Science Isn’t Truth

We’re living in a time of falsehood. Between ‘alternative facts’ and a disturbing preponderance of fake news, the lack of common ground truth precludes productive conversation. I don’t have the solution to this. But I believe a small part of the solution is understanding the logical framework for separating science from untestable, irrefutable claims. To that end, dear reader, I’d like to tell you about the philosophy of science.

If your secondary education was anything like mine, then you were probably (implicitly) lied to about science. For me, science was presented as a ‘body of truth’ — a set of equations and facts to memorize and regurgitate for the exam. In college this view got a bit more nuanced — the equations we worked with were good approximations in particular settings, but lacking compared to some underlying truth. My mental model of science was still one of verification though — propose a hypothesis, then confirm it through experiment or rework if necessary. This model, however, is totally wrong.

This Verificationist perspective on science trips on a very old philosophical issue: the Problem of Induction. To illustrate — Europeans used to believe that all swans are white. They had observed many swans, found only white samples, and drew a generalized conclusion that all swans are white. But when they eventually explored Australia, they made a discovery which caused their theory to crumble: black swans. The problem is in thinking a theory confirmed by limited observations; a ‘proven’ theory purports to hold for an infinite set of cases, but experiments are necessarily limited to a finite number. How can we logically place trust in scientific theory?

Enter Karl Popper with his 20th century work “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”, where he laid out (among other things) the idea of Falsification. Popper argued that science should not be conducted by attempting to prove theories true, but rather by attempting to show them to be false — to falsify them. In this approach, a theory is never accepted as truth, but instead gains more credibility as it fails to be shown false.

Practically speaking, why does this matter? First, it gives a logically sound formulation for doing science. Second, it allows us to separate science from ‘pseudo-science’. Popper was a contemporary of Freud, and noted that Freudian Psychology was flexible enough to incorporate any new observations; Freud claimed to be able to explain any behavior of a female in terms of penis envy. This sort of theory is not falsifiable, and therefore does not deserve to be called science. A scientific theory disallows particular behaviors (e.g. perpetual motion); such a theory has some predictive capability.

Admittedly, this doesn’t solve the problem of outright falsehood. If we don’t agree on what observations were made, then the inferences we draw will be completely different. But understanding Falsification allows us to determine what kind of claims can be refuted, and separate out junk purporting to be science. If I’ve piqued your interest in the subject, I recommend both Popper’s book (a dense read) and the Crash Course YouTube series on Philosophy (an absolute joy).

Faculty Search: Help Determine the Future of Olin’s Faculty

You’ve probably noticed that we are already in high gear for faculty recruiting. Similar to choosing our next class of students, this process began in the early fall with job advertisements. Applications have been flowing in ever since. There is a Faculty Search Committee consisting of six faculty members, and chaired this year by Siddhartan Govindasamy. Their responsibility is to review applications, check references, conduct phone interviews with candidates, and make recommendations to the dean about who we should invite to campus for a two day interview. This is when you, the community, first hear about the candidate and have the opportunity to make an impact on the committee’s final recommendations. In particular, students play a critical role in this process and your feedback is highly considered. The four main ways to get involved are:
• Attend the faculty seminar
• Conduct a tour
• Join the candidate for lunch
• Participate in one of two student-oriented interview sessions

We are currently experimenting with the design of some of these sessions. Here are details so that you can make informed decisions about how to get involved.

There are two special, student-oriented interview sessions, both of which have been created this year with the goal of giving more insight into how the faculty candidates will collaborate with students, as well as with faculty colleagues. In the “Building the College: Olin Self-Study” session, we ask the candidate to prepare thoughts as a catalyst for a conversation about the OSS. In this session, we are trying to gauge their ability to handle a conversation about an issue that we are currently wrestling with. Are they collegial? Are they open-minded? Are they listening to students and faculty? Can they change their opinion based on feedback? As a student in the room, you can engage with the candidate on the topic and work with them to hash out new ideas.

In the “Developing Students: Course Co-design” session, the candidate, students and faculty work together to explore courses that they might develop and teach at Olin. Main topic discussions will be: What sorts of courses might resonate at Olin? How might they be constructed? How does fit into the current curriculum?

The student lunch is an opportunity to meet the candidate in a relaxed setting. We are looking for someone to host the candidate and introduce them to students in the dining hall – sitting downstairs with a group is a great way to have a dynamic conversation!

Largely unchanged from last year is the tour. It is very helpful if you have experience giving tours, particularly to faculty members from other institutions. It is a great opportunity to connect individually with the candidate, and they candidates often report that the tour and student lunch are pivotal parts of their experiences on campus.

Finally, each faculty candidate gives a seminar. We have changed things a little this year so the session is more open for discussion. We’ve asked the candidate to prepare a 25-minute seminar, in which they share their work with students, staff, and faculty. Ideally, this should set the stage for a good conversation between the candidate and the audience for the remaining 25 minutes. Students should attend the sessions to learn about the candidate’s work and ask questions about their presentation, their plans for the future, and their thoughts about education in general to gauge whether Olin is a good “fit” for the candidate. The lengthened Q&A period was chosen in large part to see how the candidate can answer students’ questions, so students are strongly encouraged to come and join the discussion!

In all of these possible interactions, your participation and subsequent feedback is critical. After the candidate leaves, everyone who interacted with the candidate is expected to provide written feedback. This feedback is reviewed by the committee, and a recommendation is made to the dean about whether to extend a job offer or not. All the feedback collected by the committee is important, whether submitted by students, staff, or faculty.

So please join us in recruiting the next set of Olin faculty! If you have any questions on this process, reach out to John Geddes, Siddhartan Govindasamy or Jamie Gorson.

PNR Olin

At Olin, we strive to be motivated by our interest in learning, and our desire to do our best work. Yet all too often, we are instead encouraged to be motivated by a single number that we are conditioned to think is an accurate representation of how well we are learning.

This is why, since coming to Olin, I have not once looked at my grades.

The idea of “Pass No Recording” Olin is to stay motivated by our interest in learning and our desire to do our best work by simply not looking at our grades. With this mindset we can continue the motivation we all had during our first semester, where we would go above and beyond on a project not because our professor would give us a good grade, but because we had a passion that we were excited to work for.

Once we start to look at and internalize letter grades and GPA’s, we slip into the mindset of distributing our time and effort in order to receive that maximum number of points, even if that means spending less time on a project we are passionate about because we know that if we go above and beyond, it won’t make a difference on our transcript. When we do this, we start to lose that passion that makes Olin different.

Not looking at letter grades and GPA’s, however, is only one side to “Pass No Recording” Olin. The other, equally (or perhaps more) important side comes in the form of a reflection. While a letter grade can not attempt to distill all the work you have done over a semester, a written reflection (whether it is written by the student or the professor) can get much closer.

A written reflection can highlight the project you went above and beyond on, all that you contributed in class, and how much you progressed over the semester, but it can also show your weak points and how you can improve.

When collected together, all these reflections, or evaluations, provide a comprehensive picture of your journey through Olin. They allow you to take pride in your successes and learn from your failures. These are attributes that a number simply can not even start to encompass.

Deciding to not look at your grades is not without its challenges though. When my parents asked me to send in my transcript so they could get the good student discount from the car insurance company, I physically covered up my screen so I could only see the download button, attached the document in an email, and immediately deleted it from my computer. I am still unsure what I will do when an employer asks for my GPA in an application.

It may not be realistic for you to not look at your grades, and that’s fine. Even if you don’t write it down, reflect on your work for the semester. Feel pride in your triumphs, and work to fix your weaknesses. Try to think what really motivates you, and use that to guide you.