Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the Virtue of Putting the Cart before the Horse

You may have seen the above video by "DjSadhu" purporting to show how the motion of the planets would appear if we use a frame of reference with respect to which the sun is moving. If not, I'd encourage you to take a look. It's fascinating.

However, Phil Plait has posted an article on pointing out that this viral video is in fact scientifically incorrect, where he says:
It seems right, or looks cool, or appeals to some sense of how things should be. But how things should be and how they are don’t always overlap. The Universe is a pretty cool place, and works using a fairly well-regulated set of rules. We call those rules physics, they’re written in the language of math, and trying to understand all that is science.
My first reaction on seeing Phil's article was, "Yes, that makes sense. As he says, 'not everything cool is science...' "

But then I saw a post by a friend of mine, who was a former faculty member (now working in industry), in response to Phil's article. He wrote that Phil was, well, a "killjoy. Perhaps, [a] scientifically accurate killjoy, but still a killjoy. " His point was that the original video, despite its inaccuracies, served to spark the imagination of many people (as of now, that video has received over 2 million hits!) and that Phil could have offered his corrections in a more constructive spirit rather than proclaiming loudly the incorrectness of the original video.

Reflecting on his comments, I think my friend is really on to something.

Just recently some colleagues and I were having an interesting conversation about why college is boring for many students and we figured out that we college faculty may all be killjoys.

Faculty, due to both nature and nurture the most pedantic of creatures, would rather say something careful and provably correct than show something cool of dubious "truthiness". We would rather build up little by little from abstract fundamentals in the vain (often unfulfilled due to lack of time) hope of reaching eventually concepts one can relate to. We are not inclined to let our students encounter something half-baked that they find amazing and thought-provoking, and then work from that spark of excitement towards the truth.

It is worth pausing to think whether our sneering dismissal of imprecise, careless thinking, our endless harping on rigor, our ceaseless skepticism (all qualities that are essential for our work as researchers, the very qualities we are recognized and lauded for by our peers) might sometimes get in the way of creating the best environment for our students to seek the truth on their own.

Now, let me clear, I am not arguing for teaching students cool-but-unscientific lies or even half-truths. If our own hunger for truth and the desire to share that drive with our students did not ultimately motivate us, we would not be in this line of work. But perhaps there is a place for the incorrect, the absurd, if it is cool enough to draw in the students' curiosity and their imagination, and inspire them to proceed further? It could serve as a starting point for a more careful and rigorous investigation.

Sometimes at least, we should place the cart before the horse (or the sun in front of the planets) because that is unusual and striking, enough to make one stop, stare and think.


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