Blogs > Cliopatria > Two Things, One Thought

Apr 7, 2004 4:15 pm


Two Things, One Thought



Another thought or two about Two Things - or do I mean a thing or two about Two Thoughts? No. Thoughts -->Things, not Things --->Thoughts. This time. What the order may be on another occasion, I won't venture to say.

The thing is, I mean the thought is, I particularly liked number two under Teaching History -"2. They think it's about answers, but it's really about questions."

Applies to so many subjects and forms of inquiry, doesn't it. Applies to a large range of things. Let me put it this way: what kind of person is more interesting, what kind would you prefer to be trapped in an elevator with - one who has answers or one who has questions?

I suppose that's putting it a little too broadly. One wouldn't really want to be trapped in an elevator with someone who had nothing but questions. I suppose I'm speaking mataphorically, using question and answer as stand-ins for uncertainty and certainty.

At any rate, the issue is the same in science - which is not surprising, since as Susan Haack among others points out, various methods of inquiry have a lot in common. At any rate, 'they' think science is about certainty, but it's really, as any scientist will tell you, about uncertainty.

Edward Rothstein wrote a really goofy article for the NY Times in January in which he got it exactly backwards. He was commenting on the annual question at Edge, and the fact that so many of the scientists talked about uncertainty in their answers.

But curiously, an aura of modesty, tentativeness and skepticism hovers over the submissions - this from a group not renowned for self-abnegation. This may, perhaps, be an admission that fundamental insights are not now to be had. But it may also be an uncertainty about science itself.

No, of course it's not, it's just knowing how science is done. If Times reporters don't know that, I suppose it's safe to assume that most people don't, which is slightly dispiriting. It seems so basic...


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Ophelia Benson - 4/7/2004

Well now that's very true, Ralph. That's probably why I qualified it as soon as I said it. But of course I was thinking more of knowing that than of knowing how - or at least that's my story.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2004

That's what's known in history as the "one damn thing after another" method.


Ophelia Benson - 4/7/2004

Just so. If there are no questions, who on earth cares what the facts are? Something drives all this - inquiry of various kinds. Wanting to understand; curiosity; wanting to get some idea of why, or how, or who and why. Otherwise it just becomes 'Why are you telling me all this?'


Jonathan Dresner - 4/7/2004

What I try to impress on my students is that the answers which we do have come from questions. It's not an accumulation of facts just to have a complete record, but the accumulation of answers to lots of interesting questions, and those answers often prompt new questions, as do changes in the present which suggest new and different ways of asking questions. There are a couple of times in the World History survey when I actually say: we once believed this, then we believed this, then we thought about this, and by the way all those answers are in your textbook because they all contribute to our understanding. And there are questions we haven't answered yet, like...." WWI and the fall of Rome are my two favorites for that, because the interpretive layers are so different and yet so mutually reinforcing.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/7/2004

Ophelia, It's interesting that you post this, though I'm not altogether sure I understand its full context and import. It does remind me of a phenomena which I've observed in a number of academic communities: that where a sort of metaphysical evangelical certitude was to be found among academics, it was found precisely among the scientists. To be more specific, I grant that it is more likely to be found among the scientists of a certain sort. More likely, I think, among computer scientists than chemists, for example. Your "trapped in an elevator" thing is interesting too. One thing I'm sure of: I'd rather be trapped in an elevator with someone who _knows_ how to get out of being trapped than with someone who just keeps asking how to do it.

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