Bulletin 6 July 10, 1997
Methodology continued: Practice versus philosophy?
Our school problem.
Having started a university, its directors begin to grasp a feeling of enormous responsibility for how it is to direct its teaching. Should it become a 'trade school' devoted to the detailed practice of its field or fields of study, or should it try to become a storehouse of the highest reaches of the philosophy of those fields? As it is said, do you want to study law at school x or school y?
Or: Should case studies be used, with principles and morals underlined, as compared, say, to a systematic development of history and principles?
The exposition of Bull 4 and two more examples in the so-called educational media of very recent vintage underlined these issues. One was a program devoted to the exposition of naval aviation, at a museum dedicated to present and preserve the history of naval aviation. The particular program was using the entry into space flight as the theme and the experience of the by-now-famous American astronauts, many of whom were naval aviators. For them, the entire history started in 1960 and dealt almost exclusively with the specific experiences and the specific engineering anecdotal details and practices that they had to confront. We, in contrast, are familiar with a prior history and developments related to the important science and engineering science details of both aviation in general and all of military - Army, and Navy, then also Marine and Air Force - aviation back 80, 70, 55, 50, as well as the 35 years that the museum chose to highlight. At least two generations of personnel were involved in bringing on the field.
A second was a current NASA program, largely pursued as a quasipublic press conference for the science reporters and walk-in public on TV with internet obbligatto. The program was devoted to the 'you can see it now' development of the second generation of landing on Mars and its nominal search for origins of life. The first few days has garnished the greatest number of public hits ever measured on internet per unit time. The great origins and work of NASA's originator in getting the USA into the air and space field and who and by what means each major step of technical progress was made is completely bleached out. Instead the public is asked to taste with endless repetition each minute detailed engineering step with or without its measure of ordinary engineering professionalism or equally often amateurishness. One is certainly reminded of how the Vietnam undeclared war was fought out daily on the public media as some such related spectacle. The NASA program was occupied, by every level of administrator and program director from the top down, with the minutia of every small engineering step on the way. In these presentations we no longer know who is 'gulling' who in these 'informational' interactions: the institutional bureaucrats, the journalists, the educators, the public? We no longer know.
Is that how the public, including all its current and future practitioners in any or all of the technical arts, is best to be taught? From a 60 year R and D background, it would seem obviously not. The command performances may create marvelous inspirational, or even 'religious' devotion and faith, or a basis for 'agit-prop', but they lack hard training substance (in our opinion, even for media pundits) or even familiarization with the real problems. Every moment, as with the Bull on the Pentagon papers, seems filled with crisis (In our homeokinetic modelling, it is not only 'like', but the actual form of, the human command-control process that has to make a decision for the next 6 second 'sound bite' in the mind. We have and will write a great deal more about this human process of command-control with its endless stream of relatively trivial processes it is continuously called upon to resolve. More of this at another time). So how and what do we teach, particularly if our field is to be the interdisciplinary content for all complex natural systems from a physical point of view? So first to some conceptual ground.
There is reference in the field of intellect to those who are lumpers and those who are splitters. That seems true. The individual has to take his or her choice.
There is the division-of-labor represented by 'explainers' - scientists; 'topical detailers' - engineers, who develop real representations of the scientific explanations (the training and points of view of scientists and engineers are really different - request comparisons from individuals who have either individually or rarely been exposed to both of the two training regimes); there are the artisans who are skilled in the specific technological practices by which actual rather than virtual representations are obtained - they operate or make the actual 'tools' used; and - remotely connected - there are the artists, who capture other peoples' attention to abstracted forms and functions which represent what the human's command-control may perceive of storable imagery within the mind patterning. Why the latter representer? Because the human command - control has that capability, and because it serves to occupy the 'mind' of those observers and users of 'visions' of reality. The reality of that artistic function is demonstrated for the period of the past 20 to 40 thousand years. So it might as well be taught too (Query: In a science and engineering science school? You get the point. Not really in full practice, but to the extent of offering some scientific-engineering foundation for understanding the arts).
We are basically scientific lumpers, but we are and have to be ready - at the drop of a hat - to become splitters, and furnish a sufficiency of the engineering science details. We do not have to train the artisans - machinists and other practitioners - who supply real stuff, such as metal or other material parts, or actual operational services. However, we have to have and to supply the engineering talent of people who have worked intimately with the artisans, and know their practices well at first hand. We teach from that total point of view. You have to find our outlook to your taste or else leave it completely alone.
In every field problem we tackle, we so operate. That includes our work in the social sciences. And we can furnish a background of material that will overwhelm each and every topic we touch. Don't ask unless you are serious, because if you do we will tell. Clearly the method that suits us best is case studies of problems involving some general illumination, and which also contains a historical background that covers a large range of scientifc-technical study. What will engross the public: romance classics, or a hard core of scientific knowledge? Those are the extremes of choice.
Enough of such methodological discussion at this time. Back to cases. Ciao!