‘Science in a Digital Society’

Jun 19, 2011 by

Science in a Digital Society’

The Joint Research Council of the European Union at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation,

Lisbon, 18th -20th May, 2011.

Report by our British and Foreign Correspondent

Colin Hannaford



The most important fact that I learnt at this conference at the superb Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon is that Post-Normal Science, the brain-child of Jerome Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz, has become the new paradigm of science in the digital age.

Through courage and persistence, they and their associates have persuaded many, perhaps already most, scientists today that they can no longer treat their investigations or their experiments as if they can be safely isolated in a test-tube, described by calculations, or captured in a computer programme.

Fundamentally the reason is simple: sub-atomic, atomic, molecular, global, and cosmological events are likely to be too complex, and to interact too chaotically, to allow any certain predictions of their outcome. Their outcomes may be approximately or probabilistically predicted, but certainty is no longer central to the purview of science. Science has instead to accept that reality is very likely to involve processes, principles and laws, energy and substance, and even – let God forfend! – a new ontology, presently unknown.

In short, a most important, and most re-invigorating, revolution has taken place. It is simultaneously very much of our time and also very old. It is simultaneously important intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

This was expressed in a far older idiom than that of modern information theory outlined by the first speaker, Professor Luciano Floridi. It was described by Mario Giampietro, and later by Mae-Wen Ho, as the realisation that the reality – in the ancient idiom, the Tao – which we humans attempt to conceptualize, is unquestionably greater than the concepts which we have been accustomed to treat, usually without much humility, as ‘all that there is’.

There is clearly very much more to the Tao than our concepts: even more than dark energy, dark forces and dark matter. Our entire existence scarcely registers in the history of our planet. Let us be more humble! We seem set to prove that Darwin’s theory applies perfectly to us.

In this sense Funtowicz and Ravetz have therefore reminded us all that our concepts of reality are, at best, and only occasionally ‘all that there is’, and that predicting the future is more difficult than has usually been supposed.

Although a more careful, courteous, and, above all, good-humoured organisation would be hard to imagine, my own understanding of their achievement was not so much the result of the workshop itself. This came later: when I noticed that Dr Ravetz was only wearing braces: that is – for Americans – that he was sporting only suspenders.

Now this might not strike everyone as significant. But in all the time that I have benefited from his unfailing kindness and wisdom, I have never seen his trousers being supported by less than suspenders and a belt. I leave others to decide whether this just means that he forgot to add the further insurance against losing his trousers: or whether he feels that main battle against simplistic science has now been won.

The most valuable lesson that I have learnt from our workshop has nothing whatever to do, however, with Dr Ravetz’s inclination to double-stopper his hauling lines. It is rather to understand the degree to which human thinking is supported by models of reality; and then the degree to which these models also support social structures which, without their support, would immediately reveal social ambitions that as inadequate as they are out-of-date.

Understanding the importance of modelling – and modellers – allowed me immediately to describe the main focus of my ire in education – for I will not disguise that whereas once I was concerned, I am now angry – as The Teaching Model.

The Teaching Model is the main support of a vast industry, supposedly educational, certainly hugely expensive, actually concealing a disgracefully small promise of social reward.

Whether this result is consciously deliberate or only foolish is an open question. I used to think it foolish. Having met the most vicious response to my and my colleagues’ efforts to explain how the industry might be easily and inexpensively reformed, saving literally millions of young people from both intellectual and moral degradation, I now think it is far more consciously deliberate. Whereas once I might politely disagree, now I would like to see a row of heads on spikes.

In simple terms The Teaching Model holds that a single well-qualified, inventive, likeable, assertive or charismatic adult can simultaneously hold the attention of a group of 20, 30, 40 or more young individuals while transferring his knowledge and understanding to theirs. (No apologies for my sexist bias: the great majority who choose to teach mathematics are men.)

This is idea is pure nonsense. Every one knows it is pure nonsense. The damage that it causes is manifest on a huge scale in every modern society.

Let me illustrate this. On my way back to Oxford, I decided that the workshop had convinced me that to be more responsible I must be more radical.

The news last week was that thousands of Spanish students were protesting in Madrid against their government’s policies. I was not much concerned about what it was they wanted to achieve, only that they appeared to believe that street protests are the best way to be noticed: especially when their government’s policies are the result of the dishonesty of the financial industry, which continues.

Since I had an hour at the airport, I walked into one of the smaller shops – as a matter of fact, it was a TieRack boutique – to ask for help. There were two ladies in the shop. One spoke good English. She translated for the other. Both, I soon learnt, were mothers. The first lady had a son, aged sixteen, who wants to be an engineer.

I explained to them both, being interpreted all the while, why I had come to Lisbon. I also told them that my essay on teaching mathematics as argument would soon be published by the Institute, and why this ability to argue intelligently and without anger is the best basis for democracy.

This took just a few minutes. The lady of the future engineer told me that he is already dismayed that his mathematics teacher insists that he learns what to do in mathematics, but will not explain why. I commiserated: adding, possibly not entirely helpfully: “The teacher wants your son’s obedience, not his understanding.”

What I hoped to learn from them, I explained, was what the students might be shouting in Madrid. This I could use as the title of my report. I had already explained that in our workshop I had several times insisted that an education system cannot be corrected from the top: in universities. The foundations were already damaged. Might it be that the Spanish students were shouting something like: ‘The system stinks!’?

The ladies conferred. Eventually my Tie Rack lady colleague explained that if this is written in Spanish, or Portuguese, it would not have the impact it has in English. They offered another suggestion. They would write it down.

They did so carefully. I have it here in front of me on a scrap of shop paper:

O Systema é uma Merda.”

Her colleague nodded earnestly.

“Do you understand what this says?” her manager asked me cautiously.

“I think I do,” I replied. I was sure I do.

Joining Ravetz again, he being now deep in his International Herald Tribune, and hence incommunicado, I had time to reflect on my experience: ‘If two perfectly ordinary Portuguese ladies – both house-wives, both mothers, both honestly employed – think their country’s school system is shit – which, I have little doubt, is typical of most European mothers, and, quite possibly, most European sixteen year-olds – what does this also say about the efforts of the European Union, and its Joint Research Council, and its Institute for the Protection and Security of the Citizen, to help European citizens to feel protected and secure?

Finally let me mention my own contributions: such as they are.

The first was to offer a far more successful model of mathematics education.

It is so simple, so obvious, and yet so powerful, that I found that it is understood almost at once from its name. I learnt this by using it often: not trying to describe it as I did in the TieRack boutique, but simply by stating its name and watching people open their eyes in surprise, then nod in appreciation.

This model is called ‘Mathematics Education as Social Activity’.

Oddly enough – yet possibly not so oddly, since almost everyone seems to have experienced mathematics as a decidedly Anti-Social Activity – this is almost immediately understood by everyone.

Astonishing! The Bastille has fallen! But after this?

How to translate the Social Activity model into a classroom practice is explained in detail in my first submission to the workshop. It also describes what have become known as The Hannaford Divisions: the intellectual, social, and moral divisions inevitably produced by attempts to teach – especially mathematics – by instruction. This first submission is also attached to the ISPRA report.

During the workshop, however, I found yet another way to enlist the understanding of those who want to remove the Merda from O Systema. This I found especially effective in talking with some of our colleagues who are parents of children still at school.

“Why is it,” they, and others, often ask me, and either with curiosity or with irritation, “that you think mathematics is more important than any other subject?”

To which I reply: “I don’t think so. You do. Most developed societies hold mathematics to be more important than any other subject. As my old friend Dr Hartmut Köhler of Stuttgart LEU used to say – it was he who first presented me to the Education Commission as worthy of its support: ‘We live in a mathematical world.’

That is unarguable. Less agreeable is that most of our societies insist that in preparation for that world every child should receive many years of exposure to The Teaching Model, with all its permanently damaging side-effects.

My first paper describes the most general of these effects: the creation of three entirely different groups: intellectually, socially and morally different, each distrustful of the others. Small wonder our societies, and thus our political parties, are in a near constant state of vituperative disagreement. People are led to believe that only their group is truly human; the others contain species of sub-humans. In Middle English terms, these would be the Toffs, the Yobs, and Us.

In addition to this plague on all our houses, I can now also explain to any parent with a child still at school – especially if their child is just beginning secondary school – what to watch for.

There will be, I tell them, three crises.

The first crisis is the hardest to notice. It takes a few years to develop fully. It will begin to occur at the age when, in accordance with The Teaching Model, children are repeatedly asked: “Do you understand?”

Sometimes, of course, this is phrased rather differently, as in that famous dialogue between Socrates and the slave-boy:” You do understand: don’t you?”

But this is not the question that a child hears. In the main, young children learn by copying. So the question they actually hear is: “Do you know what to do?” Or, alternatively, “You do know what to do; don’t you?”

And the child replies, cheerfully, innocently, “Yes! Of course!”

The second crisis usually occurs in the middle of adolescence, when hormones are raging, when the fight for self-esteem is fiercest.

At an age of fifteen or sixteen a youngster begin to realise that it is not enough only know what to do. One should also know why. Very often – as in the case of the TieRack lady’s sixteen year-old – they do not know why. Very often, in accordance with The Teaching Model, the teacher will not, or perhaps cannot, explain why.

Already, I tell a parent, some of your child’s innocence will be damaged.

The present Pope, with whom I do not often agree, once told a college of cardinals that the preservation and security of children’s innocence – as he put it, their confidence in their capacity to know the truth, is the most essential task of education.

The Pontiff has not yet announced Anathema on modern mathematics education. He should. A tsunami of doubt now sweeps more innocence away.

The fifteen or sixteen year-old has must now begin to ask: ‘Am I the only one not to understand? Surely there are others who do? Surely the teacher knows who understands! Surely I will be found out. Who can I tell? What can I do?’

Others are questioned carefully. Immense relief! Most of them, the majority, also do not understand. ‘But surely the teacher – the teachers – must care. Surely they will soon find out!’

But, puzzlingly, the teachers do not. It becomes impossible for the students to believe that their teachers do not understand that the majority of their pupils do not understand. But the conclusion is inescapable. More innocence is destroyed. The teachers know, but they do not care. Their parents must also know: but do they care? It is not inevitable for parents to be drawn into this vortex of doubt, but just one thoughtless remark may see them condemned too.

The third crisis usually occurs when the final exams are only two or three years away. By now it is certain that the teachers do not care: or perhaps it is that they are just too harassed, too burdened, too demoralised or too burnt-out to do more than pretend to care. They seem like the guards of a camp: no more able to help others than they can help themselves. Evil, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, need not be deliberate. It may not even be directed at anyone in particular. It may simply be ‘a function of thoughtlessness, the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction.

Some of the young people at this age, perhaps like most of the youngsters in Madrid, will still preserve what is left of their innocence: their beliefs in justice, in honesty and fairness. They begin to feel a true contempt: not necessarily directed at their teachers, but for many of their teachers, for acting as the guards of the camp from which, horribly, tragically, and as a full and bitter irony, only work will make them free.

But such work! By now it is clear to most of them that they are caught up in a thoroughly cynical, worthless game. The proof that they must finally provide, in order to be rewarded by a careful gradation of social privilege, will take from them the last of their innocence.

By now they may have come to believe that it is the politicians – not any of these so-called ‘educators’ – whose policies determine who shall join the ranks of the elite, or the greater number of the majority, or who will be dumped with the rest of their society’s detritus in the banlieus, in the closed and dangerous ghettoes, in the outlands, of our splendid cities.

They know that politicians will always make much noise that they are ‘helping the under-privileged’. But they will see too that the education system might have been designed to create the under-privileged: millions more every year. What is television for – and all the rest of industrialized escapism, of fast-food and football, hip-hop and Lady Gaga – except to keep those millions distracted?

Most by now have entirely lost their innocence. They no longer have any childish belief in the importance of honesty, of humility, justice, fairness. They know that they have been corrupted. It was never their choice. They did not create this system. They are not responsible. The most disappointed will kill. So, but at a distance, will those who pretend to represent them.

In one respect the system succeeds remarkably well. Without ever admitting that this is its aim, it increases the majority’s readiness to obey; to accept explanations from authority without question; never to be responsible; to accept their privileges, such as they are; and to keep off the streets.

These are not the students rioting in Madrid. They are unlikely to riot anywhere. They have just learnt to play the game just as carelessly and cynically as everyone else.

In his very moving retirement speech, Silvio Funtowicz asked: “What planet are they living on?”

Ours: sadly.

The greater pity is that the system can be changed.

It is absurdly easy. The result is more thoughtful, generous, creative, happier young people.

Let’s change it!



Colin Hannaford,

Lisbon – Oxford, 18-22 May 2011.

Wikipedia: Arendt, Hannah.

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