrs. Dropper smelled a distinct stench of rotting flesh, flies well known to be associated with murder victims were collected by the defendant’s own sticky traps, and insects associated with later stages of decay were not collected. No carcass or bones of a dead animal were found in or near the greenhouse. And yet you maintain that Mr. Bloom is innocent. How can you explain away this hard evidence?

Extension Pete: [Suppressing a huge grin.] Mr. Bloom has several automatic systems in his greenhouse, watering, temperature control, etc. Those were there to keep bad things from happening to his plants while he was gone, but Mr. Bloom hadn’t anticipated a very good thing happening. [Everyone on the edge of their seats, including Mr. Bloom.] His Amorphophallus flowered. [Mr. Bloom gasps, doubles over as if hit in the gut. General courtroom mumbling.] Amorphophallus is also known as an Arum, it’s a plant that very rarely flowers, once every five or ten years. Mr. Bloom would never have guessed it might flower while he was away. The inflorescence is huge, several feet high and smells like rotting flesh, in fact it’s commonly called a corpse flower! [Collective “Ah!”] The plants are pollinated by flesh flies and other insects associated with decay that are attracted by the smell, but the flower only lasts a day or two before wilting and withering away, so the smell doesn’t last long and it’s not suitable for fly development. A flowering corpse flower explains the evidence nicely. [Nod of agreement from Dr. Wilson.]

I also emailed a park ranger at El Vizcaino a park in Baja California, the best place to see wild Boojum trees. He emailed me this a few hours ago. [Holds up tablet computer displaying image of bikini clad backside sporting a parsnip leaf imprint.]

[Prosecution drops charges, judge dismisses case, Extension Pete saves the day, accepts no reward except that justice has been done, jubilation all around, except for poor Mr. Bloom. Sad and dejected he’s taken from the court room vowing never to leave home again for fear of missing his Arum, “I waited 20 years!”.]

The End.

Science, Industry, and Economy

Science did it. In less than a century science: took us from discovery of vaccines and antibiotics to eradication of smallpox; from the first heavier than air flight to a rocket to the moon; from invention of the lightbulb to smartphones and the world wide web; from the discovery of the structure of DNA to sequencing genomes; from food shortages to food abundance; from discovery of radio waves to geosynchronous satellites.

Industry did it. In less than a century industry: mass produced lightbulbs, pencils, paper, cars, radios, TV, computers, vaccines, and virtually everything else imaginable; made air travel accessible to nearly everyone; developed multiple ways to clean and deliver mass quantities of water and store, process, and ship food; made communication nearly instant, cheap, and reliable.

Science and industry did their part. Imagine an alien in a little ship orbiting the Earth watching all of this unfold. Imagine a kindergartener learning about what science and industry have recently done. How do you explain to the alien or the child why all the ills that science and industry created technological solutions for (hunger, poverty, preventable diseases, etc.) still exist?

The answer invariably is: economy. “We can’t afford it!” How can this be?

Making a lightbulb—tungsten, florescent, LED— requires that we work with what exists in the universe, the raw elements, and combine them in a fashion agreeable to the rules of the universe. Efficiently mass producing lightbulbs requires that we develop techniques to work with materials, energy, and processes on a large scale. Both science and industry experience real constraints placed on them by the rules of the universe and reality of the available resources here on Earth.

Economics, however, is less constrained. It is a human construct, a delusion, a fantasy that exists in our own minds. Human delusions can be good. The shapes=letters=words=concepts you’re reading now only work in the light of the delusional aspect of our minds. Borders and laws are delusions as well, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. There are some real “economic” constraints. Not everyone can have all the water they want to fill pools and water lawns in the Desert Southwest of the United States. That constraint is placed on us by external forces (nature if you will). But everyone there could have one reliable car, adequate housing, health care, education, and appropriate nutrition. In fact, everyone on Earth could have have that. The reason they don’t is because the constraints created by our own delusions = economics.

Science and industry work, “economy” has failed. It is time for us to come up with a better economic system.

 

 

The Book Exception

The second most notorious bug in Universe 42 was known as the Book Exception. The Book Exception was a joke entered by an anonymous programmer (probably Kevin) that altered space-time (gravity) on the exposed side of a book creating what is most easily described as a “gravitational vacuum”. The book, or really any printed material, experienced an otherwise imperceptible increase in gravity on the exposed side and would be sucked in that direction*. The result was not just an increased tendency to fall over when standing straight, but in special circumstances, the book, if it were say leaning to the left, could actually rotate up to the vertical and then fall to the right. If books or papers were stacked lying on their sides the Book Effect caused the top book to very slightly raise, reducing friction. Then the second book or paper would begin to experience a reduced, but present, Book Exception field, and so on. The result was that stacked books or papers had a tendency to autonomously slump to one side or slide wildly when being moved.

The most fiendish aspect of the Book Exception is that it applied to books and papers. Unlike other artifacts, paper products are:  1) inherently bendy; 2) generally have an asymmetrical architecture (spine and tail); 3) are often placed on shelves where half the book was protected from observation; and 4) are found in the company of either people who want nothing to do with them (office workers) or people who are more fascinated by the information they contain than how they behave. Thus, despite millions of people witnessing effects of the Book Exception daily, there were a myriad of reasonable excuses to ignore it.

The first person to discover the Book Effect was Hito Higawa, a Japanese architect who was convinced the universe was out to get him. Interestingly it was that paranoia that simultaneously drove him to study why his books kept falling over, and once he had discovered the Book Exception, the reason why no one believed him. Higawa’s work was only accidentally discovered after his death when a Twitter meme #BBFOMHY (“Books be falling on my head, yo.”), went viral.

It was, of course, the Book Exception that allowed inhabitants of Universe 42 to definitively show that they existed in an entirely simulated Universe, and, if appropriately applied, made a barn raising that much easier.

 

*Note: the gravity fluctuation was created by weakening the separation of the membranes of the multiverse, therefore the orientation of the increased gravity was independent of the region’s dominate gravity body, for example the Earth.

Professor J. Blucher and The Problem of the Classroom

I thought I would share a funny story of what recently happened to a colleague of mine. The fellow in question, Professor J. Blucher, was recently trying to schedule a room for his undergraduate class, Mastering Sextants. This year the class, which usually numbers only a handful of students, had nearly 150 sign up. Initially he surmised that perhaps people were finally taking global warming seriously and had decided to brush up on their nautical skills. However, it was later discovered that, due to certain constraints in the new course offerings software, the class was listed as: MASTERING SEX. So you can understand how some people might have been lead astray.

My friend was now tasked with scheduling a room large enough to accommodate all these students, at least for the first class. I was in his office, admiring some pocket gopher bacula, when he made his call. I gather that he first spoke to a lady named Bethany. All seemed to be going well when suddenly Professor Blucher, who always seems a little lost but has his moments of lucidity, said, “I don’t want eight rooms, I only want one room.” After a bit of silence he then said, “I assure you ma’am, there are. May I please speak with someone else?”

Well, it seems, if I got the story straight, that Bethany was a bit of a history buff. Apparently she had been reading about a particular anti-bellum courthouse nearby and came across a mention of an old French law (from the late 1700’s) stating all government buildings were prohibited from having more than 20 seats in any given room. From this Bethany knew there weren’t any rooms large enough to accommodate a class of 150. So she must have first done some math and later said something like, “There aren’t any rooms with more than 20 seats at this university.”

Bethany handed Professor Blucher off to, maybe Carl?, I forget. Again, things seemed to be going well, Blucher even got a room, 515 Ferguson Hall, but then I realized I’d taught in that room and it had at most 30 desks. Professor Blucher mentioned this to Carl, went silent for a while, then said, astonished, “But it doesn’t work that way,” then, “Could I please speak with someone else?”

Well, again this is coming after the fact, but Carl was a senior supervisor. And as such he had access to the room profiles in the computer. So Carl signed Blucher up for the room, then changed the number of seats available in the room profile to 150. Apparently after Professor Blucher said “But it doesn’t work that way,” Carl replied, “I’m a senior supervisor. I know I can add seats to a room. ”

My poor friend, who is rather ill at ease using any communication device, was now visibly wavering like a parched man in desperate need of shade and water. The next person he spoke with was named Joan. Professor Blucher explained the situation: he was in need of a single classroom with enough seats to accommodate 150 students at one seat per student, etc., etc. Professor Blucher readied his pencil to receive a room assignment, then said, “Are you sure? How many seats does that room have?” Silence, then said, “Oh dear,” and gave the sigh of a man who has lost all hope.

Joan was going to assign Professor Blucher room 101 in Stephen’s Hall. Apparently, in response to his two questions, she replied that, while she didn’t know anything about the rooms in Stephen’s Hall, the building certainly was big on the outside, so she knew it had to have rooms large enough to hold 150 people. Insert “Oh dear,” here.

Suddenly Professor Blucher stood up, straight backed, shoulders square. He had a hard look in his eyes- focused on the opposite wall, oblivious to my presence. He said in a loud clear voice, not yelling, but with confidence and authority, “Get me a scientist!” It echoed around his small office. I’m sure Joan was nearly deafened.

The events of the next fifteen or twenty minutes will stay with me for the rest of my life. Luckily Joan was able to find a copy repair man and put him on the phone. Professor Blucher was a man afire, grilling the copy repair man on logic (inductive and deductive), observation, testability, falsifiability, evidence, and the pitfalls of tradition, authority, and guessing. He ran the man through inventive scenarios to test his ability to deal with rational evidence and discard irrational gibberish. Never have I seen a mind so quick and agile, poke and prod, teach and test. Finally, finally when he was content that he was speaking to man who could see the world through the eyes of a scientist, Professor Blucher posed his final question to the copy repair man, “How would you KNOW if a room had enough seats for accommodate 150 students at one seat per student?” The room went silent, I stopped breathing, time stood still. The voice on the other end of the phone sounded tiny to my ears half way across the room, “I would go to the room and count the seats.”

VICTORY!

Professor Blucher slowly lowered himself into his seat, his back still ram-rod straight. Finally he had found someone who was willing and able to use science, actual observations of the universe, to confront The Problem of the Classroom.

Ultimately a suitable room was assigned and the class size dropped to only a handful of students by the second week. Professor Blucher has returned to his passive, slightly lost demeanor. Sometimes, when I pass his office or see him in the halls, he’s mumbling to himself, running what happened over and over in his mind. What Professor Blucher had learned, but simply could not bring himself to accept, is that for some people there’s more than one way of knowing.