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« Hey, want to know someting? Science curiosity is a culturally random variable! | Main | Clarendon Law Lectures 2017: what happened »
Friday
Dec012017

Dewey on curiosity & science comprehension

Wow . . . . (downloaded from  here).

How We Think

John Dewey

1910, Boston: D.C. Heath & Co.; selections from Part One, “The Problem of Training Thought,” spelling and grammar modestly modernized

§1. Curiosity

The most vital and significant factor in supplying the primary material whence suggestion may issue is, without doubt, curiosity. The wisest of the Greeks used to say that wonder is the mother of all science. An inert mind waits, as it were, for experiences to be imperiously forced upon it. The pregnant saying of Wordsworth:

“The eye—it cannot choose but see; We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be, Against or with our will”—

holds good in the degree in which one is naturally possessed by curiosity. The curious mind is constantly alert and exploring, seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. Eagerness for experience, for new and varied contacts, is found where wonder is found. Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of the acquisition of the primary facts upon which inference must base itself.

(a)  In its first manifestations, curiosity is a vital overflow, an expression of an abundant organic energy. A physiological uneasiness leads a child to be “into everything,”—to be reaching, poking, pounding, prying. Observers of animals have noted what one author calls “their inveterate tendency to fool.” “Rats run about, smell, dig, or gnaw, without real reference to the business in hand. In the same way Jack [a dog] scrabbles and jumps, the kitten wanders and picks, the otter slips about everywhere like ground lightning, the elephant fumbles ceaselessly, the monkey pulls things about.” The most casual notice of the activities of a young child reveals a ceaseless display of exploring and testing activity. Objects are sucked, fingered, and thumped; drawn and pushed, handled and thrown; in short, experimented with, till they cease to yield new qualities. Such activities are hardly intellectual, and yet without them intellectual activity would be feeble and intermittent through lack of stuff for its operations.

(b)  A higher stage of curiosity develops under the influence of social stimuli. When the child learns that he can appeal to others to eke out his store of experiences, so that, if objects fail to respond interestingly to his experiments, he may call upon persons to provide interesting material, a new epoch sets in. “What is that?” “Why?” become the unfailing signs of a child’s presence. At first this questioning is hardly more than a projection into social relations of the physical overflow which earlier kept the child pushing and pulling, opening and shutting. He asks in succession what holds up the house, what  holds up the soil that holds the house, what holds up the earth that holds the soil; but his questions are not evidence of any genuine consciousness of rational connections. His why is not a demand for scientific explanation; the motive behind it is simply eagerness for a larger acquaintance with the mysterious world in which he is placed. The search is not for a law or principle, but only for a bigger fact. Yet there is more than a desire to accumulate just information or heap up disconnected items, although sometimes the interrogating habit threatens to degenerate into a mere disease of language. In the feeling, however dim, that the facts which directly meet the senses are not the whole story, that there is more behind them and more to come from them, lies the germ of intellectual curiosity.

(c)  Curiosity rises above the organic and the social planes and becomes intellectual in the degree in which it is transformed into interest in problems provoked by the observation of things and the accumulation of material. When the question is not discharged by being asked of another, when the child continues to entertain it in his  own mind and to be alert for whatever will help answer it, curiosity has become a positive intellectual force. To theopen mind, nature and social experience are full of varied and subtle challenges to look further. If germinating powers are not used and cultivated at the right moment, they tend to be transitory, to die out, or to wane in intensity.

This general law is peculiarly true of sensitiveness to what is uncertain and questionable; in a few people, intellectual curiosity is so insatiable that nothing will discourage it, but in most its edge is easily dulled and blunted. Bacon’s saying that we must become as little children in order to enter the kingdom of science is at once a reminder of the open-minded and flexible wonder of childhood and of the ease with which this endowment is lost. Some lose it in indifference or carelessness; others in a frivolous flippancy; many escape these evils only to become incased in a hard dogmatism which is equally fatal to the spirit of wonder. Some are so taken up with routine as to be inaccessible to new facts and problems. Others retain curiosity only with reference to what concerns their personal advantage in their chosen career. With many, curiosity is arrested on the plane of interest in local gossip and in the fortunes of their neighbors; indeed, so usual is this result that very often the first association with the word curiosity is a prying inquisitiveness into other people’s business.

With respect then to curiosity, the teacher has usually more to learn than to teach. Rarely can they aspire to the office of kindling or even increasing it. Their task is rather to keep alive the sacred spark of wonder and to fan the flame that already glows. Their problem is to protect the spirit of inquiry, to keep it from becoming blasé from overexcitement, wooden from routine, fossilized through dogmatic instruction, or dissipated by random exercise upon trivial things.

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Reader Comments (14)

So Dewey says that what happens to curiosity in adults is complicated and diverse; seems plausible at least, his descriptions anecdotally match real people in society. I suspect these are only some of the complications that attempts to increase SC across society would become entangled with. This doesn't mean that the attempt would necessarily result in net negative consequences, and generally encouraging curiosity has always seemed good to me (because intuitively it should lead to intellectual inquiry). But it does mean that figuring out how it would change the landscape once a new equilibrium is reached, won't be at all easy. And the attempt may run aground if Dewey is correct in that 'protecting the spirit of inquiry' is achievable but 'kindling or increasing it' is rarely so (although we don't have to believe this unless there is evidence). He also implies that we have to 'catch it at the right moment', another difficulty which implies a very long-term program (have to start with children and train their pre-existing 'natural powers', then wait for them to become full members of society). However, seems to me we'd have little to lose and at least possibilities for significant gain, as long as one doesn't do anything rash along the way, for instance denigrating smarts 0: Anyhow, I presume after 100 years and more, we may somewhere have modern qualification or otherwise of some of Dewey's views :)

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

@AndyWest-- 100 yrs' worth of frustration at inculcating "critical reasoning" & curiosity --Dewey's program-- is what we have today.

December 1, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Yay Dewey!

I think that it is highly relevant at this moment in time to consider rapid negative political changes that clearly don't take the time required for the multi generational cultural higher achievement pattern described by Andy West above.

The swing that Germany took from being arguably the most highly educated nation on the planet, certainly at the forefront of advances in science, to Nazism, and back again seem sadly relevant at the moment: https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/11/30/this-is-how-every-genocide-begins-trump-retweets-muslim-hate/.

We can see on a smaller scale how identity can be a tool that shapes political trajectories. The NRA for example, was once composed of members who advocated for stronger gun safety training for hunters. Such members are likely to have had a greater propensity than average to sport a "Support Your Local Police" bumper sticker on their pickup truck (right behind the gun rack carrying hunting rifles). Guns were something that should not be used without proper training. Now it is a group that is a powerful advocate for gun sales, and less restriction on gun use, including automatic weapons. But with many of the same members.

There is a strong linkage between political democracy and economic equal opportunity, which Dewey recognized and can be seen in political trends now. Advances in science, facilitate technological innovations, which tend to create special interest groups which then frequently work to cement their own position. One way that they do this is by redirecting resentments of the economic have-nots, not against the oligarchs themselves but some "other". Science lends itself to such attacks because successful achievements are generally obtainable only with great effort. It does little good to point out to unemployed coal miners how much more well off they might have been if only they had become PhD software engineers instead.

Dewey understood the problems with the entrenched political institutions of his time.

"Later in life Professor Dewey devoted much time and thought to reform of government. He declared that the "control of government must be redeemed from the special interests which have usurped it and restored to the people." Unless this were done, he warned, political democracy would be doomed."

"He referred to the major political parties as "the errand boys of big business,""

"During 1946 Dr. Dewey participated with labor leaders in conferences at Chicago and Detroit designed to lay the groundwork for a third, or People's, party for 1948. At the Detroit conference, a National Educational Committee was formed. Leaders at the conferences were from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the American Federation of Labor and the farmers' unions. "

http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1020.html

"The foundation of democracy is faith in the capacities of human nature; faith in human intelligence and in the power of pooled and cooperative experience. It is not belief that these things are complete but that if given a show they will grow and be able to generate progressively the knowledge and wisdom needed to guide collective action. Every autocratic and authoritarian scheme of social action rests on a belief that the needed intelligence is confined to a superior few, who because of inherent natural gifts are endowed with the ability and the right to control the conduct of others; laying down principles and rules and directing the ways in which they are carried out. It would be foolish to deny that much can be said for this point of view. It is that which controlled human relations in social groups for much the greater part of human history. The democratic faith has emerged very, very recently in the history of mankind. Even where democracies now exist, men's minds and feelings are still permeated with ideas about leadership imposed from above, ideas that developed in the long early history of mankind. After democratic political institutions were nominally established, beliefs and ways of looking at life and of acting that originated when men and women were externally controlled and subjected to arbitrary power persisted in the family, the church, business and the school, and experience shows that as long as they persist there, political democracy is not secure.

Belief in equality is an element of the democratic credo. It is not, however, belief in equality of natural endowments. Those who proclaimed the idea of equality did not suppose they were enunciating a psychological doctrine, but a legal and political one. All individuals are entitled to equality of treatment by law and in its administration. Each one is affected equally in quality if not in quantity by the institutions under which he lives and has an equal right to express his judgment, although the weight of his judgment may not be equal in amount when it enters into the pooled result to that of others. In short, each one is equally an individual and entitled to equal opportunity of development of his own capacities, be they large or small in range. Moreover, each has needs of his own, as significant to him as those of others are to them. The very fact of natural and psychological inequality is all the more reason for establishment by law of equality of opportunity, since otherwise the former becomes a means of oppression of the less gifted."

https://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/lafer/dewey%20dewey.htm

See also: https://www.amazon.com/Dewey-Democracy-William-R-Caspary/dp/0801437059/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1512139196&sr=8-2&keywords=Dewey+on+democracy

Excerpts can be read here: https://www.questia.com/library/108990905/dewey-on-democracy

"the struggle for democracy has to be maintained on as many fronts as culture has aspects"

That does start young. The point above: "What is that?” “Why?” become the unfailing signs of a child’s presence. " is definitely not true of all cultures or subcultures, some of which subscribe to a "seen but not heard" philosophy. In the face of rapid technological change, in which the socio-economic resources of places like Boston or Silicon Valley are far removed and seemingly inaccessible from those of places like West Virginia or Indiana, identity triggers not only cause people to double down on their authoritarian methods of the past, but also impose those values on others in an attempt to preserve their perceived appropriate societal positions. Which is how "Make America Great Again" links to the likes of Betsy DeVos.

"Whether this educative process is carried on in a predominantly democratic or non-democratic way becomes, therefore, a question of transcendent importance not only for education itself but for its final effect upon all the interests and activities of a society that is committed to the democratic way of life."

from: On Democracy by John Dewey https://wolfweb.unr.edu/homepage/lafer/dewey%20dewey.htm

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Re Dan's comment which was posted while I was composing the one above: Somebody with a knowledge of identity based cultural cognition had better come up with that inoculation program, And Fast!!!

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

In its first manifestations, curiosity is a vital overflow, an expression of an abundant organic energy. A physiological uneasiness leads a child to be “into everything,”—to be reaching, poking, pounding, prying.

Related to that, were the curious statements of Peterson and Haidt in that video Jonathan posted downstairs, where they suggest that scientific thinking is a relatively new development, and that humans are naturally inclined towards religious but not scientific thought.

First, that argument seems to me to be embed a false dichotomy. For example, it seems to me that one impetus behind religious thought is a "scientific" impulse (or curiosity) to understand.

But more to the point of Dewey's comment I excerpted above, it seems to me that babies (and not just human, actually) are born scientists, who are constantly developing hypotheses about the phenomena they see and experimenting to confirm or disprove their hypotheses. Consider the Piagetian notion of babies building a concept of object permanence, and how babies come to establish the reliability of that law.

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"I think that it is highly relevant at this moment in time to consider rapid negative political changes that clearly don't take the time required for the multi generational cultural higher achievement pattern described by Andy West above."

Negative changes from the point of one cultural group are often positive from the point of view of another.

"The swing that Germany took from being arguably the most highly educated nation on the planet, certainly at the forefront of advances in science, to Nazism, and back again seem sadly relevant at the moment"

Ah! Godwin's Law strikes again!

The question is, of course, why do people who claim to support human rights defend Islam? If you examine it's beliefs and rules closely (which most supporters are careful not to) you find it's one of the most anti-progressive belief systems in history. It's misogynist, homophobic, violently colonialist, supremacist, and theocratically authoritarian. It rejects the separation of church and state, making religion compulsory - and favours one particular religion over all others. It advocates slavery. It calls for the genocidal destruction of the Jewish people. It's modern-day incarnation is the source of dictatorships and military instability/insecurity in the Middle East, terrorism across the globe, and the unspeakable atrocities of rape and sex-slavery in Syria, Iraq, and Sudan. All of these practices are agreed by Islamic scholars to be unalterable orthodoxy.

And to top it all, most of the Middle Eastern Mulim states were on the side of the Nazis during WWII! It's ironic beyond belief that someone could get compared to the Nazis for opposing them!

But cultural wars make for strange allies. Republicans Americans don't like them, therefore Democrats do; and their illiberal, undemocratic flaws are carefully glossed over. Mohammad's little ways with his many wives and slave girls is quietly ignored by 'feminists' the way the swirling rumours about the Hollywood elite were ignored for long years. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Yes, I agree with you absolutely! The lessons of National Socialism are always extremely apposite to the politics of any age, and will be for as long as humans are human.

"The NRA for example, was once composed of members who advocated for stronger gun safety training for hunters."

Somebody once told me that the NRA started off as a Republican organisation for teaching black ex-slaves to defend themselves against Democrat ex-slave-owners... I don't know if it's true, but I do know the whole basis of the Second Amendment that the NRA take it as their role to defend was for the people to be able to defend themselves against crime and repressive government, and not simply hand over all the weapons to the authorities/police.

The NRA are still strong advocates for better gun safety, not only for hunters but also for sports shooters and people using them for self-defence. The police are generally respected, (when they're defending people's rights and not abusing them,) but not entirely trusted.

"Now it is a group that is a powerful advocate for gun sales, and less restriction on gun use, including automatic weapons."

Automatic weapons are not legal in America. One of the NRA's constant complaints is how the people criticising them clearly have no understanding of guns or how the regulatory system works. An "automatic" is a a gun where you press and hold down the trigger once and it fires repeatedly. A semi-automatic is a gun where you get only one bullet each time you press the trigger, but which loads the next bullet into the chamber automatically rather than having to be inserted manually. Almost all modern guns are semi-automatic, including revolvers and pistols. The main exception is shotguns.

You couldn't ban semi-automatics without banning virtually all guns, and automatics are already banned and the NRA have no argument with that. The argument is about appearances, not reality.

"There is a strong linkage between political democracy and economic equal opportunity, which Dewey recognized and can be seen in political trends now. [...] One way that they do this is by redirecting resentments of the economic have-nots, not against the oligarchs themselves but some "other"."

This is a misunderstanding of the argument. Conservatives (and Dewey, I note) argue for equality of opportunity. Socialists argue for equality of outcome. The two are distinct, and opposed to one another. You can only enforce equality of outcome by rejecting/preventing equality of opportunity. To talk about the "have-nots" implies you're talking about equality of outcome.

The reason for inequality of outcome isn't the oligarchs - it's because people have different skills and experience and ambitions, and people are paid more for providing stuff that lots of other people want and that is in short supply. The idea is to increase supply, by motivating more people to move into doing those jobs. It's how the market ensures that the right quantity of everything is produced, to satisfy as many people as possible. The reason for persistent inequality is that we don't have enough people with the skills we need more of, and for various reasons can't generate them.

Eliminate the reasons for poorer people not being able to acquire those skills and experience, and inequality of outcome will disappear. But if you try to interfere with the supply-and-demand system directly, and the inevitable result is famines and gluts, black markets and smuggling, as the system controlling production levels goes crazy. You get equality by making *everyone* poor.

"It does little good to point out to unemployed coal miners how much more well off they might have been if only they had become PhD software engineers instead."

True. So what stops them becoming one now?

" In the face of rapid technological change, in which the socio-economic resources of places like Boston or Silicon Valley are far removed and seemingly inaccessible from those of places like West Virginia or Indiana, identity triggers not only cause people to double down on their authoritarian methods of the past, but also impose those values on others in an attempt to preserve their perceived appropriate societal positions. Which is how "Make America Great Again" links to the likes of Betsy DeVos."

Yes, agreed. Trump's nationalist protectionist economics makes the same error as the labour union's closed shop. The theory is that if outsiders (to the union) can come in and undercut the members of the union, wages will go down and they'll all lose their jobs and be replaced. So they create barriers to prevent non-union members being employed. In short, they seek a legal monopoly on the supply of labour, to keep the price of labour artificially high.

The problem with it, of course, is that while everyone reaps the benefits of protecting their own industry, they pay the costs of everybody else protecting every other industry. Prices rise to pay the higher wages, so wages have to rise again to pay the higher prices in an endless spiral. They make everyone poorer, and blame the oligarchs/outsiders for it.

It's ironic that Trump got elected on a populist Socialist policy, but there you go. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Education, eh?

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Gayrhia -

I think that it is highly relevant at this moment in time to consider rapid negative political changes that clearly don't take the time required for the multi generational cultural higher achievement pattern described by Andy West above.

[...]

The NRA for example, was once composed of members who advocated for stronger gun safety training for hunters.

Some Republicans supporting the current tax bill once called themselves "deficit hawks" and "fiscal conservatives" - not very long ago. (And of course, that was after they voted for the ticket with Dick (deficits don't matter) Cheney as VP.) Many of them expressed opposition to "crony capitalism" and "government interfering in the economy" and "government picking winners and losers," and supported a candidate who promised a big, beautiful healthcare insurance that would leave no one behind. Some even criticized Trump as crazy and not suitable to be the president before they started to find it outrageous that some members of the media think that Trump is crazy and not suitable to be president.

Same old same old.

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan,

Lovely excerpt from Dewey. However, now that we believe we have a bit more knowledge about human cognition than he did, how does this theory change? For instance, it doesn't sound like Dewey addressed the possibility of cognitive biases baked into human nature. How do you think he'd address this finding?

Today, Wordsworth would probably write something more like:
The eye—it filters what we see; Our wants command the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be, in alignment with our will

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

link drop - an unexpected conservative economic nudge on climate change from a credit agency:
https://www.npr.org/2017/12/01/567843604/credit-rating-agency-issues-warning-on-climate-change-to-cities

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

@Dan

"...-Dewey's program-- is what we have today."

The percentage of young people in the UK attending full time education for degree level or equivalent qualifications has risen from ~5% at the time of Dewey's death to about 50% by 2012. For sure a large slice of these will be vocationally orientated, but that's still a huge rise in education for education's sake, with maybe about 1/3 STEM (pie chart for Europe) depending on categorizations. UK full time post docs up 22% in only the 8 years between 1996 and 2004. I presume there will be rises of a similar order to these in the developed world. And somehow this has all been achieved without any significant improvement or spread in attitude towards inculcating critical reasoning and curiosity since Dewey wrote your quoted passage in 1910? And despite 100 years plus of social and psychological research since then, your own great work platformed on the end, we have likewise not made any further progress in understanding the nature of knowledge and curiosity, which may be put to these and other beneficial endeavors? Well for sure I am not familiar with the history of these fields, but that seems... surprising. Even with 3 steps forward 2 steps back, and modest steps at that, a century should see some healthy mileage. How did you reach this conclusion?

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

a link for Dan (and other MTurk-averse researchers):
https://psysciacc.wordpress.com/

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Note to myself:

For instance, it doesn't sound like Dewey addressed the possibility of cognitive biases baked into human nature.

Well, actually, he did:

Classifying these causes of fallacious belief somewhat differently, we may say that two are intrinsic and two are extrinsic. Of the intrinsic, one is common to all men alike (such as the universal tendency to notice instances that corroborate a favorite belief more readily than those that contradict it), while the other resides in the specific temperament and habits of the given individual.

Ok - then - will study this closer...

December 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Somebody once told me that the NRA started off as a Republican organisation for teaching black ex-slaves to defend themselves against Democrat ex-slave-owners... I don't know if it's true, but I do know the whole basis of the Second Amendment that the NRA take it as their role to defend was for the people to be able to defend themselves against crime and repressive government, and not simply hand over all the weapons to the authorities/police.

The National Rifle Association started off founded by Union ex-officers after the American Civil War who were dismayed at the lack of marksmanship among the infantry. It's called the National Rifle Association instead of the National Gunowners' Association because one of the first aims was to train people in rifle marksmanship as opposed to musket volley techniques.

How far the NRA has come from its original mission. The leader responsible was Harlon Carter, elected NRE Executive VP in 1977. Since then, it's become a gun manufacturers' organization with an extreme 2nd-amendment interpretation.

December 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

"And somehow this has all been achieved without any significant improvement or spread in attitude towards inculcating critical reasoning and curiosity since Dewey wrote your quoted passage in 1910?"

No matter how far you go, people always want/expect more. :-)

"The National Rifle Association started off founded by Union ex-officers after the American Civil War who were dismayed at the lack of marksmanship among the infantry."

Thanks! That's interesting.

December 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

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