Sunday, September 23, 2007

Teaching (and Learning) Skeptical Inquiry

I realize that much of my passion for skeptical inquiry can be traced back to my personal teaching experience. When I was teaching computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, thoughts about what would constitute a curriculum of a declared major in this area were just beginning to converge; and the idea that there might be "engineering methods" applied to the development of software (known, at that time, as "software engineering") was not yet out of its infancy. In the history of ideas, infancy is the period of lots of fast-and-loose philosophizing in the absence of a support base of data points against which hypotheses can be tested. When this takes place in conjunction with the launching of a new academic curriculum, it is also a period when lots of books get written, which serve as repositories for all of that philosophizing. In other words it is a dangerous time to try to learn, since there is now solid intellectual foundation for what one ought to be learning!

When I had to teach the introductory course for our Department's Master's program, we had an abundance of part-time students; so the course was taught in the evening. Any student who was matriculating part-time came from the "real world" of information technology; and such students were pretty confident that they knew more than their professors did. I figured the best way to deal with this was to leverage it, rather than to try to play power games; and software engineering was the best subject to benefit from such leverage.

So each week I would begin a class with a brief exposition of some insight from the published literature, usually one that appeared to me enough that I could prepare a strong advocacy for the material. I would then open the floor to discussion, making it clear that every student was encouraged to seek out the consistent contrary position. It was what made the learning experience interesting for them. This discussions were lively, and it gave them a sense of the value of personal experiences. It was also an interesting (and highly satisfying) experience for me. Since this was in the Engineering College, I did not bother to tell them that this was called “dialectical inquiry” or that it had been around since Socrates!

My attitude towards the software engineering literature then is not that all different from my attitude to all those evangelical IT books that clamor for our attention without having very much to say. I realize now that what I abhor most about such publications, past and present, is how fast-and-loose they play with blanket generalizations. I am cynical that so many of them fly around today in as much abundance as they flew around thirty years ago, but my teaching experience taught me that such onslaughts of questionable write are best challenged with skepticism rather than cynicism. As I recently observed about the "cultural clash" between the "Cult of the Amateur" and the "Cult of the Expert," we should view it as an “obligation of reason” to view the assertions from both camps in the same skeptical light! This only leaves us all with the problem of what needs to be done about all of those folks out there who seem to have committed themselves to dispense with any such obligations!

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